A weak third period let the Canadiens down tonight as they lost their home opener to the Ottawa Senators by a score of 4-2. Despite slightly dominating the first two periods, the Habs could barely manage to string two passes together in a disorganized and lethargic final frame.
In fact, there were a few elements that Claude Julien will be examining before tomorrow night’s contest in Atlanta against the Thrashers. For starters, there were more than a few who coasted through the final period. Perhaps more important, though, were the turnovers by players in their own end or in the neutral zone. It’s a problem that’s plagued the team consistently so far this season, but against the Senators, the Habs were made to pay dearly.
Something else that surely needs addressing is shift length. Too often the entire second line, and Alex Kovalev from the first line, stayed out and got tired, thus handicapping the team. It doesn’t happen frequently, but it seems everytime it does happen, the opposition gets a few scoring chances.
On the positive side of the equation, the first line was on their game once again, and captain Saku Koivu, who received the warmest applause in the pre-game player introductions, was once again the catalyst. His goal late in the third was a thing of beauty and all created by his, and his linemates, hard work.
There was a scratch of note, as Mike Komisarek sat out his second game in succession. While the large Habs defender was surely displeased with the decision, there can be no denying that Mark Streit performed well in the Toronto game. FUrthermore, Streit has far more foot speed, as well as overall speed, to deal with a very fast Ottawa club.
It wasn’t the best start to the game as Jose Theodore let his club down again, allowing a very poor goal by him on a point shot from Zdeno Chara. While there might have been a partial screen, the simple fact is that the puck slipped between his arm and body and better positioning would have had it hitting him in the crest.
Steve Begin wasn’t about to let that from crushing the Habs spirit, though. Twice on a penalty kill a few minutes later he created a huge scoring chance. Once on a partial breakaway, and another on a two-on-one. While the puck didn’t manage to tickle the twine, the plays managed to wake the crowd which remained enthusiastic until early in the third.
The highlight of the night, an extended one at that, came at the 14:26 mark of the first. After gaining the Ottawa zone, the line of Koivu, Kovalev and Alex Perezhogin danced repeatedly in circles sending the Ottawa defence into a deep confusion. After a sustained period of control, Kovalev made a brilliant misdirection move in the corner and made as if to go around the net. Meanwhile, Koivu fought his way through a check to stand at the top of the crease and slammed home the equaliser when Kovalev hit the tape on his stick just before ducking behind the net.
The Habs temprarily took a lead in the second when Begin won a play at the Montreal blueline on the penalty kill. After skating around the Ottawa defender to get to the puck first, he tapped it forward to an onrushing Thomas Plekanec and made for the far post. A delightful saucer pass over two sticks allowed Begin an easy finish.
Despite the mental errors, this was an incredibly fast game. When both teams were on, the end-to-end action was exciting to behold and a welcome change from the drudgery of obstruction hockey to which the fan was subjected for the last decade. Perhaps the Canadiens didn’t win, but they gave their fans one heck of a ride for two periods of old-time barn-burning hockey.
In fact, despite the loss, Canadiens fans should be very excited for the future. This team stacks up well against the best in hockey, and should offer a wonderful spectacle for the entire season. The rookies in the lineup fit extremely well, in fact they hardly play as rookies at all; and perhaps the lockout was good in that respect, giving them an entire extra year to work on their game.
All momentum was lost with only second remaining in the period, however, as Daniel Alfredsson, while killing a penalty, used Francis Bouillon as a screen and fired a long shot past Theodore to tie the game. This was another shot that went between and arm and Theo’s body, and despite the screen, one has to wonder about the quality of goal being allowed. Last season, one would have thought these were easy saves, but this season the Habs goalie looks average at best.
Subsequently, just shy of three minutes into the third, the Senators tied the game. Chris Phillips took a point shot that was deflected by Antoine Vermette. The goal didn’t come without dispute, however, because Vermette was quite obviously obstructing Theodore, who had no chance to cover his net.
The goal seemed to take the steam out of the Habs, and except for a few shifts – mostly by the first line – they played without energy for much of the third. As a result, linemates were shifted and that only added to the lack of flow the team probably felt.
With Radek Bonk off serving the final two of his four minutes for a high stick, Alfredsson scored his second of the game on a rebound. After Begin failed to clear the puck at the blueline, the Sens captain dished the puck to Dany Heatley. His shot rebounded into the middle of the slot where Alfredsson was alone to slot it home.
It was the Habs that looked tired in the final frame even though the Senators were the team that had played the night before. When Julien pulled Theo with about a minute and a half left, the Senators had three chances at goal where the Canadiens couldn’t manage any pressure. They were second to the puck and seemed incapable of digging down for any last reserves.
They’re going to have to recover quickly, because in less than 24 hours they face another high flying team in the Thrashers. Just to add to the pressure, Ilya Kovalchuk has signed his contract and will be back in the lineup to make his season debut against the Habs.
Still, all is not bad. The Canadiens did play a strong two periods against arguably the best team in the world. Not only that, but they dominated a lot at times. Certainly they weren’t going to go undefeated this year; one only hopes they can find their game tomorrow night for the clash in Atlanta.