Tuesday, March 16, 2010

No looking back

With that dominant 3-1 win in New York over the Rangers, the Canadiens can now start looking ahead of them in the standings, and not behind. It's a position the Habs have been in most of the season, except before they were looking up at that eighth spot in the conference. Now they can conceivably win their division.

Before everyone gets all loopy over this six-game winning streak - the team's first since a string of eight straight from March 23-April 6, 2006 - let's take some time to realize that this will come to an end. The Canadiens will lose another game, perhaps even two or three in a row.

But the reality of the situation is that the teams immediately ahead of Montreal are losing as well, and with great flair to boot. The Senators dropped a 4-1 laugher to the lowly Leafs last night, making them 1-5-1 since the Olympic break. 

The Sabres allowed the Thrashers to halt their six-game losing skid in a 4-3 loss, making them 3-4-1 since the break. Their power play over that span? A dismal 2-for-25.

And the Flyers, very predictably, lost starting goalie Michael Leighton to a high ankle sprain in their 4-3 shootout loss in Nashville. That leaves the net to Brian Boucher for the foreseeable future, and they don't even have an NHL worthy backup to call-up because their No. 3 on the depth chart, Johan Backlund, is also injured in Adirondack. When will this franchise ever learn?

The Canadiens, meanwhile, are now 7-1-0 since the Olympic break and playing their best hockey - by far - of the season, thanks largely to a healthy team and some consistency in forward lines, defence pairings and, most importantly, goaltending. Chemistry is starting to develop because the same players are in the lineup every game, and the addition of Mike Cammalleri for Tom Pyatt should not hinder that process from continuing. 

Admittedly, I had taken it for granted that Marc-Andre Bergeron would immediately be inserted back in the lineup in the place of Maxim Lapierre upon his return, but I'm not so sure anymore. His addition would make the fourth line a liability, and that is clearly not the case now. Lapierre still might lose his spot to Pyatt, but I don't see Martin adding Bergeron to the mix unless he feels he really needs it. In any case, that's a pretty nice ace up your sleeve sitting in the press box.

Though the score doesn't show it, the Canadiens thoroughly dominated the Rangers from start to finish Tuesday night. That probably had as much to do with the Rangers failing to show up as it did with the Habs operating at full capacity right now, but the reasons no longer matter. Not at this stage of the season, because all that is important is that Montreal got two points in the standings.

So, the Habs are now in sixth place by a single point over the Flyers, who still hold two games in hand. They are one point back of the fifth-place Senators, with a showdown looming at the Bell Centre on Monday night. And they are only four points behind the Sabres, who also hold three games in hand but who must face the Canadiens two more times before the end of the season.

Who on earth ever would have thought this was possible at the end of January when Cammalleri went down with that gruesome knee injury? I sure didn't. With the way the team was playing before he got hurt, it would have taken enormous faith to think this team was capable of something like this, even though the Senators did essentially the same thing in January to save their season. The Habs have gone an incredible 11-4 since Cammalleri was lost, helped greatly by this post-Olympic surge.

To be honest, I'm not sure what to make of this team just yet. I didn't think they were quite as bad as they were when everyone was injured, and I don't think there quite as good as they're showing now, either. One thing I do know is that for the first time in a season full of injury-induced lineup-shuffling, line-juggling, minor-league call-ups and goaltending decisions, the Canadiens have found a formula that works. Just how long it will work remains an unknown, but if it continues for just another three weeks, your Montreal Canadiens could very well find themselves hosting Game 1 in the first round of the playoffs.

Somewhere out there, Bob Gainey must be smiling.


patience is a virtue said...

Nice to be facing these kinds of questions for a change, eh? (Almost as nice as listening to the sweet silence of the "we're too small", "the system doesn't work", "bob blew up the team" naysayers :)

Bergeron or Lapierre? What playoff position will we finish in? Will Cam's return knock our offense to the elite level?

But I too am feeling cautious, and patient. Let's just wait and see if we continue to play with the same two way intensity down the stretch. Who knows what the next 11 games will bring? We may well see another Halak-Price flip flop, for example.

I'll allow myself one optimistic prediction: AK re-rediscovers himself upon Cam's return and the Pleks line goes supersonic!

Anonymous said...


Your comment:

"The Habs have gone an incredible 11-4 since Cammalleri was lost"

Reminds me of those W-L w/ Markov vs. W-L w/o Markov stats you occasionally mention. When you include the Markov stats I see it as proof that Markov is a big part of the Canadiens' success.

I wonder what the similar stat looks like for Cammalleri? Does it mean something about Cammalleri's impact? It is probably less meaningful since losing a top-line winger is a little different than losing your top (all-star) defenceman.


Arpon Basu said...

Hey PL,
Habs are 11-4-0 without Cammalleri, 25-25-6 with Cammalleri. 10-8-3 without Gionta, 26-21-3 with Gionta. 14-18-3 without Markov, 22-11-3 with Markov. I'm not quite sure why he isn't captain.

I don't think it says anything about Cammalleri's or Gionta's impact, but it definitely says a ton about Markov's impact.

Arpon Basu said...

Correction, Habs are in fact 14-20-3 without Markov, and 22-9-3 with him.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for all the great blogs Arpon. I read you as often as I can. First time commenting. Please forgive my English as is it not my first language...

IMO, Markov is a fantastic talent. Hands down top 10 D in the NHL. Maybe top 5. Easily the most valuable player on the Habs. However, he is not captain material.

A captain is your leader. He is the player everybody respects in the room. And Markov, too often recently, has behaved in ways that had me (and possibly his teammates) questioning his integrity.

There was that mysterious injury that caused him to miss the last 2 games against the Flyers before the Olympics.

Also, there was the last game in Anaheim, the one the Habs tied in the last seconds on a Markov goal. On that play, Markov scored, but he also faked an injury when slashed by Perry (it obviously couldn't hurt that much if he was able to pick the top corner seconds later) and then he taunted Perry.

Leaders don't behave like this. Lidstrom doesn't. Alfredsson doesn't. Lecavalier doesn't. Ovechkin doesn't. Crosby might fake a little, but he is everybody's #1 target, and he's only 21...

For the Habs, my vote would go to Gionta.

Arpon Basu said...

Gionta's not a bad pick at all, another lead by example guy. But I think you have Markov all wrong. He has the utmost respect of everyone in that dressing room, and has become more of a vocal leader this year. As he goes, the team goes. To me that's a captain. If you're going to count the two games missed against Philly against him, then you have to give him credit for coming back two months early from a devastating injury as well. If you think he was faking an injury on that slash, that's your prerogative. But I think the team saw him shake off a brutal slash that should have penalized to score the tying goal. Which is what a captain would do.