Thursday, March 20, 2008

In defence of pacifism

Back in October, when the Canadiens were supposed to be gearing up for an inauspicious slide to thirteenth place in the conference, fans everywhere were slamming management for not upgrading the team's "muscle" or "toughness." Guy Carbonneau came out at that time and said he didn't want to carry a guy who would play five minutes a game, with his only role being to pummel opposing players then warm the penalty box seat for five. Carbonneau had the laughable notion of rolling four lines of players capable of contributing ten minutes or more to a team game. His idea of "team toughness" is one no one believed could work. Watching Tom Kostopoulos try to fight and get knocked around every time underscored the fans' concerns.

But a couple of funny things have happend in the five months since the Habs were pegged to finish out of the playoffs. The team has been the healthiest in the least partially because the ice time is shared almost evenly among all the skaters. Also, when someone roughs up a Hab, there's no enforcer to defend him, so the whole team has taken responsibility to defend one another. That's built a sense of cameraderie on a young team that's defied all the critics and sits first in their division.

Last week I noticed another phenomenon of interest. When the Habs went to Anaheim, George Parros was noticably absent from the Ducks lineup. In Phoenix, the game before, Daniel Carcillo didn't play either. It looks like the opposition has been sitting out their goons in favour of icing more skill when they play Montreal. It makes sense really. If the Habs don't have a goon, there's no one with whom the other goon can match up. And it would be a rare coach who would send an enforcer out after a guy like Tomas Plekanec. Not only would it be shameful and break every known "code" in hockey, but it would likely end up in a quick suspension for the tough guy in question too.

Speaking of which, Colin Campbell has been busy doing just that. On March 12, he suspended Buffalo's Andrew Peters for confronting the Rangers' Colton Orr on the bench, the Stars' Steve Ott for hitting Colorado's Jordan Leopold in the head, and Chicago's James Wisniewski for a cross-check on Detroit's Mikael Samuelsson. A day later, the Pens' Georges Laraque got three games for elbowing Buffalo's Nathan Paetsch in the head. And two days after that, the now infamous Chris Pronger eight-game suspension for stomping on Ryan Kessler. Of the bunch, Peters, Orr, Ott, Wisniewski and Laraque play the goon role for their respective teams, while Pronger is considered to be more a talented bully. But the league is making a statement in punishing these guys. It's saying it doesn't like the role they play, and it will take action if their aggression goes beyond a clean fight. That statement will hopefully limit the ability of tough guys to intimidate in dirty ways that are meant to damage opponents. A coach can say it doesn't matter if a guy who plays only five minutes is booted from a game or sits in the penalty box. But at least a suspension removes the option of using that kind of weapon in the next game...or three...or eight.

So, looking at the goonless Habs, sitting on top of the Northeast division with a healthy, young, talented team, it seems Carbonneau's made a good case for his crazy "team toughness" theory. Fans will still worry when they see a team like Pittsburgh with their Laraque, or the Rangers with their Hollweg lining up on the other side. But I have faith that the Habs won't be intimidated by guys like that. They've proven they can play their game, even without a goon to protect their speedy, skilled players. And their game turns out to be pretty good.

Now, if only they can find away to counter an aggressive forecheck...THAT'S the kind of toughness they really need.

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