Let’s get a negative note out of the way right off the top.
Call me Danny Downer, but if your Montreal Canadiens are outshot 37-19 on Tuesday night in Tampa, I’m not entirely confident they’ll win 4-1.
Steven Stamkos is not Vincent Trochek.
Ben Bishop is not Dan Ellis.
And the Lightning, battling the Canadiens for home-ice advantage in a first-round series, are a much better team than their Florida cousins, who’ll be watching the playoffs on TV.
OK, that’s enough negativity.
As Michel Therrien said in his postgame media scrum, the Canadiens got off to a good start and played a strong first period against the Panthers.
They were on their backfeet for the second half of the game, but the excellence of Carey Price kept the home team from mounting a serious comeback.
This might have been Price’s best game since the Olympics. It was certainly among his busiest, as Florida outshot the Canadiens 27-8 over the last 40 minutes – including a 15-3 advantage in a nervous third period.
But when the dust settled,the Canadiens had their fifth win in a row and eighth in their last nine. If Lars Eller and Jarred Tinordi had made those gaffes against Columbus, we might be looking at a nine-game winning streak.
Washington still has a mathematical chance of overtaking them, but the Canadiens sit 13 points clear of the playoff cutoff with six games to play. And they have two games to get ready for that first-round preview in Tampa.
Let’s hope Tomas Plekanec is back by Tuesday. His place between Alex Galchenyuk and Brendan Gallagher was filled by Lars Eller, and the line combined for a grand total of zero shots on goal.
The gang on L’Antichambre were wondering whether Plekanec, the Canadiens’ shut-down centre, would stay with the kids in the postseason, when Gallagher and Galchenyuk might have difficulty covering the opponent’s top forwards – like that Stamkos guy.
The not-so-much-maligned-anymore Therrien and his staff will figure out. A greater challenge faces opposing coaches, who have to figure out how to slow down the Canadiens’ top line.
Thomas Vanek has been a catalyst, elevating the games of David Desharnais and Max Pacioretty to form one of the league’s most dangerous lines. At a certain point in the telecast, Pierre Houde said they looked like they’ve been playing together for 20 years, and the RDS play-by-play man was, as usual, bang-on.
Pacioretty is playing with an intensity that has not always been in evidence. And you had to love the play – Therrien said he did – when Max passed up a hat trick to feed DD for the empty-netter.
We knew Vanek was a scorer. But his passing has been superb, and he’s even playing some D.
For the first time in a long time, Vanek is playing for a winning hockey team. And he seems to enjoy it.
DD – an undrafted free agent centring two first-rounders – must think he’s died and gone to hockey heaven.
Desharnais isn’t the only happy centre. Daniel Brière, who has struggled on the wing, is back at his natural position and looking good between Brian Gionta and Rene Bourque – although Gaston Therrien, on L’Antichambre, said if Travis Moen were healthy his grit would be a better complement to Brière and Gionta than anything Bourque can provide.
I hope the recently-minted fourth line is back together in Tampa: Lars Eller between Ryan White and Michäel Bournival, whose speed was much in evidence against the Panthers.
Notwithstanding that huge shot disparity and Price’s heroics, I liked some of what I saw on the Canadiens back end.
As pointed out by the L’Antichambre guys, surviving all those atempted muggings in Boston has boosted Alexei Emelin’s confidence. He’s playing smart, physical while not always looking for the killer hit and benefitting, as many before him (see KOMISAREK, Mike) from being paired with Andrei Markov.
In the Saturday Gazette, Patrick V. Hickey, made a case for signing Markov to a new three-year contract. I don’t always agree with my learned former colleague, but Patrick V. is right on this one.
P.K. Subban is the most talented defenceman on the roster, but Markov is playing the best hockey of anyone on the team’s blueline. His knee injuries have robbed Markov of a step or two, but he is compensating with smarts.
I want him around to teach Tinordi, Beaulieu, Pateryn et al – none of whom are ready, at this point, to pick up the ToI slack if Markov leaves.
So memo to Marc Bergevin: Sign Markov.
• • •
The Canadiens will stay in Florida until Thursday and then travel to Ottawa for a Friday night game against the Senators.
I’m worried about all this Sunshine State free time for my man Patrick V.
The last time he had a day off in Florida, Hick fell asleep on the beach and Greenpeace tried to roll him into the ocean.
• • •
On March 13, Toronto was three points ahead of the Canadiens.
The Habs have gained 16 points on the Leafs IN 16 DAYS!