Monday, May 31, 2010

You're Fired!

Well, if they've got nothing else to distinguish them this year, the Canadiens are certainly outstanding for their weird sense of timing. First, Bob Gainey quit in the middle of the season, right before the trade deadline. Now his successor, Pierre Gauthier, has decided to kick half the scouting department to the curb with less than a month to go before the draft.

Yesterday, word began to leak out that Gauthier had fired amateur scouts Denis Morel, Dave Mayville, Pelle Eklund, Nikolai Vakourov, Antonin Routa, and pro scout Gordie Roberts. There are a lot of questions about why, and why now, that we need to have Gauthier address as soon as possible.

Speculation about the "why" part is rife right now, splitting between a couple theories. The more encouraging of the two is that the team's brass has realized their first-round picks are nowhere near the quality of those made by the top-flight clubs against which the Habs are competing. In that case, one would assume Gauthier is attempting to fix the problem by dumping some scouts in preparation for bringing in people he believes are better at the job.

More worrisome is the other theory about why those guys got the axe. There's a worm of doubt among fans about Gauthier's interest in the bottom line and the Molsons' desire to save money by cutting costs like scouts salaries and travel expenses. I really hope this isn't the case. The last time the Molsons owned the team, they scrimped and saved and the result was the trading of high-priced players in favour of less-talented, cheaper ones, and bad drafting by a skeleton crew. I certainly hope owners who just made two rounds of playoff bonus money they weren't expecting, and already announced higher ticket prices for next year, aren't trying to go cheap on the scouting department. Success in today's NHL is built on the draft and it's the place where a team serious about winning should be spending the most money.

I hope there's an announcement shortly that the team has hired a good bunch of people to replace them. There's certainly room for improvement. Morel, the former NHL ref, was responsible for scouting Quebec and, although there haven't been a great number of Quebecers taken in recent drafts overall, the Habs have missed most of them. Vakourov was the Russian scout, and although he spotted the talent, few of the players came over to North America, while those that have made the leap have struggled. His sacking might be an indication of the Habs general frustration with Russian players and intention to stay away from them, regardless of talent. Whatever the reasons behind the choices of guys who won't get their contracts renewed, however, the Habs need more scouts, not less.

It's the "why now" part that has me really worried. The team isn't renewing the scouts' contracts which run out at the end of June. So, we have to assume that Gauthier is going to continue to use their advice for this year's draft, even though they're getting cut loose. It doesn't give me great hope for this draft, if the guys responsible for the Habs' picks are leaving right afterwards because the they're not very good at their jobs. If, on the other hand, they are good at their jobs and they're getting turfed because the owners want to cut costs, well, that's bad too. How dedicated are those guys going to be in the weeks leading up to the draft when they know their jobs are gone, regardless? Either way, there's reason to be concerned about the Habs' chances of uncovering a gem in this draft, and, if money's at the root of this decision, in the coming years as well.

I know there are other scouts in the organization, but I don't want this to be the herald of the kind of penny-pinching we saw from the owners in the pre-Gillett years. Smaller scouting staffs in today's NHL aren't a good thing, no matter what the reason for them. So, while the timing of this announcement is odd, I hope there's at least an explanation...and preferably some new hires in the scouting department...coming before the clock strikes twelve on the Habs development system.

Sunday, May 30, 2010

Offseason Tweaks: The Goalies

For most of the media who follow hockey, the Montreal Canadiens are reprising "Sophie's Choice" this summer, with Pierre Gauthier in the Meryl Streep role. Jaroslav Halak versus Carey Price has been raging in the media and among fans all year, and many believe Gauthier has to make his choice by draft day.

The three biggest reasons why most people believe a choice is inevitable are: 1) It's too expensive to keep both of them, 2) Both of them want to be number-one goalies and don't want to share the net in tandem fashion again next year, and 3) One of them would be great trade bait to use in strengthening a weaker position on the team.

I don't buy those reasons.

First, If Halak is offered the three million or so I'm expecting to see him make next year, he still needs a backup. A reputable, reliable backup is going to cost about a million, to a million and a half. There's no way the Habs are going to come in much under 4.5 or 5 million for two goalies, regardless of whether they keep Price, so trading him for cap savings doesn't make sense. It's conceivable Halak could be traded for cap reasons, as he's got the better numbers right now, and, as we know, the NHL is all about "what have you done for me lately." Because of that philosophy, Halak stands to make more money this summer, so, would be a better salary dump if it came down to that. The question is, how much more important is it to save money than to ensure your netminding is secure? It's very tough to buy reliable goaltending for less than five million, and the Habs have an opportunity to do that.

Second, although both goalies have made it clear to management that they believe they're number-one netminders, the fact is, only Halak has proven he can back up those words so far. He's older, more experienced and has performed better under pressure. He has played himself into the number-one goalie position, and, for now, Price has slid into the backup job. Halak also has the greater leverage in negotiations right now, with his right to take the team to salary arbitration. He has earned himself the right to be considered first when it contract time rolls around. Price may believe he's good enough to be a number-one goalie, and, in a couple of years he may very well live up to that belief. Right now, however, he has proven to be inconsistent; all-star quality one night, a sieve who smashes his stick in frustration the next. His numbers for the last two seasons have been decent, but his performances have been inconsistent. In short, he's not in a position to demand anything. He's a restricted free agent, and his immediate future is still in the hands of Pierre Gauthier...early-career hype notwithstanding.

Third, the trade value of goalies isn't great and hasn't been since the lockout. The things the Canadiens need: a tough, mobile defenceman with a heavy point shot who's good in his own end, a big, gritty two-way centre, or a scoring winger with some size, are things every team needs. The thing is, when it comes to trading a player like that, very few teams will do it unless they get something comparable in return. There's always the idea that there are other ways to get a goalie. There are more experienced netminders out there than NHL jobs, and when a cap-pressured GM has to decide if he'll go cheap on defence or in goal, he'll almost always choose bargain shopping for the backstop.

So, I don't think the common reasons why the Habs need to dump a goalie are good ones. The reasons why they don't are much more compelling. The money saved, as already argued, wouldn't be great. The trade return stands a good chance of being of less value to another position on the team than the goalies already are in theirs. Most importantly, however, is the basic fact that there's not enough evidence one way or the other to definitively decide who should stay and who should go.

Halak has been the little goalie who could at every level of hockey, and he ably demonstrated his competitive nature again in this year's playoffs. He's earned respect and a place with the Habs. But (there's always a "but") next year, goalie equipment shrinks to be size-specific for each guy. A player like Price, who's already wearing larger equipment because he's a big man, won't feel too much difference. Halak, however, being a smaller guy who'll now no longer be able to compensate by wearing bigger gear, might. I don't necessarily believe it'll be a big deal, but what if it is? What if those few inches leave just that little bit more net open for snipers to take advantage of?

Then there's Price. He's got the size, the skills and the expectation of greatness on his side. He's never shown he's got the mental toughness to be the number-one guy in an NHL net...yet. But what if he gets it together in the next year or two? He's not that far from finding consistency, and if he does, he's going to be really good.

There are still questions about both goalies; enough to keep both of them around long enough to see them answered. There's no huge pressure on Gauthier to move one of them right now. I'd like to see him offer both goalies two-year deals, with the understanding that, barring injury, one of them will win the job long-term and the other will be traded next summer. That way, a lot of questions will be answered and the extra year on their contracts raises their trade value.

Of course, this all flies out the window if a really fabulous trade offer comes along, but how often does that happen? Unless it does, both goalies should stay.

Meryl Streep never had it so easy.

Friday, May 28, 2010

Farmboys and Combines

I think the most distateful of the distasteful things about the business of the NHL is the draft combine. The spectacle of a bunch of seventeen and eighteen-year-old boys grunting and sweating through a battery of physical tests, some excruciatingly difficult, that may or may not have anything at all to do with their ability to play hockey, while an equal bunch of fat, middle-aged men ogle their every move is just...distasteful.

I get the interview part. Meeting a boy face-to-face and finding out about his opinions and his attitude while reading his expression can tell you something about whether the kid is at least determined to make a go of it in hockey. I think about Josh Gorges when I see the criteria at the combine. He was never drafted, and maybe wouldn't have fared well against some of the studs in the physical testing. I think, though, if a GM had sat and interviewed him when he was eighteen, he might have heard his name called on draft day. Even the interview part, though, isn't an ironclad indicator of how a kid will progress. How many of us wince when we think about things we did and said at eighteen? Kids grow up, and basing their futures on performances while they're still immature just isn't fair.

The physical test part is silly. Boys at that age are still growing and putting the pressure on them to be ripped beasts encourages too much time in the gym and the temptation to dope themselves to get bigger and stronger. I can see the value of drafting a naturally big, strong kid who also has hockey skills. But I think the combine puts an inordinate amount of value on size, and pressure on kids to attain it. Size alone, of course, means nothing. Look at Shawn Belle: big, strong, fast; physically impressive. Yet, after being picked in the first round of a great 2003 draft, he's never been able to establish himself in the NHL.

The draft, at the best of times, is a crapshoot. The top players get chosen, regardless of their combine performance. Seriously, can you imagine the Oilers passing on Taylor Hall because he's hurt and can't demonstrate how many sit-ups he can do? I wonder how guys like Gretzky, or Lafleur, would have done in the combine and if it would have affected the way they were viewed as players? So, the combine is really for the lower-ranked players who may or may not pan out as actual hockey players, regardless of their physical abilities in those tests.

The whole event is uncomfortable for the players, and kind of creepy for the amount of slavish interest paid it by the sports networks. It makes me think of what it must have been like for the poor men on the docks of Waterford a couple of centuries ago, who sold themselves into indentured servitude for seven years in exchange for passage to America. That's really what the draft is, after all. Eighteen-year-old boys owe their professional rights and allegiences to whatever team drafts them. They have little choice in the matter if they want to play, and if it takes seven years of indentured servitude and putting up with the draft combine to forge themselves a career in hockey, they'll do it.

