One should never write about a game lost in a heated moment until the emotion simmers down to a low boil and vision clears. If a person were to summarize today's loss to the Thrashers immediately afterwards, the treatise would have included such phrases as "Price sucks," "Cammalleri can't shoot" and "Spacek is brutal." That's what happens after a loss; everyone plays a part in it, but the blanket of blame tends to fall unevenly on the culprits who looked to observers to be most at fault.
The truth is, though, everyone plays a role in a win, as well as they do in a loss, sometimes one guy can really make the difference. Today, it was Carey Price. In hockey, things tend to even out over time, so you might look at the soft goals Price has been giving up lately as no more than a balancing of the scales after the many nights of lights-out goal he played earlier in the year. Of course, nobody can sustain that level of play for an entire year, so a bit of a slacker period was to be expected.
The concern with Price, though, is with his mental strength. The hope is that his newfound maturity will help him get through this patch without it becoming a full-blown trough of negativity in his mind. Every goalie slides once in a while, and if Price can recognize that and regroup, it'll be a major victory for him. If he can't, well, it really doesn't bear thinking about because the team can't win without him playing great in net.
This may be the reason why Jacques Martin has been so reluctant to rest Price. When a goalie is stealing games in a league in which every point counts, it's tempting to just keep rolling with him while he's hot. That's what Martin did, and a lot of people who know their goalies say Price looks tired now. That may or may not be true. There's certainly an argument to be made about the accumulative mental strain that comes with having to be nearly perfect every night or risk losing. Even a 23-year-old, fit, talented goaltender can become mentally and emotionally fatigued while his body feels rested. That, once again, goes back to Martin. The reason Price is under such pressure is because the team is playing a system that puts an inordinate amount of reliance on great goalkeeping.
Mike Boone over at Habs Inside/Out made a comment that really resonated today. He said, "Atlanta plays a sound, hard-grinding game in the image of their coach, Craig Ramsay." The part that stood was "in the image of their coach." Craig Ramsay played fourteen hard-grinding years in the NHL and won a Selke trophy for his trouble. The fundamentals he preaches are the ones he learned through experience. He's the kind of guy who doesn't ask his team to do things he wouldn't or couldn't have done himself when he played.
Jacques Martin is a different story. He had two mediocre seasons playing goal for St.Lawrence University in the early '70s. He never ground out a gruelling junior season, or bounced around the AHL on the buses. He never played a first NHL game or suffered through a very public slump. He never tried to break into the big league at 21, and he's never held the Stanley Cup over his head in triumph. It makes you wonder how well he's able to understand his players and convince them to do things his way, when his way wasn't along the same paths these guys have all followed.
In his book, "Playing With Fire," Theo Fleury wrote: "The coaches that bug me the most are the ones who've never played...Coaches who never played break guys down. Guys like me who became superstars, we would laugh at them. Because you know what? As long as I was scoring goals, they couldn't touch me...From an NHL player's perspective, if you want respect as a coach, you have to be willing to put your stuff on and sit beside me. I will get out there if you are willing to get your head beaten in with me. Dress and go to war with me, I'll do anything you want."
It's an interesting concept. Do guys who've won Cups like Gomez, Gionta, Gill and Moen; who've bled and sweated and broken their bodies to win, really buy it when a coach like Martin tells them what to do? They've won, he hasn't.
Fleury also writes, "There is so much money involved now that coaches cannot afford to lose. So what do they teach? Defence. They say it is what wins Stanley Cups. Trouble is, it is not much fun to watch a 0-0 hockey game. Five guys skating backwards through the neutral zone - who wants to watch that?"
It makes you wonder who wants to play that way either? When you're Mike Cammalleri or Lars Eller or Andrei Kostitsyn, how boring must it be to be always grinding on the boards in the neutral zone and rushing back to play defence? Naturally, there has to be a measure of defensive responsibility or the team would get blown out every night, but when it's all the time, it starts to get tedious.
Martin wants short shifts, but when players only get 40 seconds on the ice, and they're constantly skating out from their own end, it doesn't give them a lot of time to build anything offensively. He wants all five guys coming back to help in their own end, but that means all five guys have to move together to get the puck up into the offensive zone. It's great in theory, but not all guys are in the same kind of shape, or have the same speed. Breakdowns happen, and if you're not putting yourself in a position to score goals to overcome a deficit, you lose.
The Canadiens looked like the better team today. They had the chances and they took the shots. The difference, aside from goaltending, was that the Thrashers played in Craig Ramsay's image...hard-nosed and aggressive around the crease. That strategy resulted in two of their four goals. They have an image to emulate. If the identity of a team comes from the coach on down, where will the Habs get theirs? From a guy who never played the game at the same level as the guys he's coaching?
Look at the Sabres. Lindy Ruff was as tough as they come as a player, but he chipped in some points too because he never quit. His teams, even though they don't have the greatest talent in the league, are always ready and they always try. They go to the net and they skate hard because that's what their coach did. A guy like Mike Babcock, even though he didn't play in the NHL, earned his stripes by winning as a coach. He's got that reputation now, and players respect that.
Jacques Martin has neither the NHL reputation or a championship record as a coach. There's nothing in his background that says NHL players should respect him as boss. He has no image in which to mold his team.
People will argue Martin got the team to the conference finals last spring. Others will say it wasn't him at all, but the personal sacrifices made by Gill and Gorges in their shotblocking, Plekanec's superb shut-down job on Backstrom and Crosby and Halak's otherworldly goaltending. Without those guys taking pride in themselves and their own game, all Martin's systems and planning would have gone for nothing.
Jacques Martin is a good, safe coach. He's not going to be creating anything new or firing up the troops. That's Kirk Muller's job. He's going to overplay his goalie because he needs the best goaltending possible to win games in his conservative system. The question is, can that kind of coach work with a team of players built for offence? Judging by the numbers the goalscorers are putting up this year, it's a legitmate one, and the answer doesn't look like it's greatly in Martin's favour.
A game like today's is frustrating because the Habs did so many things right, from the number of shots, to the good PP, to the good waves of offensive pressure. They finally got a point after being down a goal (three times, no less!). The goaltending let them down today, and that's got to change with strong competition coming up. The question is, in whose image will the Habs go forward? After the emotion of the loss wears off, it's a question that still doesn't have an answer.