Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Standing in the Dark

The best movie heroes aren't the ones that burst out of the darkest night in tights and capes, saving damsels and destroying villains. They are the ones nobody picks to be heroes. They have impossible circumstances thrust upon them and they react with heroism. The best heroes are Inigo Montoya from the Princess Bride, who spent 20 years searching for the six-fingered man and then braved death to hunt him down at the end. They are Spartacus, and William Wallace and Maximus and Han Solo, who fight the forces of evil and oppression, even though they're really nobody special on their own, but still stand a good chance of being killed for their actions. They are Seabiscuit and Secretariat and Rocky and Rudy and the Karate Kid, who nobody believes have a chance to win anything, but they do. They keep us hoping against hope and leave us sitting there after they're over with a foolish smile and a sense of satisfaction and justice well served. They make us stop flipping channels and settle in to watch again when we run across them, like old friends, on a Sunday afternoon.

This is why, if you ask Canadiens fans to give you the best moment they've experienced in the last five years, they'll almost all tell you it wasn't just one moment, but a string of many, in the 2010 playoffs. There was no greater underdog that year than the Habs, and watching them rise above the sum of their parts to become something better was an inspiration. Seeing Jaroslav Halak, the guy who was given every chance to be Carey Price's backup, face down 50+ shots from some of the best snipers in the game made you believe in magic. Of course, the illusion wavered and then vanished against the Flyers, but it was so much fun while it lasted.

This year, most likely, the Canadiens won't squeak into the playoffs in eighth place. Unless they have a catastrophic meltdown with 17 games to go, Mr.Molson will be happily selling post-season game tickets and counting his money. Still, it's probably fairly unlikely GM Marc Bergevin will make any big deadline deals to land the kind of player who can push a team over the top. The Penguins and the Bruins, on the other hand, are the teams to beat in the East, as far as Jarome Iginla and the rumoured list of four squads for which he'll waive his no-trade clause are concerned. With the Penguins having secured help in the grit (Brenden Morrow) and defence (Douglas Murray) departments yesterday, the Bruins are getting a little more desperate to nail down some scoring help and the Flames are going to be asking a little bit more for their captain.

While all the wheeling and dealing picks up steam the closer we get to April 3, the Canadiens are quietly going about their business, playing their game and waiting for the return of the three injured players, Raphael Diaz, Rene Bourque and Brandon Prust, who can add depth and a diversity to a lineup that's managed a respectable record (9-1-5 since Bourque and Diaz went down) without them. Adding them back to the roster immediately ups the grit factor, improves the PP and helps out with scoring from the wing. The return of Jeff Halpern also will help with faceoffs and the PK, both of which have been weak this year.

On paper, the Canadiens are not the strongest team, nor the biggest, nor the most talented. Their top point producers are Michael Ryder and Max Pacioretty, ranked 47th and 48th in the league, respectively. Leading goal-scorer Tomas Plekanec's 12 puts him in 33rd place. Carey Price's 2.32GAA is 16th and his .911% save percentage is good for 24th among NHL goalies.

What the Canadiens are, however, is a pretty tight team, playing a system that suits it. The Habs might not boast anybody among the top scorers, yet they're fourth in the league with 3.10 goals for per game. They might not have the biggest, strongest defence corps, or the top goalie in the league, but they're sixth overall, in allowing only 2.42 goals against each game, while giving up the fifth-fewest shots on goal. Their even-strength goal differential is second in the league, behind only Chicago, and right up there with the mighty Penguins, Bruins and Ducks. Scoring throughout the lineup is so balanced, it's difficult to tell on many nights which is the first line and which the third...and that's in a good way.

So, while the Bruins and the Penguins, and probably the Kings and Ducks and 'Hawks will be shoring up their weaknesses and bidding futures for the few players who might be available before the deadline, the Canadiens will continue to do what they've been doing all year. If hard work, sharing the load and going the extra bit farther for the sake of the guy sitting next to you are the qualities of a contender, well, that sounds a little bit like this year's Habs. Sure, Boston might get Iginla, and he might be a help. Then again, they may not and he may not. The tricky part about adding at the deadline is the risk a team runs of messing with chemistry, that most delicate and elusive of difference-makers. Not every deal is Ray Bourque-to-the Avalanche brilliant.

