Saturday, October 29, 2011

Bruins Drink Habs Bathwater

The organ in the Bell Centre is a treat. That's a fan's addition, so thanks to Geoff Molson.

Okay, sometimes Subban just spins for the hell of it.

Gill handles the puck like a live grenade, but a lucky post keeps Peverley off the board.

Is Martin supposed to be The Count or The Penguin for Halloween?

Cole's driving the net like a transport truck.

I swear to God if Darche starts this PP, I'm getting a Jacques Martin voodoo doll and a box of straight pins.

Okay. There's irony for you. Plekanec with the point-shot goal, with Darche screening Rask.

If you're going to score your first of the season, launching the puck hard enough to leave a vapour trail is a good way to do it.

Is it my imagination, or are the Habs winning more puck battles then they used to?

Great stop on Kelly. Price's game is tighter than a sphincter tonight.

Funny how the Bruins harass Subban in Boston to please their cretinous fans, but never go near him in Montreal.

Desharnais is smoother than a wax job and quicker than a lecher's hands.

Liking how animated Cunneyworth is behind the bench after the Eller gaffe. Somebody on that staff needs to have a pulse.

Glad to see the refs calling them like they see them, instead of trying to even things out with BS makeup calls.

5-on-3. Let's hope Gill's ten-foot stick has come to play.

Habs leading scorer Moen seems to have cooled off.

One thing I like about this year's Habs is that they jump on turnovers like sharks on blood.

Martin's Halloween costume might be uncertain, but Julien's Mr.Potato Head outfit is perfect. Cool of him to dress up for the weekend.

Okay...offically wicked: The organist is playing the '80s Habs anthem, "Bleu, Blanc, Rouge."

Pleks with the empty-netter to seal it. Anyone think he's got a bit of a grudge against these guys?

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Bruins Are Still Cheap and Dirty

Not a great time to punch Krejci in the face, P.K. I'm not saying don't punch him in the face, but pick a better spot.

If Travis Moen had a bouquet for every fabulous chance he's blown, he could have decorated Westminster for the Royal Wedding.

Subban's getting the puck off his stick so quickly tonight the Bs fans hardly have time to get a good boo going.

Spacek and Weber are harmonious a pair as Ike and Tina...the later years.

Dumb penalty by Nokelainen. Fourth liners should be seen and not heard.

Terrible goal against for Price. That casual stance thing he's been doing this year really burned him there.

Anybody missing Scott Gomez lately? Me neither.

The Habs are more susceptible to an aggressive forecheck than a teenaged boy is to Megan Fox in a bikini.

At this point, using Darche on the PP instead of Kostitsyn is plain negligence.

Erik Cole tips better than Deep Throat to Woodward and Bernstein.

Price is so into this game. Loved the fist pump after stoning Peverley.

Subban's got to be smarter. He let Marchand taunt him into leaving his team with five D for nine minutes.

If the Habs are in contention for the Jennings this year, does Diaz get a share?

If I don't stroke out during a Habs/Bruins game, it's never gonna happen.

Watching Erik Cole try to clear his zone is like watching a three-legged dog try to run.

The always-classy Claude Julien is now sending Scott Thornton out to run Subban.

Tomas Plekanec is made of two parts steel wool and one part hockey juice.

Watching Hal Gill rush back to cover in his own end is like watching the Queen Mary heading out to sea.

Great shot of Cam Neely in the pressbox, watching the Bs get stymied by yet another Habs goalie.

Star light, star bright, Carey got his wish tonight.

A Glimmer of Hope

Well, it turns out the Habs' wretched losing streak was all the fault of Carey Price's pink pads. As soon as the goalie went back to his cowboy gear, he was...well...a cowboy in the net again.

Or maybe the fault belonged to Perry Pearn. With the assistant coach axed an hour before puck drop, Randy Ladouceur descended from the press box to run the defence and PK behind the bench. Both looked leagues better than they did under the guidance, or lack thereof, of Jacques Martin's best friend.

The wakeup call Martin should have received from Pearn's firing apparently wasn't received, though. Tomas Plekanec was still on the point on the PP, even though it doesn't work. Erik Cole finally got significant time with the man advantage (4:22), but only 9:11 at even strength. This a player who's been improving in each of the last several games, and who needs icetime to score. Thirteen minutes doesn't cut it.

Still, the Canadiens managed to win despite some of those decisions, in no small part because of Yannick Weber and Max Pacioretty. Weber played nearly 22 minutes of solid defence, made the team believe it had a chance when he wired the first goal with two seconds to go in the first, and ended the night with a plus-one rating. Pacioretty played despite the wrist injury he sustained against Florida, and racked up two goals (ironically, on wrist shots) and an assist. He also provided a big, aggressive presence with skill up front, which gave the Canadiens offence a different dynamic when he was on the ice.

Other promising signs from last night included Tomas Plekanec once again racking up a 56% success rate in the faceoff circle. David Desharnais was at 53%. The team scored a PP goal, which is a rare phenomenon so far this season. And Josh Gorges posted his fourth and fifth assists; a new level of offensive contribution for the blueliner. Andrei Kostitsyn, who's been working very hard this season despite limited ice time (including a joke of 0:29 on the PP last night)and shuffling linemates, went to the net and got the go-ahead goal halfway through the second. And the PK, which has been as porous as coral, kept the Flyers off the board.

So, despite some of Martin's ongoing baffling decisions, the Habs looked like they have had enough of the losing. We'll see tonight whether the Curse of the Pink Pads or the ghost of Perry Pearn were only temporarily exorcised.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Stanching the Wound: Flyers vs. Habs

How long before Hal Gill is minus a million?

If Jagr is going to salute after every goal, we'll soon be rooting for friendly fire to take him out.

TSN is ripping Moen a new one for his brutal coverage on the Jagr goal.
That's no way to respect the team's leading scorer!

So, Perry Pearn's gone. I guess if your right arm is gangrenous, the first thing you do is cut off your right hand.

Interesting. Egypt is selling itself as a great tourist spot. Does that mean if there's a coup at the Bell, marketers will see opportunity?

Weber's shot will be shown in super slo-mo so Bryzgalov can see it. Maybe the luck is changing. It's usually the other team that gets one late.

