Monday, February 28, 2011

The Gomez Effect

Perception is a funny thing. You might read post-game reports from two different people who watched the same event, and one will say a certain defenceman made three giveaways while the other person will point out how the same defenceman blocked three shots. Both might be true, but the lasting impression of the game depends on the perceptions of the observer. We see what we want to see.

This season, Scott Gomez is getting a lot of heat, not only for his own lacklustre play (7 goals, 30 points, -19), but also for immediately killing the production of every winger he's given. The question amidst the criticism, however, is how much of it is truth, and how much perception? To find out, it's time to crunch some numbers.

I have broken down the performance of the six wingers who have played most often this season with both Gomez and Tomas Plekanec, for comparison purposes. I restricted the analysis to even-strength points, as special teams combinations tend to be much more fluid and are influenced by such factors as the other team's effectiveness on the PK.

Here's how it breaks down:

Andrei Kostitsyn. Kostitsyn has played 39 of 62 games with Plekanec, and put up 19 of his 25 even-strength points (ESP), for 0.49 PPG. With Plekanec, he's a +9. He's played 15 games with Gomez, registering only two ESP, or 0.24 PPG. With Gomez, he's -6.

Brian Gionta. The captain played 37 of 63 games with Gomez, and scored 9 ESP, or 0.24 PPG, with a -6 rating. In 26 games with Plekanec, he has 16 ESP, or 0.62 PPG, with a +8.

Michael Cammalleri. Cammy played 35 of 48 games with Plekanec, scoring 17 of his 20 ESP...or those games. That's 0.49 PPG, with a +13 rating. In his 9 games with Gomez, Cammalleri had 2 ESP for 0.22 PPG and a -2 rating.

Max Pacioretty. Pax has spent 24 of 33 games on Gomez' wing. In those games, he's got 9 ESP, or 0.39 PPG, and is -8. He's played 9 games with Plekanec and scored 5 ESP, or 0.56 PPG, and is +2.

Benoit Pouliot. In 4 games with Gomez, he's scored 3 ESP, for 0.75 PPG, with a +1 rating. In 3 games with Plekanec, he's got 2 ESP, for 0.67 PPG, and a +2

Lars Eller. He's played 7 games on Plekanec's wing, and scored 2 ESP, for 0.29 PPG, with a -3. In 5 games with Gomez, he's got no ESP and is -5.

Travis Moen. He played no games with Plekanec, but 20 with Gomez. In those 20 games, he has 2 ESP, for an average of 0.10 PPG and a -1 rating.

The grand total for both centres: Of the seven players (including Moen in Gomez' case) who have spent the vast majority of the season flanking Gomez and Plekanec at even strength, those playing with Plekanec average 0.42 even-strength PPG and are a combined +31. The same players, skating with Gomez, have scored an average 0.28 even-strength PPG, with a combined -26.

Those numbers, like all statistics, should be taken with a view of the big picture. Gomez, after all, had 20 games centering a stone-hands guy like Travis Moen while Plekanec had none. (Although, it should also be noted that in 5 games in which Plekanec played with 3rd/4th liners Darche and Halpern, those guys have 0.8 even-strength PPG, and are a combined +5.)

Ice time doesn't figure into the comparison, as Gomez and his assorted wingers got the most playing time of any line about as many times as Plekanec did. Neither does competition account for the discrepancy between the centres' performance. In more than 80% of the Canadiens' games, Plekanec and his wingers face the opposition's top defence pair (defined as the opposing defencemen who get the most ice time in a game) more often than any other line.

It would seem, then, that playing with Scott Gomez this season really is the Pit of Despair for wingers. Five of the six wingers who've played with both have seen their production at even strength drop by half when moved to Gomez' line. The other, Max Pacioretty, dropped by about a third.

Interestingly, the only winger who performed better with Gomez than any other, Benoit Pouliot, played only four games on Gomez' wing before being permanently removed from the line. Considering that he's put up only 0.32 PPG with Halpern, 0.23 PPG with Eller and 0.33 PPG with Desharnais, Martin might consider moving Pouliot back with Gomez for a trial period, just to see if those early games were a fluke or not.

It's also interesting to see Kostitsyn begin to produce again after his removal from Gomez' line. He has a combined 0.53 even-strength PPG playing with Halpern or Eller. It would be wise of Martin to keep him away from Gomez forever.

Sometimes, we adopt an image of a player's performance based purely on perception. We don't like Gomez' contract, or we never warmed up to the trade, so we see the bad things he does and ignore the good. In the case of his wingers, however, the numbers show there is a definite Gomez Effect. That's not perception. That's fact.

Friday, February 25, 2011

Aftermath: Trust

Hockey is, as are all team games, an exercise in trust. That's why teams do those ridiculous bonding tests during training camp, in which a blindfolded player is guided around obstacles by a teammate's voice, or a guy's got to fall backward and let a teammate catch him. Those silly games are just metaphors for what happens on the ice. Every player needs to know he can count on the guy skating next to him to cover his mistakes, assist on his goals and have his back in the rough going. Equally important, every player needs to feel that his teammates and coach trust him to do the job he's assigned. The ephemeral "confidence" players talk about starts with knowing others believe he can perform up to expectations, and that, in turn, begins with the coach.

Jacques Martin doesn't trust his backup goalie. He plays Carey Price as often as possible because he doesn't like Alex Auld's chances to win. As a result, Auld plays once a month and, unsurprisingly, comes in rusty half the time. He stunk last night, but you have to wonder how much of his poor timing was the result of sitting for weeks.

Martin doesn't trust most of his defence either. His natural tendency to rely on proven veterans over younger players in must-win situations means he's seriously overplaying the only remaining vet who can actually skate. Roman Hamrlik played more than 28 minutes again last night; the second time in a week he was on the ice for nearly half the game. That included an inexplicable 6:35 on the PP, for a guy who's averaged 2:46 per game with the man advantage all year. Hammer is tired, and when he's tired, he makes mistakes.

Most troubling, the coach doesn't trust his kids. In a game in which the Canadiens fell into a deep hole early, you'd think anyone with a pulse and the potential to score a goal would be taking a regular shift. Instead, Kostitsyn, Pouliot, Eller and Desharnais all got fewer than nine minutes of ice time at even strength. Max Pacioretty was on the ice five minutes less than his veteran linemates, and one can only imagine how much ice time P.K.Subban would be getting if the defence weren't totally decimated. This isn't a good situation. The kids can only learn by playing, and getting minimal minutes because the coach is afraid they'll screw up isn't giving them much confidence. Those five young forwards account for a good part of the team's hope for the future. They need to play.

Spinning off from Martin's lack of faith in the kids is his over-reliance on Scott Gomez. The man has fewer goals (7) than Kostitsyn, Pouliot and Pacioretty and only one more than Desharnais, who's played in 37 fewer games. His 30 points are only slightly better than P.K.Subban's...a rookie defenceman's...27. There is absolutely no evidence, dramatic pointless rushing notwithstanding, that Scott Gomez will be the man who will come up with a vital tying goal. Yet, he played more than 20 minutes last night, including 4:08 on the PP. With all that ice time, Gomez came up with no goals, no assists and was a -1. At least he didn't take a dumb penalty for once. Perhaps that was Martin's justification for sending Gomez out for shift after shift when the team was desperate.

Trust is one of the most important intangibles in a team sport. Players have to trust each other, but they also have to trust their coach to believe in them and put the right players on the ice at the right time. The young players, untried though they may be, have to be getting frustrated when they end up sitting in favour of veterans who don't get the job done.

Martin coaches with a fear of losing rather than a drive to win. Someone needs to tell him losing by one goal is still losing, and he has to loosen the reins on some players. He's got to start trusting players to do their jobs.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

leafs vs. Habs - Ye Auld Edition

Notes on the third:

-Andrei Kostitsyn might have made up Gauthier's mind on deal or no deal by missing that gaping net on the PP.

-I know Gomez has been a successful offensive player in the past. Now, though, he's just offensive. Why does the Knife continue to give him primo ice time?

-Oh, come on! FIVE goals against the leafs? The D is hurting, but this is just ridiculous.

-Plekanec kills penalties like Picasso painted one-eyed women.

-Uh oh. Halfway through the third and RDS is already sounding resigned. Maybe I should go to bed.

-Terrible PP. It should be called Ivan.

-This was awful, all around, starting with Auld. Good luck with the playoff run, Habs.

Notes on the second:

-If I met a genie and got three wishes, one of them would be to hear the unedited Hal Gill commentary to the refs.

-It's not a good thing that Hammer seems to be sucking fumes on the rush, is it?

-Oh, Cammy! That shot, when it's on, is as accurate as a rectal thermometer.

-And Wiz. I was just wondering why he doesn't shoot anymore, then he blasts one harder than diamonds.

-Ugh. Complete defensive breakdown to give the tie away.

-Sometimes Hamrlik looks like the Yoda of defence. And sometimes he looks like the Pee Wee Herman.

-Funny TV moment: Muller drawing a play on the notebook for Cammalleri. Cammalleri takes the pen and starts to draw one back. Muller takes the pen, moves down the bench. Next shot is Muller drawing a play on the notebook for Pleks and Halpern.

-Can't help wishing Price protected his neck better. Everytime I see a goalie with a "dangler" I wish Price had one.

-Gill needs an O2 tank on some of those icing races.

-Why do the Habs never score that late back-breaker?

-It must be so easy to play with Pleks. All you have to do is be on the other side of the net with your stick on the ice. He puts it cross-crease every time. How hard is that for his wingers to get?

-Good period for the Habs, but Auld's damage may be too much to repair.

Notes on the first:

-If Phaneuf had four fewer brain cells, he'd be a geranium.

-Sigh. Sometimes Subban really reminds you that he's a 21-year-old rookie. His dumb drop pass on the PP forced Wisniewski into a rotten penalty. Martin will remember that as if P.K. took the two himself.

-All this scrumming after the whistle means I'm going to be losing a lot of sleep tonight.

-Desharnais sticks to the crease like a burr to a wool sock.

