Friday, April 30, 2010

Habs vs. Pens Game One: It's-a Go Time!

Notes on the third:

-Martin seems to think the magical solution to any hurting line is Moen. I don't know if lightning can strike twice in this case.

-Oh goodie! The awesome delay-of-game penalty. And of course, they go four-for-four on the PP with it. I hate this game.

-Halak just isn't as good when he doesn't get a lot of work. Weird, but true.

-The D, without Markov and Spacek, is so full of holes it could drain pasta.

-Wouldn't it be kind of funny for the 'ol goalie controversy if Price stood on his head tonight, then stole the next game?

-Gionta has a nuclear shot. It never ceases to amaze me that a guy that size can make the puck go that fast. There should be a PhD thesis in physics on the topic.

-RDS showing the replay of the Markov injury again. Somehow, I fear this isn't something they can freeze and tape so he'll be back on Sunday.

-Ha ha! Pouliot can do the splits to stay onside when he has to.

-I hate it when the team is just trying to save face by keeping it close and Martin pulls the goalie when they're down two goals. Now the score is 6-3 instead of the more respectable 5-3 and the team is embarrassed.

-It's hard to imagine the Habs coming back on Sunday and taking it. The Pens are so rested and healthy and together. But I've learned never to count the Habs out.

-Throw this one in the trash and go for the split.

Notes on the second:

-Reason #9176 to hate Don Cherry: His insistence on calling Halak "Havlat." He's such a moron.

-I've put up with him for a long time because he can tease with some great talent, but as I watched the lousy giveaway that led to the too-many men penalty, the clock struck twelve for me on Andrei Kostitsyn. Trade his lazy, floating, uncommitted ass, Gauthier.

-The Pens are deconstructing the PK by not shooting until they've got the perfect opening, and their passing is so precise it allows them to control the puck until that opening happens.

-This is what happens when a well-rested team takes on a bone-weary one.

-Subban is going to be such a good NHL player. His rushes are smooth as Valentino's pick-up lines.

-Bylsma just looks bored. RDS showed him checking his watch.

-Subban had great coverage on Crosby. He's one of the few guys who doesn't get thrown by all those quick stop/start/change direction moves Crosby makes, because he can keep up.

-Cammalleri shoots like Davy Crockett, who killed him a bear when he was only three.

-That Cammy goal seemed to remind the Habs that they can stop worrying about stopping the Pens if they're actually playing in the Pens zone instead. Forechecking! Hallelujah!

-You know what would disgust me? Ponikarovsky's name on the Cup.

-Great coaching. Subban and MAB are on for the Pens' fourth goal, looking awful. So, what does Martin do? Comes right back with them and give the Pens another chance.

-Jaro hasn't had much chance on the goals. The Habs are simply being outworked and outchanced, out-faceoffed, out-hit, out-passed and out-forechecked. They're either tired or completely outclassed.

-I wouldn't be surprised to see Price in the third. This one is firmly in the Pens control, and Halak could use a break.

Notes on the first:

-Camera on the Habs waiting in the tunnel. PK looks like an excited puppy.

-Non-hockey-loving spouse on Malkin during the anthems: That guy looks like he should always wear a helmet and be led around on a string.

-I guess they're trying to mitigate Chris Lee by pairing him with Bill McCreary.

-My mother had a dress in 1984 made of the same material as the tie Martin's sporting tonight.

-This seems to be a very careful start by both teams.

-I hate the Pittsburgh crowd already. They boo whenever Crosby's ass touches the ice and there isn't a penalty call.

-PK! Great to see the kid get his first playoff goal on a nice shot. Even better to see him celebrate like it's any old goal.

-Pens are keying on Gomez on the PP. Smart. He's the only guy who can carry the puck in, and if they press him, he'll make bad decisions.

-I hate composite sticks. How many games have those things cost a team by breaking at horrible moments?

-The General's down! The tired troops are in shock.

-MAB back on D and more minutes for Hammer. This is looking grimmer than the Reaper.

-So much for the special-teams battle. Ugh. The Habs had better hope Fleury's planning to suck out loud tonight.

-Gomez needs to keep a lid on it. He's going to get a(nother) dumbass penalty, and we've seen how well the PK is responding tonight.

-Habs look really tired, and they're a little tentative on the boards. All those shot-blocking bruises have to be hurting.

-Screw superstition. I'm getting a beer now. I think I'm going to need it.

Pre-game notes:

-Funny, I'm not nearly as nervous as I was before any of the Washington games. Maybe deep down I'm buying into the "after beating the Caps everything else is gravy" theory.

-Scientific experiment on superstitions tonight: I'm wondering if the same ones will "work" for all series, or if you have to have new ones for each new series? I'm using my Pleky shirt and the single German beer in the second that worked for the Caps series again tonight as a control.

-Speaking of superstitions, I went for a walk before the game, as I did before Games Five, Six and Seven against the Caps. Train of thought during my walk: Maybe PK Subban will turn out to be a secret weapon because the Pens don't know what to expect from him, and his potential on offence could come in handy. Wow, PK's dad must be so thrilled to see his kid play for the team he loves during the best time of the year. I guess as excited as Mr.Subban is, Chris Higgins' dad must be terribly disappointed his kid blew his chance as a Hab. Hmmm...there seem to be a lot of guys who grew up Habs fans in the organization today. Leblanc, for one. Then, of course, there's Moore and Metro. Maybe that was Gainey's plan. Maybe he was actively looking for guys who love the team because those guys give more than guys who are only there for the money. I wish I could ask Gainey about that.

Thursday, April 29, 2010

Habs Notebook: Taking On the Pens Edition

I like that the Habs aren't flipping out about beating the Caps. They celebrated their victory on the ice, but they've been all business with the media ever since. They're not satisfied and they really believe they can do more in these playoffs. That's such a refreshing attitude for a Habs team, it's making me believe in them too. They're looking forward to tomorrow night and by now are already deep in preparation for the defending champs. A few notes as we wait:

-Kris Letang told RDS he thinks after the Caps upset, the Habs are now the favourite in the series versus the Pens. Obviously, that's total crap. The Habs are the lower seed, barely made the playoffs and have nowhere near the star power of the Pens. The Penguins are the defending champions. I just wonder why Letang said it. Is he trying to put pressure on the Habs? Is he actually feeling some nerves, or was it a gesture of goodwill to show some respect to the opponent? Either way, I thought it was an odd thing to say, considering the unquestionable falseness of the statment.

-I'm a bit concerned about the number of shots the Habs blocked in Round One. There were 182 of them, to be exact, and 31 by Hal Gill alone. Those things hurt, and with Round Two starting so quickly, there's no time for the bruises to heal. Bruises on top of bruises are going to hurt even more, and will push the guys' dedication to the limit. On the plus side, though, the number of shots they blocked is proof the dedication is there to begin with. As Mike Keenan said on TSN tonight, "It's a culture of your group and shows how committed you are to that game or that series." The Habs proved they're willing to sacrifice...a advance in the playoffs.

-I'm also a little worried about Halak. He looked tired at the end of the regular season, and in Game Two of the Caps series. When Price got a start and gave Halak a few days off, he came roaring back to take the last three games of the series in spectacular fashion. In light of the workload Halak's handled this week, there's a risk of exhaustion on his part. On one hand, I think maybe he should just ride the wave as long as he can. On the other, I think perhaps he should go in Game One and, if the Habs win, maybe the coaches should start Price in Game Two to give Halak a breather. If the Habs lose, however, all bets are off and you ride that pony until he drops in the traces.

-Strategy will have to change against Pittsburgh. In terms of the superstars, Crosby is by far the more dangerous player. Ovechkin does everything one way: by brute force. He hits, skates and shoots at top speed all the time. That's effective in the regular season because teams don't have time to develop a strategy just to deal with him. The Habs had time to do it, and as you probably saw in the replays, Ovechkin looked like he had one approach to the offensive zone. He barrelled down the wing and cut to the middle for the shot. The Habs defencemen were able to either ride him off on the boards, or block his cut to the slot. On every Caps rush, the backchecking centreman and one defenceman converged on Ovechkin right at the blueline. Sometimes, it was even as simple as poke-checking him. Failing that, Halak was ready for his shot. Crosby's a different cat altogether. He proved this year he can score tons of goals. The problem is that, unlike Ovechkin, if you try to keep him from shooting, he'll kill you with a pass to the open guy you're not watching because you're guarding against Crosby. Crosby uses his teammates like Ovechkin doesn't. The other difference between him and Ovechkin is Crosby has incredible vision and never, ever quits on a play. When you think you've got him down on his ass, he'll reach out and flip the puck to a guy you didn't even see coming. Crosby's much trickier than Ovechkin, and the Habs' D, which excells at blocking shots, isn't as good in dealing with shifty guys who wait you out before they shoot.

-The supporting casts of Washington and Pittsburgh aren't terribly different, in my opinion. Sure, the Pens have Malkin, but I thought Backstrom was just as dangerous a player in the Caps series. The various top-line wingers and third and fourth lines aren't that different. I think the Habs can compete.

-On a personal level, I'm wondering if I should change superstitions for the Pens series. In the last three games agains the Caps, I wore my Pleky shirt and had one German beer in the second period. I'll try it in Game One and see what happens. What do you all do to get ready for games?

-I'm curious to see how the reffing plays out in this series. With the retirements of several good, experienced officials in the last couple of years, we're starting to see the playoff debuts of very, very iffy refs like Chris Lee and Tim Peel. I give full credit to the refs in Game Seven for calling a fair, reasonable game. I'm not sure that will continue with the defending champs involved. There's a PhD paper out there that proves statistically that refs tend to favour the home team and/or the higher-ranked team. I don't necessarily buy into league conspiracies, but, on the other hand, we've all seen Crosby et al. benefit from some very questionable calls.

-The biggest advantage the Habs may have is in goal. Not because Halak is so great, which he undoubtedly has been, but because Fleury has sucked. He looked horrible against Ottawa. Long shots beat him over his glove, pucks he thought he had stopped trickled through his five-hole and his adjustment on tips and deflections was non-existant. He can also be counted on to mishandle the puck outside his crease when under forechecking pressure. It's not just these playoffs either. He's allowed three-and-a-half goals a game against the Habs through his career. Our guys have to take advantage of that and shoot way more often than they did against the Caps.

