Friday, December 4, 2009

The Centennial Game, Montreal-Boston, A Night of Legends and History

I've not always been the most ardent supporter of Les Habitants through my life, but I've never had nothing else but the utmost respect for the history of the team. They did a fantastic tribute to the team on the official, 100th year anniversary of the Club's founding and I can't imagine how the night could have gone any better.

Every Montreal legend who could still skate was out there, Lafleur, Dryden, Robinson, Cournoyer, Carbonneau, Roy, Lapointe, Savard, Gainey, Mahovlich, Naslund, Houle, Jarvis and more. A series of legends in Montreal took to the ice and recieved an enormous, thundering applause from the Bell Centre faithful. The organization has always showed class in these events and they outdid themselves, from Serge Savard introducing Patrick Roy to Gordie Howe "Mr. Hockey" introducing Le Gros Bill, Jean Beliveau, the consummate Team player, Gentlemen and a magnificent player.

Tonight, two more sweaters were retired and lifted to the rafters of the Bell Centre, Elmer Lach's #16 and Emile 'Butch' Bouchard's #3. Lach formed one third of the infamous 'Punch Line' of the 1940s with Rocket Richard and Toe Blake, together these three would terrorize the entire NHL, the Rocket would score 50 goals in 50 games and two Stanley Cups would be won in three years. Bouchard was one of the legendary defencemen of the team, the Captain from 1948-1956, he would lead the team to two Stanley Cups including the first of the team's legendary 5-straight from 1956-1960. Bouchard was a dominant blue-liner for his entire time with the Canadiens, his ability was so persistent some of it passed down to his son Pierre Bouchard who would suit up with Montreal in later years. The finest defencemen Montreal has seen since Chris Chelios left the team, Andrei Markov who is recovering from injury came out with Ryan O'Byrne to assist in hanging the banners, Ryan O'Byrne proudly removed his jersey bearing his usual #3 to reveal that he would wear #20 from now and handed it off to Bouchard. The organization has always had class in respect to honouring the past and recognizing the achievements of the team's legendary players and tonight was no exception. A grand picture with the legends of the team and the current roster of the Montreal Canadiens was taken, I can only imagine what that picture, signed by all those who were in it would command in an auction. The amount of trophy metal and Stanley Cup rings collected by those legends? Too much to count, they defined hockey for decades with their play and show why Montreal has been the greatest team in the history of the sport.

They changed up the National Anthems for the night, having members of the brass section of the Montreal Symphony Orchestra play them with no one singing, it was an excellent move I felt, they performed it beautifully.

Now to the game, to say this would be a statement game for the rest of the season would be an understatement. The Canadiens had come off of two bad losses in a row, they'd dropped a decision to the Washington Capitals in a shootout after nearly securing a rare regulation win the dying seconds of 3rd period but lost out to a game-tying goal, then suffered the humiliation of being shut out by the Maple Leafs. That was pretty bad, then Buffalo shelled Montreal 6-2 because of an invisible defence in front of Jaroslav Halak, after Montreal had attempted a comeback, but Buffalo stunned them with 2 more goals to make the night an embarassment rather than at least an honorable loss. This was the Centennial Game, the team had stood with the legends of the team and were going to be watched by them all night long, they had to win the game to retain their honour it seemed. They did not disappoint, they would play their most dominant game against a Contender team this season.

The Roster: Jacques Martin mixed things up tonight, deciding to employ defenceman Marc-Andre Bergeron in a role some fans (including myself) have felt he would excel at, a 4th-line forward but playing the point on power play situations. Hal Gill, sidelined for a month with a fractured foot returned to the game, which I felt also helped the team off the ice, he has always been noted as being that great locker room guy that every team likes having around, he would pair with Gorges to form a great shutdown line all night long. Roman Hamrlik and Jaroslav Spacek would form their usual steady pairing while Paul Mara and Ryan O'Byrne teamed up to form the rest of the defence.

Georges Laraque teamed up with Max Lapierre and Bergeron, back in the lineup after serving a deserved 5-game suspension for his knee-on-knee collision with Niklas Kronwall, who I have to admit kind of had it coming. The third line formed a checking line that is becoming a pleasure to watch, Glen Metropolit, Travis Moen and Max Pacioretty, only one goal on the night but they hounded the Boston team all night long and nearly cashed in on several scoring opportunities throughout the game. Sergei Kostitsyn, based on his excellent play with Scott Gomez in last night's Buffalo game that helped nearly spark a comeback for the team teamed up with the recently returned centremen, along with Matt D'Agostini, another recent return from the IR list. Andrei Kostitsyn, Tomas Plekanec and Mike Cammalleri stayed to form what has been the team's best line since Brian Gionta's broken foot ended the Gionta/Gomez/Cammalleri line which carried the team through October. Rookies Tom Pyatt and Ryan White, who had done honorable work for the team but Jacques Martin's feeling was a different lineup was required against the Bruins team decided they would sit out the match. It was a questionable decision to start the match, Georges Laraque has been mostly a liability this season and last, Pyatt and White had been hard-working PK men to this point, but had only two points between them in 13 games each, both assists by White and were a combined -12 in that stretch. I can't say Laraque impressed me on the night, but he didn't make any glaring errors that stick out in my mind.