-Nice shot by Hammer. I'd give him another year for cheap.

-That idiot Komisarek just mauled Pleks. No call, naturally.

-Oh, but there IS a huge phantom call on Gionta that gives One-Ball Phil a freebie.

-Auld is horrid. And Last-Pick Kessel now has more goals than gonads.

-Poor Price. He can't have a night off because his backup has more holes than Brian Mulroney's story before the Oliphant Commission.

-I worry Price may throw his shoulder out of socket with one of those windmill glove saves.

-Terrible reffing. I would hope there's at least a make-up call coming.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Habs Notebook: Post-Road Trip Edition

Thankfully, the Canadiens managed to salvage the two points against the Canucks in the last game of their western swing to avoid a full-scale slide into panic territory. Here are a few notes as they move into the last quarter of the season, and approach deadline day:

-I didn't see the Vancouver game, but a careful review of the highlights and the stats page show a couple of interesting things. First, David Desharnais has some slick, slick hands. Second, Lars Eller is a centreman who plays best in his natural position. Third, Andrei Kostitsyn became the latest winger to be freed from the Gomez line and immediately score a goal.

-Also interesting was the evidence of Jacques Martin's total lack of trust in an offensive system. Going into the third period with a 3-1 lead, which quickly shrunk to 3-2 early on, Martin chose to keep the Desharnais line on the bench for the entire twenty minutes. He decided not to risk a bad matchup, despite the line's scoring the opening goal. It was more natural for him to bench potential offence in favour of throwing up a defensive wall instead. Similarly, given the choice to focus Subban's special teams ice time on the PP or the PK, Martin chose the PK. It was more important for him to defend the Canucks' power play than it was to try and generate goals. It's hard to argue the choice, considering the fact that it did bring in two valuable points. Then again, it's interesting to wonder what the team might do with an offensive-minded coach who played the guys most likely to score the most.

-It was notable that the only puck Carey Price has cared about preserving as a keepsake was the one from his win over Vancouver. A big part of his emotional reaction certainly stemmed from beating his boyhood favourite team in front of a large group of family and friends for the first time. Another source of satisfaction might have been knowing his teammates went the extra mile to get the win for him in a way they might not have in previous years. Price has played very well this season, and has done it with a newfound calm and maturity that's won him the love and respect of his comrades. After the game, he acknowledged their determination to win it for him, and he obviously appreciated it.

-There's lots of talk about the Canadiens picking up a couple of enigmatic Russians before the deadline. Alex Kovalev is a millstone around the Senators' collective neck, and the Flyers are dumping Nikolai Zherdev on waivers. The glow went off Kovalev a long time ago, and even the temptation of having him turn it on one last time for a Canadiens playoff run shouldn't make Gauthier bite. Even a low pick for him would be a waste of an asset. Zherdev would be a better bet. He's younger and, at this point, has the potential to be more dynamic. He's also free, if nobody else claims him first. It's easy to see either of them having trouble fitting into the Martin system, and therefore, the dressing room, though.

-Now that ties in the standings are looming as a distinct possibility, the stupidest new rule in the NHL might come into effect. The first tie-breaker is wins, minus shootout wins. This is unbelievably dumb, because the NHL is only reducing the value of shootout wins for tiebreaking purposes. They still count for two points in the standings and, unless there's a tie, will determine conference placing. For example, if the Canadiens end up tied with the Rangers, the Habs will get the edge because the Rangers' seven shootout wins will be discounted, giving the Canadiens a five-win advantage. Yet, if the Rangers finish eighth and the Canadiens one point behind them in ninth, the Rangers would take the final playoff spot because the shootout wins, in that case, would count. It's absolutely ridiculous. Either shootout wins count the same as any other win, or they don't. The league is just making things more confusing and unfair by devaluing shootout wins only in the case of ties.

-A lot of people are calling for the Habs to dump Andrei Kostitsyn for whatever they can get for him. That would be a mistake. AK is pretty much guaranteed to put up 20 goals a year without even trying. Given a good centreman and a couple of hot streaks, he can extend that to 25-30. That might not be top-line material for a contender, but there's nothing wrong with that kind of production in a second-line winger. How many teams have guys scoring more than that on their second lines? AK is maddening with his inconsistency, but he has value. As fans, we have to stop judging him by his potential and bemoaning what he doesn't bring and accepting what he does bring. Then, if team management decides they can't afford to pay him for that, fine. Dumping him for scraps, though, isn't the best way to manage an asset with marketable value.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011


When those of us who are of the instant gratification generation are confronted with people who lived the primes of their adult lives before we were born...fossils, if you will...we tend to tune them out. Sure, everything was better-built, stronger, more classy than anything we have now, grandpa, we think.

What we forget as we're tuning out gramps is, sometimes, he's right. Sometimes the wisdom he learned the hard way before we were born still applies now. I remembered that today, when I talked with Alex Faulkner.

Alex is the first Newfoundlander to have played in the NHL. He skated with Howe and Sawchuk in the '60s, although he just missed the Cup-winning years in Detroit. He's an unassuming person and a very classy gentleman. Our conversation today was about head injuries in the game he calls "his life."

Faulkner thinks its great that the game is faster and the doctors much more conscientious about diagnosing concussions, but he thinks there are things that need to happen to make the game he loves better for the men who play it.

First, he says, the equipment needs to be made softer, like it was in the old days. The purpose of padding is to protect the wearer, not to turn him into a tank. He thinks the rock-hard shoulder and elbow pads players wear are too dangerous.

Second, the league has to think about reducing some of that great speed, either by lengthening shifts, or by reducing rosters. Excessive speed, combined with rules prohibiting interference, means players are getting hit harder, at higher velocities, and that hurts heads.

Third, Faulkner thinks there needs to be a no-touch icing rule. Sure, he says, the occasional race for the puck on a delayed icing is fun to watch, but most often, it just opens the defenceman to a shot from behind as he rushes to retrieve the iced puck.

Fourth, Faulkner says he truly believes that an offender...a guy like Bertuzzi or Cooke...who hurts an opponent with a reckless hit to the head, should be suspended for the duration of the injured player's absence. He thinks the NHL's lack of muscle on the discipline front is sending a tacit messasge that nobody's really serious about stopping the kinds of play that ends careers.

And finally, he says players have to be taught to hit correctly. He says the elbows and forearms that go up high on bodychecks now didn't used to be the way hits were carried out. A huge bodycheck should be legal (he despises retaliation on a clean check), but it shouldn't involve any part of the hitter contacting the target's head.

These are simple solutions, presented by a guy who's been there. They're the kind of answers that will stop, or at least slow down, the concussion epidemic, which is ending the hockey lives of really good players like Marc Savard and Paul Kariya, and is threatening the careers of generational players like Sidney Crosby.

Perhaps, if bottom-line dwellers like Colin Campbell and Gary Bettman weren't too busy tuning Grandpa out, they'd recognize that. Something has to give, because players' heads are fragile and they're getting broken much, much too often.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Aftermath: Slump

I always wondered how big stars managed to play with people who were obviously below their pay grade. What must Gretzky have felt, when he made a brilliant play to put a puck directly on the tape of some scrub who immediately shot it into the stands? What about Orr, thinking four plays ahead, and bound to play with a guy who could only react in the moment? Hockey is a team game. That's what makes it wonderful to watch. It's also what makes it torture on the gifted. Watching Carey Price these days, one wonders if he's not experiencing a little bit of that frustration.

The young goaltender has responded to the impossible pressure he faced in the wake of the Jaro Halak trade with admirable aplomb. He's been the model of consistency, with only an occasional bad goal against. On most nights, he's the reason his team wins. Rarely is he the reason why it loses. He's doing all of it with a newfound maturity and a poise he's developed even while his every move is scrutinized by thousands of self-appointed critics.

So, really, nobody could blame him if he's getting frustrated with the terrible team in front of him. It's got to be maddening for him to make a couple of really nice saves to keep his teammates in the game, only to see perimeter chance after perimeter chance turned away by his counterpart at the other end. It has to drive him crazy sometimes to be faced with one odd-man rush after another when his patchwork defence breaks down. Last year, when he was struggling and probably not nearly as entitled to righteous indignation, Price would glare at the offending defencemen. This season, he's much more stoic about his teammates' mistakes, which, considering the number of them he sees every night, is impressive.

While Price's play has been above reproach for most of the season, the team's total reliance on his ability is a big problem. It's great to have the kind of goalie who can bail you out under pressure. It's not so great to build your entire game plan upon his ability to do that, but that's what the Canadiens have done.

The defence plays a delicate game of angling skilled opponenets to the outside. They block shots and passing lanes to give Price more room. The problem is, when the opponents don't play along and allow the Canadiens' D to box them out; when they crash Price and crowd the defence instead, the system breaks down and Price is left hanging.

The problem is compounded by the forwards playing a defence-first game that has them spending little time in the O-zone because they're charged with rushing back to help defend their own end. It's tough to score when nobody's in front of the net and the guy in the corner has one, easily-defended passing option because his linemates are waiting to hurry back on D.

The Canadiens have speed. They have skill. They have intestinal fortitude. They don't have the goals to show for it, because they don't play a system that encourages offence. People will blame Martin, and he deserves the criticism to some degree. On the other hand, critics also have to understand that a more offensive system requires a strong defence with good puck-handling abilities. The Canadiens don't have that. With the injuries they've got, the best they can muster is holding the fort in their own end. When they fail at that, Price pays know.

The Habs have serious injury problems. They also have deep limitations when it comes to aggression and goal production. These are not issues that can be fixed by a couple of deadline-day tweaks. If Pierre Gauthier is going to make a move, he should either make a significant move that will bring serious help long term...which will require giving up something significant in exchange...or he should do nothing. If the Canadiens fall out of the playoff picture, so be it. Perhaps they'll luck into a draft pick that will fill one of the team's many needs sooner rather than later.

