The Canadiens have done it. They have reached the target I set out at the beginning of the season: 96 points. And, lo and behold, they clinched at the same time...
Robert L at Eyes on the Prize, once again providing me food for thought, stated last night's game was one of 4 pivotal games leading to these 96 points: Briere's first game vs. Montreal, the NJ comeback, the NYR comeback (and last night). Of course, every game is important, but I would also point to three critical junctures, which (in my opinion) allowed for the success we've seen:
1) Game #31: S. Kostitsyn Debuts in Habs Win
Not only was this the second game where Tobalev added headlines to his posts, it was also a turning point for two big reasons.
The first, explicit in the title, was the decision to promote Sergei Kostitsyn. This move marked a change in philosophy (possibly the moment Gainey convinced Carbonneau that this was not a defensive hockey team). Sergei would be promoted – ultimately leading to the demotion of Kyle Chipchura, a more responsible and generally less offensively-calibrated player. It would also bump Dandenault down the pecking order and, for the most part, relegate the 8-defenseman strategy to the history books.
The second reason was this promotion either coincided with, or indeed catalysed, the metamorphosis of Andrei Kostitsyn from hesitant apprentice into bona fide goalscorer. You will note that apart from occasional goal explosions (mostly vs. Boston), this game (or hereabouts) marked the birth of the new number one offensive line. Once Kostitsyn shoots, the line scores even strength goals – this was not a conincidence.
The fact that Sergei came up and flourished was a definite bonus, but perhaps, in hindsight, secondary to the ripple effects it created.
2) Game #58: Kovalev Strikes in OT as Price Finally Wins Again
We've heard how important the fact the Habs haven't lost 4 in a row is. This game was why. After 3 straight losses, this could have been the February derailment of a year past.
The Habs were playing out another boring low-scoring affair in Florida. Down 1-0 in the third, the Habs could have been excused for thinking they knew how this one would go. After all, they'd been shooting, getting PPs and were still coming up empty. Typically (in my memory anyway), it was Saku Koivu who brought big game play to the big game. He set up one in regulation and one in OT for a vital win. Incidentally, this win also kicked off a series of spirited games starting with a 4-game winning streak – and banished all thoughts and possibility of a bad February.
I think this was also the game that sealed the Cristobal Huet deal. Carey Price had been mediocre, bad and worse since about December. This game was his return to NHL form. He would shutout in his next.
3) Game #66: Canadiens in first, Canadiens in FIRST!
None of these Canadiens had really ever touched first in years (and even then, it had only been Smolinski, Kovalev and Dandenault). This game was the gut check: Were they afraid to be first? Were they afraid of mounting expectations?
The answer they returned was a resounding NO.
The whole team gave NJ a taste of their own medicine. Price would out-goaltend Martin Brodeur for the first time this season. Notable as well, Andrei Markov turned in one of those performances that gives oodles of confidence to players and fans for the playoffs – possibly his return to best in the East.
96 points! Have look at the way they did it:
2 points – Game #1
3 points – Game #2
5 points – Game #3
6 points – Game #5
8 points – Game #7
10 points – Game #8
12 points – Game #9
14 points – Game #10
15 points – Game #11
17 points – Game #12
19 points – Game #14
21 points – Game #15
23 points – Game #17
25 points – Game #19
27 points – Game #21
29 points – Game #24
30 points – Game #26
32 points – Game #28
33 points – Game #30: Canadiens Get Rare Home Point
35 points – Game #31: S. Kostitsyn Debuts in Habs Win
37 points – Game #32: Koivu Shines in 1st Habs Home Win of December
39 points – Game #34: Latendresse and Huet Lead the Habs to Victory
40 points – Game #35: Habs Burned in Shootout
42 points – Game #37: Habs' Big Names Steal the Show in Tampa
44 points – Game #38: Ryder Scores; Habs 2/2 on Florida Trip
45 points – Game #39: Habs Get 1 Point in the Big Apple
47 points – Game #40: Habs Start 2008 With Big Home Win
48 points – Game #41: Ovechkin Gets the Better of Habs, Price
50 points – Game #42: Habs Finally Win One in OT
52 points – Game #43: The Habs' Dominance in Boston Continues
54 points – Game #45: What Losing Streak? Habs Win on the Island
56 points – Game #46: Habs Get the Better of Thrashers in Shootout
58 points – Game #48: Habs Score 8, Win 9th in a Row Against Bruins
60 points – Game #49: Canadiens Mount Huge 3rd Period Comeback For Rare Win in Jersey
62 points – Game #50: Habs Win Big; Become Last Team In NHL To Record 10th Home Win
63 points – Game #51: Habs Come All The Way Back To Steal 1 Point
65 points – Game #52: Canadiens Start Super Bowl Weekend With Super Win
67 points – Game #54: Habs Finally Solve Ottawa, Sit Just 1 Point Back of Top
69 points – Game #58: Kovalev Strikes in OT as Price Finally Wins Again
71 points – Game #59: 1 Goal is Enough, Price Shuts-Out Flyers
73 points – Game #60: Habs Sweep Home and Home, Now 4 For 4 Vs. The Flyers
75 points – Game #61: Habs Mount Biggest Comeback in Team History
77 points – Game #64: Habs Get The First Win of The Price Era
79 points – Game #65: Another Big Canadiens Win Puts Them 1st in the Northeast
81 points – Game #66: Canadiens in first, Canadiens in FIRST!
83 points – Game #68: It Wasn't Pretty, But Mission Accomplished
85 points – Game #69: New Goalie, Same Result; Habs Back on Top
87 points – Game #71: Price Outduels Brodeur to Put Habs Back on Top
89 points – Game #73: Halak Shuts the Door as Habs Roll to Easy Win Over NY
90 points – Game #74: Habs Fall in Shootout to Blues as Halak Loses 1st in Montreal
92 points – Game #75: Kovy is Magic as Habs Win 7th of the Season Against Boston
94 points – Game #76: Habs - 8, Boston - 0; Canadiens Sweep Away Bruins With 11th Straight Win
96 points – Game #77: Canadiens Play With Fire Against Sens, but Get the Win and a Playoff Spot Nonetheless
Also interesting is to discover the key players from those games:
1) In out victories, Saku Koivu was most prominent for Tobalev. Saku collected 8 game pucks in wins.
2) In games where points were collected, Koivu and Kovalev were tied for tops with 8 game pucks apiece.
3) 17 different players were recognised as the game's best in games where points were won. Not surprisingly, it was the lower line forwards and defensemen that missed out: Smolinski, Kostopoulos, Lapierre, Chipchura, Locke, O'Byrne, Gorges, Bouillon and Brisebois did not feature.