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Early Saturday morning Pierre Gauthier broke the news to Jacques Martin: You’re fired. And the event that many Habs fans had been waiting and praying for had finally taken place. The Martin era was over. Randy Cunneyworth replaced him, going from NHL assistant coach to head coach in the span of a short half-season. The most noteworthy part of this is that the new head coach doesn't speak French. A move few thought Habs management would ever have the courage to do.
The firing was a bit of awkward timing, coming as it was on a game day. Nonetheless, a slightly nervous-looking Cunneyworth took to the bench facing the visiting New Jersey Devils and so began a new, hope-filled era. An era that lasted about two periods before fans came crashing back to earth.
The Canadiens looked like they had an extra jump to their stride in the first period. Skating hard. Making crisp first passes. Back-checking. Fore-checking. Driving the net hard. Erik Cole, especially, appeared very feisty. Cole took three straight minors, including an elbow to the head of Devils rookie Adam Larsson that might land him on Brendan Shanahan’s naughty list tomorrow. It was actually Alexei Emelin that took the first penalty of the game, just four minutes into the opening period. The Habs killed it off, but Petr Sykora scored just after to give New Jersey a 1-0 lead.
The Devils took two consecutive minors not even two minutes into the second period. The Habs went on a prolonged 5-on-3, and after some fancy passing and unsuccessful attempts, a blast from P.K. Subban through traffic tied the game. Erik Cole did a great job screening Martin Brodeur on the tally.
It was a high-scoring middle frame at the Bell Centre, with two goals in the span of a minute and a half, starting with Patrik Elias giving the Devils a 2-1 lead on a PP (with Cole serving his third and final minor of the night) and then Chris Campoli sailing the puck past Brodeur to tie the game at 2-2. It was his first as a Canadien.
A little under three minutes after Campoli’s goal, rookie Louis Leblanc passed the puck to Lars Eller in the slot, who took a second, picked his spot, and scored a beautiful goal that showed us exactly what kind of offensive talent he has. The Canadiens’ lead lasted for 10 minutes, when a bad change led to a 2 on 1 for the Devils and David Clarkson put one past Carey Price, who didn’t play his best game. The late second period goal really did it for the Habs, who couldn’t mount a comeback. Elias scored his second of the night 1:31 into the third, and ex-Hab Dainius Zubrus scored from in close, all alone in front of Price.
The Habs played two decent periods, but proved unable to secure a win for the new coach, and consequently lost the game to a score of 5-3.
HW 3 Stars of the Night
First Star - Lars Eller: Played a solid 18:25, had a pretty slick goal and skated miles, seeming quite happy with his offensive freedom after the defensive pressure put on him by the previous coach. A very promising game from him, and I hope this is the start of his offensive breakout. I was disappointed he had zero time on the PP.
Second Star - Louis Leblanc The rookies were the ones who seemed extra enthusiastic tonight, so Leblanc earns second star honours for a good 13:29 of ice time, and his wonderful assist on the Eller goal.
Third Star - Michael Blunden: While he played only 2:58, his screening of Brodeur on the Campoli goal was absolutely wonderful.
Notes: The veterans let the team down tonight. Very disappointed in the play of Cammalleri and Plekanec. Cole, with his three completely unnecessary penalties and possible suspension. Price looks mentally tired… there was no reaction from him after a couple of bad goals. I’d suggest starting the backup more, but when that backup is Budaj, it’s not a very good alternative. We’ll have to give this some time, give the new coach a bit of leeway to implement change. Patience will be key, and especially difficult given how long fans had to endure the Martin era.