-I think the schedule is tricky. The Pens have had several days' rest now. The Habs are coming straight out of a seven-game series. This could work two ways in Game One. It could let the rested, healed Pens team crunch the Habs, or it could mean the Habs are riding the incredible wave of adrenaline and purpose they're riding since beating the Caps. Either way, the schedule has to play in the Pens favour long-term, which means any win the Habs can grab early is that much more important.

-One thing I'm dreading in this series is "Sid." Not Crosby himself, mind you, but the overly-familiar announcers who refer to Crosby as casually as they would a younger brother. The NBC crew, in particular, loves to say "Sid with a fabulous pass," or "Sid brilliant on the two-on-one." I hate that. If you're calling "Malkin," "Cammalleri," "Halak," "Staal," and "Markov," then call "Crosby" as well, for God's sake.

-I'm finding it easier to dismiss all the negative, go-with-the-numbers predictions this time around. Everyone in the world called Caps in Round One. Now they're calling Pens. That's normal. They're hedging their bets because the Pens, Letang's pronouncement notwithstanding, are the favourites. But we Habs fans know when something special kicks in in Montreal, strange things happen. I'm going to hold off on predictions this time.

-One thing I'm wondering is if some enterprising person from the Dairy Producers of Canada will snag Jaro for a chocolate milk ad. If they don't, they're missing a golden opportunity.

-Intangibles are always hugely important in the playoffs. In terms of experience, the Pens have a Cup under their belt. So do the Habs leaders, Gionta, Gomez, Moen and Gill. Crosby's intangible is his history as a Habs fan. He would love more than anything to beat the Canadiens, especially in the Bell where he's been booed, so he'll push extra-hard. On the flip side, the Habs have an intangible in Gill, who spent a lot of time practicing against Crosby and watching him up close. He knows how to shut the Penguins captain down. Whether he can do it is another story. Desire is also in the balance. The Pens have already been to two consecutive finals and won a Cup. A lot of guys start to think maybe they've met their goals after that, and don't want to sacrifice again. Plus, two straight years of hockey until June can mentally wear down a lot of players. Crosby, no, but others, perhaps. Maybe the Habs are hungrier. The ultimate intangible, however, is team unity. The Habs have come through a crucible of adversity. That makes guys pull together like nothing else. They've also got a David complex now, after beating Washington, and will be willing to do whatever it takes to pull it off again. It'll be interesting to see which group's desires win out.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Aftermath: Wow

There's a well-known kids' book called "Lily and Her Purple Plastic Purse." In it, a little mouse is in awe of her teacher and the recurring line in the story is, "Wow. That's just about all she could think of to say. Wow." Lily the mouse and I are on exactly the same page today.

Once again, a group of men who pooled their talents to play as a single entity proved the iron-clad rule of hockey: It's a team game. A team will always beat a talented collection of individuals. We saw it in the Olympics with Team Russia, which should have crushed everyone. We saw it again in this series. The Caps have a ton of talent, but they have not yet learned to sacrifice themselves for the sake of the team.

The Canadiens, on the other hand, had so many players give to the common cause, it's hard to single anybody out. I guess that's the point of a team game, right? Jaro Halak, though, has to top the list of guys who deserve a special nod. He stopped 131 of the 134 shots against him in the last three gutwrenching games, in which the Habs clawed their way out of the trench they'd dug for themselves, and over the top. He's been lauded everywhere from TSN to the complaints of frustrated Caps fans, who are shaking their heads in rueful wonder, but he deserves it.

Josh Gorges deserves special notice too. Gorges doesn't play a flashy game, and he'll never be nominated for the Norris trophy. He spends twenty-plus minutes a night fighting for every inch of ice against bigger, more talented, often dirtier opponents. Most of the time, he wins those personal battles and very seldom does he do anything that could hurt his team. He was a shot-blocking machine in this series, and a penalty-killing god. I thought it interesting that when the TSN guys were discussing the Habs lack of a captain, Pierre McGuire said most of the players in the room consider Gorges the captain, no matter whether he wears a letter. A player has to earn that kind of respect through sacrifice for the common good, and that's Gorges' game.

Max Lapierre saved himself in the playoffs. He was non-existent in the regular season. I can count on one hand the number of games in which I noticed him for good reasons. His performance in the post-season, however, reminds me of a comment he made three years ago. He said, "If I have to break my nose to make the playoffs, I'll do it." His speed and determination were huge factors in the last two games. Even McGuire, who spent half the year ragging on Laps for being a gutless yapper, said last night that Lapierre is a lot better hockey player than people think.

Hal Gill and his trusty sidekick, Saviour the ten-foot hockey stick, seemed like they were on the ice for the entirety of the last three games. The transformation in him from regular-season to playoffs was incredible. The guy who got beaten one-on-one this year, who got caught pinching or fumbled the puck or screened his own goalie, has vanished. Now we see a shot-blocking, penalty-killing beast in his place. It's like Clark Kent went into the phone booth and came out as Superman. I don't know how much gas Gill has in the tank for the remainder of the playoffs, but he was something else in the first round.

Tom Pyatt is making me think Bob Gainey won the Gomez trade. The kid is fast, gritty and incredible defensively. You rarely ever see him make a dumb mistake, but very often see him do something useful to relieve pressure on his goalie.

Tomas Plekanec has proven he's not a little girl and he's not a question mark in the playoffs. He put up the points, but he also played with toughness and smarts. A couple of times last night...the way he covered for a pinching Markov on D to foil an odd-man rush, and a particularly timely deflection-out-of-play on an Ovechkin shot in the third come to mind...he reminded us that he's an exceptional all-around player.

The coaching staff did what they had to do, and did it well. Martin made good roster choices in the last three games, and handled his lines well. Muller ran the PK like Secretariat ran the Triple Crown. And Perry Pearn, the guy most of us have either completely dismissed or scorned this year, handled the defence masterfully. I confess, I thought Pearn only got the job in Montreal because he's Martin's guy. Then, about a month ago, I read a piece about Mike Babcock, in which he named his early coaching mentors. First among them? Perry Pearn. I'd still like to see the Habs at least have a defence consultant who's actually played the position, but Pearn did well in a series that was won on defence.

Mike Cammalleri came through like a champ in the series. Mired in a wretched scoring drought to end the regular season, he stepped it up and did what he's supposed to do in the Caps' end. He was a calm, rational presence publicly, and a force on the ice.

Gomez, Gionta and Moen proved why they're former Cup winners, and why Bob Gainey wanted to bring them in to revive a franchise in need of a heart transplant. Those guys gave it everything they had, and it was enough.

Dominic Moore and Glen Metropolit fought to contain bigger, stronger opponents...with a significant injury in Metro's case...and did the job well. Moore's goal last night was icing on the hard-working cake for him.

Every player on the team contributed in some way to winning this series. There's a school of thought that says a real team is built through adversity. If that's so, then the Habs are certainly the real deal. They've dealt with finding their places among an entirely new group, weathering injury after injury, and scratching into the playoffs when they looked like they had nothing left to give. In this series itself, they defied detractors by taking on the best team in the league and staying with them right through seven games. They struggled through crushing losses at home and in OT after blowing a huge lead. Still, they found a way to rally from a deficit from which no eighth-see has ever recovered before. They proved everyone wrong. If adversity is good for team-building, the Habs have passed that particular seminar with flying colours.

It's going to be tough to top this because Pittsburgh is a much different class of team than the Caps, but for today, our little team that could is on top of the world.

Wow. That's about all I can think of to say. Wow.

Habs vs. Caps Game Seven: Tonight's Gonna Be a Good Night

Notes on the third:

-This is shaping up to be a huge high for us, or an absolute heartbreaker. Please, no OT.

-I'm convinced Markov's playing hurt. He's a non-factor and that's concerning.

-OH...I forgot to post my all-time favourite TSN homoerotic comment last game. It wasn't even by McGuire. Gord Miller said, "Gionta has Semin all over him." Ha!

-What a ballsy call on the goalie interference! Amazing.

-PK's really good on the boards from what I've seen so far.

-Nice of Halak to stop the deflection by Gorges. How many times have we heard complaints about goals bouncing off defencemen this year? Finally a goalie snares one.

-Gionta's taking headshots to preserve this.

-Now the Caps can't complain about the post in the first. Cammalleri was about to seal it there.

-Gill looks absolutely done. What a hero he's been!

-Lapierre and Moore deserve huge kudos tonight. Lappy raced the puck down and Moore finished. I'm in awe.

-Three icings and you knew you'd see it tied with tired guys. Crap goal though.

-I nearly died in the last three minutes. At least four times.

-Who's shakin' now, Ovy??? HAHAHHAHA!

-How are they ever gonna get it up for the Pens after this?

Notes on the second:

-Forty more minutes could hurt me. Somehow, I don't think a one-goal lead will stand up.

-Markov is playing some very, very risky hockey tonight.

-Man, are Gorges and Gill going to play the entire game? Every time the Caps are in the o-zone those guys are there. I hope they've got some gas left for the third.

-O'Byrne is handling the puck like a grenade with no pin.

-Hamrlik needs to pinch as much as my heart needs OT tonight. Just stay home, you dolt!

-What a pass by Jaro! Too bad Pleky cashed like a bad cheque.

-PK is a great kid, but you can't go end-to-end with a minute left in a one-goal game if you're going to lose the puck.

-I don't think my last nerve can handle the third period.

Notes on the first:

-Ice under the spotlights during the anthem looks awful. Full of ruts.

-Don't like Pouliot on the Gomez line early. He's too soft on D, and the onslaught is coming.

-Not many Habs quality chances. They're getting some, but they're like the nougat centres in the chocolate box. The Caps are getting all the caramels and almonds.

-Caps are very physical so far, and surprisingly defensive.

-I wonder how much pain Metro is still feeling in the shoulder?

-Ping! That was too damn close.

-I get the strategy behind putting MAB out there for o-zone faceoffs. But when your team is winning only 42% of its draws, you have an excellent chance of having MAB stuck on D against scary players.