The Canadiens have something special this year, just as they are. If they can be healthy heading into the playoffs, whether they add or not, they could surprise. It's funny to say the team leading the Northeast division for a good part of the season would be an unexpected playoff threat, but that's how the Canadiens are viewed at the moment. Most pundits are slotting the Habs in the underdog's role. And that's just the kind of under-the-radar position where you need to be to become an unexpected hero. Just ask Spartacus.

Sunday, March 17, 2013

A Buyer's Market

Probably nobody was expecting the Canadiens to be in first place in the Eastern Conference with only 20 games to go in the regular season. I know I wasn't. I thought if the team made the playoffs, that would be fine. If it didn't, another high pick like Alex Galchenyuk would be just fine as well. Those kinds of prospects, after all, don't grow on trees and are generally only available as compensation for regular-season failure. And most Habs fans were getting pretty tired of twenty years of either no playoffs at all or quick exits if they did get in.

So now, a carefully tweaked team under the command of Marc Bergevin has a new attitude and new players like Galchenyuk, Brendan Gallagher, Brandon Prust and Michael Ryder. Old players with new life like Rene Bourque and Andrei Markov are helping too. And young guys with a year under their belts like Alexei Emelin, Lars Eller and Raphael Diaz are stepping up to give the team a depth it hasn't had for years. Together with coach Michel Therrien's new approach to offence and an aggressive forecheck, the Canadiens find themselves far exceeding anybody's expectations.

Now, former Selke winner, Habs captain and coach Guy Carbonneau is suggesting the team can be even better. He said on television the other night that a team doesn't get many opportunities to put it all together and go for the Cup. That's very true. How many players missed out in the finals and thought their team was good enough to be back next year, only to never reach those heights again? Carbonneau said he thinks it's time for Bergevin to make a trade to upgrade the Canadiens for the playoffs, because he thinks we're seeing one of those special seasons in a team's life.

It's so tantalizing to dream about that. Imagine if this is really a Cinderella team, with a Cup in its destiny. This year has been so much fun to watch and the team so heroic in its way. It's easy to think this is for real and the ride will continue deep into the spring. The question is, does Bergevin think the same way? He said at the beginning of the season that he'd only trade for parts at the deadline if he was 100% sure the team was ready to win.

With that in mind, think about it. What would happen to the Habs if P.K.Subban got hurt long-term? Or Carey Price? Tomas Plekanec? Right now, this isn't a team that has solid answers to those questions. You might argue every team has the same kinds of questions with which to cope, but the top contenders have serious depth to help fill in those holes.

Similarly, the top contenders have pieces with which they can afford to part when they're trying to upgrade for the playoffs. Extra draft picks or a winger who'd be top-six almost anywhere else, but is only top-nine for the big teams, can go a long way as trade bait. The Habs don't have a whole lot of value to trade. They've got Tomas Kaberle and an injured Yannick Weber. Possibly a prospect like Louis Leblanc or Morgan Ellis, or the rights to potentially lost-for-nothing Danny Kristo, if Bergevin really thinks there's something deep about this team. The Habs draft picks...six within the top 90 spots...are valuable in a deep draft for a team that wants to build the kind of depth contenders have. Trading them now is a gamble.

If the Canadiens are really ready to make a serious run at the Cup, it's worth it. If not, those picks will become the players who will provide the depth and the bargaining chips in a couple of years. Wasting them for a premature playoff bid will only slow down the rebuild Bergevin has so brilliantly begun. Considering the risk for a less-than-sure reward, it seems fairly certain the GM won't make any blockbuster moves in the next couple of weeks. That's even more apparent when you consider that Bergevin also said he's not interested in trading for a rental player. He wants guys who will be worth the price of a trade by providing more than just temporary service. The cost of adding such players at the deadline is so inflated it's not worth doing it.