The Habs offence is full of more unrequited love than Dante and Beatrice.

What's wrong with Plekanec? I'm guessing his cootie catcher linemates.

Suddenly, the Habs have become aware of the fact that they have talent. LOVING Pacioretty.

Pacioretty's what a first-rounder looks like. Habs management should take note.

Well, I bet Perry Pearn's loaded. Wherever he is.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

A Cry In the Wilderness


Photo courtesy of Josie Gold.


The Scene: A lonely mountain top, somewhere in downtown Montreal. A weary pilgrim beseeches his Lord for answers.

Jacques Martin: Lord, I have arrived at the end of my rope. I need answers, and I need them soon, or I will lose the only job I ever really wanted.

Silence

Martin: Lord. I beg you to give me the answers I need. I'm listening.

Wind whistling

Martin: (nearly shouting) Lord! Can't you hear me?! I'm a desperate man!

The Almighty: Yes, Jacques, I can hear you. (sighs)
Martin: Oh, thank...well...You.
The Almighty: So, Jacques, what exactly do you want Me to do for you?
Martin: Well, Lord, I've lost control of my team. I need to know how to get them to listen again.
The Almighty: Jacques, did I not give you Erik Cole?
Martin: Yes, Lord, but...
The Almighty: NO BUTS! (lightning flashes) I gave you my son Erik because he will drive the net and help insulate your small forwards. Yet, instead of using him for the purpose for which I created him, you are wasting him on the bench.
Martin: Oh Lord, but Mathieu Darche...
The Almighty: SILENCE! Mathieu Darche is a loyal and industrious servant, but when I was giving out talent, he was in the looks line. He does the best he can with what he's got, but you can't replace Me-given talent. Look what happened when you actually put Cole on the power play last night.
Martin: Lord, our defence is so depleted, there's not much I could do...
The Almighty: Excuses, Jacques! Every team's got injuries. Look at the Penguins. My son Sidney and most of his talented cohort were missing when you played them, but they controlled the play because they all know what they're supposed to do. Communication, Jacques. Did I not give you a brain and a tongue?
Martin: It's not my fault we're shorthanded so often, though, Lord.
The Almighty: You can't pass the buck on this one. You've already taken three too-many men penalties. That's because My children have no clue when they're supposed to be on the ice, or who they're supposed to be on with. If you stop scrambling the lines like eggs, you might see a difference in these things.
Martin: Lord, I'm trying to put the right forwards out there, but they keep shooting right into the goalie. I don't know how to make them score.
The Almighty: I know it's difficult for you to admit you don't know something. In this case, only I know the answer. It turns out goalies pray more.
Martin: Praying might help us?
The Almighty: Not really. It gets repetitive. Look, Jacques. You're asking a fast, skilled and not overly physical team to play a dump-and-chase, shutdown game. Let Me see, how can I explain this? It's like asking the Queen to mud wrestle.
Martin: Oh.
The Almighty: Yes. Oh. Now, there's nothing more I can do for you today. I've got an urgent call from Ilya Bryzgalov.
Martin: Lord?
The Almighty: (sighs) Yes, Jacques?
Martin: Um, is there any chance I can save my job?
The Almighty: There is a chance. All things are possible with Me. You must repent and put The System behind you. You must use the players I have given you properly and you must lay off the Brylcreem. It went out in the '60s.
Martin: Yes Lord. I'll try.
The Almighty: Do that Jacques. Oh, and Jacques?
Martin: Yes, Lord?
The Almighty: I'm...uh...sorry about the ears. That was an accident. Good luck!

Monday, October 24, 2011

And the Suck Rolls On - Panthers vs. Habs

That was a beautiful point shot by Diaz. See what happens when there are two real Ds on the PP? Hope Penguin was taking notes on that.

Hal Gill can go from 0-2 in 60 seconds flat.

Desharnais between Pacioretty and Cole is like a shrimp salad sandwich.

NASA can rest easy about cancelling the shuttle program. They can always send stuff to the International Space Station on a Budaj rebound.

Cammalleri talks a lot about not being small if you come out with the puck. I guess he's small then.

Shockingly, Darche is unable to make use of his silken hands to convert on the PP. Martin can't believe it.

Martin's like a line in Dryden's "The Game." Shutt to Jarvis in yet another gray-toned suit: "I didn't know drab came in so many colours."

Quick! Get the duct tape! Peter Budaj has sprung a leak!

The Habs in their own end look like they're fighting a strong cross wind.

PP goal now goes to Erik Cole. So, Penguin. Cole had only 3 PP goals in Carolina last year, but one on his first real PP chance in Montreal. Hope that's in the notebook.

Skille on against Skillsy.

Someone should tell the Habs they don't get extra points for making nineteen passes before they take a shot.

Budaj makes a great stop on the PK. Goalie controversy!

So far Budaj is holding the fort, but he's got to be the scariest Habs goalie since Aebischer.

Gill has his place, but he moves like an elephant dances and he's minus-two tonight.

One guy who's working his ass off for little reward: Andrei Kostitsyn.
Martin sees his job flashing before his eyes.

It always amazes me when Martin thinks a team that can't score on the PP will miraculously pump out a goal with the goalie out.

I wonder how long before the Occupy the Bell Centre movement either demands mass refunds or razes the place to the ground?

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Step Right Up!

Photo courtesy of Josie Gold

The Canadiens season is rapidly becoming a carnival guessing game. How many clowns can fit into the tiny car? How much does the fat lady really weigh? How many games can the sucky hockey team lose before something gives? The popular guess is, not many more.

The Canadiens are in that position in which you know one more clown can't possibly squeeze into that car. The fat lady is 400 pounds and the Habs, at 1-6 to start the year, are spiralling into a void of suckage not seen since something gave...in a big way...in 1995. That year, the team started with a handful of losses and Serge Savard and Jacques Demers, Cup winners just two years previous, found themselves on the street. In considering that sequence of events, one might recall that neither Pierre Gauthier nor Jacques Martin has the luxury of resting on his Cup-winning laurels.

The terrible cycle in which the team is caught means they either keep the goals against low and can't score themselves, or they score enough to win, but give up more than they get. Carey Price has been good enough to win on most nights, but he's been waiting four games to get his hundredth win.

