He wasn’t one of the game’s three stars, but Ryan O’Byrne shoud have been.
As I was leaving the Bell Centre last night with Patrick V. Hickey, my friend and colleague raved about the monster game O’Byre had played.
At first I chalked Hickey’s enthusiasm up to Celtic solidarity. Then I checked O’Byrne’s game stats:
19 minutes, 35 seconds of ice time – a season high, and third among Canadiens blueliners behind Andrei Markov and Roman Hamrlik. Most significantly, O’Byrne played 4:10 on the PK.
Six hits, second to Steve Bégin’s eight
Five blocked shots – no one had more.
The latter shouldn’t have surprised me. Since returning to the lineup after his hand injury, O’Byrne has had only one minus game, a week ago in Buffalo when he was minus-1.
With two Top Six defencemen, Mike Komisarek and Francis Bouillon, out of the lineup, Canadiens have not missed a beat. Josh Gorges and O’Byrne have stepped up huge. Mark Streit is back playing the position he favours. The frequently-maligned Patrice Brisebois has been quietly steady.
This team is loaded at a position where it is very good to have depth.
And the guy playing behind the D isn’t too shabby either.
Carey Price won his 23rd game in his 40th start last night. In 1985-’86, rookie Patrick Roy won 23 games but it took him 47 games to do it.
Price’s goals-against average and save percentage are 2.60 and .919. Roy’s were 3.35 and .875.
Now let’s not get too excited. I want to see Price in the playoffs before we start talking about Saint Carey.
But the kid is good and getting better. Price was an improved goaltender when he got back from Hamilton and he’s elevated his game since Cristobal Huet was traded.
As the playoffs approach, the Canadiens are getting great goaltending and solid D. Those are the essential building blocks for a deep run.
Another strength is special teams. Christopher Higgins scored a power play goal last night, off a Mark Streit bullet from the right point, and the PK had killed off 24 consecutive shorthanded situations before Ales Kotalik finally smoked one that Price never saw.
That was a 4-on-3 power play. Canadiens killed all four 5-on-4s.
Bryan Smolinski, Tom Kostopoulos, Christopher Higgins, Steve Bégin and Maxim Lapierre have become PK monsters, aggressively pressuring the puck and giving opposing PPs little time to make decisions or set up. The improvement of the PK – which was among the league’s worst early in the season – is a tribute to the coaching staff.
Buffalo needed that game more than Canadiens did. The 2006-’07 President’s Trophy winners were facing elimination from the playoffs.
But Canadiens – playing without Saku Koivu, Mike Komisarek, Francis Bouillon and Michael Ryder – were the hungrier, tougher and more aggressive team.
Tuesday night in Ottawa, Guy Carbonneau had his guys focused and prepared to play a postseason-level game. They played another one last night at the Bell Centre.
The team looks like it will be ready when the REAL hockey season begins next week.