Sunday, March 14, 2010

Aftermath: Well, Hellllllooooo, Sergei

It was wonderful to see Sergei Kostitsyn play up to his level of ability last night. The kid has speed to burn and knows where to be on the ice. His vision and passing ability are world class. Of course, the frustrating thing about him is the drive he needs to use those skills to their best advantage is sometimes excruciatingly absent. Whatever's gotten into him to get him moving like he's been in the last handful of games should be bottled and sold.

Maybe it's playing with Dominic Moore that's doing it. I still haven't learned to love Moore, but I will admit he's growing on me very quickly. He still smells a bit of Toronto, and I'm wondering why he never sticks with any team for very long. Still, nobody can deny he's been playing his heart out for the Habs. One of the Canadiens' biggest weaknesses this season has been the serious ineffectiveness of their bottom two lines. Replacing Laraque with Darche and D'Agostini with Moore has upgraded those two positions immeasurably. The happy side effect of that is the other players on their lines get to play with better teammates and then their level of play improves as well. I saw a stat last night that says something like 11 of the Habs last 25 goals have come from the bottom-six forwards. That's 44% of the scoring in this nice little winning streak, and it's something we didn't see at all when the Pleks/Cammalleri line was carrying the team.

The bottom six still isn't as big or hard-hitting as they could be, but they're helping for the first time since Metropolit and Moen started out the year playing like their pants were on fire. Five of the six guys are now in their proper roles as hard-working grinders. The exception is Kostitsyn. I know he started out on the wrong foot with Jacques the Knife, but it's time for him to think about forgiving the kid now. It's not sensible for Tom Pyatt, as hard as he works, to get game after game to try and put up some numbers with Plekanec and Andrei Kostitsyn. Sergei, in the meantime, got one game with them and then demoted to the bottom six. It's probably ungrateful to find fault when the team is riding a five-game winning streak, but I can't help thinking it could be even better. I've seen Plekanec put goals on Pyatt's stick that ended up going wide or hitting the goalie's crest. I find myself wondering whether Sergei might have buried them. I wish he'd have gotten a better opportunity to show what he can do with more offensive-minded linemates. A shot on the powerplay wouldn't hurt anyone either, but Sergei continues to sit while the team has the man-advantage.

In any case, if Sergei continues to produce from the third line, none of this really matters. Moore and Moen will be his linemates when Cammalleri comes back anyway, so perhaps that's Martin's thinking. Better to just plug in Cammalleri for Pyatt rather than rearrange the lines again.

Other positives about last night's game include the improving play of Markov. If anyone still doubts he was hurt before the Olympics all you have to do is remember him then and compare that to how he's looking now. He's a different player in his own zone; much more like the all-star we've been accustomed to watching. And he's putting up points again, which he hadn't been doing before.

The rest of the defence is also playing a better brand of hockey. Zone clearances are much smoother than they've been for a lot of this year and the time off over the Olympic break seems to have given Hamrlik and Spacek new life. They're still not the fastest D-corps in the league and they're never going to scare anybody, but this is the time of year when smarts and experience really count. That's why other teams moved to bring in wily veteran defencemen for the playoff run. This is the time when Hamrlik's and Spacek's calm under fire will come in handy. Gorges and O'Byrne are playing a quiet, effective, if unflashy style of reliable D. Gill is the question mark on this squad, but in a tough playoff series, his time can be limited in close situations to small minutes at even strength and his bread-and-butter role on the PK.

There are no issues in goal. Halak, for maybe the only time in his career as a Hab, got a start after he stunk in a game. Martin joked yesterday he picked his goalie by flipping a coin. There might have been some truth in that, at least figuratively, because Halak looked pretty ordinary against the Oilers and Price has done very well against the Bruins this year. Whatever the true reason behind Halak's start last night, he proved he's the number-one goalie. Number ones buckle down in shootouts when it counts, even when they've played a bad game. They get a shot to come back and play better next time and make huge stops to preserve the win with five minutes to go in a one-goal game. Martin might have been flipping a coin publicly, but it appears that privately, he's finally committed to Halak as his guy. Halak, for his part is running with the best chance he's ever been granted in his career as a Hab.

I saw something new in him last night after the game too. I watched his interview on RDS, and he wasn't just answering questions. He was holding court, and he was loving it. It's the kiss of death in Montreal to compare a young goalie to Roy, but watching that interview, it crossed my mind. Halak was saying all the right things about his teammates helping him out all night and about being lucky on his big game-saving save. While he was talking, though, he was smiling and exuding confidence. He enjoys being a star and having the team depend on him. It was the first time I'd seen that undefinable something in Halak that can make a goalie a real team leader.

The Rangers game on Tuesday is going to be vital because of the ongoing competition for playoff positioning, and because it's the Habs' only game this week while others make up their games in hand. The winning streak can't go on forever...or for another twelve games, as Markov joked about last night...but it'd be nice to see it last at least another one. That will open some breathing room between the Habs and Rangers and keep the momentum going until Cammalleri returns to give the team two actual scoring lines for the first time all year. It's almost too much to hope this can get better, but I think it can.

The awakening of Sergei Kostitsyn, if he can keep it up, is just another sign that things are turning around in Habs World.


V said...

Somewhere, Bob Gainey must be smiling just a little. Deservedly so.

DB said...

I think there are a few reasons for Sergei's recent improved performance.

1. His ankle is better. He hurt his ankle in one of his first games back from exile. He continued to play and take therapy days until he had to take a couple of weeks off to let it heal.

2. He is more comfortable playing two-way hockey. When Sergei was sent down I believe Boucher told him he should model his game after Datsyuk's. In order to do that Sergei had to focus on the defensive aspects of the game and this caused his offensive game to slip. His offensive game is now re-emerging because defensive hockey is now second nature.

3. He understands his role. Sergei has had a yo-yo season. He's played both wings on every line this year, often switching wings and lines multiple times in the same game. Now he knows he's the third line right winger so he can relax and just focus on that role.

With Moore I think the problem has been finding the right fit. He's a third line centre with some offensive punch. That offensive ability has elevated him to a first or second line centre duties on bad teams. On other teams he's been put in purely a checking role and his offense has suffered. The trick is to let him play a two-way game by giving him wingers who are good defensively, but who can also score.

MC said...

I think you hit the mark with Martin trying to build line chemistry for the playoffs. I suspect Pyatt will be back to the minors once Cammellari is back. With three lines that can score, and a fourth that can crash and bang, Montreal could be dangerous in the playoffs. I am praying that they stay healthy because the playoffs could be fun.

Moore has more upside than I realized, so PG deserves credit. I think Moore's reason for moving teams so often has been due to his attempt to try free agency, not due any problem in the locker room. Toronto unloaded him because they could not sign him. He was a rental for Buffalo and probably will be for Montreal as well because I think it will be hard for the Habs to fit him under the cap (unfortunately).

I also love Halak showing the confidence of a no 1 goalie. Price supporters have always argued that Price has a better pedigree: 1st round pick, Won the WJC gold and Calder Cup. But now Halak has something Price doesn't: carrying his team to an Olympic Medal game against the best field of ice hockey teams in history in any tournament. As you mentioned in another post, the team does play better in front of him. I hope they ride Halak all the way.

GoldenGirl11 said...

I also noticed the tie. Damn that's one ugly pattern. Maybe he should just keep it balled up in his pocket next time. I hope he doesn't put it up for auction. Kiss of death.

Anonymous said...

Nice game by Sergei, but Markov should have been the first star. He dominated the game in a way seldom seen by a Habs D-Man since the Chelios days.