Thanks mostly to the work of Bob Gainey, Pierre Gauthier and Trevor Timmins, the Canadiens have built themselves a really solid core, one of which most National Hockey League teams would be envious. Marc Bergevin's moves this summer, however, were frustrating because they left the team without the competent depth that helped the team to a second-place finish in the Eastern Conference last year. If there's a team, however, that has failed to provide its core with ample depth time and time again more than any other it's the Washington Capitals.
Last night, the Canadiens built on a 6-2 win over the Minnesota Wild by scoring three goals in less than five minutes in the first period and coasting to a 3-2 win at the Verizon Center in downtown Washington. The Capitals are a team currently built around top forwards Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom, and a solid defense pairing of Karl Alzner and John Carlson. While Caps coach Adam Oates hasn't always been the biggest zone-matcher, last night he gave his stars mostly offensive zone starts in an attempt to stimulate an offense that was shut out against the Penguins on Wednesday. While from a possession standpoint that line managed to control play against Plekanec/Gionta/Briere, that left the rest of the home team exposed.
The new/old line of Max Pacioretty, David Desharnais, and Brendan Gallagher continued to be a revelation, as Desharnais finally recorded his first goal of the year on a tip in that was close to being ruled above the crossbar. I don't think it's a coincidence that the local boy has had his greatest success playing with Pacioretty, whose shot draws defenders to him, and Cole/Gallagher, who relentlessly charge the net. Signing Briere left the Canadiens short on guys who could play with Desharnais, which was one of the bigger issues with signing him, but we've gone there enough.
Another revelation was the Canadiens fourth line. The Capitals threw out a trio of enforcer Aaron Volpatti and youngsters Michael Latta and Tom Wilson, and the line was torn to shreds by Ryan White, Travis Moen, and the oh-so-impressive Michael Bournival. The line was thrown out on the second shift of the game against the Ovechkin line, and were used in the role we came to expect of them last year: badass tough-minutes warriors. Moen got his first goal of the year, and after the pre-season turmoil he went through his season has been one of the team's quieter bright spots. Bournival was hurt blocking a shot late in the game, but shouldn't miss more than a game or two and has earned the right to be a consistent NHL pro.
Speaking of pros, Douglas Murray probably shouldn't be one. He's been unexpectedly impressive on the penalty kill thus far, but at even strength he's embarrassingly bad. At one point he and Diaz were sent out in the offensive zone after a Capitals icing, and were immediately retreating and allowed the Caps to change. The occasion was wasted. Half way through the game he hadn't been on the ice for a Canadiens shot attempt, and that was with heavy offensive-zone sheltering. At a certain point I might rather see him start in the defensive zone. At least then the other players might be able to score once in a while to offset his mistakes.
I have to mention Peter Budaj. I still don't believe he's "the best backup in the NHL", or even "the best pure backup in the NHL", since I wouldn't trust him in the playoffs after last year. But the guy's gone 12-2-1 since the lockout, and has posted a .946 sv% on the year. Early in the game I had the feeling he wasn't seeing the puck as well as in the past, and was giving up too many rebounds. The Habs did a decent job of clearing rebounds when they were allowed, but you can't credit anybody other than the netminder for stopping three breakaways, which Budaj did. Also, a random tidbit courtesy of Caps play-by-play man John Walton: ten years ago to the day Budaj won an overtime decision at the Verizon Center playing for the AHL's Hershey Bulldogs. The guy's come a long way; good for him.
The Canadiens took a lead early enough that fancy stats weren't particularly telling, but one takeaway is that the visitors managed the get far more of their shots on net than the home side. Even Raphael Diaz managed to get a few on net.
The Habs take on the Penguins tonight as they look for a third straight win. Carey Price will be back in nets, and he'll need to be great if the Pens look even close to as sharp as they did Wednesday against those Caps. The core of this team may be good enough to grab a road win against the Caps, but its depth will be put to the test against Crosby, Malkin and co.
Don't forget to check out Japers' Rink, who have one of the best sites in the network, for the losing angle.
More from Eyes On The Prize:
- Complete coverage of the Habs' win over the Capitals
- Getting to know Christian Thomas
- The H does not stand for Habs
- Dive Files: October's best
- Ears on the Prize Episode 11: Podcast
- Friday Habs Links: Price and Prust throw down