Thursday, April 30, 2009

Summer Solutions: Defence

One of the Canadiens' biggest weaknesses for the last several years, once you get past the gaping hole at centre, is the defence. Andrei Markov has been the only elite player on the back end for the Habs for ages, and the rotating cast around him has varied from "excellent PP guy" to "what the hell is he thinking?" Throughout it all though, the one constant has been the crappy style the D plays generally, regardless of personnel. The way they give up the blueline like Sean Avery gives up IQ points is frustrating and ineffective. And the way they get caught in the opponent's cycle with no solution for clearing the puck is just pathetic.

So the first thing the Habs have to do with their defence is change the style they're playing, and to do that effectively, they need to hire a D-coach who can teach the players a better way of doing things. I've mentioned Chris Chelios as a candidate, but no matter who it is (and I contend it must be someone), it should be a person who's both played the position and played a system he understands well enough to teach. Chelios certainly has the experience on the ice and the knowledge of a good system. So does Guy Lapointe. Larry Robinson allegedly might be interested in coaching again. There are others. I'd like to see the Canadiens hire a good D coach before development camp in July.

Once a coach is in place, the team has to decide what kind of style the D should be playing. Since management seems to want a team based on speed and skill, the defence needs to be mobile and good with the puck to complement that team philosophy. The defencemen don't need to necessarily be the biggest guys available, but they should be able to challenge oncoming forwards in the neutral zone and at their own blueline. They should be strong enough to win the puck on the boards, even if they don't always make the big hits and crush guys.

The style the team wants to play needs to be the first consideration when it's time to assess current assets and decide which to keep and which to winnow out. Obviously, Andrei Markov is a keeper. He's a legitimate all-star and the only elite player on the Habs blue line for the last several years. He's also skilled enough to be able to adapt to any system. I'd keep Josh Gorges as well. He's young and still makes some mistakes because of inexperience. But he's also hard-working and smart and comes out with the puck more often than not. I remember when he first came to Montreal, he commented on the fact that the system he'd learned with the Sharks was much more aggressive than the one played in Montreal. The fact that he knows the difference and is able to play the "good" way makes me want to keep him. Mathieu Dandenault is a keeper too. He offers veteran experience, heart, great speed, versatility and decent D learned in the good Detroit system. He should be able to adapt to any coach's style and perform well in a sixth/seventh role. If he chooses to go elsewhere, however, I'd re-sign Francis Bouillon as the spare. He's a warrior who's still got speed and can hit, but I think the team can keep only one of him or Dandenault. I'd keep Ryan O'Byrne, if only because he's a great skater and has good reach with his size. And if Don Lever is somehow associated with the coaching staff, I think O'Byrne will bloom. He played a much better game in Hamilton under Lever than he played in Montreal. In any case, it's too soon to give up on a guy who could be on the brink of getting it all together, especially one who's signed to a cheap deal for the next two years.

Those decisions are the easy ones. Now the tough: what to do with Roman Hamrlik and Mike Komisarek? My first instinct is to keep Komisarek if possible, particularly if he can be placed under the tutelage of a defence coach who can help him with his puck handling. Komisarek's bread and butter has always been his physical play, but after he got hurt this season, he shied away from the hitting he's got to do to earn his money. Without that, his awful decisions with the puck and over-reliance on Markov became glaringly painful to watch. But if he can improve his ability to move the puck and also get over his fear of getting hurt again, he can be an asset. The problem is, that's an "if" we can't answer until after he's already been either signed or let go. In any event, even at the peak of his abilities, a player who brings what Komisarek does is worth about four million a year, maximum. More than that goes to stars like Lidstrom and Niedermayer...and Markov. When Gainey looks at what Komisarek wants, I think we can safely assume the GM is not going to pay Big Mike more than his partner's getting. So, if Komisarek is willing to accept a four-year deal with a cap hit of four million or less, and is willing to work hard with the D coach to improve his all-around game, he's a keeper. If he's not, then he'll walk.

Hamrlik is another problem. He's making five and a half million bucks a year, but had far from a stellar season. He's still got two more years on that deal and there must be concern about whether this season was a fluke or if it marks the beginning of a career decline. I like what Hammer brings when he's playing well, but when he's not, the big minutes he plays hurt more than help the team. The brutal giveaway on the first Boston goal in the last playoff game is the kind of thing you just can't have your veteran shut-down defenceman doing. My inclination would be to trade Hamrlik and his contract to a team like the Kings that has a strong young defence in need of some veteran guidance. Hamrlik still has a good reputation as a mentor after his time partnering Dion Phaneuf in Calgary, and the Kings have tons of picks and prospects that could benefit the Habs. The problem is, who replaces Hamrlik, especially if Komisarek walks?

This summer the UFA defenceman everyone covets is, of course, Jay Bouwmeester. I think Gainey should make a token offer to J-Bo, just in case, but shouldn't spend much time courting him. I think Bouwmeester will end up being another of the "we almost got him but..." free agents who sign anywhere but Montreal. A better bet to replace either Hamrlik or Komisarek might be Francois Beauchemin. He'll be in demand too because he's won a Cup, and plays a solid, mostly mistake-free game on the back end. He can also handle the puck well enough to contribute to a lively offence and has a hammer of a point shot. Beauchemin has said he would consider playing in Montreal and could likely bring a lot of what Hamrlik provides for less money. I think he's gettable and would make a nice replacement for Hammer if Komisarek is re-signed before July 1, or for Komisarek if he decides to leave.

On the PP, Mathieu Schneider's bullet from the point saved the Habs' season from being a complete playoff-less disgrace. But he made way too much money for just a shot. And that's what he is now. He's forty and can't keep up on the defensive side of things anymore. Yannick Weber has the shot as well and can battle on the boards. For the PP, I think the Habs need to give Weber the chance to develop at the NHL level.

So in the end, I see the Canadiens' defence corps most realistically consisting of Markov, Beauchemin, Gorges, Weber, Dandenault, O'Byrne and one of Komisarek or Hamrlik. The wild card(s) in the mix are the two Russian defencemen, Alexei Emelin and Konstantin Korneev and rookie PK Subban. Both Emelin and Korneev have played out their contracts in Russia and both have made at least small noises about being open to moving to North America. The Canadiens are in negotiations right now with Emelin. Of those two, I think Korneev is the better fit for what the Habs would like to be on defence and is the one who'd need less adjustment time before being able to contribute in the NHL. If Gainey can sign one or both of those guys, it could impact who plays in the Canadiens' top six. But of course, nobody knows how their games will translate in the NHL even if they sign with Montreal, so they can't be counted in the big picture yet. As for Subban, common sense says the nineteen-year-old needs a year or so to adjust to the pros. But Subban has surprised at every level he's played and has stated his determination to crack the Habs' lineup next year. At this point, if any of Emelin, Korneev or Subban turns out to be better than the top seven I expect to be on the roster in September, it would be a big surprise and a bonus. As it stands, that top seven isn't a bad lineup and I think it may be the best one Gainey can cobble together while waiting for the rest of the prospects to develop.

And that's how I see the defence lining up for next year.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Summer Solutions: Coaching

Once the GM (again, we'll go with the assumption that Gainey's staying) has solved his centre problem, the next thing he's going to have to address is the coaching situation. I liked a lot of things about Guy Carbonneau and I think now that he's had his stint in the coaching kindergarten that is Montreal, he's eventually land on his feet, as predecessors Claude Julien, Alain Vigneault and "Mike" Therrien did.

But, just as those guys were hired at least partly for their ability to speak French as well as their minor-league coaching experience, Carbonneau, like them, came into the job with no NHL head coaching on his resume. I'm getting a little tired of seeing guys learn the ropes in the big leagues by practicing on the Habs. Now, Bob Gainey has hinted he might not be adverse to continuing as coach of the team. I'm not in favour of that idea, not because I think Gainey's a bad coach, but because I watched him get more and more frazzled and snippy with the media the longer he spent behind the bench. I can't help thinking part of Gainey's success has to do with his aura of calm competence, and the more frustrated exposure he gets, the more that aura is tarnished. For that reason, among others, I think the coach needs to be someone other than the GM.

So, if the organization must start from scratch with the head coach I think it must start from scratch with the entire staff.

Doug Jarvis: He was a very good defensive forward in his day, and he's Bob Gainey's former linemate, roomate and friend. He's followed Gainey from Minnesota to Dallas and now to Montreal. But at this point, one must wonder how much his coaching ability has to do with his longevity behind the bench, and how much he owes to his friendship with the boss. Honestly, if Jarvis' responsibilities this last season included the powerplay and the performance of the defence, and he were to be judged solely on the fulfillment of those responsibilities, he'd surely have to be let go. He did no better at his job than Carbonneau did at his.

Kirk Muller: He's the guy Carbo hired to be his friend and have his back in the harsh spotlight in Montreal. He was allegedly responsible for the PK, which has been fairly mediocre, but seemed to be more like the official team cheerleader. In all the descriptions I heard about player interaction with the coaches, it appeared Muller's role was to translate Carbonneau's instructions for players who needed their hands held in order to perform. With Carbonneau gone, it would seem Muller's services, with his one year of university head coaching experience, won't be required any longer either.

Rollie Melanson: A lot of goalies, like Huet and Halak, say Melanson really helped them with the technical aspects of their games. But considering the regression of Carey Price this year, you have to wonder if Melanson is the right coach for him. Watching video of the kid during his junior career and his great WJC performance, and comparing it to the way he looked during the latter half of this season, it's obvious his style has changed dramatically, and not with better results. Considering the amount the organization has invested in Price, it's conceivable the team may dump Melanson for no better reason than to keep Golden Boy happy. After all, if the head coach can be sacrificed for an underachieving team, why shouldn't the goalie coach be axed because of an underachieving netminder?