-Boudreau's using last change to get Ovechkin out against Pouliot...softest player on the ice.

-Jaro's good...and smart too. Nice move to call a rut in the ice to give the guys a breather on the icing.

-He'd better watch out though. After robbing Semin like that, he might get slapped.

-As my friend just said, "BAM by MAB!!" He's earned his money tonight. And the Gomez feed was immaculate.

-That had to be deflating for the Caps. I hope they're ready to give up.

Pre-game notes:

-Okay, here we go. No shorties, and no OT, please.

-Things that would disappoint me: a blowout by the Caps, or Habs taking a lead and blowing it. Everything else I can handle.

-Don't like Walker in the Caps' lineup. Fourth-line energy can make a difference when it crashes the net with abandon.

-Don't like the pundits talking about '71 all day. I'm afraid of offending the hockey gods.

-It's kind of nice that there's always another thing the Habs can be first to do. If they win, they'll be the first eighth-seed ever to come back from a 3-1 series deficit.

-Game plan has got to be to survive the first ten minutes, preferably scoring the first goal in the process. Gill and Gorges will have to be huge on D and Halak will have to be at his best.

-An early Habs goal and a couple of early huge saves by Halak could really take the crowd out of it, get in the Caps' heads and turn this game.

-Crucial to avoid stupid penalties tonight. The Caps' PP HAS to score sometime. And NO SHORTIES! Also, no last-minute goals in any period, please.

-Cammalleri doing a warm-up interview with TSN. He really will talk to anybody, anytime.

Diary of a Frazzled Habs Fan on the Day of Game Seven

4:20am - Wake spontaneously ten minutes before 4:30 alarm is scheduled to go off, thinking "this is it." Lie there for ten minutes praying tonight's game does not go to overtime.

4:30am - Resign self to fact that if game *does* go to overtime I need to make sure my health coverage pays for all ulcer and/or heart medication.

5:00am - Arrive at work, check score of Detroit/Phoenix game. Decide that if Detroit won, it was because of the experience on the roster. Calculate the amount of Cup-winning experience for the Habs versus the Caps and relax slightly.

6:10am - Read the sports news out loud. Feel the "burning/freezing" feeling in my chest that Dryden describes getting when he thinks about Game Seven in Chicago in 1971.

6:30am - Break at work. Thinking about what needs to happen for the Habs to win. Conclude Jaro must be insanely good, and Habs must hold off Caps through what's sure to be an onslaught in the first ten minutes of the game.

6:31am - Hope there are no late-period goals or shorties to deflate the Habs.

7:35am - Work's been busy. Haven't thought of the Habs in more than an hour. Think of them and hands start sweating.

7:36am - Wonder who the Caps are starting in goal, and hope whoever it is sucks tonight.

7:37am - Hope Boudreau cries when it's all over, and not from relief.

8:16am - Work's a distraction, but not enough of one.

9:05am - Eat breakfast. See Ovechkin's face in the Cheerios and lose appetite.

10:00am - Meet guest I'm interviewing about something completely unrelated to hockey. Conduct interview. Manage to bring conversation around to Game Seven. Guest doesn't seem to care. Conclude guest is a heathen.

11:12am - Think about how the Habs need to get the first goal to put some real fear into the Caps. Realize stomach knots have untangled themselves and have been replaced by a serene sense of confident anticipation.

11:15am - Confident anticipation back to burning/freezing nerves.

12:10pm - Leave work. Go to buy fabric for frog costume son needs for spring play. Can't find any, so buy him a Habs t-shirt instead.

1:00pm - Lunch. Still no appetite. Can't stomach Chicken Knuble soup or Ovechicken salad. Thinking about a liquid lunch instead. It's five o'clock somewhere.

1:30pm - Get ready to go for a run. Air smells like spring. Fresh and clean and ready for playoffs. Thinking the Habs can do it.

1:31pm - Fear the Habs can't do it.

1:32pm - Sternly remind self to be positive. No matter what happens, they're my team and I'm proud of them.

1:33pm - Briefly wonder what I'd be doing if I weren't a Habs addict?

1:35pm - Write all this down so I can get it out of my system.

3:30pm - Stole quick nap. Tired enough to actually sleep for a little while. Dreamed again of Habs in Cup Finals. Woke up and thought it was real.

3:32pm - Realized dream not real. Nerves about tonight back in full force.

4:00pm - Dropped one kid off at music lessons, realized I'd forgotten birthday party invite for another kid. Debated what to buy birthday child, decided seven-year-old girls might not enjoy Habs toiletries gift set.

4:30pm - Put supper in the oven. Think of having some wine and cheese to start in memory of Boudreau.

5:18pm - Just over three hours before game time. Stomach churning. Wonder how the players cope with this, if I'm this bad.

6:02pm - Turn on the news. Game Seven included in the promos. Seems everyone is picking Washington. Think Everyone can go to hell.

6:38pm - Two hours before game time. Actually thinking Habs can do it. Rocking the Pleky shirt, like I did for Game Six. Will have one German beer during the second period, also as I did for Game Six. Totally giving in to superstition at this point.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Habs Notebook: On the Eve of Destruction

There's more to life than the Habs, people. There's work, family, the theatre, meetings, shopping, nights out with the one you love.

Ha ha, who are we kidding? Has anybody thought of anything other than the Habs for more than five seconds since Halak saluted the Bell Centre crowd as first star last night? I know I haven't. A few Habs-related thoughts rattling around in my otherwise empty head today:

-I don't know if you can draw any meaning from dreams, but I spent last night dreaming about the Habs, which, I swear, I don't usually do. But, you know those dreams that seem to drag on and evolve all night long? It was one of those, and I dreamed the Habs had won the Cup (don't know who the opponent was), but they couldn't decide who should accept it because there's no captain. The debate went on and on, until finally, Bettman just laid the Cup on the ice and walked away. Gionta shrugged and skated over to pick it up. Any dream analysts out there?

-I'm hearing a lot of people saying no matter what happens tomorrow night, the Habs have earned respect because of this series and we should be proud of them. I agree, in principle, but I can't help desperately hoping they win. It just doesn't feel finished yet. I don't want Jaro's heroics in Game Six to be forgotten quickly as part of a losing cause. I don't want the season to end; I'm not ready. I'll respect their effort and I'll still love the team, but I want to revel in a great playoff comeback for the first time in years.

-I've heard reports today that the Caps had a flight to Florida booked for after Game Four, in the anticipation that they'd sweep the Habs, then go south for some R&R while they awaited their next opponent. Between that kind of thing and Ovechkin talking about how they were hoping to have some time to relax before meeting Philly after Game Four, with the surety of wiping the ice with the Habs in Game Five, they deserve to have the hockey gods bite them in the ass. Arrogance is the most unattractive quality a hockey player can have, when it's unearned arrogance. Regular season means dick. Just ask the San Jose Sharks.

-A lot of analysts today are focusing on Halak's performance last night as the sole reason why the Habs won. I think, of course, that he was huge and played a once-in-a-career type game. But I didn't think the Habs were terrible otherwise. There were a lot of positives outside of Halak, which I hope come forward again in Game Seven.

-Best line from a hockey fan on Ovechkin's observation of Halak's alleged shaking in Game Three: "The only thing Halak will be shaking will be Ovechkin's hand after he eliminates the Caps from the playoffs."

-My oldest kid, who doesn't really care much for hockey thinks the Caps will take it tomorrow night. She said, after (forced) watching the highlights of Halak's performance last night: "Those Ovegetables will win tomorrow. They'll have lots of anger juice." I hope she's really, really wrong.

-One thing I noticed last night was the Habs didn't salute the Bell Centre fans after the game, like a team that thinks it's played its last home game of the season would do. Unless I missed it on the TV coverage, they just went to the room like they meant to be back next week some time. That's great.

-Shout-out to the guys and girl at FHF, for channelling Jaro's inner thoughts for we mere mortals.

-Watched OTR on TSN tonight, just to see what they'd say about Jaro. Landsberg talked about how Habs fans are as pathetic as leafs fans for getting giddy about a first-round game that doesn't mean anything unless they advance tomorrow. Shut up, Landsberg and keep checking the mailbox for your overpriced leafs season tickets for next year. Minus playoffs, of course.

-I don't necessarily buy into "refs suck because they're fixing the games for the league" theories. But, if Chris Lee, who was never deemed good enough to ref a playoff game EVER until this year when three veteran refs retired and he was basically forced into post-season officiating is assigned to Game Seven, I might start believing.

Okay, one more sleep. I'm nervous already. How are you all feeling about their chances? Not bravado feeling...really feeling.

Monday, April 26, 2010

Aftermath: It's a Kind of Magic

Last night was a dream, dimly overshadowed by the spectre of a nightmare. Just imagine if Paul Holmgren had accepted Bob Gainey's offer for Jaro Halak earlier in the year. Or don't, if you find the idea as horrifying as I do. But as I watched what should have been certain goals disappear into Halak's glove, and shot after shot bounce harmlessly away onto the sticks of Habs defenders, the thought crossed my mind more than once. What if?

Fortunately for us, Holmgren thought whatever Gainey demanded was too rich for his blood and Jaro remains a Hab. And what a Hab! Do you remember when he first came to Montreal? On his mask was a painting of Patrick Roy in '93, hoisting the Cup. He said at the time that, as a boy, he watched Roy and tried to emulate his winning, competitive attitude. Mission accomplished, with a vengeance.

I don't go back as far as some of you die-hards, but I remember the infamous Game Three overtime Roy played against the Rangers in '86. I watched with clenched hands and knotted stomach, and growing disbelief. Thirteen Rangers shots peppered Roy and he stopped them all, before the Habs finally mustered a shot of their own for the game-winner. That game showed us what Roy could be for the Habs. It was the first indication of what the skinny kid was made of, and it's become part of the Canadiens' rich team lore. Last night Halak put in the best goaltending performance by a Montreal Canadiens goalie we've seen in the 24 years since.

His typically self-deprecating comments post-game: "Just another day at the office," "You have to be lucky," didn't channel Roy's innate cockiness, but the on-ice results were the same. The Caps looked stymied, frustrated and amazed all at once, just like the Rangers did all those years ago.

