Goaltending and special teams.
We've heard Jacques Martin mention those two things as being the most determining factors on the outcome of games, that tip the scales of a loss into a win.
Too often this season the Habs have relied on one or the other or both to win games, just treading water 5-on-5 - at best - while their goalie bails them out until they can get on the power play to score. Get enough power plays, you win the game.
Well, Saturday afternoon against a formidable opponent in the defending Cup champs, the Habs did not fall back on their not-so-reliable formula for winning. They found a new formula, one that, if adopted, would likely lead to a lot more wins than the old one.
They played. The whole game.
The Habs didn't need Jaroslav Halak to be outstanding, just average, which he was. The Habs didn't need power play goals. They did get one, but the more important number to me is that they got six power play chances. In the last 50 games, the Canadiens have had that many power plays in a game only twice. Why? Because usually, they don't spend nearly enough time in the opposing end of the ice, which is where penalties are drawn. But today the Habs were all over the Penguins territory, setting up camp in the offensive zone and generating long stretches of pressure, which almost always leads to either a goal or a power play.
So the six power play chances, which matches a season-high for the Habs, is probably the best indicator of the way they played in the game. It was a team victory in every sense imaginable.
I was covering this afternoon's game (you can read my report here) and afterwards asked two people how important it was to pull out a victory where the team did not completely rely on Halak to save its ass (I worded my question a little differently).
The first was Brian Gionta, and he appeared to think I was in some way slagging Halak by asking the question, which obviously wasn't the point of the question at all. But after talking about how well Halak played, especially in the final minutes of the third to maintain Montreal's 5-3 lead, Gionta said this: “I thought it was a better defensive effort. We didn’t give up too many chances. Especially against a talented team like that, that’s what we needed. We were getting up ice better, our forecheck was better. We weren’t sitting back waiting for them to come to us. If you sit back with those guys they’re going to pick you apart. I thought we did a good job of initiating the tempo of the game.”
Gionta was right on the mark, the Canadiens were the initiators in this game and created a lot of turnovers while keeping the puck away from their net. I find too often the Canadiens are forced to go the entire length of the ice to get an offensive chance, and more often than not that process gets derailed by the team's lack of an effective breakout system. But in this game, the Habs picked up pucks in the neutral zone and actually retrieved pucks on dump-ins, which led to some good cycling and puck control in the same area code as the opposing net.
The second person to get a shot at the same question was Jacques Martin, and his answer was very interesting.
“If I go back to early in the season we had a stretch where we played extremely well," Martin began."It might have been from our third game at home to our eighth or ninth game we had games where we limited the opposition to less than 10 scoring chances. We were playing very well, we were very effective on our forecheck and putting pressure on the opposition. Today was a similar game.”
Martin is referring to a stretch of games where the Habs allowed less than 30 shots seven straight times, where they drew at least four power play opportunities in five straight games, where they topped the 30-shot mark in six of seven games.
He's referring to a stretch of greatness that was finished by Halloween.
It's taken the Habs more than three months and 50 games to play another game like that, but they did, finally. The Penguins may have looked past them to the Washington Capitals showdown Sunday at noon on NBC, but if that was the case (head coach Dan Bylsma obviously dismissed the theory), it was a fatal error.
So now, the Habs have won three straight games since Mike Cammalleri's knee injury in a 3-2 overtime loss to Ottawa. They've beaten two top-10 teams in Vancouver and Pittsburgh sandwiched around a shootout win over the downward-spiraling Boston Bruins, the Super Bowl Sunday Bell Centre visitors.
Did I think this would happen? Uhh, no. I didn't. But I have to give credit where credit is due to Eric Engels, who, on Feb. 2, predicted the Habs would go 4-1-2 over their final seven games before the Olympic break. I called him crazy, demented even, but the Canadiens are one win away from making that prediction a guaranteed minimum.
But you know what? After those "wins" against Vancouver and Boston where Halak stole the show and took his teammates along for the ride, I wasn't all that impressed.
Suffice it to say I am now.
But I will add to that a disclaimer: the Canadiens need to duplicate that effort and commitment over and over again before anyone can say this is a bonafide playoff team. The roller coaster ride needs to stop and some consistency needs to emerge.
Otherwise, these glimpses of just how good this team can be will be more frustrating than anything else.