Circle your calendar: February 2, 2010, when the Vancouver Canucks are in town to play the Montreal Canadiens.
That’s the day the Canadiens are hoping to have Andrei Markov back in their lineup. Markov, who was injured in the very first game of the regular season against Toronto when he had his tendon sliced in a “friendly fire” incident in the Montreal crease, is back in the gym.
Which is the good news.
The bad news is: the Habs will have to do without their best player for another two months, or so. It just so happens that the Canadiens’ best player is a defenceman. With Ryan O’Byrne and now Hal Gill on the shelf, the Habs are without three of their top-six blueliners. And that was clearly evident in last night’s 5-4 loss to the Atlanta Thrashers at the Bell Centre.
With Gill the latest to be bitten by the injury bug, Matt Carle was called up from the Hamilton Bulldogs and made his NHL debut against Atlanta. Although he had a couple of “oopsie” moments (one of them leading to an Atlanta power play goal, with Carle in the box), the young man performed admirably: a plus-one in 12:55 of ice time. Is he an upgrade over Yannick Weber and Shawn Belle, two other Bulldogs who were auditioned by the Habs earlier in the season?
Too early to tell. But he’s getting his chance.
On the other hand, Marc-Andre Bergeron continues to be adventure out there when it comes to his defensive play. Bergeron was one of five Habs caught out of position when Colby Armstrong found himself all alone in front of Carey Price with just under seven minutes left in last night’s game. Armstrong beat Price for the winning goal, just 34 seconds after Tomas Plekane had tied it at four with a lovely piece of work: Plek streaking down the wing and waiting until the absolute last possible second before firing the puck past Ondrej Pavelec.
This much is clear: Marc-Andre Bergeron isn’t much use to you out there, when he isn’t firing the puck from the point on the power play.
Despite twice fighting back from two-goal deficits, the Canadiens were unable to take the Thrashers to overtime, or a shootout, where the Canadiens have enjoyed most of their success this season. Mike Cammalleri, who netted his 7th of the season in this one, says the Habs simply gave up too many “grade A” scoring opportunities. Jaro Spacek, who, along with Roman Hamrlik, will continue to be forced to play monster minutes as a result of the injuries along this blueline, says the Canadiens spent too much time focussing on the puck, and not enough time focussing on the bodies.
Like Colby Armstrong’s body, for example, with less than seven minutes to play in this hockey game.
As for Price, who hasn’t won a game in more than one month, it would be easy to hang him out to dry. I won’t. But your goaltender isn’t supposed to fan on a knuckleball from the blueline at a time when your team his playing catchup hockey: as was the case last night, when Price’s glove hand betrayed him on a 60-footer from Mark Popovic: a goal which gave the Thrashers a 3-1 lead in the second period.
How ironic was it that, prior to last night’s game, Price was “honored” as the Molson Cup player of the month for October, as a result of his two victories at the start of the season, against Toronto and Buffalo.
Seems like a very long time ago. Price hasn’t won since.
The positives to come out of last night’s game? Brian Gionta’s two goal performance to snap a six-game goal-scoring drought. More of Mike Cammalleri’s inspired play. The work ethic that continues to be exhibited by Tomas Plekanec, Montreal’s most consistent forward so far this season. And a bit more of an inspired showing on the part of Andrei Kostitsyn who, at the very least, looked dangerous at times out there. Even though he failed to find the back of the net.
But in the meantime, circle your calendar: February 2, 2010, when the Habs hope to have Andrei Markov back. Montreal’s mission, until that time, is simple: win enough hockey games with too many scorers who are having problems scoring, and too many defenders who are having problems defending, so that when players like Markov, O’byrne and Hal Gill DO come back (yes, Hal Gill), the Canadiens are still in the thick of a playoff race.