Tuesday, December 2, 2014

On Jean Beliveau


Jean Beliveau

August 31, 1931 - December 2, 2014




I think you didn't mean to be a god
when first you knew that blades would be your wings.
In stolen, silver moments you were free,
as steel carved ice in runes of what would be.
While those who worship blades as sacred things
so envied you that flight, when they must plod.

The river's freedom melted under lights
within the boarded confines of your stage.
As river dreamers spoke your name in sighs
their elders watched with judgement in their eyes;
celebrity a comfortable cage,
through sparkling days and legendary nights.

You shouldered all you must, though in your soul
you never yearned for more than was your lot.
But worship is a blade as sharp as steel
re-carving idols out of men once real.
A gilded name, a dream by many sought
Immortal now, regardless of the toll.



Sleep well, Mr.Beliveau. Your game and your country are poorer without you.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Powerless

Have you heard the one about the Habs PP?

The Habs power play is so bad, they're going to change the goal song to "Hallelujah" if they ever score.

The Habs power play is so awful, P.K.Subban is getting an audition for The Walking Dead.

When the Habs practice their PP, the orange cones on the ice usually kill it off.

The Habs power play sucks so hard NASA has added it as a known black hole.

You know a hockey team has issues when the jokes start to flow, and the laughs at the Canadiens' pathetic power play are flooding in like high tide. Sixteen games into this season, it ranks 28th in the league, with a whopping 7.1% success rate. Compare that to Pittsburgh's league-leading 35.6%, and you can see things in Montreal have passed "needs tweaking" and gone straight to "needs a complete overhaul."

Part of the problem, of course, is the never-changing personnel. Almost without exception, every PP starts with Andrei Markov, P.K.Subban, David Desharnais, Max Pacioretty and whatever winger is currently on their line. Right now, that's P.A.Parenteau. Pacioretty and Desharnais get 2:25 of ice time per game with the man advantage. That's a grand total of 37:45 so far this year, which is 53% of the total 71:11 the Habs have spent on the power play. In theory, that's a good idea. Last year those guys were first and third in team scoring. Unfortunately, however, you have to shoot to score. And neither Pacioretty nor Desharnais shoots the puck on the PP.

Pacioretty leads the Canadiens with 57 shots on goal. Desharnais is third on the team with 47. Yet, on the power play, they've taken a combined five shots...three for Pacioretty and two for Desharnais. That's in nearly 40 minutes each. Pacioretty puts up 19% fewer points on the PP, when you average points per minutes of play, than he does at even strength. In fact, he's got more points shorthanded. If, as the myth goes, opponents key on Markov and Subban, limiting their point shots, then the forwards should be firing every chance they get. Instead, we see them passing the puck around until it gets intercepted and cleared.

The other problem is net presence. Aside from Brendan Gallagher, who now gets less PP time...and none on the first wave because he's not playing on the Desharnais line anymore...nobody on the ice goes to the net. On many nights, the puck is on the stick of a guy behind the net, with both wingers standing along the boards. Power play goals are often scored on a big point shot. If chances from the point are limited, teams score by shooting a ton and crowding the crease. If they don't do those things, they're not going to do very well.

Right now, the Habs are winning despite their lack of PP success. That won't last. Of the top fifteen highest-scoring teams, all but two (Kings and Rangers) score between 20 and 40 percent of their goals on the power play. The Canadiens are at 8.3%. If the opponent has a working PP, they have an instant advantage in any game against Montreal. While the Canadiens are strong on the PK, eighth in the league, they're also 28th in the league for penalties taken. Sooner or later, a good PP will score, given enough chances. If the Habs can't reply, they're going to start losing games.

The lack of scoring with the man advantage doesn't just hurt the team on the scoreboard. It also causes bigger problems. If you've got a popgun PP, opponents will take liberties, knowing they can intimidate without concern about paying the price while they're shorthanded. Milan Lucic isn't one to hold back when he wants to hurt someone at the best of times. Knowing nothing will happen to him if he does can only make his behaviour worse. That kind of thing puts the Habs at a psychological disadvantage because Brandon Prust can't fight everyone, and the rest of the Canadiens end up thinking about the other team's tactics instead of just playing.

Michel Therrien has had nearly a year of watching this powerless PP and has yet to address the problems. His insistence on always using the same lines that play at even strength doesn't work with the man advantage. Alex Galchenyuk, for example, is arguably the most creative player on the team. This season, he's also willing to crash the net. Those are two skills not overly visible in Pacioretty that could conceivably help create goals. Yet, Galchenyuk gets less than two minutes a night on the PP. Dale Weise gets none, but he'd go to the net and stay there bothering the goalie if he did. He'd at least offer the opposing defencemen something to do other than block Desharnais' passes. The point is, changing personnel can't actually hurt this PP and is, at this stage, the sensible thing to do.

It would also be worth experimenting with a formation other than the 1-3-1 that hasn't been working for a year now. One thing's certain: the time for hoping the situation will miraculously correct itself is over. A coach's job is to make sure a team is functioning to the best of its ability. The Canadiens have skill, and the PP should be a good chance for them to use it to advantage. That they're not means Therrien isn't doing his job.

On the "For Dummies" website, there's a page called "Controlling a Power Play in Hockey For Dummies." It says:

"A good power play is a deadly weapon, and no team can win a championship without one. The basic idea is to move the puck among the five offensive players until one of them has an opening and can shoot. Crisp passes are essential, and so is making use of the man advantage. Get the two-on-one situations. Get the puck to the open man. Get off the shots. And be sure to take what the other team gives. If a defender comes to you, then one of your teammates is open somewhere. Try to find him. And even if you don't have the puck, make something happen. Get in the goalie's way. Look for rebounds. Keep the puck in the zone if a defender tries to shoot it out."

That's written for coaches just starting out, who are instructing kids. Basic hockey, but it's sound advice for a coach and a team that seems to have forgotten simple truths.

One way or another, something's got to give. At this point, if the Habs PP is a joke, it's not very funny.

Saturday, November 8, 2014

System Upgrade

Imagine you run a hockey team and your number-one centre is a decent player who puts up 60 points a year, doesn't take many dumb penalties and wins more faceoffs than he loses. You'd probably be happy enough with that guy. Then, imagine it's free agent time and a big, strong centre who dominates on the draw, skates like the wind and puts up 80 points a year hits the market. You have cap space enough to sign him, but if you do, you then have too many centres on your team. So, you have a decision to make. Do you trade your 60-point man and sign the new guy, or do you let the 80-point guy go to the leafs because you don't have a roster spot available for him? Assuming the more productive player isn't a jerk, most of us would go for the upgrade.

It's the same for any position on a team. If Dustin Tokarski is ready to play, you trade Peter Budaj. If Daniel Briere isn't productive, you move him and bring in P.A.Parenteau instead. If you can somehow acquire Thomas Vanek at the deadline, you go for it. Marc Bergevin's job is to make sure he's got the best person available in every position because a team only gets better by wisely and opportunistically upgrading its personnel.

That mindset should be the same for coaching staff. The old saying that a coach is "hired to be fired" is inevitably true for every guy behind the bench, whether he lasts a year like Tortorella in Vancouver or fifteen like Barry Trotz in Nashville. Sooner or later coaches get fired, and most of the time it's because their teams aren't getting results. Rarely does a team can a coach just because there's a better option available, but perhaps they'd be better off if they did. At least they'd be choosing an upgrade versus dumping an underperformer or scapegoat mid-season and being stuck with whomever is available at that time.

There's a chance Mike Babcock and the Detroit Red Wings will part ways this summer. The rumour mill says the coach wants more money and team management doesn't want to pay it. Of course, there's also the fact that the Wings core is aging and they're no longer perennial contenders. Or Babcock may simply want to rejuvenate his career by taking on a new team whose Cup window is just about to open. One thing is certain: if Babcock becomes available, Marc Bergevin should court him.

Michel Therrien was hired for a second go-round behind the Habs bench because Bergevin was a brand-new GM who needed an experienced coach. He was also one of the few francophone options available. In his time as Canadiens coach, the team has achieved some good results, winning their division in the lockout-shortened 2012-13 season and making the Eastern Conference final in last year's playoffs. Even so, the Canadiens powerplay is dreadful and its possession stats alarming. If they'd made the Finals last year, they would have been crushed by the Kings. They don't score much, and they allow much too much pressure on Carey Price. The coach's insistence on overusing veterans who don't produce and limiting the minutes of young players who do is not a great winning strategy. Nor is benching some players for making mistakes and forgiving others.

Of course, no coach is perfect and the scrutiny Montreal's coach receives exposes his flaws in a way most of his colleagues don't experience. Therrien isn't a terrible coach. He's also not the best in the league. He makes mistakes, but so does every other coach. The question Bergevin needs to answer is, if there's a better option available, which may happen this summer, will he be willing to replace Therrien, even if his results aren't terrible? If he's the proactive GM the Canadiens need to build the best team possible, he must consider it.

Babcock is a rock star in the coaching ranks. He comes from an organization that knows how to win. He's got a Stanely Cup, two Finals appearances, a World Championship and two Olympic gold medals on his resume. He's consistently coached the Wings to playoff berths and kept them competitive even when dealing with injury and retirements. This is the kind of coach the Montreal Canadiens deserve.

Michel Therrien deserves some respect as a guy who's coached more than 600 NHL games. Yet, if there's a chance to hire someone who's had more success at his position, the Habs would be wrong not to explore that. These are the Montreal Canadiens, not the Columbus Blue Jackets. Habs fans have been waiting for 22 years for a Stanley Cup win, and they're tired of hoping in vain. Part of creating a winner is making sure every position is filled with the best possible person. That includes the coach.


