It's funny, when pundits build up a series, they usually look at inexperience as a detriment to a team's chances. Yet, when the Canadiens hit the ice last night with four players who'd never played a minute of NHL post-season hockey before Thursday, they didn't look green. Ryan White, Lars Eller, David Desharnais and Yannick Weber looked ready and like they knew exactly how playoff hockey is suppopsed to be played. Rather than being a drag on the team, they were its spark.
In this, credit must go to Jacques Martin. While he spent the season nailing rookies to the bench after a single mistake, now, when it counts, he's putting his trust in them. The Cammalleri and Darche goals and the great saves by Carey Price were the most important difference-makers in last night's game. Two moments outside those, however, really underlined the depth of support on the team.
The first was after a particularly nasty sequence which, in an ordinary game, would call for some sort of retaliation. White was about to explode and pick a fight, but Martin reeled him in, and the camera caught the coach with his arms around the kid, talking him down. White went out and channelled his anger into forechecking like a man possessed.
The second moment saw Eller, who'd been tough on the boards all game, holding off four Bruins as the Habs maintained their control and two-goal lead late in the third. This is a kid who's accepted that he's going to have to spend time learning the pro game and has taken his lumps with good grace. He's going to be a good offensive player someday, but his job right now is to be the third-line support centreman and check the daylights out of the other team. He's doing an excellent job of it, too.
Honourable mention for a defining moment was Yannick Weber, playing up as a third-line checker, leaping on Eller's rebound for the insurance goal that broke Bruins fans hearts.
The Canadiens are doing what they're supposed to be doing. They're using their speed to advantage, exercising discipline and doing a good job killing off the penalties they do take. They're blocking shots and getting between the Bruins and the goal. Price is seeing just about everything, and making the saves when it counts. His puck handling is helping the defence compensate for a general lack of quickness. Everybody's going the extra distance to get to loose pucks first and pushing a bit harder to win the battles. These were all things we knew they could do if they tried.
What we didn't know was how the kids would respond to the need to play that faster, more disciplined, self-sacrificing style that wins playoff games. That's why inexperience is so often a liability in the assessment of a team's chances. We know a little bit now about what we can expect from the young guys. We know they respect their teammates who've been there before, and they're following the example of guys like Gionta, Gill, Gomez, Moen and Sopel. We know the kids can make a positive difference, which is vital if the Canadiens are to achieve any level of post-season success. Whatever happens in this post-season, the experience these young players are getting and the lessons they're learning about how to win when it counts will be really important when they're the ones leading the playoff drive.