I just find the whole thing tastes pretty sour.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Thanks, Everyone

I'd like to thank all of you for reading here this year, and for contributing to the discussion with your thoughtful comments. I've been writing about the Habs in one way or another since I was about twelve, so I'd be doing this blog regardless of whether anybody read it or not. It's just so much more fun to know you're out there enjoying it with me! So, thanks. I'll be updating regularly throughout the off-season, so stay tuned, and throw out your comments if the spirit moves you.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

A Note of Appreciation

I was thinking a lot today about what the Habs have given us, their fans, this season. I know it's something significant and something (hopefully) long-lasting, but also something hard to define. It's not the redemption of an up-and-down season by a great playoff run, although that's definitely something for which to be grateful. It's not the joyful moments either, or the pride we feel in their effort, even if those things are honest and good. I thought a long time about what this gift really is and how to articulate it, and I think it's something deeper.

The best way I can put it is to say they've given us back a culture of respectability. It's not the culture of winning in which the team was once steeped, but it's something as important in its own way.

For too long a part of the last two decades, the Canadiens have been ridiculous. (And I mean that in the original sense of the word; not in the way the cool kids use it.) They've been a bad hockey team with fans who take a great deal of overblown pride in a history most of them have never witnessed. They've been losing on the ice while the team's marketing department pushed the legends and the accomplishments of the past at us, sheepishly brushing the ineffective group currently wearing the CH under the red ceremonial carpet. Worst of all, where once the Canadiens were the envy of other teams' fans in a miserable, grudging way, years of failure brought them down from their Olympus to wallow in the mud like everybody else. Other fans loved the decline, and they laughed at us for supporting a team of losers. Our only response when faced with the truth of their taunts was "Yeah, well, our team still has 24 Stanley Cups." Pitiful, and ridiculous.

That started to change when Bob Gainey returned to Montreal. He arrived with nothing on the farm and little on the NHL roster worth salvaging. When he took over in 2003, the Habs had missed the playoffs four of the previous five years. Gainey's arrival brought an aura of honesty and good sense back to the organization, just because of his own stellar reputation in the hockey world. He slowly turned things around on the ice too, although not dramatically enough to make the team a Cup favourite.

In the last five years, the Habs have been a playoff team in all but one. The conference title two years ago surprised everyone and made people start to think maybe they should take the Habs seriously again. Last year's first-round sweep by the Bruins could have been a setback in the renewed image of competitiveness Gainey was trying to create for the organization, if he'd let the culture that lead to that sweep continue to fester. He didn't, though. He started over with the kinds of players whose characters matched their skills. Whether he lucked into some of the good moves he made or not, he deserves our appreciation for dragging the Habs out of the ranks of the ridiculous.

It's the group of players he pulled together last summer who have really solidified the team's transformation, however. They've been professional, hard-working and deserving of respect all throughout this playoff run. Proving heart can win games even when it's not housed in the bodies of a lot of superstars has given the team back its dignity.

I'm sad the run is over. I really hoped they'd be able to pull it off and meet the Hawks in the finals. But under the sadness is a sense of deep satisfaction that the move toward respectability started by Gainey has been greatly advanced by this playoff run. Respectability may be regarded as a small thing, but I believe it's an essential state to achieve before a team becomes a winner. If a team is respectable, free agent players want to be part of it. If it's respectable, its members can be proud of their effort even in defeat. Fans can smile and say, yes, that's my team. It's in the playoffs every year and the men wearing its sweater leave everything on the ice when it really matters.

This playoff, when viewed as part of an upward trend in on-ice success overall, has made the Habs relevant again. It means the players will have to come back in October and pick up where they've left off this season. For now though, they, and we, can feel no shame. They've done their best to make our team respectable and for that, I thank them.

Monday, May 24, 2010

The End

I hope Pronger accidentally falls and puts the Wales Trophy (whatever they call it now) up his arse.

Habs vs. Flyers Game Five: Rock Me, Cammalleri

Notes on the third:

-I'm really not paying much attention to the play off the top. I'm busy toasting Habs who did well.

-Remember when the Habs used to score?

-Halak has stopped about nine breakaways in this game. He's got the big, clanking balls we like to see signed long term.

-Oh wow! Gomez, apparently, has a shot! It's like finding out Barbie has a penis, but I'll take it.

-Bergeron is a waste of oxygen in this game. And, when you consider oxygen is a very common gas in the atmosphere, you'll understand what a serious waste Bergeron is.

-The call on Metro was bull. If you thought it was bull when you watched it live, you were right.

Notes on the second:

-You know what I hate? The sterile rink names these days. I know Flyers fans will always be assholes, but they had some cachet when they were being assholes in The Spectrum. In the Wachovia Centre, they're just garden tools. And, you just know this shit wouldn't be going down in the Forum.

-Fallout Boy makes the giant giveaway on the Flyers second goal, and Pouliot lets Richards go on their third. Upgrade on the wings, anyone? At least in terms of friggin' brains?

-When Darche and Moen are on your top lines, there's a serious depth issue.

-The refs are WAY too quick on the too-many-men penalties. The extra man for the Habs was within a foot of the bench, going off, when that call was made.

-How come Montreal PPs seem to fly and Philly ones go on for hours?

-I guess Martin will be wiping his butt with the lucky tie tomorrow?

-I hate the Flyers and their fans, but it doesn't matter if the team is better than the rest of the opponents the Habs faced. It matters that they're better than the Habs, and they DO play that style our guys can't handle.

-I've opened my end-of-playoff champagne because this is the night. But, it was a helluva run.

Notes on the first:

-Gio! No shutout tonight, Leighton!

-If this is the last game of the year, at least we won't have to look at Bergeron be steamrolled off the puck on the point ever again.

-Bloody hell. This team has no luck. I've been saying all year Jaro would pay for those huge rushes out of the net after loose pucks, but what a time to pay!

-Flyers are throwing all kinds of breakaway passes between Gorges and Gill, and it's working.

-They've been good on the PK without Gorges and Pyatt tonight. I'm actually more scared of the PP than I am about the PK right now.

-Wow, Halak on Asham was a game-saver. If they were paying him by the save, he'd be taking home his money in gold nuggets.

-Not a bad period, but the lack of success on faceoffs and in winning along the boards is going to hurt them.

Pre-game notes:

-So maybe his actual wording was lost in translation, but CKAC is reporting today that Pleks is calling a win tonight. That's either the ballsiest thing he's ever done or the dumbest.

-My new theory on what's wrong with Andrei Kostitsyn: He's actually Fallout Boy. He was born just before the Chernobyl melt-down belched tons of radioactive waste on his country, killing brain cells all over the place. The dumb look and inability to think more quickly than the speed of darkness might not really be his fault.

-Cammy's loose. His twitter comments are making fun of Spacek's pants.

-I want to be just zen about this game because it's been a great run and there's no shame in being the last team standing outside the Finals. I can't though. I want it because I hate the Flyers so, so much.

-Two things for tonight: don't get shut out, and don't give those bloody Flyers fans anything to Ole about. Oh, and no dumbass penalties to suck the life out of the team before it gets going.

-The importance of the first goal is true for every team, but for the Habs it's the difference between life and elimination.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Aftermath: Reality Bites

Now that the stinging humiliation of a third shutout loss out of four supposedly intense playoff games is wearing off a little, I think it's time to look at what's really going on here.

Yes, the Flyers have a much better mix of grit and skill...often rolled up in the same players, even!...than the Habs do. Yes, the Flyers are now a healthy team. Yes, the Philly defence is better-rounded than the Canadiens'. All of that is true, but the biggest difference between the Flyers and Canadiens; the difference that is responsible for all the other differences, is the first round of the draft.

The Flyers' lineup is stacked with the results of their first-round picks. Mike Richards. Jeff Carter. Claude Giroux. James van Riemsdyk. Simon Gagne. That's the core of the team's talent on the forward lines, and they're all Flyers' first rounders, picked and developed by the organization. The interesting thing about them is that only van Riemsdyk was a high pick, going second overall in 2007. Jeff Carter was 11th overall, but the others were picked in the 20s. Mike Richards was 24th, Giroux and Gagne 22nd. That's either the result of good scouting or good luck; most likely, a combination of the two.

The other thing Philly has done is make its first-rounders pay off, even if they don't remain with the team. Chris Pronger has had a great year for the Flyers and is signed long-term. Paul Holmgren got him for 2008 first-rounder Luca Sbisa and two late firsts from 2009 and this year. Also figuring into that deal was Joffrey Lupul, who'd been the return to the Flyers for their 2002 first-rounder, Joni Pitkanen. That's a steep price to pay, but Pronger is playing a big role in a playoff run in what will likely end in a berth in the Finals. And, isn't that the point of draft picks in the first place? Paying with picks for a long-term cornerstone piece on a contending team makes a lot more sense than the choices some teams make to dump picks for rentals at the trade deadline. Another example of good use of a first is in the trade of 2005 pick Steve Downie in exchange for Matt Carle. The grand total for the Flyers comes to five of nine forwards on their top three lines and two of their top-four defencemen, all gleaned from the wise use first-round draft picks.

Compare that record to that of the Canadiens. Of the Canadiens' top nine forwards in these playoffs, one, Andrei Kostitsyn, is a Habs first-rounder. Scott Gomez (and his crippling contract) and Tom Pyatt were acquired for two former first rounders; Chris Higgins and Ryan McDonagh. None of the top four defencemen came from the first round. In fact, from the last ten first rounds, only Kostitsyn and Carey Price are part of the big team. Of the others, Higgins, McDonagh and Kyle Chipchura were traded away. Ron Hainsey and Mike Komisarek walked as free agents. Max Pacioretty is in the minors and Leblanc and Fischer are in college. The 2008 first was spent on half a year of Alex Tanguay.

A team in a cap system needs good, cheap talent. It gets that for a few years from its draft picks. Sure, they don't have to be first-rounders to be good players. Look at PK Subban, Jaroslav Halak, Tomas Plekanec and Andrei Markov for evidence of that. Lots of people will also point to the incredibly lucky Red Wings who salvaged Datsyuk and Zetterberg from the later rounds. The fact is, though, most of the best talent in the league comes from the first round of the draft. The stats show 63% of first-round picks go on to become career NHL players. Only 25% of second-rounders make it, and 12% of third rounders. After the third round, it's rare to find a skater who becomes a career NHL player. The numbers prove a team has a much better chance of drafting a future NHL player in the first round than it does in later rounds, so when it blows its first-round picks on busts, the organization is inevitably set back in its development.

