Sunday, November 28, 2010

The Plekanec Campaign

The Trophy

The Frank J. Selke Trophy is awarded annually to the National Hockey League forward who demonstrates the most skill in the defensive component of the game. The winner is selected by a poll of the Professional Hockey Writers Association following the regular season. Voting members rank their top five picks for best defensive forward, and totals are tallied as follows: first place votes get 10 points; second place votes, 7 points; third place, 5; fourth, 3; and fifth place votes, 1 point. The player with the most points receives the award. It has been awarded 33 times to 20 different players since the 1977-78 season.

Bob Gainey won the trophy the first four years of its existence, and most believe the award was created for him in the first place. Gainey played, to quote teammate Ken Dryden, "a powerful, punishing style, secure and manly, without the strut of machismo." What that meant, in less poetic terms, is that Gainey played against every other team's top players and made it his job to prevent them from scoring. Other players in other generations had done that job and done it well, but Gainey was outstandingly good at it. He was the guy the Soviets called "the best all-around player in the world" in an era that included Guy Lafleur and Bobby Orr. The NHL had to recognize that in some way, and the Selke was born.

The History

Nobody's matched Gainey's four-year Selke reign, but three others...Guy Carbonneau, Jere Lehtinen and Pavel Datsyuk...have won it three times. After Gainey, the look of the Selke winner changed somewhat. In the 29 years since Gainey, a 6'2" left winger, last held the title, the trophy has gone to a centre 22 times. Nineteen winners have been smaller men, under six feet tall.

Historically, the Selke winner is an important part of his team as witnessed by his ice time. He had to keep pace with the opponent's most prolific players, so, on average, he played about 20 minutes per game. Some guys played even more, up to 24-25 minutes.

Selke winners are also durable. Only two have missed more than ten games in his winning season over the 33 years of the trophy's history: Gainey and Jere Lehtinen.

If the winner is a centre, as it almost always has been, he tends to be excellent on faceoffs. Guy Carbonneau, for example, was well over 50% on the draw throughout his career. Other winners, like Doug Jarvis, Rod Brind'Amour and Michael Peca were well-known faceoff specialists.

Before the lockout, there were few official numbers on which to quantify the play of a defensive forward. Faceoffs (which would help explain the high number of centres who have won the Selke) and PK numbers were pretty much it. That's why so many winners were also superior penalty killers. Craig Ramsay, a Gainey contemporary and considered to be one of the best defensive forwards of the era, was on the ice for only 367 PP goals against in his 1070 career games. He had 27 shorthanded goals, versus only 17 on the PP. Two-time winner Sergei Fedorov was even better; he was on the ice for 293 PP goals againt in 1248 games. His 36 shorthanded goals place him eighth all-time.

Plus/minus is also used as a benchmark for judging a player's defensive ability, despite its inherent shortcomings. Most Selke winners have good-to-excellent plus/minus numbers, with the stunning exception of Steve Kasper's -18 in 1982.

In recent years, Selke winners tend to be good two-way players, able to put up points as well as prevent the other team from scoring them. Since the lockout, the lowest point total by a Selke winner is 70. Rick Meagher's 25 points is the lowest total a winner has posted; Doug Gilmour's 127 the highest.

The Contenders

The NHL is much more thorough in its stats keeping now than it was in the early days of the Selke. These days it tracks how many times a player gives the puck away, and how often he takes it from an opponent. It counts blocked shots and hits, which are all important elements of playing sound defensive hockey.

The better stats open the ranks of vote-getters to a group of players who might not have been on the list a few years ago. Pavel Datsyuk is enjoying a three-year run as Selke winner right now. Interestingly, though, he didn't even appear in the top ten for votes until he actually won his first trophy in 2008. Datsyuk scores high with his faceoffs, at 55%, 56% and 54% in the last three years. He's also led the league in takeaways in two of the last three seasons. He does not, however, play much on the PK, which has always been an important consideration for a Selke winner.

Along with Datsyuk, Vancouver's Ryan Kesler has appeared in the top ten of Selke vote getters in two of the last three years, finishing second last season. Philly's Mike Richards was second to Datsyuk in 2009, fifth in 2008 and seventh last year. Henrik Zetterberg has been top ten in all three years but never won. Other high vote getters in the last three years include Mikko Koivu, Patrick Marleau and Travis Zajac, who all got top-ten nods in two of the last three years.

Last season, however, a new guard moved into the mix. Joining Datsyuk and Kessler, the top five in Selke voting included Jordan Staal, Jonathan Toews and Patrice Bergeron.

Where Plekanec Ranks

Last year, Plekanec finished 26th in Selke voting, with 14 points that included one second-place nod, two fourth place and one fifth. Comparing him to last year's top-five, one could argue he should have finished higher, if stats are an accurate measure of worthiness.

In shorthanded minutes played per game, Plekanec was ahead of Datsyuk, Bergeron, Toews and Kesler. Only Staal played more PK than Pleks. In shorthanded points, however, Plekanec's lone shortie ranked behind everyone except Datsyuk who had none.

Pleks had more takeaways than Staal, more blocked shots than Staal, Bergeron, Datsyuk or Toews and the same number of hits as Bergeron. He was better on the draw than Staal, but his 49% was well behind the other top-five vote getters. His plus/minus was better than Kesler's. He scored the same number of points as Datsyuk and more than everyone else in the top five except Kesler.

In short, Plekanec stands up extremely well in comparison to last year's top five candidates for the Selke and flat-out beats one of the nominees, Jordan Staal, in takeaways, blocked shots, faceoff percentage and points scored. He beat the winner in PK minutes played, PK points scored and shots blocked.

The Vote

The problem with the Selke is that it's a very subjective award. The numbers help voters decide, but they don't tell the whole story. Pavel Datsyuk will be credited with a takeaway if he pokes the puck off an opponent's stick in a scrum behind the net. Plekanec will get one if he races to catch up with a 2-on-1 against, lifts the puck-carrier's stick from behind and scoops the puck away, starting a rush back the other way as he did against the Canucks earlier this season. Only someone who watched the game would know the difference.

Sportswriters who vote for the Selke winner see their own beat teams every night, but they only see the others a few times a year. That makes it hard to judge a category that can really only be understood by watching a player regularly. So most will see that Datsyuk leads the league in takeaways and has a faceoff percentage of 55%, and they cast their votes for him.

Because the Selke is so subjective, and its related stats so inconclusive, there are typically dozens of candidates who receive votes every year. Last season, for example, 20 guys got Norris Trophy votes as best defenceman. Eleven goalies got Vezina votes, and 29 players got at least one point in Hart voting as league MVP. In comparison, 60 players got Selke votes. They included Alex Ovechkin, Chris Higgins and Bobby Ryan; none of whom automatically come to mind when you think "fabulous defence." Given the undefined qualification for the award, many voters will just shrug and pick the guy who won it last year, or the one who's getting the most buzz around the league, even if they don't really know all that much about his game.

Plekanec is a quiet person who doesn't look for media attention. He flies under the radar so well it will be very difficult for him to attract the attention of voters unless his team decides to actively campaign for him.

The Reality

The numbers show Tomas Plekanec should be not just considered for the Selke Trophy, but that he should rank very near the top of the list. Watching him routinely strip the puck from the best players in the game as he shuts them down, or break up an attack with an interception and PK breakaway, underlines his defensive prowess. Yet, voters who see him six times a year at the very most...and many who see him only once...will get to choose the winner of the award. To that end, they'll look at numbers, and consider reputations. Plekanec has all the numbers except faceoff percentage, which may play against him on paper. His reputation is one of quiet diligence, which won't work in his favour when competing against guys with bigger names.

If he works on his faceoffs and if his team gets behind him with a video highlight campaign for voters, he should have a chance. In the case of the Selke, introduced to honour a workhorse, team-first kind of player, there could be no better heir to Bob Gainey.

Aftermath: Workin' For a Living

A game like last night's can really make fans forget the whole "Habs need more size and grit" refrain we hear after some of the team's lousy no-show results. If a lack of committment led to the whitewash in Atlanta on Friday, the universal willingness to hit and be hit brought a very different result at home on Saturday. And, if players are willing to commit physically, a few inches in height really don't matter as much.

Fortunately, the Canadiens have been buying into the idea that they need to give to get for most of the year. When they don't, when they're disinterested or uninspired, we get a game like the one in Atlanta. When they do, we get last night's gem against the Sabres.

It's not to say the Canadiens don't have weaknesses. They do. They're one injury on defence away from big trouble. They have a hugely expensive second-line centre who's being outplayed in every facet of the game by a raw rookie. They have trouble scoring goals generally, and the power play is powerless on many nights. They're susceptible to a hearty forecheck and when a team clogs up the middle of the ice, it's hard for them to get their speed game going.

Still, after a dominant performance against a division rival, it's easy to forget weaknesses and focus on the team's strengths. The Habs are lucky to have a goalie who gives them a real chance to win every single night, and a capable backup behind him. Price and Auld have been the bedrock supporting the team's climb up the Northeast standings. With Markov out, the remaining defencemen are holding the fort. They're not the stars of the team, but they're steady and mostly reliable.

Tomas Plekanec is getting better all the time. He's the fuel for Andrei Kostitsyn's engine, and he's helping Brian Gionta find his game again. The PK is on top of the league because of his and Tom Pyatt's stellar work.

The good thing is that, after only 24 games, this team is still a work in progress. It's got a good base of hard work and cameraderie on most nights, with good goaltending and a solid defensive system. As the season evolves, other pieces will become clearer. We'll know how long Andrei Markov will be out of action, and if it's a very long time, there will be cap room for Pierre Gauthier to make a move to strengthen the team.

