Saturday, December 5, 2009

Oh what a night

I wrote recently how the Montreal Canadiens had a great sense of timing, but I was being sarcastic. Last night, however, the Habs timing could not have been any better.

Following a stirring ceremony to commemorate the Habs' 100th birthday, one that filled the Bell Centre with enough emotion to last another century, the Canadiens used every ounce of the subsequent adrenaline rush to pound the Bruins 5-1.

When Mike Cammalleri completed his second period hat trick and people's headgear began littering the ice, the Bell Centre was as loud as I've heard it for a regular season game, except maybe for the return of Saku Koivu from cancer.

"I was fighting back tears on the bench," Cammalleri said afterwards.

I think the reason for a lot of that noise was a release of a deep-seeded tension on the part of the fans that their team, their beloved team, would manage to ruin an extraordinary evening with yet another less than ordinary effort. Based on the previous two games, there was no reason to believe the Habs would be able to rise to the occasion against a very hot Bruins team, one that is taking out its frustration on the poor Maple Leafs as I type this.

After the game, I asked Cammalleri if the team had that same fear that they would mess the bed with so many hockey legends in the building watching them on a night the organization has invested so much time, money and energy into.

"I don't know if fear is the right word for it," Cammalleri said, after thinking about his answer for a little while. "But there was definitely a sense of urgency."

Nowhere was that urgency more evident than on the penalty kill, where Canadiens fans who had taken to booing Hal Gill saw why he's a valuable piece of the team. Gill and Josh Gorges were vital in killing off a two-minute 5-on-3 when Jaro Spacek and Maxim Lapierre took penalties on the same play.

By sprawling on the ice, Gill eliminated the bread and butter play for a two-man advantage - the cross-crease back door pass - and he effectively dealt with Zdeno Chara in front of the net. That's not small task. Gorges, meanwhile, was putting his body on the line every chance he got, taking one slap shot in the ribs and barely even flinching.

I was also interested to see Sergei Kostitsyn used twice during that penalty kill, alternating with Tomas Plekanec in the forward spot. That's a pretty long way from where he was only two weeks ago, riding the bus in Hamilton, but it shows that Jacques Martin's trust can be won over with solid play.

That 5-on-3 was the definite turning point, as Cammalleri got his first of the night about 30 seconds after it ended and the rout was beginning to take hold. It was the fifth time this season the Habs have allowed seven power plays against, but the first time they've managed to shutout their opponents and the penalty killing unit has now killed off 11 straight and 13 of their last 14. That recent success has gotten Montreal up to 13th in the league, which makes it the only major statistical category where the Habs are ranked in the top half of the NHL.

Of course, the team's best penalty killer is the goalie, and Carey Price had a spectacular night. Again. Yes, he's had some nights over the past month when he was merely average, but he's had none when he was atrocious, and he's had a few like he did Friday night. For those who have lost count, Price has a .932 save percentage and a 2.20 goals against average over his last 12 starts, and the only reason his record is 6-4-2 is because the Habs scored a grand total of two goals in his four regulation losses over that stretch.

But Price's performance last night also clouds another aspect of Friday night's Bell Centre love fest, and that was just how soundly the Bruins controlled the play in every aspect except the scoreboard. While the Bruins outshot the Habs by a reasonable margin of 38-29, the shot attempts told a very different story as Boston attempted 79 while the Habs had only 46. Granted, much of that disparity came as a result of the third period when the Canadiens sat on their 5-0 lead, but the fact remains that this could have been a very different result if Price hadn't been so solid and if Tim Thomas hadn't been quite so bad.

So yes, the Habs victory and the ceremony that preceded and the justice done for Butch Bouchard and Elmer Lach were all wonderful, making the evening one of the most memorable ever in that building's short history. But we'll only know Monday and Tuesday, when Montreal hosts the flailing Flyers and heads to Kanata to face the Sens, whether or not that fantastic night will be a turning point in the season or just a one-off anomaly.

To be perfectly honest, I don't know which one is true. But either way, that was one hell of a night.


pfhabs said...


-great celebration great game but 1significant element short of being perfect

-where was Koivu ? yes Ducks had a game that evening but what about a video presentation

-whomever thought that videos from Brodeur and Ovechkin were appropriate; fine, but ask yourself what did they ever do for the team, organization or the community?

-await to hear the rationale but on the heals of how Saku was treated in the summer not sure the explanation will do anything for my view of certain members of the management team

-2nd longest serving captain in CH history and not a mention...does anyone know why ?

Arpon Basu said...

PF: Great question, would have been great to see him on the video board. I bet you they didn't want the reaction to Koivu from the crowd to upstage the festivities or the game, but that's just me guessing. Either way, he should have been included.

Paul said...

I was there and there was a brief (too brief, admittedly) reference to Koivu on the video screen highlighting his return from cancer treatments as one of the emotional highlights of the Habs' history. Not trying to say there should not have been more, but it was not a complete omission.

john deere said...

Enjoyed the show. Good to see Price is getting his mojo back.