Wednesday, March 31, 2010

'Canes vs. Habs: Rock Them Like a Hurricane Edition

Notes on the third:

-Price is proving the "high glove" critics wrong, at any rate.

-I wonder if McBain is playing with the 'Canes so he can hide from Mendoza?

-Why was Price's foot not nailed to the post on that Staal goal? I hope that's not generating Easter metaphors too early.

-You know, Lapierre was better when he had that crazy-ass long biker hair. He needs it back.

-I hate Cam Ward with the burning, festering hatred one bears for one's greatest nemesis.

-If this is what we get in a "must make the playoffs" game, they might as well not bother. It'll just be embarrassing.

-Ah, Price, no wins for you!

Notes on the second:

-Watching the TSN panel during the intermission makes me think a wise GM would be waiting for the Flames to panic on Bouwmeester and try to dump him. I think if he doesn't start tearing it up next year, he'll get dumped for much less than it would have cost to get him a couple of years ago, and I think his kind of skill doesn't just go away. It just needs the right team to let it shine.

-Is it wrong of me to laugh every time TSN shows Pierre McGuire in the "1 Down" box?"

-Price honestly has no luck at all. Four shots against, and a goal off his defenceman's ass. Who else does that kind of crap ever happen to?

-Announcers are boo-hooing about Carolina missing Staal and Ward for a lot of the year. Not a word about the Habs missing Markov, Gionta, Gomez, Cammalleri, Pouliot, Kostitsyn, Hamrlik, Spacek, Metropolit, O'Byrne, Spacek and Bergeron for good portions of the season.

-Cammy still looks just that liiittttlllle bit off.

-What's not working is asking the fourth line to dig out the puck. They're just not doing it.

-I really, really didn't want a defensive battle tonight. I wanted a blowout. How come we NEVER get a blowout when it matters?

-Shots are 25-10 in favour of Montreal, but the game is tied. This does NOT bode well for a positive finish.

Notes on the first:

-Price looked like he was already sweating during the anthems. I hope he's on tonight, and actually gets some support for once.

-The crowd WANTED to cheer for Kerry Fraser's milestone, but decades of hatred made it pretty lukewarm.

-I hate these three and four-day layoffs. The team always looks like it completely forgot everything it ever knew about hockey after them.

-Note to Jacques the Knife: Never, if you have last change, have Gill and Lapierre on the ice at the same time. That's just irresponsible. You might as well be coaching drunk.

-Oh my, Price gave up a rebound. Alert the goalie police. Or, at least the ones who keep a running tab on how many times the puck comes off Halak.

-When Bergeron isn't firing bombs, he's useless. But when he is, oh, baby!

-Reasons to hate Carolina: the 2006 playoffs, Cam Ward, Brind'Amour, Cole and Samsonov. Reasons to like them: Kostopoulos and destroying the Devils and Bruins last playoffs.

-I think Gorges must be made out of the stuff they use to make black boxes for airplanes. The whole thing will go up in cinders, but the black box survives.

-I'd like to see one of those "History Will Be Made" playoff commercials with "What if Williams hadn't tried to remove Saku Koivu's eye with his stick?" as the tag line.

-This feels scarily like the Buffalo game. Habs were in control, but the other goalie robbed them enough to keep his team close. Wardo the Weirdo is all over them.

-The Habs need to pop another one quickly in the second. It might be fun to be the spoiler for a while, but spoilers tend to get demoralized easily.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Close to the Bone

I've heard old people say as the end of your life draws nearer, you grow "close to the bone." They mean the body draws in on itself, excess wears away and the lines of cheek and joint and limb stand out in their stark, ascetic simplicity. As the body draws close to the bone, though, so does the spirit. Artifice and dissembling lose importance. Words become finite, with no breath for those without meaning.

Pat Burns is close to the bone now. Watching him voice his appreciation for the new community rink to be named after him, the opening of which he freely acknowledges he'll be watching "from above," the essence of the man was clearly apparent. The guy who, when coaching the leafs and Bruins, we scathingly called "Fat" Burns, now is strikingly angular in appearance. An almost ethereal light surrounds him; reflected in his still-burning eyes. You might call it the light of truth. He's never been a person to say less than exactly what he meant. He speaks as candidly about his impending death as he did when, as Habs head coach, he was asked his opinion on a recently-arrested Shayne Corson. "Shayne Corson can go eat shit," was his succinct, politically incorrect and completely justified response. Now he talks as honestly about his relationship with his family and his God, and the distillation of life down to the essence of what it's all about: love.

Pat Burns loved hockey. It's not as important now as the love he bears for the people close to him, but it was a deep and passionate love throughout his working life. The thing is, when a person devotes himself to an endeavor the way Burns devoted himself to hockey, the people around him tend to love him back. Hockey people have a chance now to show Burns their appreciation for what he's done within the game he loved, by fast-tracking his election to the Hockey Hall of Fame.

His spot in the Hall is well-earned, and not by the tragedy of his early death. He is the only coach to have won the Jack Adams trophy with three different teams. He hoisted the Cup with New Jersey in 2003. Stats show in 13 seasons of coaching, Burns’ teams either finished first or second in the NHL in defense seven times and were among the top ten in defense ten times. His career record in the NHL is 501-350-161-14. He did it all with a hot temper, evidenced by the time he punched Mathieu Schneider to wake him up after a bad period, and an indefatigable sense of humour. He once said about coaching, "The first year there's sugar all around the cup. The second year the sugar falls off. The third year is salt and the fourth year it's vinegar." He was tough too. He made Serge Savard agree to suspend Corson indefinitely after yet another bar fight until Corson, who was playing his best hockey of the year at the time, swore to stay out of bars until the season ended. "I have a deal with him that I want him to stay out of the bars until the end of the season," he said. "In the summer, Shayne can do whatever he wants because I'll be relaxing on my boat. But during the season, I'd like him to stay away from the places where he likes to play the macho man. He has to take responsibility for himself." He believed in responsibility, hard work and loyalty. One would imagine that, if not for the cancer that's eroding his body, he'd be coaching still. Given time, Pat Burns will certainly be inducted into the Hall as a builder, no matter what fans say.

Unfortunately for him, and for us, he doesn't have time. I'm not sure Burns himself is really covetous of the honour. I expect he'd appreciate it, but its importance has been overshadowed for him by things of deeper, much more eternal significance. It matters to us, though. We, who respect and admire what he's done for the game, need to have a way to say thank you to him. We need to let him know we care about his legacy, we recognize his love of the game and we love him back for that. We want him to know it before he has to watch his induction ceremony "from above."

Fans have taken it upon themselves to rally support for his hastened induction to the Hall. There's a facebook group people can join to show they're behind the effort. We know the wheels of the gods grind slowly, and when it comes to hurrying up anything in hockey, they seem not to grind at all. This is a case that deserves to be an exception, for the fans of the game and for a man who loved it all his life. Time is precious when you're close to the bone.

Monday, March 29, 2010

Habs Notebook: Games In Hand Edition

Habby topics on my mind today:

-I think Habs fans are getting weirder. The other day I noticed a guy in the supermarket having an animated discussion with a can of soup. He was wearing a Habs jacket. Then I saw a house using a Habs towel as curtains, and it was NOT a student residence. Yesterday, a guy in a Habs cap was walking along the centre line of the street, oblivious to traffic passing on either side. I'm sure it's just because the Habs have so many fans to begin with that more of them are a little on the wonky side. Sometimes, though, I think there's a trend happening.

-Josh Gorges is a very, very solid defenceman. I often save items of interest after I've read them, because you never know when you might need to refer to them again. One such tidbit is a statistical analysis of defensive defencemen published in the Globe and Mail back in January. At the time, Gorges came in at number five in the league. The stats looked at quality of opponent faced, short-handed goals against and even strength goals against. That's not bad at all, when the guy is playing a number-five role on your team. He's even mostly stopped falling on his own goalie lately.

-I'm worried about Benoit Pouliot. I just finished reading a candid interview with him in the team magazine, in which he discussed his downward spiral in Minnesota. He said, "I wasn't drafted fourth overall to make defensive play my main focus. From the very start, that's all the team wanted from me. There are only so many times a player can chip the puck off the boards of dump it into the offensive zone before it becomes all you do. I couldn't get rid of the puck fast enough. I honestly think it began to erode my skills." He went on to say, "I fought it all I could, but it eventually began to consume me and I began to wonder if I even had what it took anymore. Ask any young player what it's like to know that as soon as you have a bad shift in a game or make one mistake, you're going to be nailed to the bench. It really takes a toll. It was devastating, unbearable and it ate at me inside."

He then talked about the difference in Montreal, and what a pleasure it is to play with smart, talented veterans like Gomez and Gionta. Now though, I see him making some inevitable mistakes, perhaps reaching with the stick a little more rather than moving his feet, or shying away from the crease when a month ago he could be found parked there. When Pouliot first came to Montreal, he looked like he'd been released from a cage and played with that kind of joy. There's no doubt he's got the skills to shine in the NHL. But if Jacques Martin is going to be benching him or demoting him to play with fourth-liners when he makes a mistake, it's not going to work out for him in Montreal. That's exactly what Lemaire did with him in Minny, and it didn't help. In any case, I'm not sure Pouliot is even really in need of discipline at the moment. Sure, he's making some of those errors I mentioned, but he's also got a couple of points in the last five "poor" games he's played, and is a plus-three. I want the kid to play flat out in every single game too, but everybody slumps sometimes and he seems to be trying to work through his little production lull. Martin hasn't worked wonders with any of the Habs' youngsters this year, and I'm afraid he's going to be Lemaire 2.0 when it comes to handling Pouliot.

-I think Carey Price's luck is about to change. I saw the reports of him drawing hundreds of supporters to a public autograph session today. Perhaps realizing that there are lots of people who cheer him on, no matter what, will be enough to lift the cloud that still seems to be hovering over him since last year's playoff booing. I expect, unless Halak is phenomenal against Carolina, Price will get one of Philly or Buffalo on the weekend. I hope his time has finally come and he pulls off a big win. He's due, and I don't know how much more devatastion he...or we...can stand this year.

