I haven’t seen a wave of red jerseys move like that since the Soviet Red Army team invaded North American rinks in 1975. From puck drop to the 20:00 mark when Dale Weise slapped a shot off the mask of Craig Anderson the Habs first period was a true throwback – to the days of Cournoyer and Lafleur and The Big 3. When opponents received wind burns while helplessly trying to catch their breath. Or when the Red Army of Kharlamov, Mikhailov, Petrov, Vasiliev and their fellow comrades marched into NHL buildings 40 years ago this month to put on a display of skill that reminded so many of us of what we loved about hockey in the first place – before the constant fighting and bench clearing brawls and thuggery got in the way.
Senators coach Dave Cameron could only utter the word ‘shock’ when asked for his reaction to the way his team performed in the first period when they were outshot 27-8. He might have added one other word – awe.
- Max Pacioretty. One couldn’t have asked for a better response from a captain who was facing his first mini-crisis. How seriously did he take the Habs first four game losing streak in two seasons (during which he failed to pick up a point)? He didn’t take Friday off with the rest of the team. He skated and practiced on his own. That is the definition of leading the way. Even before his strong wrist shot gave Montreal a 2-0 lead with just 33 seconds to play in the first period, breaking Ottawa (and Anderson’s stick as the Ottawa goaltender couldn’t hide his frustration and anger with his turnover-happy teammates) while giving his side some much needed breathing room, Pacioretty was all over the ice – shooting, deflecting pucks, drawing a penalty and, perhaps most important, setting a physical tone when he nailed Patrick Wiercioch into the boards behind the Ottawa net. To perform this way under a giant sized microscope was impressive.
- Tomas Plekanec. It was the great Plekanec stick that forced the Kyle Turris turnover at the Ottawa blue line which led to the Pacioretty goal. But it was his broken stick that highlighted the true team effort on this night. With Ottawa clearly coming on and threatening in the final half of the third period the Canadiens found themselves not only shorthanded by two men but with their best penalty killers seated next to each other in the penalty box. (The hooking call on Pacioretty was ticky-tacky. To put a team up 5 on 3 for tapping a players glove is a bad joke. Credit Bobby Ryan though. He went to the ice the moment he felt stick on glove.) Once Plekanec’s slashing minor was over he joined the kill, eventually got the puck along the boards and then watched helplessly as his stick broke and the puck trickled to Erik Karlsson at the blue line. The Habs were, in effect, back to being two men short. But Plekanec was possessed, never losing body position as he followed the passing pattern in front of him until Turris decided it was time to fire a shot, at which point Plekanec, whose stick work is so good he doesn’t normally drop to the ice, sprawled in perfect time to block the shot and cap off the kill. In hockey sense it was an heroic shift. The Habs, in the end, gutted out a win that didn’t seem to be in doubt after 30 minutes. But it very much was – until the Plekanec shot block. Seconds later Mark Stone took a goalie interference penalty and that pretty much sealed it.
- P.K. Subban. Not among the three stars but I thought it was one of his best games of the season. If the Habs were in early season goal scoring mode Subban might have picked up as many as five assists. He badly outplayed Karlsson.
- Andrei Markov. He was pretty good too. But unlike fellow members of the leadership group, Markov’s play did not dip during the losing streak.
- Nathan Beaulieu. Message received loud and clear. It was Beaulieu who set the offensive tone for the night with his wraparound play that led to the first goal less than three minutes after the opening face off. Beaulieu now with a career high 10 points in 30 games. Last year he had nine points in 64 games. It’s definitely his coming out party. But maybe one party is enough – for now.
- Jeff Petry. Shrugged off a poor performance at home in Detroit. Started and finished the play that gave Montreal it’s first three goal lead since beating the Rangers 5-1 on November 25.
- Alexei Emelin. A monster of a night. He hit nearly half the Senators without running around to do so. And you don’t often see Karlsson go down the way Emelin caught him early in the third period shortly after Beaulieu was targeted by Chris Neil.
- Brian Flynn. Another really good night for the unheralded forward who’s doing a fine job filling in for Torrey Mitchell as the 4th line centre. It was a wide open Flynn who finished off the Beaulieu play to open the scoring. With Plekanec and Pacioretty in the box it was Flynn who was the lone Montreal forward as Ottawa threatened to get back in the game. Flynn also came up with a key shot block on that kill. And once again he had a terrific night in the face off circle winning 63% of his draws, bringing his season total to a team leading 56%.
- Charles Hudon. Two assists in two games. Showing off some puck smarts.
- Daniel Carr. Not on the scoresheet but looked like the best of the recent call-ups. Earned nearly two minutes of power play time because of his eagerness to provide what’s been missing with Brendan Gallagher out of the line up – net front presence.
- Dale Weise. Scoring drought has reached 11 games (one in 16) but he did help set up two of the three Montreal goals. Has apparently replaced Sven Andrighetto alongside Alex Galchenyuk and Lars Eller. Or maybe it was a one-off. Better yet was his performance with Scott Oake on HNIC’s After Hours. While Weise searches for a new contract his post playing career already seems pre-determined. “After Hours with Dale Weise” has a certain ring to it.
- David Desharnais. At least he tried t0 shoot himself out of his slump (9 games). The last time Desharnais had five shots on goal in a regular season game was in April of 2013. A more relaxed Desharnais buries that loose puck in front of Anderson on the first Montreal power play.
- Dustin Tokarski. Don’t count me among those who were surprised to see him start. He earned it with a strong performance on the road against the hottest team in the league. Big early save on Mike Hoffman when the game was scoreless as Hoffman looked like me trying to kill a cockroach in a seedy New York City hotel room (long story). Bounced back after serving up a big, bad rebound goal to Jean Gabriel Pageau. His save percentage is finally over .900 (.912 to Mike Condon’s .911). Should start Tuesday vs San Jose – but not on Thursday against the Kings.
- Power Play. Statistically anyway. Only great work by Anderson kept the Habs from scoring after the Karlsson holding the stick call on Pacioretty. But overall, in their last five games the Habs are 0-16 with the man advantage. They’ve dropped to 11th in the NHL, barely hovering around the magic 20% mark (20.4).
- Dave Cameron. Still shocked? “I have no idea what happened in the first period…I haven’t spoken to them yet”. Cameron has done a terrific job since replacing Paul MacLean but that was a shake-your-head-Jacques Martin-like-decision to use tough defenseman Mark Borowiecki as a left winger alongside Neil and Curtis Lazar. What did he expect to happen? While Borowiecki padded his hitting stats (nine in less than 10 minutes) the trio almost never touched the puck. Is it really that difficult for a coach to double shift a winger instead of using a lumbering defenseman to simply fill out four lines? (Remember Ryan O’Byrne as a right winger for Martin?) There’s a lot to like about Ottawa as a team. But they have no chance of advancing deep into the playoffs unless they realize the best way to attack these days in the NHL is with speed. Not with shoulders or fists.