Thursday, March 31, 2011

Aftermath: The Aristocracy

Earlier this week, Georges Laraque decided to be really classy and slam his former team (the one from which he's still shamelessly stealing a salary) while it was on the worst losing streak of the season. He said, among other things, that a player "source" confided nobody wants to play for Jacques Martin anymore. The team, it seems, has quit on its coach.

Laraque, unsurprisingly, got it wrong. The team hasn't quit on Martin. It's taking advantage of him. Jacques Martin has been very, very good to his veteran players. He's hung his reputation and chance for success on those guys, along with Carey Price. He's given them ice time, power play time, days off and an easy ride in the media. Meanwhile, the rookies and younger players get scratched or benched for the slightest mistake. They get bounced from one line to another and get little prime ice time. Martin, in effect is running an aristocracy, not a meritocracy.

It wasn't necessarily a bad approach for a coach in as intense an environment as Montreal. Winning is a must, or life becomes unliveable and job security tenuous at best. So, weighing his odds, Martin went with the guys who'd proven themselves in the past. Gomez, Gionta, Cammalleri, Gill, Plekanec and Hamrlik were the safe options. It was certainly those guys who got him to the third round of the playoffs last season. Now, though, one of two things has gone wrong.

Either Martin has relied so heavily on his vets that he's actually skated them into the ice, or he's given them such a sense of security they've grown complacent. I suspect it's a combination of the two.

Tomas Plekanec can never be accused of taking the easy way out. He is, and has always been, one of the hardest-working Canadiens. After 70+ games with more than 20 minutes of icetime against tough opposition, however, he's playing hurt and he looks drained. Carey Price, who got pulled once in his first 60 starts has been yanked after collapsing three times in his last nine.

Then there are Gomez and Cammalleri. Both of them have big, long-term contracts and they both know that no matter how poorly they play, they'll still get prime ice time and the best available linemates. It would be wrong to say they don't care...they are respected professionals, after all...but they're human. Without a sense of consequence for bad play, there's a natural tendency to get comfortable with it.

So here we have a team of tired and/or complacent veterans and young guys playing in trepidation of making a mistake. The success of last playoffs (although there used to be a time when winning only two rounds wasn't considered success) has disguised the fact that this aristocracy has resulted in the departures of young players who couldn't live up to the standard of perfection required for them to get ice time. It's also produced veterans who have the coach's trust and support, but who are almost all performing more poorly than they did last year. In the end, it adds up to a dysfunctional group unable to score or keep the puck out of its own net.

The playoffs this year are still not a given, and last night's game reconfirmed that even if they were, they probably won't last long. The "anything can happen" theory can take you so far, but it's not likely the Canadiens, as currently constructed, will win much. Down the stretch, Jacques Martin needed the veterans he's spent all season coddling to take their effort level higher. They've failed to do that, and Martin's investment in them has left him with few options as the downward spiral picks up speed.

Some coaches, at this point, would have a revolution and the rich veteran nobility would lose their social standing in favour of the idealistic peasant upstart rookies. So what if Yannick Weber makes a mistake? He's better than Brent "Danger" Sopel. And if Lars Eller gets caught on a bad turnover, who cares? He's working a lot harder than the lazy Scott Gomez. Martin's not an "off with their heads" type of coach, though. He's loyal and he's doggedly persistent. That's why P.K.Subban, although the only guy scoring on the PP, doesn't get time on the man advantage while the coach uses a veteran forward on the point instead. Martin will dance with the ones what brung him, and he'll go home with them too. Probably a lot earlier than fans were hoping they would.

Georges Laraque, in taking his semi-annual cheap shots at the Canadiens, blames the players for quitting on Martin. That's not really likely as long as the veterans the coach has supported are still enjoying their aristocratic privileges.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Habs vs. Canes - Skinner Rocks Edition

Notes on the third:

-At least Martin saved Price the skate of shame across the ice and waited until the new period to install Auld.

-The difference between a guy like Gill and one like Gomez is that Gill will NEVER be caught laughing during a loss, even if he's just heard the funniest line in the world.

-A Carolina fan is waving his terribly fat two-year-old at the camera. He should be arrested for child abuse if he gives her another hot dog.

-The Hurricanes board-fixers all wearing helmets look like they're scared of hockey.

-Terrible PP. That was their chance. I'm going to bed. Without watching the last 12 minutes, I'm guessing Skinner gets the hatty.

-The Canadiens are done. Just done. There will be four regular season games and four playoff games left. Enjoy them well.

Notes on the second:

-Eller looks like he wants to make up for the giant gaffe on the 'Canes second goal.

-DD's trying his tiny buns off.

-Plekanec is NOT himself. There's something wrong there.

-Lovely passing on the Habs PP. Too bad nobody told them it's not illegal to shoot.

-Cammalleri! Finally.

-And, immediately, they give it back. Brutal screen on Price, but not a great goal to give up under the circumstances. Defensive coverage was as visible as Casper.

-Plekanec just saved the Skinner hat trick, but nobody will give him credit for that.

-And the fourth 'Canes goal just goes to illustrate how far the Canadiens are going in the playoffs. Price looks like last year tonight.

-Plekanec, Hamrlik, Price and Subban have been played out to the point of exhaustion. The playoffs are a happy fantasy.

-Good thing there's only one home game left, or Gomez would have his ears scorched with boos.

-The pool betting here is not who'll score the next Habs goal, but how many they'll lose by.

-Wow. Pouliot hasn't scored in 19 games? I guess it's harder to score from your ass than I thought.

-Now a penalty. This team, when it really counts, is sucking harder than a porn star on an audition.

-Price is falling second to Ward yet again. This is hard to watch.

Notes on the first:

-If Gomez MUST revert to previously braindead play, it'd be nice if he could refrain from doing that while Staal's on the ice.

-Desharnais behind the net is like Houdini underwater.

-Feeling like the first goal here will be major.

-Wiz is pinching like a younger sister. And doing a nice job at clearing out the pesky Staal from the crease.

-You just can't dislike Skinner, even when he scores against your team. He's just so damn happy to be there.

-I'm kind of scared to think Spacek is better than Sopel. He sucked on the 'Canes first goal. Not that Gomez or Mara were much better. Skinner had half the rink and all day to get that shot off.

-Brutal giveaways and Skinner with another one. Eller was awful. Their rookie is better than our rookie.

-The impotent Habs are back.

Aftermath: He Shoots! He Scores!

Last night was one of those mixed-emotions kind of games. The relief that someone (anyone!) scored a goal was like the air flapping out of a too-tight balloon. Then, eleven seconds later, another goal allowed a return to normal breathing patterns that had been suspended for more than a week. In the moment, it didn't matter who scored as long as someone did. In the moments since, it has to be slightly concerning that the two goals were scored by a pinching Roman Hamrlik on his fifth whack at it, and by the workaday Mathieu Darche.

While it's great to see the Canadiens finally break the persistent goose egg that's been following them around for ten days, the fact that the expected goal scorers are still slumping isn't good. Mike Cammalleri missed a breakaway, James Wisniewski hit the post on the PP and Brian Gionta got robbed by the goalie. Some of those have to start going in, if the team is really to turn things around.

On the plus side, the team looked much, much livelier than it did on Saturday. Andrei Kostitsyn was throwing his considerable weight around effectively and he got rewarded with the empty-netter for his 20th of the year. Tomas Plekanec was skating hard, forechecking effectively and moving the puck well. Lars Eller looked good too, even if he didn't get a point to show for it. Cammalleri and Scott Gomez got assists on Hamrlik's and Darche's garbage goals, and Gionta worked his butt off. There are good signs there, but they won't mean much unless those guys start actually scoring, starting with the game tonight.

The defence looked better than it did on Saturday as well. P.K. Subban made his usual sharp, accurate outlet passes. Wisniewski was better on the breakout as well, and Hamrlik made a nice recovery from one of his least impressive games this season. If not for an errant, uncalled high stick that cut Hal Gill and jerked him out of the play, the D played well enough to support a shutout for Carey Price.

Price was his usual reliable self in goal. He reaffirmed, if there was any doubt, that the team will go as far in the playoffs as he can take it. In a way, that's a comforting thought. His play has been so consistent, we don't worry about what he's doing back there. You do have to worry a bit about how he looks in the room after games, though. Where, early in the season, Price was standing tall in post-game interviews, now he's white-faced and hollow-eyed and generally exhausted-looking. We have to hope there's a well of energy on which these guys can draw before the real season starts.

In the end, the team won a game it really had to win. That's the main thing. If it wasn't a resounding victory or one dictated by the Canadiens' best players, it's still two points after a fairly devastating losing streak. It's easy to say it was "just the Thrashers," but that team has enough weapons to hurt if the Canadiens had let it. Instead, they went out and picked up their game when they needed to. Even on a morning of mixed feelings, there's some comfort in that.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Thrashers vs.Habs - Drought Edition

Notes on the third:

-Loving Halpern, just not on the first line.

-Man, if not for doesn't bear thinking about where this team would be.

-Kostitsyn's got a concussion-wish tonight. He just walked directly into two major hits.

-What a crock! Subban for diving is based solely on the rep he's getting from the complaining of other players.

-Glad this is McCreary's last game. If he didn't see Gill high-sticked there, he's blind anyway. No way that goal should count.

-Kostitsyn with the empty netter for his twentieth. Nobody will care how it went in, come contract time.

-Nice gesture for the Habs to congratulate McCreary. Didn't see Gill shake his hand, though.

-Finally. A win. I'd forgotten how it felt.

Notes on the second:

-That Price kid isn't a bad goalie.

-Pouliot has fallen down more often than a drunk girl on a carousel tonight.

-Looks like Pleks has his legs back. He's really moving out there.

-Another too-many-men call? This team has many failings, but the inability to count to five is chief among them.

-Gionta's looking at his stick as though wondering where the hole is.

-AK and Gomez laughing on the bench. Great minds...

-Another good period. It would be nice to see a third goal, though.

Notes on the first:

-A goal! A goal! My kingdom for a goal!

-Thirty seconds in, and the Thrashers get a grade-A chance. Price must be rolling his eyes already.

-They just bounce off Kostitsyn like squash balls off the wall.


-Nice to see Eller draw a penalty instead of take one.

