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.


Silver in 16 said...

Salut JT,

After lurking on your blog since its inception, I thought I’d drop in and respond to your HIO call for someone to allay your concerns. I’ve enjoyed your erudite and articulate analyses of our fortunes and I suspect you write for a living, or at least a lot. Now, with Habsloyalist, I tend to skip a lot of HIO comments and just jump to your blog to see what’s happening. I’m in Edmonton and not only that, I don’t have a TV, but I listen to CJAD relatively religiously and very much like Murray Wilson. Your perspective is appreciated and I’m responding with some of my own.

Anyway, your concerns… I’m thinking, no biggie – did we really think we were going to Broom the bruins?

As we used to say in the ‘70s, last night was a reality check, and, now, we’re freakin’ and peakin’ like crazy. To offer my own perspective: I was a trainman for the Northern Alberta Railways off and on through university and before I moved to Montréal for a stint. Those were the ‘70s and I recall a trip to a small terminal north of Edmonton where we were going to lay over until the following day. We were going to play boston that night and I was riding the caboose and wearing my Guy Lafleur jersey and every time we passed track workers I’d stand on the rear platform of the caboose and hold up two pairs of fingers and holler, “Montréal in FOUR!” After we lost that night, I recall riding home the next day and holding up two- and three-fingered hands and hollering “Montréal in FIVE!” that was probably ’77 or ’78, and my recollection of that trip was that it was no big deal. Summation? I think we’ve been without for so long that we’re a little fragile…

As for our play over the past three games, I think we started out playing physical and surprising the bruins (and not only them). I read a quote of Carbo’s after the first game he suggested was a little surprised at how the players came out pounding and how he thought they wanted to prove they couldn’t be intimidated. Well, I think we felt we had something to prove and we played into their hands. But the overtime period shows that we can get back on track, so, I’m mollified – until tomorrow, when we’d better skate, skate, skate. I always think of Game 4 as the real test (to wit, the Carolina series, as the most recent example).

On to individual elements. I agree with you about Koivu, or, rather the loss of Koivu, having an impact. I think he both settles us down, and revs us up. We miss him. Kovalev is the stud everyone wanted Bob to trade for, and he IS a stud, but I don’t’ think he’s a leader – at least not in a class with Koivu.

I’m also a little worried about Komi and Higgins. Chara is definitely hurt, but so is our Mike. And last night I saw Lapierre screaming into the slot and Higgins beside him with open ice, but NOT driving to the net – something’s wrong with Higgy, I fear. Your thoughts?

Lastly, I’ll point to Carbo’s Crew. I think the coaching has improved a lot over last year. He used to use too many possessive terms, and now he talks more in the “we” sense. I like that more. He also doesn’t get sandbagged on line match-ups and he’s more confident. I like that, too. In fact, as the tournament director of the Guy Lafleur Invitational Fall Classic Pitch ‘N Putt Tournament here in Edmonton, I always sub-title the tourney after a jersey number. Last year was the 20th and I named it after Cam Connor because he lives in Edmonton and attended and played (the year before was the Larry Robinson Year); I’d been vacillating between Higgins and Carbo, but now I’m sure it’ll be the ‘other’ Guy.

Oops, I forgot something else: Price.

Hope that helps. And thanks again for the blog. Keep up the good work.

J.T. said...

Hey 16...

Thanks for that! I agree, we've been without a long time, and some of the recent losses are still a little raw. The thought of adding to my store of Habs-inflicted scars is unappetizing, to say the least. Not that I'm truly expecting a Cup this year, but with the possibility of facing Philly in the second round, and Anaheim and San Jose possibly getting upset in the first round...well, it's enough to make a Habs' fan salivate. I'd hate to blow the opportunity to go deep because the team didn't show up against Boston.

Anyway, I'm coming down from the proverbial ledge a little now. I think a good effort tomorrow night will bring in the third win of the series. If it doesn't, I might have to think about panicking.

Your kind words about the blog are very much appreciated. It's a forum for me to rant, and if others read, I'm flattered!

As for Higgins, I think his biggest problem is that he's overthinking because he's trying to readjust to the centre position, which he's never played at the pro level. Fortunately, with Saku due to return soon, we won't have to watch that experiment much longer.

Silver in 16 said...

Just sitting here picking up the CBC Netcast of the Pitts/Ott game and your reply came in and the game's not especially interesting, so, I thought I'd add my vehement disagreement with Mike Boone about the bruins. He has some sort of affection for them that I can't fathom. I'm a 10-year-old when it comes to hockey and I hate the bruins. Always have, always will.

One final mini-rant is about Don Cherry. Alzheimer's, or at least early Alzheimer's (yes, not politically correct and my mother has early onset, so, either doubly bad, or I'm allowed). Anyway, I can't believe the HIO board's wild responses to him -- he's simply a sad farce and I don't find it too difficult to ignore him. I suspect Bob Cole falls into a similar category -- too bad we can't get Jim Hughson.