So, if the team is going to clear the decks in the coaching department, who'll take those jobs for next season? Looking at the head coaching position, I think, as I've said before, that management must choose a coach based on pro-coaching experience, approach to the game, bench-management skills and ability to communicate with and develop young players at the pro level. This last is the most vital requirement in a potential head coach in Montreal. The team is building through the draft and is deeply dependent on the progression of its young players. This season we saw young players like both Kostitsyns, Ryan O'Byrne, Chris Higgins and Tomas Plekanec either stall or take big steps backward in their development. In the cases of Sergei Kostitsyn and O'Byrne, and Carey Price last year, they had to return to Hamilton to get back on track. It might have been the chance to get out of the limelight in Montreal, but I think it was more likely the chance to return to a more nurturing coaching environment that helped them get better. The difference between AHL O'Byrne and NHL O'Byrne was particularly noticable. For this reason, I think Don Lever should be the new head coach. He knows the young core of the team and guided them through the early stages of their pro development. He's well-respected. He's got years of pro coaching experience in the AHL, where he won a championship with a lot of these same players, and as an NHL assistant. I have it on good authority that after Carbo's firing, Lever assisted Gainey in making some of the smarter moves of the latter's post-Carbo tenure as coach, notably in putting the Koivu, Kovalev, Tanguay line together. And most laudable of all, Scotty Bowman himself, when asked his opinion on Lever, said the Habs couldn't find a better man to take over behind the bench. That's good enough for me.

Jarvis should be replaced by a defence coach who can guide the development of the raft of young Ds who'll be entering the organization this year. The team needs a coach who's actually played defence and who knows what he's talking about when he tells the players what to do. The ideal candidate would be Larry Robinson, but he's spoken for in New Jersey. Next would be Jacques Laperierre, but he's taken as guessed Jersey. (Is there any wonder why the Devils play such a consistently smothering defensive system?) There are other good candidates (not Breezer!) out there, but I think, if the Red Wings don't offer Chris Chelios another playing contract next year, he might be worth a try in the coach's role. He knows the challenging, physical style fans would like to see the Habs' D play. He's experienced and wily and knows all the tricks of the game. He's also been steeped in the winning system in Detroit and is used to having young players look up to him and ask him for advice.

Some have said they'd like to see Melanson replaced by Patrick Roy. I'm not sure that's a great idea, for several reasons. Not least among them, Roy's hotheadedness is an even bet to get him in trouble before the season is out. Also, Roy's ego isn't well-stroked if he's toiling away in the shadows as goalie coach. I think, with him, it's head coach or nothing. And there's the question of whether Roy would even be able to translate what made him great into a language he can teach a young goalie. Gretzky can't seem to do it with his young players in Phoenix. So, in lieu of Roy, I'd look at hiring the guy who made Roy famous in the first place: Francois Allaire. Allaire's under contract with the Ducks right now, but his deal ends this summer and he's mentioned publicly that he finds it difficult to be so far away from his home in Quebec. No one can deny he's done a great job with Giguere and now with Hiller, and even though he's known as the guru of the butterfly, he's not the type of coach that tries to force every goalie into a cookie-cutter style. I think Allaire could be the guy who could help Carey Price reach his potential, which is something the Habs are desperate do to.

And, that's how I'd solve the coaching situation.

Balm For the Wound

I don't know about you, but I feel a little bit better after last night. It doesn't burn as much to have our terribly injured, terribly outmanned eighth-seed Habs go down to the powerful Bruins after the mighty Sharks choked in the first round again, does it? Imagine being a Sharks fan. You just spent the entire season smugly watching your first-place team look pretty much invincible against all comers. You heard the pundits praise them for getting off to one of the best starts in league history, and compliment Doug Wilson for going out and adding a smart veteran winner in Rob Blake. You were excited because shoring up an already-strong defence with all-star Dan Boyle was the answer to the missing piece question for your team. Then the playoffs start, your big guns Marleau and Thornton once again fail to show up and your team, after all the hope and glory of the season, chokes again. And to your hated cross-state rival into the bargain.

Or, imagine being a Flames fan? You were all excited when Pierre McGuire and the other talking heads were ranting and raving about how your team "won" the trade deadline frenzy by adding Jordan Leopold and Olli Jokinen. They expounded about your team being "the new power" in the west, and how it had added strength that would make it incredibly tough to beat. Yet, here are the Flames, with a fourth straight first-round exit. That's got to hurt. But, at least the Flames fans can lick their wounds by listening to those same talking heads explain the Flames lost because of their injuries. They couldn't be expected to win without Phaneuf in the lineup, after all. The Canadiens loss of Andrei Markov wasn't even close to being responsible for their playoff defeat according to the experts...but then again, he's no Phaneuf.

So, there are worse things than being a Habs fan today. I think it'd be way worse to have a powerhouse team that can't win, than have a team with obvious holes that can be filled with the right moves. I think it would be easier to solve the Canadiens problems than try to figure out how to make Joe Thornton step up in the playoffs.

Monday, April 27, 2009

Summer Solutions: Centre

The Habs GM (and I'm hoping it continues to be Bob Gainey, so for argument's sake, we'll say it will be) has a LOT of work to do this summer. There are tons of decisions to be made about free agents alone, as well as the draft and the possibility of a trade or two. The way I see it, though, there are certain priorities that must be addressed promptly. First among them is the acquisition of a number-one centre.

This has been the organization's chief need for several years now, and it's obvious the team can't continue without one indefinitely. Koivu, Plekanec, Lapierre and Metropolit were out-sized by most of the other teams they faced this year, and in the playoffs they were out-skilled. With Ben Maxwell being the only offensively-skilled centre with any size in the organization, the number-one centre spot continues to stand empty.

This summer, there are four methods of fixing the problem: signing an unrestricted free agent, sending an offer sheet to a restricted free agent, drafting or trading. My preference of those four options is obviously drafting, as the player in question would be young, cheap and cost nothing to acquire. Unfortunately, that's not an immediate solution for the Canadiens, who'll pick at around number seventeen overall. While this draft is deep, the chances of an eighteen-year-old's potential to make the NHL team immediately, outside the top five or so picks, are slim. Of course, the option to trade up in the draft remains. But the chances of moving into one of the top five or six spots would be really costly...and since the draft is essentially a crap-shoot, the cost would be unquantifiable until three or four years from now. That's a big risk; the kind I don't see Bob Gainey taking. So, the draft isn't the most likely avenue of solving the centre problem in the immediate future.

The second-most desirable route to take then, is signing an unrestricted free agent. That solves the problem without costing the team anything but a salary, albeit an inflated one. Ignoring for a moment the much-discussed reluctance of free agents to sign in Montreal, let's look at the list of top-ranked centres who might be available on July 1. They include Mats Sundin, Mike Cammalleri, Henrik Sedin and Saku Koivu. Outside those four, there really aren't any candidates for a number-one centre position. Cammalleri and Sedin will be the two most coveted of those, even with the built-in limitations accompanying each. Cammalleri is offensively talented but he's streaky and he's small. Sedin is known to be interested in playing on the same team as his brother, and the rumour is they want in the 6-7 million dollar range apiece. Maybe they'll manage that, but it won't be in Montreal. And Henrik on his own is an unknown quantity. Will he be able to produce without his brother? Will he disappear for long stretches as he's been known to do in the past? Sundin is Sundin. After last year, I don't know if Gainey would be interested in chasing the Indecisive One for another summer. Added to the history he now has with Montreal, Sundin is old, expensive, injury-prone and hasn't exactly been lights-out in Vancouver. If Koivu re-signs, we know what we're getting: a small, tough, injury-prone, aging player who's all heart and by all accounts a great leader. But he no longer produces at the level needed by a number-one centre, and even his feistiness can't make up for his lack of size when faced with a guy who's 6'4" on the other team. So, it appears the options are limited when it comes to acquiring a real number-one centre from this year's UFA crop.

The third choice is sending an offer sheet to a restricted free agent. Of course, this option is loaded with more pitfalls than the other two. There's the gamble that the player is worth the draft picks the team would have to give up to get him, and there's the problem of goodwill lost between GMs when one poaches another's players. Following from that, there's a risk involved in poaching if the offended GM wants revenge and finds it by offering for one of Montreal's RFAs in return. There are possibilities out there. Teams that are close to the cap may be forced to give up their RFAs if they can't move the salary they'd have to dump to match an offer. What, for example, could Boston do if someone made an offer for David Krejci? Or Phil Kessel, who can also play centre, although he's a bit small for a number one? What would Edmonton do if Gainey offered for Rob Schremp? Or the Devils if he pitched Travis Zajac? There are possibilities out there, but no one that would be guaranteed to fill the role he'd have to fill in Montreal. And, considering the risks involved in the offer sheet process, I'm not sure it would be the best way to go for the Canadiens.

So, that leaves a trade. The one half the population of Habs followers wants would be five or six assets...roster players, draft picks, prospects...for Vincent Lecavalier. I've detailed the inherent problems in that one before. They include the length and cost of Lecavalier's contract, the uncertainty about his ongoing physical health after shoulder and wrist surgeries, his interest in playing in the fishbowl that is Montreal, his production levels which seem to have peaked a couple of seasons ago and the holes that would inevitably be created in the team's fabric just to acquire him. Getting Lecavalier would be like playing a game of Whack-A-Mole: it would solve one problem, but others would pop up instead. Now there's also the public animosity between Gainey and Brian Lawton, which would make any amicable deal between the two pretty unlikely.

Assuming then that Vinny is off the radar for Montreal, Gainey must look elsewhere for a trade. In deciding whom to target, the Habs must pinpoint exactly what they need in a centre. First would be size, as the other centres, aside from Lapierre, are small. Then there's skating ability, because the Habs want to be identified as a speed-based team. Defensive awareness is important to Canadiens management, so two-way ability is necessary. Finally, like any good number-one centre, the guy must be able to put up points. Secondary considerations would include age, because the team needs someone who can fill that position for several years, and salary, because the looming cap-crunch means sensible contracts are even more important than they've been in recent years. The target also has to be someone who's tradeable by his team. In other words, it can't be a player on a team that has only one strong guy at that position because his team won't part with him and leave itself with the same needs the Habs currently have. That means it has to be a player from a team that already has a good, strong centre or two (aside from the target) on its roster and can spare the kind of guy the Habs need.

