Montreal Canadiens vs. New Jersey Devils @ Bell Centre – December 17, 2011

All the sports chat shows and on-line sites were ablaze yesterday.  It wasn’t because the New Jersey Devils were in town with Martin Brodeur getting the start between the pipes.  The reason for all the (and this is a highly technical term) kafuffel was that early Saturday morning quite unexpectedly Habs general manager Pierre Gauthier called a press conference and announced the firing of coach Jacques Martin.  Unexpected because Gauthier and Martin have worked together for a long time since their days with the Ottawa Senators.  Montreal fans have been calling for Martin’s head on a plate for months now, so the firing wasn’t exactly out of the blue and yet it was.

Assistant coach and ex-NHLer Randy Cunneyworth was named the interim head coach.  That is also shocking as Cunneyworth is a unilingual Anglophone.  While the language of the coach is of no importance in any other NHL city, but in Montreal it has always been paramount.  In the past coaches of the Montreal Canadiens have been chosen not necessarily because they were the best candidate, but because they were the best bilingual candidate.  And I propose that the buck must stop here.  If the Canadiens as an organization are to return to the glory days of winning Stanley Cups at an unparalleled clip then the language of players, staff or coach should not be considered.  Talent and capabilities should be the only considerations.  End of discussion.

As for the game, new head coach Randy Cunneyworth did not have much time with his team to try and tinker with their system of play.  Actually, at the start of the game each of his defensive pairings and forward lines were exactly the same.  Though if you watched carefully you could see some changes already.  Winger Michael Cammalleri did not have one second on the penalty kill.  Young players like Lars Eller and Louie Leblanc were given serious minutes and allowed to contribute.  Sometimes the forecheck featured two players.  Defenceman were jumping in on the rush most noticeable when Josh Gorges joined in while the team was shorthanded.  There was consistency with the lines including the fact that the Cammalleri-Tomas Plekanec-Andrei Kostitsyn line started every period.  Baby steps.

Before the game Cunneyworth said his philosophy would be that each player on the team would bring to it their own special talents.  Each player would be put in a position to contribute to the team what they do best.  He said he expects every player to play to his potential.  Sage advice.  Cunneyworth wants a team that reflects the way he played when he was an NHL defenceman.  He wants a hard working team that competes in every area.  They have to use their team speed and move the puck well.  Habs players will now be expected to be responsible to themselves, the coaches and teammates.

Like is the case when coaching changes are made the team responded positively initially.  The Canadiens came out strong with PK Subban and Cammalleri having good early scoring chances though they could not even register a shot on net for their efforts as they both missed the net.  While on that subject, I have not seen a team with such a fragile mindset as the Canadiens in a long time.  They miss the net on tons of opportunities because they are trying to be too fine rather than just getting the shot on net.  Or they pass up a clear shot to make another pass.  They don’t seem to remember the saying that you are not going to score on 100% of shots you don’t take.

The strong start evaporated as quickly as it came as the team (Alexei Emelin, Eric Cole and Eric Cole again) took a couple of penalties and was not able to muster up any offence to speak of.  It took 9 ½ minutes for the Canadiens to even register their first shot on net.  Cammalleri took a shot from near the blueline that he was never going to score on.  But hey, it was a shot.

New Jersey threw 12 shots at Carey Price in the 1st period and scored once.  Veteran Petr Sykora scored the goal.  Montreal only managed directing 6 shots on Brodeur.  Flat, flat, flat.

The second frame it was a different team that took the ice.  Montreal had some jump in their collective steps.  In the second they allowed two goals against (Patrik Elias and David Clarkson), but managed to score three of their own.  A power play howitzer by PK Subban, his first goal as a Hab by Chris Campoli and Lars Eller’s 3rd of the year momentarily put the home side up 3-2.  Christmas cheer was abound for a short time.  That was until Devil centreman David Clarkson ruined everything.

Now I cannot blame it all on Clarkson as he was just doing his job.  This was his 11th goal of the season.  The big man has good hands.  He received plenty of help on the goal though.  And it wasn’t by his teammates, though defenceman Adam Larsson did spring him with a good pass it was really the Habs that shot themselves in the foot yet again.  As has been the habit with a few players this season several Habs players coast to the bench during line changes.  This time it was Subban who took his sweet time getting back to the bench.  This lackadaisical change led to Hal Gill only being able to get to his side of the ice a step behind Clarkson.  Clarkson had plenty of ice to work with and was able to get a low blocker side shot past Price.  The game was tied 3-3 and for all intents and purposes it was over.

In the 3rd period the Habs redefined flat.  They could not get out of their own zone leading to two more Devils goals by Elias and Dainius Zubrus.  Final score was 5-3 and it was another disheartening loss.  Not the best start for new coach Randy Cunneyworth.  It was more of the same for the Habs.  More boos rained down from the stands as the fans were not happy and not going to go easy on the team.

After the game it took longer than usual for the door to the Habs dressing room to open.  The players remained in there for a players only meeting.  They, to a man, said that the effort they put forth in this game wasn’t good enough.  They have to put in a full 60 minutes, defend a lead better, work harder, and support each other.  After the game, Hal Gill said that they all feel like they let each other, the organization and the fans down.  They have to do better.

Bottom line is that Montreal is in last place in the Northeast Division with 33 points in 33 games.  But all is not lost because despite their poor play for the most part this season they sit only 2 points out of a playoff position.  The season can be rescued and harmony can be restored in the kingdom if Montreal begins to pull up its collective socks and starts playing up to their capabilities.

That being said the team is embarking on a 6 game road trip to end the calendar year.  Being away from the Bell Centre, where they have been disastrous this season so far, might be just what the doctor ordered.  The road trip kicks off Monday with the Habs traveling to Boston to take on the very strong Bruins.  Courage Cunneyworth!

Game Stats:
-On Ice Officials:  Referees:  Chris Lee and Greg Kimmerly
Linesmen:  David Brisebois and Greg Devorski
-Goals:  1st Period:
7:05:  New Jersey – Petr Sykora assisted by Dainius Zubrus and Adam Henrique
2nd Period:
2:21:  Montreal – (pp) PK Subban assisted by Tomas Kaberle and Michael Cammalleri
5:05:  New Jersey – (pp) Patrik Elias assisted by Ilya Kovalchuk and Kurtis Foster
6:33:  Montreal – Chris Campoli assisted by Hal Gill and Yannick Weber
8:57:  Montreal – Lars Eller assisted by Hal Gill and Louie Leblanc
18:26:  New Jersey – David Clarkson assisted by Adam Larsson
3rd Period:
1:31:  New Jersey – Patrik Elias assisted by Petr Sykora
10:18:  New Jersey – (pp) Dainius Zubrus assisted by Kurtis Foster and Ilya Kovalchuk
-Shots on Goal:  Montreal:  26
New Jersey:  35
-3 Stars:  1)  Patrik Elias – New Jersey
2)  Dainius Zubrus – New Jersey
3)  Hal Gill – Montreal
-Attendance:  21,273
-Final Score:  Montreal:  3
New Jersey:  4

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