Waking up Thursday morning with the St. Louis Blues in town, pretty much everyone in Montreal expected a loss for the Canadiens. I talked to friends, I read the comments on Twitter and Facebook, and the highest hope seemed to be "Don't get embarrassed".
Past history was definitely a factor in the pessimism, with the Blues regularly rocking the Habs in recent years, and a fairly listless effort against Pittsburgh on Tuesday was seen as a bit of a harbinger for a tough week ahead against a string of cup contenders. Carey Price saw it differently though, saying that the loss to the Penguins might have been a good thing, getting the Habs refocused a little on where they need to be after a winning streak where they didn't always deserve the points.
Turns out that Price was right, at least for one game. You have to give loads of credit to Michel Therrien and the coaching staff for this one, because the St. Louis Blues have killed the Canadiens recently, are a cup contender, and a Western team to boot, and the Canadiens didn't just beat them in a close one, they beat them convincingly, in their best performance of the season.
The St. Louis Blues are an excellent hockey team. They move the puck well, they're deep, skilled, big, and fast. Last season it seemed like half the pundits in the league were calling them to win the cup, and they gave Chicago a run for their money before bowing out. If the Habs could battle them to a standstill in terms of possession, that would be impressive enough, but Montreal had 58.5% of the shot attempts while the score was close, over ten percentage points higher than their season average to date.
That's all well and good, but you have to score too, and the Habs did that in spades. Dale Weise was first, converting on a brutal turnover by Kevin Shattenkirk that should be on highlight reels for a long time, especially since after the turnover he went ahead and ran his own goalie out of the way to give Dutch Gretzky an open net to shoot at.
After that, P.A. Parenteau found Max Pacioretty with a beautiful saucer pass from blueline to blueline, with Pacioretty sneaking behind Jay Bouwmeester and Barrett Jackman, then beating Jake Allen with a quick wrister that should probably be Pacioretty's move on every breakaway.
Early in the third, David Desharnais got the puck at the offensive blueline and spotted Pacioretty breaking in, and found him with a crisp pass that was on, and off Pacioretty's stick in the blink of an eye, beating Allen before he had a chance to get set.
To top it all off, Lars Eller finally got a little monkey off his back and scored against the team that drafted him, finishing off a play that involved the entire line with Brandon Prust and Jiri Sekac. The play was set up initially by a great defensive read from (wait for it) Alexei Emelin. With a breakout pass heading towards a streaking Blue, Emelin stepped up on the play and let the man go to pick off the puck. The goal was Eller's sixth of the season, tying him for second on the team overall if you discount Tomas Plekanec's empty netter, and all of them have been at even strength.
Eller's scoring at even strength this season has been a remarkable turnaround from last year, with his scoring pace of 1.39 goals per 60 minutes played ranks 35th in the NHL, ahead of players like Mike Cammalleri and Corey Perry. Remember how we said he would produce offensively as soon as he had a competent right winger? All hail Jiri Sekac.
The Canadiens still have a ways to go to convince that they're a contender, but after the way the Canadiens talked after the game against Pittsburgh, this one was a statement game. If the Canadiens can play like that more often than not, they truly are a team to be reckoned with, but to date, they haven't been able to. We'll see.