Eight games into the regular season, the Habs are enjoying the rarefied air of first place in the Eastern Conference of the NHL, thanks to last night’s 3-2 overtime win against the Phoenix Coyotes. The victory gives the Habs a record of 5-2-1, good for 11 points, and good for a share of top spot alongside Pittsburgh and Tampa.
Smoke and mirrors, you say? I wouldn’t blame you for saying that. The Canadiens have managed to play winning hockey, despite the fact they have but one line clicking up front, and but two goals on the power play (in 29 chances). That line features Andrei Kostitsyn, Tomas Plekanec and Michael Cammalleri. All three figured in the goal-scoring summary last night, with Kostitsyn netting the winner 85 seconds into O.T., for his fifth of the season.
With that goal, Kostitsyn is on a pace to score 50. The Habs, I’m sure, would settle for 25. Thirty would be nice.
But while Kostitsyn was busy scoring the winner against the Coyotes, his regular line-mates, Cammalleri and Plekanec, were nowhere to be seen on the ice. It was young Lars Eller who was given a chance to play a little 4-on-4 hockey with Kostitsyn in the overtime, and Eller responded to Jacques Martin’s vote of confidence by setting up the winning goal, with a huge assist (although he didn’t figure on the scoresheet) to another newcomer in defenceman Alexandre Picard. (More on him in a moment.)
Through two periods of play, Eller had seen a total of five minutes of ice time. But The Coach liked what he saw of the former St.Louis Blues prospect, and rewarded him with five minutes of ice time in the third period, alone, along with a shift in O.T. that produced the winning goal. Although Eller is a natural centreman, it would seem to me that Martin has found his man, in Eller, to play with Gomez and Gionta. And although he wouldn’t come out and flat out say it following last night’s game, The Coach sent some pretty strong signals that Eller could that chance.
It’s Eller’s time.
Tom Pyatt had that chance last night. So did Benoit Pouliot. And Travis Moen. Nothing worked, and nothing HAS worked through eight games this season when it comes to getting Gomez and Gionta in gear.
However, I’m reminded of what Bob Gainey had to say a few years back when Alex Kovalev (remember him?) was struggling to put the puck in the net with the Habs (remember that?) Gainey was asked about finding the right line-mates to help Kovalev find his game, and Gainey suggested that it was up to Alex Kovalev to help Alex Kovalev find his game. Seems to me too much emphasis has been placed on the player who is being asked to step in and kick-start Gionta and Gomez. Gionta is at least giving it the old college try. I can’t say the same for Gomez.
Oh yes. Alexandre Picard. This young man is delivering some steady play along the blue-line and I’m sure is giving Jacques Martin some food for thought as The Coach looks ahead to the anticipated return of defenceman Andrei Markov to the lineup Saturday night when the Florida Panthers invade the Bell Centre. When Markov returns, someone will have to sit. And based on his play, it won’t be Picard.
Who WILL it be? Well, I can tell you who it DESERVES to be.
Spacek is struggling big-time in his own zone this season. Time and time again, he’s being caught flat footed and clutching at air while opposing forwards have their way with him deep in Montreal territory.
Having said that, I don’t for a moment believe that The Coach is going to offer Spacek a seat in the press box to make way for Markov’s return to the lineup I’d be willing to bet that, on Saturday night, at least, while Markov builds up his minutes, Martin will dress seven defencemen and rotate one of them in and out of the fourth line. We’ve seen that scenario before, and I suspect we’ll see it again.