Saturday, October 30, 2010

Hockey's Halloween

If you haven't yet got a Halloween costume and you suddenly discovered there's a reason why you need one, don't despair. You can go as your favourite hockey player! Here's how:

-Wear a Rangers sweater, put your arm in a sling, tape your ankles and you're instantly Marian Gaborik!

-Dress in black, tape money all over yourself and lie down in the corner. You're Scott Gomez!

-Put on a Caps sweater, black out your front tooth and laugh maniacally, and you'll be Alex Ovechkin.

-Wear a Penguin's sweater and stick a pacifier in your mouth. You're Sidney Crosby!

-Put on some leiderhosen and a Rangers sweater, carry a copy of Vanity Fair, swear often and disparage people's wives or girlfriends, and you're Sean Avery.

-Wear large rings on all your fingers and your big toe, whiten your hair and put on a Habs sweater, for an instant Henri Richard.

-Want to be Ron Hextall? Wear a Flyer's sweater and goalie pads and fight everyone who crosses you in any way.

-Put on a troll mask and go as a Sutter.

-Wear a turtleneck and a Habs sweater, hang a #13 off your left arm and a #46 off your right and go as Tomas Plekanec.

-Stand on stilts, put on a Habs sweater and give treats away. Hal Gill!

-Wear a Detroit sweater, a grey beard and carry a walker. Stick pretty much any number on your back, and you're a Red Wing.

There you go. A few last-minute Halloween ideas for the hockey fan. Trick or treat!

Aftermath: Exhaustion

The Habs versus the Panthers featured a tired Canadiens team. But, to paraphrase George Orwell, some players were more tired than others. The young'uns were still firing late in their third game in four nights, but the older guys, including most of the top-six defencemen, were not.

This game was an anomaly. Most of the time, the Canadiens are the faster team. They're able to use their speed to force the opponent to make mistakes, and they're able to get into the offensive zone with purpose. When they're tired, they can't do that.

There wasn't a whole lot on the positive side of the ledger in this game. The Pleks line, on which the team depends, was tired. Plekanec did little to advance the play. Kostitsyn was making last-year type bad decisions. Cammalleri continued his season-long lack of focus. The Gomez line was, as usual, absent, except for Gionta's close call on the 5-on-3. The third and fourth-liners did their best, but they're third and fourth-liners.

The defence, when tired, really looks old and done. Half the D is over 35, and it really shows when games are bunched closely together. Subban was active, as was Gorges. Markov still looks like he's in practice, and questions about whether he will be the same after that injury are still unanswered.

The power play came close, but essentially, still sucks. Badly. It may improve with Markov, given a chance to work at speed, but right now it still sucks.

The highlight of the night for the Canadiens was Carey Price. He gave up three goals, but one was on a penalty shot and the other two off brutal rebounds. He was sharp and gave his team every chance to come back and tie the game. This is a really good goalie, and he's 23. When he's 25, he could be a Cup-quality goaltender.

In the end, there just wasn't enough oil in the fryer for the Habs. Sometimes, in the course of a long season with brutal travel and a tight schedule, it happens.

Panthers vs.Habs: All Hail the General Edition

Notes on the third:

-Big debate of the third: Should I or should I not get into the Halloween candy?

-They're not beating Vokoun if they skywrite it every time they intend to shoot.

-Blown 5-on-3 probably means the end of the night for the Habs. If they were poultry, you'd shake their legs to see if they're done.

-Eller shaking in the penalty box. Rightly so, kid. The last guy under 30 who took a penalty late in a close game has never seen the ice again.

-It freaks me out to see those Bell ads with overhead shots of the Habs on the boards. It looks like they're lying there like corpses.

-Cammalleri has to work on the vertical hold. He hasn't had good net focus for most of the year. Time to adjust your set, Cammy.

-Booth's so good. How much longer before he asks for a trade to Boston for a middling defenceman?

-Habs are just not in synch. One guy goes to the net, he's alone. The passes are off too. It's like some guys are more tired than others and they can't keep up.

-This is a typical Carey Price game. Lots of great saves, giving his team a chance to win, and no goal support at all.

-I think the trapezoid is hurting young goalies. Price is able to handle the puck, but he gets little chance because of that thing. Then, when he does handle it, it's often rough.

-Another brutal PP. This is a serious problem. Maybe Perry Pearn needs to spend some time in Hamilton.

-I'm guessing nobody's going to dump on Price's rebound control, even after the third Panther goal.

-If I never see another poke check this season, it will be too soon.

-Tired team, tired game. Here's hoping for a better result on Tuesday.

Notes on the second:

-Canadiens are fighting for the puck like sorority sisters over the last margarita...all slapping and poking, with no real physical violence.

-The Darche line is working hard and actually going to the net. Nice to see them rewarded with a goal.

-Moen should never try to pass. His two goals in two games have him thinking he's Mario. Lemieux, not Tremblay.

-This game is offering more evidence that a hard-checking team can still get the best of the Habs.

-Watching Price make that save was enough to give us all groin pulls.

-Spacek on Booth. Penalty shot. Goal. Brutal in every way.

-Kostitsyn is still trying to shake some of his Kovalevian habits.

-If you didn't know they were watching the scoreboard, closeup shots of the bench would make you think there's an alien landing imminent.

-Habs looked a little more interested late in the period.

-5-on-3 to start the third is their big chance. IF you can call the last-overall PP a "chance."

Notes on the first:

-One benefit of the Markov/Subban pairing is Markov can be more adventurous on offence because P.K. can turn on the jets and bail him out if needed.

-Vokoun's such a solid goalie. Imagine if he ever played for a really good team.

-As expected, Markov was not the magic PP elixer so many hoped he'd be. It's still early yet, though, and he needs Dorothy to come by with the oil can.

-Gill handed that rebound to Frolik like a Snickers to a trick-or-treater.

-Every time the Habs get stuck in their own zone, Spacek and Hamrlik are out there. It's like they and the puck are all negatively charged.

-Cammalleri's trying to do way too much on his own.

-Biggest problem with the PP is too much standing still. They need to move much better to get the lanes open and the goalie shifting.

-Pretty bland period. The Habs look gassed and Vokoun sharp. This is going to be close.

Aftermath: A Cautionary Tale

Ten games into the 2010-11 season, and the Canadiens are on top of the NHL standings. They haven't been perfect and they haven't been overpowering on offence, but they've been consistent. They're playing a quick-transition game at high speed. It gives the opposition little time to set up in front of the Habs' goalie, and the forwards are coming back to help the D move the puck out of trouble quickly. Their passing is about a hundred times better than last year. A lot of the time, they're controlling the play and dominating. Considering that they're doing all of this without a power play to speak of, and without their best defenceman, it's impressive.

That's not to say there isn't room for improvement. The Habs are beating the opponents they should beat, which is certainly the sign of a strong team. But except for the Penguins, who play a very similar style of game, they really haven't faced anyone who's a serious threat to contend this season. The Habs have been susceptible to strong, forechecking teams for years now. Watching the second period last night, when the Islanders really started pushing the Canadiens physically, we saw that could be a problem if the Habs don't start pushing back. The Isles did it for one period. The Bruins, Flyers and leafs will do it for three, and the Habs need to find an answer.

Hal Gill is a big problem in this regard. He's huge, but he's soft as sponge cake. Rookie Matt Martin nailed Gill and knocked him down twice last night, then made him look foolish in a fight. Gill's a great leader, the players all seem to like him, and he's a penalty-killing machine. But a big, bottom-pairing defenceman can't let himself be pushed around that easily. Worse, he can't be as physically ineffectual as he is when opponents are crashing the net.

Gill's terrible at clearing the crease, but he's not the only culprit. We saw it on Thursday, when all three Isles' goals were scored because they had guys planted in front of the net and the Canadiens defence couldn't move them. Team toughness and push-back has to come from the back end first, and it doesn't with the Habs.

It's perhaps petty to criticize on a day when the Canadiens are first in the league, but we have to remember last playoffs. The Habs played great defence, pushing the high-scoring Caps and Pens to the perimeter. Then they made the most of their own opportunities to beat some pretty good teams. They fell when they played a team that crashed the net and pushed them around physically. There's real concern that nothing has changed for the Canadiens this year, and that won't be addressed until they play the kind of team that's traditionally owned them.

Concern about the future aside, it's a pretty good day to be a Habs fan. Alex Auld has shown he can come off the bench to offer some really solid goaltending when needed. Benoit Pouliot is working hard and got rewarded with a nice goal on a big-league shot. Tomas Plekanec continues to awe and amaze. P.K.Subban is proving he's going to be an NHL star. Jeff Halpern is doing the job the team is paying him peanuts to do, and then some. Brian Gionta is working and shooting and will start cashing before too long. Josh Gorges remains a rock on the blueline.

Looking ahead, the next week offers a real chance to build on this solid start. None of the Panthers, Jackets, Sabres or Sens are better teams than the Canadiens, and all four games are possible wins. The Habs just have to play the game they've been playing, and with the return of Andrei Markov tonight, they should be able to do that a little more easily. It's not until the following week, when they play the Canucks, Bruins and Flyers that we'll get a real picture of what this team is made of. If they're still on top of the league then, we'll really have something to celebrate.

Friday, October 29, 2010

Habs vs. Isles - Ye Auld Goalie Edition

Notes on the third:

-This is not a team that looks like it's really worried about winning this one.

-Now would be a really good time for Eller to get his first Habs goal.

-Pouliot on the board! Credit to Subban for the airborne assist.

-Cammalleri's just not on. No way he misses that cigarette-girl service on the Pleks feed if he's on his game.

-Moen's post-goal reaction: "What? Where?"

-He's big, he's bald, he helped when called!

-Nice win against a rising, fast young team. Even though the Habs didn't really look into this one, they pulled it off. That's what good teams do. And, you know what? We've got a good team.

Notes on the second:

-Alex Auld's head is sort of shaped like E.T.'s.

-Okay, the PP is back to its rightful level of suckage.

-Unbelievable! Isles get an end-of-penalty breakaway because Pouliot FALLS DOWN! How many bloody times has that man fallen for absolutely no reason? Either they're sabotaging his skates, or there's something seriously wrong with his balance.

