Well, I have to confess, I prepared myself mentally for a loss long before the puck dropped last night. Who wouldn't? The Caps were rolling along on a seemingly-unstoppable winning streak, during which they'd beaten better teams than the Habs. The Canadiens were playing with five Bulldogs in their lineup. On paper, they should have meekly tucked their tails between their legs and taken the beating the Caps were more than capable of handing out.
The plucky effort the team showed surprised me. It shouldn't have, really, because they've been a spunky bunch since October. But after Josh Gorges nearly got murdered by Green's shot and left the game bleeding, the team stopped being spunky and became outright brave.
The depleted defence controlled Ovechkin as well as anyone could have hoped. Hal Gill blocked eleven shots. Andrei Markov played 31 minutes and worked so hard he had to miss a shift late in the third out of sheer exhaustion. Hamrlik played 28 minutes and Spacek nearly 26, and the two were strong in both ends of the rink. Almost every forward skated hard and really took the game to the Caps, who seemed shocked by the assault. The third and fourth lines looked engaged and were truly effective for one of the first times this year.
In a win that was really the result of an entire team laying itself on the line for two points, it's almost unfair to single out individuals for praise. Sergei Kostitsyn has to get a mention though. The kid who was thiiiisss close to getting recycled out of Montreal in October showed he's got the skills he needs to be a top-line player in the NHL. The man's passes should qualify for Canada Arts grants. If he ever learns to put that kind of effort in every night, he'll have no worries about seeing Hamilton again, outside of his nightmares.
Tom Pyatt said yesterday he learned a few things from his earlier call-up to the big team, and he planned to play a different game this time. Boy, did he ever! Aside from scoring his first NHL goal, he looked like he belonged on the top line all night. He worked like a Bulldog and used his speed to get to the puck before the guys in white every time he was on the ice.
Tomas Plekanec gave the impression he's happy contract talks are starting. He says he wants to stay in Montreal and he looked like he means it last night. Beating Theo with eight seconds to go and saving the two points was just the mustard on the hotdog.
David Desharnais notched his first NHL point and showed little guys can play too. I think he's really lucky to have the chance to watch Brian Gionta up close. If anyone can teach a kid how to play an effective little-man's game, it's Gionta.
Scott Gomez played a brilliant game. He was hardworking and aggressive in his twenty-five minutes of ice time, and his puck distribution was otherworldly. If only he didn't have that damn salary. The more I like his play, the more I hate his contract.
Carey Price played a good backup's game. He made some brilliant saves to keep the team in it, and even though he probably should have had the fifth goal and avoided OT, you can't fault him much. When your backup is thrown to the wolves against the scariest offence in the league, with a shorthanded defence, it's almost miraculous that he came out of it with a win at all. You can't ask more than that.
I still think coaching is a weakness, though. I thought Martin didn't use the rookies well in the Boston game, putting them head-to-head with the Bruins' bigger grinders. And I have to join the chorus of people demanding to know why the heck Sergei Kostitsyn didn't get one second of power play time. He was the first star of the game last night and was setting up potential goals every time he touched the puck, yet the coach didn't see fit to give him even a shift on the PP. That makes no sense, unless it's some kind of personal thing between them. Even then, Kostitsyn's play deserved some sort of reward. Every other player who's had a good game has been rewarded with ice time and power play time. Martin needs to do the same for Kostitsyn. I also thought his lack of trust in Ryan O'Byrne was costly. O'Byrne played only 17 minutes. That wasn't smart when the four other remaining defencemen were playing to the point of exhaustion. Sometimes you have to forgive the kid for costing a goal in the first period and give him more ice later in the game.
The only other jarring note from last night's game was the play of Ben Maxwell. He shows some promising things, then disappears for long stretches. He's not ready to be an NHL player right now.
All in all, the Habs played an heroic game last night. The thing is, I think they can be even better. Playing this way with the injuries they have is impressive. Now imagine the fire power of Cammalleri, Pouliot and Andrei Kostitsyn, and Bergeron's PP bomb in the lineup. Lots of us are questioning why the Habs can skate with teams like Pittsburgh and Washington, but then fall apart against Boston. One theory is that they can't compete with a tight forechecking team. I don't buy that. I've seen this team play tight games well. But those kinds of games require a physical commitment to grinding out a win. The whole team has to decide it will take the pain. In the Boston game, we saw the Habs shoot the puck as soon as they crossed the blue line instead of setting up for a more cohesive attack like they did last night. They weren't committed to grinding in the corners or fighting for the win.
The problem is, no team can find that level of commitment every night. After sixty hard games, in the dead of winter, there will be nights when people give less than their best. Fortunately, though, the Habs have been finding a source of inspiration on more nights than not. They seem to respond to being the underdog and come out hard against really good teams. In the Pittsburgh game, they found passion in the play of the kids from Hamilton. Last night, they got it from Gorges' injury. I saw Scott Gomez on TSN after Gorges blocked that shot, and he talked about how the team thinks the world of Josh and how everyone wanted to pull together and do it for him. Then they went out and had that phenomenal second period.
I don't know where the inspiration will come from for the back-to-back against Philly, but I hope it happens somehow. It's going to be a tough weekend, and one that could very well make or break the Habs' playoff hopes. One thing I learned last night though, was to never, ever expect these Canadiens to lose just because all the odds are against them.