Location: New York
Habs Goalie: Halak (W)
Opposition Goalie: Biron (L)
Habs goalscorers: Markov (2), Metropolit
Opposition goalscorers: None
Despite the Islanders territorial domination, the Habs really did give a lot to choose from tonight. Perhaps it was because things happened in a more smash and grab way for the Canadiens, rather than the settle in, stay-a-while approach from the Isles. The play of the game for me, after several reviews of the goals and plays was Jaroslav Halak's save on Matt Moulson. Which one you say? Well, indeed. The one which was built by the first passer, then Tavares, the Moulson as the tic-tac-toe candidate for goal of the month - that one. As the pass came behind the net, Halak had every reason to surge to his left to cover the post where Tavares was going. He did, and fast. But unlike some goalies who would commit all to that save, he calculated the slide to stop him at the post, taking away Tavares wrap-around dream without abandoning the shooter in front. As Tavares' sublime pass came one touch form behind, Halak moved in synchrony with it, keeping his balance so as to play the shooter with all his body. Moulson, then, was met with surprise as he did everything right in lifting the puck over the sliding pad. He was left to shake his head as Halak's blocker calmly guided the puck skyward.
Some players take a demotion as a reason to sulk. Some actually take it as a call to wake up. Glen falls into the latter group. Following his games of costly penalties and underwhelming play, he has awoken. In the first period he was player of the game with his energy and tempo. He was stealing pucks, winning pucks in the offensive zone and creating chances (if not goals). In the end the scoresheet did this selection justice, too, as he scored a simple, yet timely goal.
If this guy was only paid $2 million a year, you can mark my words, there'd be raving reviews. His play off the puck at times is exemplary, and I'm glad Sergei Kostitsyn gets such a close up view of this. In a game where the Canadiens played mostly without control, it seems only fitting to include one of the best harrowers. His work on the PK was once again a sight to see, and if you want to understand that recent streak of stinginess look beyond just Gill and see the Gomez injury timeline. In the end, the scoresheet also rewarded Scott, as he created the insurance goal through his other main skill.
This last position was more difficult to settle on. Plekanec likely would have had the biggest shout, but for his run in with unfortunate refereeing. In the end, it goes to a penalty killer. There was little to tease apart between the excellent work of Lapierre, Moen and Sergei here. But think a minute about that phrase: Sergei Kostitsyn? PK? Excellent? I think it's high time we recognise what a turnaround, what an achievement Sergei has here. Not only did he stow his sulk in a bus undercarriage, he has come to the Canadiens and is turning in games as the top penalty killer. He played 5:32 overall, a full 2 minutes more than Max, 3 more than Moen. Brunet may get on him for a rushed clearance, but this man of confidence causes no such complaint from Jacques Martin, I think.
How good it feels to write this. Yet this is no sympathy vote, Markov was the best offensive player tonight, and a solid defender as well. For those who had forgotten, or stats toters who never watch players before computing their value, Markov showed why the Montreal PP though good in his absence, was once great. On defence, he played not to cut shots, but a shutout in this game is reflective at least in part to the doggedness of Andrei to hone in on loose pucks. Oh, and you'll have noticed the headline. I am convinced that our captain returned this game. There's a reason why all three letters are still 'A's for the Habs in December, and it must be linked to the fact their captain would rather take the role in all but name. His play, his celebrations, his discourse on the sidelines, I saw a captain for the first time in a while.
Playing with Markov must surely help, but I think Andrei could tank his partner similarly. Apart from his early fall, I thought Spacek had a good game. What set him apart from the others for me was his exceptional puck control on the PP - it didn't directly result in goals this time, but he was on the ice for that last pretty goal. Going forward, I think it will be important to have a player who complements Markov well to really turn this system around. As you know, I feel Jaro is that player. I think our first shutout in an eon gives a lot of credence to that.
Jaroslav Halak - Game Puck
They do make us wait, don't they? The Canadiens last shutout was last February 24th vs the Vancouver Canucks - it was Jaro then, too. In the meantime we've seen goalies play in shutout form a lot - mostly against us. What a pleasure then to watch a goalie come in and keep his concentration for a whole game. There was shutout written on more saves tonight than in most games we've seen since this tandem came along for us. Jaro almost seemed to will this one. That's not to say he was lucky. not at all. All he did was take the positional instruction and execute it without flaw. Apart from the play of the game, his saves on shorthanded breakaways stood out, his quick legs on cross-crease work made impression.
How many times to repeat the cliche? Christmas has come early.
The analogy is a good one though, because like children tossing restlessly in expectant sleep, we have been anticipating the moment of Markov's return ever since he wobbled off the ice in October. And though his return would have been enough on his own to warrant such a header, he did so much better. As he skated for us, we were a better team for having a top pairing of dynamism, and better second and third pairings. As mentioned, he also brings the general back to the defence and the team - a captain in all but name.
Before we get carried away, perhaps to address the slant of the ice in this contest. The Islanders did really have the initiative, the shots and the possession. I will support Jacques Martin's men in this one though. Perhaps not a pleasure to watch, they did certain things very well here. In giving away possession for instance, I found they often forced low quality shots while being very proactive on rebounds. No they wouldn't have gotten away with sitting on a lead as they did against the Sharks, Red Wings or Hawks; but this was the Islanders and the strategy of sit and counter-attack didn't seem so crazy as I watched. Because they scored when they did, they didn't need to press extra men up, and they seemed to be acting on instruction that they shouldn't. What's more, apart from the refs who saw penalties in run-of-the-mill plays and falls on their own whims, the Canadiens were disciplined on the whole, I thought.
Together with the previous positives from losses, the team does have a direction of travel now, and with Markov (and perhaps Hamrlik soon), it looks more and more like up.