When first-rounders are wasted, it means the team has to get lucky in the later rounds or else fill its skilled roster positions by trade or through free agent signings. The problem with the first option is you can't get something for nothing, and if you don't have first-round quality talent to trade, you won't get any stars in exchange. That leaves hitting the free-agent market for talent. Unfortunately, that market is expensive and the more talent the player has, the more ridiculous the contract expectations.

Looking at the Flyers versus the Habs right now, you can't argue the value of using first-round picks wisely. The beauty of what they've done in Philly is that, in filling their core roster spots with homegrown talent, they've been able to use their free-agent money to sign extra help like Briere, Timonen and Hartnell. Throw in a smart trade like the one for Coburn, and the result is a well-balanced, well-built team. The Canadiens, on the other hand, have had to go the free-agent route to fill important roster spots. Roman Hamrlik, Jaro Spacek, Paul Mara and Georges Laraque are all aging and overpaid. Mike Cammalleri and Brian Gionta are good, solid players, but they need support. The problem is, there's no money left to buy it.

There's no substitute for drafting your own good players. If the Canadiens are ever going to compete consistently, they have to do a much, much better job at getting value for those first-round picks. Chris Pryor in Philadelphia has done that admirably. Trevor Timmins in Montreal has not. At this point, Pierre Gauthier has to consider an overhaul of the scouting department. Finding a late-round steal in Mark Streit or Jaro Halak can't replace the assets wasted on blown first-rounders. The litany of "guys we could have drafted" is a familiar one for fans, but that's a fool's game. Every team has a similar list and there will always be late-blooming gems who turn into something nobody expected when they were drafted and make the GM who takes a chance on them look brilliant. But there has to be a much higher ratio of success than the Habs have had. At least three out of five of a team's first-round picks need to pan out for an organization to improve significantly. The Canadiens' success rate is more like one out of five. That's not good enough.

If, as expected, the Flyers meet the Blackhawks in the Stanley Cup finals this year, there will be no clearer advertisement for the value of homegrown talent. Kane, Toews, Seabrook and Ladd (for 2001 first pick Tuomo Ruutu) will all have played a big part in getting their team to the big show. In the Habs' case, maybe last year's choice of Louis Leblanc in the first will be a turning point for the better. We fans had better hope it is, because without better first round choices, this year's playoff run will be the best thing we'll see for a long while.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Flyers vs. Habs Game Four: Clawback

Notes on the third:

-I think if they lose this game, it might be time for the Habs to take their bow for the crowd. They've got nothing to be ashamed of this spring.

-It would be easier to score goals if anybody could actually complete a pass. It's amazing that they just can't connect on a simple pass.

-Flyers are doing a great job at getting their sticks in front of Habs' shots.

-Delay of game is the worst penalty in hockey, but if that's the only one the Habs can draw, I'll take it.

-I'm glad the fans aren't booing at least. That would be hard to take right now.

-I can't take the shutouts. Leighton is getting way too much credit. The Habs are handing him glory on a gold-plated, shutout platter. This is horrible.

-It's all on Martin, for not wearing the lucky tie.

-I wanted them to go down swinging. They went down with a bad case of impotence instead.

-Sigh. Curse. Sigh. Curse. Sigh. Curse...

-I take comfort from the fact that the Flyers will be destroyed by the Hawks in the Finals anyway.

Notes on the second:

-Damn fine goal by Giroux. Gill and Gorges just got outraced.

-This smells suspiciously like Game Two. Lots of forechecking by the Flyers and nobody in red driving the net. I don't know if thye're tired, but the Habs are second to every loose puck.

-Well, you knew the rookie would get burned sooner or later. Subban's gonna be great, but he's going to have some very painful growing pains.

-It'd be easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for the Habs to get a shot on goal. Seriously. ONE shot in twenty minutes? That's brutal.

-I'm afraid the Habs are out of miracles.

Notes on the first:

-Well, if the Habs win this one, they'll be beating the best the Flyers have to throw at them and they'll deserve it.

-Oh no! Jacques the Knife isn't wearing the lucky tie. Gulp.

-Lapierre enjoys watching the pre-game show on the big screen. I hope he likes being the hero as much.

-Easy for Laperierre to play dirty when he's wearing the full cage like that.

-Canadiens are looking a bit too hard for the perfect play, I think. They need to stop thinking about prom-queen goals and go for the raunchy stripper ones.

-It always amazes me that a little guy like Pyatt can win the puck off the boards as consistently as he does, while some huge guys can't do it.

-Pleky's looking for the giant python that took a chunk out of him sometime during the Caps series.

-Hal Gill giveth, and Hal Gill taketh away. The man is a human retaining wall.

-Nice period. First goal is going to carry immense significance.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Aftermath: Hammer Time, To the Max

Well. The Habs' two biggest weaknesses in the first two games of this conference final were the inability of the defence to move the puck efficiently in order to spark the offence, and the inability of the forwards to get second chances by going to the Flyers' net. Somebody (Muller) looked at some tapes and got Les Boys playing the style they need to play to beat these guys.

The first weakness, on defence, was addressed by Roman Hamrlik. I don't know what it is about Markov going down hurt, but whenever it happens, Hamrlik plays like he was drafted first overall once upon a time. What a game he played last night! He hit, he skated hard and he passed the puck quickly and accurately. He did everything you need your top-two defencemen to do. And, best of all, partnered with PK Subban, he helped the kid out enough in the defensive zone to free up Subban on offence. The result? Three assists for the rookie. I'm among those who thinks Hammer's contract will have to be moved this summer, if possible. Yet, last night he reminded us why Bob Gainey signed him.

Spacek also had a strong game last night, and Gorges and Gill were their usual steady selves. Bergeron was scary, as always. O'Byrne, playing his first game in the series, had the misfortune to make a couple of early errors and spent the rest of the night on the bench. I really hate Martin's culture of punishment. How can he expect a young defenceman, coming in cold, to be perfect? And, even if he did, how stupid is he to not give O'Byrne some minutes to get his game back up to speed when the Habs had the game well in hand? The fact is, Bergeron won't be back next year because he's terrible on defence. O'Byrne will be on the roster, so Martin needs to nurture him NOW.

Now, back to the kudos. The other glowing, shining point of light in Game Three was Maxim Lapierre. The guy annoyed the Flyers to the point of instigating them to take penalties in an effort to shut him up. On top of that, he skated like the Roadrunner and drove the net like the Rocket. I can only imagine what it must be like to be the other team's fan and see that smirking asshole yapping at my favourite players while he's beating them on the scoreboard too. When he's doing that FOR my team, though, it's great. There's something about the home crowd that really fires the guy up and prods him to raise his game to a level of spectacular pestilence.

While Hammer and Lapierre were the shining stars last night, there's a lot of honourable mention to go around. The whole team skated like they were driving the bus in Speed. Halak found his mojo again and made some fabulous early saves to set the tone. The team collectively decided it wants more hockey this spring, and went out to do what needed to be done to make it happen.

Now they just need to do it three more times. That suddenly doesn't seem as difficult as it did yesterday.

Flyers vs. Habs Game Three: Home Sweet Home

Notes on the third:

-I'm convinced, Plekanec will be big in the Finals. Shut up laughing.

-You have to give Hamrlik credit. He's found his youth again for this game. What an effort for the number of minutes he played!

-I love that in Montreal, they don't just chant "LAY-ton," but they also cast the whammy on him with the rally towels.

-Was it a coincidence that Gary Galley said, "Falladelphia?"

-I don't like that JM effectively benched OB. Yes, he made a mistake, but the guy is young and needs minutes to improve. A 3-0 lead should award him those minutes.

-I wonder if it's embarrassing for Gagne when all the announcers say "Since he came back from his TOE injury..."

-Hey, thanks Bob Cole. I didn't know Halak's first name was "The Goalie."

-The Wave in Montreal. I'm kind of glad it's not dead.

-If I was drunk, in the Habs room, I'd go up to Gill and say, "I love you, man!"

Notes on the second:

-I'm sure Cherry's jacket is giving me the Evil Eye. Ptuh, ptuh, ptuh.

-Pyatt grows a good beard for a rookie.

-Bergeron at this point isn't even keeping the puck IN on the PP, never mind getting a shot off. Ugh.

-Andrei Kostitsyn drives me crazy. Whenever he loses the puck on the boards, he just stands around, waiting to see what will happen instead of chasing it.

-Lapierre's the ultimate homer player. He never looks as good as when he's playing for something big in front of his home crowd.

-My good and entertaining friend Brian on Lapierre's behind-the-net work: "It's a Lap dance!"

-The PP really, really misses Markov. Bergeron can't tee up without the perfect pass, and there's nobody to give it to him. He's so co-dependent.

-Plekanec better get a good contract this summer, so he can buy himself a break.

-Another great period. One more and this is a series.

Notes on the first:

-Okay. Bergeron's in the lineup again. I want to see him shoot the puck as hard as he can every time he gets it. I don't care if it's on net. I don't care if it's from a bad angle. It will either hit the net or break someone, which is a good thing for the home team.

-Wouldn't it be a bad sign if the torch-bearer kid fell on his butt? And, does the fire-on-the-ice thing mean they're symbolically throwing the kid on some kind of sacrificial pyre?

-Great. Gomez nearly fell on HIS butt instead of the kid. I don't like this.

-I have to see how long I can stand Cole tonight. Over/under is four minutes, or until the first Flyers goal, whichever comes first.

-Jeez, O'Byrne. Delay of game in the first minute. Worst penalty in hockey by the guy who could have redecorated Martin's doghouse by now.

-Best moment of the period: Cammalleri nailing the Flyers' D with a crosscheck, then scoring. Beautiful.

-Second-best moment: Gionta getting the stick ripped out of his hands, continuing with the soccer moves, then picking the stick up on the way back down ice without missing a beat.

-Excellent replay: Carcillo on the way to the penalty box jostling Gomez. Gomez responding with the smirk and stick at eye-carving level. "You like seeing, punk?"

-We all forget Tom Pyatt's just a rookie because he's playing like a vet. But, he's doing a lot of good things. Goals can't bounce off you unless you're in the crease.

-I hope Cammalleri's post doesn't come back to haunt them.

-Halak's in the hot zone. Thankfully.

-Great period. Their one advantage is speed and they're using it to their advantage. Now, forty more like that, please.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Aftermath: Sigh

You know, I can't even be mad today. Sigh. As frustrating and humiliating as last night's second consecutive shutout at the hands of the wretched Flyers was, the Habs tried. They skated hard and they took lots of shots; two things they didn't do in Game One.