The forward lines will develop their own solutions. If Eller continues to work well with Pouliot and Darche, he'll eventually get more minutes and better linemates. Gomez will work his way down the lineup if he doesn't improve. Jacques Martin isn't the kind of coach to jump at the first sign of weakness, so these things will take time. It's a little bit like last year, in which Carey Price was given every possible chance to succeed before Halak finally took over the net. The same thing will happen with the forwards this year. The veteran will be given every chance, but if he doesn't step up, he'll lose his spot, especially if he's dragging Cammalleri down with him. Martin just wants the team to pace itself and be in a good playoff position when April rolls around. He'll tinker and tweak and make the decisions he needs to make, gradually as the season rolls on.

A game like last night's is a good indicator of the raw material Martin's got to work with. So was Friday's Atlanta game. The contrast between the two shows the range of ability in the lineup, underlines the strengths and exposes the weaknesses. The season is a construction process, with, hopefully, a playoff-hardened machine emerging at the end of it.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Sabres vs. Habs - Miller Time Edition

Notes on the third:

-Habs should lock it down this period. They're in the driver's seat, with the driver's coffee.

-Eller and Pouliot have the makings of a nice pairing, when they grow up a bit.

-Miller's amazing, and so is Price, but Price has had better protection tonight.

-Aw. Price whiffed on the shutout after all the great saves. Sometimes it happens, but too bad he couldn't bring it home.

-Pyatt..empty net and STILL can't pot one.

-Nice win. Too bad about the shutout, but the committment from the whole crew was there.

Notes on the second:

-Those half power plays to start a period never work out.

-Seriously, can we get blades for Pouliot's ass? He spends more time on it than on his feet.

-Gorges blocked three shots with no helmet. He's got bigger balls than the NBA.

-Some very interesting, as in scary, moments of not knowing where the hell the puck is by the Habs' D.

-They should have started letting Andrei Kostitsyn throw out first-star pucks years ago. He's angling to get to do it again tonight. Spectacular feed for Gionta, and gorgeous finish by the Captain.

-You know how something can be so cute it becomes hideous, like children's beauty pageants? That's Gomez' passing.

-Somehow, when I see Gill yapping in a scrum, I picture him saying, "Your father was a hamster and your mother smelt of elderberries."

-Plekanec back up to point-a-game pace with a fantastic sequence of knocking the puck off the Sabre defender and finding Gio barrelling in. Kostitsyn had better step it up or he won't get his pucks.

-Stupid fight at the end. Cammalleri gets hot, and they know they can provoke him. Good of Moen to step in with the smackdown.

Notes on the first:

-Buffalo's a fast team. No sleepskating tonight.

-Lapierre's penalty was just dumb. He was trying to protect Subban, but the kid's going to have to send his own message sooner or later.

-Seriously, did anyone think Pyatt would score on that breakaway? Okay, anyone except his mom?

-Good things Eller did in that period: Forced a puck-carrying Sabre to back up, and back up, and back up until he skated right out of the Habs' zone, made a beautiful cross-ice pass to Darche (who messed it up) and held the zone to extend a rush. This is going to be a very good player.

-Bad things Spacek did: TWICE in twenty seconds, after Hamrlik successfully fought to get the puck away from three Sabres right next to Price's net, passed it BACK to Hammer in traffic instead of clearing the zone.

-Ha! When the ref announced the Kaleta delay of game penalty, it sounded like he said, "two minutes for the lady gay."

-Kostitsyn should never be separated from Plekanec again.

-Cammalleri totally bitch-slapped Weber.

-Well, there's lots of committment on the Habs' part tonight.

-There will be adjustments in the Buffalo room. Let's hope the Habs are up to withstanding the inevitable onslaught.

Aftermath: Committment

Last night's game story is a very simple one. In order to beat the Thrashers who aren't loaded with talent, but have size, determination and a really good goalie on their side, the Canadiens needed to commit.

Against a tough, aggressive group of forwards, the Habs needed to grit their teeth and agree to get hit to make the right plays. They didn't. It wasn't everyone, and it wasn't all the time, but there's a pretty straightforward equation that needs to be solved if a team is to win. At least half the team has to commit at least half the time. The Canadiens didn't have half the team committed to start with. There were, perhaps, four players invested in winning that game. Auld was. So were Eller, Subban and Halpern. The required effort was absent too; most players trying on one shift and then floating for three.

There are lots of excuses. It's hard to get up for a half-empty arena in the southern U.S. on a Friday night. It's tough to give it your all when you know you've got a tough division game the next night. Those are just excuses. The only problem last night was a simple lack of committment. Nobody wanted to hit or be hit. Nobody wanted to fight for the win.

It's to be expected that committment will lag on a given night. After all, who among us goes to work with fire in the belly and a determination to do the best damn job possible every single day? It doesn't matter how much money we make or how much responsibility we have. Everyone has days when they just don't feel like working hard. The problem with the Habs is everyone seems to have those nights all at the same time.

The disappointment for us is we know they're better than that. The Kings are a young, fast, aggressive team too. The Canadiens dispatched them handily. They were committed. Handing in a stinker like last night's will happen from time to time. It can't happen very often, though. The Canadiens are in a distinctly uninspiring holding pattern, and that's not good enough for a team that hopes to make the playoffs in better than eighth place this year.

They get another chance tonight. Let's hope they find the committment they forgot to bring to Atlanta.

Friday, November 26, 2010

Habs vs. Thrashers - Auld Redux Edition

Notes on the third:

-If Gomez rushes alone into four-man coverage one more time, I'm going to swear so much Santa will strike me off the list.

-Too bad there's no concede rule in the NHL. If one team doesn't give a crap for two periods, it should be allowed to concede the last twenty to avoid hurting fans further.

-When Halpern's playing dumb, there's not much hope for the rest of them.

-Plekanec mugs Kane, then looks surprised when the kid turns on him. Sigh.

-The most pathetic thing I have ever heard is the ten fans in Atlanta being led in the "goodbye" song by the organist.

-I wish Martin would bag skate them until they puke tomorrow, game or no game.

-A perfect chance to gain points on Boston and Philly and they blow it. This is the worst game, by far, this season.

Notes on the second:

-It's a good thing the empty seats in Atlanta aren't white. They'd be so bright, dead people would start to walk toward them.

-You have to like Auld, if only because he has Roy's "wink" on his mask.

-The Habs look like they're spoiled by the Bell Centre crowd. A half-empty building in Atlanta on a Friday night is probably not very inspirational.

-It should be impossible for a guy less than 5'6" to get a charging penalty. It looks more like bouncing.

-No way they're going to beat this goalie by pounding into his pads along the ice.

-Auld whiffed on the second goal like a backup who hasn't played in a month.

-Martin looks like he's passing a sandpaper turd.

-Kostitsyn is making some very pretty passes tonight.

-Non-hocky watching spouse says Oduya's nickname should be "Do Ya Want My Love."

-Well, this one is given up for dead. The Habs might be Lazarus, but I don't see Jesus Christ on the ice.

Notes on the first:

-Must be hard to be a backup goalie who only gets to play once a month. Win and you're only doing your job, lose and there's absolutely no point in your having a job.

-The PP had less gas than Yellowknife.

-Thrashers are clogging up the middle. Don't expect much from Gomez tonight.

-There's about as much flow to this game as there is in a dry gulch.

-Horrible end to the period. I don't know what's worse, giving up a goal with less than a minute to go, the Atlanta goal horn or the fact that they use "Ole" as their goal song.

The Hockey Sweater

I don't have a Montreal Canadiens sweater to wear. On Jersey Day at work, I wear a Habs t-shirt. When I go to games, I can't get geared up in my team's colours.

That's not to say I don't have a sweater. I do. I just can't wear them. I have a vintage 1987 polyester number with "Roy" ironed on the back, in a youth's size small. It's seen many playoff games and briefly ended up in the trash one time after a particularly painful elimination by the Bruins. I have a great Bob Gainey sweater...autographed...given to me by my non-hockey watching spouse for Christmas a few years ago. Unfortunately, it was accidentally ordered in size extra large, and unreturnable because it's customized. And I have a beautiful Plekanec game-worn sweater (with matching turtleneck)...also autographed. Only problem is, you can't really wear a game-worn item around the house. Also, although Pleks is a "smaller" guy, his sweater is not.

So, I was thinking the other day, I should probably buy a Habs sweater I can actually wear to annoy leaf fans at work. That decision made, I opened my email this morning to a message from the NHL shop that they're customizing sweaters for only. The new question is, whose name do I get?

Some people get their favourite current player, which is great unless that player gets traded or otherwise let go. How many fans have Komisarek, Higgins or Petrov sweaters buried in the back of their closets? With Plekanec, I'm probably safe for a long while, but you never know.

Other people put their own names on their sweaters, which is fine in a "to each his own" kind of way, but it doesn't feel legit to me. Some leave it blank and let the logo on the front stand alone, representing every player and every fan. That's a great symbolic thing to do, but when the customizing is's hard to pass up a good deal.

Perhaps it's best to go vintage. A great Hab is a great Hab, and that can't be changed. Unless he's found guilty of perjury or something like that. That might take the bloom off the rose a bit. Sigh. So many choices, and only ten hours to decide.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Aftermath: Breaking the Ice

Sometimes, when a coach resorts to the bag skate to shake his team out of lethargy, one player in particular really, really hates that kind of wake-up call. He gets the message because he'd rather do pretty much anything other than skate like that again. Jacques Martin skated his team into the ice on Wednesday after Tuesday night's choke against Philly. Last night, Andrei Kostitsyn proved he much prefers to do his hard skating during the game instead.

The Belarussian Bomber played his best game since being separated from Tomas Plekanec and moved to the Gomez line. Now back with his favourite centreman, he was hitting, shooting missiles from everywhere and dominating with his speed. When he plays like that, it lifts the entire team. He scored his own goal on a laser, but his hard work led to Plekanec's too. If Martin sent a message to the team that Kostitsyn received loud and clear, the player also sent a message to the coach: leave him with Plekanec and good things happen.

