Chris Higgins has finally found a home.
Forget about number 21 being a first-line player; trying to keep up to the likes of Saku Koivu and Alex Tanguay, as was the case earlier this season. Higgins, healthy for only 50 of 76 games this season, finds himself on the fourth line, these days, playing with trade-deadline acquisition Glen Metropolit, and sometimes-defenceman Mathieu Dandenault, who a few short weeks ago wondered out loud if he would even be part of this team, once the trade deadline came and went.
Well, Dandenault is very much a part of this Canadiens’ team that has picked up five of a possible pointover the last three games; a Canadiens’ team that is finally buying into the Bob Gainey system after the coach and G.M., himself, patiently told each and every player what is expected of him on the ice.
After stumbling out of the gate following the dismissal of Guy Carbonneau, it would seem that the players in this dressing room get it. They secured back-to-back wins over Atlanta and Tampa, and came up with a first-class effort that produced a hard-earned point against the Buffalo Sabres last night at the Bell Centre.
The problem is, that effort, which sputtered in the third period, left the Canadiens on the short end of a 4-3 shootout score that enabled the Sabres to leave the Bell Centre with two points, and a new lease on their tenous playoff lives. But, as Gainey likes to say, this club needs to look at the teams ahead of them, and not behind them. And the Sabres, along with the Florida Panthers, remain behind the 8th-place Habs, while the 7th-place Rangers are only one point ahead.
From the fourth line of Metropolit-Higgins-Dandenault, we go to the first line of Kovalev-Koivu-Tanguay; a move that has paid huge dividends ever since Gainey tweaked his lineup ahead of the game against the Thrashers. The three have combined for nine of Montreal’s 12 goals over the last three games. And, equally as important, the move gives Montreal a true number one line. Perhaps for the first time this season.
Kovalev, who had a pair last night, looks fully engaged out there. Tanguay, who missed two months of action before returning March 6th, appears to be rust-free at this point after his lengthy layoff. And The Captain, who himself, struggled during the funk the Habs found themselves in when Gainey initially took over behind the bench, once again looks like Montreal’s most consistantly effective forward out there; the way he did at the start of the season before an ankle injury put him on the shelf.
The third line? The recent successes of Maxim Lapierre, Guillaume Latendresse, and Tom Kostopoulos are well documented. However, it would be unfair to expect this hard-working trio to lead this club into the playoff promised land. But, like the line centered by Metropolit, this three-some is providing some solid secondary offensive spark.
Which brings us to the so-called second line of Plekanec, Kostitsyn and D’Agostini. Which Kostitsyn? Take your choice. Andrei has been out the lineup last two games, recovering from the flu. However, his play, of late, has been lacklustre at best. Matt D’Agostini, as a replacement on that line, has not been the answer. In fact, D’Agostini found himself riding the pines during the third period of last night’s loss to Buffalo. If nothing else, Sergei has played responsible hockey since being recalled from Hamilton. But Plekanec has slipped back into his invisible ways over the last two weeks after putting up 13 points during a blistering 12-game stretch.
He’s due again.
And so, you have Bob Gainey’s on-ice plans, up front, over the final seven games of the regular season: a scoring line; an energy line, a shutdown line, and a second line that is struggling to find itself.
When it does, and I believe it will, we will finally see the Canadiens team we thought we would see when these players laced up the skates to start this season 75 games ago. However, much of the team’s success over the next seven games will be dictated by what happens from the blueline, back.
And THAT, Carey Price, will dictate whether the Centennial edition of the Montreal Canadiens will still be playing hockey on April 12th.