Thursday, February 28, 2013

An Anniversary

Well, folks, it's been five whole years and nearly 1000 posts since this blog first saw the light of day. The H Does Not Stand For Habs, aka Habsloyalist, was born in February, 2008. A lot happened that month, and a lot has changed since then. Back then, Michael Ryder was in the pressbox nearly every night, soon to be let go to join the Bruins. NHL teams were lining up to vie for the services of Peter Forsberg. Mathieu Dandenault was playing on the first line for the Habs. Brian Burke was the GM of the reining Stanley Cup champion Ducks. Ryan O'Byrne and Tom Kostopoulos stole a purse. The Habs were down 5-0 and came back to win against the Rangers. Carey Price got his first NHL shutout. Cristobal Huet got traded. And Bob Gainey missed out on the bidding war for Marian Hossa.

Then again, some things look just the same five years later. Josh Gorges, Andrei Markov and Francis Bouillon still patrol the Habs blue line, even if their roles and responsibilities have changed. Carey Price is still in goal, and Tomas Plekanec and Michael Ryder (as of Tuesday) remain in the lineup. The Canadiens were first in the Eastern Conference and the Ducks were a powerhouse in the West.

Overall, though, looking back reminds us that five years are, in the lifespan of a hockey team, a generation. The Habs' second-longest reigning captain was let walk way from the team that drafted him, stood by him through injuries and cancer, and let him struggle valiantly as the number-one centre without real wingers for 13 years. The team was sold by George Gillett and purchased, once again, by the Molson family. Bob Gainey gave way to his buddy, Pierre Gauthier, who then was turfed in favour of Marc Bergevin. Five men...Guy Carbonneau, Bob Gainey, Jacques Martin, Randy Cunneyworth and Michel Therrien...have stood behind the bench. The Habs won the East and they finished last in the East. They beat the Bruins in Game Seven in the playoffs, and they lost to the Bruins in Game Seven. Scott Gomez was a blockbuster acquisition and an ignominious buyout. Georges Laraque came to protect the skill players and got bought out for adhering too closely to his antiquated Code. Mike Komisarek was let stand with the coaches and was touted as the next captain, then bolted to Toronto for a little bit more money than the Habs offered. The Red Wings, Penguins, Blackhawks, Bruins and Kings have won the Cup, while the Habs won three playoff rounds. The power play has been first in the league, and last.

I was thinking about a way to mark five years of this Habs-dedicated space. I thought of posting a top-ten list, perhaps of my favourite posts (Kovalev speaking to God, the concussion study and some of the interviews with guys like Mats Naslund, Mike McPhee and Guy Carbonneau came to mind), but that seemed too self-serving. Then I thought of writing a blog about all the things Habs fans have obsessed about over the years, that don't matter anymore (Kovalev, Carbonneau, the PP, Martin, Gauthier, Price vs.Halak...etc., etc.) but that felt a bit too negative.

Therefore, I've decided to celebrate with you, the readers. I'd love for you to drop me a note to tell me what the most outstanding Habs-related moment has been for you in the last five years. Was it the 5-0 Rangers comeback game? The Centennial? The firing of Gauthier? The 2010 playoffs? Maybe you had a personal experience and met a Habs player, saw a special game at the Bell Centre or felt moved by someone connected with the organization. Whatever your special Habs moment might be, share it and I'll throw all the names into a hat and draw for a Habs-related prize. After all, if you weren't reading, I probably would have closed this space before now. So, thanks for reading here in the last five years, and for all the welcome feedback you've provided. It's been a lot of fun to be here.

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Division of Labour

The NHL's Northeast division this year is like a starlet jumping out of a birthday cake. The cake doesn't seem to have a lot of substance until you find out what was really hiding in there. Then you just sit back in appreciation and watch the dance. This time last year, nobody would have expected to see four out of the five teams in the Northeast sitting very comfortably in playoff positions. Buffalo missed out last year, and nobody needs to be reminded of where the leafs and Habs finished. Boston finished second in the conference by leading the Northeast, but had fewer points than half the Atlantic division. Ottawa just squeaked into the post-season in eighth place.

