It may have well been the Vancouver Canucks vs. Jaroslav Halak last night. If there was any question of which young goalie La Belle Province liked better, the Slovakian netminder made 45 saves in a 3-2 win. Jacques Martin decided to not start British Columbia native Carey Price amidst rumours of locker room drama, sitting him for the fifth time in their last six games in which the Habs have gone a rather pedestrian 2-2-1. Halak improves to 15-8-2 and is making a strong push to be Slovakia's starter at the Olympics, supplanting Colorado backup Peter Budaj. However, I don't think this game was won and lost in the goaltending department, although it certainly gave Montreal an edge.
The Canucks were atrocious in the circle, going only 20-for-54 the entire night. Ryan Kesler, despite his blue-collar goal to pull the Canucks within one, was uncharacteristically awful, winning just 6 of 21. Henrik Sedin and Kyle Wellwood were both below average, while on the other end of the spectrum, Tomas Plekanec won 17 of 25 and Scott Gomez won 9 of 16. For whatever reason, the Canucks couldn't gain control of the puck for long periods throughout the night. They have to win the little battles if they want to be successful, and if it hasn't been stressed enough already, this 14-game road trip is absolutely crucial.
<img src="http://d.yimg.com/a/p/sp/getty/a2/fullj.2c6b64587e9c262408dc39e45b9d8783/2c6b64587e9c262408dc39e45b9d8783-getty-90960808rw008_canu_cana.jpg"class="imageFloatLeftFramed">The defensive play was also poor. There were too many errant passes, either because they were too long, too inaccurate, or just a complete lack of awareness of what was going on. A turnover led to Sergei Kostitsyn's second goal of the season, who has been bumped up to the top line in the absence of Mike Cammalleri and played the most inspired hockey I've seen him play in a while. The even-strength marker was the Habs' first in four games. Maxim Lapierre was johnny-on-the-spot with his fourth of the season on a missed assignment by Brad Lukowich, who played just under nine minutes, and Steve Bernier, who hasn't been quite as effective since coming back from a groin injury. Despite some line-juggling from Alain Vigneault, including a great shift from the speed line of Kesler, Alex Burrows, and Mason Raymond, the poor defensive zone coverage around the net led to Tomas Plekanec's 14th of the season who had not one, not two, but three good whacks at it before crossing the goal line. There is only so much Roberto Luongo can do, and while he didn't play a spectacular game, the team play in front of him wasn't any better. The Habs were largely dysfunctional in their own zone, which led to a lot of Canuck opportunities but were turned away by Halak again and again.
The first half of the second period seemed to be a microcosm of the Canucks' play the entire night. Poor blueline management that led to numerous off-sides and a stretch of back-and-forth icings, a result of both teams unable to generate any offense. The Habs did score 3 tonight, but it's the most they scored since January 23 in which they scored 6 on the Rangers. Without Cammalleri, the Habs lacked any sort of real finish tonight and expect that trend to continue. I felt at times the Sedins tried to get too cute with the puck and the Habs did do a good job of really taking away the passing lanes. Of the 47 shots the Canucks fired, I can confidently say that over 30 of them were from relatively long range and/or from sharp angles.
I didn't think the officiating was particularly good last night either, and it always frustrates me when there are more penalties called in the third period than the first and second combined (6 to 5). I felt Alex Burrows' interference call on Marc-Andre Bergeron was rather weak, as was Kesler's diving call on a Yannick Weber trip. Kesler's 14th gave Canucks fans a slight jolt of hope with a comeback akin to the one last Saturday against the Leafs, but Burrows' goalie interference call made all that come crashing down with a halt. You have to wonder if Burrows and Kesler's reputations for diving and whining came into play last night. Kesler did draw two penalties earlier in the game on a Roman Hamrlik slash and another Weber trip. Let's cue the conspiracy theorists - perhaps referees Greg Kimmerly and Chris Rooney went up and talked to them between whistles?
With the win, and considering Halak's performance, it seems as though Martin will go with him for the time being, given his hot hand. Carey Price is quickly losing favour among Montreal's faithful, including rumours that his carefree, nonchalant attitude has given him the nickname "Superstar." There has been a ton of debate over whether or not GM Bob Gainey should trade Halak or Price, and for now the answer is unequivocally Price. I don't think there's any debate - the Habs should keep both, even when both goaltenders are RFA. Why? Because I don't think the market's been better for goalies, it still hasn't been decided which one is undeniably better than the other, and they will get a decent enough return for either. Dallas is in the hunt for a starting goaltender and either of those guys will be better options than the injury-prone Kari Lehtonen, journeyman Martin Biron, and more established than Cory Schneider. They risk here is that the Habs won't get an offer sheet for either goalie, but given the situation I think that seems rather unlikely. If we stay conservative and believe that both goalies are worth roughly $3.5-$4 million on the open market, the Habs stand to receive 2010 1st and 3rd round picks. Personally, I think Price is the better long term option but like any other goalie he will have to go through growing pains. The Islanders made a mistake by trading away Roberto Luongo too early and it's the ultimate cautionary tale when it comes to goalies.
Quick rumour hits (because everyone loves them):
- The Leafs aren't done dealing and are talking to the Oilers. The Leafs want to get rid of Lee Stempniak and his $3.5 million salary and Alexei Ponikarovsky doesn't seem to be in the long-term plans either.
- The Pens are looking for help on Evgeni Malkin's wing and the word is that Ponikarovsky's their top choice.
- The Blues have Eric Brewer, Keith Tkachuk, and Paul Kariya on the block. Tkachuk was rumoured to go to Boston last year but ended up with Mark Recchi instead. The Bruins have Michael Ryder on the block and are interested in Peter Mueller. Kariya may head to the Pens, Kings, or even Canucks.
- The Sens want to add more depth given their recent surge and playoff hopes. Brian Lee is their big trade chip and they're looking at more mid-level affordable options like Ray Whitney (also linked to the Kings and Flames) or Andrew Brunette. Ray Whitney has not waived his NTC.
- The Kings are supposedly dangling a package that includes a mix of Jack Johnson, Wayne Simmonds, Oscar Moller, Brayden Schenn, and picks for Ilya Kovalchuk but it appears as though those rumours are not true.
- The sale of the Lightning might mean cost-cutting moves and that includes Vincent Lecavalier and Andrej Meszaros. Cue the Montreal rumours for Vinny.
- The Avs are supposedly in "buy" mode given their surprising season but probably won't part with picks or prospects.
- Glen Sather will most likely not be the Rangers' GM next year. Mark Messier has been groomed to fill the void, following a trend that includes Joe Nieuwendyk in Dallas. Personally, I hope Messier fails miserably. Yes, I'm still bitter.