Monday, November 3, 2014

Smoke and Mirrors

The hockey gods are a cruel society. They'll steer a game-winning goal into a post or turn a ref's head in time to see retaliation, but not the original infraction. They can frustrate a guy who's trying and elevate another who isn't. And, they can make an average team's record look impressive with fluky tying goals late in games, good goaltending and shootout luck. Then, just when a team starts believing its own hype, the hockey gods laugh and drop the glamour that concealed some painful truths.

This is what we know today: the Canadiens have big problems and the fragile success they have experienced early in this season has glossed over the worst of them. Among the issues are the complete lack of spark on the power play, the softness of a D-corps that routinely backs in on its goalie, the slow starts and poor discipline. Add to those issues a coaching staff that appears to believe shuffling lines while refusing to call down reserves from the press box will fix things without fundamental style changes, and a picture of how much this team has to change begins to emerge.

The powerplay is a serious issue. It hasn't clicked since last Christmas, yet nothing changes. When a team doesn't score very much, the man advantage needs to be an actual advantage. The other day, speaking with Hockey Canada incoming CEO Tom Renney, I asked "How do you fix a 10% PP?" His answer: "Quick puck movement is important, but most important is net presence. You have to create chaos in the crease." Brendan Gallagher has the heart of a lion, but one short guy in the crease isn't exactly chaos. Yet, with this glaring problem continuing into a new season, the coaching staff continues to send the David Desharnais/Max Pacioretty unbreakable duo out to start every power play. In the face of all evidence saying this doesn't work, it continues. Perhaps Therrien and company need to ask for volunteers. "Who'll make chaos in the crease? Okay...you're on the PP." What's certain is somebody has to do it or nothing will change. And, if nothing changes, this team won't be winning too many close games.

The defence is another huge problem, and it starts with P.K.Subban. Subban's putting up a respectable number of points for an offensive-minded blueliner, with his eight in 12 games. Unfortunately, he's also taken the most minor penalties (ten) in the NHL. Although only two of the seven PP goals against the Habs happened with Subban in the box, his lack of discipline is indicative of a team-wide problem. Subban, by letter on the sweater, by long-term expensive contract and by pedigree should be the leader of the team's defence. Instead, Andrei Markov, the old workhorse, continues to shoulder the bulk of the load as Subban's play is often spotty, with bursts of energy interspersed with black holes of mediocrity. The Canadiens need better from Subban, and they need a better approach to defence as a whole. Right now, the D give up their own blue line too easily and they're too vulnerable to odd-man breaks and stretch passes. Despite the change in personnel from last year to this, the same defensive problems exist. That's on the coaches, particularly the coach responsible for defensive structure.

The one advantage the Habs have when they're playing well is a team speed that pressures the opponent and forces penalties and mistakes. We've yet to see that out of the gate this year. The team began the season with entirely different lines and defence pairs than it used last playoffs, so one would imagine they'd need time to make connections with each other. That doesn't explain the lack of jump they've shown to start every single game so far. If the players can't find the energy they need within themselves, the coaches need to do a better job at preparing them. Shuffling lines and keeping a struggling Rene Bourque and slow Brandon Prust and Travis Moen in the lineup over young, hungry players like Jiri Sekac and Michael Bournival seems counterintuitive for a team that needs speed and energy. That's on the coaching staff too.

It's not a promising thing when you realize that five of the Habs eight wins came in OT or shootout. It's not good to know the team has a -4 goals for/against differential, or that it's last in the league for penalties taken versus powerplays granted. The team has been on the PK 30 minutes more than it's been on the PP; half a game more they've played shorthanded than with a man advantage. When a team takes that many penalties, it breaks any rhythm or momentum it tries to build up and it means players who don't kill penalties cool on the bench. The lack of discipline comes from lazy, slow play that forces the players into bad decisions. When the Habs are skating in mud, it also means the other team has little reason to foul them. Stats can mislead, but in this case, the numbers are a true reflection of what we've seen on the ice so far this year.

The hockey gods are capricious. They allow players to believe in a fragile illusion of success. Even as the music of victors blares in the dressing room and the player-of-the-game boxer robe is handed out, players know deep down when they didn't deserve to win. When the smoke and mirrors disappear, as they have in the last four games, the reality of what needs to be fixed is glaring.

The Habs, on paper at least, are a better team than the one we've seen for most of this young season. They're lucky to have collected the points they have, and they have a lot of work to do if they're to fulfill the potential to which they have yet to live up. That work starts with leadership, both on ice and behind the bench. Neither group is doing a good job this year, and without improvement at that level, the hockey gods will make this a long, cold winter.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Smote By the Butterfly, Sting In the Knee

Let's try a little experiment. Stand with your feet slightly wider than shoulder-width apart. Okay, now pull your knees in together, without moving your feet. Now, drop to the ground, knees first. How does that feel? Not too bad? Well, then, get up and repeat the operation about fifty times in a row. If you can pull that off successfully for days and years on end, and you have no fear of being hit by flying rubber or bowled over by large men, you might have what it takes to be a butterfly goaltender.

The butterfly position, originally used by luminaries like Glenn Hall and Tony Esposito, became the de facto style for the vast majority of goalies after rookie Patrick Roy burst onto the NHL scene in 1986, winning the Stanley Cup and Conn Smythe trophies with his twitchy, on-his-knees way of getting the job done. A generation of Quebec-born goalies who idolized the young Roy copied him, and coaches, who saw the advantages of covering low shots with the spread pads, leaving the upper body free to protect the high part of the net, encouraged them.

Now, nearly thirty years after the explosion of kids taking on the butterfly, the first wave of them is retiring from hockey. J.S.Giguere, who hero-worshipped Roy as a young goalie, and later grew up to train with Roy's coach, Francois Allaire, decided to pack it in this year. In the 20 years since he was drafted in the NHL's first round by Hartford, he's seen his name etched on the 2003 Conn Smythe as one of only five winners whose team lost out in the Stanley Cup Finals. He made up for that by leading his Ducks to the 2007 championship. He's played a lot of hockey and now, he says, his joints are paying for it.

"It's not great," he admits. "I already had a hip surgery about ten years ago on my right side. From meeting with the doctors at the end of the year last year, it looks like I might need a hip replacement in the next five or six years. We'll see. I can still function day to day, but running is out of the question and any big physical activity is tough."

Giguere is 37 years old. He says even though his joints hurt all the time, he found the pain of playing goal bearable with therapy. Ironically, it was the constant therapy itself that he feels started to take the fun out of the game for him.

"It gets to be redundant, coming into the rink every day and having to do so many exercises," he explains. "Being on the medical table every day for 25 minutes and working with the trainer, that became very hard. I didn't even play that much in the last couple of years and I still had to do that, so imagine if I played more games. It's very typical of goaltenders in our day. You can't just come to the rink and go on the ice. You have to maintain your body, you have to work a lot with the therapists, the massage therapists, the conditioning guys on  your stretching and your recovery, making sure your core, your glutes and your groin are strong to minimize the effect the position has on your body."

If it's tough to be the guy on the table, the person treating a goalie has his work cut out for him as well. That's where Dave Green comes in. He's with Cove Sport Therapy in Halifax and he frequently assists his friend, Habs trainer Nick Addey-Jibb, with the Canadiens in Montreal. At this year's training camp, he spent many hours with the goaltenders, particularly Carey Price. He sees first-hand the effects the butterfly is taking on the player.

"I just think about Price in the first week of the season. You go on the road, you play, you're in the plane or on the bus and you don't get the proper treatments on the road like you do at home. Maybe by the fourth game, he was worn out. No doubt his knees were stressed," he says. "At 27 years old, he's still really young, but he's not bouncing back like he used to. I remember Price as a rookie at his first camp. It just seems like yesterday, but you put ten  years on that body, 50 or 60 games a year, and all of a sudden, he's in the clinic all the time now. Whereas, when he was 22, 23, 24, I did almost no work on Price in his first three or four camps. This time, I spent an hour a day with him. In my experience, I can see he needs more work than he did in the past."

The strain on a goalie's body is different from the physical toll the game takes on skaters. As Green says, there are five guys trying to score and only one trying to keep the puck out of the net. Goaltenders are playing an entirely different game, physically and mentally.

"When you go knee-knock, it's called a valgus stance in therapy, so you're putting an extreme pressure on your medial collateral ligaments, when they're in a stretch position," Green explains. "You and I, if we were to fall to our knees,  your heels will hit your bum. That's natural. Basically, everything from your belly button to your knees is in a wonky position when you're in the butterfly."

When you look up "valgus," which is the technical term for people whose knees touch, you'll often find it followed by the word "deformity." That's because the butterfly position isn't natural for humans. The repetition of the position, Green says, is what really causes the long-term joint damage butterfly goalies often sustain.

"When you drop, you have 200 pounds of your body falling onto your knees and ankles, and sometimes the pads don't save you from your ankle hitting. And there's also pressure from the ice when you hit. Goaltenders go down in a butterfly more than thirty times a game with a lot of shots. It's the overuse, the continuous impact. Every time a goaltender goes in the butterfly, he's putting a little strain on those ligaments because the position isn't natural."

Add to that the extra stress of having large men moving at high speed fall on a goalie in that vulnerable, stretched-out position, and it's easy to see why knee injuries like those Price has sustained in the last two playoffs happen.

"Let's compare to baseball," Green says. "A pitcher throws 70 or 80 pitches a day in a rotation, then they rest for four days. They have little micro tears in their muscles from the repetitive motion of pitching. When a goalie is going down in that repetitive motion, then someone lands on him, it can cause contusions, bleeding internally, inflammation, anything with impact."

That's why, he believes, goalie careers aren't lasting as long as they used to and younger players who play more games, practice more and attend more hockey camps at a younger age are feeling the pain earlier.