This season, so far, it's an entirely different picture, with last year's lowly Habs leading the conference and the Bruins, Senators and leafs all within three points of them. Toronto, the lowest-ranked of the bunch when you take Boston's five games in hand into consideration, is still five points above the last playoff spot. The Northeast, then, is where the Habs' biggest rivals for post-season position reside.

The problem is, the Habs have not been beating those teams, which, after last night's loss to Ottawa, is becoming a little worrisome. So far, the Canadiens have played eight of a scheduled 18 games against NE opponents. That's 42% of their 19 total games to date. Those games have resulted in a 2-4-0-2 record. Of their total 27 points, games against the NE division have only accounted for six, or 22%. Of 16 possible points available for wins in those eight games, the Habs have given up twelve and clawed back 2 loser points in shootouts.  That's a big pile of points that could make or break a team in April.

On the other hand, the Canadiens have a sparkling 10-0-1 record against the rest of the conference, good for 21 points, or 78% of the 27 they've earned. In terms of goal differential, the Habs are -6 against the NE, scoring 16 goals and giving up 22. Against the rest of the conference, they're +22, with 36GF and 14GA.

The big question is, why is the difference between the Habs' results against their own division versus conference rivals so very glaring? There are several possible reasons. First, all four division opponents play a similar style of aggressive forecheck with speed and lots of body contact. The Canadiens have had problems with that kind of game for years. Theoretically, with new coaches, a new system and different players, the same old problem shouldn't be a factor, but new cultures don't graft themselves onto a team overnight.

Second, there are still questions about the Habs' size relative to the other teams in the division. Broadcaster and blogger James Mirtle compiles the average heights, weights and ages of NHL teams every year, and for this season, the Habs do show up low on the lists for both height and weight. At a shade over 197 lbs for average weight, the Canadiens are 28th in the league. And at just about 6-feet tall on average, they rank last. In comparison, the Bruins are 26th for weight and 21st for height, the Sabres are 19th for weight and 13th for height, the leafs are 11th for weight and 8th for height and the Senators are 5th for weight and 3rd for height. The average difference between the Canadiens and Senators is ten pounds and two inches. Between Habs and leafs it's eight pounds and just over an inch and a half. Those may seem like negligible numbers when factors like speed, skill, leadership, injuries, systems and scheduling play their parts in wins and losses as well. However, in this era of NHL parity, getting consistently drilled by guys taller and heavier than you will wear you down over the course of the game and the season.

The problem is underlined when you compare the size of the defence corps of the NE teams specifically. The Canadiens D, including every blueliner who's played a game this year, averages a shade under six feet tall, and about 206 pounds. Compare that to Buffalo's almost 6'3", 212-pound average. Boston is about the same. The Senators D average 6'2" and 204 pounds (although that incorporates Erik Karlsson's puny 175...they have 3 defencemen over 220 pounds while the Habs have none). And the leafs defence are about 6'3" and 207 pounds. What that means is bigger forwards on the other teams come up against a comparatively small Habs defence corps, which starts to struggle when pressured with a tough forecheck. On the other end, smaller Canadiens' players like Gionta, Gallagher, Desharnais and even Plekanec have to face D-men that can physically overpower them. The wonder isn't that the Canadiens lose to teams in their own division, but that they're able to incorporate their sound systems and skill to beat most other teams.

Perhaps, too, there's an element of pschological drama involved in NE division games. The leafs, Bruins and Senators often seem to be more "up" for those contests than the Canadiens do, especially at the Bell Centre. And, of course, eight games are a rather small sample size, no matter how concerning the results. Factors like playing a great road game against Ottawa, but hitting three posts behind a hot Ben Bishop, can skew the numbers and create an impression of the situation being more dire than it is.

 The good news here is only 34% of the Habs' remaining 29 games are against the Northeast division, 66% are versus conference opponents. If they keep up something close to their current pace, even with weakness against their own division, they will end up in the playoffs. The concern is what will happen once they get there. If the playoffs started today, the Canadiens would face the Tampa Bay Lightning, but with three division rivals in the mix, the chances of avoiding them all on a deep run are slim. That's why the Canadiens have to learn how to beat the teams in their own backyard. Maybe it means being more disciplined and improving special teams. Maybe it's a matter of adjusting lines to get some of those bigger forwards like Eller, Cole, Bourque and Pacioretty matched against the biggest, toughest D-men.

