It wasn’t just a burst of positive energy and joy that erupted inside the Bell Centre. It was also the pent up intensity of an entire city exhaling.

Whether the Habs get by the Rangers and do something special this spring or not we have an instant classic to draw on whenever we recall a Canadiens playoff game on Good Friday. Instead of remembering the date solely for the brawl-filled series clinching win by the Habs over the Quebec Nordiques at the Forum in 1984. But in keeping with tradition, some of the spirit of that night did prevail briefly in the second period.

After failing to score in the series opener the Habs knew they had to be a lot hungrier around the net. And there they were, on top of Henrik Lundqvist to redirect the puck by him to perhaps save their season with 17 seconds to play and then carrying the momentum into overtime as wave after wave descended on a group of weary Rangers’ defenders who weren’t really helped out by a Guy Boucher-like 1-4 employed by Alain Vigneault for the final 30 minutes of the game. As brilliant as Lundqvist was (54 saves) he finally got burned by one of the many rebounds and loose pucks left at his feet. And the building exploded like we haven’t heard or felt since the magical spring run of 2010.

Now let’s take this act to Broadway.

THE GOOD

  • Brendan Gallagher. Might have been the best game I’ve ever seen him play. Directly responsible for the first two Montreal goals. After failing to register a single shot on goal in game one, Gallagher led all players with 9 shots, tying a career high. With such an emphasis on going harder to the net and battling for loose pucks, it was an assignment tailor made for him. He was responsible for breaking Lundqvist’s goal stick at the side of the net leading to the opening goal of the game while his relentless play in jumping on his own rebound down low and sending it to the slot gave the Habs the lead. As I made my way out of the Bell Centre after the game with Simon Tsalikis I saw Gallagher decked out in a snazzy looking suit, strolling (more like strutting) by himself to the players’ family room with a smile-smirk on his face. As he caught my eye he said “Well that was fun!” A perfect post script to one of the most enjoyable nights  at the Bell Centre.
  • Tomas Plekanec. Game of the year. I’ve been watching him play since Day One of his NHL career and I don’t recall a goal celebration from him like we saw after his game tying goal with time, and perhaps the season, slipping away. If you have a heart it had to expand for the much maligned veteran who knew better than anyone how poorly his line had played in the opener. The moment brought to mind an early season episode of 24CH when cameras caught assistant coach Kirk Muller yelling between periods in St. Louis, “You’re not done yet, Pleky! Your career is not over!” As mentioned, the Habs needed hungrier players in this one. Once Plekanec set up in front of the net he wasn’t distracted, even as defenseman Nick Holden broke his own stick with a slash across Plekanec’s leg, followed by a couple of shoves. Yet the centre didn’t flinch, eventually redirecting the puck past Lundqvist to set in motion a 1-1 series tie. The reason Plekanec was on the ice late enough to tie the game was his continued (and unexpected) late season surge of strength in the face off circle (17/27 or 63%). If the Habs win this series you’ll be able to look back and point to this game as the night when Plekanec earned his season salary.
  • Alexander Radulov. The net front mismatch between Radulov and Mika Zibanejad on the winning goal was typical of the entire game as the Rangers had no answer for Radulov’s puck possession game in their zone. Doesn’t seem to matter how little time or space he has to work with because he is almost always going to make the right play. While his line/teammates couldn’t finish for him in Game One, they did enough to set the stage for him to finish for himself – while scoring the biggest goal of his NHL career.
  • Shea Weber. In total monster mode for two games. Looked like he had won the game in OT when his one-time blast from the left side of the ice beat Lundqvist up high, only to clank off the area of the net where the goalpost meets the crossbar. Eventually settled for helping to set up the Radulov game winner. He’s providing offense, moving the puck out, leaning on opponents, clearing the crease, blocking shots (7 including perhaps a game saver) and sending a loud and clear message that he is definitely willing to drop his gloves to destroy anybody who thinks they can send him through the back boards.
  • Andrei Markov. Played a game high 33:37. And yet the 38 year old looked like he could have kept going for another 30 minutes. We’ll see if some fatigue begins to creep into his game at MSG but he’s another veteran member of the leadership core who delivered when it mattered most.
  • Max Pacioretty. Much like in the opener, Pacioretty got off to a slow start but his game kept getting better with more and more ice time (26:21 to lead all forwards). It was the Habs’ captain who led the rush into the Rangers zone with strength and purpose before sending the puck to the net along the ice (instead of those floaters he was wristing into Lundqvist’s glove far too often) where Radulov pitchforked it into the back of the net.
  • Alex Galchenyuk. Can we now stop with the notion that Galchenyuk is anything other than a valuable offensive dynamo? Had the game on his stick a couple of times only to be denied by Lundqvist. He set up Weber perfectly for that one-timer in overtime. And he was part of the 6 man unit on the ice throwing the puck around with a high degree of skill which led to the game tying goal by Plekanec. Appears set to be a difference maker in New York. Will it be at C or LW – or both?
  • Paul Byron. Sprung free on a breakaway by Gallagher midway through the first period with Montreal leading 1-0 Byron attempted to go 5-hole on Lundqvist who beat him. Moments later Michael Grabner didn’t miss on his breakaway and you started to wonder if the Rangers had halted the Montreal momentum. So it was huge when less than two minutes later Byron finished off a three way play with his line mates and beat Lundqvist from the slot for his first career playoff goal.
  • Phillip Danault. Like Byron, Danault appeared to suffer from a case of stage freight in his NHL playoff debut but was a lot more effective in this game.
  • Carey Price. It was a sick, slick move that a speeding Grabner (shrewd signing by the Rangers following his nine goal season for the Maple Leafs) beat him with on that breakaway. But later in the game he kept his poise as Grabner again broke in free only to go high and over the net with his shot. Rick Nash beat Price with a perfect shot that we used to see Nash fire a lot more often back in the day while Mats Zuccarello took advantage of a busted assignment to deflect the puck into an open net while he was unguarded to give the Rangers the lead. So there wasn’t much the Habs goaltender could do, except to not allow a 4th goal. His best save, perhaps a series changer, came in overtime when he was able to get across the crease quickly to his left to get his shoulder in the way of a sure goal off the stick off Jimmy Vesey. It’ll be Price’s turn to write a story at MSG.
  • Jeff Petry. Took advantage of a stick-less Lundqvist with a perfectly placed wrist shot from down low to score his first goal since December 23 and give the Habs an early lead. Still some moments of uncertainty in his own zone, but nothing like the third pairing. A fast skating team like the Rangers is a good match up for Petry but we’ll see if he’s as effective at MSG where Vigneault figures to give him plenty of Chris Kreider who, save for a stupid slashing penalty in overtime on Steve Ott, has yet to show up for the Rangers.
  • Jordie Benn. Simply put he is one of the best acquisitions ever made by Marc Bergevin.
  • Claude Julien. Didn’t wait 58 minutes to move Galchenyuk up in the line up. Had him back alongside Andrew Shaw and Artturi Lehkonen to start the second period. Even had Galchenyuk back in the middle of the trio with Shaw on right wing, something we’ve been urging them to try since late in the season. (Shaw’s poor night in the face off circle – just 33% – might have also had something to do with it, but the fact of the matter is that Shaw is a much more effective winger than he is a centreman. And if Galchenyuk is a constant threat it makes a lot more sense to allow him to carry the puck more often and allow Shaw to do what he does best – forecheck and win puck battles.) Julien also had Galchenyuk take Danault’s spot for a shift late in the second alongside Radulov and Pacioretty. Julien challenged himself to find more ice time for the offensive weapon that Galchenyuk is and he delivered on that challenge. Julien also changed up the defense pairings when it was obvious his third pair was again struggling. And he had the good sense to put Plekanec on the ice late to win a key face off.