It's premature to talk Cup or legend at this point. The game, glorious as it was, was just one game. Legends are made when those types of spectacular individual performances are part of something bigger. Halak knows that, and, I think, so do his teammates.

Hal Gill and Josh Gorges once again helped Halak lock down the win with their dedicated, sacrificial kind of D. Mike Cammalleri buried his chances as he's been doing all series, making up for his horrid post-injury slump at the end of the regular season. Gomez, Plekanec and Gionta played very well at both ends of the ice, providing some dangerous chances and reliable D. Lapierre woke up with a vengeance. Markov was The General on the back end, and rookie PK Subban, whose first NHL playoff game was almost completely overshadowed by Halak's performance, didn't look out of place at all.

Last night was a whole-team win, as any underdog will tell you. Even in a great team win, though, there can be individual brilliance, and so the night belonged to Halak. Watching him last night made me shudder to imagine him in another team's sweater. Post-game, I wondered what would have happened if, instead of Petr Svoboda, the Habs had drafted a goalie fifth overall in 1984; the year they picked Roy in the third round? What if the organization had had a star in which it had invested a lot of time and hope, whom it wanted to help push to succeed ahead of Roy? What if Serge Savard had wanted, say, Steve Penney, to have every chance, to the detriment of Roy? What if Roy had become angry with the situation and asked to be traded? The situation doesn't bear thinking about.

I like Carey Price, and I'm a big proponent of the organization re-signing both goalies. Whatever happens, though, Halak proved something last night. He's a winner, and he must be retained. The idea of him stopping 53 shots in an elimination game for some rival team is enough to give you bad dreams. Last night, the dreams were all good, with only one outstanding question: Can he do it again?

If he can, let's hope it's Wednesday night. I'm not done dreaming yet, and I hope the team isn't either. If you're going to dream, you might as well dream big.

Caps vs. Habs Game Six: Rock the Casbah

Notes on the third:

-Backstrom's really something else. He's got better vision than the Hubble Telescope.

-Subban has got to be gassed. He played OT in Hamilton last night.

-Lapierre!!! Unreal. Keep your foot on the gas, boys!

-Closeup of Boudreau on the bench, and he looks like a soft balloon with a slow leak.

-The reffing has been decent tonight, but diving on Gionta is just rotten. He's the least likely guy on the ice to take a dive. It's not in his nature.

-Lapierre, however WOULD dive. He just didn't. There must be a buy-one, get-three-free special on diving penalties in the ref's gift shop tonight.

-I'd wonder what it might be like if Halak had started the game Price started instead. But, I think Halak really needed the break.

-Apparently, referee injustice is rocket fuel for Lapierre. What a game he's playing! Most nights his reason for existence is solely to convert oxygen to carbon dioxide, but he's working for a higher cause tonight.

-Standing O in the Bell for Jaro's fiftieth save. They know their hockey, and they're such a great crowd when they're not booing.

-Thank you Habs, for NOT losing on my birthday!! For a change.

-It's hard not to think too far ahead, but you know what would really upset me? If the Habs take down, say the Caps and Pens, then run out of gas, clearing the way for some lame team like Philly to make the Finals.

Notes on the second:

-McGuire must be paid by the number of times he says "Alexander Ovechkin." In one sequence he said "Alexander Ovechkin one-on-one there against Alexander Ovechkin. Second effort by Alexander Ovechkin." Ch-ching, Pierre!

-Scary defensive breakdowns on D early on, and WAY too many penalties.

-Andrei Kostitsyn has tons of skill, but he's just not the brightest bulb on the Christmas tree.

-Diving on Lapierre? Really? I guess the Commish has the Bell on speed-dial.

-There are more knots in my stomach than in a macrame plant hanger.

-Maybe less of the O-VEE-SUCKS chant when they're pressing hard like that, fans. It'd gut the crowd if Ovechkin scores while they're doing that.

-Love how the crowd rumbles with anticipation every time Subban's got the puck though.

-Am I the only one wondering what might have been if this team had been healthy all year?

-Jaro Halak is playing out of his mind. This is goaltending that needs a psychiatric evaluation before it can stand trial.

-Twenty minutes left before the Caps officially crap their pants.

Notes on the first:

-All I ask is that they play like they really want it. Winning it would be a bonus.

-Oh, and I ask that nobody boo Subban if he makes a Soobie Boo Boo.

-Ah, Kostitsyn! You have to think some of these Habs would benefit from doing nothing at practice but hitting the net from every part of the ice.

-Nice hit by the Subbanator on his first shift. He's going to damage some people when he gets his NHL timing down.

-I found it funny when Miller on TSN said, "Halak stands tall, " while he's scrambling around on his ass.

-It's really hard to type when your hands are shaking this hard.

-First thing I think of when there's a Habs PP is NO SHORTIES!

-Cammalleri is unbelievable. UFOs are more believable than him.

-What a kill on the 5-on-3! They killed it like Montagues killed Capulets.

-I can't believe this team is OUR Habs. I'm so proud of them!

Bob's Team

I wish Bob Gainey had stuck around as Habs GM, just for a little while longer. Yeah, I know he's off playing the piano and checking in with Gauthier from time to time, and probably enjoying himself immensely. It must be nice for him to be able to do his thing without getting trashed publicly every day. It's just too bad, now that there's a lot of good to say about what Gainey's accomplished, he's not around to take the credit.

I had a quick glance at the lineup in Gainey's first year at the helm of the good ship Canadiens. Stellar names like Jan Bulis, Yanic Perreault, Niklas Sundstrom, Pierre Dagenais, Andreas Dackell and Jason Ward filled the lineup card. Patrice Brisebois and Sheldon Souray were in the top-four on D and the goalies were Theo and Garon. The only player left from that 2003-04 lineup is Andrei Markov. Plekanec played two games with the Habs that year as well, but wasn't yet a full-time player.

When you look at that team and compare it to the one we see on the ice now, there's no question the quality of the players has improved tremendously. For those who say the only thing that matters is results, and the Habs are no closer to a Cup now than they were then, I'd have to argue that making the playoffs more often than not is an improvement over what we used to get every spring. Under Gainey, the team usually made the playoffs. Before him, it did not.

He made some mistakes in the big picture. He didn't make any ultimatum offers to his UFAs and a lot of them walked without any compensation to the Habs. He made too much of Carey Price, ending in disappointment for fans and some hiccups in Price's development. And his drafting in the first round was abyssmal, although I lay that at the feet of Trevor Timmins, who Gainey let handle the draft selections. But most GMs *do* make mistakes, and what it all comes down to is whether the product on the ice satisfies the people who pay to see it.

I have to say, I like the players Gainey brought in this year. He built this team for the playoffs and you can see why he chose the guys he did. Gill, for example, was dangerous to his own team on many nights during the regular season, but in the playoffs he's a different player. Gionta and Cammalleri are clutch and score the goals that need to be scored in the post-season, planting themselves in the crease and the slot when bigger men want to hurt them. Gorges, Gainey's best trade acquisition, has been an absolute shot-blocking, penalty-killing defensive beast. Moen brings some sandpaper to the third line and can pinch in with the more skilled guys too.

Most of all, this is a fun team to watch because they try their damnedest. They might not have enough in the tank to come back and make it to the next round, but they didn't cringe in the face of a much more powerful offence than their own. They just got down to work and made it a series. I'm proud of them for that, and I enjoyed this series. It would be wonderful if they *could* pull it off in seven, but even if they don't, they give me hope that next year, if they stay healthy and the new GM makes a few smart moves, they could be a better team.

I just wish Bob had stayed on a little longer, to see the fruits of his labour finally result in a team we can be proud of again. Somewhere, I'm sure, he's almost smiling.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

Aftermath: Keep On Rockin' In the Free World

Neil Young's classic anthem starts out: "There's colours on the street, red white and blue..." and that's the feeling today. Everything is red, white and blue because our Habs played their hearts out and live to keep on rockin' for another day.

It's funny how little it takes to make us happy. Sixty minutes of hard work, dedication, self-sacrifice and effort. Smart decisions and team play. Such things seem such small achievements when you think about it; much easier than brilliant natural talent and vast reserves of size and strength are to acquire at least. After all, anybody can work hard, regardless of his limitations in ability or physical build. Anybody can throw himself in front of a shot, even if he can't fire off one as hard or as accurate himself. The thing is, anybody can do those jobs but so few actually do them. It's special when a team pulls together and grinds out a win on pure grit like the Habs did last night. So, sometimes a display of heart and will like we saw in Game Five can make us as happy as a big offensive outburst can.

It all started and ended in goal, of course. The Canadiens have a respectable number of players who can score. They have a respectable defence against most opposition. But it's in net where they have something more than respectable. Both Price and Halak are very good young goaltenders who've played good-to-excellent hockey for much of the series. Last night, though, Jaro Halak reached inside himself and managed to overcome fatigue, nerves, disappointment and self-doubt. He played the kind of brilliant, focused goal that inspires his teammates. His defencemen knew if they let him have the first shot, they could just worry about the rebounds. His forwards knew they could play tight defence because he'd protect the goals they managed to score. Watching him shut down the best third-period team in the league in that hair-raising final frame last night was watching a winner. This is a guy who doesn't quit, even against the longest odds. He's what the Canadiens need to lift them above respectable. His team knows it too. At the end of the game, the enthusiastic embraces and playful jostling between the players and their goalie told a story. I don't know if he's got the mental or physical reserves left to pull it off again on Monday, but if he does, the Canadiens have a chance.

There were other stories last night as well. Hal Gill was heroic once again. The goat on defence for much of the season has another level entirely when it comes to playoff hockey. This is what Bob Gainey hired last July, and he was right to do so. He and his ten-foot stick played twenty-five minutes of smothering defence and blocked five shots to help out his goalie. He was a star on the PK, which shut the Caps out again, and so was his partner.

Josh Gorges topped the time-on-ice chart for the Habs last night, and he was absolutely stellar. Earlier this year, he was ranked fifth in the league among defencemen in the defensive categories of the game: shots blocked, most minutes on without a goal against and most successful PK minutes. He's not a flashy player by any stretch, but he's so solid. Not the biggest guy, he wins puck battles because he's courageous. Gainey did well to get Gill for the playoffs, but he did even better to get Gorges for every day.

