About last night …

Were those the real Montreal Canadiens?

During his post-game remarks, Guy Carbonneau said there were four or five crucial games in the course of a regular season that define the character of a hockey team.

Canadiens are 1-for-1.

They were up against the toughest opponent they’ve seen through the first quarter of the season.

They beat the Stanley Cup champion Red Wings – and it wasn’t a fluke.


They did it by playing sound, disciplined, defensive hockey. With five
Canadiens in the neutral zone, the Red Wings had few opportunities to
get their puck possession game untracked. There were white jerseys on the puck all night.

Canadiens won after losing Alex Tanguay, their leading scorer, less
than 10 minutes into the game. For the rest of the way, it was gut-check
time with improvised lines and double-shifting for several players as
Carbo executed adroit in-game adjustments.

The Canadiens took only thre minors and were perfect on the PK. Their power play scored once in three chances.

Easily the  most impressive performance of the season.

It’s fine to beat Ottawa 4-0. But hello, Ottawa sucks.

It’s fine to come back from a 3-0 deficit on Long Island. But the Islanders are almost as bad as Ottawa.

The Canadiens played 12 of their first 20 games against teams that would be on the golf course if the playoffs began now.

Detroit isn’t one of them.

It was a win to savor.

When it was over, I got an e-mail from my guru, Pierre McGuire. He worked the game for TSN and was duly impressed:

"Great win by MTL. Character and poise. Well coached tonight."

Very well-coached. In an earlier e-mail, McGuire wrote:

"Smart game plan. Took the speed out of the Wings game. Made it a tough game to play for the skill guys. Kostopoulos matters a ton. Make Koivu and Higgins play bigger."

After Tanguay was hurt by a Brad Stuart hit that was remniscent of the knockouty blows Scott Stevens used to dish out, Kostopoulos moved up to the Koivu line, adding grit and his usual Tom Non-stopoulos energy.

Higgins cranked up his game as well. He had four shots, skated and forechecked effectively all night.

On RDS’s L’Antichambre, François Gagnon pointed out a very significant stat:

The Canadiens had 25 shots on goal. There were six missed shots, and Detroit blocked five.

Against the Islanders on Monday night, the Canadiens had 26 shots. There were 22 muffs and the Islanders blocked 25.

The difference?

Patience. Making plays that are there, rather than attempting anything fancy. Controlling the puck, keeping it deep behind the defencein the Detroit end and forcing a superb transition team to battle its way out of the d-zone and up the ice.

In their own end, the Canadiens displayed superb puck support. The forwards got back deep. Rather than wait at the blueline and in the neutral zone, they played close enough to the defencemen that short, high-percentage passes made for efficient zone clearances.

Detroit plays that way all the time. Canadiens showed they could, too.

Tomas Plekanec, who was brilliant last night, scored a goal off passes – from Alex Kovalev and Andrei Markov – that recalled the glorious nights of last season.

Of greater significance, however, were the goals by Maxim Lapierre and Higgins. Both came as a consequence of doing nothing fancier than getting the puck on net. It doesn’t make the highlight reel, but simplicity wins a lot of hockey games.

In a 60-minute team effort, it’s hard to pick out individual stars. But a few players caught my eye:

Carey Price: 32 saves, 15 in the third period. Can you believe how good this kid is at his age? I mean, can he buy a drink legally in Detroit?

Andrei Markov: For one game at least, he was better than Nicklas Lidstrom.

Josh Gorges played 22:33, blocked shots with his knee and his hand and, once again, was a perfect partner for Markov. Gorges is not the thumper that Mike Komisarek is, but he’s very smart, a good skater who’s better than Komo at moving the puck and joining the rush. The Canadiens might not have to trade for a number 4 defenceman.

Tom Kostopoulos, Steve Bégin, Maxim Lapierre and Mathieu Dandenault: Lunchpail guys excelled in a blue-collar effort that beat one of the most skillful  teams in the NHL.

Tomas Plekanec: I thought he was good against the Islanders and even better against the Wings. A goal (and almost two), four shots, skated like a demon and inspired his linemates to try a little backchecking.

Patrice Brisebois: 15 shifts and I didn’t notice him. This is a good thing.

Ryan O’Byrne: Yes, he was horrible on the Franzen goal and had been deked by the Detroit winger earlier on that shift. But Carbo played him 17-plus minutes as a confidence builder, and O’B responded with a solid effort.

Robert Lang: You have to watch carefully, because many of the skills are subtle. But this veteran is smart, and he really knows how to play hockey.

Alex Kovalev: Five shots on goal, a couple of hits, fewer Toller Cranston moves and hard work in all three zones. He’s still not playing like the Kovy of old, but against first-rate opposition, he didn’t look like an old Kovy.

As my man McGuire pointed out, the coach deserves a lot of credit.

I thought the Canadiens would get smoked in Detroit.

They didn’t, and the huge W is something to build on.

"They bought into the adjustments," Carbo said, "and they kept at them for 60 minutes."

Maybe the Canadiens play to the level of their competition …. although they haven’t against Boston.

Maybe they’re more adept against another skill team that plays Euro hockey. The Czechs and Russians bested the Swedes.

Whatever, let’s hope there’s more of the same in Washington tomorrow.




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