For 52 minutes, Guy Carbonneau was a genius.
Before the game, the coach’s newly-minted line combinations had the denizens of the pressbox scratching our heads and speculating as to who his connection was for weed that great.
But then the puck dropped.
And strange things happened.
Cristobal Huet stood on his head, stopping 16 Nashville shots – plus two that dinged off posts – in the first period.
At the other end of the ice, Chris Mason gave up two soft goals and was done less than 14 minutes into the game.
And with 7:34 to play, Carbo the Nutty Professor had a 4-1 lead and was probably looking forward to bouncing a few droll one-liners off media skeptics.
But a funny thing happened on the way to the coach’s self-congratulatory press conference.
His team collapsed, and everything – including Carbonneau’s mood – turned to crap.
By the time the coach got to the pressroom, he was seething and snappish. And by the time I was driving home, CKAC was playing and replaying Carbo’s astounding assertion that the press had demoted Saku Koivu to the third line.
"(Koivu) was on the first line," Carbonneau said, responding to a question by Pat Hickey.
"Smolinski au premier trio, imaginez ça!" marveled CKAC phone-in host Martin Lemay. Bryan Smolinski, who was in the penalty box when Nashville tied the game, was a favourite whipping boy of the station’s callers. It was noted that the tying goal, his 10th of the season, was scored by Radek Bonk, who’s playing for $1.35 million in Nashville while Smolinski makes $2 million, has two goals and is minus-6 in Montreal.
In describing November as a "tough month", Carbonneau noted that the Canadiens played .500 hockey – "not great, but OK."
Now it’s December, and the coach said "we’ll see over the next couple of weeks what we’re made of."
We also will find out what the coach is made of, because Carbo has to rally a team that Huet describes as "fragile between the ears."
And, my friend Hickey added, "fragile between the pipes." Huet gave up three goals in less than eight minutes of the third period and was beaten twice in the shootout.
I have to think it will be Carey Price against Detroit on Tuesday.
• I hope Josh Gorges plays against the Red Wings. And if I were Carbo, which I’m glad I’m not on this frigid Montreal morning, I’d keep the Tomas Plekanec line, with Kovy and Christopher Higgins, intact.
• I also liked Mikhail Grabovski and Andrei Kostitsyn, but they need a RW who can keep up with them, physically and mentally, better than poor Michael Ryder.
• I like Kyle Chipchura, Guillaume Latendresse and Mathieu Dandenault. Gui! Gui! Gui! had two goals last night and continues to hustle.
• As to Carbo’s "first line" … well, Mark Streit played decent and the Captain had some chances he failed to bury. I’m not a Smolinski basher. That penalty last night was horrible, but it came at the end of a sequence during which he did a good job working the puck and eating up seconds in the Nashville end.
• Roman Hamrlik played great last night. Andrei Markov played hurt.
• Glas half full: Canadiens are so versatile and deep on defence that two of them can play up front.
Glass half-empty: Canadiens are so pathetic up front that two defencemen have to play as forwards.
• Team D has gone south over the last while. The Canadiens gave up 44 shots to Nashville, 46 to Toronto, 45 to the Islanders. It’s rarely fewer than 30; New Jersey had 29, but they were winning so easily the Devils just played shut-down, a game the Canadiens could have used last night.
• Carbonneau spoke of fatigue (26 games into the season!!!!), and the first three weeks of December will be an easier Saturday/Tuesday/Thursday schedule. But then comes two back-to-backers – Atlanta-Dallas and Tampa Bay-Florida – on the road, the latter followed, a day later, by a visit to New York City.
We’ll know a lot about this team by Jan. 1.
But let’s be honest: right now, the portents are not promising.