As befits the team’s hottest player, Scott Gomez offered the most succinct analysis of your seemingly-playoff-bound Montreal Canadiens:
“We’re starting to look like the team we should have been all year.”
And they’re still missing two important players: sniper Mike Cammalleri and power-play specialist Marc-André Bergeron.
Despite their absence, the Canadiens are playing like the team Professor Gainey may have envisaged when he started stitching components together last summer.
Gomez and Gionta aren’t as young as they were when they broke in with New Jersey. But energized by the addition of Benoit Pouliot, the former Devils are playing their best hockey of the season.
And they picked a good time to peak.
The win moved the Canadiens seven points ahead of Tampa Bay. It was crucial because the Lightning have played three fewer games. Even if they win them all – and the team we saw last night doesn’t look capable of that – TB would still be a point behind the Canadiens.
Similar story with the Rangers: five points back with two games in hand.
Atlanta trails the Canadiens by six points, but even if the Thrashers were to win their three games in hand, they’d have fewer Ws than the Canadiens and would be behind per the tie-breaking formula.
But all these scenarios aside, the Canadiens control their destiny.
“They’re going to win all the rest of their games,” my friend Mitch Melnick was saying – in jest, I think – after the game.
A 17-game winning streak?
Not likely … but possible.
Before the Olympic break, a late-season surge would have been inconceivable.
But the team that looked doomed to early tee-offs after dropping back-to-back games against Philadelphia seems to have benefited hugely from 17 days off.
Maybe it was a good thing that Brian Burke snubbed Gomez and Gionta for Team USA.
I doubt Glen Metropolit was short-listed for Team Canada, and he’s recaptured his early-season form. Playing in his 400th NHL game, Metro scored his career-best 15th goal – his ninth on the PP.
Roman Hamrlik and Jaro Spacek – who had to play brutal minutes during Andrei Markov’s long absence – weren’t picked for the Games and are well-rested for the stretch run.
I think one of the little-heralded keys to the Canadiens’ surge has been stability on defence.
The three pairings have been together since the regular-season resumed and are playing equal, low 20s minutes (except for Ryan O’Byrne, who gets no PP and little PK time).
The D is still smallish and susceptible to the kind of aggressive forecheck they endured in San Jose.
There are, however, fewer sharks in the Eastern Conference. The slot if being protected, rebounds are being cleared, shots are blocked (21 last night, five by Hal Gill) and zone clearances are rarely laborious.
A tightened-up D and four forward lines able to spend stretches ion the opponents’ end – props to the Dominic Moore/Travis Moen/Sergei Kostitsyn unit on that score – have made life easier for the Canadiens’ goaltenders.
Jaro Halak was not spectacular last night. But he made the saves he had to in racking up win number 20 – a career high.
If Melnick’s scenario plays out, maybe we don’t see Carey Price until the Canadiens have clinched a playoff spot.
But let’s not get ahead of ourselves.
When a knee-on-knee hit by Mattias Ohlund left Tomas Plekanec flat on the ice, 21,273 at the Bell Centre and all the fans watching RDS held their collective breath and saw the playoffs KOed along with Pleks.
He returned to action, but tghe team MVP will benefit from the rest Jacques Martin is giving his players today.
They’ve earned it.
• • •
Twice during his postgame press conference, Jacques Martin praised Mathieu Darche’s intelligence, as evidenced by the fact he’s a graduate of McGill University.
Hey, that’s my alma mater, too.
But I majored in Hedonism during the 1960s.
Darche’s degree is in economics – and the veteran is playing like he understands the difference between AHL and NHL contracts.
• • •
The return of Mike Cammalleri can’t come soon enough for the struggling Pleks line and comatose Andrei Kostitsyn.
The interesting question: What happens when MAB is ready to play?
The power play needs Bergeron, but the D doesn’t.
Probably, with Metro and …
Tom Pyatt and Ben Maxwell will go back to Hamilton. But Martin will have to pick who – among Darche, Sergei and Maxim Lapierre – watches the game from the pressbox.
• • •
Bulldogs win ninth in a row – a franchise record.