Sunday, February 28, 2010

No More Excuses

Aren't excuses wonderful things? Whenever we screw up or get lazy or just don't give a damn, we can always fall back on them. Oh sorry, we say, I was sick. My dog had to have an operation. My car broke down and I couldn't make it. The thing about excuses, though, is no matter how legitimate they are, they're just explanations for failure.

The Canadiens have had their share of very legitimate exuses for their largely crappy performance to date. The struggle to find chemistry on a brand-new team was a big one. The terrible injuries to important players with which they've had to cope was an even bigger problem. A new coach, new system and extra pressure on the older players to play young-guy minutes were issues too.

So, here we are now, with nineteen games to go, and the Habs finally have to stand alone. All the excuses are falling away. The chemistry has had 63 games to build. The team has had lots of time to get used to a new coach and learn the system. Injured players are coming back, and all but Cammalleri and Bergeron will be ready to go tomorrow night, even if Markov's health is still a little sketchy. The old guys and all the non-Olympians have had two weeks to catch their collective breath and rehab the nagging aches and pains that slow them down as the NHL year drags on. There's very little left to explain away bad play at this point. Weak excuses like "we didn't show up" or "we failed to play sixty minutes" won't cut it now. The next nineteen games are the Canadiens' playoffs, and if they don't play like that's the case, there are no excuses.

The scary thing about stripping away excuses, though, is only the truth is left. I'm not sure I can handle the truth. I have hope the real Canadiens, sans excuses, are actually a pretty decent team when most of their top-six forwards and their defence are healthy. But what if they aren't? What if the raw, unvarnished truth is the Canadiens, even with all the players healthy and trying hard, just aren't good enough? That's a tough thing to face for a fan. It may be even more difficult to face for the players. Who wants to know they've just punched an entire gruelling NHL season with no hope of winning solely because they suck? Excuses are so much kinder and easier.

In the end, when it comes right down to it, I think you can't win as long as you rely on excuses. Without the easy way out, players have no choice but to face their fear of inadequacy, play their best and let the points fall where they may. It might be a hard thing to admit, but there's some dignity in honestly saying "We did our very best, but the other team was better." It's going to be a desperate run to the post season for the Canadiens now. I think I'd rather face the fear of failure and drop the excuses than watch a team that accepts losing because there's a list of reasons to explain it.

Then again, maybe behind the excuses is a winning team. Maybe now that the explanations for failure are gone, the Habs will succeed. We'll see tomorrow night. As a fan, I think I'll put my sanity at risk and believe in them. My excuses...they're too injured, they've disappointed me before, they're in the habit of losing, the System is stifling...have all got to go in the dumper now, just like the players' do.

Being brutally honest about it, it's too late for the Habs to drop low enough to get a really good draft pick if they miss the playoffs. Our only hope for making something out of this year now lies in the team's ability to drop the explanations for failure and pull it together to achieve a berth in the post-season. So, no more excuses.

Don't worry though. Even without excuses, if things don't work out, there's always blame.

Lessons Learned

I'm sorry to bid farewell to Olympic hockey tournament. The hockey was fast, fun, skilled and exciting. It was a tournament in which any team could win on any night and dirty play was at a minimum. With very few scrubs playing, we got to see the game as it's meant to be played, and returning to the watered-down NHL version of hockey now will be a little bit tough to take. Things I've observed during this fabulous tournament include:

1. No team is ever out of it. Flurries at the ends of games, brilliant goaltending, great team play and immense determination all played their roles in keeping games close and exciting. I wasn't expecting the Olympic hockey to be inspiring, but it was. It was also a wonderful example of parity on a higher level than that we're used to seeing in the NHL.

2. Jaroslav Halak is a very good goalie. Regardless of the scattered softie he let in, the Slovaks would never have made the medal round without his brilliance. He proved himself capable of facing the best shooters going and coming out on top. And he proved what can happen when a team rallies behind its goalie and believes in him. Halak responded to that and did his country proud.

3. Once a choker, always a choker. Joe Thornton can be a solid support player, but he will never be the guy who wins you a championship.

4. Sidney Crosby is not God, but he's obviously born under a lucky star of some kind.
Things happen to ensure he's surrounded by a golden light at all times. It's almost freaky.

5. Ken Hitchcock is going to have a heart attack before much longer. My God, I saw him in the pressbox looking like a blue whale in his sky-blue dress shirt and I hoped they had the medics on standby in case of too much excitement.

7. Even teams that are loaded with talent can look like crap. Before the games started I thought the Russians would be unbeatable, just because of the amount of sheer offence on their team. Yet, when they took the ice, they looked very ordinary and very stoppable. It's something bubble teams like the Canadiens need to remember when they're facing the powerhouses in the East.

8. Drew Doughty may be the best under-21-year-old defenceman in the world. I remember seeing this kid at the world juniors a couple of years ago before he was drafted and thinking I'd give anything to have him in blue, blanc, rouge. He was just so mature and capable every time he was on the ice, he was hugely impressive. He's more than fulfilled that promise and he'll win a Norris within five years.

9. It's always good to have a Finn on your team. The Finns never stop fighting and they're tough as nails. Just ask the Slovaks.

10. You can never, never, never expect to protect a one-goal lead for half a game and get away with it. Desperation will overcome.

11. A captain who can raise his game when it counts is invaluable. Scott Niedermayer looked old and slow in the first couple of games of the tournament, but with the gold medal on the line, he was fantastic. All his wily experience and innate skill came into play in the biggest game of the Olympics. Everyone else followed him.

12. Ryan Miller is the best goalie in the NHL. The Americans had some good young scorers and played a solid team game. Without Miller, though, they were no better than several of the other teams. He's going to make the Sabres a serious playoff threat.

13. It's too bad coaches don't get medals. I thought Babcock did more for Canada's win than Brodeur or Fleury.

14. If a team believes in itself and its plan, even if it's not the best team going, it can win.

15. Hockey is better without fighting. Did you miss it during these games? I certainly didn't. I loved the offence and the skill and if NHL hockey was played that way, I'd never care if I ever saw another fight.

So now, it's back to the NHL and worrying about the Habs and their playoff situation again. I hate saying goodbye to the idyllic world of Olympic hockey, but it was great while it lasted.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

What a Difference a D Makes

If I've reached one conclusion by watching the Olympic men's hockey tournament, it's that a team can go very, very far on the back of a great defenceman.

As much as I can't stand him, Zdeno Chara has been outstanding for Slovakia. He's playing huge minutes and looking like the defensive beast who won the Norris Trophy last season. I really like Jaro Halak and I think he's played a very large part in Slovakia's surprising advancement to the semifinals, but even the most ardent Halak supporter can't deny Chara's had just as much to do with it. The man is blocking shots, hitting, clearing the goalcrease and launching the forwards' attack with some nice passing. He's also got the cannon from the point which helps the Slovaks' power play potency.

Another example of a team that rallied behind a strong defensive performance is the Swiss. Mark Streit had a brilliant tournament. Unlike Chara, Streit isn't the biggest guy out there, but he might possibly have the biggest heart. He played nearly thirty minutes in losing to the Americans in the quarter-finals, including twelve minutes in the second period alone. At one point the camera showed him on the bench, completely soaked in sweat with his head hanging. The trainer was trying to feed him some Gator Aid, but Streit looked too tired to drink it. That was hardly a surprise. He was strong in his own end and skated miles in leading his team's offensive rush to compensate for its lack of firepower. What he lacked in size, he made up for with hard work and brains, and he made a huge difference in his team's fortunes. Without him, there's no way Switzerland would have had such a strong showing.

I think this is what the Russians were missing last night. They have good defencemen, but nobody stepped up to control the game like Chara and Streit were doing for their teams, and Brian Rafalski has been doing for the US. Markov can do it, but he looked terrible against Canada. I'm convinced he was definitely hurt before the tournament, and he was playing hurt during it. As a result, nobody took charge in the Russians' own end and it hurt their breakout and their defensive coverage. Canada, on the other hand, saw Drew Doughty and Shea Weber step up and take control of their zone. Dan Boyle contributed on the offensive side of things and the defence as a whole outplayed their opponents.

We see it in the NHL too. Gonchar wasn't outstanding for Russia, but he helps the Penguins immeasurably. When he was missing from the lineup last year, the Pens were in tenth place in the conference. On his return, the team went on a great run to make the playoffs and, of course, bring home the Cup. Detroit with Lidstrom in his prime was a champion team. Now that he's aging and less effective, they're on the bubble. Boston won the conference when Chara showed his Norris form, but now they're struggling as the big guy struggles.

A really good defenceman can be the axis on which a game turns. He can prevent goals by shutting down the opposition's best forwards and he can produce them for his own team with strong passing and a good shot. He can dictate the speed at which the games moves and he can set the tone by his play.

This is what the Canadiens now need most desperately. Not a big centre or more offence on the wings or a veteran goalie or a checker or a goon. They need a dynamic, powerful defenceman who can change the flow of a game from his own zone. If there's going to be a trade, I hope it's for a prospect that might become a D like that, or a draft pick that will allow the Habs to pick one, since there's no hope of trading for an established player who fits that role.

Markov can do it when he's healthy, but he's 31 and he's been hurt a lot lately. I think P.K.Subban has potential to be that kind of defenceman, but you can't have too many of them. The Habs need to focus on adding another to the prospect pool. After watching the Games, I'm convinced a great defenceman can win you games you shouldn't win, just as much as a great goalie can. I'm equally sure a team won't go far without one.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

How the Marty Has Fallen

For some reason, I like weirdos. As a result, I tend to have a lot of friends who are goalies. I say "are," because even if they haven't strapped on the pads in ten years or more, a goalie is always a goalie. Those of you who have friends who are goalies...or who are goalies yourselves...know exactly what I mean. A quick poll of some of my goalie friends last night delivered a unanimous decision on Martin Brodeur's play against the U.S. The verdict? What the hell was he THINKING?! Most of that opinion was born in the aftermath of the American's second goal, which was the direct result of Brodeur's deciding to play a spot of cricket on an incoming floater. Instead of gloving the puck like a normal goalie would, he instead batted it out to the point with his stick, directly onto the blade of Brian Rafalski. Rafalski, of course, smartly returned it to the back of the Canadian net at top speed. What the hell indeed.