Every power play looks disorganized and fruitless; no surprise with Tomas Plekanec on the point and Mathieu Darche on the first wave. Scotty Bowman always says the trick to good coaching is having the right people on the ice at the right time. There's certainly a time and place for Darche, but first-wave PP is probably not it. Erik Cole hasn't done squat in a Habs uniform, so maybe a coach should think about jump-starting him with some PP time. Perhaps a good coach should recognize that Tomas Plekanec, who's got a cannon off the rush, doesn't have quite the same shot on the point. Maybe a successful coach would recognize that there are better shooters and Plekanec's skills are in making sneaky passes and setting up the guy who's willing to break for the net.

Cole's a story unto himself. After a less-than-stellar stint in Edmonton, and a bounce-back on his return to Carolina, there was great concern at the time of his signing in Montreal that he only plays well with Eric Staal. As a heart-and-soul kind of player, he's got to be willing to sacrifice himself to play his game properly. It was clear when he signed that he came to Montreal for the money, and while nobody would accuse him of not trying, he can't make himself love his new team the way he did his old one. It's got to happen naturally, and it hasn't happened yet. The Habs need what he can bring, but he's not bringing it.

Then there's the defence, or what's left of it. The three guys with fewer than 100 NHL games between them are holding up surprisingly well. It's their experienced teammates who are making the most egregious errors. Josh Gorges alone has been directly responsible for two dreadful mistakes that have led to backbreaking goals. P.K.Subban's getting denuded by Paul Stastny is still fresh in our minds as well. It's not really their fault. Gorges is meant to be a 3-5 defenceman and he's essentially playing top minutes at the moment. We forget Subban's got one NHL season under his belt and Hal Gill has 1000 NHL games, but looks like he's 1000 years old half the time. Short of a trade, there's no help coming in the forseeable future, unless you consider Jaroslav Spacek your personal Jesus.

If there's one positive from the most recent disappointment, it's that the team is no worse with Scott Gomez out of the lineup. Lars Eller, in fact, did an excellent job in the second-line centre position. He set up Travis Moen (who sits in 11th spot in the league in goals scored) for a beautiful shorthanded goal in the first, and made a nice pass to Andrei Kostitsyn on his goal as well. He was also 56% on faceoffs and led the team with a plus-three rating. He killed penalties (but didn't get any PP time...that's Darche's spot, after all) and he used his size to make room for himself. The kid is going to be good, and if he keeps up this level of play in Gomez' continued absence, he'll be proving there's no need to hold onto the vastly underwhelming veteran.

That's a small comfort in the face of some very large problems. The Canadiens are rapidly approaching the point of "somthing's gotta give." The clown car is full.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Habs Keep Sucking

"NHL leading scorer Phil Kessel" is as incongruous a statement as "U.S President Sarah Palin."

Why does Phaneuf always look like he's mentally multiplying by 13?

Grabovski may be scoring more these days, but he still looks like a rodeo clown.

Hal Gill's a member of the silver stick club. Sounds like he should get his porn for free from now on.

Ha ha! Komisarek getting ready for a return pass. Like anyone would pass it BACK to him.

Travis Moen: Breakaway king.

Strange world when Moen with puck possession fills you with a sense of possibility.

If empty nets were diamonds, the Habs would be Elizabeth Taylor.

One-Ball Phil just completed his set by gelding Gorges.

It's ironic the Habs keep getting called for too many men, when most of us think they haven't enough.

Cunneyworth looks like he's pacing behind the bench with a load in his pants. He probably does.

That's funny. Perry Pearn's on RDS talking about passion in the game. That's like asking Spock about emotion.

Maybe the Habs are just tired of being in the playoffs. That's got to take a lot out of a team.

Friday, October 21, 2011

Suckage





















It might not be time to push the panic button just yet, but the Canadiens are rapidly descending through the recognized stages of suckage. They started with "unprepared" and have at various times achieved levels of "frustrated," "overwhelmed" and "unlucky." Last night they finally hit a new low with "totally outclassed."

After a game against Buffalo in which they did many things right and were stymied only by Ryan Miller's heroics, one might have logically assumed the Canadiens would recognize the positives and try the same things against Pittsburgh. That didn't happen. Instead of building on the good things from Buffalo, they came out looking listless and uncommitted against a severely depleted Penguins team.

It's hard to find a reason or even a lame excuse for why that might have happened. Injuries can't factor in because the Pens were more hurt than the Habs. Fatigue's not the answer, because the Canadiens have played among the fewest games of any other team in the league. It came down to the fact that Dan Bylsma's team, despite missing all of its stars, was ready to play from the moment the puck was dropped. Jacques Martin's team was not.

There'll be a lot of talk today about the players having tuned Martin out already. The question should be more along the lines of whether they had ever tuned him in to begin with. Martin might not be the most exciting coach, but he's at least managed to keep the team on an even keel for most of the last couple of seasons. The only thing different this year is that he lacks a translator. Previously, Kirk Muller, who speaks player, was the conduit between the team and the coach. He was very, very well-liked by the players, so maybe that level of trust and understanding is missing this year. Certainly his influence on the PP is missing. It's rarely looked so inept for such a stretch of games in the last two years.

Then again, maybe Muller's absence has nothing to do with the malaise we witnessed last night and on other nights in this young season. Maybe the Canadiens' mix of well-paid, but not exactly star veterans and inexperienced youth is just not good enough to compete with other teams who've improved since last season. In a league featuring the kind of parity we see in the NHL, it doesn't take much for one team to fall out of the race. With three-point games keeping points totals artificially inflated, it's difficult to climb the standings when you slip early. Look at the Devils last year. The perennial playoff team got off to a dreadful start and even a supernatural late-season drive couldn't salvage a playoff spot. On the bright side, they finished the year with dignity and they got the excellent young Adam Larsson in the draft. Somehow, though, it's doubtful Jacques Lemaire would come out of retirement to try and save the Habs.