"I think the curve is starting to change. How many goaltenders in the last decade have been good for five or six years, then all of a sudden they're not that good anymore?" he asks. "It may be they're just not as agile in that position because their knees have taken such a beating and their ligaments are stretched and strained.
They're probably doing more maintenance before and after games. That's what I've noticed in the last few years. You can keep them in the game a little longer with that...extend their careers. Zach Fucale, who I work with here with the Mooseheads is a 19-year-old kid, but his hips and his knees look like they're beginning to wear down already. He needs more therapy than he did as a 16-year-old here in Halifax."

Green thinks if teams invest long-term in a franchise goaltender like Carey Price, they're going to have to change the way they view the position. Goaltenders, he believes, need more rest than they get now, and dividing ice-time more evenly between two or more goalies would help prolong the career of that star netminder.

J.S.Giguere agrees more rest would help a goalie last longer, but when asked whether NHL teams are ready to go back to a platoon system, he laughs.

"Good luck! It sounds good in theory. I think, at the end of the day, winning a game has become so important that everything else, they forget about. They might say they'll rest the number-one guy, but as soon as a must-win game comes up...and we see those in November now...the coaches forget about all that stuff. There's so much money involved. I can't say they don't care, but they're not going to think that far ahead. I can't see it happening. I think you're lucky if you have a team where your number-two goalie can play 25-30 games at the right time, and you're not afraid to play him in difficult games. That's a luxury."

So, goaltenders continue to absorb the pain of their joints rebelling against repetitive, unnatural movement. Giguere says most butterfly goalies of his generation...including his idol, Roy...are paying the price after years of abuse.

"I know Patrick had tough hips when he played. That was one of the reasons why he did retire. A lot of the guys are tight and feel it in their groins and hips. It's pretty common. It's something we just learn to deal with.
You get up in the morning and you're stiff walking around, but you get used to it. If my pain would stay like this until I die I could cope with it, but you don't know what the future will bring."

Giguere is pretty sure his future will bring a hip replacement surgery before his 45th birthday. Many of his colleagues will experience the same kind of premature aging of the joints too. For today's players, therapy and building up muscles that balance out the strain on ligaments will help them prolong their careers. It means they have to invest long, boring hours in the training room as part of their daily routines. Even so, that help can only go so far. Teams banking on a Cup window with a star goalie in net have to realize the player's longevity is compromised by the job's requirement to twist his joints into unnatural shapes and pound them into a solid surface repeatedly.

It seems a lot to ask of a player, especially one already dealing with the technical requirements of playing a difficult position and the mental strain of the spotlight in which goalies live. That they continue to do so, despite the pain and long-term damage to their bodies is a testament to the competitiveness of pro goaltenders.

As they say in hockey, goalies are different.

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Funtastic

Tomas Plekanec has built himself a reputation in the NHL. He's the guy who drives Sidney Crosby crazy every time they meet, shutting him down offensively and distracting him to trash talk. He's the player Brad Marchand freely admits to hating. He's also the guy who shows up first at practice every day and demonstrates for his younger teammates how to be a pro. They all admit he doesn't say much in the room, but he's respected enough to be one of the recognized leaders for the Canadiens.

One thing you never hear about Plekanec, and has never been part of his reputation, is that he's a particularly light-hearted kind of guy. Sure, he's happy when he scores, but he doesn't bubble over with exuberance. Or, at least, he didn't used to. This year...at least three games in...things are different.

Plekanec is having fun. He's smiling. He's jumping up and down when he scores, and chest-bumping his teammates. Yes, chest-bumping. The 31-year-old newly-minted Habs alternate captain has a spring in his step and a glint in his eye we haven't seen through the long seasons of his exile to the defensive-zone faceoff circle. Whether it's because Manny Molhotra is now taking some of those d-zone starts and killing penalties, or because the stone handed Travis Moen has been replaced by rapidly-improving Alex Galchenyuk on Plekanec's wing, the Canadiens are the better for it.

That's not to say the team hasn't exhibited some problems in the early going. The slow starts and early deficits are not habits a consistently good team practices. The defence has positioning issues while breaking in young players, and it's feeling the loss of Josh Gorges' minute-eating presence in his own zone. Despite those weaknesses, the team is showing it's got a certain uplifting spunkiness and belief in itself. Carey Price has said after a couple of the team's early come-from-behind wins that "you're never out of a hockey game." That seems to be a philosophy the Canadiens, as a group, have adopted and it's paying off. The absolute dominance they displayed in taking control of the game against the Flyers was pure fun.

In a day when analytics are trendy, systems dictate the style of the game and "it's a business" is as common a cliche as "giving 110%," sometimes it's easy to forget that fun is the point. Nobody in the NHL started playing hockey because he believed in his atom coach's system. And not one of them kept at it through injury and adversity because he hoped to improve his Corsi number. They played the game then and play it now because it's fun. And nothing is more fun than winning for both the players and the fans. We watch because the game is entertaining and we like to see the players crank it up and fight for a win.

So, if the Canadiens have some flaws to work on, they're also remembering why they're doing it. The points they're gathering now will be important, but the fun they're having is what they'll draw upon when times get harder. This is team bonding of the lasting kind. And for fans, there's nothing nicer or more fun than seeing a pro like Tomas Plekanec jumping up and down and chest-bumping...like a guy who remembers what it's all about.

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Farm Boys

It's an unseasonably warm October afternoon and a bunch of kids, off school while their teachers have an in-service, gravitate to the local hockey rink. Though the weather is distinctly un-hockey-like, the unmistakable feeling of the game in its nascent autumnal incarnation vibrates in the air here. The smell of yesterday's arena fries mingles with the frosty scent of the freshly-resurfaced rink and the always-present funk of musty hockey gear. The gunshots of a couple of dozen pucks bang the boards in the mostly-empty building. The kids hang out in groups near the glass, starry-eyed attention riveted on the exhibition just a pane away.

The Hamilton Bulldogs drift through warm-up drills, their half-speed faster than the watching dreamers can muster on their best day. They look, to these kids, as impressive as the NHL's Canadiens must have looked to them in Montreal a week ago. Only a few days separate the crowded adulation of the Bell Centre from the echoing rural rink the 'Dogs hopefuls now overwhelm with the sheer size of their presence.

After a bit, the pace of practice picks up and the watchers outside the glass notice the players who begin to pull away from the crowd: the ones who are a little bit faster, a little crisper on the pass, a little smarter. In a red practice sweater with the bulldog on the front, the Swedish kid with the number 32 on his white helmet skates with a powerful grace. The kids whisper and point him out. Magnus Nygren tried Hamilton last year, but retreated back to Sweden, disillusioned with the city and the hockey after just 16 games. Today, dancing over the ice surface, forward and back, back to front, crossing over effortlessly, he moves with a surety he says is the biggest difference in his game between last season and this one.

"Mostly, I think, my confidence is better. I played for Sweden in the world championships. That was a good experience," he reflects. "I played against a bunch of NHL players during that tournament and it gave me good confidence back here now. It was a lot of fun."

Nygren isn't at the 'Dogs camp for fun. He's here to work, and when his Hamilton stay ends this time, he wants to move on to Montreal, not back to Sweden.

"Of course I want to be the name that the coaches tell the Montreal leaders was great out there. I want to be the first guy called up. I don't want to wait too long. Things can happen fast, and if you get a chance you have to take it," he explains, Nordic blue gaze snapping with an intensity of feeling. "I'm fighting for a spot there, and trying to work as hard as I can every day and get better. I want to help the Hamilton team to win. Even...That's a lot of D up there in Montreal. A lot of good ones. I'll just keep fighting here and see what happens."

He's already eyeing the Habs roster, imagining where he'll fit in when that chance comes.

"I'm an offensive D-man. I have to play well down here. Things can't go so well for people up there if I'm to have a chance, I know. Still, there are so many good D-men on one-way contracts, it's tough for us with two-ways to have a chance," he admits. "I'm going to show up on every shift and make sure I'm good enough on 5-on-5. PP is important to me and I'm going to use my shot and my offensive skill, but 5-on-5 is just as important."

The kids at the rink drift away as the players make way for the Zamboni after practice. The Bulldogs' bus idles in front of the building and the quick-showering guys pace as they wait for their more leisurely teammates. They ooze vitality in their dress shirts and open jackets, still-wet hair slicked back, with fluffy bits of beard betraying their youth. If Magnus Nygren is all business, some of his camp mates are actively living the dream.

Hours after practice ended, night has fallen and it feels like autumn has only been dressing up like summer all day. The small rink has just released a sell-out crowd, thrilled to have been treated to one-step-below-the-NHL hockey. The Bulldogs are a loose-limbed bunch of relaxed jokers. They're still competing for jobs, but the build-up to their first exhibition game has culminated in victory and the knowledge that they can do no more for today.

Mac Bennett, sporting two-days' growth of stubble and one button too many open at the neck, spent the last four years at the University of Michigan. He toiled on the college blueline while prospects like Nygren were sweating it out in the pro leagues, trying to climb. Bennett emits a kind of glowing energy, eyes snapping as he tries to summarize the feelings after his first pro game.

"It was a good first experience. Good to get that first game of pro under my belt. I think there were some little pre-game jitters, but after the first five minutes they go away," he says.

The words are banal enough, but the vibrating posture and chattering speech betray a deeper emotion. All the same, even in his excitement, the 23-year-old knows he's got to make up some pro development time on his younger rivals.

"Faster. The game is a lot faster," he says. "The decisions with the puck are a lot faster. The players are a lot more skilled. I have to just keep it simple and wait to adjust. You just play. Eventually those decisions come quicker, just because you're forced to make them quicker. Everything for me is just simple at this point. I'm still kind of adjusting. When I get the puck, just move it. Be strong on my stick and in the corners. When I get the puck, make sure I'm skating. The players out here are a lot more skilled, so when you make a mistake, sometimes your teammates can make up for you, which is really nice."

