Friday, October 28, 2011

Now We're Cooking: Sweet Wins for Habs, Bulldogs

Where it began,
Was with the firing of Perry,
And now we hope it's growing strong...

Was in the Fall,
The whole team was strugglin'
Who'da believed they'd come on strong?!

Hold up Habs fans, don't go planning any parades just yet (I mean, after all, we're not Leafs fans), but maybe - just maybe - we have something here. That 'something' is a big fat M word called momentum, with a side dish of confidence.

At 3-5-2, they're still in a bit of a hole, but the climb back up the ladder of respectability needs to begin somewhere. And back-to-back wins over the Philadelphia Flyers and Boston Bruins is as good a place as any.

Let's step back a moment, however. I posted earlier this week my discontent with the management team of Pierre Gauthier and Jacques Martin. I'm not a fairweather fan who is suddenly placated just because the club posted consecutive victories. I still feel the pair should be replaced in the near future for the very same reasons. The defense Pierre Gauthier assembled is largely soft, small, and inexperienced. There is a need for a tough, veteran, shutdown guy, and the only player who could eventually fill this role currently on the roster - Alexei Emelin - is being sat by Martin.

On the Emelin issue, after Tweeting my displeasure with his being scratched in favour of Raphael Diaz for a game against the Big Bad Bruins, I will admit that despite an overall shaky game on his part, Diaz made an incredible defensive slide to takeaway a goal after Carey Price was caught out of position with the game tied at 1. It wasn't a play anyone could make, and Martin's choice of Diaz over Emelin may thus have contributed to the team's win.

The downside to this is a legitimate concern that Emelin will never get a chance to develop in Montreal. His contract will allow him to bolt back over to Russia if the Habs try to send him down to Hamilton, but if he's kept in Montreal and sat for most of the season, he's likely headed home at year's end anyway. With a log-jam of players the organization feels to be ahead of him, it will be tough for him to find ice time, and thus Gauthier may be forced to use him as a transaction deal sweetener to at least get something for the asset he finally convinced to cross the ocean. This would be unfortunate as - like I mentioned - Emelin's skillset is not a common one within the organization.

But let's stick with the positives for now. Also deserving of some credit is Randy Ladouceur's management of his defense corps in the 2 games since taking over from Perry Pearn. With the team playing a third game in four nights (and second in 2 cities in 2 nights), Ladouceur and Martin managed to cycle d-men such that only one (Josh Gorges, who had a great night) topped the 20 minute mark. This is a rarity in the NHL, but allowed the team to stay fresh throughout the night which is critical considering the aforementioned personnel concerns on the back end. Diaz, while showing some positives, is clearly not ready for big minutes but has been seen as a "Martin favoured child" by many, joining the ranks of Mathieu Darche and David Desharnais. With Pearn in charge of the D, he played the 4th most minutes amongst Montreal blueliners Monday night. Under Ladouceur, he has gotten the least playing time of the group of 6 in consecutive outings. The team has also gone two games without a Too Many Men on the Ice penalty!

But this isn't just about Pearn, Ladouceur, Martin, and the defense. I talked about Erik Cole's improved play as a reason for hope, and for a third straight game he was amongst the team's top forwards. Cole totaled 2 goals and 1 assist while firing 18 shots on net over the week's 3 games, despite playing an average of only just over 14 minutes a night. Between the offense and some physicality, he is looking more and more like the player the Habs were excited to sign this summer.

Carey Price is playing like Carey Price needs to and can. Tomas Plekanec and Brian Gionta are showing signs of life. The fourth line, led by strong face-off work on the part of Petteri Nokelainen, behaves like a proper fourth line, able to cycle pucks and throw hits. And though I haven't been the biggest fan of David Desharnais's play, he is getting his touches in and picking up points (now at 6 in 10 games). I mentioned that the forward group should perform far better than they had been, hence not being concerned by early season goal-scoring troubles, and it looks like they may now be starting to click.

This is good news for Habs fans, of course, but it is less good news for Scott Gomez. Once he returns from his injury (and he has resumed skating already), Martin's next big test will be where to slot him into the line-up. Plekanec and Lars Eller are playing far better than he was, and Desharnais has been far more productive. Nokelainen plays the fourth line face-off specialist role well, so it sounds like someone is going to have to move to wing. At this point, Gomez should be the odds-on favourite to be forced to make that transition, and if he does, it may actually work out for the best. It will take some defensive responsibilities off his shoulders, and he does have some experience there, having spent considerable time on left wing during his early days in New Jersey.

So Habs fans, smile and relax a little. Stay on your #FireGauthier and #FireMartin campaigns if you will, and you have my support. But in the meanwhile, the game is being played on the ice, and the strong leadership core at the heart of this team has decided that it's time to step up to the plate and play some sound hockey. No one knows how far they'll be able to take it, but reinforcements are around the corner; "The General" Andrei Markov gets back to Montreal from his rehab stint in Florida today.


If the action in Montreal doesn't satisfy you, then be happy there is more good news on its way from Hamilton. The Canadiens' first round pick in 2009, Louis Leblanc, returned from injury to make his professional hockey debut with the Hamilton Bulldogs last night, and boy was he impressive. Many questioned his offensive upside, seeing him more as a responsible, determined, and energetic two-way third-line type. The 'Dogs eased him in for his debut, allowing him to play that very role by lining up on Andreas Engqvist's wing, opposite Andrew Conboy.

It certainly didn't take long for Leblanc to make an impact, picking up an assist on an Engqvist powerplay goal just 4:18 into the duel with the Rochester Americans. He would add another assist on a second period Conboy goal, before saving his coup de grace for overtime, scoring the game winner to finish his first game with three points and earning first star honours for his efforts. Leblanc also led all of his teammates with 5 shots in the 3-2 win and was a +2.

Let's not begin clamouring for a call-up just yet (keep in mind Engqvist also had 3 points on this night and we know how he has looked in Montreal), but it is a highly encouraging start for a highly anticipated prospect.

Check out highlights from the game here:

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