Monday, April 11, 2011

Top Ten Intangibles That Will Make the Difference

We've already heard lots about the big factors that will help decide the Canadiens/Bruins playoff series. We know Carey Price will have to out-goal Tim Thomas. Guys like Michael Cammalleri, Brian Gionta and Andrei Kostitsyn will have to find a way to beat Chara and score goals. Tomas Plekanec and Jeff Halpern must play a strong, thinking-man's shut-down game. Hal Gill and his ten-foot stick will have to block more rubber than a flak jacket during war games. Jacques Martin and Kirk Muller have to make sure every man on the team knows his job and the right people are on the ice at the right time. Overall, every pundit in the business has regaled us with "speed versus strength" as the defining contest of the series. We know all this.

If there's one thing that defines a successful playoff team, though, it's that every single person on the team contributes in some way. Remember last year? Sure, Cammalleri and Halak led the team, but the two goals in the Game Seven win against the Caps came from Marc-Andre Bergeron and Dominic Moore. Everyone (with the possible exception of Kostitsyn, who had a hat trick against Washington in a Game Two loss, then nothing) had some role, little or big, in the whole team performance. With that in mind, here are the top ten out-of-the-spotlight things that need to happen for the Habs to win:

10. Travis Moen, Ryan White and Tom Pyatt. The Canadiens don't have the big fourth line the Bruins have. Moen, White and Pyatt will be in tough along the boards against those big guys, and they'll have to reach a little deeper and push a little harder to keep the Canadiens in the hunt. A lot will depend on their ability to fight above their weight in the trenches.

9. David Desharnais. Desharnais has always been a playoff performer, and his ability to score a vital goal or two while the Habs' bigger scoring threats are under cover, could be vital. He's quick and creative and if he's up against the non-Chara part of the Boston defence, he should get his chances.

8. Jaro Spacek. Spatcho isn't as young or agile as he used to be, and his offence has dropped off since his time in Buffalo. He knows how to play in the post-season, though. Last year, he played a helluva shut-down game against the Caps before falling to injury. Now, coming back from surgery, he's not as tired as he was last year and he says his knee feels better than it did before his operation. He could be the injection of rested experience the D needs.

7. Team discipline. Everyone knows the Habs can't have their parade along the usual route to the penalty box if they hope to win. They have to refrain from taking the dumbass, thoughtless hooking and holding penalties that have plagued them throughout the regular season. More than that, however, team discipline means turning the other cheek and refraining from retaliation if the Bruins play dirty. It's always the retaliator who seems to get caught, so the Canadiens need to turn outrage into speed and let the Bruins go to the box instead.

6. Self-sacrifice. The Canadiens can expect to spend a lot of time defending and protecting Price during this series. If they're going to be successful, they have to take a lot of pain and block a lot of shots. If they're prepared to do that, they have a chance.

5. Scott Gomez. Somehow, the Habs managed to finish sixth in the conference even while their highest-paid player, who's supposed to produce as a top-two centre should, was more of a hindrance than a help all season.
It astounded me when, during the leafs game on Saturday, HNIC showed highlights of Gomez' play during his rookie season. He was going to the net, grabbing rebounds and screening the goalie. In short, he was behaving like a top-six centre. So. He can do it. He's got the skills to do it. If Gomez decides to crank up his game, he could be a difference-maker. It would be as though the Habs landed a top-line contributor out of nowhere, and that could change the Bruins strategy, and the series.

4. The fans. Yes, the Bruins fans are loud. They're also nasty and passionate. The Canadiens fans, on the other hand, are the the reason the word "fan" was invented in the first place. Whereas Bs fans will cry, drink and move on to the Red Sox, the Canadiens fans live, breathe and die for their Habs. When the team needs a seventh man, he's there, palpable in the throbbing emotion from the stands and in the city all around. I think that passion helped drive last year's playoff run, and it will do so again.

3. History. It's a double-edged sword in this case. The regular season ended with an embarrassing loss that could play into the series, if players weren't so blinkered about dismissing the regular season once the playoffs begin. So, long-term history will be played as a factor in the series, and the Canadiens hold the edge. Bruins fans and some of the players know the score, and if the Canadiens get any kind of foothold on the series, the inevitable sense of doom will start to descend. In the Bruins case, it's not just their history with the Canadiens, it's also their history with the playoffs. This same team committed the biggest choke in NHL history last season. If they get into any kind of deficit against the Habs, that will come back to haunt them. Along the same vein, the Canadiens have their heroic and unexpected run from last year in their immediate rear-view mirror. They believe they can overachieve. The Bs know they can choke. History is a factor.

2. Luck. I've always said no team can win the Stanley Cup without skill, determination, sacrifice and luck. The only thing the Canadiens can't control is the luck. The way a puck bounces, the way a ref sees a play or the instinct that drives a goalie to slide left instead of right on a breakaway; it's all luck. Sometimes the luck goes for a team and sometimes, like when a hot team's captain gets cut down with a stick in the eye, it's against it. The bounces...the luck...are one of the biggest intangibles in any playoff series, and they'll help decide the winner.