To be fair, the question should properly be what the hell were Steve Yzerman and Mike Babcock thinking for going with Brodeur in the first place? Yzerman earlier said he wanted to give Team Canada a younger, fresher approach than we'd seen in Turin. Youth was the ticket, he said. He backed it up by including youngsters like Crosby and Toews up front and 20-year-old Drew Doughty on the blueline. Veterans like Pronger and Neidermayer were supposed to be there to provide a steadying influence and some experienced leadership. That's all well and good in theory, but the veterans are looking more like old guys than venerable all-stars, especially in goal.

Brodeur has had a great career. He's got the Cups and the Vezinas and the stats. Ten years ago, Brodeur would have been a great choice to start for Team Canada. These days, though, we see a 37-year-old Brodeur who's playing way too many games for the Devils and who has developed a disturbing habit of fading down the stretch and into the playoffs. Brodeur has been insulated for all of his career by the tight New Jersey defence. At the Olympics, with a team that had exactly one practice together before starting the tournament, he doesn't have that smothering security blanket. That means there are going to be defensive miscues and big, honking breakdowns in front of him, and the goalie must be extra-sharp and extra-quick. I'm not sure Brodeur is capable of doing that anymore.

Look at the goalies who are really shining in this tournament. Ryan Miller is 29. So is Ilya Bryzgalov. Jaro Halak is 24. These are goalies who are in, or heading into, their primes. Brodeur is coming out of his, and last night it showed.

If Team Canada means to learn a lesson from staying too long with the tried and true, which in Torino turned out to be the tired and blue, it needs to start in goal. If it's supposed to be a young, hungry team, it needs a young, hungry goalie. Sure, it's risky to put all the country's hopes in Roberto Luongo, who's never won a Cup, or Marc-Andre Fleury who famously blew the World Junior gold medal game in 2004 by mishandling the puck. But, is it any more risky to try something new than it is to expect a 37-year-old Brodeur to rediscover the form of his youth?

The fact is, Brodeur won't be there in four years' time. Team Canada will have to learn to get along without him sooner or later. For the sake of this year's medal hopes, it's time to let the past go and ride a good goalie who's still in his prime. Brodeur has done his time for his country, but I think that time has passed.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

For Cup or Country

I have to say, I like the level of competitiveness in the Olympic men's hockey tournament. No team, with the exception of Norway, has been truly down and out in most of the games. Everybody is really going all out for the honour of their countries, which is great to see. The thing I don't really like, though, is all the anger directed at European-born NHL players because of their dedication to playing for their countries, with the underlying implication that that dedication detracts from their commitments to their NHL clubs.

We've seen it within our own fan base, with the suspicions leveled at Andrei Markov regarding his health. He was saving himself for the Olympics instead of giving his all for the Habs, some say. Or, if he wasn't well enough to play the Flyers, he shouldn't be allowed to play in the Games either. It all inevitably leads to the accusation that European players would prefer to win a gold medal than a Stanley Cup, as though that's some fatal flaw indicative of missing guts.

Well, you know what? If they'd rather a gold medal than a Cup, I think it's perfectly reasonable and understandable. We're talking about people's countries at the Olympics. People go to war for their countries. They die for their countries. Nationalism is an inbred passion that's evolved with human beings for thousands of years. Standing shoulder to shoulder with your countrymen and competing for the sake of national glory against the world once every four years isn't even close to the same thing as trying to win a club championship that happens every year.

For a lot of European players, their national teams are their hockey family. They've grown up with the same guys, playing in the same tournaments all through their on-ice lives. They speak the same language and share a history. Many of them did compulsory military service together. Those are the kinds of bonds you can't duplicate on an NHL team where players come and go, and where your linemate today might be your opponent tomorrow. The NHL is a job. I imagine most of us, given a choice, would show more loyalty to our families or our countries than our bosses.

It's different for fans. We attach our loyalty to an NHL team when we're kids and we give it our undying passion into adulthood. For us, a Stanley Cup is the pinnacle of hockey success. It's that way for a lot of the players who grew up in the same hockey culture we did, and I think it becomes that way for players from other countries who spend many years in North America. But I think it's a bit much to ask that a player who takes a job in the NHL should suddenly discover an unwavering desire to win a trophy he can always win again next year.

When you look at the Olympics in terms of competition, you can't get much better. Every single great player in the world, no matter what league employs him, can attend and play for his country. If you're a competitive player, there's got to be some special glory in being able to say you beat the very best to win your medal. You don't get that by beating the Senators or the Ducks in the Stanley Cup finals.

So, just because a player would choose an Olympic gold medal over a Stanley Cup championship if forced to pick one, it doesn't mean he's got no guts or heart. It doesn't mean he won't give all he can give for the team that employs him full time, or that he doesn't care. Andrei Markov, for example, has been loyal, hardworking and by all accounts, a great teammate with the Canadiens. I have no doubt if the Habs make the playoffs, he will play the best hockey he can play to help them go as deep as possible. But if you laid a gold medal and the Cup next to each other and asked him to pick one, I wouldn't blame him for picking the medal.

The thing we forget though, is the two are not mutually exclusive. Players don't have to pick. When fans dump on European players for preferring the Olympics, they don't think about the fact that a player can fight for a gold medal AND a Stanley Cup. In fact, the qualities that make a player a gold medalist...loyalty, hard work, skill and competitiveness...can make him a Cup champion too. If the NHL has watered itself down through over-expansion and needs to import European talent to make it worth watching, it's not for us to criticize the priorities of the players our teams hire. They come with good will to put on our cherished sweaters, and we should give them a break if they cherish the sweaters of their own countries once every four years.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

An Un-Canadian Confession

I like the Swiss. There. I said it. I loved Mark Streit when he was a Canadien because he always worked hard and graciously took on any job he was assigned, even when it meant playing forward for the first time in his life. I like Yannick Weber because I think he'll be a good player when he matures a little more. And I like Team Switzerland.

I know I'm supposed to cheer for Team Canada, but I have to say it's not easy when they're playing an underdog team full of Swiss-A League players who will never see paycheques ending with the number of zeroes the lowest of the NHLers gets. I saw a stat yesterday that says Team Canada makes a combined total of 128-million bucks. That kind of dough makes our guys something more like a corporate hockey juggernaut than it does a hockey team. Yeah, yeah...I know the passion is there, and they all love Canada and they really, really want a gold medal. But they're still a bunch of rich guys who were thrown together at the last minute with the goal of steamrollering every other team in the competition. I don't know about you, but I have to smile a little bit when one of the cannon-fodder teams sitting in the way of Team Canada getting what it wants stands up and resists.

Taking Canada to a shootout last night with a nice comeback from a 2-0 deficit isn't a one-off for the Swiss either. Nobody will forget the 2-0 shutout with Martin Gerber standing on his head at the Olympics two years ago, with former Hab Paul DiPietro scoring the crucial goals. And one of the best games at the most recent World Junior Championships was the one in which the Swiss kids tied the mighty Russians with thirty seconds to go in the third, then went on to win with twenty seconds left in OT. Both goals were scored by junior star Nino Niederreiter, who was such a force he immediately moved to the top of the list of kids I'd love to see the Habs draft.

The thing about the Swiss that really gets me, though, isn't their relative poverty in comparison to Team Canada, in both salary and talent. It isn't the way they gave everything they had to stay in that game last night, or their plucky, never-say-we're-out attitude. It's the fact that they are a real team. I saw it clearly when the shootout was about to begin. The cameras panned both benches in the moments before the first shooter took the ice. The Canadian players were sitting, hunched over, staring fixedly at the ice. The Swiss guys were standing, arms around each other, mentally willing their guy to beat Brodeur.

That, to me, is what hockey is all about. There's no way a team with the talent and brute firepower of Team Canada should be on equal terms with a team like the Swiss. The x-factor though, was the Swiss players' willingness to go to the wall for each other and do whatever they had to do to win. They remind us hockey isn't a showcase of individual skill or big-salaried players. It's a team game, and a team will beat a collection of individuals every time. The irony, of course, about last night is it took a contest of individual skill to beat a team that had played its heart out all night.

The thing about watching the Swiss stand up to Canada is, it gives you hope if you cheer for a team like the Habs. They prove heart and sacrifice, with a hot goalie and a best player playing at the peak of his ability like Mark Streit was last night, can beat a super power. So, while it's probably un-Canadian to be happy about last night's result, I can't help it. I like a team that plays hockey like a real team. So...I like the Swiss.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

The Real Markov Story

The scene: Last Thursday. A trendy shopping area in downtown Montreal. A rather well-known Canadiens defenceman emerges from a store, laden with packages, just as a black sedan with tinted windows rolls up to the curb.

Russian woman from the car: Hello, Andrei. Get in.
Markov: But I...
Woman: I said, get in. You don't want to upset the boss. Believe me.

With a sigh of resignation, Markov yanks open the back door and slides into the car

Woman: Thank you, Andrei. You are a wise...what are all of those bags? I thought my sister shops a lot.
Markov: I was getting a head start on Christmas shopping. Turtlenecks and Nickelback CDs were on sale. What do you want?
Woman: That is not for me to say. I am instructed only to collect you and deliver you to the boss.
Markov: Which one do you work for?
Woman: I can say no more.

After several minutes of seemingly aimless driving, the car pulls into an underground parking lot. It's met by two large men in dark suits.

