A fine pair of hockey experts we are.
About half an hour before Saturday’s game began, Im in the media lounge shotting the breeze with a beat writer who shall remain anonymous … except to say his initials are “Pat Hickey”.
We’re chewing over your Montreal Canadiens’ season to date.
I express concerns about the team, based on their recent performances.
Pat reiterates what he pointed out in the Saturday Gazette:
Before the season began, most pundits and fans thought the Canadiens would battle it out for a wild-card playoff spot. Few expected them to be fourth in the eastern Conference at the halfway point.
But there are issues, he agreed. And we listed three forwards who are hurting the team:
Daniel Brière, Brian Gionta and Rene Bourque.
So what happens after the puck drops?
Brière scores two goals, adds an assist and is named the game’s First Star.
Gionta has five shots on goal and scores his first since Dec. 4.
Bourque hasn’t scored since Dec. 2, and that futility streak is intact. But playing with new linemates, Bourque skates, works hard on the forecheck and displays encouraging signs of life.
Can someone, other than Pat Hickey, explain this hockey team to me?
Fresh off their longest road trip of the season and playing in front of an adoring crowd that included a bat fluttering above the ice, the Canadiens conceded a goal on the first shift of the game.
Colin Greening scored 13 seconds in. A winged rodent, the number 13 … we were in for a bizarro night.
The Canadiens started the game with Lars Eller centring Alex Galchenyuk and Brandon Prust. Prust blew his coverage of Greening on the goal.
Brière began the evening on the fourth line, centring Travis Moen and Michaël Bournival.
With the Canadiens trailing 3-1 after one period, Michel Therrien started tinkering. Brière moved up to play wing with Tomas Plekanec and Gionta. Bourque, who began the game on the Pleks line, was moved to left wing with Eller and Galchenyuk, while Prust dropped to the fourth line.
The only unit that made it intact from the first period to the second was David Desharnais, Max Pacioretty and Brendan Gallagher. The line that pretty much carried the Canadiens on their road trip was held off the scoresheet against Ottawa – although Gallagher managed to pick up two questionable penalties – the first a Craig Anderson embellishment, the second a goalmouth tussle with Cory Conacher in which the Ottawa player was the aggressor.
(As is too frequently the case in this league, the zebras did not have a good night. The hoooking call on P.K. – with 19 seconds left in a 3-3 game – was kinda brutal.)
After watching Josh Gorges hand Mark Stone a breakaway and an Erik Condra shot beat Carey Price off Francis Bouillon’s skate, Therrien also shook up his defence pairings.
Gorges, who began the game in a third pairing with Douglas Murray, took Bouillon’s place with P.K., while Frankie Boo dropped down to play with Murray.
The latter played a decent game, for a statue. And Murray, venturing deep in the Ottawa zone on forechecking forays, picked up two assists – matching his total of hits!
I still don’t see dressing Murray and Bouillon. Raphael Diaz likely will draw back in against Florida Monday night.
And with the number of goals the Canadiens have given up in recent games – four against Ottawa and Dallas, five in Carolina and St. Louis – it might be time to look at promoting Greg Pateryn to shore up the back end.
The second half of the schedule is when the sledding gets rough. Bouillon is old, Murray is slow, Diaz is soft and Gorges is undersized for the minutes he plays.
Carey Price is seeing a lot of vulcanized rubber, much of it fired from sweets spots that should be more heavily contested by Price’s teammates. As was the case in almost every game on the road trip, Ottawa had way too many wide-open looks at the net, fashioned by aggressive play along the walls and in the corners, plus clever puck movement.
The Canadiens owned the third period. It’s been a while, however, since they established proprietorship over a full 60 minutes.
But as my man Hick says, this flawed team is in fourth.
And the Leafs – smoked 7-1 by the Rangers at the ACC Saturday night – are the ones looking over their shoulders at Ottawa, which has won four straight.
Is the Brière revival for real? Will he spark Pleks and Gionta? Can Bourque help Eller and the kid?
The answers could come when the mighty Florida Panthers, who have clawed the Canadiens twice this season, visit the Bell Centre Monday night to start a challenging week that includes the Canadiens playing in Philadelphia, which is never fun. Then they come home to face the high-flying ‘Hawks.