-It's definitely close to Halloween. Gill got nailed by a phantom there.

-Someone needs to explain to Chris F'ing Lee that checking a guy who's got the puck while on the PK is NOT interference! Nice kill on the 5-on-3 anyway.

-How nice! The Habs are once again contributing to the "Provide a guy's first NHL goal" fund. Spacek brutal on that.

-Gomez might be the worst use of seven million bucks since the time the Liberals sent out free Canadian flags to fight the separatists.

-Completely lame sequence to end the period. Confusion in the zone and Gill fighting like he's trying to find his way through a maze in the dark. At least he was doing it to defend AK.

Notes on the first:

-With the Winking Roy on his mask, Auld could become a favourite backup.

-Picard looks good early this season. I wonder if he's been an O'Byrne in the past: a guy with potential and no confidence until now?

-Pleky's backhand is sweet and cool as iced tea. The PP must be up to 6% efficiency by now!

-Well, we know Chris Lee has to ref SOME Habs games. Might as well be the Islanders in October. That's one less time we'll see him in March.

-I know Martin believes in not changing the luck, so he keeps a winning lineup intact. Poor Justin Boyd must be wondering if anyone remembers his name.

-This is the night when Gomez and Gionta finally do something important! (Maybe. We hope. It's gotta happen, right?)

-He's big, he's bald, he John Tavares stalled.

-It almost defies the laws of physics that a guy the size and weight of Hal Gill shoots the puck like his own grandma. It's like loading a piece of heavy artillery with balloons.

-The PK's clicking like a safecracker.

-Right now, if I had to pick which D would sit tomorrow when Markov's back, I'd pick Spacek. He's the worst of the current six, and has been since the pre-season.

-Nice, controlled period. Now they need to build on the lead and protect Auld.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Aftermath: The Subbanator

We've known now for some time that P.K.Subban is going to be a very, very good NHL defenceman; possibly even a superstar when he reaches the peak of his power. We saw flashes of what will be in last spring's playoffs when he matched Crosby move for move and scored his first NHL goal on the PP. Last night we saw more than flashes. We saw the budding of a future NHL force who's pulling together his many abilities and using them to harmoniously torture his opponent.

Last night he rang a booming slapper off the post on the PP, he threw a couple of crunching checks, single-handedly got back to break up odd man rushes...without taking a using his tremendous speed, and racked up an assist on the game's opening goal. He was a game changer, and that was reflected in his second-star status. Knowing he's just 21 years old and already this good puts joy in the heart of every Habs fan.

Still, Subban didn't bring home the win by himself, as good as he is. (Although I expect there will be a day when that happens.) He had lots of help in a team effort that's becoming the theme of this early season.

Among the highlights, the Tomas Plekanec line continues to produce by using tremendous speed and slick passing to befuddle opposing defences. Lars Eller is improving and making smart decisions every time he's on the ice. Jeff Halpern is a defensive asset with a little bit of offence. Brian Gionta is working hard and will soon start scoring more often. Roman Hamrlik and Alex Picard are playing solid, mostly mistake-free defence. Josh Gorges is one of the smartest, most reliable guys on the team.

This is a different team than the one we saw start last season because it's actually a team. The inconsistency we used to see from period to period seems to be a thing of the past. Remember how they'd come out flat last year and then have to spend half the game clawing back from a deficit? Or how they'd have a great first, then give up 20 shots and three goals in the second? Now we're seeing consistent speed and effort in all three periods.

Shots against, a real indicator of team play, are under thirty most of the time. Consistency of effort is also leading to more shots on the opposing goalie. We're not seeing the defence struggle for minutes at a time trying to get out of their own zone like we did so many times last season, and that should get even better when Andrei Markov returns this weekend.

Speaking of Markov, that's another sign the team is now working together in a much better way than it did last year. The team went 14-20-3 without Markov last season. Compare that with this year's 6-2-1, and the difference is notable. Once, it would have been unthinkable for the Canadiens to win without Markov, and his loss would have been a harbinger of a very long summer ahead. Now the defence finds a way to pull together and patch that all-star-shaped hole in the lineup.

P.K. Subban is certainly helping with that patch job. We're only nine games into the season, but he and his teammates are giving us reason to think the next 73 are going to be a whole lot of fun to watch.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Isles vs.Habs - Home and Home Edition

Notes on the third:

-The PK is not winning tons of laurels tonight. Brutal to leave Tavares alone like that.

-Cammy's not gonna miss that breakaway when he's at his best.

-Habs look like they've lost some certainty in their game after that quick goal. Isles getting through the D much easier than in the second.

-It's neat to see Gionta's little tricks for compensating for his lack of size. He passes the puck to himself on the boards to avoid getting stripped when he takes a check.

-Pouliot is so discouraged by his failure to score, even his penalty shot was halfhearted.

-Crappy goalie interference call on the Isles. At least it's equal-opportunity lousy reffing.

-I kind of like how a lot of goalies are wearing masks with pictures of their team's old-time 'tenders on them.

-Isles are going to be a really good team in a couple of seasons. They've got a lot of skill and a good PP even without Streit.

-If Spacek can no longer skate with the young'uns, he's GOT to be able to clear the crease.

-Kostitsyn can pick a corner like a pool shark. Even not looking.

-Nice win, but the defence has to get better at clearing the screen away on those Wiz blasts for the rematch.

Notes on the second:

-Eller's got more moves than a harem dancer.

-Gomez is playing with fear. He's consistently giving up the puck to avoid a hit. It's still early for him though.

-Pleky's got an exuberant new goal celebration going. It came with the contract.

-Moen's not really that physical in a good way. He's just making dumb, risky hits that put his team down a man.

-You know what gives me nightmares? Price, Gorges and Plekanec for Vinny.

-Moen vs. Konopka: Round and round they go...

-Is it wrong that when Price went to the bench on the delayed penalty call, I looked around to make sure O'Byrne wasn't there?

-Somebody needs to check Pouliot's inner ear. No healthy person falls down that much.

-Pierre McGuire homoerotic comment of the period: "Gorges went to the foreign side. He's not used to going there."

-Runner up: "How about experimenting with Hal Gill down low?"

-Excellent period of hockey. One more, boys.

Notes on the first:

-Price shut Tavares down like Super Nanny on a back-talking toddler.

-Subban bombed the post!

-Pierre McGuire's homoerotic comment of the period: "Johnny Tavares used to live with Doug Weight, but now they've broken up..."

-Lapierre with the extenda-shift and the brutal giveaway as he's going off late. He really isn't the same guy we saw in the playoffs.

-Moen defeats his own purpose. He's on the second line to provide size and can't handle the puck when he wins it.

-It doesn't matter what Price's SV% ends up being tonight. Plekanec's is perfect.

-Subban killed the turkey, plucked it, stuffed it and baked it. All Darche had to do was add the parsley and serve it up.

-This game is faster than takeoff.

-No problem with Subban's defence tonight. He's been stellar.

-Moen just kept his stick on the ice on that shorty. Plekanec is a genius.

-It sucks when the guy who suckered you into a dumb penalty scores on the PP.

-This is the kind of game that could change direction very quickly. Hope the Habs stay on top of it.

To Market, To Market

Did you ever ask yourself, "Why am I a hockey fan?" Maybe you have, but it's probably more likely you haven't. You just are one. If you do think about it, though, you probably realize you fall into one of the two main categories of "fan." You are either a fan of the game itself, regardless of which team is playing, or you are a fan of a particular team, regardless of what kind of hockey it's playing. You may possibly fall into both camps, but there is a distinct divide in the way you approach them.

If you love the game of hockey, you probably enjoy the Olympics better than the NHL version. You can objectively watch a Pens/Sharks game and appreciate Crosby's skill and Thornton's seeing-eye passes without mocking Sid's whining or Jumbo's playoff chokage. It doesn't matter which team wins as long as the hockey is fast, exciting and skilled.

If you love a particular team, it's different. You are attached to that team win or lose, and, with the inevitability of loving just one team among thirty, losing happens much more often. As generations of players and fans before you have learned, losing isn't much fun. So: enter, the marketers.

The marketers give us a slick, fun, glossy reason to love a team even when it trades our favourite players away or misses the playoffs or hires coaches who make inexplicable decisions. The marketers manipulate our perceptions, stroking the loyalty we invested in a team as children and breathing continued life into its brittle adult incarnation. They deal in nostalgia and glory and emotion.

Marketers are able to create their castles in the sky because there's...unsurprisingly...a market for them. We want to believe miracles can happen. We're willing to ignore current player scandals, big-money contracts and cynicism in favour of basking in an air-brushed version of the glorious past. We warm to images of players as children, in their younger innocence, set to music that stirs our memory and our blood. We love highlight reels and dramatic symbolism in pre-game presentations. We're letting ourselves be manipulated. The funny paradox is we know we're being manipulated, in theory, but we don't want indisputable proof of the fact. We don't really believe in the Wizard, but we get angry if someone exposes the bald old man behind the curtain.

That's why it was so disappointing to find out this week that Andrei Kostitsyn's apparently exuberant gesture of throwing pucks to the adoring faithful after being named a game's first star was nothing more than a marketing ploy. The marketers decided throwing autographed pucks to fans would be a good way to keep bums in the seats while the Bell-sponsored stars are voted upon and announced. Bell's paying good money for the right to own the three stars, after all, so the company deserves to have fans stick around to hear the announcement. If throwing a few pucks keeps more people in the building longer, that's good for marketing.

The problem is, we like our illusions. If we think Andrei Kostitsyn is showing some genuine emotion and saying thanks to the fans with his puck toss, we warm up to him. Now that we know he's been told to do it, the gesture has lost its appeal. Not only does Kostitsyn remain as much an unknown entity as ever, but when the next player to get first star does it, throwing out the pucks will be tinged with cynicism.

The Canadiens' marketing team is the best in the business. Usually, they manipulate us in a very comfortable, subtle way. They make us feel warm and fuzzy while they sell us the sanitized version of the Habs we're willing to buy. They made a rare mistake with the three-star puck toss, however. By letting us believe Kostitsyn was making the gesture in honest celebration, we bought into an image we liked. The marketers now telling us that image was a fraud means the one they're really selling us is cheaper and less honest. They pulled back the curtain, and even though the old guy behind it might be a lovely gentleman, he's not the Wizard.

