Saturday, October 16, 2010

Aftermath: Awakenings

Watching a hockey game, in the heat of the action, it's hard to really analyze it. There's just an impression of what happened, to be dissected when you're no longer yelling. One good indication of how things really went comes when you're watching NHL highlights the next day and most of the play is in one team's end of the ice. Watching the compilation of last night's best moments, it becomes clear the Canadiens spent a lot of time in the Buffalo zone and Ryan Miller had to be sharp to keep the game close.

The Habs played a nice defensive game, limiting rebounds and effectively clearing the puck away from Carey Price. The 23 shots allowed was the lowest total in the team's four games to date. Zone clearances were also much more efficient than they've been. Both Josh Gorges and P.K. Subban made some very nice desperation recoveries to cover the butts of their veteran partners, and Alexandre Picard didn't get burned, despite not having played a game until last night. That both goals came from the D was a pleasant bonus.

While it was satisfying to see the team's newly-rediscovered defensive awareness, it was fantastic to watch Andrei Kostitsyn continue to awaken from a career-long October sleep. The notoriously slow starter has been using his size to create room for himself. He's skating hard and he's shooting. Best of all, he's getting back to help out in his own zone and doing it very effectively. Although the points aren't coming as quickly as he'd like (1G, 1A in 4 games), he's doing all the things he needs to do. If he keeps doing that, the points will pile up.

The power play finally woke up too. It had three opportunities against Buffalo, and the first wave looked focussed on all of them. It was ironic that it was the second wave and a nice knuckler from the point by Gorges that got the PP on the board for the first time this season.

Gorges himself is awakening a level of respect around the league, in opponents and fans alike. Watching him now, it's hard to believe he spent so many nights in the pressbox just three seasons ago. He got the most icetime of any Canadien again last night, with just over 22 minutes. That included 1:23 on the Habs' only PK, and 1:30...the same as Brian Gionta...on the PP. He's even on plus/minus, and he's got three points in the team's first four games. On top of that, he rarely makes a defensive error and usually manages to help cover for his partner's mistakes too. It's going to be an interesting summer for him and the Canadiens when contract time rolls around.

Some key elements of any success the Habs will have are still dormant so far this young season, though. Mike Cammalleri looks distracted and out of synch with the rest of the team. He's never been a pillar of defence, but he seems to be having a hard time being in the right place in the early going. He's not even connecting on the one-timers that are his specialty when things are going well. Still, he's a point-a-game player despite that, so we can probably expect good things from him when he's really on his game.

The captain has yet to do much of anything at all since the season started. Gionta is minus-one with one assist in four games. He came close a couple of times against the Sabres, but nothing's going in for him so far. That's a bit worrisome because Gionta usually starts the season strong. One of the concerns some people had about him donning the "C" was the added pressure of the position taking him off his game, which we hope doesn't end up being a legitmate worry. A positive from last night was his feistiness in front of Miller on Gorges' PP goal, but Gionta's got to start putting in a few of his own before much longer.

The Canadiens played a very nice, tight road game against the Sabres, and there were a lot of positive signs that some sleeping elements are starting to stir. Discipline was much better and the team didn't stop skating until the final horn. It'll be interesting to see what happens against the Sens tonight, as one of last year's weaknesses was losing in back-to-back games. We'll have to watch the tape tomorrow and see where the Habs spent most of their time. If they're in the Ottawa end more than their own, there's good reason to hope last night's awakenings weren't a fluke.

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