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Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Montreal-Washington: Semyon Varlamov Shuts the Door for the Win

by Kamal Panesar

They say that hockey is a game of errors.

When you're playing well you're able to cover up your mistakes, but when you're playing poorly the mistakes seem amplified and are almost the only thing you see.

This adage holds true too for the Montreal Canadiens who suddenly find themselves hanging on the eight overall in the Northeast, while enduring their worst skid of the season. And, while the Washington Capitals had recently overcome an eight game losing streak, they look last night like they are have put things back together.

If there were any doubts about Caps' goaltender Semyon Varlamov, he flashed the leather and blocker on a handful of quality scoring chances as the Habs went to work on the power play only 23 seconds into the game.

The Habs actually had two PP opportunities before the game was five minutes old, but were unable to capitalize and struggled to maintain any pressure. After killing off both first period penalties, the penalty pendulum swung in the Caps' direction, and applied a ton of pressure in the Habs zone as a result.

The Canadiens' PK continued to excel—the Habs shut down eight Washington man-advantages last night—as they collapsed down low around Carey Price who was the Habs best penalty killer.

Once the Caps got on the PP they grabbed the momentum and ran with it.

As has become the case far too often this season the Canadiens spent far too much time in the penalty box, playing a full 16 minutes shorthanded. On the other special teams department the Habs power play was abysmal last night, whiffing on all five PPs with nary a scoring chance to show for it.

The Canadiens were also dominated in the faceoff circle winning only 16 of 52 draws. This meant that they spent a good portion of the night chasing the puck rather than pushing the play.

Ultimately, Varlamov played an excellent game and the Habs were unable to produce any offense, getting shutout for the fifth time this season as a result. The Canadiens have been shut out the second most times in the league so far this season, tied with San Jose.

Oddly, all of the shutouts have been 3-0 decisions.

Final score: Caps 3 - Habs 0

Habs' scorers: None
Caps' scorers: Jay Beagle (2), Mike Green (7), Alex Ovechkin (14)

Three stars: 1. Semyon Varlamov, 2. Jay Beagle, 3. Mike Green


Game Notes

1. P.K. Subban had an up and down game.

Subban started the game on the right foot, playing an aggressive, combative brand of in-your-face hockey that we haven't seen him play since the beginning of the season. In addition, he looked great on the penalty kill sacrificing his body by diving to block a shot in the dying seconds and coming up limping as a result.

Subban also checked Jason Chimera to the ice in the first period, after he had clearly done something to offend him, and stood over the fallen Cap talking smack.

Unfortunately, that is where the good part of his night ended for the young defenseman who has yet to learn how to pick his spots.

Going for the big hit with time running out in the first period, P.K. completely missed, falling to the ice and out of position. Then to compound his error, he dogged it coming back to the defensive zone, leaving the back door open for Mike Green to put it past Price making it 2-0 with 38 seconds to play in the first.

That is exactly the type of play that drives Jacques Martin crazy and why the coach has a recent tenancy to put Subban in the press box.

It's great to see Subban playing with an edge and trying to be dynamic, but overdoing it on the ice never produces good results.

Subban had several sequences, most notably while the team was playing shorthanded, where he dove unnecessarily trying to break up a play. These are exactly the type of plays that Subban has to eliminate for his repertoire. Moreover, if he's not going to eliminate them he has to at least learn how to pick his spots.

Simplify, young one, and all will go well for you.


2. Defensive errors were the catch of the day.

The Canadiens are still turning the puck over and missing assignments far too often.

On the first goal, Alexandre Picard was soft covering Beagle as he swooped out in front of the net. Picard's weak play allowed the Caps' player to turn and fire a backhander over Price.

Now, we can debate whether Price should have been down on his knees or not but ultimately, Picard should have smothered the Caps' player. Beagle should never have been able to get off such a good, clear shot from eight feet in front of Price.

On the second goal, Subban picked a bad time to go for a big, low-percentage hit. His miss setup a gap within which the Caps could pass the puck for the backdoor goal by Mike Green.

These two players were not alone in their errors but the Habs defense, as a whole, is making far too many mistakes and costly turnovers.

The Habs are 2-7 in their last nine games. Over that span, their defensive players are a collective minus-27. Their individual plus/minus stats break down as follows over the last nine games:

Alexandre Picard - minus-6 (over nine games)
P.K. Subban - minus-7 (over six games)
Jaroslav Spacek - minus-2 (over nine games)
Roman Hamrlik - minus-4 (over nine games)
Josh Gorges - minus-2 (over eight games)
Hal Gill - minus-2 (over nine games)
Yannick Weber - minus-4 (over four games)

It doesn't take a rocket scientist to see that the defense, and by extension the team, is struggling five-on-five.