Scott Gomez got his head out of his ass and stopped taking stupid penalties. He was also great on the PK and smart on Ovechkin. He was the only Hab better than fifty percent on faceoffs too, which helped a lot.

The usual suspects up front: Gionta, Cammalleri, Moore, Plekanec, Pyatt and Metro all worked their tails off. Lapierre and Sergei Kostitsyn were effective on the forecheck too, but a special mention has to go to Travis Moen. He's another one who finally showed why Bob Gainey got him. He said on TSN last night that he told Gomez and Gionta before the game if they dumped the puck in deep, he'd "go fetch it." He did that and more, bringing grit and energy to the line and scoring the winning goal. He played a great game, running a great risk of being verbally diddled by Pierre McGuire.

Ryan O'Byrne and Andrei Markov looked very comfortable together. Markov was on top of his game, with the exception of a couple of scary pinches that left him racing to get back, and O'Byrne was hitting and blocking shots the way a big man is supposed to do. He's not perfect, but he's getting better whenever he's given a chance.

That brings us to Jacques Martin. I'm not a fan of his, as you probably know by now, but he did some good things last night, most of which are already well-documented. He moved Moen up to the Gomez line, decided to start Halak and, most importantly, benched the Scary Twins on defence for most of the last ten minutes of the game. Playing four D was risky because all it would have taken would have been an icing call that kept them on the ice to the point of exhaustion to cause a defensive melt-down. The four guys...O'Byrne, Markov, Gill and Gorges...played it smart though, with simple chips off the glass, smart passes and good work on the boards in their own zone. The risk paid off for Martin, so good for him.

We know the team can play like they did last night and win games. We know they can be better, if guys like Andrei Kostitsyn and Benoit Pouliot, both of whom played decent hockey, really step up the way they can. What we don't know is if they can manage to put it all together again on Monday. It won't be easy because the Caps will be angry now, and for some reason, they seem to love flying around the Bell Centre.

For two days though, we can be happy. We can see red, white and blue everywhere because our hard-working Habs are still rockin'.

Friday, April 23, 2010

Habs vs. Caps Game Five: The Final Countdown

Notes on the third:

-If this season goes to OT, I'm going to be sick.

-Habs look like they're playing scared. Playing not to lose is going to kill them if they keep it up.

-I don't want to look, but I'll regret it if this ends up being the last period of the season and there's no more Habs hockey until October.

-Knuble on Gill: TIIMMMMM-BERRRRR!

-Really chintzy call on Pouliot, but it won't make Jacques the Knife cut him any slack.

-I love Hal Gill's ten-foot stick. I'm going to name it "The Saviour."

-Close-up of those shot-blocking guards on Gill's skates. Looks like they used boat covers.

-Oh, the heroes. Gill, Gorges, Gionta, Cammalleri, Moen, Metro, O'Byrne, Markov and JARO!

-What a game! I want Game Seven!

Notes on the second:

-Too much information: Belanger removing his own tooth on the bench. And TSN showing us a closeup.

-I don't like this whole broken-camera issue. It feels WAY too much like the bogus goal review in Game Two when the Habs were up a couple of goals.

-Nice kill. Habs have to remember they're playing for their season here.

-Ovechkin was Hamrlik's man on the Caps goal. Sigh.

-Sometimes the luck just isn't with you. No matter how hard you work or how much talent you have, without the luck you're screwed.

-Plekanec skated like Gaetan Boucher to negate that two-on-one on the PK.

-Jaro must have had really good chocolate milk today.

-I hate in-game coach interviews. If he's talking to McGuire, he's not thinking about who's supposed to be on the ice.

-O'Byrne was great on Ovechkin late. That's the kind of D this team needs.

-Way to go Habs, on not giving up the late heart-breaker. Please, if there are really hockey gods, let them hold on for twenty more minutes. I'm not ready for it to end.

Notes on the first:

-I wonder if the choice of Halak tonight means anything about which goalie will still be a Hab in October?

-You have to love Gionta. Elimination game and he makes a beeline for the net on the first shift.

-Cammalleri's worth his money too. And good on Pleky going to the net. And good on Markov for making the brilliant pass. Why, oh why can't they do this all the time?!

-Moen as forechecker on the Gomez line is a good idea in theory, but it's like asking Matisse to sketch a piece and then getting a six-year-old to fill in the colour.

-Then again, sometimes a six-year-old is a really good colourer.

-Nice play by Bergeron on a two-on-one. It's an Elimination Game miracle.

-Incredible PK. They looked like hornets buzzing the Caps' zone.

-McGuire is going to have an "accident" if Moen plays any better.

-Random thought: Too bad Cournoyer doesn't play anymore. We could have some fun headlines about Roadrunner versus the Coyotes sometimes.

-It's not a good thing when you're hoping less for a powerplay goal than you are that they won't allow a shorty.

-Ah! The delay-of-game penalty! The worst penalty in hockey. Great job by Gomez to hold the puck in the Caps' end for ten seconds against Ovechkin.

-Great, great period. Jaro looked hot. Let's hope it's not the only great period of the game this time.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Small World

Size does matter. It matters in bank accounts, plates of pasta and watchdogs. I'm not convinced it matters much for hockey players; at least not talented hockey players. Pundits and hockey experts looking for reasons to explain why the Habs are losing the series against the Caps check out the team's vital statistics and comfortably conclude it's because they're too small. It doesn't take much effort to say that. Gionta and Cammalleri are certainly unusually short for NHL forwards, and neither Plekanec nor Gomez tops six feet down the middle, so their lack of stature makes a convenient excuse. But when you look a little more closely, you see Cammalleri leading the team with six points in four games. Plekanec has four in four, including three goals. Gionta has three points, two huge goals among them.

No, the problem with the Habs isn't size. All the commonly-cited reasons why it should be, like smaller players wear down late in games, smaller players don't get scoring chances because they can't get to the net or smaller players can be intimidated more easily are just pure crap in their case. Gionta, Cammalleri and Plekanec scored their goals from a couple of feet in front of the net. On the PP, you'll find Gionta planted firmly in the crease. Plekanec will get dirty in the corners when he has to; so will Cammalleri. Sure, they can have problems when they play a team that thrives on smash-mouth hockey like the Flyers, but so do most teams with skilled players who don't do well in the grinding department. That's not the case in the Capitals series because it's been extremely tame physically, relative to most playoff hockey.

The bigger problem with the Habs (no pun intended...seriously) is that 6'3" Benoit Pouliot has one assist in four games. So does the big PP threat, Marc-Andre Bergeron. Travis Moen, Tom Pyatt, Mathieu Darche, Sergei Kostitsyn and Maxim Lapierre have zero points between them. The little guys are doing their job. Their supporting cast is not. To make matters worse, of the guys who aren't scoring, only Kostitsyn is a plus player, at plus one. Bergeron is a team-leading spectacular minus-eight in four games. When your defence and your bottom-six forwards don't score and don't stop the other team from scoring either, you will lose hockey games. That has nothing to do with size.

The Habs are losing to a team that, yes, is bigger on average than they are. But it's also a team that finishes its chances and features one of the best pure snipers in hockey. The Habs don't finish as many chances because they don't have a superstar or two who can turn it up a notch when the need is upon them. The Caps take advantage of defensive breakdowns and they use their massive amount of scoring ability to cash in. That, again, has nothing to do with size. As we've seen with guys like Georges Laraque, big without talent is useless. Talent without size, however, can help a team win.

Small is a problem when it comes with naivete, slow skating or a lack of hockey sense. It's a problem when it comes without heart or courage. None of the Habs small guys are inexperienced, slow, dumb or afraid. They, and Martin St.Louis, Patrick Kane and Theo Fleury and Mats Naslund before them, can play hockey. They can do the job, and they have been doing it during the playoffs. If the big guys on the team were doing half as well, the Habs would not be losing and size wouldn't be an issue for all the people looking for excuses.

Tolkien said "Even the smallest person can change the course of the future." He's right, even when it comes to hockey players.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Aftermath: The Morning After

I wish there was a do-over clause on NHL hockey games, or at least on a period. Hell, I'd take one minute of one period. The Habs played a gutsy game last night. They pushed and hit and shot every puck they could, but bad luck and a deficiency in basic talent spoiled their party.

If I had one minute to strike from the game, it'd be a toss-up between the last minute of the second period and the minute immediately after the Caps' third goal. In both cases, I would NOT have had Roman Hamrlik on the ice. I don't know what the hell is wrong with him, but he's destroying the team in this series. He's been absolute crap on the power play, but even worse, he's been on the ice for two consecutive short-handed goals that broke his team's stride and its heart. Last night was particularly awful. With six seconds to go in the second period, with a one-goal lead and a PP to run out the clock, the Habs should have carried the momentum into the third. Instead, thanks to Hamrlik's bumbling the puck at the Caps' blueline and his inability to recover, Washington scored the shorty that turned the tide. I'd love to have that minute back.

I'd take the twelfth minute of the third back too, if I could. Ovechkin had just blasted one past Price to give the Caps a 3-2 lead. Inexplicably, Martin sent the Lapierre line and the team's worst defensive pair of Hamrlik and Bergeron out for the next shift. Not surprisingly, the Caps scored again to grab the Habs in a chokehold.

If I could go way back, I'd take back the minute Bob Gainey phoned Jacques Martin and asked him to coach the Habs. That may be asking a bit too much, though, even if I could have killed him for pulling Price with more than two minutes to go. The Habs might have had the energy for a big push after Moore scored the third Canadiens goal, but by then the Caps had already put the game out of reach with an empty netter.

That was the story of the game, and the series, really. The Habs played their hearts out and controlled much of the play, but could only cash in three times. Every error they made ended up in the back of their net. The Caps were just too strong and too lucky. A little team with an aging defence exposed to a bunch of freewheeling goalscorers didn't really have the tools to lock down four wins.