Man one: Hello Andrei. Thank you for coming.
Markov: Well, it's not like I had a choice.
Man two: Ha ha. You joke, Andrei. There is always choice. Come with us now. The boss wants to give you a choice.
Markov: Look, I don't know who your boss is, but I'm going to be late for practice if we don't hurry this up.
Man one: Ah, do not worry about practice. You need to rest yourself for the Olympic tournament.
Markov: Well, I need to be there. I've got this back strain I'm trying to rehab for tomorrow's game.
Man two: No need to worry about this game. You are injured.
Markov: Yes, but I might be well enough to...
Man one: (interrupts) Enough. The boss will tell you more. I can say nothing else. Is that a bag full of turtlenecks? Never mind. I do not want to know.

They take an elevator to the building's top floor and exit in a sumptuous suite dominated by a massive desk. A man, obviously the boss, stands in the shadows.

Boss: Andrei. My friend. I thank you for coming. How is your back feeling?
Markov: Um...not bad. I can practice, but I'm not sure I can play.
Boss: Ah, Andrei. I would offer you a vodka, but we really have little time today. You will play. Is your back as painful as the backs of the coal miners in Siberia? Is it as exhausted as the backs of Dzerzinsk prostitutes?
Markov: I guess not.
Boss: Of course it is not. And of course you do not want to be a Siberian coal miner or a Dzerzinsk prostitute.
Markov: What?!
Boss: Oh, nothing. Nothing at all. You are hearing things.
Markov: But the team doctors say I'm not ready to play. If I do not play against Philadelphia, then I play at the Olympics, people will ask questions.
Boss: I think you will find our doctors will clear you to play. The injury will be minor and you will be ready.
Markov: That's not what Doc Mulder said. He told me...
Boss: Tsk, tsk, Andrei. You are so far from home you forget how knowledgeable are our own physicians? How great their medical advances? They will look at you and you will play. Your country needs you.
Markov: But my country would be better served if I felt a hundred percent.
Boss: It is not for you to ask how to serve your country. Your country says you'll be playing, back or no back. I am betting on it. Heh heh. I make a little joke there.
Markov: I don't get it.
Boss: You don't need to get it. You just need to play. You really need to play.
Markov: But what will I say to Montreal fans? They will be angry if I seem too hurt to play for them, yet I play for Russia.
Boss: You are the silent type, yes? You say nothing. Anybody who thinks you would not try your best for your Canadiens is a fool. If anybody gives you trouble, if they do not appreciate you, you come to me and I will have a job for you.
Markov: Not in Dzerzinsk, right? I'm serious. I won't go there. Anyway, this is pointless. I love Montreal and I want to do what's best for my team.
Boss: Your country is your team. I'll send your love to the Siberian coal miners. You may go now.
Markov: Hey...aren't you Alexander Medvedev? I knew I recognized your voice.
Medvedev: Get out now. Our meeting is done. I will see you at the gold medal game. Ivan! Daniil! Escort our guest to his destination, please. Good bye, Andrei.

The two goons materialize behind Markov and turn him toward the door. They hustle him back to garage and into the car.

Ivan: I hope your visit was productive, Comra...I mean, sir.
Markov: Yeah. Productive is one way to put it.
Daniil: Where would you like to be let out?
Markov: Drop me at the rink. I'm going to need a couple of extra hours of physio. (sighs)
Ivan: Best of luck at the Olympic Games. We know you will be playing there. Ha ha.

Back in his office, Medvedev makes a phone call

Medvedev: Hello? Bettman? How are you doing getting Getzlaf to play? I think I should tell you, I got Markov, and your North American babies are going down. I hope you are keeping the Coyotes nice and warm for me. I'll be picking up the keys to the offices after the gold medal game, sucker!

Olympic Pleasures

For many Habs fans, the two-week Olympic break is akin to a break from purgatory. We've spent a nerve-wracking 63 games in the soul-tormenting land between hockey heaven and hockey hell, and we need a break. But the Olympics can offer more than just that. Here are the top ten reasons why the Olympics can be good for Habs fans:

10. The Games give us a chance to cheer for players we hate most of the time. Okay, I know a lot of you really like Martin Brodeur. He's one of the best goalies, by the numbers, who ever played. I admit that. However, I can't stand him. He's beaten the Habs painfully too many times and taken too much personal pleasure out of it. Plus, I read his book and I hated the tone of it. Anyway, all that aside, the fact that Brodeur is wearing a Team Canada sweater forces me to cheer for him. I think that's a good thing because someday, when the pain of his ownership of the Habs has faded, I can better appreciate his accomplishments if I see them as a fan would, for even a little while.

9. The Olympics offer us a glimpse of how the other half lives. It's really nice, for two weeks in the middle of this wretched year, to cheer for an awesome powerhouse. It must be how Caps fans, or 'Hawks fans or Habs fans from the '70s must feel. I like it. It's enough to make you cocky and feel a bit superior, as a pleasant change from the emotional cowering in which we usually indulge.

8. Immense talent to watch. Even if there's something of an overblown All-Star game feel to the Olympic tournament, you can't help admiring a lineup that can put the likes of Ovechkin, Datsyuk and Kovalchuk on the ice with Markov and Gonchar. That's some awesome firepower, and it's going to be absolutely glorious to watch them together.

7. Blowouts. I know a lot of people think the excellent teams should lay off when they're up by a touchdown and give their poor opponents like Latvia or Norway a break. I say, let 'er rip! It's FUN to see how many goals a team can score. I want to see if Russia can hit the two-dozen mark against Belarus. On the serious side of the pro-blowout argument though, there's the reality of the total-goals tiebreaker that could have meaning later in the tournament. I also buy the opinion that taking it easy on weak teams doesn't give them a true measure of what they've got to do to get better. Sweden and Finland used to get blown out once upon a time too, but look at them now.

6. Rested players. The Habs' success relies heavily on the team's old farts. If Glen Metropolit, Jaro Spacek and Roman Hamrlik can get two weeks of R&R to recover their legs and their energy for the last nineteen games of the season, it will be very helpful.

5. Recovery time. The two-week break essentially reduces injuries by two weeks. If Cammalleri was to miss six weeks with his knee injury, the Olympic break means it's only four weeks of actual season time. With any luck at all, the extra two weeks will mean Pouliot and Kostitsyn will be back right away when play resumes and Cammalleri not long after.

4. A mental break. Months of watching your team sustain injury after injury and lose game after game as it spirals down the standings makes us testy. We start sniping at each other and becoming obsessed with minutiae like whether Carey Price's five hole or Jaro Halak's rebound control is worse. We need two weeks of forced time off from the Canadiens to recalibrate ourselves mentally.

3. The wide world of sports. Sometimes we get so obsessed with hockey, and with only one team, that we forget there are other teams and other sports to enjoy. The Olympics remind us about speed skating, snowboarding, bobsleigh and skiing. There are a lot of games to enjoy and a lot of athletes who put their lives on hold for the pure love of sport and competition. It's refreshing to watch women play hockey at a high level, and to see a kid come from nowhere to stand on top of the podium. Watching the Olympics puts NHL hockey, and the Canadiens' role in it, into a kind of global sporting perspective. That's a good thing.

2. Friendly tampering. Andrei Markov is a star on the Russian team's back end, and he's a great ambassador for the Canadiens. Having him share a blueline with Habs prospect Konstantin Korneev is a great opportunity to sell the idea that moving to Montreal would be good for the kid. It'd certainly be good for the Habs. It also wouldn't hurt Anton Volchenkov, who's UFA in July, to enjoy playing with Markov so much he'll be listening when the Habs go hunting for a solid defensive defenceman. Bettman can't call it tampering if Olympic teammates talk up their NHL cities a bit at practice, can he?

And, the number one reason why Habs fans should enjoy the Olympics:

1. Happiness. We've had little enough reason to enjoy being fans this year. For two blessed weeks, we can be fans of winners again. We can cheer our heads off when our athletes win, and we can be smilingly proud when they don't win but we know they gave it everything they had. The Games give us something to smile about even when the reality of our team's difficulties come back to the forefront of our minds again. For the next two weeks, we step outside of ourselves as Montreal Canadiens fans and root for Team Canada with joyful abandon. I'm enjoying it already.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Aftermath: Sadness

It took me a while to figure out what to write today. After the game last night I was angry because the team got my hopes up again, only to dash them. I was frustrated because I think a healthy Canadiens team is a whole lot better than the garbage we saw last night, and the injuries have robbed us of that. I was bitter because I think Jacques Martin is absolutely the wrong coach for this team and his errors in philosophy are stifling the players. And I was disappointed because I thought that, even with the injuries, the Habs would stand up and give a brave account of themselves. That they not only lost, but let themselves be bullied in the process, was tough to swallow.

In the end though, I'm just sad. The bright spots of this season: Plekanec's great year, the unexpected wins over teams like the Caps and Pens, the early return of Markov from his horrible injury and the debut of P.K. Subban aren't enough to hide the fatal flaws built deep into the foundation of the team. There's a lot of work to be done in improving the Canadiens, and I'm not sure the management team has either the expertise or the tools needed to get it done. There certainly isn't time to do it before any remaining hope of playoff success this year is extinguished.

Three things need to happen to see an immediate turnaround before next year. The first is coaching. Jacques Martin has to go. He's teaching the team some sort of antiquated, pre-lockout defensive style that isn't working for the players he's got, and he's not adjusting to the on-ice reality before his eyes. He's also got a habit of doling out in-game punishments. Young players are getting ice time if they prove themselves beyond expectations. If they make a mistake though, they're quickly benched. There's no reason why Ryan O'Byrne should have played so few minutes in the last two games. With Spacek and Gorges probably feeling fairly battered from recent hits, Hamrlik struggling with huge minutes and Markov out, punishing O'Byrne for mistakes made by cutting his ice time only ended up hurting the team. O'Byrne has shown he can be a good defenceman who knows how to use his size. He makes mistakes, but so do the veterans. Sitting him when Martin doesn't do the same thing to Hamrlik or Gill is stupid, divisive and costly. I don't like Martin, and I don't like his methods. When Darche first came up from Hamilton, a reporter asked him if the team philosophy of keeping the same system in the minors as on the big team had helped him make the transition so well. Darche answered that the system in Hamilton is completely different that that in Montreal. The main difference seems to be that the Bulldogs are actually winning.

