The most popular game of “what if?” among Canadiens fans focuses on Andrei Markov?
What if the team’s best player hadn’t been injured during the season opener and missed almost half the schedule?
Here’s another one:
What if Brian Gionta hadn’t missed 21 games?
If the Canadiens’ toughest, hardest-working and most consistent player had been available for more games, this team might have more than 82 points heading into the last seven games of this crazy, roller-coaster of a season.
Gionta scored two goals, including the winner, in that crucial conquest of Florida.
He has 25 in 54 games. Last season in New Jersey, Gionta scored 20 goals in 81 games.
As my friend Sean Gordon of the Globe & Mail suggested when we chewed over the 4-1 win, maybe Bob Gainey knew what he was doing whe he signed the diminutive sniper.
I invite the Commentariat to correct me (which gives them an inordinate amount of pleasure), but I can’t remeber Brian Gionta playing a bad shift this season.
He never quits on a play. He battles for loose pucks. He skates fearlessly into the dirty areas where a succession of speedy, skilled Canadiens forwards have feared to tread during recent seasons.
Gionta is the unSamsonov. And he’s a MAJOR upgrade – not least for his impeccable dedication and work ethic – on Alex Kovalev.
Just like Gionta’s former Devils teammate, Scott Gomez is an upgrade on Saku Koivu.
And just as the third member of their line, Benoit Pouliot, is an upgrade on Guillaume Latendresse … no matter how many goals the former underachiever scores in Minnesota.
Through Gainey’s off season rebuild and Pierre Gauthier’s tweaking – notably the addition of Dominic Moore – your Montreal Canadiens are a better team than they were 76 games into last season.
The nightmare in Buffalo might have haunted a team with less grit and character.
Not this team.
Even after Florida made it 2-1 and every Canadiens fan on the planet held their collective breath and thought “Noooooooo, not again!”, this bunch was determined to avoid déja vu all over again.
After the Three Stars were announced, the Bell Centre PA system serenaded departing fans with a James Brown classic. And there was much to feel good about:
• Moore’s line contributed quality shifts. Travis Moen, playing with a visor for the first time in his career, killed penalties, worked the boards and had a few scoring chances. Sergei Kostitsyn continued to display the tantalizing skills that raise hopes he could become a star.
• Markov was Markov. Like Gomez and Gionta, he was plus-3. And while the power play fired blanks in two opportunities, Markov and Marc-André Bergeron combined to give the Canadiens a oint threat thats been missing.
• Jaro Halak was Jaro Halak. A light load – 24 shots – but key saves, including a beauty on Nathan Horton, when the game was tight. Jaro is 24-11-3. If the playoffs start tomorrow, he’s the Canadiens’ starting goaltender … as he will be when the playoffs start next month.
• Jaro Spacek is a class act. Hugely popular with the media because he’s accessible, win or lose, and because he’s such a good guy, Spacek was genuinely concerned by the damage his clean hit did to luckless David Booth.
• Jacques Martin showed class by heaping praise on Booth, whom he called “an outstanding young man, one of the better kids I’ve ever coached … a professional on and off the ice.” Let’s hope Booth is going to be OK. His concussion, resulting from a Mike Richards cheap shot, put the kibosh on Florida’s season.
• Tomas Plekanec made it 100 goals in the NHL with his third empty-netter since the Olympic break. The return of Mike Cammalleri has fuly restored mojo on the Pleks line: Andrei Kostitsyn had three shots on goal and four hits. We can only hope Pleks’s 200th will be scored in a Canadiens’ uniform.
The game was not a DVD collection classic. But it was a crucial win for the Canadiens, snapping a three-game skid (during which they salvaged two points) and exorcising the ghosts of Buffalo.
Boston, Atlanta and Philadelphia lost – the latter two in three-point games.
The Canadiens are sitting sixth as they await a Saturday night visit by Martin F. and the Devils.
If the playoffs began now, their first-round opponents would be the Sabres – a team the Canadiens, for 56 minutes, looked like they could beat.
That’s another “what if?” we can kick around.
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Maxim Lapierre’s return to the lineup meant champagne all around on L’Antichambre.
Max played a team-low 7:49 and was a non-factor: 4-4 on faceoffs, one shot, one hit, one blocked shot. No PP or PK time.
Glen Metropolit’s place on the Scott Gomez wave of the PP was taken by Benoit Pouliot.
Will Metro and Mathieu Darche be back aganst the Devils?
Or will Martin stick with a winning lineup?
• • •
Funny how seldom these days you hear anyone say the Canadiens should have kept Cristobal Huet.