Monday, March 4, 2013

Lessons

Now that the dust has settled in Boston and the dulcet tones of Claude Julien's sooky, whiny rant about the Habs diving (although how the coach of a team with Brad Marchand on the roster can talk about that is a mystery) have faded into the distance, it's time to look at this Canadiens team and answer the question, "Are they for real?"

The opening-game loss at home to the leafs had most of us bracing for another lacklustre campaign as we comforted ourselves with the consolation of another top draft pick. Then, something happened. The Canadiens won six of their next seven, outscoring the opposition 25-15. Ah, we said. We've seen this before. A hot start, helped by five of those seven games at home, wasn't enough to convince those of us who suffered through last season that this year marked a real turnaround. No, we said, we'll see how they handle their first losing streak. So, a three-game skid against Boston, Buffalo and the humiliating beat-down against the leafs threatened to prove last year's team was back. Instead, the Habs responded with five straight wins, including two shutouts. Now they find themselves on an 11-game points streak, undefeated in regulation since that Toronto game. Well, we said, they've been healthy all year. Let's see what happens when there are injuries. Three concussions later, to Brendan Gallagher, Rene Bourque and Raphael Diaz, taking a first-line winger, dynamic rookie and arguably the most effective defenceman on the team out of the lineup, the Habs keep finding a way to win.

So, looking at the schedule and a gruelling series of road games, the toughest the Canadiens will face this season, we said this will be the real test. Six games in eight nights, five of them on the road, with two sets of back-to-backs. The first couple of games in that series would no doubt be the toughest, facing the Penguins and Bruins, two of the most stacked teams in the conference, on consecutive nights, with overnight travel thrown in. If the Habs didn't get crushed, we said, perhaps they are honestly turning things around.

Well, the real test has proven a couple of things about this year's Canadiens. Against the Penguins, the Habs defencemen were outclassed by big, aggressive forwards who slipped into the offensive zone with ease. It felt like the Canadiens were hanging on until they went down 4-2. Then they showed why this season is not last year. Despite the deficit, they fought back and tied it up. They grabbed the lead, lost it, tied it and got it to OT for a point they  never would have gained last season. It was a crazy game, but even with Carey Price not at his best, the Habs kept coming. Then last night, tired, emotionally wrung out from the Pens game, the Canadiens had to face the Bruins at home, with their bloodthirsty fans in full bay, and first place in the conference at stake. Last year's team would have been deflated by losing their two one-goal leads. It would have gone into the third tired and deflated and given up, with Scott Gomez logging 18 minutes on the night. This year's team digs in and keeps pushing for another goal, it works hard for three periods (most nights) and the players skate with determination.

So, yes, this Canadiens team is for real. The passion, work ethic and one-for-all attitude are real. That said, though, it's just as real to recognize that heart can take a team a long way, but eventually superior skill and size will punish it. The Canadiens D is vulnerable and small, and big opponents like the Pens and Bruins are able to exploit it. A player like Milan Lucic can intimidate and hurt. While it's fair to say the Canadiens are almost there, they need a couple of pieces to be the favourite heading into some of these games, rather than the gutsy underdog.

First of all, Marc Bergevin needs to go to Brandon Prust and (after personally thanking him for letting his body be pummelled every night) ask him who reminds him of himself. Then Bergevin needs to go out and sign that player to replace Colby Armstrong. Alex Galchenyuk, who will be a star for the Habs, needs time to get strong enough to win his battles and show off his skills without getting pushed off the puck. The team needs a strong, steady defenceman (or two) with size in front of Price and Peter Budaj.

In the meantime, we can stop worrying this team will collapse in on itself this year. It's not last season's team because Prust,Gallagher, Price, Max Pacioretty, Tomas Plekanec, Gorges, Bergevin, Michel Therrien and everyone else who has committed to wearing the Canadiens sweater with pride this year won't let it be like that again. If Prust is willing to fight Lucic, Alexei Emelin is prepared to risk his metal face in a bout with Zdeno Chara and Gallagher is taking on guys fifty pounds heavier than he is, nobody else can justify giving less than they can.

We don't know if the Canadiens can win a playoff series this year, but they are giving us a reason to hope they'll not only get there, but will make their mark. Even if they lose, they'll be fun to watch and they won't quit. That's an identity of which they can be proud. Claude Julien can whine all he wants because that's what defeated Bruins do.

11 comments:

moeman said...

Made my Monday morning J.T. Merci.

Jay in PA said...

What frustrated me last season was precisely the issue that you named: the team sleepwalked through the season, paralyzed by internal strife, and was simply no fun to watch. That put me in a bad mood all season long, and left me wondering why I even watched hockey in the first place.

This year's edition of the team is as fun as a basket of puppies. What's remarkable to me is, coaching changes aside, what a difference a couple of deft personnel changes can make. Out goes Gomez, in come Prust and Gallagher, and the whole complexion of the team changes. Say what we will about Chara and Lucic, if we had our own players in those models in addition to the current lineup, we would be looking at a team that is not only in the mix, but contending.

But we all know that. I think what we don't know, and what will be interesting to see, is whether this exciting new edition of the Habs is newly attractive to free agents. Credit recent management for signing free agents of moderate profile (Cole, Gionta), but by and large it was the money that made it happen. Hopefully the new edition Habs will now be a team that free agents genuinely *want* to join, all else equal. Then maybe, just maybe, we'll be able to get a perch along the usual route to watch the Stanley Cup parade.

Steve said...