There aren't that many teams with that kind of luxury up the middle. They include Philadelphia, with Carter, Richards and Briere at centre, the Rangers with Gomez, Drury and Dubinsky and Pittsburgh with Crosby, Malkin and Staal. Philly will be capped out next year, and would clear up a lot of its problems by moving Briere. The deal could be a good value for the team that takes him, as the Flyers can't take much salary in return, and Briere's deal is a tough pill to swallow in both term and dollar value so Philly might accept less for him than they would otherwise. He's also not got the size of a Carter that would make him more ideal as a number-one centre for Montreal. Add to that the fact that Briere spurned the Habs two years ago to sign with Philly in the first place, and it might be a tough sell to bring him to Montreal now. The Rangers will also be facing cap problems, but will find it hard to move either of the big Gomez or Drury contracts, especially since neither of them has proven to be worth the money they're making in New York.

So, it comes down to Pittsburgh. Obviously, Crosby and Malkin are untouchable. But Staal could certainly be moveable because the Penguins will be facing a cap crunch of their own, and four million bucks a year is a lot for a third-line centre. Also they need good wingers. Staal's got the size Montreal needs. He's young. He's signed for four years. His salary would be more easily justified by a team using him in a more offensive role. He can kill penalties and has great defensive awareness. He wins faceoffs. And his 29-goal rookie season as an eighteen-year-old shows he can put the puck in the net. His numbers for the last couple of seasons haven't been impressive, but one should consider he's getting only about sixteen minutes of ice time per game and not much of that on the powerplay. He's also playing with third-line wingers and gets a lot of time on the PK. I think he might be a good candidate to break out for a team that makes him a number-one centre and gives him the icetime, powerplay opportunities and linemates that position would deserve.

So, if Gainey were to target Staal as a trade candidate, we must consider what they'd have to give up for him. The Pens would like to fill some of their other needs without taking on too much salary. Losing Staal would save them four million. They'd have to replace Staal as the third-line centre, but they'd also like to add a defensive defenceman and a winger or two to complement Malkin and Crosby. Looking at those needs, it's reasonable to expect the Penguins to demand a proven NHL-calibre player as the main return. That means a package of prospects probably isn't going to cut it. The Habs don't have a proven NHL in the stay-at-home D mold that doesn't cost more than Staal, so that's not going to work either. I think it must come down to a winger to play with the Big Two in Pittsburgh. It would have to be someone who can convert, someone who costs less than Staal and someone who gives back some of the threat the Pens would lose in their lineup with Staal gone. Of the Canadiens' wingers with NHL experience, only Guillaume Latendresse, Andrei Kostitsyn, Matt D'Agostini, Max Pacioretty, Greg Stewart, Georges Laraque, Chris Higgins and Sergei Kostitsyn are pretty much sure to be Habs after July 1. Of those, only Higgins or Andrei Kostitsyn would be considered to be the kind of quality player the Pens would expect for Staal. And between them, we know Kostitsyn is the better offensive player.

Depending on what the Pens are looking for in a winger, it would be reasonable to trade either Higgins or Kostitsyn for Staal, straight-up. Both Higgins and Kostitsyn are former first-round draft picks, just as Staal has been. They both have scored similar numbers of goals as Staal in their best years. And, considering Staal's numbers haven't been consistent, his value isn't as high as it might otherwise be.

And that's how I'd see the centre problem fixed.

Friday, April 24, 2009

Just a Stat

An interesting stat for those who think Saku Koivu has been a weak number-one centre, while Vincent Lecavalier is the saviour of the Montreal Canadiens:

Koivu: 792 NHL games played. 641 points scored.
Lecavalier: 787 NHL games played. 669 points scored.

Not much of a difference when you look at the numbers.


Okay. Now it's hitting me. We won't see another Habs game for SIX MONTHS. Sure, we'll have the hiring of a new coach, the draft, the signing of the Canadiens own free agents before July 1, UFA season, development camp, rookie camp and training camp before the new team takes the ice in October. But it's not the same.

For all their faults, there are very few Canadiens I'll be glad to see leave town. And I know we've seen the last games of more than one of them. I'll miss Kovalev's precision shot over the goalie's left shoulder. I'll miss Koivu's digging in the corner and coming out with the puck against guys with thirty pounds on him. I'll miss Dandenault's speed, Higgins' hustle, Tanguay's seeing-eye passes, Markov's PP set-ups, Halak's stopping forty-plus shots, Kostopoulos' "fights," Price and Gorges' funny win celebrations when the team was winning, Komisarek's shot blocking, Schneider's bomb from the point, Lapierre's energy, Plekanec's sweet passes from behind the net, Bouillon's bodychecks, Breezer's dramatic outlet pass, Kostitsyn's once-in-a-blue-moon virtuoso rushes, Laraque's smile when he lines up with the other team's goon, Hamrlik's big minutes and willingness to take on whatever the team asked of him, Metropolit's heart, Sergei's feistiness and the hopefulness of kids like D'Agostini, Pacioretty, Stewart, O'Byrne and Weber. There's something to like about every one of them.

It's going to be such a long summer for us though. I think it's worse because it's tinged with such sadness and uncertainty. Last year we were all impatient for the summer to pass and the new season to pick up where the promise of the old one left off. Now we're looking at wholesale changes in staff, the roster and possibly even the ownership. That's making it really tough to look ahead with much optimism. But, ironically, maybe that's where the optimism can be found.

Maybe if we're not expecting great things, the possibility of a pleasant surprise exists. Perhaps a return to realism after all the fairytale hype of the Centennial will mean a lot of the bandwaggoners will drop off and leave the team to supporters who don't expect a Cup just because the media tells them they should have one...and who boo when they don't get what they were told to expect. Maybe returning to normal will mean the players will smile again and their development will get back on track after the derailment of this awful season. Hey...I guess there's hope after all. Bring on the draft!

Thursday, April 23, 2009

And Now, the End Is Near...

As the Habs face the final curtain, I don't know whether to be saddened or relieved by the coup de grace the Bs are about to deliver to the bloody, doomed, ill-conceived, egotistical, arrogant Centennial season. When the number of things that have gone wrong this year go wrong...well, you have to think there's a greater force than Bob Gainey at work here. Somebody's trying to tell us something. And that something may just be, "Get your self-congratulatory heads out of the past and shut up about glory until there's an actual chance to experience glory again before the twentieth anniversary of the last Cup rolls around." I don't have any hope the Habs can pull off a miracle and win the next four games, despite what our good Captain says about anything being possible. I don't really have any hope they can win even this fourth game and salvage some small measure of dignity. BUT, I am not without hope altogether. Here are the top ten things I hope for, as the seasons turn from hockey spring to hockey summer for us:

10. Bob Gainey stays. Or, at least doesn't make a hasty decision to leave based on his disillusionment this season. I think Gainey won't be fired, so the decision will be his own. There's no question he's made a lot of mistakes (Ribeiro, Streit, etc.). But he's also made some very good decisions (Lang, Tanguay, Rivet, etc.). Who among us were expecting this year's results when we looked at the projected lineup in September? Sure, the Big Bald Swede chose Vancouver, but Gainey's second choice of Robert Lang turned out to be inspired. And, sure, maybe the team was short a top-four D-man from the get-go, but we all thought that would be a handicap in the third or fourth round of the playoffs...not in making the playoffs at all. Gainey made a hell of a good stab at putting together a contender this year, only to have it injured into extinction. For those who think he should have made a desperation trade at the deadline for a Lang replacement, I defend him because I think he realized there's a balance between going all-in and saving something for later. He'd already traded a first, three seconds and a third-round draft pick for Lang, Tanguay and Schneider. Seller teams at the deadline want draft picks and futures, and Gainey had already reached his limit of what he was prepared to part with in the none-too-guaranteed pursuit of a Centennial Cup. He goes into the off-season now with a lot of contracts expired and the potential to give the team a dramatic facelift, and I'm willing to give him the chance to try.

9. A low-key draft. The last big event of the cursed Centennial is the draft in June, to be held at the Bell Centre. Honestly, if they make a big, black-and-white-video splash, trotting out Jean Beliveau to open the thing, sending out invitations with Centennial stamps and holding a Hall-of-Fame dinner in Centennial Square, I'll barf. I just want them to respectfully welcome everyone to the draft and let the picking begin. Enough with the glorious past, which is just mocked by the pathetic present. Unless, of course, they can reunite all the remaining first-rounders of the glorious past, like Ray Martyniuk, Robin Sadler, Rod Schutt, Jan Ingman and Mark Pederson. Then, there could be the "We Drafted French" category, featuring such luminaries as Alain Heroux, Alfie Turcotte, Jose Charbonneau, Eric Charron and Eric Chouinard. That could be followed by the "We Drafted Big" display, with special appearances by Lindsay Vallis, Turner Stevenson, Brent Bilodeau, David Wilkie, Brad Brown, Terry Ryan, Matt Higgins and Jason Ward. The special ceremony could be introduced by former first-rounder Rejean Houle and conclude with a video trubute to Doug Wickenheiser. Hey...on second thought, maybe a Draft Retrospective would be in order after all, if only to teach the organization a little humility.

8. A successful draft. I'm not a nember of the Church of Trevor Timmins. I think Timmins has done a fine job restocking what had been a pretty bare farm system since his arrival in 2003. The team has lots of solid, if unspectacular, prospects, as is evidenced by the Bulldogs' Calder Cup win two years ago. And seeing guys like Jaro Halak, Carey Price, Andrei Kostitsyn, Maxim Lapierre and Guillaume Latendresse already cemented in the NHL lineup, with others like Greg Stewart, Matt D'Agostini, Max Pacioretty, Ryan O'Byrne and Yannick Weber getting time and looking like possible regulars next season, you can't deny Timmins can spot NHL potential. My beef with him is that he doesn't seem able to land a stud...a real first-line, top-D kind of player. His first-rounders just aren't that impressive for the most part. Perhaps it has to do with his "best player available" strategy instead of drafting for organizational need. I know the thinking behind the BPA strategy is that the need today might not be the need in three or four years when that player is NHL-ready. But let's get serious: the Habs have been looking for a number-one centre for years and there's still not one in the system, with all due respect to Ben Maxwell. It's no secret it's tough for scouts to land a blue-chipper when a team is consistently finishing in the middle of the draft order. But Timmins had the number-ten overall pick in one of the deepest drafts in history in 2003, and the number-five overall pick in 2005. Talented franchise centres who went in those drafts AFTER the Habs chose Andrei Kostitsyn and Carey Price, respectively, include Jeff Carter, Ryan Getzlaf, Zach Parise, Mike Richards and Anze Kopitar. This year, in another deep draft, the Habs will probably pick around number 17. It's not the best position, admittedly, but there are good players to be had. I hope if there's a stud there when the Habs pick, Timmins will finally recognize it and choose someone other than a Mr.Hockey winner who spends the next four years at a US college and then never really pans out.

