Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Chicago vs. Montreal

Notes on the third:

-I think that sweet and sour odor you might smell is Ryan O'Byrne rotting away in the pressbox.
-Hmmm...the prison shirts might have been banished, but it seems their cursed legacy lives on. Hamrlik AND Sergei Kostitsyn gone for any length of time will make this run a lot harder. Is there no end to the injuries this year?

-Stupid Senators. It seems the Habs really will have to take their own destiny in hand if they're going to make the playoffs. Not that that's a bad thing.

-Price played a great game overall...but he's just not a shutout goalie. Some weird shot always seems to beat him. Too bad. I thought he had a goose tonight.

-The defence looked much more organized than they have recently overall. Maybe they've replaced Jarvis with Martha Stewart as D coach.

-Gainey hockey is back in Montreal. I feel good about the team right now.

Notes on the second:

-It's funny how when an injured player goes back to the bench, nobody speaks to him and his teammates look like they want to make signs of ward to keep the bad luck away.

-Lapierre and Latendresse should never be separated. They're like siamese twins connected at the brain.

-I'm afraid to say much about Price. My superstition knows no bounds when it comes to placating the goalie gods.

-Too bad about the taunting of Huet. He's the least deserving of a whole bunch of ex-Habs who don't deserve taunting in the Bell Centre, enemy or not.

-Why does the Habs play in their own end so often resemble a frantic rush to orgasm in the back of a Volkswagon Rabbit?

-I love the Smiling Markov. It's like spotting a rainbow on a cloudy day.

-Schneider said when he arrived in Montreal that if the team could put up one PP goal per game, they'd be more likely to be a winning game. The vet knows what he's talking about.

-I'm really glad the boss-man killed the prison unis for tonight. Those things are a tri-coloured fabric curse.

-Go (gag)Sens(gag) Go!

Notes on the first:

-I wonder if there's such a thing as a consistent Kostitsyn? Say THAT five times fast!

-I didn't even have time to cheer on Kovalev's goal. It was more like a surprised hiccup, a laugh and then a little bit of feeling bad for Huet that quickly passed.

-I'm glad Higgins is playing tonight. It seems every time he finds a role for himself, illness or injury knocks him out of it. He's been stellar in his defensive role. Like Matt Dillon in Gunsmoke.

-Uh oh...after that first early goal, Huet looks slightly cross-eyed behind his mask. That's not a good sign for the Habs.

-The D is playing much better in the last few games, but you can't help but worry that every chance the opposition gets has an even-money chance of going in. I think I'm gun-shy after some of the atrocities committed against my fanship this season.

-Not to be mean, but Mike Komisarek has one goal and seven assists this year. So why does he think it's a good idea to pinch as often and as deep as he does?

-Good to see the brotherly love between the Kostitsyns, but I hope Sergei's not hurt. I think he's the best chance to complete his brother and Pleks as an effective line.

-Price is standing up. Pierre McGuire can blather all he wants about how Price's confidence shows in his puck-handling, but to me it shows when he's not flopping around like a dying salmon with no idea where the puck might be.

-Habs look like they've been skating in concrete boots since Christmas and have just been sprung for the playoff race. Hope they can keep it up in the second.

The Unknown Soldier

A fellow Habs fan asked me the other day, "So, do you think Andrei Markov will get a Norris nomination this year?" Without really thinking about it, my immediate answer was "probably not." Then I started to actually consider why that is.

There's no question the man is the Canadiens' MVP. He's not only leading the team in scoring, he leads in icetime as well. He's completely unflappable in his own end and has actually increased his personal power play production over last year, even as the team's PP ranking has dropped. He can make passes that would put the Fonz to shame. He does creative things with the puck that look like they must be choreographed, because how could a guy do that without planning and practicing it first? To top it all off, he has often proclaimed his affection for Montreal and the team's fans and proved it by signing a four-year contract at a discount price. Without Markov, the Canadiens' defence would be very sketchy indeed. But of course, how valuable a player is to his own team doesn't necessarily mean he's worthy of consideration as the best at his position.

League-wide, he's first among defencemen in assists with fifty, which also ranks him tenth overall in that category. His sixty points puts him second among defencemen, seven behind Mike Green. Since he signed his big contract, he's improved every season in terms of points. This year, he's also playing a more disciplined game, accumulating only 36 minutes in penalties. And he's durable, having missed only five games in the last three years. He's hitting more than he used to, with a total of 57 so far this year, to go along with his 110 blocked shots. He's been a starting all-star the last two seasons, and would have made the team easily even without fan votes.

On the negative side, he leads defencemen in giveaways with 99. But he balances that with an impressive 56 takeaways which is the third-highest number among Ds league-wide. Then again, if you look at the other league leaders in giveaways, Alex Ovechkin is tops with 100, Derek Roy has 90, Mike Green 89, Mike Richards 86 and Evgeni Malkin 80. Offensive-minded players take chances and they give the puck away. In plus/minus he's an unimpressive minus one, although some of that can be attributed to the often abyssmal play of partner Mike Komisarek this year.

Overall, there's nothing on the statistics side of things that says Andrei Markov doesn't deserve to be considered among the top three defencement in the league. Stats aside though, Markov is too unassuming to attract a lot of attention. Zdeno Chara has his monstrous size that makes him noticable, even though he's also a quiet type of guy. Nik Lidstrom has his perennial-winner status to offset his quiet efficiency. Mike Green has the huge goal total. Other guys have other reasons why they attract notice. Markov is just quiet, steady, competent and extremely good at his job. But he doesn't shout it from the rooftops, and so the league doesn't notice.

It's too bad, really, because when you think about it, Markov probably does deserve a Norris nod. But in the end, I'm sure he'd take a Stanley Cup instead. And if he continues his stellar play as the Habs defensive anchor and MVP in the next few years, you never know...

Monday, March 30, 2009

Fear and Temptation

Doesn't this week feel completely different from last? This time last week we were praying the Canadiens could pull off a couple of wins against bottom feeders, just to stop the slide down the standings before they found themselves looking up at eighth place. But we were praying without a lot of hope behind the prayers. The team was getting killed every night, the goaltending was iffy, the D suspect and the forwards couldn't score. Now here we are a week later, after three solid efforts from everyone in uniform, better goaltending, timely scoring and reeling in five points out of six.

The temptation is to believe the team has turned the corner. I really like the fact that the players are skating hard, hitting and potting timely goals (even if they couldn't get one in six chances in the SO against Buffalo...grrr). The PK has been fantastic and the PP, with the Koivu line controlling things, has been better. A month ago, if the Habs had been down by two goals against the Sabres, (wait...weren't they?) they would have folded and given up the third one in short order. Now we're seeing a team with a gameplan, with players who know their roles, that can fight back when down.

Still, though the temptation to buy into the dream that the Habs have turned things around is strong, the jury must be out until they win a game against a serious team with the new kind of effort they've been showing. The Hawks game tomorrow is going to be a big indicator of how strong this Canadiens squad really is. If they win...I'll officially give into the temptation and believe the team is making a serious stretch drive and improving as it heads into the playoffs.

The fear behind the temptation though, is what if it's not enough? What if the Canadiens really try and they look good, and even manage a few wins in the last eight games, but they still fall short of the post-season? I don't think I can stand to get my hopes up only to see them dashed in the last week of the season. I'd been resigned to missing the playoffs a month ago. Now expectations are rising again, in what could be the cruelest blow of a weird Centennial.

In the end though, I'll probably be a typical Habs fan and expect big things. Every two points will raise my hopes. I'll be a believer. But if the crash comes, it'll be a long, long summer of gathering up the pieces of broken fan heart in time for next October.

Saturday, March 28, 2009

Buffalo vs. Montreal

Okay, gentle reader: Some of you have been asking for period summaries on the blog. As they say, ask and you shall receive. But I warn you, there will be angst and sarcasm and way too many similes of varying degrees of ridiculousness and, if the Habs are winning, unadulterated cheerleading. If that's okay with you, read on and feel free to throw your own comments in too.

