Sunday, December 27, 2009

The Week of Dec 21st in Review

Les Canadiens in action for Dec 21st-27th: The week went pretty well for Montreal in terms of wins, albeit they were hardly playing the finest opposition the NHL could offer, or very good hockey for that matter. They're taking part in a 7-game road trip, their longest in seven years and their last road trip ended 0-6-1, so after the Islanders win, they were already doing much better than last time.

Opposition: Atlanta Dec 21st, Carolina Dec. 23rd and Toronto Dec. 26th.

What's been the Canadiens recent story? Their top line, their MVP, highest-apid defencemen and their cheapest defencemen. Oh, and Jaroslav Halak saving the day non-stop.

The return of Andrei Markov: the team's MVP and the reason their scoring has increased by a goal per game on average since his return is a major difference for why Montreal is enjoying a 4-game winning streak right now. Markov just isn't a 25-minute workhouse for the team, his offensive instincts as a defencemen are second to none among nearly all NHL defencemen, he knows when to leave the blue line to rush in on power play goals or make assists and can keep the puck in on a PP like none other. He has 3 goals, 3 assists in his first four games back, for those of you keeping track, that's a 1.5 PPG pace and while that should probably drop off a little, with 42 games remaining in the schedule, a PPG pace would have him at 46 points, which would have him in the general top 20 scorers among NHL defencemen despite missing a huge chunk of the season.

Why Montreal's won since Markov's return:

- Referencing the week before, Markov scored the first two goals against the Islanders last week to give them the game-winner with his first since Halak posted a shutout, then gave them the real psychological edge by scoring the 2nd goal. If you don't think having a defencemen return from lacerated tendons and scoring two goals against an opponent in his first game back doesn't get into the other team's heads, you're kidding yourself. Montreal was outshot, but Markov's offensive prescence sealed the game.

- In Atlanta, Markov maintained the puck prescence and worked the blue line like one of the great PP quarterbacks of the NHL, he took the Plekanec pass to feed Marc-Andre Bergeron perfectly, who sent another laser to the back of the Thrashers net to tie the game. I doubt anyone else could have set up the shot as well as he did, a tied game for OT and the Canadien's usual OT heroics.

- In Carolina, Markov opened the scoring on a perfect feed from Tomas Plekanec with not even a minute and a half passed in the period, giving the team a feel-good moment for the start of the game and offensive confidence, it was all downhill from there in the game for the team, offensive confidence is never to be underestimated, although the team did pretty well on the scoresheet for themselves, especially Glen Metropolit's two goals.

- In Toronto, what more can you say? He fed Cammalleri, who fed Plekanec for the 2nd goal of the game thanks to the brilliant outlet passes only he can manage on almost any given night. His defensive zone coverage was not that strong, but he's still recovering and it's evident, he will get better, than his feed to Andrei Kostitsyn in OT led to his contributing to a pivotal goal for the 4th time in as many games.

Markov's raised the team's offence to a new level with his return as he always does, generally responsible for making a goal happen in each game he plays, if not more than that.

The Plekanec Effect: A 3rd-round pick from 2001, Tomas Plekanec was never figured to make beyond 3rd line, right now he's top 15 in NHL scoring and has 10 points in his last 4 games. His vision is incredible and he has hands to match, he just knows when and where to put a puck on a player's stick to make a goal happen, while his goal-scoring could probably be better, he's added two goals in his last 3 games alone that are as nice as any you might see. His passes won the game in Atlanta by feeding Bergeron for the game-winner, set up the 1st 2nd and 3rd goals in Carolina and then scored the 2nd goal of the Toronto match, making "The Monster" seem quite mortal in the process.

The Reloaded AK46: Andrei Kostitsyn has been panned a few times and by a few I mean on a daily basis on every discussion about the Canadiens in the last 3 years. He was selected 10th in the 2003 entry draft, which saw talents like Ryan Getzlaf, Jeff Carter, Mike Richards and Zach Parise all taken after of him and have all had better seasons than he's had so far. Andrei Kostitsyn arrived as the answer for who will be the next 40-goal scorer in Montreal, he was highly coveted thanks to his play in his time with his country's World Junior Team and with his reflexes, speed and ability to manage the puck, seemed a sure bet. It hasn't gone as well as planned, but it hasn't been as horrible as some say it has been. Andrei Kostitsyn has scored at least 20 goals in each of his last 2 seasons, although he displays the talent for scoring 30, 40 a season with his abilities.

Right now, he's on one of his best career scoring streaks and 2 of his 12 goals so far have been game-winning contributions, nothing less spectacular than the winner in OT with Toronto of course. With Plekanec and Cammalleri, he has found chemistry and his will to play, he can dangle in the offensive zone with the best of them and his backhander on Nicklas Backstrom last week in Minnesota was one of the slickest goals I've seen this season from anyone. Yes he'll need to work hard to get to 30 this season but at his scoring rate right now and the power of the Plekanec/Cammalleri/Kostitsyn line, it doesn't seem impossible, his wrist shot is a howitzer and his slap shot can find the back of the net just as easily, he's enjoying himself on the ice and you can see it when he scores. Andrei is throwing hits that are felt with his great speed and solid 6', 200 pound body while providing traffic in front of the net, his screen of the Atlanta goaltender allowed for the game-tying goal by Bergeron. Sniper meets Power Forward it seems of late.

