A game like last night's can really make fans forget the whole "Habs need more size and grit" refrain we hear after some of the team's lousy no-show results. If a lack of committment led to the whitewash in Atlanta on Friday, the universal willingness to hit and be hit brought a very different result at home on Saturday. And, if players are willing to commit physically, a few inches in height really don't matter as much.
Fortunately, the Canadiens have been buying into the idea that they need to give to get for most of the year. When they don't, when they're disinterested or uninspired, we get a game like the one in Atlanta. When they do, we get last night's gem against the Sabres.
It's not to say the Canadiens don't have weaknesses. They do. They're one injury on defence away from big trouble. They have a hugely expensive second-line centre who's being outplayed in every facet of the game by a raw rookie. They have trouble scoring goals generally, and the power play is powerless on many nights. They're susceptible to a hearty forecheck and when a team clogs up the middle of the ice, it's hard for them to get their speed game going.
Still, after a dominant performance against a division rival, it's easy to forget weaknesses and focus on the team's strengths. The Habs are lucky to have a goalie who gives them a real chance to win every single night, and a capable backup behind him. Price and Auld have been the bedrock supporting the team's climb up the Northeast standings. With Markov out, the remaining defencemen are holding the fort. They're not the stars of the team, but they're steady and mostly reliable.
Tomas Plekanec is getting better all the time. He's the fuel for Andrei Kostitsyn's engine, and he's helping Brian Gionta find his game again. The PK is on top of the league because of his and Tom Pyatt's stellar work.
The good thing is that, after only 24 games, this team is still a work in progress. It's got a good base of hard work and cameraderie on most nights, with good goaltending and a solid defensive system. As the season evolves, other pieces will become clearer. We'll know how long Andrei Markov will be out of action, and if it's a very long time, there will be cap room for Pierre Gauthier to make a move to strengthen the team.
The forward lines will develop their own solutions. If Eller continues to work well with Pouliot and Darche, he'll eventually get more minutes and better linemates. Gomez will work his way down the lineup if he doesn't improve. Jacques Martin isn't the kind of coach to jump at the first sign of weakness, so these things will take time. It's a little bit like last year, in which Carey Price was given every possible chance to succeed before Halak finally took over the net. The same thing will happen with the forwards this year. The veteran will be given every chance, but if he doesn't step up, he'll lose his spot, especially if he's dragging Cammalleri down with him. Martin just wants the team to pace itself and be in a good playoff position when April rolls around. He'll tinker and tweak and make the decisions he needs to make, gradually as the season rolls on.
A game like last night's is a good indicator of the raw material Martin's got to work with. So was Friday's Atlanta game. The contrast between the two shows the range of ability in the lineup, underlines the strengths and exposes the weaknesses. The season is a construction process, with, hopefully, a playoff-hardened machine emerging at the end of it.