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Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Habs face big test in Pittsburgh

It is hump day, today, and with their 4 and 2 home stand behind them, and a Halloween home tustle against the Leafs ahead of them, Montreal prepares to take on the defending Stanley Cup champions Penguins, in Pittsburgh.

After an 11 game segment that has seen some many highs and lows, Montreal seems to be hitting their stride. Yes, the only 'real' test they have faced so far was Saturday nights 5-4 overtime win against the Rangers, but in today's NHL there is no such thing as an 'easy' game. If, however, one could look at Monday's game against the Islanders as a supposed 'gimme', then tonight's game against Pittsburgh is exactly the opposite and Montreal had better be ready.

The Pens are having none of the supposed Stanley Cup hangover that many teams go through in the following season. Their core of young players is as energized as ever and seem to be getting better every game. Hey, when you have Crosby (22) and Malkin (23) leading the pack, it is not surprise that this team is roaring out of the gates.

As for Montreal, the first 11 games have shown a bunch of individuals that have learned - and continue to learn - how to play as a team under the new Jacques Martin system. There have been some bumps in the road and many growing pains but now, after almost a month of play, this team is starting to take shape and I, for one, am eager to see how they fare against this dominant Pens team.

The encouraging signs, of late, have been that Montreal has tightened up their play without the puck. Whereas in the first 4 games, Montreal allowed about 144 shots against, they have kept their opposition to 166 shots against for the following 7 games. That is an impressive turnaround! It shows that the players are buying into and understanding Martin's system, and it is one that protects the slot, keeps the opposing team to the outside and reduces chances against, and for the moment at least, it seems to be working.

Another encouraging sign, of late, has been the contributions for players not named Cammalleri, Gomez or Gionta. In the past few games, players like Moen, Metropolit, Spacek, Hamrlik, Lapierre and D'Agostini have been showing up on the scorebored and playing hero. This is well needed secondary scoring on a team that relied far to heavily on the 1st line for too many games. The important thing is that that trend seems to be changing, and just in time too because there is no way Montreal would have ANY chance on the road, if their 1st line was the only one scoring. The opposition, having the last line change, would simply load up against and try to shut down Gomez, Cammalleri and Gionta. Shut them down, and the Habs don't score.

Now, however, with the scoring staring to be spread across the line up, Montreal has a fighting chance on the road. In fact, I wouldn't be surprised to see Cammalleri riding shotgun on Plekanec's wing at some point tonight. Those two seem to have some magic together and with this new and improved Tomas Plekanec - he has got to be the early season candidate for most improved player - leading the charge, they might be able to do some damage.

With the forwards starting to round into form, and Hamrlik and Spacek getting more and more comfortable playing together, this might be a team that can hang on to a playoff spot until Markov comes back, in January/February. The thing I like the most, however, is that Martin is playing Halak. While Price is still the future of this team, I feel that a large part of the reason for him not progressing as quickly as we would like, is that he is not being challenged. Since Price arrived in Montreal, Gainey has inexplicably given this kid the soft seat. He has continually handed the starting role to Price and never made him earn it.

Ok, I agree that Price is extremely talented and should become an elite goaltender in the future, but if that is the case, then let him prove it. You can't make it so by willing it. You can't force it to happen by throwing him in the net, game after game, when it is clear he is not in the right head space - a la last season.

To his credit, Price has played well this season and Montreal doesn't get the first two wins of the season without his stellar play. While Price wasn't to blame for the subsequent 5 game slide, he simply didn't make a lot of key saves when the team needed him to. Halak, on the other hand, is doing precisely that, since he has been given the reins, and Martin - assumingly with the permission of Gainey - is letting him ride it out. This, to me, will ultimatley benefit the team as it will force Price to earn his spot as number 1 on this team, for this first time since Gainey traded Huet away. And, all things being equal, I believe that if they make it a fair fight between Halak and Price, that Price will win out because he simply has more raw ability.

So getting back to the task at hand - Pittsburgh - the thing that worries me is the sustained forecheck that they will heap on Montreal. If there has been one troubling sign, over the last few games, it is that the team seems to have a lot of difficulty in their own end when the opposition team forechecks aggressively and keeps on the Habs d-men. What seems to happen, is the Montreal's 'system' falls apart a bit. The team starts running around in their own zone and eventually leave their sentry posts, out of desperation, trying to get the puck out of the zone. What this does is open up room in the slot - which is usually well protected under Martin's system - and this often results in a strong scoring chance from the high slot, if not a goal.

We saw this defensive zone breakdown for a few sequences against the Islanders on Monday and on Saturday against the Rangers. With all due respect to both of those teams, Crosby, Malkin, Staal and the like, represent a much more tenatious forecheck and higher skill level than the Isles or the Rangers, so Montreal has to be on top of its game to prevent Pittsburgh from steamrolling them.

Win, lose or draw, tonight's game will be another, bigger, measuring-stick game and I for one am looking forward to seeing how this team fares against such a formidable opponent!

Enjoy the game!

K.

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