Sometimes, it's easier to love a game than a team, because even with all its flaws, a game is honest. Its outcome is undetermined every night, and can't be massaged into something it isn't. Loving a team means buying what the marketers sell, and sometimes, when they slip up, love just makes you a sucker.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Aftermath: Oh Brother, Where Art Thou?

After a game like last night's, it's tempting to say too much about Andrei Kostitsyn. His speed! It's like watching a startled deer leap out of his own zone. His shot! It could be favourably compared to a supersonic jet. His nose for the net? As accurate as a bloodhound's on the trail of The Fugitive. His defensive awareness?! It's as unexpectedly welcome as a million bucks on your birthday.

Among the superlatives, though, are the questions. Chief among them: Where the hell have you been, Andrei? The man is playing like Trevor Timmins was right to pick him ahead of Mike Richards, Jeff Carter, Ryan Getzlaf, Corey Perry and all the other really good players who were first-rounders in 2003. Whether it's because his distracting younger brother has been shipped to Nashville as many people theorize, or because he's healthy, or maybe just because he finally feels at home in Montreal, long last...gets it. The only real question remaining is whether he can keep it up. The last four years of tantalizing talent coupled with maddening inconsistency hover in our collective memory and make us wonder.

We'd better hope the magic Kostitsyn has found with Tomas Plekanec and Michael Cammalleri isn't going to vanish at midnight. That line continues to be the only productive one the Habs have. The Gomez/Gionta/Whomever line has shown flashes of maybe doing something good, but only flashes so far. The good thing about this situation is the first line isn't stopped as easily by targeted checking as it would have been last year because Kostitsyn is playing a much stronger, tougher game. The bad thing is Gomez is making a ton of dumb passes, not using his speed and generally dragging down whatever linemates he's given. Based on history, we know Gomez will get better. When he does, he needs to have someone who can actually do something with a nice pass on his left side. With any luck, Benoit Pouliot will get his act together a la Kostitsyn and be that man. Last night didn't encourage that hope of him, but it's still early.

On the morning after a game like last night's, it's perhaps too negative to dwell on issues like the Gomez line's continued wandering in the proverbial desert. There were, after all, lots of positives.

Lars Eller is going to be really good. The kid can skate, he's smart at both ends of the ice, he's got nice hands and he's not afraid. Best of all, he's very calm under pressure. Twice last night he deliberately held the puck under pressure until he saw an opportunity to make a nice pass. It was great to see him rewarded with his first Habs point, on the winner no less.

Roman Hamrlik looks like he's finally shaking off the rust after missing training camp. He played a nice, understated game last night and helped mitigate some of the errors of Spacek, who's been dreadful.

Jeff Halpern is a very nice addition for the PK, and knows how to keep momentum going on offence too, even if he's not scoring a lot himself. He's not the type of bottom-six guy who ends up hemmed in his own zone for long periods, putting the defence and goalie under pressure.

Josh Gorges is the epitome of "solid." He almost always makes the right play, and spends a lot of his time covering for Hal Gill's blunders with the puck.

P.K.Subban is showing little of the offensive flash of which we know he's capable, but he's playing solid minutes on the defensive side of the game. His partner, Alex Picard, has been decent, but is still prone to moments of panic in his own end. Subban seems the more confident of the two.

Carey Price is having a very good start to his season, and every time he plays a game like last night's he adds another bit to the foundation of confidence he's gradually building. The talent has always been inside him, and confidence is the key to unlocking it.

The PK is good, and the PP finally popped a goal on that lovely Cammalleri laser. It still needs work, but there are signs of life.

The team is fast. Really fast. Sometimes, team speed can make the difference in a game and help bring in a couple of points against a slower opponent. It's a weapon in a sport in which every advantage is important.

The Canadiens have a lot going for them right now. There are certainly areas that need work as well, but it's early, the start has been good and the season is always a work in progress. The next three games against the Islanders and Panthers offer the Habs a chance to work on some things and perhaps improve their record in a tough week schedule-wise.

Andrei Kostitsyn, though, has been the story of this young season. He's been an impressive surprise, and, we hope, the first of many others this year. Watching him exuberantly throwing pucks to fans chanting his name after last night's win was pure joy. We hope he keeps it up.

Coyotes vs. Habs - Py Squared Edition

Notes on the third and OT:

-Gill makes a better door than a window. If you're going to clear the guy out of the crease, Skillsie, then get your own giant carcass out of the way.

-Gomez isn't very smart a lot of the time. He passes in traffic more often than a drunk driver.

-Gorges' penalty looked more like modern dance.

-It's kind of maddening to have to work this hard to beat a team the Habs are partially paying to keep afloat.

-If neither Pyatt scores, the parents can keep pretending they love them equally.

-Belanger burned Subban like an ant under a magnifying glass.

-Gorges is going to surprise a lot of people when he doesn't have to babysit Gill anymore.

-Kostitsyn is hotter than that Victoria's Secret diamond bra. Amazing!

Notes on the second:

-Nope, no new mask for Price. Had a funny view of it in the first.

-This feels so much like Tuesday, I'm going to be bitter tomorrow.

-Lapierre's "watching closely" version of defence blew Price's shutout. What happened to "playoff Lappy" anyway?

-If Gionta thought there was a hope in hell of Pyatt cashing that two-on-one, the Pie parents would have seen one of their kids score a beauty.

-Pleks and Kostitsyn continue to rock and/or roll.

-Spacek stinks worse than year-old eggs wrapped in dirty socks.

-And Cammalleri with the PP rocket! Finally. The thing was as barren as a 79-year-old nun.

-Every once in a while I only see the "7" on a defenceman's back and I think, "Wow, look at Hal Gill go!"

-Moen skates like he's on the deck of a ship at the 200-mile limit.

-After the total defensive collapse on the 'Yotes goal, with Lapierre, Pouliot and Picard out against the Phoenix first line, it's unforgivable that Martin should have that same combination out there again and again. It has lead to trouble every time, and if he keeps it up, it'll cost him.

Notes on the first:

-Is Price wearing *another* new mask? The boy is a hockey fashionista.

-Markov is not going to fix the PP all by himself. That's like asking Emeril to cater lunchtime at the zoo.

-Pleks line looks great again. It appears they're the only ones who took the "puck possession" course at Martin's summer hockey school.

-Bryzgalov is giving a good demonstration of how a good goalie can make an average team competitive. He makes it hard to beat them every night.

-Eller's just tantalizing. He's going to be impressive when he gets some linemates.

-Not much Pie on Pie action so far.

-Andrei Kostitsyn is a new player this year. I wonder where he hid the corpse of the old one?

-Twice in that period Picard allowed a scoring chance by chasing the puck instead of taking his man. This is why he doesn't stick in the NHL.

-Looks like Price got that lovin' feelin' on Saturday night, and he likes it. Eleven very nice saves for him so far.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Aftermath: Keeping It Simple

Carey Price said he didn't feel good before the game against the Senators last night. That he was able to pull it together on a day when he didn't feel his best...and find a way to pitch a shutout...says his newfound maturity isn't a fleeting thing. A real professional puts personal discomfort aside and does his job despite it. Price was good, and nobody would have known he was feeling off if he hadn't admitted it after the game.

He didn't have a whole lot of work to do, though. The team played fairly tight D and allowed only 19 shots. Price got a lot of protection from odd-man rushes and really good Senators' chances. The defence, which Jacques the Knife said was last year's priority in Martin Hockey School, seems to be doing okay without Markov and with Spacek's, Hamrlik's and Gill's senior moments. The problem is, the tight team D is temporarily disguising the fact that the offence is nearly non-existent.

This team has one line out of four scoring goals. On nights, like Thursday against the Devils, when Plekanec/Kostitsyn/Cammalleri don't score, neither does anyone else. Gomez, Gionta and their revolving wingers aren't doing much of anything. The only other real scoring talent, Lars Eller, is stuck with pluggers for linemates. Making the problem worse is the complete lack of a power play.

That can't go on if the Canadiens are going to make the playoffs. Markov's return will help, but it won't fix everything. The PP needs a real shooting threat on the blueline. The second line needs a solid scoring winger, and it needs Gomez and Gionta to start putting up some points. It's still very early in the season and we know the veterans can play better than they have been. Those thoughts let us put worry about the problems aside, especially on nights when the defensive play is sound enough to help Price bring home his first shutout in nearly two years. The problems are still there, though, simmering away underneath.

Gauthier and Martin should be thinking of the offence now, and, while there's a little bit of time to wait, they should be planning what they need to do to fix those issues. Whether it's calling up Yannick Weber for the PP, or giving Pouliot more than a couple of games with Gionta and Gomez, or even letting Eller centre the second line for a few games if Gomez doesn't play better, we have to hope management has a longer-term plan.

After all, Carey Price won't have a shutout every night. There will be times when he allows five goals, and we'd better hope the Habs are able to score six. Right now, that wouldn't happen.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Habs vs. Sens - Parliamentary Edition

Notes on the third:

-It's kind of sad how the CBC announcers sound depressed about Ottawa's performance.

-Martin's tie tonight looks like a collection of those claw-game aliens in Toy Story.

-The announcers sound sad, but the Habs-themed crowd is thrilled. Ottawa is SO not an NHL city.

-CBC commentary: "Habs can't get it out, but Ottawa can't get it in." Sounds like a meeting of spinsters to me.

-The only reason why Foligno ended up on top of Subban is because PK was on one knee at the time.

-Andrei Kostitsyn is going to be having the best vodka tonight.

-Price has never been a shutout goalie, but his posts and teammates, as well as his own skill, gave him a precious gift tonight. Go Carey!

Notes on the second:

-If I could pick one Senator for the Habs, I'd pick Fisher. He's exactly what the Canadiens need. Plus, his wife would take media attention away from Price.

-Gill's a great team guy and a second goalie on the 5-on-3. But when the verb most often used to describe his skating is "lumbers," you know it's not a good sign.

-Short-handed two-on-one! Habs rush in! Plekanec makes a perfect pass to...Travis Moen. Sigh.

