Will the real Benoit Pouliot please stand up? Then, can he please put on a pair of skates, hit the ice and finish the season with 25 goals? Because if last night's Benoit Pouliot; the one we saw beating out a crucial icing late in the third of a one-goal game, crashing the net on the first goal and wiring a shot high over Lundqvist's shoulder for the winner; the one we saw staying on his feet nearly all game (for a change), is the real Pouliot, then that guy should have no trouble getting 25. That guy is using his size and reach to great advantage, and he's got speed and a nice shot. We saw that guy briefly last year after his trade to Montreal from Minnesota. Then he got hurt and vanished for the rest of the year. This is a player whose head is the biggest part of his game. Without absolute confidence in himself, he can do nothing. With it, he can be a difference-maker for a team that needs all of those it can get.
It seems playing with Tomas Plekanec gives him the kind of confidence he needs to thrive. That's no surprise, as every winger on the team plays better with Plekanec. Pouliot, though, outshone his centre last night. It's a shame he'll get moved back to the third line when Cammalleri returns from illness. Then again, the way Pouliot's playing now...no matter which line he's on...might be an indication that he's finally emerging into a player who makes others better, instead of one who needs others to make him look good. If he's becoming that kind of player, it's going to go a long way toward solidifying the team's top-six options on the wing.
Also emerging in a top-six role is Max Pacioretty. He was skating hard all night, and he offers a nice complement to Gionta's lack of size and Gomez' lack of hard physical play. His time in Hamilton really helped him grasp the essentials of the pro game. It was kind of annoying, actually, listening to all the announcers talk last night about Ryan McDonagh, former Habs first-rounder, finally cracking an NHL lineup. They failed to mention that Pacioretty was taken in the first round in the same draft, and played a better game.
Sometimes a guy like Pouliot needs confidence to excel. A guy like Pacioretty might just need time. For Jaroslav Spacek, though, it seems all he needed was to be allowed to play his own position. Since he came to Montreal, he's been on the right side with Hamrlik on the left. It's the first time in his career he's played that side, and it's likely at least part of the reason why his offense has dropped off. Last week, after he shifted back to the left side with Yannick Weber on his right, he played a more solid game. When told he'd be back with Hamrlik when Weber got scratched, Spacek sighed and said, "Well, it was good while it lasted." It was good to see him play with more confidence, and fewer brain freezes. It's another reason to keep Picard out of the lineup in favour of Weber. The difference between the two bottom-pair defencemen isn't that great, but the benefit the team gets from a more comfortable Spacek is noticable.
Alex Auld has to get a lot of credit for last night's win too. It's not easy to get one game out of every nine or ten, then be expected to carry a team that can't score. Auld did a fantastic job and proved his teammates can have confidence in him. That's good, as he'll probably be seeing more work in the second half with Price getting no All-Star break to rest up.
And Mathieu Darche...he of the 500 AHL games...should get a tip of the hat too. On a team like the Canadiens, with a lot of highly-skilled forwards, there can sometimes be too much fancy play and too much time spent on the perimeter. The slicksters forget there's a price to pay for goals in the NHL and "pretty" doesn't cover it. A guy like Darche, with his straightforward chase-the-puck, crash-the-net style reminds the rest of them of the value of simplicity and hard work. That's an intangible that can't be overlooked in the small space between wins and losses.
The wounded Habs aren't going to blow anybody out of the rink this year. They don't have the horsepower from the D to launch an aggressive attack, and the short leash the forwards have under Martin's system means they don't spend enough time in the offensive zone to do great amounts of damage. Their wins will come from tight defence, solid goaltending and the occasional completion of a first-chance scoring opportunity with a scattered donkey, luck goal thrown in. The formula won't be successful every night, but it might be enough to get them into the playoffs.
While they struggle to hold the fort in the post-season race, though, it's nice to see pleasant surprises like the emergence of Benoit Pouliot and Max Pacioretty. Maybe, if the trend continues, those guys will be the difference between playoffs or not.