You know what though? It's their own fault. If they'd played with half the heart and speed they've shown against Washington when they played the 'Canes, Isles or leafs for their playoff lives in the last week of the season, they wouldn't be facing the Caps right now. I don't think the team would have won the Cup anyway, because I think an opponent with a tight defensive system would have shut down their offence, but it still hurts to go out in the first round.

I've been getting some criticism for saying it's unlikely the Habs will win this series, but I've been realistic. I love the Habs as much as anybody, and I really, really hoped they'd pull it off. Realistically, however, they're not powerful enough to dominate the Caps for a full sixty minutes. Despite that, there are some highs in this series.

It's nothing short of inspirational to see Glen Metropolit, who grew up a Habs fan, come back early from his shoulder injury and leave his heart on the ice. He played like a man who knew he was playing the only post-season games he'd ever get the chance to play in Montreal.

Tomas Plekanec didn't score last night, but he's put up enough points in the series to silence the critics who think he's not good in the playoffs. It's the last question that needed to be answered before management offers him a new contract.

Brian Gionta is worth his money. He's a playoff warrior and if the team stays moderately healthy next year and gets itself a more advantageous first-round opponent, he'll be gold.

Jaro Spacek might be old and look a bit fat, but he knows how to play good positional defence when he needs to. Right now, if it's one of him or Hamrlik, I'd keep Spacek. Not just because of contracts either.

Hal Gill showed me something I wasn't expecting. The big lug can really be useful. I understand now why he doesn't play like this all the time. If he blocked shots as he's been doing in this series all through the regular season, he'd be completely worn out by playoff time. He's been a stud.

The Habs tried hard last night, and I admire them for that. They're doing the best they can with the team management has put together. Unfortunately for them, they haven't tanked hard in the last decade as their opposition has done, and therefore haven't been able to access the franchise players the Caps have.

Speaking of those franchise players, I guess it's possible to have it all and still be an arsehole. Did you catch the Habs taking the ice at the beginning of the game? The little kids who carry the flags were standing on either side of the gate waiting for their heroes when Ovechkin raced across the ice to the Caps' bench, slammed to a stop and gave one of the kids a face full of snow. Real classy. I'd rather have a guy like Gionta on the roster than a superstar so full of himself he needs to make a point to little kids.

Maybe Ovechkin would like a do-over on that moment. I know there are a few I'd love to see the Habs have a second shot at. They're not as bad as their record in this series says they are, and I wish they had another chance to prove it.

Caps vs. Habs Game Four: Do Or Die

Notes on the third:

-Roman Hamrlik is worse than MAB, who's actually been pretty decent at moving the puck tonight. I think I might sit Hammer if Spacek is back next game.

-God, I'm still reeling from that shorty. Six seconds to go? That is the hockey equivalent of getting shot just as you jump in front of a train.

-These guys have spirit. They don't have an overabundance of successful defencemen, but they could inspire a pep squad with their effort.

-Memo to the shooters: Try stick-side on Varlamov already!

-Well, Team Tank and their number-one pick score another one. Way to go, NHL.

-Why on earth would Martin put Hamrlik and the fourth line out there right after a crushing goal? Maybe he's getting paid by the league. It must be that, because I wouldn't want to call him an idiot or anything.

-This breaks my heart. Metro is killing himself because he knows it's probably his last game at the Bell Centre, and nobody will even notice.

-Martin pulls Price with two-and-a-half to go? Great idea. It's not like the Caps are likely to score on the empty net or anything. To make it worse, Moore pots one with a minute and a half to go and they would have been within one.

-'Roid Boy Backstrom with the second empty-netter of the night. I hope they're proud.

-I feel sorry for the Bell Centre fans who rooted for their team with a full heart tonight.

-I don't care what anybody says, the Habs played their asses off tonight and deserved a better fate. I'll watch Game Five with pride.

Notes on the second:

-Backstrom on TSN appears to be sporting man-boobs. Hmmmm...

-Price is scaring me with his passes. I don't need any more fear.

-We get so upset at the reffing, but it's a hard job. Sometimes, when you're really hungover, you can't even see a guy in a red shirt being pounded to the ice right in front of you.

-Gomez can be so predictable, like when he passes at the blueline on every bloody rush. Then, he does something completely gorgeous, like hit Pouliot in the open after grappling the puck off the boards.

-I'm so glad Metropolit got back in time for the playoffs. The guy is just a big heart on skates.

-Price with the high hurdle...looking particularly athletic tonight.

-The definition of "tantalizing" is Benoit Pouliot in the clear.

-Gionta takes more abuse in the crease than A-Rod at Fenway.

-Andrei Kostitsyn is so infuriating. Markov makes a gorgeous pass to get him open and he stops on the boards and passes. Sigh.

-Things to be thankful for next Thanksgiving: My family, good health and Brian Gionta's hand-eye coordination.

-The story of the series: The Habs dominate a period and can't score. They make one defensive gaffe and the puck's in their net.

-I hate Knuble. Really, really hate him. He's this year's Umberger.

-One period for, essentially, the Habs' playoff lives. Do they have it in them to pull it off?

Notes on the first:

-I wondered if Price would have a special "playoff edition" mask and pads made up for this one.

-Whee! A penalty in the first minute! Let's make it interesting, why don't we?

-When Pleks got out of the box he started playing like his turtleneck was on fire. Burn, baby, burn!

-Jeez, Gomez, you ARE allowed to shoot once in a while. I hate when he makes that one extra pass to a guy under heavy cover.

-You knew they'd get burned on the PK sooner or later. These guys don't go four games without a power play goal. Andrei, you owe us one now.

-Cammalleri shoots like a derringer. Small, but deadly.

-Gorges demonstrating the mighty power of the poke check on Ovechkin. He's not perfect, but I love the guy.

-Good of Knuble to try and take his own goalie's head off, since the Habs are too gentlemanly to attempt it.

-Watching Cammalleri yapping on the bench makes me wonder how often he hears "Shut up, Cammy," from his teammates.

-I suspected faceoffs would be a huge issue in this series, and I think we're seeing that happen.

-What a waste of a PP. It's hard to believe Hamrlik was actually drafted as an offensive defenceman.

-Saved by the siren.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

The Subbanator

I think one thing a lot of Habs fans can agree on right now is that the team's defence needs a bit of work. Okay; a lot of work. Andrei Markov needs a solid partner with some jam to his game, as well as the ability to play big minutes without getting burned in his own end. Some offensive talent would be a bonus. The D-corps as a whole needs a guy who can man the point on the PP like Bergeron, but without the defensive liabilities he brings. Size and strength, combined with mobility would be very useful. There's no doubt, either, that the Habs blueliners could use an infusion of youth. Guys like Hamrlik and Spacek have value in their experience, but now, in their mid-thirties, they get tired on big minutes and make mistakes because of fatigue. Add up all the needs on defence and the sum, for many fans, is PK Subban. The cries to call him up to help save the series with the Caps are escalating.

Do you remember the first game Subban played for the Canadiens? I remember an overall impression of speed and enthusiasm, but the one outstanding moment for me was a beautiful spinorama move at the blueline, followed by a couple of quick strides and a good, hard shot on goal. It was a great play; the kind that's going to make PK a star in Montreal. It's also the kind of play that's going to put him at risk of falling out of favour quickly.

The thing is, the kid is a thoroughbred. He's a great skater, he's got a hard shot, he can pass and he can play a tough game. Best of all, he's enthusiastic, positive, smart and well-spoken...and he can't wait to play for the Habs. We've seen his big smile on draft day and followed him through his World Juniors triumphs and his resoundingly successful rookie year in Hamilton. We caught tantalizing glimpses of what might be in his two games in Montreal. It's no wonder fans look at him and see a halo or a hero, depending on their sentiments.

It's also no wonder fans forget he's a twenty-year-old kid playing a very difficult position. All the positives about PK...and there are so very many...make us overlook the quiet warnings we're hearing from people like Guy Boucher. Boucher says PK is still learning to channel his enthusiasm properly. He says PK is getting better, but he doesn't know when the kid will be ready for the NHL. When the coach, especially the coach who's a bit of a budding superstar himself in many fans' minds, says the player isn't ready, we have to listen.

The last guy who was supposed to save the Habs from mediocrity rode into Montreal on a high, after winning the Calder Cup and being named the MVP. Carey Price ended up struggling midway through his rookie season and was sent back to Hamilton to clear his head. He went from god-like status (Jesus Price, anybody?) to the focus of very vocal derision at the Bell Centre during last year's playoff sweep by the Bruins. Price may yet become a big star for the Habs, but his road to this point has been bumpy, to say the least. A lot of people thought Price was ready for the NHL and to take on the Habs' number-one goaltending job at the age of twenty. Physically, at least, I agree he was; he could stop pucks as well as anybody. Mentally and emotionally, however, he wasn't ready and he's had to learn some hard lessons under the unflinching gaze of the public eye.

I see Subban piling up great stats (53 points in 77 games, plus-46) and honours (first-team AHL all-star, AHL all-rookie team) in Hamilton. He's saying all the right things too, about how he's learning everything he can in the minors, and that while he's looking forward to playing in the NHL, he's content to wait until the coaches think he's ready. All of this is good stuff and a sensible approach by the organization to managing the development of its best player.

My concern is the team has obvious needs on defence now, and the fans want a saviour. Depending on what happens in the off-season, Subban has a very, very good chance of making the NHL next fall. One of Hamrlik's or Spacek's contracts will almost certainly have to be moved to free cap space. There's probably not a better, cheaper option to fill the resulting vacancy than Subban. When he cracks the lineup, the team will get a great infusion of energy and blossoming ability on the blueline. The problem is, he won't be perfect.

That gorgeous spinorama he made in his first game as a Hab has been his go-to move for years. It'll work for him in the NHL too, as it did in his first game...for a while. Then, smart forwards are going to catch on and anticipate that play. Subban will get burned and it will take him some time to figure out how to adjust. He'll need tolerance and support from his team and its fans while he's making that adjustment. He won't get it for long, though. The impatient fans who pleaded for Carey Price to take the net in Montreal, then booed him off the ice a year later, will be screaming for Subban's head after a particularly juicy giveaway leads to a Habs loss.