Over to you, Michel Therrien. Hope you've got a good one ready to jump out of that cake or the springtime party won't last long.

Housekeeping Note

Hi all. I've been allowing anonymous comments on my blog in an effort to include people who'd like to respond, but who, perhaps don't want to register with Google. Unfortunately, this is no longer possible as the blog has become a target for spambots. Therefore, comments are always welcome, whether you agree or disagree with what I write, but you do  have to have a Google ID if you'd like to post them.

Also, I do moderate comments, to avoid troublemakers, so if your comment doesn't appear immediately, it will. I just need to get to it and approve it.


Sunday, February 17, 2013

Gooning, Gooning, Gone

If last night's excellent Canadiens win over the hateful Flyers had a flavour, it would be sweet and sour. While it was great fun to see the Habs spend a good part of the evening in control of the game, and the score going in their favour, it was crushing to watch player after player leave the ice with injuries. Young Brendan Gallagher epitomized both the sweet and the sour tastes of the night. First, he lasered a shot off a gorgeous setup by Max Pacioretty for his fifth goal of the season. Then, he lay stunned on the ice after a late hit by Luke Schenn concussed him and forced him to the quiet room.

The predictable anger of Habs fans in the wake of silence from the league office about the play is turning into equally predictable calls for a heavyweight enforcer. Fans, convinced there's little justice to be had (and after Pacioretty's near paralyzing by Zdeno Chara two years ago didn't even draw a penalty, paranoia perhaps isn't totally unwarranted) from officials or the NHL brass, believe it's time the team bought into a policy of vigilante justice.

While it's great to think some behemoth in the lineup would be delivering vengeance with the swiftness of the Archangel Michael's fiery sword, the reality is one goon isn't going to make a noticeable difference. John Scott, who seems to be the goon-du-jour among those who yearn for a fighter, could have been on the ice last night when Schenn hit Gallagher, and he would have had one option. He'd have had to challenge Schenn. Schenn,  not being a pussy, would have accepted. Scott would probably have beaten Schenn's ass, dusted it off and handed it  back to him. In the end, the Habs would have had to kill the instigator penalty and Gallagher would still be concussed. If Scott were on the bench when it happened, then what would he have done? Attacked Schenn on the next shift? Same result, except he'd have opened the door to a possible suspension. Perhaps he should have nailed a smaller Flyers player in an eye-for-an-eye move? Again, penalty, suspension and no cure for Gallagher. I won't even mention the Georges Laraque experiment any further.

A heavyweight in the lineup might deter the more cowardly players in the league, but the problem is, we're not seeing a revival of the old Broadstreet Bullies here. We're witnessing a hockey culture that has rewarded these men for the euphemistic "finishing their checks"...translation: plastering the opponent into the boards...since they were little boys. Having to, maybe, fight a big guy on the other team afterwards is hardly going to reverse behaviour ingrained in these guys from childhood.

The Canadiens have a lot of skill in their lineup. If they had a Scott or a Parros, there would be very little opportunity to play the guy. Right now, the fourth line gets around 10-12 minutes of ice time per game. There are very few goons who can contribute actual hockey skill for that much of the game. And if they're not able to keep up, they're on the bench, which throws off the balance between the lines.

The Habs approach is one of team toughness. They have proven this year that they will avenge a teammate when it's needed. We've seen guys like David Desharnais stand up to bigger opponents in defence of P.K.Subban. They know they have each other's backs. If every player in the lineup contributes something, the Canadiens will be fine. They don't have to be a team full of lumberjacks. They just have to stick together.

