Led by a first line that looked much like it had early in the season, and supported by strong special teams and a fantastic NHL debut from Jaroslav Halak, Montreal took a solid first step back into the winning column. The Canadiens were high marks for their win against the Blue Jackets in Columbus on Sunday with the bulk of the club putting in solid performances. After a first period where the Habs looked like a team only slightly more enthused than one going through the motions, they came out and dominated the second completely before having a few flighty moments followed by a closing of the door in the third.
Any professional athelete will tell you that confidence wins games as much as talent and good team play. After the struggles in the first, Montreal got a goal on the powerplay in the second and looked a smarter club after that. With the second goal, Koivu’s first, and a goal at even strength, confidence soared to a level not seen in weeks. The forecheck was continual and tough and the Jackets were bottled much of the period. Once the third goal was scored, it was like a giant weight had been lifted off the team, and sticks were gripped less like life lines and more like sticks again.
Of couse, strong few minutes from Columbus in the third was enough to rattle that confidence, but credit where credit is due, they bucked down, rode out the storm, and a very relieved squad surrounded Halak when the final whistle brought this one to a close.
Halak: N/A I’ll have to see him a few times before I can give any kind of mark, but suffice it to say this was one of the strongest debut games for a Canadiens goaltender in a long, long time. Halak is an upright goalie who doesn’t drop to his knees nearly as much as our other two netminders; his hybrid style is slightly more reminiscent of Brodeur (and that’s not a comparison in quality, only in style). He’s got good, not great, lateral movement, but positions himself extremely well so the puck tends to hit him, rather than him having to make stunning stops. He handles the puck very competently, though did give it away along the boards once or twice. The most striking thing about him, though, is his confidence. He looked like a goalie who’d been playing in the NHL for five years, not in his first game. If you didn’t manage to catch this one, I can only say his goaltending seemed to inspire confidence in the players – he was *that* calm and collected – and that’s including having his crease parked in by Rick Nash all night.
Bouillon: B- By the end of the first I was ready to give him a ‘D’, that’s how poor his first was. However, two or three major league hits later, along with some solid puck movement and typical hard play, and he made himself look good again.
Dandenault: C+ The defenders have two main problems: the first is in collecting and starting the counter, and the second is in shooting the puck at the legs of the defender directly in front of him. Dandy did this early in the third and was bailed out by Halak, who very calmly blockered the puck off into the corner. In the first, like everyone else, Dandy struggled. After that, it got better, but he still isn’t at his best.
Komisarek: B+ A couple of very strong hits were highlights tonight, but what really impressed me is that he was one of the handful that was as intense in the first as he was in the third. He still has issues moving the puck now and again, but I can see the overall improvement over the course of the season.
Markov: B An ugly, ugly first was followed up by two extremely solid periods to end the game. If there’s one guy who seemed to be very affected lately (had the finger pointed to him in the dressing room, perhaps?), it was Markov, and once that first goal went in and the confidence started rising, he was first in line.
Souray: B If I didn’t know any better, I’d say someone talked to him about his play, because he was far more simple with the puck tonight. He made one horrid giveaway (thanks for bailing him out Halak), but other than that was a reliable defender who put in some really good work down low, including late in the game when he was even shoving Nash off the puck.
Streit: B Tonight he offered a very steady game where he showed his good ability to win board battles against bigger guys, his use of the body to angle bigger men out, and his smarts with the puck, particularly on the powerplay. There’s never much fancy about his game, but he’s a player you can almost always rely on.
Begin: B And now the bad news: Begin dropped to block a shot, took one more shift after that to see how he was, and then never returned. The only problem with being a huge energy player who hits, blocks shots, and leaves it all on the ice, is that sometimes you really can leave parts out on the ice. With his high pain threshhold, I wouldn’t be surprised if we found out that foot was broken.
Bonk: B Bonk played a steady game defensively, and also chipped in with some solid attacking play tonight. While he ended up a minus two on the scoresheet, he could hardly be faulted in either case. Johnson’s error gave the second goal, and the Habs defense backed in too much, allowing the Jackets’ skater to have the slot too easily on the first.
Higgins: A- Perhaps not as electric as last night, Higgins was still an energetic and impressive performer. His hard work over the last couple of weeks to find his game has him obviously feeling confident and strong on the ice.
Johnson: B+ Fortunately, one play does not a night make. Johnson was excellent at both ends of the rink tonight except for one horrid mistake on the side boards in his own zone when he gave the puck away. Having said that, he’s the kind of experience forward I want on the ice late in games when confidence isn’t at its best and the team is hanging on.