I harbour no illusions that people will be supportive of a rookie's mistakes when two points are on the line. What I do hope for, however, is that when Subban *does* make the team, he's mentally ready for the criticism that comes his way. He's been among the best wherever he's played, and his sparkling personality has drawn people to him in a positive way. He says he's ready for adversity as he learns the NHL game, but he's never been the subject of public ridicule before. It's going to be tough.

The team did the right thing to leave Subban in Hamilton for the playoffs. His presence wouldn't change the outcome of the Habs/Caps series on its own, and the negative fallout of being part of another season of post-season futility in Montreal if the Habs lose wouldn't help his development. When he makes the team, he'll make a difference, even if it's not right away. Leaving him alone to develop under Boucher and the Hamilton staff is the best chance fans have of seeing the best PK Subban their ticket money can buy.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Aftermath: Fan Abuse and Dummies

Well, wasn't that a great display of overall stupidity last night? Bruce Boudreau said after the game he thinks Jacques Martin is one of the smartest coaches in the league. I think that's how an opposing coach soothes a guy like Martin into continuing to make the same stupid decisions that helped the Caps win Game Three. Sure, the Habs had a great first period, but one period, as we've seen from this team all season, isn't enough to win a hockey game. Especially not a playoff hockey game. It is, however, more than enough time in which to lose a game. Right from the starting lineup and into the second, dreadful period, the Canadiens were generally trading helmets for dunce caps, their coach wearing the pointiest one.

Okay, yeah, Sergei Kostitsyn can be maddening. He can try to be too fancy and give the puck away. He can try to duck a hit and end up costing a turnover. But you know what? He can also score important goals, and he'll kill penalties and fight for the puck, doing creative things to get it out of trouble. So, instead of playing Sergei Kostitsyn, Jacques "The Genius" Martin decided to play Mathieu Darche. Okay, fine. That's the coach's choice, and he obviously sees things in the room and in practice that we don't. BUT, and this is a big but, WHY did he play the guy he chose over Kostitsyn for less than three minutes in the game? This, my friends, is stupid coaching.

If Darche isn't good enough to play a regular shift, then Kostitsyn has got to draw in. It's common sense. You cannot put all the pressure on three lines and expect last night not to happen, not in the playoffs. Then again, Martin isn't accustomed to winning in the playoffs, so who are we kidding here?

It's also stupid coaching to have Marc Andre Bergeron, who can't keep an NHL job with any one team because the only NHL-level skill he owns is a point shot on the power play, in the lineup alongside your best defenceman. Markov is great, but he needs someone who can stay at home and give him a bit of offensive freedom. Komisarek did that. O'Byrne can do it. I admit, OB isn't yet the most consistent of defencemen, but if you give him a simple job he can do it. He'd have a damn sight better chance of controlling big wingers than little, easily-pushed-around Bergeron. Markov needs to be on the ice a lot, and he needs a steady partner who can play those minutes without hurting the team. MAB was on the ice for three of the Caps five goals last night, and even Markov couldn't save him.

Beyond the stupid coaching, the team fell into a lack of discipline after the Caps started scoring. Gomez taking a ten-minute misconduct was inexcusable, especially when the team had power plays without him. I don't know what Pleks said to the ref or did to the goalie that got him an unsportsmanlike minor, but that was stupid too.

Also stupid was Roman Hamrlik's play for much of the night. He's making panicky passes, fumbling the puck and not skating well. He's not the same guy who filled in for Markov in the fall, and he looks terrible. If he and Spacek were competing to see who'd get traded in the off-season, Spacek stays. That's despite the fact that the Caps' short-handed goal, which broke the Habs down, came on a particularly stupid play in which Spacek backed right into his own goalie and fell on him.

Carey Price looked decent for being called in cold, and he'll start Game Four, barring yet another stupid Martin decision. Halak didn't deserve what happened to him. He was rough in Game Two, but the team let him down in Game Three. I hope Price can pull the next one out of the fire, because, after three games, it's clear the only way the Habs are winning this series is via divine intervention. And so far, it looks like divinity is not on their side.

I feel sorry for all the fans who came out in their innocent joy to watch their team compete. They got it for twenty minutes, then the Habs collapsed and looked wretched for the other forty. I think everyone who was at the Bell last night, and all RDS subscribers, should get a 66% discount for fraud, caused by stupidity.

They told us we're getting the Montreal Canadiens in the playoffs. Instead we're getting a badly-coached bunch of overwhelmed hockey players who've managed to play four good periods out of nine. Still, give Guy Boucher or some other young, progressive coach the same group to manage and I think they'd be better than what we're seeing, even if only a bit better. If this team fails, it's because they're just not good enough to sustain the level of play needed to consistently beat an offensive powerhouse like the Capitals. That, and the coach is an idiot. It's just too bad the faithful fans are taking the abuse.

Caps vs. Habs Game Three: Accueillons Nos Canadiens!

Notes on the third:

-I'm watching this period because I love this team and I don't expect it to be on the ice much longer. Knowing the end is near makes me want to enjoy it as long as possible, even if it's the kind of enjoyment you get from eating something so incredibly spicy it hurts.

-Pleky with his third in three games, including the OT winner in Game One and what should have been the winner in Game Two. Anyone who thinks he can't play playoff hockey should just stop thinking.

-They keep showing Jaro on the bench. If I was the goalie, I'd wear my mask on the bench so nobody could see my face. Then I'd make ugly expressions and talk under my breath about everyone.

-Okay, either Bergeron replaces Lapierre next game and O'Byrne goes in on D, or they concede the series now. MAB is WAY overmatched.

-Ever since Pleky's goal, it's been boring. The Habs know they're not winning, but they're making a case for Price starting Game Four. I think it's about his time.

-Hey, when's the last time Pouliot scored anyway? Or Markov?

-Another question: Will we miss Hamrlik next season if he's traded and Subban makes the team instead? I'm torn. Early on, he was great. In the playoffs he sucks.

-Too bad Beliveau's in the stands and not on the ice. His team-record 44-second hat trick would be very useful right now.

-It was nice to see the guys come out in support of Price at the end of the game. Too bad they weren't so much in support of their goalies DURING the game.

-Fantasies are over. This is not happening for the Canadiens. They should have fought harder in the last week of the season and drawn Buffalo, but they didn't.

Notes on the second:

-Metro on RDS talking about how "The pain goes away quick" after he gets hit. The guy's so tough you'd have to boil him for a week to make a decent soup.

-What a dive by Markov. Maybe it's cosmic justice that the Caps get a shorty on that. That hurts. Like boils on your ass on an international flight.

-I was just going to praise Spacek for his great work on D, then he backs into and falls on his own goalie like that. Brutal.

-And now 2-0. If Theo was in, I'd say they have a chance, but Varlamov's playing great.

-Crowd is totally quiet, at least on TV. I hope it's a little more enthusiastic in person. Habs need the seventh man now more than ever.

-The Bergeron on D bubble has officially burst. And Jaro gets chased.

-It's got to feel absolutely terrible to be sitting there after getting pulled, with everyone AND the TV cameras staring at you, and all you want to do is swear and break things.

-Now the temptation is to open things up, but that will lead to further burnings. I guess the Habs know how the ladies of Salem used to feel.

-I'm learning to hate Ovechkin. For ten million bucks a year, you'd think he'd buy himself a friggin' tooth. Cretin. And I hope he gets herpes by kissing his dirty glove all the time.

-Well, at least I'm not having a heart attack this game. Just crying. It started out so well.

-Maybe whatever Pleks said to the ref in Czech just *sounded* like something rude in English? Because he's not a jerk and they're treating him like he is one.

-This is so awful. Can they even take anything positive into the third?

Notes on the first:

-Dressing room shots show the goalies. Varlamov's hair looks like a cross between a Ken doll and a shag carpet helmet.

-Hey...what ever happened to introducing the entire lineup before the first home playoff game? Great to see Mr.Beliveau in the crowd, though.

-Good, aggressive first couple of minutes. I'm taking heart.

-You don't think of Backstrom as being all that strong, but he's really like a big old Swedish ox on skates.

-Just before midway through the period, they're looking like they did in the first of the Game One: way too many giveaways, missed passes and icings.

-Pleky's line is rocking and/or rolling tonight. It's a good sign to see AK banging the stick for the puck. When he wants it, he's on.

-The kill on the AK penalty lit them up like August grass in California. Varlamov's hot, though.

-I hate to criticize Spacek, who's been heroic, but damn! If he could only hit the net, he'd have scored.

-Lapierre is not great on the boards. For a guy his size, he loses a lot of battles. I guess you CAN turtle in the corners.

-Jaro's looking pretty decent so far. He's going to have to be very strong for the next forty.

Pre-game notes:

-I'm as nervous as a goalie's mother.

-Just two wishes for tonight: fair reffing and no booing the home team, no matter what.

-I can't believe Metro is back already. The man is at least one part titanium.

-Goalie I most hope to see in this game: Theodore. Yeah, yeah, I know Varlamov is starting. You know what I mean.

-Cap I'm most scared of tonight: Green. He's been invisible, but I don't think it'll last.

-I wonder if the people at TSN had to send out a memo to the on-air crew, to at least appear to be unbiased, just for this series?

-The noise is going to be tremendous. I hope the Caps don't get inspired by accident.

Recovery Mission

A few of you have been expressing your belief that the Habs are in a great position in this series and have every chance to win it, despite the horrible shock of Saturday's loss. With twenty-four hours to recover from that heartbreaker, I'm feeling a little bit better about the situation as well. Hope's a funny thing. It can drain out of you like the sand running through an hourglass until you feel empty and desolate. Then you pick yourself up and flip the glass over and you can almost feel hope trickling back. I think situations like Saturday's might be harder on the fans than on the players in some ways. We can do nothing but stand by and watch and hope. The players are the ones with their fate in their own hands. They can get out there and fight back, if they're prepared and focussed.

That's where the veterans and coaches come in. A guy like Hal Gill, who won the Cup just last year and wears the "A" well, or a coach like Kirk Muller, who captained a Cup winner in Montreal himself, needs to stand up and get the team ready. The question is, what do they say? How can they get a team that just got an emotional kick in the nuts back on its feet and ready to rumble tonight?

