No matter how many times we're told this team is a "science experiment", as Pierre McGuire in his infinite lack of tact puts it, it's hard to just sit down and accept that this team still isn't going to play it's best hockey night in and night out. We had a really nice streak going in 3 games against sub-par teams, and one game against a good team in the Rangers. Not to say that the team didn't deserve all four wins, or didn't play great, but we were the beneficiaries of some less than stellar competition. That said tonight's ugly affair shouldn't be seen as the story of the season either.
It is tough to judge just how good (or bad) these Canadiens are so early, but I think we need to look closely at both the positives and the negatives to understand that this is still a process taking place over 82 games, in a season that was supposed to be a write-off after Markov went down in Game 1. Of course there's more negatives in the rear view mirror tonight than there was two days ago, or even this morning, but a 6-6-0 record after 12 games without our number one defenseman with a team just getting to know each other is nothing to scoff at. That said, let's take care of the negatives first so we can end on a positive note.
Our defense is still a work in progress. It seems like Marc-Andre Bergeron alternates a good defensive night and a bad one, and that's something that needs to improve for him. Against the Islanders he was very quick and separated players from pucks very well, tonight he was shaky and unsure of himself, which can't happen against Malkin and Crosby. Gill also had a bad night, although not nearly as bad as some would have you believe. His second penalty was a bad call, but I thought it was a penalty as well before there was a replay so you can't blame the refs there. Spacek is still not playing hockey the way he can, and that's frustrating a lot of fans. He finally got his first goal, but he needs to be more of a leader defensively, and compliment Hamrlik's good play thus far. Hamrlik has been beaten one-on-one a few times of late, but let's be honest, he isn't a #1 defenseman and although he's stepped it up admirably, he should probably be seeing secondary scorers instead of first lines all the time at his age. But until Markov comes back, Hamrlik and Spacek will be forced to keep playing against the best competition the other side can muster. Speaking of Markov, he's still going to be injured a long time, and that still sucks.
The flu is likely going to make a run through this team in the coming week, as Gomez and Metropolit have already come down with it. For the first time this season the top line actually looked pretty bad. Gionta couldn't handle the puck tonight to save his life, Cammalleri was mostly invisible, and Gomez was the best of the three while suffering from the flu. Andrei Kostitsyn and Latendresse continue to compete for top 6 forward spots, but instead of trying to outplay each other, they're seeing who can play themselves OUT of a spot first. There were a couple games where AK46 has looked like he was going to take off, unfortunately I can't say the same thing about Latendresse. Gui needs to take a personal day to stay on the practice ice and practice getting shots on the net. Then he needs to practice hitting pucks quickly that are bouncing or in awkward places in traffic in front of the net. He says he wants to be the next Tomas Holmstrom, but I don't see the quick hands or hand-eye coordination necessary in Latendresse to be that guy. Pacioretty should probably be playing in the AHL. He's still too impatient with the puck and makes the wrong play in the offensive zone most of the time. Some confidence for him would be good.
Neither Halak or Price have been world beaters so far this year, aside from Price's first two spectacular games of course. Rumours abounded about Price being traded after Halak's little winning streak, but there are some bad trends that Halak's ardent fans fail to see. Like Price, Halak is a young goaltender who is not ready to be a 60 start per year guy. His numbers looked really good the last while after facing 2 terrible teams in 3 games. Halak also plays much better at home than on the road, by a very wide margin. There seems to be a rule among Habs fans (the guys at Lions in Winter for one) that great goalies find ways to keep the goal totals of the other team to 3 or less on most nights, and according to this rule Halak worries me a bit. He has played good for the most part, but he's let in 4 goals in every game he's played against last year's playoff teams. He can't be blamed for tonight's loss in it's entirety, but the first two goals were not good, and if he stops them this is a completely different game. I like Halak's potential just like I like Price's potential, but until Halak can play as good against the good teams, and win away from the Bell Centre, I don't think he's starting goalie material. Price was also not great on either goal tonight, but he has the built in excuse of coming in cold against the Cup champions. I don't think that excuses it, he needs to be better, especially on that Kunitz breakaway. He made the first move, which is a rookie mistake.