The Opponent: The Boston Bruins were a dangerous team, they had won 6 of their last 7 games and their only loss had been in the shootout. Marc Savard, one of the league's most dangerous playmakers and the team's best centre this season, Patrice Bergeron were both looking to take it to a Montreal team Boston had bested five of 6 times last season and swept in the playoffs. Zdeno Chara had won the Norris Trophy as the League's best defencemen while goalie Tim Thomas had been a hard man for the Canadiens to solve last season and had won the Vezina Trophy and William M. Jennings trophy for Best Goalie and for least regular season goals allowed by a team respectively. Former Habs Michael Ryder and Steve Begin were very much in favour of proving the team had been wrong to get rid of them.

The First Period: The team had a good, strong start that saw back-and-forth offence between the two teams, Montreal had come out to play and they were committing 100% effort to the match. Montreal had several good scoring chances through the period and while it is a little early to say a first-period save by the goalie was the game-changing moment, but it was. After a breakdown during the power play would give Boston the puck, Carey Price would stone Marco Sturm on the breakaway and restore life to the Canadiens offence.

They would score a goal four seconds after their first power play ended, a one-timer from the point off a great pass by Scott Gomez to Jaroslav Spacek who would blast in a shot to beat Tim Thomas on his glove side, 1-0 Montreal.

Ryan O'Byrne would later be caught on a weak interference penalty, but Montreal killed it off, beginning the start of a perfect penalty kill for the evening. A second power play would deliver no goals for Montreal, but their offensive pressure gave them the overall edge for the period, while Price would make strong saves to keep the score 1-0. Montreal would end the period with a 10-8 shot advantage.

The Second Period: The game ended for the Bruins in nearly as much time as it took for Montreal to score their first goal of the Buffalo game last night. Price's saves had energized the team, Hal Gill had returned to help keep the team composed in the locker room and they knew they had the Bruins where they wanted them with an aggressive forecheck and a 100% effort the team has used to get their wins this season.

The period looked to have turned against Montreal early on though, after a scrum around the Montreal goal following a tight save by Carey Price, Jaroslav Spacek and Maxim Lapierre were both served with roughing minors and while I can see why Lapierre took the penalty, I can't see how Spacek's was justified at all. Boston would have a full 2 minutes of 5-on-3 power play with Zdeno Chara, the fastest slapshot in the NHL on the point, with Marc Savard, one of the league's best set-up man ready to go. The penalty killers were brilliant, Price moreso as key stops were made, shots were blocked and Hal Gill used that massive 6'7" frame of his to interfere with everything he could reach, which was quite a bit, he and Gorges self-sacrificing ways for shot blocks showed great commitment to the team and Price himself. The 5-on-3 was killed off but Montreal really wanted to rub it in and exact justice for a rather unjustified penalty, 36 seconds later, they would score and the game's momentum was irrevocably changed.

A Plekanec play slightly over 8 minutes into the 2nd period that initially missed the net, but with great offensive pressure by Montreal saw Mike Cammalleri score on the third rebound of the puck against Tim Thomas to give Montreal a 2-0 lead, his 13th goal of the season, which was rather unlucky for Boston.

5 minutes, 23 seconds later, Cammalleri would pounce on a puck that Thomas mishandled to slip it through the Boston netminder's 5-hole to secure his 2nd goal of the night and push the lead to 3-0.

Montreal wasn't even close to finishing their offensive clinic for the night, a quick pass from the ever-improving Max Pacioretty to Hal Gill, who fired off a shot towards the Boston goal was redirected by a perfect Glen Metropolit tip-in to give Gill his first assist of the season and Metropolit his 6th goal.

hadn't quite finished using the Boston Bruins to pad his stats for the night, feeding off of a great pass from Scott Gomez, his one-timer would beat Tim Thomas to earn his 2nd hat trick of the season and after only wearing the Habs uniform for 28 games, 5-0 for Montreal.

The efficiency of the Montreal shooters gave them 4 goals in 13 shots for the period, although now Boston had outshot them 26-23 over 40 minutes, thanks largely in part to the 5-on-3 situation. Montreal had not scored 5 goals on Boston in over a year until this game. Sergei Kostitsyn would leave the ice late in the 2nd period after a collision with a Boston player that seemed to injure his knee, we can only pray this is not too serious, Montreal's had a hard time retaining their top 6 talent of late.