So, six games into the season isn't quite time to push that big red panic button, but losing five of those six games is definitely a wake-up call. If the Canadiens are to right this ship, this has to be the mid-season losing streak. A playoff team can afford one, maybe two slumps in a season. If this is one of those, the team can still be fine. If it's a pattern for the rest of the season, the Canadiens might be this year's Devils and the time for the panic button will come sooner rather than later.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Habs vs. Pens: Brutality Edition

I've been following the games on Twitter, but some of you have been asking to have the comments recorded on the blog as well. So, here you go:

Congratulations to Hal Gill, who never expected to make 1000 games. At least not in the NHL.

Liking the Gorges/P.K. pairing, but P.K. should do the passing.

It always makes me feel better when Price makes saves standing up. That sounds kind of dirty, but I don't know why.

Emelin is deceptively adept at handling the puck.

If Josh Gorges had a motto, it would be "You Shall Not Pass." Second choice: "It's Just A Flesh Wound."

How cute. The RDS guys get all excited about a Darche breakaway.

I honestly thought Crosby would make his comeback tonight. Just to screw the Habs.

In a battle of Dr.Jeckyl vs. Mr.Hyde proportions, this is the Bad Habs. Great. On a night when they might have won with the Good Habs.

Engqvist is to Guy Carbonneau what Marcel Hossa is to Marion Hossa.

When the Habs' wives wish them luck when they leave for the rink, they're obviously not specifying "good."

That call on Price was as legit as Milli Vanilli.

This mess is without Crosby, Malkin and Letang. Good lord.

Emelin just learned guys in the NHL brace themselves for those hits.

Oh, get a life, NHL fans. Subban's not exactly as hateful as Chara.

I wonder if Gionta ever plays the midget card when caught crashing the goalie?

The Habs' PP is as lively as Gaddafi.

Really? How does Gionta board anyone? He can't even see over the boards.

The Habs are playing a brutal game. If they keep this up for another ten, they'll have a lottery pick. Congrats, Gauthier and Martin.

On The Occasion of Skillsy's One-Thousandth Game

A Thousand Games of Skillsy

He doesn't skate like Coffey
Niklas Lidstrom he is not.
He hits as hard as toffee,
But he'll always block a shot.

His wingspan covers metres
His best attribute is "tall"
He orders beer in litres.
He perfects the PK sprawl.

His stick is half a redwood
In a 5-on-3 he's king.
He changed so he's not deadwood
Now he wears Lord Stanley's ring.

A thousand games completed
Fifteen years of tears and thrill
Good fun when he competed
Just one dream left to fulfill.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Larceny

You win some. You lose some. And sometimes one is ripped from your hardworking hands by a goaltender who robs you blind. The Habs found their fate behind door number three last night.

If not for Ryan Miller, that was a game the Habs should certainly have won. They had the shots. They had the offensive zone pressure. They kept the Sabres to a bare minimum of time in front of Carey Price for two periods. They looked good against a team that's showing its off-season moves have made it a strong opponent. What they didn't have was a cohesive power play or any luck at all, save bad. The power play they can work on. The luck, inevitably, will change.

All in all, there was a whole lot to like in the Great Miller Robbery. Raphael Diaz scored a beauty for his first NHL goal, and despite being on the ice for the Sabres' first tally, looked very poised on defence. So did Yannick Weber, who's been quietly efficient.

David Desharnais with Max Pacioretty and Andrei Kostitsyn continues to be a constant threat. Pacioretty in particular seems to get an excellent scoring chance on every shift. When he's on the ice, the puck is almost always moving away from the Canadiens' net. He's at a point a game right now, and if he can continue that pace, there's every reason to hope the Habs have finally exorcised the ghost of John Leclair.

Lars Eller, too, is showing a lot of skill and smarts as he works on Tomas Plekanec's wing, even if he hasn't put up a point in his three games. He looks to have greatly improved his strength since last season, and he's able to move the puck with patience, rarely making a dumb play. The only catch with Eller is that he's a natural centreman. He plays best in his proper position and, although he's handling himself well as a winger, you have to think about how well he'd do with two good wings himself. It's slightly amusing to see him and Plekanec finding themselves in the same place sometimes because they're both playing centre.

That brings us to the Scott Gomez line, and a brief pause from discussing the good things about last night. Right now, there are three Canadiens centres who are playing better than Gomez. Plekanec, Eller and Desharnais are all making things happen. Gomez isn't exactly terrible, but he's not been a difference maker. His was the line on the ice for the Sabres first goal, which was born of a rare flurry of defensive confusion on the Habs' part. On a night on which the Canadiens flowed from shift to shift, maintaining dominance in puck control, there was a noticable drop in pressure when the Gomez line came out. Too often, the passes on that line went astray and board battles were lost. Gomez defenders will argue he's stuck with a grinder like Travis Moen, which might account for some of the hiccups in offensive flow. The counter argument is that Moen has two goals and an assist in comparison to Gomez' lone assist in five games. When you consider that scoring juggernaut Josh Gorges has double that, it's not a good sign.

Gomez came to camp talking about his hard work over the summer and his intention to be less predictable and more effective this season. Five games in is pretty early to decide whether or not that's going to happen, but so far he looks a whole lot like the guy who put up 38 points last season. It's true that Brian Gionta has whiffed on at least three perfect set-ups that would have boosted Gomez' totals. It's also true that other wingers on other lines have missed golden opportunities, but guys like Plekanec and Desharnais have more points because of the sheer number of chances they generate. If their wingers miss a couple, they're not missing the only chances they get, as is sometimes the case with Gomez.

At this point, the long-standing bellyaching about Gomez' salary is moot. It doesn't matter what he makes. It matters only what he does. Right now, he's performing like a third-line centre. Even his champion, Jacques Martin, has recognized the fact that both Plekanec and Desharnais are outplaying him, and dropped his ice time to third among centres. When Michael Cammalleri comes back from injury and likely displaces Eller from Plekanec's wing, it's going to leave the promising youngster relegated to either the fourth line, or to playing wing with Gomez. One could argue that based on their play in the last couple of games, Eller should be the one centering Gionta and possibly Mathieu Darche.

