Thursday, October 28, 2010

Montreal-New York: Canadiens' Depth Delivers Win Over Islanders

by Kamal Panesar

Ho hum, another day, another convincing Habs victory.

In defeating the New York Islanders 5-3 yesterday in Montreal, the Canadiens pushed their current winning streak to three games in a match that featured two fast-paced teams that have so far been exceeding all expectations.

For their part, the Islanders present an excellent blend of youth and talent and, aside from John Tavares, don't really have any superstars. That being said, the balance that they have across all of their lines is what is making them competitive.

One problem the Isles have is that they take a lot of chances and cheat a little defensively and as such, the Canadiens had a bunch of odd-man rushes last night.

The Habs looked like a well oiled machine and their tape-to-tape passes allowed them to make a smooth transition from defense to offense, and attack off of the rush with speed. A lot of that smooth transition started on the stick of P.K. Subban who played his best game in a Canadiens uniform.

He just seems to be getting better every game.

What made this victory so satisfying for the Canadiens, however, was that each of their five goals was scored by a different player. That is kind of depth that makes teams successful over an 82 game schedule.

The Canadiens took the lead early in the game and never ceded it but the Isles did their best to make things difficult and kept things close. Ultimately, however, the Habs were too much for the Isles, outshooting them in every period and 35-21 on the night.

Final score: Habs 5 - Islanders 3

Habs' scorers: Mathieu Darche (1), Travis Moen (1), Tomas Plekanec (4), Jeff Halpern (3), Andrei Kostitsyn (6)
Isles' scorers: James Wisniewski (2), John Tavares (6), Doug Weight (2)

Three stars: 1. Plekanec, 2. P.K. Subban, 3. Carey Price

Game Notes

1. Price is the man.

Admit it, you're getting used to hear it by now aren't you?

Last night, Price set the tone early in the game by making two quick pad saves, from in close, on an Isles 2-on-1 less than two minutes into the game. The saves were brilliant and they got the home crowd engaged and chanting Price's name.

While Price continues to look stable in the net his biggest improvement over last year is that he is making key saves at key times, and that is paramount for a No.1 netminder.

If Price hadn't made that save it would have changed the entire complexion of the game. Instead, his save brought the crowd to life and buoyed his teammates who were able to bring home a third straight victory.

And that, my friends, is the mark of a No.1 goaltender in the NHL.

Oh, Price also got his first assist of the season on Jeff Halpern's goal.

2. Finally, Lars Eller was the third line center!

I guess Jacques Martin has been reading my articles because he took my advice last night.

Ya, right!

Last night JM has Eller penciled in as the third line center between Maxim Lapierre and Tom Pyatt. While I'd prefer to see Benoit Pouliot on that line instead of Pyatt, it was a good start.

Both Lapierre and Pyatt have the foot speed to keep up with Eller, while Lapierre also has enough offensive skill that he should be able to score a few off of Eller's passes.

You could see that they were a little off last night which is normal given that they haven't played together much. That being said, I think that given a few games and a little chemistry, that line will become a fast, tenacious third line that can chip in offensively.

The amazing thing to me is how many people were saying that Eller played his first good game last night and that he finally looks engaged. Really? Don't you think that has something to do with him having half decent linemates to play with for a change?

3. Andrei Kostitsyn is playing better than anyone thought he was able to.

Not only is he contributing in the offensive zone—he potted his sixth goal into an empty net—but AK46 is also performing in the defensive zone.

I guess some of what Jacques Martin was preaching and berating Andrei about last year has sunk in because lo-and-behold, he is becoming a pretty solid two-way player.

Now we're not going to start seeing him on the penalty kill mind you, but watching him rush up the ice for a scoring chance and then skate back to help break up a play in his own end, is a thing of beauty.

Love him or hate him, JM demands that all of his forwards are responsible at both ends of the ice. He was, after all, the man that turned Marian Hossa into one of the best two-way player in the game.

Kostitsyn's line, with Plekanec and Michael Cammalleri, is firing on all cylinders and have a combined 25 points (13 goals, 12 assists, plus-21) over nine games and account for 52% of the Canadiens' goals for.

What will be interesting is to see how they fare on the road against the better teams in the league as Martin, who loves to match lines, will not have the luxury of last line change.

If this trio can fight through tough defensive matchups and still produce consistently against elite teams on the road, they will be on their way to becoming one of the most dangerous lines in the league.

4. P.K. Subban seems to have found his groove.

I still can't get over how quickly Subban went from playing his worst game as a Canadien to his best, in the span of a week.

Subban has settled his game down and has found a groove for himself. As such, he is getting better and better each game and Jacques Martin is leaning heavily on the youngster.

Getting 19:29 of ice-time over 29 shifts, Subban had one assist, a plus-one rating, five shots on goal, two blocked shots, and was the Canadiens best defenseman all night.

Not only is Subban making great first passes and setting up plays on the offensive side of the puck, but he is absolutely shutting down the opposition in the Habs zone. Last night, he broke up a few 2-on-1's and 1-on-1's without taking a penalty and without the opposition getting a shot on goal.

Moreover, Subban is taking less chances and doing a better job of picking his spots and it is making him so much more effective in both ends of the rink.

So the big question is who will he be playing with when Andrei Markov returns to play this weekend? With the Gill-Gorges and Spacek-Hamrlik duos seemingly set, perhaps JM will put together the super duo of Markov-Subban.

That would be a sight to see!

5. Brian Gionta and Scott Gomez looked a lot better!

OK, neither of them registered a point in the game but both of them looked calmer and more engaged. To his credit, Gionta has been engaged since the beginning of the season but he has looked frustrated at times over the course of the last few games.

Last night, however, he looked calmer and more even keeled.

Gomez, on the other hand, has looked lost and out of sync so far this season but last night we saw flashes of the speed and stick handling that can make him such a dangerous player.

Now if only Coach Martin could stick with one winger on their line for a few games, they might be able to build some momentum.

6. The real first star of the game was the Canadiens' depth.

While their power play continued to fire blanks, going 0-for-3 on the night, the Canadiens scored five 5-on-5 goals with a different author for each one.

Plekanec, Halpern, Darche, Moen, and Kostitsyn all scored for the Canadiens with assists from Halpern, Subban, Plekanec, Hall Gill, Benoit Pouliot, Price, Kostitsyn, and Hamrlik.

Halpern, in particular, is having a good season so far with three goals and two assist over nine games played. Those numbers are not insignificant if you consider that he had a total of nine goals and eight assists over 71 games split between Tampa and L.A. last season.

All in all, ten Canadiens got their names on the score sheet and that's the kind of depth that the elite teams of the league count on to win on a consistent basis.

If the Habs can find consistency from their bottom-two lines and a winger for Gionta and Gomez, they could become a three to four line offensive team which is very difficult defend against.

Standings and Next Game

The win moves the Habs to 6-2-1 with 13 points in the standings and a share of first place overall in the league.

They now fly to Long Island to take on these same New York Islanders on Friday in what is sure to be an intense grudge match. The game will be the first of a back-to-back for the Canadiens who fly home to welcome the Florida Panthers on Saturday.

Most reports are indicating that Andrei Markov will be back in the lineup on Saturday against the Panthers, but Habs Inside/Out's Pat Hickey seems to believe he will be back on Friday.

Either way, it's good news for the streaking Canadiens.

(Photo by Richard Wolowicz/Getty Images North America)


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