And the number-one intangible that will make a difference in this series:

1. Motivation. Every pro player wants to win the Stanley Cup more than anything. They don't need to be horsewhipped to get up for games. Sometimes, though, they need a word of inspired wisdom to help push them to a higher level. The Canadiens have a secret weapon in Kirk Muller. Muller's been a Habs captain and a Cup winner in Montreal. He can speak the players' language in a way that neither Jacques Martin nor Claude Julien can. Last year, when someone needed to speak up before Game Seven in the Caps series, Muller was the one who took the lead. When the team needs a game plan in the late minutes when it's down a goal, Muller's the one who mans the white board. Nobody else with the coaching staff of either team, save Doug Jarvis, who's never been known for his inspirational speeches, can bring that level of experience and intensity to the pep-talk part of the game. I have no doubt Muller was a major reason for the Canadiens performance last year, and I have no doubt if his players buy in, that he can bring them to that level again.

The Canadiens have a chance to win this series if the big things like Price, Subban, Gionta, Cammalleri and special teams go in their favour. What'll make a chance a reality are the intangibles. If those favour the Habs, the series is theirs. It can be done. It won't be easy, but it can be done.


JF said...

Great post, J.T. All the pundits have pronounced on the series and dissected the strengths and weaknesses of the two teams, giving the edge almost invariably to the Bruins. No one has talked about all the more hidden things you mention here; they talk about the history between the two teams, both recent and not so recent, arguing that the last regular-season game gives the Bruins the advantage. They don't talk about the other intangibles. Like you, I think the biggest of these will be motivation and belief, and I hope that after last year's playoffs, after the Pacioretty hit, after everything else that has come and gone, they will be on the Habs' side.

Pierre said...

The question, for me, is this: if both the Bs and the Habs bring their A+ game, can the Habs win? I don't think so, unfortunately.

I think that the two keys to this series will be Chara and Lucic. If they establish their physical and skill game and get their confidence going, we have no answer for what they bring. But they are both weak mentally: they can get frustrated and start making stupid and costly plays. If we can turn their agressive temper against them, we have a chance. If they can remain focused, we're done.

I would be extatic if the Habs can take this serie. But I have very little hope, and I am already mourning inside...

J.T. said...

@JF: Thanks!

@Pierre: Don't mourn just yet, my friend. It's true that Chara and Lucic are keys for the Bs. The most important factor for them, however, is Thomas. He's the biggest hothead on that team and can be emotional when he's getting harrassed. We've seen him cheap-shot the Canadiens before, and we've seen him skate the length of the ice to fight Carey Price. The Bruins give up the second-most shots per game in the league, and if Thomas is rattled, some of those are going to go in.

If I were Muller, making a game plan, I'd have a major focus on getting in Thomas' face constantly. Second focus would be on hitting Chara every chance they get.

dusty said...

Point 3 is the key. Except for Recchi, the Bruins are loaded with losers and that could be a deciding factor. The addition of Kaberle only reinforces their weakness. If the Habs win game one, and I really think they will, Boston will be in big trouble early.

Marco said...

Brilliant article, thanx!

You beat (seriously) 99% of all journalist covering the habs with your prose, your pertinence and your hability to tell a story.

In other words, you know how to write, and you do it (very) well.


Marco said...

@JT and Pierre

If the Habs hit constantly Chara, he will totally lose it, as usual, and take moronic penalties.

I can't wait!!

Pierre said...

True that Thomas is also a mental weakness for the Bruins. If he can let in a softie early in the serie (or if he wants a rematch against Price...), that could be his undoing. But it's not like we have an abundance of crease-crashers: Darche, Gionta...?

@JT and Marco
I wish we could magically swap Pyatt for a good'ol days' Begin. Then, I would be more confident that we could throw Chara off his game. Who will do that now? Ryan White? If he can, he'll have earned his stripes! But, again, not overly optimistic...

moeman said...

I agree, tick off timmy.

Layvack said...

Good post and let's not forget that the Habs won 4 out of six. The 8-6 lost without the empty net goal could've gone either way. The 7-0 was predictable, I explain it this way, When a team bring in a player from injury, it has a 50-50 chance of winning due to that player, when it bring in 2 IR players it's 100% chance of losing or close, if it brings in 3 players, it should lose by 2-3 goals, in the 7-0 lost, the habs brought in 4 players and we got the result we all know, I think Martin knew this, but he probably rather lose a season game instead of a series game, that will play against the over- confident Bruins. And the fact that Bruins played better away, than at home, Home ice will not be a positive factor for them.

RL said...


I have to say your breakdown is both daunting and inspiring. Daunting because the task at hand is one of David vs Goliath, in such that if our Habs are to win they need "lady luck" by their side the entire time but they will also need every single person on the roster to do their part. Including the 7th player!

Inspiring because it can happen. But not only can it.. it actually has!!! and not in the hey days but actually in our immediate past.

This series is thus far coined as "Brute Force vs Speed". However, I think it more as a "last change wins" series. I strongly believe Montreal can come out with the win if and only if they steal (with the help of lady luck of course) game #1 or #2. That single win will inevitably resurface any choking fears within the Bruins organization but more importantly it will give us the home ice advantage until game 6... and having the last change means we can put our best players against their least skilled players (or atleast limit the time our players face their enforcers). Thereafter, Game #7 is a coin toss.

One thing remains clear. Washington and Pittsburg remember last year's playoffs... we Habs fans should too.... SO PEOPLE... PLEASE BELIEVE!!!! MTL IN 6.

jew4jah said...

that was an excellent pre-game read. thank you.

chara = חרה