Saturday, March 13, 2010

Internal competition

It's been a buzz topic of conversation around the Montreal Canadiens all season, and even dating back to the Guy Carbonneau era. Bob Gainey talked about it constantly. Jacques Martin talked about it. Pierre Gauthier talked about it. And now we're about to see that internal competition for the first time this season.

With the return of Maxim Lapierre on Saturday night against the Boston Bruins, and the seemingly imminent return of Mike Cammalleri and Marc-Andr√© Bergeron, assuming no one else gets injured (which is a pretty big assumption this season) the Canadiens will have more healthy NHL players than there are lineup spots.

So if I had to make a suggestion to Lapierre for his first game back, considering the team was 4-0-0 in his absence, I would say he needs to play as if his life depended on it. Because it very well might.

That motivation to play well is just one example of what can happen when you have actual competition for spots in the lineup, and the reason that competition exists today is thanks to one man. That would be Dominic Moore.

A lot of people, myself included, rolled their eyes and kind of gasped when Gauthier gave up a second round pick to get Moore from the Panthers, a guy any team in the NHL could have had when the regular season began before he signed with Florida two games in. It seemed like a very high price to pay at the time, but considering how second rounders were the base currency at the trade deadline and how Moore has played since the Olympic break, it now looks like it was totally worth it.

For the longest time this season, there was little hope of the Canadiens scoring unless one of the top two lines was on the ice. And for some time, it was only one line that looked like it had a hope in hell of scoring a goal. But the addition of Moore has had a tremendous trickle down effect on the rest of the lineup, something Martin acknowledged at practice Friday.

"He gives us speed, an element of experience and he gives us more depth," Martin said. "It allows us to put a guy like (Glen) Metropolit lower down and give him less ice time, which is beneficial for him."

It's not only beneficial for Metropolit that he play fewer minutes, but his linemates as well. Mathieu Darche benefits greatly from an energized Metropolit, as will Lapierre. And when the injured guys get back, there will be a ferocious fight between Darche and Lapierre to keep their spot on that line. 

The Habs power play without Bergeron has been pretty average, to be generous (six-for-41, or 14.6 per cent, in 11 games), so his spot on the fourth line is all but assured. Having Darche and Lapierre competing with each other can only serve to pull the best out of both of them. And right now, I'd say Darche has the inside track on Lapierre to get that spot, considering Darche's 5-4-9 totals in 19 games would average out to 16-13-29 if he'd played the 65 games  Lapierre has. 

But all of this competition between teammates is due to the addition of Moore, because without him Lapierre would be too valuable as a fourth-line centre and Metropolit would have to continue playing third-line minutes.

Ever since Moore was placed with Travis Moen and Sergei Kostitsyn in Los Angeles, the Habs haven't lost a game. After a horrendous 5-for-16 performance in the face-off circle against the Kings, Moore has won 21 of 34 draws in the last three games, or 61.7 per cent. The line has combined for eight points over their four games together while playing against some pretty tough opposition, particularly in L.A. when it was charged with facing Anze Kopitar.

It will be interesting to see what Martin decides to do when, or if, his team is fully healthy, seeing as he basically hasn't had that luxury all season. But what's become clear is that the addition of Moore to the mix has made the Canadiens a far better team than anyone could have predicted when the trade was consummated, and for that Gauthier deserves credit.

Another area where internal competition has been heralded as a positive all season is in goal, and I'll be very intrigued to know what Martin will do for the Boston game. Carey Price is 3-0-0 against the Bruins this season and Jaroslav Halak looked very imperfect in Thursday's 5-4 shootout win against the Oilers.

Based on Halak's performance and Price's record against Boston, it would appear logical to turn to Price on Saturday. But I would go with Halak. Why? Because I feel he needs to be this team's No. 1 goalie going forward, and with only 13 games left in the regular season I feel it's time Martin communicated that to both his goaltenders. No more of this mystery surrounding every game, because it's becoming increasingly likely the Habs will indeed make the playoffs and a decision needs to be made.

In my eyes, there's no better time than now to make that call. Halak was awful the other night in regulation, then stepped it up in overtime and the shootout to make sure Montreal got the win anyway. That, to me, shows intestinal fortitude, because Halak had many opportunities to crack after allowing Horcoff's softie to tie it up. But he didn't, and that should be rewarded. 

I'm not saying Price shouldn't play another game this season, but I feel Halak could use that vote of confidence. If anything, the Canadiens need to see how he would react to it, because he's never been in that No. 1 position before. Saturday's game would be a great litmus test, simply because it is so important.


rubayed said...

The game were Price got pulled! He was still better in it than how Halak was against Edmonton,Price's been unlucky this year
n frankly he hasn't been than bad this season, but it's just Halak has been slightly better along with the team strangely playing much better around him than with Price. How is it Price's fault? I say play Price against Bruins n keep him playin untill he loses a game!

Dann said...

I agree with coming back with Halak, and disagree in making the comments on your blog only about goaltenders.

I think Bergeron may not be a lock for that fourth line position. I'd put him and Lapierre in direct competetition for that spot.

Darche has played some inspired hockey and I don't think he'll be scratched.

Lapierre has an opportunity to prove he is more valuable in 5 on 5 situations than Bergeron is on the powerplay.

Sébastian Hell said...

I think Lapierre will be fighting with Sergei; Darche's job is secure for the remainder of the season.

And I agree with going with Halak.

Sure, Price played better in the game where he was pulled, but pulling him kicked the team in the behind and got them started, which would not have happened had he remained in net. And it was 3-0, which is almost 'lights out' in the West. Halak, on the other hand, managed to keep the game close (tied) and shine in the last 5 minutes of regulation, plus overtime and shootout.

At this point in the season, it's about who is getting the Ws - and no question that's Halak this year. It's unfair to Price, who is going through Murphy's Law this year (for him to have a shot at winning, he has to be the game's first star, and even sometimes that is not enough, see the San Jose game), while Halak is piling up the wins.

There's always next year, Carey - we all know you're the guy the team's keeping!

kyleroussel said...

I'll go against the grain and say that Martin should go with Price tonight. Why? Because of all the things I believe Martin has bungled this year, he's handled the goaltending in an inconsistent, yet successful manner. To me Halak looked tired against the Oilers, which happens to him after a few consecutive starts. Price is virtually unbeatable this season vs Boston.

As for the internal competition on the bottom 2 lines, I think it's worth noting that while Darche and Moore have really solidified them, the organization is not getting enough credit for dumping the dead weight that rendered those lines useless for so much of the season. Pacioretty was not benefitting from playing there, D'Agostini looked horrid, need to go there, and Latendresse. All guys who ended up as mainstays on the 3rd and 4th lines, all doing their business elsewhere, and the Habs are better off for it.