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.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Good points, especially on the PP and Gill.

The Habs-Leaf rivalry is indeed one-sided (Boston is the real rivalry for the Habs IMO) and the Buds - who are better than their record indicates - truly brought the lunch pail on Saturday. A similar rusty performance by the Habs against Ottawa tonight will be cause for concern, however.

The main problem with the Habs' PP comes from the lack of any net presence. Both PP units happily pass the puck on the perimeter and try to set up either the one timer from the point or Markov's backdoor cut to the net. A PP w/o net presence is easy to defend.

PP net presence at work: Gionta's second goal is a classic case of a guy setting up shop in the crease to deflect a shot, something that has happened too rarely this season and will need to happen more often come playoff time.

A guy like Darche, limited in skill but who understands his role, could be an interesting addition on the second PP unit: he would park himself in front of the net and create opportunities for shooters.

Gill and MAB: they're like two sides of the same coin. Both are valuable on special teams (PK for Gill, PP for MAB) but scary otherwise. Should Cammalleri's return fail to improve thew PP, Martin might have to dress 7 D-Men during the playoffs, with Gill and MAB splitting 5-on-5 action with Gorges.

Speaking of Gorges, how underappreciated is this guy? Definitely one of Gainey's best trades, regardless of what happens with MaxPac. Gorges for Rivet straight up is a steal as far as I'm concerned.