Here we go! Last night was the beginning of the 2011-12 NHL season. Actually, it was the first (of 8) preseason game for the bleu, blanc, rouge. Still there was a buzz in the building that only happens in cities like Montreal (and probably most Canadian cities) for preseason games. 21,273 tickets sold. Wow! The young guys and even veterans like Eric Cole and Jeff Woywitka must have been at the same time pumped and nervous playing in front of a full house.
Now I’m going to temper everything said from here on by saying that this was a preseason game and game number one. Not too much can be gleaned from this one game either in a negative or positive way. Both teams had plenty of young guys playing. Teams are supposed to have 10 NHL players suited up and I think it was a stretch to find 10 in the Montreal line-up. For instance, the only defenceman who was in uniform who played a significant number of games with Montreal last season was veteran Hal Gill. Habs’ coach Jacques Martin still has 59 players in camp and had indicated that his younger players were going to get plenty of ice time, so he could evaluate where they are in their progression as hockey players.
Some looked good (Alexei Yemelin, Raphael Diaz, Andrei Kostitsyn, Mike Blunden, and Brock Trotter) while others (Gill, Cole, Woywitka, Carey Price) looked less so. The projected number one line for the Canadiens Tomas Plekanec-Cole-Michael Cammalleri was playing together and although Cole notched his first goal for the team they were severely outplayed by the Mike Ribeiro (playing his first game in Montreal since he was traded to Dallas 5 season ago)-Michael Ryder-Brenden Morrow line.
This game reminded me of the first preseason game last year versus the Boston Bruins. Price let in a ton of goals and the fans booed him mercilessly (last year, not last night). They were fresh off the Jaroslav Halak heroics in the playoffs and then the subsequent trading of him to the St. Louis Blues. The fans were in no mood for a goaltender who was less than Ken Dryden-like. Always a fairly calm guy, Price’s reaction was to tell the fans to “chill out” and that it was only a preseason game. He went on to have a massive season. After letting in four goals in 30 minutes and on only 13 shots, Price could have trotted out the old “chill out” again.
The game was barely nine minutes old and the Dallas Stars, by virtue of goals by Morrow, Adam Pardy and Ryder, had a 3-0 lead. Like a cat toying with a mouse, the Stars were just playing with the Canadiens. It didn’t get any better after Krystofer Barch score early in the 2nd period to give the visitors a commanding 4-0 lead. Price looked weak on all four goals. But this is not last season where he was coming off a very weak season. Have no fear as I’m sure he will work things out by the opening faceoff of the first regular season game.
Barch’s goal left the stunned home crowd silent and went a ways towards proving how far some players in a red uniform are from being NHL ready. Right off the faceoff, robust winger Ian Schultz lost his player allowing Barch to get to the rebound Price gave up off a Jake Dowell shot. Bing bang boom 4-0 and evidence of why Schultz will probably not be an NHLer. His fight with big boy Francis Wathier proved that he is a decent fighter, but in all other aspects he is just not good enough.
Gathering their legs beneath them and led by shock of all shocks Andrei Kostitsyn, the Canadiens began to dominate the game at this point. Eric Cole hit the post to the right of Stars’ starting goaltender, Andrew Raycroft, and then scored the team’s opening goal off a wrist shot from the right side. Then the line of Kostitsyn-Aaron Palushaj-Brian Willsie kept the puck in the zone during the second wave of a powerplay with Kostitsyn finally beating Raycroft with a precise wrist shot over his right shoulder. The crowd was now alive.
That energy from the crowd seemed to really prod on the team and they continued bottling the Stars in their own end. Again it was Kostitsyn leading the way. This enigma of a player is really frustrating. When he decides to bring his A game he is a tough man to handle with his combination of skill, heavy shot and size. The cycling done by his line wore down the Stars defensive players and when the Andreas Engqvist-Trotter-Mike Blunden line came on they capitalized. Engqvist faked a shot from the left circle and played the pack back to the slot to Woywitka, who one-timed a shot along the ice that went into the far side of the net. Woywitka’s goal (he celebrated the goal as he played with the Stars last season) came at the 10:14 mark of the 2nd period. Montreal had stormed back with three straight goals in less than 5 minutes. We now had a game at 4-3.
