Jacques Martin may have won his gamble.
We’ll wait for the Rangers game at the Bell Centre before delivering an early verdict, but for now it looks like the coach has made the right decisions … at a very critical time of the season.
Georges Laraque: Gone.
Matt D’Agostini: Five shifts, 2:37
Max Pacioretty: 10 shifts, 6:23
Martin got rid of his useless enforcer, shortened his bench and played the guys who he thought would give him the best chance to win – including Mathieu Darche, a 33-year-old journeyman playing for his fifth NHL team.
So far, so good.
Do it again against the Rangers and the bandwagon will get very crowded very fast.
This might have been the best 60-minute effort of the season.
After Zach Parise opened the scoring on a breakaway goal identical to the one he scored to beat the Canadiens in OT at the Bell Centre, I was sure the rout was on.
The Canadiens did not fold.
They did not play the kind of nervous, tentative hockey that has driven fans – and, undoubtedly, their coach – crazy all season long.
Jaro Halak made 31 stops. He handles the puck like it’s a live grenade, but he makes the stops. And, most critically, he doesn’t give up easy goals.
After Benoit Pouliot’s goal tied the score, Jamie Langenbrunner had a good look and fired a slap shot from the left faceoff circle.
I don’t want to wade into the goaltender debate, but there’s no help for it:
Given the situation of the game and the nature of that shot – a riser to the glove side – would the other guy have stopped it?
Halak was beaten 6-2 last weekend in New York. He wasn’t good, and his teammates were worse.
I think Martin has to come back with him at the Bell Centre. But we’ll see.
There are other, easier predictions:
• Darche will play against the Rangers. Mathieu the Mature plays a simple game predicated on hard work and tenacious checking in all three zones.
It’s not exciting, and Darche has a grand total of nine NHL goals in parts of seven seasons. But he’s not the kind of player who’s going to hurt his team. And like Glen Metropolit, Darche provides an inspiring example of how dedication can transcend skill limitations.
Speaking of transcendence, how about Pouliot?
Since the season began, we’ve been talking about the importance of locking up Tomas Plekanec. I’d also making signing Pouliot a priority. He’s playing himself into a nice, three-year second pro contract.
Pouliot came to Montreal with the reputation as a head case. Enough talent that he was drafted ahead of Carey Price in 2005, but a poor work ethic.
Credit Martin with adroit deployment. When Pouliot’s wrist finally healed and he was ready to play, the coach could have broken the kid in on the third or fourth line.
Granted, desperation is the mother of deployment. But Martin put Pouliot and Scott Gomez together, and there was instant chemistry.
Gomez, emerging his early-season lethargy, is a fast-skating playmaker. Pouliot is a physical triggerman with the best hands on the team.
Add Brian Gionta and … Magic! A line that gives opposing defenders fits.
What was interesting in New Jersey was the subtraction of Gionta. Martin moved the diminutive spark plug in an effort to re-ignite Tomas Plekanec and Mike Cammalleri.
If Sergei Kostitsyn is ready to go against the Rangers, martin will have some flexibility in staffing his two top scoring lines.
Play Darche with Travis Moen and either Metropolit or Maxim Lapierre on the third line. Slap together a fourth line with whatever’s left and play them six minutes.
Despite Martin’s juggling, which included shifting Marc-André Bergeron back to defence after Paul Mara was injured, no one had to play crazy minutes, so there should be plenty in the tank for the Rangers, who undoubtedly spent their Friday night in Montreal reading the boble in their hotel rooms.
Ryan O’Byrne should be back in the lineup subbing for Mara. Josh Gorges (four hits, four blocked shots) and Andrei Markov played perhaps their best game since becoming the team’s number-one pairing. Markov’s pass to Cammalleri for the insurance goal was instant, instinctive and absolutely inspired.
Jaro Spacek played one of his better games (maybe because his ToI was a manageable 18:52). And Roman Hamrlik was, as always, quietly competent.
Because the game was a solid, 60-minute effort, it would be churlish to point out that Matt D’Agostini continues to play himself off the team. And Max-Pac has yet to offer any indication that he should be coached by anyone other than Guy Boucher.
The Canadiens moved past idle Florida into 10th place. They have 53 points, same as the Flyers, but Philly has three games in hand.
The Rangers game will tell us much about the Canadiens. Are they primed to make a pre-Olympic push toward a playoff spot? Or was a road win over Martin F. Brodeur just a brief respite from the death spiral?
The game may also provide some indication of whether Laraque will be missed.
Minus David Clarkson, New Jersey is not a tough hockey team – although Mark Fraser was plenty tough enough to clean poor D’Ags’s clock.
The Rangers have Sean Avery. They have Aaron Voros. They have Donald Brashear, if John Tortorella wants to really load up on muscle against a team that just fired its enforcer.
Then again, Laraque had the best seat in the house to watch the Rangers manhandle his teammates in New York.
As one wag described the BGL fiasco, the Canadiens “thought they were signing the NHL’s best policeman but what they got was a mall cop with a bad back.”
Playing tough but smart – the Canadiens took only three minors, and one was coincident roughing – the Canadiens are undefeated in the post-BGL era.