That's not to deny the obvious truth that even a Habs team that's managed to keep winning, even with significant injuries, could use a bit of tweaking. Brandon Prust has been such a brilliant addition to the team, but he could use some help carrying the toughness load. Another guy with heart who can skate and hit would be welcome. (That should be Travis Moen, but he's been largely invisible.) And Bergevin obviously recognizes the need for a big, solid presence on the blueline, which likely accounts for the recent auditions of Jarred Tinordi and Greg Pateryn. After all, if you can fill the need at home, it eliminates the need to go shopping.

Because of the cost of adding pieces at the deadline, which I think the Canadiens can't really afford at this point in their evolution, as well as the risk of messing with team chemistry...that most elusive of intangibles... I think Bergevin should be very conservative at the deadline. Unless he can land a player who can contribute beyond this season, on a good contract for sensible return, I'm content to see what this fun, determined team can do in the playoffs just as it is.

We'll know very soon what Bergevin himself really thinks of this unlikely first-place team. He said he wouldn't jump until it looked like the Cup was really within reach. So, if he moves to add to the roster before April 3, we may be looking forward to a very unexpected, but very welcome playoff ride.

Saturday, March 9, 2013


You've probably never heard of Luděk Čajka. He was 26 years old when he died on Valentine's Day, 1990. Before his short life was abruptly halted, he was a talented defenceman playing for HC Zlin in the Czech senior hockey league. He stood 6'3" and weighed in at about 200lbs. The New York Rangers had drafted him, but he chose to stay at home and play his pro hockey near his family.

On January 6, 1990,  Čajka was playing in a routine league game against VSŽ Košice. In the second period, Košice shot the puck the length of the ice. Čajka raced back to touch it up for icing, but opponent Anton Bartanus raced with him. The two collided behind the net and only Bartanus skated away. Čajka crumpled and lay in a boneless pile on the ice. His spine had been severed, and he lapsed into a coma. Watching the rushing trainers and doctors hurrying to Čajka's side, Bartanus turned on the bench and threw up. Čajka survived on life support in the hospital, until his family finally decided to turn off the machines on February 14.

After this heartbreaking incident, the Czech league admitted touch icing was dangerous and put players at terrible risk of injury. The league introduced the "no-touch" icing rule, which would halt play immediately after an iced puck crossed the goal line. The lesson learned by Čajka's death has likely prevented the serious injury of other players in the same situation.

In the NHL, on the other hand, the Minnesota Wild's Kurtis Foster shattered a leg on a touch icing play in 2008. Promising Edmonton Oilers defenceman Taylor Fedun missed an entire season by breaking a leg on an icing call in 2011. Last night, we saw the Habs Brandon Prust probably separate a shoulder racing back to beat an icing. The touch icing rule has claimed many victims.

In the most recent collective bargaining agreement, the NHL agreed to adopt a "hybrid" icing rule, in which the whistle blows after a long shot passes the icing dot nearest the opposition goalie. However, the league won't put that change into practice until next year. Meanwhile, the AHL, the traditional testing ground for new rules, has called off the hybrid icing experiment because too many players are getting called up to the NHL and being confused by the difference between AHL and NHL rules.

The hybrid icing rule may help prevent injuries in the future, but there's no doubt no-touch icing would be better. Sure, it's fun to watch two players race it out to beat or save an icing. The consequences, though, aren't worth it. Too many players have sacrificed a shoulder or a knee or...in one sad case...a life in order to get a lousy faceoff advantage.

The lack of urgency by the NHL in changing the icing rule is indicative of the league's lack of urgency in curbing fighting or the cheap hits that are sidelining so many players with concussions. NHL leadership needs to live by the lip-service it gives to the ideal of player safety. Brandon Prust would wish it was so after his latest game.

There's no doubt the family of Luděk Čajka would feel the same way.

Monday, March 4, 2013


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.