In the meantime, Carey Price is the only man on the team who brings his solid, reliable, often brilliant game every night. He deserves credit for that. He also deserves applause for not showing a star's frustration with teammates who play like anything but.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Habs vs. Flames - Heritage Cash Cow Edition

Notes on the third:

-Martin (who my non-hockey watching spouse calls "Penguin") is clapping on the bench. I'm pretty sure it's because his hands are cold, not because he's trying to rev up the troops.

-Ha ha...nobody wants to fight. Fighting in the cold hurts a WHOLE lot more than inside an arena.

-Mara hasn't looked terrible. That's a positive, right?

-How I wish Gill would (or could) score.

-The Canadiens have big problems. They are slumping harder than ABBA.

-Gill is the biggest tower of cotton balls in the world. I wonder if he qualifies for a Guiness record? He just let Tanguay walk in there.

-Price deserves better than this wretched team.

-There's nothing as ignominous in hockey than getting shut out. It's just a total failure, in every way.

Notes on the second:

-Elliotte Freidman is the only reason to watch HNIC.

-Gomez and AK on a line together should qualify for a teaching assistant.

-The Oldtimers game yetserday had more flow than this...and Serge Boisvert played in that one.

-Maybe the Canadiens' plan is to let Kipper get really cold and stiff, then jump all over him.

-If not for Carey Price, this team does not make the playoffs. Good on him for standing up to prove himself under such incredible pressure.

-Looks like Pleks is playing hurt. Similar to last season when he had a nagging hip injury to end the season.

-Weber's really earning his spot in Montreal.

-Good thing Price is only wearing the Plante tribute mask once. I'm already sick of hearing about it.

-The Canadiens never win when giving up a shorty. Not because it puts them in too deep a hole, but because if they give up a shorty, they're playing like crap all around.

-Seriously. Rene Bourque is the best player on the ice, yet they don't defend against him? They need to treat him like Crosby last playoffs and have him wearing Pleks like a sweater, but no.

-They're quitting now. You can see it. Not the kids. The vets.

Notes on the first:

-Plekanec must feel like he's converted the whole team to the benefits of the turtleneck.

-Any chance of losing Gomez in a snowbank?

-I wonder if Andrei Kostitsyn has clued in yet to why he feels colder than normal?

-Flames unis look like hotdogs with mustard.

-How sweet! They're marching out two-by-two, just like a wedding, or maybe a prom.

-Habs coaches look pretty slick. Nice gloves.

-Hard to believe Wiz is actually playing.

-Mara's first touch is an icing. Hope it's not a harbinger of bad D to come.

-This ice is really disgraceful. They shouldn't be doing the spectacle thing for games that really matter.

-Penalty trouble already. Not good. And, naturally, a goal against.

-Price is staying nice and warm.

-Could somebody please hammer Bourque?

-Canadiens just have no cohesion at all. Terrible period.

Friday, February 18, 2011

Aftermath: Discouragement

Sometimes, even the most patient among us feel like shouting in frustration. After years of scraping into the playoffs, or landing barely outside them, and knowing this is another of the same kind of season, this is one of those times.

I only saw the first period and half of the second last night, but it was enough to see the team, with this defence, is not going far in the playoffs. Add the devastated blueline corps to the ongoing inability of the forwards to score goals, and one can see that without Carey Price, the Habs would probably not be six points ahead of eighth place right now.

Then, today, we see the Bruins going all out to make a Cup run this year with the acquistions of Rich Peverley and Tomas Kaberle. The Lighting have improved their D as well, by adding Eric Brewer, whom I would have liked to see in Montreal. The Flyers got better up front by acquiring Kris Versteeg. Only the Caps and Pens have yet to get even better than the Habs than they already are...on paper.

It's not that I begrudge those teams those particular players (save Brewer), but I begrudge them the opportunity to make those trades. I see their depth and their very realistic playoff hopes and I want those things for the Canadiens. At the same time, I have to admit the Habs aren't there, and they won't be there for at least a year or two, if
everything goes well.

The truth is, the Canadiens are locked into Scott Gomez' overpriced contract for another three years. They have all of their organizational depth on D playing in the NHL right now, with little behind it. There aren't any hot shot goal scorers in Hamilton either. Don't get me wrong. There are some nice, solid prospects, but no potential stars among them. If they wanted to trade for a significant part, the sad truth is, they can't. Not without giving up an equally valuable part they still need. There's just no duplication of talent in the organization, and a team needs that if it's going to bargain its way up the standings.

Sometimes, being the character-filled, overachieving also-rans just isn't enough. I wouldn't want the Canadiens to be cocky and arrogant like the Flyers and Bruins, but it'd be nice if they had the goods to back up jerkish behaviour if they felt like it. The team right now is a lot better than it was a few years ago, but it's still not good enough to be considered a serious contender.

If a fan is realistic, it's hard not to see the Canadiens have a long way to go to build up the kind of depth they need to compete. Years of poor drafting and disappointing prospect development have left them with few moveable assets. So, in order to keep believing, Habs fans have to be unrealistic.

We were reminded last year what hockey in May feels like, and we want that again. We know, though, when the bubble of unreality clears enough to see the truth, that there are teams the Canadiens cannot beat. Sometimes, despite our best intentions, hope is a rare commodity.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Habs vs.Oilers - Winging West Edition

Notes on the first (the only period I can stay up late enough to watch):

-It's such a joyful thing to see DD win the opening draw.

-If Moen's hands were any harder they could break rocks.

-Kostitsyn slid through the neutral zone like an alligator, but couldn't bring down the prey when it counted.

-HNIC is going on about the Oilers' kids like their average is twelve.

-Oh no! Not another D down! At this point, that statement should come with an air-raid siren. Wisniewski's bleeding like an extra on Grey's Anatomy.

-Oilers are the worst faceoff team in the league, but they score by winning a draw. This feels like it could be a long night.

-Wow, this defence is harder pressed than Justin Bieber at La Senza Girl.

-Oh right. Edmonton has ice girls. Gag.

-Well, that period was atrocious. Price will have to steal this one, but Subban will have to play more than thirty minutes.

Following the Lemmings

Yes, folks, I'm hurling myself off the cliff in the wake of all the other creatures of my ilk. I've caved to multiple requests from you fine readers and decided to add a Twitter account to the blog. I'm @habsloyalist, if you're one of those interested in following.

Will You Mara Me?

A lot of Habs fans will spend this morning wringing their hands and crying about the Canadiens late-evening re-acquisition of Paul Mara from the Ducks yesterday. While it's true the guy's been a Ducks' healthy scratch for pretty much the last month, and was no great pillar of D in his abbreviated stint with the Canadiens last season, Pierre Gauthier wasn't nuts to trade a fifth-round pick to get him back.

There are two facts fans need to consider when evaluating the trade. First, the Canadiens are in deep, deep trouble on defence. Second, Gauthier has neither the assets nor the motivation to make a blockbuster deal to fix the problem.

To the first issue, the admirably steady play of P.K.Subban and Yannick Weber has masked the seriousness of the defence's problems. While it's impressive that the Canadiens sit in fifth place while missing Andrei Markov and Josh Gorges (imagine the Wings missing Lidstrom and Kronwall as a comparison), they've been surviving on veteran depth. Removing Hal Gill and Jaroslav Spacek from the equation leaves Roman Hamrlik as the only experienced blueliner who actually plays solid defence. This is a D-corps in big trouble. It's nice that young Brendon Nash (who, incidentally, Gauthier got for nothing more than a rookie free-agent contract) handled his 12 minutes of NHL ice time very well. It's also reasonable to expect he'd be a bit more exposed against a top team like the Canucks.

On the second front, we have to expect that, with so many injuries on defence and important pieces of the team in various stages of early development or mid-career suckage (yeah, you, Gomez), the Canadiens are not favoured to win a Cup this year. The kids are blossoming into what could be the core of a really good team in a year or two, but they're not there yet. The Habs are a good team. Philly, Vancouver, Detroit and possibly Boston are better. Considering the trade bait available to Pierre Gauthier right now, which basically consists of whatever prospects haven't yet been called up, draft picks or underperforming veterans, there's not a whole lot available to deal for the kind of player that would make the Canadiens contend.

Since contention via trade isn't really possible, Gauthier will tweak and hope the horses he has have enough heart and strength of character to outplay their limitations. That's where Mara comes in. He's a veteran defenceman with some size, who's capable of playing a steady, if unspectacular, game. He's a better bet than the untried Nash, or the wildly unpredictable Alexandre Picard. He's also a good teammate who won't rock the carefully-developed chemistry in the dressing room.

For fans who bemoan the 2012 fifth-rounder Gauthier paid to get Mara, just consider the pick started out as Anaheim's fifth in the first place; the one they paid for Maxim Lapierre. And, knowing Gauthier, he'll probably pick up another draft choice to replace it before next year anyway.

The Mara acquisition was made out of prudence and desperation. Considering the driving factors, Gauthier could have done a lot worse. Fans who will spend today screaming about how they wanted more, or ridiculing the move because Mara's not what they expected, should take a step back and ask themselves whether they really think the Canadiens are contenders for the Cup this year. If they're honest and admit that the Habs are probably a dark horse at best, they then need to ask what they'd be willing to give away for a slightly better chance at the brass ring. Would they move a first-round pick that could be part of a contending team in the next few years for a soon-to-be-UFA like Kaberle or Phillips? Gauthier has already done something similar in giving up a second for Wisniewski, and there are only so many assets a team can afford to give up just to stay afloat.

Paul Mara's got a great attitude, and he'll be servicable. When you're bargain shopping for emergency repairs, sometimes that's enough.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Sabres vs, Habs - Leadership Edition

Notes on the third and OT:

-Price reaches behind his back like an octopus.

-Pacioretty is SUCH a first-round pick! He hits the post while Gio goes way wide.

-Up and down. Up and down. It's like a see-saw for first place.

-Sabres tie it. It's a declaration of war.

-This game feels kind of predictable. The leafs win, so the Sabres tie. Then they go back and forth with the Habs. I feel like I've read this script before.

-Really? How can guys with yellow socks beat the Habs?

-Why does something of Martin's apparel always make the picture on the TV go squirrely?

