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As he slowly made his way off the ice last night, Guy Carbonneau slowly raised his head upward and looked up at the scoreboard. The look on his face was not one of joy, and it wasn’t one of anger. Instead the look on Carbonneau’s face reflected a game that could have been split into two; the first forty minutes reflecting the Canadiens inability to adequately perform the most mundane of basic hockey tasks, and the last twenty minutes an exercise in hockey perfection as the Canadiens willed themselves to an improbable victory over a stunned Islanders team.

The look on Carbonneau’s face said it all on this most implausible of nights. As he made his way off the ice before a disbelieving Islanders crowd sprinkled with a huge gathering of Canadiens fans, Carbonneau couldn’t wipe the look of bemusement off his face.

Last night the Canadiens submitted their worst forty minutes of the season and followed it with their best twenty of the year.

Could the Habs have been any worse over the first forty minutes last night?

Watching the game we saw things in the first forty minutes that made last night’s game stand out as one of the most inexplicable stretches of play from the Montreal Canadiens in recent memory.

There seemed to be no continuity or structure to the Habs play last evening. As the New York announcers endlessly blathered about how well the Islanders were playing, one couldn’t help but see how the Canadiens were so bad that they created the illusion that the team they were playing was an excellent hockey team, something the Islanders definitely aren’t.

Such was the atrocious level of the Habs play, that the routine appeared difficult for them. Simple passes failed to connect, shots habitually missed the net, back checking became an afterthought, and most of all, effort; the one essential factor in hockey success was absent without reason.

This was one of those games where nothing could go right, where the Habs seemed to be skating in quicksand, while the Islanders could do no wrong.

Nowhere was this frustration more evident than in the performance of the Canadiens top line. Last season, the line of Tomas Plekanec, Andrei Kostitsyn, and Alexei Kovalev carried the team throughout the season and were the one constant in a season of struggles for many of Montreal’s other offensive stars. After nine games this season, in a year in which the Habs have stormed out of the gate, the line that last year carried the team seemed stuck at the starting gate.

Even tried and true methods, employed by a clearly desperate and hopeless Guy Carbonneau; like sending out Georges Laraque to fire up the rest of the team seemed to backfire on an evening when it seemed that the Habs had begun their five-day holiday a few hours earlier.

Sadly, this state of ineptitude infected the whole team from Carey Price on out. Price usually the Hab most calm and collected, looked rattled and unsure last night. Almost always unflappable and composed, last night he appeared disconcerted and definitely uncomfortable.

You will have to watch a lot of games this year to see Price give up a softer goal than he did last night to Jon Sim. It was indicative of his play for the first forty minutes, where Price appeared to be fighting every shot that came his way.

Price was far from the only Habs player to shoulder the blame. Out shot twenty-three to fifteen, and winners of only thirty percent of the face-off’s, there were precious few Habs who could escape the blame of what was an incredible display of ineffectiveness.

What made the game more frustrating was the level of the opposition. Its one thing to lose to the Detroit Red Wings, the league champions, but to lose to the New York Islanders, one of the leagues doormats; a team that last year could only score four goals against the Canadiens, was both stunning and even more shocking.

It took the Islanders less than forty minutes to match last year’s scoring output.

As the Canadiens began the third period, I registered mild surprise at the sight of Carey Price in the net. When one thought about it; the reasons behind Price starting the third became even more dubious. After all, it was only two nights before in Minnesota that Price had been the first star in a tough, hard earned, Habs road victory. With the Canadiens not playing until this Friday night, it seemed that it would be a good opportunity to get Jaroslav Halak some work, especially in light of his poor performance against Anaheim early in the week.

All of this seemed to make the most logical sense. That is unless; you thought the Canadiens still had a chance to win.

Rarely have I seen a game in which a team’s performance in the third period was so distinctive from their performance in the previous forty minutes. Not only did the Canadiens dominate the third period, they imposed their will on an Islanders team that seemed unable to comprehend what was taking place, and utterly incapable of stopping the Habs sudden storm of momentum.

Such was the level of the Canadiens dominance in the third that it was at the twelve-minute mark before they were able to put a shot on goal. As the period progressed it became clearer that not only were the Habs suffocating the Islanders, but that inevitably this game was heading in the Canadiens direction.

That’s the one thing that’s so unique about comebacks, how anticipation at some point turns to certainty, as if there is no way that the oncoming team can be stopped.

Perhaps most tellingly was the players most responsible for the comeback. Last night for the first time all season, the line of Plekanec, Kostitsyn, and Kovalev emerged and took over the game. When Plekanec scored the Canadiens second goal of the game to open the third period (and only his second of the season), it appeared as if he’d been relieved of the biggest burden imaginable. Combined with a non-call that drew a trickle of blood down Kovalev’s bewildered face; the Canadiens top line played with a sense of purpose and determination that hadn’t been seen yet in this young season.

Holding a 5-4 lead it was up to Carey Price to secure the game into the win column. After making five game saving stops in the closing seconds, Price atoned for his earlier sloppiness by being solid when it mattered most.

With a record of 8 wins, 1 loss, and 1 shootout loss, the Canadiens are off to their best start since 1982. The question is after last night, which Montreal team is the real deal. The one that struggled mightily for forty minutes or the one that dominated for twenty minutes?

I’m sure that Guy Carbonneau is wondering the same thing today, as he attempts to gauge whether his team is so good that they only have to play twenty good minutes to win, or whether this team that we’ve all anointed as one of the best in the East is merely a mirage.

Photo is courtesy of REUTERS/Shannon Stapleton (UNITED STATES)