One could also argue that the Gomez experiment isn't working and it's time for Pierre Gauthier to move him somewhere...anywhere...in exchange for a winger who, with Eller and Gionta, could make a legitimately threatening third line. That would also leave guys like Darche and Moen to play their appropriate fourth-line roles. When it comes down to it, Gomez isn't producing offensively, he's not a threat as a shut-down guy, and his leadership isn't irreplaceable. This isn't a personal slag on Gomez. There's every chance he means what he says about trying harder and improving his game. There's also every chance that he just isn't able to do it anymore.

Of course, Gomez isn't responsible for last night's heartbreaker. That came at the hands of Ryan Miller and two breakdowns in defensive coverage that both ended up behind Carey Price. Josh Gorges' awful icing that led to the backbreaker at the end of the second was much more glaring than anything Scott Gomez did, or didn't do. In a game like last night's, though, when everyone else is playing such an aggressive, high-octane game, it's apparent he's not quite at the same level.

It's something for Gauthier to carefully consider, especially if losses continue to pile up and Gomez continues to be ineffectual. Lars Eller, at some point, will be a top-line player. It's just a matter of whether it's now or later. In the meantime, the Habs can look at the really good things they did last night and feel good. After all, you win some and you lose some, but you don't get robbed every night.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Take It Easy

On many nights this season, Carey Price will be the difference between the Canadiens winning or losing. Last night was one of them. On a night when offence, for once, wasn't an issue, Price played his second dismal home game in as many starts and cost his team the win. The good news is, Price is the least of the Canadiens' worries. He knows he sucked last night, but he's got the talent to pick up his game and return to the form we've come to expect.

So, with that in mind, we should remember there were a lot of good things in last night's game, and a 1-2-1 start doesn't mean the Habs will miss the playoffs. The defence isn't the greatest, but their biggest problem seems to be a lack of cohesion. That's going to happen when three of the D-men have played fewer than 80 NHL games between them. It's also almost inevitable when the pairings are juggled so often every guy has played with every other blueliner on the team. On the plus side, Raphael Diaz is starting to show a bit of a physical side, landing some nice, effective hits. He's already proven to be adept at moving the puck quickly and efficiently. Alexei Emelin, while still appearing a bit hesitant to use his size to its best advantage, is proving he can handle the puck and make some nice passes. He's also not afraid to rush. Josh Gorges looks to be completely recovered from his knee surgery and P.K.Subban got a dose of humility after his glaring giveaway that cost a goal last night. After that, he dialed way back on the dipsy doodling and proved he can play an effective, no-nonsense game when he wants to.

The really exciting thing about last night, though, was the developing chemistry up front, especially among the younger forwards. David Desharnais and Max Pacioretty, when they were recalled from Hamilton last December, were first and second in AHL scoring. That was no fluke because the two of them have a special knack for finding the other on the ice. Pacioretty even said last year that Desharnais is the best centre he's ever had. That was in evidence again last night, with Pacioretty setting Desharnais up for a beautiful, opportunistic goal. Andrei Kostitsyn on that line gives it some extra size and strength and helps shield the smaller Desharnais. Lars Eller, too, looks like he picked up an extra gear over the summer. He and Tomas Plekanec caused some problems for the Colorado defence, and while Erik Cole is still looking for his first goal, he's not going to go pointless forever.

This is a team with significant possibilities, but it's not fulfilling them yet. That's not to say it won't. It may take a couple of weeks, but Carey Price will find his game, the defence will get better and the kids will prove they can score. The team is learning itself right now. When it does, there's every chance it can find a level of consistency that will keep us all away from razor blades and liquor stores. It's tough to do, but the trick right now is just to take it easy.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Workhorse

Photo courtesy of Josie Gold

Tomas Plekanec doesn't have a middle name. If he did, it might be "prĂ¡ce." In his native tongue, the word means "work," and it's the attribute for which Plekanec is best known. He's earned the accolades honestly. He's the first Canadien on the ice for practice every day, and very often, the last one off. A veteran on a long-term deal, he never has relaxed and let some of the little things slide just because the belly fire is burning a little lower than it used to. It's a rare game in which anyone can say Tomas Plekanec floated for even a shift.

It's no surprise, then, that a coach who demands hard work and discipline should have the greatest regard for a player who never fails to provide both. Jacques Martin, if he admires any player, admires Plekanec, and as a result he relies heavily on his number-one centreman. If he needs someone to take a crucial faceoff, he calls Plekanec. When the Habs are facing a two-man disadvantage, Plekanec gets the nod. Need someone to hold a one-goal lead with a minute to go? Get Plekanec. Short a point man on the PP? Send out #14. Got a slumping winger? Stick him on Plekanec's line. It's got to be a nice feeling for Plekanec to be as important a player as he is. The question is whether it's good for him as a player to be wearing so many helmets.

There's no question Plekanec is used in more situations than any other number-one centre in the league. Two years ago, Plekanec took 35.1% of the team's faceoffs. Only Sidney Crosby and Paul Stastny took more. Last year, he was fifth in the league, taking 35.5% of the Habs' draws.

In 2009-10, he played 2:44 shorthanded, good for 14th among all NHL forwards. Nobody who played more time shorthanded was a first-line player. Plekanec got 20 minutes of icetime and 27 shifts a game, by far more than any of the players ahead of him on the PK. Last year showed a similar pattern. He was on the ice for just over 20 minutes a game, with an average of 26 shifts, again, significantly more than the 14 guys above him in shorthanded ice time. Plekanec also played an average of 2:45 a night on the PP over the last two years. Now, with the absence of an established partner for P.K.Subban on the point during the man advantage, Plekanec's doing that job as well. (Whether that's a wise decision is up for debate.)Add to the mix that he's extremely durable for a smaller player, and it means he's taking on that kind of workload for about 80 games a year.

There's a perception that Plekanec, under Martin, is used too much. Fans believe he wears down as the year wears on and becomes less effective. The numbers tend to support that theory. Two years ago, Plekanec played all 82 games. In the first half of the year, he put up 44 points (8g, 36a). In the second half, his totals dropped to just 26 points (17g, 9a). It's possible the Olympics played a role in tiring Plekanec down the stretch, but likely that a nagging hip injury which he didn't take time off to rest was a bigger factor. Last season, Plekanec played 40 games (missed one with the flu) in the first half of the year and 37 (lost four games with a knee injury) in the second half. In the first 40 games, he had 32 points (12g, 20a). In the last 37, his points total dropped to 25 (10g, 15a). The drop wasn't as noticable last year as it was the year before, but it's interesting to note that the knee injury, which forced him to take time off to rest, came in the second half of the year, which ironically may have helped give him a second wind. Also, in the first half, usually Plekanec's most productive time, he played long stretches with a slumping Andrei Kostitsyn. Kostitsyn went through a stretch of 8 points in 17 games, which, for a guy like Plekanec who depends on his finishers for points, hurt his totals.