The bigger problem facing them as a skilled team is the league's continued ambivalence when it comes to policing the reckless hits like the one that felled Gallagher. Bringing in a goon isn't going to make Brendan Shanahan (a terrible disappointment as league cop after his promising first few weeks) sit up and say, "Hey, that fight right after Brendan Gallagher got concussed sure makes me want to suspend Schenn." The league and the game of hockey itself needs to go back to basics and teach young men learning just learning about hitting, when and how to do it properly. The exposure of guys like Gallagher to guys like Schenn isn't something a goon can fix. It's become endemic and it's hockey's biggest problem right now. It's very interesting that Alexei Emelin, who currently stands second in the league in number of hits, can deliver some monster body shots, but rarely, if ever, targets the head or shoulders of his opponents. It's also worth noting that he trained in the Russian system, which does not emphasize the value in removing the other guy's head from his shoulders as a routine tactic.

So today, as we savour the sweet from last night's game, and pucker at the sour, know that hiring somebody to beat up the bullies won't change the fate of the Gallaghers of the world. There are just too many bullies, and the rules of the game definitely don't favour the goons or the teams that hire them.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

The Eller He Will

Sometime back in the long, long summer of Habs fans' most recent discontent, I thought about compiling a top ten of the best moments from last season. It wasn't easy. It was, after all, a desperately depressing year. Still, after some thought, I did come up with ten small things we could take to heart from 2011-12. It never got published because, in the end, I felt celebrating just ten things in a wasteland of a season seemed a little hopeless. For what it's worth, though, number three in that top ten was Lars Eller's four-goal night.

That was such fun for fans. It was one of those nights when potential became reality for one sparkling game. Even better was Eller's over-the-top, exuberant basking in the glow of the Bell Centre crowd after his first-star selection. The quiet, obliging Dane who lived mostly in the shadow of his more in-your-face teammates knew enough to let loose and celebrate his moment in the sun. The guys in the room still poke fun at it, but that's because they like Eller and it certainly was an occasion to remember. It was also an occasion to take notice.

Eller was a first-round pick in the same 2007 draft as Max Pacioretty and P.K. Subban. He came with a scouting report that lauded him as a fine skater, a "mature two-way player with a fine shot and above-average playmaking skills." The fact that his first-round selection wasn't a surprise speaks for itself. When the Habs traded Jaro Halak for Eller, his stock was still high as a promising prospect. Canadiens fans in favour of the trade saw him as a future Tomas Plekanec, but bigger.

Now, almost three years later, he finds himself stuck on third or fourth lines most of the time, averaging only about 12-13 minutes of ice time per game. This season, he's getting about a minute of PP time per game, but in the two years previous, his average time on the PP was 25 seconds a night.  He, as so many prospects before him, fell into a situation early in his NHL career in which he was forced to work his way up the lineup with limited minutes and limited linemates. Now, at 23, he's at a make-or-break point in his career. Either he breaks through or he'll end up pigeon-holed as a big, low-scoring journeyman with wasted potential. Michel Therrien has pretty much confirmed that, saying he wants more from Eller; that it's time for him to take the next step.

To make that happen, Eller now needs better linemates and better minutes. The problem is, those things aren't readily available unless there's an injury or a slump, neither of which is desirable. He also needs time on the PP and a chance to play his natural centre position with players who can finish. This week, Therrien has decided to switch things up, mainly because of the lack of execution of last year's first line. David Desharnais and the foggy Erik Cole will now be playing with Brandon Prust, while Max Pacioretty has moved to play with the Brendan Gallagher and Alex Galchenyuk. Eller, once again, has been bypassed for ice time and linemates, this time by the rookie Galchenyuk. And Desharnais continues to hold a centre spot ahead of Eller while not really producing.

An interesting comparison for Eller is teammate Pacioretty. His first two seasons in Montreal, totalling 34 and 52 games, resulted in 11 and 14 points respectively. In the first season, he averaged about 12-13 minutes per game, got a minute a night on the PP and spent most of his shifts with Tomas Plekanec and Alex Kovalev. The second year, 2009-2010, he got 30 seconds a game on the PP and skated mostly with Travis Moen and Glen Metropolit. In other words, he had an Eller season. Unsurprisingly, his PPG total dropped from 0.32 in the first year, to 0.26 in the second. There was a lot of talk at the time about Pacioretty being another Habs first-round bust. It didn't help when he started the following year in Hamilton and didn't get called up until Christmas. Yet, given a chance to build up some confidence with the Bulldogs and a place in the top-six when recalled to Montreal, Pacioretty blossomed and became the key component of the Habs youth movement we see today.