In the end, though, they just didn't have the horses they needed to pull the wagon. Offence, as I've argued before, comes from defence. The Habs can't score because they're crippled on the back end. They don't get much offence from the blueline outside of Andrei Markov in the best of times, and without him, the ability of the defence to move the puck is radically hurt. Hal Gill is playing with heart, but he's obviously in pain and his already limited agility is even more compromised by his injury. Josh Gorges is playing hard too, but he's got his hands full just trying to keep the puck out of his own net, and offence isn't his strong suit. PK Subban's a rookie who's finally looking like a rookie under pressure, and while Hamrlik and Spacek are doing pretty well in their own end, Spacek's playing on the wrong side and neither of them is an offensive force.

Then there's Bergeron. Yeah. Sigh. I actually think I understand what Martin's doing by putting him in the lineup. He sees the same thing I see: that without Markov, the ability of the D as a group to move the puck quickly and jump-start the offence is very limited. O'Byrne certainly brings size and the ability to move bodies out of the crease, but weighing the team's needs right now, puck movement from the blueline is a priority. Bergeron can make a good first pass. Unfortunately, he's a very small, soft defenceman who's being pressured by Flyers who want to hurt him. Under pressure, his first-pass ability disappears. So, while the idea to use him makes a sort of sense, the reality of him on the ice isn't helping. I'm not a big believer in plus/minus as a reliable stat in assessing a player's abilities, but in this case, MAB is the biggest minus in the playoffs for a reason. Without his PP shot, which is also MIA, he's useless.

Without good puck movement from the blueline, the forwards have to carry it more, which gives the positionally-sound Philly defence (the tightest the Habs have yet faced) lots of time to get back and protect the middle of the ice in their own zone. It's no surprise, then, that we've seen so many shots from the perimeter on the Habs' attack. I don't buy the "size is an issue" theory. Briere and Giroux aren't huge guys, but they're gaining the Canadiens' zone because they're catching good passes from their D while moving through the neutral zone. The Habs don't have a comparable full-team attack.

When it comes to play in their own end, the defence worked well against teams that used their huge talent to fire tons of shots at Halak, which the Habs could block. Now it's facing a team that takes lots of shots from three feet outside the crease, and moving those opponents out of there isn't the Canadiens' defence's strong suit. When your D can't move the puck OR the opponent, it eventually comes to pass that the team will lose games.

Last night, the Habs "leadership group" said all the right things. Cammalleri said, "It's just sports and sometimes even when you work hard, you lose." Gionta said, "They kept their home ice, now we'll try to do the same thing." Gomez said nobody's panicking and the series is far from over. It's good to hear them try to stay positive, and I think their heart and determination will help them win a game in this series. Whether they can do more than that is in much greater doubt, largely because their defence isn't as good as the one they're facing.

It would help them win if they could stay out of the penalty box (I'm talking to you, Gomez!) and if they could get their sticks on a rebound or two. A bit of luck would help, since they've had exactly none since the Pens went home. I think the writing's on the wall, though, and the magic is over. Last night, the forwards did what they could to maintain pressure in the Philly zone, and they did well. Everybody worked hard. But sometimes, when a team doesn't have the horses, the bandwagon grinds to a halt. Unfortunately for the Canadiens, Andrei Markov is the only thoroughbred they've got on the blueline, and he's not going to be around to pull.


Habs vs. Flyers Game Two: Streets of Filthadelphia

Notes on the third:

-It's a bad sign when RDS is only interviewing Flyers.

-This game is over. I'm going to bed, in great anticipation of the post-game coverage. If the Habs come back and win it, I'll dance naked in the town square. Good night. I'll only wonder if they actually score a goal.

-One final note: Laviolette has told his team not to shoot. Jaro's not good with few shots, and this is showing him up. Horrible.

Notes on the second:

-This is the kind of game in which, if the Habs get a breakaway, it'll be Gomez. Or Gill.

-Gross. TV closeup of Pronger blowing his snot on the ice. I think the rink should have to be cleared by the EPA before play continues.

-I worry about Timmins' drafting. He gave as the reason why he passed on Giroux in 2006 that the kid was too slow. Hmmm. Either Giroux has learned to skate really fast in the last four years, or Timmins isn't that smart.

-Speaking of not smart, if Martin can't see that Bergeron is completely outmatched in this series, he's either blind, dumb or too stubborn to be an NHL coach.

-The thing I hate most in the NHL is French players who want to destroy the Habs. Whatever happened to the days when those guys were proud to play for their hometown team? Now they just want to make money in the States and make their names beating the Habs.

-The Habs PK is as effective, to borrow a phrase from my buddy Brian, as a mesh condom.

-This is 2008 redux. Habs domination, and a 2-0 lead for the Flyers. Like Biron, who played the starring role in 2008, Leighton will never be this good, or this lucky, ever again.

-I hate Philly and their Ole-ing fans. I wish our team was destined to make them eat it. But somehow, I think it's not in the cards. The Canadiens haven't had a break since this series started...again, like 2008.

-The worst thing about losing this game will be the national media coverage. They've all grudgingly had to get behind the Habs because they're the last Canadian team left standing. But they love reporting that Montreal's imploding. Can't contain the glee.

-Hard work again this period, but no net traffic and bad luck. The mismatch on special teams will make the difference tonight, and for the next two games in this series.

Notes on the first:

-On the OB versus MAB issue: I'll take OB against a team like the Flyers, just because he's capable of disturbing guys like Briere and Giroux. That, of course means MAB will score, just to prove me wrong.

-Tim Peel reffing. Ugh.

-Great. Repeat of Game One. Habs with the early PP and Gomez with an absolutely boneheaded negation of it. And the Flyers goal immediately on their PP. It's like being forced to watch re-runs of Full House.

-Honestly, I can't stand Briere, but if a team has to egregiously overpay someone, would you pick Briere who scores PP goals, or Gomez who's in the box when they get scored against his team?

-I think Gill's playing more hurt than we think. He always looks like a giraffe on skates, but tonight he looks like an old, stiff giraffe, skating away to one last visit to the zoo vet.

-The Habs' defence is as solid as crepe paper.

-The third line has come to fight, thankfully.

-A sight I never thought to behold again: Sergei Kostitsyn in a Habs sweater. Pouliot has actually fallen THAT far in Martin's estimation.

-Ha! Moment of the first: Richards lining AK up, and throwing himself into the boards instead. Hope it hurt.

-If this team can't score on the power play, then WHY???? are they playing MAB?

-A much better period than we saw in Game One. Habs are skating hard. The key will be maintaining it through the next forty.

-Briere leaving the ice grinning. I hope he's crying by the time this is over.

Monday, May 17, 2010

A Dear John (Tortorella) Letter

Dear John,

How's your summer going? I imagine you've got quite the tan going right around now. Hopefully, your blood pressure is returning to normal. Well, normal for you, anyway.

First, I should say I loved you as a commentator on TV. When you said on TSN how you think Sean Avery is a little punk, and how you'd give him the boot from your team, it was great. When you then got hired to coach the Rangers and had to take charge of said little punk, it was hilarious. You're quite the funny guy, John.

Speaking of your time as Rangers coach, you didn't have much of a year, did you? Well, what did you expect, when you signed on to work for Glen Sather, the heir-apparent to the Mike Milbury Worst GM In History title? He's taken an interesting approach to the competition. Where Milbury traded away anything resembling talent in exchange for expensive guys without much talent, your boss just signs every free agent on the market at overblown prices, then hopes they somehow turn themselves into a team. Good luck to the coach, in this case, you, in that situation. Anyway, I digress.

Your boss did a nice job unloading Scott Gomez on my Habs. Gomez has a lot of good points, but his contract isn't one of them. (Still, his post-season experience and hard-working attitude have been beneficial during these playoffs, so we can let some of the contract-related bitterness go (for now.) Again, I digress.) That trade allowed good old Glen to run out and get you Marian Gaborik. This was great for you. Gaborik stayed mostly healthy for the first time since puberty and had a great year for you. He figured in something like 97.8% of Rangers goals and was the first real, productive star you guys have had in fifteen years.

So, forgive me for bringing this up during your dreamtime summer break, but I have to ask: Why the hell didn't you use Gaborik in the shootout that would have gotten you into the playoffs?! Yeah, yeah. I know old Mary doesn't have a great shootout record in his career, going only 2-for-18 lifetime. But Olli Jokinen? Seriously? The dude had fifteen goals all year, including a whopping four in New York. I know he was 5-for-10 on the shootout this season alone, but he was colder than the ice under his feet when you sent him out there to take that shot.

Listen, Torts (can I call you Torts?), when your entire season is on the line, you go with your best players. The shootout is such a small-sample stat, you can't go by the numbers. Here you had a superstar, who's won you about a million games by himself this year, and who REALLY wanted to make the playoffs. Don't you think maybe he would have stepped it up and found a way to beat Brian Freakin' Boucher when it really counted? You owed it to him to give him the chance. You owed it to Lundqvist, who stood on his head all game to wedge open the playoff door for your team.

Now, I know you're sitting there on your boat, with your imported beer in one hand and a nice Cuban in the other, wondering why some dumb Habs fan is bothering you about a regrettable decision made weeks ago. Well, sorry to throw an anchor into your summer cruise, John, but I have to tell you this is all your fault. The Habs' playoff situation, I mean. I'm mad at you because if you'd used Gaborik and he'd actually scored, it could have been you in the playoffs instead of Philly. Just thinking about how close those orange-and-black turds were to golfing is enough to make a grown Habs fan cry. But no. Here they are, banging their way into the Conference Finals and lighting up Jaro Halak, all because of you and Olli Jokinen.

Sure, maybe Gaborik would have been stopped too, but we'll never know if your forty-two-goal scorer might have saved your season now, will we?

I'm hoping the Habs can come back tonight and beat the Flyers in Game Two. Maybe, if they make it to the Cup Finals, I can forgive you, John. But if they don't; if my big-hearted team's magical playoff run ends at the hands of those Philly arseholes, it's on you. There will be wrath. You might not care about that, but I just wanted you to know how your idiot decision has far-reaching and troublesome consequences for the innocent fans of other teams. I hope you can live with yourself. Or can't. Whatever.