The Third Period: Tim Thomas was pulled and Tukka Rask came in, who put on a fine performance for a late-game appearance. Sergei Kostitsyn had not returned to the bench, leaving Jacques Martin to double-shift Mike Cammalleri and Andrei Kostitsyn for stretches of the game. Montreal was pushed back more in this period, Boston needed something from this game to feel better about going into tommorow night, they didn't need to get wiped out by Montreal and demoralized for their game against Toronto the following night.

A redirection mid-flight by Bruins player Sobotka who had been tangled up with Josh Gorges on a Matt Hunwick slapshot from the point beat Price, who barely even saw the puck because of the Sobotka/Gorges screen. Price had nothing to be ashamed of on that play, but it was a bit heartbreaking as for about the 4th time this season, nothing that was his fault denied him a shutout against an opponent that had caused him much grief in his young career, the score went to 5-1.

Boston further got a chance to get the score closer and spoil Montreal's night as penalties against Montreal started to pile up. Maxim Lapierre was caught on an accidental double-minor high-sticking which drew blood, which is another reason I always argue for the visor, that Boston player might have lost his eye on that play had the stick been an inch up and to the left where he was cut. The double-minor set in, Montreal's penalty killers went to work again to deny Boston any more goals and did so, Gorges and Gill threw themselves into the shot block heroically time and again and every other Montreal player gave it everything they had, or too much.

After 2:34 of penalty kill action, D'Agostini got caught slashing and it turned into a 5-on-3 once more. More sacrifice from the penalty killers, brilliance by Price prevented any more goals, but Tomas Plekanec and David Krejci would each go off the ice for penalties off of a faceoff, with Plekanec serving a double minor for high-sticking, while Krejci served a single minor for roughing. 12 seconds later, Bruins forward Marco Sturm would be caught for tripping, turning the penalty into a 4-on-3 situation. The theme of the night continued, perfect penalty killing and great goalie work as the 4-on-3 became 4-on-4, then 5-on-4 for a brief Boston power play before all the players were finally released from the sin bin.

The rest of the game showed a bit of weariness in Montreal, but considering it was their 2nd game in two nights and they had killed off a grinding series of penalties, I think one might forgive them for being a bit sluggish towards the end. Montreal tried for a 6th goal towards the end, but their weariness and a more resolute Boston defence kept them at bay so the final score would remain 5-1.

The last thirty seconds ended with Montreal managing a little keep-away game against the Bruins, not wanting them to spoil the night any further with a quick goal.

The crowd would seranade the Boston Bruins with the "Hey Hey, Goodbye" song as early as 8 minutes remaining in the third, which would seem to invite bad karma, but the Canadiens kept it locked down and Boston seemed to have accepted their fate to a certain degree, better to be ready to take it against the Maple Leafs the next night then kill themselves for a nigh-impossible comeback.

The Offence: Magnificent across three lines, Lapierre/Bergeron/Laraque was marred by Laraque being ineffective as a forward on a Jacques Martin team and Bergeron's first time playing forward, Lapierre's penalties really took away from his effectiveness on the night.

The Metropolit/Moen/Pacioretty line showed themselves to be one of the best checking lines in the NHL, they locked down their opponents and had more scoring chances against Boston than they allowed against their own team, which culminated in Metropolit's tally on the night. Pacioretty nearly cashed in himself several times only to be denied by Tim Thomas and Tukka Rask and was strong all night long, his best game of the season. Travis Moen played the strong defensive forward role he's embraced in Montreal, he and Metropolit played well in both the offensive zone and the penalty kill.

The Scott Gomez/Matt D'Agostini/Sergei Kostitsyn line had less than 40 minutes together but they plated well, Gomez's passes in the offensive zone set up two goals and D'Agostini seemed much more in place tonight than his last game, hopefully an encouraging sign since he would now have to clear waivers to return to Bulldogs for more AHL time. Sergei Kostitsyn would see penalty killing time and set up some plays that might have become goals, however his injury cut off his chances of adding any offensive totals to his night.

The Cammalleri/Plekanec/Andrei Kostitsyn would bury the Bruins effectively, Cammalleri cashing in on Plekanec's rebound then securing his 2nd goal unassisted, he is an offensive dynamo that at his current pace, will likely enjoy a 40-goal season and is the best goal-scorer I've seen in years that plays for Montreal. Tomas Plekanec had a strong night again, not as productive as he has been but he would be a key member of the penalty kill and solid all night long. Andrei Kostitsyn was kept to a single assist, but you can feel it from the way he's playing lately that the goals are coming, he always seems to get almost to the net and then misses the chance or is never fed the puck in a scoring position. Nevertheless, he had good offensive zone pressure for most of the night and I know he's going to really start lighting it up soon.

