Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Aftermath: Falling Short

Sidney Crosby may be unlikeable. He may be a whiner who yaps constantly and looks at the refs in disbelief whenever he thinks he should have drawn a penalty. He may get away with murder, relative to other players who pull the same stunts, and his behaviour may raise the ire of every hockey fan in the world who doesn't cheer for the Penguins or...once every four years...Team Canada. All of those things may be true, but it's also true that Sidney Crosby is not a stupid man.

Crosby knows Hal Gill. He won the Cup with him last season, and he knew last night that if he ragged the puck just enough in Gill's corner, the big guy would eventually get penalized. Gill doesn't hit guys to take them out of the play. He sort of squishes them against the boards and tries to poke the puck away from them. If that kind of play goes on too long, especially if the player being squished appears to be struggling to get his arms free, it's often going to draw a holding penalty. That's what Crosby knew as the second period wound down, and that's exactly what happened. Crosby also knew there was a good chance an end-of-period scrum would end up taking another Hab off the ice with Gill. He was instrumental in stirring up trouble around Halak's net as the siren sounded. Sure enough, the refs decided to hand out out some minutes to cool guys off. It was Crosby's good fortune (surprise, surprise) that the officials picked Gorges to send to the box, instead of Hamrlik. Missing both their best penalty killers, and facing the Penguins heavy artillery with fresh legs in the third, the inevitable happened and the Pens scored the only goal they needed, all because Crosby knows how to work the officials. No, whatever else you can say about him, he's no dummy.

Still, despite the final score, this game proved the Habs can actually win this series. The difference in the outcome last night came down to a near-miss by Cammalleri and a crossbar by Max Lapierre in the first period. It was one of the few times in these playoffs that the Habs' modus operendi: start hard and fast and capitalize with an early goal, didn't work out for them. If either of those close calls had gone in, the game would have had a very different look. It all turned on a stroke of luck, and that says the Habs weren't desperately overwhelmed by a more skilled team. They just didn't get a bounce.

That said, they needed to keep up the level of intensity they showed in the first period for more than just that opening twenty minutes. The only way to score that crucial first goal is to keep pressing. This is what concerns me. The Habs didn't slack off on the forecheck because they stopped trying. They just, simply, ran out of gas. They poured their effort into trying to get that early goal, then they had little left to throw at the Pens when the defending champs pushed back.

As the series wears on, the Canadiens will get tireder, earlier, as they continue to play every game shorthanded. A team like the Habs must use all its available assets if it's going to compete with a balanced Penguins squad. Martin's decision to dress Mathieu Darche, yet again, over Sergei Kostitsyn, then keep Darche on the bench for the entire game was frustrating to watch. I'm the first to agree Kostitsyn is an inconsistent player and you never know if you're going to get the guy who's flying, making brilliant passes and killing penalties, or the one who's giving the puck away at his own blueline and backing off from checks. The thing is, you at least have a chance of getting the good version if he's actually on the ice. Kostitsyn in the pressbox and Darche on the bench does nothing to help the team. It doesn't hurt it, either, but that's typical of Martin's no-risk style of coaching. I'm not sure if he actually can't stand Sergei Kostitsyn to the point where he's willing to wear out his other players just to avoid giving him any ice time, although there's some evidence to that effect. I suspect, though, the issue is more that Martin fears Sergei's blunders will put the team in a hole. At this point, with guys hurt and others tired, the world's most boring coach is going to have to take the risk and hope Sergei can bring something fresh to the lineup. You can't coach afraid in the playoffs.

It's also time for Andrei Kostitsyn to return to the Plekanec line for more than a shift or two. Kostitysn, like his brother, is irritatingly inconsistent. He's one of those players with tremendous skills who doesn't seem to have the smarts to use them properly. He did look alive last night, though, and as a streaky player, the coaches have to keep a close eye on him for signs he's heating up. When that happens, he needs good, offensive-minded linemates to work with. Moen's been playing on the Plekanec line because it's been assigned to shut down Crosby, and AK can't be trusted with a defensive assignment. But without scoring wingers, Plekanec's ability to produce offence is limited as well. It's a delicate give-and-take, and I think Martin's been a bit heavy-handed and hard-headed with managing it.

Among the positives the team can build on for tomorrow are the play of PK Subban, who's taking up Markov's minutes as though he's been doing it for years. The kid got caught a couple of times, but managed to recover in time to avoid damage. He's going to be a great player for the Canadiens and is already a bright light. Jaro Halak showed he can play well even when he's not being mercilessly shelled. That bodes well for the chess-match-on-ice this series is shaping up to be. And the team stuck to the game plan and kept trying all night.

What it's got to do now, though, is tweak the game plan. That will fall to Kirk Muller, who's the real passion behind the Habs bench. It's his job to rally the troops and instruct them about what they need to do on the ice. Martin's job is to manage the strategy as the game goes on...and he's going to have to do a better job at using ALL his players. Tomorrow's game is officially a must-win, because, even for a hard-working team with heart, expecting consecutive recoveries from 3-1 series deficits is asking a bit much. I think the Habs can do it, if they've got anything left to give, and if the coaches improve their asset management.

