Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Bleeding red, white and blue

Another sleepless night for me last night, tossing around, stomach in knots, vascillating between vain hope, frustration and deep, deep regret. In the end, my Habs-loving heart is hemmorraging its tri-coloured lifesblood all over another wasted playoff year. Yeah, yeah...I know...all you Pollyannas out there will say it's not over yet and they can still come back and win the next three. Some of you even say you truly believe that. You'll cite the Boston comeback in 2004 as an example. But, I remember that series too. There was a feeling back then that things were going to go the Habs' way. The hot goaltending, the timely goals, the lucky bounces. Unless things change dramatically in the next (final) game in Montreal, I see no reason why a comeback should be possible this time. There's absolutely nothing going in the Habs' favour. The second Flyers' goal last night was the perfect microcosm of the series. The Canadiens hit post after post, only to have the puck deflect harmlessly away. The Flyers hit a post, and the puck shoots straight out onto a rushing player's stick for a perfect rebound goal. You just have to shake your head and cry.

The Canadiens have tried...boy, have they tried! We can pick their play apart all we want, but the fact remains, they've outshot and outhit the Flyers in every game. They've had chance after chance and hit post after post when Biron wasn't robbing them blind. Sure, they could get more bodies in front of Biron...but we know our team isn't that kind of team. They don't have the personel to change styles just like that. They're a speed, finesse team. It's how they're built and how they thrived all season long. They're dominating play using that style and should be at least tied, if not ahead in this series. I'm not going to crap on them now for not being able to suddenly assume a different identity and become a net-crashing physical team. Saku Koivu and Tomas Plekanec are trying their damnedest to do that, and have managed to scrounge up a couple of goals that way. But it doesn't come naturally and it's tough for a couple of little guys to maintain that style. Guillaume Latendresse is a big guy who could play that way if he so chose, but he thinks he's a finesse guy. We know that, and expecting him to change overnight is unrealistic. It's like expecting Chris Higgins to suddenly discover serious offensive talent. He finds himself in great scoring position all the time because he hustles like a madman, but he's never scored more than 25-or-so goals in a season in his life, at any level. Hoping he'll suddenly develop the hands of a forty-goal man is a vain hope, if there ever was one.

In retrospect, maybe Carbonneau should have let Michael Ryder play. He's been known to come up big in important games in the past. Then again, this hasn't been Ryder's year, and maybe he'd have done no more than Latendresse has been able to do. Maybe the coaching staff should have tried to tinker with the powerplay. Mark Streit has been struggling, and Kovalev has been double-teamed on the right boards. The bread-and-butter cross-ice pass is getting blocked and I suspect at least Markov and maybe Kovalev are playing hurt. But hindsight is pointless. The team has gone with the strengths that put it in first place in the east, surprising the hell out of everyone. That's all you can do. You go to war with your best weapons. When those weapons aren't working, of course you try to adjust. But there are limits to what a player can do, and how much he can change his natural style on the spur of the moment.

Maybe the ball's back in Bob Gainey's court now. He's seen what his team's strengths can be. He's also seen its weaknesses. I think no one believes the Canadiens are quite the team Gainey has in mind just yet. Most of us would even say they're ahead of schedule with their performance this season. I picture the team in two years, when guys like Max Pacioretty and Ryan White...both sizeable, gritty forwards with scoring ability...provide what this year's squad is missing. When Carey Price is 22 and has three years of playoff experience behind him. When Pavel Valentenko and Ryan O'Byrne have NHL experience on defence, providing hard hitting and solid play in their own zone. When Kyle Chipchura has learned how to shut down the opposition's top lines effectively. I have hope that what the Habs don't have in their own system now can be induced to join the team through free agency, now that the future looks promising.

I know it's cold comfort to still be looking to the future after such a wonderful season, and after our hopes for a strong playoff climbed so high. But, sometimes your best effort doesn't win. Sometimes the other team has the intangibles... the opportunism, the luck, the its favour. Facing reality, the Canadiens will not advance further this playoff year. They won't get a chance to play mighty Pittsburgh for a ticket to the finals. But remember Pittsburgh last year...bowing out in five first-round games to Ottawa. A year can change many things. I have to put this season to rest now and hope that next year will be different. For the first time in many seasons, I have reason to believe it really will be different...and better.

On Saturday night, I will watch what will very likely be the Canadiens' last game of the season. I'll hope like hell they can pull off the miracle, but if they don't, I'm not going to pick them apart for it. It's going to be a very long, hockey-less summer, so I'm going to enjoy one last glimpse of the team that gave me so much fun and excitement this season. When it's over, if the Habs are done for the season, I'll be sad and frustrated and lose a night's sleep reliving it all. But I'll wake up on Sunday with hope that there will be another chance for these players to come back next year and climb a little higher.

That all said, getting eliminated is a trying, emotional experience. I expect I'll probably be venting a good bit before it's over. But, in this moment of calm, I really believe things will get better next year. I have to. I just hope the team can finally win something before I bleed out.

The Penultimate...or not

Technically, game seven against Boston was a bigger game. But, maybe because the conference finals are so much sweeter a goal than the semis, and a loss tonight would make that goal so difficult to reach, tonight's game feels like the biggest of the year. Win, and the series is tied going back to Montreal. Lose, and you're on the brink of elimination...forced to the near-impossible task of winning three straight or going golfing.

As previously detailed in this blog, I hate the Flyers. I hate the Penguins too, for other reasons...among them Michel Therrien's combover and Sidney Crosby's glove-kissing...but it would still be more palatable to face the Pens and get killed than it would be to outplay the Flyers and still lose to that bunch of thugs. It would be one thing if the Canadiens were the worse team...but they aren't. They're right there, dominating in every game, with every possible break going against them. I'm not saying they've been perfect, but they've been better than the Flyers, with rotten results.

I've been a fan long enough to know that a team will break your heart more often than they'll send you into paroxysms of joy. But this is the first time in years that we Habs fans have been closer to an even-keel of satisfaction at the team's having met its potential than we've been to the depths of frustration and despair caused by yet another failed season. I don't want this fabulous season to end without meeting that potential...and the Canadiens can include in the realm of possibility their ability to beat the bloody Flyers.

Three things have to happen tonight if they're to avoid looking down the abyss of elimination. First, Carey Price (who, of course, will be starting) will have to be, if not spectacular, at least reliable. No more of these "I got a piece of it, but..." goals. He has to keep the team in it, and he has to find a way to stop some pucks. Second, the forwards have to stop missing blatant opportunities to score. No more posts, no more muffed redirects into empty nets, no more failed breakaways. Third, the powerplay has to produce...or at least refrain from allowing shorthanded goals. It's really gone from brilliant, inevitable even, to downright horrid since the end of the regular season.

And, as the sum result of these three things happening, the most important factor of the night...which could be the determining factor of the game and the getting a lead for the first time since game seven against Boston. A lead will give Price some breathing room so he doesn't have to be terrified of making a mistake. It will put the pressure on Philly and force them to open up their game, which will in turn give the Habs more scoring opportunities. Just as importantly, it will allow the Canadiens to play their hard-skating, aggressive, attacking game...not the come-from-behind, desperate game they've been forced to play up until now in this series.

If this is the biggest game of the year for the Habs, the first goal will be the biggest goal. It just remains to be seen whether it'll be the guys in white or the ones in black and orange who score it. We'll tell a lot about where this series is going when that question is answered tonight.

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

A fly on the wall

A conversation between Guy Carbonneau and Bob Gainey today:

GC: (deep breath) Bob, I want to start Halak next game.
BG: (steeples fingers, regards Carbo intently) Hmmmm...I don't know about that Guy.
GC: Well, Bob, the kid is shaken. He's nervous when he plays the puck, he's missing long shots through the simplest of screens, his glove is slow and he's getting down on himself when he allows a goal. The team is expecting him to give up the lead every game, and it's hurting their confidence.
BG: Well, we've got a lot riding on Carey, and we don't want him to feel like he's failing.
GC: But Bob, he is failing. We're going to lose the series if he can't pick it up.
BG: I understand that, but it's a country thing. He's a cowboy who likes country music. All those songs are about tragic heroes. It's what he's into.
GC: That's just it, can a guy with freakin' Garth Brooks on his face rise above disaster?
BG: You have to believe, Guy.
GC: I believe we're going to lose if we don't get better goaltending.
BG: (sings) I believe in miracles...where you from, you sexy thing? Come on, Carbo, sing it!
GC: (looks incredulously at his boss) Bob, are you drunk?
BG: (stands) Drunk on love! I love Carey Price! know what I mean.
GC: So, we have to go with the kid again?
BG: (sits back down, steeples fingers) Yes, I think that's the best course, Guy. We have to think about his confidence going into the future. I've traded Huet for nothing, so if we don't treat Price like a star, we're screwed.
GC: Alright then. I guess I'd better get to practice.

Carbo leaves Gainey and heads down to the ice.

