A week ago the Canadiens were creeping up the Eastern Conference standings no longer as worried about who was behind them so much as the teams in front and who they might be able to catch. It can probably be said that they’ve come down to Earth a little, particularly after two humbling losses to the Devils and Leafs.
Saturday night, in front of a boisterous crowd in the Bell Centre, it was the turn of the Leafs to demonstrate their superiority. After the Habs went up by a goal, the boys from Toronto took over and demonstrated why they’ve been near or at the top of the conference in recent weeks.
Perhaps the lofty goals the Montreal players and management discussed last week will be cut to size somewhat.
The first period was a careful period by both clubs; careful to the point of being deathly slow. Neither team was prepared to make a mistake or force the play, therefore both laid back and let the game slowly unfold, searching for weaknesses. For a couple of shifts, it looked like Toronto was enjoying the better of the play, but then the Habs would take control and buzz around Eddie Belfour’s net. Midway through the frame Michael Ryder flipped a pass to Saku Koivu, who’s abortive shot was easily flipped aside by Belfour. However, the rebound landed on the stick of Jan Bulis and Belfour had to make a solid grab to end the play.
Later in the period, in a taste of what the league’s refereeing has to offer, Mats Sundin put a hook on uber-speedster Mike Ribeiro for half the length of the ice. This happened after Koivu was called for goalie interference when Belfour left his crease to hit the Montreal centre. Sort of makes one wonder about why they bother having two refs.
There was far more action to start the second, and indeed Gary Roberts almost gave the Blueshirts the lead when Quintal couldn’t take him out in front of Jose Theodore. Fortunately, the shot was just wide.
At 9:25 of the second, Patrice Brisebois cut out a play at the Bud blueline and sent in a shot that was stopped in front accidentally by Ribeiro. Fortunately Richard Zednik was johnny-on-the-spot and he picked up the loose puck, patiently waited for Belfour to flop like a fish on the ice, then popped in his 18th of the campaign.
Apparently the Habs thought this was enough for the night, and they packed it in thereafter.
Less than two minutes later, Koivu made a strong defensive play, then send the puck blindly up the boards. It was intercepted by Tomas Kaberle who sent it across the blueline to Brian McCabe who’s shot somehow eluded Theo. It was the kind of save the Hab goalie usually made, and perhaps deflated the team.
Just over three minutes later, Brisebois, behind the Montreal goal, was slow in moving the puck and the Leafs capitalized on the turnover, Joe Nieuwendyk firing from the top of the slot to give the Leafs the lead.
The Habs were ready to go into the dressing room down only by one heading into the third when, with only seconds to go, the line of Mats Sundin, who’d been completely dominating in the final minute against Ribeiro’s trio, made the Habs pay for some poor defensive play. Once again from the top of the slot the Leafs converted, this time Michael Renberg beat Theo on a pass from Mats Sundin.
Down by two, the Habs went into the third with a shot at making something happen against a Toronto team not known for great defence, unfortunately they were just not creating the opportunities needed to get back in it. The forwards, probably too intent on scoring the goals, were not helping the defenders in their own zone and the puck, therefore, had trouble getting past centre at times.
To cap off a bad night all around, Koivu made an ill-advised pass to Ryder in the slot at the end of a powerplay, but the pass was picked off leading to a three on one and a goal by Sundin. The penalty, for those who care, was a vicious spear from Alexei Ponikarovsky who took exception to a hit from Ryder.
Make no mistake, the Habs were the second better team tonight; they now are probably more able to judge how much they need to do to join with the upper teams in the league after the past two games. This is not a team that will challenge for the top spot in the NHL, nor will it be top four in the Eastern Conference. The Habs will have to satisfy themselves with turning their game around, playing some solid hockey, and hopefully making the playoffs with a solid showing.
Fortunately, the effort was much batter against the Leafs than it had been against the Devils, but there was still an execution problem for much of the night. However, some serious adjustments will have to be made heading to the next game. The forwards, as previously mentioned, were not helping out defensively like they should have been which led to a difficult time getting the puck out of the defensive zone. The offence was sputtering at best, and Julien will need to take a look at how to spark things. Worst of all, the play was just not sharp; there were too many missed simple plays.
Fortunately, that game isn’t until Tuesday in Buffalo. Also fortunate is the fact that tomorrow’s outdoor practice was moved inside because of the extreme cold. Hopefully the Bell Centre has the music up fairly loud to drown out the negative words travelling from coaches to players.