Saturday, 5 April 2014

Game 79: Canadiens 5, Red Wings 3

Most reasonable Canadiens fans have some qualms about their team going into the playoffs, even with the recent string of success.  After the difficult West Coast trip, and suffering through Carey Price's absence, the Canadiens have won ten out of twelve games, starting with the record comeback win against the Senators.  More pessimistic fans will point out that the most recent losses have come against likely playoff opponents Boston and Tampa Bay, and a Columbus team that played us tough, playoff style.  There is also the bitter memory of the disastrous, embarrassing playoff loss to the Senators last season.

So how do we evaluate tonight's 5-3 win against the Red Wings.  Was it a sign of a team that can turn it on when needed, can adapt to its opponents and match their style?  Are the Canadiens a team that finds a way to win, no matter how bizarre the game is?  Should we be encouraged that the Canadiens are managing to weather through injuries and suspension to important members, and that the team will only get stronger upon their return?  After all, the first line is pumping, Carey Price is masterful and inspires confidence in his teammates.

Or are we overly reliant on Carey, lately getting outshot by healthy margins?  Is our defence squad a concern, starting with our putative ace P.K. Subban, who is going through a slump at the worst time?  Has the team actually been relatively healthy, lucky when it comes to injuries, and will the depth be severely tested if a frontline player is hurt, as the Wings were with the loss of Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg, and the Penguins with Evgeni Malkin and Kris Letang the latest, biggest name in their long injury list this season?

As the pundits say, that's why you play the games.  Going into the playoffs, the Canadiens are on a roll, and are primed to claim home ice advantage against the suddenly flagging Lightning.  A 100-point season is well within reach.

The Canadiens stretched out a three-goal lead, with goals from three different lines for a change.  In the third period, they seemed to coast coming out of the dressing room, and the desperate Wings scored two goals quickly, and after a Canadiens timeout, a third on a powerplay.  So the Habs had to open her up again and score two more to put the game away.  No biggie.

It was an enjoyable game, as wins tend to be, in large part because while it was hotly contested, there was no goonery or nonsense after the whistle.  Both teams skated hard, competed, but played clean and fair.

Alexei Emelin showed flashes of the physical play that were his calling card the previous two seasons.  His returning mobility and strength allow him to hit a ton, but not the ridiculous 'finishing your check' kind of hit.  He actually gets to the play, gets to the puck carrier, and separates them from the puck.  Along with their breath, and their desire to try going wide on him ever again.

Mike Weaver continued his poor Paul Coffey impression with another assist in the second period.  And we're going to say it's poor because he actually stays back and plays defence.  What an addition he has been, the solid right-handed defenceman that we were missing this season, even before we traded away Raphaël Diaz.  He's a fifth-round choice well spent.

I noticed Lars Eller still stickhandling with the puck in the offensive zone towards the blue line, then passing it to his defencemen and handcuffing them. If only Lars would take the puck the other way, strong and deep into the offensive zone, instead of dribbling with it on the periphery.

Prior to that play, he made a nifty pass back to Andrei on a 4-on-2 rush, but then went for the net and cut himself off from a possible give-and-go return pass. There were already two Habs in front of the net, he should have positioned himself as the outlet guy for Andrei to have an option. As it was, a Wing player was blocking the passing lane, Andrei was forced to shoot, and the Monster made an easy glove save.

Still, Lars is showing signs of life, picking up assists on Brian Gionta's two goals.  The captain may be having a settling effect on Lars.  When he centered the kid line, he was expected to be the guy with experience and leadership, and he may not have been ready for that yet.  With Brian and sometimes Daniel Brière on the ice with him, he can concentrate on his own game, take some direction from his linemates, and learn alongside them.   It relieves a lot of pressure on him and may allow him to get back in a groove.

Is it too soon to congratulate Michel Therrien on a shrewd personnel move, or is the coach brain-dead for taking so long to figure it out, as his critics might jump to point out?

Carey Price stopped 34 of 37 shots, but seemed to be headed for a shutout for a long while, so steady did he seem.  As usual, he made things look easy.  His puck handling is a joy to behold, having him back there is like playing with a third defenceman sometimes.

Michaël Bournival and Ryan White combined to open the scoring.  These two seem to mesh very well.  When Brandon Prust, Travis Moen and Dale Weise return from injury, it will be interesting to see which players the coaching staff will deploy on the third and fourth lines.  It's a better situation to be in than to weigh whether to use Aaron Palushaj or Mike Blunden.

So bring on the Blackhawks, we can take them.  Especially when they're missing Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews...

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