7. Smart management of contracts. Everyone knows the cap is going down in the next couple of years. That likely means smart GMs won't be throwing stupid money and long term at mid-range free agents like they did in the good old Drury/Gomez/Briere/Smyth days. And it means there will be teams that get capped out pretty quickly because they did pay stupid money and long-term for those mid-range guys and now can't get rid of them. The Habs face this off-season with a raft of unrestricted free agents and several underperforming restricted ones. That frees up a ton of money and opens a lot of possibilities for roster changes. I don't believe guys like Tomas Plekanec and Chris Higgins are done based on their lousy seasons this year. Their numbers will help get them re-signed for cheap and save money for the eternal struggle to land a star.

6. A good trade. I specify "good" here because I do NOT want to see assets and futures traded to acquire a certain albatross contract attached to a certain physically-uncertain francophone saviour out of Tampa Bay. For me, a good trade would be a sensible package to Pittsburgh for Jordan Staal. He's the big, talented centre the Habs need, and he's signed for four years at four million per. Admittedly, his numbers haven't been top-shelf since his 29-goal rookie season. But you have to remember he's playing the third-line centre role behind Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin. Also, the Pens have had trouble icing enough decent wingers to play with all their good centres. Based on their overabundance down the middle and their potential cap issues with all the big contracts they already have, I think Staal's moveable, and I think the Habs should be first in line.

5. The renaissance of Carey Price. This must happen. The Canadiens invested their highest draft pick in years in him, when they could have spent it on the centre they needed, or on a big, talented D like Marc Staal. If Price turns out to be unreliable, it will set the organization back years. So, I hope he goes home and has a good talk with his parents, clears his head and comes back a more mature, focussed human being and a more consistent goalie.

4. The hiring of a good, experienced coach. This is something the Habs have been lacking for years because of the "need" to hire a francophone. I think it would be great to have a guy who speaks both official languages, but I don't want to see the team limit its choices because language is a priority. I've had enough with the rookie coaches who use the Habs to learn their way through the NHL, then end up doing well elsewhere. The Habs shouldn't be Coaching Kindergarten anymore, even if it means the new guy speaks only English. The team needs someone with experience, a system and a track record of winning.

3. Ownership stability. I like George Gillett's ownership. He cheers for the team, but keeps his nose out of the hockey management side of things. And he's not been cheap with Gainey either. There's speculation now that he might be able to unload his expensive half-share of the Liverpool FC, which would prevent his having to ditch the Habs to refinance his loans. I'd like to see Gillett continue as owner, because I'm not sure any of the alternatives I've heard mentioned would be the best thing for the team.

2. Weeding out of "bad apples." When Guy Carbonneau left his final press conference, he said he'd be happy to speak with Bob Gainey about "bad apples" on the team over the summer. I hope if there really are bad apples they're removed immediately, regardless of the amount of talent they may possess. It's better to have a close team than a scattered, more talented one.

And the number one thing I hope for as this season comes to an end:

1. Fun. This was a real "team" last year. I mean a team whose players stood up for each other, who genuinely liked each other and played hard for the love of the game and the team. I think the Habs did the right thing by rebuilding from the inside with guys who know no other city or team and whose loyalties aren't divided. The first players from that rebuild are now the young, homegrown veterans that should be taking over and leading the way. So, I hope that whatever happened this year to derail what looked like a promising team development was just an aberration. I hope the team can put this year away and pick up where they left off last year. Last year was fun. This year has been anything but. I can stand losing. I can stand disappointment. But I can't take another season of absolutely no fun. So, here's to better days ahead and a few hopes finally coming true as the long wait for a new season begins.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Boston vs. Montreal Game 4

Notes on the last period of the Disgusting Centennial:

-Nice of Ryder not to smile during his interview with Gelinas. Make fun of his paper airplanes if you like, but he'll be jetting to the second round while the Habs steer golf carts around.

-I bet Gorges and Price don't talk once during the summer.

-Have the Habs had a rebound this series? No? I didn't think so.

-They end the Centennial on the PK to a chorus of boos. Appropriate, I think.

-Swept. The humiliation is complete.

Notes on the second:

-The blind Price-love by a lot of fans is kind of amusing to watch, isn't it? Not that this game is his fault, but he's got a LOT of valiant defenders.

-Weber can really pass! He's got some nice vision and composure for all of his six NHL games.

-One small mercy: the Canadiens decided not to do the playoff beard thing. That would be just sad, to see them all scraping off a week of scruff tomorrow.

-Two things the Bruins do better than the Habs: pass the puck smartly and skate constantly rather than stand still with the puck.

-I never thought Ryder had bloodlust in his nature, but I guess I was wrong. Maybe it was worth giving him one more season, Bob?

-Speaking of which, Gainey's chewing his gum faster and faster as the "game" progresses. I wonder if he's hoping to grind himself out of existence, jaw first?

-The annoyance and the irony of RDS in one sequence: Brunet calling Latendresse "Guillaume" as though he's the president of the Lats fan club, followed immediately by a Centennial loonie commercial with Beliveau.

-Hey...might as well throw some salt in the wound and have Komisarek get punched in the face by Lucic. Again.

-Price pulling a Roy with the easy-save sarcasm is NOT cool. The kid needs to grow up. They might have been comparing him to Patrick, but he's about four Cups and three Conn Smythes short.

-I think of all the Bruins, even Lucic, I hate Kessel the most. He's such a pizza-faced turd. With four goals in four games against our Bulldogs.

-Okay, twenty minutes to get drunk, then on to the draft!

Notes on the first:

-Watching this on RDS rather than CBC because I find sarcasm easier to bear than pity.

-Shout out to our friends the St.Louis Blues, who spared the Habs the indignity of being the first team voted off Playoff Island. Still, with the way they've been drafting recently, I think the Blues will be a legit contender before the Habs will.

-That was a pretty comical freeze/double-take by Tiny Tim on Kostitsyn's goal. THAT wasn't in the sweep script.

-Add to the list of "if onlys": Imagine if Laraque had any talent at all? He's impossible to push off the puck, even by that bionic chimp, Chara.

-13:47 of that period: the first time Price looked anxiously behind him.

-Oh my hands are sweaty and my heart rate elevated even during THIS game. I'm pathetically Pavlovian when it comes to the Habs.

-Higgins is either playing his ass off for a new contract because he loves the Habs, or he's thrilled he can smell the end of this season and the joy has given him wings. Or maybe that's the (vodka) Red Bulls? Great play on the B's first PP regardless.

-Andrei Kostitysn passes like a blind eighty-year old in four-lane traffic: desperately and usually into a crowd.

-From here, it looks like Gainey has little Habs' logos on his tie. But I don't have HD...a good thing through most of this season.

-I swear to God I was thinking at the seventeen-minute mark that it'd be great if they got out of the period without allowing a ridiculous lapse in coverage for a stupid Bruins goal. As usual, the team surprised me by giving up TWO!

-Price hasn't been exactly stellar in this series, but his defence has been atrocious. They said Ryder's goal was unassisted, but it was very much assisted by Hamrlik.

-Okay, I said I'd crack a toast to this season once it was decided. I think it's decided. Bottoms up!

Monday, April 20, 2009

Boston vs. Montreal Game 3

Notes on the third:

-One difference between this and the other losses is that the Habs stood up and gave it their hearts and guts tonight. This is an honourable defeat. It still stinks, but at least we can be proud of them this time.

-Would it have been any different with Halak in net? Add it to the pile of "what ifs" with which we'll console ourselves this summer. Still, it would have been really nice to test that "any goalie would have given those up" theory.

-Oh's still 24-8 for the Habs in lifetime playoff matchups against Boston, right? Rah-rah! Then again, perhaps going down 3-0 is Fate because coming back from that deficit would be a franchise first, and a great way to celebrate the Centennial. Okay...hahahahaha...couldn't hold it in.

-Mike "Icing" Komisarek. How much would YOU pay?

-Helluva time for the Lapierre line to come back down to earth, wasn't it?

-You know what's not fair? Because of Gainey's silence on the state of the lineup, I spent all day hoping Lang and/or Markov would be in tonight. Instead, I tune in to the pre-game show to find out not only are they NOT back, but Tanguay and Schneider are out as well. This whole season has been such a massive disappointment.

-Still, nice to mark the hundredth year of the team by getting pounded by a traditional rival.

-Timbits hockey's motto is: The first goal is having fun. And you know what? This year hasn't been fun. At all. Last year was excellent. This year has just been one disaster after another. I wonder what's coming next?

Notes on the second:

-The Bruins are a truly classy, well-behaved team of Lady Byng candidates. It's nice to see the refs recognizing their clean play by not mistakenly putting them down a man for more than half the game.

-Then again, with Lang, Tanguay, Schneider and Markov out I think I'm more afraid of a shorty against than expecting a goal for our guys.

-That sniper Shawn Thornton, kills 'em every time.

-Yannick Weber is making an early case for himself as the receiver of Markov's PP one-timer passes next season. What a bomb!

-It might be too early to say this, but Ryan O'Byrne is not playing a bad game tonight. I think we can at least say he played a helluva two periods.

-Komisarek handles the puck like an elephant doing brain surgery.

-Kovalev even dives artistically.

-It would have been nice to come out of that period even, but the patchwork quilt of a D the Habs are icing is too easily ovewhelmed in their own end. Anyone doubting Markov's the team MVP now?

-Price's save percentage must be better tonight. He's only allowing a goal on every seventh shot, rather than every sixth.

-One last gasp for a foothold in the series remaining. But I fear Ryder's Revenge has unofficially buried his old team. And Carbo wasn't even there to appreciate it.

Notes on the first:

-O'Byrne, D'Agostini, Weber and Stewart in the lineup. Expecting the Hamilton Bulldogs to beat the top team in the Eastern Conference is like expecting Zdeno Chara to have a handsome child.