-Kostitsyn's dive on that Buffalo penalty was the cheapest I've ever seen. But if it works, who cares?

-Desharnais is really, really tricky.

-Carey Price SNATCHES the puck out of the air. It's goaltending for the ages.

-Shootout sucks.

Notes on the second:

-Price looks as ready as a 29-year-old on her wedding night tonight.

-Desharnais touches the puck like a big man touches a woman. Pouliot is grateful.

-Price is helping a LOT with his puck handling lately.

-This is very up and down. Up and down. Kind of like a yo yo in non-expert hands.

-Not a great period. Easy to get distracted.

Notes on the first:

-Big rumour is Kaberle to the Bs. Based on the crap performance he put in on Saturday, I'm not scared.

-I love the little ritual between Price and Pleks that no media member has yet dissected. Pleks goes up to Price and says something, right before the puck drop. They do it every game.

-Max Pacioretty is arguably Timmins' best first-round pick after Price to date. I wonder who in Hamilton saved him?

-Man, looking at the D, is there anyone there who's played a whole NHL season, save Hammer?

-It's amazing that Darche can still poop, considering the fact that he skates his ass off every night.

-Not much joy on the PP. It's kind of like Valentine's Day when your girl lives in a different city.

-Putting Moen with Desharnais is like putting fins on a lion.

-Stupid penalty at the end, but maintaining the lead is good. Keep it up, Habs.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Bush League

Mario Lemieux is making headlines today for his comments about the NHL's handling of the disgraceful display of violence between his Penguins and the New York Islanders on the weekend. Lemieux says if the "travesty" he witnessed on Friday night is emblematic of what the league is about, he has doubts about his future as part of said league. (The hypocrisy of the man who employs Matt Cooke hasn't escaped the notice of most astute hockey fans.) Yet, why any of this should surprise or enrage Lemieux is a mystery. The NHL is a bush league.

Merriam Webster defines "bush league" as: "being of an inferior class or group of its kind : marked by a lack of sophistication or professionalism." The NHL conducts itself like a bush league, it's run by bush-league management and it makes bush-league, half-hearted attempts to clean up its public image. There are a lot of reasons for that perception. Here are ten:

10. Head shots. No other team sport, let alone a professional one, allows its athletes to be drilled in the head until they're forced to leave the game with concussions. In football, one of the most testosterone-driven, potentially-violent sports we pay to watch, the NFL began handing out heavy fines for helmet-to-helmet hits this year. It also announced a suspension policy for even first-time offenders who target an opponent's head. With the mounting evidence that shows concussions can have life-altering effects, the NHL continues to be soft on offenders, and wishy-washy on policy even after repeat incidents. When you consider that Chris Simon got 30 games for stomping on Jarko Ruutu's leg, it's shameful to see Matt Cooke get nothing for destroying Marc Savard's career with a blow to the head. A cut leg doesn't ruin a man's life, NHL, but scrambling his brain does.

9. Supression of personality. Most professional sports fans love their characters. From funny endzone dances in football to Ozzy Smith's backflips in baseball, there have always been guys who are true individuals. The NHL doesn't really like that. Jeremy Roenick was one of those types, and he's such a novelty he's been able to make a career out of speaking his mind. The usual NHL star is polite, unoffensive and humble. If a guy, especially a new guy, is different; if he's outspoken, entertaining or brash, he gets labelled, and not in a good way. Witness P.K.Subban. The kid is learning the pro game, but he's not about to show deference to opponents who want to beat him. So now everything he does or says is minutely examined by sports analysts and he's booed in every opposing arena. If the NHL weren't bush league, it would embrace a guy like Subban and use his exuberance to promote the league as fun and exciting.

8. Jobs for people who hurt people. That the NHL still allows fourth-line goons and cheap-shot artists like Cooke to have jobs at the same time it claims it wants to clean up the game is bush league. Can you imagine baseball keeping a reliever whose only job is to bean batters? Or the NBA employing players to come off the bench and foul someone? Goons are dying a natural death in the NHL with the retirements of guys like Georges Laraque and Andrew Peters, but they're being replaced by the much more dangerous cheap-shot guys.

7. Officiating. Any officiating in a sport as fast and volatile as pro hockey is, by its very reliance on human discretion, a flawed endeavor. However, it seems that since the league introduced the two-ref system, it's really inconsistent. In the days of the single referee, linesmen had a say in spotting infractions so if the ref missed something, the linesmen could tell him and he could assess a penalty. Players also knew the style of game a ref preferred to see, and played accordingly. Now linesmen have a much-reduced role and can no longer point out missed high sticks or cheap shots. And players can't adjust for refs' personal styles because the two guys on the ice might be vastly different in what they call and what they let go. So a hook one official calls every time might be let slide in a close game by the other guy. Couple human failure with the mass retirement of experienced referees and their replacement by greenhorns in the last couple of seasons, and the league's officiating leaves much to be desired.

6. Teams where they don't belong. Can you imagine the NFL allowing teams in Arizona or Colorado to fold, then relocating them to Manitoba or Quebec? Of course not, you'd say. There just isn't a large enough fan base to support teams in those areas. They're not football country. The NHL, though, did exactly the reverse. It allowed hockey-mad fans in Canada...who, incidentally, provide more than 30% of the league's total revenue in the remaining six NHL lose beloved franchises. They then had to stand by and watch the Jets go to Phoenix and Disney get a gimmick franchise in California. The league's insistence on supporting teams in places where most people don't care about hockey means franchises like the Panthers and Coyotes have low attendance and must take revenue from teams like the Canadiens that actually make money just to survive.

5. The Code. The NHL's culture of misguided masculinity makes the league look ridiculous. If a baseball team gets whalloped by a rival, nobody talks about who's going to be "sending a message"...Code language for "beating the hell out of someone on the other team" time they meet. No, in baseball or basketball they talk about getting even on the scoreboard. There are no moral victories based on beating up more of the other team's guys than they beat up yours. You also don't see guys who get hurt come back to play too early because it's the expected thing to do. Sidney Crosby's no weakling, but he should not have felt like he needed to come back to play on the day he took the hit that's now had him miss more than a month. Or Ian Laperriere, who nobody would mistake for a wimp, mightn't still be having trouble with indoor lighting ten months after coming back too early following a concussion, if not for the expectation that a bump on the head shouldn't keep a man from a playoff game.

4. The leafs. It's shameful that fans in one of the league's most powerful hockey markets have had nothing to cheer about since almost getting to the Stanley Cup finals in 1993. I despise the idea of the leafs winning the Cup as much as the next Habs fan, but it's just wrong that they're not even a playoff threat for years at a time and management does nothing about the continued failure as long as fans keep buying tickets. The Dallas Cowboys are the richest franchise in the NFL, but that didn't stop them from firing their coach when it looked like they'd miss the playoffs last year. That, mind you, after they'd just won the NFC East the previous season. The New York Yankees are baseball's richest franchise, and they, unbound by cap restrictions, spare no expense in bringing in the best talent to challenge for a title every year. If the leafs, as hockey's richest franchise, are emblematic of the quality of the NHL, then it's a bush league.

3. Bettman. Hired by a crook owner and supportive of crook owners since taking over hockey, Gary Bettman has cancelled an entire year of NHL play to enforce a salary cap that has made very little difference when it comes to wise spending and better asset management for most teams. His personal battle with Jim Balsillie meant the league (read: other owners) have been obliged to support the dying Phoenix Coyotes while Bettman looks for a more "appropriate" owner. Meanwhile, fans in Winnipeg, who would gladly take on the team for more money than Bettman's been offered elsewhere and continue supporting it into the future, are ignored. He's done nothing to improve officiating, except implement fines if players or coaches complain about it. And in his desperation to land a big-time US television deal, he's willing to bow to whatever ridiculous requests the networks make of him, including scheduling important playoff games on a Sunday afternoon when the teams already played less than 24 hours earlier. Then there's the godawful fan promotions the league under Bettman endorses, like all-star voting and the Stan Lee super hero campaign. There's more, but you don't want to keep reading all day. Suffice it to say, the fact that Bettman is booed by discerning fans in every single NHL arena every time he speaks publicly, should be an indication of how great a job he's doing as NHL commissioner.

2. Fighting. No other professional sport allows it. Even within hockey itself, college, European and women's leagues don't condone it. The fact that the NHL refuses to ban fighting because it might keep some bloodthirsty fans out of the seats proves the league is more interested in catering to the lowest common denominator than it is in cleaning up the image of hockey as a sideshow. That such a ban might have the benefits of preventing more injuries and letting the skilled players perform without fear of the Bruins beating them up seems of no interest to NHL policy makers.

1. Colin Campbell. His continued presence as league disciplinarian is an absolute joke. Not only are his "punishments" unpredictable and inconsistent, they're generally much too lenient for a league that claims it wants to reduce injuries and spruce up its image. If he, as is rumoured, is limited in the length of suspensions he can hand out because the NHLPA wouldn't agree to changing the rules unless he kept suspensions small, then that's bush-league too. All of that aside, though, the massive conflict of interest that exists in having Campbell in a position of such authority, when his own son is a player in the league he monitors, would be unbelievable anywhere else other than in the NHL. The statement that Campbell will not make disciplinary decisions involving the Bruins is just silly. The person who is making those decisions in Campbell's stead is a hand-picked subordinate of his. That, combined with the emails Campbell was caught sending in regard to his real opinions on head injuries and in defence of his son versus league officials, makes the NHL the biggest bush league in pro sports.

Honourable mention:

The shootout. What other pro sport decides a team game with a completely arbitrary display akin to a home-run derby in baseball or dunk contest in basketball? None is the answer, because that would be bush league.

Todd Bertuzzi. That Bertuzzi is still in the league after destroying Steve Moore's life and career, and after only a 20 game suspension, is ridiculous. That he's a member of the otherwise classy Detroit Red Wings is a shame.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Aftermath: Emergence

The first time I met David Desharnais, he was in long underwear, carrying a blowtorch. He was at training camp, just about to start his first full season with the Hamilton Bulldogs. I recognized him because I'd caught a couple of games of the previous spring's Kelly Cup final, and he was dominant in leading the ECHL's Cincinnati Cyclones to the championship.