Nygren, at this point, is accustomed to pro hockey and the idea of working toward a job in Montreal. For Bennett, it's all still a bit magical.

"What the Habs are to Montreal, the Yankees are to New York. There are Habs fans everywhere. It's pretty special. It's a huge honour to wear that crest. It's an organization with a ton of history, so I'm proud to carry on that tradition," he enthuses. He knows all about history, aiming to become a third-generation NHLer. "It's kind of crazy to think about. My grandfather was a goalie and my uncle played in the NHL. It's kind of cool to help carry on that tradition."

The Bulldogs filter out of the tiny rural Newfoundland arena in twos and threes, into the visible cloud of the bus exhaust. They stow their bags and find places that will, before the year is out, become "theirs." The fans have vanished to home and bar in the darkness between the orange-haloed street lights. On the bus, some of the young men who have split their very atoms to make it as pro hockey players, are only a day or two away from having their dreams cut short. Others...the Mac Bennetts of the group...are floating, their first pro points just around the bend. Some, like Magnus Nygren, can almost touch the NHL and will go to sleep with the scent of it.

The bus coughs and sighs into motion, easing out of the abandoned parking lot. The sidewalks roll up early here when the game is over. The kids of the morning are long asleep and the day for the dreamers is done.

Sunday, October 5, 2014

Subtraction By Subtraction

When hockey players talk about being part of a "special" team, usually a winning team, their explanations for what makes that team something out of the ordinary are often unsatisfactory. It's like asking a player to explain how they skate or how they know where to place a pass so it hits the tape of a guy in full flight. They can't tell you because their bodies, after years of repetition, do it without thought. It just is. Similarly, when a dressing room clicks and something special...chemistry, bonding, gelling, whatever you want to call it...happens, it's hard to wrap the why of it up in a few clear, well-chosen phrases. It's a thing that either is or isn't, and players know it when it happens.

One thing is certain: it isn't always about talent alone. To step outside the hockey world for an example, look at the Toronto Blue Jays. They went out two years ago and spent a lot of money to bring in a lot of talent that was supposed to bring their team back to relevance. Two disappointing seasons later, defenders talk about injuries and bad luck, but critics point to "chemistry" as the real issue. Chemistry, that rarest of intangibles players use to describe the feelings necessary to a winning team. The word itself doesn't tell you much unless you've witnessed it yourself and recognize it.

It's the respect players have for even the least important of their number. It's the uncomplaining way in which a marginal player does his best when given a chance and pats the other guys on the back when he's relegated to the sidelines. It's the star player who doesn't think himself above the rest and the defenceman who'll block a shot with his face if it gains his team the win. It's the ability of a group to give and take a joke with goodwill, and to share a collective work ethic for a common cause. It's a mix of personalities that balance each other on the whole; the calm guy who keeps panic at bay, the funny guy who lightens the mood, the heart-and-soul guy who raises the level of emotion when it's needed and the bundle of energy who gets everyone to pick up the pace. The game may be played on the ice, but the will to do it comes from the relationships in the room. It's just as delicate and real as any concoction in a laboratory beaker.

In the analysis of the individuals who make up a team, a goalie who plays fewer than 20 games a year most of the time and a shot-blocking defenceman who scores two goals a season don't add up to much. The former rarely makes a difference to the outcome of a game, let alone a season. The latter will sacrifice himself to block a shot, but isn't physically imposing enough to render his lack of production unimportant. Yet, there's a greater value to those players than their talent or on-ice performance. When that goalie is patient and hard-working and never puts himself before the team, he's more than just a backup player. He's the friend and helper of your number-one, who's got a tough enough job to do without worrying about a whiny or self-interested partner. When that defenceman comes to the room every night burning with an infectious passion to play the game and win, he's more than just a shot blocker. He's a leader and a rallying point for those who need to feed off his emotion.

Similarly, an aging winger who's losing a step of the speed on which his game is based and who's physically one of the smallest players in the league looks like no big loss when he's let walk at the end of his contract. Yet, in his role as captain, his quiet dedication and calm leadership keeps drama to a minimum and helps his teammates concentrate on the job at hand.

The Canadiens have set themselves an interesting task in the coming season. Marc Bergevin has made some roster moves designed to address on-ice imbalances and, from a business perspective, save money and manage the assets that are his players effectively. Moving Josh Gorges and replacing him with Tom Gilbert means the defence has a better right/left mix than it did last year. Trading Peter Budaj means the team saves a bit on the salary cap, solves a tricky three-goalie situation and avoids having to waive a goalie who'd likely be claimed. Letting Brian Gionta go and replacing him with Jiri Sekac saves money and makes the team bigger and younger on the wing. On paper, these moves make sense. In the big picture though, three players who were friends and emotional touchstones for the team are gone. That's tinkering with chemistry.

Perhaps the new four-man leadership group of Tomas Plekanec, Andrei Markov, Max Pacioretty and P.K.Subban, with their nice mix of youth and experience, will settle into new roles and bring the elements necessary to a winning team that left with Gorges, Budaj and Gionta. Or maybe the pressure for Subban to live up to his massive new contract will affect his play and shift the balance in the room. Maybe Pacioretty, always sensitive to the ups and downs in his game, will let criticism impact the way he leads. Perhaps the loss of two of Carey Price's closest friends will upset his legendary calm. And the questions aren't just surrounding those guys. Bergevin and Michel Therrien have talked about how younger players will now be required to take on new roles in the life of the team. That's risky when some of these players are themselves still discovering who they are and where they fit.

In David MacFarlane's book, "The Danger Tree," the author writes about his mother's relatives during the First World War. There were six brothers in the family, and they ran a successful construction business. When war broke out, all six boys joined up and three of them died overseas. After the war, the surviving brothers returned to their business, but they found with the thoughtful brother gone, the impulsive one had no steadying influence and made critical bad decisions. The charming brother had died and the sullen one couldn't maintain the connections the company needed to thrive. In the end, the business went under. The vital balance of skill and personality...the chemistry, if you will...was destroyed and those remaining couldn't recreate it.

We don't know yet how the changes in the Habs room will impact their performance on the ice. Looking at the roster, it seems as though the team, if the players remain relatively healthy, should have no reason to win markedly fewer games than last year. A season ago, Canadiens players talked about how the group in the room was "tight" and "close." They're the same cliches most guys offer when things are going well. The revelation for this year's edition will be when the rough patches come and the Habs take their chemistry test.

Monday, June 30, 2014

No Trade, Bad Grade

Four years ago, just after the Habs' Tomas Plekanec had signed his current long-term contract, I asked him about whether the no-trade clause included in the deal made him feel more secure about his future in Montreal. He had, after all, spent the previous couple of seasons as rumour-mill trade bait. This is what he said:

"Well, first of all, 'no trade' clause doesn't mean much. If somebody asks you to leave, I don't think you'll want to stay, right? And, obviously, if your name is in all the rumours, it's not a great feeling."

This is the position in which Josh Gorges finds himself today. The partial no-trade clause he agreed to as part of his four-season contract, designed to protect him from having to play in an undesirable city, has come back to bite both him and the Canadiens in the butt. As Plekanec so succinctly put it, nobody wants to stay where he's not wanted.

In Gorges' case, without the no-trade clause, Marc Bergevin could have made discrete inquiries and arranged a trade that would best work for the team. Gorges would have been shocked and disappointed, but would have adjusted as so many players before him have done. As it stands, Bergevin apparently had a trade worked out, but was obliged to request Gorges' permission. Gorges refused to give because it was allegedly to the leafs, who are on his no-trade list.

So now, we have Gorges hurt and angry on one side and Marc Bergevin looking for another trade (for whatever reason...that's another issue) to which Gorges will agree on the other. Unfortunately for Bergevin, once that "we don't want you" genie is out of the bottle, there's no putting it back. Gorges, as a guy whose intrinsic value is in his unwavering dedication to giving everything for his team, can't help but find it tough to live up to his own standard when he knows Bergevin wanted him gone. When that genie escapes, the GM has virtually no choice but to trade the guy, and all his colleagues know it. If Gorges might have brought back a top-six winger or other valuable player for Montreal, his value will now be lower as the vultures know Bergevin has got to move him.

Then there's the impact on the rest of the team. With captain Brian Gionta's status in limbo, there's pressure on guys like P.K.Subban and Carey Price to take on more of a leadership role. Not to mention, Gorges and Price are very close off the ice and the move will undoubtedly be felt by Price, especially in the way it was handled.

Really, in the end, no-trade clauses do more harm than good for many players. In the old days, when hardly anyone had them, guys could convince themselves they were going to a team that wanted them, rather than being discarded by the one letting them go. These days, when they're asked to waive a no-trade clause there's no hiding from the fact the team they've bled for wants to ditch them.

Tomas Plekanec was right.

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Wilted Flower

Guy Lafleur is at it again. Unsatisfied with his status as hockey legend and Quebec hero, the former Canadiens star periodically enjoys expressing his opinion of the current incarnation of his old team. Quite often, the opinion is negative and hurtful. In 2008, he talked about the team being composed of "four fourth lines." In 2009, he said long-time captain Saku Koivu should have been traded years ago and should just go away to Minnesota to play with his brother. In 2012, he slammed the idea of the Habs hiring Patrick Roy as coach because he's too volatile. Now he's ridiculing Max Pacioretty and Tomas Vanek, claiming they're not ready to 'pay the price' to win in the playoffs and the team should let them go. All this, of course, is coming from an official Canadiens ambassador.

