Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Aftermath: Revelations

There is a tome among the annals of Christian literature that purports to give us glimpses of the future and warnings of our fate. The Book of Revelations is oblique and open to many interpretations. Similar things can be said of the Canadiens' second game of this lockout-shortened season. They might not be profound, but there were certainly revelations about what the team can do when properly motivated.

First among them is Andrei Markov. It's no revelation that Markov is a supremely intelligent and skilled player in all parts of the game. Those whose memories stretch back longer than the last two years are able to appreciate how much he's meant to the Canadiens, and how much they suffered in his absence. Since, however, the memories of most hockey fans are akin to goldfish being surprised by the appearance of the castle on every pass around the bowl, Markov's value has been lost in the inevitable "he's washed up, let's trade him" talk. Well, last night he exploded...twice, actually...back into the collective consciousness of Canadiens fans with brilliant defensive play, smart passing and two laser-guided missiles that made the Habs power play a real weapon for the first time in more than a year. A healthy Markov is a tremendous asset that cannot be underestimated. Picture any team missing an elite defenceman, like Boston without Chara or Nashville without Weber and you get a better understanding of what Markov means.

Then there's Raphael Diaz. The second-year NHLer is showing a poise he didn't have last season, and that's enabling him to make the most of what's turning out to be a surprisingly varied set of skills. The first goal of the night, a beautiful series of passes ending with Tomas Plekanec threading the needle (no revelations there!), began with a very nifty play by Diaz. He outskated the Panthers forechecker in the corner, then made a quick and accurate pass up to a hard-skating Brian Gionta, who then saucered it to Plekanec. Diaz showed agility, smarts and skill, all within that 10-second play. His contributions on the power play could end up being very significant for the Habs this year.

Rene Bourque revealed another side of himself too. The player who looked disinterested or lazy when you actually remembered he was in the lineup last season was hitting people like a mob boss. After showing up as one of the better Canadiens in the season opener, he continued to prove he deserves a place on the second line. (Soon to reclaim the title of first line if early trends prevail.) Last year, Bourque looked nothing like a player who's scored 27 goals in consecutive seasons. In the last two games, as he's hitting, constantly moving, forechecking and going to the net, we can see why the Flames gave him a long-term contract. Unfortunately we've also see the other side of Bourque, so it remains to be seen whether his new-found intensity will be long-lasting.

The Gallys, Alex Galchenyuk and Brendan Gallagher, with a grand total of three NHL games between them, were like eager puppies, rushing around, sniffing in every corner and jumping on strangers in an effort to get to the front of the net. It worked, as both registered their first NHL points. Better, though, was the impression of readiness they exuded. Both were involved and smart, and both have undeniable skill. They're going to be a lot of fun to watch.

Brandon Prust was a bit of a revelation too. He's not exactly an unknown quantity, but you don't pay attention to him when he's with the other team until he hurts you. When he's part of the home team, however, you notice all the little things he does right, and the decision to appoint him Guardian of the Gallys turns out to be a lot smarter than it looks on paper.

On the other hand, last year's first line isn't connecting like it did last year. That becomes very obvious when compared to the hard-driving, dangerous Plekanec line which was a threat on every shift and underlines how greatly Plekanec suffered with the merry-go-round of linemates he was given last year. Erik Cole, in particular, looks out of step. That may be simply because he's the oldest guy on that line and may be feeling the lack of a training camp more than others. It may be because last year's success is forcing other teams to defend him more closely. One can hope it's not because of  his pre-season comments about considering early retirement. If his heart's not in it, that's a much bigger problem than a slow physical start. The Canadiens need him and his linemates if they hope to improve over last season. A nagging problem with the team's lineup is the failure to ever have two strong scoring lines working at the same time. With Plekanec's trio working, the Habs could be really competitive with Desharnais' line going as well.

There's nothing new revealed in the number of penalties the Habs took. Admittedly, some of the nine calls against them (including Ryan White's 17 minutes for instigating a fight) were questionable. Josh Gorges' hit on George Parros was borderline, for one. Still, the Canadiens have to be very careful about putting themselves into position to take those iffy penalties. They were lucky Florida took nearly as many minors, but they'll pay for their lack of discipline against better teams.

