Tuesday, February 24, 2009

The biggest game of the year?

Maybe not, but tonight's tilt against the Vancouver Canucks is a vital one on so many levels.

First and foremost is the Habs ability to build on that 5-3 beatdown of the Sens on Saturday night, which would be rendered pretty meaningless if that effort isn't matched or surpassed against the Canucks. This is a very big week for the team, with three games against tough opponents, then four days off leading up to the March 4 trade deadline. Bob Gainey and his staff only have three more games to identify problem areas that need to be addressed on the trade market, and the team can ensure they won't see friends leaving two by winning two out of three on the week.

So is the power play really this good, or have the last three games been a blip on an otherwise horrendous radar this season? Can the Habs cut down on those 47 shots on goal by the Sens, though 22 of those came in the third period when the game was essentially out of reach? And can the Habs win consecutive games for the first time since Jan. 15 and 17?

Those aren't the only questions seeking an answer tonight, as a lot of individuals will be under the microscope.

Jaroslav Halak is being given an opportunity to keep Carey Price on the bench by getting another start. He's had trouble stringing good starts together this season, though I would say he's been pretty solid in his last three despite giving up four goals in Vancouver on Feb 15. He was pulled in that game, but it wasn't an indictment of his play as much as it was the team's, and Guy Carbonneau had little hope of getting back in the game so he gave Price some time in front of his home fans.

Carbonneau appears to be taking a win-and-you're-in approach here, but I hope Halak gets a bit longer of a leash here. Even if he loses here I think he deserves another shot to start in Philadelphia, especially considering that building is not a place Price holds very dear to his heart.

Alex Kovalev will also have something to prove tonight, that his masterful performance against the Senators wasn't just a case of him feeding off the positive energy from the crowd, but was indeed a sign that his time away from the team was beneficial and he's ready to take his place as the offensive leader of the team. The final quarter of the season begins tonight, and if Kovalev can get 28 points over the final 22 games he'll still wind up with a 70-point season. Believe it or not, that would represent the fourth-highest total of his career, so his season is still very much salvageable.

That process of salvation begins tonight, as Kovalev probably won't benefit from the same degree of support he had Saturday afternoon and he needs to show he's ready to bring it every night from here on in, especially considering he has a new contract to play for.

A little further off the radar has been the resurgence of Tomas Plekanec since his two-game suspension, a little break forced upon him by the league rather than Gainey. He has four goals in three games since returning, and though his success is very much dependant on Kovalev's, he also needs to continue to show that the first three-quarters of the season was an anomaly.

Finally, I need to see a solid game from Saku Koivu tonight to be convinced he's in full form. With one assist in his last three games and only four points in his last eight, Koivu's not producing at a normal level. The Canadiens need not only Koivu, but also his line to be dangerous. Alex Tanguay won't be in uniform tonight, which is too bad because he could have provided that spark to get Koivu going.

UPDATE: Marc-Antoine Godin is reporting that Tanguay will not be allowed to play this weekend either and will be re-evaluated by team doctors next Tuesday. That's a big blow considering the daunting nature of this weekend's games in Philadelphia and home to San Jose.


Sliver24 said...

If Habs management don't yet know where the holes are in their lineup we are in bigger trouble than I thought.

There's no question that Gainey needs to get us a big, top-two centre and it would also be nice to bolster the D with a physical top-four defenceman.

If Gainey can't manage to plug the hole Lang was so admirably filling with a player at least as productive, the Habs have little to no chance at getting out of the first round (although they could still make the playoffs with a strong finish).

Also, getting a large, mean, skilled defensive d-man would free up Schneider to drop down to the third pairing with Gorges. Let's not forget that the guy is almost two years older than Brisebois, and Arp you've opinied more than once in this space that you think Breezer was seeing too much ice for a guy his age.

Getting Schneider down to 16 or 18 minutes a game, with as many of those as possible on the PP, would ensure he'd be able to stay healthy for a deep playoff run.

Finally, I have no problem with Halak playing a bunch of games in the coming weeks. That being said, if this team goes anywhere near where they were hoping to this spring they'll be doing it with Carey Price in nets. How he goes the Habs go.

I hope like hell he gets back on track soon.

Yves said...

Hey Arpon,

This is a big week.... I'd say this next week / 2 weeks will probably define how they're gonne play to finish the season.

I'm hoping for a big effort tonight.. and hoping Kovalev plays like saturday..