Saturday, November 28, 2009

As good as a win

The Canadiens probably don't think so, considering how close they came to pulling out what would have been a tremendous win over a far superior team, but I still say what happened Saturday night is as good as a win.

Down 2-0 after 20 minutes, with the same old injury-depleted lineup, the Habs could have packed it in tonight and enjoyed watching the dazzling Alexander Ovechkin do his thing. But instead, they put together what has to be the team's best defensive performance of the season against the NHL's second-highest scoring team.

The Habs allowed only 11 shots through two periods, and five of them came from Ovechkin. It was inevitable that the Caps offence would wake up, but they needed overtime in order to get to 23 shots, their lowest total of the season.

"I wasn’t too hopeful until the last three minutes when we started to put a little bit of a push on," said Caps coach Bruce Boudreau, by far my favourite NHL coach to talk to. "They played a really, really good defensive game. They didn’t allow any second shots, they were standing up and getting in our face the whole time. It was a tough game."

Ovechkin, by the end of a tour de force performance, had a goal and an assist, eight shots on goal and18 shot attempts (eight blocked, two missed). The rest of the Capitals were limited 15 shots on goal and 39 attempts. That, my friends, is an air-tight defensive game.

With the news that Andrei Markov is hoping for an early-January return from injury, and guys like Scott Gomez, Brian Gionta, and Hal Gill sure to come back before then, it is not outside the realm of possibility that the Habs will put together a pretty impressive run in the New Year.

Until then, as I've been saying all along, the Habs need to hang around the .500 mark, which is exactly what they're doing. Since Oct. 17, when they were 2-5-0, the Habs have remained within two games of .500 in either direction, and that was good enough to have them placed within two points of a playoff spot, and within four points of fifth in the conference.

That is a gap that can be easily overcome, especially as Team Clinic starts making its way back. And the theory that the injuries would allow other players to grow appears to be holding true for some. Max Pacioretty got an assist tonight and now has six points in six games. But more than that, he's showing extreme confidence with the puck and making creative - and dangerous - plays in the offensive end. As things stand now, he's playing as a second line winger. But just imagine when his line with Metropolit and Moen becomes the third line. That's a pretty dangerous group to have in a third line role.

The Habs power play converted on half of their four chances in the game, with Travis Moen tipping in what should have been the game-winner in the third, but ultimately allowed the Habs to salvage a point. The 2-for-4 night snapped a three-game shutout streak for the power play, and a stretch where it connected only once in 12 tries.

Marc-Andre Bergeron is showing his value here, especially when it comes to getting shots at the net. I'm pretty amazed at how rarely his shots get blocked, which is a valuable skill. In his own end he's starting to get a little better as he gets back in game shape, even though Ovechkin made him look like he belonged in Pee-Wee in the second period. I had assumed when he was signed that Bergeron would be a stop-gap measure until Markov returned, but I'm starting to wonder whether or not he'll keep his spot in the lineup, because having him as a one-timer triggerman with Markov feeding him seems pretty tantalizing to me.

Finally, Carey Price was outstanding once again, and his save on Jay Beagle in the second will surely be played and re-played for days. I'm sure some people would have liked for him to smother the shot instead of giving Fehr a rebound for the tying goal, but an Ovechkin one-timer is not exactly the easiest shot in the world to handle.

Price's timing was good, because Canadian Olympic GM Steve Yzerman was at the game to watch Caps defenceman Mike Green, who's on the bubble for Vancouver. I'm not suggesting that Price is in the running for one of the three goalie spots on Team Canada, but watching him Saturday night, I would have to think it got Yzerman at least thinking about it.

But not everything can be positive when you lose, and the Canadiens lack of discipline came back to bite them again.

Paul Mara's high-sticking penalty on Brooks Laich with 15.5 ticks left in regulation hurt, even though the Habs PK hadn't allowed so much as a shot on goal on the Caps first three power plays. But it's almost predictable that taking a penalty so late in a game will come with some form of punishment. So when Tomas Plekanec lost the faceoff (he went 7-14 on the night) and the Caps systematically ran their set play to get Ovechkin a one-timer from the left point, leaving Eric Fehr to notch his second of the game on the rebound with 12 seconds left, it was hardly a surprise.

But the situation with the Canadiens inability to draw penalties and their penchant for taking them at horrible times is starting to become a pretty dangerous trend. Tonight's game snapped a streak of 15 straight dating back to Oct. 24 where the Habs had fewer power plays than their opponents. It's no coincidence that tonight's game was also probably the Canadiens hardest skating game in weeks, if not all season.


Roy said...

I'm a frequent reader and very much enjoy your blog!

I am wonder about your $0.02 on Sergei's performance(s) and role on the team (or off) going forward?

pierre said...

We won or tied games we shouldn't have, Price have been very good and Martin's imprint on our players and team's performances is another side of the good story.

Bergeron has always been a productive player on the PP but he never had the chance to be matched with a player like Markov on his left side.... together they could make the best PP quaterback tamdem to ever play the game.... Bergeron is here to stay.

Now lets go vote for Arpon as the CH's best blogger out there !

Arpon Basu said...

Roy - I've been pretty impressed with how Sergei's played since his call-up. I just wonder how he'll do when, or if, he's asked to play a lesser role on the third or fourth line when all the injured players return. For now he's happy, and why wouldn't he be? He's playing on the top line and on the power play. Not very hard to get motivated for that. It's when he's a role player that he starts to float and take stupid penalties (actually, he took one just the other night with a trip on the forecheck, so scratch that).