Sunday, May 16, 2010

Aftermath: Abject Humiliation

If there was a category on Jeopardy called "Things That Are Flat," the daily double answer last night would have been "This team shocked the National Hockey League with its Game Seven heroics four days ago, then mysteriously vanished in a forest of black and orange." Who are the Montreal Canadiens, Alex?

"Flat" is the most charitable word I could think of to describe the wretched display on the ice in Game One. The Canadiens registered zero on the intensity scale all night long. They had no offence, bad defence and unfortunate goaltending. Special teams were "special" only in a sarcastic way. It looked like the Canadiens from the last week of the regular season...the ones who stunk out the joint in Carolina and Long Island, and who barely scraped out a loser point against the leafs; the ones we thought long banished...were back. They're not welcome.

The serious question today is, why? Why did a group of players that has proven over the previous fourteen playoff games that they've got heart, guts and determination completely fail to show up when they're only four wins away from the Stanley Cup Finals?

There are several possible answers. It's possible the Habs are hurting more than they're letting on. It could be the time off had them coming out flatfooted while the Flyers were still flying after Friday's huge win over Boston. Maybe the coaches didn't adapt properly from the Pens' and Caps' superstar-centric style to Philly's more balanced attack. Perhaps the Habs just can't physically match up with the Flyers. Or, least palatable of all, maybe our guys were afraid.

Unfortunately, the Habs showed some signs of being the latter; the hockey equivalent of a liverwurst and marshmallow sandwich, heavy on the marshmallow: bad-tasting, gag-inducing and squishy. The build-up of the Flyers' and their fans' tough reputation seems to have gotten to them.

It started with the Gomez penalty three minutes into the game, which was very reminiscent of what happened to the Habs in 2008, the last time they played the Flyers in the playoffs. The idea of the Flyers as a physical team who'd be playing a physical series got into their heads and the Canadiens started playing the Philly game instead of their own. Last night, just like two years ago, many of the penalties the Habs took came from attempts to be "tough" and "send a message." The message they ended up sending was that the Flyers are in their heads and they're playing dumb because of it. The problem is, when an opponent preoccupies a team like that, can the affected team shake it off?

I think last night can have one of two effects. It will either make the Flyers seem even bigger, tougher and better than the image the Habs had of them to begin with, or it will rally the Canadiens and spur the pride we know is a big part of their collective makeup. We fans had better hope it's the second option, because it's impossible to be more humiliated than they were last night. Not only did every French Canadian Flyer forward score, but the Habs were outskated and outworked by a team with less rest and shut out by a goalie who's the modern incarnation of Gary "Suitcase" Smith. The icing on the mud cake was the Philly fans derisively singing "Ole" as the clock wound down. If that doesn't make the Habs come out with their best effort in Game Two, nothing will.

The Habs failed to use their speed, which is their greatest weapon, in Game One. They also failed to put their best players on the ice for the particular situation. Ryan O'Byrne isn't the best defenceman on the team, but he was the right guy to play last night. Bergeron is only on the ice because of the potential of his point shot to blind a goalie on the PP. That's a good thing to have in the lineup, but it's a luxury. It has to be balanced against the fact that a team might get eight minutes on the power play, while it's defending its own net against big gate-crashers for fifty-two minutes. In that situation, a guy who's able to bounce some of those gate-crashers out of the crease outweighs the potential of a PP goal from the point. Scotty Bowman's fans always say his best asset as a coach was knowing which guys to use at what time. The Habs could use him now.

If the Canadiens thrive on being the underdog, the Flyers left no doubt last night that the Habs will be fighting their way up from the bottom once again. If there's going to be a different outcome in Game Two, however, some things will have to change. Speed will have to become a factor. The Habs will have to be disciplined, and let relentlessness on the puck replace stupid attempts at being tough. Muller and Martin need to offer a reward for the guy who's willing to actually go to the front of the net and stay there. (Honestly, I got tired last night watching Brian Gionta getting beaten up by Pronger and Coburn while standing in the blue paint.) Most of all, though, the Habs have to forget about taking on the Flyers on a physical level. They need to focus on what they're actually good at: skating and working hard.

It may come down to the simple fact that missing Andrei Markov on the back end will cripple the Habs' breakout and total offensive capability beyond saving in this series. It may be that the Flyers are a more balanced, more talented team with a better defence. If that's the case, there's no shame in losing. There *is* shame, though, in being second to every loose puck, in taking stupid penalties and in letting Flyers screen the Canadiens goalies unmolested while no Hab does the same to Leighton. If the Canadiens wonderful playoff run is going to end in Philly, let it end without further embarrassment at least. I have faith that this bunch of players, whose character we've seen carry them out of difficult situations many times in this post-season, will stand up and refuse to be shamed again. There's too much dignity in the Habs' room to allow that, and that's what I want to see tomorrow. I think they're mentally strong enough to shake off the sense of intimidation with which they're obviously dealing.

One thing's for sure: If the Habs come out flat in Game Two, they'll be flattened. Again.

Habs vs. Flyers Game One: Let's Get It On

Notes on the third:

-The Habs never make it easy, do they? There's a write-off game in every series, like the guy you drop from your pool at the end of the season.

-There are two versions of the Canadiens. There's the one that shut out Philly 1-0 late in the year to help them make the playoffs. Then there's the one that allowed the Flyers six goals in each of back-to-backs a month before that. We're getting the team behind Door Number Two tonight.

-The Canadiens have been outworked all night by a team that played for its life two days ago. This does NOT look promising.

-Jeez, Gomez. If you're going to take a dumbass penalty, take one of them DOWN.

-Habs are pinned to the boards like butterflies.

-Surely, if there are hockey gods, they don't want to see the Flyers and their Neanderthal fans win?

-Another thing I hate about the Flyers: Scott Hartnell's cave-man hair.

-Has every French guy on the Flyers scored now? There must be one who hasn't, surely?

-This is Cinderella when the clock strikes midnight and she's sitting on the street next to a big empty pumpkin, in a torn dress with one lousy glass slipper and the other foot full of splinters.

-If there's any rage in their hearts, may it come to the surface on Tuesday. This is horrible in a soul-scratching kind of way.

-Shut out by a tinker goalie. Awesome. I think I've not seen the Habs play a more wretched game since they lost so miserably to Carolina in the last week of the season. I was hoping I'd never see it again, but like the Loch Ness monster, it rises again just when you thought it wasn't real.

Notes on the second:

-I have a feeling MAB will score one, if only because whenever he's been sufficiently useless for sufficiently long enough for the coaches to consider sending him to the pressbox, he dazzles them all once again with a laser goal and keeps his spot. Then again, maybe he'll just continue to outright suck.

-Of all the Flyers I want to see lose, I think Briere is the one I most want to beat. His smarmy mustache, unparalleled joy in beating the Habs and the way he used Montreal to boost his contract value in Philly disgust me.

-Subban not having much luck tonight. He's watched both of the first two Flyers goals up close and personal.

-Feel like '93? Nope. Feels more like 2008.

-Joke of the night on me: I saw Subban leading the rush on the PP, and for a moment thought he was wearing 75. I nearly choked to see Gill skate like that.

-If I were Kostitsyn, I'd have a personal vendetta against all the guys drafted after me in 2003 who make me look bad. I want to see him rip up Richards in revenge.

-This is exactly like the first game against Pittsburgh. Stupid penalties and a lousy PK. Now Price is in. Deja vu, although I have a sneaking suspicion this series isn't going to end as well for Montreal.

-I don't place much blame on Jaro. He's been screened on every goal. The Flyers are using their size and willingness to go to the net to their advantage.

-Oh, add to the list of things I hate about the Flyers: Their fans. Singing Ole now, in mockery. If that doesn't fire up the Habs, nothing will.

-Habs spend more time working on the perimeter than a mathematician.

-Martin's very rosy-cheeked tonight. Either he's ripping mad, he's been drinking or he's allergic to Philly. Maybe all of the above.

-This one's over. I hope they can salvage some pride in the third.

Notes on the first:

-Non-hockey fan spouse says it's not a bad thing the Habs drafted Andrei Kostitsyn. It's only bad that they neglected to draft his brain as well.

-Cinderella versus Snow White tonight in a bitch-slap match of fairy-tale proportions.

-Okay...A Little Like '93 on HNIC. Nice. I still say it feels nothing like '93 though.

-Cherry on the game opener, still calling Jaro "Havlak." Boys in the tunnel look nervous.

-Add to the list of things I hate: Laviolette and his stupid orange ties.

-Gomez needs to be a heck of a lot smarter. That Coburn goal hurts because it gives them the special teams advantage, and it proves how much physically stronger the Flyers are.

-Biggest problem with the two-ref system: One more body on a too-small ice surface, getting in the way.

-The Habs' version of dump and chase is as successful as trying to find a diamond in a landfill.

-I guess it's a good thing Lapierre can insult Briere, Giroux and Gagne in their native tongue. Mabye that'll get to them if they hear their mothers are 'hos in French.

-Cammy's wearing Pronger like a king-sized blanket knitted from cactus skins.

-Wouldn't it be ironic if the journeyman goalie who couldn't stick with the Habs beats one of his many old teams?

-My question isn't why Gomez scored only twelve goals this year. It's: How the hell did he score 33 one year in Jersey?

-Halak robbed Gagne like a Dickensian orphan in a crowd of toffs.

-Thirteen to six shots on goal in Habs favour. That never works out well.

Pre-game notes:

-I really hate the Flyers. I hate their cheap-shot version of "toughness." I hate their smug French Canadians who'd love to beat up on the Habs. I hate Pronger, voted dirtiest player in the league by his own colleagues. I hate the orange and black uniforms. I hate Kate Smith on the big screen during the anthems. Most of all, I hate the desecration of clean, skilled hockey the entire franchise represents.

-I think the Habs have the edge in goal, as long as Jaro doesn't get rattled by the inevitable pile of goons in his crease all night.

-If the refs do their job, the Habs should get a few power plays tonight. It's vital for them to capitalize on the PP, and for the PK to be working. It could very well make the difference.

-Habs are shifting from a shut-down game against the likes of Crosby and Ovechkin, to countering the Flyers' attempts to shut down Cammy and Gionta. If those guys get smothered, it'll be tough for the Habs to score.

-Third and fourth lines will be very, very important to the Canadiens in this series. This is one of the times when your support team has to come through. You can't go all the way without them.

