Habs coach Guy Carbonneau said it often earlier in the season that he would love to see his team be more consistent, especially when it came to its effort level.
But when injuries start to mount and raw rookies have to be integrated into the lineup, a team's consistency is often the first casualty. Strangely enough, the opposite has been true of the Canadiens this season, and that's what has Carbonneau the most pleased about his team's progress despite a long list of key injuries.
"I'm not surprised with how certain players have responded, but I am surprised by the consistency we've shown over the last month, month and a half," Carbonneau said following his team's 3-2 yawner of a win over the Nashville Predators at the Bell Centre Thursday night. "You say everyone is replaceable in the short-term, but long-term that becomes tougher. Yet we continue to do the things necessary to win."
Carbonneau's not joking. When Christopher Higgins went down in a 4-1 win over Calgary at the Bell Centre on Dec. 9, the Habs had a 15-6-5 record. Saku Koivu went down a game later, and Alex Tanguay would follow on Dec. 30. The Higgins injury triggered a three-game slide but since then the Habs have a record of 10-2-1, a run that began with the return of Mike Komisarek to the lineup on Dec. 18.
Komisarek once again played an excellent game Thursday in a contest where it was difficult to find the highlights, logging a game-high 25:52 of ice time, blocking six shots and dishing out four hits. Prior to getting hurt, Komisarek wasn't playing his best hockey and I think he would have been the first to say that. But since his return he's been everything the Canadiens have needed and more.
"I hate to say this, but it's about finding a way to win," Komisarek said afterwards.
He admitted the game felt weird even to the players, and that the Habs two-shot second period was the height of tear-inducing boredom.
"That second period reminded of the start of a game when two teams are trying to feel each other out," he said. "We had a good start to the game with good flow and guys supporting each other, but any time you get only two shots you're not going to have much success."
Tom Kostopoulos had a pretty succinct analysis of the lethargy both teams seemed to fall prey to in the game.
"They were changing their lines every 20 seconds, every whistle, just to slow the game down," he said. "We had trouble getting going. It was a strange game."
But it was a win, one that came on the backs of goals by the streaking Andreis; Kostitsyn and Markov. Kostitsyn now has nine goals and five assists in 10 games since Dec. 27, which is significant for him because last year he scored 19 of his 26 goals as of the very same date. He had seven goals prior to Dec. 27 last year, and he had six as of that date this year. But his recent stretch suggests he might be able to improve on last year's torrid second half he put together.
As for Markov, his goal and assist Thursday gives him two goals and five assists over a five-game point streak. It's no surprise that his streak coincides with the Habs own season-high streak of five games with a power play goal.
"We're working hard on the power play, trying to move the puck well and shoot more," Markov said. "That's what we've been doing the last few games and it's been working, so we have to keep doing it."
What would greatly help the power play would be to win a few more faceoffs, which is probably a bigger factor in the Habs struggles this year than the departure of Mark Streit.
Montreal was 1-for-5 in the faceoff circle on the power play Thursday, and the one draw they won came in their own end. Robert Lang has consistently been Carbonneau's go-to guy for that first faceoff in the offensive end, and Lang has just as consistently lost a great majority of those draws.
This is where the team misses Saku Koivu the most, because even though his faceoff percentage isn't ridiculously high, he somehow manages to win most of the important faceoffs he takes. The quicker he can come back to provide a solution to this problem the better the Habs power play will become, which is good news considering it's been clicking at 30.7 per cent over the last five games.