The clock is ticking for Lars Eller. If a guy hasn't made a solid impact on an NHL roster by 24 or 25, he starts to look like trade bait. I think Eller's got too much ability to be allowed to drift away. It would be similar to having let Pacioretty go two years ago. It's fine then, for Therrien to say he wants more from Eller, but he's got to do his part as well. He has to put Eller in a position to succeed and let the player do the rest. We've seen him show signs of real ability. It was one of the very few high points from the 2011-12 Habs lost season.

Sunday, February 10, 2013

Beat Down

This morning, I was going to write a scathing reaction to last night's destruction of the Habs in the most humiliating of ways by the wretched, ungodly leafs. I even got started, when my son asked me how they did last night. I answered, "They sucked in every way. They lost 6-0 to the stupid leafs." He just looked at me and said, "Yeah, but you can't write anything too mean about them because they're still your team, right?" I sighed, agreed and erased the lines I'd written in frustration.

Yes, last night was dreadful. It was disappointing, embarrassing, desperate and, in some cases, horrible. That it came on the heels of losses to two other division rivals magnified it. Watching a bully like Colton Orr deliberately try to hurt Tomas Plekanec with a knee and pissant Mikhail Grabovsky actually bite Max Pacioretty was salt in a freshly inflicted wound. Yet, for all the disgust we feel today, and for all the calls to strip the "C" from Brian Gionta or overpay to get George Parros or bury David Desharnais in Hamilton, the Canadiens are not as bad as they looked.

Right now there are some problems, chief among them the sudden inability to score. The leafs are not a defensive juggernaut, but they kept the Canadiens to the outside, making sure Reimer could see every shot. On the other hand, the villains in white came out hard from the first puck drop. They were using their speed to force the Habs D back, and an aggressive forecheck giving them access to Price's crease all night long. As Price himself said last night, "That's how you'll score against most goalies in this league."

We know the Canadiens are capable of better, because we saw them do the same kinds of things the leafs were doing last night, earlier in the season. Instead, on a "no excuses" team, Josh Gorges said through gritted teeth that the team wasn't ready to start the game (sounds like an excuse, there Josh), and once they got behind, they couldn't catch up.

There are two major factors contributing to the scoring problem. One is the dreadful play of Erik Cole. Cole really helped his line with  Desharnais and Pacioretty succeed last year by using his strength and speed to drive down the wing. We saw that line score a lot of goals because Cole carried the puck, forcing the opposing defence to key on him, which allowed Desharnais and Pacioretty to get open and go to the net. Cole's not doing that this year. That means Desharnais is having to do the grunt work, at which he's not nearly as successful. As a result, he's battling to break into the offensive zone, or dumping and chasing instead of making nice little plays for Pacioretty or Cole to cash. If Cole's not committed to playing in the NHL anymore, as he hinted he wasn't before the season began, he needs to make that decision now, instead of continuing to play without passion. In the meantime, it's time to break up that line. Perhaps Rene Bourque, who's this year's Cole, could move to that line for a game or two, just to get Pacioretty and Desharnais going. Or maybe young Brendan Gallagher could give the pair some jump. In any case, something has to happen because that line is failing and Plekanec can't do all the scoring as well as all the penalty killing this team needs.

The other factor in the scoring problem is the defence. Gorges is a leader and a heart-and-soul guy, but he can't score. Francis Bouillon is a similar kind of player. Alexei Emelin is playing on his off side, and he's making a lot of mistakes, while he, also, doesn't score. P.K. Subban is capable of putting up some points, but he's still learning defensively, so doesn't venture too far from home most of the time.Neither does Raphael Diaz, although he and Subban are capable of making some nice outlet passes to get the offence moving up ice. That leaves Andrei Markov, the General. He's playing an average of 24:39 per game, two minutes more per night than his career average, he's partnered with Emelin, who's making all those errors, he's 34 years of age and has a surgically rebuilt knee. So, while the PP gives Markov a marvelous opportunity to show off his brilliant on-ice vision and offensive creativity, playing even-strength workhorse minutes sets him up for failure. There's no coincidence that all of his ten points this year have come on the PP, or that he's a -2 at even strength.

