The Bell Centre has waited a long time for a hero to emerge from the wreckage that has been the Canadiens’ season to date.
With his exuberance and end-to-end rushes, P.K. Subban has lifted 21,273 out of their expensive seats from time to time. Louis Leblanc, a healthy scratch against Winnipeg and sent back to Hamilton after the game, created a modicum of buzz because he’s a homeboy.
But as the Canadiens stumbled and bumbled to 13 losses in their first 18 games at home, P.K.’s flamboyance and LL’s genealogy offered intermittent and short-lived comfort to knowledgeable fans who realized they were watching a team that wasn’t very good through the last three months of 2011.
New year, new hero.
The spinorama penalty shot? Sick.
Playing to the crowd as First Star? Inspired … they were ready to roar.
Will we look back at Eller’s four goals as the spark that turned this season around?
That’s still a long shot for a team that has to win about twice as often as it loses if there’s going to be hockey past April 7 in Montreal.
But hey, you have to start somewhere. And your Montreal Canadiens are undefeated this year.
Seven goals is the most they’ve scored since P.K.’s hat trick keyed an 8-1 pasting of the Wild in Minnesota last March.
And I hate to be Donnie Downer again, but the Massacre in Minny was followed by three consecutive shutout losses. So let’s wait a bit deeper into this January homestand before proclaiming the Playoff Express is back on track.
With that note of caution on the record, however, let’s savor what was a coming-out party for a player who is a key element of this team’s future.
I’ve been a Lars Eller fan since Pierre Gauthier got him in that controversial trade with St. Louis.
The kid has tools. Eller is tall and uses his size and reach effectively. He’s a good skater, a creative playmaker and a physical player who’s not afraid to take his big body into the nasty areas.
There are still occasional bad penalties and lapses on D, but Eller is learning. Proof of his progress is elevation to penalty-killing duty.
What I really like is his character. This is a very smart, serious (he’s already married!) and well-spoken young man who has a comfort level with the media that serves Eller well in a hockey hotbed like Montreal.
He is well-liked in the room, where teammates call him “Larry”, delighting in the fact Eller hates the nickname. After his third goal produced a small shower of headware on the ice, a more imaginative Bell Centre DJ would have cued up Del Shannon’s Hats Off to Larry.
On the ice, I think Eller gets better all the time. And he complements the skills of his linemates.
How many centres has Andrei Kostitsyn played with as fans have pissed and moaned about what a wasted 2003 draft he was?
Eller is bringing out the best in AK46; and with Travis Moen (three assists, four hits) skating and winning battles along the boards, they are turning into an excellent third line. This is a contract year for Kostitsyn and Moen, and Eller just might put some money in their pockets.
If the line stays intact.
Randy Cunneyworth dressed 11 forwards for the Winnipeg game. That meant double digit minutes for everyone and a lot of double-shifting.
Erik Cole played a season-high 27:04. This is the guy Jacques Martin was playing 15 minutes or less, with no power-play time, in October.
That was when Hal Gill was playing close to 20 minutes a game, his ToI boosted by penalty-kill duty as the Canadiens paraded to the box through the early weeks of the season.
That’s something that has definitely improved under the new coach. The Canadiens take fewer penalties, which keeps PK players Josh Gorges, Tomas Plekanec, Moen and, lately, Eller fresher for 5-on-5 play.
As Cunneyworth has managed the minutes of his Bottom Three defencemen – Gill, Tomas Kaberle and, against Winnipeg, Chris Campoli – the coach has come to rely more on his Top Four: Subban, Gorges, Raphael Diaz (four blocked shots against the Jets) and Alexei Emelin (18 minutes, five hits against a physical team).
The Canadiens outhit the Jets 26-17. That stat can be deceptive, but in this case it speaks to a commitment and compete level we haven’t seen often from the Canadiens.
So are happy days here again?
We’ll have a better idea by the end of January.
A new face among the scouts in attendance last night was Shawn Dineen, who works for Nashville. Perhaps the Predators brainstrust thinks the Canadiens will be sellers at the trade deadline and are looking to reunite the Brothers K.
It could happen.
One win doesn’t guarantee this lineup will be carrying the Canadiens to glory.
But the game’s First Star could be around for a while.
That wasn’t the last standing ovation Lars Eller will hear at the Bell Centre.