I was standing in the corridor leading to the dressing room when the little guy in the long johns and blowtorch grabbed a couple of sticks and went to work at a nearby table. He glanced up, saw me watching, and, with a big grin, offered me the blowtorch. "Want a turn?" he asked. We laughed, and I congratulated him on his great playoff in Cincinnati. He said that was all very nice, of course, but he wouldn't be satisfied until he was in the NHL, helping the Canadiens win the Stanley Cup. I wished him luck and, although the odds were against him making it, I really started rooting for him.

Last October, I talked with him again. This time, he'd just been cut from the Habs training camp and he wasn't very happy about it. Entering the last year of his contract, he looked up at the Canadiens and saw Tomas Plekanec on a new long-term deal, and the immovable Scott Gomez right behind him on the depth chart. Desharnais knew his chances for a real shot in Montreal were becoming fewer. He wasn't about to give up in any case, and he said, once again, that his dream was to win a spot in Montreal and help the Canadiens win a Cup. This year, though, his determination was tinged with an edge of grimness.

Flash forward to 2011, and, against all expectations save his own, he's a full-time member of the Canadiens. Given a real shot, he's putting up the points and out-playing Scott Gomez. Desharnais admitted a few weeks ago that he's got a system for cracking a lineup despite his size. He just tries to play well defensively and put up some points on the PP. That gets him some trust from the coach, and when he's got that, he starts taking the chances he needs to really play his game. In Montreal, that process has been accelerated because a coach can't wait for a guy to develop when his team needs every point it can get. Desharnais has responded to the challenge and he's earning himself a new contract for next year.

Critics say he's too small to play against tough teams, but he scored goals in nasty games against both the Flyers and the Bruins. They say he's only scoring because he's not facing the same level of checking as Plekanec and Gomez. Yet, he's winning faceoffs against the same guys those guys face, and he's seen his share of Pronger and Chara.

His assist on Benoit Pouliot's goal last night was beautiful to behold. Fighting off his check behind the net, Desharnais saw Pouliot in the slot and slid a perfect pass out front, right on his tape. Pouliot did the rest.

Those two are actually a pretty good pair. Desharnais goes to the net and his hands help him find Pouliot in good position. Pouliot's size and shot can work for him in finishing some of those nice set-ups. With those guys putting up points, it's giving the Habs the potential for three scoring lines. The first line, with Max Pacioretty in Mike Cammalleri's place, is beautiful as well. Pacioretty's a different player since being recalled in December. He credits the coaching and ice time in Hamilton for helping him find his way as a pro. He also gives props to Desharnais, whom he called "the best centre I ever played with." Those guys were 1-2 in AHL scoring for the first part of the season and they're finding a way to bring some of that to the Canadiens.

The evidence of their effective play at the NHL level is perhaps the most persuasive argument for Lars Eller to be sent down. Eller is bursting with potential, and you can see the raw material that made him a first-round draft pick. Like Pacioretty, however, he looks a bit lost with his minimal ice time and revolving linemates in Montreal. He's also playing out of position, which is a tough adjustment to make at the highest level of hockey. When Cammalleri comes back, Eller might benefit from a stint in Hamilton to learn some of the lessons Pacioretty learned earlier this season. With him playing consistent hockey, the Canadiens' young core would be even stronger.

Ryan White's another one who deserves to have an NHL spot. He's probably not going to be the offensive guy Pouliot, Eller and Desharnais can, but teams don't win without guys like White either.

When you look at the potential among the team's youth, you have to think the Canadiens have a great chance to keep improving. Pacioretty seems to have found his game. Eller's got the tools to do the same. Pouliot's still very young. P.K.Subban is learning all the time, and Yannick Weber is playing some sound hockey as well. Carey Price, we forget sometimes, is just 23. This is a young group that can someday make some real noise in the NHL.

And you know what? The guy with the blowtorch is fitting in just fine. David Desharnais has come a long way toward achieving his life's dream. The next test for him will be the NHL playoffs. After last night's big shutout of the wretched leafs, the Canadiens are in pretty good shape in terms of post-season position. If Desharnais can continue to perform like he did in earning the game's first star, the Canadiens can only benefit.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

leafs vs.Habs - Hockey Day Edition

Notes on the third:

-I wonder if Pleks ever calls for the puck in Czech against guys like Kaberle?

-A lot of bounces are landing on Hab sticks for a change.

-The PP has now become an exercise in "keep the puck in the zone." That seems to be the sole goal tonight, with varying degrees of success.

-Gomez has been trying really hard to scrape off some of the shit that's been sticking to him. His pass to Desharnais for the PP goal was a wonder to behold.

-Speaking of which, DD is making a very convincing case for himself in regards to next year's contract.

-Schenn wrecked Pax from behind, and nobody so much as raised a whistle. So much for the blindside hit rule.

-Plekanec has played the best pointless game I've seen in a while.

-Hockey Day in Canada has a very happy ending in Quebec.

-Price earned the shutout like Bob Cratchit earned his shilling. Great job.

Notes on the second:

-Not really great to have a D gone for five minutes, as Subban sits out. That's more Picard, which is never a good thing.

-Desharnais is just a little molotov cocktail.

-The Habs should get credit for a hat trick if any three players score in the same game.

-Spacek's not bad one-on-one, as long as he doesn't have to pivot and chase the guy.

-Nice shot by Pouliot. He'll benefit from playing with a guy who can find him anywhere, like Desharnais. And his size will help open some ice for the little guy.

-And on the instant replay of the Pouliot goal, the captain pots one off a Pax feed from his knees.

-If the Habs are leading the lead in nothing else, they certainly have to be right up there in too many men calls. Jacques the Knife needs an abacus.

-Hee hee...the way Pierre Houde pronounced "Bozak" sounds like "ballsack."

-Much better period. One more, just like that one, please.

Notes on the first:

-Hmmm...RDS or CBC, on which Healey plans to closely analyse Last Pick Kessel's ice time to see why his favourite leaf is slumping?

-Pyatt's face looks like a jigsaw puzzle of a bruise.

-Terrible PP. More disorganized than Mubarak's Thursday.

-Kostitsyn is skating like his feet as well as his head are made of cement.

-Cammalleri's probably taking his time returning, because he knows he'll probably end up on the Gomez doughnut line.

-Picard and Subban in the last minute? Martin *does* have home ice, right?

-Subban gets the decision over Lupul.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Isles vs.Habs - Recovery Edition

Notes on the third:

-Did Auld suddenly change into the Dryden retro mask, or am I missing something?

-Isles tie it up with the D running around and Gomez, as per usual, lagging behind the goalscorer. At some point, demotion has to enter Gauthier's mind.

-Although he didn't even touch the man until he went down, White gets a penalty. That makes sense, in the NHL's version of officiating.

-It's kind of funny when you think of NHL rookies in their first game against Gionta. They see him and say, "Cool, I'll nail HIM." Then they find out about Gionta.

-Someone's got to explain...very Kostitsyn that he can't pass like he shoots.

-Kostitsyn reminds me of the years before computers were in everyone's home. Then, you'd call something predictable and robotic "Computerized." That's what he is. He thinks only of the proper play at the proper time according to the book; not whether there are circumstances making that play unfeasible in the moment.

-And a loss to the Isles. Why am I not surprised?

Notes on the second:

-In substance abuse programs they say you have to hit bottom before you can recover. Has Gomez hit bottom yet?

-Speaking of Gomez, he and Kostitsyn are rapidly earning the title, "The Special Line."

-Difference between this year and last year? If Auld wins, he won't be getting the next start.

-A minute thirty in their own zone...held there by the Islanders...does not bode well for the Canadiens playoffs.

-Gorgeous goal by Pouliot with the DD screen.

-Of course, little time passes before Spacek is caught and it's tied again. D, oh, D, where are you?

-And the see-saw tips up once more...Plekanec hopes the ECHL goalie doesn't know Kostitsyn is useless, and goes for the look. Great goal.

Notes on the first:

-Pacioretty on RDS pre-game gives his monotone answers, then looks acutely uncomfortable while Pierre Houde translates for the audience. Weird dynamic there.

-If the Habs can't beat the Isles ECHL backup, there are serious scoring issues on this team.

-Pouliot starts the penalty parade. Somebody get that man a baton!

-The next time Gomez makes a drop pass he should be jolted with a cattle prod.

-If Poo Poo lead the big parade, Pacioretty had a hundred and ten cornets close behind.

-One thing the old guys do really well that the kids don't? Lifting the puck out of trouble on the backhand.

-Pleks always knows where everyone is, even when he shouldn't be able to see them. It's kind of freaky.

-Honestly, why is Gomez playing first-line PP minutes? What has he done to earn that?

-Ooh. I FELT Auld's groin strain on that one split save.

-Can't blame Subban for the penalties. His forwards (Gomez) are making some really desperate decisions on the PP that are leading to interceptions.

-Desharnais is brilliant. He's small, but he's got more talent in his small jock than half the team has in its six-foot bodies. Great pass to Pax for a great finish.

-How long do you think it'll be before Martin recognizes that there's special chemistry between DD and Pax? They were ONLY 1-2 in AHL scoring.

-If the Isles were better, they'd be up a goal. This is NOT good.

Aftermath: Statements

We woke up this morning to all kinds of hyper sports analysts (who may or may not have played pro hockey in their lives) telling us the Bruins delivered a "statement" game last night. The question many of us are asking in response is what "statement" did they make? Was it that they have ten guys who will fight players who really aren't fighters, for no apparent purpose? Or that they can take advantage of a team with a patchwork defence, half of whom have played 1000 NHL games, and the other half less than 100? Perhaps it was that Colin Campbell's nasty kid plays for them, so they can commit head shots with impunity, as they did on several occasions? Or maybe it's that they have cretinous fans who rival Philly's for pure bloodthirsty idiocy? Yup. Lots of statements there. Sure.