-Nice of the marketing department to hand out white towels. Could be handy in case of a need to surrender.

-In the absence of Sergei, it was handy of Andrei Kostitsyn to provide the early momentum-killing dumbass penalty. Bold PK though.

-It's amazing what a difference there is in this team when the players don't stop moving.

-Metropolit skates like he's been shot out of a cannon.

-Stewart runs Thomas, then looks at him with that big goofy "Whoops, man" look on his face. He's going to be a really good instigator when he gets some more experience.

-Chris Higgins could redeem a really crappy season with a really good last month and a strong playoff. He seems to have finally found his role.

-Laraque is playing the best Laraque-hockey possible. But it feels like you're cheering for a one-legged swimmer, and it's great that he just gets across the pool without drowning.

-Price made a couple of game-savers tonight. I wish I could shake the feeling that it's only a matter of time...

-I was just thinking how well the depleted defence had been playing when Komisarek served up that giant brain fart for One-Ball Phil to deflect. I hate that guy. I'd honestly like to kick him in the nut.

-If there were any justice in the hockey world, there's no way this game should be tied. But, so goes the Centennial I guess. Now let's see if this fragile team can put the bad goal behind them and rally for another two brilliant periods.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Montreal vs. Boston Game 2

Notes on the third:

-One of the worst things about this is that our team is losing to a team coached by a guy who looks like an insurance salesman in an ill-fitting suit. Did Julien even pay $6.50 for that tie?

-If Jaro Halak had started this series, it'd be tied at one right now.

-Poor Pierre Houde...getting so excited about Lapierre on a one-on-three.

-Winner for Pathetic Moment of the Night: Gorges losing a fight to concussion-case Patrice Bergeron. Way to go, Josh!

-How much humilation will it take for the Habs to show some balls in response? They appear to be immune to embarrassment so far.

-You forget Hamrlik was drafted first overall. Makes you realize what a crapshoot the draft really is.

-On the five-minute PP...the only one of the game they had...I wondered if the Habs have actually forgotten they're supposed to be playing hockey.

-I thought Weber played pretty well, considering his complete lack of experience. I dream of a day when Weber, Subban, Pacioretty and McDonagh are making the Habs actually tough to play against.

-Start Halak in game three. Yeah, right.

-Gross. I'm going to have to root for the Rangers in the next round.

Notes on the second:

-The thing is, Laraque is actually doing his best. He's playing the most effective hockey he's ever played in the CH. But putting him with Koivu and Kovalev long-term is like putting Roseanne Barr in the kick line with the Rockettes.

-I think Gainey must have reminded Koviu in the intermission that his window for winning in the NHL is closing by the shift.

-Kovalev, Lapierre and Laraque? And I thought Carbo's lines were crazy!

-Speaking of Kovalev, he shoots like a precision rifle. Who would have thought he'd be the Hab most motivated to up his game in this series?

-Carey Price is an average goalie. There. I said it. Five goals on 26 shots? But, as I have lamented before, Bob Gainey loves him and will bow out with him in nets rather than play Halak.

-It's the Habs' own fault. If they'd tried a little harder in a couple of those games they blew earlier in the season, they could be beating Washington instead of getting owned by the Bs.

-It's kind of unbelievable that the Bruins have yet to take a penalty. I have a feeling they haven't been *that* well-behaved.

-The worst part about the second is that it wasn't the third. Twenty more minutes of agony to come.

Notes on the first:

-I think the All-Star skills competition should have a passing segment. Imagine Savard and Tanguay in that? It'd be like those old commercials where Gretzky knocks the puck off the scoreboard and into the net.

-Lucic really does look like Cro-Magnon Man, doesn't he? The hockey stick in place of the spear just completes the picture.

-I don't think it's a great sign that I'm excited to see Francis Bouillon in the lineup. That's just a measure of how my expectations have been lowered since October, I guess.

-If I'm going to die of a heart attack before I'm forty, it's going to be directly related to Carey Price wandering out of his net in the playoffs. Or Price completely losing sight of a loose puck in his crease.

-It'd be awfully nice to see our guys win a faceoff once in a while.

-I'm getting really sick of the Keystone Cop routine everytime there's a loose puck around the Habs' net. How could both Higgins AND Metropolit fail to clear that, leading to the Bruins' first goal?

-Schneider might be a godsend on the PP, but when the other guys aren't taking any penalties, he's more of a liability.

-The Lapierre line is much, much too quiet. It might be worth switching Higgins with TK, just to give them some jump.

-The worse part of this is I think the Habs have been outplaying the Bs for large chunks of the last game and this one, but they just don't get the breaks. This has really been the season from hell.

-Can you teach players how to win the puck on the boards? Because if you can, I think most of the Habs need to go to summer school.

-Okay Bob, Laraque on the first line was a nice gimmick for a while. But the team needs offence. Time to reunite your only good line, for the love of Stanley!

-I wonder who'd trade something decent for Hamrlik in the summer?

-I fear our guys are going down in four. I hate the Bruins so much. Especially that creature, Lurch.

Friday, April 17, 2009

Horrible Dream!

Ugh. I hate falling asleep in the afternoon because that's when you remember all your weird dreams most clearly. But, I had an early-morning start today and couldn't help it. Anyway...I had the worst dream. And the thing is, I wouldn't put it out of the realm of reality.

Brian Burke has been saying he wants to land John Tavares and will do everything in his power to move up in the draft, right? Well, I dreamed that he found out Garth Snow wants Viktor Hedman with the first pick, and knew Tampa would be taking Tavares. So Burke packaged up Grabovski (sign and trade), Kulemin, Tlusty, Stefanovich and Kaberle, as well as the leafs' number-seven pick in the first round and their second round pick this year and their first and second picks next year. In exchange he got Vincent Lecavalier, the first-overall pick this year and Tampa's second next year.

Now, this is just a bad dream of course. And although it has nothing directly to do with the Habs, outside the sheer horror of both Lecavalier and Tavares lining up for the leafs, it worries me that it's not outside the realm of possibility that Burke could cook up a deal with Tampa's crazy owners. They need to dump Vinny's contract, and the empty Toronto roster would be a perfect dumping ground. And the leafs need a superstar from their own backyard to appease fans who are facing a painful rebuild. Tavares is the perfect candidate.

Needless to say, I won't be napping in the afternoon for a while.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Montreal vs. Boston Game 1

Notes on the third:

-I really like Metropolit. He had a horrible start with the Habs, but it's been all uphill from there.

-Koivu's got the sisu. Google it.

-After the first, the defence has been playing a solid, controlled game without Markov. I'm impressed.

-Stupid penalty by Gorges ruins the best sustained dominance the Habs have had against Boston all season.

-Plekanec has played one of the worst games of his career. I don't know what the hell is wrong with him, but it stinks.

-Price was good. Despite everything, he did what he had to do.

-I wonder if their hearts are broken or if they can come from behind and go back to Montreal with a split? Hard to say with this team, this year.

-I hate the Bruins.

Notes on the second:

-The Habs D hits less often than a drunk driver. I think even Bouillon would be helpful at this point.

-I think Lapierre's too keyed up for this one. His legs are skittering like a hamster in a wheel.

-In the battle of the blue-shirted, blue-tied coaches, Gainey's is much less blinding. But Perplexed Alfred Hitchcock never did have a lot of style.

-Price scares me when he whips his head around to find the puck like that. It's like it suddenly becomes invisible for him. He knows it's there, but if it's really quiet, he can't find it.

-Thomas is good if you announce by your position "I will be firing the puck from the right circle, high to your glove side." He *does* speak body language, apparently.

-Nothing he could do on Kovalev's shot, though. Kovy had to sign that shot out of the ammo repository at Petawawa.

-The PK is rocking this game. But they can't push their luck forever.

-I'm criticizing the Pleks line for being pretty invisible, but at the same time half expecting that if the Habs can pull it off, they'll score the winner.

-Good period. Another twenty like that, and the Habs have a shot.

Notes on the first:

-Lucic on Breezer: Elder abuse.

-Giveaways in the neutral zone will kill the Habs. The only way they can make up for the loss of Markov is to move the puck quickly and accurately through the middle. So far they've been giving it up more easily than a drunken nerd.

-Dumbass penalty by Plekanec. He looks like a little tiny Atlas, with the weight of the world on his shoulders. He needs to chill out.

-I don't think I've seen Higgins win a fight for the puck on the boards all year. He's got to be 200 pounds of jello. He's money on the PK though. Funny how he's so much better down a man than he is even strength.

-Boy, I wish Carey Price could effectively smother a puck. He'll never be charged for murder.

-Higgins beat Thomas because he put a rebound high. That's the way to do it.

-Some of the Habs' aging Ds need bifocals because they have no clue where the puck is half the time.

-Not a bad start by the Habs, but the tide turned shortly before the first Boston goal and the Canadiens don't have the board skills or the transition game to push back.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Top Ten Things To Hate About the Bruins

As the Habs prepare to face the Bruins in the first round for the million-and-twelfth time in their joint history, it's time for fans to reflect on their hatred for the opposition. And boy, do I hate the Bruins! How do I hate them? Let me count the ways:

10. Zdeno Chara. I can't stand this overgrown ape. His too-long arms are just meant for knuckle dragging. I don't care if he's supposed to be a great, soft-spoken guy off the ice. On it, he's a neanderthal goon, as witnessed by his random mauling of Komisarek in the last game between the teams. I just hate this guy.

9. Their myth. The Big, Bad Bruins were the team of the seventies. Even Cam Neely's version was closer to the name than what's on the ice in those teddy sweaters these days. These guys are a skill team with a couple of big guys up front and the knuckle-dragger on D. They're not big, or bad. They haven't been in quite a while, and it makes me mad to hear their superior size and physical game put forth as a reason why they'll dominate Montreal. It's a myth! They won the conference because they scored the second-most goals in the league behind Detroit...not because they intimidated every other team into surrendering two points.

8. Tim Thomas. Here's another guy who's supposed to be just the greatest guy ever. What I see is a little weasel who either dives (more on that later) to draw a penalty whenever someone brushes by him, or, if no penalty is called, uses his stick in blatant attempts to hurt people. He's a hot-tempered little dirtbag, and I hope his flopping around like Aebischer on a good day comes back to haunt him at last.

