Habs Goalie: Price (L)
Opposition Goalie: Miller (W)
Habs goalscorers: None
Opposition goalscorers: Connolly
Maybe it was meant to be anticlimactic, maybe we needed a little reminder of what this team was also capable of (besides winning wild games on the back of strong goals and strong saves). In a game with lots of sound poke checks, good coverage and average attempts from both sides, the job of choosing the play of the game was a tall order. Waiting, waiting, waiting for that tying goal that would save me, I started to look down the list of potential plays: the Gomez pass to Pouliot, the pass to spring Plekanec alone, a quick play from Price to poke check away high in the zone. As I pontificated something happened; Marc-Andre Bergeron (to that point silent on the useless line) got the puck during the 6-on-5, and did something creative, something useful. With a step over the blueline, he flipped the puck high in the air over two Sabres defenders. Like a rugby clearance, our forwards hurried underneath the puck and retrieved it, kept it and eventually created what was undeniably one of the best chances of the game. I wasn't about to let the fact the goal didn't go in ruin the beauty of the play itself.
Another strong effort from Scott Gomez. As if he was reading the comments at Lions in Winter during his time on the bench, Scott showed that one needn't put down statistical evidence to have a good game. Apart from very early in the first period, and a couple of random D'Agostini shots, it was my impression that every good chance was going to come from Scott's touch and his interplay with Gionta. He was quick on the play, quick in his thinking and sily with passes. If you do need a stat to feel better about this selection, how about 3 takeaways? On a night when Buffalo were smothering, those were invaluable.
Like Gomez, he avails himself well even without points to show for his work. He played the most of any forward only a few games back from injury and shows why his coach has confidence in him in all situations (if not his Olympic GM). There were good moments up front, but his play of the game for me came as he covered a marauding defender with a perfectly calm poke check and reversal of play ten feet from his own goal.
Like all the Canadiens lines tonight, the search for a third forward was the most difficult. As I said to Tobalev, if we had 10 men on the pitch and I needed a defensive midfielder, Pacioretty would be there. As it happens, I have three forwards and can't afford to ice one in the dome who cannot score if the warm-up siren has sounded. Therefore I choose Pouliot. Pouliot was the best third member of any line by a mile this afternoon, and probably the third best forward outright. His case suffers with missed chances, but his instinct to find positions of threat save him on this occasion. Incidentally, Benoit gives us that very intriguing 6th option we've been seeking for some time, I think. His slightly slower hands (than Gui) are more than compensated for by his quick feet and superior balance around goal.
Roman Hamrlik - Game Puck
One of the reasons writing this summary feels like pulling teeth is that this game was actually a good defensive effort by the Canadiens. Aside from that one goal, they didn't let any shots hit the post or allow (m)any mad scrambles with near misses. It was defence from the textbook, especially compared to what we've been used to. Part of that is down to Buffalo playing into the system, but part of it was due to good defending too. Among our defenders, I thought Roman Hamrlik stood out as the best all-rounder. Unlike his some of his gangly teammates, Hamrlik understands the value of puck possession and that sometimes backwards is the way to go forward. I applaud every time I see him take responsibility for the puck, and get quite excited when he sees a passing lane close and so turns back for a skate. It's intelligent and it's effective. Tonight that play earned him a game puck.
Last game, someone remarked that it might be hard for defenders #3-8 to crack the dome from now for the presence of some formidable obstacles. That was right. Tonight, Spacek barely clears Markov. Both of course were part of the same good defensive coverage and both had moments in the offensive zone. Spacek really gets through because he managed to direct 6 shots at Miller, at least a couple of which caused problems and confusion. Markov for his part played the lazy long pass a few too many times in this game when a solid neutral zone skate was required.
Carey Price managed to re-find the save percentage-boosting loss that so angers those who watch Halak in 5-4 wins. In doing so, he played very well. It was hard to tell just how well, because of his calm. Were those easy shots, or was he making hard shots look easy again? I suspect a bit of both. There was never any question of his domehood this afternoon, as a single mistake by a goalie should be enough to allow his team through. In the end, his counterpart had a perfect game. No goals, hardly a rebound and no giveaways (watching that 4 giveaways?), and so a win was a stretch.
As I said, perhaps we were due the loss. Defensively, it was a vast improvement, so it's not all commplaints. Offensively there were flcikers, but the Canadiens must work out ways to circumnavigate defences that funnel pucks to shooters like Gorges and Pacioretty, they must adapt quicker to the challenge with lines that ask questions. Miller too must have credit, he played the Price game without that one error and with great poise that deflated our forwards at times. In any case, to be dealt this damp squib, as the last morsel of a holiday was hard treatment after all the support we've given through good times and bad. As I return to work tomorrow, there will be nothing to read, no highlights to revisit, nothing to debate. It was a nothing of a game, one that should be forgotten.
One interesting topic did come to mind, however, with the juxtaposition of a 5-4 escape with a 1-0 nothing. Why do the Canadiens generate offense for Jaroslav Halak with regularity, but not for Price? I have a hypothesis, bear with me: Rebound control.
Watching this game, Carey Price was a study in rebound control. All shots from outside absorbed into his gut to be held until a timely whistle. Halak, not so much - even during his "on" games, he is smashing pucks out to the corners rather than holding. Ah, the starting point for a study from here then. My theory is that the Habs have built a defence to allow shots, but clear rebounds. A goalie that allows no rebounds is very good indeed, but may hinder a quick counter, particularly when faceoff prowess is gone asking. A goalie that kicks out to a defender is the first passer in a sequence going the other way.
I propose we have a look and either debunk this nonsense or add observation to the theory. If indeed the Canadiens are failing in this way, I would humbly suggest that they redesign their defence before asking a goalie to be more haphazard. But let's see before handing out prescriptions.