Branch Rickey, the great baseball innovator, described his sport as "a game of inches." In a game in which success is measured in ninety-foot lengths, it's an apt description. If baseball, then, with its precision of distance, is a game of inches, hockey is governed by time. Length of shift, quickness of release, minutes remaining in a period, swiftness of stride. Effort and desperation are determined by time. Hockey is a game of seconds.
For the Canadiens last night, hockey came down to one second. The Habs were skating with the mighty Red Wings and riding a hard-working one-goal lead. Then Michael Cammalleri took a dumb penalty. A soft call on Tomas Plekanec later, and Montreal was down two men. Still, the heroic PK was killing it excellently. It appeared the Habs would escape their own folly unscathed. Then came the fateful second.
Josh Gorges, exhausted, had control of the puck during the dying seconds of that penalty kill. Maybe it was because he was completely drained, or because he didn't know how few seconds were actually remaining, but in that instant of time, he made the only bad decision possible in the situation. He flicked the puck away, right to a Wing who made a perfect pass to the front of the net for a perfect goal with one second to go. That was the difference.
One could argue that if the Canadiens had gone into the second period ahead, they might have played a different, more disciplined game. As it was, a combination of silly penalties and bad officiating meant the Habs took six minors to Detroit's one on the night. As a result, guys like Cammalleri, Kostitsyn and Pouliot spent a lot of time on the bench, while Plekanec and Gionta got worn down on the PK. Plekanec, for example, played 4:11 shorthanded, which, when you consider that he served one of the minors himself, is a lot of time spent defending instead of attacking. You can't have your leading scorer doing that in a tight game against an excellent opponent.
Pavel Datsyuk, in contrast, played just four seconds on the PK. Plekanec was supposed to be covering the Wings' top scorer, and he did a great job at it when he was actually on the ice. It was the game within the game, and the one time Babcock managed to get Datsyuk away from Pleks, the Red Wing scored. It's a small consolation for Plekanec, who admitted he viewed the matchup as something of a measuring stick of his own ability. He wanted to win the personal battle with Datsyuk, but he never really got the chance to go one-on-one with him at even strength much, without the interruption of a PK. Still, the fact that he kept Datsyuk off the scoresheet and beat him soundly on faceoffs is something of which he can be proud.
Once again, Carey Price dominated in goal. The man is playing some deeply impressive hockey right now. He could not be faulted on any of the Wings' goals, and he gave his team every chance to come back and win.
The attempted comeback was actually encouraging. In the only period in which the Canadiens stayed out of the penalty box, they gave the Wings more than they could handle. A different bounce or quicker release might have changed the whole complexion of the game during that period. They showed they can skate with the best, and, when playing a disciplined game, they can beat them.
Some games are real tests. They let a team know where it stacks up against the contenders, and the Canadiens know now they're almost good enough...but not quite. In the end, they just ran out of time in the third to fix the mistakes they made early in the game. They forgot for a little while that hockey is a game of time, and a lot can happen in a second.