Roland Melanson: Yeah, Carbo?
GC: We've got our orders. The kid's in again tomorrow.
RM: Jeez. We've got some work to do.
GC: Better work Halak hard today. Just in case.
RM: I'm on it.
Michael Ryder: Yeah, coach?
GC: You're staying an hour later today and shooting on an empty net.
MR: Am I in tomorrow?
GC: No, I just hate you and screwing with you makes me feel better.
MR: Sure coach. (To himself: I'm sooooo coming back to haunt you, you bastard. I don't care if I play for free next year!)
Carey Price: Yeah coach?
GC: You're in tomorrow.
CP: I'll do my...
Jaroslav Halak: NOOOOOOOOOOO!!!! What da hell do I hev to do to get in da net? Kill a cheeken? Kill Price? What da hell? You suck! Dis team sucks!
GC: Now, you guys, let's go over this again: Shoot the puck. Go to the net. Stop hitting posts. If the net is open, put the puck in it. Any questions? Yeah, Higgins?
Chris Higgins: So, does that mean no deking? Because I have a cool new move.
GC: (stares heavenward) To hell with this. Let's just all go get drunk. At least that part'll be fun. Price, pick a place! Let's go. Not so fast've got some shooting to do.

Monday, April 28, 2008

The goalie giveth and the goalie taketh away

Channelling Paul Simon this morning: Where have you gone Cristobal Huet? Habs Nation turns its lonely eyes to you...

Okay, okay...too late to go there now. And I'm the first one to say that Carey Price will be a very good goalie in the NHL, and that Jaroslav Halak is a very, very talented young goalie in his own right. The problem is, the last two games have proven the old axiom that you don't win in the playoffs without playoff goaltending. Price isn't turning out to be a playoff goalie at the NHL level just yet. The jury's still out on Halak, as his stopping the two shots he faced last night doesn't tell us much.

The Habs can't really play any better than they did last night, with the exception of working better with the man advantage. Blowing a two-minute five-on-three opportunity and allowing a shorthanded goal aren't good things. But, the Flyers' PP was equally quiet and the Canadiens owned almost every aspect of the game, from hits (26-19) to shots (34-14). Sure, they could have improved on their team 42% faceoff win percentage, but they still outskated the Flyers and limited chances. When they faced the third down 3-0, they didn't throw in the towel. They played their best period, outshooting Philly 17-2 and scoring their two goals on the previously insipid powerplay.

The problem is, in the playoffs, when team offense is snakebitten, and when they can't organize on those 5-on-3s, the goalie is the one who has to hold the fort to keep the team in it. That's what a playoff goalie does. It may be unfair that on a team of twenty guys, one should bear the responsibility for a loss like last night's. Of course, Koivu's missed breakaway, Higgins' missed open net, the three goalposts they hit in the first period all would have made a difference if they had connected. But, when it comes right down to it, three goals allowed on 12 shots just isn't good enough. You can talk about tips and deflections and screens, but playoff goalies find a way to stop those, or at least enough of them to give his team a chance to win. A playoff goalie doesn't allow the backbreaker.

A playoff goalie is also consistent. He doesn't go shutout, five-goal game, five-goal game, shutout. The team needs to know the goalie is there. If the players don't have confidence their goalie will bail them out most of the time, they begin to play differently. They take fewer offensive chances for fear of getting caught and leaving the goalie on his own. They overcompensate on defence because they don't trust the goalie to handle things. It impacts the goalie himself too. He starts to worry the slightest mistake will be the one to turn the game against his team. He begins to overhandle the puck and make bad decisions. He drifts back into his net too much and butterflies too early.

Now the Canadiens have a dilemma of serious proportions. They decided to go with Price as the playoff goaltender. Unfortunately, Price is looking like he did immediately before being demoted to Hamilton earlier this season. He's making mistakes with the puck, he's bobbling easy shots and he's wandering out of his net and getting caught. And those are just the errors that don't end up behind him. So today the question on everyone's lips will be: who starts game four?

The answer will be Carey Price. Guy Carbonneau would have to have balls like grapefruits to start Halak, even if he thinks the backup is in a better frame of mind to win a game for the team. Bob Gainey has declared Price the starter and number one goalie, and in Gainey's plan, this is a year for the kids to get some playoff experience. Price will be given every opportunity to get his mojo back, and management will do all it can to avoid shattering his already fragile confidence. When it comes to a decision about which would be worse for him: losing the series and knowing he's the cause, or sitting out while Halak plays and knowing he failed, I'm inclined to think the team will choose on the side of letting him dig his way out of the hole he's dug for himself. He's always been able to pick up his game when it mattered in the past, and there's every reason to hope he can find it within himself to do so again.

Of course, it would help if the rest of the team would start burying those chances which are so plentiful on the ice and so elusive on the scoreboard. Scoring first and getting a lead would be nice. But in the playoffs, your goalie has to be the best player...fair or not...if you're going to win. Biron has been that for the Flyers, by a mile. Even so, if the Habs had only decent goaltending, the issue wouldn't be an issue. Now they're facing a game they must win, and the team is getting frustrated at having been the better side in the last two contests while still losing. They need a heroic goaltending performance to get the series back on track. Without it, Price and the rest of the team will have a few long months to contemplate how the wonderful season they held in their hands ended up dribbling out of a weak glove.

Sunday, April 27, 2008

A test of character

How well can a team play and still lose a hockey game? I was so impressed with the Habs' play last night. It was their most dominating game of the playoffs, with the possible exception of game seven against Boston. I thought they skated the hell out of the Flyers. Their passes were nice, the PP was strong, the chances they got (and missed) were unreal. They were winning faceoffs and the battles along the boards, and basically, fairly easily controlling the play most of the time. If not for Carey Price having, for him, a sub-par game, and Markov playing hurt, they'd be up 2-0 in the series today. But you have to wonder what it must do to a team's mindset when they play like that and still come away empty-handed.

This team has faced many tests of character in the regular season, and in the first round. They've learned consistency, and how to perform under pressure. Now they have to learn how to keep their spirits up after a night on which they played their hearts out and it just wasn't good enough. That's not easy. It will take a great deal of committment and discipline not to give in to frustration and start taking stupid penalties if Biron continues to rob them blind. It may be the biggest test this young team will face.

It's one thing to know you lost because you didn't play hard enough or because you took a bunch of stupid penalties. But to know you completely outplayed the opposition, yet they're the ones laughing at you in your own building (cheap bastard Flyers), is very difficult to accept. As is the fact that the outplayed opposition team managed to cash in every chance it got while you missed countless glorious opportunities. Carbonneau will be challenged with getting the team's collective spirits up and clearing the slate for game three. Price will have to concentrate on getting better generally. And the rest of the team must learn to forget about the heartbreak of this one and bring the same solid style of game back in Philly.

All in all, though, winning a Cup is about many things. Of course, a team needs skill and grit, dedication and doggedness. It must have cameraderie and good goaltending. And, maybe most of all, it needs a dose of luck. So far, the Habs have had to work very hard for what they've gotten and the lucky goals seem to be mostly going the Flyers' way. That may change before the series ends, but it may not. It may come down to a bunch of games that the Habs deserve to win and just don't.

Whatever happens, I like the way the team is playing. They're obviously the better side in this series and I have to believe the better team will prevail. But sometimes it doesn't, and we have to be prepared for that possibility too. The young Canadiens' players will be taking another test in Playoffs 101 either way. Let's hope they pass with flying colours.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Universal inspiration

Remember when you were a kid, and you thought you could really influence whether the Habs won or not? If you wore your special sweater for every game without exception or wished on your birthday candles, the Habs would do well. And everything reminded you of them.

I remember in 1986, listening to the games with my ear pressed to a scratchy, fading radio signal, transmitted to me in French through a college station's receiver that picked it up from Montreal. That was on game nights. During the day, and on off-nights, I was just as obsessed, and everything seemed to me to be connected to hockey and the Habs. I used to sit in my room, listening to "Eye of the Tiger," because it reminded me of the Canadiens and their Cup drive. Hero shows on TV, rock music on the radio, the great, energetic spring weather...everything seemed connected to the Habs. It was like being in love.

Of course, when you're a kid, you've got lots of time to be obsessed. When you grow up, there are other things you need to worry about...friends, work, committments, kids of your you never get that all-consuming involvement with the team again in quite the same way. You might love it as much, but you don't throw your soul into it like you used to when you were young.

Still, at this time of year, with a good team on the ice and hope still burning, you'll hear something...a song, a bit of poetry, a speech in a movie...that reminds you of Les Boys and their mission. And you get just a little bit more pumped. I heard this one today, the new Great Big Sea single, and I thought of the Habs. So I thought I'd pass it on for your enjoyment, and inspiration, on the opening day of round two.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Get your hate on

Okay, I have a confession to make. Maybe it's sacriligeous for a Habs fan to say, but I've never really, truly hated the Boston Bruins. They've been tough over the years, even mean. But there's an honesty about the Bruins' workmanlike approach to the game that you have to admire on some level. They come right out and say, yeah, we're going to grind you into the boards and we won't ever let up. Then they go out and do exactly that. But they do it on the cheapness about it. (I'm calling Kyle McLaren's hit on Richard Zednik an aberration, because McLaren was a cheap shit and not worthy of being a Bruin.) I've always enjoyed the Bruins/Habs rivalry. There are so many franchise-defining moments wrapped up in that competition.