-Did you ever notice that whenever you really need Jersey to beat someone to help the Habs in their playoff attempt, they fail? They come into Montreal and win, then they stink out the joint against Philly. I'm expecting Marty to play like crapola against Boston tomorrow, just because.

-I'm a little worried about the Habs' playoff chances. They SHOULD be able to get in, based on the relative difficulty of their remaining schedule compared to that of their immediate rivals'. But they really need to win a couple this week. The thought of it all riding on one of those chaotic, wretched leaf games on the last night is nauseating.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Aftermath: Apocalyptic Warning

One of the great cliches in hockey is anything can happen in the playoffs. You can't win it if you're not in it. Unfortunately, "anything" for the Montreal Canadiens does not likely include a miraculous victory in a seven-game series over the New Jersey Devils.

The Habs have beaten better teams this year. They've worked hard, and they've shown heart most of the time. They've persevered through terrible injury problems and they've gotten some fine goaltending. They have the skilled players who can put up points regularly. It's an entirely different team than it was last year. When it comes to the Devils, however, it doesn't matter. The Devils keep beating the Habs, year in, year out, and I have a hard time picturing the habit of years changing in time for Montreal to pull off a playoff victory over those guys. So, if we're going to risk our happiness on the assumption the Habs are even going to make the playoffs, we've got to hope we don't see the Devils in the first round.

Last night's game was a typical one between these two teams. In a slight variation from the usual, the Habs came out flying and kept the puck in the Devils' end for more than two minutes. That's where things returned to normal in Canadiens/Devils world. Despite the intense pressure off the top, the Habs failed to put one past Brodeur and the game settled into the typical Jersey pattern of defend-and-wait. They protected their own end and pounced on any break-down in the Canadiens' D. That came last night when the Habs' PK failed to live up to its eleventh-overall ranking.

On the positive side of the ledger for the Canadiens, the Plekanec line is clicking since Cammalleri's return. Cammalleri is opening up space for Andrei Kostitsyn and the latter's taking advantage of it. Even though Plekanec is playing hurt, he's still putting up points as well. The Gomez line is still working hard and getting chances, even though Pouliot's not the dominating force he was in his first little while as a Hab. In the net, Halak made some game-savers and the goals he allowed weren't bad ones. In terms of overall effort, the Habs didn't give up when down by a couple. Their main problem was, they needed to play like they did in the first two minutes of the game for the entire sixty if they hoped to beat the Devils, and no team can sustain that level of intensity for a whole game.

On the negative side, the power play has died. Toes up, pushing daisies, bought the farm, deceased. It is an ex-power play. The Habs cannot win close games like the one last night when the opponent takes advantage of its man advantages and they do not. Bergeron' return hasn't helped one iota and his presence on the fourth line isn't helping there either. Maybe he'll start getting some shots through in the next couple of games; after all, he's only been back for a week so his timing's going to be off a bit. If he doesn't though, the Canadiens have to find a way to fix this major problem before the playoffs. They won't last long with a dead PP, if they make it at all without help. I hate to say "bring up Subban," which is the Habs-fan plea du jour, but in this case, it might be helpful. Not only does the kid bring great energy, he also can fire bombs from the point.

Hamrlik's play is concerning as well. The team needs him to eat twenty-plus minutes a game and be a dependable presence on the back end. Since the Olympic break, he hasn't been as solid as he can be. He's making ill-advised clearing attempts and weak first passes. But worse than that, he's playing a soft game. He's not hitting and he's doing a lot more watching the puck than clearing opponents out of the crease. If he's not contributing to the offence, he needs to play a smarter, more physical game.

Also on the poor side of the account of last night, Sergei Kostitsyn played a solid game. Until the last couple of minutes, that is. When the Habs were pushing for the tying goal, Kostitsyn was going for the puck in the Devils' zone. He saw the defenceman coming out of the corner of his eye, and he bailed on the play to avoid a hit. It was unforgiveable, and the exact kind of thing that makes the difference between playoff winners and losers. I can't stand players who quit.

Worse than the loss itself, however, is the loss of Glen Metropolit. Metro is the kind of heart and soul player a team needs to succeed in the playoffs. He also solidifies a fourth line that's saddled with the largely ineffectual Bergeron and scoring-handicapped Tom Pyatt. Metro has good hands and can contribute important goals from the bottom six, which you need when your top lines are getting checked into the ice. If early reports that he's got a separated shoulder are true, then he's probably done for the year. It's too bad, because a team can't win much without help from its third and fourth lines. If Maxim Lapierre doesn't pick it up dramatically...which I'm not expecting...then Metro's loss is going to hurt.

In the end, I wasn't expecting a win last night. And I wouldn't expect one if the two teams meet in the playoffs. Anything can happen in the playoffs; that's true. But the Devils versus the Habs is the exception that proves the rule. There's only one thing that happens between those two teams, and it's not good for us.

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Devils vs. Habs - Retire Brodeur! Edition

Notes on the third:

-It appears the Habs' PP is observing Earth Hour and shutting off the power. You have to give them credit for caring about the environment.

-I hate Sean Avery as much as any real hockey fan, but I confess it makes me laugh when I remember him calling Brodeur "Fatso."

-I think the Habs are too perfect. They make beautiful plays, but they only get the one shot. Teams that dump and chase and clog the crease get more chances.

-Do the Devils practice grinding the puck off the boards? Because they're really excellent at that.

-Maybe it's possible that in a series, the Habs coaching staff could deconstruct the Devils' system and break it. Ha ha ha!

-There's not much point in playing dump and chase if you're doing all of the dumping and none of the chasing.

-It appears HNIC announcers don't realize Plekanec is playing hurt. They're crapping on him all night.

-If I were Martin, I wouldn't pull Halak, just to deny the Devils the inevitable empty-netter.

-If there's a hockey god, the Habs won't see these arseholes in the playoffs.

Notes on the second:

-One thing I don't understand about the Jersey system: I know it's always the same, no matter who's playing for them, but why do other teams not watch their video and learn from it?

-I really, really hate the Devils. When every penalty taken turns into a goal against, you know it's going to be a bad night.

-I'm not sure what kind of playoff player Pouliot will turn out to be. He's been steadily drifting further to the perimeter since he came back from injury.

-The Habs have given up on the short pass and they're going for the goldmine stretch now.

-And, just when I'm thinking it might be a good idea to trade Andrei Kostitsyn because of his inconsistency, he pulls off a goal like that. Beautiful work by Gomez on that play.

-Jaro! He should be fingerprinted and booked after that steal on Kovalchuk.

-Another thing I don't understand (I'm dumb tonight): Why can they not figure out how to change lines properly? How hard is "get the puck deep" before you go off?

-There should be no "puck battles" on the PP. There's no excuse for the terrible over-passing by the Habs.

-Brodeur lives because he never has to stop a rebound. Hockey Philistines say Halak's weakness is his rebound control. Not so. Every goalie gives up rebounds, but some goalie's defencemen are better at clearing them away.

-If Bergeron is going to be completely pointless at the point on the PP, there's not much point in having him on the fourth line. Darche would at least be standing in front of Brodeur, annoying him. Point finale.

-Metropolit hurt is bad news for the Habs. He's one of the character suppport players you need in the playoffs, like the crispy cracker underneath your nutella.

-If Hammer has no stick, he at least needs to use his ball-peen head to take someone out in front of the net.

-PLEKY! He does NOT look like he's playing hurt.

-It's funny listening to Carbo loving Markov. I wonder if he secretly felt that way all the time he was coaching him?

-Close game going into the third, but I have a feeling it's just the usual Devils tease. They're worse than no-touch strippers.

Notes on the first:

-Pre-game, it was tough to shake the nerves. Brodeur and Chris Lee could add up the perfect storm of doom.

-What a start! The Habs look like they were shot out of a cannon.

-Clarkson and Gill was hilarious. All Gill had to do was hold him at arm's length. It looked like a toddler wrestling with his dad.

-Andrei Kostitsyn is Kovalev Lite: this year's holder of the Most Frustrating Player title.

-I wish Gomez and Gionta knew the secret of destroying Brodeur, and were willing to use it.

-Not much Halak could do on a 4-on-3 with all three of his teammates chasing the puck. But damn, Gorges! If he had any hands on the 2-on-1, that situation would never have developed.

-Heartening news: HNIC says a Plekanec deal is close.

-I really hope the Habs don't meet Jersey in the playoffs. At this point, they're just in Montreal's head.

-Why does every single bounce fall in the Devils' favour? And, if things are supposed to even out in hockey, why does it never change between these two teams?

-The Habs' play in the neutral zone looks like the toilet just after somebody flushed. Circling, circling, circling...

-Well, it's not for lack of trying, but trying isn't good enough against these guys.

Friday, March 26, 2010

Face and Eyes

Left: Travis Moen's face, Montreal Gazette photo

Bill Masterton was born in Winnipeg in the heat of August in 1938. He grew up to be a pretty decent hockey player in an age when you had to be damn good to crack an NHL lineup and only the best guys made it. He signed a deal with the Habs in 1961, but there was no way a guy like him was going to jump into a stacked lineup just coming off five straight Stanley Cups. So, Masterton instead played centre for the University of Denver for a few years, then bounced around the minor pro leagues a bit. He went to work and started a family. Then, NHL expansion unexpectedly gave him his big chance at a hockey career, and, at the age of 29, he proudly lined up for the Minnesota North Stars in that team's debut season. Masterton played 38 games with the North Stars in 1967-68, posting big-league totals of four goals and eight assists. It was a small career; one which only the staunchest of Minnesota fans would remember now if things had ended differently. He wasn't the kind of guy who would ever have had a trophy named after him, under ordinary circumstances. Sadly, hockey fans today know Bill Masterton's name because on January 13, 1968, halfway through his first and only NHL season, a helmetless Masterton was hit by two Oakland Seals players during a game. He crashed to the ice and the back of his head struck with a crack his teammates could hear from the bench. He was knocked unconscious and carried off the ice with blood spilling from his nose and mouth. Bill Masterton passed away in hospital two days later as a result of the incident, leaving his wife and two little children to wonder why he had to die for the sake of a game. He is still the only NHL player to have died as a direct result of injuries sustained on the ice.

