Thursday, December 4, 2008

That missing spark

It's only three games, but it's impossible to ignore the impact Matt D'Agostini's arrival from Hamilton has had on the Canadiens.

D'Agostini was named the game's first star Thursday night with his second goal in as many games and a great assist on Andrei Kostitsyn's sixth of the year that opened the scoring.

But more importantly, putting him on a line with Kostitsyn and Saku Koivu led to Guy Carbonneau creating the three other lines that put a 6-2 beat down on a very lame New York Rangers team. And right now those lines are clicking, perhaps with the exception of Robert Lang, Alex Kovalev and Christopher Higgins. But when that's your worst line, and they still produce a pretty sweet goal, then things are going pretty well.

"When you bring a player up (from the minors), he has to seize that opportunity, and that's what he's doing," Carbonneau said of D'Agostini. "He's playing excellent hockey."

Later, he added, "I was looking for a spark, some energy, and he's given us that."

I can't really imagine what Guillaume Latendresse and especially Sergei Kostitsyn were thinking watching that performance. I say especially Sergei because he's the one who can get sent down to Hamilton without clearing waivers, and if D'Agostini keeps playing like this I don't see how that won't happen when Mike Komisarek trades in his coach's tie for a uniform sometime around Christmas.

"Is it a problem for other people, or for me? Of course," Carbonneau said. "But it's never a problem when you have good players coming in and playing well. It just puts pressure on other people to perform."

Of course, this modest three-game winning streak the Habs have put together can't all be credited to D'Agostini, but his arrival did lead to the current lineup being put in place, and has also made Kostitsyn very dangerous. Their little give and go to open the scoring in the first showed that there's some chemistry developing there.

Tomas Plekanec looks like a new player alongside Alex Tanguay and an extremely effective Tom Kostopoulos, who all of a sudden has soft hands and a scorer's mentality playing with two skilled players. He might have had his best game in a Canadiens uniform Thursday night, and I thought he warranted a mention in the three stars, though you can't really argue with Maxim Lapierre and Steve Begin.

"Alex is someone who has vision, has skills and can finish, and Tomas is the same thing," Carbonneau said. "But someone has to go in the corner and dig out the puck, and get on the boards and get in front of the net with two guys on his back so the other guys can get open. He's done that well."

Meanwhile, the fourth line of Lapierre, Begin and Georges Laraque has played great for the last two games, and I think Carbonneau's decision to sit Begin and Lapierre earlier this year has really lit a fire under them.

On defence, Josh Gorges was a plus-4 Thursday with three blocked shots and he single-handedly snuffed out a few dangerous looking rushes when the game still wasn't a blowout in the second, while his partner Andrei Markov is looking like the guy who started the season on such a tear. Mathieu Dandenault blocked a team-high five shots and was credited with three hits Thursday, though he and Francis Bouillon were the only minus players Thursday at minus-1.

The only complaint defensively I would have is that Patrice Brisebois is looking pretty tired, but I can't see him getting a rest as long as the team keeps winning. Thursday was his 11th straight game and he played nearly 20 minutes, which is definitely not the role he was supposed to fill.

It's easy to forget, and I do it quite often, but Carey Price allowed two or fewer goals for the eighth time in nine starts, and the only reason it's not nine in a row is that his teammates fell asleep for a minute on Tuesday.

Put all that together, and the Habs look like they may have found a way to climb out of that haze and start to build something promising, though they're not there yet. But Thursday was a huge step.

"It was good for the team," Carbonneau said. "We had seen over the past coupe of weeks that we were playing a lot better defensively, but our offence wasn't clicking and I think there was some frustration there. To have a game like tonight where everybody was able to get involved and get that monkey off their back, I think it's a good sign for us."

Over in the other locker room, Rangers goalie Henrik Lundqvist had half his goalie pads off and was staring at the ground. He looked devastated with what had just happened to his team.

"I am so disappointed," he said, in a tone that was more than simply de-moralized. "It's mind-boggling how we can be so good in one game (a 3-2 shootout win over the Penguins at MSG on Wednesday) and then fall completely apart in another. That's why we have a long way to go to be a top team, we're just not consistent enough."