-Poor, poor Eller. Makes a fantastic move to gain the zone, looks around and everyone else is a mile behind him. Martin, if you ever had a human emotion, get this kid some linemates.

-I have a feeling this team is not going to score a ton of goals, despite the talent. I don't want to jump on the hair-pulling Boucher bandwagon, but I think they might score more with a different coach. Again, sigh.

-Okay, so we've now learned Halpern can't fight. Welcome to the Habs, Jeff. You fit right in.

-You know when we'll know AK has arrived? When he shaves his head and admits he's freakin' bald.

-Pouliot's backhand was sweet as the bass player. (Obscure Kids in the Hall reference for you fans). Finally!!

-The Senators are AK's bitch. Thankfully, because the Habs have been Alfredsson's for years.

-Yes! Another dominating period. One more guys. Marty's almost retired in my mind.

Notes on the first:

-Nice lively start. Habs look like they've got live goldfish in their pants.

-Gill's SUCH a liability on offence. If we added up the time the Habs spend hemmed in their own zone, there'd be a very high percentage of it due to Gill mishandling the puck.

-I'm rooting harder for Eller to score than I am that all the copies of "Score: A Hockey Musical" spontaneously combust.

-Subban pulled a "Top Gun"...just hit the brakes and they'll fly right by. That led to the goal.

-Speaking of which, Kostitsyn's shot is harder than Gorges' head.

-Lapierre's head thinks he's a great hockey player sometimes, but his body betrays him.

-Habs look shocked by the no-goal and lost focus for a while.

-Plekanec decided to save the PP from further embarrassment and turn it into a 4-on-4.

-Nice, dominant period. Two more like that and I might start to forget about Brodeur.

Friday, October 22, 2010

Aftermath: Glad THAT'S Over

A snoozefest. Awful Devils hockey. A one-night-only performance of the Ice Crapades. Whatever you want to call a Habs/Devils game, it's nothing if not predictable. Something bad happens to the Canadiens whenever those two teams meet.

It's not Brodeur, because it still happens when he's not the major factor in the game, and even when he's not there, as we saw when he missed half the season before last and Clemmenson still stoned the Habs. It's not the personnel of the two teams, because guys like Gionta and Gomez actually switched sides and have now taken on the traditional Habs role in these games, like they never heard of the Jersey System. It's not even the Jersey System itself. What used to be an impenetrable Devils' defensive zone with a tight, opportunistic offence looked just as sloppy as the Canadiens' undefinable (non-existent is too cruel a term) game plan last night.

It is, therefore, a case of Kryptonitis. Every team has an opponent that owns it. No matter what happens...injury, illness, bad scheduling, losing streaks, only icing seven players...the jinx is virtually impossible to break. The Devils are that opponent for the Canadiens.

That's what we're going to say today, anyway. Otherwise, there are too many hard questions to answer when we try to explain what happened last night. What's going to happen with the second-line wing position, if nobody "gels" there? Why is Carey Price consistently inconsistent; great on some saves, soft on the goals? What happens if the power play doesn't get any better? Is it worth putting up with months of "regular-season Gill" in exchange for a few weeks of "playoff Gill?" What will Spacek look like next year, if he's already this bad? What's the matter with Cammalleri? Why does a team that's had four days off come out skating in quicksand? Will the return of Andrei Markov be the cure-all everyone hopes it will?

Those are uncomfortable questions, at least some of which will have unpleasant answers. So, for one day only, we can avoid answering them. The Habs, after all, never beat the Devils. It's to be expected that the offence will be impotent, the defence confused and the goalie soft. Devils games are a reprieve from reality because their outcomes are so certain.

Still, while critics will go easy on the Canadiens today, the leniency won't last into tomorrow. If fans are reluctant to ask hard questions about why their team looked horrible last night, the team had better be asking them of itself. And it's got about 36 hours to answer them because the Ice Crapades have left town.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Devils vs.Habs - Anybody Got a Brodeur-Sized Stake? Edition

Notes on the third:

-This game has sucked so badly, James Wisniewski should be doing closed-captioning for the hearing impaired.

-Must be a nice change for Carbo to be the guy wisely saying what's wrong with the team, instead of the one blankly shaking his head when asked that question.

-Didn't this happen last year too...the Habs start out okay, then have a huge multi-day layoff and suck afterwards? Very clever, Bettman.

-It's always so amusing to watch the new kids pass into the slot, actually expecting a teammate to be there.

-Has Spacek taken a shot yet this year that didn't hit a shinpad? And, yes, that's a rhetorical question.

-Matt Taormina. Sigh. Carey Price is doing a very credible impression of a colander tonight.

-Price with three goals allowed on 15 shots isn't remotely good enough. Neither is the rest of the team with zero goals on 22.

-Eight and a half minutes to go, but I'm done. The only question at this point is whether Fatty gets another Devils-hockey, uninspired shutout. I'll check and see in the morning.

Notes on the second:

-I think Fatty "helped" on that interference call on Gionta. Anything for an old teammate, right Marty, you doughnut gobbler?

-Price is taking all this "high glove" stuff seriously. Nice rob on Kovalchuk, with a little razzle-dazzle to dress it up a bit.

-Cammalleri looks like he hitched a ride in a Delorean recently. His timing is just slightly out of this game. Maybe someone needs to shock his flux capacitor.

-I wonder, if the Habs tried sleep-indoctrination therapy, would the offence improve? "You love going to the net. You MUST go to the front of the net. You WILL go to the front of the net..."

-AK has gone back to falling down. A lot.

-Why's everyone so mad the Habs aren't getting the calls? Oh...right. They're expecting the PP to score. That's cute.

-Halpern will be a really valuable playoff guy, if the Habs get that far.

-Sigh. Another Devils goal. According to the Book of Fatty, that's the game right there.

-Saved by the ref. Neither he nor Price had any clue where the puck was.

-Another interference call on Gionta? Nobody can tell me Fatty's not doing that on purpose.

-Delay of game AGAIN. My kingdom for a defenceman who doesn't panic and flip the puck out like that. Well, okay, my library card. It's probably more valuable than my kingdom.

-Another wretched, Devils period. They're not named after Satan for nothing.

Notes on the first:

-I wonder who Lou hired to give Rolston a "sports hernia" so they could ice a full lineup?

-If only Gill could just be horizontal more often. He's great at that. It's when he's vertical with a puck on his stick that there's a problem.

-I fear Pyatt with Gomez and Gionta is just multiplying by zero. Time to let Pouliot have a real shot there. Or Eller. Or anyone else with a chance of scoring.

-Clarkson's definitely got longer arms than Moen, but Moen's fists are sharper.

-Parise's picking up the Habs-killer torch from Fatty in the Devils' net. He hurts them every time.

-Price just HAS to allow one fluke/weird/unlucky goal in every single game. Makes you wonder if he's got to make a nightly sacrifice to the hockey gods or something.

-I'm still waiting for a Hab who used to play for the opponent to go nuts on his former team. Ex-Habs do that all the time.

-Hate seeing Robinson with the Devils. It's like sauerkraut fudge.

-I always wondered why anyone bothered with the term "puck possession team." After all, what team *wouldn't* want to possess the puck? These two teams have now answered that question.

-When Gill completes a 360 with stick extended, he actually covers 49% of the available ice surface.

-Spacek has to, as my grandfather used to say, be good or be gone.

-How we know Eller will be good: He keeps going. He's not a guy who takes a shot and peels off. Keeping going will get him some goals.

-When PK Subban is invisible, it's not a good thing. I'm not sure I like how the coaches are handling him.

-Choppy, boring period...the hockey equivalent of splitting wood for twenty minutes.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

The Energizer Prospect

Watching Aaron Palushaj chug up and down the right wing for the duration of a hockey game gives the word "relentless" a visual aid. If he were a plant, he'd be a dandelion. A piece of heavy equipment? A bulldozer. On every shift, even though he's not the tallest player or the heaviest, he goes implacably where he wants to go. That's often into the corners and out with the puck. Or to the front of the net for a quick tip-in goal.

Selected in the second round of the 2007 NHL entry draft by the St.Louis Blues, the Michigan-born Palushaj played two seasons for the Wolverines of the NCAA. In his freshman year in college, he outscored fellow rookie and Habs first-rounder Max Pacioretty, putting up 44 points in 43 games. He was just 17 when he started that season. He improved to 50 points in 39 games in his sophomore year, then decided to make the leap and turn pro.

Michigan coach, Red Berenson, was sorry to see him go.

"Well, we really liked him as a young prospect and he had a good freshman year here, and a good sophomore year, and then he left. The pros talked to him and convinced him to leave, and he's still developing in the minors," Berenson explains. "That's an issue. We're doing a good job developing players to the point where the pros will pull them out early."

The Blues, and Palushaj himself, thought he was ready to make the move to the AHL last year. He'd put up 22 points in 44 games for the Peoria Rivermen when he found out he'd been traded to the Canadiens. The move shocked him, but he accepted it as just a bump in his inexorable path to the big time.

"To be honest, I don’t know why they dealt me," he says. "But it means another team wanted me so that’s a good thing."

The Habs certainly wanted him. The team's scouting department noticed him in his draft year, and saw him up close while keeping tabs on Pacioretty at Michigan. The fact that the Blues' draftee was outscoring their own first rounder didn't go unnoticed.

Berenson, meanwhile, wondered if Palushaj would survive the rigors of the AHL.

"Palushaj has a ton of talent. Whether he's ready emotionally and physically to play with men every night, 80 games a year, is a question mark."

It's still a question mark, even though Palushaj turned 21 just before this season began. He didn't play the Bulldogs' first several games after limping off the ice at practice last week. The ankle injury shouldn't keep him out too long, but it raises some concern about his size and durability. He says he knows strength is his big weakness, and he's grinding away in the gym to get better.

"I need to get stronger," he concedes. "I just turned 21, so I could definitely develop my strength a little bit more. And I think more speed will come with that and I'll be better in the corner and stuff. That's one thing I'm going to do."

He knows what he's got to do to improve because he spends a lot of time watching himself and running self-imposed drills to eliminate weaknesses he sees on post-game tapes.

"I watch a lot of video," he reveals. "I'm in the gym quite a bit. I stay after practice and work on my shot and my hands. A lot of stuff like that. I think video is one of the most important things, in any sport, especially hockey. So I watch a lot. I like to watch the game at least once after we play it."

