What a difference a week makes!
On Saturday, Nov. 16, your Montreal Canadiens suffered the ignominy of a home-ice shutout at the hands of the New York Rangers.
In the aftermath of a game that was embarrassing AND boring, dark thoughts roiled the sleep of more than a few Canadiens fans:
• Was Michel Therrien past his best-before date?
• Who would go in the trade deadline sell-off? Tomas Plekanec? Andrei Markov? Max Pacioretty?
• Would the next step of the eternal rebuild be a lottery draft pick?
That was then.
This is now: Three games against elite NHL teams, three wins for the Canadiens.
O ye of little faith!
OK, let’s be honest: O me of little faith!
Was the coach’s job in jeopardy?
Maybe yes, maybe no. But Therrien reacted to the shutout loss like a coach who knew action was urgently needed.
The Canadiens took the ice against Minnesota with three new forward lines. Therrien took the bold step of breaking up the only trio that had been consistently competent since the season began.
The coach moved Brendan Gallagher away from Lars Eller and Alex Galchenyuk and put him on the wing with David Desharnais and Max Pacioretty. The rest is three games of delightful histiory.
Desharnais – consigned to the Hamilton Bulldogs by Montreal mayor Denis Coderre – has regained his confidence and is flashing the skill that won an undersigned, undrafted player a four-year, $14 million contract.Pacioretty is on fire. He scored a natural at trick against the Wild and added two more in Saturday night’s conquest of Pittsburgh.
The value of Gallagher was illustrated late in the game. With the dangerous Penguins trailing by a goal, Gallagher skated onto the puck behind the Pittsburgh net and played keep-away – against hulking defenceman – for a good 15-20 seconds.
It doesn’t show up on the scoresheet, but Gallagher’s inspired lead-protection drew roars of approval from the Bell Centre cognescenti. I have all the respect in the world for NHL amateur scouts, but someone has to explain to me how 146 players were selected ahead of Brendan Gallagher in the 2010 draft.
So if the Jack Adams Trophy were awarded in the third week of November, Michel Therrien would be in the discussion. Beyond shaking up his lines, Therrien has been making great in-game adjustments. The latest examples:
• Using the Markov-P.K. Subban defence pairing to counter Sidney Crosby after realizing, in the first period, that Josh Gorges and Alexei Emelin weren’t up to the task.
• Having Travis Moen take Daniel Brière’s spot with Tomas Plekanec and Brian Gionta – the line used to counter Crosby’s – once the Canadiens had taken the lead.
• Limiting the minutes of Michaël Bournival, who was playing hurt after blocking a shot in Washington, and then using Bournival for a couple shifts on the DD line when Pacioretty left the bench during the second period after being hit by Brooks Orpik’s clearing attempt.
• Loosening the leash on Subban, who led both teams with 25:20 of ice time, including 37 seconds on the penalty kill.
It is much too early in the season to say the Canadiens have been playing for their coach’s job. But every player on the game rosters has worked hard and played smart disciplined hockey in the three wins.
Whatever Therrien is selling – when the 24CH cameras are not around – his players are buying. The bus rolled all week long, and there were no passengers.
And now that I’ve nominated Therrien for the 24-game Adams, how about Plekanec for the Selke? Pleks demolished Crosby in the faceoff circle, kept him off his game most of he night and, along with master needler Subban – and even Peter Budaj – subjected the superstar to a torrent of chirping that doubtless included many words of one syllable.
Bob Gainey used to talk about the importance of making the “correct” play. It’s not necessarily some magic that will bring the fans out of their seats. The correct play is the one that results from a precise triangulation of time, space and game situation.
Tomas Plekanec makes the correct play almost all the time.
No, he won’t win the Selke or any other individual honour. And Plekanec falls short of most experts’ conception of a Number 1 centre.
But man, the guy is an intelligent hockey player. Plekanec makes his linemates better – and he’s had a revolving-door succession of them – and he very rarely hurts the team.
Will he still be around as Gallagher, Galchenyuk, Pacioretty, Subban et al mature and propel the Canadiens into Cup contention?
I kinda hope so.
Maybe Therrien, too.
• • •
I purposely left Carey Price off that list of promising young Canadiens. The goaltender has arrived, and Price has been so consistent this season one tends to take his excellence for granted.
Those stops on Pascal Dupuis?
Spectacular … but that’s what Price has delivered every night this season.