The Philadelphia Flyers, on the other hand...them, I hate. There's really so very little to like about them. They're the team that tried to drag hockey down into the mud with their goonery and intimidation. Without the intervention of the powerhouse Habs thirty years ago, the Flyers' "style" would have become the norm. I hate that they're still cheap, with all their violence and suspensions this year. I hate that they're keeping a loose cannon like Steve Downie on the roster. The Bruins knew Saku Koivu's foot is broken, but they refrained from deliberately slashing the injury. We can pretty much guarantee the Flyers and Downie won't be so decent, especially if they happen to be losing.

I'm not a Daniel Briere fan, and I didn't want Gainey to sign him in Montreal for outrageous sums of money. In fact, I was very worried that the offer was on the table and very relieved when he went to Philly instead. I think that worked out just fine for Montreal, which finished in a better position than the Flyers and still has that money in the bank as well. However, I hate that Briere said he chose Philly because he had a better chance of winning with them. Come on...there is such a thing as diplomacy. You might think you'll go all the way with the Flyers, but you say Philly is a better fit for your family, or you wanted to go play with your buddy Biron, or some such benign reason for choosing the way you did. But to say you think the team you rejected is a loser? That tastes bad and earns you some hate.

I hate their ugly orange uniforms and their pseudo-tough attitude. I hate Bobby Clarke and his fake teeth, hiding the gaping psycho grin underneath, and I hate his continued association with that franchise. I hate their nasty fans and their video of Kate Smith. I hate the way they got into the second round, with their lousy goalie-interference goal after Huet was bowled out of the net. I hate their history of Hextall and Schultz. I hate Scott Hartnell's cheap shots and the space between Briere's eyes that makes him look like a bird. I hate their bravado and their rotten cheesesteaks. I hate how they'll gloat if they win a game or two.

Oh yeah, I hate the Flyers. I want the Habs to take them apart, in the epic good-versus-evil showdown this series will become. Bring it on!

Monday, April 21, 2008

Elimination Schmelimination

To quote Britney, "Oops, I did it again." I confess, I didn't believe.

Back in the winter, when the Habs were down 2-0, then 3-1 in the third to a Devils team and goaltender whose name has been an oath around my house for years, I didn't believe they could come back and win. Why would I? They never would have before. Too often, my little spark of hope had been quenched by defeat, only to be relit for the next game, then extinguished again. Yet, they got it together in that Devils game and clawed back to beat New Jersey at home for the first time since the invention of the shootout.

Then in February, I watched them go down five to nothing to the Rangers. I turned away, again never believing a comeback possible. I was wrong again, as Michael Ryder found his scoring touch, Kovalev took over and Cristobal Huet was spectacular in the shootout.

So I should have believed last night. Despite the lousy performances in the previous two games, and the fact that the Bruins had imposed their game on the Canadiens for the previous five. I should never have doubted the Habs could pull it together when it really counted. But I have been too many years a fan without a team...a real team...for which to cheer. Sure, there's been a group of guys skating around with the CH on their chests and making the money that goes along with that. But they've rarely been a team that can find depths inside themselves to counter adversity or beat long odds. It's been a long time since we could look at that group of men in red and see not Saku Koivu and a supporting cast, but instead see the lines blur and the individuals merge into a single entity. Like the old story about a single stick being easy to snap, while a bundle of sticks remains unbroken, the Canadiens remembered last night that they are a team. And a team is a lot harder to break than a group of individuals.

I remember reading in "The Game" how, for Bob Gainey, the team was everything. He learned the lessons of strength in numbers and sacrificing individual glory to win back in his junior days in Peterborough. When he went free agent shopping last summer, I think he really wanted to bring home a big name. But when that didn't work out, he went for smaller parts, but parts that shared his ideal of what "team" means. Tom Kostopoulos would go through a wall for his teammates and thinks the greatest smell in the world is "the smell of victory." Bryan Smolinski is a warrior who cranked it up when it counted, after what looked like a lazy regular season. Patrice Brisebois is, by all accounts, a great teammate who still gives it his all when called upon. (The fact that I think he's called upon too often and his all often results in unfortunate giveaways is beside the point.) The point is, Bob Gainey has built a real team. Watching Saku Koivu, Chris Higgins, Mike Komisarek, Carey Price and Tomas Plekanec fight for that win last night is making me forget the days of disappointment.

They may still go down, maybe even in the next series. But I've learned not to stop believing. Because this is a team that can find a way, even when it looks like all the odds are against them.

Sunday, April 20, 2008

Nearer My God to Thee

Okay, okay...I know history has said the Titanic's band was actually playing "Autumn" as the ship went down. But the legend that says it was "Nearer My God to Thee" fits my mood better. I said yesterday I still have a little flicker of hope the Habs, on the wrong end of momentum and with virtually no confidence left, will surprise me and pull off a win to finally eliminate the Bruins. There's a romantic in me that just won't give up. But, realistically, the Bruins have everything going for them. Their system is stifling the Canadiens' skating, and the Habs' game is based on their skating. Slow them down and the slick passes don't work, the shots are safely from the perimeter and they end up grinding on the boards, which is a game they don't play well. My logical mind says there's no reason why a team that's been outplayed for five straight games should be able to suddenly turn it around. Sure, they'll play with desperation, but the Bruins will be desperate too...only with confidence.

So, I have resolved that if (when) our team goes down, we should all go down with dignity. Angry Habs' fans are running around, blaming the coaching, slagging the players and cursing management for not getting more guys who play like the Bruins. While it's true that Carbonneau and staff have been outcoached by Julien, some of the players haven't shown up in every game and more tough grinders would probably have made a difference in this series, we can't forget that this is our team. This is the team that gave us one hell of an entertaining season. In a year that began with many of us predicting a sixth-to-twelfth place showing...most of us leaning toward the bottom of that range...our guys finished first. And not in a boring way, either. They gave us thrilling comebacks, exciting blowout wins, shutouts and six months of general enjoyment.

Just because they're tanking now, we shouldn't forget everything that brought us to this point. It was a wonderful surprise to end up first in the east. But we have to remember that the team is still rebuilding and that there are weaknesses. The main problem the Habs have had all year is finding a way to beat teams that forecheck heavily and put pressure on their defence. It was easy to overlook that problem when most teams didn't play that style against Montreal...instead, getting trapped into playing the Canadiens' speed game. But remember Gainey night? Every once in a while a team like the Columbus Blue Jackets or the Florida Panthers would come along and remind the Canadiens of their Achilles heel once again. So, it should be no great shock that a good coach like Claude Julien has keyed in on the Habs' worst flaw...their inability to counter a strong forecheck. It's worked to perfection, and Bob Gainey will surely address that weakness in the off-season. But the fact remains, that for now, during this playoff, the weakness is there and if the Bruins didn't key on it, another team would. That doesn't take away from the improvement the Habs have made this year.

Don't get me wrong. I'm not the breed of Canadiens' fan anyone can accuse of having become complacent about losing. I want a Cup every year. I want it badly. I'm really, really tired of waiting for the franchise to turn around. So, if (when) the Habs bow out, it will hurt. It will burn. Bruins' fans will laugh and TSN panelists and certain unmentionable members of the cast of HNIC will gloat. It's going to stick in our craws for a long, long time to come. We'll be angry and disappointed and embarrassed and all the other things that you feel when your team gets humiliated. But, since we can't do anything about it, we should at least be dignified in defeat. All the people talking about not watching the game because they can't bear the pressure, or because they'll be too pissed if (when) the Habs lose, are wrong.

We've followed these guys all year long. A lot of us have watched every single game and some of us have paid good money to attend the Bell Centre in person. It was a great year. The players surprised us with their team play and their quick development from prospects to important contributors. There's a great future ahead as the team continues to grow. So, I, for one, will be putting on my tophat and tails and tuning up my cello to play the team out as it goes down by the bow.

I hope you'll join me.

Saturday, April 19, 2008

Where there's life...

I love the Montreal Canadiens. I always have, and always will. That's why it hurts so much to see them collapse year after year...either barely making the playoffs and then becoming easy prey in the early rounds, or not making the post season at all.

I thought this year would be different. I thought the team had such a great season, with everything coming together, that it would carry over into the playoffs. Not so. The old line goes that the playoffs are a whole new season. That was never more true than it's been for this first round between Montreal and Boston. Everything the Canadiens did to Boston in the regular season has been forgotten by all but the Bruins, who are now taking their revenge by doing it straight back to the Habs.

It burns like bitter bile to see the Bruins cycle effortlessly in the Montreal end, winning every single battle on the boards and getting to every loose puck first. Their passes are accurate, and they're rushing in waves at Carey Price while the Canadiens' defence collapses and does more to screen the goalie than clear bodies away from him. Watching Alex Kovalev and Andrei Kostitsyn disappear in the biggest games of the year, even as an injured Saku Koivu plays his heart out and shows without doubt who's really the leader of this team.

Tonight, my head says the Canadiens are going to lose the series...well, to be accurate, they're going to blow the series. All the momentum is in favour of the Bruins. Claude Julien has managed to have his team shut down the Canadiens' offence and frustrate them into making mistakes. Now his team has destroyed the Habs' confidence to the point that they're using the Canadiens' own weapons against them.

