Saturday, April 3, 2010

Aftermath: Halakazam!!

In the sweet relief that was the aftermath of last night's win, I listened to Jaro Halak field a question from the media mob at his stall in Philly. "Do you remember Andre Racicot?" the reporter asked. Jaro did not. Until they mentioned that Racicot was better known as "Red Light." "Ah," Jaro said. "NOW I know him."

Today we can laugh at the lighthearted moment after the pressure of such a desperately-needed win has been relieved. There wasn't much laughing last night in the midst of that nailbiter. It's no wonder the only two things Halak and Racicot have in common are a uniform and the fact that they both shut out the Flyers in Philly. Red Light had his moments, but he was never as consistently a winner as Halak. It seems as though whenever the team is in direst need, Halak comes through. He was nothing short of brilliant last night. Breakaway? No problem, he's got the glove. Goalmouth scramble? No problem, he's got his eye on the puck the whole time. Cross-crease tap-in attempt? No problem, he's got the pad across. He was everywhere and he saved the Habs' bacon.

It's a good thing, too, because most of the rest of his teammates did not. Before we get to that, though, it should be noted that some of them did, and they deserve a helluva lot of credit for it. Among the heroes:

-Ryan O'Byrne. The big man played a big man's game and was in his element against the tough, grinding Flyers. Yes, he still makes mistakes and unfortunately, his often-boneheaded coach tends to bench him for them. But there was no fear of his sitting out last night. He hit, he battled and he moved the puck out of trouble consistently. In the absence of Spacek in the top four, O'Byrne played a solid, even inspiring game.

-Josh Gorges. Gorges was often outmatched in size by the Flyers he had to face, but the Teflon Man still came out with the puck more than he didn't. It's no mystery why Gorges was captain of his Memorial Cup-winning junior team in Kelowna, or that he was mentioned by Habs teammates as a potential captain last summer. If a captain isn't the most talented guy on the team, he's usually the guy who inspires by sacrificing himself and driving as hard as he can on every single shift. That's Gorges. In a game of chicken like last night's in Philly, a team needs a guy who looks the other player in the eye and doesn't blink. That's Gorges too.

-Andrei Kostitsyn. In continuing his maddening pattern of inconsistency, Kostitsyn came up with one of those games that illustrates exactly why he was chosen tenth overall in a super draft. He was fast, smart and strong, especially on the play that led to the game's only goal. Everyone cries about the Habs having chosen Kostitsyn instead of Mike Richards in their draft year, but on that play, Kostitsyn just outmuscled Richards and proved he's as anybody taken in that draft. So, we appreciate that gorgeous, game-saving play. Then we sigh and wish it would happen more often. Maybe we should take heart from the fact that the Flyers were looking to kill a Hab or two last night, but Kostitsyn didn't back down an inch.

-Tomas Plekanec. Boy, has he ever shattered his "soft" reputation this year! In a game in which both teams were desperate for the two points, while the Flyers were more willing to crush someone to get them, Pleks scored his goal while parked in the slot, surrounded by big Flyers. Not only did he willingly go to the dirtiest area on the ice, he showed great poise and finish when he got there. This is not a soft player. Maybe he's not as strong as some of the huge opponents who try to shut him down, but he isn't soft.

-Travis Moen. Moen has the finish of a piece of fresh-cut lumber, but he doesn't quit and he's willing to use his body as cannon fodder to help the team. I saw him take a couple of suicide hits in the third last night in an effort to get the puck out. You can't put a price on that kind of dedication.

-Tom Pyatt. There's another guy with heart to burn. He played a big part in saving the game when he kept the puck in the Flyers' zone for a precious ten seconds in the last minute. He's a smart player and a great skater. You can see why Martin is tempted to overuse him sometimes.