3. Jacques Martin needs to put the PHD line back together.

Lars Eller is a great prospect and should develop into a solid player in the future. The problem is that the Habs need results and offensive contributions from their bottom-six now.

As I stated a few games ago, it is high time that Jacques Martin reunited his early season spark plug; Jeff Halpern, Benoit Pouliot and Mathieu Darche.

Eller has exactly six points and a minus-1 rating over the 36 games he has played. In addition, he has zero points and a minus-3 rating over the last nine games he has played. As with the defensemen, this pointless streak coincides exactly with the Canadiens' worst nine-game stretch of the season.

Eller has shifts where he looks good on the ice and is making some interesting plays but ultimately he isn't producing any points and the Canadiens need offense.

With the Canadiens mired in a 2-7 skid, they badly need secondary scoring help and the Halpern, Pouliot, Darche combination is Martin's best bet. Put them back together, get back to what was at one point working and see what they can produce.


4. The Habs PK is good but their PP is horrible again.

Let's face it, the longer the season goes the more the Canadiens miss Andrei Markov.

Their power play, which at one point was at the bottom of the league, has shown certain signs of life and has moved to 13th overall. That being said, it continues to fail them when the need it most, notably going 0-fer in losses to the Stars, Islanders and Caps.

A power play goal in any of those three games could have changed the outcome.

Last night, down by two goals with about six minutes to play in the second period, the Habs got their third PP of the game. Needless to say, scoring a goal at that juncture was paramount.

Unfortunately, not only were the Habs unable to score but they struggled to even get the puck into the Caps' zone. Moreover, when they did get into the Caps' zone Weber and Subban, the PP triggermen, struggled and seemed to panic every time they had the puck.

It seems like both players want to score so badly that they rush plays, shooting the puck without a clear lane to the net and without traffic in front of the opposing goaltender. As a result, they are often missing the net—Subban more than Weber—hitting the defender with the puck instead of getting it to the net and causing turnovers.

If the Canadiens were able to score on any of their power plays up to the end of the second period, they would have immediately been back in the game. This is part of the Habs' game that they must absolutely get rolling in order to have success.

Watching the Habs' futility on the PP last night it becomes apparent why GM Pierre Gauthier went out and traded for James Wisniewski. With a blistering shot from the point, 21 points (3G, 18A) in 32 games, 13 points (3G, 10A) on the PP and averaging 23:15 of ice time per game, his arrival in the Habs' lineup could not have come at a better time.


5. Carey Price played a stupendous game.

Making save after save, Price was once again the only reason this game wasn't over early. The Caps didn't exactly outshoot the Habs by a huge margin (30-25) but they easily out chanced them 2-1 and Price was there to hold the fort.

Stopping 27 of the 29 shots thrown his way—the 30th shot was into an empty net—Price finished the night with a sparkling .931 save percentage. That is much better than the 0.859 save percentage he has had over his last seven starts.

Unfortunately, the Canadiens didn't give him any offensive support but if they are going to rediscover their winning ways they will need Price to continue playing like he did last night. The margins of error for this team are slight and a top power play, top penalty kill and outstanding goaltending are the paths to salvation.

Their PK seems to be on point and hopefully the addition of Wisniewski will help the PP.

If Price can continue playing like he did last night, he'll be doing his part.


Standings and Next Game

The loss extends the Habs skid to two games and they are now 8-11 since dropping a 3-0 decision to the Nashville Predators.

The Canadiens are stalled in eight place overall in the Northeast division with 42. Ahead of them are the Thrashers, Rangers and Bruins (first overall in the Northeast) each with 44 points in the standings. The Habs have two games in hand on the Thrashers, are even with the Rangers and have played two more games than the Bruins.

The Canadiens have a nice six-point cushion over the ninth place Hurricanes who have two games in hand. The Habs are now 1-4 on this season long seven game road trip and are on a bit of a slippy slope right now. While they do have a buffer over the Hurricanes they need to start putting some points on the board quickly. A few more losses in a row could see them slide out of the playoff picture while a few wins could propel them back to the top of the Northeast Division.

Montreal will now travel to Tampa to take on the Lightning on Thursday evening. Newly acquired defenseman, James Wisniewski, will make his debut in a Habs uniform against the Bolts.

(Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images North America)

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