In the last two years, Plekanec's best months have been at the beginning of the season. In 2009-10, he had 13 points in 14 games for October, 12 points in 12 November games and 21 points in 17 games through December. In contrast, his worst months were January, in which he put up 8 points in 13 games and March, when he had just 8 points over 14 games. Similarly, last year, his best months were October and November, in which he put up a total of 23 points in as many games. His worst months came in December (8 points in 15 games) and March (6 points in 11 games).

At some point, something's got to give. Plekanec, as the first-line centre, plays the majority of his even-strength ice time against the other team's best defencemen. He sees more of Chara, Weber, Pronger and Phaneuf than anybody else who plays similar time on the PK. So, at even strength, he's strongly defended by the opposition. On the PK, he's defending the other team's best forwards. He ends up being the shadow on guys like Crosby, Backstrom and Giroux more than most other first-line centremen. He's very good at all those things, of course, but he needs help. He's getting older, he's not a huge body and the constant grind of facing the other team's best players is inevitably wearying. The Canadiens need to do what they can to ensure their best centre is fresh for the stretch drive and playoffs.

Pierre Gauthier showed an awareness of that when he claimed Blair Betts off waivers. Betts kills more penalties than Plekanec, and he's able to take important faceoffs. Unfortunately, he came from Philly with a return-to-sender label on his medical chart. So now, unless Gauthier can find another answer somewhere, Plekanec is left with little support. Andreas Engqvist shows promise as a faceoff man and defensive player, but he's very green. Scott Gomez can kill penalties and take faceoffs, but his general ineffectiveness on many nights means he usually gets less ice time than Plekanec. Lars Eller and David Desharnais, like Engqvist, have potential but are still pretty raw.

So it comes down to Jacques Martin. He has to make the decision to trust his young players more and give them some of the responsibility he unloads onto Plekanec. They have to learn sometime. Scott Gomez has vowed to be a better player this year. He needs a chance to prove that in important situations. However he does it, Martin must find a way to give Plekanec some easier minutes. That's not to say he shouldn't play 23 minutes in a vital game against a division opponent. He should naturally be used to best advantage in a game like that. There's no need, though, to start him on every PK and take half the faceoffs in a low-stress game against the Islanders or Blue Jackets. In the first two games this year, injuries have meant Plekanec has played an average of 23 minutes a game, with 4:22 of that on the PK. It's an unsustainable pace for an entire season, so when the lineup is intact, Martin has to choose to use Plekanec more wisely.

It's a tough call for a coach in a competitive league like the NHL, in which two points could mean the difference between having home ice advantage in the playoffs or not, or even between making the playoffs or not. The wise coach, however, would recognize the fact that even the hardest-working body will tire eventually, and if eventually comes during the playoffs, that's not a good thing.

A guy whose middle name might as well be "work" won't let up on himself when he's asked to perform. So, in the end, his coach needs to take responsibility for making his life a little easier. It could be that prudence now will produce a better-functioning Plekanec when it really matters.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Determination

If this season continues the way it's begun for the Canadiens, Jarred Tinordi and Nathan Beaulieu had better get ready to make their NHL debuts as emergency replacements. It wasn't good to see camp open with no sign of Andrei Markov, but it's turned out to be a bit of a trend. Not only do we have no idea when Markov might possibly play again, we've also yet to see Ryan White or Lars Eller in game action. On top of that, injuries to Chris Campoli, Mike Cammalleri and Jaro Spacek have further depleted a lineup that hasn't been complete since day one. This is not the way the Habs had hoped to start a new season.

On the plus side, however, the players who remain are doing their best to push through the team's problems. Rookie defencemen Raphael Diaz and Alexei Emelin managed to keep their heads above water against an enthusiastic attack by some pretty big Winnipeg forwards. Yannick Weber seized the opportunity to get back on D with a rocket from the point on the power play, and an impressive physical battle with the much larger Nik Antropov. The defence was a bit scrambly and fumbled the puck fairly often, but managed to throw themselves in front of enough shots and chip the puck ungracefully out of trouble enough times to get the job done.

Up front, Tomas Plekanec was his usual all-around brilliant self, scoring a beauty of a goal on an individual effort, as well as doing all the little things he does every night on the still-perfect PK. Also, it's only been a couple of games, but his faceoff percentage sits at 57%. If he can keep that up, he will solve his game's biggest weakness and provide an answer to the question of who Jacques Martin could count on to win big faceoffs.

Travis Moen had a great game, but he's not going to be a long-term solution for the top line. Plekanec can work magic, but even David Copperfield has to actually have a rabbit in the hat to begin with. Erik Cole could be the rabbit, although so far he's been an unimpressive addition. It's not helping that he's getting fewer than 15 minutes of ice time, when he's used to playing more like 18-20 per game. If, as they say, Cammalleri is out for only two weeks, it would be the first bit of good luck the team has had since training camp opened.

That's if you don't count Carey Price's performance as a stroke of luck. The goaltender upon which everything depends was solid throughout the game, but especially cool and focused during the Jets' early push. He underlined, once again, that the Habs will go as far as he can take them. So, on Thanksgiving Day, Habs fans everywhere can give thanks for the continued good health of their goalie.

This hasn't been the start of the season the Canadiens were hoping to have. Then again, maybe if they get the injuries out of the way early, they'll get their healthy bodies back when it really matters later in the year. While it'll be great to see Tinordi and Beaulieu in Habs sweaters, it would be nice not to see them just because there's nobody left to play.

Friday, October 7, 2011

Luck Or Suck

There are two schools of thought regarding last night's pathetic lack of firepower on the part of our beloved Canadiens. One group says the Habs had more than thirty shots and only poor luck kept one of them from finding twine.

