Erik Cole summed things up nicely.
When someone suggested he had to be satisfied with a game in which his line had nine points, Cole said:
“You can’t be too satisfied when you’re sitting in the 12th seed. Ask me again in a month and a half when we’re in the playoff picture.”
On the other hand, it was a three-point back-to-back weekend. And the long suffering Bell Centre faithful were treated to the best performance by the home team since Lars Eller’s four-goal coming-out party on Jan. 4.
This game was more satisfying because the Rangers aren’t the Winnipeg Jets. The team that is tied with the Chicago Blackhawks atop the NHL standings should have represented a formidable challenge for the struggling Canadiens.
John Tortorella said his team lacked “defensive structure”. Henrik Lundqvist was awful – three goals allowed on six shots during the second-period explosion that put the game away. And the Rangers couldn’t handle the Canadiens’ speed.
They had particular difficulty with Cole’s line. Diminutive playmaking wizard David Desharnais (14-9 on draws) mesmerized Ranger defenders and Max Pacioretty, who is emerging from his post-suspension funk, had two goals.
The concept of a slick, speedy centre with two big wingers also seemed to work with Tomas Plekanec’s new line (about his 43rd of the season, if you’re counting). Mike Blunden (a goal and five hits) and newcomer Rene Bourque (four hits and a taste for heavy traffic) complemented Plekanec (10-3 on faceoffs) effectively.
Blunden’s goal was off a perfect feed by Scott Gomez, who played his best game of an injury-shortened season. Gomez displayed the speed we knew he had and the playmaking ingenuity we weren’t so sure about in a productive (four SoG) 14 minutes of action.
The aforementioned Eller lost coverage twice on the sequence that led to John Mitchell’s goal for the Rangers and spent the second period on the bench. He was joined by Andrei Kostitsyn, who returned to action only when Travis Moen was hurt.
The defensive hero was Peter Budaj. Making his first start since the Canadiens’ Dec. 21 loss in Chicago, Budaj was flawless during a scoreless first period and solid thereafter.
Budaj was protected by his number-one defence pairing. Josh Gorges played 25 minutes, blocked three shots and was plus-2, as was P.K. Subban who played 24:59 and had five shots, one of which was blocked while the other four were on net, which is rare for the slapshot king.
The rest of the D was a mixed bag.
With Russia’s national team coach, Zinetula Bilyaletdinov in the house to watch him, Alexei Emelin played 13:37, less than either Yannick Weber or Raphael Diaz but more than Tomas Kaberle’s 8:33.
Hal Gill blocked four shots, but he was on the ice during a ridiculously long period of Rangers’ possession when Bell Centre fans – who are to hockey what the tomato-throwing crowd at La Scala is to opera – booed a team that was leading 3-1.
You can’t fault the boo-birds, though. Not with the kind of season this team is having.
The Canadiens still have a very steep hill to climb, and maybe things will look more promising after the six weeks to which Cole alluded.
They’re in 12th place, eight points out of a playoff spot.
(Shall we have a schadenfreude break and note that Pittsburgh’s win knocked the Leafs down to ninth.)
The January homestand has yielded seven points from five games. Washington is at the Bell Centre on Wednesday before the Canadiens play a back-to-back on the road in Pittsburgh and Toronto on Friday and Saturday.
As my man David Stubbs points out in his column, the playoffs are still a mathematical longshot.
But for one cold night in Montreal, the home team looked like a contender.