Speaking of finding the right linemates for people, Lars Eller finally got his first Habs goal. To nobody's surprise, it came from a nice play by a linemate with actual offensive talent. Benoit Pouliot is playing some very good hockey these days, and there might be some chemistry building between he and Eller. More impressive than his goal celebration of pure relief was Eller's attitude after the game. He said, "Scoring is not the most important part of my game right now. I'm doing other things." It's brilliant to hear that from a young, offensive-minded player. His determination to learn both sides of the game and be patient when it comes to accumulating points is reminiscent of Plekanec's early years with the team. That can only be a good thing, especially since Eller is stronger on the boards than Plekanec.

The added bonus of having the forwards skating hard and controlling the puck is the defencemen get a bit of a break. It's a lot easier to play D when you're not under attack all night. P.K. Subban, in particular, stood out for his smart play. Carey Price had to make some nice saves on the Kings' 25 shots, but it wasn't a night of pain like some he's faced.

It felt right to have Darche back on the Halpern line and Weber in the pressbox. The kid is going to be a Streit-like PP specialist at some point, but he's not ready to be thrown into fourth-line duty with second-PP unit time and expected to adapt to it. He should go to Hamilton where he's been building his game and can play 20 minutes night. If there should be any other call-up, it should be someone who's suited for the role available.

The Habs showed some resilience last night in bouncing back from a dispiriting loss to the Flyers. If they can keep putting the losses behind them quickly and bouncing back like that, they'll be just fine. And if we learned anything from the Kings game, it's that Martin should have bag skated Kostitsyn last October.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Kings vs. Habs - Nostalgia Edition

Notes on the third:

-The difference between tonight and Tuesday night is the willingness to get hit. The Kings are no pussies, but they don't give you the feeling of inexorable punishment the Flyers do.

-Maybe it's too early to ask this, but is Doughty playing? Because the Habs kid defenceman seems a lot more visible than the Kings'.

-The word is out around the league: Shut down Plekanec and you shut down the Habs. Fortunately, AK46 is a lot harder to shut down.

-Eller reminds me of Beliveau in his stature and skating style. Bring on the 500 goals!

-Martin's tie tonight looks like paisley in a lava lamp.

-Nobody loves the first-star puck-toss like Andrei Kostitsyn.

Notes on the second:

-The passes are clicking tonight like dominoes. The tiles, not the pizza.

-Oh well. The PK couldn't shut people out forever. It's very kind of the Habs to give yet another call-up his first NHL goal, though. The NHL's offical Welcome Wagon.

-Kostitsyn's flying so high tonight, he's leaving a vapour trail. And Plekanec finishes off his hard work.

-God, sometimes Gomez reminds me so much of Kovalev. Everyone'll be speeding around, then he gets the puck and sloooooowwssss the pace right down.

-Pouliot couldn't hit the floor if he fell out of bed.

-Pleks and Special K should never have been separated. Pleks is the only one who speaks whatever language Kostitsyn mumbles in.

-Lars Eller!!! I've rarely seen a kid so happy to score his first with a team as he is. He's sitting there, half thinking "Yay me" and half "Thank you, Lord Jesus!"

-Love the Bell crowd sometimes. They're the only ones in the league who can taunt a French goalie in his mother tongue.

-Beautiful period. One more to make Price a bigger winner this year than he was all of last year.

Notes on the first:

-This is the night Gomez owns the game and wins first star. It's gotta happen sometime, right?

-Sigh. Will Pyatt ever score again? The question asked by impotent Pyatts the world over.

-Habs should take a lesson from the Kings: when in the opposing zone, shoot as often as you possibly can. Ten fancy passes rarely end up in the net.

-So much can be blown when the D can't hold the zone.

-Kostitsyn fired a plutonium bullet, but Subban supplied the powder.

-Pouliot's got his snow tires on tonight. Lots of traction.

-The whole team is skating differently than they did in Philly. Maybe yesterday's bag skate reminded the legs to move. Muscle memory is a great thing.

-The call on Plekanec should be enshrined in the Hockey Hall of Fame as the worst elbowing penalty of all time.

-Cammalleri launched that puck like the space shuttle. The ones that are mechanically sound. On sunny days.

-And the period ends with a beginning-of-period prediction coming true. Although I expect they might take that goal away from Gomez and give it to Cammy.

-Great 20 minutes of hard skating and puck control. Now to stay alive for the next 40, unlike the nightmare in Philly.

Vote 4 Boyd

This morning, there are three Canadiens forwards in the top 15 for All-Star vote-getters. Two of them...Mike Cammalleri and Brian Gionta...are on the official ballot. Tomas Plekanec, who sits 13th on the list, is a write-in vote. P.K. Subban is a write-in for ninth place among defencemen, and Carey Price is leading all goalies by a mile, also as a write-in.

It all speaks to the tremendous size and dedication of the Habs fan base. That many fans pulling in the same direction has a lot of power. They can put guys not even on the ballot on the top of the list, elect an injured defenceman to the top-20 and boost a team captain who ranks 137th in league scoring up to 15th among All-Star nominated forwards.

When a fan base has that much influence, it must use it wisely, and for the good of the team. That's why it's time to stop writing Carey Price's and Tomas Plekanec's names on the All-Star ballot. No more casting votes for Cammalleri or Gionta either. It's time to get behind the Dustin Boyd for All-Star campaign.

Just think about it. The All-Star game is completely meaningless and comes in the middle of the coldest, longest, most wearisome part of a very long NHL season. Where do you want the Habs most important to any possible playoff success to be? Do you want them trying to hit corner targets in a pointless skills competition in Raleigh and playing in a goofy pond-hockey match for the glory of Gary Bettman? Or do you want them chilling on a beach somewhere, regenerating energy reserves for the playoffs?

Carey Price is on pace to play more than seventy games this year. He's never carried that great a load, but he's doing it admirably well. If fans want to see him play that way in May, they need to hope he gets a break in Februrary. Same thing with Plekanec. The guy gives all he's got every time he hits the ice. He should have the week off in the winter to prepare for shutting down the league's best players in the spring.

On the other hand, there's Dustin Boyd. Did you forget Boyd is actually on the Canadiens' active roster? Me too. The guy's been sitting so long he could qualify for handicapped parking. That makes him the perfect candidate to represent the Habs at the All-Star game. He needs the playing time. As an otherwise unused member of the team, he's available to serve an ambassadorial role. He probably won't see ice during the playoffs, so there's no worry about wearing down or risking injury to a valuable asset for no good reason.

Best of all, what better way to show the massive power of the Habs fan base than by electing someone completely unexpected to the All-Star game? You didn't include our team's fantastic goalie on your ballot, NHL? Fine, then, enjoy Dustin Boyd's shootout moves.

Right now, none of the Canadiens except Price are likely to be selected by the league to attend the game. The only way the Habs will have to go is if fans vote for them. So, fans, if you really love the Canadiens, spare them the All-Star weekend. Let them go on holiday and get ready for the stretch drive.

Vote Dustin Boyd!

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Aftermath: Square One

The temptation, after blowing a two-goal lead to lose a game we thought well in hand, is to start looking for a culprit. Gomez was lost in space, we say. Subban completely blew his defensive assignment on the winner, we cry. The whole team stopped skating after the first and gave up the game, we grouse.

Sometimes, though, it's not as much a matter of what your team does wrong as what the other team does right. As much as we hate to admit it, the Canadiens can learn some things from the Flyers.

Last night, in the first, the Flyers fell back into their own zone and let the Canadiens buzz around. They recognized the Habs were carrying the puck into the offensive zone rather than dumping and chasing, so in the second period they adjusted and started sending three guys out to meet the puck carrier. On many Habs rushes, a simple poke-check ended the threat and turned the Flyers back the other way.

The team in orange always had someone going for the crease, and they were very effective in making short, accurate passes out of traffic on the boards. While their stars, like Carter and Richards, didn't have a lot to say about the outcome, their second and third lines provided everything they needed to push back.

The answer, for the Canadiens, should have been some good, energetic shifts by aggressive third and fourth lines of their own. The problem was, they didn't have the people to do it. Lapierre was playing hard all night, but Tom Pyatt's strength is in defending, not attacking. Pouliot and Halpern did their part on the scoreboard, but they're not the types of players who race around hitting and forechecking with abandon. Lars Eller has some jam, but his game isn't the crashing kind. And, it's safe to say the Yannick Weber experiment has been pretty bad. The kid's been thrown into a fourth-line role he doesn't play in Hamilton and onto a power play that's been struggling for most of the year. It's not helping him or the team to play him 11 minutes in that kind of situation.

The other option for the Canadiens to save that game was to switch to a dump-and-chase attack, once it became apparent the puck-carrying strategy wasn't working. Unfortunately, the Canadiens either weren't willing or able to pull that off either. When the team scores four goals in three games, with only one from anybody in the top six, there's a problem. It started when Martin began moving people on and off the Gomez line in order to get the seven-million-dollar man going. Instead, everyone who's ended up on that line has been stone cold as well. Now, the Plekanec/Kostitsyn/Cammalleri line, which had been so effective to start the year is broken up and nobody's scoring.

Jacques Martin wants to bring kids like Eller on slowly, but it may be time to consider playing the kid, who's winning his puck battles and trying futilely to set up his stone-handed linemates for twenty minutes, with good wingers. Let Gomez, who's helping nothing or no one, play with the pluggers. At least that's only one line screwed up instead of all of them.

In any case, Martin's got to stop trying to jump-start Gomez and put the Plekanec line back together. Kostitsyn's size helps create things for the other two, and something's got to give here.

The Canadiens couldn't beat the Flyers in the playoffs last year, for the same reasons why they couldn't beat them last night. The team has been susceptible to a strong forecheck for years now, and still is. It needs some people who can wreak havoc on those third and fourth lines, and it needs to move Gomez off the top-six for a couple of games. The speed/defence game works most of the time, but when the going gets tough, the Habs can't handle it. Somebody's got to start crashing, and somebody's got to start scoring. The Flyers showed the Canadiens how that's done. Over to you, Gauthier.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Habs vs. Flyers - Rematch Edition

Notes on the third:

-Of course, it would be Giroux. RDS guys are crying.

-The Habs have to be the most easily-pokechecked team in the league.