Koivu: A- The monkey that had nested on his back for the last month was shaken off during a two-on-one in the second when he finally scored. If you recall, his goals in December and January were followed by muted celebrations at best. Tonight, he fairly lit the rink. Aside from scoring one and beautifully assisting another, Koivu went to the net frequently, made some smart plays with the puck, and looked like the Koivu of old.
Lapierre: B Nothing out of the ordinary here, just a good young player doing his job well.
Latendresse: C+ Another mixed bag tonight, though he controlled the puck less than I would have hoped and lost a few battles he might have won. There’s nothing to be worried about here, this is just a rookie player going through the toughest part of an 82-game schedule. He needs to get back to basics and hit, drive the net, and win his battles. Of note, he had his bell rung quite significantly on a hit far away from the puck. He stayed down for quite some time, and while continued to play, he wasn’t quite as with it as he could have been.
Milroy: N/A Game number two and another strong game. Here’s another rookie who looks far more calm than one might reasonably expect. He doesn’t seem phased at all by his introduction to the NHL, and the fact that he brings a solid attacking element to the fourth line that hasn’t wavered thus far in his two games only serves to augment his reputation thus far.
Perezhogin: B- I just can’t be disappointed with his play because at least his line is working hard around the opposing team’s net rather than being stuck in their own zone. Still, he’s not carrying the puck for any length of time and he’s not using his speed like he once did.
Plekanec: B- I’m not sure if it’s the lack of one winger for him (Samsonov is not working on his line at all), but he’s just not the same Plex we saw during the month of January. Again (familiar refrain), Plex needs to go to the net and make things happen rather than be a perimeter guy.
Ryder: A If there’s one guy who embodies the club’s turnaround, look no further. As his work ethic improves, as he starts to do all the things he *should* be doing every night, he looks better and better. The goal was great, of course, but he had other chances, was smart with the puck, actually won some board battles, and most importantly, he was finishing his checks. He looked every bit the Ryder we need to have out there.
Samsonov: D+ Calling Sergei, calling Sergei. There was a distinct lack of effort out there tonight. He was beaten to the puck repeatedly; he just doesn’t go to it, but waits for it to come to him, and if it doesn’t, he only reluctantly tries to get it. He’s forgotten what it means to be a proactive player, and is instead reacting to everything around him, and that has him a step behind and looking remarkably useless for a player with his talents. For Sammy to succeed, he’s going to have to want that puck more than anything so that, when it comes close, he drives to it and wins it.
PP: B+ Hard to find too much fault with a powerplay that scores, however the Jackets defense looked porous at times. When Koivu danced past his coverage at the blueline and sent the puck in deep, Ryder was so alone he could have typed this report before scoring his goal (and I bet he’s a one-finger typist too)! There was, however, adequate movement and some smart plays – like sending the puck deep rather than hitting the opponent in front of you squarely in the shin pads.
PK: A- Much, much better. As always, lots of intensity on the PK, but tonight it was controlled intensity. Players weren’t running themselves out of position and they were getting in the shooting lanes really well. Something to note: when confidence rises, so does the hand-eye coordination. The Habs were picking pucks out of the air like they hadn’t done since before Christmas.
Carbonneau: B+ Not that there was really much choice in going with Halak tonight, but it’s good he didn’t do something a little crazy and give the start to Aebischer to show his vet that the team was behind him. Again, a quiet night behind the bench, and I bet the refs appreciate that. He used his timeout at the right time, waiting until there was an icing call at the end, and using it to keep his defensive stalwarts fresh – of course, if there’s a coach in hockey that didn’t do that, one would have to wonder how long his job would last. Critically, when he saw that Koivu, who started without Higgins and Ryder, was playing really well with his former mates on the powerplay, he put them back together and was rewarded with two plus periods of very strong hockey from the reunited first line.
It’s just one step, but at least it’s a step in the right direction. Sure, there were still things happening that no coach (or fan) wants to see, like that lethargic first, but they won and didn’t back into the win, they earned it. Of course, this creates a connundrum for Gainey. Is this team a contender or not, and how is he supposed to react as the deadline approaches. I suspect he’ll play a little more of the waiting game and see how Tuesday’s game against the Caps goes.
Take heart, Habs fans. The team won a game, but more than that they dominated that second period like they haven’t done in a good few months. If they can continue to build on some much better play in the last week then they can turn this around and make that drive for the playoffs. Heck, fourth place is a mere seven points away, and as much as that might be getting ahead of yourself, the fact of the matter is that any of the hot teams might crumble and vice versa. This new NHL has a parity unmatched at any point in recent memory.
Bring on the Caps!
A Concerned Fan