MONTREAL – The Habs were upended at home by a team which played with more hunger and cohesion. Still, there are good things to look forward to.
Predicting the outcome of any given NHL game is no simple matter. On Thursday night, the Canadiens came into a match-up against the New York Islanders holding a 25-point edge plus home-ice advantage. A betting man would have considered the bleu-blanc-rouge to be the heavy favourites to get the two points and a guaranteed second-place finish in the Atlantic Division standings, but he would have been wrong.
“It was a bad performance. We were not sharp at five-on-five. Our special teams weren’t good. Even though Carey Price gave us a chance to stay in the game, the Islanders were more engaged and deserved to win,” summarized head coach Michel Therrien after his team allowed two powerplay goals in route to a 2-0 loss against New York, a team which sits last in the Metropolitan Division and which has been out of the playoff picture for quite some time.
With a trip to the post-season ruled out and many of his star performers on injured reserve, Islanders coach Jack Capuano decided to turn his team over to a younger generation. Ryan Strome, the blue-chip centerman who opened the scoring with a top-shelf slapshot on a second-period man advantage, is only 20. Brock Nelson, the lone other scorer, turned 22 six months ago. In all, the Islanders dressed 14 players aged under 25 to take on the Habs, one of the more experienced squads in the NHL.
The move could have backfired in a big way, but according to veteran defenseman Mike Weaver, it is a gamble which can also pay off in spades.
“They’re young and inexperienced, but in their case it’s almost a good thing,” opined the 35 year-old. “I’ve played in Florida and Atlanta on some not-so-great teams, but no matter where you play, you always have pride. At the end of the year, a lot of players are playing for a new contract or to make an impression, and they came out hungry.”
The Isles’ free-flowing, speed-based game plan worked to a tee in the early going against the Canadiens, a team which had batted the defending Stanley Cup champions Chicago Blackhawks to an overtime loss just 24 hours prior. Halfway through the first period, the visiting team held a crushing 18-5 advantage in total shot attempts, including blocked and missed shots, and finished the game with 71 attempts to the Habs’ 45.
“They hustled, that was their whole game plan. We shot ourselves in the foot by turning the puck over in the neutral zone and not getting it deep,” observed Weaver, who started the game on a pairing with Douglas Murray before the latter was ejected for an illegal check on 21 year-old rookie Johan Sundstrom, setting the stage for Strome’s powerplay tally. “We’re professionals here. We have to perform every night; no excuses.”
Thomas Vanek, who came over via trade from Long Island on Deadline Day, shared a similar outlook.
“We played [Wednesday] night but it’s no excuse. They’re a young team. I know these guys well and they play with a lot of passion for their coach. We saw this tonight and they played at a higher level than us from beginning to end,” offered Vanek, who had one shot and set up linemate Max Pacioretty for several of his four shots on goal.
Having averaged nearly four shots per game since arriving in Montreal, Vanek might have been a bit more bashful about shooting the puck than usual. On several occasions, he pump-faked goaltender Evgeni Nabokov and then sent the puck over to Pacioretty rather than go for the kill himself. With number 67 sitting on 39 goals with one game left in the season, he may yet become the Habs’ first 40-goal man since Vincent Damphousse turned the trick in 1993-94.
“You can’t be perfect every night. It’s never fun to lose but sometimes you happen to be the second best team on the ice. We have to give credit to the Islanders for playing well,” Vanek added.
Another Canadiens player closing in on an important scoring milestone is centerman Daniel Briere. Playing inspired hockey alongside Dale Weise and Rene Bourque, the slick forward was easily the most dynamic player on the ice for Montreal. While anchoring the third forward line, he put up four shots on goal in the first period alone, cycled the puck well with his teammates, and did everything but light the lamp for the 300th time in his NHL career.
“It’s true that we only have one more game to get set for the playoffs, but there’s no reason to panic. We’ve been playing well recently. Tonight we played a bad game but these things happen on occasion,” said a calm and collected Briere after the game. Instead of dwelling on what could have been, he preferred to set a new objective for himself and his teammates. “Unfortunately we’re no longer in control of our own destiny when it comes to home-ice advantage for the first round, we’re going to need some help from other teams. All we can do is to win against the Rangers on Saturday. Finishing the year with one hundred points is a nice objective to shoot for.”
Jack Han is a writer for canadiens.com
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