-It would also be a very good time for the "big" guys on the first two lines, AK and Pouliot, to finally wake up. A little help in the goal-scoring department would be very beneficial.

-Did I mention, I hate the Flyers?

Friday, May 14, 2010

Feels Nothing Like '93

There's a facebook campaign for everything. Right now, a bunch of people are lobbying Hockey Night in Canada to play a song called "Feels Like '93," in honour of the Habs current playoff run. The thing is, I suspect the people who've signed up for this group either weren't old enough to appreciate '93 or don't remember what it actually felt like. This year is nothing like '93.

The Canadiens in 1993 were sixth in the league, with 102 regular-season points. The team featured four players...Damphousse, Muller, Bellows and Lebeau...with eighty points or more, including at least thirty goals apiece. They scored 326 goals, good for ninth in the league, and were seventh in goals against, with 280. In nets, the Habs had mercurial superstar Patrick Roy, who was responsible for 31 of the team's 48wins. There were no European-born players on the roster, and captain Guy Carbonneau led with hard work and steady defence, and by his passionate fire on and off the ice.

In contrast, this year's injury-ravaged Habs scraped into the playoffs as the lowest-ranked of the sixteen qualifying teams, with an unimpressive 88 points. The team's top scorer was Tomas Plekanec, with seventy points including 25 goals. Nobody else on the team cracked sixty. The Canadiens were 26th in the league with 210 goals scored, and they allowed 218, for a -8 goal differential. The biggest topic of discussion among fans, analysts, and, it would appear, the coaching staff, for much of the season, has been whether Carey Price or Jaro Halak is really the number-one goalie. Seven players come from Europe, including the leading scorer, number-one goalie and best defenceman. The team has no captain at all.

In '93, the Habs were well-positioned for a playoff run. They were third in their division behind the Bruins and Nordiques, but the Nords, whom they would face in the first round, were only a point better in the regular season. After dropping the first two games in Quebec City, the Canadiens rallied and quickly dispatched their provincial rivals, winning the next four games. This year's Canadiens started off their post-season against the President's Trophy-winning Capitals, who finished a full 33 points ahead of them. They won it only after coming back from a hair-raising series 3-1 deficit for just the second time in a hundred years of franchise history.

The 1993 Habs got a lot of help from other teams, too. The mighty Bruins, who'd been a problem for the Habs all year, fell in four straight games to the lowly, fourth-place Sabres. The Canadiens then ended the Sabres' delusions of grandeur by sweeping them for an easy second round. Their third round opponent was another upset winner. The Islanders somehow tumbled the number-one team in the league, the Pittsburgh Penguins. Like the Sabres, though, the Isles' luck ran out after their big victory, and they fell to the Habs in five.

This year's team is getting no help from anyone outside their own dressing room. They're doing all the giant-killing themselves, and doing it in the face of poor scheduling, iffy officiating and serious injuries to important players.

No, this year feels nothing like '93. That year had its amazing run of overtime victories, but there was an awful lot of luck involved in that Cup win, and after a lot of the victories, we fans were left feeling that, "Whoa, that was close!" It felt like a good team that managed to miraculously get itself out of trouble at the last second more often than not. This is different. This team is winning because it works like a bunch of Clydesdales to create its own luck. This underdog bunch has gathered the goodwill of not only its own fanbase, but also that of others who would never have cheered for them in '93.

It's a nice idea to play that song on HNIC, but it's just nostalgia. This year's Canadiens are living for the moment and themselves. Ken Dryden said on the evening of the great Centennial game that, while it's nice to have the history and the Stanley Cups of the past as part of your team's legacy, it's time for the current players to write their own story.

Guys like Jaro Halak, Mike Cammalleri, Hal Gill and Brian Gionta are doing exactly that. They're writing a tale of honour and teamwork, effort and good execution, pride and courage. It's their story, and, aside from the winning, it has nothing to do with 1993.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Aftermath: Thanks Bob!

Of all the great moments from what turned out to be a great game last night, I think the very greatest was during a stoppage in play. The TV camera focussed on Bob Gainey, leaning against the pressbox wall in his shirtsleeves while he gazed down on the team he built for the playoffs. As we watched him smile in satisfaction after Brian Gionta scored the team's fifth goal, Penguins GM Ray Shero walked over and shook Gainey's hand, conceding the series.

Gainey has taken a lot of flack for being Silent Bob; the guy who came too late to the free agent party every year and who got rid of players for little or nothing in return. There's no doubt he made some mistakes in his tenure as GM, as has every other general manager in the league. In the end, though, the steely determination and courage Gainey showed in his playing career served him well again when it came time to revamp the team he once captained. He took a huge, ballsy chance when he dumped half of last year's group and rebuilt from the heart out. As Mike Cammalleri said last night, the criticism about the new guys' lack of size, and questions about their durability, have been heard loud and clear all season. Now it's stopped because those little guys, like Gionta and Cammalleri, have proven they can rock the playoffs. Gainey draft picks PK Subban and Jaro Halak have stepped up when it counts. Free agent signings Hal Gill and Jaro Spacek stabilized the blueline and Gainey's best trade acquisition, Josh Gorges, has played a huge role in shutting down the best offensive players in the world over the last fourteen games. Tomas Plekanec, who a lot of GMs would have tossed out with the rest of the disappointing players last year, vindicated Gainey's continued faith in him and harried Sidney Crosby into losing his cool every night. Gainey took a somewhat novel approach in constructing his playoff team, in that he didn't go for the most talent or the biggest bodies. Instead, he chose players who are clutch, who know how to win and who are prepared to give of themselves in a common cause. As we saw last night, hard work and team play can trump talent when it really matters.

Watching Gainey graciously accept his due from Shero was my favourite moment from last night. Also high on the list:

-Gionta's hand-eye coordination on the fifth goal. He's gifted, and he puts himself in the right spot to use his gift, heedless of the physical toll it takes.

-Cammalleri's one-knee one-timer, and his understated goal celebration.

-Halak's massive split save on Malkin.

-Also, Jaro's crazy rush out of the net to beat the Pens to the puck and foil a clear break. It nearly gave me a heart attack, but it was cool in retrospect.

-Hal Gill's big smile after the game, and his statement, "Winning is fun!" This, with no outward sign of the fifty-two stitches in his left calf muscle.

-PK Subban and Dominic Moore's victory chest-bump.

-Crosby getting called for cheap-shotting Gorges, then sitting in the box for the first goal of the game. Karma!

-Plekanec's work on the 4-on-3 PK. He didn't score, but he helped keep Crosby good and frustrated, and his assists count for something too.

-Andrei Kostitsyn's forecheck and interception on the Cammalleri goal. He's so good when he works.

-Lapierre laughing at Orpik after Moore's goal, which happened while Orpik was mauling Lapierre behind the net instead of standing in front of it, where he was supposed to be.

-Fleury getting yanked, then smashing his stick in the tunnel.

-Kirk Muller and Jacques Martin beaming in their lucky ties while they congratulated each other.

-Travis Moen's excellent PK work and scoring short-handed while Gonchar just gaped at him as he blew past. He worked like a Trojan all game and hit everything that moved. Nobody deserved to score more than him.

There were many others as well, but those are the moments that sparkle against the backdrop of a truly great game. This is a special team, and it's having a special playoff. I hope it culminates in some big, shiny hardware sometime in June, but even if it doesn't, if the only things you can ask of a team are that it give its best and never quit, we're getting that and more. It's been a long time since I've been so excited about the Habs, and I have to thank Bob Gainey for that.

Now, if you've got six minutes to spare, have a look at this. The great Stan Rogers was singing about a boat, but he could easily have written this about our team. Go Habs, go!

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Habs vs. Pens Game Seven: There WILL Be Handshakes

Notes on the third:

-Biggest PK of the entire series. If they kill this, they can lock it down. Maybe.

-I'm getting too scared to write.

-Pleks has been owning Crosby all series on faceoffs, now suddenly he's getting booted from every draw. Nah, no conspiracy at all.

-Whoever said Brian Gionta was overpaid at five million a year should panhandle to get him a bonus. He's a hero.


-From the non-hockey-watching spouse: Can Martin wash his shirt now?

-I don't know if it's more fulfilling to watch the Habs win or listen to Bob Cole call the last five minutes in a state of depression.

-Gainey's SMILING in the press box. I didn't know that happened.

-Wow. I love this team.

Notes on the second:

-Good eye on Cherry. He noticed Martin and Muller are wearing the same ties from Game Seven against the Caps and in Game Six this series.

-I can't shake the nerves. I keep thinking the biggest lead the Habs have had in these playoffs was 4-1 against Washington, and we know how that turned out.

-Wow! Cammalleri just earned next year's money too! That started with a very nice forecheck and steal by Andrei Kostitsyn. Good on him.

-Best comment of the night from Galley on HNIC on Gonchar's play against Moen for the shorthanded goal: "What is he, a matador?" If he is, Moen's the bull. Ole!

-Announcers talking about the Pens trying to change their luck. It's not their luck they need to worry about, it's their work ethic. Habs' pluggers are playing better.

-Kunitz' goal off the referee. How apropos.

-If Travis Moen isn't a star of this game, win or lose, the scales of justice are weighed down by Crosby's tears.

-Josh Gorges is a demi-god in the hierarchy of the Habs religion.

-Staal is a beast. I thought the Habs should have traded AK for Staal last summer, but, there you go.

-What the hell was that call on Gorges at the end? Oh, right, the league's team needs a goal. Damn.

Notes on the first:

-Ooh...I don't like scratching O'Byrne. If Gill's not a hundred percent, they'll regret dressing only five D and MAB.

-Habs look nervous, like all the talk about having nothing to lose has been forgotten in the realization that they have something to win.

-What a start! Subban! Gionta! Crosby in the box!

-Pens fans booing offsides already.

-Gill playing with FIFTY stitches in his leg. He's either going to be the heroic story of the playoffs or the one-legged goat.

-With the way the puck was jumping over the Habs blueline during the Pens PP, there's either really bad ice or the Pens are clutching their sticks hard enough to leave scars.

-Moore's making a very pleasant habit of scoring the second goal in Game Sevens. That one was on Orpik though, who was more interested in roughing up Lappy behind the net than protecting his goalie. Ladies and gentlemen, I think we have an actual big-league agitator there.