-I, and the Habs, are having flashbacks of last playoffs.

-This is exactly the kind of game in which it costs too much to have a second-line centre with six points.

-The difference between the Habs and the Flyers power plays: Someone in godawful orange is always in front of the goalie.

-Horrible coverage by P.K. on the go-ahead goal. He took himself out to make a point with a big hit and couldn't get back. They're in his head.

-You have to give credit to Price. Despite everything, he gives his team a chance. If his highway robbery on that 2-on-1 couldn't inspire his mates, nothing could.

-Against a team like Philly, you sometimes have to play dump-and-chase, and the Habs don't have the horses to do it. Or, if they do, they're not on the same line. Or they're in the pressbox. Or Hamilton.

-Lapierre's stick is gone cold.

-I understand the theory behind dressing Weber, but it doesn't work well in practice. Kind of like communism.

-I haven't seen the stats on faceoffs, but if the Habs won one, it was out of pity.

-It's silly, but I really don't want Martin to pull Price. They haven't scored on the PP all night, and the only bit of comfort Price can take from this game is that the team hasn't given up four goals in a game all year. Don't blow it, Jacques.

-Well, that sucked. Not much worse than blowing a 2-0 lead against the Flyers. Sigh.

Notes on the second:

-Flyers seem to be diving a bit. Leino looked like he jazzed up that Hamrlik hook just a tad.

-Pyatt's no Lapierre when it comes to the offence, but he's Jarvis-like on the PK.

-Lappy figures, what the hell, shoot it from centre. With the luck tonight, it might work. And a post on what could have been the hat-trick goal!

-Whoa, close call on the Flyer come-back post on the PP.

-The Old Guards are playing some very find D tonight. Even Spacek looks like he turned back the clock a few years.

-Boucher's handling the puck like he's got garden rakes on the ends of his arms. Habs need to push harder in the Philly end.

-Pouliot is using his size and looking like a first-round pick tonight.

-Perfect shot on the Leino goal. At least it's a Flyer I don't hate yet.

-They really have to find out why Pouliot falls down so much. It's just weird.

-You can really hear the expletives on the left-corner mic near Price.

-Uh oh. It felt like the Habs were saved by the siren at the end there. Twenty-one to FOUR shots on goal? They'd better smarten up in the third.

Notes on the first:

-Ugly Flyers. And I thought the Bruins were cavemen.

-Gionta is playing an uncharacteristically tentative game.

-Gomez and Cammalleri in the corner: a $13-million pas de deux.

-Lapierre on an end-of-shift break is thinking "Oh, God, do I have to?"

-Both coaches wearing their team colour-coordinated ties. In Martin's case, we know it was an accident. Laviolette actually believes it works.

-Eller with the fire. He's not impressed with the Briere Olympic Diving tryout.

-Ha ha! As my buddy watching with me said, "Now Lapierre can grin that shit-eating goal-scorer's grin all night."

-Gomez has a lovely view of the play moving around him as he stands there in his own end. Must be like being at the centre of a kaleidescope.

-Lappy AGAIN! Gorgeous play by Pouliot to set up the shot, but a nicer tip by Meszaros.

-Well, I hope P.K.'s watching his back if the next period goes like that one.

Cherry Bomb

It's time for Don Cherry to remove himself from national television. If he's ever to be off the air in this country, it'll be because he removed himself or died. Somehow, the CBC, the great bastion of inclusion and diversity, misses the fact that it's paying nearly a million dollars a year to have Cherry advocate violence and xenophobia before an impressionable audience for ten minutes a week.

Cherry and his former acolyte, Mike Milbury (another one whose place on prime time is mind-boggling, but for other reasons), are the last two talking heads doggedly repeating the importance of fighting in hockey. Most others, at this point, realize fighting is getting kind of silly. It doesn't really help turn the tide of a game and it's putting players at risk of pointless injury. Some good teams aren't even bothering to carry a "fighter" anymore. Yet, Cherry continues to insist fighting is important in the game, and that any decent fan loves it.

The xenophobia is a more serious matter. From "Chicken Swedes" to his disdain for Quebec-born players, whom he compares to the dreaded European interlopers who steal the jobs of "good Canadian boys," he condemns anyone who plays the game in an "un-Canadian" way.

The problem with the things he says isn't that he says them in the first place; this is a free country with the right to speak freely, after all. The problem is that we pay to keep him on the air and say these things to a national audience, largely made of young hockey players, and they listen. Some of the things Cherry says, "respect the troops," "behave like a gentleman off the ice," and "don't dive to draw a call," are all unobjectionable. However, when he starts ranting about the benefits of violence or his disdain for "foreigners," viewers wince in the knowledge that kids are absorbing what he says.

Just, for a moment, imagine Cherry's comments in any other context. Think about a teacher or coach standing before a group of children and exhorting them to violence, or to disparage another because he's "different." Schools and sports teams spend a lot of effort making sure that kind of bullying is kept to a minimum, not actively promoting it. One might argue the Cherry comments are for a more adult audience, but it's hard to back that up when his rants are peppered with "all you kids out there."

And make no mistake, they are listening. Ask any pee wee player what Don Cherry says about fighting and they'll tell you a player needs to be a "stand up guy," "have his teammates' backs" and never wear a visor if he intends to fight. Follow an NHL player on twitter, and you'll see references to what "Grapes" would say about a certain behaviour. Sadly, although the outrageous suits, blatant leaf and Bruin cheerleading and deliberate mispronunciations of "foreign" players' names are relatively harmless, if irritating schtick, Cherry's message of intolerance is...well...intolerable.

His rant on Saturday night about how Mike Richards was right, and that P.K. Subban is "disrespectful," was more than a little over the top. Cherry gleefully took the opportunity to point out that Richards was merely supporting a comment Cherry himself had made a couple of weeks earlier, that "whatever his name is" needs to "tone it down" and be more "respectful" or someone's going to "get him."

While assuring the audience that there's something so wrong with the way Subban is playing that he'll be punished for it in an application of Cherry Code violence, he neglected to say what, exactly, Subban is doing wrong. Is he taking cheap shots after the play? No. Making inappropriate comments about opponents? No. Daring to be a rookie Montreal Canadien with confidence and buckets of talent? Yup. Adding to that a motor mouth that drives opponents crazy? Yes again.

What's so wrong about any of that? Subban yaps, but he doesn't gab and run. He was willing to put his fists where his mouth is when Richards turned on him last week, but Richards was the one who walked away and complained later. That Subban wasn't afraid of Richards should have pleased a guy of Cherry's sensibilities.

Cherry doesn't like the Canadiens. They represent French Canada, they play a low-violence, skilled style and they beat him mercilessly when he coached. He also doesn't like "foreign" players. I don't want to believe any kind of racism is inherent in his comments, but when he rants irrationally about the play of a kid of colour, it raises the question. If he doesn't want people to ask it, he should be much more clear when vehemently condemning a player who appears to have done nothing egregious.

If he'd said, "this is what P.K. Subban is doing wrong, this is why he's not respecting his opponents," then we might have understood what he's talking about. As it stands, we were treated to a semi-coherent rave about Subban's "disrespect."

The fact that he seems incapable of explaining himself logically or reasonably is reason enough for Don Cherry to remove himself from broadcasting. And if he won't do it, the CBC should.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Aftermath: Fun and Games

If there's one thing more enjoyable than beating the leafs, it's shutting them out. And if there's one thing more enjoyable than that, it's having the insurance goal hand delivered by Komisarek. That pass to Cammalleri was the best one he's made since signing in Toronto.

Okay, it's probably tempting fate to laugh so hard at that because, if there's any sure thing in hockey, it's that the breaks even out. Watching the way the leafs performed last night, though, it could take a while for that to happen. The Canadiens looked like they were on the power play for most of the night and scored the only time they actually were up a man. It was the finest display of puck possession the team has put on all season. The only thing that prevented a complete blowout was Jonas Gustavsson's stellar play. The kid's performance was rivalled only by Carey Price's perfection at the other end.

In a 2-0 game, you know just about everyone contributed in some way. To paraphrase George Orwell, however, some winners were more equal than others. Hal Gill played his best game since last May. Perhaps it was in honour of his old coach, Pat Burns, or maybe it was a bit of payback for the season-opening loss. Whatever motivated him last night, Gill was great. He used his super-long stick to its best advantage and played a smart, well-positioned defense that drove Phil Kessel crazy. And as Kessel goes, so does the leaf offence.

Lars Eller is getting better with every game. He set up Yannick Weber on a gorgeous cross-ice feed reminiscent of the kind of pass Plekanec makes every night. Brian Gionta looked inspired, playing a solid two-way game that would have made Burnsie proud. Andrei Kostitsyn showed signs of life for the first time since being removed from the Plekanec line and matched with Scott Gomez.

Ah, yes, Gomez. At the quarter mark of the season the seven-million dollar man is on pace for a career-low 24 points. Twenty-four. That's not good enough for a third-line centre, never mind the guy who's supposed to be sharing the bulk of the team's scoring responsibility. His two goals aren't even the biggest concern. Gomez typically racks up most of his points in assists, and he's got only four in 20 games, putting him on a pace for 16 over the season. That's a far cry from the 45-50 he usually gets. The team is winning, despite Gomez' failure to contribute, but with Markov gone indefinitely, the Canadiens can't afford to have an asset as valuable as Gomez doing nothing.

It's not even the lack of production that's so worrisome. It's the way he's not producing. When Brian Gionta was slumping earlier in the year, you knew it was only a matter of time before he broke out. He was going to the net and shooting a ton of rubber, so sooner or later, something was going to go in for him. Gomez is a different story. He's just playing a very out-of-synch style. He's passing when he should shoot, shooting when he should pass, rushing to nowhere and making low-percentage plays into traffic. With most players, you'd assume there's a big confidence problem, but Gomez is one of the cockiest guys around.