The 6'0", 183-pound winger has, as Berenson says, tons of talent, but it's his tireless persistence that makes him a real threat. It's not just apparent in his presence on the ice, it's in his attitude off it as well. He came into Habs camp in September convinced he would crack the NHL lineup.

"I did have a good camp. I was planning on making the team in Montreal. But stuff happens and you have to come down here and work really hard." He pushes sweat-drenched hair back off his forehead, dark eyes burning, an open cut on a cheekbone glistening red. "Keep working hard every day, getting better on the ice and stuff. My time will come. My time will come." He repeats it emphatically, as though someone would dare disagree.

A lot of prospects with that attitude get discouraged when the demotion everyone but themselves knew was coming, comes. Not Palushaj. He concedes it was a tough moment when Jacques Martin told him he was going to Hamilton. Then he readjusted his focus and decided to burn up the AHL until the Canadiens recall him. For him, making it isn't a question of if, but when.

His old coach thinks he'll do it.

"I think he'll make it," says Red Berenson. "I hope he does."

If singleminded tenacity can translate to a job in the NHL, Palushaj will make his alma mater proud.

Monday, October 18, 2010

A Vulnerable Position

A quick glance at today's NHL injury report reveals there are currently 14 NHL players who are missing time because of concussion or post-concussion syndrome. They range from goons like Raitis Ivanans to offensive players like Paul Kariya and Marc Savard. In the first couple of months since the NHL changed the rules to protect players' heads, it's not encouraging to see those kinds of numbers.

Admittedly, some of the concussions are just weird. Atlanta goaltender, Ondrej Pavelec, passed out and whacked his head on the ice. Ivanans got a punch in the head during a fight. Cam Janssen of the Blues got accidentally clobbered by teammate Brad Winchester. Those are what you call incidental to the game, or, in Pavelec's case, plain old bad luck. Others, like Savard, Kariya and Philly's Ian Laperierre, are dealing with concussion trauma from previous injuries after what would now be considered illegal hits.

That means there are eight players who got hit since the rules changed, and have come away from those hits with concussions. The question the NHL must answer is: who's at fault in those cases? So far this year, we've seen Chicago defenceman Niklas Hjalmarsson get two games for knocking Jason Pominville into the boards. Ottawa's Nick Foligno got a $2500 fine for clipping Hurricane Patrick Dwyer in the head. Both cases have come under fire in hockey circles; Hjalmarsson's hit because it appeared Pominville turned his back before the collision, and Foligno's because it was an unintentional consequence of a normal hockey play. Both victims in these cases have been accused of placing themselves in a "vulnerable position."

"A vulnerable position" is the newest addition to the hockey lexicon, and is rapidly becoming one of the most common phrases players utter. Senators' coach Cory Clouston brought it up when discussing the Foligno hit on Dwyer.

“Just so you know, if he misses his check, if he tried to stick check and the guy beat him, and gets a 3-on-2, or a 4-on-2 rush, we wouldn’t be real happy with him," said Clouston. "So we want our guys to be respectful, as far as when an opponent is in a vulnerable position, but we want our guys to be physical. To me, Nicky was just playing hockey.”

That's the question when the NHL is trying to determine fault. When is a guy just playing hockey, and when is he head-hunting? And following that, does it really matter, if the desired result of punishment for any kind of head injury is the reduction of injury overall?

A study of emergency room statistics for children five to 19 in Ontario reveals that hockey was by far the most common cause for concussion-related hospital visits. Of 6,429 sports-related concussions cited in the three-year period the study looked at, 2,057 were suffered while playing hockey. In Quebec, where checking doesn't start until players are older, the rates of concussion are four times lower.

The number of concussions among hockey's youngest players is certainly cause for concern. That the number seems directly related to the introduction of body checking in youth leagues is considered by many to be at the root of the problem in higher levels of hockey. If respect for the opponent, and the correct way to check a player...separating the person from the puck, not his head from his shoulders...aren't taught at a young age, the argument goes, then that lack of respect carries on through the player's hockey life. There's certainly some truth to that argument, and it's obvious when "dirty" players like Matt Cooke or Chris Pronger level someone from behind.

The line, and the argument, begin to blur when one takes into consideration hits like Hjalmarsson's and Foligno's. Neither player has a reputation for dirty play. Both expressed surprise and regret that what they'd considered "hockey plays" had resulted in league sanction. And both incidents spawned more discussion of what it means for a player to put himself in a vulnerable position. The discussion has raised the question about whether the new NHL rules about hitting from behind have caused players to take it for granted that the refs will protect them.

P.J.Stock blogged in March, 2010, "I teach my seven-year-old boy in novice hockey that just because it's a rule to not hit from behind, it doesn't mean that the rest of the players are going to follow it. So don't put yourself in a position with your back to anyone. You shouldn't be tripped because it's a penalty, yet players trip other players. It's the same thing for everything and the same for hitting from behind. If you eliminate the chances of being in that vulnerable position, you eliminate the chances of getting hit from behind."

Former NHL defenceman Jason York agrees. He addressed the issue in a column he wrote about the Hjalmarsson hit for the Ottawa Sun earlier this month.

"I am not condoning the hit and I agree that it was a hit from behind," he wrote. "But I don’t know why a forward who is waiting to get the puck out of the zone on the half-wall has his back turned to the opposing defencemen on the blue line. I look at that as a player not ready to do battle with a pinching defencemen, a player putting himself in a vulnerable position and a player trusting the referee and the new rules to protect him."

York and Stock aren't alone in their belief that NHL players have to be partially responsible for their own safety. Awareness of one's surroundings in a high-speed, high-collision environment like the NHL is vital to player survival. The problem is, even with the new rules to prevent deliberate headhunting, and with a player's perfect awareness of his own vulnerability, head injuries will still happen. That's because the game has become too fast for humans to play without getting hurt. The post-lockout rules prevent interference and crack down on stick fouls like hooking and holding that used to slow players down. That has meant there's little to hinder large men going at very fast speeds in a relatively small enclosed space. When those human missiles throw themselves at another man, they will often hurt the target.

York says as much in his Sun column.

"As a defenceman, when your partner went back to retrieve the puck, your job was to step in front of the forechecker and protect him because if he got ran that was on you," he remembers. "With the shrinking of the neutral zone and zero tolerance, players are now able to pick up tremendous amounts of speed through the neutral zone and, as the past few years have demonstrated, the results can be devastating."

Hockey Night in Canada's Jeff Marek sees the same thing developing in the post-lockout game.

"Maybe the best point is that hockey is not a contact sport. It used to be. Now, more than ever, it is a collision sport," Marek wrote last year. "Players are billiard balls slamming into each other with full force and every hit is for keeps. You can't hold up an on-coming attacker to protect your partner on the blueline nor can you get a stick into a guys hip to slow him down and lessen the impact of a body check. Those days are gone in favour of the "fly-zone" NHL. This graying of the area between clean/legal and dirty/cheap is one of the by-products that I don't think many saw coming when the new rules package was green-lighted."

So now the NHL is trying to stem the tide of players turning up with concussions by addressing the result rather than the root of the problem. It's a very good thing to warn players they need to respect their opponents and to punish those who don't do so. It's also a good thing to remind players to keep their heads up because not everyone will respect the rules. The problem is, in a game as fast as the NHL has become, accidents...and head injuries...will always happen. The league has managed to upgrade the quality of play on the ice, but in the process has put more players at risk.

The solutions to this problem won't happen or even be seriously considered until an NHL player dies from a head injury. The league needs to expand ice surfaces to give players somewhere to go with all that speed, or it needs to reduce the number of human missiles on the ice at one time. The former won't happen because too many teams have built new rinks with lots of seats and no room to make the ice bigger. The latter won't happen because it would be a fundamental change in a game notoriously reluctant to make them, and it would mean there would be fewer jobs for professional players.

So, as the NHL tries to police players who cause head injuries, it's really fighting an impossible battle. As long as the game is as fast as it is, as long as players break the rules, and as long as they turn their backs hoping the rules will save them, there will be head injuries. The league's list of concussion victims will continue to grow because just playing hockey in the NHL today means you're placing yourself in a vulnerable position.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Aftermath: Under Construction

It's a great feeling to wake up on Sunday morning after a Habs win. It's an even better feeling when there's not another game until Thursday, and we can spend five days comfortable in the knowledge that the Canadiens' first five games were a success. The two points gained last night, with none surrendered to division rivals, will go in the bank and help build a staircase of games that will hopefully ascend to the playoffs six months from now. The way in which the two points were secured will build something else a little less concrete, but just as important for the post-season.

The win helped lay a foundation of trust between Carey Price and his teammates, and perhaps cemented a sense of self-belief within Price himself. The moment it happened came at 18:15 of the second period, less than a minute after Andrei Kostitsyn's second brilliant goal of the young season tied the game at three. The Senators' Peter Regin broke in on a two-on-one, knowing perfectly well that all three Sens goals had come high, glove side on Price. Being no dummy, the kid fired a laser right where the other goals had found twine behind the Habs goalie. This time, instead of dropping and giving them four, Price stood his ground and neatly snagged the shot. It was a moment for which Habs fans have been waiting since early last season.

Last winter, Price would have been dwelling on the two goals he'd allowed in less than a minute earlier in the period. He'd have been a bit sulky at himself and mad at the extremely questionable defence that had allowed the Sens to have clear access to the Habs' net. His concentration might have been a bit off, and he very well might have given up the backbreaker. It happened so many times last year, when the game was close, or the team had fought back from behind, and Price let in the goal from which the team didn't recover. Last night he made that crucial stop to preserve the hard-fought tie in the second. The team regrouped during the intermission, then came out and smothered the Sens in the third. Plekanec and Kostitsyn sealed the deal and the Sens handed over the two points.

The win is worth two points in the standings, but those intangibles the team gained from it might be more valuable. Josh Gorges said in training camp that when a goalie is having a tough night, the team changes its style of play and tries to get back and help him out more. That means there are players in places they shouldn't be and confusion reigns. When Price made that save on Regin, he sent the message, "Don't worry, I've got this." He freed his teammates to play their game because he showed them he's mentally tough enough to recover from a couple of quick goals. He couldn't do that last year, and it cost him his job.

