For days, the Montreal fan-base has been chirping about the lack of movement by Montreal Canadiens GM, Pierre Gauthier. Concern was mounting that the Paul Mara deal – a depth move trying to help out an ailing Defense corps – was the only deal that would take place.
But then along came 1am est on Thursday morning. Tweets abounded that a trade announcement was imminent. Habs nation ( at least those of us still awake at that hour) was buzzing. Speculation gave way to silly trade rumours. Was Andrei Kostitsyn headed to re-join his brother? Could there really be a miracle in dumping the Gomez contract?
But no announcement came. At least not until Thursday afternoon.
In a move that many Habs fans are thrilled with, the Canadiens front office announced the movement of Ben Maxwell (plus a 4th round pick) to the Atlanta Thrashers, for D Man Brent Sopel. Also included in the deal for Montreal – Forward Nigel Dawes, who will report immediately to Hamilton.
At 6’2″ and 205 lbs, Sopel adds size and strength to an injury riddled blue line that is in serious need of picking up it’s power play percentage. But he brings more than just physical presence. He brings leadership and experience. He’s seen a total of 64 NHL playoff games, which in his last stint brought him a Stanley Cup ring with the Chicago Blackhawks.
Sopel, who arrived in Montreal in the past 24 hours, will suit up in his first game as a Hab, tomorrow night against the Carolina Hurricanes. Game time is 7:00 est.
The Habs coming off a monster win against the best team in the NHL, looked to maintain the momentum against a red hot Toronto Maple Leafs franchise, who were 6-2-2 in their last 10 starts.
After showing some lifeless play in the first 5 minutes of the game, Montreal seemed to pick up the pace and then found themselves dominating the Leafs zone. The result was a Jeff Halpern deflection off a Roman Hamrlik wrist shot, and a 1-0 Habs lead.
But shortly after, things fell apart. I don’t want to sit and post a play by play of the match though. Instead; here, in my humble opinion, is what went wrong.
I’m unsure what prompted coach Jacques Martin to start Alex Auld between the pipes last night. Going into the game, Carey Price could have had the opportunity to be the only goalie to shutout the Leafs 3 times in the same season. Price has been stellar against the Toronto club this year, and with enough rest between Tuesday’s victory against the Canucks, it seemed a no brainer to but him back in the blue paint for Tuesday night.
Instead, Auld was played, and gave up 3 goals on nine shots, quickly earning him a place on the bench, and Price came into the game to try and salvage a chance at a win. I’m not saying Auld was at fault for all three goals, but it was the weakest performance that we’ve seen from him all season.
The biggest concern was with almost every other player on the ice last night. Veteran defencemen like Hal Gill and Roman Hamrlik were slow, and lethargic. Their clearing attempts up the boards were weak and caused turnovers that resulted in Leaf goals. Subban was also guilty of turning the puck over, giving the Blue and White some great scoring opportunities.
The forwards were no better, with lackluster plays in the neutral zone, and very slow movement to the puck. There was no back-check, no fore-check, and poor puck movement in the offensive zone. Despite an improved 10 minutes of play to open the second period, the team seemed to lose all momentum immediately following the tying goal by James Wisniewski (on the Powerplay).
It’s also very difficult to win matches when you’re constantly playing shorthanded. The Habs took eight penalties last night, with which they were awarded 3 Leaf goals. But it’s not just the actual goals that killed them. It was playing shorthanded for a full 10 minutes (the 5 PK’s they weren’t scored on). For a team that has enough struggle getting 5 on 5 goals scored, there is little hope of turning that into a positive statistic being short a player for a sixth of the entire game.
There is hope that Brent Sopel and Paul Mara will increase the percentage on the penalty kill, but the best way to ensure not giving up power play goals, is to not take the penalty in the first place. It’s time for these players to take a serious look at their undisciplined play, and make adjustments. The players also need to look is in the rearview mirror. There are many teams trying to scratch their ways into a playoff position, and many more games like last night could find the Montreal Canadiens in a very precocious position.
There is one other concern regarding the overall picture, and I believe it lies squarely on the shoulder of Jacques Martin. He is consistently giving valuable ice time to Scott Gomez, who despite having been sent a message with his other line-mates earlier this month (with a 3rd period benching), has done little or nothing to improve his game. Meanwhile, players like Benoit Pouliot and David Desharmais – both who have shown great skill and play as of late – see their ice time decline.
Some think that Desharnais is not NHL ready. Some think that he still has to prove himself. Pretty hard to do with a rough average of 7 minutes of limited ice time per night. And considering that Martin made it clear right from training camp that he was placing his faith completely in Pouliot, he continues to limit his play.
We’re coming down to the wire and as the home stretch gets played out, it’s apparent that the Habs need to find another gear, and find it fast. The remaining schedule will not get any easier. With teams like the Carolina Hurricanes, Pittsburgh Penguins, Washington Capitals, and division rival Boston Bruins on the horizon, there is no room for error. Even less room to throw away 2 very valuable points, as they did last night.