-Craig Ramsay looks like Dr.Evil's grandpa.

-A goalpost on the PP. If Gomez needs to sell his soul to the devil to get out of this, I'm okay with that.

-Thanks, Hamrlik! I was never so happy to hear "Vertigo" in my life.

-And Darche! It's like being constipated for a week and then the bran kicks in.

-This game is to Saturday what the Royal Wedding is to a chapel in Vegas.

-Oh no! A Moen fight! I hate it when a top-six forward is gone for five.

-Just curious: If it's essential for the Canadiens coach to be French-speaking, why does Muller always do the RDS in-game interviews? And most of the talking to the players?

-Good period. Wish I'd seen one like that on Saturday night.

Monday, March 28, 2011


I always pitied the fans who filled the stands at terrible hockey games. I'd watch on TV from the comfort of my couch, with the option to flick it off if things got too bad, and say "At least I didn't pay to see that." It was always sad to see frustrated fans, out a good chunk of their hard-earned change, boo the team off the ice. Now I know how the other half lives.

I didn't boo on Saturday, but I was sitting in the nosebleeds at the Bell Centre, in the midst of people who had painted their faces, made signs of support and paid scalpers double or triple the $41 face value of the tickets. Those people went to the game with the expectation that the players they adored would at least look like they cared about winning as much as the fans did. When they ended up with an ineffectual power play, a brutal 18 shots and a third straight shutout instead, the disappointed fans, who wouldn't get a refund after the lousy game for which they'd had such hope, booed. It wasn't my choice of expression, but I understood.

The booing post-game was the culmination of a couple of things, one of which had been building in my subconscious as I walked around the city on Saturday. The whole of downtown Montreal was buzzing, and the buzz expanded all through the day. It started at breakfast, when Max Pacioretty showed up to eat at the restaurant I was at and had the whole place whispering about his presence. It continued at the Bell Centre, when people from all over the continent were meeting each other at the Habs Hall of Fame and telling stories about watching Lafleur or Roy or Richard in their primes. Later, in the streets, there were more people in Habs gear than not, and more cars with Canadiens flags than without them. It was if the entire city was drawn toward a centre point, and that was the Habs/Caps game to come later that evening.

The immense interest in the Canadiens made me think perhaps the team has become too big. The impression increased as I sat high above the ice in the Bell Centre, and watched the fans, almost all wearing some kind of Canadiens-themed clothing, stream in with a great air of excitement. Looking down on 21 273 people, all cheering for the same cause is a powerful thing. As I observed Carey Price retreat into his own little world during the anthems, I could almost feel the weight of all those eyes on him. It's nothing short of miraculous that a young man like him can find the confidence to perform well every night. Not every player will be able to do that, and when the eyes of the fans turn hostile, it must be devastating. Playing for the Canadiens means thousands of people are living through you, and feel personally betrayed if they feel you've let them down. I don't know if that's a healthy thing, but I do think it can affect the decisions of players regarding playing in Montreal, and the performance of the team when the fans turn on it.

The enormity of the fans' expectations of the players is one part of the whole bubble of Habs' addiction I noticed on the weekend. The other was the way the team's marketers feed it and build on it. All of those thousands of jerseys and caps didn't sell themselves, after all. The problem with the spectacle, however, is that it doesn't let fans feel what they want to feel.

I sat there as the game trudged along, neither team really doing much to earn applause, while it became more and more apparent the Canadiens would roll over without a whimper. Yet, all around me, music blared, lighted signs demanded more noise and dancing girls banged tambourines while prompting the crowd to chant "Go Habs Go." That was okay when there was hope, but after the Caps second goal, with fewer than five minutes to go, it was over. I was disappointed, defeated and angry, and I wanted to feel those well-earned emotions honestly. I didn't want the Habs' marketing machine glossing over the fact that the team we're paying a ton of money to support has just sucked badly and given us absolutely no return on our investment. They didn't even make it competitive, but the happy noisemakers rolled on as though nothing happened. That wasn't fair. They weren't fooling anyone, and it probably had something to do wtih the booing the team got as it slumped off the ice.

Fans who are encouraged to devote themselves to a team beyond logic or reason have to have an outlet when that team turns out to be made up of ordinary human beings who can't perform like gods on ice every night. If they're like me, they resent being told to ignore the on-ice product and just enjoy the spectacle. The problem is, the reason why we buy into the spectacle in the first place is because we're hockey fans. We know when the product on the ice isn't worth the spectacle, and we resent it when the bells and whistles get blown at us to cover up that fact. At least I did, and I think the thousands of people around me who were booing felt something of the same thing.

I've been lucky. Saturday was my tenth game at either the Forum or the Bell Centre, and I'd never witnessed a loss before. All the pomp and circumstance was secondary to the hockey, which lived up to the billing. Having now seen the machine and the hype roll on even when the team doesn't deserve it, I have a new perspective.

In a way, I think, those of us who watch most games on TV have a clearer picture of the reality of the Habs. Sitting here in our living rooms thousands of miles away, we aren't influenced by the marketing crew or absorbed into the collective frenzy of a city that's become the victim of the unrealistic expectations fed to it daily. And if we see the team sucking, nobody's telling us at top volume that we should be singing Ole instead.

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Aftermath: Disaster

Okay, I'm back. First of all, to be fair, I think I should tell you a little bit about the background of my trip to Montreal. I try to go once a year to see the Habs in person. The sense of something momentous about to happen in the Bell Centre is pervasive and persuasive. For me, it's been truth. Last year, for example, I was at the Rangers game, when the Canadiens won in OT on Mike Cammalleri's hat trick goal. It was impressive. So, this year, even though things haven't been going great lately, I decided to go to the game with hope.

I have children, so the first thing I had to do, after working since 5:30 in the morning, was drive three hours to bring the kids to their grandparents for the weekend. Then, drive another hour and a half to get to the airport. There was a huge snow storm happening, so my flight got cancelled. I then had to rebook for another flight four hours later, which went to Toronto, then on to Montreal. All told, it took 30 hours of travel to even get to Montreal.

We got to the game tonight to a great sense of expectation. The team had been bitch-slapped so thoroughly in Boston (seriously? a DOUBLE shorty?) that people in the crowd were stoked. Surely, we thought, the Canadiens would fight back with pride and backbone. They'd prove their feisty nature wasn't crushed after that Bruins game.

The puck dropped. The Canadiens lost the faceoff and meandered around their zone with some bad passing and ill-advised clearing attempts. Next shift...same thing. Finally, after about two minutes of messing around fruitlessly, Tomas Plekanc, surely playing hurt, lost the puck at the blueline and the turnover resulted in the first Caps goal.

After that, we expected push back. We thought the team would stand up and say, "NO! We will NOT be shut out three games straight." What we got was something different. There were many culprits in the screw-up club. Roman Hamrlik was probably the worst D on the ice, with his many turnovers and soft plays on the boards. Andrei Kostitsyn was playing like his brain was still on ice back at his apartment. And the eternally bad Scott Gomez was eternally bad.

There were several moments that stood out. Once, Gionta laid a big hit in the corner, and the puck popped out. Nobody was there to collect it. Another time, Plekanec was behind the net with the puck, with nowhere to go because there was no one in front. Still another time, a Cap had the puck on the boards and Gomez was "battling" for it. That involved him sticking his ass out behind him and poking at the puck with his stick. God forbid there should have been body contact of any kind.

One observation of mine, after I decided to consciously watch for it, was that the Canadiens defencemen, with the marked execption of P.K. Subban, collectively and consistently failed to make one single completed forward pass. Outlet passes were in skates, or just past sticks or behind players. As a result, everyone had to slow down or stop altogether to pick up the pass and the Caps lined up to stop the rush. Bad decisions by the D really are shutting down the team's offence.

After the game, I was really despondent. It came to me that the behaviour we've seen the last few games is very reminiscent of the Flyers series last year. The Canadiens got shut out twice in the first two games, just like they have this week. After two dramatic series wins, they were done. They just didn't have anything else to give. Looking at them now, with the injuries they've dealt with (and are likely still dealing with, even though the hurt players are trying to come back), they look like they've got nothing left. This team is done.

I can almost have sympathy for most of them. They've battled through injuries to themselves and teammates, they've handled an immense learning curve by all the new players and they've still managed to win through a great deal of adversity. Now, though, they're done. The only one who has no reason to be done is Scott Gomez. He's had lots of icetime, but not worked very hard during it. He's not been hurt. He's a slacker and a drain on the organization's resources. At the end of the game tonight, people were booing him and I understood why.

In spite of it all, there was good, though. Carey Price was steady. P.K. Subban was the only D who could make any kind of offensive play, while still fighting hard for pucks in his own zone. Lars Eller was the team's best forward, making some nice physical plays and moving the puck well on the rush. These are all guys who'll be important for the future. The problem is, their supporting cast is supposed to be the team of today. That's not happening. Gomez, Gionta, Cammalleri, Plekanec, Kostitsyn...none of them have stepped up and made the team better.

My friend who watched the game with me tonight thinks it's Jacques Martin's fault. Well, inadvertently anyway. He says Gainey built a fast, skilled team, then he hired a dull, conservative coach. The players and the coach are not well matched, and the things Martin's lacking hurt the team's chances of winning.

Right now, outside my hotel room window, I can hear drunken idiots singing "Ole." They have no idea why they shouldn't be singing, and that's very sad.

Caps vs. Habs - Better Bring it Edition

Hi all...

For all of you who've been emailing and tweeting to ask where the hell I am, well, I'm in Montreal. The game against the Caps tonight will determine whether it's actually hell or not. I missed the Bs game because of travel, but sounds like I picked a good time to be without a TV. I'll be back with a report of tonight's game when I get back. Thanks for asking.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Aftermath: Complacence

Jacques Martin said after his team got shut out by the Sabres last night that the Canadiens didn't go to the net "with authority." What he possibly meant to say was they didn't go to the net "at all." The definitive moment of the game, for me, was a sequence late in the third, when David Desharnais (the best Habs centre on the ice all night) had fought for and won the puck behind the Sabres net. Desharnais is a whiz at finding an open man in front when he's in that position, as we've witnessed before. He made a couple of little moves to evade Buffalo defenders and maintain possession for two...five...ten seconds. Both of his wingers were between the boards and the circles, and nobody went near the crease for what would have been an excellent scoring chance. Eventually, Desharnais tried a low-percentage pass through traffic and lost the puck with no shot on goal.