The second thing that must change is defence. The last two generations of GMs/coaches in Montreal have reiterated that you have to build a team from the net out. There's nothing wrong with the goaltending. Both goalies, when given proper defensive support, are capable of winning games. The defence itself needs to be overhauled. Spacek was acquired for his abilities on offence as well as in his own end. He's a smart player, but he's been on his off-side all year and, at 36, seems to be struggling with big minutes. He's also lost his shot and he's not a punishing player to play against. Hamrlik can still play big minutes, but after a while he starts to show the wear. O'Byrne can play a big-man's game, but can't be relied upon to be the only tough blueliner. Gorges is a solid all-around player, but he won't physically hurt you. Gill is huge, he's slow, doesn't hit anybody and can't handle the puck. Markov is an all-star, but his skills are finesse, not pounding people. Neither Mara nor Bergeron should be back next year. Of the current D, I would keep Gorges, O'Byrne and Markov. Subban will make the team next year. To complement Subban and Markov, the team needs a couple of solid stay-at-home defencemen who can skate and hurt people. Volchenkov in Ottawa fits the bill, but he'll be expensive to sign. Whatever else happens though, the defence needs some grit and it needs a coach. Outside of his relationship with Jacques Martin, I don't know what qualifies Perry Pearn to coach NHL defencemen. Get rid of him and hire a proper defence coach, for God's sake.

The third thing that must happen is an overhaul of the bottom six forwards. The top six guys on any team are supposed to score goals. I have absolutely no doubt that Gionta, Gomez, Pouliot and Kostitsyn, Plekanec, Cammalleri can successfully do that job. The job of the bottom six guys is to check the other team's top players, wear out the other team's defence with a feisty, aggressive forecheck and hit often and hard. Basically, they should be creating havoc every time they're on the ice. Imagining the team was perfectly healthy, the bottom six would be a choice of Lapierre, Sergei Kostitsyn, D'Agostini, Moen, Metropolit, Moore, Darche and Bergeron. That's just not good enough. There's not one single player there, with the possible exception of Moen, who's tough to play against. Nobody hits. Nobody hurts. Nobody makes a player think twice about pushing a Hab around. I'm not talking about a goon, because I think Georges Laraque was one of Gainey's biggest mistakes. I'm talking about a guy like Scott Hartnell or Chris Neil. The kinds of players who hurt you and make you hate them. Other teams laugh at the Canadiens because they don't do anything to inspire hatred.

Ryan White is tough to play against. He's a hitting machine who can skate and cause trouble in the offensive zone. But Martin keeps sending him to Hamilton. Darche can do it once in a while but he's a minor leaguer because he doesn't do it regularly. Max Lapierre used to do it, but has vanished this season. Sergei Kostitsyn is a set-up man with a bit of jam to his game, but he's not scaring anybody. Gauthier needs to find the kind of bottom-line players the Flyers would hire and sign a couple of them to fill out those third and fourth lines for next year.

I talk about next year, because we were waiting for the seven games before the Olympic break to tell us whether this team should be selling off assets or not. Though they managed to go 4-3 in those games, their pitiful losses to the Flyers and Bruins showed us this isn't a playoff team. In the playoffs, when the hitting intensifies, head games are rife and the refs forget their whistles, the Canadiens will be in trouble without the bedrock of a tough defence and an injection of toughness on the bottom two lines. Gainey brought in the offence, but left the team without the supporting cast it needs to succeed.

I think this isn't the kind of thing you can fix with a couple of deadline moves. The needs of the team have to be very specifically defined, then the players that best fit those specific roles acquired with care and forethought. If Gauthier does anything now, I hope it's no more than moving players who obviously won't improve the team next year.

This team may still make the playoffs. If, by some miracle the whole team is healthy by the time the playoffs start, they might even steal a round. But this isn't a Stanley Cup team. This is a team under construction. That it's still that way after so many years of futility makes me really sad.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Flyers vs. Habs - Rematch Edition

Notes on the second:

-Somebody needs to poke Plekanec and let him know there's actually a period to go before his flight to Vancouver.

-Moen and Gill on the ice at the same time is like a competition to see who's got the harder hands.

-Halak on breakaways...not pretty. Hamrlik with the giveaway...horribly ugly.

-For the anonymous poster with Price-blindness, yeah, the D was awful in the first. Price gets criticized when he gives up five-hole floaters from the blueline with nobody around him. So does Halak, but he doesn't usually give those up.

-Honestly? The injuries this year have been so damaging to this team I think ill-health will be the reason for their missing the playoffs. The Goat needs to consider moving a D at the deadline for a pick or prospect and keeping Subban up. This team isn't a buyer.

-The difference between these two teams is the Flyers have fewer players who do absolutely nothing. The Habs have at least five of them in the lineup.

-I hate Briere so, so much. The way you hate a fly in your beer that you only discover when you're down to the last sip.

-I'm watching the Olympics for the rest of the night. Maybe the Habs will come back. Maybe they won't. But I'm burnt out watching them.

Notes on the first:

-And the Habs think THEY have it bad in Montreal? On the Olympic coverage today, they said the Polish ski jumper is so worshipped in his country that they have his house on a bus tour route for tourists.

-Ha! Subban can't stop laughing when the pre-game dressing room camera focusses on him.

-Carbo thinks Markov should be captain, and he should be named now. Can't really argue.

-Gionta and Desharnais must be the smallest one-two punch in the league. In fact, they probably need a stool to punch anybody in the first place.

-O'Byrne is bold, but needs to just start pounding away instead of waiting for the other guy to slug him first.

-I hate it when ex-Habs own their old team. Leighton was a Hab for five minutes, now they can't beat him.

-It didn't take the Flyers long to figure out they can guarantee a turnover by putting two guys on Gill. That first goal is on him. I wish he could be benched.

-I don't think I've seen D'Agostini successfully receive a pass on the rush all year. This kid won't be a Hab much longer.

-Remember when Moen used to have goals bounce off his ass into the net? That was nice. Sigh.

-Funny how the refs always notice when the Habs break a rule. Must be that they're more conspicuous with the red sweaters.

-O'Byrne's playing like crap. So's Hamrlik. Neither of them is moving anybody away from the crease.

-This is the playoffs two years ago all over again. Down in every game and their grunts grunting harder and louder than our grunts.

-I want to shave Hartnell's head. With an axe.

-I'm really sick of injuries. With Markov out, Spacek and Gorges have to play even though they're not nearly a hundred percent either.

-That was the worst delayed penalty play I've ever seen. Hal Gill is just hurting my brain.

-Subban's awesome. If only they had anybody else to play with him.

-I hate Jacques Martin. Really hate him.

Aftermath: Heart and Soul

Well, you can say this about the Habs: if they make the playoffs and they're finally healthy, they have a chance to surprise someone. I thought it was over last night when the Flyers went up 3-0. The Canadiens were without Cammalleri, Kostitsyn, Pouliot and now Markov. The Flyers were in control and the chances of a comeback were somewhere between slim and none.

But this is a different Habs team than the one we watched bend over for Boston in last year's playoffs. The difference isn't only in the names on the sweaters, but in their grim determination to keep fighting, no matter what. I think this year there have only been a handful of games when it looked like they were completely out of it. On the vast majority of nights, they care. Sometimes they're not good enough to win, but other times the talent remaining in the lineup combined with the heart in the players gets them over the top.

As Dominic Moore said last night, against the Flyers they just ran out of time. There's little doubt that the Habs would have tied it up given a couple more minutes in that third period. They never quit and had the Flyers back on their heels. With any luck, they'll pick up right there again and beat them tonight.

I also hope PK Subban picks up right where he left off. The kid continually gives credit to his coaches in Hamilton and his teammates. About his own ability he only says quietly that he knows what he can do and he has confidence in himself. Last night, we got a chance to see what he can do in the NHL, and it's good. It's going to be REALLY good. Paired with lumbering Hal Gill, Subban saved his veteran partner a couple of times because he was fast enough to get back and cover for the big man. His outlet passing was decisive, quick and accurate. His poise and skill on the breakout was glorious to watch. I remember his draft, with the thousand-watt smile beaming from the TV, and I became a fan of his right at the start. I like him even more now.

Carey Price played a good backup's game. He made some gorgeous saves to hold the game close, but the second goal was his typical deflating softie. We can't blame him for it. Backups are backups for a reason, after all, and he fought back mentally to shake off the bad goal. But the coach can be blamed for playing the backup in a game the team really needed to win. It might not have made a difference, but then again, it might have.

Some Habs will have to pick it up tonight if they want a better result. Ryan O'Byrne was undisciplined when he took that retaliation penalty. He was also careless with his passing. Scott Gomez and Brian Gionta have to put the points up. With so much scoring missing from the lineup, the team depends on the guys who are paid to provide it even more.

I think, though, if the team comes out with the kind of no-quit attitude it showed last night, the Habs can pull off a win tonight. On paper, they shouldn't even be in it. But you can't discount the power of heart.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Habs vs. Flyers - Part One Edition

Notes on the third:

-I'm so glad to have the Olympics as a distraction from the Habs for a while. The stress is hurting my stomach.

-Briere with the own-goal. I love that.

-Moore? Still not sold, but I'll take the goal.

-Subban is looking at the refs thinking, "Hey, we've got better than you in the AHL." He's right.

-O'Byrne made the single best foiling of a breakaway play I've seen all year. Fabulous.