The thing with building a winning team is that even one guy's heroics aren't everything. That was true last night. Andrei Kostitsyn played a helluva game and made Trevor Timmins feel a bit better about that 2003 draft. Tomas Plekanec and Brian Gionta scored a couple of beauties. Halpern did a great job on the PK and everybody was skating. The Habs impressively outshot the Sens 40-19 and discipline continued to be pretty good, with only two non-coincidental minors taken. The team was winning a lot of its battles and Plekanec went 21-for-30 in the faceoff circle for a very impressive 70%. None of it would have mattered if Price hadn't made that save and given his teammates the green light to leave him in charge of the net and go try to win the game.

It could have been a little easier for Price if a few other things had been working. The power play was blanked again, despite five opportunities. It may improve when Andrei Markov returns, but there's still the issue of who'll shoot from the right side. It won't be Subban, because he's a right-handed shot, so Markov will still have nobody to set up. That shot has been a major factor in the PP success for the last five years, and the team has shown no sign it's found a new solution. Cammalleri, too, looks a bit off. He shot a lot last night, but when he's on he would have buried at least two of those chances. Gomez, Pouliot and Eller need to finish as well. Those guys will be an important part of future wins, hopefully by more than one goal.

It's still early, and there's a lot of building that needs to happen as the season goes on. Last night gave us an indication that construction has started. Carey Price might not be the foreman on the job, but he's the crane operator, and nothing lifts without him. That he's showing he might be really ready for that job gives us five days of satisfaction before the next challenge the team will face.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Sens vs. Habs - Win One For the Pricer Edition

Notes on the third:

-The ice must be terrible. The Habs are falling down more than a bunch of drunken octogenarians.

-The PP is as effective as a paper bucket. Markov can't come back soon enough.

-I wonder how much time a game Gionta actually spends in a headlock? He definitely knows how Ruutu's pits smell.

-AK is having an incredible game. He's like a Mack truck with hands. And Plekanec redeems his average performance with a lovely shot.

-The Habs are going to be responsible for multiple coronaries this year. I hope they're well-insured.

-When it came time to lock it down, the team came through. Good, because it was going to be lousy to live with a loss for five days, then have to play the Devils on Thursday.

-Love the little low-five ritual Price and Subban have developed.

Notes on the second:

-It's a good thing Gorges' bones are made of Nerf foam because Neil was trying to break something.

-Even when Pouliot does everything right he gets robbed by a backup goalie. Sigh.

-The Travis Moen Top Six experiment is very hit and miss, but mostly miss. Makes you wonder how many pieces of moldy bread Fleming really left out before he found penicillan.

-Ruutu looked like he was trying to suffocate Gomez. Gomer's legs were kicking like a convict after they dropped the scaffold door.

-None of the Czechs are good tonight. Unusal for Plekanec to be off like this. Spacek sucks harder than a hooker on commission.

-After the second Sens goal in the period, on the second Sens shot, with Spacek and Hamrlik blowing it again, it's time to think O'Byrne might be a better option than the Spaceman sometimes.

-How long can the Habs continue to benefit from own-goals by the other team's D?

-If the Habs are a religion, then shooting the puck must be against it.

-Andrei Kostitsyn is finally, FINALLY, showing why he went top-ten in the 2003 Super Draft. His hands are quick as squirrels.

-Jacques the Knife isn't having a stellar night behind the bench. He threw Gomez out on a strange line on the Sens second goal, and had Spacek...the Habs worst player...out in the last minute of a tie period.

Notes on the first:

-Okay, I agree most CBC opening montages are lame, but the Gionta opera one was funny.

-Gionta didn't just burn Michalek, he cremated him. What a great goal!

-Gill, Hamrlik and Spacek are too old and slow to pinch as deep as Martin wants them to, which could be causing problems for The System.

-Spezza's no thespian, but with these refs, amateur theatre is convincing enough.

-Price is borrowing from the Hal Gill school of penalty killing: Just throw your big self down and hope it's under you. So far, so good.

-Habs PP is like a burlesque show. All kinds of teasing and flashing, but not really showing anything real.

-Canadiens passing in their own zone looks like they're juggling swords.

-Ye Olde Ds are looking gassed early in this one. Spacek and Hamrlik in particular have had their senior moments.

-Eller is a bit too much of a do-it-yourselfer. Comes from being the only decent player in Denmark.

-Rough period. Habs are bouncing around under the Sens forecheck. They need to pick it up or they'll drop this one.

Aftermath: Awakenings

Watching a hockey game, in the heat of the action, it's hard to really analyze it. There's just an impression of what happened, to be dissected when you're no longer yelling. One good indication of how things really went comes when you're watching NHL highlights the next day and most of the play is in one team's end of the ice. Watching the compilation of last night's best moments, it becomes clear the Canadiens spent a lot of time in the Buffalo zone and Ryan Miller had to be sharp to keep the game close.

The Habs played a nice defensive game, limiting rebounds and effectively clearing the puck away from Carey Price. The 23 shots allowed was the lowest total in the team's four games to date. Zone clearances were also much more efficient than they've been. Both Josh Gorges and P.K. Subban made some very nice desperation recoveries to cover the butts of their veteran partners, and Alexandre Picard didn't get burned, despite not having played a game until last night. That both goals came from the D was a pleasant bonus.

While it was satisfying to see the team's newly-rediscovered defensive awareness, it was fantastic to watch Andrei Kostitsyn continue to awaken from a career-long October sleep. The notoriously slow starter has been using his size to create room for himself. He's skating hard and he's shooting. Best of all, he's getting back to help out in his own zone and doing it very effectively. Although the points aren't coming as quickly as he'd like (1G, 1A in 4 games), he's doing all the things he needs to do. If he keeps doing that, the points will pile up.

The power play finally woke up too. It had three opportunities against Buffalo, and the first wave looked focussed on all of them. It was ironic that it was the second wave and a nice knuckler from the point by Gorges that got the PP on the board for the first time this season.

Gorges himself is awakening a level of respect around the league, in opponents and fans alike. Watching him now, it's hard to believe he spent so many nights in the pressbox just three seasons ago. He got the most icetime of any Canadien again last night, with just over 22 minutes. That included 1:23 on the Habs' only PK, and 1:30...the same as Brian Gionta...on the PP. He's even on plus/minus, and he's got three points in the team's first four games. On top of that, he rarely makes a defensive error and usually manages to help cover for his partner's mistakes too. It's going to be an interesting summer for him and the Canadiens when contract time rolls around.

Some key elements of any success the Habs will have are still dormant so far this young season, though. Mike Cammalleri looks distracted and out of synch with the rest of the team. He's never been a pillar of defence, but he seems to be having a hard time being in the right place in the early going. He's not even connecting on the one-timers that are his specialty when things are going well. Still, he's a point-a-game player despite that, so we can probably expect good things from him when he's really on his game.

The captain has yet to do much of anything at all since the season started. Gionta is minus-one with one assist in four games. He came close a couple of times against the Sabres, but nothing's going in for him so far. That's a bit worrisome because Gionta usually starts the season strong. One of the concerns some people had about him donning the "C" was the added pressure of the position taking him off his game, which we hope doesn't end up being a legitmate worry. A positive from last night was his feistiness in front of Miller on Gorges' PP goal, but Gionta's got to start putting in a few of his own before much longer.

The Canadiens played a very nice, tight road game against the Sabres, and there were a lot of positive signs that some sleeping elements are starting to stir. Discipline was much better and the team didn't stop skating until the final horn. It'll be interesting to see what happens against the Sens tonight, as one of last year's weaknesses was losing in back-to-back games. We'll have to watch the tape tomorrow and see where the Habs spent most of their time. If they're in the Ottawa end more than their own, there's good reason to hope last night's awakenings weren't a fluke.

Friday, October 15, 2010

Habs vs.Sabres: Forty Years? Pfft Edition

Notes on the third:

-Question for indigestive debate for the four days off coming up: Was it unseemly for the Habs to celebrate a Buffalo own goal? Discuss.

-Mike Boone at HI/O asks: Would you trade Rivet for Gorges straight up? Answer: I would not trade Gorges with a fish. I would not trade him on a dish. I would not, could not trade him in a car, in a bar, you go too far.

-Playoff Gill is really good. Regular season Gill is a soft-as-a-lullaby liability a LOT.

-I don't know who was supposed to have coverage on the Buffalo goal, but they blew it like a hard nor'easter.

-Uh oh...Ruff's got the white board out on the timeout. Martin, as usual, is making up haikus in his head.

-Hey! Did I just hear Pierre Houde's first "oy-yoi-yoi" of the season? Can I make a wish now?

-Scrum at the end of the game. Gionta: "Really? You wanna go?" Gill: "Left foot back, side, side...come on, feel the rhythm."

-Price played another great game. Keep it going, kid.

-Big two points. Habs need two more tomorrow.

Notes on the second:

-I can't decide whether Eller looks like the adopted Staal or the product of Mikko Koivu and The Traitor's mingled petrie-dish DNA. Whichever, he's going to be a really good NHLer.

-The wretched donkey goal on Miller went to Picard. Ryan O'Byrne is sharpening razor blades in the pressbox.

-One big difference between This Year Price and Last Year Price: He actually seems to know where the hell the puck is when it's at his feet.

-I think Martin should make a deal with the team that he'll burn a tie every time they take a shot instead of pass it in the offensive zone.

-Spacek and Price have a future on the Synchronized Goalie team in Sochi. It's just an exhibition sport for now, but you never know...

-Pleks finds the seams better than a Saville Row tailor.

-Wish I had a home breathalyzer so I could check before I write this, but Kostitsyn is playing better D than Cammalleri. So is Pouliot.

-Habs breakout seems a bit more efficient than last year. Maybe familiarity breeds better passing?

-Gotta love a goal that comes with sound effects, and you gotta love Josh Gorges scoring it.

-Poor Spacek. He finds the net like Frobisher found the Northwest Passage.

-Two goal lead with twenty to go...if Martin had been on Happy Days, he'd say "Sit on it!"

Notes on the first:

-What a bleh ceremony in Buffalo. The announcer pronounced "Perreault" like Gionta would. Forty years without a Cup. Whatever. Drop the puck.