The greatest revelation of the night was the team itself. They proved if they hit and don't stop skating, they have the skill to compete. Carey Price, stellar and, at times spectacular, again last night, gives the Canadiens a legitimate chance to win every night. A revitalized power play with Markov and Diaz on the points makes the team better than it was last year.

The first win of the year was against a tired team playing its third game in four nights, and even working as hard as they did last night won't translate to a Habs victory every time. Just as after the first game of the year,  we have to be careful about reading too much into a single 60-minute segment in a team's life. There's a lot of growing and learning to do, but last night proved there's raw material there to work with. That's a revelation.


Jay in PA said...

Excellent post as always, JT. Your comment Since, however, the memories of most hockey fans are akin to goldfish being surprised by the appearance of the castle on every pass around the bowl, Markov's value has been lost in the inevitable "he's washed up, let's trade him" talk was particularly evocative, because it also summarizes the tunnel vision of most NHL commentators. They predict the Habs will finish out of the money this year because they did so last year and did not manage to trade for Crosby, Malkin, Weber, and anyone else who might force a complete reframing of the team. The fact that they didn't play a single game last season as an intact lineup due to injuries (and played under a cloud due to the coaching and front office insanity) effectively means that last year's team's performance provides no indication as to this year's team's capabilities. A healthy, motivated team with added grit and a whack of young talent could do very well this year. If Cole re-emerges, as I assume he will--he's nothing if not a professional, and if Subban returns and gets up to form, this team has a whole lot more to show than we saw last night.

TommyB said...

Habs went from Saturday night's Apocolyspe to last night's Revelations? I know there is a tie-in there somewhere but not sure exactly where or how to use it.

Was I the only one not worried last night? I wasn't worried about the Panthers getting back into the game after that first Habs goal. The second one just added to my confidence. And even during the 5 minute penalty kill, of which 2 minutes were defending 5 on 3, I wasn't worried. Last night's Habs looked like they had everything under control from the drop of the puck to the final buzzer.

Watching the team play, you can detect a certain degree more of them not having to look over their shoulders for that coming freight train looking to run them over without fear of any repercussion. You could also detect a confidence in playing more offensively without having to look over their shoulder to see Jacques Martin's finger pointing to the end of the bench for failing to be more defensively responsible. Under Martin, a two-goal lead would mean two periods of yawning shutdown hockey, only to eventually be scored on and sent to overtime for the salvaged 1 point. Last night they kept going. Kept looking and threatening for another goal all night long. Maybe the second coming of Michel Therrien will turn out to be a good thing. You know he will have an in-game meltdown sooner or later. But after watching "hands-in-pockets" Martin for two years, as well as the smug and scowling "I'm so superior to you" look of Guy Carbonneau for another two years, I am actually looking forward to some emotion from Michel Therrien. Used at the right moments, it can lift a team.

I can't say enough about how pleased I am to see the work of Prust and White. Both guys played key roles last night. Prust, riding shotgun for the wet behind the ears line, not only gave them confindence to drive to the net, but he was continually looking to set both of his linemates up for their first NHL goals. Succeeding with Galchenyuk. Prust's play was very noticeable.

Ryan White's attack on Fleischman for his hit from behind on a teammate was exactly what this team has needed for so long, and it was easy to excuse him for the 5 minute major taken on the play. And the whole scene started with a jarring hit by Emelin on his assignment at the time, a few feet away in the corner. This stuff is gold. This stuff is sorely needed. And now, at least for one game, it seems we have it. It's surprising how much room it makes out there for the skilled players.

I'm trying not to get too excited. It was only one game. One game against a very tired opponent. But a very talented opponent as well. Bring on the big boys...the Bruins, the Flyers, the Rangers and the Penguins. Then we will be in a better position to begin to judge this team.

Steve said...

Theiren has to get some props as well. JM would never have had the Prust Gals line. Thieren also seems to favour keeping the puck and making a play over dump it in and try and get it back. A stratagy you only employ if your talent is not there.

Pisano said...

Revelations indeed. Here's one. As I watched the game unfold, I could not help but think that Galchenyuk belongs at centre. He has the size, ability and goes to the net. It's still really early but if his work ethic remains, he deserves to be with les Canadiens and seems to belong at centre.