7. Claude Julien. I didn't mind Julien as the Habs' coach. He was boring and low-key, but he seemed relatively inoffensive. Now though, he's developed a rabid desire to beat the Habs that has him sending his team out to goon it up. He steams when he loses to Montreal and smirks when he wins. It's maddening. I hope the Habs give him a reason to wear that perplexed Alfred Hitchcock look he perfected last season.

6. Their diving. If there was an Olympic gold medal in ice diving, Marc Savard would win it. He leads the way on a team that's perfected the art of fooling refs into rewarding them with undeserved powerplays.

5. Milan Lucic. Only Mike Komisarek's good fortune in retaining all his vertebrae intact separates Lucic from Bertuzzi. This kid his huge and strong, but he's got the brains of a worm turd. Jumping Komisarek from behind like he did in the last game was not only dangerous, it's the type of play one would hope would put his team on the PK during the playoffs. Unfortunately, he gets a pass much too often, and he's going to hurt someone. Then there's his playing to the crowd after Komisarek went down with a separated shoulder in their fight earlier this year. He's an idiot.

4. Bruins bias in the media. I hate PJ Stock and Don Cherry and their vocal Bruins love. I don't blame most of the pundits for picking the Bruins in the series. After all, they are the conference champs and the safe bet to take the Habs. But there's no need for the gloating by all these pinheads. Mike Milbury on HNIC just smarms with anticipation to imagine the Canadiens' loss. I want the Habs to win because I'm a Habs fan. But a giant side benefit to that would be watching those know-it-alls have to find something good to say about the Canadiens. Until next time, of course.

3. Phil Kessel. I'm reading Gare Joyce's book right now, which is an inside look at the 2006 NHL draft. Kessel comes across as a self-centred, sullen, difficult kid who has problems getting along with his teammates. That description, his pie face and his stupid gaping grin when he scores are enough for me to hate him.

2. Their cockiness. Before the playoffs, a couple of Bruins said they'd prefer to play the Canadiens in the first round because they felt they had the best chance to advance against Montreal. There's no humilty at all about these guys. They gloat and they make ostentatious on-ice celebrations every time they score. That kind of thing seems to always come back to bite teams in the butt. Hopefully that holds true this time.

And the number one thing to hate about the Bruins:

1. Their fans. leafs fans are hateful because they always think they're going to win, and they're always in your face. If the leafs beat the Habs one time a year, leafs fans come out of the woodwork to gloat, totally ignoring the fact that the Habs won the other five games the two teams played. Bruins fans don't do that. They live in dread of the Habs to the point of obsession. They've built up a reservoir of bile and fear so great it will come out with the force of a volcano if the Bruins win this series. They've been waiting for years to have a definitive win over Montreal, and if it happens, they'll gloat painfully loudly and for a painfully long time. A Bruins win would completely suck in this regard, so Go Habs, Go!!

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

No Predictions!

I'm not watching any of the sports channels' prediction shows about the playoffs this year. Partly because they're almost always wrong and most of the predictors are a bunch of blowhards anyway. But also partly because dissecting every little thing about every series...powerplay, goaltending, physical and mental advantages...takes the fun out of it. How can you have a miracle when you're scrutinizing the thing under a jaundiced microscope? When you lay out the stark facts and analyze them to prove their truth, it's hard to believe something unexpected...something heroic...could happen.

It's like my dad says: "All the ghosts disappeared when the electricity came in." He means the mystery of sitting around by lamplight or candlelight, in the flickering shadows, allowed you to believe there might be something unearthly just outside the circle. Electricity took away the shadows and lit up the spaces where ghosts might have ghost stories started to disappear.

It's the same thing with hockey. As long as there's mystery and shadow around a playoff series, we can hope and dream and believe that there's more to it than meets the eye. We can expect our team to rise to the occasion and do great things. But when we shine the cold light of analysis on it, belief fades into what must be inevitable because the stats and the commentators say it must be so.

So, I'm not watching the predictions shows and I hope Bob Gainey is instructing the players not to do so either. Even if the constant reminders of the Habs' underdog status and likely quick exit from the post-season could possibly be turned into a motivational tool, I think they're more likely to cement in the players' minds the belief that they're not supposed to win. What we need is a group of players that believe in themselves, despite all the common sense and predictions out there.

I remember in 1986, watching a team that finished with just 87 points...second in its division and fifth in its conference. Nobody expected that team, loaded with rookies, to do anything. But the veterans, like captain Bob Gainey, who'd been there before knew there's a bit of magic in the playoffs that a team can grab if it believes in itself and players play for each other. Those veterans took the kids by the hands and taught them what winning means. I wonder now though, if those young players were exposed to the kind of intense scrutiny and analysis of their game that today's players experience, whether they'd have really believed they could win?

Those of us who have watched all the games this year already know what the Habs are up against. We know their weaknesses and their opposition's strengths. We know the cost of missing players like Andrei Markov and Robert Lang. But as long as we're not listening to those who don't see an opportunity for a miracle in this series, then maybe we can still hope for one. I want that 1986 feeling back, when the only ones who believed that team could win were the unjaded fans, the players themselves...and the ghosts in the darkened rafters. And they did it. Predictions be damned.

Monday, April 13, 2009

Love Story

Once upon a time, there was a kid whose daddy so wanted him to be a pro hockey goalie that he bought a plane and flew the kid from his northern BC home to practices and games in towns where the kid could meet better competition.

The kid did well. He loved his daddy and wanted to please him, so he worked hard. He was lucky too. He had talent for the job, and he liked doing something he was good at. Soon, he was sixteen, and drafted into junior hockey by the Tri-City Americans.

Leaving home was tough, but the kid was lucky. He ended up living with a great couple who really treated him like their own son. They made his home life easy, so he could concentrate on hockey. Under their care, he bloomed. His team wasn't great, but he did well anyway. When he was eighteen, the Montreal Canadiens went way off the board and picked him at number five in the NHL draft. Habs GM, Bob Gainey, had the world at his feet with that pick, and could have picked any number of talented guys like Staal, Setoguchi, Kopitar or Stastny. But he went with the guy his scouting staff recommended...a lower-ranked goalie who could have gone anywhere in the first two rounds.

In a couple of years, the kid was picked to play for his country in the World Junior Championships. Nobody knew this would be his watershed moment. He led his country to gold in spectacular fashion. Within a year he was playing for the Calder Cup championship in Hamilton and won that too, with MVP honours.

Then the love affair shifted into high gear. The kid went to the NHL camp and wasn't quite the best guy there. He took second seat among the tryouts to a Slovak kid who'd helped the NHL team almost make the playoffs the year before. But the GM loved the Canadian kid already. The boss stepped in and picked the kid for the NHL job.

The kid did well, until he hit his first pro losing streak. Turned out, he couldn't handle it. He cried and got sent to the minors to get his head back on straight. After that, though, he came back strong. The GM even traded the pesky veteran rival to the kid's number-one spot. Everything was great. Until the playoffs. Then, the mental fatigue and thirty pounds of kid-fat he'd accumulated through the year got to him and he couldn't do it. He collapsed and lost the series for his team.

This year, the kid came back strong. Then he got hurt. He came back again, got hurt again. After the second injury, he wasn't ever the same. He acquired the dreaded "Softie-per-game" syndrome. Meanwhile, the Slovak kid he beat out for the job last year stole enough points to get the kid and the team into the post-season. Of course, the GM, now coach, loves the kid and he'll start in net. The Slovak kid won't get a look in until the thing is lost and it doesn't matter.

The kid can make the big saves. He can be huge. But then, when it matters most, there'll be a floater from just inside the blueline that beats him over the glove hand, and that'll be the game. But the GM/coach loves him. He loves him with an unshakeable faith and unrelenting belief. The kid will captain the ship, even if it's bows under, because he is the GM/coach's great love.

I just hope the love is finally requited.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

I Want Playoffs!

I want the Habs in the post-season. I don't care if it's only for four games. Four games of playoffs is better than 82 games of not playoffs. It's the best time of the year, and if your team is in, it give you a sense of pride that they made it. In the case of the Habs this season, it would be a sign of character and triumph over adversity. When they're out, it's a black mark on the franchise's record, and it leaves the faithful with nothing but hockey pools and a long, long wait until draft day to look forward to.

Screw the Centennial. Screw the injuries. Screw it all. I just want the playoffs. Four games and out will be disappointing, but not as disappointing as ending the season on Saturday. So, come on you pansies! Get us one point and four games in the real season. We deserve that much.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Montreal vs. New York

Notes on the third:

-Just calculated that the only one of the six starting defencemen from October who hasn't been beat up or missed serious time with an injury is the Breeze. I don't know what that means, in the grand scheme of things.

-Hey, maybe Komisarek has a future as a goalie. That was a helluva save he made on Antropov.

-I think I'd trade Andrei Kostitsyn for a less-talented but steadier player. I'd rather have 25 goals in the bank than the eternal potential of 40.

-I'm starting to believe I'll never hear "et le buuuuuuuuut" again. This is some sad-ass offence this team is generating.

-When does desperation start to kick in? It's obviously slower-acting than caffeine because if Gainey had juiced them up on Red Bulls they'd have shown more energy than this.

-WHY do they pull the goalie when they're two goals down and have about as much hope of scoring as Sadaam Hussein has of going to heaven? That's just asking for salt in the bleeding wound they've just inflicted on us.

-Is it prophetic that the clock in my living room struck eleven at the same moment the game ended?

-Well, the chances of beating Boston or Pittsburgh with this team and this kind of effort are nil. The season's done, and yet I'm compelled to keep watching. I'll be doing it while away for the long weekend though, so I don't know if there'll be notes for those games. Keep the faith my friends. There will be another edition of this team and maybe it'll be The One.

Notes on the second:

-If hockey doesn't work out for Andrei Kostitsyn, I hear there's an opening on Broadway for the lead in Hunchback of Notre Dame. Then again, he appears uninterested in working in New York.

-Price is playing some very unsteady hockey, and if the Habs lose this game, it will be because Bob Gainey insists on going back to him at every opportunity. Yes, he could be a great goalie one day, but he's had a LOT of problems this season. One of them being his difficulty in finding his groove after missing a few games. Problem is, there's not time left to indulge him.

