The Montreal Canadiens were out of the playoffs and looking in as they hosted the Colorado Avalanche on Saturday night at the Bell Centre.
The Habs, with only one win in their last four, allowed the New York Islanders to pass them by a single point for the eighth and final berth in the east. Both the Islanders and Buffalo Sabres were up on Montreal by one point, so it’s shaping up already that every game is going to be vitally important in the second half of the season.
- It’s easy to stop appreciating how good Carey Price is. He makes it look so easy at times because his positioning and movement are so impeccable. Midway through the second period, the Avalanche were able to maintain over a minute of pressure in the Habs’ zone. The play revolved around the Habs’ goal and it moved laterally across the crease as well. Price was called on to keep his net and positioning at all times while facing difficult saves moving across the crease. All of these movements, especially keeping square and angled perfectly after moving laterally, are all extremely difficult. But after the 70 seconds of action, it didn’t even appear as if Price was challenged at all. He made it all look like it was nothing. When Price is like this, you don’t appreciate him. All you appreciate really is when he has to flash the glove hand which he can also do often and easily. Price won’t finish with a high save percentage this season. He got off to a horrible start so that is just too much to catch up to. However, he is again one of the best goalies in the league. There are times watching the number 1 goalies around the league where you see them lose their net, or are unable to push-off like Price does, or can’t move in a lateral manner like Price does. Price has lost a considerable amount of games this season, and in 80 per cent of them, the Habs scored two goals or fewer. It’s another reason that he is underappreciated: his margin of error is so low that fans have a sense of frustration if he is not perfect because he took the loss when he allowed two. He has won every trophy in hockey except the Stanley Cup. Goalies can get you there, but he will need some help like he finally got in the third period in their 3-0 win.
- The outstanding netminding of Price made the rest possible in the third period. The best moment by a long margin was midway through when Jonathan Drouin, who had been strong all night, played one of the best shifts of his career in Montreal. Drouin, on for more than a minute, still had big energy at the end of his shift to dangle beating two men, then feeding cross-ice a gorgeous pass to Jesperi Kotkaniemi who wired it home for the huge 2-0 lead. The Avalanche top line was on for two minutes at that moment and Drouin seemed to know it as he kept the pressure on just after the puck got over the blue line by bringing it back into the offensive zone and continuing to press. A dull hockey game catapulted into excitement as the fans jumped out of their seats to enjoy the 18-year-old count a vital goal for his confidence.
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- Jordie Benn continues to be one of the best Habs players in the last month. It is remarkable to watch the ease with which Benn is playing since Shea Weber returned to the line-up. Benn looked so stretched out when he was on the top pair. He couldn’t handle the best players and he could not stay mentally sharp playing 25 minutes. With Brett Kulak making up the third pair, Benn is playing his best hockey since he got to Montreal. Give a player a defined role and make sure that role is not out of his comfort zone and you can often be surprised how much he can give you. Less is more as it is said. For Benn, this less is the most he has ever given. Sports are often an interesting and fascinating paradox.
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- It was an odd game to analyze. No real goats in this one because there really were hardly any events in this one. It was one of the lowest event games in a long time which is truly saying something because last season seemed to be a season’s worth of low-event hockey as Claude Julien coached a terrible hockey team to just stay in the game as best they could. Not to say that this is a terrible team at all, but they are playing as if they don’t have the faith to open it up and let the talent fall where it may. That’s discouraging for fans but probably a good analysis of the situation at this point. The Habs have over-achieved so far this year and now, as the talent level drops to more expected levels, they’re trying to mind the gap with defensively sound play and attention to detail. However, let’s be honest, it’s not exactly enjoyable. The first two periods were dull, but the job is to win and they did what they needed to do. You see, this is how a coach sees it: the standings don’t have an entertainment bonus in them — it’s just win, overtime loss, or loss. This, therefore, could continue for a spell because the head coach got the win at a time when he knows that his players are actually struggling a bit at many facets of their game. Julien achieved his bottom line objective of a ‘W’, and that shouldn’t be critiqued too severely ever, so it won’t be here in this space either.
- Ryan Poehling was back with Saint Cloud State on Friday night and after winning the Most Valuable Player award the World Junior Championships you could see his confidence brimming. Poehling put on a show dangling through opponents as if they were in a lower league. The truth is many times college hockey in the U.S. is a harder challenge than juniors as it is much older men that Poehling has to play against to find success. Poehling has never looked more ready than now to play at the pro level. There’s a feeling as though he doesn’t have offensive skills and is limited to a third-line centre role, but if you have watched him at all, you know this is far from the case. It’s hard to put up offensive numbers in college hockey, while junior games often end with massively high scores. College hockey is more structured by a long margin. Junior hockey is for great young players to put up big numbers, so don’t be under the impression that Poehling will be bringing limited offence. He is scoring at a point per game pace in his third season for the Huskies. If he were playing juniors in Ontario, his numbers would be similar to Nick Suzuki’s totals. Poehling will be bringing plenty when he gets to the pro level.