Notes on the third:

-The biggest dilemma of the Centennial season: What do you pay Mike Komisarek for next year? If he was RFA, it'd be less than two million. But he's UFA so...

-I spend WAY too much time yelling "GET UP" at the TV when watching Habs goalies. Maybe Rollie should reconsider his "drop on every shot" strategy.

-It's great to have a "number one line" but if they can only score on the PP, are they still dangerous?

-Higgins is the new Gainey. Dryden wrote about the first time he saw Gainey. It was on TV during Dryden's sit-out year. He says he saw this guy who could skate like the wind, blow past a couple of defenders and take a good, hard shot on net. He says it was only later that he discovered the guy (Gainey) couldn't score. Is that Higgins or what?

-I really like Metropolit. He's a guy who kills himself for whatever team he's playing for. He's just happy to be in the show.

-I hate the shootout. Seriously. Whatever was wrong with a tie?

Notes on the second:
-I was afraid last year that Hamrlik wouldn't maintain his great play for the full four years of his contract. Now I'm afraid I was right.

-If the Habs miss the playoffs at this point, it'll be for two reasons: Missing open nets and Patrice Brisebois. Boy, the Breeze is done. O'Byrne can't really be consistently worse, can he?

-Why can the Sabres goalie come back from an ankle injury with back-to-back strong games when the Habs' guy struggles for six weeks? Miller's hotter than Middle Earth.

-I don't think I've been happier to see a guy rewarded for hard work more than I was to see Higgins score that goal. That was like Old Yeller getting a reprieve at the end of the movie.

-Oh Captain, my Captain! He's like the wick in the candle. The secret vodka in the punch bowl.

-Kovalev's strength is in his scruff. Since he let the early playoff beard grow, he's been on fire.

-Oh boy...can you hear the Bruins sweating?

-Price is going to have to be very strong in the third because the Sabres won't die. This is their year in twenty minutes.

Notes on the first:

-I wonder if the Centennial loonies are worth the nickel alloy they're minted on? Or does their exchange rate fluctuate based on how badly the Habs suck on a given day?

-Mathieu Dandenault must have been put on earth to negate icings. Picasso painted, Hemingway wrote novels and Dandenault chases loose pucks. Who says we don't all have a talent? This time last year I wouldn't believe I'm saying this, but I'm really glad he's still a Hab.

-Ooh, boy, Mrs.Kovy is gettin' some tonight. L'Artiste is frisky!

-Lapierre is really reminding me of Mario Tremblay...the player. Snippy and gritty and tough as nails and able to hurt you on the scoreboard too.

-Higgins kills penalties like the leafs kills their fans' hopes. Quickly and definitively.

-The Habs look like they've finally turned the corner, but that was one hell of a straightaway of suck, wasn't it?

-I don't know what TK's fight record is, but I think it's safe to say he's not going to challenge Laraque in the wins column any time soon.

-Breezer scares me more than Freddy, Jason and the threat of an alien invasion all rolled into one.

-Hope the boys can keep skating in the second. You have to think last night's game might have made the Slugs tired. Right?

Sick of Humility

I have to say, I was never one of those Habs fans who gloated when the team was good. I never threw the 22 or 23 or 24 Cups in the faces of other teams' fans or bragged about how the Canadiens would annihilate every team in their path when the playoffs rolled around. I enjoyed the '86 and '93 Cups with tears of joy and a little perma-smile that I caught in my mirror for months afterwards. I even collected my '93 playoff pool winnings (thanks, Gilbert Dionne!) from my leaf-fan friends with grace and very little rubbing it in. So I'm a little taken aback when the rabid Habs hatred that exists in the hearts of 29 other teams' fans hits me like a pie in the face.

I know the Canadiens tradition of winning everything in sight and destroying other fans' hopes and dreams on an annual basis probably planted the seeds of hate in those fans' hearts. (Sorry, Bruins fans. Well, not really, but sort of.) In the seventies, I didn't know the team was called the Montreal Canadiens. I thought they were the "Goddamn" Canadiens, which is what my Wings-fan Dad called them. But here we are in 2009 and it's been a generation since those Habs hit the ice. Our team has struggled, lost, missed the playoffs, made horrible trades and worse signings for fifteen years now. Our glorious Habs spend more time contemplating history than looking to the future. Yet the humbling of the franchise hasn't dimmed the hatred for the Canadiens and their fans. If anything, it's grown worse. When the Habs were winning, other fans could only grumble and hate the Canadiens among their own. They knew they could never win an argument with a Habs fan because Montreal would always have better players, more Cups, more Hall of Famers, more honours, a longer, brighter history and a better chance of winning in any given year than most other teams.

Now that the Canadiens are either scraping into the playoffs or missing them altogether most years, the fans of other teams are getting their own back. They laugh at the Habs' humiliation and gloat in rooting against them. Right now, there are legions of leafs and Bruins fans praying to whatever loathsome deity they worship for the Habs to bomb the rest of the year and miss the playoffs. If they do, they'll seek out Canadiens fans specifically to laugh and rub it in. Already, I've had calls at work from total strangers who know I'm a Habs supporter and who feel the need to ring me up and say, "What happened to your great Habs, eh? Not looking so great now, are they?" I just can't fathom taking the time and effort to actually look up a leaf fan and call him to gloat. Bruins fans are feverishly watching the Canadiens games and rooting just as hard for them to lose as they do for their team to win. Again, I don't understand. I might possibly catch a period of a Bruins game if there's one on TV and I have nothing else to do. But I'd never specifically look for a place to watch the game just so I could root for them to lose.

You know where that comes from, though? They're afraid. The Canadiens have such a long history of breaking other fans' hearts, those fans are trying to get their gloating in while they can. They're afraid the Canadiens are going to be for real again very soon, and that they'll once again be a source of misery for them. Bruins fans, right this minute, are afraid to meet the Habs in the first round of the playoffs. Even though the Bs will finish miles ahead of the Canadiens in the standings, have beaten the Habs convincingly in several of the head-to-head meetings this year and will have home-ice advantage and the "favourite" label in the playoffs, Bruins fans are afraid the Canadiens will defy all the odds and once again rise up to thwart what, on paper, should be a deep playoff run for their team. I guess that's what history does. It seeps into the collective consciousness and the very bones of a group of fans and becomes part of the fabric of their team's lore. Once you've felt the agony of losing to the same team year after year for decades, it takes more than a few years of that team's humiliation to shake the fear.

I know one thing, though. I'm sick of the gloating and the humility shoved down our throats by other teams' fans. I'm tired of having to say, "Yeah, I know. The Habs suck," and pretend to be laughing it off. It burns me that those guys are right, and I want the Habs to rise up and smite them all. I think that's been the worst part of watching the Canadiens tank the second half of this season. It's making so many people so happy to watch the Habs' hubris in promoting the crap out of the Centennial come back to bite them in the ass. Nothing would make me happier at this point than to take that gloating and enforced humility dished out by other teams' fans and feed it right back to them.

So, Go Habs Go! If they can somehow turn this sow's ear of a season into a silk purse, I'll be the first to graciously say, "Well, what do you expect? They're the Habs." And every one of those fans will know what I mean.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Top Ten Things I Hope I Don't See Again for the Rest of the Season

Nine games to go and we're in the home stretch. Hopefully at the end of it, we'll see the Good Ship Canadiens tucked safely into a nice, comfortable playoff berth. In the meantime (at the risk of murdering a perfectly innocent metaphor), we can expect some choppy seas and stormy weather as the team tacks home. Nothing's ever easy for the Montreal Canadiens. But at least some of what troubles them is self-inflicted. To that end, here's the top ten things I hope we don't see again for the rest of the season:

10. Chris Higgins giving a post-game interview about how the team needs to work harder and how Montreal is a really tough place to play when you're losing. I appreciate the fact that somebody has to talk to the press after losses, even when they don't want to do it. But I'm sick of Higgins and his excuses. If we're going to have excuses, at least let us have different ones from different guys. Besides, with any luck at all, maybe there'll be no cause for a loser interview after the next nine games.

