Monday, December 22, 2008

Make or break

Well, ordinarily, the Canadiens' nineteen wins in the first thirty-four games of the season would be considered to be pretty successful. But in a season in which the Bruins, Devils, Rangers, Flyers and Penguins are keeping pace or bettering what the Canadiens have done, the Habs need to do more if they hope to not only secure a playoff spot, but also achieve a decent position. Home ice in the playoffs might not save a series, but it can't hurt.

In the last couple of years, the post-Christmas Florida road trip has been a pretty telling indicator of where the team is going. Two years ago, the team played three road games immediately after the holidays. They beat Washington on December 27, then played back-to-back games in Florida and Tampa on the 29th and 30th. The result? Back-to-back humiliating losses of 3-1 each night, on neither of which the Habs either showed up or seemed to care. That disgrace was followed by a 6-7 record in the month of January and a rapid slide down the standings ending in a playoff miss.

Last year, the team played three road games right after Christmas again. In back-to-back games against Tampa and Florida, they emerged with convincing wins of 5-2 and 5-1, looking stronger and more dominant as the games went on. They wrapped up the road trip with a 4-3 OTL to the Rangers, but the Florida wins sent the team on an 8-2-2 run for the month of January on its way to first in the eastern conference.

Of course, a couple of games in the Sunshine State do not a season make. But in each of those two years, the team followed the same pattern: fast start, slump in November and uneven play in December. The turning point of both 2007 and 2008...the point that turned out to be a microcosm of the entire years in question...was the Florida road trip. Lose those games in 2007 and miss the playoffs. Win them convincingly in 2008 and take the confidence and good habits the team exhibited in them into the new year, and win the conference.

So, here we are again. Quick start, rough November, up-and-down December. And back-to-back games in Florida on tap, following a less-than-convincing two points in Pittsburgh. I don't know if these two games will once again prove to be a turning point in the season. But I know one thing: This Canadiens team needs a couple of solid, convincing road wins against less-talented opposition. They've been playing up or down according to the level of their opponents' game all year, and if they're to do any damage in the playoffs, they have to learn how to dominate teams they should beat easily. A couple of wins in Florida will give the team a boost and help bank the points they'll need for later in the season when every game is a dog fight and a single win could make the difference between home ice or not...or even playoffs or not.

It'll be interesting to see what happens in the next couple of days. I know I'll feel a whole lot better about where things are going this season if the Canadiens end the year with a couple of solid wins in Florida.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

P.S. Sundin, the last word

I know I said earlier that I feel nothing for Sundin's signing in Vancouver. Well, shortly after I wrote that, I heard a telephone interview with him from Sweden. He said Vancouver was his first choice all along, and, get this, "it was an easy decision." When I heard that, I felt something alright. Disgust.

Either he's a complete liar (which is what I suspect because indications were that the Rangers were his first choice all along and Vancouver the consolation prize when the Big Apple didn't work out) or he's an egotistical ass who knew he was going to Vancouver and jerked all the other teams along for months, just to watch them beg.

So, whether the ultimate verdict is that Sundin is a liar, or that he's an ass, either way I'm disgusted with him. I still don't care that he chose Vancouver as a perfectly free free agent. I don't care that he'll play there and I don't wish him any ill. When the Habs play like they did against Philly, they're very very good without him.

But the way he handled everything was unfortunate, and his post-signing comments are both ingenuous and disgusting. Blech. And, to quote Forrest Gump, that's all I have to say about that.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Vanilla pudding

Well, I thought I would be irrationally angry at Mats Sundin when he signed with a team other than the Canadiens. Irrational because really, what did Sundin do wrong? Nothing of course. He was a free agent who entertained offers and chose the one he preferred. But angry despite its irrationality because he shunned Bob Gainey and the Habs to go for bigger money or, worse, the bloody free-agent vacuum that is the New York Rangers instead. But now that the deal is done, I feel nothing. Not anger, not relief the saga is over, not jealousy, not scorn. Nothing.