I don't blame Price tonight. He was left alone so many times and bailed them out, he can be forgiven for not being superhuman on a couple that he did allow. Yet, despite everything, even though the Habs have been horrible and the Bruins deserve to win the series, I can't stop hoping. As long as the series is still alive, this little flicker of hope that somehow, in some way, Carbonneau and his outcoached staff will find an answer still sparks. There's some chance the team will come out heroically and prove they want this more than the Bruins do. Excuses are over, and just as the regular season means nothing, the previous six games of this series mean nothing either.

My head says the Bruins should take this on Monday and move on to be immediately annihilated by the Penguins. But my heart says the Canadiens can still redeem this wonderful season by finding some way to win the last game. Until the last whistle, I'll hope.

Identity crisis

A friend of mine said the other day that what the Canadiens have to do if they want to win is identify with the sweater they're wearing and use the pride they should feel in that to propel them over the top.

It's an interesting theory. Every team has talent. They all train within an inch of their lives to be in physically top shape. Every one has a coaching staff that devotes its energy to preparing the players by deconstructing the opponent and making a game plan to counter their strengths. They've all got medical teams, dentists, nutritionists, therapists, media relations specialists, trainers and motivation coaches. The salary cap destroyed the last barrier between the haves and have-nots, and parity is at a level previously unknown in the NHL.

With all things being more equal than they've ever been, perhaps the only things that differentiate one NHL team from another are the intangibles, like heart, luck or pride in a jersey. So, tonight's game against the Bruins is a test of character for the Canadiens. The two teams have proven that on any given night, either of them can beat...even dominate...the other. If the Canadiens are going to prevail, they have to prove they want it more. It's an old cliche, but it's true. They have to find those intangibles...determination, a hatred of losing...and draw on them to push them over the top.

In the process, they have to learn to overcome the panic they must be feeling now, with what they'd believed to be an easy first round opponent breathing down their necks. Oh yes, it'll be a test of character tonight. The Canadiens will either wither and feel the doom that facing a game seven they shouldn't be playing will spark. Or, as my friend says, they might look down at the CH on their sweaters and say, "Hey! I'm a bloody Montreal Canadien. I'm privileged to wear this sweater, and I'm going to play my heart out for it!"

I hope they notice that CH and play for it before it's too late.

Thursday, April 17, 2008


That was a wretched display of playoff hockey. I know I thought the Bs might win last night, but not because the Habs gave up. But they did. They gave up, after the Buckner-like Price giveaway on the go-ahead goal. They sucked. Maybe they got too cocky after a superior first period. But whatever the reason, (PRICE) they didn't deserve to win.

Yuck. I didn't want to see them play on Saturday. Ewwww. That is all.

Building a mystery

I was wondering today how a franchise can have such a pervasive identity that it trickles down and continues through generation after generation of players, coaches, owners, wins and losses. Mention the Montreal Canadiens, and what's the image that comes to mind? Despite years of futility and decades mired in a mucking, defensive style, the picture the name evokes is speed. Slick skating, smooth passing, offence...all accomplished at top speed. Flash and dash. Now think of the Bruins. What image do they bring to mind? Despite the brilliance of Bourque and Orr, it's that of a blue-collar team...a tough one that puts hard work and solid defence first.

Maybe it's because both franchises like to keep their heroes around to help build the next generation, and they naturally tend to recreate the kind of teams they knew as players. Bob Gainey is going to believe the team on which he played in the glory days of the 1970s is the prototype for success. Cam Neeley, Bruins vice president, will naturally push for the contruction of a tough, hardworking team like the ones he knew back in the day.

It's funny that those fundamental identities don't shift, even as the actual makeups of the teams do. And I think those identities are so deeply ingrained in the fans and players on those teams, they inevitably limit the possibilities in which the players believe. Boston's record when they're down 3-1 in a series...0-21. They've never even forced a seventh game. Montreal has made the 3-1 series deficit comeback once, but they've pushed a series to seven games on four other occasions. I've concluded it's because of the history of those teams and what the players believe they're capable of doing.

The Canadiens are a team of legend, mystery and success. Any non-Habs fan will tell you they get nervous when the playoffs come and the Habs start rolling. They'll say there's something magical about that team, and sometimes even when all the odds are against their success, it seems as though everything suddenly lines up just right to allow it to win. It's happened so often, the players believe it too. It's part of their red, white and blue identity. I think that's why the Bruins have never really surprised anyone. Their workaday image is one that relies on hard work, and by extension, pragmatism. They know the odds of coming back from a 3-1 series deficit, and with their honest assessment of the situation and innate practicality, they conclude they won't be able to do it. They say they will fight for every game and that they still have a chance in the series. But the words ring hollow and the sense of conviction they need to accomplish such a feat doesn't resonate from their assurances. Theirs is a grim passion...a nose-to-the-grindstone, go-down-like-men kind of dedication.

I think the Bruins will come out tonight and give the Canadiens everything they can handle. It's not in their franchise nature to mail it in, even when the odds are as long as they look to be right now. They might even pull off a win. But when it comes right down to it, history and the identity of their franchise has taught them they will ultimately lose the series and they don't believe there's anything they can do about it.

Jean Beliveau and other great Habs have called the phenomenon a "culture of winning." They believe young players, brought into a winning team will learn how to win and accept nothing else. They'll then pass it on to the next generation. With the lean years both the Canadiens and Bruins have weathered since Le Gros Bill last laced then up, you'd think the gap in time between then and now might be unbreachable, and that both teams might have gone on to forge new identities. But it seems some things transcend time.

Maybe this year the Bruins will prove this theory wrong. Maybe for once, their personal Lucy won't pull the football away just as they try to kick it through the uprights. But if they do pull off a miracle, they'll have to overcome generations of being the Boston Bruins first.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

On the job training

Watching game four between Montreal and Boston last night reminded me of an arm-wrestling match between two big guys...elbows planted, biceps bulging and faces red with effort, their eyes and hands locked in combat. The showdown began with Boston leaning hard into the Habs, forcing them back and looking like they'd score a quick one. But the Canadiens dug in and held off the Bruins' desperate attack through twenty minutes. Then, gradually, the Habs' relentless skating began to turn the game in Montreal's favour. Almost imperceptibly at first...a few missed Boston passes, a few more Canadiens' hits catching their targets, faceoffs going to the guys in white...the battle shifted. By the time the third rolled around, the Canadiens were the ones playing airtight defence while the Bruins looked tired and slow. SLAM! With six shots in the final period, the exhausted Boston team's wrist hit the table.

I don't know about you, but I wasn't very satisfied after the Canadiens' 2-1 OT win last Saturday. Sure, they went up 2-0 in the series, but they didn't really deserve it. They were outplayed and looked a bit stunned by the Bruins' intensity. They hit, but were unwilling to pay the physical price to get in front of the net and grind out a win, seeming to expect the open ice and offensive dominance to which they'd become accustomed against this team during the regular season. The overtime goal was a good shot on the powerplay, and I couldn't help but feel they were lucky to get it. Last night was different. It seems as though this young group has learned a whole lot about what it means to be a playoff team.

The powerplay and high-powered offence have been their bread and butter for the last seven months. But master tactician Claude Julien has studied the tapes and made a game plan suited to his team's strengths. His plan has been very effective in neutralizing the Canadiens' attack, and it would be tempting for inexperienced players to get frustrated when the skills on which they've relied all year are suddenly not working. But the Habs have countered with a grinding game of their that's faster and at least as punishing as Boston's. They've learned that playoff hockey is played in the corners and the goalcrease and that no ice is conceded willingly.

They've learned when the opposition smothers the players who carried the team all year, the supporting players must step up and be the heroes. Smolinski, Kostopoulos, Brisebois...all scratches this year...have been the warriors leading the team into the fray. They've bought the team time until the high-flyers can adapt and make the contributions they're expected to make.

They've learned not to panic when a loss seems to swing momentum to the other team and fill it with confidence. Guy Carbonneau played more than two hundred playoff games and he knows better than anyone that a series isn't won in one or two games, and players can't get ecstatic when they get up two games to none, or too worried when they lose one. As he said before the playoffs began, "It's okay to lose the first game, but it's not okay to lose the last one." That philosophy seems to be registering with his team, which has found a new level of dedication and determination to win after the game three loss that put the Bruins back in it.

Another lesson learned: the importance of discipline. In many games during the last month of the regular season and in the first three games of this playoff series, the Canadiens have been prone to taking many more lazy, ill-thought-out penalties than they had for most of the regular season. In the last game, Steve Begin's end-of-period tripping penalty notwithstanding, the Canadiens successfully walked the fine line between tough and stupid. Learning to keep their heads under intense physical stress is a lesson that will serve them well in future playoff games.

And one of the most important things any team can learn about surviving and thriving in the post-season is the value of a single goal. Never can a team take a lead for granted, and when it's achieved, it must be protected at all costs. The team is learning that one fluky or dirty goal could be the difference in advancing or going home in ignominy. The Habs know they can rely on Carey Price to give them every chance to win. Now they know they can rely on themselves to support him and shut down the opposition. The last ten minutes of last night's win were thrilling, heart-stopping and impressive.

The Canadiens have the Bruins on the ropes now and can finish the job with a win at home tomorrow. But one more lesson they have to learn: an opponent isn't done until the final siren sounds on their fourth loss. They should expect the Bruins to fight for every inch in game five, just as they have in the last four.

