There might be a scent of alcohol to it but that was one collective slow deep breath for Montreal hockey fans to exhale. While the season is still far from over (actually just 10 games away but you know what I mean) this back to back sweep of the team chasing them for the Atlantic Division lead should go a long way to all but assuring first place in the division for the Canadiens. Yes, Ottawa will get one more crack at them this weekend (will Mike Condon finally get to start?) but the remaining schedule of the two teams should dictate a safe landing for the Habs. They appear to be playoff ready. They are harder to play against. They have tightened up. They are standing up for each other. And that secondary scoring that was, not that long ago, missing in action? It’s back too. So what could possibly go wrong? Well, hopefully, an early near-miss (or as George Carlin would say a “near-hit”) is not foreshadowing anything sinister right around the corner.
- Paul Byron. 20 goal scorer. Who saw it coming? Maybe Larry Carriere did. The Habs Assistant GM was in Buffalo when Byron was a 6th round draft choice by the Sabres in 2007, following a 21 goal season for the Gatineau Olympiques at the age of 17. Byron showed some scoring promise over his final two years in Junior when he scored 37 goals and 33 goals (99 points) but after making his NHL debut with the Sabres he was traded to Calgary as part of the deal that sent Robyn Regehr to to Buffalo. Byron became a useful role player with the Flames before they tried to slip him through waivers prior to the start of last season. Other than his years in the Q were there any other indicators that Byron could score goals at the NHL level? Actually, yes. While it’s true he didn’t exactly fill the net while playing for Calgary, he did hit the back of it when he found it. His shooting percentage in his three seasons in Calgary went from 23% to 15% to 9% as his playing time increased. But last year, while scoring 11 goals in 62 games for the Habs it jumped back up to 22%. His shooting percentage during three playoff runs for Gatineau (when he scored 28 goals in 34 games) was 22.1%. This season Byron is shooting at 23%. Only one player in the NHL has a better mark – T.J. Oshie at 24.2%. And remember – Byron is 3 for 4 in shootouts this season. And he’s locked in for two more years at a cap hit of 1.16 million.
- Brendan Gallagher. Started the play that led to the first goal of the game after just 28 seconds. And he didn’t stop. Gallagher is always a target, but he seemed to especially draw the wrath of Marc Methot, who, by the third period, seemed more interested in sending Gallagher onto St. Antoine Street than in playing his position. Almost on cue, it was an ill-timed Methot hit on Gallagher that opened up space for Byron to break in on a two on one and put the game away for the Habs when the speedster beat Craig Anderson through the 5-hole for his 20th goal of the season. And even though it didn’t count, right after the 4th Montreal goal, there was Gallagher outmuscling Chris Wideman for the puck in the neutral zone and feeding Byron for what appeared to be a 5-1 lead before it was waved off because Byron had jumped offside. The real Brendan Gallagher is most definitely back.
- Tomas Plekanec. He lives! So yeah, the entire line had a great night, starting with Plekanec’s first goal since January 24th (19 games).
- Carey Price. Right pad/toe save on Kyle Turris late in the second period was a game changer. Instead of a 2-2 tie entering the third period, the Habs were in position to throttle Ottawa which they did. By then Price was in full inpenetrable mode. Price’s even strength save percentage of .937 trails only Sergei Bobrovsky (.938) and Anderson (.938 – in 23 less games).
- Phillip Danault-Andrew Shaw-Artturi Lehkonen. Not as dominant as the night before in Ottawa but still highly effective.
- Shea Weber-Andrei Markov. Turning into one of the best pairings in the NHL. And they’re managing Markov’s minutes – keeping him around the 22:00 mark.
- Jordie Benn-Nathan Beaulieu. Is there anybody having more fun as a Hab right now than Jordie Benn? Game winning goal – courtesy of Viktor Stalberg’s stick – off a perfect feed from Beaulieu. While Beaulieu gave the coaching staff something to think about by scoring on the power play – just his 3rd goal of the season and first since his three point night in Dallas on January 4th.
@HunterZThompson When Was the last time we saw a Habs player with Benn’s size literally jump someone to defend one of his teammates?
— HockeyCool (@hockeypaisan) March 20, 2017
- Alexei Emelin. Steady. Looked more like himself. Hit people at the right time including a weary looking Erik Karlsson (33:00 the night before). Big part of a strong PK unit (mostly with Weber, partner Jeff Petry, Byron and Plekanec) that killed off two Ottawa power plays.
- Torrey Mitchell. Celebrated his 600th career game by getting into a scrap with fellow 4th line vet Chris Kelly.
- Face offs. Strong reversal from what went down the night before in Ottawa. Habs won 56% of the draws led by Mitchell (9 for 11 or 82%). Plekanec and Denault were both at 64%.
- Canadian anthem. I like it when there is only one. Saves time. I especially like it when I hear it sung by over 21 thousand fans – accompanied only by Dianne Bibeau on the organ.
- Alex Galchenyuk-Alexander Radulov-Max Pacioretty. Ok, they weren’t really bad but I gotta put something here. But fact is they were not a factor in the back to back wins. There were good moments – like Galchenyuk starting the break out from deep inside his own zone with a good play while Radulov worked hard down low at the other end of the ice to get the puck to Beaulieu prior to the game winner by Benn. And Pacioretty helped out on the penalty kill. But there was another key defensive zone face off loss (by Galchenyuk who was 5/16 or 31%) that led directly to a (fluke) goal. (The face off was set up because of yet another unforced give away by Beaulieu.) There was that shift early in the second period when the entire trio could not get out of their own end. And their work on the power play continues to be uninspiring. So much so that when the Habs started the second period with the man advantage it was the second unit that was on the ice. And they were on the bench when Beaulieu’s goal snapped an 0-17 PP skid. But the fact that the Habs are winning while Pacioretty has scored two goals in his last 9 games; Radulov (not counting the shootout winner in Ottawa) has one goal in his last 13 games and Galchenyuk has gone scoreless in eight games. And that’s a good thing. Right?
- It was a brief moment but had the potential for real ugliness – on both sides – when early in the game Karlsson awkwardly collided with Radulov who was trying to avoid the Ottawa superstar. It was this close to a knee on knee collision. An inconvenient reminder.