The Bs weren't the only ones who made statements, though. Lost in the shuffle, bob and weave of last night's game were a few Montreal Canadiens statements. Prime among them was that Timmy Thomas still has a hard time stopping the Habs. He looked like an all-star in the middle of the all-star game last night. The Canadiens beat him at will, which, when you consider the Habs' general lack of firepower, is impressive.

The Canadiens made a very important statement to their GM as well. The defence, when faced with an aggressive forecheck by skilled forwards, completely collapsed once again. Jaro Spacek is just done. He's soft on the boards, and he's lost a step since last year. Hal Gill is just painful to watch against speed. He's good at blocking shots, but when it comes to quickly manouvering the puck, he's hopeless. He's too slow to get himself into the proper position against fast teams, and he can't make a simple zone clearance with his hands of stone. Jacques Martin recognized the difficulties the two oldies were having, as both of them played less than 17 minutes. Fellow senior citizen Roman Hamrlik was also on the ice for just over 16 minutes, probably partially because he got rocked by a dirty hit. As a result, P.K.Subban played a game-high 26:22 on a night when he was clearly not at his best (he ended up a -3), and James Wisniewski, in his first game back after strep throat, was on the ice for nearly 25 minutes. Yannick Weber played 19 minutes, put up three points and finished even, so even if he looked a bit overwhelmed at times, his stats didn't show it. The problem with the defence was, in the end, Martin had no other choices.

The loss of Andrei Markov and Josh Gorges was never more apparent than it was last night. The message the team sent to Gauthier was: if there's any shopping to be done in the next couple of weeks, it must, without a doubt, be for a solid defenceman who doesn't skate in cement or panic when faced with speed. If he comes with size and an ability to make a solid hit, that's a bonus. Carey Price might have been able to stop one or two of those goals last night, but for the most part, he was helpless. That has to change if the Canadiens are to make even a squeak in the post-season.

A secondary need is for a fourth-liner who can handle himself better against a brainless goon like Gregory Campbell than poor Tom Pyatt did last night. If beating up a guy twenty pounds lighter who's not a fighter means the Bruins are making a statement, it's a pretty shameful one. Still, since there are Neanderthals running loose in the division, the Canadiens might need to make a play for Mike Fisher, Chris Neil or Zenon Konopka to counter that.

Some individuals made statements of their own last night as well. Benoit Pouliot played some of his best hockey of the season. He worked really hard for his 11:42 of ice time, and since punch-driven statements were all the rage last night, he made his by dropping David Krejci.

David Desharnais delivered an emphatic statement too. The smallest player on either team in both height and weight, he provided a goal and assist and was one of only four Canadiens who ended the night on the plus side of the +/- ledger...all in 13 minutes on the ice. He was 50% on faceoffs as well. The biggest concern about Desharnais has been that he's built to play against quick, offensively minded teams, but will fold against tougher oppponents. It turns out, DD's two best games have been against the Flyers and Bs, and you can't get bigger bunches of goons and bullies than those teams. He's held up his end of the bargain admirably, as opposed to the alleged top-liner Scott Gomez.

Ah yes. Gomez. He made a statement last night too. He said when the going gets tough, he'll do nothing. He was atrocious in his own end, although he wasn't helped by Andrei Kostitsyn's usual brain-dead stretches of play. The pair of them, as well as the unfortunate Lars Eller, ended up -4 in less than 14 minutes on the ice. Gomez was a humiliating (if one were to give a crap in the first place) 0%. Jacques Martin made a huge statement back at him, by nailing Gomez and his unhelpful linemates to the bench for the majority of the third period. That the Canadiens were never out of a close game until late in the third, it was shocking that Martin thought so little of Gomez' or his linemates' contributions that he sat them out altogether. Gomez has spent the entire season dragging down every winger he's been given while contributing little to nothing himself. He's got to go.

Max Pacioretty's statement was "I have arrived." The kid is big, tough and strong, and can skate like the wind. His two PP goals (thought he tipped Weber's for the hatty, but the league didn't agree) showed an admirable wrister too. It would be very interesting to see last night's three hardest workers; Pouliot, Desharnais and Pacioretty on a line together, if one of them can play the right side.

Brian Gionta re-stated he was the right choice to be this team's captain. Down two goals after the first, he was the one to break through and score the goal that got the Habs' offence going. He never backed down, even though he faced hulking Zdeno Chara on just about every shift. His leadership was a source of inspiration for the younger players, who all seemed to respond. (With the exception of Lars Eller, who was stuck in the Pit of Despair, also known as Scott Gomez' wing.)

Despite all the statements flying around on both sides, though, the outcome was poor for the Habs. Losing 8-6 doesn't look good any night, but it's worse when it's against the team directly ahead of you in the division standings. The concrete positives out of that game were few, with the exception of the three PP goals the Canadiens scored. That was a relief, considering the dreadful showing over the last couple of weeks.

The intangible positives included the way some players responded to bullying. They answered the bell, even though most of them were not physically suited to do so. That kind of brothers-in-arms mentality goes a long way toward forging bonds that sustain a team during a long, hard playoff drive in which bullying and idiocy is at a minimum.

Amidst the mess of statements this morning come questions. What's the league going to do about the four unpenalized head shots against Canadiens players, including the most egregious on P.K. Subban, when the kid had been knocked to the ice by Nathan Horton and had his head stapled to the boards by another Bruin while he was down? What's Pierre Gauthier going to do to shore up a desperate defence? What will happen if the Bruins try this crap in the playoffs, as it's looking likely that they'll be the Habs' first round opponents?

The statements are clear enough today. The answers to the questions, however, are not.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Habs vs.Bs - Adams Division Title Edition

Notes on the third:

-Martin between periods: "Okay, who hijacked The System? Kirkie, I need a nitro tablet for the third."

-Pouliot misses the net so often, I pity the person who cleans his bathroom.

-People crap on Desharnais for only playing well against skating teams like the Caps, but his two best games have been against Philly and the Bs.

-Pax on the PP, and you can hear the collective tightening of Bs' fans sphincters from here.

-This is hell on the goalie stats.

-Wiz is scary on D sometimes, but you can't argue with his points. I say dump Spacek next year and keep the Wiz.

-Just as I write about DD's great game, he takes a dumbass penalty and puts his team back in the hole.

-Subban's just bad tonight. Bad positioning, bad decisions. Bad everything.

-Eight goals on Price. One more and he'll tell Molson he's played his last game as a Hab.

-When Bs fans chant "U.S.A.", it tells us that, contrary to all evidence, they actually do seem to know their geographical location.

-Really? Is there any point to Spacek and Pyatt getting their asses kicked, on top of it all? The sight of Pyatt's blood has the Neanderthals in Boston thinking how cool it would be to invent fire.

-I hope they enjoy their 8 goals and their fights. This is their Stanley Cup. Idiots.

-Good for Pax to pop another one after all the bullshit. Thomas continues to suck against the Habs.

-I hate the Bruins. The leafs pale in comparison.

Notes on the second:

-The Captain's bailing out this sinking boat.

-And Subban gets one back on the boo-birds! (Although that really looked like a tip by Pax.)

-Canadiens' D is gone. They're just completely absent. Unreal.

-Hey, Weber! Nice to see that the bullet shot isn't just a rumour.

-What the hell is going on here? Bruins are cutting through the Habs like a shark through a school of minnows.

-Two cheap head shots on Canadiens before that giant scrum. Let's see how many get called.

-Goalie fight?! Price wins, and the Bs fans are getting their money's worth.

-All the vets get a seat in the penalty box. Eller's got to stand.

-It'd be really helpful if someone would drop a bomb in the Bs penalty box right about now.

-And the goals keep coming. Desharnais is playing really well.

-The odd-man rushes keep coming as well. Is there a National Defence holiday I didn't know about?

-Well. After all that, nothing's really changed. Still down by two, and you have to think Julien will talk his team down for the third.

Notes on the first:

-I think I dislike Rene Rancourt more than Kate Smith...and that's saying a LOT.

-Saved by Bergeron's broken stick. One of the few times a break goes in favour of the Habs.

-Thomas robbed Desharnais like Clyde Barrow robbed banks.

-Why do the Habs have to make a simple zone clearance look like bowling in oven mitts?

-Lucic's Simian arms give him an unfair reach. It's like playing against a baboon.

-Why do Bs fans boo Subban? Other than being total cretins, I mean?

-Hamrlik's close call really makes you look into the "no playoff" abyss. The team can't handle another D injury.

-Can Recchi not retire already? He's got to be a hundred by now. And he kills the Habs every time.

-Someone needs to tell Price and Subban it's not a bloody baseball game.

-That Price theft of a sure Horton goal might have saved what's left of this game.

-Price again! And manhandling Lucic into the bargain.

-Subban's playing a pretty bad game tonight. He's lucky everyone's injured, or he'd be in the pressbox.

-This game is disgraceful. 18-8 down in shots, 2-0 down in goals. The Canadiens have spent the bulk of the period in their own end.

Monday, February 7, 2011

Grading the Goat

One year ago today, Bob Gainey resigned as Canadiens' GM. At the press conference announcing his decision to go, he said being a general manager requires a long-term vision and a commitment he no longer felt. A breath later, he revealed he'd be succeeded by his assistant and friend, Pierre Gauthier.

Immediately, the overwhelming reaction from Habs fans was some version of "what the hell are they thinking?" Critics pointed to his lack of notable success in the GM's role in either Ottawa or Anaheim. Others were wary of the apparent lack of due diligence by the Canadiens in hiring Gainey's replacement. Guys like Detroit's Jim Nill and Steve Yzerman were touted as management up-and-comers, and didn't get a look in at the Habs job. Still others blamed language, concluding that the Canadiens had just grabbed the first qualified French-speaking candidate for the job and considered it done.

There may be a grain of truth in all of those criticisms, but only the passage of time will allow us to see how much validity they really have. Now, one year into Gauthier's tenure as Canadiens general manager, we have a body of work upon which to base more studied opinions of his ability to build a team.