Masterton wasn't alone in shunning the helmet. The common arguments against wearing them were that they were uncomfortable, that they'd give a false impression of protection and encourage a decrease in respect as a result and that they would erect a barrier of anonymity between players and the fans. Running underneath those public arguments, however, was a deep current of machismo. "Real" men like Gordie Howe played without helmets and men who might have secretly wanted to wear one chose not to because they didn't want to be perceived as weak or lacking in masculinity.

The NHL community was devastated by the death of Bill Masterton in 1968, but in the aftermath of worry and debate about player safety, only two players decided to adopt a helmet. It took eleven years...eleven years!...after Masterton died to make helmets mandatory equipment in NHL games. Even then, the rule had to be grandfathered in so veterans wouldn't have to follow it. Now, 31 years later, it's inconceivable that a hockey player at any level would touch the ice without head protection. If someone should lose his helmet by chance during play, we wait anxiously to make sure he gets safely back to the bench.

A similar thing happened with goalie masks. Until Jacques Plante insisted on wearing his in games, after Andy Bathgate nearly removed his nose with a shot, men suffered horrendous facial injuries playing goal rather than don simple protection.
Now the game must be stopped if a goaltender should accidentally lose his mask, for fear of his sustaining a major injury.

When it comes to visors, though, we're still back in the days of the cavemen. They're mandatory in junior hockey and in the AHL, but when players make the NHL, they have the option to discard their eye protection. About thirty percent of incoming players choose to do so. Their publicly-stated reasons include impaired vision and discomfort. That's all BS. The real reason is because there's still a lingering impression that men who wear visors are wimps. It's considered bad form to fight while wearing a visor, so players who expect to drop their gloves in a game leave their eyes unprotected, just in case.

Travis Moen came within millimetres of losing his left eye earlier this week, when Matt Cullen's skate accidentally cut him for more than fifty stitches. Following the snaking path of the slice that curves right over his eyeball, it's something of a miracle that he didn't sustain vision damage. Afterwards, he said he knows he's really lucky to have escaped the accident with both eyes, but he hasn't decided whether he'll permanently adopt a visor. He thinks the decision about whether to wear a visor should be left up to individual players. He said, "Old habits die hard." That's exactly the problem with the NHL.

If players are too manly to protect their vision, the league has to insist they do so, just as it did with helmets. It's like seatbelts in the general population. People didn't wear their seatbelts and they were getting killed in accidents when a simple belt would have saved their lives. The government had to legislate seatbelt wear. Eyes are delicate things, you only have two of them, and you can't play hockey if you lose one. That should be enough to make players decide to protect them. The other thing that should convince every single player in the league to wear a visor is the absolute certainty that their vision will be at risk at some point if they don't. With sticks, pucks and skates flying at high speeds, players get hit in the face often. It would be nearly impossible to find an NHL player who's never had stitches in his face, and the distance to the eye in that case is pretty small.

Of course, a visor won't protect absolutely. Sometimes freak accidents happen even with them, as was the case when Justin Williams nearly blinded Saku Koivu with a stick under the shield. But most of the time the visor can save the worst of the damage. I remember watching Josh Gorges go down to block a hard shot early this season. It hit him directly in the visor, and the damage he would have sustained had he not been wearing it doesn't bear thinking about.

I find it beyond ironic that the victim of the NHL's most famous eye injury, Bryan Berard, recived the Bill Masterton trophy after he suffered multiple surgeries in his attempt to return to hockey. The man who nearly lost his eye because he wasn't wearing a visor won the award named for the man who died because he wasn't wearing a helmet. I wonder if Travis Moen has considered that he wouldn't have a shot at the Masterton trophy if he'd lost his sight the other night. You have to still be a hockey player to win it, and you can't play with one eye. That's why the AHL made visors mandatory three years ago. Jordan Smith, a 20-year-old Ducks prospect, lost the sight in his left eye when he was struck by a puck and a promising career ended.

I don't want to see an NHLer blinded because he wasn't wearing a visor, just like nobody wanted to see a pro hockey player killed when he wasn't wearing a helmet. The worst had to happen in Bill Masterton's case to force players into protecting their heads. There's no need to let that lesson live in the past without learning something from it today.

Aftermath: Deja Vu Avoided

It's something of a minor miracle that when the Panthers scored with three and a half minutes to go last night, the collective intake of breath by the Bell Centre faithful didn't cause a vacuum. I know I wasn't alone in holding my head in my hands and moaning, "Oh no...not again." Fortunately, though, our Habs aren't slow on the uptake. With the previous night's embarrassing collapse in Buffalo still fresh in their minds, the Canadiens buckled down and potted the empty-netters to put the game away. Whew!

The game wasn't perfect, or, ironically, nearly as good as the one they played in Buffalo for 56 minutes. The Habs started out looking exactly like a team that had played hard and ended with a heartbreaking loss the night before. It's funny how hockey works, though. A team can play a great game and lose one night, then a wishy-washy start the next night gets a boost when a couple of weakish goals go in and the tide turns.

A lot of players looked good last night. Halak did a great job in keeping the team in it until his teammates decided to step it up. Moen looked like the slash around his eye reminded him how lucky he is to be in the NHL, and he played with an extra bit of gritty energy. The Gomez line played a fine game, particularly Gionta, and Pouliot worked much harder than he's seemed to recently. Plekanec's line looked good too, and is showing signs of finally giving the habs that one-two punch on offence they've been lacking all year. I thought Moore and Sergei Kostitsyn worked hard on the forecheck and created some nice third-line chances. The D was sluggish early, but tightened up after the first period. Even Jacques the Knife stepped up his game. His tie wasn't hideous and he actually managed to have the right players on the ice after the Panthers scored their goal. When Pleks got the empty-netter, he was out there with Moen, Sergei Kostitsyn, Gorges and Markov, instead of Cammalleri, Andrei Kostitsyn and Gill.

I tend to overanalyze what players say when they're coming up for contract renewal, but I did take heart from Plekanec's post-game comment about his 100th career goal. He said he'd like to score another hundred...but then, unprompted, specified that he'd like to score them in Montreal.

On the Spacek hit on Booth, I think it was clean. Spacek isn't a dirty player and he came at Booth head-on. I hate the argument that players who get hit in the head should have been more careful not to put themselves in vulnerable positions, but in this case I think there's actually some truth in that. Booth, above anyone else, should have learned to keep his head up. He came across the blueline looking down at the puck instead of at Spacek who was right in front of him.

I hate to find fault in a game the Habs win, but I have to say the fourth line concerns me. Bergeron might be adding a threat to the PP, but so far it's been an empty threat. Lapierre was completely invisible after his stint in the pressbox failed to jolt him out of his season-long lethargy. Pyatt worked hard, as always, but he doesn't do much to create a scoring threat and he's not a terribly intimidating physical player. In the playoffs, you need your fourth line to be a game changer. They're the ones who are supposed to bring energy to a flat game and pressure the opposition into making bad decisions with the puck. They're the guys who get the chances when the top lines are checked into the ice. They should be forechecking like demons, hitting everything that moves and forcing turnovers. A fourth line isn't going to score a lot of goals as a rule, so they need to do something other than just passively eat minutes if your team is going to go very far in the playoffs.

Ideally, in the post-season, I'd like to see some combination of Darche, Ryan White, Metropolit, Pyatt and Bergeron, (if necessary for the PP). I know the coaches hope Lapierre will suddenly become the player he was last year, but it's not happening. He's just not taking advantage of any of the chances he's been given this season and he needs to sit in favour of a player who does want to do that valuable fourth-line job. The experiment to play him over Metro wasn't exactly a success last night.

There are still eight games left to tweak those little lineup problems though. Last night, the Habs needed to beat a team they were supposed to beat and they managed to do the job. They didn't allow the heartbreaking loss in Buffalo to break their heart. Most encouraging, when the Panthers scored that goal, the Habs proved they can learn from their mistakes. While we were collectively moaning, "Not again," the Canadiens were adjusting and fixing the problems they'd caused for themselves against the Sabres. That's the sign of a good team. We'll see how good they can be tomorrow when the potential-first-round-opponent Devils hit town.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Panthers vs. Habs - Smelly Cat Edition

Notes on the third:

-I'm trying not to sweat about going into the third with a two-goal lead.

-O'Byrne is playing some fine hockey. He knows the basics and he uses them properly.

-One-eyed Moen is playing a fantastic game too. Maybe he should look into an eye patch after his stitches heal.

-My least favourite play is when they win the faceoff, but the other team still gets control.

-Gionta's goal was proof of what a player can do when he doesn't quit on the play. His 25th on an empty net may not count for some, but it was a hardworking goal nonetheless.

-Great win. Necessary win. There's hope for the future.

Notes on the second:

-I had no idea Spacek could do as much damage as he did on the Booth hit. It's kind of like seeing someone t-boned by an ice cream truck.

-Nice dive by Vokoun ending in the Pleks penalty.

-Man, has Gomez EVER cashed a breakaway or two-on-one this year?

-Halak is playing a hell of a game. I think the decision on which goalie the team will keep will come down to a guess about whether Price will get better or Halak will get worse.

-Nice 5-on-3 kill. I think Halak leads the league in save percentage in those situations.

Notes on the first:

-Before the game started, my thought on Lapierre over Metro in the lineup was "What the hell, Martin?" Metro actually can stickhandle, he works hard, kills penalties and has a right-handed shot on the PP. Lapierre can...(fill in the blank here.)

-Watching the Panthers play convinces me hockey isn't fixed. Why would they play so hard, knowing they're not going to make the playoffs, if not for pride?

-Horton scrambled Markov like a dozen eggs. Another great player from the first round in 2003.