Part of the issue is probably the fact that Gomez lives off his assists. That means someone has to be finishing his setups. The chances of Tom Pyatt, Max Lapierre or Travis Moen...good soldiers all...doing that are so slim they're bordering on anorexic. Gomez needs wingers who can score, but his play is so disjointed, he's not clicking with even the better of them. It's no coincidence that Gionta and Kostitsyn both produced better with Plekanec than Gomez.

The positive side of this is another win means another day of reprieve for Gomez. There's always a chance the next game is the one in which he finds an answer. While the team is winning, the pressure is minimized. It'll be different if losses start to mount and he's still not performing, but for now he's still got time.

And we've got least for enjoy a beautiful, satisfying win. It couldn't have been better.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

leafs vs. Habs - Big Night Edition

Notes on the third:

-Eller came so close to scoring his first goal, the equipment guys were about to engrave the date on a plaque.

-Subban is smoother than Sidney Crosby's chest in his own end.

-Pouliot in perfect position for the 2-0 goal, and to absolutely nobody's surprise, he ends up on his ass instead.

-Wouldn't it be glorious if Lacroix announced the Komisarek assist on the Cammalleri goal? Oh well, it was still fun to watch it happen. Who knew the Traitor would be the answer to the PP?

-Kessel misses a gorgous chance and shouts, "Aw, nut."

-Passing the puck backwards like Gomez does has to be one of the most counterintuitive plays in hockey.

-Gill and his stick are heroic tonight.

-Carey Price is amazing. Just freakin' amazing. A little confidence has made him bloom like the first crocus of spring. Both are signs of great things to come.

Notes on the second:

-It looked like the Habs were on the PP for the first ten minutes.

-I don't get the hate for Subban. He's good and he's confident. He's not cheap or dirty. There are a lot of people I could see hating before him.

-Both goalies are playing tight as a drum.

-Halpern with the shorty! He was such a great pick up.

-This is the most the Habs have had the puck all year. Too bad Gustavsson plays his best hockey against the Habs.

-Shot of Bettman and Burke on CBC. Throw in Daly and you've got the trifecta of evil. Bettman looks just like Pee Wee Herman's older brother.

-Twenty more minutes like that, please. I have a feeling one goal won't stand up tonight.

Notes on the first:

-Beautiful ceremony to honour Pat Burns. The Canadiens always do things right.

-And the top-six mix and match continues. Martin figures all the wingers need some time with Plekanec to get a boost. He's like jumper cables.

-Whoever's on the second line in a given night has to step up, though. Without Markov, they need all the goals they can get.

-Great chance by Weber on an Eller set-up. If that kid had linemates with finish, he'd be racking up the points. He must feel like he's back in Denmark.

-Gorges is having an uncharacteristically rocky game.

-If Gomez scored less, he'd qualify to be a Catholic priest.

-What a shock. Bob Cole messes up a penalty call.

-Kaberle gets more flushed than an English schoolboy who just saw the headmistress's panties.

-Great PK, as usual. Habs had more chances than the leafs.

-Kostitsyn played the post like a gong.

-Excellent flurry to end the period. Unfortunately, I'm getting the feeling the Habs will end up getting hosed by Gustavsson and lose on some crappy deflection off Grabovsky's ass.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Aftermath: Weights and Measures

Jacques Martin needs, to quote Carey Price, to chill out. He was angry and frustrated after watching his team apparently sleepwalk through sixty vague minutes of hockey last night, but calling out Brian Gionta and Tomas Plekanec for losing to Nashville was a little over the top. Those two are a couple of the players who have kept the Canadiens rolling every night, and blaming them for a lacklustre loss to the Predators was unnecessary. They know they were -3 on the night, and they won't be as passive next game. They don't need the coach to embarrass them.

What really happened in that game was that the Canadiens were trying to measure the amount of effort they'd need to beat the Predators, and they miscalculated. This happens to all good teams that expect to be in the playoffs as they try to conserve some energy over the course of a long season. We know what the team is capable of doing. We saw it against Boston, Philly and Vancouver. The problem is, a team can't do that every night. Emotions can't burn that high or bodies push that hard all the time without burning out or breaking. We want the players to give everything they have, but if they do, they'll have nothing left in the spring. So, they try to lie back a little when they get a chance.

Last night, they looked at Nashville's dismal loss to the leafs earlier in the week and the Preds' overall unimpressive record. They also looked ahead and saw the big Philly rematch coming up on Monday, after the blood fued against TO on Saturday. Adding the two together, they thought...perhaps subconsiously, because pros don't plan to float...they could let their discipline slide and still come out with two points against the Predators. Snag an easy win in a tough stretch, if you will.

What they forgot to calculate was the fact that the Predators and their coach are pros too. They were angry and embarrassed after blowing a three-goal lead and losing to the leafs. They get up for games against the Canadiens, especially at the Bell Centre. They had no intention of lying back and agreeing with the Canadiens' plan to win the game easily. Naturally, the Preds came out skating and hitting and the Habs were nowhere near the same mindset. You could see the shutout coming from midway through the second. The Canadiens didn't lose that game as much as they conceded it.

Still, some Habs forgot to read the memo about last night's game plan. Lars Eller is going to be a damn fine hockey player if he ever gets a linemate with the ability to hit the broad side of a barn with a shot from the farmyard. He's got slick hands and size, but the best thing about him is his ability to protect the puck in close quarters. Most of the time, if he goes into the corner, he's coming out with the puck on his stick. He doesn't make very many egregious errors and he's so enthusiastic he stands out when the rest of the team is playing in low gear.

Carey Price, despite the third goal against him last night...which didn't matter in the end, considering the complete lack of offensive by his team...played well enough to give his team a chance it didn't take. Even with the general apathy his mates displayed, Price didn't break his three-goals-against barrier.

In the NHL, good teams learn to weigh their opponents' strengths and motivations, and measure what it takes to beat them. They conserve their energies and dole them out as needed, all while maintaining a steady course to the top of the conference. It's a delicate balance; a give and take of energy and effort. The Detroit Red Wings, experienced winners, know how to control a game and read in the other team's responses how much or how little they need to give. Teams that are only learning to be good, like the Canadiens, sometimes get that balance wrong. Last night was an example of that. They thought they could roll the Preds for two points like a bum for change, but the other guys had other ideas.

Sometimes it happens. The team isn't going to win every night, and there's little sense in apologizing for it after. If it happened four nights out of five, then, yes, players should be shamefaced and the coach livid enough to call out his best workers. Last night was one to forget for the Canadiens, and they and Martin need to drop it and move on.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Preds vs. Habs: Brotherly Love Edition

Notes on the third:

-Why do the announcers continue to get excited when Gomez gets a break? We all know how it'll turn out.

-I think Hammer takes third-period penalties so he can sit for two minutes.

-Kostitsyn on Kostitsyn trash talk: "You're adopted!" "Well, they only let YOU out of the mental hospital because you could skate!"

-Martin looked like he gave birth to a hemmorrhoid on the second goal. Looked particularly large, too.

-The shutout is coming. Eight minutes to go and no sign of life from the Habs offence. This is over.

Notes on the second:

-Goc goal is a perfect example of how screwing up a simple clearing pass ends up in your net.

-The Habs aren't really into the Preds. They're trying to find a way to tell them, but they keep the relationship going because they can't.

-A 3-on-1 against on a PP is like some other guy's name showing up on your kid's birth certificate. Not at all what you expect.

-The full moon has waned and the Habs PP has returned to its human form.

-I'm bored.

-Watching Cammalleri, on his third o-zone penalty of the season on the PP, sitting in the box, all I can think is that he really should have those moles removed from his face if he's going to be that close the the penalty box camera.

-This game must be like the one the Flying Fathers lost...ever.

-Trotz looks like one of the cartoon sharks from Finding Nemo.

-The Habs are saving themselves for TO and Philly. It's not working out very well.

Notes on the first:

-Oh, Shea Weber would look so nice in red. I wonder what it would cost?

-Eller looked like Markov defending his own end. Hope he scores soon.

-Picard and Subban are laying the body like bricks.

-Price is like a little girl in Grade 9. One summer after his awkward stage, he's so grown up you don't recognize him.

-I'm thinking Pleks is pretty quiet tonight. So, that means he'll do something vitally important before long.

-Swear to God, I didn't know Sergei was playing until he slashed Gorges.

-Aw crap! Wouldn't it have been headline-worthy if AK had scored while SK was in the box?

-Not much of a period, really. I'd call it a light flow day.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Boo Hoo, You Big, Whining Bully

So, Mike Richards is accusing P.K. Subban, who's never said a cocky word in public in his time with the Canadiens, of thinking he's "better than everybody else?" Richards thinks Subban is going have "something happen to him" if he doesn't "earn respect" in the NHL? Mike Richards?! He's got to be kidding.

This is the man who was named by a fraternity president at Temple University as one of a group that crashed a campus party and drank the kids' booze without paying for anything. Extremely respectful and classy behaviour there.

This is the guy who's a key member of the Flyers' young guard, which was called out by team GM Paul Holmgren last summer. Holmgren, no shrinking violet on or off the ice when he played, admitted the coaches thought the team's young guys were partying too much. The implication, of course, when those stories came up during last season while the Flyers were losing, was that the team worried the partying was partly responsible for their poor play. The captain was one of the people named in some stories. His response? He decided to blame the media and refused to speak with reporters for weeks. He accused his team's beat writers, respected journalists among them, in a Hockey News article, of making things up to hurt him and his teammates. That's just exactly the kind of behaviour any team would like to see from its captain; a guy who's "earned respect" in the NHL.

When he's not ignoring the media, Richards is whining to it (when he catches his breath after whining to the refs all game). Last month he called the Penguins a bunch of divers and Matt Cooke a chicken. He said, "Obviously, in a one-goal game at the end of a period he tries to come after me, but when Sidney Crosby fights Carcillo, maybe I'll fight him." Huh? The martyr act doesn't sit well on a guy who's so "respected" in the NHL, especially when he's captain of a team that sends its goon out on a PP with a minute to go in the third period of a lost cause.

