DeCock: Canadiens are setting the bar

ldecock@newsobserver.comMarch 7, 2013 

— For five periods this season, two of them Thursday night, the Montreal Canadiens did to the Carolina Hurricanes what they have done to just about everyone else in the NHL this season: shut down their offense with a disciplined, stifling game that may not be particularly exciting but is powerfully effective.

For one period Thursday night, the Hurricanes tore apart the Canadiens with a fast, dynamic attack, playing with magnificent intensity and furious aggression.

Based on Carolina’s third period, such an effort was not easily duplicated. After fighting back to tie the score, and having a chance to take the lead on an Eric Staal penalty shot, they fizzled in a 4-2 loss, their second to the Canadiens this season after a 3-0 loss in Montreal 21/2 weeks ago.

As promising as Thursday’s second period was – Hurricanes coach Kirk Muller called it the best period his team has played this season – the other five periods should raise alarm bells for the Hurricanes. If they make the playoffs, as they should with a four-point lead in the Southeast Division in the era of the bonus loser’s overtime point, they do not want to see these Canadiens again.

That’s not necessarily breaking news – with the Canadiens leading the Eastern Conference, no one is going to want to line up to face them in the postseason – but it just so happens that the Canadiens’ particular style is exactly one that can neutralize all of the Hurricanes’ advantages.

“That’s the nature of their system and that’s why it’s effective,” Hurricanes defenseman Jay Harrison said. “It’s not unbeatable. It requires a 60-minute effort and sticking with your system for a full game. We just came off it a little bit. Our start was a little slow and we could have had a better finish as well.”

By taking away time and space better than anyone else in the NHL, they prevent the Hurricanes from utilizing the speed and skill on their top two lines, and as a team they’re not big or strong enough to fight through it with brute force. It took a Herculean effort to break the Canadiens down in the second period, and the Hurricanes were out of gas in the third. It’s difficult to imagine them maintaining such a pace over the course of a playoff series.

These are first-world problems, of course, and the Hurricanes would – and should – be happy just to make the playoffs for the first time since 2009 and only the second time since winning the Stanley Cup in 2006, particularly with the absence of Cam Ward.

Yet this matchup is particularly disconcerting as the hockey gods have a way of sending the same teams the Hurricanes’ way in the playoffs – the New Jersey Devils, most notably, but Montreal and the Boston Bruins as well. The playoff series against the Canadiens in 2002 and 2006 spawned an unlikely rivalry that only now has fizzled, although it certainly sparked at times during a feisty, chippy game Thursday.

The Hurricanes burnished their credentials as a playoff team with their second-period performance, while raising concerns about their ability to beat the best team in the conference otherwise.

“It’s definitely possible,” Hurricanes center Jordan Staal said, asked whether the second-period effort was replicable. “We’ve dominated games before. Against a team like that, they make it hard for you to really generate and get momentum. We were happy with our second and what we did, but they do make it tough to keep that momentum going.”

They may not have to beat the Canadiens to make the playoffs, but they may need to figure out a way to do it if they get there.

DeCock:, @LukeDeCock, (919) 829-8947

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