About last night …

How do the Canadiens improve on perfection?

That’s their challenge when the playoffs begin on Thursday.

They’ve ended the regular season with three flawless games, in Ottawa and at home against Buffalo and Toronto. In each instance, players executed a sound game plan drawn up by Guy Carbonneau and his staff.

In none of the three games was the opposing team able to play its game.

Ottawa was held to 27 shots and shut out. Buffalo  and Toronto each scored once on 27 shots.

Earlier in the season, Canadiens routinely surrendered 35 to 40 shots a game.

That was then. This is now.

With a team assembled by Bob Gainey and coached by Guy Carbonneau – seven Selke Trophys between them, and Doug Jarvis won another – the Canadiens are stifling opponents.

They’re doing it without Saku Koivu, Mike Komisarek, Francis Bouillon and Michael Ryder.

And they’re doing it without turning into the New Jersey Devils. Unless Detroit scores nine goals against Chicago today, Canadiens will end the regular season as the NHL’s highest-scoring team.

And as impressive as 262 goals – so many of them highlight reel beauties – are, the key stat is differential. On the season, Canadiens are plus-40. Only Detroit’s plus-70 is better, and the Red Wings play home games on Betelgeuse.

 So bring on the playoff series that is a springtime tradition in Montreal. Canadiens have played the Bruins 30 times in the postseason. They’ve won 23, including the last two, in 2002 (José Theodore!) and 2004 (back from a 1-3 deficit in the Alex Kovalev hand injury series).

First game is Thursday night at the Bell Centre. Game 2 is Saturday, then the teams go to Boston for a Sunday game and Game 4 on Tuesday. If a Game 5 is necessary, it will be played back in Montreal on Friday.

I’m apprehensive about this series.  Canadiens won all eight regular-season meetings between the teams and the last three in 2006-’07.

That’s 11 in a row, and the law of averages has to kick in at some point.

But if Canadiens play the game we’ve seen for the last week, they’ll beat Boston … and, quite possibly, a few other teams.

As for last night’s game … well, what can you say about the woebegotten Leafs that hasn’t been said already  – about Zimbabwe.

Hopeless. Pathetic. And if Andrew Raycroft, of all people, wasn’t sharp, Detroit would need 15 goals today to catch Canadiens.

Before the game, interim Leafs general manager Cliff Fletcher stopped by our table in the press lounge to say hello to Red Fisher. Asked how things were going, Fletcher, who had just dined in the lounge with the Canadiens’ GM, said:

"Bob Gainey told me you’ve got to bring the horses into the barn one at a time."

I have no idea what that means – except it could be a while before they’re serving playoff oats at the ACC barn. There is much stall mucking to be done – and a few long walks out to the pasture, with a rifle.

•  •  •

Something a little different today. At midnight, one of our most frequent correspondents, The Teacher, posted this report card on the game. It’s insightful and worth quoting in full:

Offence – A

Offence was clicking on all cylinders today. The first line was the
first line. The second line was clicking as well, Higgins is a beast
when he goes up and down. Latendresse was solid and is showing he might
be a force in the playoffs. I called it about a month ago and i hope he
comes through, we will need his big body.The third line was solid as
solid can be while the 4th line of begin Smokey and Kostops was
absolutely killer. Bodes well for the playoffs.

A special note- what the HELL has Gregory Stewart been doing in Hamilton?

To which I would add that the Tomas Plekanec line looks poised for a great playoff run. And some chemistry is happening between Higgins and Sergei Kostitsyn. Can Saku Koivu crack this lineup? 

Defence- A+

With 3 defencemen on the ice at times and sometimes 4 and I’m not
talking about D playing Forward, The defensive and breakout games are
miles ahead of last year. It is important to note what I think one of
Hamrlik’s most important contributions to the team. Do you notice how a
lot of our defencemen are now making subtle moves to buy themselves
more time to make a play by turning a certain way or backtracking? I
noticed this aspect of Hamrlik’s game in Game #1, he is a master at that
and it seems it has caught on. Gorges, what else can be said about this
man that already hasn’t been? Thank you, Sir?

Teach is bang-on about Hamrlik. And Ryan O’Byrne had six hits to lead both teams. Andrei Markov played 25 brilliant minutes. When he’s on with the Pleks line, the passing is unreal. Kudos, also, for Mark Streit and Patrice Brisebois on the PP.

Remember all those laborious zone clearances in the Craig Rivet.Sheldon Souray era? Now all the defencemen can skate, make good, fast decisions and move the puck.

And Komisaurus will be back for the big, bad Bruins. 

Goaltending- A+

Well, if anyone had doubts about Mr. Carey Price’s ability to
shutdown teams, they have certainly disappeared into the Bell Centre woodwork these days. His record of 7- 0 strongly compares to Huet’s 9-0
against markedly stronger teams. His ability to be a 3rd defenceman
(see above) and help the breakout game s very much appreciated. His
calm in nets and increasing improving ability to read plays before they
happen is astounding. His big body aids in stopping deflections ads
well and his ability to cover of the bottom part of the net is among
the leaders in the game.

Price is unbelievable. He’s 20 years old, for cryin’ out loud. There are jurisdictions where he could be busted for drinking champagne from the Stanley Cup.

Coaching- A+

Bravo.

You have vindicated yourselves against your many bashers everywhere.
Remarks that you aren’t fit to lead the ship are wildly mocked with
disdain. Your ability to mold this group of highly skilled and
hardworking players into a team speaks volumes about your motivational
talents. Your intense knowledge of hockey serves you well as evidenced
by your decisions behind the bench. Your manipulating of lines and
rolling four lines will prove immensely beneficial in the playoffs. Did
you notice that every time our team had a bad shift in the last few
games that the Smoke, Brimstone (Kostopoulos) and Fire (Begin) came on
the ice to keep the puck in the opposing end and that the Russian
Bounced Czech line was often the next line on?

I was among the early bashers. Thing about Guy Carbonneau, this is one very smart dude who learns and improves all the time.  Remember the problems with Kovalev last season? Remember Carbo wanting Carey Price to start this season in Hamilton? The coach is a work in progress. He’s good already, and he’s going to be great. 

Management and Ownership – A+

Thank you. The product on the ice says everything.

Particularly in comparison to that other product on the ice last night. Gainey is building something very special here.

And how about a Triple-A rating for the Bell Centre crowd?

How can anyone who loves what he does for a living not want to play here?

 


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