Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Halfway

Boy, has the first half of this season flown by or what? It seems like just yesterday morning our brand new band of brothers took the ice for the opening game against the leafs. And just yesterday lunch time that Andrei Markov took Carey Price's skate in the foot and left us wondering whether our playoff hopes were sunk in the very first game.

It's been a pretty rough go ever since, although not completely without entertainment value. On the positive, fun side, we had that nice OT streak in which the Habs looked like they were living back in the spring of '93 for a while. The emergence of Tomas Plekanec as a true first-line player has been a pleasure to watch. Roman Hamrlik and Jaro Spacek have done yeoman's duties in filling in for Markov, and the special teams have been reliable and entertaining. The goaltending has been a strength for the most part, with both young keepers holding up their end of the bargain every night.

On the negative side, the team at one point iced six Bulldogs because of injury. Six. That's not a good thing, when you're playing against NHL teams who are not icing any Bulldogs at all. Ryan White and Tom Pyatt played their guts out, but they are not Scott Gomez and Brian Gionta. The severe lack of NHL-calibre talent for much of the first half has undoubtedly helped keep the Habs in the lower part of the playoff picture so far.

There's also a serious issue with The System; that being that it's not working. A good system keeps the puck to the outside in the defensive zone, limits shots and time in your own end, and uses short, sharp passes to initiate offence. The Canadiens are doing pretty much the opposite of that. They're allowing the opposition to crash the crease, they're giving up forty-plus shots most nights while having difficulty clearing their zone. And their breakouts are marred by giveaways and poorly-thought-out chips up the boards. I'm not sure if the players aren't understanding what Jacques Martin is saying to them, or if they're not capable of executing the instruction successfully. I suspect it might be a bit of both, but in the end it comes down in large part to trying to find some chemistry on a completely rebuilt team that has yet to play together because of the number of injuries.

So, at the halfway point, despite everything, the Habs have managed to keep themselves in playoff contention. I consider that a minor miracle, especially because the Canadiens have been helped in no small part by most of the rest of the Eastern Conference sucking the big one right along with them. Now though, facing the second half, it's time for the Canadiens to turn it up a notch. As Mike Cammalleri said, it's time to go from being decent to being good.

They're so close too. Right now, there's more working than not working. The PP is tops in the league with Markov's return. The PK is eighth. The first line is scoring every night for the most part. Now, with the arrival of Pouliot and the return of Gionta, the Gomez line can be a legitimate threat as well. The Metropolit line is pretty good defensively, and able to cycle the puck in the other team's zone long enough to bang in a goal or two. A fourth line of Lapierre, Sergei Kostitsyn and Bergeron could provide some timely offence once in a while as well. On defence, Markov has improved the transition game immeasurably. When Hamrlik returns, hopefully in the next game or two, we'll start to see the more defensively weak blueliners get less ice, or, in the case of Bergeron, move up to the fourth line. If Markov, Gorges, Spacek and Hamrlik are getting the majority of the defensive minutes, while Gill gets most of his on the PK and O'Byrne and Mara play ten to fifteen minutes against the least scary opponents, there will be an improvement on D.

I can see something good happening with this team. If injuries don't continue to haunt them and if they apply the work ethic that kept them at .500 when they probably shouldn't have been, they can win more than they lose in the second half. I say work ethic because I didn't like what I saw against Ottawa. They got out to a fast start, then seemed to sleepwalk a bit, letting Ottawa get to every loose puck first, and making lazy, ill-planned clearing passes in their own zone. You don't draw penalties and let your #1 PP work by never challenging the other team. This is a team that has the ability to win games, but only if everyone pulls together and don't slack off when they get a lead.

When Markov went down a brief forty-one games ago, I thought for sure the Canadiens would be long out of the playoff picture by now. That they're not is testament to an improvement in talent over last year, and a better attitude in the room. Now, with the troops returning from injury, they have a chance to take that talent and attitude and really make something good out of it. This team has the tools to be a playoff team. Tomorrow marks the first night in which they get to prove it. There can't be anymore five-game losing streaks. The team needs to win two for every one it loses, and it must start doing it now because the second half will go even more quickly than the first.

5 comments:

sanslignebleue said...

I totally agree. I think our odds are very good.

GO habs GO! :-)

-Dennis Dubeau

Patrick said...

In fact, statistically or divinely speaking (just pick your favorite piece of fatum), I think that we're done with the worst. If Markov stays healthy (which he will), the Habs will definitely finish sixth or fifth (let's have a dream). And all the self-called expert will claim that this came as a surprise, and how the Habs caught everyone off-guard in the playoff, moving past the first round, etc, etc...

Ah! Humanity!

And Go Habs Go! (as wrote Rabelais in the Tiers Livre).

dusty said...

I too didn't like what I saw in Ottawa. The Habs continue to be soft and easy to play against. Chris Neil always has fun at Montreal's expense. This lineup is not going anywhere and if by some miracle get a playoff position they will make a quick exit. I feel for Martin who knows how to coach but doesn't have the horses. The only player who has the guts to use his size is Moen. The rest of the team is not small they just play that way. Lots of guys 6' plus and 200lbs and over but you'd never know it watching the games. Mike Richards is listed at 5'11" 195lbs and plays huge. The Habs need players like him but don't have any.
Now I'll say something unpopular but so be it. Tomas Plakenac is a good player but first line he is not. He has plenty of skill and gives it his best but he is easy to play against and Bob should trade him quickly while his stock is high and try to get a true physical presence on this team.

DB said...

We interrupt the never ending Price/Halak debate to bring you the following comments on this post.

I can't image that The System involves playing in your own end for most of the game, taking more penalties than the opposition, and relying on the goalies to steal games. But I must be wrong because that is how the Habs play game after game after game.

If it's not The System then why can't Martin get his players to play differently? You've offered two good reasons. I think there are two others:

1. The players have not bought into The System and/or the coach. This might also explain why they have rarely played well for 60 minutes.

2. The System is better suited for the pre-lockout obtruction era. Since the lockout ended most teams have emphasized an aggressive forecheck while The Habs play a very passive game. The aggressive forecheck pins the Habs in their zone forcing them to take penalties that wouldn't have been called pre-lockout.

The Habs have the talent to make the playoffs, but to do so they must either fix The System or learn to play it properly.

We now return you to the Price/Halak debate.

Trade Price because he likes country music. Trade Halak because Price has better hair.

pfhabs said...

DB:

-you are absolutely correct with

"2. The System is better suited for the pre-lockout obtruction era. Since the lockout ended most teams have emphasized an aggressive forecheck while The Habs play a very passive game. The aggressive forecheck pins the Habs in their zone forcing them to take penalties that wouldn't have been called pre-lockout."

-its been called a passive resistance system that spends most of its time clogging up lanes and misuses the speed CH forwards have...a lot of progressive coaches/managers/teams employ an aggressive forecheck and attack. the CH sits back but that has been Martin's style forever

-as for being at 500; the worst is over, we could be 6th or 5th or in the playoffs ? reality check: they are 4 points from being 14th in a 15 team conference; ie a lottery pick team. they are in fact only 4 points ahead of a team that most of CH ridicules as barely NHL worthy; YES, 4 points better than the Leafs

-only a 4 point differential and CH fans have them making the playoffs while the Leafs are a "joke". objectivity is not part of the toolbox is it ?