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.


Paul B. said...

Imagine what it could have been like if Markov hadn't miss a game, this season. Gainey would be next in line for sainthood.

Kyle Roussel said...

While it is tantalizing to think where the team would be if it hadn't dealt with as many injuries as it has, we still have to keep things in perspective. Eventually this streak will end, and the Senators will right themselves. The Flyers, on the other hand, may be doomed with Boucher. I don't know if there's really that much of a drop off between Leighton and Boucher, but if Boucher goes down...oh boy.

But for the past 2 weeks, we have been treated to some outstanding hockey from our team, due to the improvement of the bottom 6, as you wonderfully illustrated.

It is fantastic to see the team win games in ways that don't include Price or Halak making 35-40 saves, and needing 2 power play goals to sneak away with 2 points. I don't know how long this can last, but if the win streak can continue for the next 2-4 games, the Habs are sitting pretty.
I also don't feel as though the Canadiens are simply "emptying the tank" to attain the 8th spot, as they have done in the past. It rather looks like they are improving, and other teams are emptying their own tanks just to keep up with the Habs. Another great sign!

The best part about this is that for once we can think about catching the Sens and Sabres instead of catching whoever was in 8th. Will they get there? The Senators certainly look vulnerable, but the Sabres may be *just* a touch too far ahead with their 3 games in hand. To finish in 1st in the division (I can't even believe I'm saying that), the 2 games vs the Sabres that are coming up are must-wins.

Habs_Resurgence said...

Well JT, I give you credit for giving the guys credit who you previously crapped on once or twice this year (Spacek, Moore, Gill). There's only one guy left to give some credit too....of course I'm talking about Jacques the Knife, creator of the dreaded 'System'.

Yes, I know you've loathed his system all year, and to be honest there were stretches where I was doubting it as well. But I think as we're seeing now, we just had to make some tweaks to get the right guys in to play that system. Credit to Bob and Pierre for a couple of moves this year to drop the dead weight, and bring in a couple of replacements who are buying into the team concept, and quite frankly, Jacque's way of thinking. The biggest thing I'm noticing right now is he's got almost everyone (with the exception of AKots and Laps on some nights) working their butts off, and simplifying their game. He also seems to be the first coach to have had the balls to put Carey (errr, should I say Bob) on the bench for a bit. I don't blame everything that's happened to Carey on Carey, but I'm glad to see someone is finally giving Jaro the shot he deserves.

I give all the credit in the world to the players this season, but you also have to give some credit to the guy who's steering the ship. He maintained the course (albeit rocky) through the injuries, through the growing pains of a new team, and through the George Laraques of the world. IMO, Gainey's bold decision to overhaul the team last summer is now paying off, but one of his best moves was the coach he brought in.

Anonymous said...

When things go bad, we blame the coach and general manager. Now that we did a 180, can we take an honest look at other variables besides the players in the post-Olympian victories? What passion and knowledge did Gauthier add to the success? How about JM? Maybe he was 'that good' afterall and other factors contributed to the demise of the team before Vancouver 2010. I think it's human nature to take crap shots at everyone when a system is down, predominantly the staff, but maybe we shouldn't jump to conclusions so fast.

So my hat off to JM and Gauthier for leading us to this impressive success!

MC said...

They ARE fun to watch now. It is not just that they are winning, it is HOW they are winning: sound defensive hockey, going to the net, tipping pucks, forchecking, timely goaltending, etc, all the things good teams do to win in the playoffs. It was nice to see JM smile and joke with some players at the end of the Rangers game. Earlier in the season I thought he was going to have a stroke with the way the team was playing. Using Gill and Gorges as his shutdown squad at the end of the rangers game shows how much confidence he has in the D right now. The only real negative is that the 2nd line is not scoring. Funny how winning makes the negatives not seem so bad...

Andrew Berkshire said...

One note, Pacioretty was in out top 6 in the opening game of the season, Latendresse was in the bottom 6.

Anonymous said...

Solid play by Spacek over the past month. I think that guys like Metropolit and Darche bring a level of maturity, smarts and professionalism that is quite helpful for the younger players (SK, anyone?).

Metro definitely benefited from the Olympic break as he had been running on fumes in January and it wasn't pretty. Ditto for Moen.

BTW, Lapierre has played his best hockey of the season since his return from suspension. Press box seating coupled with the team's winning streak probably made him realize the precarity of his position.