And they should be thankful to the Bruins too, despite the cuts and bruises they'll take away from this series. Every good young team needs to learn the hard way what it takes to be successful in the playoffs, no matter how good they are in the regular season. It's turned out Boston is a hard teacher; a steely-eyed opponent who won't go to the mat easily.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

Make way for Mo'

I confess, I had trouble sleeping last night after that 2-1 OT loss. For the first time this playoffs, I entered hockey heart-attack territory during a game, and I wasn't ready for it. I wasn't expecting the Bruins to lie down and die exactly, but I was expecting the Canadiens to have the situation more firmly in hand than they do. Instead, they're one lucky bounce away from being down 2-1 in the series. Of course, they're also one lucky bounce from being up 3-0 too. But last night, every time the Habs missed a chance, or gave up a breakaway only to see it coralled by Cary Price, everyone from the Fleet Centre beer sellers to Guy Carbonneau could feel the inevitability of the Bruins taking this one on some random Canadiens' error.

Ordinarily, it wouldn't be that big a deal. It sucks to lose in overtime, but they're still up 2-1 in the series and all the pressure to win is still on the Bruins...a team the Habs have handled, well, handily all season. It is a big deal though, because the Habs weren't just playing in the Bruins' rink, they were playing the Bruins' game too, and they have been for the last two games.

Montreal wins when the guys in the CH get to pucks first and use their speed to force the other team back on the defensive. They win when they capitalize on their slick-passing powerplay, and when they come at the opposition goalie in offensive waves. They did that in the first period of game one. We haven't seen it since. Instead, we've seen Boston's plugging, hitting, low-scoring style shut down the Habs' PP and ride speedy forwards into the boards. We've seen Tim Thomas get hot when he really needed to be hot. And it makes me nervous.

As we've all seen in the past, underdogs can rise up to fatally bite the top hound. It seems to happen very often in playoff series between these two teams. In 1971, the write-off Habs beat the Bobby Orr-led Bs in seven. In 2004, the seventh-seed Habs clawed back from a 3-1 series deficit for the first time in their history to beat the Bruins, again in seven. Just as we were waiting for the other shoe to drop after the regular-season manhandling of the Bs, we can't help but think the Bruins are due to give some pain of the playoff variety back to Montreal.

The momentum Boston gained from that game...finally seeing their workmanlike, desperate hockey triumph over their regular-season masters...can't be disregarded. They're on a high and they're ready to come out with just as much enthusiasm in game four, only now they have a measure of confidence. It's a different situation entirely, but Carolina in 2006 is haunting me. Canadiens were up two games to none, both games won on the road, and then Justin Williams took out Saku Koivu's eye. Momentum shifted hugely and four games later the Habs were golfing. Here we are again...two-games-to-none lead, no Koivu and what looks suspiciously like a scoring slump starting to kick in. Of course, this year's Habs are a better team, from the goal out, and there's a chance they'll get Koivu back if the series goes long. Nothing says they'll collapse like they did two years ago...except this feeling of foreboding last night's loss created.

In the playoffs, nothing can replace hard work. The Habs did enough to keep themselves in it in the last two games. But the Bruins did more. They were the ones who got to every loose puck first. They were the ones who shot the puck into the offensive zone and doggedly chased it down. They're outworking the Canadiens, and no amount of talent or speed can replace that effort. When the highest-scoring team in the league with the number one powerplay relies for two games on the offensive talents of Brian Smolinski and Tom Kostopoulos, you have to start questioning some things. Like why Alex Kovalev is playing his most ineffective hockey of the season, and why Chris Higgins and Guillaume Latendresse are finding themselves so rarely in front of Tim Thomas.

I'm going to spend a very nervous couple of days now, until I see that the Habs have decided to come out and play some hardworking hockey tomorrow night. If they do, they will be the better team. If they continue to rely on Carey Price bailing them out and trust in their on-paper superiority to put them over the top, they'll be toast by this time next week.

If the fans are the seventh man in a hockey series, then momentum is the eighth. Right now, old Mo is on the Boston side, and the Canadiens have an uphill battle to get her back on Tuesday night. If they can't muster up the effort to do that in a series that should be eminently winnable, they don't deserve to be in first place, or even in the playoffs. Don't get me wrong...I still think the Habs are the better team. They've proven their ability to adjust and respond to adversity all year. But they have work to do. This will either teach an inexperienced playoff team what post-season hockey is all about and that there are no freebies in April, or it will show us this isn't the team we thought it was.

I'm uneasy, and I don't like it. I need my sleep.

Wherefore art thou, Saku?

Funny how a couple of wins against the Bruins make us forget the Captain's broken foot. In the days leading up to the playoffs, the frenzy of "will Koivu be able to play" questions from fans and media was starting to resemble lunchtime in the shark pool. But a convincing game one victory and a less-convincing win in game two against the Bruins later and Koivu's foot is mentioned only in passing. Yup...still broken. Oh well, he'll be back in the second round, or at worst the third, we say.

I think we're getting a tiny bit ahead of ourselves. Yes, the team is doing really well since Koivu went down. But there are subtle signs of the hole he leaves; a hole it's not that easy to fill. It was a little more obvious last night, in a game in which the rest of the team was giving far less than their best and were lucky to pull off a win against the desperate Bs.

Kovalev is trying too hard as captain. He's not just playing his game, he's trying to play everyone's. I prefer AK27 to stay within himself and work with his linemates, rather than spread himself too thin in an effort to be a visible leader. He's already The Man...he doesn't have to be Superman just because he's wearing the C.

Chris Higgins is doing a decent job replacing Koivu at the centre position, but he can't win a faceoff to save his life. The Habs were lucky last night that the other three centres were better than fifty percent on the draw, so Higgins' shortcomings don't show up as badly. But on many nights this season, the captain has been the only Hab on the winning side in faceoffs. And without winning those draws, the team spends a lot more time chasing to get the puck back. That reduces the effectiveness of their speed game and usually translates to a higher shots-against total. Faceoffs are going to be increasingly important as the playoffs continue.

And do I even have to mention the PP? It started to slide in the regular season after Koivu's injury. But it's painfully obvious now that without Koivu, the Bruins are focussing on Kovalev and successfully shutting him down. When things get desperate, Carbonneau often throws Koivu out there on the powerplay with Kovalev. The captain keeps moving, forcing the opponent's box to move too...and opening those seams for the brilliant cross-ice passes that are the PP's bread and butter. Or he sets up behind the net, making the wrap-around, a pass to either wing or a quick tip out to a trailer in the slot all viable options. Right now, everyone is standing still, waiting for Kovalev to do something, and the Bruins know it.

There are the intangibles too. Koivu wants to win this year probably more than anyone else on the team. He's a passionate guy, and he'll pick up the intensity level in the room just by being there, wanting it. This is the first time in his whole career he's been on a team good enough to make a serious run. At 34 years of age, he knows these chances don't come along every day. So, a guy who normally cranks up his level of play from "try-like-hell" to "win-or-die-trying" during the playoffs will be even more motivated to go that extra mile this year.

It's great the team is up two games to none. Although, I can't help thinking, yeah, but it's the Bruins. That's supposed to be what happens. If it were another opponent, I'd be very afraid of facing the playoffs without Koivu. I hope the Habs take the Boston series with alacrity and the captain has another week or so to heal. And I hope that's enough time, because this is a team that needs its captain back.

Saturday, April 12, 2008

Ten things I hate about the NHL

I was checking out the competition last night, watching the Caps/Flyers, Sens/Pens and Rags/Brodeurs. I figure the Habs could be playing any of them (okay...maybe not the Sens) before the East is won, so it's best to know thine enemy. I caught a little of the late Colorado/Minnesota game as well. All the teams, with the exception of Ottawa, are playing their best hockey, which is to be expected. There were lots of nice hits, generally excellent speed and timely goaltending. No one seems to have the Habs' pinpoint-accurate passing ability though, including the vaunted Crosby/Hossa combination. And watching other teams' powerplays is simply frustrating when you're used to the Markov-to-Streit-to-Kovalev-to-the-back-of-the-net combination. If this is the best the teams out there have to offer, I think the Habs are able to compete with...and beat...just about anyone.

But I digress. Watching so many games last night inevitably...due to sheer volume of hockey absorbed...showcased several of the things I really hate about the NHL. Don't get me wrong: I love hockey. I love the speed and aggression of the game at its highest level, and seeing the best players in the world work their magic is a joy. Still, these things drive me crazy:

10. Goalies with stupid nicknames who emblazon said stupid nicknames all over their expensive, hand-painted masks. I know the modern goalie mask is supposed to be an expression of self for the only player on the ice who would otherwise go about in complete anonymity...which explains why Garth Brooks adorns the face of Carey Price every night. But when a guy pays a hefty chunk of change for his mask, and goes to the bother and further expense of a custom paint job, he ought to have something a little more imaginative than "Backs" (Backstrom) or "Wardo" (Cam Ward) splashed all over it.

9. The delay-of-game penalty for shooting the puck out of the rink. This is the stupidest penalty in hockey. I understand the logic behind wanting to eliminate the old defence trick of deliberately relieving pressure by dumping the puck into the stands. But an automatic two-minute penalty? That's way too harsh a punishment. And the irony of it is, the game is slowed down much more by stopping play to call a penalty than it would be if, say, there were to be a faceoff in the offending player's end with no change allowed, as it is for an icing.