That was what the Habs looked like all game. They were a little less urgent, a little less quick and a little less opportunistic than a desperate Sabres team. Few guys in red were willing to sacrifice more than the visitors for that win, so they didn't get it. The temptation for fans is to curse them because the division title would have been up for grabs on Thursday with a win last night. From the players' perspective, though, it can be hard to get up for the Sabres on a Tuesday night when they're all but assured a playoff spot, they're dealing with nagging injuries and they're looking ahead to a huge game against the Bruins on Thursday.

This shouldn't be the time of year for excuses, but honestly? If it comes down to Brian Gionta getting hurt fighting for crease space because he nearly killed himself trying to beat the Sabres in March, or him being around to score on a tip in April, I'll take the loss in March and the goal in April. Sometimes, a tired, battered team will subconsciously weigh its options and save a little something for the more important game coming up. That's when your defence starts taking lazy penalties and your forwards are second to the puck most of the time.

Despite that, only a nice tip on a point shot beat Carey Price. If the team had been a little more motivated and Ryan Miller a little less sharp, there might have easily been a different outcome last night regardless of the Sabres desperation level. P.K.Subban and Desharnais both played their usual energetic games, and Andrei Kostitsyn was a physical force. The kids were trying.

The veterans, however, were a bit more of a concern. Whether it's because they're pacing themselves or because they're dealing with some kind of injury problems, Gomez, Gionta and Cammalleri posed a very low scoring threat last night. Gomez did yeoman's work on the PK in the absence of Tomas Plekanec, but he's not paid seven million bucks a year to kill penalties. These guys have to be better in the big games if the team is going anywhere.

In the end, the team that needed to extend itself to win did so. The team that's comfortably looking forward to playing next month didn't meet that level of urgency. The only real shame about last night was for the fans at the Bell Centre, who paid a bundle to watch what they expected to be an exciting stretch-run game and got nothing for their money.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Habs vs.Sabres - First Place Edition

Notes on the third:

-Bell crowd aren't as knowledgeable as they used to be. Booing a legal check on Kostitsyn.

-It'd be nice if one of the millionaires took it into his head to score.

-Wiz is taking too long to tee up the shot. Miller's getting set every time.

-Speaking of Wiz, that's a hell of a scar he's going to have.

-Seriously? Is Cammalleri playing? Haven't seen him lately.

-Looks like AK has had his hairs dyed.

-They really should have stopped at three or four against the Wild. Now the week's quota is all used up.

-Muller's giving it to Engqvist (boy, that's hard to type) on the bench.

-Why are they all shooting on Miller's glove side? He's NOT going to be beaten there.

-Cammalleri's like the opposite of King Midas.

-Poor DD. Had the puck behind the net with all the time in the world and not a red-suited soul in front of the net.

-Their midget was better than our midgets.

-The other guys wanted it more tonight. The end.

Notes on the second:

-The penalty parade. All it needs is a few elephants.

-Gionta did a helluva job on the PK, winning puck battle after battle. He was like Braveheart, except for the disemboweling.

-AK's playing well tonight. Since he got freed from Gomez Island he's much more visible.

-Damn deflection. Mara should have had Gerbe there, but he's the sixth D on a healthy team. What can you do?

-Hmmm...having that shutout feeling. Haven't felt that way in a while.

-Absolutely no excuse for Martin having the fourth line out there with Picard on D. It's the recipe for "pinned in your zone" every time.

-Great flurry to finish. If the Habs come out like that to start the third, they've got a shot.

Notes on the first:

-Comment from non-hockey watching spouse: Gomez should be embarrassed to be on the same team as Desharnais.

-Good PP for a change. Lots of pressure, but Miller's good.

-Price is making me watch his knee on every play. Hope he's good.

-Unfortunate penalties. The boys look like they're marking time a little bit here, waiting for something to happen.

-Miller's sharper than broken glass.

-Ryan White sticks his tongue out a lot.

-Cautious period. Habs are thinking about first place.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Aftermath: The Future

It's been a long time since Canadiens fans have been able to see the potential for success in their immediate future. Through the late '90s and early 2000s, Saku Koivu was the only legitimate top-tier player the team could boast. Even he, after his unfortunate injuries and illness, was more suited to being a second-line player, but he was forced by the absence of better talent to take on a role too big for him. As the '00s drew to a close, Andrei Markov had replaced Koivu as the team's homegrown best player. Again, there was little star power to back him up.

Occasionally, there has been some hope for a young player or two to take the team to the next level. Jose Theodore's Vezina and Hart-winning season in 2002, coupled with his miraculous playoff performances against the Bruins was impressive enough to have us believe picking Carey Price with the fifth overall choice in 2005 was redundant. The emergence of Mike Komisarek as Andrei Markov's defence partner and Chris Higgins' 27-goal season on Saku Koivu's wing got us all excited around 2008. Then Komisarek bolted to the leafs and Higgins lost his ability to score. This has been the story of the Habs since their last Stanley Cup in 1993.

Poor first-round drafting and iffy asset management have really hurt the team's ability to build anything better than a mediocre lineup with only an outside chance to get past the first round of the playoffs. The list of players the Canadiens have missed in the draft (Giroux, Perron, the whole 2003 first round) or failed to retain (Streit, McDonagh) have had fans in a lather for years. Not to mention the busts they did draft (Fischer, Chipchura) in the first round.

Now, though, for the first time in two decades, the Canadiens have several very promising players with star potential either just entering their primes or about to in a couple of seasons. Carey Price has turned out to be the kind of goalie a team needs to backstop a championship. He'll play a very important role in whatever success the Habs have in the playoffs this year, and for several years to come.

In front of Price, P.K.Subban is going to be good. Really, really good. His hat trick last night just underlined the explosive offensive potential he's always had. His apprenticeship in the Hal Gill/Perry Pearn School of Defence has been an important ingredient in the development of a young star we've witnessed all season. Many people cursed Martin for hobbling Subban, but it's turned out the coach knew best. The kid has always known how to put up points. He had to learn to guard his own end at the NHL level, and he's doing that really well. His first pass is a beautiful thing, and his shot is world-class. Now his D is catching up to his O, and he's going to be a better player for it. Subban might not win the Calder Trophy as rookie of the year, but there aren't many rookies who've become the team's de facto number-one defenceman and survived it as well as he has.

Then, up front, there's the emergence of Max Pacioretty. If (and, despite recent promising health updates, there's still an "if" here) he returns to the lineup with the same level of ability he had been exhibiting before his injury, he will be the kind of player the Canadiens have not developed in decades. He's got size, speed, strength and hands, and, at 22, he should still be on the upside of the developmental curve.

Those three players give the Canadiens a level of strength in all three of goal, defence and forward they haven't had in a long time. The trio are in similar stages of development and should be hitting their peak performance years around the same time. Add to them a strong young veteran core featuring one of the best two-way players in the league in Tomas Plekanec and stellar stay-at-home defenceman Josh Gorges who should both be around as the kids develop, and you have something to build on. If Gauthier decides to keep Andrei Kostitsyn after this season, I think it would be a good thing. AK is set to put up another twenty goals this year, and has proven that, given the right centre, he can contribute. He's got size and a massive shot, and even if he's not the smartest player on the ice, he's fine if he uses the skills he does have.

The veteran experience in Brian Gionta and Andrei Markov (who will likely be re-signed) give the developing youth a path to follow and guidance when they get into trouble. Hal Gill may be re-signed as well, just because of his influence with Subban and in the room, along with his PK ability, and that will add to the team poise and work ethic we're starting to see emerge every night.

And those are just the sure things. Lars Eller is emerging as a big centre with speed, vision and great hands. At 21, he's in a position to become the kind of pivot who can play with Pacioretty to both their and the team's advantage. Ryan White is showing grit and tenacity and the ability to forecheck the hell out of an opponent. He's also got everyone's back and looks like he could help round out the bottom six. Teams don't win Cups without at least one Ryan White. David Desharnais is proving small can be mighty, and showing his ability to succeed in every situation. Martin has used him on the PK as well as the PP, which, in Martin-speak, is high praise. Benoit Pouliot has undeniable skill and looks tantalizingly close to learning how to use it every night. The kid needs to be more confident in himself, and if he does, he could be invaluable. Yannick Weber has been overshadowed by the brilliance of Subban, but he's quietly put up ten points in his 39 games, with very little PP time, and he's a plus-one. He's also improving all the time on the defensive side of the game. Even Aaron Palushaj has shown NHL speed and has a tenacity and nose for the net that makes him look like he'll have an NHL career.

There's hope in the minors too, in Louis Leblanc, Jarred Tinordi, Danny Kristo, Brendon Nash, Alexander Avtsin, Andreas Engqvist, Brendan Gallagher and others. Any or all of them could be NHL players and add to the developing talent already playing for the big team.

With all the injuries the team has faced this year, and with the dreadful season Scott Gomez is having, the kids have stepped up to move beyond the learning phase. They're taking the team over and emerging as the kinds of players who know how to play to win. This is the first time in nearly twenty years that we can look at this team and believe in it. It might not contend this year, but it will. If the young players stay healthy, it will. And games like the one against the Wild might not happen once every four years anymore.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Habs vs.Wild - Gotta Have It Edition

Notes on the third:

-I'm in an alternative universe. P.J. Stock is giving credit to the Habs generally, and Subban in particular.

-And Subban doesn't disappoint, with the hatty! This is just fantastic.

-Clutterbuck needs to chill. He's going to hurt someone in a pointless game.

-The excess goal horn on the Koivu PS goal is kind of humiliating, all things considered. Picard ruined Auld's shutout.

-Nice to see Pyatt finally get one.

-Hope there's some goals left in the tank for the rest of the week.

-Bulldogs on the PP. Nice to see.

-Good win. Keep it going for the Sabres.

Notes on the second:

-Subban!! And White with the Gordie Howe. The future is so bright, it should have membership in Mensa.

-Do they ref differently in the A? All the kids have a hard time refraining from silly holding and hooking penalties.