The other group, and the one to which I'm increasingly listening, says the Canadiens were one of the lowest-scoring teams in the league for the last two seasons and nothing has changed. Excuses can mask the core issue for a while, but in the end the truth remains. Sure, the team is already dealing with key injuries. It's also true that the players have had little time together and are probably a bit short on chemistry just yet. Still, those excuses fail to explain why the Canadiens dominated the first period, then gave up the ghost in the last two.

Pierre Gauthier needs to examine the kind of team he's compiled, and compare that with the style of play Jacques Martin demands. Many of the players have proven they can score at other levels and with other teams. Yet, placed in Montreal, their production drops, almost across the board. Homegrown players like Andrei Kostitsyn and Tomas Plekanec regularly score twenty goals, but you have to wonder if they wouldn't produce more with another coach in another system. Others have. Matt D'Agostini scored two goals in forty games under Martin. Last year in St.Louis, he had twenty-one. Sergei Kostitsyn had seven goals in the 47 games he played for Martin. In Nashville...not exactly the '80s Oilers...he had 23 in 77 games.

Whether there's a failure to communicate between Martin and his players or Martin's system just doesn't produce a lot of goalscoring, there's a problem in Montreal. The team can't score even though the individual players have proven they can. Unless something changes, it's going to be another year of Carey Price playing out of his mind to preserve 2-1 and 3-2 victories. If he doesn't, if he gives up a couple of goals early, there's little chance the team will recover. When it's time for him to start thinking about his long-term contract next year, it won't be a plus for him to know he's got to be perfect every night or the team will lose.

There's also a problem with the powerplay, which has been the one positive in the scoring desert of the last two years. P.K.Subban is trying to do everything and making costly errors instead, but there are few blueline alternatives. There's little cohesion, and there doesn't seem to be much of a plan. Kirk Muller, who last year worked with the kids like Subban and planned the PP, is gone and appears to have left a greater void than we were expecting.

Of course, it doesn't help when a coach has two big scoring wingers, one whom he benches after an iffy penalty call and one who gets third-line linemates and fourth-line ice time. Neither Andrei Kostitsyn or Erik Cole were used in a way that would maximize their abilities. When a team can't score much to begin with, the coach doesn't have the luxury of playing games with the people most likely to pot one.

This is not to let the players off the hook. In the second and third periods last night, they did nothing to help their cause. They need to be better...a lot better...than they looked in that sad forty minutes. Still, one can't help thinking they'd have a better chance if they played a system more open to scoring goals. The Canadiens certainly have their share of bad luck when it comes to lighting the lamp, but the style they're playing just adds to the suck.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Habs vs. leafs - Opening Night Edition

Notes on the second:

-leafs suck.

-Oh, for god's sake. These losers can score when Pleks is the only D back on a PP. Something's got to give, Martin.

-Habs can't score. This will be the story for the rest of the year.

-Gomez is back to drifting left on the rush...the single most ineffective offensive play a centreman can make.

-Spatch flattened by Phaneuf, but gets right back up. A tribute to his conditioning, because last year he would have been lying there for 20 mimutes.

-Habs PP creates as many sparks as rubbing two wet sticks together. Unless it's for the other team.

-Where's "New Edition" Gomez tonight? Looks like he's drinking the same old Kool Aid.

-I smell shut out already. That's not good, for the first game of the year.

-This is the most depressing game since 2006.

-If Grabovski can weave through the Habs D like a silkworm, what's going to happen when they face Datsyuk?

-And the glory of the period: too many men. Might as well start setting the record from Day One.


Notes on the first:

-I hate the leafs more than polio.

-Pleky's so fast, if he had more ice he'd be supersonic.

-I think Josh Gorges has actually discovered the art of skating since his surgery. He's the anti-Markov.

-The Subban Spinnerama is as confusing to the leafs as Mandarin is to a Newfoundlander.

-Wow. Grabovski is with TO for four years already? It's true that when you get old the time moves faster.

-Crap. Have the leafs actually got a decent goalie for once?

-Steckel is such a waste of a lineup spot.

-Gotta love The System. No leaf has had a clear look at Price through the first.

-The Habs PP is more unconscious than the guy in Awakenings.

-Why does the Hab in front of the net always have his back turned to the play?

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Make Your Betts

The Canadiens' roulette wheel of black or red fourth-line centres has rolled to a stop on Blair Betts this year. He'll displace Red 61 as the default Habs' designated PK/faceoff guy. He follows in the wake of such luminaries as Radek Bonk, Glen Metropolit and Jeff Halpern.

Betts is a good pick up. The Habs needed someone with size on the fourth line, who can play some minutes, kill penalties and win important draws. They needed someone who could let Tomas Plekanec off the hook as the team's go-to PK centreman. His presence means Andreas Engqvist goes to Hamilton.

That underlines a small issue with the Habs prospect pool. The Canadiens have traded first and second-round picks for the last four years, and that's left a gap between the guys who are breaking into the NHL now and those who are three to four years away. The guys who should be knocking at the door, filling that fourth-line centre or number-six D spot are playing for other teams.

It was a nice gamble to trade a first for Alex Tanguay, and a second for Robert Lang. Those didn't work out long term, but then management traded a second for Mathieu Schneider, another for Dominic Moore and yet another for James Wisniewski. While nobody denies those guys filled important roles when they were desperately needed, now we can all see the gap in the Habs developmental pipeline because of those trades.

Picking up undrafted people like Engqvist were admirable attempts to fill the gap with astute scouting and gleaning gold from other teams' chaff. It's not the same as picking guys you know you'll need and letting them develop within the organization. Sometimes those outside gambles pay off. More times, they don't.

In the end, Gauthier claimed Blair Betts off waivers because he gambled away the team's youth to fill other holes, which left new holes. The good thing about this pickup is that, while Betts will do nicely on the fourth line this year, he didn't cost anything. Neither did Chris Campoli in his role as fifth defenceman. Gauthier, if he's learned anything, has figured out picks are the most important assets a team can have. So, if he can grab a guy off the scrap heap in September, like Campoli, or a guy off waivers like Betts, who can fill important spots for minimal cost, it's all to the team's benefit.

