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Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Post Game Quick Hits: Habs 4 - Thrashers 3 (OT)

Habs win! Habs win! Long live the streak! A two-game streak that is. But, after losing 5 in a row, we'll take it. Last night in Atlanta, the Canadiens once again played the role of thieves, stealing two points from the suddenly within reach, Thrashers. Before last night's game, Montreal (35 points) were four points back of Atlanta (39). With the overtime win, the Habs gained one point on the Thrashers in the standings and now sit in 10th with 37 points to Atlanta's 40. The Thrashers still have three games in hand, and a regulation win would have been much better for the Habs, but two points is two points and the Habs desperately need wins before they fall completely out of playoff contention. With the win, Montreal now sits two points out of 8th place in the East, tied with the Rangers and two points behind the Panthers - who have played the same amount of games (38). A win Wednesday in Carolina, will put the Habs at 39 points in 39 games and send them into the two-day holiday break with a three-game winning streak.

1 - Halak it, Halak it a lot! Again last night, Jaroslav Halak showed the world that he does deserve more playing time and that he is ready to be a #1, somewhere in the league. After asking to be traded a week or so ago, Halak has come out of the shadows to throw down two scintillating back-to-back performances after Price was shaky in his last start. Not only did the Canadiens win both games but Halak was the number one reason why. If the scouts have been watching, they are likely salivating at the thought of having him play for them. And, with every spectacular save the Halak makes his value goes up.

Bob Gainey must be rubbing his hands together in anticipation of the holiday trade freeze being over and I'd have to say that the free-falling Flyers look like the most logical destination. Let's put Halak's performances into context a bit. Over their last two games, the Habs have been outshot 90 to 51 (40-28 vs. Isles and 50-23 vs. Thrashers). Halak has stopped 87 of the 90 shots thrown his way for a 96.7 save percentage and 1.50 GAA. Now, if asking for a trade, those are not statement numbers then I don't know what is. Good on you Jaro!

2 - Plekanec....wow! While Halak stole the show last night, Plekanec was a close second. With four points (1G, 3A) Plekanec participated on every goal the Canadiens scored and now has 40 points over 38 games, tying him for 6th overall in league scoring. Yes, that's right, 6th overall! Tomas is putting up points at a torrent pace and is on schedule to finish the season with 86 points (15G, 71A). His 33 assists tie him for seconds in the league - with Martin St. Louis - and put his second only to Joe Thornton. All of this fanfare and Plekanec maintains the same calm relaxed demeanor, hardly smiling in interviews and being very humble. The Canadiens brain-trust cannot sign him soon enough. Having just turned 27 in October and being in his fifth full season with the Habs, Plekanec has stepped out of the shadow of Kovalev and is now fulfilling his full potential. Actually, he is probably surpassing any potential that anyone thought he might have since as a 3rd round pick, no one could have predicted he would be having so much success.

Tomas has become THE offensive catalyst on this team, as evidenced by his 33 assists and despite getting a ton of additional physical attention from opposing teams, he is still able to put points on the board. It would be great if Montreal could muster some kind of secondary scoring threat to take some of the heat off of Pleks. If they do, and the Gomez line can finally start putting up some points, the Habs will be a much better and more dangerous team.

Oh and one last thing, I have said it before and I will say it again - now that others are starting to talk about it - Plekanec WILL get consideration for the Selke Trophy at the end of the year. You can bank on it.

3 - Mara is a warrior. While there is no question that he is a defensive liability - he leads the team with a minus 12 rating - Mara gives everything he has on every shift. A few games ago, when he was out with an injury and there was concern that Spacek might miss a game, Mara suited up and played injured. Last night, he blocked a shot that went off of his hand. The play continued and so did Mara, despite some obviously excruciating pain. This guy has a ton of heart and that is likely one of the factors that Gainey liked when he signed him. Mara is committed, if nothing else, and sacrifices his body for his team. Love him or hate him, you have to admire that trait in him.

4 - MAB and Markov are a deadly PP combo. In case you didn't notice, the Habs went 3 for 5 on the PP in Long Island and 2 for 3 last night in Atlanta. They connected for 5 goals on 8 power play opportunities, since Markov came back, for a 62.5% PP percentage. Wow. Sick. Markov is clearly the general and the quarterback on the pp and his return has stabilized and energized that part of the Habs game. While the Canadiens were starting to click on the PP before Markov's return, there is no question that his presence has kicked it into high gear. The tying goal, with less than two minutes left in the game, was a thing of beauty. A tic-tac-toe play cross-ice from Pleks to Markov to MAB with his one-timer howitzer into the back of the net.

MAB has a bullet from the point and Markov knows how to set someone up for a high percentage shot. Habs fans everywhere are rejoicing at his return. Oh and interesting stat of the year....the Habs are 3-0 with Markov in the lineup this year. Markov played over 26 minutes last night, like he never left, and now has three points in three games (2A, 1A). Great to have you back Markie!

5 - Despite the win there are MANY bad signs. Now that we have lauded the Habs for their win we need to look at the reality of last night's game, and it is NOT pretty. Montreal was once again badly outshot by their opposition and were it not for Halak this game might have been over in the first period - Atlanta held a 18-3 shot advantage after 1 period. Montreal simply gives up way too many shots and too many high percentage scoring chances. I don't know how many point-blank shots from the slot that Halak stopped last night, but it was a lot. You cannot play that way and win, long term, in this league. Teams will just chew you up. It is too much to ask for your goalie to be the 1st star every night.

Speaking of too much to ask, it is also a problem that the Habs have 1 scoring line. This has actually been their problem for years. A few years ago Kovalev's line was clicking but Koivu's line was flat. Last year Koivu's line was scoring, but Kovy's line was flat. As much as the Flyers problem, for years, has been a lack of quality goaltending, the Habs problem been secondary scoring and it is repeating with this new cast of characters. Now, to their credit, the Canadiens have had a ridiculous amount of injuries this year and this has affected their ability to score. Even last night, Mara, Moen and MAB were all injured during the game. Mara took the worst of it and did not return. Add that to Spacek, Hamrlik, Markov, Gionta, Gomez, Gill, Chipchura, D'Agostini, Laraque, etc, this team has had to overcome major adversity this season. We not not truly know what this team can do until Gionta is back because despite getting more points recently, Gomez has been largely useless since Gionta was injured. Gomez is a passer and he currently has no one to pass the puck to. We don't know exactly how much longer Gionta will be out, but he has started skating with the team again and it looks like maybe one more week. He will definitely help out Gomez but the Habs are still lacking. Who knows, maybe Pouliot - who makes his Habs debut in Carolina on Wednesday - will be the answer.

In the end, the Habs stole two precious points in the standings and two points is two points. We'll take them. Despite the win, there are many worrying trends on this team that if left unchecked, will sure mean the Habs slip out of the playoffs. That being said, having Gionta and Hamrlik back will give us our first look at this complete lineup all season. Then we can truly see what kind of team we have. Once thing has become clear, however, and that is that he Habs have an overabundance of third and fourth line players. I think that this might actually be a good thing for Gainey as he tries to trade Halak. If he can put some kind of package together for say Claude Giroux or Jeff Carter, that includes Halak and/or D'Agostini and/or Weber and/or draft picks, etc., that will go a long way towards improving the team. Montreal has a bunch of moveable pieces because they have a bunch of similar players. What they need is an impact player to play with Gionta and Gomez. Who knows, maybe Pouliot will end up being that player. He was drafted 4th overall. Let's see what Wednesday bring. For now, we can bask in our stolen booty - a precious 2 points in the standings.

K.

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