The Canadiens eked out a victory tonight against the Sabres – a victory won mostly in the second period. During this second frame, the home side forechecked vigorously, continuously hit the Sabres, and were all over the visitors like ants on a sugar pile. Unfortunately, rather than continuing with this form of play for the third period, they decided to sit on their heels, and only just managed to hang on to the victory.
Having said that, it was a merited win. Even though they sat back at the end, they were still solid in the third and managed to keep the Sabres to the outside for long stretches – there were only a few heart-thumping moments. When you factor in a strong first period, the coaches must surely come away with a good taste in their mouths, not only to have beaten the top-ranked Buffalo squad, but because the team played a pretty good sixty minutes.
Halak: B+ If there’s anything that can test the mettle of a young recruit it’s the playoff atmosphere of the Bell Centre with the Habs fighting to win a playoff spot and everything on the line. While there were a few nervous moments from the rookie net-minder, he stood up to the task. The first goal was a bit weak – a seemingly harless wrister from Briere that somehow found the twine. On the third goal, he could have done a little better, but with the traffic in front, just managing the first save was something of a feat – he’ll continue to learn rebound control as time moves on for sure.
Bouillon: B Moments of brilliance moving the puck, but that has to be tempered with some struggles down low with the bigger Sabre forwards. All in all it was a good effort, but you have to wish he’d find a little more of his hitting and attacking skills that he had on display last season.
Dandenault: B- He’s taken over from Rivet as Captain Panic. If there’s any doubt whatsover in the defensive zone, that puck is iced. At times it’s a very good thing to do – and better than some of the dipsy-doodles that some other players like to do. However he caused more than a few faceoffs in the defensive zone that didn’t have to happen.
Komisarek: B+ I get the feeling that Carbo isn’t comfortable with Komi in the late stages of games because he takes him away from Markov on the top pairing quite consistently. Maybe that stops errors at crucial moments, but from my standpoint, the simple fact is that Komi played a very effective game. He moved the puck well, used his body effectively both in open ice and along the boards, and was positionally solid. Sure, he struggled with the Sabres fast-paced forecheck, but other than Markov, everyone on the Habs defense struggles with any forecheck.
Markov: A Sheer brilliance and he’s developing quite the patience out there as well. No longer is he rushing things, rather he takes his time, makes that tiny move which gives him space, then has all the time in the world to make the great play. One could argue that the second goal was his fault, but that’s a blame society at work. How do you really defend a player who cracks a single down the first base line from practically behind you when you have virtually perfect coverage? That was just a great goal from Vanek.
Niinimaa: C Highly mistake prone this evening. He was firing high-risk passes, wasn’t making the plays along the boards, and was struggling in general with the puck.
Souray: B- I think I’m going to call him Heart Attack, and that’s not just for his rugged good looks. For every solid play he makes, there’s another where he hands the opposition the puck (third goal), where he makes a bone-headed play on the boards, or where he just isn’t where he should be.
Begin: B High energy all night and his forecheck and persistence was wonderful in the offensive zone. But where’s the hitting we’ve all come to expect? That’s supposed to be a huge part of his game.
Bonk: A- Stellar evening. Not only was he particularly good defensively (for all you kids out there (I sound like Don Cherry now) watch his positioning), but offensively he had more dynamism that he’s shown of late. His goal was the result of not a second effort, but a third one.
Higgins: A- Somehow, at one point in the second period, I think he deked, in traffic, three Sabres – including two of the players twice! That’s five people he beat before he put the puck hard at the net. His work ethic is second-to-none and he’s absolutely flying out there.
Johnson: B Some solid work along the boards in the offensive zone, in particular, caught my eye. He doesn’t usually put himself in that kind of position all that often, but aside from his usual solid game defensively, he was strong in those spots as well.
Koivu: B Unbelievably, the captain has gone from number one line status, to ostensibly the fourth line. With barely over eleven minutes of play time and the third lowest time on the team, it’s apparent that Carbo had no confidence in Koivu against a fast, attacking Buffalo club. Still, his clutch goal, the result of superior anticipation, sealed the deal for the Canadiens.
Kostitsyn: A- I won’t insult intelligences by saying ‘superstar in the making,’ however Kosty is becoming a bull out there. Not only is his speed and skill more and more apparent each game, but he’s hitting now and again as well. He’s not quite as convoluted in his play as some Russians tend to be (read: Kovalev), instead he’s more direct. Get to that spot and the puck will be on your stick.
Kovalev: B+ It’s pretty impressive when the first words that come to my mind are: he’s working hard out there.’ Kovalev wasn’t rewarded tonight for his work, but he played a solid game.
Lapierre: B+ Another lunch box effort. He’s full marks for his forecheck and his PK work, no doubt. Chipping in with a goal is a bonus everyone will take. I hope he realizes how, every time he forechecks with that speed, he causes absolute havok.
Latendresse: B A solid effort. He laid on the body a couple of times and got into good positions. He’s a big man without much speed, so he has to do those two things to be successful. A little weak on the boards defensively and, honestly, his lack of speed hurts on attack.
Plekanec: B+ A terrier without the puck and more and more confident with it. I think the forte of that line is its constant movement, and Plekanec is at the centre of that. If he stands for any time at all, it’s something of a shocker.
Ryder: B The second least amount of ice time, yet he still manages to score. His lack of speed and defensive ability presumably left Carbo feeling he had to keep him and his linemates more to the side in this game.
Streit: B+ He didn’t get nearly as much time tonight to shine, and yet still managed another assist because of stellar work along the boards. Add to that his hard work on the forecheck and the fact the team can use him at almost any point because of his versatility – which they did tonight – and you can see why he’s made himself a permanent roster position.
PP: C+ They really failed to gain control of the puck in the attacking zone for long periods and that obviously curtails any real efforts to score. The forwards have to start winning those initial battles. This PP unit has struggled against the more aggressive PK units in the league because of an inability to move the puck quickly and effectively.
PK: B+ Surprisingly low-key tonight. I was expecting far more aggression and yet they basically lapsed into a lazy, passive diamond. Positionally, though, they were strong and the player at the top of the diamond usually was excellent at cutting out a passing lane as well as the shooting lane. Since Buffalo had to work from the perimeter, it made things difficult at best.
Carbonneau: B+ The first thing that has to be said is that, in sticking with Halak between the pipes, he sent a really positive message to the youngster: you’ve worked hard and despite a bad goal here and there, you’re someone we can rely on. That’s HUGE for a rookie in the goaltending position. Secondly, while the line deployment may have surprised some – particularly relegating Koivu and Ryder to fourth line status – the simple fact is that the result spoke for itself. Perhaps keeping Koivu fresher allowed the Habs captain the ability to score that goal. Finally, I believe there has to be some questioning the way the defense has been used late in games. If he’s giving a pat on the back to Halak despite mistakes, I believe he’s doing the opposite to Komisarek.
Three games remain, including their next, a tough match at home against the Bruins on the third of April. It’s their final home game of the season, so they’d better be prepared to come out flying and give a fantastic display to the fans. Most important, though, is to make this game like any other at this point of the season: must win. If they come out strong and play a hard sixty like they did tonight, one feels they have every chance of putting themselves in a good position to win.
It’s crunch time; this is where they separate the men from the boys in the NHL. Let’s see what the Habs have got.
A Concerned Fan