Both teams changed goaltenders after Montreal’s third goal. Nathan Lawson came on in relief of Price and 19-year-old Tyler Beskorowany replaced Raycroft. Lawson is a 27-year-old who previously played with the New York Islanders. All things being equal, he is Montreal’s third goaltender and will be number one in Hamilton. A calm looking guy, Lawson played well in the period and a half he was in goal. That despite the fact that he let in two. Lawson made some good saves and was definitely busier than Beskorowany.
The air was let out of the Montreal comeback by Ribeiro late in the 2nd period. He won a faceoff in the Montreal zone while his team was on the powerplay (another Swiss native Alain Berger was in the box for goaltender interference) and headed for the front of the net. Smartly defenceman Alex Goligoski threw a puck on net. Ribeiro got his stick on it and deflected the puck past Lawson. That was all she wrote for the Habs.
The 3rd period saw a lowering of the tempo of play from both sides. Not much of anything happened. Matt Fraser did score a nothing goal with less than two minutes remaining, but the game was already decided. Montreal only managed six shots total in the 3rd. Not what you would expect from a team trying to get back into a game.
So in the end it was a 6-3 loss for the Habs, but more important than the score was the chance the game afforded for some evaluation in a game situation of the younger or new players. Some were good and some were bad.
Despite his goal defenceman (maybe it was the number 8 – Mike Komisarek – jersey he chose to wear?) Woywitka did not have a great game. He did get stronger as the game went on, but I expected better play from the veteran. The two Swiss defenceman, Weber and Diaz, did better. Weber played a team high 25:54 (almost half of the game!) and Diaz, despite the fact that he ended with a -3, did some good things. Both are smaller players (both 5’11”) who are better offensive than defensive players. Diaz led the Canadiens in shots with 4. He has a good one and gets it on net often. He reminds me of fellow Swiss, Mark Streit, as he is not big but quite mobile. Hopefully, like Streit he will develop into an able defenceman who is a good powerplay quarterback. For me he is already ahead of Woywitka.
Two other youngsters who did well were Trotter and Blunden. Brock Trotter is an offensive player. He, too, was out of position on a couple of goals, but looked good offensively. His year in the KHL seems to have helped him. Bruising winger (6’4” and 218 lbs) Blunden has an outside chance of making the team as the 13th forward. His play against Dallas probably improved his chances. Blunden (formerly belonged to the Chicago Black Hawks and Columbus Blue Jackets) is the perfect 3rd or 4th line player with his size, good skating and robust play.
Montreal is playing 6 preseason games in 7 nights, so expect plenty of roster juggling by the coach. Tonight they are playing the greatly improved Buffalo Sabres. The line-up will be almost totally different from that that faced the Stars. Only Engqvist and Palushaj will be playing on back-to-back nights. Peter Budaj will get the start in nets with Robert Mayer coming in halfway through. Josh Georges, PK Subban and Jaroslav Spacek will be the veterans on defence and Max Pacioretty, Brian Gionta, Mathieu Darche, David Desharnais, and Travis Moen on offence. Newbies to keep your eye on are this year’s first round pick, defenceman Nathan Beaulieu and diminutive 19-year-old winger Brendan Gallagher. Offensively gifted he has caught the eye of Jacques Martin in camp.
-On-Ice Officials: Referees: Kevin Pollack and Ghislain Hebert
Linesmen: Steve Barton and Pierre Champoux
-Goals: 1st Period:
3:12: Dallas – Brenden Morrow assisted by Mike Ribeiro and Michael Ryder
6:56: Dallas – (pp) Adam Pardy assisted by Toby Petersen
9:12: Dallas – Michael Ryder assisted by Maxime Fortunus
4:04: Dallas – Krystofer Barch assisted by Jake Dowell
5:36: Montreal – Eric Cole assisted by Tomas Plekanec
8:31: Montreal – (pp) Andrei Kostitsyn assisted by Yannick Weber and Carey Price
10:14: Montreal – Jeff Woywitka assisted by Andreas Engqvist
16:14: Dallas – (pp) Mike Ribeiro assisted by Alex Goligoski and Philip Larsen
18:07: Dallas – Matt Fraser assisted by Travis Morin and Francis Wathier
-Shots on Goal: Montreal: 19
-3 Stars: 1) Mike Ribeiro – Dallas
2) Brenden Morrow – Dallas
3) Andrei Kostitsyn – Montreal
-Final Score: Montreal: 3