Friday, January 8, 2010

An apology could be in order

Or maybe a couple of them, in fact, based on last night's performance in a hard-fought 2-0 win over the Florida Panthers.

Aside from the fact Benoit Pouliot is making the Habs pro scouting department look quite astute these days, something I underlined in my game story last night, there were two other guys who maybe turned a page in what has been considered a difficult season up to this point: Scott Gomez and Maxim Lapierre.

Gomez basically single-handedly created Pouliot's difference-maker in the dying seconds of the first, skating the puck out from deep in his territory to the Panthers end before feeding Pouliot in stride for his seeing-eye wrister to the top corner. Gomez also drew an assist on Brian Gionta's empty-net insurance marker in much the same way, taking an outlet pass from Roman Hamrlik and finding Gionta alone in space.

For those who have lost count, or who simply stopped counting out of sheer rage, Gomez now has three goals and 15 assists in his last 18 games. Since Gionta's return, it's been six assists in six games. And since his return from injury Dec. 1, Gomez only has three fewer points than Tomas Plekanec, who has four goals and 17 assists over that span.

I'm not going to say I saw this coming, but Gomez's autumn lull has been a predictable trend over his career, as I pointed out back in November while he was in the midst of it. Now that we have this autumn's results to add to the database, Gomez went six straight games without a point between Nov. 10 and Dec. 1, sitting four games out with an injury in the middle of that stretch. It was the second-longest regular season point drought of his career, but the end of that slump was the start of his current hot streak.

One thing I really noticed about Gomez last night is how much attention he attracts from opposing defencemen. It is very rare that Gomez has the luxury of time and space on the side boards, where he does his best work. Some may say that shows a lack of elusiveness in his game, but I would counter that when defencemen are focused on him they are not necessarily paying attention to his linemates, like Benoit Pouliot, for instance.

As for Lapierre, he looked a lot more like the player that last season served as a spark plug for a team that too often didn't even have a pulse. In the second half of the season, Lapierre was usually the lone bright spot on the Canadiens, a player whose energy and will to compete should have picked up the whole team and inspired it to greatness.

I don't know why Lapierre can't seem to do that prior to Jan 1, but earlier this season he was a shell of his former self, aimlessly forechecking with no purpose, reacting to contact instead of initiating it. But last night, Lapierre skated. He hit. He created chances. He drew a big penalty by driving the net.

Habs coach Jacques Martin rewarded, uhhh, recognized? No, that's not the right word. Ignored that effort by giving Lapierre 11:33 of ice time. Granted, Martin said he wanted to acknowledge the strong play of certain players by shuffling his bottom two lines in the second period, putting Travis Moen alongside Lapierre and Marc-Andre Bergeron and placing the shackles of Georges Laraque on Glen Metropolit and Max Pacioretty.

If Lapierre continues to show the same things Saturday night against the powerhouse New Jersey Devils and onward, I'm sure that ice time will increase with time as he slowly earns the trust of Martin, which is something he's never had.

"I think it was Maxim Lapierre’s best game since I’ve been here," Martin said after the game, without anyone asking him specifically about Lapierre's performance. "I liked his intensity and his speed created things, he spent a lot of time in the offensive end."

Mike Cammalleri was also an interested observer of Lapierre's game, noticing a certain je ne sais quoi in his effort.

“Did you see that one breakout? I mean, he broke it out by himself, he almost went end to end. I haven’t done that since pee-wee," Cammalleri said, almost in awe. "Whatever he did today, he’s got to do that again."

If Lapierre can indeed do it again, and again, it would be a huge boost for this team. Eventually, if Martin believes he can get the job done, it might even allow him to take away some penalty killing minutes from Tomas Plekanec, who has looked somewhat sluggish in going pointless the last three games.

Of course, Plekanec and the rest of the penalty-killers didn't have much work to do last night because the Habs only allowed a single power play, only the fourth time this season they've done that. Interestingly, it was their first win in those four games after a 4-3 loss in Calgary on Oct. 6, a 3-1 loss to the Wild on Dec. 17 and a 1-0 loss to Buffalo on Sunday.

Still, the residual effect of staying out of the box is that Martin can roll his lines at his leisure, and guys like Cammalleri don't get pinned to the bench for two minutes at a time.

“That’s probably one of the reasons we were able to sustain our momentum tonight," Cammalleri said of the team's disciplined play. "Even with a one-goal lead, we didn’t play a hang-on style. We still played with some assertiveness and with some push to our game. One of the main reasons is that you can keep that flow going with a lot more consistency when you’re not killing penalties."

Indeed, and it's something the Habs have been doing much better of late. Last night's game marked the fifth straight where the Canadiens allowed fewer than five power play chances. They only did that three times in the previous 13 games, and Martin seems to know why there's been such a drastic reversal in this area.

"I think lately we’ve been a lot better, our number of penalties have reduced, which is a good sign," he said. "Part of that is probably having more of a full roster, we’ve been spending more time in the opposition’s end. Guys are starting to use our speed better and getting better position. It’s about time we start taking less penalties when you look at our hockey club."

Indeed, this five-game run of reduced penalty time coincides with the return of Gionta and the emergence of Pouliot, giving the team two solid lines capable of spending extended stretches in the offensive end. And everyone knows you are far less likely to take a penalty there than you are if you're constantly within 20 feet of your own net.

1 comment:

Tom said...

Very pleased to see Lapierre showing good signs out there. For myself he's the least of my worries because we just have too much money invested in the wrong places. We've been handcuffed by the Gomez contract combined with Laraque and Hamrlik contracts which has put us in a place where we can't resign our young talent like Pleks and Price. With our money in the wrong places we are fortunate to be in the 8 seed. Gomez needs to be one serious playmaker to warrant those dollars.
Let the buyouts begin I guess!