I think if Sundin had actually signed with the Rangers, I would feel the hate. Not just because we'd have to see him five more times this season, rubbing our noses in the fact that he didn't want our team. But also because the Rangers get everyone. I don't think I could graciously accept them unloading one previously-coveted free agent in order to make room for another one...both of whom picked New York over Montreal. But now that the big bald Swede has chosen Vancouver, I feel zilch. Well...maybe a mild disdain that he really wanted to play in New York. Even though they couldn't free up the cap space for him, the intent was there. For the actual signing in Canuck-land, however...there's nothing.

For me now, Sundin is just another phony hockey player who says one thing and does another. He's just another face in the faceless crowd that is the Vancouver Canucks. You just can't hate the Canucks. They can go on some hot streaks, and Luongo is usually great, but you just know they're not going to do anything dramatic, Mats or not. They're not likely to beat the Sharks or the Wings or the Ducks, so what is there to hate? I suppose if the Habs met the Canucks in the Cup finals, I'd have to work up some sort of emotion about them. But right now, Sundin might as well be playing poker on a cruise ship somewhere. I don't care. Vancouver is the vanilla pudding of the NHL, and Mats is welcome to dine on it for the rest of his indecisive life.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Hello, drawing board!

As Habs fans everywhere descend into the abyss of panic, it makes one wonder what Silent Bob is doing these days. Is he on his holidays? Is he taking art classes or music lessons? Perhaps building a cabin in the Laurentians? I like to think he's looking at his team and figuring out how to fix the obvious problems it's having. Or at least looking at his roster and deciding who's wheat and who's chaff in the great winnowing a GM must do each season.

I was trying to put myself in Bob's shiny wingtips and imagining who the big guy thinks is performing and earning George Gillett's shekles and who's not. Obviously worth every penny, of course, are Carey Price and Josh Gorges. The Habs' BFFs are still on very economical deals for what they offer, have improved their play since last year and are providing extremely steady coverage of the back end in pretty much every outing. So, if I'm Bob, those guys are making me smile slightly. Teeth are almost showing.

Andre Markov is pretty reliable on D, and it's not really his fault that he's not producing on the right point of the PP. That was never his spot and he's not good there. That he's still there is evidence of both the lack of a trustworthy alternative and Carbonneau's stubbornness. Overall though, Markov continues to provide his big, mostly mistake-free minutes. So does Roman Hamrlik, who's noticably worse when paired with Patrice Brisebois...mainly because he covers for a lot of Breezer's mistakes. But, paired with Gorges or Komisarek, I could see Hamrlik earning every cent of his money. Saku Koivu too. He's shown up in every game and is still the team's heart. He stays next year, if there's any justice. Maxim Lapierre has responded to benching by playing the best hockey of his career. He's been strong, aggressive and effective on the fourth line. If he only had better hands, there'd be other guys worried about their jobs today. Robert Lang is doing exactly what everyone expected him to do when he was signed. These five guys register a quirking of the lips and a glint in Gainey's eye.

Tomas Plekanec has been working like a dog in every game, but without results on the scoresheet. Jaro Halak has played very decently in goal, but with very little support. Alex Tanguay worked well with skilled, fast Koivu...not so well with less-skilled, slow Lang. Brisebois has filled in admirably on D in the absence of Komisarek, but still makes the occasional scary mistake. Mathieu Dandenault, Steve Begin and Francis Bouillon have been trying hard and fulfilling their roles to the best of their limited abilities. Those guys are getting a Gainey nod of acknowledgement.

On the other hand, we have the Kostitsyn brothers, who've had about six memorable moments between them all season. Unfortunately, those moments are flanked by long stretches of invisibility, punctuated by bursts of bad penalties. Chris Higgins has been as effective as a mesh condom (to borrow a phrase) when he's not injured. And Mike Komisarek was as afraid of the puck as everyone thinks he is of Milan Lucic when he wasn't injured. Alex Kovalev is trying hard, but he's become the King of Sucky Penalties and Giveaways...which, when you think about it, is a pretty long name for a kingdom, but you get the picture. Guillaume Latendresse is rapidly running out of supporters who defend him for his age and lack of first-line linemates as he continues to not become the power forward those supporters hoped he would. These guys are getting a lips-pressed-tight, stoney-eyed stare from their boss.

