It's perilous to read too much into a preseason contest where one of the teams has left its top two lines and four of six top defencemen at home, so Habs fans needn't get too irrationally exuberant over the 3-2 win over the New Jersey Devils and arch-nemesis Martin Brodeur.
That said, the picture is beginning to sharpen for Montreal as the regular season debut against Toronto looms into view exactly a week from Tuesday.
So herewith, a handful of Things We Learned from Monday's exhibition tilt:
Thing the first: the top line of Max Pacioretty, David Desharnais and Daniel Brière is starting to figure things out. Pacioretty scored a pair of power-play goals and laid a gorgeous toe drag on Jersey defenceman Adam Larsson in the third (or was it Mark Fayne? You don't expect reporters to actually watch the game, do you?) It's immaterial that the subsequent pass went to no one in particular – he was aiming for Desharnais – it was the sweetest play of the game. Desharnais and Brière each notched assists, the line was a threat all night. Michel Therrien said after the game, the unit's second together, that "the chemistry is starting to build." He also said when Pacioretty "uses his speed, he's an intimidating player." That sounds about right.
Everybody still chilled out? So is Carey Price, who says he's just about ready for the regular season. "I'm starting to feel pretty good . . . another (preseason) game would be good," he said. True, Price gave up two goals on just 21 shots, but one was on a tip that skittered through his legs ("with my old pads I might have had a shot at stopping that one," he said) and the other came on a weird play where a shot from former Hab Michael Ryder took a strange carom off traffic in front of the net, bounced up over Price and rolled down his back into the net. Price likened the Ryder to goal to "Plinko." Yes, that's right, Carey Price made a Price is Right reference. Asked if there's anything he could work on in practice to prevent re-occurrences? "Headbutting. I should have used my head there." He made a couple of eye-catching saves this night, stymieing Adam Henrique at point-blank range and foiling Dainius Zubrus on a one-timer from the slot.
Here's a scary thought: what if in addition to everything else P.K. Subban was an elite-level playmaker? The reigning Norris Trophy winner is known for blasting pucks from the point, but he made a pair of amazing passes this night, one a 100-foot, cross-ice feed to Rene Bourque from deep his own end that was so snappy the clearly surprised Bourque fumbled it. In the third, he faked a shot and dished a swanky diagonal pass to Brendan Gallagher for a one-timer that glanced off the outside of the post. The evening was a mixed bag for Subban – he had a couple of points, a great teeth-rattling hit on Jacob Josefson, a crowd-pleasing rush up the ice, a couple of awful turnovers, and made some poor decisions on breakout plays and in coverage – but hey, it's the preseason. Haters will surely work themselves into a lather over Subban dropping to the ice and clutching his neck after the Ryder goal, replays showed he wasn't hit by the puck or a stray stick, but he told a gaggle of reporters he snapped his neck around to avoid the puck so violently that he felt a twinge of pain. Not every player can auto-administer a stinger.
One thing that's also clear from this game: adding the right-shooting Brière to the combination of Andrei Markov and Subban on the power-play could be a shrewd, shrewd move. He already looks better in the role than Ryder did last season.
Much has been made at this training camp, and rightly so, of defensive prospect Jarred Tinordi. The 2010 first rounder is savvier, calmer and more assertive than in his first pro campaign last year – he's played more exhibition games than just about any other Hab, and has brought the mean in all of them, on Monday he lowered the boom on Jersey's Mike Sislo, among others. But is he ready for prime-time? Injuries to depth d-men Douglas Murray and Davis Drewiske suggest he could start the season with the team, but this game showed he's not yet the finished article. The lefty-shooting Tinordi was tried on the right side – where he would likely have to play – but to less-than-stellar results. On a second-period penalty kill Tinordi had trouble clearing the zone on his backhand and clearly looked out of sorts on the opposite side of the ice from where he's used to playing. New Jersey kept the puck in the Montreal end, cranked up the pressure and duly scored just as the penalty expired. On the plus side, Tinordi assisted on Ryan White's game-winner. He's shown a lot of poise, but it says here that barring injury the Habs will want him playing monster minutes in the minors rather than spot duty in Montreal. When he comes up, though, he'll be in the NHL to stay.
Marty Brodeur is old, but the competitive fire continues to burn. "I still love the game," he said, rather unnecessarily, beforehand. Brodeur got lit up in his last preseason start, but fared much better in this one. He pulled out the old double-pad stack in the first as he made a couple of desperation saves in quick succession on Pacioretty, and was handling the puck with typical aplomb. Brodeur didn't exactly show cat-like reflexes when Pacioretty went backhand shelf on a power play breakaway, but we`ll give him a pass on that one and describe the shot as unstoppable. The other two goals were scored through considerable traffic, overall Brodeur looked pretty sharp in facing 25 shots. He'll play fewer games this season as New Jersey coach Pete DeBoer says he'll likely alternate Brodeur and off-season acquisition Corey Schneider in back-to-back games – that's no empty promise, the Devils play more of those than any other team in the league this year.
Refs don't appear to have any fondness for Brendan Gallagher. How else to explain that New Jersey's Eric Gelinas could tenderize Gallagher's nether regions with a slash from the heel of his stick and not get called for a penalty? "The ref was right there," Gallagher shrugged. Similarly, an official was watching when Gallagher was pushed headfirst into the boards earlier in the game. He wasn't the only young guy with a beef: Stefan Matteau got called for what appeared to be an exceedingly suspect hooking penalty, and Alex Galchneyuk was given a soft two when he responded to a being rough-housed by Rostislav Olesz in the neutral zone. It's training camp for the refs too, you know.
Leave the face-punching to the experts. Maybe the Maple Leafs/Sabres fireworks from the weekend is giving the bantamweights a few ideas, how else to explain Brière tangling with Henrique in the second period? The two exchanged chops in front of Price's net, and then suddenly gloves were flung to the ice. Henrique soon grabbed on to Brière with a front facelock/DDT move that would make Jake "The Snake" Roberts proud (or perhaps cringe). The skirmish didn't rate as an official fight, both players were given double-minors. "I mean, give the guy a major," said Price, rolling his eyes in mock exasperation.