Nobody is denying Lafleur's right to speak his mind, and, as a team legend, his opinion carries weight and attracts comment. He's often lauded for his fearlessness in sharing his thoughts so freely. Where he's wrong, however, is in failing to recognizing the responsibility that comes with influence. When Lafleur says Vanek and Pacioretty failed to rise to the occasion in the post-season, it's not just the public hearing that. Inevitably, those players will hear it too. And, unless Lafleur actually talked to them and understands where they were coming from, he's being reckless with their reputations.

Pacioretty is 25 years old and is just emerging from his first real playoff experience with 11 points in 17 games including two series-winning goals. He's a streaky player, as are most goal scorers. He's also a career Canadien coming into his own as a go-to winger, on a very cap-friendly long-term deal. He took 55 shots in the playoffs, with an unfortunate 9.1% shooting percentage. He was involved, even if the goals weren't going in. This is a guy who is dedicated to training his body and giving back to the city in which he plays. While he may have some issues with confidence, it's all part of his development.

Vanek is 30, and has had the misfortune of playing for some terrible teams through his career. Still, in his previous 36 playoff games, he scored 20 points. His post-season this year was statistically better, with 10 points in 17 games. Even so, there's no comparison with his regular-season stats, which put him at 0.83 points per game, versus his 0.59 PPG in the post-season. In terms of his involvement for the Canadiens, he had 28 shots, with a strong 18% shooting percentage. One can't help but think if he'd taken more shots, he could have made more of a difference. He admitted as much himself after the team had been eliminated. He's also said all along he plans to hit the open market for the best contract he can get this summer.

These are two different players, at two different points in their careers, with two very different motivations. For Lafleur to lump the two of them together shows his lack of subtlety and understanding. A more thoughtful critic might remember that in his own first real playoff run of 17 games, he contributed only 8 points. He might think about how he felt when people complained about his lack of expected production in the early years, and how they said he might be a first-overall bust. Then, maybe, he'd consider what it would have been like for him if team icons like Jean Beliveau had chosen to dump on him in the press, and perhaps feel a bit of gratitude that he didn't have to deal with that.

Thomas Vanek likely won't be in Montreal very long after July 1, and Lafleur's comments probably won't affect the big pay day he's looking for. Max Pacioretty will be at Habs training camp in September, and he'll be asked about Lafleur's opinion of him. He'll think about how he recovered from a devastating injury as a Canadien, and how he always pushed himself to get better and get back in the lineup to help his team. He'll remember having a breakout year and almost cracking the forty-goal barrier, he'll consider the money he left on the table when he signed his contract, and he'll think about the work he's done every year to improve mentally and physically. While he's staring blankly over the field of microphones in his face and telling the media he can't help what other people think, and that he was doing the best he could in the playoffs, he'll probably be wondering too. He'll wonder why a guy who had such a great, honourable career would throw a fellow player under the bus like that.

Guy Lafleur had nothing to gain by making those comments, save a bit of a media furour and his name topping the sports news again. In his callous disregard for the fact that Pacioretty and Vanek are now in the position in which he once found himself...real people playing a tough game in the public eye...he did himself no favours. Nor is he helping the all-too-brief careers of players who could only be hurt by the things he said. It was thoughtless and those players deserve better from one of their own.

Monday, May 26, 2014

Painful Lessons

Well, folks, very few of the Habs die-hards among us would have thought the dramatic seven-game triumph over the hated Bruins in the quarter-finals of these playoffs would have ended in...this. After the gut-wrenching, heart-stressing Boston marathon, not many could picture those Canadiens quite so easily tamed by a team to which we'd paid little attention all year.Yet, here we are. We have to admit, four games in, the Rangers aren't lucky. They're a good team. They're probably better than the Habs are right now.

The New York defence is better, man-for-man than the Canadiens. Their coach has them playing a sling-shot style breakout, in which their defenceman gets the puck deep in their zone and then fires it hard up ice to wingers in motion. Those forwards are getting behind the Habs D and leading to countless odd-man rushes and breakaways. The Canadiens defence, in contrast, is chipping the puck up to stationary forwards who flip it along the boards or through the middle, leading to giveaways and one-and-done attack.

The Rangers coaching is better. Alain Vigneault is using creative counters to the Canadiens attacks, as was so deftly illustrated by Sportsnet's Justin Bourne earlier in the series. Their special teams are better too, underlined by the killer short-handed goal they scored in Game 4 and their aggressive attack at their own blueline on the Canadiens' anaemic power play. Habs, on the other hand can't score on the PP and have given up four PP goals and a SH tally against.

Both the Rangers and the Habs have an undersized Francophone veteran in the lineup. The Canadiens have Daniel Briere. The Rangers have Martin St.Louis. One of them will be in the Hall of Fame. Guess which? The Rangers team speed is as good or better than the Habs. They're better on the boards and they're making better use of their opportunities.

The loss of Carey Price was devastating mentally for the Canadiens. The goalie is the unquestioned leader on the team; the guy who stood up in the second intermission of the last game against Boston and inspired the team to bring it home, and the guy who walked the walk on the ice. Yet, his loss isn't directly responsible for the position the team finds itself in now. Price's puckhandling might have helped with the Habs struggles to get out of their own end, and perhaps he might have stopped one or two of the breakaway chances that beat Dustin Tokarski. It's unlikely, though, that he would have stopped all of them. And, perhaps Price might not have stoned St.Louis in close more than once like Tokarski did. The goaltending isn't the issue. It's everything else.

It's big forwards who play small and little guys who are more easily controlled when they crash the net. It's an aging Andrei Markov who looks drained. It's an overworked P.K.Subban, who's trying to do it all and who's partnered with a guy who'd be a borderline 4th defenceman on a serious contender. It's Alexei Emelin on the second D-pair when he's not hitting and doesn't have the hockey IQ or mobility to be more than a hitter. It's a PP that goes 1-for-9 in a game and a coaching staff that continues to play the same people in the same situations with the same results, while guys like Lars Eller and Alex Galchenyuk have strong games and aren't given opportunities to help the team. It's the Rangers best players being their best while the Habs best guys are MIA. Yeah, we're talking to you, Pacioretty and Vanek.

Even though it hurts a lot to see this opportunity to play for the Cup slipping away, the good thing about this unexpected playoff run is it's giving management the opportunity to evaluate the team under fire and recognize the holes in the lineup. Marc Bergevin surely sees Brian Gionta is done and Andrei Markov needs to play fewer minutes with a better partner if he's to return. After watching Therrien's by-the-gut style coaching get trumped by Alain Vigneault's actual strategic approach, Bergevin must be thinking about the direction he wants his staff to go. He must know young defencemen like Nathan Beaulieu and Jarred Tinordi need regular-season experience so the likes of Francis Bouillon, Doug Murray and Emelin aren't the team's go-to help in the playoffs. And he's got to see that, while he's on the right track to look for character in his players, that character has got to be wrapped up in bigger, younger, faster bodies. It's a process.

The Habs have made us very proud this post-season, and it would be amazing if they somehow found a way to grope back into this series. Deep down, though, we're probably not expecting it. Management will have to take the good from this run, use it to make the team better and hope like hell this opportunity wasn't the best shot they'll have to get this far for a while. The Rangers are a good team, and they, so far, deserve to win this series. Next time, if Bergevin has learned this year's lessons well, the Habs will be the better team. If we're honest even if they were to make the Finals this year, they'd have an awfully hard time compensating for their weaknesses against either Chicago or L.A. When they're in this spot again, we want the Habs to be ready for anything and the lessons learned this year will be part of that.

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

A Rough Ride

Oh, but the Canadiens bandwagon is a desolate vehicle today. The empty seats are littered with discarded tissues, pieces of broken heart and leftover shards of I-told-you-so. Its once-shiny tricolour paint is chipped and the weathered, grey same-old is showing through. Rain drips from its roof, running tear-like down its windows. The clipping pace it used to keep has slowed to a desultory crawl with two flat tires. Those still aboard, even the natural optimists, speak in hushed tones of what might have been.

The team that came out flat-footed against the Rangers to start Game One, probably due to an emotional hangover from beating the hated Bruins in a hard-fought seventh game, was not the same one we saw in Game Two. This team, still absorbing the devastating news of Carey Price's injury, came out and did all the things that allowed it to beat Tampa Bay and Boston. Only this time, Henrik Lundqvist lived up to his all-world reputation and Dustin Tokarski looked like was starting his first-ever NHL playoff game.

The Canadiens are facing a level of adversity with which they haven't had to deal in this post-season. Previously, if they poured on the heat and controlled possession, something would go into the net. Not this time. Having failed to take advantage of their infrequent power plays, their lack of 5-on-5 scoring is exposed. The power-forward version of Rene Bourque has sunk back into his usual rut. P.K.Subban is playing lots of minutes, but seems to feel he's got to do everything himself, while his exciting end-to-end rushes are low-percentage plays that rarely end in a goal. Thomas Vanek is going to hit the free-agent market in July, and Marc Bergevin likely won't be first in his line of suitors.

The Rangers present an issue the Canadiens have not yet faced in these playoffs: a defensive corps better than their own. The Tampa defence wasn't as good, plus they were missing their starting goalie. The Bruins were missing top-four guys Dennis Seidenberg and Dennis McQuaid. If the old adage that defence wins championships is true, the Rangers have the advantage in this series and the Canadiens don't have an answer. Ryan McDonagh (pause for weeping, gnashing of teeth and abuse of Bob Gainey voodoo dolls) isn't as dynamic as Subban, but he's strong, positionally sound, smart and a threat offensively. Dan Girardi is a solid shut-down guy as well, but better in most areas than Josh Gorges. Anton Stralman's biggest challenge is his difficulty in dealing with big, net-crashing forwards, which isn't a major issue when facing the Habs. He's also eight years younger than Andrei Markov. Marc Staal is big, strong and a former first-round pick. He's leagues ahead of Alexei Emelin in every sense. Kevin Klein is younger and bigger than Mike Weaver, and John Moore for Nathan Beaulieu is a wash.