He's labelled Alexander Ovechkin "dirty," and warned his hits to players' heads could hurt someone. That's rich, coming from the perpetrator of one of the dirtiest head shots in the post-lockout NHL. His K-O of Florida's David Booth wasn't just disgusting in its own right, but the fact that it went unpunished forced Colin Cambell to let Cooke off with a similar offence against Marc Savard. That's a precedent every fan would naturally like his team captain to set.

It's all okay, though, if you're Mike Richards, because you've "earned respect" in the NHL, and you're not "too cocky." What I'd like to know is, what, exactly, did P.K.Subban do to draw the ire of such a paragon of hockey virtue? Did Subban dare to hit Richards? Shut him down defensively? Score a bunch of points against his team? Yap at him in the corners? Perhaps it's all of the above.

P.K.Subban is a very good young player who's handled the intense media scrutiny in Montreal with dignity and class. He's done everything required of a professional hockey player, including going to rookie camp when he obviously was too good to be there, and going with a positive attitude and a smile on his face. He worked like a dog all summer to get into the best physical shape of his life. He works for charity and mentors poor kids in his off time. Even though he's young, rich and handsome, he's never been accused of putting his play at risk because of his partying. He's brash, exciting and no doubt irritating to those he's beating, but he's not done anything to warrant criticism of his character.

So, Mike Richards thinks Subban is going to have "something" happen to him? That's a threat, coming from a douche who already attempted to remove an opponent's head from his body. If anything happens to P.K.Subban on Monday night or any other night against the Flyers, the NHL should suspend his ass until the spring. Sometimes, class and respect are earned by the things a player says as well as those he does. Richards isn't exactly coming across as a positive example for a rookie player; more like a whining sore loser. Who is he to judge when someone has earned his stripes in the NHL? Richards would be better off worrying about his own image and keeping his advice for opponents inside his gaping pie hole. Now, that's respect.

Good on Subban for his response. He said he respects Richards for all the Flyer captain has accomplished, and he also served notice he's not going to modify his style. "What am I going to do," he wondered today? "Not hit anyone or say anything, just because I'm a rookie. It's not going to happen." Subban will learn how far to go in his own time. It's not for Mike Richards to tell him anything.

Aftermath: Gimme a T-E-A-M!

The highlight reels today are going to show Carey Price making a dozen gorgeous saves to shut down the potent Flyers offence last night. He'll be there in HD, perfectly playing his angles, kicking out a pad or flashing the glove to frustrate the hottest team in the league. It's not an illusion. Price is on fire, in a zone he's not visited since sometime before the All-Star game two years ago. He's not alone, though.

Brian Gionta, last night's third star with three points, when asked about Tomas Plekanec's goal, said, "Moen went hard to the net, which a lot of people won't see." It's true. Moen might have hands like oars, but his effort gave Plekanec an option. Pleks was able to look to Moen and freeze Bobrovsky before blasting a laser by him. Moen's play on that sequence typifies the way every guy in a red sweater pushed for the win last night.

There was a time, not too long ago, when the horrible news that Andrei Markov would be out indefinitely would have meant the Habs missing the playoffs. Now, the Canadiens have a new identity that's founded in a belief that hard work can beat anyone, and every player is buying in. Remember early last year, and for many seasons before that, when the post-loss comments invariably began with "We have to play for 60 minutes?" We don't hear that anymore because the team comes out flying and continues to fly for the whole three periods. While it's true there have been a couple of stinkers this season, there's usually some explanation that doesn't involve lack of effort. The best part of this team approach is that nobody's above it. Alexandre Picard stepped in and helped fill part of the gap left by Markov on the blueline. P.K.Subban stepped up his game and filled the rest of it. We can live in fear of Plekanec or Price getting hurt, but it's becoming easier to believe that if it happened, the others would find a way to go on. They learned that lesson during last year's injury-ravaged season, and they learned it well.

This is not just a hard-working, versatile team, either. It's a talented one. With Cammalleri and Gionta coming to life on Plekanec's line, the offence is picking up, including on the power play. The PK, which is a talent in itself, is tops in the league. And, in goal, there's not a thing you can say about Carey Price that the NHL didn't say when announcing him as last week's first star. He's not just shut up his critics; he's made them some cement sneakers and dropped them off a pier.

There are weaknesses, without a doubt. Spacek and Hamrlik played 23 and 24 minutes respectively. That can't happen every night at their age, so Martin is going to have to manage their ice-time carefully and trust Subban and Picard more. That's going to be tough for a coach who prefers to let young players come along slowly, but unless Gauthier plans to bring in a horse of a veteran D, Martin will have to relax the reins on the kids.

The Habs really don't have an answer for the pushing and shoving and general dirty play the Flyers engaged in later in the third (you tool, Powe.) Lapierre just can't fight, you don't want Subban to fight and Moen can't do it all. The Habs need to add a bit of intimidation to the bottom-six. It may come in the person of Ryan White if Jeff Halpern is going to miss some time. We know it won't be Dustin Boyd. I'd never advocate hiring a goon in the modern NHL, but grit is important.

So, while there are weaknesses, they're fixable weaknesses, rather than glaring holes. In the last week, the Canadiens have answered a lot of questions about their identity and about whether last year's playoffs were a fluke. Just about every player in the lineup has contributed to the cause...even if they didn't show up in the morning highlights.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Flyers vs.Habs - Rematch Edition

Notes on the third:

-If there's no penalty on the Powe attack on Halpern, the NHL is officially a bushier league than the one peopled by the Knights of Ni.

-AK needs to stay after practice and shoot a hundred pucks on net every day. After a year, his accuracy would shame Euclid.

-Excellent boxing stance by Lapierre! Next lesson: Punching.

-Pleks passes like he's trying to knock someone's head off.

-Flyers are looking slower five minutes into the period, but the Habs are slowing to match their pace. They need to push the tired guys.

-I swear, Moen's had more chances than a blonde bikini model on Ladies Night.

-I admire the fact that P.K. wants to defend his teammates. But he's soon going to have to realize he's actually more valuable than most of them.

-Less than five to go, if I were Martin I'd take Pleks and P.K. out of this game. No sense losing another star in a pointless cause.

-Cammalleri's just the right height to head-butt Pronger in the kidneys. Discretely, of course.

-It's amazing Price can look bored after making 40 saves. That's cooler than penguins.

-There's a statement. A big, ballsy statement.

Notes on the second:

-Price has made so many great saves, the announcers aren't even getting excited about them anymore.

-Picard is playing a quietly solid game. Maybe he's finally found his place, like the Ugly Duckling in the swan's pond.

-Why do people like Powe exist? I'm guessing because his name is "Powe." Fits perfectly in Philly.

-On the plus side for the Habs, Gorges is actually composed of two parts elastic bands, one part pink fibreglass insulation.

-I'm sure there's a literary device I can't name that involves the irony of Moen being the Hab with the best chances.

-Credit where it's due: Spacek is in much better position than he's been earlier in the year. Nice stepping up going on there.

-Ha ha! Pleks LOOKED them into submission.

-Those overhead shots they took for the Bell ads just don't work in 2D. They look like there are giant Habs lying around on the boards. Although, better on the boards than on the PK.

-Price is holding the fort like the Canadians held Vimy Ridge.

-One more to go, and there's a statement and a half.

Notes on the first:

-Jeez, Benoit Brunet looks like he's wearing my dad's shirt with Bozo the Mobster's jacket over top.

-I miss Markov. Yes, already. I still think the Habs would have fared better against the Flyers in the playoffs with him.

-That orange has to be the most godawful colour in existence. I'm pretty sure they use it in clinical trials to induce seizures. There's a reason why A Clockwork Orange used that colour.

-Gionta and Gomez can't be so pretty against these guys. One too many passes is all it takes to turn the whole ship bow to the bottom.

-Close-up on Bobrovsky and he looks crazy. Just what we need...another crazy-ass Flyer goalie.

-I really, really don't want to harp on the draft, but watching Giroux do his thing while David Fischer toils for the Florida Everblades makes me ill.

-Welcome back, Mr.Cammalleri. Your table in the Rocket Lounge is ready.

-Poor Eller. Pyatt has the puck in the corner. Eller is standing in the slot, free and clear. Pyatt stick handles, looks around, and passes to Moen with two guys on him.

-Silver lining in the Markov injury could be that Subban wins Rookie of the Year.

-AK46 looks like he's eaten those chocolate-covered coffee beans we used to devour for all-nighters in university.

-Great period. Two more like that, and we have a statement.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Aftermath: Dirty Whalers

One of the best parts about the day after a Habs blowout win is wallowing in the news reports and the highlight reels of all the best stuff from the night before. It should have been great fun to re-watch Plekanec's four points, Price's great saves and the general humiliation of the annoying Hurricanes this morning. Instead, the enjoyment was ruined by the uneasy suspicion that Andrei Markov...he of the worst luck since Saku Koivu...sustained another knee injury that will keep him out for months.

The worst thing about a situation like this, aside from the inevitable loss of Markov himself, is the way it will drag on for days without any information about how serious the injury is or how long he'll be out. We'll spend days wondering and listening to pundits and fans talk about how injury-prone Markov has become, and how he isn't worth a new contract anymore.

The truth is, pending P.K.Subban's rise to greatness, Markov is still the best defenceman the Canadiens have. While it took him four or five games to get back up to speed following his ACL surgery, in the last three he's proven his value again. With him in the lineup, veterans like Spacek play fewer minutes which keeps them fresher and limits their time against top lines. Josh Gorges gets a promotion and a chance to develop and learn, which he wouldn't get when paired with Hal Gill. The transition game is smoother and faster, the forwards get more points because Markov's back there springing them on odd-man rushes and the PP improves because Markov's creativity divides the opposing defence's attention.

Markov is the kind of defenceman any team in the league would pay a premium to get, and the Canadiens are lucky enough to have him and his dedication to the team. It's unfortunate for him and for his teammates that his own luck is a lot crappier than most people's. There should be no question that the team keeps him around. The Habs are better with him, and he won't be hurt forever. After what he's done for the team, he deserves to be shown patience and respect.