-You can't fault their heart. Imagine if they'd actually had their whole top-six and Markov in the lineup.

-Subban was one of the best Habs on the ice. I love him. Now, send him back to Hamilton immediately so Martin doesn't ruin him.

Notes on the second:

-Just noticed on the replay of the first Philly goal, it was Moore who should have moved Carter out of the crease. Yay! Another softie in the lineup.

-The puck is like a live trout in Price's glove.

-This is on Martin. There's no reason to start the backup in a must-win game. The soft goals are just crippling.

-It's not a good sign when Sergei Kostitsyn can't win a puck battle with a guy who's lost his stick.

-The third goal is another glorious example of why defencemen need to either block the damn shot or get out of the way. The tip-ins happen way too often. I guess that's Pearn's stellar D coaching. Because he played so much defence himself.

-I reallly hate giving Briere any reason to gloat. His stupid grin, with that space between his eyes through which you could drive a zamboni, is just so annoying.

-Why is it Gomez and Gionta can forecheck like angry men on the PK, but never do it at even-strength?

-The Habs looked shocked when Subban passed the puck to a moving forward rather than across to his D-partner on the breakout. ALERT! There has been a deviation from The System! Call the Badly-Dressed Bore Police at once!

-I feel bad for Jaro. At least I can have strong beer while watching this.

Notes on the first:

-Welcome to the NHL, PK Subban! So sorry you have to play with Hal Gill.

-Gorges should not be playing tonight. He said yesterday that helmet shot knocked him out for a minute. Concussion experts say unconsciousness after a blow to the head is one of the signs of some degree of brain injury.

-Hartnell is such a giant turd. And he looks like he has Cousin It on his head.

-It's hard to score when the puck stays in the defensive end for an entire shift.

-They really want to rile Moore. I wonder why? It's not like he's a fighter.

-Half the players on the ice got so involved in facewashing they forgot the game was still going on. Enough with the silly "messages," guys.

-Gill looks like he went to the Breezer school of physicality and Spacek can't control Hartnell. The D needs some help if it's going to survive the playoffs.

-Pleks laying the body like a big guy.

-Subban with the Spinnerama! We got ourselves a player, ladies and gents, even if he sometimes needs to be reminded he's last man back. Incidentally, a second-round pick. Remember that, Gauthier.

-Lapierre seems to have actually found himself a Harry Potter invisibility cloak. I thought it was just a story.

-Gomez and O'Byrne would both be benched for idiotic penalties if they were rookies.

-You know who's got worse clothes than Jacques Martin? Perry Pearn. I think Martin hires him everywhere he goes so he'll look better standing next to him.

-What a crap goal. Habs had been competing up until then. I don't like Price's body language though. He's shaking his head and muttering. I don't blame him, but he's got to shake it off.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

No Less, No Moore

As I wrote a few days ago, I'm willing to give Pierre Gauthier a chance to prove he can make the Canadiens a better team. We shouldn't judge him until he's got a post-cap body of work on which to base a judgement.

I have to confess though, I'm not crazy about the first official move of the Gauthier era. It's not Dominic Moore himself. He's a good faceoff man with great speed and a good work ethic. He'll be decent depth for a bottom-six that's been fairly ineffective most of the time this season. He's certainly an upgrade on the ineffective Ben Maxwell for the time being. He'll also be UFA when the year is over, so there are no worries about squeezing another body into the limited cap space available for next season. And, aside from having a somewhat inflated sense of his own worth, as evidenced by the contract demands that got him bounced from Toronto last year, there aren't any documented character issues with him.

The problem I have with the trade is the overpayment. A second-round pick next year, in what's projected to be a weak draft class, doesn't sound like much, especially when you look at how many second-rounders end up never making the NHL. The thing is, the value of a draft pick doesn't lie in the actual player it will become, but in its potential.

Remember that old game show, "Let's Make A Deal?" Contestants would be asked to trade the prize in their hands for a mystery prize behind Door Number Three. Most of the time, the player would ignore all common sense and go for the unknown. Even when the contestant had a washer and dryer already, and he KNEW the game didn't often give better rewards than that, he'd give up his appliances for the mystery prize. Half the time, he'd then end up with a pig in a tutu.

Draft picks are the Door Number Three of hockey. They're currency because of the unknown factor. As long as a team can dream about stealing a great prospect with that pick, they'll be willing to trade more for it. Bob Gainey got Robert Lang for a second, and he was willing to accept a second for Cristobal Huet. Both players were in a better class than Dominic Moore, and I think that second-round pick could have been used to acquire a better class of player again this time.

It may be that this move is only one of a series Gauthier is planning, and a later move may return that pick to the Canadiens. Until that happens though, I'm concerned about the possibility this GM doesn't recognize the real value of draft picks in the New NHL, especially for a team that needs to make the most of its picks if it ever hopes to improve.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Aftermath: UnFreakin' Believable

Well, I have to confess, I prepared myself mentally for a loss long before the puck dropped last night. Who wouldn't? The Caps were rolling along on a seemingly-unstoppable winning streak, during which they'd beaten better teams than the Habs. The Canadiens were playing with five Bulldogs in their lineup. On paper, they should have meekly tucked their tails between their legs and taken the beating the Caps were more than capable of handing out.

The plucky effort the team showed surprised me. It shouldn't have, really, because they've been a spunky bunch since October. But after Josh Gorges nearly got murdered by Green's shot and left the game bleeding, the team stopped being spunky and became outright brave.

The depleted defence controlled Ovechkin as well as anyone could have hoped. Hal Gill blocked eleven shots. Andrei Markov played 31 minutes and worked so hard he had to miss a shift late in the third out of sheer exhaustion. Hamrlik played 28 minutes and Spacek nearly 26, and the two were strong in both ends of the rink. Almost every forward skated hard and really took the game to the Caps, who seemed shocked by the assault. The third and fourth lines looked engaged and were truly effective for one of the first times this year.

In a win that was really the result of an entire team laying itself on the line for two points, it's almost unfair to single out individuals for praise. Sergei Kostitsyn has to get a mention though. The kid who was thiiiisss close to getting recycled out of Montreal in October showed he's got the skills he needs to be a top-line player in the NHL. The man's passes should qualify for Canada Arts grants. If he ever learns to put that kind of effort in every night, he'll have no worries about seeing Hamilton again, outside of his nightmares.

Tom Pyatt said yesterday he learned a few things from his earlier call-up to the big team, and he planned to play a different game this time. Boy, did he ever! Aside from scoring his first NHL goal, he looked like he belonged on the top line all night. He worked like a Bulldog and used his speed to get to the puck before the guys in white every time he was on the ice.

Tomas Plekanec gave the impression he's happy contract talks are starting. He says he wants to stay in Montreal and he looked like he means it last night. Beating Theo with eight seconds to go and saving the two points was just the mustard on the hotdog.

David Desharnais notched his first NHL point and showed little guys can play too. I think he's really lucky to have the chance to watch Brian Gionta up close. If anyone can teach a kid how to play an effective little-man's game, it's Gionta.

Scott Gomez played a brilliant game. He was hardworking and aggressive in his twenty-five minutes of ice time, and his puck distribution was otherworldly. If only he didn't have that damn salary. The more I like his play, the more I hate his contract.

Carey Price played a good backup's game. He made some brilliant saves to keep the team in it, and even though he probably should have had the fifth goal and avoided OT, you can't fault him much. When your backup is thrown to the wolves against the scariest offence in the league, with a shorthanded defence, it's almost miraculous that he came out of it with a win at all. You can't ask more than that.

I still think coaching is a weakness, though. I thought Martin didn't use the rookies well in the Boston game, putting them head-to-head with the Bruins' bigger grinders. And I have to join the chorus of people demanding to know why the heck Sergei Kostitsyn didn't get one second of power play time. He was the first star of the game last night and was setting up potential goals every time he touched the puck, yet the coach didn't see fit to give him even a shift on the PP. That makes no sense, unless it's some kind of personal thing between them. Even then, Kostitsyn's play deserved some sort of reward. Every other player who's had a good game has been rewarded with ice time and power play time. Martin needs to do the same for Kostitsyn. I also thought his lack of trust in Ryan O'Byrne was costly. O'Byrne played only 17 minutes. That wasn't smart when the four other remaining defencemen were playing to the point of exhaustion. Sometimes you have to forgive the kid for costing a goal in the first period and give him more ice later in the game.

The only other jarring note from last night's game was the play of Ben Maxwell. He shows some promising things, then disappears for long stretches. He's not ready to be an NHL player right now.

All in all, the Habs played an heroic game last night. The thing is, I think they can be even better. Playing this way with the injuries they have is impressive. Now imagine the fire power of Cammalleri, Pouliot and Andrei Kostitsyn, and Bergeron's PP bomb in the lineup. Lots of us are questioning why the Habs can skate with teams like Pittsburgh and Washington, but then fall apart against Boston. One theory is that they can't compete with a tight forechecking team. I don't buy that. I've seen this team play tight games well. But those kinds of games require a physical commitment to grinding out a win. The whole team has to decide it will take the pain. In the Boston game, we saw the Habs shoot the puck as soon as they crossed the blue line instead of setting up for a more cohesive attack like they did last night. They weren't committed to grinding in the corners or fighting for the win.

The problem is, no team can find that level of commitment every night. After sixty hard games, in the dead of winter, there will be nights when people give less than their best. Fortunately, though, the Habs have been finding a source of inspiration on more nights than not. They seem to respond to being the underdog and come out hard against really good teams. In the Pittsburgh game, they found passion in the play of the kids from Hamilton. Last night, they got it from Gorges' injury. I saw Scott Gomez on TSN after Gorges blocked that shot, and he talked about how the team thinks the world of Josh and how everyone wanted to pull together and do it for him. Then they went out and had that phenomenal second period.