-Cammalleri waited like Kate Middleton on the Wisniewski goal.

-Moen with the donkey goal. This is starting to become a bit embarrassing.

-The Wild are just dazed and confused.

-Palushaj gone for concussion prevention. Hope he's okay.

-Good job on AK going to the net on P.K.'s second goal. And what a rocket! NASA's looking at that thing to replace the shuttle.

-P.K. needs to shut up on penalty calls. Nobody likes someone bitching a call, and Subban's got enough to do in dealing with the rest of the league's criticisms.

-Pouliot's making a big F.U. statement tonight.

-And Wild fans boo their own team. So glad the Habs aren't THAT team this year.

Notes on the first:

-On the surface, it's good to see Skillsie back. Hope he's not still sick and rusty.

-Well, well. It seems Poo Poo wants to show the people who didn't like him in Minny what they're missing. Gorgeous play for White's first in the big league.

-White's hotter than a hibachi. If Pouliot could take a pass, he'd have a goal and an assist already.

-Bob Cole Captain Obvious Comment of the period: "...and Gill is slow getting over there..."

-Stoner should have been called for boarding if the new NHL promise to clamp down on that had any real meaning to it.

-If not for Pouliot's miss on that pass, White'd have a Gordie Howe trick less than ten minutes in. Wow.

-My favourite Hamrlik play is the one where he slams on the brakes in the corner and makes the other guy check himself. He's so good at that.

-AK's one away from the magical twenty goals that makes it harder not to sign him for next year.

-PP's pretty lousy again tonight.

-Auld's looking good. I really root for him.

Friday, March 18, 2011

Habs vs.Rags - Battered and Bruised Edition

Notes on the third:

-I was just typing, "Get a quick one and..." when Wiz waited, waited, waited, waited and blasted the shot for Gio to tip.

-You can't help having the feeling the Rags are sweating a little bit. I love these Dog-Habs.

-The body language has completely changed from the first. The tired, dragging team now thinks it's got a chance to win.

-As they say, you need your best players to be your best players. Outside of Subban, that's not happening for the Habs.

-Pouliot's so screwed. He was in the box for the tying goal last night and the backbreaker tonight. Not good.

-Oh well. Can't win 'em all. I hope the players left behind in Montreal tonight are healing quickly.

Notes on the second:

-Price rocking the toque again tonight.

-Cammalleri's playing like total crap. The PP was just starting to take shape when he passed cross-ice to nobody and the Rags got possession.

-Boy, would I EVER rather have McDonagh than Gomez in the lineup.

-Poo Poo's playing like poo too.

-Wisniewski just hammered that shot. I wonder if Lundqvist is flashing back the The Comeback game?

-Love how Auld puts his stick up like a sword when he goes down to cover the puck. Self-preservation at work.

-Frustrating to see the PP start with Gomez and Cammalleri. Two of the most useless players so far tonight.

-Great play by Subban on the rush, and a smart idea to run Lundqvist.

-The damage is done now, but that was a nice pride-saving period. And Auld is playing really well. He should have started.

Notes on the first:

-Hammer can't play 30 minutes again to night or he'll spontaneously combust.

-What a dumb fight. Just the kind of pre-arranged thing that should be banned.

-If the Habs survive the first, the Rangers may start to get tired from all the hitting.

-Horrible break for Weber's shot to deflect like that. Anisimov left no doubt on that goal.

-DD was slicker than oil on that Subban goal. Nice shot from the line too, with great patience.

-Looks like Price got a pretty good bump in the head when Subban's elbow crashed through his crease. He wasn't taken back and assessed by the doctor, though. Are the rules different for goalies?

-Really stupid penalty by Hamrlik. The Rags goal won't count as a PP, but it might as well.

-Palushaj and Dawes are getting less ice than a frustrated diamond miner.

-I fear for Price's safety in this, with all these idiots crashing into him.

-Crappy third Ranger goal. The kind you get by sending half your team at the other team's goalie.

-That seems to have sucked the life out of the Canadiens, and now the D is breaking down like a paper bag in the rain. This is the game I was expecting last night.

-Should have started Auld in the first place. This just hurt Price's numbers.

-Oh well. The Bulldogs can't work miracles every night. If this happened against the real lineup or in the playoffs it'd be much worse.

Aftermath: The System

Back in September, very few Canadiens fans would have said they'd prefer Jacques Martin to Guy Boucher. Most of us were gnashing our teeth that the coach of the future had bolted to the Bolts. Now, though, it's time to reconsider that opinion. You have to wonder where the Canadiens would be at this point in the season without Martin at the helm.

In good times, with a healthy lineup, the Canadiens are a speedy, skilled team that might chafe at the defensive restrictions a coach like Martin places upon it. That kind of team would thrive under Boucher's "everybody go" approach. The Canadiens, though, are no longer that team. They're a battered, injury-ridden squad reduced to plugging holes with every warm body the Hamilton Bulldogs can produce. That's the reality of the hand Martin's been dealt, and yet the team continues to win.

The beauty of the system that drives us all mad in good times is that everyone has a job with a very simple set of instructions. That means every player on the team can fill in where needed. Lose a top-six power forward? Plug in a grinding fourth-liner, and the system absorbs him seamlessly.

It certainly helps the system to function when the young players being asked to fill in are of the quality of David Desharnais, P.K.Subban, Lars Eller and Yannick Weber. Those guys are grabbing their opportunity and making the very most of it. It's hard to believe sometimes that if the Canadiens starting lineup had stayed healthy, Desharnais, Weber and Ryan White would be buried in Hamilton. They're shining in Montreal and it's mostly due to their own talent and hard work. Part of the credit for their success, though, is due to the fact that they (and everyone on the ice with them) know exactly what they're supposed to be doing.

It helps that the Bulldogs are playing a similar kind of game, as their roster is also becoming increasingly depleted. Randy Cunneyworth is producing NHL-ready players who are defensively responsible and fit into Montreal very nicely. His success in Hamilton is certainly taking some of the sting out of Boucher's departure.

It also helps that Carey Price has stayed healthy and gives the team a chance every single night. There's a lot of talk about him possibly winning the Vezina and/or Hart this year. I don't think he will, because Tim Thomas' numbers are too impressive and because the people who vote for the Hart trophy are very inclined to award it to the guy who scores the most. Price definitely deserves serious consideration, though. Without superstar talent up front, Martin's system can only work if there's a good goalie holding the fort. The Habs have that, in spades.

Roman Hamrlik's steady play and monster minutes through the latest rash of injuries is another reason for the success of both the system and the Habs. He's been so reliable for Martin, and keeps chugging along, no matter how much ice time he's getting. Hammer's been entirely honest about wanting to finish his career in Montreal, and his willingness to take a reduced role and a smaller salary to do so. If there were any way to get rid of Jaroslav Spacek's contract, it would be great to keep Hamrlik for another year instead. Unfortunately, it's unlikely Pierre Gauthier can find a taker for Spacek and the team can't keep both of them when Markov and Gorges return. Right now, though, Hamrlik is saving the defence and allowing the system to function.

Watching the team calmly block shots, keep the Lightning to the outside and jump on their chances as though nothing had changed in the lineup since October is a little bit amazing. After the game last night, I thought about whether Canadiens fans would still prefer Guy Boucher to Jacques Martin. I think in good times, it's easy to say yes to that. When the team is more full of holes than David Aebischer, though, you want a steady hand guiding it. You want experience and you want a tight, defensive system that allows replacement players to step in on the fly and contribute. Martin is safe, and he's the right man to keep the Canadiens rolling along in hard times. At this moment, I'm glad to have him.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Bolts vs.Habs - Whoever Can Stand Gets A Jersey Edition

Notes on the third, OT and SO:

-Seriously? Who's AK kidding with the mullet? Join your shaven brethern, Andrei.

-The captain has earned his stripes. Or, in this case, his C.

-P.K.'s apprenticeship with Gill is paying off on the P.K.

-Way to go, Gomez. All he's got to do is tip it out, and he fails. End result? Tying goal. Pyatt would have done better.

-The kids are playing like their underroos are on fire.

-Palushaj has been so close to his first NHL goal three times, he must have blue hands by now.

-The softest player on the ice is Gomez. Doesn't really care if he gets to the puck. Doesn't really care if his pass is intercepted. Doesn't really care. Period.

-Eller's going to replace Pleks. I should start to love him now.

-Hard to believe the 'Dogs are playing so very well against the Lightning.

-OT: Price needs to be his usual wall. The rest need to stand up and shoot into the abyss.

-Good D in OT.

-Losing in the shootout doesn't even count as a loss. The NHL said so.

-Shootout victory! Never would have predicted it!

Notes on the second:

-After watching the excitable youth rushing around with great energy and causing Lightning problems in the first, I wonder where the "leadership group" is tonight. Aside from Gomez in the box, of course.

-Ah crap. You know that dumbass Gomez penalty had to come back to haunt them. Hard to be mad at good Newfoundland boy Purcell, but there you go.

-Kostitsyn. The enigma converts just when you're ready to send him to the international space station for a jar of moon sand.

-Palushaj's working at super hyper speed. He looks like a 1910 silent film.

-It's very cool that the Bulldogs are competing so well at this level. Either they're really good or the Lightning think this is supposed to be a cakewalk.

-Gionta got Gagne's elbow right in the face. That's got to be very painful.

-This is an impressive effort by this Bulldabs team.

Notes on the first:

-Maybe the Habs can borrow Boucher for the night. It'll be a Bulldogs reunion.

-Life without Pleky is a dry, tasteless life indeed.

-Sometimes it's good to go into a game with no expectations whatsoever.

-Palushaj looks excited.

-AK's career in a nutshell: He dramatically powers in and beats the defenceman on the outside for a clear shot...on which he totally whiffs.

-P.K. can really rush the puck, but he ends up like Gomez; all alone in enemy territory.

-Lucky Eller. With the absence of Plekanec, he lands the red-hot Travis Moen on his wing.

-Cammalleri's really sucking lately. Or maybe he's just saving up so he can lead the playoffs in scoring again this year.

-Great. Roloson's having one of his superfreak games.

-The kids are hotter than fresh coffee.

-Gomez, on the other hand...the stupid penalties are just painful to watch.