-Gionta's due. And if he scores one, he'll get another.

-Sometimes Gill looks like he's made out of Mecchano and all his joints are screwed together.

-Subban's discovering that the road out of the doghouse is paved with blocked shots and broken-up 2-on-1s. And Pouliot is learning the road into it is littered with the minor-league corpses of those who took dumbass o-zone penalties.

-Gomez is about as aggressive as a constipated octopus. He's chasing the puck half-heartedly and circling aimlessly when he doesn't have it. Non hockey-watching spouse says, "I just want him to start earning his money." I had to explain Gomez would have to play until the second coming for that to happen.

-Did anyone in the league send the refs that "define a blindside hit" video they sent out to the players? Hammer's going to ask during the intermission.

-Cammalleri looks like an old lady whose hearing aid batteries are worn down and he keeps having to ask "What?!"

-Wild end-to-end sequence to finish a pretty decent period. I fear one of those typical close Buffalo games, though, in which the Habs get stoned by Miller and they win 1-0.

Limited Time Offer

In this salary-cap era in the NHL, building through the draft has become more than just the quaint poor-team strategy it was when the Rangers could just buy whatever talent they wanted with impunity. These days, not only do team managers have to be smart enough to operate within a budget, they also have to be astute enough to develop young talent efficiently. In the five years since the institution of the cap, there's been a gradual shift in priorities for most teams. We got the first inkling of that shift last season, as first-round draft picks...perhaps for the first time...held more value than high-priced free agents. Most teams (with the exception of New Jersey) are thinking about the future in the long term, and the long term these days means scoring high draft picks and locking them up young.

For a middle-of-the-road team like the Canadiens, a high draft pick comes along very, very rarely. The last one was fifth overall in 2005, which landed Carey Price, and that only happened because of the post-lockout draft lottery. The other ways of obtaining a high for it or sucking out loud...haven't been possible in Montreal. The team hasn't been able to spare any assets of enough value to exchange for a high pick. It can't suck badly enough to land a top pick of its own because the city would implode.

Everyone agrees the way to build a winner is to draft a franchise player, so the only solution for the Canadiens is a stealth trade. Right now, Florida and the Islanders are pretty sure to be in the draft lottery. There's no way to pry their first-round picks away from them without a paying a very steep price for them. So, the trick is to trade for the first-round pick of a team that doesn't yet know it's going to be in the lottery. It's called WWSD. What Would Sam Do?

Sam Pollock would have identified a team with a risk-taker for a GM, in a pressure market where fans demand a winner, with serious holes in its lineup, where management has not yet realized the team isn't going anywhere. In other words, the Calgary Flames.

In the last year, Darryl Sutter has been doing some inexplicable things. In February, he dumped Olli Jokinen to the Rangers for Chris Higgins. Then in July, he let Higgins walk and re-signed Jokinen. In January, he traded Dion Phaneuf and promising prospect Keith Aulie to the leafs for a bunch of leaf scraps. Then, in the summer, he brought back Alex Tanguay, whom he'd traded the year before because he thought the winger's soft style didn't fit with a reputedly tough Flames team.

Now, the Flames first line is Tanguay, Jokinen and Jarome Iginla. They have yet to put up a single point this year. The Flames have been shut out twice in three games so far. This is not a team with a great deal of offence. Couple that with several key injuries, a goalie who's overworked in the last few years and an expensive star defenceman in Jay Bouwmeester who hasn't earned his salary in Calgary, and you've got a team that could tank this year.

The Flames have none of the exciting youth around which many other teams are building. Their average age is 29.4 years old; almost two years older than the league average. They have only one of the top 50 prospects in the league, with Mikael Backlund, their 2007 first-rounder who's yet to show much, ranked 38th by hockey writers. Compare that to the Canadiens, with three of the top-thirty prospects in PK Subban, Lars Eller and Louis Leblanc. The Flames also don't have much cap space left. Things don't look good in Calgary.

The thing is, they don't know it yet. This early in the year, Sutter's changes are still considered an experiment. The team has lost a couple of games, but nobody's panicking yet. That will come around Christmas, when people start to add up the losses and realize there's no help in sight. Then management will start to suspect a high pick is possible. At that point, it will be too late to get them to trade it. The Canadiens need to wait for the Flames to lose three or four more games, then swoop in with a trade proposal that looks like it could help the Flames turn things around in a hurry. Before Sutter accepts failure, he'll do whatever he can to save himself.

If the scoring continues to be an issue in Calgary, the Canadiens could offer Benoit Pouliot and an exchange of first-round picks. Pouliot has undeniable skill and Sutter might believe he would be better with Jokinen than Tanguay. He might also believe the Habs will finish lower than the Flames and jump at the draft pick exchange. The Canadiens can move Eller into Pouliot's place and will come out on top if the Flames tank.

Of course, the Flames might not tank, but that's the risk with stealth trades. You have to bet that you're a better judge of a team than that team's own GM. If Pierre Gauthier looks at the Flames and sees an opportunity, he should consider taking a risk. If it's not the Flames, there's got to be some team ripe for a draft-pick steal. Since the Canadiens will never tank on purpose, Gauthier's got to be sneaky. He's got to be thinking, what would Sam do? Sam would recognize that the Habs have to rob a high pick from someone, and he'd make it a priority.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Aftermath: Car-ey! Car-ey!

The Bell crowd was singing, Brian Gionta was speaking la belle langue and Carey Price played a helluva home opening game last night. He was just brilliant; aggressively challenging shooters, tracking the puck really well and making the initial save. None of the four goals against him were his fault. That's the good news. On the flip side, he deserved a better outcome than his team gave him. That refrain, after so many verses of his young career, is definitely a blues tune.

There was a lot of good last night. Roman Hamrlik didn't look like he missed all of training camp. He was in pretty decent form, making the smart play against heavy forechecking more often than not. Andrei Kostitsyn has been noticable in all three games to date, and his goal last night was a beauty. Tomas Plekanec was his usual industrious, creative self. Lars Eller is going to be really good, and showed it with a lot of clever play against the Bolts. Josh Gorges was solid, and continued to quietly cement himself as a vital part of the Canadiens defence. Ryan O'Byrne recovered from a lousy DOG penalty to play an unfussy, effective game.

On the Tampa side, Guy Boucher's much-vaunted system; sending a hard forecheck and rushing defence in waves at the opposition, was effective. It also proved to be beatable. When the defence is high, a fast team like the Habs can get behind it. When a team's system is built on rushing, a skilled team like the Canadiens can pin that team in its own end with an effective forecheck. The Lightning aren't as good as the Habs when they're trapped and not able to use their speed. We saw a lot of that in the first, when the Habs built up a nice two-goal lead. Where Tampa proved superior, and an area in which the Canadiens must improve, was in conditioning. The Lightning were able to maintain the breathless pace they set in the first period for the entire game. The Canadiens started to fade late in the second and fell behind in the third. Some say a lack of killer instinct is to blame for blowing a 3-2 lead with a minute to go, then giving up the winner with a minute to go in OT. It's not, though. The simple fact is, the Habs were gassed and the Lightning were not. There's no excuse for that, and it's a very fixable issue. Martin needs to step up the pace at practice and make the team's endurance better.

What's not so easy to fix is the lack of discipline. Without Andrei Markov, the Habs PP is struggling, which means they're not coming out on top in the crucial special-teams battle that decide most games, unless the PK is perfect. That's not going to happen every night, especially when the Canadiens are consistently in the box more often than their opponent. Last night, the Habs took seven minors to the Lightning's five. The worst part, however, was the times at which they took them. Mike Cammalleri's first of two chintzy penalties negated his team's first PP. His second came at the beginning of the second period, when the team wanted to build on a strong opening twenty minutes. The Bolts scored on the PP and the momentum started to turn in their favour. PK Subban also took a dumb penalty to erase a Habs PP in the first, and his second infraction (debatable, yes, but you can't give the refs any reason to think your stick is not where it should be in a close game) cost the Habs the game. There's no excuse for a vet like Cammalleri playing with his head up his ass. And, if Subban were six inches taller and 56 numbers lower, he'd be parked on the bench until his nether regions went numb. The kid took a lot of penalties in Hamilton last year, a lot in pre-season this year and he seems to intend to keep doing that. That's got to stop.

The other guy with issues so far, notwithstanding his fluke goal against Pittsburgh, is Scott Gomez. The guy is not solely responsible for his contract, but at that price, he can't be playing on the outside and giving the puck away. That line isn't working, but it's not because of the wingers. Brian Gionta is going to the net like he always does. Benoit Pouliot is doing some good things. Gomez, however, isn't getting the job done. His patented flights through the neutral zone are coming up short, and his laser-accurate passes are misfiring. He's got to step it up.

Last night wasn't a disaster. The team got a point out of it, and the above-mentioned good things were encouraging. The bad things, though, need to improve as quickly as possible before two losses become ten. Carey Price is doing his part, and it's up to his mates to start supporting him better. We don't want to draw too many comparisons to the rough parts of last year, but a few times last night, the team was singing the same old song.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Bolts vs. Habs: French Fried Edition

Notes on the third & OT:

-Nice kill on the major. Sounds like a line out of M*A*S*H, but there you go.

-They could have paid Pleks six mill a year and it STILL would have been worth every penny.

-Seems like the Habs aren't conditioned as well as the Lightning. They're fading in the speed department through the third. Time to step up practice pace, Jacques.

-If Boucher taught P.K. how to boot it back into his own zone to foil an odd-man rush like that, thanks!

-Crap, spaceman. What an idiotic play on the tying goal.

-AK busts his season's cherry off some lovely foreplay by Pleks. Gorgeous to watch. If you like that sort of thing.

-Meanwhile, Pouliot is as frustrated as a guy whose girl wears a purity bracelet.

-Subban is killing his team tonight. Brutal penalties at the worst possible times. And of course, they tie it up with no call on the trip that allowed the open passage for the goal.

-Thank you, goal post. Saved a point right there.

-Cammy saved the first big chance in OT.

-Love how AK breaks into the O-zone like a bowling ball. No looking for linemates for him. He just bowls right through there and takes down opponents like pins.

