Thursday, 9 February 2012

Game 55: Montréal 4, NY Islanders 2

If you had been held captive in a cave in the mountainous region of Swat for about a year, and were lucky enough to have been rescued by Seal Team 6 (a unit doing some fine work now that the Commander in Chief is keeping his eye on the ball as opposed to the previous incumbent) and you had watched the Canadiens game against the Islanders tonight, you would have thought all is right in the world. The Canadiens had ably despatched a perennially weaker opponent on their home ice. Carey Price had been dominant and kept the young Islanders at bay. That young Max Pacioretty kid obviously was keeping on this rising trajectory he had established the previous season, tallying three goals and being dangerous all night. There would have been a few new faces, that Hab-slayer Erik Cole was now with the Forces of Good would have been a pleasant surprise. You might have noted that Scott Gomez played on the fourth line and had a couple of defensive lapses, but otherwise still skated effectively and scored an opportunistic goal. You wouldn't have noticed that Benoit Pouliot was nowhere to be seen, and you wouldn't have cared. Overall, the team skated hard and hit and competed as you would have expected they would.

It's a blessing for the Canadiens that Scott Gomez finally put an end to the streak. It is a distraction on top of all the other distractions that the Canadiens have endured this season, and obviously one they didn't need. Mr. Gomez reacted appropriately, celebrating soberly with a Mike Cammalleri fist pump.

In fact, it seemed as if Mr. Gomez channeled his inner Mike Cammalleri, circa April 2010, for more than the celebration. The goal itself was a Cammalleri special, a one-timer from the circle on the offwing. Scott did everything but touch his knee to the ice on the follow-through.

Speaking of Mr. Cammalleri, we may tentatively assert that the trade was a good one for the Canadiens. In terms of the players and assets involved, it seems relatively even. The cap space it affords the Canadiens is a great benefit. The production of the two main players is dead even, again a win when factored through the cap hits equation. Finally, it is becoming apparent that the Canadiens won by removing a distraction from the dressing room, a classic case of addition by subtraction.

Pierre Gauthier has been roundly criticized for perceived knee-jerk decisions this season, for being reactive as opposed to proactive, for not steering the good ship Glorieux but rather being haplessly buffeted by one storm after another and getting battered. We can look at it another way though: Mr. Gauthier, as he has stated repeatedly, believes in this team and acted decisively when he felt he needed to, rather than giving up on the season. The much-maligned trade for Tomas Kaberle, for example, was born of his desire to help the players, who he felt were getting discouraged with their lack of success on the powerplay and exhibited a defeated body language as they returned to the bench. You may argue the wisdom of acquiring the somnambulant Czech and his anchor contract, and I'll argue right along with you, but you can't fault Mr. Gauthier for giving up on the season.

Yet there is an obvious sign that the Canadiens, despite some encouraging wins, are setting up to sell off assets before the trade deadline, in the form of the decision to not pick up Anthony Stewart off waivers from Carolina. The fact that he was not claimed by any team is possible evidence that there are facets unknown to the general public at this point, since big strong forwards with a smattering of skill are always welcome on an NHL lineup, but I felt there was a great fit between his profile and the Canadiens' needs.

We are bereft of forward talent, to the point where we routinely dress seven defencemen and only 11 forwards. Hamilton cannot provide reinforcement, as has been demonstrated by the play of callups Andreas Engqvist and Aaron Palushaj. Louis Leblanc has been rushed up despite his lack of experience and the apparent initial desire to let him mature in the minors. The Canadiens have had trouble competing against the teams who play a more physical style, and Mr. Gauthier has stated after the acquisition of René Bourque that the team needs to get bigger. Anthony Stewart seemed like a slam dunk, a 225 lbs 27 year old homeboy from LaSalle who would be able to provide the insulation and even pushback against the Mark Stuarts and Paul Gaustads of this world. He was signed for another season at a very reasonable amount, the guy was totally 'plug and play'.

Yet Mr. Gauthier chose not to take him aboard. This is an indication that the rest of the season is an evaluation phase for the team, and that veterans useful to contenders will be auctioned off for picks and prospects. Judging from the mood of Canadiens fans these days, this is a positive development in their eyes.

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