-Things that are like 2007: A desperate post-Christmas slide, little toughness or decent D, having to beat the Rangers in the last week to make the playoffs and failing to do so. Add missing the playoffs to the list on Saturday unless someone decides to take the team by the jocks an haul them in singlehandedly. This is just not good.

-One thing I hope to see next year is a heart transplant. Only, who would have to die to provide a viable organ?

-I don't know what you'd pay Komisarek, but right at this moment, I'd pay him to go away.

-Habs look like they were getting ready to believe in miracles until Markov and Schneider went down. Now they know Fate's out to get them and they're just playing out the string.

-Gainey's resurrected Carbo's Line-O-Matic. And the fourth line is the best one on the ice. It's as though the Carbonneau Era never ended.

-Speaking of the lines...I know Markov's loss is a blow of epic proportions, but that doesn't explain why the hell the first line has suddenly vanished altogether. These guys are supposed to be able to adjust, right?

-The bad old days are back, and I am NOT expecting a miracle in the third.

Notes on the first:

-Should we say the PP's stifled because the Rags are the best PK team in the league? Yeah...that's what we'll say to make us feel better, okay?

-Price's handling the puck like it's crawling with smallpox. Thanks to Breeze for the save on the giant stinking brain fart in the first five minutes.

-During the last good stretch I worried that the first line was only playing like a first line on the PP. I hope that was misplaced worry, but I'm starting to think not.

-I love the Metro line though. Those guys work like oxen. I never thought I'd say it last year, but I wouldn't mind seeing Dandy back. I think he should get a trophy for scoring the Habs' first goal of the season on a desperation backhand too. It just goes to prove, if you put the puck on the net...ah, you know the rest.

-The D is doing more pirouettes in their own end than the Royal Canadian Ballet. Unfortunately, our guys are doing it because they can't find the puck, not because Tchaikovsky wrote it that way.

-Speaking of D, I think fans thought they were actually voting for "league's worst stickhandler" when they voted Komisarek into the All-Star game. His play on the Rangers goal was a particularly fine example of pokey-stick.

-The team played decent hockey in that period, but I'm afraid the tank is going to run dry against the fresh Rangers in the third.

Is You 'Appy?

Here in Newfoundland, the wonderfully funny band Buddy Wasisname and the Other Fellers sing a song called "Is You 'Appy?" The lyrics go, in part, "I now how hard it's got, And your guts is gone to rot, And yer life is all upsot, And yer flashin' cold and hot, But suck back yer nasal drip Stiffen up yer lower lip Yer not goin' to be missed So 'tis just as well to be 'appy."

It kind of reminds me of this "glorious" (more like goriest) Centennial season. Everything that could go wrong...losing streaks, devastating long-term injuries to virtually every player on the team, player slumps, a coach firing, unsubstantiated rumours about disgraceful off-ice behaviour, confirmed reports of players associating with unsavoury characters, the flu...has happened. Now that the team has been finally emerging from the fog and darkness that's shrouded this season, the lousy leafs have cut the legs out from under it by hurting Markov and Schneider.

So now that there's nothing else that can possibly go more wrong than it has already, we can sit here at rock bottom and feel sorry for how it's all turned out. Or we can decide to cheer for them anyway and hope for the best. If they make it into the post-season, it's a victory over the odds. And in that situation, funny things can happen when a team plays with absolutely no expectations or pressure. If they don't make it, well, it's not like they had any help from any quarter.

I'm going to cheer. It's been a hell of a crappy season, but I like the team that came out of all that adversity. This latest blow may be the killer, or it may not. I'll give them all the moral support I can though, because there's one thing I've learned about being a Habs fan in the last twenty-five years, and that is that no matter how rotten the season has been, you miss the team like crazy when it's over and you're waiting for the next one. Right now, it's just as well to be 'appy.

Monday, April 6, 2009

Ottawa vs. Montreal

Notes on the third:

-Powerplay's really dead without Markov. I was hoping it wouldn't be so bad...but is.

-Honestly, I don't know what's the point of Laraque. Wouldn't Gainey have been so much better off buying a real defenceman instead?

-Watching the Habs try to get out of their own zone in that period was like watching a prisoner try to escape from Alcatraz.

-Screw Centennial Bricks: I'd pay $200 bucks toward a set of hands for Kostopoulos.

-Again, WHY is a team that's out of the playoffs and has nothing to gain from winning this game except a lower draft pick trying SO hard to beat the Habs? I hate these guys. May Heatley get a painful boil.

-One thing I'm curious about: Why is it the Habs so seldom hurt anyone? We see the Bs, leafs and even the lousy Lightning knock our guys out for months. But everyone goes home safe and sound from Habs games.

-I hate this season.

Notes on the second:

-It's a good thing Halak's a reflex goalie, with some of the rebounds he gives up. But...whatever works.

-Funniest moment of the period: Laraque on the faceoff asking Neil to go, and Neil replying "HELL, no!"

-O'Byrne's not this stupid in real life. If he were, he'd be wearing a helmet playing X-Box as well as hockey.

-I have a copy of Larry Robinson's "Robinson On Defence" instructional manual. I'd forfeit it to Komisarek, if I thought he'd read it.

-Okay, I cave. Kovalev is awesome and should be re-signed next year. BUT the caveat to that is that he shouldn't be expected to be the best guy on the ice for 82 games.

-The Habs are playing hard...but can someone tell me WHY the Sens are fighting so hard to win this one? It's not like it matters or anything. Add Ottawa to my growing pile of teams to hate. If they hurt a Hab before this is over, I'll seriously consider using my income-tax refund to hire Mike Danton's "guy."

-HAMMER! Na-na-na-na-na-na-na-na...Hammer Time! Thank God the former first overall pick, drafted for his offensive accumen, has decided to go back to his roots.

-Okay, Gainey, over to you...but DON'T let them play kitty-bar-the-door, or you'll end up with cat scratch fever.

Notes on the first:

-Just to get this out of my system, I hope Mikhail Grabovski is haunted by the most bloodthirsty ghouls known to the Belarussian witch-women. I hope his face erupts in itching, bloody sores and while scratching them, he scratches out his own eyes. I hope he ends up begging on the streets of Minsk and turns tricks for broken-down ex-mobsters to buy hemorrhoid cream and feed his raging crack addiction.

-Seriously, can the Centennial be any MORE cursed? And I say this as a fairly superstitious hockey fan. But I no longer have any fear of the hockey gods. What else can they do to us?

-I was hoping the Habs would come out defiantly after the news about Markov and Schneider. I was hoping they'd say, "Yeah? In your face, hockey gods!" So far, it's not been too bad.

-I love how Timmins drafted tons of D two years ago, but boy, do I wish they were ready for tonight. Father Time's a real bastard, isn't he?

-Halak's got to be careful handling the puck. A miscue cost him a goal last game, and with the PP not likely to be providing three a night, every goal against is going to be painful. Love how he's stopping it though.

-I wish the NHL was like senior hockey, and a playoff team could pick up a couple of players from the eliminated teams. Now THAT would be fun. Imagine if Florida misses and the Habs could pick up J-Bo for the Cup run?

-Hey! Gainey's wearing his Easter suit. Very nice.

-WAH! The PP sucks without Markov. What a shock. It's like going from filet mignon to hamburger helper.

-Laraque on the PP was very Carbonish.

-Just once, I'd like to see a penalty shot go to a Hab with an actual chance of scoring on a breakaway. Seriously...TK, Higgins and Lats? Not only do the hockey gods hate us, they toy with us.

-Overall, the D in that period wasn't as scary as I thought it would be. But the O isn't there either. Here's hoping if this ends up 2-1, it's 2 for us.

Candlelight and Wine

Al Strachan (yeah, I know it's Strachan, but bear with me...) said on Hockey Night in Canada on Saturday that Bob Gainey has had Carey Price over for dinner a couple of times since he's taken over as coach of the team. I heard this is what happened:

The Scene: An expensive condo in downtown Montreal

Doorbell: Bells chime out "I wanna rock and roll all night, and party every day..."

Gainey opens door.

Carey Price: Hey, Bob. Great doorbell.
Bob Gainey: Just trying to make you feel at home, my friend. I'm down with the scene, you know what I mean?
CP: Yeah...okay...Hey, thanks for the invitation. Me and Gorgie and Higgy were going to head out to Buona, but this is a nice treat.
BG: Well, come on in. Dinner will be ready soon.
CP: This is a really nice place you've got here, Bob. Although I expected it to be, I don't know, bigger?
BG: Well, it serves me well enough.
CP: Hey, where's all your hockey stuff? You must have tons of cool trophies around here. All we ever hear about is how many Cups you've won and how you're a Hall of Famer and shit...uh...I mean stuff.
BG: It's around somewhere. Takes up a lot of space, so most of it's in storage. Glass of wine?
CP: Ah, I'm not much for wine. I'll have a Vodka Red Bull though, if you've got it.
BG: (sighs) Sure. Let me take care of that for you. Okay, here you go. Now, take a seat in here, while we wait for dinner.

(They sit across a coffee table and sip their drinks as they consider why they're really in this room together.)

BG: Okay, Carey, you probably figured there's more to this evening than just dinner.
CP: Well...first of all, I want to say, that wasn't me in those pictures. Okay, well, it was, but it was "Holiday Carey." That's not the real me, if you know what I mean. And those rumours you heard...those weren't true at all.
BG: I didn't call you here to talk about the past...wait...what rumours? Is there something you should be telling me?
CP: at all. And there's nothing to tell about Lapierre either.
BG: (long pause, clears throat) Yes, well, I want to talk about right now. Whatever's happened in the past, has happened. We want to start over right now.

(Gainey rises and from a cupboard takes a couple of drums and an incense burner)

BG: Here's what we're going to do. I'm going to light this incense, and we're going to drum until all the bad mojo is gone.

(Gainey hands a drum to a dumbfounded Price.)