8. Scrums after the whistle. They're pointless, time-consuming, often end up negating what might have been a powerplay and involve so much facewashing and shoving they make the players look like they're in fights for the bathroom in a delinquent girls' school. Just suck it up and go to the faceoff circle.

7. Players who kiss their gloves after they score. Crosby does it. So does Ovechkin. And it's irritating. Every time I see them do it, I hope they get cold sores from the dirty glove.

6. Cheerleaders. If a city needs scantily-clad women gyrating on the boards to get asses in the seats, it might not be a city entirely suited to the care and feeding of an NHL hockey team. I have no problem with it if the rink is full and the fly girls are part of the spectacle. But when the girls ARE the spectacle, it may be time to relocate some of the McFranchises to towns where there's actual ice outside the arena in winter.

5. The all-star game. It's a farce, made more ridiculous by the silly shootout competition with judges this year. Steven Stamkos, demonstrating some of his moves on Sportsnet, was better than the moves the NHL players pulled in the contest. Even Ovechkin looked goofy.

4. Speaking of which...the shootout. I hate the shooutout. Why does there have to be a winner of every game? What was wrong with a tie? If two teams can play sixty minutes of regulation and five minutes of overtime deadlocked, they should be able to call it a night and agree they're evenly matched at the end. There's honour in a tie. There's none in the arbitrary fortune of sending players in on breakaways against a benighted goalie who may or may not luck into stopping them. Sure, it's fun to watch, but it sure leaves a sour taste in the mouths of fans whose team put in a great effort, only to lose it in a carnival sideshow.

3. And, following from that...the points system. I can't stand the "loser point" system. If the league is going to have finite wins and losses in every game, why are there even points at all? If a team loses, it loses. End of story. You don't see baseball or basketball awarding points in the standings to make losing in the late minutes of a game palatable. Or worse...deciding tied games with home run derbys or free-throw competitions, from which both teams emerge with points. It makes the NHL look silly. And for bonus irritation points, I hate that some team is going to beat the Habs' great 132-point season from 1976-77 because they collect enough lose points to put them over the top.

2. The division-winner playoff seeding format. Sure, the Caps would have made the playoffs this year anyway. But they should have been in seventh place. The idea of simply handing a team the third-overall seed in the conference because it wins a crappy division is ridiculous. A team is going to steal a playoff spot when it has less points than the eighth-place team, which is bad enough. But to automatically award it third place AND home-ice advantage in the playoffs is ludicrous. It almost happened this year, and we WILL see it unless the NHL changes that format.

And, the number one thing that drives me crazy about the NHL:

1. Gary Bettman. This smarmy little man who wants to make goalie nets bigger to increase scoring and who messes with the playoff schedule to accomodate indifferent US television broadcasters; who forced a year-long lockout on fans in order to introduce a salary cap on the league that has done little to decrease crazy salaries; who sees nothing wrong with putting a hockey team in Las Vegas, yet bristles at the idea of moving one from Tennessee to Hamilton, is not helping the league or the game. On the contrary, Bettman has changed the face of the NHL with which many of us grew up into something a little cheaper, a little more circus-like and a little less passionate.

Whew...good to get that off my chest. Because despite it all, I love hockey. The game will always be the game and a big hit or fast rush will always get the heart racing. And nothing is more fun than the Habs in good position to do some playoff damage, which, judging by what's happening around the league, they just might be this year.

Friday, April 11, 2008

Hammer time

Ah...what a win! The Habs were in control throughout the whole of their first playoff game of 2007-08; speed demons for sixty fun-filled, hard hitting minutes. The forwards were like fighter jets, buzzing the target and generally harrying the ponderous Bruins defence all game long. Tim Thomas did his best, but there was little he could do to keep the dogfighters at bay indefinitely.

But if the forwards were the fighters, the defence was their base. And (pushing it, I know, but trying not to completely beat a metaphor to death), Roman Hamrlik was their control tower. When the Bruins recovered from the Habs' initial two-goal attack and tried to find some momentum, Hammer was back there, game cranked up to another level, collecting pucks in the corner and distributing them to the forwards without hesitation. This is a guy who knows what it takes to win in the playoffs. Even when some of the other defencemen muffed clearing passes and when the Bruins threatened to sustain pressure in the Habs' zone, Hamrlik never lost his cool or his smarts. More often than not, when a potential Bruins threat was diffused, Hamrlik was the one responsible.

His physical game too, often used sparingly during the regular season, reached another level in his first playoff tilt as a Hab. All week, Bruins fans have been talking about how tough-as-nails rookie Milan Lucic would make the Habs pay. As it turned out, Lucic was the one finding himself out of pocket when he wound up on the receiving end of two massive Hamrlik checks on the same shift. Like all savvy veterans (Smolinski, anyone?), it turns out the Hammer has kept some reserve jet fuel in the tank for the post-season.

Remember back in July, when the Cirque de Souray was at its height? Habs fans were torn: convinced the powerplay would suffer without him, but loathe to pay what it would take to keep him, with his defensive liabilities and fragile physique. The pendulum of public opinion swayed back and forth on an almost hourly basis: "Keep him, no matter won't find a better replacement!" "Let him go...the team can't afford the contract he wants!" But no matter what opinion most fans held about the cost of retaining Souray, almost everyone agreed the team would be poorer for his loss. In the end, of course, Souray walked and Gainey went into replacement mode. When he announced Hamrlik's signing, again fan reaction was almost universal: "He's been solid in his career, but Gainey overpaid in his desperation to fill the hole left by Souray."

I think it's safe to say no one believes that now. In the relative world of fantastic salaries paid to hockey players, Roman Hamrlik has been worth every single copper of the 5.5 million dollars Bob Gainey decided to give him. In six months, he's become a rock for the Habs defence, and showed us what "hard to replace" really means. In the five games he missed with a viral ailment earlier this season, the team lost three in a row...matching their longest losing streak of the season.

If one of the sticks by which we measure the value of a hockey player is how well he improves the play of those around him, Hamrlik passes muster there too. This season, he's shown young Ryan O'Byrne how to be responsible in his own zone and how to hit without taking himself out of the play. He's covered up for Brisebois, who sometimes doesn't make the wisest of decisions with the puck. And he's freed up Mark Streit and allowed him to go on the rush rather than struggle on the boards in his own zone. The forwards, too, benefit from having Hamrlik find them with quick break-out passes that speed up the transition game to levels we've not seen from the Habs since Cournoyer's back was healthy.

I was thrilled to see Hamrlik named a star of the game last night. In a match in which team speed, hitting and pure offensive dominance were on display, it was nice to see the guy whose steady, unspectacular game made the rest possible get a little credit.

Bob Gainey may or may not be a card-carrying member of Mensa, but he sure looks like he belongs in that club today for his signing of Roman Hamrlik. If the big guy can keep his game up to this level for the rest of the playoffs, it could be a long spring.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Jive Talkin'

Well, here we day! What a relief, because the last four days have been a carnival of talk. Carefully chosen words from players and coaches, overdone predictions from the pundits and a plethora of smack talk from the fans. Maybe I wasn't as plugged in two years ago, the last time the Habs made the playoffs. But it seems to me the number of electronic venues hockey fans have in which to connect with each other and dis the other guy have multiplied like Mr.&Mrs.Cottontail.

This week, the volume of traffic on Habs fan boards has increased alarmingly, with topics ranging from "What strategy should the Canadiens take to counter the Bruins' physical game," to "Should the players grow full beards or just goatees?" There are polls on everything from who'll win the series to what people think of the team playoff slogan. And if you turn off the lights, seventeen new Habs-themed blogs will have sprung up in the dark by the time you turn them on again. Go to youtube and enter "Kovalev." There are pages and pages of video and slideshows set to music...dozens of them made in the last month.

Some of this stuff is fun, and some tedious (Really...I think I never want to hear Carey Price's name in the same sentence as "Roy and Dryden" again. Unless, of course, he wins the Conn Smythe this year.) But the amount of access we now have to the thoughts and words of others is really showing me for the first time how in love people are with this team. And, on the flip side, how much fans of other teams hate them. Considering the dearth of success the Canadiens have had in recent years, I would have thought the level of antipathy towards them would have dropped off. Not so.

Most Bruins fans are like us...fairly realistic and mostly rational. They know their team is in tough, and while they may hate the Habs for the damage they've done to the Bruins over the years, they're generally being cautiously optimistic. But some of them are not. Some are convinced that Kovalev or Markov or Price alone are the key to Montreal's success. And they're advocating things like sending Thornton to take out Kovalev's knees. Or have Lucic slam Markov's head into the boards. They're promising to do things like call the Habs' hotel at all hours and wake them up all night on Saturday. Sometimes I think being able to access the thoughts of opposing fans isn't such a good thing. I had a random Bruins fan, whom I'd never met, send me an email describing how my team sucks and how "you're going down hard." We just hope Claude Julien isn't the kind of guy who thinks the same way.

