Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Good Signs For Habs In Ottawa

The Canadiens 6-2 pasting of the Ottawa Senators on Tuesday night was encouraging for several reasons. Ending a five-game losing streak is important and doing with authority against a division rival is even better. Here’s why this was more than just a run-of-the-mill win for this group.

The obvious first one is that Randy Cunneyworth, who has put up with a lot since taking over from Jacques Martin a couple of weeks ago, got his first victory behind the bench. In the process, he avoided becoming the first coach in franchise history with five straight losses. He also got big performances out of the guys he benched for last Thursday’s debacle in Winnipeg, validating a bold move many questioned at the time. It also didn’t hurt that the team had a chance to get in a few practices under Cunneyworth, who faced four tough games in six nights when he was given the job on gameday, December 17th.

Secondly, the fact that six different Canadiens got onto the scoreline was a nice change of pace. Heck, the fact that any Canadiens got on the scoreline was a nice change of pace. Raphael Diaz and his three points stood out but other factors like some points from the fourth line, no glaring mistakes from Tomas Kaberle and the removal of Chris Campoli from the lineup were steps forward as well.

Third, the play of Lars Eller, PK Subban and Michael Cammalleri was obviously a huge step forward. Eller has shown flashes of his huge potential but count me among those who have felt he hasn’t gotten a fair shot among the top six. His size and speed are assets unmatched on this team and when you’re on the road, having a guy like that can be a huge bonus.

Subban showed some of the flair and end-to-end ability that have made him a fan favorite and his confidence seemed to be closer to the insanely high level it was at when he lit it up during the second half of last year. Hopefully he can build on that. Sure, he made mistakes but Josh Gorges and others were there to cover for him when he did. When he’s at his best, he’s taking risks and the rewards outweigh the errors.

Finally and perhaps more importantly, Cammalleri looked like the dangerous sniper he’s capable of being. He was a force all over the ice and was noticeable for doing the little things that he must do in order to be successful. Maybe you can chalk some of it up to having the youthful energy of an increasingly confident Louis Leblanc on his line. Many feel that Cammalleri wasn’t able to play his game under Jacques Martin. Either way, the fact that he played well for the first time in ages is a huge plus.

Max Pacioretty has to be a bit of a concern. He wasn’t at his best last night and in my mind, he truly hasn’t been the same player since returning from the suspension stemming from his hit on Pittsburgh’s Kristopher Letang back on November 26th. His recent statline of zero points and a -6 over the last three games is not good.

Too many times this year, the Habs have faced an opponent that simply didn’t show up and gotten the victory in a far less convincing fashion than they should have. Examples include the third game of the year, a 5-1 win over the Winnipeg Jets, another 5-1 win on October 26th against Philadelphia and of course the infamous “game that got Paul Maurice fired”, a 4-0 win over Carolina at the Bell Centre on November 16th. I realize those were strong performances but under the circumstances you want to see more. Most team would have blown the Hurricanes out of the water by a score of 7-0 or 9-1 that night. The fact that Habs only put up four goals spoke volumes.

Jump ahead to last night: Randy Cunneyworth’s men never took their feet off the gas and kept pushing, refusing to sit back with a three goal lead. Chalk the sixth goal, Erik Cole’s 14th of the season, up to something new that hasn’t existed on this team all year. The will to keep pushing until the final buzzer sounds.

Ultimately, it's just one win. Let’s see if they can keep it up in Tampa on Thursday night and then Florida on New Year’s Eve. It won’t be easy but this team can get right back into the thick of the playoff race with two more wins this week.