Sunday, April 13, 2008

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.

1 comment:

Brian said...

Luckily, the Habs drew the closest thing to a bye for them in the first round, i.e. the Bruins. I want to see Koivu a part of this run as soon as possible because I truely think that with some "mo" and the odd favorable bounce -- another "Steve Smither" -- these guys could actually bring home #25. Also, we all remember how the boys folded their tents after Justin Williams damn near cyclopsed him the last time. I'd really love to see the converse this year with his return pushing the rest of the squad to play even better.