The New Year has just begun, but the National Hockey League year is already half over.
The best part of the season’s first half for the Montreal Canadiens came at the end of it, when the team started winning more games after getting defenseman Andrei Markov back into the lineup.
Given the smattering of injuries the club endured, Montreal has to feel pretty good about being in the thick of the playoff picture midway through the NHL’s 2009-10 calendar. Tomas Plekanec was the team’s best and most consistent player through the first three months, providing elite-level offensive production while maintaining his defensive responsibilities, including killing off penalties.
The defense was almost constantly under duress, playing without Markov for 35 games. In fact, the only blueliner to dress in every game so far for the Habs is steady Josh Gorges.
The goalie tandem of Carey Price and Jaroslav Halak combined to adequately take care of the crease and each puckstopper can honestly say he was the solitary reason the Canadiens came away with two points on more than a few occasions.
In theory, the second half should be much sweeter for Montreal than the first. Surely the injury bug has already taken its biggest bite and key veterans like Jaroslav Spacek, Roman Hamrlik, Brian Gionta and Scott Gomez will all get a two-week break to rest their weary bones when the NHL pauses for Vancouver Winter Olympics in February.
But don’t for one second think this team is assured of a post-season spot. Until recently, the Canadiens were giving up far too many shots per game, a trend that can’t re-emerge. And as much as Markov’s return has boosted what is now a potent power play, Montreal’s 5-on-5 production is among the NHL’s worst.
It’s crucial that both of the top two lines continue to produce goals as they have in recent weeks, forcing opponents to spread out its defensive coverage.
It goes without saying that Price and Halak – assuming the Habs have forgone the notion of trading him – must provide the team with top-level goaltending for the playoffs to be any kind of realistic goal.
Montreal kept its head above water during a trying first half, but the Canadiens can’t coast for one second during the final months of the season.
This article also appeared in the Montreal Metro newspaper.
Ryan Dixon is a writer and copy editor for The Hockey News magazine, the co-author of the book Hockey's Young Guns and a regular contributor to THN.com. His blog appears Thursday and his column, Top Shelf, appears Wednesday.
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