-What exactly are four sets of official's eyes looking at when they don't see Markov get a stick in the face right in the middle of the play?

-Pouliot's development isn't going to advance much if he spends half his time in the box and the other half stapled to the bench in punishment for taking bad penalties.

-Then again, as long as he's playing with Gomez, maybe he doesn't need the coach on his side. Nice backhand for the goal.

-Gionta's got a great shot, but Vokoun should have had that one. Let's hope they can actually hold this two-goal lead.

-Gak! Halak with the big race for the puck again tonight. He's taking more risks than Captain Smith in the north Atlantic in April.

-If Moore puts money on the board every time they play one of his former teams, he'll have to take a second job.

-This is completely opposite from the game last night. The Habs have had very little of the territorial advantage and they're not controlling most of the play, yet they're getting the breaks.

Aftermath: An Unfortunate Fairy Tale

Once upon a time, in a tiny western hamlet far, far away, there lived a little boy who wanted to be a goalie. His dad was a goalie and he did everything he could to help the boy become one too. As the little boy got older, he grew tall and quick. He spent his summers in goalie school and his winters winning hockey games. By the time the boy became a young man, he was a star. He was a gifted athlete and a proven winner. Everyone wanted him on their teams.

When the holy city of hockey came calling and sent him on a quest for hockey's Holy Grail, the young man answered with goodwill. It was no more than he expected on his charmed rise to prominence. Then the darkness descended. What had been right and perfect in his uphill journey became cursed and flawed once he reached the summit of his sport. Pucks he would have once snagged effortlessly out of the air instead bounced off the glass behind him and into his net. Playoff series he once would have dominated ended in embarrassment and criticism. Injuries happened, and the once-adoring public began to respond with censure and accusing eyes.

In the third year of his quest, the path grew darker. Nothing went right. Games in which he should have starred were ruined by weak goals. Games in which he did star were ruined by his teammates mistakes. He was pushed into the background and became an unhappy shadow of the promising emblem of hope he'd been once.

Then came the clash with Sabres. After working hard in obscurity for weeks, the young goalie finally got a chance for redemption in his darkest of seasons. It was a big game; an important game against a strong opponent. It was a curse-breaking kind of game in which a struggling hero might once again prove something to himself. He grabbed the chance with both hands and played a fantastic game. His teammates, for once, responded and gave him the chance to shine he needed. The scorers scored and the defenders stood their ground. Everyone believed the mysterious curse shadowing the young goalie might finally be broken.

It was not to be. For reasons known only to the hockey gods, the team got caught high-sticking with three minutes to go. The Sabres halved the lead. Then, the curse struck again when the coach inexplicably decided to send two of the team's worst defensive forwards out to protect a one-goal lead while outmanned with less than a minute to go. Predictably, they failed to clear the puck and the heroic goalie was beaten. Equally predictably, the deflated team failed to redeem itself in extra time. The complete collapse in what had been a perfect game proved the curse continues to linger.

The tales will say other things were responsible. Some will blame the awful coaching decision to send Cammalleri and Andrei Kostitsyn out in the final minute. Others will say perhaps the Sabres goalie was better and held his team in it when they should have been down by more than two. Maybe they'll say the stronger team finally woke up and proved its mettle when it got desperate. Or that it could have been due to tired penalty killers who were obliged to defend a steady string of calls against when they were wearing down in the third. True believers know the real reason though. It's the curse. The poor, benighted young goalie is the victim of a malevolent force that's spoiling his every moment of success.

His brothers in arms must now find the way to break the spell, because no one man can do it on his own. Nobody knows if they'll find the answer before it's too late. That's a tale for another day.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Habs vs. Sabres - Buffalo Burger Edition

Notes on the third:

-You know, I've been complaining that the Habs don't shoot enough because they're ranked second-last in the league in that category, but now I think they're only in that position because half the shots they take miss the net and don't count in the stats.

-Moore's been trumps on the draw. Aces on the forecheck too.

-Cammalleri doesn't look like he's missed a moment. MAB's fading as the game goes on.

-Sergei Kostitsyn is just so slick with puck distribution, I wonder what he'd look like centering a couple of good shooters.

-Weird. I just noticed Price is wearing the Centennial goalie mask. I thought he put that one up for auction. Maybe nobody bid on it?

-I can't stand this. Hockey gives and hockey takes away. The Habs own the entire game and blow it with three minutes to go. That's cosmic payback for the Anaheim game they stole.

-You just knew when the Habs got the first four PPs of the game that the make-up calls would come back to haunt them. This tastes like ashes.

-Price looked so rusty in the shootout that if you fell on him, you'd have to get a tetanus shot. He played well up overall though.

Notes on the second:

-Bergeron's goofy smile makes him look like he could be the understudy for the simpleton brother in "My Name Is Earl." He's playing a solid fourth-line game though.

-Usually you don't see Markov being the weak link on the PP, but he's not looking like his usual dominating self so far.

-Boy, when AK wakes up, he wakes up like a sleepwalker in a thunder storm.

-Moore finds the image of himself playing footie with the puck on the big screen hilarious.

-I hate to point out a single guy's weak points, but it seems as though every time I see the Habs struggling to clear the puck, I can see Gill in the middle of the ice, spinning around like a blind ballet dancer.

-What an idiotic penalty by Price. I hate the trapezoid too, but you had to know the refs were waiting for something to call and Price gave them a gift.

-AH...four minutes because Rivet bleeds like a hemophiliac.

-The PK has been solid and Price is playing like the goalie we all want him to be. One more to go for a huge W.

Notes on the first:

-It worries me that Miller is building up a Brodeur-like record against the Habs. We don't need that in the conference!

-You just knew Andrei Kostitsyn was due. He's been closer than hand grenades in the last two games.

-Okay, RDS can stop mourning Lapierre's absence any time now. The guy has sucked all year and I hate to be cliche, but there's absolutely no doubt if his name was Max Pacioretty, nobody on the network would even notice, let alone comment.

-Plekanec was so much better on the draw last year. I don't know what happened to him. I'm sure that's the same thing Billy the Kid's fans were wondering right before he got gunned down in his bedroom.

-Gomez could put a puck through the eye of a needle in the dark. Unfortunately, he can't hit the back of the open net.

-Is it a peril of this time of year that every sheet of ice in the NHL looks like absolute crap, or it it just the Habs' passing?

-That Myers is quite the find. How I wish the Habs had a guy like that!

-Price has started well. He's either decided he's got nothing to lose, or he's too mad at being benched to worry about what happens.

-Gomez slides through the neutral zone like a salmon swimming downstream.

-Pierre McGuire homoerotic comment of the period: "Derek Roy with magician-like use of his stick."

-I think if I had to pick a Sabre to keep, I'd take Hecht. He always plays so well against Montreal.

-Nice period. Let's see if the PP can find itself at the top of the second.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Aftermath: Blah Blah Blah

Andrei Markov and Brian Gionta opened their mouths to speak after the game last night, but all that came out was the voice of Charlie Brown's teacher. Wah bwah mwah wah. Translation in the post-Seinfeld era: blah, blah, blah. I must say, though, if we have to listen to the same old excuses, it was a nice change to have Markov offer them up in his charming manner. Maybe the team thought having Markov give his patented eye roll-cheek puff-big sigh while searching for the right platitute for the situation would distract us from the wretched game we'd just endured.

Look, I know no team is going to win seventeen in a row down the stretch. Losses are going to happen, and losses after a nice win streak are harder to accept than your garden-variety mid-season L. There's an inevitable let-down after a team rides such a high. Remember after Montreal stopped Washington's 14-game streak? The Caps went on to a couple of really ignominous defeats after that. It took them three or four games after the streak ended for them to get their play back on track. The problem here is the Habs aren't the Caps, with the division already clinched and priming their muskets for whichever cannon-fodder opponent they'll be taking on in the first round.

The Habs haven't clinched anything and they seem to have forgotten that fact in the euphoria that was the six-game win streak. Last night, the Sens were the more desperate team and they came out with something to prove. They were fast and aggressive all night, and when they got a one-goal lead, they didn't sit back and hope to God it would be enough. The Canadiens didn't wake up until later in the game, and that's not a good thing for a team that's supposed to be determined to move up in the standings. Now they can feel the fetid breath of the Bruins and Thrashers, warm and uncomfortable, on the backs of their necks.

To give the sparse credit due, the Habs did respond in the second by stepping up their listless play. Elliott made some nice stops for the Sens on the chances the Canadiens managed to muster up. Still, I thought the Habs were ready to break through just when Matt Cullen's skate came up and gave Travis Moen some primitive plastic surgery. The refs called for help right away and Graham Rynbend ran with Moen off the ice, his face covered with a towel. Dr.Mulder got out of his seat and followed them quickly to the room. When RDS panned the faces of the guys on the ice and the bench after that, their expressions were pretty concerned. I thought, at that point, Martin needed to call a time out to rally the troops. They'd been pushing hard and the Moen injury rattled them. Martin didn't do that and the brief spurt of dominance died.

Another thing I'll lay at Martin's feet is the PP. When a power play goes 1-for-6 against a team like Toronto, then threatens to go 0-for-Ottawa, the coach has to shake things up. Sergei Kostitsyn needed to see some power play time last night, if only to answer the questions about why, when the team is struggling, he's not out there. The team had nothing to lose, and maybe Kostitsyn would respond to the opportunity. Forty-four seconds of PP icetime isn't much when you're trying to get something going.

Martin blamed the special teams for the loss last night. I blame the Canadiens' lack of committment. On one particular sequence, I saw four Canadiens fail to clear the puck out of their own end because they threw the puck up the boards blind in order to avoid a hit. The D wasn't checking anybody and the forwards weren't aggressive on the forecheck. No Canadiens were going to the net for screens or tips and they didn't fight hard for the puck on the boards. Ottawa DID do those things and that was the difference. This doesn't apply to everyone in red last night. Gionta, Plekanec and Gorges never quit. Gomez and Metropolit were trying, as was Halak.