The Canadiens power play never worked well with Markov and Subban out there together. Perhaps it's because Markov likes to have the shooter to his right for the one-timer, but he has to move to the middle to set up the right-handed Subban. Whatever the reason, Markov and Diaz clicked much better than Markov and Subban. Without an active power play, the defence plays a limited role in the Canadiens offence, and the lack of that back-end support is hurting them.

Michel Therrien is still figuring out this team and which players work together best. He's still learning which buttons to push to get the best out of each guy. One thing is certain, though, and that's that he doesn't have a lot of time to do the job. He's got to make some adjustments and make them quickly, without it seeming to be caused by panic. No player should be sitting there in the room after a game saying they just weren't ready to start. The Canadiens are not the kind of team that can sit back and wait for the perfect opportunity. They have to do what brought them success at the beginning of the year, and what worked for the leafs last night: skate like their nuts are on fire for 60 minutes and force the other team back on its heels by the sheer energy of their attack.

There is one small thing to take heart from in the midst of our hand wringing and rending of clothes today: These players are supporting each other. Nobody is going to get drilled and left to stand alone. Plekanec mentioned on RDS's L'Antichambre last night that a big reason why he was able to avoid getting his knee destroyed by Orr was because his teammates shouted a warning from the bench. He said how big a help that was, and that it showed how the players are looking out for each other. That's the kind of mentality that will help the team weather the bad games and the losing streaks that are bound to come.

Most of us never thought the Habs would win the Cup this year. All we wanted was a fun team to watch, with some hope for the future. Last night was neither entertaining nor optimistic. (Pity the poor buggers in the reds at the Bell Centre who acutally paid to watch that crap.) Still, nobody expects a perfect year, especially from a rebuilding team. We all know there will be potholes in the road, and last night's could have eaten a Buick. The good thing is, for now, there's another game coming right up, to take the sting out of the last one. And we will watch, because, yes, they are still our team.

Friday, February 8, 2013

White Out

Oh, Ryan White. What a mess he finds himself in today! For the second time in as many starts, White took a brain-dead double minor that ended up costing his team a goal and momentum. The first time, his pointless unsportsmanlike minor broke the game against Ottawa open as the Sens scored two and never looked back. White looked sick to his stomach on the bench, and sat out for three games after that. Last night in Buffalo, Travis Moen's injury opened the door of opportunity for White, who got the second chance Michel Therrien had promised him against the Sabres.

Given his short leash and his previous transgression, White did the worst possible thing he could have done, short of telling Therrien he'd fathered the coach's grandchild.  He let annoying Steve Ott goad him into mashing Ott's face into the ice and landed himself another stupid double minor for roughing.  Predictably, the Sabres scored almost immediately. The goal put Buffalo within reach and with tired players on their last shift of the game, the Canadiens gave up the tie and, eventually, the point.

White's penalties didn't just cost the team a win. They forced Tomas Plekanec, who's been the best player on the team all year, to play 5:29 tough minutes on the PK. Plekanec is Therrien's go-to penalty killer, but the more he's used in that role, the more his total minutes climb. That's not what you want in a hectic, compressed schedule. The Canadiens need him on offence, not killing dumb penalties all night.

Unfortunately for White, if you play with an edge, you have to play with a smart edge. So far this year, he's been forgetting the smart part. After just getting scratched for the same offence, the patience of the fans and of the coaching staff is wearing dangerously thin. The puck is now in Therrien's end of the ice when it comes to finding a way to deal with White without crushing his confidence. After all, the kid does have his good points, and there's no question about his passion for the game and for winning. This is what he told me last season, while working to recover from hernia surgery:

"Hockey's everything I've ever known and everything I love to do. My life revolves around it and it always has. Once they take that away from you...I didn't really know what else to do. I tried to stay around the rink as much as possible and be a part of the team, but it's tough when you're not contributing on the ice and you're not going to war with the guys. It was a tough season in that sense."