9. Carey Price crying. He's young and fragile, but it scares me when the guy we've been calling the franchise saviour cries after a loss. I like my goalies impenatrable in the net and inscrutable out of it. Hopefully, he'll have no reason to cry anymore, but if he does, I hope he keeps the tears in check until he gets home...or at least until the cameras are off.

8. Defencemen attempting to clear their zone under pressure with weak backhands along the boards. I don't know how many times I've seen that play in recent games, but I know it's way too many. It's a move that not only reeks of desperation, it NEVER works. It's one of the main reasons why the Canadiens have such trouble clearing the puck out of their own end. There's no excuse for having the puck on your stick with time and space and then giving it away.

7. Five red sweaters facing the net. When the team is in a panic in its own end, everybody suddenly forgets the guys they're supposed to be covering and they start chasing the puck instead. Lots of times we've seen the puck go in the net after the opponent has three or four whacks at it as all the Canadiens stand around looking for it instead of clearing bodies out of the crease. That has to stop, immediately.

6. Alex Kovalev standing still on the right boards during the PP. The powerplay worked so well in the Atlanta game because everyone was moving. The Koivu/Kovalev/Tanguay line with Markov and Schneider were constantly changing positions and passing the puck quickly as they did it. It stretched the Thrashers' PK box and opened lots of holes for shots. They have to keep doing that if they want to be a threat. So, no more stagnant standing around waiting for the perfect shot, Kovy!

5. Mike Komisarek arguing with the ref after he's taken a dumb penalty to cover for the fact that he's lost his man. I don't know what's wrong with Komisarek this year, but he's looking very lost on the ice much of the time. If he's not giving the puck away, he's being beaten one-on-one at least a couple of times every game. He's making up for that by hooking or tripping the guy who beats him...then whining when he gets caught. He's got to pick up his game: cut out the mistakes and cut out the complaining.

4. Andrei Kostitsyn meandering back to the bench as his line changes "on the fly." Bad line changes are one of the things that have burned the Habs for odd-man rushes so many times this season I've lost count. Kostitsyn is one of the worst culprits.

3. Lack of effort against lower-ranked teams. The last nine games should offer some cushion points if the Canadiens show up and play properly. The losing to worse teams because they just don't seem to care has nearly cost them a playoff spot, and WILL cost them a spot if they keep doing that in this last stretch.

2. Fans booing and jeering at the Bell Centre. Yes, the Habs deserve to be booed. They've been awful, embarrassing, shameful and distressing. But even if they deserve it, I think it doesn't help to actually boo them off the ice in their own rink. As much as they've been sucking, they're still young guys with egos and slamming them that way is more likely to make them slink off in defeat than come out firing to win the next one. A little support from the stands might help fuel whatever turnaround the team has in it.

And the number one thing I hope I don't see again for the rest of the year:

1. Patrice Brisebois. I know the Breezer has filled in when the team's been desperate for blueline help. But he's bad. He's really bad. The other night against Atlanta, the Habs scored six goals and allowed three...and Brisebois managed to be minus two. And it wasn't one of those cases where a guy has the bad luck to be stepping on the ice as a goal against is scored. It was entirely deserved. He was awful on both goals against, AND he blatantly gave the puck away in the slot right in front of Price, who then bailed him out. Unfortunately, the guy who was hired to be the number seven, insurance defenceman has been playing top-six minutes and he can't do it anymore.

Honourable mention: I really don't want to see anybody over 35 years old or with less than twenty points leading the team in icetime. Maybe it's just me, but those guys should be the supplement to your core...not the core itself.

On the other hand, the number one thing I do want to see: A major push into the playoffs with the team gathering some convincing wins and getting on a roll as the season winds down. The Habs are not as bad as they've been playing. And, as they say, once you make the playoffs anything can happen. It starts tonight.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Lovin' the Habs, But Not Lovin' the Habs...If You Know What I Mean

I am a Habs fan. I love the Montreal Canadiens. I love the history, the lore, the tradition of winning. I love the characters, the close calls, the stories and the memories. What I don't love right now are a lot of the players.

I have been forced to admit a lot of the current Habs are just not loveable. Andrei Kostitsyn, for example. Maybe it's the language barrier, but Kostitsyn comes across as thuggish...a guy who wants to make a living at hockey, but isn't too terribly concerned about continuing the great winning tradition of the team for which he plays. If he is, in fact, burning with an internal fire that's driving him with a passion to win, then I apologize for the misunderstanding. But somehow, I think he's happy when he wins and just a little less happy when he loses...as long as the cheque doesn't bounce. He's a good player when he's going all out, but he's not a loveable player.

Chris Higgins is another one. He's got a great backstory: The New York firefighter's kid who grew up in a house where the children were named for former Habs, the only Canadiens' fans in the neighbourhood. For the son to grow up and become a first-round pick of the team his father loves so much must have been like a fairytale in the Higgins family. But the reality of Chris Higgins as a guy who mopes and wallows when things aren't going his way, and who's acquired the reputation of being a party animal, win or lose, isn't quite the same as the fairytale. You'd think a guy who grew up with the same love of the team the rest of us have would be the one who'd be busting his butt on every shift. Instead, we have a guy who's been largely invisible on the ice and who has a grand total of eighteen points in forty-seven games. Worse, he's the guy who speaks sarcastically about the pressure of performing "in this city" and about how the fans and the media expect too much. That's just not loveable.

It's hard to love Carey Price when he cries after losing...pity yes, but not love. It's hard to love the faceless Roman Hamrlik too. The only time he's spoken publicly in recent memory was to explain his unloveable connection to a mobster. It's hard to love Alex Kovalev when he tries to win a game by himself and ends up giving the puck away or taking a stupid frustration penalty. And it's hard to love Alex Tanguay who's only had half a season to prove he was worth a first-round pick and has been invisible for half that stretch. I have great respect and admiration for captain Saku Koivu, but I don't love him. He's a little too self-contained and private to inspire that kind of love.

Of course, some of them can still make me feel the love. I have to love Tomas Plekanec...the Mechanic...who works his tail off on every shift, wears that nifty turtleneck and looked destroyed when the Flyers scored the nail-in-coffin empty netter in the last playoff game last season. That's a guy who cares about winning. Jaro Halak is a winner too. You have to love a guy who's forced hockey people at every level to take notice, even when the inclination was to pass him over for a flashier competitor, and who genuinely competes in every game. Andrei Markov has emerged as being a player you can love, with his great talent and vision and his passionate goal celebrations. His better English these days is revealing a sly sense of humour too. And you have to love Tom Kostopoulos and Maxim Lapierre, if only because they leave their hearts on the ice every night.

The problem with the Habs right now, though, is that there are more guys on the team that are hard to love than those who make rooting for them easy. Maybe winning would make it easier to love them...but somehow I doubt it. They are what they are, and on the whole, it's not that inspirational.

Monday, March 23, 2009


So, I was listening to Saku Koivu speak after the Maple Leaf disgrace on Saturday night. He talked about how they're fighting for a playoff place, and how they need to do the little things they're not comfortable doing and how they need to play with passion. Yeah, okay, Saku...we already know those things, and, one would assume, so do the rest of the players. The telling moment of that post-game interview was when someone asked the captain "Simple question: what's wrong with this team?" And Koivu replied, "Simple answer: I don't know." I heard Bob Gainey talk about how the team is fragile and how it crumbles as soon as it's faced with adversity. But when questioned about why that is, it sounds like Gainey doesn't know either.

So, in lieu of the actual reason for the most epic collapse of a potentially good team since last year's Ottawa Senators, we have a whole bunch of theories and dumb excuses. The newest trendy excuse is the number of free agents on the team. The theory goes that with so many unrestricted free agents, there's a lack of stability because no one knows where they'll be next year and no one wants to lay himself on the line for a team that might not want him back. What a bloody crock that is!