-JARO! If I didn't have a heart attack on that rush out of his net, I'll live to be a hundred.

-Great period! Two more like that, please.

Pre-game notes:

-Really, really nervous, but in my saner moments I think this team can actually do this.

-Four keys to winning: Score the first goal, stay out of the box, get strong goaltending and bury chances. The D and the emotion will take care of itself.

-I love how the Habs seem to be really enjoying themselves. Their pre-game comments, to a man, included the same words: "We're not ready to go home yet." Sometimes, feeling joy in a task rather than fear can make the difference.

-I don't like Tim Peel reffing this game. He's the second-worst ref in the league, behind our old buddy Chris Lee.

-Thinking about not having my usual second-period beer tonight, out of a probably misguided idea of experiencing the full range of emotion in this game, without artificial warm and fuzzies. I guess whatever happens in the first will dictate the decision.

-It's good to see Gill likely back. It would have been too easy for Bylsma to match Crosby/Malkin against Bergeron with last change.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Habs Notebook: Game Seven

I'll bet I'm not the only one whose first thought upon waking (early) this morning was "GAME SEVEN!!!" This is so exciting, but now that I've totally bought into this magical run, it's going to be awfully hard to accept if it ends tonight. Random Habs-related thoughts on Game Seven Day:

-History will be made. Yes, NHL, it will be made, and it was a really nice idea to do the ad campaign featuring some of the league's greatest playoff moments. Roy's fabulous OT in his rookie year that led to a Cup win, Bobby Orr flying through the air, Yzerman starting the Wings' great decade of winning and Messier hoisting his first Cup as captain are all memorable, even historic hockey moments. But, typical of NHL marketers who wouldn't know a dead horse if they kicked it for a week, they've ruined the concept with all the versions of the ads they're making for this year's playoffs. Okay, Jaro Halak's 53 saves in Game Five against Washington probably is one for the ages, but Max Lapierre scoring a goal? Come on! It was a very pretty goal, but it was scored in Game Six of the second round. It's not exactly a Cup winner. If the Habs lose tonight, it will certainly be history because nobody will remember it by October when we're all wondering why the hell Lapierre got a new contract after he's been invisible for ten games. I'm waiting for the one with a ref's arm in the air and the Pens scoring on an undeserved delayed penalty. The caption will be "What if Sidney didn't bitch?"

-If the Habs win this game tonight, they have a very good chance to make the Finals for the first time in seventeen years. I'm afraid to think very far ahead, but you have to think that after the Caps and Pens, Philly or Boston would be tough, but not terrifyingly better-on-paper opposition. Then again, they both play the physical style that seems to really stump the Habs.

-If the Habs lose tonight, I think the worst thing will be that all of this will be forgotten by the critics in a year or so, when they talk about how the Habs have failed to emerge from the second round of the playoffs since '93. It won't matter that this group of players gave everything they had and that they defied the odds for game after game. On paper, it'll be just another second-round loss proving how Gainey failed to build a winner. Nobody will point out the level of opposition the Habs have faced, or the injuries through which they've fought. Nobody will remember the blocked shots, heroic goaltending or clutch scoring. And that's too bad. This year deserves a better fate.

-I wonder if this series will change the public perspective of Sidney Crosby? We all know he started his career as a serious whiner, but the image of the humble champion he portrayed at the Olympics convinced a lot of people the Kid had grown up. This series, though, has attracted a great many viewers who don't necessarily get to watch Crosby for prolonged periods of time. It's also featured countless closeups of him whining to the refs at the ends of periods, taking cheap shots like the one at Plekanec at the end of Game Six, and making childish gestures like breaking his stick on Halak's crossbar. You have to respect the talent and drive the guy possesses, but his behaviour in the series says he's not grown up at all. It proves that he's a great guy when things are going his way, but when facing adversity his bad temper and inner two-year-old emerge.

-Speaking of Crosby, I also wonder what kind of effect the captain's general loss of composure will have on his team in this game? I hear the Habs' "leadership group" talking about the fun they're having, the desire to keep going and the way they're playing for each other. On the other hand, I see Crosby losing his temper on the ice and I hear him talking about "not losing." His comments yesterday included, "We're not losing. We're tied in this series," and "We never took them lightly. They're here for a reason and we're here for a reason. Nobody's talking about losing." Hmmm...I don't hear any Habs talking about the possibility of losing. Just Crosby.

-I think it's great the Bell Centre will show the game on the big HD screen tonight. I hope some of the money taken from the $7.50 tickets goes to charity, and I really, really hope, win or lose tonight, nobody acts stupid and wrecks the downtown this time around. The Habs are getting such positive attention in these playoffs, I dread a few idiots spoiling it all.

-Jaro Halak gave an interview to a Slovak paper yesterday, in which he answered questions about Carey Price (they're buddies with no jealousy between them), the playoff run (he's no saviour; just a goalie doing his best) and his contract negotiations (not on yet). Most interesting was his answer when asked if he's happy in Montreal: "At the moment I am, even before I was. As for the future, everything is open for me. I have to say about Montreal fans they are the best in the world. When we win they are great and tremendous. But it's very tough when we lose, they boo at us. That's the hockey in Montreal, as a player you have to prepare yourself for it." Sound like he'd stay in Montreal for the right deal, but wouldn't cry too long if he got a good deal elsewhere. I hope the organization's treatment of him in his early years as a pro haven't soured him on the Habs.

-I've managed to disassociate from playoff runs in the last few years because I didn't expect the team to do anything and I was right. Disassociating emotionally made sure I didn't spend a month in the doldrums after the playoffs ended for the Canadiens. I can't do that this year. I'm all in, and I really, really need the team to win this one. I'm not ready for it to end.

Go Habs!

Monday, May 10, 2010

Aftermath: Do You Believe In Magic?

The playoffs are like a mini-season, with all a regular season's ups and downs, passions, pitfalls and challenges, condensed under pressure into a quarter of the time and sprinkled with a healthy dose of emotion. Sometimes, out of that mix, comes a little bit of magic, and it's the magic that makes the difference.

All sixteen teams that went into the playoffs this year had talent. They all had a decent-or-better goalie, good coaching and players who wanted to win the Cup. Not all of them had the magic that comes from a mix of guys who believe in themselves and fight for each other. I don't know how far it can carry them, but the Canadiens have that.

Playoff magic makes heroes. In the first round, Jaro Halak wrote himself into the history books with his magnificent, series-stealing preformance against the most potent offence in the league. Hal Gill emerged as a literal tower of shot-blocking, self sacrifice, Josh Gorges proved himself a passionate, well-spoken leader and Mike Cammalleri showed his ability to score when the team's most desperate isn't confined to the regular season.

This time around, it's PK Subban. This is a kid who, one year ago, was in the thick of the Memorial Cup playoffs in Belleville. He should, if the hockey gods weren't cruelly dismantling the Habs' blueline, be helping the Bulldogs to the Calder Cup this spring. But Fate has spoken and the kid finds himself bolstering Team Adversity's defence. Last night, he played nearly thirty minutes to lead both teams in icetime, and he looked like a wily veteran while he was at it, despite his sparse ten games of NHL experience. There was one sequence RDS showed mid-game that really underlined what the kid's capable of providing. The camera isolated him working against Crosby, and Subban mirrored the Pens' captain move for move. Crosby's patented stops and starts and quick turns in tight quarters are meant to confound defencemen who don't skate as well as he does, and usually it works perfectly. Not last night, though. Subban's one hell of a skater and living proof that mobility in a defenceman is as great a weapon as a bullet point shot or the ability to lay a huge bodycheck. This guy is going to be a very, very good NHL player for a long time. He's the kind of find that can salvage Trevor Timmins' reputation.

Last night was special for Max Lapierre too. He's responding to the passion of the Montreal crowd with another level of play. The game winner he scored was a thing of beauty we wouldn't have seen from him during the season just past. And how about Jaro Spacek? The guy came into the game after not having been on the ice in weeks and not only scored a vital goal, but also looked extremely sharp on defence in the missing Hal Gill's spot. Mike Cammalleri is earning his money and any playoff bonus that may be in his contract with his performance.

For anyone who thinks Tomas Plekanec isn't a big reason why Crosby is so mad in this series, a comment the whiny baby made to reporters after the game last night is pretty telling. When asked about the scrum at the end of the game, someone asked Crosby whether there was something in particular that set him off. Crosby said, "No. It's just Plekanec." Pleks has Crosby good and angry this series. The big whiner is cornering the officials after every period to complain. He even did it after the first last night, when the Pens had carried a lot of the play and Crosby himself had scored his first of the series (incidentally, while he was on the ice against the Lapierre line instead of Plekanec's.)

I don't know how long a team can run on heart and magic, but so far the ride has been a whole lot of fun. I don't want the spell to be broken just yet, and I think the illusionists in the CH might just have one more trick up their red, white and blue sleeves.

Pens vs. Habs Game Six: Wishin' and Hopin'

Notes on the third:

-I hate it when a PP is split between periods. The centre-ice faceoff just kills momentum.

-The call on Moore for crosschecking is in the top three for "Lamest Penalty Call of the Post-Season." If you think that's the one, call or text your votes to 1-800-REFS-SUCK.

-Pyatt kills penalties like a rabid tabby kills songbirds.

-Bergeron seduces us with his shot, like a starlet with a spectacular rack. But, without the shot, MAB is wretched, like the starlet when the cleavage starts to widen and all that's left is a lot of bleach and ill-fitting lingerie.

-.Lapierre is one of the guys who give credence to the theory that guys who grew up loving the Habs play harder when it really counts. There are uglier Picassos than that goal.

-Honestly, don't the refs EVER get sick of listening to that friggin' Crosby whine? EVER?

-I can't believe a raw rookie like Subban is playing the way he is. Is this how it felt to watch Dryden in '71?

-What a game. I love this team.

Notes on the second:

-Gill's absence is noticable because Crosby is noticable. You can tell there's nobody on the ice with a ten-foot stick tonight.

-Jaro had better be talking to his posts and saying "well done."

-Ah...what an unfortunate goal to allow! Then again, I guess it balances out when the Pens probably should have scored three others.

-Shooting from one step inside the blue line isn't cutting it, Gomez.

-Cammalleri defies the people who say size is an issue. Eleven goals in thirteen playoff games say he earns his money. And I love how he never freaks out after he scores. It's always, "So? There's more where that came from."

