About last night …

Pass the Gravol.

Having tumbled from first to fifth in the Eastern Conference Thursday night, Canadiens shot up to second by beating the Islanders. How long they remain in that lofty perch will  depend on what happens this afternoon in Carolina, where Ottawa plays the Hurricanes.

Fasten your seat belts, Habs fans, because it’s going to be a bumpy ride for the next three weeks. And it’s entirely possible that the team’s playoff seeding will come down to that Saturday night dance with the Leafs, who pretty much waltzed themselves out of any chance at the postseason by losing last night.

Canadiens won’t be marketing a DVD of last night’s game. It wasn’t exactly a replay of New Year’s Eve 1975 or The Comeback against the Rangers.

Playing with an injury-ravaged lineup, the Islanders did what they could to slow the game down and succeeded in turning the first 27 minutes into a snoozefest.

The game opened up, to a degree, after Roman Hamrlik’s power-play goal. But it wasn’t a classic, and the laborious win left some faithful a tad anxious about the difficulty Canadiens had in beating a clearly inferior team. 

Don’t worry. Be happy.

By playing hermetic hockey, almost any team in the NHL can frustrate any other team. Canadiens were patient, disciplined (two minor penalties) and they ground out a win over a team they were supposed to beat.

So go the St. Patrick’s parade and enjoy second place – at least for a few hours. 

Could it be that Christopher Higgins plays better WITHOUT Saku Koivu? Centred by speedy Mikhail Grabovski, with Sergei K. on right wing, Higgins had three shots and hit the crossbar last night. With a clearly defined role on the line, Higgins played the kind of gritty, north-south game that Guy Carbonneau wants him to play (including some smart puck possession work to protect the lead). He hasn’t scored in nine games, but there were indications that Higgins is primed for a strong stretch run (which makes the media throng happy because he’s such a good guy.)

The number one line was a bit frustrated by the Islanders’
slot-clogging style. But Alex Kovalev had five shots and his goal, off
that perfect pass by Tomas Plekanec, was another one for the highlight
reel.

The Captain’s new line didn’t set the building on fire. But Guillaume Latendresse hustled and beat one of the league’s better goaltenders for the one that  put it out of reach last night. Gui! has his detractors, but he’s got 16 goals, matching last season’s total, and he won’t be 21 until May.

Earlier that month, Jaroslav Halak will turn 23. By then, Halak could be goaltending in the playoffs or, at minimum, contemplating a nice RFA contract. He’s a very good goaltender, with maybe the potential to be a great one. Halak will have to decide whether to be Carey Price’s very good backup or pursue greatness elsewhere. But that’s down the road. For now, Canadiens are sitting pretty with the best young goaltending tandem in the league … and no one is second-guessing Bob Gainey for trading Cristobal Huet.

And maybe the GM knew what he was doing when he signed Bryan Smolinski. Smo was 10-5 on faceoffs last night. He had three shots, linemate Tom Kostopoulos – another free-agent signing–  had four and together with Mark Streit, they played textbook lead-protection hockey in the third period.

Canadiens’ other free-agent signing, Roman Hamrlik, scored the winning goal. The D had a few anxious moments when zone clearances were reminiscent of the darkest nights of the Rivet/Souray era.  Mike Komisarek didn’t have any hits, but he blocked five shots. I thought Francis Bouillon was running around a bit (although he was plus-2), but his partner, Josh Gorges, played 20 very solid minutes. Andrei Markov played 22:25 – 15 seconds more than Hamrlik – and Patrice Brisebois played a shade less than 15.

Breeze probably will be in against St. Louis on Tuesday. I expect Carey Price to start, and Carbo likely will leave his lines intact. 

The coach won’t tinker with a winning lineup. Too bad, because I hate to see young guys like Maxim Lapierre and Ryan O’Byrne watching from the pressbox.

It would be great if everyone, including both goalies, could play every night.

Regardless of where this roller-coaster ride leaves the Canadiens in the final standings, this is a team with an undeniably bright future. 

 

 


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