The truth is, Bob Gainey's right to wait on signing free agents...especially those who are entering free agency for the first time, or who will be looking for their last contracts. If Gainey had re-signed Alex Kovalev after last year's great season, or extended Mike Komisarek for five-and-a-half or six million per season as he was widely rumoured to be worth, who'd be happy about that now? Kovalev has dropped drastically in both production and general effectiveness since last year. Komisarek has looked bad all year and worse since the injury he sustained in fighting Milan Lucic. He's not hitting, his puck handling is atrocious and he's continually chasing the play instead of taking care of his man. He looks like a rookie even when he's playing with his safety net, Andrei Markov. Komisarek has said several times that he's not injured, that whatever his problem is is mental. Gainey said at the beginning of the year that new contracts would be based on how players performed this season. If the players greeted that statement with fear instead of the desire to prove themselves, it's not management that's got a problem.

I can understand how a player might get it into his head that if the team didn't offer him a new deal it must mean management doesn't value him. And with that mindset, he might start worrying about hurting himself if he pushes his physical limits. And once he starts protecting himself physically, his intensity level and production might begin to drop off. Again, I have to say that theory doesn't hold much water. Players should want to play. They know the only way to get a contract is to prove themselves, whether to the team for which they're playing this year or the team they hope will sign them next year. Either way, free agent years are audition years. Anyone who's hoping self-preservation and a drop in production will land him a good deal either with his current team or a new one has his head screwed on wrong. It might have worked for Michael Ryder last year, but it won't become the norm...especially with the salary cap about to drop. GMs will be looking for players who give it their all, no matter what.

So the UFA theory is pure crap. So is the "media" theory: specifically, that the demands of the media are too taxing and put the team under too much pressure. The media is there to tell the public about the team and the games. Reporters ask questions, then leave to go write their stories and the players leave to go do...whatever it is they do for the twenty hours a day when they're not "working." It's funny how when the team is winning, the media isn't a problem. Everyone's only too glad to talk about themselves when they're doing well. But when it's losing, all of a sudden, players want to hide and they complain about "media pressure." Yeah, okay. Pressure. More like they don't want to answer hard questions, or examine the reasons why they're stinking. When you stink, suddenly hockey in Tampa looks much more appealing, if only because nobody asks you about it after you lose.

Kirk Muller's theory is that the players are trying too hard. He says they've forgotten to have fun, and they're too stressed about losing the minute something goes wrong in a game. Maybe someone should tell the players they have ten games to go, and if they don't pick it up, they don't have to worry about hockey anymore for the next six months. If they love the game and they love what they do, they'll drop the excuses and just play. If they don't...well they'll have a good long summer to think up all the excuses and reasons for this disgrace of a season they can. But if they miss the playoffs I hope they're telling their excuses to their new teams in the fall.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Musical Inspiration

I've figured it out! I know why this year's Habs are so apathetic, and why they seem to be tired at the start of every game. It's not the coaching, or the attitudes of the players. It's not their skill level or their conditioning. It's their music.

Seriously. What are these guys listening to? Carey Price loves country music. Garth Brooks. Garth Brooks' words of inspiration include lines like: "...choose to chance the rapids, dare to dance the tide." Inspiring? Sure, if you're going to finish a novel or fight a deadly disease. But maybe not so much if you're planning to stare down a guy who's 6'4" and 220 pounds and is coming at you at twenty-five miles an hour with the intention of either putting the puck past you or through you.

Hockey players also seem to love Nickelback. Words of inspiration include "Saturday night's alright," and "I'm gonna trade this life for fortune and fame..." Yeah. That's inspiring alright. Makes me want to go straight to the prom.

Whatever happened to rousing renditions of "Highway to Hell" and "We're Not Gonna Take It?" What about "Eye of the Tiger?" I think the Habs were better in the eighties because they had better music. Sure, it was hokey and loud, but it was built for sports. There's a reason why arena DJs are still playing those songs during breaks in play today: they pump people up and make you want to cheer for some hockey.

So, maybe it's time for Breezer and his eighties metal collection to take over the music player in the room. At this point, it can't hurt. And maybe a little Twisted Sister or AC/DC might pump them up better than Garth does. I think we're at the point where they need to try anything to get some life in that room. Cause we're not gonna take it...

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Make Way!

Carey Price had his chance, and he lost it. He was awful in that Ottawa game. We all saw it in the shootout in the Ranger game. He played small and second-guessed himself, and we knew it'd carry on into the Ottawa game if he started. But, once again, Bob Gainey overlooked the fact that Halak has been winning games...somehow...and started The Franchise.

This has been a problem since last year. I know Gainey took a gamble on drafting Price so high, when the team already had Theodore playing decently and a desperate need for a talented forward. But his need to justify the pick is hurting both Price and the team. Yes, Price has talent, and he proved it when he won all the things he's won in lower levels of hockey. But a goalie friend of mine says the art of goaltending is fifty percent mental. And right now, that means Price is only fifty percent an NHL goalie, because his confidence is shot and his mental game is not there. That's now affecting his physical and technical game as well.

I lay this at Bob Gainey's door. Price won the Calder Cup, but when he came to camp last year, he wasn't the best goalie there. Jaroslav Halak was, and he fully deserved, based on the fact that he almost single-handedly dragged the Habs into the playoffs the previous season, to be Cristobal Huet's backup. That's what should have happened, based on merit. That's what Guy Carbonneau wanted. But Gainey wanted Price to get his feet wet in the NHL. The GM wasn't planning to re-sign Cristobal Huet, and figured Price would serve a year's apprenticeship and then take over as the number one this year.

It turned out Price wasn't ready. He had to go to Hamilton to lick his wounds after a rotten stretch of play last season had him in tears and mentally shattered. Fortunately, he managed to get it together and came back playing well...well enough for Gainey to make the Huet trade and hand Price the number-one job just in time for the playoffs. We know now how that worked out.

But despite everything, Price was anointed and handed the top job out of camp this year. He played well for a while, but got hurt a couple of times. After the second injury, he's been atrocious. This year though, there's no trip to Hamilton. Price must clear waivers, so he'll have to sort out his game and his confidence in Montreal. Halak, on the other hand, managed to stop the bleeding for a while with his four unlikely wins in a row. To his misfortune, he got the flu and allowed Price back in the net. Price played decently enough, even while allowing his token softie per game...but wins were still hard to come by. Then the shootout in the Rangers game showed his confidence is shot once again.

Price is very young and perhaps shouldn't have been given an NHL job before he was ready for it. Now it's time for Halak. Gainey doesn't want to play the backup...he wants the Franchise to play better. But maybe Halak's not meant to be the backup. He's got confidence in himself and he's stopping more pucks than Price. If the Habs have any hope of the post-season, a goalie will have to drag them there. And the only thing Price is dragging anywhere right now is a whole lot of baggage.

Hubris...And a Sort of Bizarre Optimism

Oh boy, did the Greeks ever know what they were talking about when they came up with "hubris!" Merriam-Webster defines the term as "exaggerated pride or self-confidence." What the definition doesn't say, though, is that in traditional Greek tragedy hubris always leads to conflict and punishment. Is that the Habs this year or what?

They started the season with such great hopes...remember that? It seems so far away now. But all the pundits were calling for the Canadiens to represent the East in the Stanley Cup finals. And why not? They were coming off a great season last year: first in the conference, 104 points, the league-leading PP and a charmed season on the injury front. They lost to the Flyers in the playoffs because they couldn't score and because Carey Price was a sieve. No matter though...Bob Gainey went out and acquired Alex Tanguay and Robert Lang to boost the offence and Price's problems were supposed to be behind him after he had a good long summer rest and worked hard to lose thirty pounds of fat some bad habits had allowed to build up. Gainey also hired Georges Laraque to address the common perception that the team isn't tough enough. All in all, we were positive going into the year for the first time in recent memory.