The Rangers came into the Habs game with the most points in the East, though they had played three more games than any other team. But Lundqvist's reaction, including his refusal to talk about a heated discussion he had with Scott Gomez after Tanguay's goal in the first, tells you that the Habs were even more dominant than the score indicated.

It remains to be seen whether that was because the Habs were so good or the Rangers were so bad, but I think it's more the former than the latter.


gelu88 said...

Great commentary, the habs have shown a complete turnaround in the past week and are really approaching the fun to watch team of last season.

Like everybody is saying, its good to lose early on, when it doesn't matter as much. The games they have won (and lost even) recently have not been by luck, like it was early in the season. and its the type of game that they might be able to keep up throughout the season.

Heres hoping the play continues.

pierre said...

A sparkling win.... must be the 6 goals scored by our Habs that makes this victory a particularly sweet one.... could also be the high numbers of great plays or the higher than usual coast to coast skating that happen in this game that made it all a great one to watch.... in the end the feeling was reminiscent of last season but even then there was more to it than just that..... I think the clear impression of being a better team than last season is what made this game a particulary plaisant one to have watched.

The fact that we scored all of our 6 goals at evenstrengh already suggest that we are no longer the same team than last season..... we probably averaged 2 goal a game when 5on5 last season.... if that... we will be better that average this year for shure.

Our system also seems to be as good as it is gona get..... intense two-way game for all and a collective mandate to out-number our opponents in as many situations as possible..... playing this way with our players might really improved on our goal-against average of last season by a differencial of twice of what it was putting us up there in the top 5.

But this game was great because it showed us that we have a new kid in town who has a great shot and who could do pretty much everything well.... it also told us that young Lapierre is getting better all the time and that our 4th line (6points) is as versatile as they can get.

But I agree with Arps for pure thrill nothing was better than watching Kostopoulos going tonight..... the guy looked like a top 6 players when on their better nights..... amazing !

Things are looking pretty good.....

Anonymous said...

dude you stole my line!

SRS said...

10 games played in the bigs means something for D'Ago... i'm just not sure what. I seem to recall there always being a decision to be made whenever a rookie was to reach the ten game mark with his pro club. Keep him up and you have to (sign him to entry level contract?) or send him back down to avoid it? Someone help me out. He's looking good now but I need to understand the bigger, more forward looking picture.

Arjun said...

That game was so much fun to watch. The Habs skated and made pretty plays and hit and Saku got into a rasslin' match! And I have manlove for D'Agostini. Serious manlove.

Sliver24 said...

SRS, once D'Agostini has played 10 games in the NHL it counts as a year of service when it comes to UFA eligibility. It's not a concern for a 22 year old player because 27 is now the set-in-stone age for UFA eligibility regardless of service in the league, and service requirements are 7 years. That means no matter what happens this season D'Agostini will be eligible to become a UFA in five years.

The 10-game threshold is most important as it applies to 19-year-old players that are still eligible for junior. Once they've played 10 games their pro contract has officially kicked in and it counts as a year of service in the NHL.

The NHL has a deal with the CHL leagues that they won't put junior-eligible players in the minor pro leagues (i.e. the AHL, ECHL, etc). That protects the junior leagues from losing all their top players to minor pro leagues.

If a team keeps a junior player in the bigs for 10 games they're kind of stuck with him. They can't send him to the minors because of the agreement. They can send him back to junior any time they want to, but once he's been send down they can't call him back up for the rest of the season.

As for the game last night, all I can say is FINALLY!

The Habs played an absolutely great game. The most important thing I noticed was they they were winning almost every one-on-one battle, be it along the boards or an open-ice race for the puck. There's that hard work everyone's been talking about.

They were also passing like last year's team and cashing in on their chances instead of narrowly missing the net or shooting it into the goalie's chest pad.

It's great to see them play a game like that. I hope last night's game is the one we look at later in the season as the turning point.

Arpon Basu said...

I definitely couldn't have explained the 10-game rule any better than that