I don't know where the inspiration will come from for the back-to-back against Philly, but I hope it happens somehow. It's going to be a tough weekend, and one that could very well make or break the Habs' playoff hopes. One thing I learned last night though, was to never, ever expect these Canadiens to lose just because all the odds are against them.

Caps vs. Habs - Capital Punishment Edition

Notes on the third and OT:

-You know what Markov's not good at? Clearing his man out of the crease. It's his one big weakness.

-I absolutely hate the way Gionta dangles his mouthpiece out the side of his lips on every stoppage in play. That's just ugly.

-Sergei Kostitsyn is a natural phenomenon of passing. He's like the northen lights of passers.

-Pyatt has earned his time tonight. If Gomez and Pyatt get the Habs into the playoffs and the Rangers miss, does that mean Gainey won that trade?

-If the linesmen block the play, I think players should be able to hit the linesmen.

-When's the last time Markov scored a goal? I don't remember.

-Gill on the PP. That says it all.

-A three-goal lead and you knew it wasn't safe against these guys. Brooks Laich with a hat trick. If they can't find any other way to kill you...

-Streak broken! Plekanec MUST be signed.

Notes on the second:

-That injury to Gorges was the hockey gods answering the question, "Is THIS the year." The answer is an emphatic NO.

-McGuire's looking for a job with the amount of tongue he's verbally slipping Gauthier.

-Ovechkin is the kind of guy who'll make 123-million and go without a tooth. But when he finally buys one, it'll probably be a gold one. Right in the middle of his face.

-Desharnais with his first NHL point. I love that kid.

-Price's glove shot out of the crowd like something McGuire would say, to stop that puck.

-Speaking of which, McGuire's Homoerotic Comment of the Period: "Ovechkin is like a volcanic eruption in the slot."

-Sergei Kostitsyn can pass a birch log through the eye of a needle.

-Markov to Ovechkin: "Stop hitting me, if you want to win a gold medal you idiot."

-Amazing period. I don't get this team.

Notes on the first:

-Price couldn't be more of a sacrificial lamb if he was wearing a sheepskin jersey. No goalie controversy tonight because either of them would be shorn bald.

-Miller and McGuire are one-up, one-down on TSN. Guess who goes down?

-Eerily reminiscent of the Pens game with that first goal. They got a couple of lucky bounces to keep the puck in, but we'll take it.

-Now I know why they don't put refs' names on their sweaters. They don't want the crowd to know who they are.

-Damn it, Rhino! You don't flip it out like that against the Caps. Bloody Fleischmann line. Has there been a game yet when that guy doesn't burn the Habs?

-McGuire Homoerotic Comment of the Period: "A little pitch and catch and they all jump in." Runner up: "These guys just have fun playing with one another."

-McGuire comment that made me want to turn to RDS: "Quick strike potential."

-D'Agostini is playing a three-game stint with his career on the line, and he looks like he cares.

-Maxwell, on the other hand, only appears on TV when he's headed to the box. He looks tired. Apparently, he can only sleep on long bus rides.

-TSN pointing out dumping players at the deadline for first-rounders has worked out very well for the Caps. Words to remember.

-Hammer on the bench panting like a porn star.

-Horrible injury for Gorges. Absolutely sickening. After that, the outcome of the game seems secondary.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

The Hurt Locker Room

The Scene: therapy room at the Brossard training complex, where team therapists are gathered to discuss the day's assignments

Graham Rynbend: Okay guys, another long day today. We've got three knees that will need some pool time, there's Pouliot's shoulder and there's the day-to-day clinic. Then...yes, Nick?
Nick Addey-Jibb: We're bored.
Rynbend: You're bored? What are you talking about?
Addey-Jibb: Well, it's the same thing every day. Massage, massage, massage. Laser. Pool. Bike, and more massage. We haven't had a break since October. I mean, at least it's not a constant parade of groins like last year...

Rynbend shudders at the memory

Addey-Jibb: ...but we're starting to get carpal tunnel from all the massaging. We need some fun, man.
Rynbend: I know, but we've got a job to do.
Lorne Goldenberg: Yeah, we know. But we figure we can do the work AND have a laugh too. Jibby and I came up with an idea. We each pick a gimp and make them compete against each other, but we don't tell them. We just get to put them through a bunch of tests and see who wins.
Rynbend: (after a moment of silence) Guys, that's brilliant! I'm in, but we have to make sure they actually get some therapy at the same time.
Addey-Jibb: No problem!
Rynbend: Okay then. Dibbs on Cammalleri!
Addey-Jibb: Hey! I was gonna take him!
Goldenberg: I've got Kostitsyn!
Addey-Jibb: Ah...not fair. He's almost a hundred percent! (sigh) Alright. I'll take Bergeron. But, let's put a little coin on the line, eh?
Rynbend: Sure. Fifty bucks apiece, and winner buys the beer.
Goldenberg: Okay, guys, they're coming. Keep this to yourselves, okay? No hints, you cheaters.

Cammalleri, Bergeron and Andrei Kostitsyn enter

Cammalleri: Hey guys! What's on for us this morning?
Rynbend: (glances furtively at the other two) Ah, it's a little something different today, Cammy. We're going to start off with some speed therapy. This...ah...makes sure your synapses don' your recovery.
Cammalleri: Sounds good. What do I have to do?
Addey-Jibb: Take your crutches, and stand over here behind this line of tape. When I say "Go," you get across to the other tape mark on the floor over there, then, on the way back, you have to go around the training tables, like pylons. We'll see how quickly you can do it.
Cammelleri: Um, you're sure this is therapy? Sounds like an obstacle course to me.
Rynbend: Heh Like we said, it's speed therapy. Jibby, you got the stopwatch? Okay, Cammy, GO!

Cammalleri bolts from the start line and hustles across the room on crutches while the therapists cheer

Rynbend: Ha! Forty-eight seconds. Let's see your gimps match that!
Andrei Kostitsyn: Vat ees geemp?
Goldenberg: It means "big, strong man." Now, Andrei, your turn. Grab your crutches.
Kostitsyn: But, I em valking vit no crutch now.
Goldenberg: Well, need to rest the knee today, so get out the crutches.

Kostitsyn gets a great start, but drops a crutch

Goldenberg: Unreal! Forty-six. In your face, GR!
Rynbend: No way! He hopped part of the way. Jibby?
Addey-Jibb: I'll give it to him. Crutches are faster than hopping anyway. Okay, Bergie...your turn.
Bergeron: So, is this a race or something? Because I don't think my knee...
Addey-Jibb: Come on, Bergie. Your knee's fine. Step up, let's go.

Bergeron gingerly makes his way to the line, looking doubtful

Addey-Jibb: Okay...GO! Jeez, Bergie...are you okay? Guys, help me get him up!
Rynbend: Crap. Martin wanted an injury report this morning. Jibby, better tell him Bergie's gonna be six to eight weeks. Guys, I'm gonna need a substitution. I'll take Benny.

Scene moves to therapy pool

Rynbend: Alright you guys, into the pool. We're going to do some work on your lung capacity now. When I say "under," you take a breath, duck under the water and stay there as long as you can.
Benoit Pouliot: But, I can't swim. I don't like the water.
Addey-Jibb: Don't worry about it Benny. It's only up to your shoulders.
Cammalleri: I don't know guys. I can't fight the urge to talk, even underwater. This could be dangerous.
Kostitsyn: I hev to pee.
Goldenberg: (sighs) Go pee Andrei.
Rynbend Everybody ready? Okay...UNDER!
Goldenberg: Who do you guys think...Andrei! What are you doing? you can't hold your breath longer than that?
Kostitsyn: (shrugs) I hev to pee everytime in pool. Sorry.
Addey-Jibb: Ha ha...and then there were two.
Rynbend: Man, these guys are good. It's over minute already. Ah, damn my guy's done. Hey, Cammy, not bad.
Addey-Jibb: I'm getting worried. It's been two minutes. How's Benny staying under so long?
Rynbend: Oh man, I don't think he's doing it on purpose. Get him out!

After a frantic two minutes of CPR, Pouliot finally sputters and coughs

Rynbend: Okay, I think this is the end of the contest. Martin's gonna kill us.
Addey-Jibb: I guess drowning'd be "upper body," right? Ha ha. (glances at the other two's stone faces) Um...sorry.
Rynbend: There's no way he's going to be ready to play by the weekend. He drank half the pool and he was out for two minutes. Tell Martin he's day-to-day, but not to expect him back until after the Olympics.

Jacques Martin enters the room

Martin: Okay guys, give me some good news. We need to go into the break on a high note here.
Rynbend: Ah, Jacques, we're sorry to tell you this, but Bergeron is gonna be out another 6-8 weeks and Pouliot won't be back until after the Games, at least. Cammy and Kostitsyn are still doing okay, though.
Martin: (sighs) Well boys, thanks for your hard work. Nothing we can do about injuries, eh? (walks out, shaking head)
Addey-Jibb: So, anyway, guys, I'm pretty sure I win. Pay up.

ducks as rolls of bandage and dirty underwear fly at his head

WHO'S the New GM?

One thing stood out to me when I watched the press conference announcing Pierre Gauthier as the Habs' new general manager yesterday: I didn't recognize him. He's been hidden so well behind the scenes, I didn't know what the man looked like. I knew he'd been the director of pro-scouting as well as assistant GM, which didn't endear him to me when you consider some of the players who've ended up in Montreal on his recommendation. If a boss is only as good as the people who advise him, then some of Bob Gainey's critics have to turn a gimlet eye on support staff like Gauthier and Trevor Timmins. But, I'm getting ahead of myself.

I'll start today with a question. If you were responsible for filling the most important job on a National Hockey League franchise; the one in charge of drafting, trading and signing the players and managing the salary cap, would you pick Pierre Gauthier out of the crowd? Assuming you knew what he looked like? I confess, I wouldn't.