I'm worried about the play of Pouliot though. Without an effective finisher on Plekanec's line (wake the hell up, Andrei!), the Gomez line needs to be scoring. They need Pouliot to perform, but he was one of those guilty of not skating hard and giving up on the play to avoid checks. He was successful with the Habs because he was going to the net to deflect Gomez's passes. Now he's basing himself on the perimeter and it's not working any better than it did when he tried it in Minny.

Max Lapierre is another issue. He should have been going on rocket fuel for the last few games, knowing that Bergeron and Cammalleri are coming back and someone...likely him...will have to sit to make room. He's showing nothing except stupidity. He'll be eating hot dogs when Bergeron returns and nobody will miss him.

This loss isn't the end of the world, but with good teams like Buffalo and Jersey on the immediate horizon, there's good potential to develop a bona fide losing streak. One thing is certain: if we're hearing players responding with statements like, "We gotta..." and "We need to..." after those games, the playoffs are far from assured. Simplify, shoot more, go to the dirty areas...blah, blah, blah. Stop talking, and get back to doing, Habs!

Sens vs. Habs - Fight For Fifth Edition

Notes on the third:

-Lapierre had a brief moment of life in the first, and now he's returned to his real role as The Crown Prince of Oblivion. It's completely unfair to hardworking players everywhere that he'll continue to hold a spot with Moen out.

-A team with no PP is like a country without an army. The Habs are becoming the Liechtenstein of the NHL.

-Andrei Kostitsyn isn't winning any fans with the coaching staff.

-What the hell happened to the PK? It was rolling along during the winning streak and now it looks like a Welcome Wagon house party.

-There are nights when no matter what you do, nothing goes in. It's a perfect storm of good goaltending, bad luck and nobody screening.

-Losing this one does not bode well for the rest of the week. Anaheim comeback be damned. I'm going to bed.

Notes on the second:

-Off topic, but I wonder if the Ducks ever regret giving up Bryzgalov for nothing?

-Whatever fire the Habs had during their win streak has been extinguished by the four-day layoff. It gave them time to relax and let the suck shine in.

-You forget what wheels Sergei Kostitsyn has until he blows by somone like a teenaged drag racer on a yellow light.

-Give that man a gold star! Spacek hit the net on the PP for the first time in twenty-five games. Still can't score though.

-I think Andrei Kostitsyn, like the Belaussian bear, smells spring and is awakening from hibernation.

-That Moen accident was just horrible. I wish these guys would wear visors.

-Halak, and the Habs lack of finish, are why this is even close.

-Who wants to bet me five bucks the next penalty call will be a make-up one on the Habs?

-Much better period by Montreal, but they have to actually put the puck IN the net in the third.

Notes on the first:

-Watching the RDS compilaton of all the MAB bullets from the point makes me think it must be all kinds of cool to be able to unleash a shot like that, then just stand there in triumph while your teammates rush you.

-Wow, Jaro's got a terrible haircut. He must go to Carbo's barber.

-Sens are super fast right off the top. I hope they're like the kids we raced in cross-country when we were in grade nine: out of the gate like rabbits, crawling across the finish like turtles.

-Jaro hasn't gotten caught on those big races for loose pucks yet, but it's gonna happen.

-Nice hit by Lapierre on Neil. Maybe he knows with Bergeron ready to come back, he's playing for his spot in the lineup.

-Thank goodness it's almost Easter. Maybe the Habs PP will rise from the dead.

-Okay, how is it delay of game to shoot the puck over the glass by accident, but it isn't when a defenceman deliberately lies down on the puck during a PK?

-Gill looking stellar, as usual, on the Regin goal. The man panics.

-It's not a good sign when your hopes for the game hang on a no-goal call after review.

-I'm seeing a lot of Habs playing hot potato with the puck to avoid getting hit. It's turning into giveaways and Ottawa chances.

-Jacques the Knife is already dressed for dancing at Studio 54 after the game. If it were 1974.

-Nice little sequence with Markov showing Kovalev which Russian is the Boss.

-Habs look like they think all the work of getting to the playoffs was done last week. They're lucky to be only down by one.

The Curious Nature of Belief

A friend of mine, who is not a hockey fan, asked me yesterday, "Do you believe your team is going to win the Stanley Cup?" Of course, I scoffed at the notion and answered the Habs haven't even made the playoffs yet and if they do, it's pretty likely at least ten of the other teams that qualify will be better than they are. My friend then asked, "Why are you rooting so hard for them to win these games then?" That's a harder question to answer.

Pride among fans is a factor, naturally. We want to be able to say to leafs and Bruins fans that at least our team made the playoffs. Our degree of frustration at not winning a Cup is therefore lower than yours whose favourites didn't even appear in the post-season. Part of it is habit. We cheer because we are conditioned to cheer. If Pavlov's dogs salivated at the sound of a bell, we salivate at the Sens in the Bell. Eternal hope comes into it too. We hope the team makes it and we hope they get the right combination of luck and big performances when it counts. We hope they'll surprise us. But believe? That's a little word with big implications. It's hard to admit, "Yes, I believe," out loud, when your team isn't the 'Hawks or the Caps, without looking at least a little sheepish.

Belief is a powerful thing in sports. It's what empowers a little man to face down a huge defenceman and win the battle. It's what prompts a team to tap a goalie on the pads after a bad shot goes in because they have no doubt he'll shut the door afterwards. It's what binds a group of players with individual interests into a single unit with a common purpose and, like the old parable about a single stick being easy to snap while a bundle can't be broken, a unified team is hard to beat. Belief is a weapon difficult for an opponent to defeat, but it doesn't come cheap. If players or fans truly believe in a team, it means they're exposing themselves emotionally. It's easy to say, "I hope the team wins, but it'd take a miracle," not so easy to say, "I believe in miracles." Believing means investing a little bit of yourself in the team's fortunes and taking down the protective barriers of cynicism and skepticism. When a team you truly believe in comes up short, it hurts a lot more than one about which you can say, "Oh well, I didn't expect anything better."

Last year, if my friend had asked me whether I believed the Habs would win the Stanley Cup, I would have answered, unequivocally, NO! I hoped they'd make the playoffs to avoid the shame of missing out after winning the conference the year before, but there was no belief in that bleak hope. This year is different. Maybe it's because the team tries so much harder and seems to care about its individual players more than last year. Maybe it's the cockeyed optimism we feel in an Olympic year after watching our athletes strive for gold and actually bring it home. This year I can't say I DON'T believe. It'll take a couple of more wins with some convincing performances, but I'm starting to believe anything can happen once they're in. When I think about why I'm watching every game with such hope and every result means so much, I realize there must be at least a kernel of belief in there somewhere. A person can't root this hard for a team in which it's impossible to believe. That's a start.

Perhaps ten games from now, when my friend asks me whether I believe the Habs will win the Cup, I can say it out loud.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Aftermath: Warning Signs

I'm really glad there are no sucky teams in the playoffs. When sucky teams don't have a lot of skill, they substitute by hiring guys who work hard and hit everything that moves. Throw in some speed like the leafs showed last night, and an aggressive forecheck, and you have a recipe for beating the Habs.

The Canadiens are not alone though. That's the same recipe for beating a lot of other good teams too. The Habs had success beating the Caps and Pens this year by employing exactly the same strategy the leafs used against them last night. It's funny, but if you put the Habs up against skill and speed, they stand up well. They don't look nearly as good against grinding, dull teams. Those who see only the surface of the game will say it's because the Habs are too small to compete that way. I don't buy that. I think it's because they're too focused on skill. As Dryden so succinctly put it, "There are two kinds of players, scorers and grinders. Scorers score and grinders grind." If a player spends a hockey lifetime trying to score goals, he's not going to be looking to pound the crap out of people...Ovechkin notwithstanding. Fortunately, in the playoffs, most possible opponents are built on skill. It's also why the Sabres scare me. Lindy Ruff has a fast, decently skilled team that plays like a bunch of grinders backed up by a good goalie.

In regards to last night, I don't read a whole lot into the game or its result. The Canadiens had four days between games and the rust really showed. They were sluggish and they seemed to have lost a little of the instinctive knowledge of each other's moves on the ice. They were second to the puck most of the night and their passes were just that little bit off. They also fell victim to leaf confusion. The leafs, no matter where they are in the standings, are always driven when it comes to playing the Habs. The Canadiens, on the other hand, don't seem to care about any rivalry, real or imagined.

Regardless of the opponent or the layoff, though, there are a couple of worrisome issues illustrated by the game last night. First is the power play. Nobody shoots. When a team has a four-minute PP and doesn't get a single shot on net, it's shameful. Spacek rarely manages to get one past the shot blockers, and when he does, it's usually high or wide. Gionta is a shoot-first kind of player, but he goes to the net for tips and deflections instead of waiting around in the slot for a one-timer. Cammalleri's return should help with this issue. It'll also mean Martin will be forced to reinsert Bergeron in the lineup. I was hoping Cammalleri would be enough, because Bergeron's assets are greatly outnumbered by his deficiencies. However, with special teams carrying even greater importance in the playoffs, the chance that Bergeron MIGHT get a rocket through from the point can outweigh the softness he brings to the fourth line.

The absence of the Plekanec line was a problem last night as well. That's another weakness Cammalleri's return will help rectify. I'm sure Tom Pyatt will be a fine third-liner when he's paired up with Ryan White and Travis Moen at some point. He is not a top-six player, and Pleks and AK are struggling without a proper finisher.