That leaves the draft picks intact, so, if they're used wisely, the team won't have to look for another Campoli or Betts outside its own organization. In the meantime, we hope to see the best of those guys and minimize the hurt of moving the future for the rapidly-fading present.

Monday, October 3, 2011

Bonding



The Scene: Somewhere in the woods near Collingwood, Ontario.

P.K.Subban: Okay, Kush. We've got them. All we have to do is sneak up behind that tree and hit them hard.
Andrei Kostitsyn: I hit tree?
Subban: No, Kush. We hit those guys down there. We hide behind the tree.
Kostitsyn: Cool. We sneak up on tree.
Subban: Cammy, do you speak Kush?
Mike Cammalleri: Okay, Kush? You know when coach yells at you for missing your check? This is like that. You see those guys moving down there? Get behind the tree and shoot them.
Kostitsyn: Okay, Cammy. I can shoot my check.
Travis Moen: I say we just run down at them. They don't know we're here, and we'll scare the shit out of them if we come tearing out of the trees like that.
Cammalleri: Yeah, but if we start screaming and running, they'll only be shocked for a minute. Then they'll start picking us off.
Subban: That's true. I say we snipe them. Kush, you ready?
Kostitsyn: I am ready, P.K. fires
Moen: Holy crap. You shot coach in the ass, Kush. If he finds out it was you, you'll never see ten minutes a game again.
Kostitsyn: Crap, Travy. Don't tell him. Please!
Subban: (in a sing-song) Kush shot the coach's ass. Kush shot the coach's ass. Ha ha, Kush. That's unreal, even for you!
Cammalleri: Okay. Let's get our story straight. They're gonna know it was one of us, by the angle of the shot. I say we tell him P.K. was aiming at Pearn.
Moen: No, man. He loves Pearn. I say it was a riccochet off that big rock down there, and we were aiming for Gill over behind that tree. Everyone in the game can see him there.
Kostitsyn: But what we will say when he ask who pull trigger?
Cammalleri: I'll say it was me.
Moen: No, man. I'll say it was me. It doesn't matter because I know I'll still get first-line time this year.
Subban: No. I'll say it was me. Until Marky comes back, he can't afford to bench me.
Kostitsyn: Guys. You are being so kind. I am feeling the bond.
Cammalleri: No, Kush, you're feeling the thrill of shooting Martin in the ass. Ha ha. But seriously, we've got your back.
Subban: Yeah, Kush. You're our guy and Jacques will have to go through us to get to you.
Moen: Shut up, P.K. I'm getting something in my eye here.
Kostitsyn: Okay. I am running down and shoot. They get me, I fall for you.
Cammalleri: No, Kush. We'll all go together. Okay? Everyone ready...RUUUUNNN!!

The four players race downhill, weapons ready. Shots fire from every direction

Kostitsyn: Oh my God. They got me. Cammy! Go on without me.
Cammalleri: They got me too! I think I leaned into the shot and it got me in the head. It's my fault, so at least nobody will get suspended.
Moen: I'm down too, guys. Markov got me in the knee.
Subban: I'm hit! Who the hell let Don Cherry in here?!

All is silent on the field of battle. Then, a lone figure emerges from the shadows

Carey Price: Heh heh. So, you guys thought you could outsmart a cowboy? Think again, suckers.
Jacques Martin: Carey! Help!
Price: Jacques? Holy crap, did someone shoot you in the ass?
Martin: It was that damn Subban. Someday I'm gonna get that kid.
Price: Aw, common, Jacques. Let's go grab a beer and do some bonding. This game kinda sucks.
Martin: Yeah, I just wish I could have shot Claude Julien, but, oh well.
Price: Too bad the Bruins are bonding on Crescent St. this week.
Martin: Damn.



*Photo courtesy of @PKSubban1 on Twitter.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Toughness

Last night was the only pre-season game worth watching, as far as the Canadiens are concerned. Even though the fourth line was made up of aspiring guys and not real NHLers, it was the closest to an opening-night lineup we've seen.

The relief of the matter was that the Canadiens...the real Canadiens...were fast, opportunistic and aggressive on the rush. The D got the puck out quickly and didn't give Tampa a chance to line up in their zone. And Carey Price was solid when he had to be, spectacular when required.

The only bruise on the body of an otherwise great game came when Ryan Malone, who'd been looking for trouble all night, came rushing at Chris Campoli, elbow up. He struck Campoli in the head, making no attempt to play the puck. Campoli, predictably, went down hard, body spinning. Malone got a match penalty and an undermatched revenge fight with Josh Gorges, who took a significant cut on the forehead in the process.

Now, today, many Habs fans are screaming for revenge. They want a guy who can go out and revisit the violence on offenders from other teams, or who can prevent said violence in the first place, with a well-placed glare or icy stare indicative of the consequences to be suffered by messing with Canadiens. The more experienced of us know that doesn't work. Not in this day and age, when head shots are being punished and the league's chief of discipline is looking at fighting as a contributing factor in the NHL's high rate of brain injury.

We know goons don't work. We've seen too much of Georges Laraque chasing Milan Lucic around the ice, and Derek Boogaard playing three minutes a game. Now we see the "new" version of enforcers...decent players with a mean streak...being reeled in by NHL discipline for their tendency to hit people in the head. So, what's a team to do?

In the case of the Canadiens, they're doing the right thing. They're icing a team that can play the game. All four lines can skate hard and pressure the opponent. The defence can move the puck up and out quickly and the goalie can stand against the other team's rush. The Canadiens play hockey. The cries of those who bawl for the Habs to employ some other strategy that can intimidate opponents in the old-school way are wrong-headed. Revenge, head shots and maybe even fighting are on the table to be removed from the game. What does that leave? It leaves a skilled team with the ability to beat the other team on the ice, not in the alley. That's the Habs.

If Brendan Shanahan can reel in the unnecessary violence and intimidate players who intend to hurt for the sake of hurting, it gives the Habs a leg up in the league. They don't have people who employ those tactics and can't compete with those who do. But if the teams that depend on intimidation are limited, it gives teams that play hockey a chance.

Brendan Shanahan, in the end, could be the difference between the Canadiens competing for the Cup or not. That's some kind of power. That's tough.