Of course, a little luck would help too. And they have to remember not to underestimate Sidney Crosby's talent for manipulation.


Kyle Roussel said...

I agree with your positive outlook, as the series is far from over, but allow me to play devil's advocate for a second.

If I had told you prior to the game that Staal and Guerin would not play (we sorta knew this already), the Pens would score 1 goal and that Crosby would be held pointless again, would you think the Canadiens would win or lose?

I think anyone would have wagered that the Habs would have won. But they didn't, and that's why I think this loss stings. When you can hold the champs to 1 goal, you'd better take advantage of it.

The road just gets that much harder, and as you pointed out, the Habs will tire quicker now, which means the early goal becomes even more important.

As for Martin, you'd think that if you were going to allow yourself to be out-coached, that he'd at least have his best team on the ice. Sergei is now so mentally removed from the team that I wonder if it's worth putting him back in the lineup. It's like trying to resuscitate a body after it's been dead for 3 hours already. Not playing Darche for one second is an embarrassment to Darche himself, to the players that are scratched in his place, and to Martin himself, who continues allow grudges to impact his team.

J.T. said...

@Kyle: I agree, you have to take your chances when you get them. On the other hand, the playoffs are a long series of small triumphs and disappointments. I never thought the team could recover from blowing that 4-1 lead in Game Two against Washington, but they did it. The team has proven it has the mental resilience to weather the stinging losses and come back stronger. The question for me isn't their reaction to the disappointment, it's their actual physical response to the wear and tear of playing more games than Pittsburgh, with a depleted lineup.

I've heard Spacek may be back tomorrow, which will help. I suspect it'll mean the fourth line will then consist of Metro, MAB and AK, which isn't a likely combination to see a whole lot of ice in relief of their teammates, though. Martin isn't managing his players well, and, in the end, that could be the biggest factor in determining whether this series goes long or not.

Anonymous said...

Crush Crosby, that's all I gotta say. Frankly, I never really watched him play, I accepted his superstar-dome only through word of mouth. So happy he won our Olympics, but man oh man, I can't stand to watch him on the ice anymore. If he's not in the box in this series, I may hang up my Habs jersey and not buy anymore beer.

Paul B. said...

Josh Gorges told Renaud Lavoie after the game that after the second period scrum, one referee told him "It's either you or Hammerlik, I'm not sure yet but one of you is going to the penalty box".

Vive la NHL.

SK is not about to come back. Carey Price was mad at him for being the first one to leave the ice in Brossard, the other day and when hereturned to the dressing-room and told him to get his ass back on the ice with the other non-regulars that were still practicing, SK told to go and "?&*" himself.

An RDS guy who was interviewing Mathieu Darche, was there and witnessed the whole thing. That suggests that Price may have matured a little bit while the younger half of the Bielorussian Kings of laziness, might never do that.

MC said...

That was a heart-breaking loss as it could have gone either way. If the Pens continue to play conservative hockey like that, the Habs may be forced to open things up a little more, but the game plan was not bad, they just did not get the breaks and Fleury was there when it was needed.

I don't think SK was benched because of his attitude or because JM is trying to teach him a lesson. Very simply JM has lost confidence in him defensively. You cannot afford to give up bad goals this time of year and SK has burned them once too often. It is too bad because I think he could have been a difference maker in these playoffs if he could have found a way to grow as a player. But JM does not think he can win with this guy in the line up, and the evidence suggests he is right.

pierre said...

Although the " Beast of the East " Capitals won all of their 4 games against the Penguins this season there is no doubt in my mind as to which one of the two teams is the better playoff team..... not a night and day difference mind you since Pittsburg had to go to the limit of their series against them last year to prove it..... but facts are what they are, we met the President Trophy winner and we are now up against the team who won it all last season, a Champion team that was resting while we were battling our ways up to an historical upset standard level in our previous series.

Its not easy to be an underdog when the superior team you are facing is better rested and doesn't offer you any signicant flaws upon which to dedicate your efforts in order to upset the pre-existing balance..... which is preciselly what Martin and his best dedicated soldiers went on to do against Washington avoiding the sweeps most had predicted and exposing the little weaknesses they had hidden under their stupendous fire power.

Washington showned some minor issues which were diligently appraised by our coaches and allowed our persistent and commited underdog squad to tumbled them in the end..... WHA had a little IQ problem, showed a little immaturity and laked ultimate strutural integrity while showing some instablility in the net...... PITT unlike WHA seems well rounded to a T and Fleury showed us last night why he was part of the Stanley Cup Champion Team last season.

I have alot of respect fot what we have acheived thus far against the two most powerfull teams in the East but I feel a realistic limit to what can be done nearing..... of course Halak being Halak one never knows but Fleury looks pretty good too..... anyway I dont think Martin is deserving of any of the critics I have seen here.