Canadiens vs. Panthers 10 Takeaways: Peaking at the right time

The Habs put together another solid outing to run their winning streak to five and claim the division crown.

1. Charlie Lindgren ’s second NHL start, and second win

It was a perfect game to slot Lindgren in for his second start in the big leagues, and the rookie netminder took full advantage of the opportunity. His rebound control could use a bit of work, but overall he was solid on the night, and turned aside every shot, save for one where he was knocked off balance just before it was taken.

It was likely a nervous situation for the St. John’s IceCaps starter, leaving behind a minor-league playoff race to go between the pipes for a game with an NHL division title on the line. He wasn’t fazed by the magnitude of the occasion, and earned second-star honours while Carey Price watched from the bench.

2. Change of pace

One thing he did do, which is also seen when Al Montoya is in the net, is freeze the puck on just about every opportunity, opting to make the safe play rather than risk mishandling the puck around his crease.

While you can’t fault those who play a backup role for employing that strategy, it is an extreme shift in the way the Habs’ skaters usually see those situations handled. Price is often trying to find ways to keep the play alive in his own zone, either by deflecting a puck to the corner or sweeping it to a nearby defender, and that can turn defence in transition offence in a hurry.

Fortunately, with the new defensive-zone structure the team has had, the added faceoffs right in front of their goalie aren’t nearly as dangerous as they would have been at the first of the season, so the safe play doesn’t put the Habs on the wrong foot after the ensuing faceoff.

Having said that, Lindgren did have one great up-ice pass to Alex Galchenyuk that created a nice rush, so it’s a tactic the goaltender seems willing to try, and one that could be developed upon in the future.

3. Not letting up

Even with the less Price-like rebound control, Lindgren faced about the same amount of shots the Habs allowed the Panthers in their game on Thursday (32 shots on the night versus 31 the previous outing). The Habs still matched the shot volume of their opponent, showing that they weren’t taking their foot off the gas with a weaker opponent at the other end.

They had four games to get the two points needed to clinch the division, and played consistently enough to get those out of the way in their first try. The team now has a five-game winning streak going as they approach the post-season playing at the top of their game.

4. Danault-Sgarbossa fight

The most unexpected unfolding last night was a fight betwen Canadiens first-line centre Phillip Danault and Florida’s fourth-line forward Michael Sgarbossa. Danault wasn’t happy with being manhandled on the faceoff, and decided to take matters into his own hands, wrestling his adversary to the ice.

Once the game was over, the final shot attempt tallies had that fight as the best possession player (Danault, at 76%) versus the worst (just 20% for Sgarbossa). The tussle was just one of the events in what was a sound victory by the top line in the Panthers’ matchup game.

5. Artturi Lehkonen’s offence coming around

As Lindgren held the fort at one end, Lehkonen was blasting through the defences at the other. He started with a laser beam of a wrist shot to the top corner, displaying the hands skills he doesn’t often get to show off while grinding in the corners and trying to get around defenders.

He then followed up Paul Byron’s breakaway on the off chance that the speedster wouldn’t convert, and therefore was in perfect position to capitalize when he didn’t. It was another demonstration of his hockey IQ, going to where he expects the puck to end up, and getting rewarded for his awareness.

The offence seemed to have dried up in the middle part of the season, but his confidence is growing with every shot, and that’s making what was already one of the most effective forwards into one of the team’s most dangerous heading in the playoffs.

6. Special teams

The penalty kill got through another game without surrendering a goal, surviving overlapping minors that created a lengthy five-on-three situation in the process. Claude Julien hasn’t seen many dejected players making their way back to the bench through a throng of celebrating opponents since he’s taken over the team. Instead, those players are jumping back onto the ice with their two minutes of rest to turn the play back in their favour, and helping the even-strength possession game even further.

The Habs’ power play isn’t nearly as positive a factor, as they still struggle with gaining the offensive zone and getting set up once they do. The Panthers had more scoring chances than the Canadiens while they played a man short, and that’s never a good thing.

With how well the other situations are being managed by the team, the power play is the weakest aspect of their overall game, and is going to make their post-season life more difficult than it should be given the calibre of players they have to generate man-advantage scoring.

7. Brandon Davidson’s key role

Davidson had been one of the team’s depth blue-liners after he was brought in, but some injuries have brought him back into the lineup. Fortunately, he has looked good when called upon, which is good news in the event of an injury in the playoffs.

Not only can he step right into the lineup if a regular goes down, but the coaching staff can have enough confidence to put him in rather than to force an ailing defender to play through a minor injury, feeling he’s still the best bet. The Habs have the depth to let a defencemen recuperate in the post-season, and that’s a luxury not many of the other clubs will have.

8. Division clinched

Over the course of this ongoing five-game winning streak, the Canadiens have secured a playoff spot, and now, with their two points from last night’s game, claimed the top seed in the division as well.

The Habs have recovered from their mid-season slide in style, and accomplished the highest goal available to them coming out of the bye week. They’re now ensured to play their first post-season game in two years in front of a raucous Bell Centre crowd, and it will be interesting to see how this new possession style combines with that added intensity of a playoff run.

9. Rounding into shape

The Habs are a healthy team (knock on wood) heading into the playoffs, with what has been reported as only a minor issue for Shea Weber, though the severity of Jordie Benn’s injury doesn’t seem to be known at this time. At forward everyone is ready to go, giving them 15 attackers to go with (at least) seven able-bodied blue-liners.

That is affording the opportunity to mix and match lower lines and pairings in their final regular-season games, getting players accustomed to a host of different linemates and seeing how different combinations fare in a game situation. When the post-season does begin, Julien will have a firm understanding of what his personnel are capable of, and how best to devise his game plan.

10. Don’t Fear the Rangers

Yes, a game plan. Unlike two season ago when the Habs couldn’t find an answer to the New York Rangers’ speed, there’s more trust this season that the bench boss will be able to evaluate the situation, adjust for deficits in his team’s play, and help them overcome whatever tactic their opposition employs.

The Canadiens have already shown that they can handle the Rangers, defeating them on each occasion this season, mostly before they had adopted this system that sees them outplaying the opposition on a virtually nightly basis.

The biggest thing will be protecting Carey Price from a team that likes to get in his crease (or millimetres outside of it). Hopefully the additions of the physical Weber and vocal Julien can carry the clout to ensure their star performer is protected.

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