If there was any lingering doubt that the Habs are indeed among the elite teams in the NHL this performance should go a long way towards erasing it. Because in their first match up against the well rested Washington Capitals – the hottest team in the league – the Canadiens owned the ice. From the opening face off until Dale Weise was penalized for slashing in the offensive zone with less than two minutes to play, it was almost total domination. Except – and it’s a big except – in goal.
- Lars Eller. It was Eller who first tested Braden Holtby from in close barely two minutes into the game. Both players served notice. Holtby made a terrific save with his left pad but Eller would finally solve him at the expiration of a power play 12 minutes into the second. In between those moments Eller looked like a power forward – like someone who’s finally figured out how to properly play the wing. For a couple of games now we’ve seen Eller planting his big frame into the ice with his back to an opponent, daring them to try to strip him of the puck. Instead of going for a long skate with no real purpose, he’s standing his ground willing to battle to keep the puck down low. And good things are happening. Whether it was getting the puck to the net or freeing himself up for a quality shot or drawing a penalty (he forced Matt Niskanen and John Carlson into holding calls) Eller played his best game of the season. By far. That was the sound of a light bulb being turned on.
- Max Pacioretty. Save for a fatal mistake in the third period this was Pacioretty in full beast mode. He had nine shots on goal, a total of 16 shots at the net. That’s Ovechkin territory. And he seems to be slowly regaining his powerful skating stride.
- David Desharnais. Do ya think he likes having Pacioretty back on his wing?
- Alex Galchenyuk. Showing no signs of slowing down. Had the game tying goal on his stick with six minutes to play after a feed by Sven Andrighetto, only to have Holtby’s right pad get in the way. There was a lot of talent on display at the Bell Centre for this one. But nobody looked more highly skilled than Galchenyuk.
- P.K. Subban. Doesn’t he just love the challenge of matching up against the best forwards in the NHL? When you see Subban rocking back and forth on his skates at his blue line during the anthems you know he’s poised. Personally I get as much of a kick out of watching him play defense against Ovechkin as I do watching him skate with the puck and dipsy doodle with it.
- Power Play. It was 0-3 but the Eller goal was the result of a sustained and sick attack led by Galchenyuk and Subban who looked like hockey’s equivalent of the Harlem Globetrotters.
- Brian Flynn. Not to be outdone by his more talented teammates Flynn managed to turn Holtby into a pretzel on his shorthanded breakaway goal.
- Paul Byron. Just seconds before he set up Flynn for the game tying goal Byron had his own break in. The speedy winger has managed to help give the PK unit a couple of dangerous twosomes. The Flynn goal was Montreal’s sixth shorthanded goal of the season, tied with Ottawa for tops in the NHL.
- Tomas Plekanec-Byron-Tomas Flesichmann. Their assignment to start the game was to watch the Backstrom-Oshie-Ovechkin trio. They were not on the ice for either of Oshie’s two goals. In fact this trio, with some help – most notably from Subban and Andrei Markov – managed to hold Ovechkin and Backstrom to a total of one shot on goal.
- Michel Therrien. Could not have done a better job preparing his team for it’s first match up against a possible Eastern Conference Final opponent. Not only did the Plekanec trio hold Ovechkin and company in check, the Habs also held Washington’s leading scorer Evgeny Kuznetsov to just one shot. Impressive.
- Christian Thomas. Discovered the difference between the AHL and the NHL. Was beaten to the puck along the boards – after a Nathan Beaulieu clearing attempt – by veteran Brooks Laich who then fed Tom Wilson for the game’s opening goal after just 2:26. It was an example of poor puck support by Thomas who stood still waiting for it. Played just 5:22.
- Devante Smith-Pelly. Played only 5:56 as the 4th line LW. Second straight game he was under 10:00. Injured, ineffective or both?
- Mike Condon. Rebounded nicely from the early first goal but couldn’t get out of the second period tied. T.J. Oshie’s first goal with just 43 seconds left was a strange one (“The Hockey Gods weren’t with us” said Therrien post game) but a bad one. He has to send that blocker-high shot out of harm’s way, not directly over his head. While Holtby again exhibited why he’s in an elite class with Carey Price and Henrik Lundqvist, Condon is playing like a back up goaltender. Tough to blame a back up goalie for playing like one, but too many pucks are going through him.
- Oshie’s winning goal. It was a perfect deflection by the Capitals winger who had mostly under produced (6 goals, 12 points in 24 games prior to this one) but it was a terrible give away by Pacioretty that paved the way, marring what otherwise was a brilliant performance by the Habs captain.
- Habs record vs Washington at the Bell Centre. Montreal hasn’t beaten the Caps in regulation time in a regular season game on home ice since 2009 (0-10-2). Surely there’s a way to make the visitors from the U.S. Capital feel less welcome. Maybe crowd chants of “1812! 1812!”?