This was a team that was building on a great year and had added some really good players to make it better. Then the hubris kicked in. We all thought the pundits were right, and the Habs were a lock for the Finals this year. We watched the team's quick start with supreme confidence and great pride, even though some niggling signs of coming troubles were foreshadowed in the team's winning games even though the players only seemed to show up for a period or so. Sure, we thought, they're just getting their groove going and they'll roll through the league this season. As we know, though, hubris comes with punishment.

Then the injuries started. Koivu, Komisarek, Tanguay, Higgins, Latendresse, Price, Laraque, Dandenault, Bouillon and Lang all suffered serious injuries that cost them dozens of games out of the lineup. Still though, the team managed to struggle on and keep winning through the first wave of injuries. But, hubris also comes with conflict.

So we saw players accused of unspecified, but irresponsible off-ice behaviour and of caring more about the next party than the next game. We saw veterans like Mathieu Dandenault and Steve Begin, who bleed for the team, complain about their roles. We saw players connected to bad people in very specified and irresponsible ways. We saw Begin shipped out of town and Carbonneau fired. Conflict there has been, without a doubt. As the Greeks used to say, "Those whom the gods would destroy, they first make proud."

The upside of all of this is that in the tragedies, even though hubris comes with a fall from grace, the heroes recognize their flaws and we see catharsis. They become purged of the pride that lead to their downfall and face Fate as diminished, but purified people. (If they live.)

I have a strange, and completely unjustified idea that the Habs have been disabused of any notion that they're entitled to anything or that they're better than anyone else. I haven't had much hope the team is going to win even a game at a time since Christmas. So, maybe it's the smell of spring in the air, or the longer evenings, but it's starting to feel like playoff weather. And I can't stop hoping the worst is over and the team will make the post-season, improving as it goes. It can't actually get worse (right?) and all the injuries, save Lang and whatever Komisarek is hiding, are better. Bob Gainey knows hockey, and he'll get them on track system-wise. The goalies are playing better and the special teams are doing pretty well. There are positives, and even the Ranger game was better than the game before.

Maybe the heroes we saw in the fall thought too much of themselves, and we thought too much of them in turn. Maybe now they know they're not meant to be the champions they expected to be. Perhaps they understand there's dirt and grit and sweat before there's glory. Who needs tragic heroes anyway? I always liked the underdog better.

So, go Habs go. I don't know how long my new-found optimism will last, but I do hope the team will at least follow the example of its own Greek hero and work as hard as Kostopoulos. If they do that, my optimism will be justified and the lesson of hubris will have been learned...by them and by us.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Carbo's Farewell

Whatever else you might say about Guy Carbonneau and his tenure as coach of the franchise for which he bled as a player, you can't say the man doesn't have class. I watched his farewell news conference this afternoon and he handled himself with dignity and a touch of humour, while skillfully deflecting questions about the rot that seems to have infected the core of the Canadiens.

I think Carbo made a lot of mistakes. He played one-dimensional players too much. He gave Carey Price too much leeway when the team needed stability in goal and Price couldn't offer it. He called out players publicly too often. He changed lines like socks and he made incomprehensible decisions about which players to have on the ice at crucial times. But I think the mistakes he made would have been mitigated by a winning team, the same way they were last year. He wasn't perfect then either, but the team was just so much better it didn't seem to matter. Most of the bad decisions this year were in reaction to the team's losing. Now, since the team is playing in exactly the same listless, defensively porous, weak-willed way under GM Bob Gainey as it did under Carbonneau, we might be forced to think maybe coaching wasn't the problem after all.

Carbonneau handled every question thrown at him with aplomb today. Whatever criticism he's received about being a poor communicator, it doesn't carry over into his relationship with the media. As expected of an employee who will continue to be paid by the organization for the next two years, he graciously thanked team ownership, management and the other coaches. He even thanked the players whose lack of the same on-ice determination that defined Carbo as a player cost him his job. He talked about his love of hockey and of the team and hoped that he'll be able to continue to work in the game. He choked up a bit when he talked about this being his first firing...obviously a failure for a man who will do anything to win.

The one answer that intrigued me was in response to the question, "Would you like to discuss the team with Bob, and would you offer any advice about any bad apples in the room; who to keep and who to let go?" Carbo said, "Yes, I'd very much like to talk to Bob about that, after the season." Interesting comment from an insightful, diplomatic and possibly wrongfully dismissed man, no?

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Back To the Future

This is a great year for the draft class of 2003. At 24 years old, most of them have played several seasons in the NHL and now they're really coming into their own. I know it's kind of silly to say a single draft can make or break an NHL franchise. But 2003 was special. There were so many studs in that draft, the testosterone in the Gaylord Entertainment Centre (no bad jokes, please...I already thought of them all) in Nashville could have been a visible cloud. It was the deepest draft in years, maybe the draft of a lifetime. When you look at it, it was remarkable in that many of the players chosen have become the faces of their respective franchises. It was the draft that made a lot of teams what they are today.

Look at the Flyers, for example. In the first round of the 2003 draft, they picked Jeff Carter and Mike Richards. Both of them are big, strong centres who can put the puck in the net. Carter's right up there among league scoring leaders, which has turned out to be great for the Flyers. But Richards was the difference-maker for them in that draft. He's now the team captain and personifies the Flyer ideal of no-quit, tough, aggressive hockey. He has not only continued in the pattern of early Flyers like Bobby Clarke in renewing the franchise identity, but he's managed to lift the team out of the funk it had been in in recent years and make it competitive again.

The Ducks chose Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry with their two first-round picks in 2003. They got two big, tough forwards who can put up points. Both players were excellent in their rookie-year playoffs in 2007, and played a big role in bringing the Cup to Anaheim. The Ducks really didn't have a team identity until they acquired those players. After that, they were seen as big, tough, skilled and dangerous, with Getzlaf as the prototypical Duck.

The Kings picked Dustin Brown, the massive Brian Boyle and Jeff Tambellini with their three first-rounders in 2003. Boyle's been a slow developer, but can handle the puck well for a guy his size, and still has promise. Tambellini went to the Islanders in a trade for Mark Parrish and Brent Sopel. But Brown: There's another guy who's now his team's captain and the example of skill and toughness team management hopes to see in the large crop of young players they're developing. Another franchise player.

Nathan Horton in Florida is yet another 2003 stud, and a guy who's playing a big role in getting his young team into the playoffs for the first time in years. He's tough, strong and talented and will be the face of the Panthers for years to come.

Zach Parise in New Jersey is the perfect embodiment of the New Devil. He plays both ends of the ice flawlessly, and can turn the game in an instant on transition. He's quick, skilled and defensively responsible: In short, everything Uncle Lou wants a Devil to be. He's fast becoming his team's best player.

Other teams picked their typical franchise player in 2003 as well. Carolina got Eric Staal who went better than a point-per-game in the Hurricanes' 2006 Cup run. Calgary, a big, tough, gritty team got big, tough, gritty Dion Phaneuf. Speedy, skilled Buffalo got speedy, skilled Thomas Vanek.

Of course, not every team did as well as those. In every draft, even a superdraft, there are bound to be busts. So, perhaps it's not surprising that the biggest bust was Hugh Jessiman, taken by the Rangers in the first round. The Rangers' identity is built around high-profile free agents, not good drafting. So, the very fact that Jessiman has never played an NHL game makes him the prototypical Ranger pick.

Now, when we consider the 2003 draft and the huge impact it's had on so many teams' fortunes and very identities, we turn to the Canadiens. They had the tenth overall pick in that superdraft and they used it to pick Andrei Kostitsyn. Kostitsyn was supposed to go in the top three based on talent alone, but his epileptic condition apparently frightened some teams away. I wonder now if that's what it really was. It seems that the Canadiens were among the teams who picked the player that typifies their identity. Kostitsyn is prodigiously talented, without a doubt. But he also has long periods of unproductivity, moodiness and the appearance of disappearing from the game. The passion to use his talent every night, and the strong desire to win every game seem to be missing from what he offers. But, isn't that the Canadiens' team identity? A fast, skilled, largely European team that shows up one game in four. A team you just know could be seriously impressive if they only played up to their full potential.