As a result of the mismatch on D, the Rangers are getting clear looks at the Habs net, while the Rangers are blocking shots, clearing rebounds, pushing the Canadiens to the outside and just generally doing a great job in allowing Lundqvist to see as much as possible. And, when Lundqvist can see everything...well...we've seen the result twice now. The loss of Carey Price is particularly devastating in this sense, because his great positioning covers up for a lot of the defensive gaffes his D-men make.

The Habs did well to possess the puck so much as they (with a few exceptions) busted their butts to defy the bad luck of Price's loss. The truth, though, is sometimes there's a loss a team just can't overcome because the hole he leaves uncovers other, fundamental weaknesses. The Canadiens have been rocked by Price's injury and they've tried their best to get back into the series, only to be frustrated in the Rangers zone. These are mental blows from which recovery will be difficult.

Despite its lighter load, the bandwagon will continue to wobble along for at least another two games. It's particularly tough to watch the wheels fall off because this year, it looked like the Habs had something special. They were healthy (for once), their special teams were working, they were getting unexpected goals from previously-underachieving players, Carey Price was having his best playoffs to date and they believed they could win. They believed in themselves, and made us believe too. Now, with Price gone and little else working like it was in the previous two rounds, the belief is ebbing away. We're forced to accept that sometimes, even a good team can be outmatched. With the Rangers' superior defence it's going to be very tough for the Canadiens to come back in this series, but it should help Marc Bergevin organize his priorities.

Many of the new fans the Habs picked up at bandwagon stops along this playoff road have decided to pack up their stuff and jump off now that things are looking grim. Those of us who've punched lifetime tickets are jumping off too. After all, somebody's got to get behind it and push it uphill.


Thursday, May 15, 2014

Credit Report

Now that the thrills of the wonderful Game Seven Habs win over the Bruins have been absorbed, celebrated and wallowed in, the team and its fans must turn their focus to the next challenge presented by the New York Rangers. It's time to get back to business, and part of that is analyzing what worked in the Boston series so it can be duplicated in the semi-finals.

Some of the win factors are obvious. Carey Price was a solid, dependable presence. P.K.Subban played the best hockey he's played since entering the NHL. The supplementary scoring from the third and fourth lines supported the top lines when they struggled for goals. Tomas Plekanec's line kept the David Krejci line from factoring in the series. The special teams were solid. And the resolve and unity displayed by the team in the face of adversity countered the extracurricular commentary and on-ice cheapness of the Bruins. Those are the obvious reasons for the Canadiens' triumph over Boston.

Perhaps overlooked, although he shouldn't be in this case, is the performance of Michel Therrien. The coach has taken a lot of heat in his second stint behind the Habs bench, much of it deserved. In the past, he's refused to give public credit to Subban, and seemed to almost dislike him. He's made strange personnel decisions, like sticking with Francis Bouillon and Douglas Murray instead of integrating younger defencemen into the lineup through the year, relegating Daniel Briere to the fourth line even when his play improved, and juggling lines right up until the last couple of games of the season. His bench management has often been suspect as well. He had a long stint of burning off his time out after a second-period icing, then needing it later in the game. He's often watched his team give up a key goal, then come right back with his worst defence pair. And he's messed up last change at home and ended up with his third D-pair and fourth line on the ice against the opposing top scorer.

That was then.

These playoffs are now, and Therrien has been really good. In the series against the Bruins, the rhetoric started before the puck dropped on Game One. Boston coach Claude Julien talked about how much he hates the Canadiens. His players followed suit, talking about hate and their supreme confidence in their ability to beat Montreal. Therrien didn't take the same approach. He talked about respecting the opponent and a commitment to hard work by his players. He didn't rise to the bait and fire back at Julien. In the end, neither did the Canadiens. They took the same high road their coach traveled and declined to fire barbs back at their accusers in black.

Neither did Therrien follow the example of his Boston counterpart and consistently berate the officials from the bench, or talk about the "crap" his poor players have to deal with. Unlike when he took his famous bench minor that possibly cost the Canadiens a playoff series in his last stint in Montreal, this time Therrien left that to Julien, who ended up getting penalized for abusing the refs.

The Bruins, following the example of their coach, seemed to believe their own hype and they got bogged down in a mental, verbal and cheap-shot battle that seemed to exhaust them more than it did the Habs. The Montreal players on the other hand, without getting sucked into that fight, were able to focus on the way they needed to play. That direction came from Therrien.

The other noticeable thing about Therrien in these playoffs has been his affection for his players. Cameras caught him before Game Six, walking the length of the bench, patting every single player on the back and dropping a word of encouragement in every ear. During tense moments in games he's been seen calming players down, and when mistakes were made, he's been there to talk to the offender about it. Knowing Subban was under tremendous pressure personally and professionally in the Boston series, Therrien was unequivocal in his praise and support for the young defenceman. He's been a positive and calming influence, which, in the emotionally-driven playoffs, is sometimes more important than being an X and O genius.

Just as we've seen teams tune out a coach and collapse, we're now seeing a team buy into the message and raise their level of play because everyone believes in the same thing. Michel Therrien has learned from his mistakes and he's now got a group of players who are listening to him, and, because of that, they're winning. Even if he's still a little slow to make adjustments when things aren't working (he probably should have inserted Nathan Beaulieu in the lineup long before Game Six), he's managed something more important at this time of year. He's convinced 30 players, a coaching staff and a GM that they can win the Stanley Cup.

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

No More Mr.Nice Guy

Sometimes it's hard to be the bigger person, it's tough to be the nice guy and it's painful to be the good sport. When you invest as much emotionally in the team you follow as most loyal Habs fans do, it hurts when the years pass and all you have to assuage the hurt of another season's futility is the memory of past glory. We try to find the brighter side of playoff misses (Hey! A better draft pick!) and early eliminations (They're building toward the future!), but after a while, it all feels kind of empty.

I would like to think I've been a pretty good sport about the last 21 years of Habs incomplete playoff efforts, the immediate post-Patrick Roy years excepted. I've looked for the bright spots. I've tried to focus on Saku Koivu's heroic return from cancer, and not the bloody eye injury that cost his team a playoff run. I've given credit to better teams, luckier teams, healthier teams and more determined teams.

This year, though, I have to admit I'm sick of it. Sometimes, even the most patient, optimistic fans have just had enough. Watching and listening to the Bruins' behaviour before and during this series is infuriating because they don't take the high road. They take the lowest of the low roads, and they succeed. Then, when they do, they rub it in the faces of their opponents. They boast, they sneer, they talk about how much they hate the opposition. Then, on the ice, they complain about everything and when they score, they thump their chests, flex their biceps and leap into the glass on an empty-netter as though it's the Cup winner. They squirt water from the bench into the face of P.K.Subban while he's trying to play, foul players with their sticks and try to start dumb fights at the ends of games when it doesn't matter. Their fans throw bottles at opposing players and make thousands of racist comments on Twitter when a black guy beats them. The Bruins make few apologies for their crass behaviour, but, rather, revel in it. They expect to win, and they'll do whatever it takes to do so. Most gallingly, it works.

Habs fans have put up with a lot of this in the last 21 years. When the Bruins won on an overtime deflection in Game Seven in 2011, they acted as though they'd swept the Habs and their cockiness knew no bounds. And in the 2009 playoffs when a disjointed Habs team really did get swept by the Bruins, their fans spent the summer mocking Montreal mercilessly. Even in the 2002, 2004 and 2008 Canadiens wins over Boston, the whining, accusations of diving and cheating and the diminishing of the Montreal victories was ridiculous.

With another Game Seven on the horizon and somebody going home on Wednesday night, it's clear anything can happen. A blown offside call, a fluke bounce, an early PP, a key injury...nobody knows what little thing could turn the tide of the game and the series. Both teams have played very strong games, and could do so again. Logically, I'm aware of this. I know the Bruins are better on paper, yet the Habs have given them all they could handle in this series. I concede the Canadiens have shown some very positive signs of being a team on the rise, but this year, I want more.

I don't want to meet Bruins fans' gloating with a polite, "Your team did well." Not this year. I don't just want the Habs to win, I want, for once, the braggarts to go golfing. I want the team that's played the cleaner, more respectful game to walk out with the victory and their heads held high. The Canadiens have played this series the right way, and I want to see them rewarded for that. I want them to come out flying the way they did in Game Six and prove, by their play, that they deserve to win.

Today, I wore my red Habs sweater out shopping. People were smiling when they saw it, and folks I didn't know made a point to comment and say they were hoping for the Habs too. Even leafs fans told me they're going for Montreal "because they're Canadian," and "because the Bruins are playing dirty." And you know what? It's really nice. It's nice to be a fan of the team that's attracting admiration and support from all avenues. I don't want it to stop, and I don't want to have to pretend to be a silver-lining fan for one more year.

Sunday, May 11, 2014

Questions and Answers

Going into the 2014 playoffs, there were many unanswered questions swirling around the Canadiens. How much will GM Marc Bergevin be willing to pay to keep Thomas Vanek? What kind of deal does P.K.Subban deserve? Will Andrei Markov be re-signed or not? Who will be captain if Brian Gionta is let walk away? Now, on the brink of elimination, management should have a very good idea about the answers to those questions.