-Lecavalier must have read the NHL's "good old boy" rule book. What an idiot.

-We'd better pray Subban's coming back because it's too late to tank.

Waiting for Justice

I've wanted to write this blog for a week or so now, but I decided I would wait. I wanted to hold off until all the outrage and annoyed pique of commentators and NHL regulars after the most recent newsmaking by a cocky rookie had run their course.

Amazingly, I'm not talking P.K.Subban in this case. I'm talking about Brad Marchand. Last Tuesday, before the fateful game in which Zdeno Chara nearly killed Max Pacioretty, Marchand said in reference to the Habs: “They like to get in and shoot their mouths off and then when you hit them they’ll dive down and fall easy,” and “They stir the pot, and they got what they deserved . . . whatever anyone’s mad about, they can suck it up, it’s not our fault."

Interesting. A raw rookie, who, if most of them graduated from high school in junior hockey, would have had "most likely to be suspended" pencilled beside his mugshot in the yearbook, feels within his first-year rights to slag NHL Cup winners and thousand-game veterans.

Just imagine for one moment if it had been Subban who had uttered those statements about the Bruins or the Penguins. Got it in your head? Yeah. The spittle of the overheated and outraged critics would be flying as they outshouted each other to express their disapproval. The words "disrespectful," "cocky" and "arrogant" would be more overused than Roman Hamrlik. Yet, in the case of Marchand, there's silence from the peanut gallery.

Now recall Joffrey Lupul's comments about Subban "jumping" him in a fight last month. Both players had agreed to drop the gloves, and Lupul skated toward Subban, who punched him. Lupul cried foul because he hadn't had time to remove his helmet, even though he'd approached Subban first. Video of the "incident" and Lupul's comments, giving Subban the "benefit of the doubt...this time" aired on every TV sports show ad nauseum.

The night before last, Marchand, before the eyes of all 30 NHL GMs gathered in Boca to discuss head shots, skated up behind R.J.Umberger and nailed him in the head with an elbow. The incident got a quick mention on TSN, after a long discussion of the leafs playoff chances and the GM's review of spineramas during the shootout. It aired behind footage of Dany Heatley throwing an elbow at Steve Ott.

Does anyone think, for one moment, that if that had been Subban, that hit wouldn't have lead every sportscast? Of course it would have. And it would have been followed by a smug panel discussion between reporters and former pros who'd have shaken their heads and bemoaned the lack of respect displayed by that brash rookie in Montreal. Yet Marchand's hit is barely mentioned.

It doesn't make much sense. Why would there be such intolerance for Subban and everything he does, while another team's rookie who's no less (and, one could argue, more of) an on-ice agitator gets a free pass from the critics? Subban speaks with intelligence and humility, and gets blasted for celebrating a goal the wrong way. Marchand talks about an opponent with scorn and mockery and the critics gleefully broadcast his quotes.

We must conclude there is actually that much hatred for the Habs out there. The Candiens have won so much and held themselves above the rest of the league for so long, historically, that opponents are bitter. That must be it, right? Why else would Subban draw the ire of the league, while Marchand gets a pass?

Then again, maybe Marchand will be put in his place by the righteous critics. I guess we'll have to wait and see.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Dear Bruce Boudreau

Dear Mr.Doughboy Boudreau,

This is to inform you that you are what's wrong with the NHL. This, of course, will be a shocking revelation for you, but you really need to know.

Last week, as you're certainly aware, Max Pacioretty sustained a severe concussion and a broken neck after Zdeno Chara took temporary leave of his senses and drilled him into the stanchion between the benches, head first. This devastating hit turned many people's stomachs, and turned lifelong fans away from the game in disgust. It made them ask when it was that killing blows to the head became "part of the game?"

Not you, though, Mr.Fudd Boudreau. Oh no. You thought the fans' reaction was funny. You blithely told fans who don't enjoy the suspense involved in wondering whether a player is dead or alive that if they don't like it, they should go home.

Well, Mr.Gerber Baby Boudreau, you should be aware that the fans you're telling to go home are the reason you have a nice, cushy job. The fans pay Alex Ovechkin's salary, and, if not for him, you'd be back riding the buses. And the fans pay your wages too. How quickly you forget what life in the minors was like, and how easily you dismiss the genuine anger of the people on whom your lifestyle depends.

Worse than that, you laugh at their legitimate outrage and call it partisan. You know what, Mr.Alfred Hitchock Boudreau? Most right-thinking human beings, hockey fans or not, would have been just as sickened if Hal Gill destroyed David Krejci's health as they were after the hit on Pacioretty. That you can so cavalierly belittle that outrage and imply that people other than Canadiens fans enjoyed seeing that hit is insulting to the sensitivity of most hockey fans.

People like you, who, from your comfortable perch behind your safe bench, continue to insist this kind of devastation inflicted on the long-term well-being of young players is a "normal" part of the game prove how outdated your understanding really is. After all, it's not your brain getting smashed into pulp, is it?

The sad part of it all is, you're in the majority. The more enlightened "hockey people" like Ray Shero and Pierre Gauthier, who want to see changes to protect players' brains, get shouted down by the traditionalists who are perfectly happy to let things go along as they are. The "if it ain't broke, don't fix it" mentality is fundamentally flawed because people like you don't understand that it is broke.

Here's a question for you, Mr.Bunsen Honeydew Boudreau: Would you still be laughing if that hit had been by Hal Gill on your meal ticket Ovechkin? I bet that wouldn't have been a hockey play, would it? Next time, stop and think before you open your gaping pie hole. Or just stuff it with pie. Either way, it would be beneficial to the game if you were to just keep your Neanderthal opinions to yourself.



Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Aftermath: Tapped Out

Sometimes, when you're dressed in rags, your bum shows. The same is true when you're wearing a hospital gown, which might be the more apt metaphor for the state the of the Canadiens roster.

To their credit, the Habs haven't given us too many occasions to lament the depleted lineup this year. Considering who they're missing, they've managed to put on a good show and keep a firm hold on their playoff berth so far. Last night, though, was one of those times when you really wished it was Andrei Markov facing down Brooks Laich's speedy rush instead of Hal Gill. And you yearned for Max Pacioretty standing in the crease on the PP rather than...nobody. The Caps are the hottest team in the league, and the Canadiens just had too many injuries and too many rookies to beat them. The trick to being a dark horse playoff contender is to get to the show healthy. That won't be this year's Habs. These guys have lots of heart and determination, but they're running out of capable warm bodies.

It's very worrisome that Jeff Halpern and Tomas Plekanec, neither of them a wimp, were forced out of the game last night. At this point there's very little left in Hamilton to call up if needed, and nothing that can replace Pleks' versatility. The Habs aren't safely in the playoffs yet, and even if they make it, missing those guys will probably punch their ticket for an early summer vacation. There's only so far heart can take you when everybody else has a healthy, talented lineup.

The best bit of good fortune the Canadiens have had this year is that in the midst of all the injuries, Carey Price has remained healthy. There's no question he's been the team's best player and MVP all season. He was great again last night, and, if not for a terrible bounce off the glass and a couple of defensive breakdowns, might have stolen a win. His play gives even a depleted team a chance, so there's always hope in the playoffs with a goalie like that in net. If the Canadiens hold onto their post-season berth for the last dozen games, Price will give them an opportunity to make a go of it. He's the only chance they've got.

While we can be proud of the way the Habs have been holding it together so far, at this point we also have to reel in our expectations. Healthy, this is a good team. Right now, though, they're far from healthy. They're doing their best to pull the shreds of the tattered linup around them, but at this point, their bums are showing.

Caps vs.Habs - For Max Edition

Notes on the third:

-This is such exciting, clean hockey.

-Plekanec hurt? That does NOT bode well.

-Eller's going to be extremely good. He handles the puck like Faberge handled eggs.

-CRAP! PK did what he could, but DD didn't have the trailer.

-Then, in the Caps' zone, DD is brilliant, and PK can't finish. Repeat: they're kids, they'll learn, they're kids, they'll learn

-Did I not say before the game that Knuble scores against the Habs EVERY time? There you go. Game over.

Notes on the second:

-Already I can't stand Boudreau. He's having a little conference with the refs before the period starts. That will NOT end well for the Habs.

-Kostitsyn launched that past Holtby. Rocket speed.

-Gill's more out of his depth than the Titanic in the North Atlantic.

-Playing the role of Jaro Halak tonight, introducing: Carey Price!

-Kostitsyn looks like he found the brother he never had in Eller.

-Martin's tie could have been made by Kindergarteners with glue and construction paper.

-Scary period. This one is going to make for a tense third.

Notes on the first:

-Bruce Boudreau is an ignoramous. (More on that tomorrow)

-Already shaping up to be the opposite of a classic. Pleks burned by Carlson's speed, and Price burned by the glass.

-Moen? Hey! He's on a two-game goal-scoring streak.

-Anybody notice Mara looks like a bearded Craig Rivet? When he fights, I just hope he doesn't get hurt or embarrassed.

-Wow. Thought for sure that second Caps goal was good. Price dodged a stink bomb there.

-Cammalleri's crappier in his own zone than a port-a-potty at an Exlax convention.

-Something's wrong with Pleky. He doesn't look like himself at all.

-Laich just pinned Desharnais to the boards like a butterfly in a display.

-Eller's getting better and better.

-When Hammer wants to play the body, his old bones really remember how.

-It may be time to call up Palushaj. Pyatt just cannot score.

-I fear Knuble. He scores against the Habs every time.

-Laich was full value for that goal. He spotted the sitting duck in Gill and plucked him bare.

-This is like a giant game of 3-D pinball.

-The delayed penalty play was actually better than the PP. Caps have developed a very aggressive PK.

-Dumb penalties by the Habs, but dramatic penalty killing. Now, they have to stop kicking their own ass in the second.

Monday, March 14, 2011

The Five Points

I, like you, have been waiting with great interest to see what kind of concussion solution would come out of the NHL general managers meetings in Florida. I confess, the wait has not been without trepidation. After all, this is a league that took eleven years to mandate the wearing of helmets after Bill Masterton's death from a blow to the head.

So, Gary Bettman's five-point plan to reduce concussions is a positive, if flawed, step in the right direction. The most important of the five points is that there will be equipment modifications. Small, softer shoulder and elbow pads will certainly help. Yet, there will probably be resistance to that from players and teams who think the armour players wear prevents more injuries than it causes.

