Tuesday, March 4, 2008

Living by speed and dying by speed

Well, the Canadiens defence got a taste of what the Habs' offence serves up to opponents every night. Unfortunately, the D looked pretty slow and helpless in the face of the Sharks' speed last night. I didn't see all of the game, but I saw Josh Gorges and Mike Komisarek look like pylons twice apiece...two of the gaffes resulting in goals against. Komisarek, in particular seemed to make bad decisions when forced to speed up his game in response to the pace of the attack. Of course, bad went to worse when Carey Price looked tired and slow on three of the Sharks goals as well.

On the positive side, the team didn't quit and showed a lot of heart to come back and tie three times. The Sharks are a big, strong team but they weren't able to intimidate Plekanec or Grabovski, both of whom looked dangerous on offence. If last night's game was meant to be a test of whether the Canadiens are ready to face the big boys in the post-season, the offence passed. True, the PP went 0-for-7, but there are nights when that happens and the Sharks' PK is one of the very best in the league. Even so, the Habs PP had chances and in a longer series, it's pretty much inevitable that it will produce. So, kudos to the team's show of doggedness and the offense's success. Both factors vindicate Gainey's refusal to mortgage the team for Hossa.

However, I think last night's game also underlined a serious problem on defence. The six guys the Habs start with on D are steady and solid most nights, and they even step up to dominate occasionally. But the big flaw the corps has is handling offensive pressure at high speed. Ottawa's exposed that flaw, as have Pittsburgh, Buffalo and Detroit at various times this season. Couple that with the lack of a real shut-down centre to handle the likes of Joe Thornton and Daniel Alfredsson, which piles further pressure on the Habs' defence, and you have a serious issue.

So, while the offence might have passed the playoff readiness test, the defence doesn't. The teams they face in the post-season are going to deconstruct the Canadiens' video and focus on every flaw they find. We can expect aggressive forechecking and fast offence coming at the Montreal defence in waves from those teams that are able to mount that kind of attack. And make no mistake, there are several teams out there capable of that.

I don't know if there's anything Gainey and Carbonneau can do to fix their team's biggest weakness before the playoffs, now that the opportunity of doing so at the trade deadline has passed. They're playing the best six defencemen they have available right now. Perhaps young Pavel Valentenko, who offers speed and aggressiveness along with good defensive positioning, is ready for a call-up. But you have to think if that were the case, he'd be with the big team already. One move the team should probably make is substituting Kyle Chipchura for Smolinski. Chipchura's destiny is to be the Habs' big shut-down guy in the future. He may not be completely ready for that job just yet, but you have to argue he's better at it than Smolinski. And Chipchura is still learning from his mistakes, while Smoke isn't getting any better and is easily destroyed by offensively aggressive opponents.

I think the main thing Carbonneau can do, since he's got to go to battle with the players he's got right now, is step up the speed of practices. It's important for the defence to practice handling slick offence in top gear, and their own teammates have the wheels to provide the perfect practice foil. Of course, the defencemen have their limitations, but rehearsing at a higher speed might help them acclimatize to playoff intensity.

I believe the team can play better...much better...defensively than it did last night. But watching Brian Campbell completely undress Komisarek for one goal and Cheechoo do the same to Josh Gorges for another was discouraging. Because, if we can see the fatal flaw in the team's defence, we can be sure opponents and their video coaches will see it...and expose it...as well. And unless the Canadiens can either score a lot more goals or find a way to adjust to their opponents' speed, it could be a short-lived post-season trip.

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