CP: Jeez, Bob. I didn't know you were into...well, I didn't're not serious, right?
BG: (fixing Price with a gimlet eye) Dead serious. I'll start. (tap-a-tap-tap-tap-SLAP-tap-a-tap-tap) Come on, kid...your turn.
CP: (looking a little scared) this? (tap-a-tap-a-tap-a-tap)
BG: No, hit the thing. Drum out all the anger and frustration. Pretend the drum is Jean Perron's head.
CP: (with a little more enthusiasm) You mean like this? (SLAP-SLAP-a-tappity-tap-SLAP-SLAP-SLAP) Hey...this is kind of fun. Can I pretend the drum is Rollie's head? (SLAP-I-SLAP-WON'T-SLAP-GO-SLAP-DOWN-SLAP-ON-SLAP-EVERY-SLAP-SHOT-SLAP. I'M-tappity-tappity-tappity-tap-A-HYBRID-SLAP-GOALIE!! SLAP SLAP SLAP)
BG: There you go, kid. Let it out.
BG: Get angry, Carey. Drum it out.
CP: I'M-tap-NOT-tap-A-tap-BAD-GUY. tap tap I'M-SLAP-NOT-tap-A-tap-LOSER-SLAP-PARTY ANIMAL. (slows his rhythm) Hey, Bob, this incense is making me feel funny. I miss my horse.
BG: Okay, Carey, that's enough drumming for now. Here, let me put on some nice Garth Brooks.
CP: (sniffling) I mean it, Bob. I really miss my horse. And it really makes me sad when I give up five goals a game. I feel like such a let-down, you know?
BG: I know. Do you need a hug?
CP: Yeah, I kind of do.
BG: (pats Price on the back) There, now you're okay. Let's have some dinner.
CP: (wiping eyes) Wow. I feel so much better suddenly. I feel like I could take on the world. Like I could shut out the Bruins.
BG: Well, let's not get ahead of ourselves here. You'll come back for another session, I Thursday. Now...soup or salad?

The Scene: Media scrum around Price's locker after today's practice

Reporter: So, Carey, you've been playing a lot better these days. And we hear you've been having dinner at Bob's house since he took over as coach. We're wondering if those two things are related. What do you guys talk about?
CP: Oh, this and that. Hockey mostly.
Reporter: Hey, is that incense in your locker?
CP: (furtively throwing towel over evidence) No way man. I have no idea what you're talking about. You media guys...

Sunday, April 5, 2009

Too Little Too Late?

Isn't it a thing of beauty to see what Alex Kovalev is capable of doing to a hockey puck? Fifteen points in his last six games is phenomenal, and he doesn't even look winded while he's at it. For the first time in a very long while he gives the impression that something good is going to happen when he has the puck. He's going to the net, his shots are finding their target and he's making the powerplay make people pay for fouling his team. Life is good in Kovy-land.

Then you've got Chris Higgins. After an injury-riddled, desperate season in which he's looked by turns completely lost and completely disinterested in continuing as a Hab, Higgins is experiencing a renaissance as a solid defensive forward who can pot the occasional goal. He looks happier, his point totals are increasing and best of all, he's making an important contribution to the team's overall turnaround.

Mike Komisarek's another one. After nearly an entire season of lousy giveaways, mis-timed hits, positional gaffes and bad puck handling, he's suddenly simplified his game the way he needs to do to be successful. In the last ten games, he's using his body more effectively, and if he's not exactly reaching Markovian standards with his outlet passing, he's at least not icing the puck or handing it to an opponent in the neutral zone quite as frequently as he had been.

While all this is great for the team and for the individual players involved, it's creating quite the dilemma for Bob Gainey. He's been watching these guys all season with an eye toward whether he wants to re-sign them to new contracts, and if so, for how much. Two weeks ago, I bet he planned to let the moody, inconsistent Kovalev go, and offer Higgins and Komisarek lowball take-it-or-leave-it offers. Now he's got to re-evaluate and decide how much two great weeks are worth.

Of course, if their fine play continues and translates into a deep playoff run, all bets are off. Whomever manages to salvage this Centennial and bring glory back to the franchise will be rewarded. But an early exit from the post-season festivities will make Gainey's life a lot harder. No one told him when he signed up to save the Habs that he'd have to play the role of Soloman and the Prophet too. I'm glad he's the one making the decisions. I don't know if I could do it.

Saturday, April 4, 2009

Montreal at Toronto

Notes on the third:

-Brad May's such an ass. The only reason Burke got him is so he could say "leafs," "hockey," and "May" in the same sentence without laughing.

-One thing the Habs are doing as a team that they weren't during the slump: Taking their time and making sure of their play instead of rushing into a giveaway.

-I'd like to apologize to Halak. I was actually thinking "shutout" when the leafs scored. I swear I didn't know the hockey gods could read minds.

-Plekanec has lost some of his PP time to Lapierre. That's step one on Uncle Bob's scale of discipline. Next, it's the naughty chair.

-It's kind of sad how the leafs fans cheered that shorty after Tanguay fanned on it.

-If Grabovski emerges intact from the first game between these teams next year, there is no justice in hockey.

-Please, Lord, let Markov be okay. There will be no chance of playoff success without him.

-As is typical with a leafs/Habs game, I spent the last ten minutes just hoping the good guys could get out of the building without any further damage by these Burke-in-Stocks.

-Great win. The team just took care of business with an eye to the playoffs.

Notes on the second:

-Why does it fill me with horror when Don Cherry roots for the Habs?

-Jim Hughson described Lats' breakaway as "Speed coming at you." The kid's come a loooong way from being Fatendresse.

-The first line makes me happier than a hottie next door with no curtains.

-Gerber's one goal away from Meltdown: The Sequel. Dude's got crazy eyes.

-The team is trying its damnedest to spring Laraque on a breakaway, but I guess 260 pounds doesn't "spring" that easily.

-The duelling fans make the chanting sound like they're saying "Go, Labs, Go." Woof.

-It's petty, but it annoys me when people talk about getting "pucks" to the net. There's one puck. They get THE puck to the net.

-leafs have firepower, so the Habs have to keep some level of intensity in the third. At this point, though, I'm just rooting for Plekanec to score, and for Jaro.

Notes on the first:

-The leafs can't even tank properly. They're eliminated from the playoffs and should be trying their damnedest to move up in the Tavares Sweepstakes. Instead you get Ron Wilson saying their main goal is to ruin the Habs' season. Brilliant. If bitterness was good looks, Wilson would be Mr.Universe.

-Montreal has the Habs and Cirque du Soleil. Toronto has the leafs and Mounties rappelling from the roof of the ACC. That's about right, I think.

-Has Koivu's left eye always squinted more than his right, or is that courtesy of Justin Williams?

-I have a feeling the Lapierre line is going to be the most effective one in the playoffs. I still remember Lapierre two years ago saying "If I have to break my nose to make the playoffs I'll do it." That's what wins the big games. And that second goal was all him.

-It amazes me that the leafs can score so many goals when they try, but they still suck so badly.

-The only way Kovalev should be back in Montreal next year is if Bob Gainey stays as coach. He is Kovalev's Maharishi Yogi.

-Tanguay's passing is a thing of beauty. He could put black thread through the eye of a needle in the dark.

-It's amazing the difference a bit of confidence makes. It's the soul in an otherwise lifeless corpse of a team.

-leafs tag-teaming Laraque. Classy as always. And Big Georges hitting Grabovski? Be still my heart, but I think The Code might be out the window.

-I'm disappointed when the PP doesn't score. When did I quietly get the expectation that it should?

-HOW could this team be as bad as it was on that western road trip?

So Happy Together

While it's great to see the Canadiens finally getting their collective act together and playing more than just a single period per game with any obvious intention to win it, I have to say the best part about it all is the new first line. And it's not just because they're exciting and fun to watch, or because they're money on the power play. It's because Saku Koivu, finally, has linemates worthy of his talents.

It's been a long, hard road for the little guy. He had the misfortune to be the only first-round Canadiens draft pick in fifteen years who was in any way worthy of hearing his name called in the opening round. After the dismantling of the '93 Cup team and the subsequent emptying of the prospect cupboard, Koivu was the best and most talented player in the Habs' system. As a result, he became captain of the team as it began a long slide into mediocrity from which it's only now beginning to emerge.

We know his history with injuries and illness and his less-than-stellar linemates. But through it all, he kept fighting to be a better player and drag his team to victory. And through it all, he was always the closest thing to a star the Canadiens could claim. Now he's entering the twilight of his career and it's wonderful to see him finally gifted with linemates able to capitalize on his nice plays, and who can set him up with nice plays of their own.

Koivu is smiling in interviews now more than I've seen him do since his first couple of seasons. He's celebrating goals like a rookie and on the ice he's showing the kind of indomitable spirit that leads the way for a team heading into the playoffs. The most telling quote of the season, for me, was the other day after the Thrashers game, when he said "If you miss the playoffs when you're 21 or 22, you think you have fifteen years to get there. I...I want to be there." He said that with fire in his eye and a purpose in his voice.

So, if the first line's newly-discovered brilliance means this man gets a chance to make a splash in the post-season, it's the best gift Bob Gainey could give the captain who's never had a chance to shine, despite his gifts on the ice, through no fault of his own.

Friday, April 3, 2009


I have a new pet peeve today. I've always been convinced TSN is completely anti-Hab, which has been irritating enough. Whenever they want to highlight how great a particular (non-Hab) player is, they show video of him scoring on the Habs, or, in the case of a goaltender, stoning the Habs. It doesn't even matter if the particular illustrative clip is from this season. They've only recently stopped using the infamous Spezza-undresses-Souray clip, and Souray's been gone for two years. I think they only retired that clip because the Sens are sucking and there's not really a good reason to talk about Spezza's greatness.

Video bias aside, they also employ people like Keith Jones, who glories in shouting about how the Habs are such a lock to either not make the playoffs or to be the first out if they do get in. And Michael Landsberg on Off the Record smirks whenever he gets a chance to talk about how badly the Centennial season is going.

Still, I've become immune to most of that stuff. But one thing I can't forgive. Darren Dutchyshen has taken to calling the Canadiens, almost without exception, the "Habbies." It's a bastardized nickname that manages to be mocking and condescending all at once, and I hate it. If the Habs have it in them to finish the season really strongly and make some noise in the playoffs, please Lord let them do it. If only to shut up those idiots at TSN and kill "Habbies" forever.