It's also good that a player who takes a hit to the head will now be removed to a quiet area and assessed by a doctor. The on-bench trainer-administered "count backward by twos" test won't be good enough anymore. That's positive, if it works, because there are certainly times when a player thinks he's fine when he's driven by adrenaline and the presence of his peers, but who'll recognize something's wrong when he's removed from those stimuli. The only flaw with this plan is that it relies on either the player to admit to "weakness" or the coach or trainer to recognize it and force the player off. There's no guarantee either of those things will happen if a team really needs a player or a guy really wants to stay in the game.

Then there's the plan for the league to impose sanctions on repeat offenders and repeat offending teams. This is where things get sticky. Zdeno Chara, for example, has no suspensions for head shots. He, without question, delivered a crushing one to Max Pacioretty. So, even though everyone in the world knows he broke a guy's neck with a very iffy hit, he has no record and therefore no escalating penalty for him or the Bruins. This rule relies on the effectiveness of the NHL's disciplinarian, Colin Campbell. We know there's a conflict of interest with him in that position, and we know his record of inconsistency.

It will help, too, to have the seamless glass replaced from rinks, including the Bell Centre, that still have it. And hopefully, the NHL's new safety committee will eliminate the stupid stanchion Pacioretty hit, as well as the overly-large camera holes that nearly removed Darryl Boyce's nose.

A committee of ex-players to examine other ways to reduce concussions is good, as long as they're not resistant to change. The risk in bringing in guys who played a different, pre-lockout game for most of their careers is that they fall into the "back in my day" trap. You know what I mean. "Back in my day, we learned not to turn our backs to hits." Or "Back in my day, we didn't have the instigator rule, so we could police ourselves." Those kinds of returns to the "good old days" aren't what's required here.

Sidney Crosby and David Perron both said today what's really needed. These good young players, both of whom have missed significant time with brain injuries, agree the NHL needs to punish ALL hits to the head. Crosby acknowledges that sometimes a head shot is unintentional, but Perron compares the situation with a high stick or delay-of-game penalty. If you hit someone with a high stick, whether you meant it or not, you're sitting for two or less. Ditto with the DOG penalty. So, every time a player gets his hands or elbow up high and strikes a player in the head, he should sit for five minutes, with a supplementary discipline review afterwards. That approach wouldn't have changed anything about the Chara hit, as the refs did see it as egregious and penalized it as such, while the league review let it go. It would, however, help change all those other hits you see, like the one on Crosby. Perhaps, if Steckel knew he'd get a five-minute major for hitting Crosby while his head was turned, he would have let up, or maybe hit him in the back instead.

The NHL really needs to take a no-tolerance approach to hitting people in the head. Bettman's five steps are five baby steps, but they're at least moving in the right direction. The better assessment in-game and the equipment changes will help. The big hole in the plan is the NHL's own will to punish offenders. It's in a position to get tough and start punishing offenders much more severely than it has been, but the appetite for change in a league driven by closed doors and tradition is not very great.

As Bob McKenzie said today, the NHL does things in nickels and dimes, and all that small change adds up to bigger changes. For those of us impatient to see some real direction on fixing the brain trauma problem in the NHL, it's maddening to see things moving so slowly. I guess it's something that at least they're moving.

Saturday, March 12, 2011


Earlier this week, I was chatting with a fan of another team and she made the caustic comment that the only reason people are freaking out about Max Pacioretty's injury is because he plays for the Canadiens. She meant that the Habs enjoy some kind of underhanded favouritism in the NHL, and their fans are hysterical and overreact. Obviously I don't agree with her reasoning, but I think what she said is true.

I think if Chara had hit a Columbus Blue Jacket or a Florida Panther like that, we would still have experienced the sickening feeling in the pits of our stomachs. We'd still be furious with the league when Chara got no suspension, and we'd still be horrified that the life and health of a promising young player were so close to being ended. That would be it, though. We wouldn't be as outraged in such great numbers if it weren't one of our own.

The thing is, Canadiens fans are passionate, numerous and powerful. There's a rabid appetite for everything Habs, so if there's a player caught talking to an alleged mobster, it's front-page news. If the Canadiens lose three in a row, millions of people are tearing their hair out. If they win, there are an equal number of millions walking with a lighter step. Walk into any opposition arena and, if the Habs are winning, you'll hear fans there singing Ole. That doesn't happen for other teams. Canadiens fans have rallied and rioted for their Habs before. They've mourned, celebrated, hoped and worried together for a hundred years, all for the sake of the team that owns their hearts.

Habs fans are everywhere. They're MPs, corporate CEOs, politicians, lawyers and doctors. They're people who have the power to make decisions and force changes. Hurt a Hab, and the wrath of important people will be aroused. There's no coincidence that two of the corporate sponsors, Via Rail and Air Canada, who have warned the NHL to clean up its act or lose their support, are based in Quebec. The Quebec police are looking into the incident, which probably wouldn't happen elsewhere, and there's suspicion that Canada's federal minister of sport, Gary Lunn, may be a Habs fan too.

The Canadiens themselves are one of the flagship franchises of the NHL. They're the league's oldest and most successful team, and even if they're no longer the powerhouse of the '70s, they're the most recognizable team in hockey and one of the wealthiest. Pierre Gauthier and Geoff Molson carry some weight in the boardroom.

Sometimes, the intense spotlight on the Canadiens is an inconvenience. Every scuffle in practice is analysed and debated to death. Players can't go out for groceries without allowing an extra 20 minutes for autographs, and if they have too much to drink on their summer holidays, the pictures make it around the internet like wildfire. In a case like this, though, that power might be harnessed for good.

Pacioretty's injury has already drawn more attention from people with the power to influence change than Sidney Crosby's has. If that horrible hit had to happen to anyone, only the fact that it was to a Canadien might keep it in the public eye long enough to make a difference to league policy.

So, my friend was right. The Chara hit is only creating such a huge public furor because it happened to a Hab. For the sake of the players, the fans who love the game and the future of the NHL, though, the Canadiens notoriety might be the only thing that works to force the rule makers to finally wake up.

Friday, March 11, 2011


I think my hockey heart is broken. Or, if it's not broken, it's seriously bruised. I've loved this game since I was eleven years old. I love the speed, the impossible move that turns a defenceman inside out, the goalie strrreeeettttccchhhing for a spectacular save. The game; the one I read about in King Leary and Hockey Fever in Goganne Falls when I was a kid, the one we played on our backyard rink and on the canal late at night at university in Ottawa, is a beautiful thing.

What the beautiful game has become under NHL guardianship is something I don't really recognize. Systems and goons and injustice have turned it into a "product," not a "game." We still see real hockey in the playoffs, but to get there, a team must run the gauntlet of thuggery, cheap shots and league indifference to justice. Every decision the NHL brass makes is driven by money. When many teams were building new rinks, the league could have increased the size of the ice surface to give bigger, faster players more room to move and improve player safety. That didn't happen, because it would have meant the loss of too many paying seats.

We see empty arenas and dismal teams in US markets because the NHL commissioner believes the elusive national TV deal the league chases like the Holy Grail won't happen without teams in all the major centres. And we see devastating injuries to really good young players swept under the rug as the commissioner smiles his plastic smile and explains how they're unfortunate, but all part of our fast, exciting game. Rule changes are made to increase goal scoring because that's what paying customers and TV audiences want. Nothing happens to reduce violent hits or fights, because the league thinks paying customers and TV audiences want those too.

This is all to say that I watched the Canadiens play the Blues last night, and I didn't care what happened. The defence was disorganized, Pouliot was terrible and Cammalleri non-existent, but I didn't feel a spark of frustration or anger. Even when Matt D'Agostini scored, it didn't matter. The destruction of Max Pacioretty with the league's tacit approval has had the effect of a kick in the heart.

Lost in the business of the NHL is the fact that young, talented hockey players are taking their lives in their hands every night, and nobody cares to protect them. That's not something I enjoy, and I didn't blame the Canadiens for playing with no heart last night. They were the ones closest to their teammate as he lay on the ice, and the ones who heard the gunshot of his head hitting the stanchion. If they're a little queasy or heartsick, that's to be expected.

I don't know if my passion for NHL hockey will come back. I expect the Canadiens will recover because they're professionals who've trained all their lives to play this game, and most of them know nothing else. I wonder, though, how many other lifelong fans have finally had it with the NHL? How many others are watching games with the disinterest inspired by heartbreak? The Stanley Cup may be sport's greatest trophy, but how much meaning can a championship really hold, when it seems like the league has a say in who wins it? Those are questions I'm asking myself today. I expect a lot of you are too. I also expect the NHL brass won't bother, until the disinterest of formerly loyal fans starts to hit them on the bottom line.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011


Pierre Gauthier didn't make a big splash at the NHL trade deadline, and many Canadiens fans felt that was okay. Nobody wanted him to move important pieces of the Habs' own future for rentals, and the price for more long-term solutions was too high. It turns out, however, that Gauthier was wrong. He should have done whatever it would have taken to acquire Gregory Campbell. The player's not worth much, of course, but the "get out of jail free" card that comes with him is worth its weight in gold. It doesn't matter that his dad, NHL discipline guru Colin Campbell, doesn't pass judgement on infractions committed by Greg's teammates. Campbell's friend and hand-picked assistant, Mike Murphy does. The optics are bush-league and the potential for conflict of interest would be intolerable in any real professional league.

There's something wrong with the NHL. There's something deeply, seriously wrong with the culture and the flawed subjectivity that passes for discipline. Murphy stunned no one in the hockey world when he decided Zdeno Chara's breaking Max Pacioretty's neck and injuring his brain did not deserve a suspension. The only question is why he even bothered to have the hearing at all.

This is Murphy's statement:

"I conducted a hearing with Boston Bruins' defenseman Zdeno Chara with respect to the major penalty for interference and game misconduct that he was assessed at 19:44 of the second period for a hit on Max Pacioretty of the Montreal Canadiens.