It's not that Kostitsyn is a bad player. Far from it. His 26 goals last season were a career high for him, and he'll likely match or better that total before this season ends. But, like his team, you can't help thinking he could be so much better if he had just a little more determination and drive to win. He just seems so...apathetic...at times. The prototypical Hab.

Yes, 2003 was definitely the draft of a lifetime; the one that helped define the identities of many NHL teams. The year of The Franchise. For better, and for worse.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

There Will Be Blood

The hype started a month ago, when Martin Brodeur came back from a devastating elbow injury and immediately started shutting people out again. Forward-looking hockey people began to mentally tally how many games left and how many of those Marty might win before arriving in Montreal on March 14...perilously close to St.Patrick's Day. It was possible...just...that Brodeur could actually break Patrick Roy's all-time wins record right under Roy's retired number 33 at the Bell Centre. In Montreal, Brodeur's hometown. Against the team he's made his patsy all career long. A couple of poorly-timed losses to the Islanders spoiled the absolute perfection of the storyline though, and Brodeur and his adoring media entourage suit up tonight with only the opportunity to tie the record, instead of break it.

Brodeur will take the tie, if he can. Already the media are ignoring the flaw in the story...a tied record isn't quite the same as a broken one, but no matter...and hyping this game beyond belief. And you can bet Brodeur is enjoying every moment of it. He's always loved the idea that he owns the Habs. When the Canadiens seemed to have broken the spell last year by coming back against the Devils and beating them in their own barn right before the All-Star break, Brodeur was so mad he smashed his stick on the crossbar. Not a reaction typical to the usually-Pillsbury Doughboy-like, pleasant-natured Brodeur.

This year though, the Devils have taken every head-to-head matchup between the two teams, with Scott Clemmensen in net. It turns out, it's not Marty at all, although he certainly did his part. It's the Devils' system the Habs can't break, and never could. And that system and that team will come out tonight firing like a Gatling gun in the Habs end, while throwing a blanket over the Canadiens offence. The Devils want this one for their spiritual leader, and they want it badly. They're motivated and confident...and a better team than the Habs.

So, Bob Gainey, being the quietly fiery competitor he is, doesn't want Brodeur to get what he wants. Gainey would love to send Marty home to tie the record against Chicago on St.Patrick's Day. That alone will be enough of a coincidence for the story-writers to immortalize. Gainey's pulling all his arrows out of the coaching quiver and throwing them at the Devils.

Patrice Brisebois' thousandth NHL game will be honoured before puck-drop. Even though Ryan O'Byrne is the better defenceman, Gainey's hoping the well-liked Breezer's special night will motivate his teammates to show up and play the way they can.

Jaro Halak gets the start in goal...the coach hoping the kid can stand on his head like he did against San Jose two weeks ago. The goalie is looking to impress and prove he has just as much right to start big games as Carey Price does, so he'll be motivated.

The weapons Gainey's throwing out there in an effort to foil Brodeur's fairytale might be small ones, but they would serve to give most teams a bit of a boost; something to take their minds off the hype building at the other end of the ice and focus their own pride as they skate out tonight.

But these are the Habs. This is the team that loses to Atlanta with no apparent concern about it, but which also shut down the Detroit Red Wings and held on to beat the Sharks. I know one thing: There's not a Habs fan living who wants to see Brodeur tie that record tonight. I hope the Canadiens have the same idea.

If not, well, tying a record's not the same as breaking it, right?

Friday, March 13, 2009

Now What, Bob?

In "Gone With the Wind," Scarlett O'Hara lived her selfish, reckless life with little regard for the ever-patient Rhett Butler who loved her for the very flaws that made her a social outcast. Finally though, even Rhett had enough as he clapped his hat on his head and "Frankly my deared" his way into the fog and out of her life. In the Habs' version of the story, the players are the headstrong, selfish Scarlett and Bob Gainey the tormented hero.

Usually the "New Coach Syndrome" lasts ten or twelve games for an NHL team. Players who felt oppressed by the old coach are freed. Those who were underused or overused begin to play different roles. There's a feeling of guilt about costing a guy his job, even if they didn't like him, that makes players work a little harder for the new guy. In a case like that in Montreal, where the GM takes over, there's a little element of fear natural to anyone whose boss is literally looking over their shoulders. That motivates some players to work a little harder and show a little extra jump. At least at first. After a dozen games or so, old habits slip back in and old ruts are easier to travel.

That the Canadiens display of guts and determination in the third and overtime of the Oilers game on Tuesday lasted only until Thursday night is really depressing. Bob Gainey said he thought the players tried in last night's shameful loss to the Isles. If that's trying, then this is a very sad team indeed. They were outshot, outchanced, outhit and outscored by a team that will likely finish last overall. They had three shots on a two-minute five-on-three, and no goals to show for their "trying."

It seems that Bob's Big Gamble in firing Carbonneau and taking over himself was calculated to take advantage of New Coach Syndrome. But apparently, the Canadiens don't really care who's coaching them. They don't care about contracts for next season. It looks like they don't care about playing in Montreal anymore at all. You don't go out in your second game with the GM behind the bench and get dominated by the worst team in the league while you're fighting for your playoff lives...if you actually give a crap.

So, now what? Looking down the barrel of Marty and the Devils' Habs cannon of death, I'm not confident of a win tomorrow either. So I try to hope. Maybe Gainey's changes just hit a hiccup and another day of practice, coupled with the team's inclination to raise their game against tough opposition will at least inspire them to keep tomorrow night's game close. Perhaps the spectre of having Brodeur tie a great franchise record right in the Bell Centre will prick their pride and spur them to victory.

I hope Gainey's takeover gets more out of the team than it appeared to do last night. Because if it doesn't, it means at least one of three things: that Gainey's effectively gambled his job and lost, that the Habs don't care or that the team just isn't that good after all. Any of those scenarios are scary to consider.

So, like Scarlett, I'll think about that tomorrow. After all, tomorrow is another day.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Le Coach

So the city of Montreal, or at least its citizens who depend on stirring the public pot for a living, are all in a lather about whether the next coach of the Canadiens will be French or English. Poor Guy Carbonneau isn't cold in his grave of public exile and already there's a manufactured controversy about what francophone could step into his wingtips behind the bench, and the tragedy of management potentially asking an anglophone to coach the team instead.

What a giant, ridiculous crock of crap. For years now, we've seen the team stagnate in the coaching department because of its insistence on hiring a francophone in the top job. As a result, the Habs have had a series of inexperienced rookie coaches who inevitably make many mistakes at the NHL level, last a couple of seasons and get turfed. Their problem wasn't that they were necessarily bad, (although the palpable relief in Pittsburgh at "Mike" Therrien's firing makes me wonder) but that they were learning on the job. And the Canadiens keep providing a training ground for baby coaches largely because of language.

I have no problem with giving some weight to language when hiring a coach in Montreal. After all, the city is bilingual and it's to the coach's benefit to speak both languages for facility in dealing with the ever-present media and for social appearances. But a coach's mother-tongue should be a consideration, not a requirement. Make no mistake, the language in the dressing room isn't French. These days it could just as easily be Czech or Russian as English or French. As long as the coach can communicate effectively with all the players, regardless of language, that should be all that matters.

I often quote Ken Dryden's book, "The Game," to make a point because even thirty years after Dryden made the notes for that book, it's full of truths that apply to the team today. One thing he wrote with quite a spark of prescience is that the Habs teams after the seventies dynasty would have to make a choice. They could either be competitive or they could have a French identity. He could see that economics, the draft, expansion and the coming influx of European players would inevitably change the game and the way teams are built. Dryden wrote that in regard to players. But I think it's equally applicable to coaches.

