There was a parade in Montreal tonight and it was not of the Santa Claus variety, but a parade of a much different sort. Yes, it was one of those dreaded parades to the penalty box as the officials called what had to have been the tightest game of the season. The two teams combined for a whopping 22 penalties, 13 of them for the Atlanta Thrashers, but as it turned out, the Habs penalty killers were more than up to the task.
Montreal came into the game having lost back-to-back games in regulation for the first time this season, having given up 10 goals over the weekend to the likes of Washington and New Jersey. Atlanta was coming off an up and down stretch that had them beat Philadelphia in OT in between losses to the Leafs and the Islanders.
The aforementioned parade began early on in the game, as just 13 seconds into the game the Habs went to the PP. Montreal squandered the oppourtinity, but the stage was set for a battle of the special teams. The Habs took the next 5 penalties in the period, killing them all off thanks in most part to some great work by Radek Bonk. Bonk’s quick stick came into play on more than one occasion, and he was easily the biggest reason that the Habs emerged from the game unscathed.
The second got underway and referees Marc Joannette and Chris Lee picked up right where they left off. Marian Hossa was called for a hooking penalty just a minute and change into the second and this time the Habs PP capitalized. Radek Bonk controlled the puck on the right half-boards before he made a nice pass down low to Mike Ribeiro. Ribs had a nice bit of room and decided to walk out in front and try a wrist shot, which was stopped by Shields. The rebound popped loose and sat just outside the Atlanta crease, before Ryder skated in and finished the play off to put the Habs up by 1. The lead didn’t last long, however, as a beautiful connection between Slava Kozlov and Ilya Kovalchuk. Kozlov entered the zone and was given a nice cushion by the Canadiens defender. Finally Kozlov found a streaking Kovalchuk and fed him a perfect pass to send him in alone on Theodore, and a sweet backhander by the Russian superstar did the trick and tied the game up. Kovalchuk has got to be one of the more exciting players to watch in the entire NHL, as he made this highlight reel goal look easy. Kovalchuk now has 15 goals in just 18 games, and that’s after scoring just once in his first 5.
The penalty calls began to even out a little bit in the second, and once again the Habs PP unit was up to the task. Atlanta gave Montreal a 5 on 3 advantage for about 40 seconds, and just as the Atlanta player was entering the play, Andrei Markov wired home his third goal of the season. Some nice puck movement on what was essentially a 5 on 3 enabled Markov to wind up and fire a slapper through traffic and behind Shields to once again send the Habs up by a goal. Just as in the previous instance Atlanta responded quickly, only this time it took just 24 seconds when a rather harmless looking clearing attempt turned into a disaster for Bonk. The Habs centremen controlled the puck with little pressure in his own zone, and could have easily chipped the puck off the boards and out to centre. Bonk, however, made what may have been his only mistake in the entire game and tried to backhand the puck cross-ice to Niklas Sundstrom. The puck never got close to Sundstrom, as an alert Peter Bondra snagged it, walked in on Theodore and before you could say “Two minutes for Hooking”, the light was on and the game was tied.
Thankfully for the Habs, and the sell-out crowd at the Bell Centre, the rest of the game belonged to one man and one man only, that man being Jose Theodore. Theodore played probably his best game of the season, making 36 saves with 14 of them coming in the third period. The Habs continued to take penalties throughout the third frame, and if the spectacular penalty killing of Bonk, Koivu, Bulis and co. was the story for the first 8 Atlanta power plays, then Theodore was certainly the star of the final 5. Time and again Theodore rose to the challenge, robbing the likes of Marc Savard and Scott Mellanby within a stretch of just a couple minutes. If not for Theodore, the Thrashers win this game in regulation, no questions asked. Late in the game the Canadiens mounted their biggest challenge on the Atlanta net, and it was a nice decision by Markov that allowed it to happen. With the final seconds of regulation ticking away, Markov left his defensive post and received a pass to go right in on Shields, only to be turned away. Markov missed another great chance on the rebound and the game was off to OT.
Montreal came out flying in the OT period, and Koivu has a couple of golden opportunities at another OT goal. Markov also missed the net on what looked like another great chance, but both those opportunities paled in comparison the chance the Kovalchuk had. After blocking a pass right near the Atlanta blue line, Kovalchuk came in one on one against Theodore. Kovalchuk elected to shoot rather than deke, but Theodore turned him away with the left pad and enabled the game to be sent to a shootout.
The shootout began with Kovalchuk looking for some redemption against Theodore, but once again the Canadiens netminder turned him aside. After both Michael Ryder and Peter Bondra were stopped, it was the turn of the often-criticized Pierre Dagenais. In what must have been a bit of a surprise move to many fans of the tricolore, Dagenais was slotted into the number 2 spot in the shootout after playing just under 3 minutes of hockey throughout the match. Dagenais calmly walked in on Shields and surprised the goaltender by firing one past him in the bottom right portion of the net. Dagenais had emerged from Julien’s doghouse in triumphant fashion, but once again it was up to Theodore to preserve the victory. The former Senator Marian Hossa was the third shooter for the Thrashers, and he made an excellent move, going from his backhand and then finally back to his forehand to rifle a shot in the bottom half of the net. This was, as previously mentioned, Theodore’s game and he robbed Hossa with the glove hand to send the crowd home happy.
I’m sure that many fans of the Montreal Canadiens have grown sick and tired of seeing Sidney Crosby’s shootout goal of a couple weeks ago, and it can be hoped that with every highlight of that goal comes a highlight of Theodore’s incredible glove stop on Hossa. Theodore looked like an entirely different goalie than the one that wore #60 for the Canadiens against the Devils on Friday night, and if he continues playing like this, he should get pretty used to hearing his name chanted down from the rafters of the Bell Centre.
Many fans have enjoyed the ‘new’ NHL, as it clearly makes for more exciting hockey. This, however, was an example of a game that went in to the realms of the ridiculous, as many of the 22 minor penalties that were called were extremely borderline. The NHL has to be really careful that it doesn’t over do-it as far as calling the game tight, because no one wants to see a game that is 75% special teams and 25% five on five. Tonight’s whistle-fest was hopefully the last of it’s kind, as no fan of the CH wants to see that type of parade. Although unlikely, a parade of another variety would certainly come as a welcome surprise come mid-June.