Ken Hitchcock said to reporters this week that the Montreal Canadiens would be their biggest test of the season. Perhaps all the rest of the doubters will finally start taking Montreal seriously, as they came from behind to beat the Flyers in Montreal by a score of 3-2 in overtime.
Tonight it was Mike Ribeiro who played the hero, as the leading scorer from last season roofed the winner past a stellar Robert Esche at 2:32 of the extra frame. It was the fourth goal of his steadily improving season, and his second of the evening, having scored the tying goal midway through the second.
The Habs were relentless against the Flyers slower than average defence, constantly harrying the puck and pressing them into mistakes. In a show of speed, the Canadiens forwards were like a group of cheetahs, streaking past their larger, but much slower prey. Before the season began, everyone was praising Bob Clarke for his job in putting together this defence; those same voices might now be questioning his wisdom.
The game wasn’t without its stressors for Claude Julien. The power play, on fire in the past thre games, was weak at best, as they managed only one goal in ten attempts. The main problem seemed to be a lack of creativity on the point when Andrei Markov wasn’t used. Mark Streit, brought in for his offensive capabilities, was less than great most of the evening.
Speaking of Markov, Habs fans can be forgiven if they have to continually rub their eyes. The Russian is by far the best defender this team has seen in a decade, and at the way he’s progressing, he’ll be well-known league-wide before long. In particular, his work tonight against Simon Gagne and Peter Forsberg was singularly stellar, and he prevented many chances on his own.
The defensive coaching was well highlighted early on as Mathieu Dandenault made a wonderful stick check himself to disarm a scoring chance. One of the most important changes for the defence is their newly needed stick skills, rather than just grabbing an opponent and holding on.
Only shortly thereafter the Canadiens took the lead through embattled Pierre Dagenais. While he surely feels the heat with the impending return of Richard Zednik either Thursday against the Senators or Saturday against the Rangers, he managed to prove at least a small point when he went to the net and shovelled in a rebound past Esche.
The second period started on a sour note as the Canadiens started a parade to the penalty box. On a brilliant cross-ice pass from Mikael Handzus, Mike Richards hammered home an easy goal to tie the game.
Just about ten minutes later, and again on the power play, ex-Canadien Brian Savage scored his first of the year to put the visitors up by one. The Habs were down by two men at that point and, despite a Herculean effort by Steve Begin, who blocked a shot and had to limp around for the rest of the shift, they could not prevent the go-ahead goal.
After that, though, the Canadiens slowly clawed their way back into a position where they dominated the later stages of the period, sending wave after wave against Esche who repelled them each time.
Early in the third, mental errors started creeping into their game however. Thomas Plekanec was caught trying to beat men at the blueline on the power play, rather than dumping it in deep and getting to the puck first, or making a solid first pass. Streit was caught rushing his plays with the man advantage and sent a few shots into defenders a few feet in front, rather than making a solid pass.
Leave it to the big line to create a solid chance and get the crowd roaring again. With a lightning long pass from Markov to Alex Kovalev, the Canadiens started a delightful transition chance. Kovalev turned and served Saku Koivu on a plate and while his shot was stopped by Esche, the obvious speed of the Habs suddenly had the Flyers falling back a little again.
When the Habs were sent on the power play one more time, they finally took advantage. After Jose Theodore tossed a routine clearance to Markov, this latter fired an accurate, yet high, pass to Ribeiro at the Flyer blueline. While he missed the pass, the puck bounced in front of Esche who was unable to corral the rebound. Ribeiro jumped on the loose puck and danced past to slide the puck in and tie the game.
Unlike recent years, there was no panic in the Habs game. No sense of hanging on for dear life, and no dread when falling behind. This new version of the Canadiens is unlike any seen in a great many years, and the resilience, to go along with plenty of skill, has put them, at least temporarily, to the top of the Northeast Division.
When Ribeiro scored to give the Habs the victory and send them to 7-2 on the season against supposedly one of the best teams in hockey, surely critics everywhere stood up and took notice.
After a long drought, ladies and gentlemen, the Montreal Canadiens are back.