There's an argument to be made for his appointment on an interim basis, considering the timing of Gainey's resignation. This is a crucial point for the team in terms of approaching the trade deadline and opening negotiations with pending free agents, and it's best to have someone in that job who's familiar with the players involved. It would be a difficult thing for someone to come from outside the organization and take responsibility for important roster moves right away. That argument, however, doesn't support hiring Gauthier on a full-time basis.

Looking at Gauthier's record as a GM in Anaheim and Ottawa, the overwhelming impression you get is "meh." He drafted a couple of very good players and a lot of average-to-poor ones. But he had a reputation for relying heavily on his European scouting department at draft time so the fault for bad picks might have been more on the scouts than the GM. Gauthier made a couple of good trades, including dumping Alexandre Daigle for Prospal, Falloon and a pick and acquiring Wade Redden and Damien Rhodes for Berard, Beaupre and Straka. He also made some terrible ones, like Pavol Demitra for Christer Olsson. The rest fall into the category of what my father calls "dried shit on a blanket...neither hurt nor service." In other words, meh.

In terms of stature in the hockey world, Gauthier has no name like Stan Bowman or Ray Shero. He's got no on-ice career like Doug Wilson or Darryl Sutter. And he's got no off-ice force of personality like Brian Burke, Paul Holmgren or Lou Lamoriello. He seems like a nice, quiet man with fair-to-middling success in his previous roles in hockey.

I believe the personality of a team starts from the top. If you want a team that tries its best and puts the team concept first, you hire Bob Gainey. If you want a team that's disciplined and determined, you hire Uncle Lou. If you want a feisty team that doesn't quit even when it's losing, you hire Brian Burke. Want a team that makes the most of what it's got? Hire David Poile. Want a team that's never quite good enough to rise above mediocrity? Larry Pleau's your guy. So, what kind of team do you get when you hire Pierre Gauthier? He's like Mr.Cellophane in "Chicago." As the song says, "'Cause you can look right through me, walk right by me and never know I'm there."

I think the Montreal Canadiens deserve better. The oldest, proudest team in the NHL, which makes a lot of money for itself and the league, should have a head man who commands a room when he enters it. The Habs' GM should have deep respect from everyone in the league...inspire a little awe even.

I have to confess, I don't know what went into the behind-the-scenes decision-making involved in the Gauthier hiring. But I do worry about the publicly stated reasons for it. President Pierre Boivin said they didn't look far for a candidate because the qualifications he was looking for were already there in-house. Chief among the listed must-haves, right after experience, was the ability to speak French. When questioned about French as a requirement, Boivin emphatically stated that, yes, the Canadiens GM MUST speak French. His reasoning is that the team's clients and many of its fans are French-speaking, and the Canadiens are operating in a predominantly French province.

I ask this: Are the Canadiens a hockey team, or are they a cultural institution? You might answer they're both. But inevitably, one must take predominance over the other in decision-making. Take the Gauthier hire, for example. If you could choose anybody in the world to be your general manager, based purely on success in hockey, would Pierre Gauthier be your man? Probably not, right? You'd look at Jim Nill in Detroit, among others. Now, if you had to choose the best French-speaking candidate who has worked as a GM before, would Gauthier move up on the list? Probably, because that list has now become much, much shorter.

This is what will ultimately make the Canadiens a mediocre team for a very long time. When the direction of the team starts at the top, and your top man is a mediocre GM who has the good fortune to speak the right language, then your team will be just like him.

Pierre Boivin is a good customer-service manager. He's successfully managed to create a hype around the Habs that outstrips that the team enjoyed even in its glory years. But, it's a hype based on illusion and on history that will never be fulfilled as long as the team continues to dress itself in the flag and language. If the Canadiens are choosing to be a cultural institution and basing their decisions on that, well, that's fine. They will always be a great part of the province's history and culture, but their chances of returning to being a winning hockey team will be severely handicapped by pandering to PR.

In reality, how often does the GM of the Canadiens need to use French? Does he speak it with other GMs when he's working on a trade, or with agents when he's negotiating a contract? Does he need to announce the draft picks in French outside of Montreal? He may have to give a speech or two at a public appearance, but there's no law saying he can't learn some French AFTER he's been hired that would allow him to accomplish that much. The problem is, if the team doesn't look outside its narrow hiring restrictions, nobody with more talent, better vision or greater intelligence will ever get a chance to do the job.

No, this was not a hockey decision, at least not altogether. If it were, the team would have been beating the bushes for the perfect candidate. Admitting they stopped looking when they found an adequate candidate who fulfills the language requirement was disappointing because it proves the team is looking first at PR rather than winning.

There's an argument that says Boivin doesn't really mean that. He's just giving the only possible answer a public-relations manager can give when asked about the importance of French at a press conference in Quebec. I don't buy it. It's one thing to pay lip-service to the concept to please the masses, but another to back it up by basing important hires on it.

Also of concern when you're running the team as a culturally iconic business rather than as merely a hockey team is the question about what to do when public pressure to make a move mounts? Do you ignore it and do what's best for hockey like Gainey did, or do you bow to the pressure and do what the public wants because that's better for PR? We don't know the answer to that anymore, and that's scary. The ultimate irony of this is if the team focussed on winning hockey games above everything, all the other problems solve themselves. French-speaking players would actually WANT to come to Montreal, fans would be happy and the team would have the luxury of time to develop the upper management it wants.

In any case, maybe the Canadiens are really doomed to a friend of mine historical curiosity at this point. They're the team about which you say, "Je me souviens..." instead of the team about which you say, "I hope."

Still, expectations and the reasons behind his hiring aside, it would be wrong to write Gauthier off without at least giving him a chance. He's got a huge challenge with the cap and with roster issues like upgrading the D and the bottom-six forwards while still trying to keep players like Plekanec, Price and Halak. I'll give him some time to prove what he can do because now that he's installed as full-time GM, he's all we've got.

Monday, February 8, 2010

Farewell, Skipper

I was surprised and not surprised to hear Bob Gainey has had enough of the general manager's role with the Canadiens today. Surprised, because I really thought he'd stick it out until the end of the year. Not surprised, because I've suspected nothing but sheer stubbornness has kept him going in the job this long.

We can talk legacies, good and bad, for years to come when we look back at the Gainey regime. Right now, in the first blush of his departure, it's about emotion. I'm sad to see Gainey leave. It's never a good day when an icon leaves the organization for which he's toiled for most of his professional hockey career. In Gainey's case, it's particularly poignant, even if he plans to be involved as a consultant, because Gainey was a real team man.

As a player, he was the man who always put the team first and who was never happy to be scoring goals if it meant leaving the team open to getting scored upon, so he sacrificed personal numbers for the good of the team. As a manager, he stepped in when his team needed him. The Canadiens were foundering and needed a man who knew his hockey and garnered respect around the league. They needed someone patient and smart, classy and experienced, who reminded everyone that the Canadiens deserved to be taken seriously once again.

He did that much. As I said, we can debate his moves on the job for a long time to come. He made some mistakes, but he did some good things too...the same as any GM who's not got a crystal ball or any other form of supernatural foresight to help him in his decisions. The team was better for having Bob Gainey at the helm. Now Pierre Gauthier will take the frame of the team Gainey has built and try to finish it.

I hope he's able to do so with as much dignity and respect as Bob Gainey has done.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Aftermath: Sigh

Well, sometimes you just run out of luck. The Habs had shots. They had chances after the lacklustre first period. They should have had at least a goal, and probably shouldn't have given up at least one of the two they tipped into their own net. But, Rask was very sharp and the luck wasn't there today.

The best players were trying. Tomas Plekanec had nine shots on goal, many of them good chances on which he got robbed by Rask. Gomez had seven shots and attempted to set up his linemates. Unfortunately, when one of your linemates is Travis Moen, that's not as easy as it sounds.

This is where injuries start to get painful. Yesterday, the energy of the Kid Line and the unbridled wrecking-ball play of Darche inspired the Habs to forget all the reasons why they shouldn't have been in it against the Penguins. Today, the reality of missing half of the team's top-six forwards and the accompanying finishing ability hurt badly.

Moen's a gamer and he goes to the net, but unless the puck deflects in off him, he's probably not going to score very often. Pouliot, on the other hand, goes to the net and has the hands to tip it past the goalie.

In a game when there's only one power play, you have to score goals at even strength. Without your top five-on-five sniper, that gets a lot harder.

Sergei Kostitsyn is playing well, but he's a playmaker. You can tell him to shoot more all you want, but his passing ability is world-class and his instincts tell him to look for a linemate. It's hard to adjust instinct in a top-speed game, so he needs someone on his line who can shoot the puck. Plekanec tried to do that today, but that's not his game either. Andrei Kostitsyn is the guy with the size, nose for the net and wicked shot for whom his brother is looking out there. Unfortunately, Mathieu Darche...who has a lot of other strengths, don't get me wrong...was there instead.

I don't want to make excuses for the team, but when you have five Bulldogs playing in place of your top scorers, you're not going to score a lot. And if you don't score, you don't win. Those who scoff at the idea of blaming injuries for a team's trouble say, "Well, every team has injuries." That's true. They do. But it's also true that when other teams have injuries to their important players, they tend to lose games.

Still, I've seen the Habs play much worse games. A little adjustment in the offensive game plan might have helped. I noticed today they tended to shoot off the rush every time they entered the Boston zone, instead of trying to set up a little more. With that strategy, the puck either goes in the net or it bounces out to the Boston D for an easy clear because the shooter's linemates don't have time to get to the net for a screen or a rebound. If they'd tried a little more patience in setting up in Boston's end it might have helped.

There were good things about today. Halak was pretty sharp, despite the two own-goals his team scored on him. Ryan O'Byrne is playing some good, tough hockey. Plekanec was flying, but misses his linemates. The team showed a lot of discipline by not giving the Bruins a single PP. The players didn't quit after that disheartening goal with three seconds to go in the first.