"After a thorough review of the video I can find no basis to impose supplemental discipline. This hit resulted from a play that evolved and then happened very quickly -- with both players skating in the same direction and with Chara attempting to angle his opponent into the boards. I could not find any evidence to suggest that, beyond this being a correct call for interference, that Chara targeted the head of his opponent, left his feet or delivered the check in any other manner that could be deemed to be dangerous.

"This was a hockey play that resulted in an injury because of the player colliding with the stanchion and then the ice surface. In reviewing this play, I also took into consideration that Chara has not been involved in a supplemental discipline incident during his 13-year NHL career."

Interesting. Murphy sees no basis for supplemental discipline. Nothing about Chara getting his forearm up around Pacioretty's head and neck bothered the powers that be. It didn't raise any concern that Chara could clearly see the stanchion in front of him, yet continued to follow through on the hit. The consequences; a 22-year-old former first-round draft pick with his whole career in front of him now dealing with a broken neck and bruised brain, didn't count in the league's assessment.

The problem with league "discipline" is Murphy and Campbell look at the mechanics of the hit and then try to wedge it into the rules. If it doesn't fit, they'll suspend the offender. If, however, they can say "Okay, that was from the side, not behind," they'll conclude it doesn't break the rules and therefore isn't suspension-worthy. The league tries to make a one-size-fits-all policy, which doesn't work. The same thing happened with the Matt Cooke hit on Marc Savard. All right-thinking people saw that hit and recognized the devastation visited on Savard. Yet, even though it was obviously wrong, it didn't fit within the league's antiquated rules about hits to the head, so Campbell did nothing. The public raised a cry of outrage and the rules changed, but Campbell himself did nothing.

Saying Chara did nothing wrong because he has a clean record is laughable. That's like saying you had a pit bull who was always well-behaved, until a kid taunted him and your dog ripped the kid's arm off. It was in the heat of the moment and the dog didn't mean it, but the cops don't care if it's his first offence. He still gets put down.

It's even more ridiculous to laud Chara for not leaving his feet. Seriously? Who on earth would a man nearly seven feet tall have to jump up to hurt?

What's wrong in the NHL is that it doesn't follow the same logic as the rest of the world. If you drive a car on the highway and cut off another vehicle because you're trying to pass it, and if that move causes an accident, you will be charged with reckless driving. If the accident you caused hurts or kills another person, the severity of the charges goes up. Of course, you didn't mean to hurt someone; you only wanted to pass that car. The law doesn't care. If you are reckless and hurt someone, you will pay the price. The outcome might not have been your intention, but you must still be accountable for the consequences of your actions.

The excuse that hockey is a physical game and players sign up for the risk doesn't hold much water either. The hit on Pacioretty called to mind the horrifying luge accident at the Vancouver Olympics, which cost the life of Nodar Kumaritashvili. Luge is obviously a risky sport and the athletes go into it knowing they might be hurt. They don't, however, expect a track that officials know is much too fast. In the same way, Pacioretty didn't expect his acceptable risk to include having his head slammed into an immovable object and his neck broken.

That the NHL has chosen to ignore right and reason in this case and let Chara walk free is a blight on the league and a shame to the game. Chara may not have meant to break Pacioretty's neck (and we can hope that's the case), but he did it. That he faces no reprimand for the consequences of his actions, intended or not, is disgraceful.

Postscript: That Pierre Gauthier has decided to zip his lip about the lack of NHL action against Chara is equally disgraceful. This kind of behaviour continues because nobody says anything that forces the NHL to at least gear up the PR machine and pay lip service to fixing the problem. Gauthier had a great camping spot on the moral high ground and could have used it to defend his player and make a statement that might, with the assistance of public pressure, have helped change the game. He chose to shut up and let the league deliver its "justice," and that's a disappointing shame.

Aftermath: Fear

Watching Max Pacioretty lying motionless on the ice after being crushed into the glass by Zdeno Chara, I remembered him just before the outdoor game against Calgary. Reporters were asking several of the players how they intended to stay warm in the sub-zero temperatures. Most talked about layering or adrenaline or just toughing it out. Pacioretty sheepishly announced that his mom had sent him finger and toe warmers, to make sure he wouldn't suffer from the cold. With that in mind, I thought of Mrs.Pacioretty, and what she must have felt, seeing her son lying there motionless in the hush of a shocked arena. If the collective horror of the 21273 in the crowd was palpable, it was but a drop in the ocean to the fear and panic that mother experienced as doctors and trainers manouvered her son onto the stretcher. Worse for her, it was the second time she had to witness that this season.

The question everyone will be asking today is whether Chara caused all that fear and horror on purpose. NHL veterans know it's easy to get into Chara's head. While he may not be naturally inclined to violence, he can be goaded and frustrated into making stupid decisions. Brian Gionta knows this. There's no way a guy his size should get the best of a guy as big as Chara, but he does it because he knows Chara will react if harrassed. It's worse when the Bruins are getting trounced.

Last night was the perfect storm of factors for getting the biggest man in the NHL riled up. His team was getting absolutely dominated on the ice by its most hated rival, after a build-up completely out of whack for a regular-season game. The Bruins were being embarrassed 4-0 on the scoreboard, including two goals by relative nobody Lars Eller. On special teams, the Habs were 2-for-3 on the PP and sported a perfect PK, and the Canadiens' speed on transition was forcing Chara and his fellow defencemen into mistakes. That alone was frustrating for the Bruins. Then you factor in Pacioretty.

Chara was unreasonably angry at the kid for pushing him away from the Habs' victory scrum after an earlier Canadiens win in Boston. He went after Pacioretty then. And Pax likes to go plant himself in the area from which Chara's dedicated to moving people away. So, by the end of the second period, when the Bruins were getting Ole'd off the ice, Chara saw Pacioretty coming along the boards by the benches.

At that moment, the guy everyone claims is a lovable, gentle giant off the ice, made an impulsive decision driven by the frustration he so easily experiences on it. Instead of simply interfering with him and stopping him, Chara chose to erase Pacioretty altogether, driving his head into the stanchion. He said after the game he didn't mean to hurt Pacioretty, and the hit was "unfortunate."

Today, the league must decide what to do with Chara. He claims innocence and says Pacioretty exacerbated the damage by jumping into the glass himself as Chara laid the hit. Carey Price says anyone throwing a hit should know his surroundings and the risk involved, and he's right. Suspensions are often determined more by the injury to the victim rather than the intent of the offender, and we have to hope justice is served in that way for Pacioretty.

In the end, the Canadiens proved they are not too small or frail to beat the souped-up Bruins. Both teams came in with the rosters they'll be icing during the playoffs, with huge hype and a deep desire to win. Lack of motivation could not possibly have been a factor, yet the Habs handily won the only fight, then completely owned their rivals for the rest of the game. Milan Lucic's asshole gesturing to the crowd after his futile goal in the third notwithstanding, the Bruins had nothing. When push came to shove, the Canadiens pulled together and played their game, which beats the Bruins game almost every time.

It's just terribly sad that the joy we should be feeling after such a statement game by our team is absent today. There's satisfaction, to a degree, but the horrible vision of Max Pacioretty lying there before his mother's eyes overwhelms the urge to gloat. No matter the outcome for either team, the outcome for that young man is still uncertain. Sometimes, mom's toe warmers aren't enough to fix what's wrong, and we can only hope the brain injury Pacioretty suffered last night will heal quickly and well.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Bruins vs. Habs - There Will Be Blood Edition

Notes on the third:

-A major penalty does nothing to make up for that destruction.

-It does make up for it a tiny bit to see Price stone that pissant Marchand on a PS.

-White shoots on the 2-on-1 with Pleks? Um, maybe a pass next time, okay kid?

-Whoopee. The Missing Link gets one to break the shutout. It's hard to care when you're wondering how Pacioretty is.

-When's the last time P.K. Subban made a really crappy play? I don't remember either.

-Excellent shut-down hockey with their hearts not really into it.

-The best part of a Habs/Bs game: Julien walking across the ice with a face like heartburn.

Notes on the second:

-Plekanec's penalty illustrates the new NHL rule that you cannot check the man carrying the puck. What? There's no such rule?

-Don't look now, but Gomez is hustling.

-The Gomez line must have cycled that puck for a whole minute in the Bs' end.

-Gionta's 24th sneaked over the line like a trench spy in WWI, but it counts.

-Anybody notice Desharnais is a beast on faceoffs? Obviously not Martin, who continues to use Gomez on o-zone draws to start the PP.

-The Canadiens, in fear of losing their league-leading standard in too-many-men penalties, quickly added to their lead with a particularly dumbass example.

-Amazing shot by Wisniewski. It went under the shot blocker, BEFORE he could even fall down. Wiz' shot is faster than gravity.

-Uh oh. We should fear Ryder. He was the one who started The Comeback against the Rags with two quick goals.

-Chara always looks like his nose is running.

-Oh God. Pacioretty's head hit that stanchion so much like Nodar Kumaritashvili did in Vancouver, it's terrifying.

-The Canadiens looked ill-prepared for a serious injury. They had to have the Bs' trainer out there helping, and Dr.Mulder, at age 176 was trying to help haul the stretcher.

-That friend Jay says Chara knew exactly where the stanchion was and tried to hurt Pax on purpose...takes all the joy out of a 4-0 Bs beatdown.

Notes on the first:

-The Bell Centre crowd's biggest challenge tonight is to decide who to boo.

-How sweet would it be for Skillsie to score in his third straight?

-Oh, Boychuk's brave. Fighting with a visor on. Imagine if a Hab did that? White pounded him anyway.

-Halpern saved a goal as surely as spring follows winter.

-Price took at least ten minutes off my life with that crease giveaway on the PP.

-Eller's tip was as beautiful as a sunrise over water.

-Hard work by all the boys. They're like a bunch of hard rock miners out there.

-Eller again! The hands on that boy are smoother than David Copperfield's patter.

-What a shame Kostitsyn didn't get any points on those goals. He was instrumental in both of them.

-Great period. Hopefully, the Habs will come out just as strong in the second, because two goals don't last long in this league if you're not careful.

Monday, March 7, 2011


Yesterday evening, I was a guest on CJAD's The Habs Show. It's always a fun gig because, hey, who doesn't like to talk about the Canadiens for twenty minutes with other people who like talking about them just as much as you do? One topic surprised me a bit, though. The host asked whether I thought the Canadiens should call up Alex Henry from Hamilton to toughen up the Habs' lineup for tomorrow's game against the Bruins.

