Big night in Montreal. Hockeywise, I mean. This was the third meeting of the year between the two Canadian teams. Each had 1 win against the other so far. Most recently, on December 22, 2011, the Jets shutout Montreal 4-0 in a game they totally dominated and Montreal, to put it bluntly, stunk. It was also the first game in 2012 for the Canadiens. They ended 2011 (a terrible calendar year for the team) with another loss on December 31st 3-2 versus the Florida Panthers. So why was it big you ask? Earlier this week Josh Gorges, the man who just signed a 6 year, 23.4 million dollar contract, said that the playoffs have begun for the Habs. They needed to start playing desperate hockey if they want to take part in the playoffs.
Smart guy, that Josh Gorges. Though you really did not have to be a rocket scientist to figure that one out. The Canadiens sit in 13th place in the Eastern Division with the top 8 making it to the playoffs. Before the game last night they were 9 points out 8th place. If they have playoff aspirations this was their time. Seven out of Montreal’s next 8 games are at home. Their home record is not great as they had only won five of eighteen home games so far. An added plus is that nine out of their next twelve games are against Eastern rivals (Winnipeg, Tampa Bay, Boston, Ottawa, New York Rangers, Washington, Pittsburgh, Toronto, and Buffalo). Good opportunity to gain points on teams ahead of them.
To be more successful their formula has to be playing a consistent 60 minutes (they have lost 15 games in which they had a lead) every night, goaltender Carey Price has to start stealing games for his team, and players like Michael Cammalleri, PK Subban and Tomas Plekanec have to be better. Away, les gars! Against the Jets the smaller Canadiens forwards have to use their speed. Chip the puck in deep and be there before the Jets’ slower defensemen.
Defenseman Chris Campoli was back in the lineup after being a healthy scratch for a couple of games. Yannick Weber and Louis Leblanc (who was sent back down to Hamilton after the game) were not dressed. Winnipeg, like Montreal, was missing a few players due to injury. Defenseman Dustin Byfuglian (knee), centreman Bryan Little (foot) and defenseman Derek Meech (lower body) were all scratches for last night’s game.
Proving that they can support their team even in the toughest of times, the crowd gave the Canadiens a warm welcome as they skated out to start the game. Randy Cunneyworth (premonition?) started the Lars Eller-Travis Moen-Andrei Kostitsyn line. Right off the hop Travis Moen, who is having a strong season offensively, had two good scoring chances in the first 30 seconds of play.
Then the nerves began to show. Rookie defenseman Raphael Diaz fell in his own end and Winnipeg scored the first goal of game only 3:41 in. A Tim Stapleton goal, his 6th of the season, was not what the Habs envisioned to open the game. This must have put doubts in the heads of the mentally fragile team and quieted the raucous crowd. Not the start they wanted to begin the homestand and 2012.
Cunneyworth began juggling lines almost immediately as was understandable as his team was behind early and he only had 11 forwards. There were various combos like Eller-Moen-Blunden, Desharnais-Pacioretty-Kostitsyn, Plekanec-Cammalleri-Cole. There was even some juggling of the defensive pairings. It was like he was just spinning a wheel and putting out whatever combination came out.
Like they wanted to discourage their coach from this juggling when the lines were back to “normal” the Habs struck for two goals in only 43 seconds. The first was a seeing eye wrister from the point from the 23.4 million dollar man Gorges and the second (and his first of many on the evening) was another wrist shot through a screen low on the blocker side of Ondrej Pavelec by Lars Eller. The second came courtesy of a giveaway in his own zone by Kyle Wellwood.
At 5:32 of the 2nd period the Habs extended the lead to two goals courtesy of a Tomas Kaberle slap shot. March 24, 2011 was Kaberle’s last goal. This was his first goal of the season and his first as a Montreal Canadiens. Goal was a result of a 2-on-1 created by the strength and persistence of Moen, who took the puck off a Jet and then fought off another one. He gave a nice backhand pass to Kaberle, who wired it past Pavelec on the far side.
A test of Montreal’s fragile state came in the form of a late 2nd period goal by Habs’ killer Blake Wheeler on a perfect deflection past Price while Winnipeg was on a power play courtesy of a borderline holding call on Gorges. I was sure that the low confidence Habs would need Price to stand on his head in the 3rd period if they had hopes of holding onto the one goal lead. I had seen them give up too many leads this season.