Now for the better part, starting with the defense. Paul Mara has been quietly putting together a solid year, if unspectacular. Mara hits, makes plays and protects his teammates. And aside from that I met him last week and he's a nice guy with an epic beard. Josh Gorges continues his progression from last year and has been the most consistent defenseman on the club. Josh hasn't had an off game this year, and its great to see him turn into a leader on this team. Bergeron seems to need some time every game on the powerplay, but once he gets his stride he can be lethal with the man advantage. He's no Markov, but when Markov comes back, I think Bergeron's effectiveness goes up 100%. Hal Gill, despite constant heckling, has been effective on the PK and even 5-on-5 in limited doses. I've watched Gill closely this season to see if he was as bad as people want to believe, but to be honest he's been very good defensively for the most part. The Czech pairing of Hamrlik and Spacek has been good and will continue to improve. It's been noticed by many that Spacek plays worse during the last 10 minutes of the third, which to me says his conditioning wasn't great in the offseason, so we're only going to see better from him going forward.
Cammalleri has the skill and determination combo that no forward has had for the Montreal Canadiens since Saku Koivu before his first major injury. By the end of this season Montreal fans will forget about Alex Kovalev, who deserves to be forgotten anyway. Gionta and Gomez have both been better than their numbers indicate in this young season, and the speed and tenacity of the top line is going to be consistently lethal all year long. Tomas Plekanec might be the second best forward on this team, behind Cammalleri. In fact in some ways Plekanec may be better. I was worried Plekanec would be the same as we saw last year, but it seems like Kovalev really dragged him down in 08/09. Plekanec is still flirting with a point per game 12 games into the season, and when he gets consistent linemates he'll be even better. With 18 hits in 12 games Andrei Kostitsyn, although not producing offensively, is not playing a soft game. This is a good sign to me as last year when he was playing poorly he was not laying out hits. This year he seems less afraid to get mixed up in the rough stuff, perhaps inspired by the play of the little guys and Plekanec. Lapierre has started to get his speed and edge back in the last couple games, after starting slow out of the gate. I'm guessing his offseason surgery had something to do with his slow start as Lapierre usually doesn't take shifts off. Metropolit has been excellent, much better than I possibly imagined. I don't think think he'll keep his current pace, but a career high of 35-40 points is in the realm of possibility. Moen has also been an offensive surprise, and the will to drive to the net is something the Canadiens have been lacking for a long time. I was one person of a few who defended Chipchura in his first few games, missing training camp with an injury it was clear he would take some time to adjust to the NHL game. Well he's adjusted, and he's been pretty damn good the last few games. He looks like he belongs as a shutdown center/faceoff specialist. D'agostini has improved defensively in pretty much every game, and if he can get his scoring going on a semi-regular basis we're in for a treat.
Both goaltenders have had good and bad games, and both will need to be better if this team is going to make the playoffs. That said I don't feel uncomfortable with either goalie in net, as each will give us a chance to win on most nights. As the players become more accustomed to Martin's system, and O'Byrne is due to come back from injury soon, our defense gets better and better, which leads to better goaltending. I don't have anything remarkably negative or positive to say about our young goaltending tandem, but hopefully by the 20 game mark both of them can give me something to write about in the positive section
Take on the season thus far
If you would have told me on September 30th that we would lose Markov in the first game of the season, O'Byrne in the second, but still manage to be 6-6-0 after 12 games, I would have told you I thought you were lying. 4-8-0 maybe, 3-9-0 more likely. The five straight losses were annoying, but they were to be expected with a team struggling to come together on the fly. What's important in this season is that we maintain a .500 record until Markov comes back, and use that as a springboard going into the postseason. I don't care if we make it in 1st in the East or 8th, once we get in I just want to see good hockey from a team that trusts each other and plays for each other. This means that even maintaining our current pace is above what was predicted for this team, and in all honesty satisfactory considering the circumstances. The best part of this situation is that we can see improvements in the way the team is playing every game, and we might end up far ahead of schedule in wins by the time Markov returns. How nice does Spacek and Hamrlik sound for the SECOND wave of the PP?
Sidenote: I told you all about Cammalleri. Right after I write a blog he scores 5 in 4 games!
All images courtesy of Habsinsideout.com/Montreal Gazette