In the course of a long, wearisome NHL season, no team plays its very best every game. There are nights when you've played the day before and your plane got in late, when you're tired and you suck. Sometimes you're sick or things are just out of synch and nothing connects the way you want it to. There are, however, occasions during the course of the season when a team recognizes it faces an important challenge. There are nights when the opponent is a measuring stick for how you're doing as a team, and how you stack up against the rest of the league. Nobody comes right out and says, "This game will test our resolve and our identity and our ability," but every player recognizes it's true.
Last night was one of those "test games" for the Canadiens. The Bruins have been having a hell of an early season, with one of the top penalty kills in the league and the best goals-against in the East. They're also top-five in the NHL for goals scored per game. Without doubt, the Bruins are a solid, well-rounded team and a legitmate Cup contender. Beating them would mean something.
It's safe to say the Habs passed the test with flying colours. Carey Price was great again, everyone on the defence corps played strong games, the PP finally clicked and the PK was perfect. The Canadiens used their speed to advantage, wearing down the Bruins defence. Best of all, Gomez and Gionta found the twine, which had to be a huge relief for them as well as us.
Together, the Habs answered the question that's been in the back of our collective consciousness since last May: Is this team for real? The answer, although still early, has to be a solid, "yes." When it counts, everyone follows Martin's game plan and defends their own zone like a sow grizzly with a den full of cubs. When it matters, veterans dig down and push a little harder for that important goal. When there's something on the line, Plekanec steps up his defensive game and shuts down the other team's best player. The team that found its game in the playoffs still remembers what it takes to beat a really good opponent. With continued good health and the resurrection of the top-six's scoring touch, the Canadiens are perfectly able to be a playoff team, and not have to scrape into the post-season in eighth place again this year.
Whether they'll live up to the ability they proved last night will be determined over the next five months. There are some things that still need to happen to make the playoffs a certainty, rather than a possibility. Mike Cammalleri needs to start scoring. It's great that Carey Price has made the Habs the only team in the league not to have allowed more than three goals in a game. As good as he's been, though, there will come a night when he's not as sharp. That's when the Habs will need guys like Cammalleri and his top-line mates to score five or six goals instead of two or three.
To that end, it might be time for Martin to consider reuniting Plekanec, Cammalleri and Andrei Kostitsyn. Those three were fantastic to start the year, and since their breakup, none of them are scoring. If Gomez and Gionta have found their groove at last, there should be no reason not to put the first line back together.
The PK has been great, but the Habs are still taking too many dumb penalties. They're sitting sixth-best in the league with only 10.9 penalty minutes per game, but that's an average of just over five minors every game. When you think about some of the pointless penalties that number includes...Lapierre diving, Cammalleri slashing while on the PP...the team could be a little more disciplined.
Okay, that's enough criticism. On the morning after winning a big test game, there's a lot more praise to go around. Lars Eller looks so good, it's only a matter of time before he really breaks out and establishes himself as a really good NHL player. Benoit Pouliot isn't falling down nearly as much, and is doing some really creative things. Playing with Halpern and Darche has him hustling more than he ever has, but he may soon need to move to a line with players who can finish what he's setting up.
Price is a different goalie from the slumped, downhearted guy we saw last year. He's holding his ground in the net, rather than dropping blindly. He's much more focussed and rarely loses sight of the puck. The one save he made last night, when he gloved down the shot, then calmly batted it away with his stick, is emblematic of the way he's been playing all season.
Hamrlik seems to have found his legs after missing all of training camp. As his play has settled into his usual steady style, Jaro Spacek has improved along with him. Spacek is still the scariest D on the roster, but he's less panicky when Hamrlik is playing well.
Finally, and second only to Price having proven himself on the scale of gigantic sighs of relief, Andrei Markov is coming back up to the level of play we expect from him. I confess, in the first few games after his return, I was really worried. He looked slow, confused and afraid. Fortunately, he's sanded off the rust and he looks as good as he did before he had his knee surgically rebuilt.
There's a long way to go before playoff berths are assigned this year. Along the way there will be other nights and other tests, but for today, we can smile in the knowledge that the Canadiens have passed the first one and announced they're for real.