Habs Goalie: Halak (W)
Opposition Goalie: Vokoun (L)
Habs goalscorers: Pouliot, Gionta (2), Plekanec
Opposition goalscorers: Dvorak
Once again, the Gomez line brought the goods. The past few games haven't necessarily been scoring race magic for Gomez and his linemates, but they've created chances, played good defence and tipped the ice many times in Montreal's favour. IN this game, I thought Gomez stood out. His signature rushes were there again, but retweaks since Ottawa meant his passes were finding the mark and his shots finding the net. As Higgins plays out what might be the end of his career in Calgary, Gomez contributes at a #1 level. He's overpaid, sure, but most people I talk to are coming around to the idea that it's only about a $2 million overpay, which Higgins (at his worst) was anyway.
Thank Cammalleri for coming back as areal danger. Last game the space he made for Andrei was clear. This game, it was Pleks who seemed to lap up the easier coverage. There were more chances than we'd been seeing for the last little while. On top of that, Pleks played a defensive stunner with 5 blocked shots, 3 takeaways, lots of harrowing (see goal) and a clean sheet on the PK.
Pouliot continues to give Big Gui a run for his money. While he's not the same player, he's certainly got talent himself. Foremost among his talents are supple hands and exceptional spatial awareness. His goal was a gorgeous example of his quick control and his skill at setting his feet from an awkward stance. Sometimes a goal can be an icebreaker, Ben's it seemed was a gamebreaker, as Florida changed their game for the chase, much to Montreal's advantage.
Andrei Markov - Game Puck
There's a limit to how many games I can go without recognizing our best player. There's a real danger at taking Markov for granted as we put others in the dome for a few blocked shots or for completing simple plays. While all of that is important, Markov really is just on another plane. He attempts harder moves and he completes them. Once this game settled into a back and forth, I thought Markov played the general well wile he was on. He actively sought the puck and either made his clearances count, connected on rush starting passes or carried into good position himself. One play in particular that I sat up and noticed was a quick pivot away from full pressure, another player might have lost the puck or ended up passing up the middle. It's something he does all the time, without enough recognition.
Hammer's another guy we need to appreciate. Yes he had his moments of confusion, but that's playing defence in the NHL for the vast majority of players who start at the position. Besides, no one on the Habs is so perfect in this regard anyway. I pick out Hamrlik tonight for the dome because once the game zagged in the Canadiens favour (after that first goal), he and Spacek really settled the play. In this game, he was tasked with facing the big line. When you can do that and come away with a clean sheet, it's a success. What Hamrlik does night in, night out is simple, that's why he's Jacques Martin's favourite many nights. Puck control, limiting blind passes and shutting down ice rather than chasing stats, the Hammer is still a very good #2.
Weren't these two games just the microcosm of the season for Price and Halak? Price played the better team, Halak faced less shots, less danger and got more goal support. The loss and the win follow naturally from the explanations. We think we have it all figured out. Put the win aside a moment though. Put the fact that Price deserved a win, possibly a shutout. Halak played extremely well here. He took a shutout to 56 minutes. He kept the game 0-0 so the Habs could score first. He saved a few one-on-one chances. He deserves to be a #1 at this point not because he mysteriously wins, but because he did all those things I mentioned.
It's a tad cliche to go on about deja vu as the Canadiens nearly blow a lead. 82 games a season for 30 teams, so many end this way, there's no need to pretend that this was some mystical moment. I suppose the unique point here was that the loss was as fresh as 21 hours at the puck drop, the wound still open. I've heard much worry about the Canadiens allowing themselves to get into this situation again. I think it's unwarranted. Two teams battling for the playoffs will always compete till the end, pull goalies early and play conservatively with a lead - it's not a new playbook. If Florida had rolled over after a goal or two, this wouldn't be a league worth watching. And I understand the cockeyed view that everything turns around the Habs, but really it doesn't. Sometimes the Canadiens look bad because the other team steps it up. Sometimes the Canadiens look good because the other team eases off. Everything is relative and expecting a full effort is fine, expecting the Habs to look sharper than the opposition for 80% or more of a game is unrealistic now that the 1970s are over.
And so it was with this game. On paper I think the Canadiens have a better offering than Florida. The expectation was that if things went well, the Canadiens would look better for as much as 60% of the game. In this one, I thought there was a lot of very even play, peppered with bursts of superiority from each side. Paper won in the end, though as Pouliot's hands aren't matched on the Panthers, Kulikov hasn't a patch on Markov yet and Halak outshone Vokoun.
In short, I don't think there's any reason to be anything but positive about what we saw. A win against a rival, timely saves, timely (if lucky) goals and good efforts from almost all. 82 points with 7 to go is a lot better than fairweather fans were predicting in January. It's worth remembering that too.