The Defence: Six Heroes took to the ice tonight, the game could have been a whole lot harder had these fine players not done everything within themselves and beyond their ability to preserve the game for Montreal. Hal Gill and Josh Gorges? Shades of the Scuderi/Gill pair during the 2009 Stanley Cup series between the Penguins and Red Wings, they were heroic in front of their goalie and protected him with their body and shook off every hard shot of rubber like it was a ping-pong ball, magnificent all night long.

Roman Hamrlik and Jaroslav Spacek, they're playing their best hockey in years I'd say, being a 1-2 pairing for a team missing it's Star player in Andrei Markov and doing everything humanly possible to serve their team's needs, Spacek's one-timer from the point helped get the team going especially after the near-goal during their own power play which had just expired.

Paul Mara and Ryan O'Byrne served up a hard course of intimidation all night long, combining their 432 pounds and combined 12 feet, 9 inches of height to crush every Boston player who crossed the blue line and keep the puck in Montreal's hands while serving vital penalty killing minutes.

The Goaltending: Price loves to play in a clutch situation, you can sense it the way he brings his performance up in a game like this. Montreal would score 5 goals, but it could have ended 6-5 Boston had Price not put another commanding performance to help make this win possible. From his stoning Marco Sturm on the shorthanded situation to his brilliance during every penalty kill situation, Price put on a performance worthy of Dryden or Roy, who were both in attendance for the night. Price has now allowed only two goals against Boston in two games this season, it seems if ever the Bruins haunted them, he has chased away the ghosts now. If Montreal is to win a 25th Stanley Cup, it will be because of the performance of this brilliant young goaltender.

Looking Ahead: While it can't be expected for Mike Cammalleri to score hat tricks all the time, his ability to score like he does gives Montreal a big gun in their offence that can't be easily stopped, as evidenced by Boston and New York, two teams with good defence that couldn't contain the 5'9" speedster. Tomas Plekanec and Scott Gomez showed themselves to be steady centres for this team, while the Kostitsyns and Pacioretty seem to keep improving with each game they play of late. The defence played their roles perfectly and there's plenty more credit to go around, especially to Price but the key tonight was effort. 100% from everyone practically, no one goofed off and they played their roles, which is how this team can win games deservedly and if they do so, will not be hitting the links too early, especially with the upcoming return of Brian Gionta late this month and Andrei Markov in January.

Three Stars for the Night:

1. Carey Price, his goaltending made the night such a fantastic experience.
2. Mike Cammalleri, his 2nd hat trick in 28 games, it's been a long time since Montreal enjoyed having such a natural scorer as Mike.
3. Hal Gill, his self-sacrificing ways and assist on the Metropolit goal made him a star tonight, many had bashed him until now, tonight he showed why he was signed and wears the A, his example of selfless work in the penalty kill makes him a great Team Man.

Chicago Blackhawks Report:

Didn't catch the game, but Nashville scoring 2 goals in 37 seconds in the dying minutes of the third seems to show the Hawks have a bit of a hangover from their 8-game winning streak still, despite their dominant forwards and impressive blue-liners, they have had trouble coming up with a convincing win since they handed the San Jose Sharks a 7-2 loss late last month. Down 2-1 with with 2:03 to go in the period shouldn't have been much of a challenge for Chicago and while Nashville is having a strong season, the Blackhawks specialty under Coach Quenneville (recently celebrating his 500th coaching win) has been a comeback and they've had a harder time with those of late. Jonathan Toews would score the lone goal for Chicago in regulation, the young Captain's 7th of the season.

Notable Juniors Habs recognition:

- P.K. Subban, every Montreal fan's favourite defensive prospect scored his 5th and 6th goals of his first AHL season against the Toronto Marlies(Baby Leafs), helping secure a 3-0 win over them.
- 3rd-round, 79th overall in the 2009 draft, Defencemen Mac Bennett in his first USHL season before attending University of Michigan next season, scored his 2nd goal of the season in a 6-4 win for his Cedar Rapids Roughriders over the Sioux Fall Stampede. Bennett is the Grandson of an NHL player, the nephew of NHL players and the last Montreal Canadien to be selected 79th overall was Ryan O'Byrne, a sign perhaps?

Ex-Habs Recognition:

- It seems Gui Latendresse was allergic to the Habs Uniform, he scored the shootout winner for Minnesota in a 5-4 win over the Anaheim Ducks, the teams had been in a see-saw battle the whole night long with Anaheim taking the lead and Minnesota tying it up.
- Anaheim Duck Saku Koivu was outshone by his younger brother Mikko, who would score 2 goals and 2 assists in a sibling battle that saw Koivu held without a point and missed on his SO attempt in a 5-4 shootout loss to the Wild.
- Boston Bruins Michael Ryder and Steve Begin were both held without a point by Montreal, but would avoid finishing with a negative in their +/- column.

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