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.