On Vanek, there's no doubt the man wants his last big NHL pay day this summer. He's 30, and knows from now until the end of his career, he'll be fighting to maintain what he's got, rather than keep improving. He'll want the maximum seven years teams other than Montreal can offer him and he'll want significant coin. The temptation to sign him is significant because the Habs could definitely use his skill. He's able to put up anywhere from 60-80 points a year if he stays healthy. However, at his age, his ability to keep producing at that level will inevitably begin to decline. If he were signed for five years, one could reasonably expect him to maintain his output for three or four years, with a bonus if he can do it for all five. However, Vanek doesn't want a five-year deal, and anything beyond that is risky for the team that signs him. The Canadiens are looking at a window for Stanley Cup contention opening in the next couple of years, and can't afford to have a giant contract with small return on the books then. Of course, Vanek may surprise and be a legitimate producer for the next ten years. There's a better chance he won't, if you look at his compete level in these playoffs, so if he's not willing to sign for five years, he should be let go to Minnesota or whatever other team will commit its future to him.

P.K.Subban, on the other hand, has proven, beyond a doubt, that he's the real deal. He has managed to raise his game significantly when it really counts, and he has proven he can handle adversity by taking the high road in the face of racism and petty garbage like Shawn Thornton's spraying him with water from the bench. He didn't fight back when Michel Therrien benched him for mistakes other players were forgiven, or when Therrien talked about making him a "better person." He handles all the crap that comes his way with dignity and aplomb and still faces every day with a smile. He accepted a low-ball bridge contract last time he was up for renewal, then went out and won the Norris. Subban has more than earned his pay day. The team has the option of signing him for eight years, and Bergevin should grab that option with both hands. Subban is the team's best player and its future and if he wants eight million dollars a year, he's worth it.

Andrei Markov has proven this year and through these playoffs that he's still a worthy defenceman. His game is cerebral and durable, so even if he's not as fast or mobile as he used to be, he still has a lot to contribute. Also, the Habs could use his experience and leadership as young players like Nathan Beaulieu and Jarred Tinordi learn the ropes next year. Markov has said he wants to finish his career in Montreal, and rumour is, he wants three more years. However, at 35, any contract he signs is a risk for the team. For that reason, Bergevin would probably like to do a one-year deal. Considering the contributions Markov has made over the years and can continue to make, it would be fitting if the two sides can compromise and agree to two years at his current salary. Markov's too smart and too good to fall off steeply in the next two seasons, and he would be a great mentor for the kids.

Brian Gionta is a different story. The playoffs have shown he's really not the same player he used to be. He takes too many low-percentage shots right at the goalie and his speed, which has always given him a much-needed edge, is showing signs of dropping off. If, as it appears, he's becoming a third-line penalty killer, there are guys out there with a size advantage who can fill that need. Gionta has been a respectable captain and has given the Canadiens his all, but his run in Montreal is over.

Now the question is, who should be captain when Gionta is gone? Based on everything we've seen in these playoffs, the answer can only be one person: P.K.Subban. At 25, Subban has punched four full NHL seasons and has demonstrated an ability to raise his game when required. As mentioned earlier, he's the best player on the team, and, if there's any justice, will soon be the highest paid. Most importantly, he's a huge personality. Claude Lemieux said earlier this week that winning starts at the top and it's contagious. In the dressing room, the top is your captain. If you've got a captain who's upbeat, energetic, competitive, durable, classy and dedicated as well as supremely skilled, the other players on the team will be able to look to him for inspiration and example. A team that competes like P.K.Subban is a winning team. He's handled himself with such maturity this spring he's showing he's ready to be a leader. Other captains in the league have been named at younger ages than him, and not all of them have the kind of ability Subban can boast. If you want someone who can give an underachieving teammate "The Look" when needed, Subban can do it. He can challenge any player to be better because he demands it of himself.

It's funny how the playoffs work. You can spend a whole season asking questions, then have them answered in the space of a handful of high-pressure games. The Habs season may end prematurely this week, but management has seen enough to resolve some very important issues.

Thursday, May 8, 2014

Regular Season Beauty and the Playoff Beast



When you think about Claude Lemieux, you think about the playoffs. From very early in his hockey career, he was the kind of player who somehow performed on a higher plane when the pressure was on and the games really meant something. In 27 junior playoff games, Lemieux racked up 61 points. In 1985 he was the playoff MVP in the Q, which foreshadowed his future NHL post-season dominance. And, Lemieux didn't just raise his own game when it counted most. His passion inspired the players around him to be better too, which is reflected in the world junior gold-medal team, the Canada Cup winner and four Stanley Cup champions for which he's played. These days, with his playing years behind him, he's spending his spring watching others try to do what came so naturally to him, and he likes what he sees, particularly from his own first NHL team.

"There's a lot of really good teams," he acknowledges. "Unfortunately, only one can win. In the East, it's gonna come down to goaltending...always. It'll come down to the team that is great on special teams and stays healthy. I like the Canadiens right now because they're one of the healthiest, and they've got great goaltending. They could go a very long way."

Lemieux knows well the feeling of winning in Montreal. As a 20-year-old rookie in 1986, he scored 10 goals in 20 games to play a vital role in securing the franchise's 23rd Stanley Cup. He thinks that victory and the players he shared it with inspired the excellent playoff career he'd go on to have.

"I played, I believe, the last 8 or 10 games of the regular season. People ask if I felt the pressure of playing for the Montreal Canadiens in the playoffs. I was just numb. I was just happy to be there. I was excited about the opportunity. I was always a pretty good tournament performer in my youth hockey career and that translated really well to the next level. Obviously, we had a wonderful run and ended up winning the Stanley Cup in my first year," Lemieux recalls.

He won three other Stanley Cups, with New Jersey and Colorado, taking home the Conn Smythe trophy as the MVP of the 1995 playoffs. His 19 game-winning playoff goals are third all time, behind only Wayne Gretzky and Brett Hull. He was unusual in that his average point production over his career was higher in the playoffs than in the regular season. Now, looking back at his post-season success with an analytical eye, he believes the intimate familiarity of teams embroiled in a close series inspired most players, but he was one of those who simply thrived in those circumstances.

"I think the more you play your opponents, the better it gets. You really get to know each other. You know their strengths and weaknesses. You know their patterns. Everyone is studying each other. Then it becomes a real true war of physical play, mental strength and just how bad you want it. And that's why I think my game suited playoffs a little bit better than regular season play. Other guys just disliked me even more, so mentally I was probably a pain to be facing for a six or seven game series, so they probably were glad to go home and not face me any more," he says with a wry laugh, referencing his chippy, abrasive, irritating style.

With all those Cup wins and special moments over 18 playoff seasons, you'd think it would be tough for Lemieux to pick a personal favourite. It turns out it's quite the opposite, though. When asked, he immediately recalls a goal most Habs fans of a certain age will remember as well, scored in Montreal during that very first run to the title.

"I always say the biggest goal I ever scored was against Hartford in, I think it was double overtime, Game 7," he explains. "I'm always going to remember that goal as my most exciting, memorable goal. I still remember scoring it and skating toward the bench and diving on the ice with all my teammates on top of me. It really struck me what it meant to win in Montreal when Larry Robinson was the last guy to congratulate me and he was hugging me and he wouldn't let go. It was just he and I pretty much left on the ice and he just kept hugging me, then he let go and I saw he had tears in his eyes. He was crying. I thought, this is crazy. This man has won so many Stanley Cups already and he's been around forever. But that is what winning does for you, and that's what it means to be a Montreal Canadien. It's quite special."

Lemieux says with his post-season record, he's often asked what it takes to be a winner. He believes players like Robinson and Bob Gainey set the example in Montreal, and he thinks that's why so many of his former teammates went on to win in other places.

"I say a lot of guys are born winners and they won't take no for an answer. Others can be converted. They can learn. It's something you can teach. It's easier to teach young players than older players, but then, I knew older players who didn't have the opportunity to win when they were younger. Bobby Carpenter, for example. He was a gifted goal scorer who'd lost a bit of speed and touch, and he learned to take on a different role as a checker. He took on a different role and became a winner, and he's forever a winner," Lemieux says.

He was happy to teach those lessons to young players on the teams he played for after he left Montreal. Now, he's got a son, 18-year-old Brendan, who's going to be drafted this year. He says he sees a lot of himself and his style in the boy he raised. And he thinks there's a smaller version of himself already playing for the Canadiens right now.

"Gallagher's a player in Montreal I admire. He plays a lot of the same game I played. Especially for a player of his size, he plays with tenacity, he's physical, he's in your face, he won't back down, he scores big goals and makes big plays. Players who have that desire, and that character and tenacity will go a long way in the playoffs." And is Gallagher's ire-provoking smile like Lemieux's too? "I think so!" he laughs.

This week, he says he'll be fighting his wife and daughter for the TV remote to see if the Canadiens can surprise the hockey world like they did during his rookie season. He knows good goaltending, good health and a solid lineup are important, and the Habs have those things, but the real secret ingredient to a long run is something he never lacked: belief.

"I don't think it's magic. I think everything runs downhill. From the top down, if you have winners at the top, it starts to spread. Losing spreads through your locker room quickly, but so does winning," he says. "Playoffs are always very exciting. There are surprises and players nobody knows about who play really well, and goaltenders and players who make a name for themselves. Playoffs are great."

If anybody knows the truth of that, it's Claude Lemieux.

Monday, May 5, 2014

Shuffle Demons

Two things we've learned about the Boston Bruins so far in these playoffs are: 1) they can be intensely relentless for short periods of time, which nevertheless are long enough to force their opponent back, gasping, as they enforce their will and, 2) they have absolute confidence in launching third-period comebacks because they've done it so often and it almost always works.

To stop the Bruins, then, the Canadiens have to counter that strategy by not only weathering the onslaught when Boston decides to launch it, but by countering it and thereby denting the confidence that fuels the pressure. We saw the Bruins through more than half the third in Game Two look disheartened and confused to be at risk of going to Montreal down 0-2. One soft goal later, the confidence was back, they turned on their relentless pressure and the Canadiens folded.