There's no point lamenting whether Staal meant to hit Markov in the knee. (Although it looked like he did...and how many times will a freakin' Hurricane take out a valuable Hab without a penalty call?!) It's done and the Canadiens will pay the price. The question is, for how long? If it's the three months RDS is guessing, the team may have to make some moves to make up for his absence.

The short-term answer is a reshuffling of the D pairings and the insertion of Picard. This is a bit scary because, while he's played some quietly solid defence, there's a reason why four NHL teams have already passed on him. He's yet to prove he can be consistent for a longer stretch of games and, even if he comes in and plays a solid game in his own end, he's not an offensive catalyst like Markov. Still, if he's paired with Gill, playing limited shut-down minutes, Martin can keep the Old Guards Spacek and Hamrlik together and replace Markov with Subban in Gorges' pair. That way, the younger guys get the most minutes and the top-line assignments. Picard and Gill can play shut-down. That arrangement could work for a little while.

Long-term, if long-term becomes an issue, the Habs might have to consider a trade. The problem there is they really don't have any assets they'd be willing to deal for a quality defenceman, and they're not going to get a good one unless they give something worthwhile in return. The cap relief the team would get for a long-term Markov absence would allow Gauthier to trade scraps for a guy like Souray, but he's a pylon and would have to be demoted when Markov returns. In any case, Janne Niinimaa has already proven trading in desperation is never a good thing.

From the scrap heap, Marc-Andre Bergeron's name has come up as a PP solution. Unfortunately, he's not a defence solution, and he can only play limited minutes which doesn't help relieve the stress on guys like Spacek and Hamrlik. There's not much else available in the land of the unsigned. Jay McKee is still looking for a team. Kim Johnsson is out there, but has been dealing with post-concussion issues. Neither of them would really replace Markov either.

Hamilton offers Alex Henry, who was cut in favour of Picard in the first place, and Yannick Weber, who's been lighting it up for the Bulldogs but still has brain cramps in his own zone.

The Missing Markov problem has the potential to screw up a really good thing for the Habs. Of course, they played well without him so far, and they survived when he wasn't at his best. Still, when every point counts, it's tough to lose a guy who can make a difference in any game.

So, on a day when we should be smiling and enjoying blowing out the Whalers, and raving about how good Plekanec and Price were...and how about that Lapierre spinerama goal!...we can't enjoy it. The fun of last night is overshadowed today by the looming spectre of another stretch without Markov on the blueline. It's enough to make a Habs fan gloomy.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Whalers vs. Habs - Rookie of the Year Edition

Notes on the third:

-Suddenly everyone's playing D like they have defensive super powers. If that's Martin's doing, then I have seriously underestimated the love child of ALF and the Gumper.

-Gill's playing a hell of a game. He and his partner, the ten-foot stick, have been great.

-Price laughing with PK after making a fantastic save. It looks like PK thinks Price is a superhero. I'm starting to think he's not wrong.

-Wouldn't it be awful for PK to make a fantastic check like he did at the 9-minute mark, and while the crowd was chanting "PK, PK", give it away? I hope that never happens.

-Oh NOOOO! Don't tell us Markov's hurt again?! May you never enjoy the pleasure of a woman again, Staal, if that's true.

-If Plekanec had lived in ancient Rome, he'd be worshipped as a god. Andrei Kostitsyn is his first disciple.

-Darche! Great to see a plumber rewarded. Especially when he's the lowest-paid plumber in Montreal. Literally. Check the hourly rates of those guys.

-A friend watching the game with me said the Habs looked like they were in the All-Star game for half the night.

-Camera close-up on the kid who caught Pleks' first toss of a first-star puck. The kid was flipping out. THAT makes the whole gimmick worth it.

Notes on the second:

-The Bell Centre PA guy should throw some marching tunes in the rotation to accompany the penalty parade.

-Dumb penalties will be the story of this game, and the 'Canes are on the board because Cammalleri took one. I do love how Lacroix sounds depressed when he reads out the Carolina goal info, though.

-Okay, who was supposed to have Kostopolous in the slot? I'm guessing Gomez who was looking like he had no clue what he was doing on the ice at the time.

-Sometimes I wonder if Plekanec would like to beat some of his linemates with a broken stick.

-Just as I write that, Gio roofs one in glorious, first-century Hab tradition.

-And just as I write THAT, Lapierre pulls a spinerama to end all spineramas. Even PK could learn from that.

-Pouliot! This is an embarrassment of riches.

-PK just unravels people.

-Anybody notice Kostitsyn hasn't scored since he was taken off Plekanec's line? Jacques?

-Great last six minutes. Habs need twenty more of those.

Notes on the first:

-The 'Canes are the perfect foil for momentum. Hope the Habs play a different character against these guys than they usually do.

-That Skinner kid is really something. How could all those scouts get that wrong?

-PhD line plays the "Full steam ahead, shoot on the net" style. They should give classes.

-Canes PP is aggressive with lots of movement. Dumb penalties will decide this game if the Habs don't smarten up.

-Plekanec is more valuable than copper pipe.

-Price has saved more than Scrooge tonight.

-Cammalleri! He has risen!

-Love those last-minute goals when the good guys get them.

Friday, November 12, 2010

The Goal

If you ever played hockey, (if you weren't a goalie) you remember The Goal you scored. You know what that means. Not the tap-in while you stood at the side of the crease, or the one that bounced off your ass. You remember The Goal. One time in your hockey career, you went end-to-end, moved on the D, went in alone on the goalie and scored. It's the reason why skaters play hockey in the first place. Some players may get tremendous satisfaction from containing the other team's top guy...Tomas Plekanec and Bob Gainey, I'm talking to you...but most of us get joy from scoring a really great goal.

I remember mine. I picked the puck out of a defensive scrum, and cut through the middle. One defenseman tried a poke check, but I heel-dragged by her. The other D tried to block the shot, but went down too early. I evaded her extended stick and faked forehand on the goalie. He stacked the pads and I went high backhand. It all happened within about ten seconds, but I'll never forget it. I never scored another goal like it and probably never would if I'd played another ten years. It's the one memory of my hockey playing life I recall when I think about that time.

Michael Cammalleri has The Goal too. Maybe it happened in college or in pee wee. Maybe it was last season. Whenever it came, there's a goal in his memory that makes him remember why he plays hockey. It's time the team and the coaches focus on him and help him bring that goal back, because something's wrong with him.

Cammy looks angry and unfocused. He's taking bad penalties, and he's misfiring on what last year would have been sure goals. He's acting from a goalscorer's frustration when the things that usually come naturally don't come at all.

His line with Plekanec and Kostitsyn offered him the best chance of scoring, but that's been broken up. Jacques Martin needs to think about letting that line get back together for the sake of his six-million-dollar sniper, because no matter how much a guy gets paid, he still needs to get inspired to produce. Martin has done a pretty good job of managing his assets so far, but Cammalleri is one of the most precious of those assets. The coach might need to move things around in his favour because the team needs him.

There's been some speculation that Cammalleri worked hard on his campaign to be named Habs captain, and now he's mad because he didn't get it. I don't believe that's true, but if it is, Cammalleri needs to put that to rest. He's not behaving in character and whatever it takes to get him going, whether coaching manouvers or self-examination, must happen soon.

The Canadiens only function well if they're working as a team, and we saw last an imporant part of that. He has to produce for the team to be successful.

Maybe the answer is to remind him of The Goal. Maybe he needs to remember why he plays the game and forget about all the adulation, photo shoots and tire-flipping commercials. The coaches can help. Linemates can help. The rest of it comes from within, and it's time for Cammaleri to look there for some answers.

Aftermath: A Passing Grade

In the course of a long, wearisome NHL season, no team plays its very best every game. There are nights when you've played the day before and your plane got in late, when you're tired and you suck. Sometimes you're sick or things are just out of synch and nothing connects the way you want it to. There are, however, occasions during the course of the season when a team recognizes it faces an important challenge. There are nights when the opponent is a measuring stick for how you're doing as a team, and how you stack up against the rest of the league. Nobody comes right out and says, "This game will test our resolve and our identity and our ability," but every player recognizes it's true.

Last night was one of those "test games" for the Canadiens. The Bruins have been having a hell of an early season, with one of the top penalty kills in the league and the best goals-against in the East. They're also top-five in the NHL for goals scored per game. Without doubt, the Bruins are a solid, well-rounded team and a legitmate Cup contender. Beating them would mean something.

It's safe to say the Habs passed the test with flying colours. Carey Price was great again, everyone on the defence corps played strong games, the PP finally clicked and the PK was perfect. The Canadiens used their speed to advantage, wearing down the Bruins defence. Best of all, Gomez and Gionta found the twine, which had to be a huge relief for them as well as us.

Together, the Habs answered the question that's been in the back of our collective consciousness since last May: Is this team for real? The answer, although still early, has to be a solid, "yes." When it counts, everyone follows Martin's game plan and defends their own zone like a sow grizzly with a den full of cubs. When it matters, veterans dig down and push a little harder for that important goal. When there's something on the line, Plekanec steps up his defensive game and shuts down the other team's best player. The team that found its game in the playoffs still remembers what it takes to beat a really good opponent. With continued good health and the resurrection of the top-six's scoring touch, the Canadiens are perfectly able to be a playoff team, and not have to scrape into the post-season in eighth place again this year.

Whether they'll live up to the ability they proved last night will be determined over the next five months. There are some things that still need to happen to make the playoffs a certainty, rather than a possibility. Mike Cammalleri needs to start scoring. It's great that Carey Price has made the Habs the only team in the league not to have allowed more than three goals in a game. As good as he's been, though, there will come a night when he's not as sharp. That's when the Habs will need guys like Cammalleri and his top-line mates to score five or six goals instead of two or three.

To that end, it might be time for Martin to consider reuniting Plekanec, Cammalleri and Andrei Kostitsyn. Those three were fantastic to start the year, and since their breakup, none of them are scoring. If Gomez and Gionta have found their groove at last, there should be no reason not to put the first line back together.

