It's something of a minor miracle that when the Panthers scored with three and a half minutes to go last night, the collective intake of breath by the Bell Centre faithful didn't cause a vacuum. I know I wasn't alone in holding my head in my hands and moaning, "Oh no...not again." Fortunately, though, our Habs aren't slow on the uptake. With the previous night's embarrassing collapse in Buffalo still fresh in their minds, the Canadiens buckled down and potted the empty-netters to put the game away. Whew!
The game wasn't perfect, or, ironically, nearly as good as the one they played in Buffalo for 56 minutes. The Habs started out looking exactly like a team that had played hard and ended with a heartbreaking loss the night before. It's funny how hockey works, though. A team can play a great game and lose one night, then a wishy-washy start the next night gets a boost when a couple of weakish goals go in and the tide turns.
A lot of players looked good last night. Halak did a great job in keeping the team in it until his teammates decided to step it up. Moen looked like the slash around his eye reminded him how lucky he is to be in the NHL, and he played with an extra bit of gritty energy. The Gomez line played a fine game, particularly Gionta, and Pouliot worked much harder than he's seemed to recently. Plekanec's line looked good too, and is showing signs of finally giving the habs that one-two punch on offence they've been lacking all year. I thought Moore and Sergei Kostitsyn worked hard on the forecheck and created some nice third-line chances. The D was sluggish early, but tightened up after the first period. Even Jacques the Knife stepped up his game. His tie wasn't hideous and he actually managed to have the right players on the ice after the Panthers scored their goal. When Pleks got the empty-netter, he was out there with Moen, Sergei Kostitsyn, Gorges and Markov, instead of Cammalleri, Andrei Kostitsyn and Gill.
I tend to overanalyze what players say when they're coming up for contract renewal, but I did take heart from Plekanec's post-game comment about his 100th career goal. He said he'd like to score another hundred...but then, unprompted, specified that he'd like to score them in Montreal.
On the Spacek hit on Booth, I think it was clean. Spacek isn't a dirty player and he came at Booth head-on. I hate the argument that players who get hit in the head should have been more careful not to put themselves in vulnerable positions, but in this case I think there's actually some truth in that. Booth, above anyone else, should have learned to keep his head up. He came across the blueline looking down at the puck instead of at Spacek who was right in front of him.
I hate to find fault in a game the Habs win, but I have to say the fourth line concerns me. Bergeron might be adding a threat to the PP, but so far it's been an empty threat. Lapierre was completely invisible after his stint in the pressbox failed to jolt him out of his season-long lethargy. Pyatt worked hard, as always, but he doesn't do much to create a scoring threat and he's not a terribly intimidating physical player. In the playoffs, you need your fourth line to be a game changer. They're the ones who are supposed to bring energy to a flat game and pressure the opposition into making bad decisions with the puck. They're the guys who get the chances when the top lines are checked into the ice. They should be forechecking like demons, hitting everything that moves and forcing turnovers. A fourth line isn't going to score a lot of goals as a rule, so they need to do something other than just passively eat minutes if your team is going to go very far in the playoffs.
Ideally, in the post-season, I'd like to see some combination of Darche, Ryan White, Metropolit, Pyatt and Bergeron, (if necessary for the PP). I know the coaches hope Lapierre will suddenly become the player he was last year, but it's not happening. He's just not taking advantage of any of the chances he's been given this season and he needs to sit in favour of a player who does want to do that valuable fourth-line job. The experiment to play him over Metro wasn't exactly a success last night.
There are still eight games left to tweak those little lineup problems though. Last night, the Habs needed to beat a team they were supposed to beat and they managed to do the job. They didn't allow the heartbreaking loss in Buffalo to break their heart. Most encouraging, when the Panthers scored that goal, the Habs proved they can learn from their mistakes. While we were collectively moaning, "Not again," the Canadiens were adjusting and fixing the problems they'd caused for themselves against the Sabres. That's the sign of a good team. We'll see how good they can be tomorrow when the potential-first-round-opponent Devils hit town.