The biggest problem the Habs had during that 8-minute third-period sequence was their inability to move the puck out of their zone quickly and accurately while the Bruins were bearing down. The most common clearing play was a rushed backhand flip up the boards, which was very often intercepted by the Bruins wingers and returned immediately toward Carey Price. A lot of the difficulty in that situation lay with the defence.

People are ranting about Francis Bouillon and his deflection past Price, as well as his general sub-par play in some pressure situations. However, Bouillon was only part of the issue. For all his lack of size, age and unimaginative decision-making, he did his best. What's not so often mentioned, but equally difficult to watch are the problems Alexei Emelin has playing the right side. Perhaps it's the result of his knee surgery, but when Emelin makes his right-hand pivot to cut off a guy coming around him on the outside, he struggles mightily to turn quickly. Every coaching staff has noted this, and you very often see teams dump the puck in on Emelin's side, forcing him to make that pivot and lose his man as his turn seems to lock him up and he awkwardly wheels around, stick flailing. He needs to play on the left side to be at his most effective. Unfortunately, the Habs only have two right-handed D-men to play with him. P.K.Subban is quite at home with Josh Gorges, and that pair is logging big minutes. So, perhaps it's worth trying Emelin with Mike Weaver on the third pair. With home ice advantage, Emelin could then play his natural side and add some size and muscle to Weaver's smarts, while enjoying facing easier opposition.

That would leave Andrei Markov without a partner. Of the remaining possibilities, which include Bouillon, Douglas Murray, Jarred Tinordi and Nathan Beaulieu, the latter makes the most sense. It would still mean Markov's partner would be playing his off-side, but Beaulieu is a fantastic skater and could compensate better than Emelin has been doing. Beaulieu is also a big guy with a bit of grit to his game, and offers the bonus possibility of strengthening the second PP unit while being a generally strong puck-mover. Beaulieu has no playoff experience, but the kid is 21 and has to get it sometime, and who better to take him for his first post-season spin than The General?

In the cases of Tinordi, and especially Murray, adding size on defence is something of an illusion. Giving the Bruins bigger targets to hit isn't the answer. Getting the puck out as quickly and accurately as possible is. The Bs have been scoring from open looks in the high slot, not from crashing the crease where size on defence can help. Aside from blocking those high-percentage shots or risking penalties by interfering with Boston skaters, there's not much a defenceman can do when the Bruins possess the puck deep in the offensive zone for long stretches, no matter how big he is. On the other hand, adding a quick, mobile puck-mover who also has size means the puck is heading the other way before the Bruins can get set up and turn up the cycle and the pressure. Tinordi can do it, but Beaulieu is more offensively-minded and quicker.

The key to neutering the Bruins' go-to game plan lies in the defence. Moving the puck faster and more accurately, and setting each defenceman up to succeed by playing to his strengths is what needs to happen. The biggest issue here is whether Michel Therrien will trust an untried rookie (even one who's shown he can play at the NHL level with confidence) to answer some of the questions presented by the Boston approach. Judging by the decisions he's made to date, it's unlikely he'd do that. Which is too bad, because we know what we've learned from the Bruins. Now we need the Habs to be smart enough to turn those lessons around.


Sunday, May 4, 2014

Guts? Check.

I will admit, as I watched the Habs unravel like an old wool sock in Game Two against the Bruins, I had a strong sense of something that, if not exactly doom, was pretty close to it. In the moments (okay, hours) after it ended, I wondered how on earth a team that had worked its collective butt off for a 2-0 series lead could possibly recover from the shock of watching it slide out of their hands in the space of six minutes. A tough playoff loss to a better team is one thing, but that loss was the kind of morale-sapping blow that can create a world of doubt, disappointment and panic in players' heads. The idea of having done their best to keep the Bruins in check, only to see all their hard work get erased so very easily had to be devastating.

Today, though, the sense that losing in such a difficult way effectively turned the series in Boston's favour isn't as strong. For one thing, just about every team in the playoffs has blown a two-goal lead. It's more the norm than the exception. For another, if there's one thing we know about these Montreal Canadiens, it's that they don't give up. All you have to do is remember the Ottawa Comeback, which sent the team on a 12-2-1 streak to end the regular season.

There's no doubt there are weaknesses in the Habs game, like an ineffective Brandon Prust, a stone-cold Max Pacioretty, a terrible win percentage on important faceoffs and a defence prone to rushing its passes under pressure, giving the puck away much too often. Added to that, the Bruins play a tight, aggressive game that tends to make the Canadiens spend too long in their own zone. Their passing is precise, so they possess the puck more often than Montreal does. These facts mean the Habs have to punch above their weight just to be competitive. That they were able not only to compete, but managed to win a game and lead for most of another can make the team believe in itself, even in the face of a tough loss.

The split in Boston is a good thing, as is the togetherness of the team. In the Montreal dressing room, nobody has to deal with the feelings engendered by the loss on his own. There are friends in that room, and a willingness among them to play not only for themselves, but for each other. As the old adage goes, there's strength in numbers, and the Habs will help each other start the next game of what's now a best-of-five series with fresh resolve.

The loss itself is a test of will, as is the manner in which it happened, but a team has to pass these tests to build the kind of mental strength found in champions. To date, the Canadiens have had a relatively easy road in these playoffs. Their four-game sweep of Tampa meant they had lots of time to prepare for the Boston series and feel good about themselves. Rarely, however, does a team go deep without facing some adversity. Finding a way to overcome it draws the players tighter together and instills the knowledge that they're resilient enough to push through the tough times. Right now, Boston has the advantage in the regard, having won it all in 2011 with most of the same players. They're the better team and the obvious favourite, while the Canadiens are still learning those lessons.

The three-day break between Games Two and Three and the change in venue will help, putting time and distance between the players and that loss. There'll be time to study video and think about replacing Prust with Ryan White and Bouillon with Nathan Beaulieu or Jarred Tinordi. As Josh Gorges said afterwards, there's no point in dwelling on a loss, as it doesn't change the result. He's right, of course, but he and the rest of the Habs need to remember that lessons learned in a tough loss can become the foundation in building a winner.

Maybe the events of Game Two will give the Bruins the confidence they need to take control of the series going forward. They're a powerhouse of a team, and they know what it takes to win. Yesterday, I would have said that's what I expect to happen. Today, I believe the Canadiens will keep pushing and won't give less than their best, no matter what happened last game. And maybe that's enough.

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

An Open Letter to the NHL

Dear National Hockey League,

I hope this letter finds you well. I hear your bottom line is healthier than ever and should stay that way, at least as long as the Canadian dollar is competitive. (Of course, Canadian teams don't even need to win for that...ha ha!) You're talking about getting tougher on debilitating head injuries, and maybe someday you'll treat them with the kind of automatic penalties you call when a high stick makes contact with a player's head. This is all good stuff.

So, anyway, I thought I'd drop you a line because my Habs are about to start their 57-thousandth playoff series against the Boston Bruins. The funny thing, NHL, is teams seem to acquire reputations over the years, and then they seem to stick to them, no matter who's playing or who's in management. The Bruins have always been known as a tough, relentless, hard-working team. The Canadiens have always been fast, skilled, exciting and passionate. Even in years when those things haven't really been true, they're the images we call to mind when we think of those teams, built on decades of rivalry and respect. Those are the identities teams earn and sustain even in lean years because of the proof of history.

Now, however, the Bruins are in danger of straying from their (mostly) classy history and acting as though thuggery and bullying are what they're about. So what I'm asking is that you step in when it's needed and remind the Bruins there are actually rules in the game and every team, including the one from Boston, is answerable to them. So, for example, when Alexei Emelin or P.K.Subban lays a classic hip check on a player in black and yellow, if you could kindly inform both the checked player and the on-ice officials that those are legal and, actually, very solid defensive plays, that would be great. And, when someone like Zdeno Chara goes all ape-like on the guy making the legal hit, it would be great if he's punished properly. Every time.

Also, if a guy like Milan Lucic chooses to spear an opponent in the 'nads, which he's done quite obviously twice in the last month, it would be much appreciated if you could censure him accordingly. Failing that, giving Emelin or his chosen proxy a shot at the Lucic family jewels with a similar free pass would be acceptable. You probably can't do much about a guy who not only spears someone in the groin, but then after the game calls him a chicken because he won't endanger his surgically-repaired face to fight in defence of his stick-endangered virtue. Calling the penalty would help, though.

As for the diving of which Bruins coaches and players will undoubtedly be loudly accusing the Canadiens, I must be totally honest with you. There is diving in Habs/Bruins games. We've seen it time and time and time  again. Don't let your officials be fooled into calling cheap penalties when these blatant dives happen. We all want a fair, clean series.

So, in the interest of being completely up front, the Habs aren't guiltless either. They have been accused in the past of faking a life-threatening injury after a good, solid hockey play. Zdeno Chara, in that case, didn't know the stanchion was there, and lots of people believed him. And, Montreal fans made a terrible fuss about poor Andrew Ference's glove malfunction. He said later he really did mean to flip off Habs fans, but that was probably just to save them from embarrassment of their overreaction. Also, in just the last couple of weeks, the Canadiens have been guilty of playing in games officiated by Francophone referees. To top it all off, the Habs are far from blameless in the many, many times they have beaten the Bruins in important series in the past. We won't even talk about too many men on the ice. As you can see, there's lots of blame to go around when games degenerate into less-than-stellar displays of pure hockey skill.

In conclusion, NHL, all of us want to see the best team win in this series without any help from you or your officials. Let's allow the play on the ice speak for itself, and if it happens to throw out some figurative dirty language, we'd like you to wash out the offending mouths with soap.

Thanks in advance for your consideration,
J.T.