The PK has been great, but the Habs are still taking too many dumb penalties. They're sitting sixth-best in the league with only 10.9 penalty minutes per game, but that's an average of just over five minors every game. When you think about some of the pointless penalties that number includes...Lapierre diving, Cammalleri slashing while on the PP...the team could be a little more disciplined.

Okay, that's enough criticism. On the morning after winning a big test game, there's a lot more praise to go around. Lars Eller looks so good, it's only a matter of time before he really breaks out and establishes himself as a really good NHL player. Benoit Pouliot isn't falling down nearly as much, and is doing some really creative things. Playing with Halpern and Darche has him hustling more than he ever has, but he may soon need to move to a line with players who can finish what he's setting up.

Price is a different goalie from the slumped, downhearted guy we saw last year. He's holding his ground in the net, rather than dropping blindly. He's much more focussed and rarely loses sight of the puck. The one save he made last night, when he gloved down the shot, then calmly batted it away with his stick, is emblematic of the way he's been playing all season.

Hamrlik seems to have found his legs after missing all of training camp. As his play has settled into his usual steady style, Jaro Spacek has improved along with him. Spacek is still the scariest D on the roster, but he's less panicky when Hamrlik is playing well.

Finally, and second only to Price having proven himself on the scale of gigantic sighs of relief, Andrei Markov is coming back up to the level of play we expect from him. I confess, in the first few games after his return, I was really worried. He looked slow, confused and afraid. Fortunately, he's sanded off the rust and he looks as good as he did before he had his knee surgically rebuilt.

There's a long way to go before playoff berths are assigned this year. Along the way there will be other nights and other tests, but for today, we can smile in the knowledge that the Canadiens have passed the first one and announced they're for real.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Habs vs. Bruins - Big Test Edition

Notes on the third:

-Gio's goal was sweeter than honey lollipops. And Cammalleri's pass was very artistic.

-Jeez...Gill makes Ryder look fast.

-Gomez! Looks like someone found an oasis in that desert.

-Pleky's picking corners on Rask's head.

-Hamrlik is having a very fine game tonight.

-You can tell Martin's excited when they're winning because he turns redder in the face than an alkie.

-So, this is what it's like to have a functional PP and Gomez and Gionta scoring. I like it!

Notes on the second:

-Gomez on the intermission interview. Could he look like he gives less of a damn?

-Lapierre is getting a really bad rap for the diving. Sometimes, I think he's not even doing it on purpose, but he's getting nailed for it anyway.

-The biggest problem with the two-ref system is the number of times they get in the way and screw up a breakaway.

-If Price had a theme song so far this year, it'd be "Like a Rock."

-A friend watching the game with me says the main issue with Lapierre on the Gomez line is "the Duh factor." He's too dumb for that line.

-Why does Cammalleri think he can carry the puck all alone, with four Bs converging on him? It's like the Charge of the Light Brigade, with similarly tragic results.

-Great play-by-play line by Cuthbert: "He's enveloped by Hal Gill."

-Gomez is working like a Clydesdale with a cartload of Bud tonight. If he keeps it up, the points will come.

-Damn! Too bad Halpern turned his skate like that.

-Maybe Cammalleri should have less time flipping tires this summer and more practicing his shot.

-Pouliot and Eller look like first-round picks tonight.

-Whatever happens in the third, the first two periods have made for a helluva game.

Notes on the first:

-Is it a requirement for all Bruins to look like cavemen? I'll be their dressing room walls have some great finger paintings of stick figures on them.

-Rask, Seguin and a lottery pick in 2011. Three more reasons to hate the leafs.

-Martin looks like he cut his own hair tonight.

-The game starts with the third line hemming the Bs in their own zone, then the second line comes out and immediately gives up the territory. Could NHL teams start a peer tutoring program?

-Kostitsyn can't let Bergeron push him off the puck. A tank like him needs to be immovable.

-Habs passing looks like their sticks are made of pipe cleaners.

-Subban saves the PP!

-Non-hockey watching spouse in response to Pierre McGuire's comment that Cammalleri's remaining positive through his slump. "You can rent a cheerleader for cheap, and it doesn't count against the cap."

-Markov looks like he's pulling up on the end boards to avoid getting hit. Maybe a bit gun-shy.

-You could see the Bruins goal coming a mile away. There's just no excuse for that kind of breakdown.

-Not a bad period, but the Bruins are just so much more aggressive it's going to be tough to bring this one home.

Lest We Forget

In Flanders Fields

In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved, and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders Fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders Fields.

- John McCrae

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Aftermath: None Shall Pass

Carey Price probably isn't spending much of this young season scrutinizing the morning sports report and obsessing about what Jaro Halak did the night before, unlike a lot of Habs fans. If he did, though, he'd probably be feeling pretty vindicated today.

Price was positionally sound, alert and quick aginst the team for which he grew up cheering; the team that rolled into Montreal on a six-game win streak with the league's number-one PP. For a guy who got blown out of the water in his only other game against the Canucks, and who couldn't buy a shutout if he robbed a Brinks truck last year, the win had to be sweet.

Price, of course, didn't pull it off by himself, even if he played the biggest part in the win. (And almost scored a goal, in which case he'd have negated the old saying that it's impossible for a goalie to win a game all by himself.) It's funny how the Canadiens raise their game to match a good opponent. Give them Columbus on a Tuesday night or Ottawa for the third straight Saturday and they look bored and resigned. Bring in one of the hottest teams in the west and the Habs look like they're geared up for a playoff game.

Roman Hamrlik turned the clock back ten years and played a solid, smart game on the blueline. Partner Jaro Spacek wasn't as lost as he's been since the season started. Hal Gill was at his PK-ing best and Andrei Markov finally started to look like himself again after his long layoff. Habs fans everywhere began to exhale again when they saw the General showing real signs of recovering from that surgery.

Up front, Max Lapierre showed signs of actually being alive for the first time this year, and Scott Gomez took his coach's criticism to heart and used his speed to help push the Vancouver D back in their own zone. Tomas Plekanec was godly on the PK and played his best game since coming down with the flu last week. Lars Eller had some great chances and looks ready to pop his first at any moment.

The win was satisfying for fans because it was a real team effort, and every player on the ice was important. It also dampens some of the panic that follows every bad game the team plays, but the panic, unfortunately, isn't completely banished today, even after convincingly locking up another two points. That's because both goals came from defencemen, and the top-six forwards continue to get shut out. Gomez played a better game than he has on many nights this season, but the constant shuffling of linemates designed to get him producing is handicapping the rest of the forwards. Plekanec and Andrei Kostitsyn were the only top-liners who could score for the first ten games. Now, with Kostitsyn moved to Gomez' line, nobody's able to pot one. It would be great (by "great," we mean "necessary") to get Gomez, Gionta and Cammalleri scoring, but not at the expense of the productive Pleks/AK pairing.

Still, after a game like last night's, worries about such things are a little less urgent than they'd be if the score were reversed. It buys the team another day to work on some things and another two points' grace in the standings. It buys Carey Price a very pleasant morning, and, perhaps, a satisfied peek at the morning sports page.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Canucks vs. Habs - Greasy Bob Edition

Notes on the third:

-Nice PK. Thankfully, there is a referee antidote.

-Hamrlik! There IS a Santa Claus!

-Plekanec is every coach's wet dream.

-Every once in a while Lapierre proves he's not a waste of air.

-It hasn't happened yet, but if it does, I'm going to seriously wonder about Martin if the Sedins score while they're on against the Grandpas on D.

-Mathieu Darche may yet be successful in the NHL, if only because most players have forgotten the whole idea of crashing the net.

-Brutal. The Habs miss three clear shots on an EMPTY net. Scoring is seriously against their religion.

-Carey with the EN shot! Damn...would have loved to see him make it.

-Carey Price is an excellent goalie. Anyone who doubts should try to get into the butterfly position, then get out within a second. Right.

Notes on the second:

-You know, all of the old adages are adages because there's some truth in them. In the Habs' case, every cloud has a silver lining. The PP sucks, but the PK is great.

-When they told Darche he'd be flying first-class in the NHL, he didn't know it'd be on Andrew Alberts' stick.

-The PP sucks harder than a demonstration-model Electrolux.

-To paraphrase Carbo, if the team had 20 Jeff Halperns, it'd be winning more games.

-The Canucks are so much better than the Canadiens with their sticks in close quarters, it's like watching the Chinese national ping pong team versus the British Open lawn darts champs. In ping pong.

-Apparently, there's no headlock penalty in the NHL. AK nearly lost the bit of hair he's got left.

-Pouliot's got more skills than Carters had liver pills. Unfortunately, they're about equally effective.

-Gomez isn't a bad hockey player. He's just a dumb one.

-I'm so superstitious about goalies, I can only say Price hasn't been bad so far.

-Fighting to hold a lead, then you have an all-star like Lapierre taking a dumbass holding penalty. Does he not realize he's on a one-year deal?

-Another good period. I'm waiting for the other skate to drop.

Notes on the first:

-I really like Luongo's mask. The simplicity reminds me of the good old days.

-Markov! And THAT'S how you pinch!

-Halpern's sharper than a box of tacks.

-Gomez just can't make a decision. He's wide open, and passes. Then, he shoots when Greasy Bob's got the net covered. I'll bet if he let his hair grow, it'd be blonde.

-The only way Spacek clears the puck is by bouncing it off somebody else and out. It's going to be a loooong season with him. And a longer one next year.

-This should be P.K.'s type of game. Let him go, Jacques!

-Canucks are owning the Habs in the passing department. Habs pass like their sticks are made of grass. And not the good kind.

-Price goes a-wandering and looks like he's auditioning for Battle of the Blades: Goalie Edition.

-Ugh...DOG penalty. I thought that bounced off the top of the glass and back in. I HATE that penalty.

-Great period by the Habs...lots of speed, aggression and shots. If they hold true to past performance, they'll suck out loud in the second and give up three.