All of this means Gainey's choices for whom to keep and whom to release at the ends of their contracts are much murkier than they should be. At the beginning of the year, the informed observer would have said Lang, Dandenault, Brisebois, Bouillon and Begin were certainly not going to be re-signed. The biggest dilemma Gainey was supposed to be facing was how to fit the big new contracts Komisarek, Plekanec, Higgins, Koivu, Kovalev and Tanguay would be needing under the cap.

At this point, the throw-away scrubs are earning their money while, so far, five of six of the certain keepers are not...with the lone exception of Koivu. So I think Gainey's busy trying to figure out what the hell to do with these players in the big picture. The small picture is going to have to take care of itself for the time being, as Gainey watches and waits for evidence to help him in those big-picture decisions.

Meanwhile, with the holiday roster freeze on tomorrow, we can be sure it'll be at least January before we see any changes in the Habs' lineup. With three games in four nights before Christmas and the annual suckfest that is the Florida holiday road trip yet to come with the current cast, some of the evidence Gainey needs could be pretty...well...evident by then.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Ugh. Boston.

You know, for a Habs fan, I've always had surprisingly little hate for the Boston Bruins. I liked the way Ken Dryden described them in "The Game," as the worthy opponent against which a good team can measure itself. Over the years, if the Habs were good, Boston was the hardworking team that gave the Habs a test before gracefully submitting to defeat. When the Habs were bad, the Bruins were the team that provided the metaphorical mountain to climb on the way to unexpected glory. The Bruins always provided good competition, and even in the years when they beat the Habs in the playoffs, we could all say, well, it's the law of averages. After so many defeats, the worthy opponent...the Washington Generals, take your bound to win a few.

So, for twenty-five years, I've always kind of begrudgingly respected the Bruins. Sure, there have been some not-so-admirable players wearing the black and gold. But overall, the team has a long history of being the testing ground for our guys. Now, suddenly, I find the respect turning to hate.

It's not that they're off to a pretty great start. It's not that they're nine points ahead of the Habs just before Christmas, or that they've beaten the Canadiens in the last two meetings between the teams. It's not even that Milan Lucic is a cult hero to Bruins' fans and the guy who beat Mike Komisarek onto the IRL for six weeks. It's because the Bruins are having the Candiens' season.

Coming into this year, the Habs were a first-place team full of young, talented players, who added more talent and experience in Robert Lang and Alex Tanguay, and much-needed toughness in Georges Laraque. They were supposed to be unstoppable. The number-one PP in the last two years was supposed to just continue to click along, despite the loss of Mark Streit on the point. They were supposed to have learned playoff hockey and come back more determined than ever to be successful after last spring's ignoble loss to Philly.

But here we are in December with a rash of injuries, no PP to speak of, a half-dozen scoring threats sputtering and a coin-toss mentality regarding whether half the team shows up in any given game. Boston, on the other hand, has received stellar goaltending from Tim Thomas, their young players are breaking out and big guys like Lucic and Blake Wheeler are talented and scary. Kessel and Bergeron have made what was a slow team faster, and Chara is looking like a sure-fire Norris candidate...and maybe winner. Their team looks unbeatable. They're strong, talented, and determined.

In short...they're the team the Habs were supposed to be this year. Of course, I know it's rare for a team to roll through an entire season on top of its game. Every team slumps sometime or other, and we can hope what we're seeing now is a depleted Habs' lineup going through the slump process, while Boston's comparative dominance is making our team look worse. I'm not sure it is, though. There seems to be something intangible fundamentally missing from the Habs this year, and Boston seems to have it.

So, for now, I kind of hate the Bruins. It's not really logical or fair. But I want the season they're having. I hate to think that the Habs had a real chance to win last year, with all the stars aligned, and they blew it. Unfortunately, I think a team is only gifted with the right chemistry and the lack of injuries along with the talent once in a very rare while. I wanted the Habs to have it for the big hundredth year drive. If they had it last year and it's actually Boston's turn during the Centennial, it'll be just too bad. Of course, this is written after only thirty games. Tim Thomas could come back down to earth at any point. They could have injuries. The Habs could pull up their socks and get the PP working. There's a lot of hockey to play.

But the Bruins have been playing it very well so far...and I hate that.