If White's having a tough season this year, it's down to his own choices. This is where Therrien's experience as a dad comes in. He'll have to count to ten (or a hundred), talk to White and, eventually, give him another chance. The young player will have to understand he's not on a short leash anymore. He's on a choke chain with a muzzle. There comes a point when a team just can't make room for a guy who makes the kinds of huge mistakes that costs games. White's almost there, but he's not worth discarding just yet.

And, of course, hockey is a team game. One guy's error, no matter how in-your-face dumb, doesn't doom the team to a loss all by itself. Last night, Peter Budaj wasn't very good. Perhaps it's too much to expect a guy who sees game action once every two weeks to be sharp when called upon, but that's essentially the job of a backup goalie in the NHL. So far, Budaj hasn't shown he can fill the role properly and make his teammates feel like he's giving them a chance to win. The tying goal, with two seconds left, would never have happened if Budaj had simply covered the puck in the crease. Carey Price can't play all the games, but with Budaj's play, he may have to play more back-to-backs than he would if his backup were more reliable.

In Budaj's defence, even though some of the goals he allowed were weak, he made some big saves as well. He just needs to stop the soft ones. If he doesn't, the defence changes its style and tends to fall back more to cover for him. (Lucky thing, too, because Raphael Diaz...who's been the anti-White in terms of smart play... pulled a goal right out of the net behind Budaj.) That ends up giving the opposing forwards more room in the offensive zone, and a guy like Vanek can use that to his great advantage.

The other big problem the Habs are facing is the complete dysfunction of last year's first line. David Desharnais is working hard, but he's getting shown up in the defensive side of the game. Max Pacioretty could be still dealing with sluggishness from his emergency appendectomy, although he showed signs of his old self last night. Erik Cole, however, has been nowhere to be seen for most of the season.

It's true Cole has traditionally been a slow starter and he does have a couple of goals this year. Still, ten games in, Cole has rarely shown the drive for the net or tenacious forechecking he did last season. He said before this season even began that he was thinking of retirement because of his disillusionment with the CBA process. He's been playing as though his mind is already on a tropical beach with his kids. Last season, a big reason why that line worked was Cole's powerful presence in the offensive zone. While opposing defencemen backed up to contain him, it created lots of room for Desharnais to put his creativity with the puck to good use. When Cole's trailing the play as he's often been doing this year,  Desharnais has to carry the puck a lot, and he's easier to stop than a truck like Cole.

The Canadiens are a work in progress, there's no doubt about that. They have a lot of issues to address, and some of them are bigger than Ryan White. Today, though, the focus and the blame will probably fall on the slumped shoulders of a kid who's showing more enthusiasm than good sense. Yesterday, I talked to former Habs coach and current senator, Jacques Demers. He had some words of advice White would be well served to learn.

"You have to have players who are disciplined," he explained. "I told my players before the playoffs, turn the other cheek. If you get a cheap shot, you don't like it. But don't retaliate, because if you do, you'll be the last guy and you'll get the penalty. Don't put your team in a vulnerable position. I told my players don't be selfish, because it could cost us the game."

White knows that from experience. Now he needs to show it's sunk into his head. He'll get another chance, but it won't be tomorrow.

Sunday, February 3, 2013

The New Additions

The Canadiens, as we're all aware, had a lot of problems last season. They didn't play with a full lineup once the entire year. They were required to be a defensive, conservative team when the size factor was not in their favour. Only one forward line at a time was ever intact or performing well. The fourth line got minimal minutes and often featured a defenceman playing out of position. The defence corps featured two rookies, P.K.Subban, Josh Gorges and the ghost of Andrei Markov. They lost a lot and team spirit was low. They were not fun to watch.

Things are so different so far this season. First and foremost, the lineup is finally intact. Nobody's trying to play too many minutes or cover opponents they shouldn't be facing. The needs the team had last year for a real, gritty fourth line, for a well-balanced defence and for three solid lines able to provide a scoring threat have all been met. Credit goes to Marc Bergevin for seeing the holes in the lineup and filling them with smart, sensible choices.