The bigger problem...and one without a quick fix...I saw last night was Hal Gill. Gill is a useful player on the PK and, by all accounts, a great guy in the room. Defenders will say he and Rob Scuderi played a big part in the Pens Cup win last year. Of course, that's true. It's also true that Gill is overwhelmed by speed in his own end. Watching him struggle to clear the puck against the likes of Bozak and Kessel made me wonder what the hell he'll do with 230 pounds of determined Ovechkin bearing down on him. With the Canadiens unlikely to have home-ice advantage in the playoffs, you can bet coaches like Bylsma, Lemaire and Boudreau will use their last change to have Crosby, Kovalchuk and Ovy out there against Gill every chance they get. His scary puckhandling wouldn't be so bad if he ever used his size to clear the crease or abuse puck carriers in the corners, but he doesn't. He also has a bad habit of standing directly in front of his goalie, obscuring his view of the puck. Last night I saw Bozak score after Gill smacked Halak in the head and allowed the leafs to have two rebounds right in the crease. Then, on the second goal, he was caught pinching and couldn't get back in time. I know Martin wants the D to be active on the attack, but Gill's lack of footspeed has him at a disadvantage with that strategy. Gill undoubtedly has some uses, but it's up to the coach to recognize he also has a lot of weaknesses and use him accordingly. It will mean the other defencemen will have to play more minutes against better competition in the playoffs, which will wear them down more quickly.

The Habs are going to have to put on a better show against Ottawa tomorrow. I think nobody in the Montreal dressing room believes a playoff spot is a given, and they need to keep working hard toward that goal. After all, they can't plan for playing the good teams in April if they can't beat the struggling ones in March.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Habs vs. leafs - Keep the Streak Alive Edition

Notes on the third:

-Gill is just overwhelmed by speed. He has his uses, but man, is he ever scary when he's trying to clear the puck quickly in traffic.

-Pyatt isn't doing a thing for the Plekanec line. It wouldn't hurt in the third period of a game with no jump if Martin switched him out for Sergei Kostitsyn.

-If Gionta was a handbag, he'd be a clutch.

-Really, really hate leaf games.

-I'd have liked to see Pouliot in the shootout instead of Gomez for a change. Great move by Kostitsyn though.

-Damn Mitchell just owned Halak at the end. Too bad.

-Oh well, it sucks to lose to the leafs, but at least the Habs got one point to keep moving up while the leafs got two to move them lower in the draft lottery.

-I hope this is a one-off though. The Habs need to have a good week coming up.

Notes on the second:

-It amazes me that some players don't puke on the ice with some of the hits they take.

-Plekanec drops Phaneuf. He's playing like a big girl these days.

-What a desperate struggle in Halak's crease. The D has got to be better at clearing the puck out of there.

-I love Gionta, but I've seen WAY too much of his mouth guard.

-I'm still not that keen on disrupting the lineup to add Bergeron, but considering how lousy the PP is looking, it might be necessary.

-leafs have so many tools in the lineup, the ACC should be renamed The Shed.

-Excellent! The puck's going five feet over everybody's head and Gill just reaches up and snags it in his glove.

-Crappy Kessel goal. I hate those.

-What is it about playing these losers on a Saturday night that makes the Habs look like they've only recently been introduced to the game of hockey? This is the first time in ages they've been outshot like this too.

Notes on the first:

-Closeup on Halak during the anthem shows fire in the eyes.

-Habs look a little bit rusty. They want it, but they're playing a cautious game.

-Ah, Pleky! So close it's frustrating. Kind of like running out of quarters on the payphone when you know the answer to the million-dollar radio quiz question.

-I hate leaf games. They're always just chaos on ice.

-On Martin's tie collection: I can only figure he's got kids who pick them out for him for Father's Day. Or he's colour blind. Can you be pattern blind?

-Only thing I don't like about Pouliot is he'll leave the play to turn away from a hit. That's minor though, when he can do things like chip the puck behind the back to Gionta like that.

-Markov looks a little too cocky with those stretch passes. They're great if they connect, but if they don't they turn into giveaways or icings.

-Habs have blown more chances than the guys who tried to kill Rasputin.

-HNIC guys mistakenly say Jacques Lemaire rather than Martin when discussing the Habs' neutral zone play. I'll take it.

-How many times has Halak been struck in the head by teammates this year? Gill's been a bit of a liability in front of his own goalie lately.

-Gionta might not be worth five million bucks all season, but when the games get important, he earns it.

Friday, March 19, 2010

Debunking Habs Myths

The Calgary Flames are a tough team. The Tampa Bay Lightning have no defence. Sidney Crosby is a great player, but whines too much. Sometimes a team or a player creates such a strong identity based on an image or behaviour that even when the behaviour changes or the image is no longer true, it's tough for fans to see beyond it. So, even when the Flames' top lines include Rene Bourque and Matt Stajan, they're still "the gritty Calgary Flames." Even when Tampa adds Ohlund, Meszaros and Hedman, we still say their defence is as bad as it was two years ago. And although Crosby has toned down the attitude noticably, he still carries the "whiner" label. Even when truth has long evolved into myth, identities are tough to shake.

The Canadiens, being the oldest and most storied team in hockey are involved in more than their share of myths. Beyond the historic, though, a lot of the things people accept as fact about the Habs just don't stand up to close scrutiny. I thought I'd look at some of the things a lot of us believe unquestioningly and see if maybe we should be questioning them after all.

-The Habs are a small team. Just about every analyst who talks about the Canadiens cites this as a major weakness, particularly when it comes to the team's centres. It just isn't true, however. I decided to look at team averages by position, rather than overall, as goalie size doesn't really matter when it comes to assessing skaters and big goalies can skew team numbers. On average, the Canadiens are 6 feet tall and 199 pounds at forward. That ranks them about halfway down the list of NHL teams. On defence, (thanks to Hal Gill) they're an average of 6'2" and 213 pounds. That has them in the league's top ten. So, overall, they are not a small team. If anything, they're on par with about half the other teams in the league for size. When you compare their top-four centres to the rest of the league's top-four, they are admittedly a little bit smaller than most on average. The Habs' centres are about 5'11" each, and 198 pounds. The league average at the centre position is 6', 200.

-Plekanec is not good in the playoffs. This perception happened largely because of Plekanec himself. His infamous, "I'm playing like a little girl" comment from the playoffs two years ago was not only colourful and memorable; it also created an image of his post-season performance that's since stuck in everyone's heads. Unfortunately, it's not true. Most players' production tends to drop in the post-season, largely due to tighter defensive play and better competition. Scott Gomez, for example, scores at a .81 PPG pace during the regular season, but .71 PPG in the playoffs. Brian Gionta is at .67 PPG in the season and .60 in the spring. Plekanec actually has a smaller drop between his regular-season production, which stands at .65 PPG over his career, and his playoff production, at .62 PPG, than those Cup-winning veterans. Plekanec also has played a fairly small sample size of playoff games, with only 21 under his belt. Considering the marked change in his game this year from one of perimeter puckhandling to a grittier, drive-the-net style, I would imagine the drop-off this season will be even smaller in his case.

-Halak's biggest weakness is his rebound control. The Hockey News recently published some really interesting goalie stats that help interpret that idea more accurately. Halak is first in the league in stopping the first shot, especially beyond 20 feet out. He's 24th in the league for stopping rebounds. This stat, however, is mildly misleading, because it doesn't take into consideration whether the rebound that goes in is the first one off a goalie, or if it's a third or fourth attempt by a player who hasn't been removed from the crease. It does, however, appear that Halak's rebound control and overall focus is affected by the situation in which he's involved. He's perfect in games in which he faces more than forty shots; best in the league in that category. He's also got the best save percentage in the league in one-goal games, at .926, and the third-longest consecutive save streak, at 83. All that means when Halak is on, rebounds are not an issue, and he's on when the situation is difficult, which bodes well for the playoffs.

-The Habs can't compete at even strength. That might have been true earlier in the year, with missing players and just plain bad ones on the bottom two lines. Right now, however, the Canadiens have moved up from last in the league in 5-on-5 goals scored to 25th, a couple of goals removed from 20th. This move has happened in the last ten games. The biggest problem with the Habs at even strength isn't their lack of ability, it's that they don't shoot. They're 29th in the league in shots per game, yet still manage to be at 18th overall in goals scored.

-Injuries aren't an excuse because all teams have them. That's true, of course. But it also depends on which players are hurt at any given time. If you can speculate that a team's highest-paid players are also its most valuable on the ice, the Habs actually rank third in the league for man-games lost to important players. Only Edmonton, which is finishing last, and Detroit, which is on the bubble, lost more salary to injury. Of course, the salary measurement could just mean a team has overpaid less valuable players. So, looking at the total man-games lost to injury, the Habs are sixth in the league with 231. Of that number, 137 are games missed by players in the top-ten scoring positions, including two of the top-four defencemen. Comparing how the team is playing now, when it's nearly healthy, with the way it played when it iced six Bulldogs around Christmas time, I think yes, injuries can be an excuse.

I think a lot of the myths about who the Habs are and what we can realistically expect from them are aging ones. If we look a little bit closer, we can see a better team than the myths would have us believe. It may be in their favour, though, if other teams keep believing they're true.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Aftermath: Crosscheck This, Avery

Sixth place! Yup, I'm rubbing my eyes as I look at the standings, but that's right. Habs are sitting in sixth place. The team that was precariously perched on the playoff bubble three weeks ago is now jockeying for post-season position. How quickly things can change in a weird Eastern Conference. Fans aren't the only ones shaking their heads in wonder, though.

I watched Jaro Halak, he of the six-game winning streak, answering reporter's questions on RDS last night. I wasn't as interested in what he was saying as in his body language. He was looking down with a bemused half-grin, shaking his head at queries such as, "Why do you think shot totals have come down?" and "What do you think the team is doing differently?" While he dutifully gave the right answers, his face and body said, "What the hell am I supposed to say? We're doing all the same things we were trying to do all season, only now our lineup is better and it's working. I'm just amazed and thrilled."

Halak knows better than anyone that a team can do all the right things and still lose, or stink out the joint and steal a win. As a goalie, he pays his dues to the hockey gods in superstition and ritual, and he knows his fortunes are indivisible from those of his mates. So, he's the last one who'll say the shot totals are down because the forwards are moving their butts and getting back to help the D, or that Markov's return to health has meant less-good defencemen have to play fewer minutes than they did when he was out.