It didn't take long for Gauthier to get to work last year. Only three days into his new position, he traded a 2011 second-round pick for Dominic Moore. At the time, the trade baffled a lot of fans and convinced them the negative opinions of Gauthier's hire were justified. Moore, after all, was a journeyman who hadn't been able to stick with any team for long. He'd only put up 17 points in 48 games with Florida, and a second-rounder looked like a pretty steep price to pay for a guy like that. As it turned out, Moore helped solidify the bottom six, won lots of faceoffs and scored the game-winning goal in Game Seven against the Capitals. Moore was a valuable contributor, and even though there are still critics who say the second was too much to give up for him, many observers are now of the opinion that losing the pick was worth it because it helped the team make that great playoff run.

Gauthier next made a move that he's repeated several times in the last year. He traded a young player who seemed to have stagnated in his development at the NHL level for a younger prospect, when he moved Matt D'Agostini to St.Louis for Aaron Palushaj. At the time, D'Agostini had only two goals in 40 games in Montreal. He was going on 25 years old and had yet to make a significant bid for a regular spot with the Habs. The jury's still out on that one, but D'Agostini has cooled off since making a quick start in St.Louis this season. Meanwhile, Palushaj is three years younger. He's in his second full AHL season, and has struggled at times in Hamilton. He's got the potential to make it in the NHL, but it will likely be another year or two before we see it happen.

We can't properly judge the winner in that trade yet, but it's emblematic of a philosophy of asset management Gauthier has revealed several times. He moved an underperfoming and troublesome Sergei Kostitsyn for a free-agent gamble that really hasn't worked out. Neither of the players involved on the Nashville side; Dustin Boyd or Dan Ellis, are Canadiens right now, although there's still a slight hope, driven by his goal-scoring explosion in Hamilton, that Boyd could still revive his pro career.
Gauthier also traded a permanently-scratched Ryan O'Byrne for a promising prospect in Michael Bournival and a disappointing Maxim Lapierre for a potential depth defenceman in Brett Festerling as well as a fifth-round pick.

In all four trades, Gauthier attempted to move players who had failed to improve from year to year while bringing younger players or draft picks back to the organization. The philosophy makes sense, as those players would have likely been lost to free agency or waivers for nothing anyway. The success of the trades, because the players they brought to Montreal are still so young, are unknown so far.

There's less doubt about how Gauthier has filled the team's immediate needs. The Moore trade last year certainly helped in the Canadiens' playoff run. This year, faced with the loss of both Andrei Markov and Josh Gorges, he moved this year's second-rounder for James Wisniewski. The Wiz has revived the PP, and won the New Year's Florida game all by himself. The immediate impact of his arrival has helped fill a desperate need and kept the team competitive. That trade could very well be responsible for the Canadiens making the playoffs or not. That Wisniewski is still quite young and seems to be open to re-signing in Montreal next year is a bonus.

Gauthier's free-agent signings have been modest, but astute. Alex Auld is a decent backup for Carey Price, and though he's not the best second stringer in the league, he's a stop-gap guy who came to Montreal for a pretty good deal. Alexandre Picard was a small signing when it happened, but he's been able to step in in games like this weekend's, in which a regular D was out sick, and handle himself respectably. Mathieu Darche has become the poster boy for hard work and determination, and Jeff Halpern was an outright steal. The man is a rock on the third line, wins faceoffs and kills penalties brilliantly. To get him for 600-thousand when free agency pressure was weighing on him was excellent work. And there's no doubt Gauthier's best signing, the long-term extension of Tomas Plekanec, was well done.

Looking to the future, Gauthier has just one draft under his belt as GM, but he made a bit of a splash there too. He traded his first and second picks to Phoenix for their first and fourth. The move enabled him to move up five spots and draft the first-rounder he really wanted; Jarred Tinordi. That move came with a risk because draft picks, even first-rounders are a crap shoot and Tinordi hasn't been the lights-out shut-down defenceman the Habs were banking he'd be in his first OHL season. He's got lots of time to develop, of course, but he's a project and when Habs fans hear "defenceman" and "project" in reference to the team's first-rounders, they get a bit suspicious.

No matter what else he does, however, Gauthier's boldest and most defining move as Habs GM was the Jaroslav Halak trade. Barely a month after Halak led the Canadiens to their best playoff in seventeen years with some absolutely brilliant goaltending, Gauthier pulled the trigger on the deal that sent Montreal's newest hero to the Blues for Lars Eller and Ian Schultz. The trade required a lot of nerve, considering Halak's post-season performance and Carey Price's poor season. Gauthier really put his neck on the line, considering the success of the trade depended on Price outgoaling Halak, when he'd given little indication for the last two seasons that he'd be able to do so. As it has turned out, Price is having a fabulous year while Halak has been inconsistent in St.Louis. Lars Eller is showing flashes of skill that offer hope he'll bloom into an productive NHL player. That trade could have gone either way, but the Habs appear to be the winners right now. As a legacy trade, it's looking decent for Gauthier.

Looking at the ledger of assets moved versus assets acquired, the Canadiens would seem to come out on the negative side. D'Agostini, O'Byrne, Kostitsyn and Lapierre are all filling NHL jobs for other teams while nobody the Habs got back is in the big league right now. The pick for Moore could be seen as a waste because Gauthier decided not to re-sign him last summer.

In the big picture, though, there's only one question we need to ask in judging Gauthier's stint as general manager, and that is, is the team getting better? By the numbers, the immediate answer is in the affirmative. The team is ahead of its points pace from last year. It's allowed fewer goals and it has been amazingly consistent considering the depth of its injury troubles. It seems the Canadiens have a good chance of securing a playoff spot without squeaking in on the last day.

Bob Gainey, before he called it quits on this day last year, supplied the core of this hardworking, dedicated team. His successor has tweaked and trimmed and has helped shape a squad we know will give its best nearly every night. He's also begun to prepare for the future by bringing in new prospects who are known for leadership and effort. The team is not perfect. We know scoring is a problem, as is physical strength up front. Gauthier will have to address those needs if the Canadiens are to keep improving. After a year, we can conclude that he recognizes those weaknesses and will move prudently to fix them as the right players become available. In this age of salary caps and valuable youth, he's made some smart moves. A year has helped him put his own stamp on the team. It's also given fans reason to trust that the Habs...even if it didn't look like it this time last year...are in safe hands.

Aftermath: Devilish

It would be easy to say the Canadiens lost to the Devils because of the "Devils Curse." It'd be even easier to say the loss was due to a depleted defence and missing Cammalleri in the top six. Those excuses are just excuses.

It's pretty hard to blame the missing Markov, Gorges and Wizniewski when Gill and Subban were the ones getting beaten like dusty rugs. It wasn't injury replacements giving the puck away like Gill did on the Devils first goal, just over a minute in. It wasn't fatigue on a back-to-back weekend either, because the Habs weren't falling behind late in the period. They were down two before the game was five minutes old.

No, in this case, the Devils came out ready and the Habs did not. End of story. Once Jersey went up by two, they just shut down the Habs' sputtering offence for the rest of the game. If, as some critics say, the Habs are just the "new Devils," the old Devils are still the kings at clogging up the neutral zone and suffocating all hope of offence. They forgot for a while, but the return of Jacques Lemaire has brought it all back. It's not that the Canadiens didn't try to get back into it. They did. After the first five minutes, they tried like hell. It just goes to show how tight the league really is. If a team slacks off for five minutes, it can mean the difference between two points and none.

That said, the Habs have done admirably since the all-star break. With two sets of back-to-back games (what's with all these back-to-backs anyway?) in a week, while battling illness and injury, they still managed to take six of eight points. And even when down against the Devils, they didn't quit. The Canadiens are a competitive bunch and they don't like to lose. That attitude can give us some comfort after a game like yesterday's. Every team loses games. At least the Canadiens lose them relatively infrequently.

As the team gears up for a real measuring-stick kind of game against the Bruins on Wednesday, however, we can be sure Pierre Gauthier is carefully considering what to do about some of the team's persistent weaknesses. The one thing they always have trouble with is getting to the net when faced with a tight-checking opponent. Also, the Habs are a hardworking team that, when on their game, can compete against anyone. The problem, perfectly illustrated by yesterday's loss, is that there's absolutely no room for error. When the Canadiens don't put in a full 60 minutes' effort, they lose. They need to be able to score goals more easily, and they need to be able to drive the net to break other teams' trap.

Max Pacioretty is doing that really effectively. He made a great move to push past a defenceman and get a shot off on the rush. The good news is, he's developing into a real power forward. The bad news is he's the only guy doing that right now. We've seen flashes of it from Benoit Pouliot and Andrei Kostitsyn, but neither of them is a consistent threat. Lars Eller has the size and skill to do it, but he's still pretty green. If Gauthier is shopping at the deadline, he needs to be looking for a mix of size and speed in a guy who goes to the net regularly. Among bottom feeders who are likely to sell at the deadline, Ottawa's Mike Fisher would be lovely. So would Trent Hunter from the Isles (his current knee injury would help him fit right in as a Hab) and the Oilers Dustin Penner. The thing is, all of those guys would be more than just rentals, and they would be expensive to acquire.

If Gauthier is considering a move, it should be for a player like that, who would be part of the team going forward. That way, since he's going to have to give up assets in any case, at least he won't be throwing them away for a long-shot playoff run that will limit the team's depth for next year.

It'll be interesting to see how the GM manouvers in the next couple of weeks. If he decides to stand pat, we know what the Habs' weaknesses will be going into the playoffs. Unfortunately, so will every opponent they face. They'll continue to be a hardworking team that wins when it out-hustles the other guys. When they let up for a few minutes, though, they fall behind. Sometimes, when the games are tight and the opponent stingy on D, the Canadiens just don't have the tools to get back into it.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Devils vs.Habs - Football Edition

Notes on the third:

-Okay. Cue the massive comeback!

-Bet Lemaire wishes he was coaching the Habs instead. Except without the media. There's just something wrong about seeing him and Robinson behind the Devils bench. Whatever happened to passing the torch?

