Friday, February 22, 2008

Ghosts and goalies

As a team gets ready for the playoffs, and as the trade deadline approaches, GMs run through a mental list of their assets. That's surely what Bob Gainey is doing these days. What must he be thinking?

Does the team have two effective scoring lines? Since Koivu's annual post-all star resurrection and Michael Ryder's reappearance on the scoresheet, and with the Plekanec line continuing to contribute, the answer is yes. Does it have a good shut-down line? Right now, no, but that can be remedied by picking up one of any number of affordable centres who are good on the draw before the deadline. Lapierre on the wing can contribute in that area, and so can Begin. Does it have heart, confidence and team toughness? Yes to all three. What about the defence? Is it good enough to shut down the best players in the league? When Markov, Komisarek and Hamrlik are on their game, yes. And Josh Gorges and Francis Bouillon have rounded into a very, very solid third pair.

So, that leaves goaltending. Does the team have playoff calibre goaltending? Having watched Cristobal Huet blow hot and cold for much of the second part of the season, including a very cold patch (aside from the shootout against the Rangers) right now, I have to say I don't feel terribly confident in his ability to be The Man. He looked awful last night. Carey Price looked awful against the Rangers, after one great and two good starts before that. The question is, can one of these goalies step up his game and dominate in the playoffs? Right now, I don't know. And that's a very big question to have unanswered a month before the post-season begins.

The ultimate irony here, of course, is that when all the pundits were predicting a Habs crash and burn season, they still gave kudos to the depth and quality of the Canadiens' goaltending. Which is why the uncertainty of it now is a little surprising. I love Cristobal Huet. I think he's a great teammate and a soothing influence in the dressing room. But I can't believe the players have huge confidence in him when they never know if he's going to let in a stinker. He almost always does at some point in a game. The problem is, many of them are at terrible times...when the team is trying to hold a lead late in a game, when they've just tied a game they've been trailing, or in the last minute of a close period. And to make things worse, Huet often makes some stellar saves which he negates by allowing a lousy goal.

Carey Price has shown us flashes of what will be. But whether he can put it all together for a playoff run in his rookie season is debatable. Of course, it's not unheard-of. Dryden. Roy. Heck, even Cam Ward against the Habs a couple of years ago. So far Price is no worse than Roy was in his rookie season. But that doesn't mean he'll be able to crank it up a notch and be consistent during the playoffs.

Right now, the Habs don't have a lot of options. Playing tighter D, which would be easier with a real shut-down centre and a fourth top defenceman like Dan Boyle, would help a great deal. But when it comes down to it, the goalie really is the last line of defence, and when the D isn't perfect, they have to be able to count on the netminder to bail them out once in a while. Maybe Huet or Price will be able to find that within their abilities. Maybe Jaroslav Halak deserves a shot to be a hero. But as it stands, the state of the Habs goaltending for the playoffs is a huge question.

The only thing worse than that uncertainty as we head into March is the certainty that they don't have what it takes in net. I'd rather not know for sure until the playoffs start.

1 comment:

HabsInBlood said...

So far, Huet has proven only that he is an above average regular season goaltender. In his only playoff experience, he did not match Ward's performance in 2006 and we went down in 6 games. Call me a risk taker, but I would be willing to deal Huet to bolster the team on D or up front. Maybe it's too early to put that kind of pressure on Price. Given our mint of goaltending, I don't see Gainey signing Huet as a UFA, unless he's willing to sign for 1 or 2 years at a reasonable price.

I would say that 4 out of 5 of Huet's goals in Thursday's game against the Pens were definitely stoppable by a goalie "on his game". As for the Habs goals, I would say that the goalie did not have a chance on at least 2 of them (Koivu and Higgins) ... I'm trying really hard not to be biased here. So, if both goalies had been at the top of their game last night, we could have won 2-1.