But while the B's fans send cyber-trash talk at us, we're finding others of our own kind out there too. I'm far away from Montreal, so I'll spend my playoffs chatting with a handful of equally rabid fans...friends I met first online and then in person...who get it. They know what it means to be a fan of this team outside the city where it all goes down. In 1986 I celebrated the Habs' win by myself beside a crackly radio in my room because no one else in the house liked hockey and they'd turned the television off and gone to bed. Seven years later, I saw the '93 win on TV, but again, I was the only one in the house who cared about what was happening. This time, if the team goes far...or if it doesn't...I'll have other fans to laugh and cry right along with me. If overexposure of the players in the media and the dissection of every possible piece of Habs-related minutae in print and online is the price we pay for the ability to share our love of the team with others, it's not too great a toll. Even if it means listening to jive talking from the other team's fans.

We'll talk about it together...and we'll see who gets the last word.

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

A few of my favourite things

I know the playoffs are a new season and we have to throw away all the assumptions and all the understandings we gleaned from the last 82 games. Rightly so, I think. There's no point getting overconfident about beating the Bruins because of the Habs' unbeaten regular season record against them. That makes us insufferable if the team wins and devastated if it doesn't. But with another day to go before that magical second season begins, I find I'm not ready to file the last six months under "done" just yet.

So, before the 2007-08 regular season is officially relegated to the annals of history, a little walk down memory lane. These are a few of the special or notable moments that made this year so very enjoyable for me:

-The first time Mark Streit teed one up from the blue line on the powerplay and blasted it through the goalie into the net and we all said, "Sheldon who?"

-Kirk Muller and Claude Julien screaming at each other at the end of a Canadiens' blowout of the Bruins. That was so bloody entertaining. I half expected them to go, and it made me laugh to see Muller so riled up.

-Kovalev beating Chara behind the net, dropping his glove, turning back and picking it up, putting it back on and STILL keeping the puck from Chara. Beautiful. I'm still smiling at that one.

-Another Kovalev moment: levelling Ryan Hollweg with the elbow and getting away with it. I know it wasn't a clean hit, but Hollweg deserved it, and Kovalev sent a message about what happens when someone messes with him.

-Cristobal Huet stoning the Rangers in the shootout of the comeback game on February 19, after admitting he doesn't like shootouts, and having looked so brutal in them earlier in the year. That was the perfect cap to a great game.

-Andrei Markov's reaction after scoring the shootout winner against the Pens in the ninth round. I'd never seen him so obviously exuberant about anything before, and it was great.

-Josh Gorges, refusing to fight a Philly defender and pointing down the ice to where Francis Bouillon had broken away for his first goal of the year. That was brilliant and hilarious.

-Guillaume Latendresse dropping Nolan Pratt with a good smack right to the schnozz. The big guy showed he can look after himself if he has to.

-And on the fights front...Maxim Lapierre's stance is an absolute riot. He looks like the Karate Kid standing on the log.

-Tomas Plekanec's goal celebration, both arms up in ecstasy, throwing himself at the better than when he scored his first hat trick this year.

-Saku Koivu pulling off the shootout winners when it really counted.

-The Carey Price facewash that started after his first shutout and has gotten better (or worse...for him) after every win.

-Carbo's horrible tie on the night they clinched the division against Ottawa, and his laughing at it the next day.

-Gainey Night, with the big man skating out in full uniform. That was unexpected and completely emotional. Too bad the game sucked, but the ceremony will never be forgotten.

I could go on, but those are some of my favourite moments from the season on which we're about to close the book. It was a great one, and a fun one, and no matter what happens now, it's worth remembering.

Monday, April 7, 2008

News and random views from the trenches

I had the opportunity to attend a regional Midget AAA tournament on the weekend, and had some time to chat with a couple of scouts for QMJHL teams who were also there to check out the action. Good news for the Habs on that front. The only player whose rights they own in the Q is centre Olivier Fortier...last year's third-round pick, 65th overall. He's not big, at about 5'11" and 170lbs. But the consensus among the scouts is his future could very well include the NHL. They say he's super fast, and very, very smart. They also say he never takes a shift off, and will go to the wall to win. The name that came up several times as a comparison was Guy Carbonneau's. In fact, Fortier won this year's Guy Carbonneau trophy as the best defensive forward in the Q. So, in all the euphoria over Pacioretty, McDonagh, Maxwell, White, Subban, Weber, Emelin and Valentenko, we can have hope the Habs' lone Quebec junior prospect could also be a player to watch.

I couldn't resist asking these guys about Angelo Esposito as well. The Habs got so much flack for not picking him, then he went to Pittsburgh, then Pittsburgh unloaded him to Atlanta in the Hossa deal. In the meantime, he got cut for the third time from Team Canada at the world juniors and dropped from 98 points as a sixteen-year-old to 79 last year and 69 this season. The scouts I spoke to said he's not got attitude problems, as some have speculated. He's just not as good as his hype. They pity him because he was built up to be the next great thing, and he never had the skills to live up to that. They say he should have been a second-round pick and he'd be right on track now. But living up to the first-round expectations are too much for him. They still think he'll make a decent NHLer, but he'll never be what everyone thought he'd be.

The other point of interest we discussed was the idea of banning fighting in the Q, given impetus by the Jonathan Roy incident a couple of weeks ago. Scouts say they're actively changing the type of player they're looking for now, when it comes to toughness, in anticipation of a fighting ban.

Ironically, the first thing I saw when I walked into the rink in the middle of the first game was a couple of sixteen-year-olds ripping off each other's face cages and pounding the crap out of each other. It was meant to inspire the team that was down 5-1 at the time, and maybe entertain the crowd in the process. But the team that was down went on to lose 7-1 and a lot of people in the crowd just continued to eat their ketchup-drenched fries while the fight went on. The worst thing was, the players involved weren't doing it because they thought it would really make a difference. They were playing a they seemed ill-suited to play. They reminded me of little kids tottering around in dress-up clothes and their parents' shoes. What they were doing seemed unconvincing and self-conscious. I didn't like it.

I've never really had an opinion on fighting in hockey. It just always seemed to be there, and I wasn't either thrilled to watch it or disgusted by it as so many say they are. But if we're teaching our sixteen-year-olds that this robotic, calculated display of fisticuffs is part of the game, I think we're wrong. So, if the Q decides to ban fighting, it might be a good thing.

And if a fighting ban means that a kid who's small and not that great with his fists gets a chance to play some hockey over a player whose main skill is pugilistic, maybe we'll see more skilled NHLers coming out of the Q. Maybe next time I get a chance to talk to some scouts about the Habs' prospects in that league, we'll have more than one guy to discuss.

A lot of people are recognizing the fact that Guy Carbonneau...the guy that trophy Fortier won is named for...might actually know what he's doing as an NHL coach. It might take a little longer for them to recognize part of Carbonneau's wisdom includes his refusal to carry a goon, deciding to roll four lines of guys who can actually play hockey instead. I think his philosophy is one that will only convince others if it's backed up by winning.

So far, so good.

Sunday, April 6, 2008

We're Number One!

Whoa...getting a little dizzy. The air's a bit thin up here, on the summit of Mount Eastern Conference. I have to hold onto the flag the Habs have planted right in the middle of it to make the world stop spinning.

Nineteen years. Nineteen years, including eliminations, playoff misses, disappointments and shame since Habs fans could look at the conference standings on the last day and say, "We're number one!" (The '93 Cup helped ease the pain, but it *is* very nice to have something to show for 82 games of toil once again.)

The season's over and there are three excruciating days to wait before the playoffs open for the Habs. So, there's no better time to look back at the climb up the mountain and remember our favourite milestones. Here are my top ten games of significance...the games that have made the Habs the team they are today:

10. October 10...the Arrival. Carey Price's first NHL game, against Pittsburgh. He played a solid game, got the win, starting on the same date and against the same team as Ken Dryden and Patrick Roy before him. If he's going to become a legend, that was a fitting start, serving notice to the league that he's for real.

9. October 27...the Shootout. Nine rounds of shootout agony versus Pittsburgh. Watching Crosby, Malkin, Gonchar and company fire away at Price and him stoning every one of them. Then Andrei Markov, with the slick move and the winner just when we couldn't take it anymore. That one showed us what a confident Price can do under pressure, and it is good.

8. November 1...Team Toughness. In a 5-2 win over Philly, the Habs proved that their lack of a goon wouldn't slow them down. Philly hit, and the Habs hit back. Philly dropped the gloves and so did the Canadiens. In a time when the Flyers were the talk of the league for having appeared to resurrect the Broad Street Bullies, the Habs weren't afraid and they stuck it to them.

7. December 27 and December 28...the Road Trip. With memories of last year and the team's post-Christmas collapse still haunting the team, they embarked on the same holiday road trip again this season. This time, they left no doubt this is a different team with a different outlook. Result? Back-to-back wins, 5-2 over Tampa and 5-1 over Jacques Martin's stifling Lightning...the only team with a winning record against Montreal.

6. January 24...the Comeback, Part One. Facing the traditional Curse of Brodeur, with the understanding that the Jersey goalie owns them, the Habs fought back from 2-0 and 3-1 deficits, with three unanswered goals in the third to vanquish the wretched Marty IN New Jersey. The win showed the boys they have heart, they're never out of a game if they keep working at it, and that they're no longer Brodeur's Bitch. The mental impact of that realization can be measured by the fact that they've not lost to Jersey again since.

5. February 3...the Choke. Up 3-0 against the Rangers, the Habs proceeded to allow five straight goals to blow the lead and the game. It was a stunning collapse and taught the team no lead is safe if you let up for an entire period. The lesson has been learned well.