In a quick read of various Canadiens' message boards and fan sites, it seems the vast majority of people who actually root for the team and pay to go see games want to see the best possible coach hired for next year. They want a strong, experienced man who can manage the team well and contribute to on-ice success. If he happens to speak French, that's great. If not, who cares? The main thing is the team and bringing the right person in, with the right consideration paid to his coaching talent before anything else.

Unfortunately, those who cover the Canadiens think the fans of the team for whom they collect the quotes and video want to know about the language issue. So they spent a good chunk of time today grilling Don Lever about whether he'd like to be the next coach, and if he plans to learn French. I think Lever did a great job in Hamilton and the players he's graduated to the NHL seem to have a great deal of respect for him. Whether that will translate to his becoming the best candidate to coach the Canadiens remains to be seen. But if he is the right man, I would hate to see him elimated from contention for the job because his mother tongue isn't the right one.

The fact...sad as it is to many...is, Dryden was right. The team had to make a choice, to either be successful or be French. The prominence of players like Saku Koivu, Alex Kovalev, Tomas Plekanec, Mike Komisarek and Carey Price indicates which choice the team has made. Fans, no matter what language they speak, want the team to win. And that means hiring the right coach, no matter what language he speaks.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Elegy Written On a Rural Laptop

You wore the colours well and bravely, friend.
The suit? Well, not so much.
You never found the answers in the end.
Confused players, out of touch.

Communication lacking, they all said.
Unless ripping the ref.
The team you once captained, for which you bled,
looked through you as though deaf.

Now you're packing up your ties and your rings.
The Line-O-Matic's still.
Oh, how the ignoble departure stings
your instinct for the kill.

The boss has taken over in your place;
your friend and successor.
You were falling fast in the playoff race,
a poor-choice transgressor.

Your plumbers will be sad their ice is cut.
Kostopoulos will sit.
When down a goal, the stars must bust their gut.
Each job each man must fit.

No more will Habs so softly cede their zone.
A new system will rule
while you clear out your space and leave alone
like the last day of school.

Too bad things didn't work out well for you.
You were a great player.
You win some, then sometimes you lose a few.
Hey! Carbo for mayor?

Monday, March 9, 2009

Hurts So Good

Every team gets injuries, unless they're uncannily blessed like the Habs were last year. The very pervasiveness of broken parts among hockey players means injuries are like ice conditions, bad reffing and tough schedules: everyone's got them, so there's no sense complaining about them. That means injuries can't be a viable excuse for losing. So we don't go there...most of the time anyway. When fingers are pointing this season, they're pointing at poor goaltending, bad coaching, a lack of a productive power play and defensive breakdowns. Very rarely have we heard anyone say, hey, this team has really taken a beating with injuries.

But you know what? The Habs have really taken a beating with injuries. Last summer Bob Gainey built a team that, had it ever been healthy, would have seen three legitimately threatening offensive lines balanced by an energetic, hard-hitting fourth line. Unfortunately for us and Gainey, the dream never became a reality. The team started the year with injuries and have never iced a completely healthy lineup since.

When looking at the impact of injuries, you can't just look at man-games lost. While the Canadiens sit around the middle of the NHL pack in that category, you have to look at which players are affected and the timing of their injuries. Many teams have two or three or more players out of commission at once, but rarely are all of the injured players essential cogs in a winning machine. Clubs that do have a lot of important players out at once, like the Islanders and Blues this year, just don't do very well. This year, the Canadiens have had significant long-term injuries to Mike Komisarek, (an injury from which many believe he's still not recovered), Carey Price, (which reflected in his play long after he returned to the ice) and five of the top-nine forwards on the team...three of them at a time for long stretches.

Another unseen impact of injuries is the effect they have on those players' teammates. Saku Koivu and Alex Tanguay came out of the gate with great chemistry at the beginning of the season. But when Koivu went down to injury in mid-December, that chemistry was lost. Then, by the time Koivu came back, Tanguay was hurt. Basically, it's been nearly three months since those top-line players got to perform together. Last night against the Stars, we saw the chemistry between them and Andrei Kostitsyn spark to life again. Just bringing together players who work well with each other eliminates so many of the problems the team has been experiencing. I'm hoping the same thing happens when Guillaume Latendresse recovers. He and Max Lapierre were really playing well together before Latendresse went down with a shoulder injury. Now the lineup isn't just missing Latendresse, it's missing Lapierre's best play as well, since he performs better with Latendresse.

Of course, even when a player comes back from a long injury, things don't return to normal right away. It takes a while for a player to physically get his stamina and timing back. And mentally, it may take even longer for him to shake off the fear of re-injury and immserse himself in the game again. Tanguay says he's still not playing up to par. Carey Price stunk up the rink for three weeks after his return from an ankle injury. Koivu is only now finding his game again.

We can't blame injuries for the Habs' underwhelming performance this season, because every team has them. But I contend the Habs' injuries have been longer, and to more important players at the same time than most teams have had to deal with. Especially teams that are still in the playoff hunt. Most squads with vital injuries to several key players fell out of contention a while ago.

So, while I can't use injuries as an excuse for disinterest and brutal defence throughout the roster, I think it's realistic to accept that the Centennial season has been derailed for many reasons and one of them has certainly been the number of players missing from the lineup at any given time. Add to that all the spinoff effects those kinds of losses inflict on a hockey team, and we can safely say slamming the Habs when they're down is adding a little bit of insult to injury. While we claim a team should be able to fight through injuries, the fact is sometimes, it just can't.

On the plus side, though, if injuries have been hurting the Habs, we can now possibly look forward to a noticable improvement in play as players gradually return and get back up to speed. I hope.

Saturday, March 7, 2009

The Ship is Sinking While the Captain Smiles

I was going to write something about "the good ship CH foundering on the shoals..." when a verse of Stan Rogers' "Barrett's Privateers" came to mind:

"Oh, the Antelope sloop was a sickening sight...with a list to the port and her sails in rags and the cook in the scuppers with the staggers and jags. Goddamn them all!..."

Unfortunately, it's not too difficult to see the similarities between the ill-fated Antelope and its hopeless captain Elcid Barrett and the ragged, listing Montreal Canadiens. What a disgrace this team has become. I watched a group of completely detached, disinterested individuals skate around a rink in Georgia last night, looking like they were only there because that's where the bus had dropped them. The only indication that any of them had previously met each other was the fact that they were all wearing the same white shirt.

Okay...I shouldn't say none of them came to actually play a game of hockey. Carey Price, perversely, played the best game he's played in six weeks. Too bad for him the rest of the guys in the white shirts had more interest in the dancing Thrashettes than they did in scoring goals. But, amazingly, in his post-game comments Guy Carbonneau said he thought the team didn't look all that demoralized. He thought they gave a sixty-minute effort. He said if the team keeps working like it did last night, it'll be okay. Really...he said that.

Maybe Carbonneau's playing little games with the media. It's the only explanation I can think of for such baseless optimism on his part. His team's great effort resulted in 5 second-period shots against one of the worst teams in the league. His team's "working" resulted in eight minor penalties against, most of them of the lazy, unnecessary variety. His team was shut out by a goalie who has a 3.11 goals against average. He watched his biggest player pummel an 18-year-old rookie, to no apparent betterment of his team's level of interest in the game. His team laid only five hits on the lowly Thrashers. Yet, he continues to claim there were bright spots.

The fact is, Carbonneau's team is sinking faster than the Antelope in Rogers' song. It's not only failing to win the games it must to maintain a playoff position, but the players are showing no sign of caring that they'll be golfing in six weeks. They look like they just want to get it over with. It makes no sense to me. These are players who need to put up numbers because so many of them will need contracts next season. And make no mistake, the days of pulling a Ryder...tanking in your contract year and still scoring your best contract from the East-leading team...are over. Next year there will be smaller contracts and teams will be warier about whom they sign and for how long because of the troubled economic climate. And yet the Canadiens skate aimlessly, with no obvious concern about their personal futures, let alone the team's.