The Cammalleri Factor: Mike Cammalleri is not known for scoring goals in road games, whether he likes a hometown crowd to boost him, nerves or whatever, he's scored only 4 of his 18 goals on the road this season and he'll likely hit 40 this season, but with about 30-35 of them on home ice, which suits the Canadiens store in the Bell Centre that sells Cammalleri T-shirts and Jerseys just fine. Cammalleri does still offer a potent offensive threat with his speed and ability to control the puck, he's had assists on a number of key goals this season on the road and that can't be undersold. He's a good team man and seems to be helping keep Andrei interested in the game he's playing, his ability to set up Andrei Kostitsyn alone gives reason to keep those two paired up as long as possible. Cammalleri has 4 assists on the road trip so far, but a couple markers would be nice as well.

Bergeron, the Biggest Steal of Free Agency: Marc-Andre Bergeron is a defencemen who doesn't really know how to play defence beyond the basics and sometimes even those elude the PP specialist, but never say he doesn't make up for that in the other team's end. Bergeron is tied for the goal-scoring lead amongst defencemen with 9 goals and he has 19 points total after missing training camp, pre-season and the first 7 games of Montreal's season. He's scored 4 game-winning goals and his 8th goal of the season directly led to him getting his 9th goal to win the Atlanta game. Simply speaking, he has a laser and knows how to put in the net, playing 4th-line winger and starting the first power play unit with Markov creates one of the most effective one-two punches in the NHL from the blue line, Markov can hit the net from close in on rushing plays, or feed Bergeron for one of his one-time blasts. Montreal has the No. 1 power play in the NHL thanks to that pair and it's easy to see why when they work the back end.

Jaroslav Halak, Starting Goalie?: The goalie debate has raged for years in Montreal, nothing solid since Patrick Roy left town, save Jose Theodore's incredible 2001-2002 season when he won Hart and Vezina, mostly heartbreak. Right now, Jaroslav Halak is playing at his absolute best, he has stopped endless 180 of 186 shots directed on his net, a .968 save percentage that makes just about any other NHL goaltender look bad. Granted, he's not facing the Penguins, Capitals or Blackhawks in these games but that's still a lot of pucks to stop and some of them have been excellent scoring chances he has denied his opposition. Great games for him and he's proving his skill and ability to maintain his team in a game despite all odds.

I don't see Price doing any better than Halak has done in his last 4 games, even at his best, maybe stopping one more goal than Halak perhaps, but four shutouts in the way the team gives the opposition free reign in their own zone? Not likely at all, those allowed goals were nigh-impossible for any goaltender. Halak still gives me fits, I hear the side posts bang too often when he covers against a shot and a few too many rebounds pop loose that have inflated his shot totals and save %. Granted, his rebound control has improved, but a junkyard dog like Mike Knuble, Tomas Holmstrom or similar make their bread and butter on collecting on pucks like that and jamming them in the nets. This road trip is a testament to Halak's skill, he can take the 40+ shot bombardments and keep his team in games while making key saves, but his record against contenders still gives me pause. No convincing wins over a Top 10 NHL team this season and that's a sticky issue, better than he appeared or will better teams home in on the weak spots, collect the rebounds or send that puck in between Halak and the post for a goal?

The 4-game winning streak is clearly in his back pocket and probably earns him this month's Molson Cup for Player of the Month, but Montreal's not facing a top NHL team until January 3rd, Buffalo once more and Halak has but one last chance to purge his demons with that team probably before Jacques Martin decides not to play him against them anymore, if he even sends him out to play them this time. On the 5th, it will be the Washington Capitals and possibly another chance for Jaro to collect some glory against Contenders but again. He will need to be in nets and help form a convincing win to set his status as a team-saver against any opposition in the NHL, right now he's collecting wins for Montreal over weaker teams they should be beating which I am thankful for but I'm not yet sold on him 100%. He's put on same game-saving performances of course, but Andrei Markov playing in November would likely have put Price up 2-4 wins in the column from the games the team just couldn't score any goals in at the same time.

Notable Assistants To the 4-game Streak: Josh Gorges has been his usual warrior self on the Blue Line as has Jaroslav Spacek, Scott Gomez has finally discovered some of his old form, while Sergei Kostitsyn fills in as a great penalty killer when it is asked of him. Travis Moen and Glen Metropolit are stalwart members of the checking lines that always do whatever is needed of them, while Max Pacioretty is continiously frustrated by an inability to hit the net, but tries regardless.

Thoughts going forward: The team has much to cheer about this week for extending themselves to a 4-game streak on the road, but considering how the week could have gone without Halak and Markov in the lineup, it likely would have been much, much worse. Hard work in practice and the rumoured return of both Roman Hamrlik and Brian Gionta to the lineup for Monday's game against the Senators will likely lead to big boosts both offensively and defensively, which will be welcome, Gionta's leadership and offensive skills and Hamrlik's steady hand on the blue line could lead Montreal to their best winning streak of the season really.

The Senators are hardly threatening missing both Captain Alfredsson and Jason Spezza, two of their best players but the way Montreal is playing I wouldn't bet against them either, Florida and Tampa have their own troubles for Montreal later on in the week, as Florida has always been a tricky team for Montreal to beat, while Tampa's Francophone crowd of Lecavalier, St. Louis and Tanguay generally raise their game against Montreal, Steven Stamkos exchanged his sophomore jinx for a rookie jinx apparently with 22 goals this season while Antero Nittymaki is playing a lot better than most of the players against him would prefer. On Sunday, Buffalo and possibly Halak's last chance to prove he can beat the surprising Sabres who finished out of playoff contention last season, although taking Ryan Miller for more than 2 goals this season is a dicey proposal at best so team defence and coordinated offence to break him will require one of Montreal's best games of the season likely.

Eight points are possible, but much depends on Jaroslav Halak, the impact of a returned Hamrlik and Gionta, while the top scoring lines keeps up their pace and above all, Andrei Markov's continual improvement in each game he plays. Tough week, weaker teams but weaker teams that somehow give Montreal much more trouble than they should.

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