4. March 1...the Defence. Beating New Jersey 2-1, the Habs prove they don't have to score four goals to win a game. They overcame their tendency to give up late tying goals and showed themselves and the league that they can play tough, defensive hockey with the best of them and prevail.

3. March 24...the Clinch. Facing an Ottawa team that had owned them all year long, the Canadiens dominated them in their own building, powering to a 7-1 lead before forgetting to play the third. Still, clinching a playoff spot with a 7-5 victory over an archrival went a long way toward healing the wounds left from last year's disasterous finale.

2. April 1, 3 and 5...the Exclamation Point. Coming down the stretch, needing to keep pace with a hot Penguins team for a chance at the Conference title, and hoping to show themselves and their potential opponents that they're serious about making a splash in the post-season, the Habs resist the urge to let down after making the playoffs. They played three consecutive games as perfectly as a team can play, clinching the division with a shutout against Ottawa, eliminating the defending President's Trophy winning Sabres and completely dominating the Leafs. Those three games won them the East, and send them into the playoffs on a roll.

1. February 19...the Comeback, Part Two. You knew this one had to be the moment of the year. Down 5-0 to the Rangers, the Canadiens, borne on the emotion of the Bell Centre crowd, clawed back to win 6-5 in OT. It was the first time a Habs team had ever done that, and it proved to them that they're never out of it. It gave them confidence to have patience in their ability, and it taught them the value of home ice advantage. This was the game of the year, and the one that really showed what the team is made of.

So, there you go...those are the games I see as the ones that really created the team we're seeing now. The lessons learned are the ones that will make them competitive in the guts-and-glory season they're about to begin. And they're the ones that lifted us out of our seats and made us fall in love with this team over and over again. For that, we're grateful.

Now it's time to make other memories and climb other heights. I'm looking forward to the view from the top of Mount Stanley.

Friday, April 4, 2008

To sit or not to sit

I love this year's edition of Alex Kovalev. The temptation to compare him to some kind of machine is almost irresistible when trying to describe his play. But how do you combine the power of a locomotive, the manouverability of a fighter jet and the brains of Deep Blue? He is, without doubt, the single most consistent reason the Habs are where they are at this moment...playoff position and division title safely wrapped up and conference title within reach.

So, I was understandably a little worried when the team announced Kovalev missed practice this week because he's fighting a flu. Yet, in the warmup before the Buffalo game last night, there he was, swooping around his half of the ice like a caged tiger. When he stopped to do a pregame interview with RDS, I was a little dismayed to hear him say he was offered a game off, but declined because he'd miss playing too much.

Don't get me wrong. I love watching Kovalev. I think if Koivu had to miss games, the team was very, very lucky AK27 was ready to pick up the reins of leadership in his stead. I want to see Kovalev pad his stats and make the season as memorable on a personal level as possible. But with the spectre of Komisarek, Koivu, Bouillon and Ryder sitting out last night with injuries, and Streit likely playing hurt, I became really afraid some bitter player is going to hurt Kovalev just because he's out there.

In watching the highlights (or lowlights, depending on your point of view) of the Toronto/Ottawa game from last night, I saw an already less-than-100-percent Daniel Alfredsson get crushed by Mark Bell. The debate is raging now about whether the hit was legal. But if it was or not means little to the Sens who will likely be missing their captain...the player who singlehandedly dragged them through the early playoffs last year...for this year's first round. They also lost Mike Fisher, which will hurt any chance they might have of a repeat appearance in the Cup finals as well.

Now, the Sens had no choice about playing those guys, even against potentially vindictive non-playoff teams with nothing to lose like the Leafs. Ottawa's fighting the ignominous proposition of being finalists one year and out the next. They need their ailing captain on the ice, just to keep their postseason hopes alive at all. Last night, they paid a big price for that.

The Canadiens have the luxury of being able to rest their tired warriors now that their playoff position is secure. And they should do it. Not just to get the key guys a little more rest, but to protect them from aggressive loser teams who want to make statements or win moral victories by beating on Montreal's best players. Accidents can happen in any game...sure. But there's no point in exposing important players to intentional head-hunting. I'm not saying the leafs will definitely do that...but there's a lot of bitterness and anger in that group right now, which won't be calmed by getting taunted in the Bell Centre and watching a hated rival cruise to a high playoff spot.

I know Kovalev wants to play. He likes being captain and he wants to put up as many points as he can. Plekanec wants one more goal to give him thirty on the year. Price always wants to play every game...especially when every win helps his chances of a Calder Trophy nomination. Markov and Higgins likely want to finish the year having played all 82 games. Everyone wants to be Conference champs and wants to ice the best team possible to achieve that. And there's something to the point Kovalev made this week that a team should end the season the same way it wants to begin the playoffs. But those reasons for playing the most important players on the team in this pretty meaningless game against the leafs tomorrow pale beside the thought of Kovalev or Markov going down with a concussion. Or Plekanec breaking a leg because some leaf decides to take a cheap shot at him.

At least in the playoffs, tough and dangerous as they can be, the other team has something to lose too. Playoff competitors (except for Chris Pronger) usually think twice about cheapshotting an opponent because retribution by the wronged player's teammates could hurt his own team. The leafs have nothing to lose, and a collective belly full of bile and spite to vent on the Habs.

So, for one night only, I'd put the Kovalev Show on hold...and his valuable co-stars along with him. And if I were Guy Carbonneau, I wouldn't ask them their preferences. I'd just do it.

Thursday, April 3, 2008

Gorgeous Gorges

I wonder if Bob Gainey has allowed himself a small, secret smile at the way Josh Gorges is playing these days? Or whether Doug Wilson has stopped kicking himself yet. I wasn't sure how things would work out when Craig Rivet got traded to the Sharks for Gorges and the Sharks' first-round pick last year. I wasn't even sure how I felt about it. On one hand, Rivet was a lifetime Hab who'd given a lot of himself to the team. On the other, he was having a pretty rotten season and had betrayed the "A" on his sweater by getting angry and dividing loyalty in the room between himself and the coach when Carbonneau benched him for a game. I figured Rivet likely wouldn't be back when Markov and/or Souray were signed, and I'd hoped Gainey might get something in return for one of his free agents rather than let them all walk. That said, I thought it would be Souray bringing back a first-rounder and I was pretty shocked when it turned out to be Rivet instead.

So, Gorges showed up and promptly found himself a pressbox seat. He was okay in the seven games he played, but his name was grouped among those of Aebischer, Johnson and Murray as a guy most fans didn't mind dismissing from the roster without a backward glance. He went home and worked hard to keep in shape, showed up at training camp and again did okay. Still, he was a seventh defenceman at best, and some were surprised he didn't get a ticket to Hamilton back in October. The season started and most nights, Brisebois beat him out for a place on the team.

Then things turned. Brisebois got hurt. Dandenault and Streit proved to be better forwards than defencemen. Gorges got into a few games. One of my first memories of him this year was from an early game against Ottawa. He made an atrocious cross-ice pass which got picked off for a breakaway and a goal. He looked like he wanted to crawl into a hole and I'm sure he feared he'd never play again. But to Carbonneau's credit, he boosted the kid's morale and said those things could happen to anyone. Given the second chance, Gorges thrived, and I've not seen a careless error like that since.

Next, I remember an early game against Pittsburgh. Someone...Talbot, I think...flattened Saku Koivu. Chris Higgins was there, but didn't react. Next thing we knew, an angry Hab hurtled into the picture on the TV screen and smacked the guy who'd hit his captain. That was Josh Gorges. We learned then he'll come to a teammate's rescue, and he isn't afraid of anyone.

Other memories of Gorges are from the second half of the season...teaming up with Francis Bouillon to make a very solid third defence pairing for the Canadiens. Taking hit after hit and bouncing up to clear the puck every time, and throwing a few smacks himself. Making nice, crisp clearing passes and not panicking under pressure. Coming off the boards with the puck on his stick against bigger, stronger and sometimes multiple opponents. And my personal favourite, standing there beside his own net, refusing to fight a lumbering Flyers defenceman while pointing up the ice as Bouillon broke away and scored a backbreaking goal. Brilliant.

Then came the Komisarek injury. I know I wasn't alone in my dread about what would happen to the Canadiens' efforts to win the division and secure a playoff spot without the Komisaurus patrolling the blue line. Gorges has stepped up beautifully, playing huge minutes and looking as solid as concrete. The penalty kill, featuring Gorges, hasn't been better all year. He's out there for 5-on-3s and in the last minute of close games. He's become a rock for the Canadiens, and we fans are very, very lucky he was able to play beyond our humble expectations of him. Who knew the Habs had secured such a jewel in the Rivet trade this time last year? Well, aside from Bob Gainey, of course. And we haven't even talked about Max Pacioretty. The Rivet trade could be the best trade Gainey's ever made, including stealing Alex Kovalev for a second pick and Jozef Balej.

My fears of the Habs entering the playoffs with injuries on defence are not nearly as debilitating as they would have been if Josh Gorges hadn't been part of the team. I hope wherever Bob Gainey is tonight, he's smiling as he watches #26 help his team in its quest for first place.

At least just a little grin...even if it's on the inside.