I'd start with a video session showing all the things they did right. There's lots to show, too. Spacek and Gill are playing some great shut-down defence. Moore and Moen are forechecking machines. Both of the top lines are playing fast, aggressive, skilled hockey. Then I'd contrast the "good" video with lowlights of the third in the last game...not to rub it in, but to illustrate the difference. I'd show them how the D was backing in in the third, when it had been challenging more earlier in the game. I'd point out how the fourth line started using their sticks a lot more than their bodies once the Habs had a lead.

In my pre-game speech, I'd say a loss like Saturday's sucks, but there are lessons to take from it. Washington was the more desperate team because they couldn't afford to give up both home games. Yet, the Habs stayed with the most talented team in the league, which was extra-primed by the necessity of winning, and got them to OT. That's really something. They also learned to keep a closer eye on Backstrom, and never let up against this team because even a big lead isn't safe.

I'd tell my team they can do it and if they stick to basics with hard work, they *will* do it. The most important thing to remember is never give up. If they keep fighting, they'll always have a chance. And I'd reinforce the dream of winning in Montreal, a city that will love them more than any other if they can pull it off.

I'd tell them if they're mad about the crappy officiating, that they should put that anger into skating harder, shooting more often and hitting everything that moves. I'd remind them that everyone's talking about the crappy officiating, so they might actually get a break from referees who are paranoid about looking biased. I'd finish up by telling them I believe in them and I believe they can do it. Then tell them to go out and kick some Crapital ass.

So, what would you say, if you wanted to get a team primed for tonight?

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Aftermath: Broken Hearts

Oh, this hurts. They had it in their hands. Twice. They had it. We can talk about the atrocious reffing or the Caps' blatant interference on Halak, but they had it and they blew it. I won't talk about the goaltending, even though Jaro should have had the fifth goal, because a team wins as a team and it loses as a team and our team blew it last night.

While the conspiracy theories rage and the hand-wringing and tooth-grinding escalate, the fact is the game is in the books. There's no going back now, and there's another one tomorrow night. The question I have now is how will the team approach it?

One of two things will happen. In the best case, the team will be able to dismiss this heartbreak and reset mentally to dealing with a five-game series. They'll look at the things they did right, like the way they shut down the best offensive team in the league for five periods and an overtime. They'll focus on the way both of the top two lines have found their scoring touch simultaneously for the first time all year. The veteran Cup winners on the team will buoy the younger guys and explain that hearts get broken in the playoffs, but as long as there's another game, there's another chance to mend them. Nobody gets through the post-season without adversity. They'll realize that the Caps threw everything they had at them, and the Canadiens hung in there and stayed right with them. They'll learn from their mistakes.

The other choice is to wallow in the heartbreak. It's a tempting choice, because the vision of going home up two games to none was close enough to touch. Imagine coming within one number of winning the lottery, but you need a 3 and they call a 4? You're no worse off for having missed money you never had to begin with, but the spectre of almost being rich would haunt you. They've got to be angry at themselves, frustrated and completely disheartened. They played a beautiful game with great defence, and they capitalized on their scoring chances. They should have had it, but even playing nearly as well as they're possibly capable of playing, they couldn't hold off the Caps. That's got to be a devastating revelation.

I'm not sure how the team will take it or how they'll recover mentally from last night, but I know the fans have taken a real emotional blow with this loss. If any of us had been told last week that the Habs would not only get a split in Washington, but would come to within a minute-and-a-half of taking both games, we'd have been thrilled. Now, though, when they were so close to having it all, that split feels really hollow. When Plekanec scored the game winner on Thursday, I felt like this team could have a chance, if they kept doing what they did in Game One. They did that for most of last night, but couldn't hold them off anyway.

I truly believe anything can happen in the playoffs. But I also believe in momentum, and the Caps have it now. That win last night had to have been hugely inspiring for them and let them prove their offence can carry them out of trouble. They'll have confidence and be cocky heading into Montreal. While it's true this is now a best-of-five series and the teams are square, it's not like starting from scratch. The first game of a series is always about feeling out the opponent, but now the teams have each other's measure. Game Three will be a war, if the Habs stand up and fight. It will be outright destruction if they don't.

I have to confess, even though the series is tied, I feel like last night was a turning point. The Habs gave it everything they had, and it wasn't enough. Nobody backed down or failed to show up. They were just overwhelmed. I'm not sure they can recover from this blow, or have enough in the tank to eke out three more wins against this juggernaut. I want to believe they can. I really do. But the Caps showed us that sometimes the favourite is the favourite because they just have more and bigger weapons to throw at you.

There's always hope that the Caps can't sustain that level of ferocity, and that the Habs will learn from their mistakes and hold the lead next time they're lucky enough to have one. But it feels an awful lot like they climbed Everest, only to stumble and fall just before the reached the summit. Wasting a phenomenal effort like that is enough to make anyone want to give up. Whether they can catch themselves before plunging all the way down is the big unknown. I hope they'll fight, even if the climb is hard.

We'll find out tomorrow what they're made of mentally. It would be difficult for any team to recover from having it in their hands and handing it back. When the team is the underdog, though, it's that much harder. And boy, does it hurt.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Habs vs. Caps Game Two: Diggin' A Hole

Notes on OT:


Notes on the third:

-Great penalty kill.

-What a crap goal! Lapierre is the weak link here tonight.

-Gomez dropping the gloves for the win is so glorious. He's earned two-thirds of his salary now.

-What the hell is the Caps' mascot supposed to be? It looks like something from a Bugs Bunny cartoon.

-God, it's like being Germany against Team Canada

-When did pinching your man off become interference? I hate the refs.

-Jagr with the go-ahead goal. I'm so glad the Habs signed him.

-Pouliot...if the Caps tie it on this PP, you're a dead man.

-I love Halak, but come ON. That tying goal was atrocious. No, beyond atrocious. It was crippling.

Notes on the second:

-What's with Pouliot and the falling down? It looks like he's got an inner-ear imbalance.

-It seems like the glass in Washington is very low.

-They're all over Plekanec. He can't have a crap without a Cap.

-Hal Gill is doing his thing again tonight. He's pushing people to the outside better than a snobby cheerleader.

-If the Habs could complete a pass, they'd be up by three.

-AK! That's the way to hurt your compatriots!

-I think Muller must have had a bet with Martin about whether the Habs would make the playoffs and the forfeit was that if they made it, Muller would get to coach the team. That's the only explanation for this.

-People say Spatch is fat, but if he is, he's on the Ovy diet now.

-Speaking of whom, if Spacek was going to hit the net once this year, this was the time to do it.

-Aaaaannnd...he doesn't get the goal anyway because AK gets the hatty. No problem. I'm sure Spatch will wait for his first.

-Great call on the hand pass by the Caps. Sometimes they're right on the money.

-Up by two, going into the third, and you can't trust that the Caps won't come back. The Habs have to keep pushing hard.

Notes on the first:

-How lovely would it be to go back to Montreal up 2-0? I'm almost afraid to hope.

-GIONTA! Miniature playoff warrior. He should have his own breakfast cereal or something.

-This must be what soldiers in the trenches felt like while they were waiting for reinforcements. Only, the Habs don't get reinforcements. They just have to wait for the clock to run out.

-Andrei Kostitsyn is like an anti-tank weapon...when he wants to be.

-Theeeee--ooooo, Theeeeee---ooooooooo

-I'm worried about Varlamov, though. He was really good in the first round last year.

-The fourth line looks a little bit overmatched tonight. They don't have quite the jump they had in game one.

-Bergeron stood Backstrom up like an ugly blind date. He's playing his heart out.

-Dear Bob Gainey, thank you very much for the very nice Spacek you got us in the off-season. It was a bit wobbly at first, but now it's working just fine.

-Good period, all things considered. I want a win so, so badly!

Friday, April 16, 2010

Long Live the Underdog

There's something about a team everyone says doesn't have a chance that makes you hope they prove the experts wrong. I think there's something about it that makes a team believe in itself, too. If everyone says they don't have a chance, the guys on a team tend to pull together and say, "What the hell, it's us against the world."

Those are the teams you can love. They're the teams you can root for in the playoffs, even if you hate them in the regular season. I don't love the Nashville Predators ordinarily, but watching them stand up to the mighty 'Hawks last night was fun. Watching the eighth-seed Avs take the lead on the powerful Sharks for the second game in a row was impressive.

I'm sure part of it stems from the feeling that it's somewhat unfair for the strong teams to be so strong in the first place. Most of them...the 'Hawks, Caps and Pens, for example...are strong because they sucked for years and claimed franchise players in the draft. Others, like the Sharks, are so doomed in the playoffs it's like a train wreck; we can't turn away from their continued failure. And others, like the Wings, we just get sick of. We liked them once, but now we're tired of their success and we want to see them finished.

For us poor Habs fans, rooting for the underdog generally stems from our love of fairy tales, and the situation with our own team. That's what we get these days. Our team isn't the powerhouse it was years ago. Now, it just barely scrapes into the playoffs and it's almost always the underdog. So we have sympathy for the others in our class. We support the working team and shun the elite. It's no different from trade unions versus bosses. We want heroes. Tough, underdog goalies and failed big-money superstars make our day. We want teams who tell OUR story and make us relevant.

Most of all, if one underdog can win, so can another. It gives us hope to root for them. That's why we look back at '71 and ask, "Hey, if that team could do it, why can't this one?" Why can't it, indeed. The stories of underdogs prove anything, and everything, is possible. Those stories are what keep us coming back, and they're what make us believe.

There's nothing on paper that says the Canadiens, or the Senators or Flyers or Predators or Avalanche should win their playoff series. But off paper, on the ice, there's heart and luck and skill and grit that says they might. That's why we love underdogs. They give us a chance to believe and hope in a way that cheering for a favourite, with the automatically assumed sense of entitlement, doesn't give us. We appreciate the miracle wins. We love the hero goalies and the clutch goal scorers more than those who expect those things.

So far this playoff season, it's the year of the underdog and I love it. Who let the dogs out? Parity, hope and good luck let them out and I hope they run free for a long while yet.