THE BAD

  • Power Play. There were some good scoring chances, especially off the stick of Galchenyuk but it was another ineffective 0-4 night. If it’s any consolation, the Rangers PP doesn’t look much better. Both teams are 0-7 to start the series.
  • Nathan Beaulieu. Terrible first half until Julien took him away from his D partner. But then he mucked up playing alongside Weber when he left his position to take up Weber’s spot to the right of Price, which, naturally left Zuccarello wide open to give the Rangers the lead. Weber, who had delivered a hit along the boards, was returning to his position only to collide with…Beaulieu. Unlike their current 6th defenseman the Habs are going to need a better Beaulieu moving forward. But not as much as they’re going to need a healthy Alexei Emelin.
  • Steve Ott-Andreas Martinsen-Dwight King. They had their moments (Ott especially when he bulldozed Zuccarello off his feet which started one of the most intense scrums we’ve seen in awhile) but through two games the Rangers 4th line is an easy winner.

THE UGLY

  • Nikita Nesterov. It’s difficult to play defense in the NHL when you don’t want the puck in the defensive zone. A disaster waiting to happen. When was the last time you found yourself holding your breath when a Habs player was on the ice in overtime? Brandon Davidson? Even Nikita Krushchev would be a better option.
  • Brendan Smith on Andrew Shaw. Smith and Brady Skjei have been the most effective D pairing for the Rangers. Always knew Smith as a solid defenseman but didn’t realize he had such a nasty streak. That was an ugly cross check to the side of Andrew Shaw’s face that was uncalled by refs Brad Watson and Trevor Hanson, something that helped create a toxic atmosphere which led to the brouhaha seven minutes into the second period.
  • Shea Weber-JT Miller. The Rangers clearly feel they need to make it harder for Weber to do his thing so they started to run him early, with Miller twice nailing him hard into the boards after the Habs had opened the scoring. After the second hit, I turned to Knuckles Nilan up in our TSN 690 work station and said “Weber is going to kill him.” Maintenance workers at the Bell Centre are still trying to remove a brown stain on the ice.

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5 Responses

  1. Francois

    Jordie Benn best acquisition by Bergevin. After Weber, Radulov and on the same level as Byron.

  2. Marco Chioda

    Is it too early to call up Sergachev yo repalce Nesterov?

  3. dra58

    Not sure what Markov has been drinking but maybe it’s the fountain of youth lately.
    I hope he has enough of it to carry 4 rounds because he looks great right now. GO HABS GO!

  4. Benny

    Great write-up Mitch! Looking forward to game 3.

    This was easily the best Habs game I have ever been to. The energy was INSANE inside the Bell Centre for the whole match and especially the last 30 minutes.

    Truly an experience I will never forget! GO HABS GO!

    You’re right when you say the crowd hasn’t been like that since 2010. In all the games I have ever been to, the crowd has never been so crazy. I lost my mind when they won in OT. Just amazing!