Halak won't tell the reporters a team with four hard-working, compatible lines will play better than one that depends on a single forward line for most of its scoring, while the bottom lines are composed of a handful of mismatched rookies, underachievers and all-around terrible players. Goalies believe in fate, and payback and Karma. They won't get too high for fear of dropping too low to make up for it.

There are good reasons for the turnaround, though, even if Halak won't point fingers. The two most important are good health and better role players. Most teams that have had the problems the injury problems the Habs have had this year, like the Oilers, are out of the playoffs already. The mighty Red Wings are on the bubble in the West because they've had so many players hurt. The Habs have managed to hold their own and will only get stronger with injuries behind them.

As important as a healthy lineup is the revamped bottom-six. Think about who they were on opening night: Max Pacioretty, Moen, Metropolit, D'Agostini, Laraque and Lapierre, with a side of Kyle Chipchura. Right now, Sergei Kostitysn is better than Pacioretty, Darche is better than D'Agostini and Moore is light years better than Laraque. Metro is better at centre than Lapierre. There's no comparison in the quality of the players on those lines between October and last night. As a result, no line is playing less than five minutes a game. The drop off in ability between the first and third line isn't nearly as marked as it was early on. Balanced ice time menas better-rested players and more energy late in games when a team is trying to hold a one-goal lead.

Last night was the kind of game that makes you secretly worry the team is peaking too soon. Even though it should improve up front with Cammalleri's return, it's hard to picture a team that plays an overall better game than they did in New York. The Habs won their battles on the boards, they hit, they skated and they played a solid defensive game. They could, perhaps, have done a better job of burying some of the glorious chances their hard work created, but that's where Cammalleri will come in. The result for the team is another W. For the fans, it's pure fun. I didn't think the Habs would be fun again this year, but they are, and it's just great.

Among the fun highlights for me last night:

-Jaro Spacek. He's playing a smart, solid game on the blueline, and proving why experience is vital at this time of year.

-The PK, which just suffocated the Rangers' PP. Gaborik looked like Laraque against it.

-Andrei Markov. When he's healthy, he's beautiful to watch. His puck control and passing are mesmerizing, and his shot can do some damage too.

-Sergei Kostitsyn. I don't know what happened to him, but wow, he's playing some good hockey!

-Dominic Moore. I'm officially retracting my concerns about the second-rounder in 2011 it cost to get him because I believe the improvement of the bottom six is largely due to his arrival, and said improvement is largely responsible for getting the Habs into the playoffs. Playoffs is worth a second in a reportedly weak draft. It's just too bad there won't be enough money to re-sign him.

-Glen Metropolit. Mathieu Darche has been jokingly calling him the "Wayne Gretzky of the fourth line." He's not far off. Sixteen goals, ten on the PP, from a fourth-line centre leaves any previous expectations in the dust.

-The confidence. We're seeing a relaxed team that doesn't panic when the opponent pushes. Confidence gives players that extra second to make a good pass instead of rushing a bad one. It lets forwards trust their defencemen to get the puck up to them and defencemen trust their goalie to make the stops. When a team is confident, every player knows his role and plays within it. That's winning hockey, and that breeds more confidence.

So, all of this good stuff adds up to sixth place, one point behind the fifth-place Sens. While it's true the Sens and Flyers have games in hand, they're not playing the kind of hockey the Habs are right now. We've got eleven games left to see how high our team can fly.

Habs vs. Rags - Bullets Over Broadway Edition

Notes on the third:

-So many open nets, so few finishers. I'm gonna bet the ice is crap or Pouliot would have cashed that one-timer that hopped over his stick.

-Habs are playing a good road game, but the first two lines aren't going to the net enough. If Andrei Kostitsyn wants to de-funk, he should try that.

-Okay, Moore is worth the second-round pick in 2011. What a sweet pass to Sergei for the goal. Took a shot in the gut to prevent a scoring chance too.

-Speaking of which, can a goal in three consecutive games be a Sergei Kostitsyn Hat Trick?

-Gill's got to be the worst puck-handler in the world. There are probably old Asian women who've never seen hockey before who can handle the puck better than him.

-Crap penalty call on Pouliot, and Pleky with the shorty to seal it on a gorgeous move. Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus.

-If I was a Rangers fan, I'd be really, really upset tonight. Less than 20 shots at home in a must-win game? Terrible.

-As a Habs, fan, however, I'm really, really happy. The team played a fantastic road game and completely deserved to win their sixth in a row. Now we can relax for a few days, with smiles on our faces.

Notes on the second:

-Dumb old Luc Gelinas, embarrassing Metro like that. Of course Metropolit would never compare himself to Gretzky, fourth line or not.

-Horrid goal against, but it started when Gorges failed to clear and Gill screened his own goalie.

-I wish Gomez was the kind of vengeful player who really wanted to hurt the team that traded him.

-Speaking of Gomez, he's a funny player. He's wizardly when he's boxed in a corner with no room for a pass, but given a wide-open path to the net, he freezes.

-You know who's quietly playing some very responsible hockey? O'Byrne.

-Jaro scares the crap out me when he makes those veeerrrrryy long rushes out of the net to intercept a loose puck. He's going to be burned on one of those.

-I think if Spacek hits the net on a PP, Martin should give him a "Well Done, Big Boy!" sticker.

-Travis Moen always reminds me of that movie, "The Princess Bride." "Farm Boy, feed the pigs. Farm Boy, fetch me some water. Farm Boy, pound on the Rangers." "As you wish."

-Just noticed Martin's tie. Tonight it looks like a sheet of paint swatches at the reno store. Or shag carpet.

-Andrei Kostitsyn is terrible tonight. Just watch him score the winner.

-At least, I hope it's a Hab who scores the winner. They need this one.

Notes on the first:

-Pre-game shots on RDS show a very dapper and happy-looking Price getting off the team bus. Maybe he's secretly relieved to be able to rock the ball caps and look nice on the bench for a change. Nobody gets booed on the bench. Poor kid.

-Inspirational locker room talk pre-game: "Hey, Gomer, they didn't want you, Gomer. They threw you away. Get maaaad, Gomer. You too, Pie. Get maaaad, Pie."

-I have a feeling we're going to miss Cammy the Ranger Killer tonight.

-Then again, with Markov launching guided missiles from the point maybe they'll be okay.

-I can't believe the difference Moore has made to the third line. It's like a real third line, the kind good teams have.

-The RDS cameras are really far away from the ice. It's like watching from the nosebleeds.

-Habs are winning on the boards, not so much in the circles. It'd be nice to start a PP WITH the puck for a change.

-I guess Torts'll be doing some yelling. The Rags looked interested for about five minutes in that period. Habs had better be ready for a better NY push in the next period.

Monday, March 15, 2010

The Captain of Our Soul

With things (pending the condition of Tomas Plekanec) looking pretty good in Habs World right now, it might seem greedy to wish some loose ends were tied up before the playoffs. Still, at the risk of appearing ungrateful to the hockey gods who have so generously bestowed their sacred Ws in recent weeks, I think if there's going to be a captain at all this year, it would be a good idea to name him before the real season starts.

It's all well and good to lark through a regular season without an officially acknowleged leader. There are certainly important games and difficult situations along the way in the 82-game schedule, but if one night the team doesn't show up for some reason, there's always another game just ahead. The playoffs are a different beast. Not only do the players ratchet up their levels of speed and desperation, but second chances are in short supply. You might blow Game One of a series, but if you blow Game Two as well, you've got one foot on the golf course and the other on a banana peel.

The playoffs make legends, and it's there that captains become heroes. Who can forget the iconic images of the greatest playoff leaders? Maurice Richard, bloodied and bowed, shaking the hand of a vanquished foe. Jean Beliveau skating off the ice with the Cup in his last game. A bleeding, smiling Bob Gainey hoisted onto his teammates' shoulders in victory. Mark Messier howling in triumph after leading the Gretzky-less Oilers to his first Cup as captain. There's no doubt a great captain can drive a team to a championship. The question is, does a team need a captain to win?

I don't know the answer to that question, but I have to think in a situation as volatile and passionate as the playoffs, a team needs an emotional touchstone. When the team is uncertain and overexcited before Game One, it needs someone to be calm and set a direction. When things are going to crap in the vital Game Three, someone's got to stand up and inspire the room to be better. When the players are jittery and scared before a huge Game Seven, someone has to be able to harness their energy into a positive channel. As a friend of mine likes to say, someone in that room has to be able to give The Look. Picture the Rocket's Red Glare, Messier's ferocious glower or the quiet, implacable fire in Yzerman's eyes and you'll know what he means.

The Habs have been playing a good team game with a leadership-by-committee approach this year. One could argue they're playing with more heart than they did when under the leadership of a very good captain in Saku Koivu. My concern about that in the playoffs is whether the committee members will all be on the same page in crunch time. If they are, then maybe it's okay to share the rallying, prodding and inspirational duties among three or four veterans. I can't help thinking, though, that if the playoffs are a war on ice, then men need a general. It's fine to have your colonels and lieutenants, but they should all have to answer to a single leader. Otherwise there's potential for chaos.

Napoleon once said, "A leader is a dealer in hope." That's what the playoffs are all about. If a team has hope, it believes in itself. And a team that believes is a dangerous team. If the coaching staff buys into the idea that a team needs a dealer in hope during the playoffs, there's a handful of candidates from which to choose, including Markov, Gionta, Cammalleri and Plekanec. What it comes down to is whether any of them can successfully give The Look. That's for the players and coaches to determine.

As a fan, though, I think I'd like the team to have a captain for the playoffs, if only to lend it sense of unity and identity. I'd like the gaggle of "As" to not have to play rock/paper/scissors to see who gets to accept the Cup. (Hey...I can dream!) I think appointing a captain now, especially if the players vote for him themselves, would lend the team an added sense of direction and purpose at a time of year when every little advantage is important.

But hey, the Habs are winning for now, and if the hockey gods are listening, I don't want to be greedy.