It all points at a team that's quit on the coach. In some ways I can't blame them. Carbo's made a lot of mistakes. His stubborn refusal to separate Andrei Kostitsyn and Alex Kovalev, when the stats show a dramatic improvement in Kostitsyn's play with other linemates. His insistence on rolling four lines with relatively equal icetime, even when injuries have reduced the bottom two lines to no more than six grinding, talentless scrubs. His use of Tom Kostopoulos in situations where goalscoring is required. His fall-back on mixing up the lines as his only proactive move when things are going wrong. His public reluctance to give credit where it's due, while showing no hesitation in casting blame. His apparent confusion about what might be wrong with his team. His employment of a one-forechecker system and a collapsing defence. His decision to bag skate a tired, sick, demoralized team at this point in the season while giving them days off after bad efforts earlier in the year. There are others.

In a perfect world, though, it wouldn't matter what the players thought of the coach. In a perfect world, they'd band together and do it for the guys sitting in the room with them. But there's a divide there too, and the cameraderie we saw on the ice last year isn't apparent this time around. And now, with the trading deadline past, it comes back to the coach.

We know Bob Gainey loves Carbonneau and chose him specifically for the job. But I wonder how friendship and professional pride balance out on Gainey's mental and emotional scales? I wonder if he's decided the Centennial is a wash and is ready to lower the sails, letting the ship go down intact?

Somehow, I think he's not. Even though the team looks awful right now, we know the talent is there. This is the same group that looked fantastic last season. Gainey's not one to stand by and give up when he thinks he has the tools to be better. So, if the problem really is the coach, the GM has three choices. He can go into the room, announce he's got his coach's back and step behind the bench himself as a symbol of the solidarity of the team's senior officers. He can pull a 1986 and call a meeting of the team's key veterans, in which he asks them to take the team on their backs and help the coach out. Or he can fire Carbonneau and bring in a new face in the hope "new coach syndrome" will scare a few extra wins out of this team. Of those choices, the most likely...if Gainey actually hasn't given up...is the first one. Gainey's loyal and won't throw his friend to the wolves at this point in the season. But if he wants to shake things up without losing the coach, he'll have to step in himself.

It's very sad the year has come to this. It was so promising back in September. But, as Stan Rogers wrote:

"Goddamn them all! I was told we'd cruise the seas for American gold. We'd fire no guns, shed no tears. Now I'm a broken man on a Halifax pier. The last of Barrett's privateers."

We didn't think we'd be shedding tears in March, but here we are. Goddamn them all, indeed. Your move, Captain Gainey.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Deadline? What deadline?

So, lots of people believe Bob Gainey was asleep at the wheel because he didn't make a big splash at the trade deadline. I think there are two ways to look at it. The first one is that Gainey did what he needed to do in getting veteran experience, a steady D and help for the anemic PP in the person of Mathieu Schneider. And he did it early enough that trade deadline frenzy didn't bump the price out of reach for the Canadiens. The second way to look at it is that there are so many areas that need improvement, from the centre position with the absence of Robert Lang, to the defence with the underperformance of Ryan O'Byrne and Mike Komisarek this season, that a couple of deadline tweaks would have cost a lot and not really made a difference.

I look at it this way: Bob Gainey made a couple of sensible moves in the acquisitions of Schneider and Glen Metropolit in the last couple of weeks. He knows what we know, that the only way the Canadiens win the Cup this year is if they get super-hot goaltending, every player on the team consistently playing his best and the hefty dose of luck a Cup winner needs. Trading, say, Chris Higgins or Alex Kovalev for any of the players who moved today, aside from Olli Jokinen, would have taken more away from the team than the new guys would add. I mean, I like Mark Recchi, but the Bruins paid the equivalent of Ryan O'Byrne and Kyle Chipchura for him. That's steep.

Gainey really made his deadline moves last summer when he acquired Alex Tanguay and Robert Lang for picks. It's not his fault those players got long-term injuries, negating all his work. There were few players on the market today of the calibre of those guys, so throwing still more picks and prospects away to bring in lesser-tier players to replace them...basically paying double to fill the same spots with less talent...doesn't make sense. Sometimes, you have to accept that you rolled the dice and you lost, and then you stop putting your money on the table. Gainey rolled the dice last summer, the injuries cost him, and now he has to admit this isn't the year to load up and stop throwing assets away.

That said, I think the Canadiens as they are can play a much better brand of hockey than we've seen on most nights to date. If they can live up to their own potential, they could surprise some people. And when Alex Tanguay comes back, it'll be like adding a top-line winger to a team that's starting to finally pull together. That's better than any deadline deal I saw today. When Guillaume Latendresse comes back, the team acquires a hard-working, big winger who brings out the best in Maxim Lapierre and rounds out a third line that was giving opponents fits before Lats' injury.

I hope the passing of the deadline without big changes means the team can put that huge distraction away and look inward for inspiration. Because when it comes down to it, a GM can tinker all he wants to put talent on the ice, but winning comes from the players themselves. The players in the CH sweaters have talent...there's no doubt of that. Whether they have the guts, determination and heart to win is up to them.

How they play in these next three road games will give us a good indication if a little job security gives the Canadiens some new life. That could be the best thing that comes out of Bob's quiet deadline.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

All we are saying is give Price a chance

Hockey fans, especially those of the Canadiens can be a very mercurial bunch. They love their favourites with great fervour, but they drop those same favourites from grace pretty quickly if they don't perform on the ice. Which is a round-about way of saying I don't like the way people are dumping on Carey Price. And this is coming from someone who thinks Jaro Halak has been underappreciated and sometimes misused by the Canadiens. But now that Price is having problems with his game, and allegedly in keeping his extracurricular activities under control, a lot of Habs fans and other random critics are turning on him. That's not fair.

I agree with those who point out that Price's path to the NHL has been strewn with roses while Halak's had to struggle hard to get where he is now. But I contend that Price's relatively easy journey to the NHL hasn't really been his fault. He was born in the right country to be seen by lots of scouts, and he was lucky enough to have a father who did everything he could to help his son succeed. He had no control over the Habs taking a flyer on him with the number-five overall draft pick. On top of his natural gifts, he's been lucky and opportunistic, and...yes...at some level hardworking. A completely lazy player just doesn't succeed at the level Price has succeeded.

What bothers me is that, at 21, Price has gone from being the franchise saviour to being a class A bum in some circles, just because he's having a hard time for a few months. Well, a few months don't make or break a career, but the way a player is treated during those months of hardship could very well make a lasting impression on him. When Price turns it around, as I think he will, do we want him to remember with bitterness the way people jeered him when he struggled, or the way fans supported him and refrained from undermining his confidence? I hope it would be the latter, especially when contract time comes around.

But there's an unhealthy feeling of idolotry around the Canadiens that I don't remember there being before, and that's enveloping the individual players as well. I'm not sure if it's because the Habs are trendy and have attracted a lot of fringe fans who treat the team more like rock stars than hockey players, or if it's because so many of today's fans have had so little to cheer about on the ice that they turn their attention to the players' personal lives to feed the frenzy instead. Maybe it's the internet and the amount of time people spend on their computers analyzing every scrap of information about the players. Whatever the reason, we sometimes forget these players are young men who make mistakes and have slumps and who certainly aren't perfect. Keeping them in a kind of relentless spotlight eventually makes them tired and wary. We've already heard exasperated clips of Price and Higgins talking about what a tough place to play Montreal has become for them.

I think Carey Price is a good young hockey player who will emerge from this period of trial having learned some valuable lessons. But I wish Habs fans would just back off and leave him alone while he does it. The trade proposals including his name and the cries for him to be sent to Hamilton (by those who, apparently, are unaware of waiver restrictions) do no one any good, and they'll be ridiculous in retrospect, when Price is playing well and the fairweather friends come running back, saying "I loved him all along."