Monday, July 11, 2011

Memory Monday: February 19, 2008

It's hard to believe this day was already more than 3 years ago. The playoffs in Montreal are amazing. Games against the Bruins and Leafs are always great rivalry matchups. But not since the last Stanley Cup conquest has a single hockey game gotten me so pumped up.

The 2007-08 season was a magical one in Montreal where it seemed like - at last - everything was going right. The Alex Kovalev we had always dreamed of was performing on a nightly basis, and our Montreal Canadiens were battling for first place in the Eastern Conference.

Thus, on February 19, a home game against a team fighting for the 8th playoff spot, a strong performance was to be expected.

But it didn't start out that way. The Habs were slow out of the gate, outshot 13-10 in the first period, and trailing 3-0. The third goal ended the night for starter Carey Price, and in came Cristobal Huet. Montreal's third line (Mark Streit, Maxim Lapierre, and Michael Ryder) was the only one really creating anything of significance for the good guys.

While I'm not one to ever walk out of the Bell Centre early, you couldn't really blame some fairweather fans for being disheartened at this point and making their way towards the exits. Or how about when Alex Kovalev took a double minor early in the 2nd period, and New York capitalized with 2 more markers on Huet to take a commanding 5-0 lead?

The legendary Herb Brooks famously stated "Great moments are born from great opportunities," and, well, that's what you have here when your back is against the wall and you have absolutely nothing to lose.

And if we're going to talk about having nothing to lose, we can look no further than one Michael Ryder - a healthy scratch in 5 of the last 8 games, having a disastrous pre-UFA campaign. With Streit twice a catalyst, the Newfoundland native used his bread-and-butter wrister to twice make Henrik Lundqvist look bad and breathe some life into a Montreal side that simply showed up for the game an hour late.

Yet, by the end of the second, New York was still up by 3 and had increased their shot advantage to 26-16. If the game were to end right then, Ryder's pair would be but a footnote. But on this night, that wasn't all she wrote.

The Habs were given a golden opportunity early in the third with a powerplay but failed to capitalize. They did gain in momentum, however, and it wasn't long before Andrei Markov threaded a seeing eye cross-zone pass to Kovalev whose shot just trickled in thanks to a screen provided by Tomas Plekanec. The Bell Centre erupted. The Rangers slunk and knew that with the roar of the crowd at the Canadiens' backs, it was only a matter of time.

How much time? 9 seconds to be precise. That's how long after Kovalev's tally it took for the Habs to win a face-off, enter the offensive zone, and have another Ryder shot bounce off Mark Streit's leg and in the open side. 5-4. A few hats littered the ice from fans thinking it was Ryder's tally. Oh well. I'm sure fans lucky enough to be in attendance on this night didn't mind wasting their baseball cap.

5-4 is a nice story, but close is only good enough in horseshoes and hand grenades. The game settled down, with a few chances at both ends when opportunity presented itself once again in the form of a Marek Malik hooking penalty at 14:22. With little time left on the clock, coach Guy Carbonneau started his top scoring line of Andrei Kostitsyn with Plekanec and Kovalev, but the unit failed to produce sustained pressure and the first precious minute ticked off the clock. Plekanec fled to the bench for team captain Saku Koivu, who, with moves not unlike Scott Gomez as a Hab today (Gomez, by the way, played in this game for New York), easily gained the zone, but - also like Gomez - had the puck knocked off his stick by a Ranger defenseman. The loose puck bounced on to the stick of Andei Kostitsyn who laid one perfectly on a plate for Montreal's leading scorer, Kovalev, to slap home his 29th. To the epic call of the New York FSN announcers, "Tie game, 5-5. The Rangers five-nothing lead has been wiped out."

Always with a flair for the dramatic, l'Artiste, as he was known in the French media, rolled forward in a half somersault. I don't know that the Bell Centre has ever been that loud or shaken that much.

The rest of regulation and overtime solved nothing, with both goaltenders deciding to actually stop a few pucks. And so we went to a shootout. After Huet stops on Brendan Shanahan and Chris Drury, along with a Lundqvist save on Andrei Markov's one and only patented shootout move, who else but Koivu skated to center ice. Always a shootout specialist, the little Finn made no mistake in going forehand-backhand-forehand and tucking one passed Lundqvist and just inside the post.

Now it all came down to Jaromir Jagr who had 4 assists on the night to prevent an epic collapse by the team he then captained. Perhaps it was the crowd that had gotten to him. Perhaps the Rangers were mentally defeated. Perhaps it was a crack on the ice. Or just perhaps Jagr's top speed coordination was no longer what it used to be, but with Huet at his mercy, the Czech winger could not tuck a backhand home and that was game, set, and match, for an incredible 6-5 Montreal win.

Enjoy it for yourself:

Miss hockey yet?

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