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.