Colour me surprised when that was not the case and that the hero was one Mr. Lars Eller (I sound like general manager Pierre Gauthier with the Mr.). Instead of sitting back like they usually do, the Canadiens took the game to Winnipeg. They outshot the Jets 14-11 in the 3rd period. There was no sitting on the lead. They went out and scored 4 goals in the 3rd period. And again the goals came in quick strike fashion.
It all began with a beautiful three-way passing play that was finished off with the 2nd Eller goal of the evening. Then 22 seconds later Cammalleri centered a pass from the right wing boards towards Plekanec in front of the net. The puck never made it, but it did fortuitously bounce in off Zack Bogosian’s skate past Pavelec. Then just 28 seconds later Eller got his first career hattrick courtesy of a stickhandling clinic and no look pass from Kostitsyn. Who would have thunk it? The Habs score 6 goals and Eller would have three of them. The oles were raining down from the stands and Eller had a big smile on his face. It was a party at the Bell Centre and the crowd was really into it now. And we weren’t done!
With 13:10 left in the game Jets’ coach Claude Noel pulled goaltender Pavelec and put in veteran backup Chris Mason. 2:10 later Mason would be put to the test. A precise and long cross ice pass from Kostitsyn to Eller sprung him. He had a step on former Hab Ron Hainsey, who decided to wrap him up from behind and pulled him down. The ref got into the spirit of the Lars Eller party and awarded him a penalty shot. Now Eller is not known for his offensive skill and as such had not taken a penalty shot. He made his coach double think that when he scored on a wonderfully creative spin-o-rama goal on Mason. After he got up from the ice after having done a back somersault over Mason, Eller had an even bigger smile on his face. Deservedly so! He was having a career night of 5 points (4 goals, 1 assist). It was the first time since March 2006 when Jan Bulis did it to the Philadelphia Flyers that a Montreal Canadiens’ player had scored 4 goals in a game. Marvelous!
Winnipeg did put a temporary halt to the “Na Na Hey Hey Goodbyes” that started soon after when Andrew Ladd scored. But Winnipeg got no closer. A 7-3 victory and a great beginning to 2012 for the home side.
Another great moment happened after the game when Lars Eller was named the game’s first star (duh!) and the crowd erupted. He threw 4 pucks into the crowd (one for each goal) and then stood at centre for a while applauding the crowd and urging them to cheer louder, which they were only too happy to do. Nice! After the game Eller said to journalists that this was a night to remember for him and that he was glad the team could provide such a big win to the home crowd as they owed them as they had not been getting full value for the price of their tickets so far this season. The kid gets it!
Cunneyworth will have more lineup juggling coming up shortly as captain Brian Gionta, who has been practicing with the team in the New Year, has declared himself fit to play on Saturday (Habs next game is at home Saturday against the Tampa Bay Lightening). That means someone will have to come out of the lineup. The team did play with 11 forwards and 7 defensemen against Winnipeg. Hal Gill? He only played just over 12 minutes in the game and much of his even strength minutes were when the game was out of hand. Only Petteri Nokalainen played less. It will be hard to sit a veteran who is brilliant on the penalty kill. Chris Campoli? Seems like the more likely choice. He seems to be redundant since the team acquired Tomas Kaberle. Decisions have to be made by the head coach. But for now let’s just revel in a great victory.
-On-Ice Officials: Referees: Marc Joannette and Marcus Vinnerborg
Linesmen: Andy McElman and Brian Murphy
-Goals: 1st Period:
3:41: Winnipeg – Tim Stapleton assisted by Blake Wheeler and Evander Kane
13:24: Montreal – Josh Gorges assisted by David Desharnais and Eric Cole
14:07: Montreal – Lars Eller unassisted
5:32: Montreal – Tomas Kaberle assisted by Travis Moen and Lars Eller
17:51: Winnipeg – (pp) Blake Wheeler assisted by Zack Bogosian and Tomas Enstrom
2:41: Montreal – Lars Eller assisted by Travis Moen and Andrei Kostitsyn
3:03: Montreal – Michael Cammalleri assisted by Eric Cole
3:31: Montreal – Lars Eller assisted by Andrei Kostitsyn and Travis Moen
11:00: Montreal – (ps) Lars Eller
13:05: Winnipeg – Andrew Ladd assisted by Ron Hainsey and Nik Antropov
-Shots on Goal: Montreal: 31
-3 Stars: 1) Lars Eller – Montreal
2) Andrei Kostitsyn – Montreal
3) Eric Cole – Montreal
-Attendance: 21, 273
-Final Score: Montreal: 7