Now for the not-so-great stuff. The players continued their dreadful habit of collapsing in the third period and sitting on a lead that's not nearly big enough to support their weight. I'll give them a little bit of break on the third last night, however, if only because the Flyers were the more desperate team going into the game and, heading into the third period, that desperation was multiplied. They were throwing everything they could muster at the Canadiens' defence and it was all the Habs could do to hold them off, let alone generate some goals of their own. Still, in the playoffs, the Canadiens need to find a more cohesive offence.

After the Carolina game, a lot of fans were feeling bad for Carey Price. There was absolutely no reason for fans to boo him after a very strong performance, and his own coach defended the fans instead of the player in an ill-advised post-game comment. No goalie, fans said, should be expected to win a 1-0 game if his teammates aren't scoring. But, said others, sometimes a goalie HAS to win a 1-0 game. Both groups are correct. Halak pulled it off last night, but it won't happen regularly. The Canadiens have to start scoring. Kostitsyn and Plekanec are doing their part. But Benoit Pouliot, perhaps seeing a familiar pattern forming with his treatment by Martin, isn't doing the things he was doing right when he first came to Montreal. He's not going to the net and he's not using his linemates well. We know he can, so maybe he's got to study some video and stop thinking so much. Cammalleri is looking weak out there too. I'm not as worried about him because, as he said when he didn't score in his first six games as a Hab, the goals will come. He's got a ton of confidence and we know he's got the skills, but goalscorers are streaky by nature. The goals will come for him, and we've just got to hope they come in time for the playoffs. Gomez and Gionta need to step it up a little bit too, if only because the third and fourth lines seem to have returned to the arid desert of Can't Score.

In the aftermath of last night, there's one thing about which we can be sure. The Canadiens have a goalie who can steal playoff games. Last night was the closest the Habs have come to what it's like to face a desperate playoff team. They managed to survive it intact, thanks to their goalie. If Halak can do that in the playoffs, and the rest of the team finds a way to contribute, there's hope the Canadiens won't embarrass themselves like they did last year, no matter who they face...and assuming they end this rollercoaster season in the top eight.


Anonymous said...

Without Halak the Habs are a lottery team. I hope making the playoffs and winning a game or two doesn't lead management to believe only a tweak here and there is necessary to turn the Habs into a contender.

MathMan said...

Well, I do think one tweak could make a huge difference if it's the right tweak: replace Jacques Martin with someone who can coach in the 21st century.

His system remains terrible, his team's 5-on-5 game is a disaster, and he's absolutely terrible with young players. He's in the process of dropping Pouliot, after dropping Latendresse so badly the Habs had to trade him. Wins this year have happened more in spite of him than thanks to him, and replacing him with someone with a decent 5-on-5 system could make a huge, huge difference even with the same roster.

MC said...

I also thought O'Byrne and Gorges played awesome. How can they ever go back to Price after that!?

I hope SK is back soon. Moore needs someone to play with if the third line is going to have a real threat to score.

The collapse in the third was concerning, two games in a row. Are they sitting back or do they depart from their game plan, or are they out of gas from playing so hard the first two? Whatever it is, they need to sort it out quickly if they want to play in May.

David said...

Wow, you called it -- O'Byrne and Pyatt ended up scoring rare goals Saturday night.

Anonymous said...

A little while ago the Habs won a game 4-1. That was a solid win, the team and fans knew it.

Those type of games don't seem to be so usual now. It seems most games are decided by a goal, and many teams play for the point then worry about overtime and a shootout. Sort of makes sense, 82 ties but 82 losses post third still gets you to the doorstep of the playoffs.

I think Martin is simply playing the odds. If he can get up one he is willing to sit on it in the third, short bench, and look for a chance to put it away. Jacques Lemaire hockey, only with an unproven team sort of tough on the nerves.

It is really funny though that everyone says Halak got two shutouts in a row. It doesn't matter who the goalie is, two shutouts in a row is a team stat, and one the team should be proud of. The goalie played a big part but so did everyone else who played their game, took their man, and pushed it that little bit more.

Bravo to the Habs team. They did good.