Square Pegs in Round Holes

You have to be excited when you look at the situtation in Montreal right now. The Habs are winning games. More importantly than the actual fact of winning, though, is the way in which they're winning. Remember last season, when they started out really hot, but the wins were kind of unconvincing? A blown lead here, a last-ditch OT goal there, a lucky bounce somewhere else. None of it gave you the feeling the team was in control of their own fate. Instead of creating things, the players just let things happen to them. You don't get that feeling this time. Now, riding a five-game winning streak, you don't worry that it's all an illusion and the wheels are going to fall off at any minute. This time the players are earning what they get because they're working hard and playing a solid team game. Losses will still happen, but you don't fear they'll be debilitating to team morale and lead to a five-game losing streak.

The best part of it all is the injury problems that lead to much of the trouble earlier this season appear to be finally ending. Mike Cammalleri and Marc Andre Bergeron are the last two long-term residents of sickbay, and they're both skating again.

We're all awaiting Cammalleri's return with unabashed enthusiasm. We know what he can do and we know he'll simply bump Tom Pyatt back to Hamilton and immediately improve the Plekanec line and the power play without causing many ripples throughout the lineup. The Bergeron case, though, is more difficult.

MAB's got a cannon from the point and he played a big part in saving the early-season wretched PP. The man is also terrible defensively. The coaching staff really has a tough choice to make here. Do they sit Bergeron because the team is winning without him, or do they squeeze him in as an added weapon with the man advantage? If they play him, will it be on forward or defence? And who sits in his place?

Really, if Bergeron plays, it'll have to be on the fourth line. The defence isn't perfect, but it's got the best combination of pairings we've seen all year out there right now. Hal Gill is the weakest link, and Bergeron is certainly not better than him. The prevailing school of thought would have us accept that it's more important to have a solid defence than a solid fourth line. So, if Bergeron plays forward, he won't replace Glen Metropolit at centre. That leaves Mathieu Darche and Maxim Lapierre. In this scenario, you almost have to keep Darche. He's outplaying Lapierre and he's a smart player who's producing. Yet, we know that Lapierre can be effective if he uses his speed and size properly. The question is, do you risk messing up some pretty decent chemistry on the forward lines to make a place for a power play specialist and defensive liability?

My first thought was, no. You shouldn't mess with a winning lineup, and Bergeron really hadn't been contributing much on the PP since Christmas anyway. Without the PP goals from the point, he really brings absolutely nothing to the team. Then I thought, what's better, the threat of Bergeron scoring while he's actually doing nothing, or Lapierre just outright doing nothing? In that case, I'd have to go with the guy who might create some offence. What it comes down to for the coaching staff might be how well Lapierre performs in the next few games before Bergeron's ready to return. If he's aggressive and contributing on the fourth line, maybe he'll keep his spot.

The one thing the coaches have to be careful about is assuming just anybody can jump in on the fourth line and still make it work. For the first time all year, we're seeing good third and fourth lines that are helping the team win instead of just eating minutes. The current winning streak is evidence of how important those role players can be, and I'd be loathe to interfere with success if I were the coach.

Whatever Martin and Co. decide to do about Bergeron, though, it's a pretty small worry compared to some of the problems the team has faced this year. And as long as the wins keep coming, we'll keep smiling, no matter who's got to sit to make it happen.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Aftermath: Well, Hellllllooooo, Sergei

It was wonderful to see Sergei Kostitsyn play up to his level of ability last night. The kid has speed to burn and knows where to be on the ice. His vision and passing ability are world class. Of course, the frustrating thing about him is the drive he needs to use those skills to their best advantage is sometimes excruciatingly absent. Whatever's gotten into him to get him moving like he's been in the last handful of games should be bottled and sold.

Maybe it's playing with Dominic Moore that's doing it. I still haven't learned to love Moore, but I will admit he's growing on me very quickly. He still smells a bit of Toronto, and I'm wondering why he never sticks with any team for very long. Still, nobody can deny he's been playing his heart out for the Habs. One of the Canadiens' biggest weaknesses this season has been the serious ineffectiveness of their bottom two lines. Replacing Laraque with Darche and D'Agostini with Moore has upgraded those two positions immeasurably. The happy side effect of that is the other players on their lines get to play with better teammates and then their level of play improves as well. I saw a stat last night that says something like 11 of the Habs last 25 goals have come from the bottom-six forwards. That's 44% of the scoring in this nice little winning streak, and it's something we didn't see at all when the Pleks/Cammalleri line was carrying the team.

The bottom six still isn't as big or hard-hitting as they could be, but they're helping for the first time since Metropolit and Moen started out the year playing like their pants were on fire. Five of the six guys are now in their proper roles as hard-working grinders. The exception is Kostitsyn. I know he started out on the wrong foot with Jacques the Knife, but it's time for him to think about forgiving the kid now. It's not sensible for Tom Pyatt, as hard as he works, to get game after game to try and put up some numbers with Plekanec and Andrei Kostitsyn. Sergei, in the meantime, got one game with them and then demoted to the bottom six. It's probably ungrateful to find fault when the team is riding a five-game winning streak, but I can't help thinking it could be even better. I've seen Plekanec put goals on Pyatt's stick that ended up going wide or hitting the goalie's crest. I find myself wondering whether Sergei might have buried them. I wish he'd have gotten a better opportunity to show what he can do with more offensive-minded linemates. A shot on the powerplay wouldn't hurt anyone either, but Sergei continues to sit while the team has the man-advantage.

In any case, if Sergei continues to produce from the third line, none of this really matters. Moore and Moen will be his linemates when Cammalleri comes back anyway, so perhaps that's Martin's thinking. Better to just plug in Cammalleri for Pyatt rather than rearrange the lines again.

Other positives about last night's game include the improving play of Markov. If anyone still doubts he was hurt before the Olympics all you have to do is remember him then and compare that to how he's looking now. He's a different player in his own zone; much more like the all-star we've been accustomed to watching. And he's putting up points again, which he hadn't been doing before.

The rest of the defence is also playing a better brand of hockey. Zone clearances are much smoother than they've been for a lot of this year and the time off over the Olympic break seems to have given Hamrlik and Spacek new life. They're still not the fastest D-corps in the league and they're never going to scare anybody, but this is the time of year when smarts and experience really count. That's why other teams moved to bring in wily veteran defencemen for the playoff run. This is the time when Hamrlik's and Spacek's calm under fire will come in handy. Gorges and O'Byrne are playing a quiet, effective, if unflashy style of reliable D. Gill is the question mark on this squad, but in a tough playoff series, his time can be limited in close situations to small minutes at even strength and his bread-and-butter role on the PK.

There are no issues in goal. Halak, for maybe the only time in his career as a Hab, got a start after he stunk in a game. Martin joked yesterday he picked his goalie by flipping a coin. There might have been some truth in that, at least figuratively, because Halak looked pretty ordinary against the Oilers and Price has done very well against the Bruins this year. Whatever the true reason behind Halak's start last night, he proved he's the number-one goalie. Number ones buckle down in shootouts when it counts, even when they've played a bad game. They get a shot to come back and play better next time and make huge stops to preserve the win with five minutes to go in a one-goal game. Martin might have been flipping a coin publicly, but it appears that privately, he's finally committed to Halak as his guy. Halak, for his part is running with the best chance he's ever been granted in his career as a Hab.

I saw something new in him last night after the game too. I watched his interview on RDS, and he wasn't just answering questions. He was holding court, and he was loving it. It's the kiss of death in Montreal to compare a young goalie to Roy, but watching that interview, it crossed my mind. Halak was saying all the right things about his teammates helping him out all night and about being lucky on his big game-saving save. While he was talking, though, he was smiling and exuding confidence. He enjoys being a star and having the team depend on him. It was the first time I'd seen that undefinable something in Halak that can make a goalie a real team leader.

The Rangers game on Tuesday is going to be vital because of the ongoing competition for playoff positioning, and because it's the Habs' only game this week while others make up their games in hand. The winning streak can't go on forever...or for another twelve games, as Markov joked about last night...but it'd be nice to see it last at least another one. That will open some breathing room between the Habs and Rangers and keep the momentum going until Cammalleri returns to give the team two actual scoring lines for the first time all year. It's almost too much to hope this can get better, but I think it can.

The awakening of Sergei Kostitsyn, if he can keep it up, is just another sign that things are turning around in Habs World.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Bs vs. Habs - Put the Boots To 'Em Edition

Notes on the third and OT:

-Oh boy, Sergei's hot as the earth's core.

-Clever negotiating strategy by Gauthier to put Pyatt with Plekanec. Those assists were building up way too quickly.

-Gill makes a better door than a window.

-If scientists are still looking for the Missing Link, they should look on the Bruins bench. Lucic is definitely part monkey.

-I think if the Habs make the playoffs, every fan should sign a giant thank you card for Halak.

-Great win. Five games over .500. Bring on the Rags.

Notes on the second:

-O'Byrne's got to be careful about letting his man get behind him like that. Sorry if that sounds a little bit too Pierre McGuire.

-Sergei is channelling Kovy...the good one...tonight.

-The Keep Moore Foundation is accepting donations at 1-800-CAP-HURT.

-Is Martin superstitious? He's wearing the ugly ameoba tie from the Edmonton game again tonight.

-Habs are holding their own, but this is going to be close.

Notes on the first:

-Ugh. HNIC has a choice of showing the entire country a classic original six game with serious playoff implications or the two worst teams in the league. Guess which one we get, again?

-Great to see the Olympians on the ice before the game. Makes you feel all warm and fuzzy.

-My gut feelings usually mean nothing, but I have a sense of foreboding about this one.

-PING! Pouliot the blacksmith.

-It's funny how time goes at different speeds during the course of a game. That first Bs power play felt like it was about six minutes long. The Habs' felt like thirty seconds.

-They're still booing Ryder? Seriously?

-What a nice shot by Markov. Amazing what happens when your point man actually hits the net.

-Sergei Kostitsyn's playing like a star in the last few games. Hope he keeps it up.

-I love the last-minute-in-the-period goals when they happen for our side.