The Pens fast talented forwards out worked and beat our defense to the pucks. Still if Price gets in a grove we could beat them in seven. I am more afraid of the Bruins. It looked to me they clearly intimidated Eller. Their cheap shots and late hits are going to take a huge toll over 7 games. In the rare times we get a PP we are not punishing them to the same extent. Boston is a great team getting better. Montreal is a good team getting better. For the next four or five years the key to beating them (in playoffs) has to be Cary Price.

DRA HAB said...

I see this teams chemistry changing as well and it is for the better and next years version could really smack the Bruins if we were to sign say a Nathan Horton who will most likely be a cap cut in Boston before next season. Imagine him going up against the team that cut him 6+ times a season. As for last night the goon Charra knows like the rest of the NHL that Emelin has a plate in his head so he should be careful or he could really cause life threatening injuries to Emelin. The refs should have done something to stop this before the goon crossed the line with his fighting skills.

geezer said...

Whenever teams lose, they whine about and blame everyone and everything else, when it's always been "you make your own bed...". I had a lot of respect for Julien (knew him when he played for the old Fredericton Express) sadly because of his childish rant, that respect just went bye-bye.

Why doesn't anyone try to mash Marchand? I think that it would be well worth getting a 5-6 games suspension. His antics have no place in the game.

The Spirit of Cook said...

"Even if they lose, they'll be fun to watch and they won't quit." .... Nailed it! That's what made the playoff run a few years ago so great. They were over-matched on paper (I guess that is why the game is played on ice) and yet we all had fun because realistic expectations were low so every win was a bonus and their style of play was fun. If they keep doing what they are doing we should all remember that. My worry is that if they keep winning the expectations will rise and then the fun-factor will be lost.

LAD said...

Marchand is a sneeky and hypocritical character. Noticed last night when Prust was on his back and Marchand's strongest personality trait uncontrolably erupted by putting his stick in #8 face ...Cowardness it is called and someone will have to put sense in his cavernous skull!

Hadulf said...

@LAD and geezer

I agree. That stick in the face of Prust was so cowardly and a disgrace...I really don't want to attract bad karma on myself but I would not be sad if some mysterious event happens and crushes Marchand's knees, like he tried to do to Vancouver's Sami Salo.

TommyB said...

Is this team for real? That's what we've all been wondering. We keep waiting for the wheels to fall off. But this year it looks as if those bearings are well-greased, and the nuts are on tight. The new mechanic, a Mr. Bergevin, seems to know his stuff, as does his assistant Mr. Therrien.

The one thing that really stands out for me this year, as to being the difference maker, is that this team can now score goals. Goals are coming from three, or even four lines, instead of the one-line team we have grown accustomed to in the past. Not only the number of goals, but timely goals. Goals when we need them. What a huge difference this makes not having to rely on stellar goaltending game in and game out. I'm sure Carey Price and Petr Budaj are sleeping much better these days.

I would like to see a tad more grit added, and like you Leigh Ann, I feel Colby Armstrong has not passed the audition. I'm not worried about it. I get the feeling that Mr. Bergevin is always on the look out for some new parts, or quality serviceable re-conditioned parts.

This is a fun team to watch, and a team which should only get better in the next year or two. Stanley Cups are hard to come by these days. So many things have to go your way in order to win it all. That may or may not happen with this team that is being assembled, but I feel certain that an entertaining, competitive team, is not just here for the short term.

Harry said...

I agree with you J.T.-a couple of more pieces is all they need.I was never a fan of Armstrong and still don't like him but I think he is a friend of M.T. so he may stay.I laughed at your description of Gallagher,two parts gas and one part match !!
M.B. has the right staff in place and a finger on the right buttons and will bring the Habs up another notch before the end of the season.

rj tremblay said...

so the Canadiens just played back-to-back games against the class of the east and came away with 3 of 4 points. they won the second game on the road in beantown on no rest. intimidated teams don't behave this way. the 2013Habs are tough and they are good.

make no mistake. the beaners lost that game because they got enraged and gooned it up. in an ill-advised fit of laughable faux retribution they lost Chara their preeminent player for 17 critical minutes. their defensive corps after him is paper thin
(the CH D is far, far deeper) and it showed. the Canadiens deftly exploited the breach with speed and skill to come from behind in the third. f'n clutch.

during the second period the Habs attempted to slosh around in the gutter with the Bruins and stopped playing both their system and their game.

Boston loves to play in the gutter and pull others down to that style of play and in an effort to get the opposition off their game. the Brooins did exactly that and then used their top line to counter attack and re-take control of the game throughout the second period. until the 15 minute mark that is, when Chara so politely removed himself from the game for us. a cro-magnon level move. love the knuckledragger move.

by far, the smartest tactic the Habs implemented when the game resumed was to come out in the 3rd resettled and refocused ready to exploit the Bruin strategic error with a balanced attack based on driving to the net with both speed and skill. one could say with alacrity, even. oh, and by staying out of the Bruin sluice box by not retaliating to cheap shots. this strategy sent the beaners and wee Claude over the edge and gave the Habs a come-from-behind win all at once.

the CH have a lot of sand and a lot of edge. major league levels of both. we certainly don't need to get into an escalating war of marginal player signings that goes turning us into some sort of jr. Bruins squad. we will lose at this because Charas and Lucics don't grow on trees.

the beaners and their funny coach are bent out of shape because the CH have them figured out and they know it. this Montreal team is deeper, more talented and full of character. the Bruins can run around gooning all game long. and the Habs just stand up. then they punish on the scoreboard in the most mercenary way possible. get used to it everybody. this ain't your grandmother's CH.

even Mike Milbury sees it. enjoy:

http://www.csnne.com/blog/bruins-talk/milbury-felger-debate-if-canadiens-were-embellishing