As it was, however, the team that began the evening 24th in the league pounded the snot out of the perennial powerhouse that is sailing toward the playoffs atop league standings.
Mike Babcock said he felt sorry for fans who thought they’d see the Detroit Red Wings in action at the Bell Centre.
It’s a flip remark, but there must be some truth to it. Babcock’s team has not accumulated 67 points by playing like they did against the Canadiens.
Surely Jimmy Howard is a goaltender capable of stopping more than 67 per cent of the shots he faces.
Surely a group of defencemen sporting gaudy +/- numbers such as Ian White’s plus-27 are capable of preventing one of the lowest-scoring teams in the league from frolicking through their zone like a reincarnation of the 1986 Oilers.
And surely the slickest-passers this side of Tom Brady should be capable of slipping a couple pucks past Carey Price before Garbage Time.
So Babcock is probably right when he says his team had an off-night.
But Randy Cunneyworth is also correct in asserting his Canadiens did what had to be done to defeat a talented team like Detroit.
“It starts with a north-south effort, guys throwing pucks toward the net and going to the tough areas,” Cunneyworth said.
That’s Erik Cole’s game, and it’s been in evidence since Cole found his mojo a couple weeks into the season. His direct power game has inspired similar physicality from Max Pacioretty. Andrei Kostitsyn, Mike Blunden and newcomer Rene Bourque.
When Mike Cammalleri left for Calgary, he took perimeterockey h with him. The willingness of Cole et al to drive the dirty areas opens ice up and complements the talents of the Canadiens’ playmakers: the brilliantly innovative David Desharnais, the evolving Lars Eller and … wait for it … the resurgent Scott Gomez.
The Canadiens have been a better team since Gomez returned to the lineup on Jan. 14. He’s still closing in on the one-year anniversary of his last goal, but Gomez is skating, working tremendously hard and elevating the game of a variety of linemates – including Bourque and Tomas Plekanec, with whom Gomez played on the wing against Detroit.
The Bell Centre is hockey’s equivalent of La Scala and fans are not shy about emulating opera-lovers who throw rotten tomatoes at singers they find wanting. Gomez was booed the first few times he touched the puck against Detroit, as fans in the cheap seats made the highest-paid Canadien the focus of the malaise they’ve been feeling since the season began.
But he’d silenced them by the third period. And on a night when all the forwards excelled – heck, even Andreas Engqvist had his moments – I thought Scott Gomez excelled.
He wasn’t $8 million good. Nobody is. But Gomez’s industriousness and happy willingness to play within a team concept were important because young players such as DD and Eller feed off the example of hardworking veterans like Cole and, increasingly, Gomez.
On the back end, Cunneyworth heaped praise on Alexei Emelin – plus-3 while scoring his first NHL goal – and Raphael Diaz, who blocked three shots and played almost 20 minutes in all situations.
All the postgame talk, however, was about P.K. Subban, who spent the second period on the bench after throwing a brain-dead retaliatory elbow during a Canadiens power-play.
I didn’t get to watch L’Antichambre. But on a night when the Canadiens won and Gomez played well, I don’t doubt members of the UUCG – Unemployed and Unemployable Coach’s Guild – were all over P.K.’s ass.
At the risk of repeating myself, I’ll invoke the Pink Floyd paraphrase:
Hey punditos, leave this kid alone!
Subban won’t be 23 until May and he’s played less than two full seasons in the NHL.
With the polar ice caps melting faster than Andrei Markov’s recovery from knee surgery, P.K. is the Canadiens’ only puck-moving defenceman … and will be for a while.
Even with an abbreviated 14:36 of ice time against Detroit, Subban averages a team-high 23:43 per game. He plays against the best opposing forwards, and he sees duty on the power-play and the penalty-kill.
There are suggestions Subban is difficult to coach. But look, it’s easy to coach Hal Gill.
The Randys, Cunneyworth and Ladouceur, will earn their salaries by getting the most out of this supremely talented kid.
All this talk about trading P.K.?
My predictions are usually full of baloney (including the fearless call of an easy Detroit win), but write this down:
Trading P.K. Subban would be the worst move the Canadiens have made since the Patrick Roy trade … and there have been some doozies.
But after a 7-2 win, the sports phone-ins won’t be buzzing with trade speculation. Carey Price is off to Ottawa for that stupid game, but his teammates get to relax, spend time with their families and recharge their batteries for 33 games in which they’ll have to play as well as they did against Detroit.
Can they do it?
Can the Canadiens roar through February, laying waste to all the Eastern Conference rivals in their path?
Two weeks ago, after the St. Louis game, I’d have said no way.
I’m still skeptical – and not entirely sanguine about a desperate push that will elevate the Canadiens to eighth place, followed by a hasty playoff exit and a mid-round selection at the June draft.
But the team has harvested five of a possible six points in their last three games.
And the Bell Centre, which has seen almost unremitting woe since October, was a happy place on Wednesday night.
They ain’t dead yet.