Francis Bouillon seems so happy to be back home, and his play is reflecting that. He's making some very reliable decisions in his own end, and is surprisingly solid on the second PP unit. His presence gives the third pair an element of toughness and experience young Yannick Weber couldn't bring last season. He's also able to grind it out on the boards and move the puck quickly.

Brandon Prust was a great signing as well. His willingness to fight helps keep most opponents honest, but Prust is more than a fighter. In the Ottawa game this weekend, there was one beautiful sequence in which he kept the puck in the Senators end for nearly an entire shift, giving the top line guys a breather. He gives the two rookies room to work their magic with his crashing around.

The rookies, Galchenyuk and Gallagher have breathed life into the third line. Gallagher's non-stop motor and nose for the net are kind of like a homing pigeon on speed. He puts himself in the right places and the points are coming for him. Galchenyuk is getting a great opportunity to learn the big-league game without the pressure of having to carry the team's offence. So many kids with great expectations have failed because they were rushed and had to do too much too soon. Galchenyuk is in the ideal situation with a fellow rookie on his line so they can develop together. His skills are something special and he's able to take advantage of them by facing third-line opposition, most of which isn't in the "future superstar" category.

Some of the veterans are almost like newcomers too. Rene Bourque is a revelation. He's an entirely different guy this year, and he's making some thrills happen with Tomas Plekanec. Having Brian Gionta and Andrei Markov healthy fills two gaping holes from last year's lineup. Their skills just can't be replaced by Aaron Palushaj and Chris Campoli. Raphael Diaz and Alexei Emelin are a year better than they were last season.

Perhaps the biggest addition to this year's team, however, is Michel Therrien. Memories of his infamous bench penalty that turned the 2002 playoffs in Carolina's favour made many fans skeptical of his return to Montreal. It turns out, at least in the early going, the fans were wrong.

Therrien has changed a lot of things about how the team approaches the game. When there's a battle on the boards now, he's got one guy in there with two waiting to move the puck. Last year three players would be in the battle, with no passing option if they gained possession. No longer do the forwards park along the blue line and stand still waiting for the outlet pass from the D, which would often either be picked off or end up in a wrestling match with the opposing forechecker. Now the forwards are moving, and they take the defencemen's passes within the zone instead of at the blue line. As a result, clearances are crisp and clean.

Josh Gorges explained the difference in their game this year by revealing the coach doesn't want them to sit back and protect a lead. He wants them to keep pursuing the next goal right up until the final siren. That's the antithesis of what Jacques Martin had them doing. Therrien's got the team ready from the first puck drop. The starts have been fast and aggressive. How many times last year did the Canadiens find themselves out of contention by the first intermission? Nobody on Therrien's team plays fewer than five minutes, and all four lines are used judiciously.

Most importantly, Therrien said when he arrived that the team would work hard, it would practice like it wants to play and it would have better stamina than last year. So far, everyone's buying in. They've got each other's backs and they have yet to demonstrate one of last season's third-period collapses when they ran out of gas. Part of the reason is the team culture Bergevin and Therrien and their new management and coaching teams have instilled. Everything has to be about the team, not the individual, as is witnessed by the banning of the triple-low five celebration. Players should be proud to be Canadiens, a point underlined by the rule against stepping on the logo in the dressing room.

Several players have said now Therrien is a good communicator. He talks to the players and he has not only determined a role for everyone, but he makes sure every player knows what he's supposed to be doing. Players understand their jobs, which makes it easier to perform according to the game plan. Last year, players looked confused and often said they hadn't spoken with the coaches about obvious problems in their games.

Naturally, it's easy to compliment Therrien when things are going well, but it would serve us well to remember that he's doing a lot of good things even when the inevitable slump hits. He has managed to take an underachieving, disheartened bunch of hockey players and turn them into a team again. With help from Bergevin, who seems to understand something about what makes a team tick, Therrien's got the pieces he needs to provide some very entertaining hockey. And, in the end, that's all the fans really wanted from this year. Nobody expects a miracle climb from the basement to the Cup in one season, but no matter what happens, the Canadiens are fun to watch again. A big part of that change is due to the newcomers, and the old guys who are inspired to play like they're new again.

Now, if they can only stay healthy...