I answered honestly: of course they shouldn't. I watched Henry yesterday, playing for the Hamilton Bulldogs versus the Toronto Marlies in an AHL game. He's a heart-and-soul kind of player; one who gives it his all in every game. He's tough as nails. He's not, however, better than any of the defencemen the Canadiens can ice instead. He's not better than Subban, Hamrlik or Wisniewski on offence. He's not as good a shotblocker or PKer as Gill or Sopel. And, while he's certainly willing to fight, so is Paul Mara, who'll probably draw in in Yannick Weber's place.

So, for the sake of the two minutes when Henry would fight a Bruin, you'd have to trade off ten or twelve minutes of very iffy defence against a Boston team that scored eight goals on Carey Price last time they met. A lot of those goals were scored off odd-man rushes and very suspect defensive coverage, so it doesn't make a lot of sense to make the D worse than it is now. Really, if the score is close toward the end of the game, who's Jacques the Knife going to have on the ice? Alex Henry or an over-worked Roman Hamrlik? He'll go with Hamrlik, who would have had to play more minutes as Henry got two shifts in the third. That's not a recipe for lead protection.

Apparently, though, the majority of fans who answered the CJAD question are in favour of calling Henry up for the game. I think that's probably spawned by a thirst for revenge and willingness to settle for a moral victory. In other words, the Habs might lose by reducing the quality of their D, but as long as the guys in the lineup kick some Bruin ass to save face after last game, who cares?

I think that's a misguided notion, though. If the Bruins' "toughness" is really in the Habs' heads, bringing in a ringer to fight one of them tomorrow isn't going to really solve the problem. Even if he fought and won, Henry isn't going to be on the playoff roster. The Canadiens are what they are as far as post-season participation goes, so they have to find solutions within their own lineup. If their answer to aggression is going to be team toughness...whether they get beaten up or not...then, that's got to come from the team they have.

That said, whatever happens tomorrow isn't likely to be indicative of what the teams can expect in the playoffs, should they meet. You don't often see five fights in a playoff game, and because teams live and die on special teams, they're much more circumspect about taking pointless penalties. The Canadiens need to focus more on shutting down the Bruins' offence and worry less about calling up a fighter to send a rather empty message.

So, no, I wouldn't call up anybody to fight the Bruins, and I'm kind of surprised that 99% of the fans who answered CJAD's poll question on the issue would.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Aftermath: Credit

One of the easiest things for an armchair coach to do is criticize. We see the play unfold at TV speed, or from high up above if we're lucky enough to be in the rink. We can see the trailer sneaking in on the PK and the open man on the PP, and we scream at the player on the ice who doesn't see what we do. So, while criticism comes easy to us, it's sometimes a lot harder to give credit where it's due.

With that in mind, Scott Gomez played a helluva game last night. In a big game with deep psychological implications for his team, the guy who's looked like the inspiration for the Beatles "Nowhere Man" most of the year, shone. He used his speed effectively and went to the middle rather than peeling off to the left on his rushes. He worked hard on the boards, and made a great play to break up a Lightning chance on the PP. Most obviously different from his play in other games this season, he made some very quick decisions. The Pacioretty goal on the 2-on-1 was a perfect example. A month ago, Gomez would have waited, waited and then, out of time and options, let a shot go right at a goalie who was set for it. Last night, though, he fired a great pass to Pax at top speed and the kid buried it.

The surprising thing about his play last night wasn't that he actually had such a great game, but that fans seem so ready to dismiss it. Sometimes, we become so critical of a player (not that Gomez hasn't deserved it alot of the time) that we fail to see the good in him. What we forget is, even if the guy has sucked all year, is overpaid and deeply frustrating, he's still a member of the Canadiens. If Gomez starts playing up to his level of ability and producing, it might mean your pet theory about his level of suckitude is debunked, but it also means your team has a better chance to win. Gomez isn't my favourite player, but he's a Hab. And if he can help the team down the stretch and into the playoffs, I'm cheering for him.

The strong play of everyone else who contributed last night: Desharnais, Plekanec, Gill, Price, Gionta, Pacioretty, Subban, Hamrlik and the rest, we're beginning to expect. Those are guys who bring it every night and it's easy to root for them. It's the guys like Gomez and Kostitsyn who, because of their inconsistency, are tougher to love. That's why we have to remember to give them credit when they help our team...even if they drive you nuts the rest of the time.

Saturday, March 5, 2011

Habs vs.Lightning - Playoff Preview Edition

Notes on the third:

-Credit where it's due. Gomez is burning hotter than the space shuttle on re-entry tonight.

-Pacioretty's just so, so good. He's a power forward we didn't even know about in October.

-Stamkos' shot comes with GPS. There've been a couple of very close calls with him.

-Seems that, once again, Pouliot takes a dumbass penalty and DD pays the price and gets benched along with him.

-Cammalleri is probably the forward worst at defending in his own zone.

-WHAT a poke check! That should be in an instructional video.

-Of course. You KNEW one of the Quebecois would do something to hurt the Habs.

-Price is very solid again. The kid's the MVP of the team, by a mile.

-Great win. Now, beat the Bs on Tuesday and we might have something here.

Notes on the second:

-Someone tell Sopel Price can play goal by himself. The D would be better off moving freakin' Dominic Moore out of the crease.

-Pouliot's one of those players with tremendous skill and a little tiny brain.

-Gomez denuded MAB at the blueline for a nice shorthanded chance. Maybe he's finally starting to give a shit.

-Price was farther away from his net than Ross Perot from the White House.

-I'd love to see what's in Martin's brain sometimes. Why has P.K. been removed from the PP?

-I'm so hoping this game doesn't come down to a bunch of regret over those wide-open chances Gionta and AK blew in the first.

-Seriously. Pleks on the point instead of Subban? Why? Subban comes out for the last thirty seconds of the PP and suddenly a goal ensues. What a shock, Penguin.

-The plan to stay out of the box is rapidly deteriorating. It's got the half-life of a carton of milk in a sauna.

-Habs are getting killed on faceoffs. That's going to hurt.

-Nice period. One more, please.

Notes on the first:

-I'd love to know what Pleks says to Price before every game.

-The amount of Gallic envy on RDS is a bit sickening.

-It's vital to stay out of the box against these guys. They live and die by the PP.

-Weber made a couple of very solid plays in front of Price. The kid doesn't have the flash of P.K., but he's talented.

-I don't know what's funnier: Gill scoring two games in a row, or the look on his face on the bench afterwards, as he tries to pretend it's no big deal.

-Desharnais' hands are softer than bunnies. What a lovely move!

-Gionta's not going to see a better chance than that this side of heaven.

-Lightning looking pretty disorganized here. Good to see.

-Oh, Eller. They were doing so well with the discipline.

Friday, March 4, 2011

Aftermath: Regrets

The game last night was a hard hat, steel-toe-boot kind of game. The Canadiens came in with a job to do...beat the gutted Panthers...and they went out in a very businesslike fashion and did exactly what they were supposed to do. (Seriously, can you imagine how people would be freaking out if they'd lost last night? Or even made it close?) In the process of people doing their jobs properly, we saw a glimmer of what might have been this year.

Carey Price is having the breakout season we all hoped he would. There's maybe one game you can point to and say he didn't give his team a chance to win. He's relaxed in the net, and humble in the room. The team's MVP is a bargain too, at less than $3-million a season.

Max Pacioretty is vindicating Trevor Timmins' picking him over David Perron in the 2007 draft. The kid is a force since his Christmas call-up, and is giving us glimpses of the real power forward he's going to become.

David Desharnais is proving size issues can be overcome through determination and pure skill. He's done it at every level of hockey up until now, and now he's doing it at the NHL level too. At his current pace, he'd put up more than 20 goals in a full NHL season. Considering the fact that he was undrafted and only got signed by the Habs as a favour to Guy Carbonneau, that's a pretty impressive level of production. We're very fortunate he's grabbed his chance to shine with the Canadiens this year because if he walked this summer, someone else would take him and we'd be cursing management for fools when he scored 25 goals for another team.

Lars Eller's starting to come around too, now that he's got some NHL experience to draw on. And he's dragging Andrei Kostitsyn along with him. The pair are clicking like a Kodak and offering fans a tantalizing glimpse of what it looks like to have two big skilled players using their size to terrorize the opposition.

James Wisniewski is seventh in the league in scoring among defencemen. Tomas Plekanec is scoring and killing penalties like one of the best two-way players in the NHL. The team is 11 points better than it was this time last year, and sitting comfortably in sixth in the conference with a chance to move up. The Habs are also top-ten in the league in both penalty killing and power play, with a combined success rate of 103.1%. That's impressive, when you remember Scotty Bowman's rule of thumb that any combination over 100 on special teams is really good.

There's a whole lot of good about this team, and when it goes out and executes efficiently to get the job done like it did last night, you remember that. It also makes you think about the what-ifs. It's impressive that the team is doing as well as it is with three of the defencemen who started the year in its top six out of the lineup. You can't help wondering, though, how good the team would be with those guys.

The PP is ranked 8th in the league without Andrei Markov. Imagine if The General were there on the blueline, putting up 60 points? And what if he were there, stabilizing the D in its own zone and mentoring P.K.Subban? When you think about it, Markov's loss hurts more when you see how well the team is doing without him and picture how much better it could be with him.

Same thing with Josh Gorges. The PK is tied for 7th in the league without him. Think about how much better it would be with his steady play and shot blocking in his own end. How much better would Hamrlik be with Gorges playing 20+ minutes a game, helping keep the veteran's minutes low? Perhaps, if Gorges hadn't been hurt, Pierre Gauthier would never have traded for Wisniewski. Then again, if both Gorges and Markov had stayed healthy, maybe Gauthier would have kept the picks he traded for Wiz, Sopel and Mara and made a bigger deal at the deadline.

We'll never know, of course, what might have been. Sometimes, though, you watch a game like last night's, when everyone's pulling together to get the job done, and you can't help wondering what if. What if the vagaries of Fate hadn't taken those key players out of a good lineup? Then you have to think, well, maybe next year we'll finally get to see what they can do when the whole crew can come to work.