On the top of the "bad things" side of the ledger, though, is the coach. I thought Martin mishandled his lines today. When it was apparent Sergei Kostitsyn and Plekanec were playing well, he should have put Gionta, the only remaining sniper, on with them for a few shifts. Gionta was doing nothing with Moen on his line anyway. And Martin didn't manage the kids very well. Yesterday, they played nearly nine minutes in a fast, exciting game. Today, they played only six minutes against the Bruins' grinding bottom lines. Trotter and Desharnais aren't grinders and they're small. They should have been playing against more offensive-minded opponents, which would have given them a chance to get moving. Instead, they got checked into the ice and got less ice-time which made them and their gung-ho attitudes pretty ineffective.

Also on the "bad things" list is Max Lapierre. What the heck happened to him since last year? He's gone from being fast, aggressive and opportunistic to being a complete non-factor for fourteen minutes a night. He's still a young player, but at nearly twenty-five years old and with the majority of four NHL seasons under his belt, he should be improving, or at least finding some consistency. I'll give him a break for having craptacular linemates for most of the season, but now he's got Metropolit who works hard and has a little skill. I know other players have had off-years, like Plekanec last year, but the thing is, when they do, you still notice them. I just don't even notice Lapierre. That's a very bad thing.

This kind of game is what happens when the team doesn't have a full lineup all year. The more missing regulars they have, the more often they'll lose. So the Canadiens' place in the standings right now is actually pretty indicative of the hits the roster has taken. Add to that the inevitable emotional burnout of pulling off a miracle game yesterday and today's result wasn't surprising.

But boy, oh boy, is it ever frustrating! The remaining 22 games of the season are going to be one long, terrifying toboggan ride down Mount Playoffs. We'll just have to close our eyes, hold on, and hope we stop safely in the post-season instead of hitting a tree. At this point, it's all about the luck.

Bruins vs. Habs - Keep It Going Edition

Notes on the third:

-Gomez' passing is like the little girl with the curl...when it's good, it's very, very good. When it's bad, it's horrid.

-Halak's passing is as scary as a knock on the car window when you're making out.

-O'Byrne laid a beastly hit on Paille. He looks like he's finally found some consistency.

-I think Ben Maxwell is never going to score his first NHL goal. Too bad he can't play AGAINST the Habs for a couple of games.

-Didn't Spacek used to be able to hit the net?

-Man, it's one thing to lose, but I really hate it when they get shut out. Double hate it when it's the Bs, with their hot young goalie they got in a steal of a trade from the stupid leafs. Triple hate it when it's allowing the Bs to break their wretched losing streak. What a waste of an afternoon.

-Maxim Lapierre is a sucky, sucky hockey player this year. He's a big part of the problem in the bottom six. You just can't carry a guy who doesn't do anything at all for 10-15 minutes a game.

-Gorges must have the most own-goals on the team. I hate when he just pokes the stick out like that instead of blocking the shot properly. Block it, or let it go, Josh!

-Most of the Habs gave up after the third Bruins goal. Halak didn't. But I expect Price will start against the Caps anyway.

-I guess the Habs used up too much of their weekly goal total yesterday.

-And the highs and lows of cheering for a bubble team continue.

Notes on the second:

-The Habs look like they're already thinking ahead to tonight's Super Bowl party.

-Ouch. Gionta got flipped like a pancake.

-Whatever happened to splitting the defence? Don't players do that anymore, or do they all just peel off to the boards?

-Oh, Pleky. Why can't you score on a breakaway anymore?

-Well, the Habs looked alive in that period. Alive, but not necessarily good.

-I hate Lucic. Caveman.

-Martin has stopped playing the rookies. Damn you, Jacques!

-Rask is sharp as a cranky old woman's tongue. The third will require some serious aggression if the Habs are to avoid the shutout.

Notes on the first:

-I love how the little flag kids keep craning their necks to see down the hallway where the Habs are standing.

-Why can Carbo not refer to the Habs as anything but "Montreal Canadien?"

-Gill should only pinch if he's in the corner with Lucic.

-The Fabulous Fifties line doesn't look as aggressive today. Martin's ruining them already.

-O'Byrne shouldn't have gotten five for that "fight." That was worth two at the most. Three if you count the good laugh we got at Wheeler's expense.

-Zone clearances are too much like a pinball game today.

-Habs lead the league in first NHL goals given up.

-Markov is not playing great D.

-Yesterday red sweaters were on every loose puck first. Today they're showing up late every time.

-Bloody hell! Damn goals with seconds to go. Nothing is more deflating than that!

Saturday, February 6, 2010

Aftermath: They Beat Who?

Earlier this week, someone posted here that the problem with the Habs youngsters is really in player development rather than coaching. I asked why it's so hard to have a fourth line made up of three eager kids who are all at the same place in their development and let them progress together. It seemed to make so much sense: you have your top two lines, then you have your grinding checking line, then your kids. Why does a fourth line have to be made up of scraps like Laraque and Bergeron, along with whatever kid is unlucky enough to be sharing the five minutes of ice those guys get? Is it any wonder development slows down when that's how they're used?

Well, the theory of icing an exciting, passionate line of youngsters was tested today and was proven to be very effective. Desharnais, Trotter and White won that game for the Habs, along with fellow Bulldog, Mathieu Darche. When the Pens came back and tied the game in the first minute of the first period, it immediately stole away the Habs' jubilation at the unexpected Plekanec opener. It seemed like it'd be just another ho-hum game of domination by the defending champs. The kids wouldn't let the inevitable happen though. They played with such insistent passion, nobody else could go out there and do any less. How could a veteran like Gomez allow himself to be shown up by Brock Trotter, in his first NHL game? It just wouldn't happen because the kids wouldn't quit and wouldn't let anyone else quit either.

At this point of the long, wearisome season, there are two kinds of emotion that can lift and inspire a team. One is the enthusiasm of kids getting a shot at realizing their dreams. The other is the determination of older players who know they're getting their last shot to be remembered in the NHL. The Canadiens benefitted from both today. Those bursts of emotion don't generally last a long time. It's impossible for them to, without burning the players out. But while it lasts, it's irresistable.

Gionta, Gomez, Plekanec and Kostitsyn picked up on it and played relentless, fast hockey in their turn. The defence handled the puck well and had an easier time than usual in clearing their zone when they found all the forwards in motion. The PK was aggressive and smart, once again. And the centres fought for and won the faceoffs that mattered.

Halak made the big saves when the team needed him, and one of those saves turned the game. Halak kicked it out and Hamrlik put the rebound on Gionta's stick for the go-ahead goal in the second. If Halak had allowed that one, the Pens would have been in front and the game a completely different one. He wasn't the total wall he's been on many nights this year, but he still was the turning point.

I give Jacques the Knife credit tonight too. A lot of coaches would have relied heavily on the two lines that got them where they are, but Martin recognized how the team was responding emotionally to the aggression of the Kid Line. He gave the rookies a lot of responsibility and ice time, including on the PP, which validated their efforts. Watching Brock Trotter on HNIC after the game, he was just floating on air to have had such a great first game. Part of that was because the coach wasn't afraid to use him.

Every single player in the Canadiens lineup did their best tonight, and it turns out their best is good enough when it's fired with passion. Tonight, that passion came courtesy of a pack of Bulldogs.

Pens vs. 'Dogs - Just Hold On Edition

Notes on the third:

-Too funny...Gill lost his stick and Desharnais donated his to the cause. Gill looked like he was holding a pencil.

-Winning faceoffs makes such a huge difference. So does forechecking and winning the puck along the boards. Amazing.

-I don't know what he did in Tampa, but I'm pretty sure Darche just had the game of his life.

-For all the undrafted free agents Brian Burke bragged about getting, the one he missed was Brock Trotter. Thirty teams wanted him and Gainey got him.

-From now on, nobody should be allowed to play for the Canadiens unless they're first trained by Guy Boucher.

-CBC's Hughson: "Brian Gionta has a pair." Yes, Jim, indeed he does. A big, clanking brass pair.

-Red shirts were on the puck first all game long. If they'd only done that all year...

-Stupid Bell Centre fans started singing goodbye with more than five minutes to go against the Cup champs. The ushers should be allowed to tranq anyone who does that.

-Price on the bench looks like he's thinking, "Well, I guess I'm not playing tomorrow either." Hang in there kid. You'll get another shot.

-What a game!

Notes on the second:

-SK on the PK!

-If only Darche didn't have such a bad case of Higginsitis. The unfulfilled chances he's had have been just glorious.

-Gionta has more guts than a butcher shop.

-The fourth line is drawing penalties like Picasso drew lopsided faces.

-Spacek is making me dread the last two years of his contract. I hope the Olympic break gives him a second wind.

-Ah Jaro! He can't let those in when everything's going in his team's favour. I really think he doesn't play as well when he's not getting bombarded.

-It'd be really nice to see the kids pot one in the third. If the Habs pull this off, it's because of them.

Notes on the first:

-When I think of the Habs injury situation this year, I think of junior high science, when we learned the difference between "saturated" and "super-saturated." I think we've achieved the latter.

-If the NHL is supposed to separate the men from the boys, I see a lot of Bulldog boys becoming men today.

-You wander, you pay the price, Fleury. Pads don't make you sacrosanct.

-Wild start. Would have been nice if Markov could have controlled Dupuis better.

-Darche is taking first-line duties seriously. He's a man on a mission.

-The ice must be awful. They're falling like rain.

-Desharnais might be five-foot nothing, but he plays bigger than Gill.

-Speaking of whom, that one shift Desharnais played with Gionta must have set a record for shortest line in NHL history.

-Habs had more chances than an apologetic drunk. The no goals thing is going to come back to sober them up pretty quickly though.