Is the playoff express back on track for your Montreal Canadiens?
Is it SRO on the bandwagon?
Can P.K. Subban play 60 minutes of each playoff game?
And who had the brilliant idea of dusting off those old Forum Ghost-guaranteed goalposts?
Those are a few of the questions that linger after the Canadiens snapped their losing streak with a 3-2 squeaker over Tampa Bay at the Bell Centre Thursday night. It was the second time this season a win over the Lightning stopped a three-game skid.
In his postgame press conference, Michel Therrien talked about his team catching a few belated breaks … like the two goalposts and a crossbar the Lightning hit during a scoreless first period.
The shots beat Carey Price. But whichever god rules the destiny of goaltenders decided enough was enough for the Canadiens’ beleaguered netminder.
Ping! Ping! Ping! And as the shots ricocheted harmlessly off iron, Price and his teammates were spared a fourth consecutive first-period deficit.
Which was a good thing, because let’s be honest: The Canadiens won, sure enough, but they did not look like a team that would have roared back from 2-0 or 3-0 had those shots been a few centimetres more accurate.
But a win is a win. And Brian Gionta’s late power-play goal moved the Canadiens past idle Boston (which plays mighty Pittsburgh Friday night) into the Northeast Division lead.
The win also padded the Canadiens’ lead over fifth-place Toronto to six points, diminishing the likelihood that the April 27 game at the Air Canada Centre will be a battle for home-ice advantage when the playoffs begin. The Leafs are one point ahead of Ottawa, which has a game in hand, and two up on the red-hot Islanders, who embarrassed the home team at the ACC Thursday night.
Nor can you count out Winnipeg, which cooled off Washington and ensured the Capitals, who are at the Bell Centre Saturday, will be desperate for a win.
Brandon Prust will be back in the Canadiens’ lineup on Saturday. More importantly, Therrien also indicated Raphael Diaz is likely to play against the Caps. The Swiss defenceman is desperately needed for a blueline corps that once again had its hands full – and its skates in sand – Thursday night.
Andrei Markov played 25:45 against Tampa Bay. He has averaged a team-leading 24:19, and Markov’s performance in recent games strongly suggests the defenceman could use the nights off Therrien has been giving Prust in recognition of the valuable forward’s banged-up body.
The return of Diaz will give Therrien some flexibility in his defence pairings. But as the playoffs loom, the Canadiens still desperately miss the physical force of Markov’s injured D partner, Alexei Emelin. As was rarely the case earlier in the season, opponents have been able to pound the Canadiens’ defence and cycle effectively in the offensive zone, creating high-percentage scoring opportunities.
With the help of his goalposts and some stellar saves – notably on Richard Panik and Martin St. Louis – Price was able to deny Tampa Bay goals their puck possession and pressure might have merited. He will have to be just as good, if not better, against Washington on Saturday.
The Caps, who beat the Canadiens on their last visit, will be facing rejigged forward lines that offered uneven performances against the Lightning.
Max Pacioretty had four shots on goal, three hits and an assist. Max’s speed complemented that of his new linemates, Tomas Plekanec and Gionta.
I was less impressed by David Desharnais, Rene Bourque and Michael Ryder. Ryder had four shots on goal and Bourque had a couple (while missing the net three times), but the line is weak defensively and floundered around the Canadiens’ zone during the sequence that led to the Vincent Lecavalier goal that completed TB’s comeback from a 2-0 deficit.
Brendan Gallagher played with Lars Eller and Alex Galchenyuk on a line that was used sparingly. Galchenyuk, who used his silky smooth hands to pop the game’s first goal, played less than any forward on either team. I know Therrien is protecting the kid, which is what Boston did with Tyler Seguin and may be the wisest course in the long run. But Galchenyuk has scored in three straight games and has six goals in April. Surely this merits more ice time than Travis Moen.
• The game completed the Canadiens’ schedule of nine back-to-backs this season. While the conventional wisdom is the team is undersized and therefore vulnerable to the ravages of fatigue, the Canadiens were 7-1-1 in the second half of back-to-backs … Vincent Lecavalier, who has scored one goal more than Galchenyuk, has seven years left on a no-trade contract that carries a cap hit of $7.72 million … Yannick Weber played 13:20, was not on for either TB goal and set up Brian Gionta’s winner. Will MT sit him for Diaz? … When asked about the struggles of the power play – which was 0-for-5 and horrible until Gionta’s game-winning goal – Therrien said special teams have suffered from a lack of practice time. The Canadiens are off Friday after playing four games in six nights