-Andrei Kostitsyn is wearing the title belt for World's Super Most Frustrating Player Ever that he won from Alex Kovalev. Makes that lovely pass to Cammy for the second goal, then makes an idiotic pass in his own zone that nearly costs a goal.

-Spacek actually hit the net on a point shot. Can he play every game with vertigo? Oh, and how about the irony...he scores and they play "Vertigo."

-What a push-back. Can they hold 'em off for another twenty? If Big Jean can work the mind-meld on Crosby from the fourth row, I think they can.

Notes on the first:

-If Spacek gets dizzy and has to puke, I hope it's on Crosby.

-Cammy! The finisher is back. Gorgeous no-look pass by Pleks too.

-Stupid too-many-men penalty, but a great, great kill.

-Terrible bench management on the Crosby (blech) goal. Martin CANNOT have Bergeron and Pouliot out there against that line.

-Oh, Pleks! Roughing? Really? He should know by now you can't touch the Pens because there will NOT be offsetting minors in situations like that.

-I think Pouliot has no peripheral vision. I've lost count of his neutral-zone giveaways.

-I loved the tight shot on RDS of Crosby one-on-one with Subban along the boards. PK matched his every move. Looked like Fred and Ginger there.

-Serious question: Does anybody remember Gomez EVER potting one in a wide-open net?

-Spatch saved his own ass there, with the great diving stick check after getting caught. He's not looking too bad so far.

-Hope is still alive.

Python Meets the Habs' D

[arg] [ugh] [hah]

SIDNEY CROSBY: You fight with the strength of many men, Sir Hal. I am Sidney, King of the Bitchers.


I seek the finest and the bravest defencemen in the land to join me in my Court of Criesalot.


You have proved yourself worthy; will you join me?


You make me sad. So be it. Come, Evgeni.
HAL GILL: None shall pass.
GILL: None shall pass.
CROSBY: I have no quarrel with you, good Sir Hal, but I must beat you to win another Cup.
GILL: Then you shall die.
CROSBY: I command you as King of the Bitchers to stand aside!
GILL: I move for no man.
CROSBY: So be it!

[hah] [parry thrust]

[CROSBY chops GILL's right leg while knocking him down on a Pens PP]

CROSBY: Now stand aside, worthy adversary.
GILL: 'Tis but a scratch.
CROSBY: A scratch? Your leg's off!
GILL: No, it isn't.
CROSBY: Well, what's that then?
GILL: I've had worse.
CROSBY: You liar!
ANDREI MARKOV: Come on you pansy!

[hah] [parry thrust]

[CROSBY'S COHORT COOKE chops MARKOV's right leg off]

CROSBY: Victory is mine! [kneeling] We thank thee Lord, that in thy merc-


GILL: Come on then.
GILL: Have at you!
CROSBY: You are indeed brave, Sir Hal, but the fight is mine.
MARKOV: Oh, had enough, eh?
CROSBY: Look, you stupid bastards, you've got no legs left.
GILL: Just a flesh wound.


CROSBY: Look, stop that.
JOSH GORGES: Chicken! Chicken!
CROSBY: Look, I'll have your buddy's other leg as well. Right! Kunitz!


GILL: Right, I'll do you for that!
CROSBY: You'll what?
GILL: Come 'ere!
CROSBY: What are you going to do, bleed on me?
GORGES: I'm invincible!
CROSBY: You're a loony.
MARKOV: The General always triumphs! Have at you! Come on then.

[whop] [CROSBY crosschecks an already dizzy SPACEK]

GILL: All right; we'll call it a draw.
CROSBY: Come, Cookie.
GILL: Oh, oh, I see, running away then. You yellow and black bastards! Come back here and take what's coming to you. I'll bite your legs off!

Sunday, May 9, 2010

The D-Bone's Connected to the O-Bone

Okay, everybody, we know the Habs are having a terrible time scoring. We know if they push hard, they can take advantage of Fleury and put up more than one goal a game. So why aren't they doing it? A big part of it is defence.

In an ideal world, at least one in which Jacques the Knife is king, the defenceman picks up the puck in his end, smartly passes it up to the nearest open forward who's already in motion, breaking up ice with his linemates. They cross the blueline skating hard, the puck carrier either passes off and heads to the net for a screen or a rebound or he cuts in and shoots while his linemates go to the net.

In the Habs real world, in which Jacques the Knife has to keep cementing his hair in place to quell the urge to tear it out by the roots, a guy like O'Byrne or Gill (God love his size XXXL shot-blocking shin pads, but he's not a great puck handler) will grab the puck in the corner, see the forechecker heading for him and hurriedly scoop it around the boards where it may or may not be picked up by Josh Gorges. If Gorges gets it, he'll chip it to centre, where it may or may not end up on the stick of a Canadien. If a Hab gets it, there may be o-zone penetration and possibly a shot on goal. If Gorges doesn't get it in his own zone, it ends up tied up on the boards while the wingers fight for possession. When it comes out, if the Habs have possession, they'll carry it to centre and dump it because it's time for a shift change. This happens about nineteen hundred times a game, and it means Gomez' line or Plekanec's ends up spending a great deal of ice time simply struggling to gain possession of the puck.

See the difference when Markov or Subban have the puck? Easy, smart outlet passes to moving forwards that lead to scoring chances happen much more often. The Habs make a lot of giveaways, and a great many of those come from the defencemen who are prone to just throwing the puck out of trouble without much thought about what happens to it afterwards. Unfortunately for the forwards, it's tough to build a cohesive attack when the primary mindset of the guys who are supposed to start the rush is "get rid of it!" They're doing a good job of getting the puck out of trouble, but that doesn't lead to much in the way of strategic offence.

The defencemen are an integral part of the offence, and this is where guys like Markov and Spacek are most missed. They're able to play in their own end, but they also think about where the puck needs to go once they get control of it. Gill, O'Byrne and Hamrlik manage to do it sometimes, but not often enough. That's why it's hard to get dangerous rushes started in the Habs end. Most of the Canadiens' chances come from winning o-zone faceoffs and holding the puck in for a shot or two.

There are a lot of other issues with the scoring too, first among them that nobody but Gionta seems to spend much time in the opposition goal crease. The Habs also don't win enough faceoffs and spend too much time trying to gain possession after losing the draw. Short shifts mean there's little time to accomplish much before the players are off again. And focussing on hermetically sealing their own zone ensures the team has to skate a LOT and wears down late in the third.

There's definitely a give and take here. You want the Habs to play tight D, but you want them to be able to transition to offence quickly as well. Unfortunately, the people playing on the Montreal blueline don't all have that skill, and the ones that do are mostly injured. Thus, one goal per game is becoming the norm.

In Game Six, in which it's do or die time (once again) for the Canadiens, the forwards will have to work harder to compensate for the things the D can't do. More Habs need to go to the net and bug Fleury and more of them need to make smart passes on the rush once the D does get it up and out of the Canadiens zone. The defencemen have enough to do to protect Halak from getting murdered. The forwards can't expect them to do it all, and need to improve their execution once they finally do get the puck.

This may all be moot tomorrow night if Spacek plays and somehow manages to find his timing after not skating at game speed for three weeks. He's able to make a good forward pass when he's on. His presence will help. Get some good passes from the defence and the offence will move along too. We'll see if it makes a difference tomorrow.

Aftermath: The Old College Try

Whatever the ultimate outcome of this series, I think we can all agree the Habs have nothing of which to be ashamed. Every single man on that team gave what he could to the cause last night and the team, as a whole, can't be faulted for coming up short.

The differences in the last five games have been the Penguins powerplay and good health, and the Habs' general lack of finish. One game of Jordan Staal missing isn't quite the same as missing Markov and Spacek, yet the Habs have held the Pens to a series of very tight games. That's remarkable, considering the skill the Penguins can call upon. That skill, though, is why they're able to capitalize on the PP. They load up their big point shots in Gonchar and Letang and surround them with the skills of Crosby and Malkin with Guerin standing in front of the net. That's a lethal combo at even strength, and extremely hard to contain shorthanded, especially if it happens to be one of your top PKers in the box. We've seen them score extremely detrimental PP goals with Gill, and last night, Gorges serving penalties.

The Habs, on the other hand, keenly feel the loss of Markov in setting up their PP. Subban is helping, but he's not Markov...yet. Without a comparable special-teams weapon, the Habs are getting killed by the Pens PP, which has been instrumental in their three wins. Still, despite that, they're hanging in there and scrounging up their goals at even strength.

The problem is, there aren't enough of them. The team's getting chances, but not cashing them. That's mainly because they're not driving the net hard. They're making some nice o-zone passing plays and taking a good shot. If Fleury stops it, there's nobody there to jump on the rebound. Game Four was won because guys like Darche and Lapierre were harrying Fleury and taking him out of his comfortable headspace. They did that a little bit last night, but not often enough. This is not a size issue. Gionta's the smallest man in the league, but he's always in the crease. It's an instinct issue, and there aren't enough Habs whose internal GPS's direct them to the blue paint.

I hear a lot about Plekanec not scoring, but for me, he gets a pass for his stellar defensive work on Crosby. The whiny baby isn't scoring either, and a lot of that has to do with the way Pleks is playing him. What concerns me is the lack of production from other guys who aren't being asked to shut down one of the trickiest hockey players on the planet. Andrei Kostitsyn and Benoit Pouliot, aside from maintaining some basic defensive awareness, aren't asked to do anything but go to the net and score. They're not doing that, and that's what the Habs are missing. Cammalleri and Gionta have been doing their share. Pleks has other duties. Gomez is the playmaker. Those guys are doing what they're supposed to do, but the finishers on the top-two lines are not.

It's easy to pick apart the third and fourth liners for not doing more as well. I'm not going to do that because I think they have nothing left to give. Pyatt, Lapierre, Darche, Moen, Metro and Moore have all been playing as well as I think they're able to play and if they make mistakes, it's because they are third and fourth-line players. They're playing their hearts out within their abilites. Really, they're contributing just as much as the third and fourth lines of the Pens.

Team Adversity has been beating the odds all year just to get where it is right now. It's not helping that injuries have come back to haunt them when it really matters, but these players deserve a great deal of credit for battling through it anyway. I hope they have another bit of magic left for tomorrow night because if there's such a thing as "deserving" to win a hockey game, these guys deserve it.