-Gio missed that open net like Creationists miss the truth.

-Looked like that Pax tip was a goal, on the reply. It's surprising they didn't even go upstairs.

-One thing you have to credit them: they never quit. Even after playing yesterday, they're still giving it everything they've got left.

-It's funny that RDS pronounces "Zharkov" as "Jack-off."

-Five minutes in a hockey game make the world of difference. At least the team tried like hell after that first brutal five.

Notes on the second:

-That Kovalchuk line is Kryptonite for the Habs together.

-Subban got over his reluctance to shoot and whammo! Puck? Meet twine.

-You know who doesn't get enough credit? Yannick Weber. He's the same age as P.K., and obviously not as prodigiously talented, which does him a disservice in comparison. In his own right, as an NHL rookie, he's doing really well.

-Gomez upended along the boards and not a call in sight. Refs are thinking ahead to the Superbowl too.

-Kostitsyn gets poke(checked) more often than Elton John.

-The Habs are pushing. Crazy prediction of winning this continues.

Notes on the first:

-Crap. That didn't take long. Gill looked awful on that.

-Less than five minutes in and down two goals. Subban and Gill already -2 and the refs calling nothing. This is going to be a very, very long afternoon.

-You know it's not a good sign when it looks like there are twice as many Devils on the ice as Habs.

-Naturally, a penalty. It never rains, never mind. This is a bloody snowstorm.

-Price is fighting the puck like a six-year-old fights bedtime.

-The boys look like they're thinking ahead to the rockin' Superbowl party at Gomer's after the game. I wonder if Gill figured out what to bring?

-Is it just me, or is Lemaire looking more and more like Lamoriello every year?

-A lightbulb has come on over Pacioretty's head, and it's neon and flashes the words "power forward."

-Subban looks afraid to shoot on the PP. He's got to get bolder.

-I say that, then he makes a brilliant offensive play to shed three Devils at the blueline. He's going to be scintillating to watch for many years.

-Ah, Robinson. The coaching staff could use a Big Bird. So could the D, for that matter.

-Crazy prediction? The Habs will win if the next goal goes for them.

Saturday, February 5, 2011

Rangers vs.Habs - Matinee Edition

Notes on the third:

-Muller's ties are so much better than Martin's.

-Habs PP is generating less wattage than a sputtering candle.

-This game is hateful. It's chippier than a lumber yard.

-Weber is getting quietly better as he goes along.

-Have the Canadiens won a single puck battle today?

-Pleks is faster than a shotgun wedding.

-Price completely deserved the shutout, as did the D.

Notes on the second:

-Too bad Gainey didn't trade Higgins et al. for Dubinsky.

-Has Boyle been suspended yet for his blindside hit to Spacek's head? Oh, right. It doesn't count if the guy's not crippled.

-Great PK. That's the best they've done since Gorges got hurt.

-Habs are spending more time in their zone than Lindsay Lohan spends in rehab.

-Unreal. Every time the puck leaves a Hab's stick, it hits something and goes where they don't want it to.

-Some pretty chintzy calls there. Hope the make-ups are on their way for the third.

-GOMEZ!! What a gorgous roof job!

-Nice to see the Habs score that late one for a change. Tortarella is going to spontaneously combust.

-Canadiens need to smarten up for the third, or one goal is not going to win this.

Notes on the first:

-For some strange reason, I've got a feeling Kostitsyn will score today. Don't know why.

-If Spacek and Hamrlik were any slower, they'd start aging backwards.

-Rags, on the other hand, have a solid young D-corps.

-Subban is showing good strength on the boards.

-The PP is less offensive than Ned Flanders.

-Picard gave Avery a couple of good kidney shots. Too bad he couldn't get his arm free.

-Looks like Halpern and Spacek got shaken up a bit.

-Not a bad period, but Rangers are blocking a ton of shots.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Aftermath: A Tale of Two Centres

Fans have described last night's game with several adjectives, ranging from "sleep-inducing" to "dull as dishwater" to "zzzzzzz." For the most part, they were right. The 39 minutes when Tomas Plekanec wasn't on the ice were pretty uneventful. When the Habs top centre was involved in the play, though, things happened.

Plekanec is, on paper, a Jacques Martin kind of player. He's defensively responsible. He kills penalties like the KGB killed spies. He never fails to hurry back and assume his responsibility in his own zone. Yet, inside that defensive paragon beats the heart of a Jagr. Pleks, despite his adherence to The System, succumbs to bursts of creativity on a disturbingly (for Martin) frequent basis. Thankfully (for the Habs). He's the team's solution to any slumping winger. He's the go-to guy on the PP and the PK. And he's the team's leading scorer. When he scores, the Canadiens win 79% of the time. So, no surprise that in a Martin Special game, he managed to un-Martin himself long enough to score an important goal.

Scott Gomez, on the other hand, is Plekanec's polar opposite. He's the guy who thinks he's all about offence, but plays D because that's the only way he stays on the team. Yet, in reality, he can't score on an empty net, his passes are frequently off target, he takes stupid penalties at very inopportune times and his only real value to the team is his ability to break into the opposing zone and sometimes set up a better-shooting teammate for an assist. The hope that Gomez' habit of improving as the games get more important proves true again this year is the only reason to keep patience with him.

Brian Gionta is taking full advantage of his escape from Gomez purgatory. Plekanec is finding him in open ice and the captain has three goals in two nights to show for it. Andrei Kostitsyn, on the other hand, relegated to Gomez' line, is even more invisible than usual. This is a trend we've seen all year long: Play with Plekanec, no matter who you are, and score goals. Play with Gomez and vanish from the earth. That's the most disturbing difference between the two top-line centremen. Plekanec makes those around him better. Gomez makes them play at his own level. If he's pushing hard and playing with energy, that's a good thing. If he's floating around the offensive zone and taking dumb penalties, his linemates do nothing either.

Fortunately for the Habs, David Desharnais is showing an admirable work ethic and some nice vision on the ice. He, unlike Gomez, goes directly for the jugular when he's got the puck. Despite his size, it does give Martin an option if it becomes necessary to send Gomez a message via demotion to the third line. Not that Gomez would necessarily care about a demotion. His laconic attitude may be an act or a cover, but it certainly gives the impression that he's not overly bothered by his poor performance.

If Tomas Plekanec is the epitome of a successful Jacques Martin player, Gomez is the antithesis. He's got the ability to be better, without question. Whether he's still got the motivation to do it is a mystery.

After a win, it's a bit unsporting to point out a player's flaws, but looking ahead, it's important for Gomez to pick it up. The defence is doing the best it can right now, with Spacek and Weber playing manageable minutes, Hamrlik performing solidly, and Subban and Gill finding their way in their odd-couple partnership. The bottom-line guys are doing their best too, within their abilities, as are the goalies. The biggest issue facing the team is the lack of scoring, and that lack originates with Gomez and his linemates, whoever they are on a given night.

The coaches have no doubt shown Gomez video of what he's doing right and what he's doing wrong in an effort to get him going. What they really need to do is show him video of Plekanec and say, "Hey, Scott. Do this!" If challenged directly to play up to the level of his teammate, perhaps Gomez would respond with some passion. After all, Plekanec makes everyone else play better. Why not Gomez?

The win over Florida last night was important as the Canadiens fight to solidify a good playoff position. Perhaps, though, these close wins wouldn't be quite so nervewracking if the second-line centre played a bit more like his first-line counterpart.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Panthers vs.Habs - Dog Days Edition

Notes on the third:

-The PP is, like Alexander, having a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day.

-Plekanec is just a beast, teeth and claws included.

-Oh, Darche. It doesn't matter if you mime the foul. The refs will ignore you and steal the money from your tips cup anyway.

-Boy, I'd love to see Hal Gill score. When he does, I hope it's a huge game winner.

-Pacioretty is showing distinct signs of being a power forward. The moves on the third goal were glorious to behold. Nice finish by the captain too.

-The fall-back position was, once again, overwhelmed to allow the Panthers back into the game.

-Wish somebody would eventually cash an empty net. Wow. They can't score even with no goalie.

-None of the previous matters. Two points are two points.

-Price's toque? Hilarious!

Notes on the second:

-I really like Carey Price, but I find I'm seeing entirely too much of him during games. Oh, wait! That's Auld. Okay, we don't see enough of him.

-Is it just me, or do "Garrison" and "Booth" sound like Old West gunslingers?

-P.K. all the way on the Halpern goal! Lovely tip too.

-Boys on the bench look like baby birds with their mouths open as they watch the replay on the big screen.

-Auld is a great substitute for a non-stress test. Just watch him for a period, and if your heart doesn't explode, you're good to go.

-My only question about Gomez at this point is how did he ever score any goals at all? He misses more open nets than Pyatt.

-And, on Gomez, WHY does he pass backwards so often? Everyone works so hard to move the puck forward, then he moves it back. He's so incredibly frustrating.

-Seriously? What happened to Chris Higgins? It has to be more than booze, to go from three productive first seasons to...this.

-Gomez is really deficient in the decision-making department. How many times do we see him make an impossible pass right on the tape of a guy in serious traffic? Okay, so that other question was not my only question on Gomez.

-Yay. PP to start the third. I should be excited, right?

Notes on the first:

-The boys always look so very awkward when they accept the Molson Cup. It's like the Molson rep just asked them for a kiss.

-The PP has as much power as a candle in a cyclone lately.

-Non-hockey watching spouse says it takes the D half a period to warm up because most of them are "creaky."

-Pacioretty's showing some nice no quit.

-Terrible coverage on the Panthers goal. Auld failed to anticipate the open man and Gill, Pouliot and Subban did nothing about actually defending the net. So kind of the Habs to, once again, give a guy his first goal.

-The Wiz magic against the Panthers seems to have fizzled.

-One more thing to dislike about Jacques the Knife: He taught the Panthers

-Little border-beard notwithstanding, Subban looks so very young.

-I love Desharnais. He's tougher than calculus.

-If only anybody on the Canadiens could score.