-Gill and his "Gentle Pat" form of defence seals the deal.

-Price deserved better tonight. A LOT better.

Notes on the second:

-If St.Louis hadn't gone into hockey, it could have been HIM beating out Alexandre Despatie at the Commonwealth Games. Brutal dive on the Cammy penalty.

-And of course, it costs. Price, once again the victim of some voodoo hex on a weird, up-high deflection.

-Why is it delay-of-game to shoot the puck over the glass, but NOT when a guy lies down on a loose puck on the PK?

-This is like a giant arcade game at blinding speeds. I imagine if I'd lived in the late '60s, this would have been like playing pinball with The Who.

-Habs passes are rattling around like a rock in a bucket. Not nearly as soft as in the first.

-You know who Boucher is? Carbo, with better communication skills. Watching him roll his eyes and bitch after a penalty call is Guy all over again.

-Gorges would be better on offense if he wasn't always waiting for the sky writers to announce he's about to make a shot.

-Eller's slick as the McDonald's dumpster. He should have better linemates.

-Oh, Lapierre. You're like the rebellious street kid in a Spike Lee movie. Always doing the wrong thing until you do the right thing. Seriously, though, what the hell was that major for?

-Another good period. Unfortunately, I see the Habs slowing down while the Lightning are not. Winning this one will take guts.

Notes on the first:

-It's all well and good for Boucher to advise his Ds to press, but the flip side is it's easier to get the puck behind them and to catch them out of position with speed. Luckily, the Habs have a boatload of speed.

-If Lapierre were a dog, he'd be what we in Newfoundland call a "crackie." Saucy, of indeterminate parentage and in danger of euthenasia by the dog catcher or neighbours at any moment.

-O'Byrne is like a Greek tragedy, only because there's no such thing as an Irish tragedy.

-We know where all the players are from, but what about the refs? The call on Cammalleri was pure crap.

-Josh Gorges is built entirely of ball bearings with a side of hockey sense.

-Pleks is cool as the arctic before global warming. He didn't even celebrate his goal because he knows there are a ton more to come.

-Cammalleri is such a smart player. His Achilles heel is his temper, but in a game like this, nobody cares.

-If Hammer needed a game to get up to speed, this is the one. He went from deck chair to electric chair in about two heartbeats tonight.

-Price is on. He's shutting them up with duct tape.

-Great period. It turns out blazing speed and aggressive forechecking beats Boucher's magic system. Two more periods like that, please.

Pre-game notes:

-Did I mention how sick I am of Habs fans drooling over the Lightning? Ugh. Now RDS is creaming over them too. Not a pretty sight.

-If Vinny, Marty and Simon aren't the three stars, I'll be shocked. Too bad coaches can't be stars.

-Kudos to the French guys on the Habs who didn't laugh at Gionta's French. God love him, he tried, but they shouldn't have spelled out all the numbers QUITE so phonetically.

-I liked the standing around the circle thing and the rushing out of the zamboni exit. Different.

Habs South, My Arse

The Canadiens new season is not yet three games old, and Habs fans are already gnashing teeth and wringing hands. It's not about the goaltending this time. Carey Price did enough in his first two starts to spare the suicidal for at least a period in the home opener. It's not about the salary cap or Hal Gill's inability to handle the puck cleanly or Scott Gomez' contract or the fact that the team is too small. Nope. This time, it's about the bloody Tampa Bay Lightning.

The Tampa Bay Freakin' Lighting, sired by Gary Bettman and born in ignominy. The only reason the team entered the league was because Phil Esposito was one of the only franchise applicants who actually coughed up the $50-million expansion fee back in 1992, after more legitmate owners in more legitmate locations balked at paying that kind of dough on pure speculation. The only reason it still exists is because it sucked badly enough to land Vincent Lecavalier first overall in 1998.

That's the crux of the problem with Habs fans. It all comes down to jealousy. People are jealous because the Lightning have St.Vinny. They're jealous that Martin St.Louis and Simon Gagne have French names to go along with their scoring talents. And they're jealous Guy Boucher and his staff ditched Hamilton and a possible future with the Habs in favour of an immediate promotion to the NHL in Tampa.

You know what? Jealousy does not become Habs fans. In wishing the Canadiens had Vinny and Guy, fans fail to appreciate Plekanec and Muller. Sure, they're not local boys, but they're talented, dedicated and...get this...actually playing for and coaching the Montreal Canadiens.

Of course, most fans of the Canadiens are just that; devoted to the CH and whatever players happen to be wearing it at the time. Still, the number of whiners complaining about Tampa having everything Montreal doesn't is growing, and it's annoying. Yzerman took over in the summer and made a few moves to improve what was a pretty dreadful team last season. He's still got a long way to go toward turning the Lightning into a contender.

Boucher may win a Cup in Tampa or he might flame out after a year or two. Until there's a body of evidence to prove he's actually the coach of the century a lot of Habs fans are convinced he is, jealousy of him is misplaced.

The Lightning are still the Lighting; an unremarkable team with some good players along with some major questions on defence, in goal and lower-line depth. They will undoubtedly give the Canadiens a run for their money tonight because all the homeboys love to rub it in the home team's face. But if they manage to beat the Habs, one can only hope the fans will take the loss as they should: with distaste, dislike and dismissal.

It's the third game of the year and being jealous of the Lightning is like envying the leafs because they got Grabovski and The Traitor, and have managed to put up a couple of early wins. Calling the Lightning "Habs South" is a joke to most fans, but for others it's a serious complaint. The Canadiens are our team. The Lightning are just another opponent and giving them a connection to Montreal based on envy is embarrassing. Fans should save their angst for something that really matters.

Monday, October 11, 2010


One of the most iconic scenes in the movie "Sound of Music" shows Julie Andrews marching off, leaving the convent and getting ready to take on the governess position for seven unruly children. As she thinks about the challenge ahead, she starts to falter so she sings to herself. "I have confidence that spring will come again, besides, which, you see, I have confidence in me." She picks up her flagging spirits and heads into the mansion to face the children.

Confidence is one of the most difficult intangibles to define and yet one of the most important attributes any successful person can have. All the great minds have tried to explain how it works. Vincent van Gogh said, "If you hear a voice within you say "you cannot paint," then by all means paint, and that voice will be silenced." Ralph Waldo Emerson: "What lies behind us and what lies before us are tiny matters compared to what lies within us." Shakespeare said, "Our doubts are traitors, and make us lose the good we oft might win, by fearing to attempt." Some clever unknown told us: "God wisely designed the human body so that we can neither pat our own backs nor kick ourselves too easily." And then there's: "You have brains in your head. You have feet in your shoes. You can steer yourself in any direction you choose. You're on your own. And you know what you know. You are the guy who'll decide where to go." ~Dr. Seuss.

Confidence, that most elusive of virtues, is vital for any successful venture. Think about it in the simplest of everyday activities. You walk down a staircase with confidence most of the time because you've done it so often you don't have to wonder whether you can do it or not. If, however, you look down at your feet and think about what you're doing, you lose confidence and stumble. Confidence is perhaps more important in sport than anywhere else. In sport, the vagaries of physical superiority are so frustrating that confidence becomes the difference between a top-six defenceman and a top-two. There have been supremely talented individuals who can't become all-stars and decently-talented pluggers who are second-liners because they believe that's what they can be.

It applies to teams too. Super-dominant teams like last year's Capitals can lose to bottom seeds like the Habs because they don't believe in themselves enough. It's all about confidence.

Looking at the Habs, we see some classic examples. Tomas Plekanec, who everyone knows can put up 70 points a year, didn't have any confidence in 2008-09 and he scored 39. Last season he got it back and returned to form.And then there are his opposite numbers in the confidence department. Ryan O'Byrne. Benoit Pouliot. Carey Price.

The most important intangible for this year's Canadiens, as it has been for every other team in every other sport for millenia, is confidence. If these guys can believe in themselves and convince their teammates to believe in them and each other, they can be a very good team. In today's NHL, there's not a whole lot separating the decent teams from the good. One of the few things that makes the difference, after superstars, systems and special teams are put aside, is confidence.

There's evidence Price is getting his back. He looked decent againt Toronto, but he was fabulous against the Pens. He was a guy who believed the puck would stop with him, and as the game wore on, his teammates started to believe too.

O'Byrne and Pouliot, on the other hand, are still trying to find a belief in themselves. O'Byrne is a great big guy who can skate and make a nice first pass, but he doesn't believe he's that. Pouliot is tall, fast and has lovely hands, but he's not buying it. None of the people who try to define confidence tell us whether outsiders can make a guy believe in himself, or whether it has to come solely from within.

However it happens, somebody needs to figure out how to teach it. In the meantime, the Canadiens have a few players with tremendous talent who don't necessarily believe they can do what they were born with the ability to do.

In the end, it'll come down to the leadership's abililty to make the low-esteem guys feel important and boost their belief in themselves. Basically, the leaders need to lead by example. It's a cliche, but if Gionta can go out there every night and work like a Trojan, he'll illustrate for Pouliot what needs to be done. If Gorges can be an example for O'Byrne, he'll get it. Carey Price is the biggest question mark in the confidence department, but one might suspect he finds his own inspiration, outside the team. If the rodeo or the native community can help him believe, he'll be formidable.

This year is a question mark year for the Habs, not because the talent isn't there, but because there are still questions about who believes in the team's ability to win.

It'll take talent to make the playoffs, but it will take confidence to win in the post-season. Nobody can say which team has it and which team doesn't at this point. And, of course, it's such a fleeting intangible, it can change between now and June.

In "The Sound of Music," Julie Andrews went into the mansion with confidence and she won the Captain's esteem and together they beat the Nazis. That's the movie all our moms made us watch over the holidays. If, however, Maria had decided seven kids were way too much and gone back to the convent, there'd be no story, no movie and no legend. It all comes down to belief and who can dredge up the most of it in his heart.

Moving a little beyond "The Sound of Music," Oliver Wendell Holmes once attended a meeting in which he was the shortest man present. "Dr. Holmes," quipped a friend, "I should think you'd feel rather small among us big fellows." "I do," retorted Holmes, "I feel like a dime among a lot of pennies." That should be the Habs. If that happens, it will be a very good season.