Sometimes, in the heat of the action, you can't consciously absorb enough of the analytical detail of a game to break down whether the team is playing really well or just being lucky. A sure sign for me is how nervous I get when it's close. If I'm on the edge of my seat, hands gripped and heart pounding, I know the team is pushing its luck and, if they have a lead, it isn't really safe. I didn't have an ounce of stress last night.
Halak was solid again, but didn't have to be superman for once. He was there when needed, but he didn't need to lug the team to the final siren on his slight back. The third and fourth lines, which I maintain are the difference between a winning team and a losing one, played their hearts out. I think most teams with similar payrolls will have a respectable level of scoring talent on their first two lines. It's the other two that have to bring the heart, grit and checking ability. They're the ones who have to carry the heavy load of grinding out a win against good teams who can shut down your goalscorers. That's exactly what the Lapierre and Moore lines did last night. They forechecked hard and they used their speed to force the Sabres' checkers into rushed plays that worked in Montreal's favour. What makes the Habs' bottom third line, in particular, slightly better than that of a lot of teams they play is the "almost" ability of Sergei Kostitsyn and Dominic Moore. Both of them are "almost" good enough to be regular second-liners, so they make exceptionally good third-liners when used in that capacity. Kostitsyn is a gifted passer with a great shot and chippy enough to be in a checking role. Moore is tenacious, smart and has enough scoring ability to make the third line a bit of an offensive threat. The fourth line, with Pyatt's speed and checking ability, really comes alive when Lapierre plays the type of annoying, physical game he's capable of playing. We saw it last night, for one of the rare games this season. If he can bring it like that in the playoffs...especially if Buffalo is the opponent...there's hope the Habs might even win a round.
The top lines weren't exactly bad last night, but they weren't the offensive dynamo they need to be. Cammalleri is just snake-bitten. He had Miller one-on-one in the third and completely froze. I'm not overly concerned about the rest of the top-six production though. Pouliot didn't score, but he played a much more responsible all-around game than he's been playing lately. Gomez, Gionta, AK and Pleks all played pretty well and had their chances, but just didn't connect last night.
The defence is looking really good in the last few games. Even in the close losses, the D was keeping things pretty tight for the most part. Bergeron on the blueline is scary, so a recovered Spacek should help out there. O'Byrne is really rounding into form, though. He certainly has the potential to be what Komisarek was as Markov's partner, with a bit of added mobility and better puck handling. He was just a force of nature in the last few games.
On special teams, the Habs are 50/50. The PK is good-to-brilliant, but the PP is desperate. It's the last huge thing the team needs to fix before it can be a winner in the post-season. Then again, in the playoffs everything starts anew. Teams that score four goals a game suddenly can't find room to move and teams that haven't had a shutout in months find their smothering defence working for them again. I think the PP will unlock itself when Cammalleri gets scoring again. Hopefully that will be soon.
All in all, the Habs played an excellent game; a playoff kind of game. The only thing missing was the stress. Somehow, I think if these two teams meet in a series later this month, it won't be such a relaxing ride for Habs fans.