Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Markov's First Name Is Not Jesus

It's a wonderful thing that Andrei Markov is finally ready to come back to the Canadiens. On a personal level, can you even imagine the frustration and boredom he's dealt with in the last two years? The weeks of pain after surgery, then day after day of repetitive exercises in the gym. The days stretch into weeks and then months and ice time never seems closer. You never feel like you're part of the team because you don't travel with them, you don't skate with them and you watch all the games from the press box. After two years, nearly half the players on the team have never actually played with you, and you feel like your name is being forgotten. Not to mention the fans' assumption that after three injuries in two years, no matter how talented you are, you're now not only injury-prone, but likely to crap out before the playoffs. Markov has hoed a very tough row for the last couple of seasons.

What makes it harder for him is the fans who expect him to be God. He's supposed to come back to an injury-ravaged, underperforming, poorly-coached team and lead it into the playoffs. He's expected to save the power play, solidify the defence and boost the attack. In truth, his return might be an early holiday gift for fans, but Markov's return isn't likely to be the Second Coming.

After two years away from the game (save the seven games he played last season), Markov is going to be rusty. He's going to look slow sometimes and he's going to make tactical errors when required to make crucial decisions at high speed. He'll probably pinch deep and not get back in time to prevent a break every once in a while. He's just not at game pace yet. Patience is important in letting him re-adapt to the NHL game, but the fear is that fans have no patience left.

Four or five years ago, when minor injuries would keep Markov out of the lineup for a couple of games, the team's win/loss record without him was dismal. He was the engine that drove the Canadiens' special teams and the guy responsible for shutting down the opponents' best guys. Then, two seasons ago when Carey Price's skate slashed his tendon and cost him most of the year, the Habs had to learn to cope without Markov long term. They managed it, remaining a playoff team even in The General's absence. From the fans' perspective, the old habit of relying on Markov never really went away, though.

While the team focused on making the most of the assets it had left, the fans dreamed of "When Markov comes back." As in, "When Markov comes back, the D will move the puck better, the power play will score again and have-not will be no more." That's a heavy burden to place on a guy who's missed a lot of hockey. Markov is lucky to be blessed with great instincts and hockey sense, and they may help him adapt his game to accomodate a possible reduction of mobility. He will certainly help the team, but the fans need to remember there's a chance he won't be the same player who used to control the Habs blueline and make the All-Star game without having to be voted in. The trick is to accept him for what he brings and learn not to mourn what he doesn't.

That could be tough for a lot of people who've been breathlessly waiting with stars in their eyes for the day Markov returns. Because once he returns and the dream becomes reality, there's no more hiding the truth of what the Canadiens really are. For better or worse, the real Habs will be revealed, and it may not be pretty. We can hope the verdict will lean toward the "better" side of the scales, but it should probably be a cautious optimism. For now, instead of hoping Markov will save the season, it'll be nice just to see him back on the ice. It's been too long.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Maximum Suspension

When Max Pacioretty lowered the boom on Kris Letang on Saturday night, most of us figured Brendan Shanahan would send him to the press box. The only question was whether the suspension would be for one game or two. Shanahan surprised many by handing down a three-game sentence; a pretty stiff penalty in light of some of the other hits we've seen go unpunished this year. And you know what? Pacioretty deserved it.

He could have let up before making contact with Letang, but he didn't. He knew he was wrong too, as was apparent with his immediate apology. The hit broke Letang's nose, but didn't prevent him from returning to score the winner in OT. Pacioretty, in this case, was very lucky nothing worse happened. Having been the victim of that crushing hit by Zdeno Chara last year, he knows better than most what the consequences of irresposible hits can be. The very fact that he's been there himself and was affected deeply enough to start a foundation to help treat brain injuries should justify the three-game suspension. If a guy who's been on the receiving end of a head shot can still hit another player that way, it shows even the best of intentions can fall by the wayside in the heat of the action. Shanahan's reaction underlines the need for all players to be responsible for what they do on the ice, and accept the consequences for hurting another guy.

This is where the NHL has a problem. While few will dispute that Pacioretty deserved a suspension, it's tough to swallow when Boston's Milan Lucic can run over Buffalo's Ryan Miller, concussing him, and get nothing for it. If the league is to regain a modicum of respect, it has to be consistent in its discipline. The alternative is looking amateurish and appearing as though the NHL brass plays favourites. When conspiracy theories like those become the norm, hockey draws a step closer to professional wrestling in the public's perception.

When Brendan Shanahan became the NHL's Super Cop, many previously-disillusioned fans saw it as a sign of change. The hope was that a former player of Shanahan's stature (without a kid playing in the league) would be the soul of thoughtful justice. That hope grew with the rash of suspensions Shanahan dispensed in the pre-season. The carefully detailed explanation videos he prepared for each case made a lot of sense.

It seems, however, that in the analysis of the minutiae of every hit, Shanahan is losing sight of the bottom line. The question should be, "Did Player X hit Player Y in the head?" If the answer is "yes," then it's suspension-worthy. Shanahan, with his talk of angles of a guy's head, which foot the player's weight rests upon and perceived intent, is making these cases much more convoluted than they should be. In the case of Pacioretty, the player making the hit nailed his opponent in the head and, despite instant remorse, got a significant suspension. Canadiens fans can recognize the risk inherent in that hit and understand the decision.

It's when the super slo-mo view of a fast game provides excuses for glossing over actions that we feel progress is moving at a snail's pace. So, today it's not hard for Habs fans to feel there's no justice in the league. Hits on Pacioretty and Chris Campoli saw the perpetrators go free, while Pacioretty as the hitter rather than the hittee got suspended. The argument today isn't whether he should have been punished, it's why so many others are not. That's what the NHL and Shanahan need to fix.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

It's On You, Jacques

I don't usually pile on when everyone is blaming the coach for a loss. After all, there's only so much the guy behind the bench can do. He makes the plan and sends the players out to execute it, so it's not his fault if they fail to do that. That is, unless the plan is entirely stupid to begin with.

In the case of the Canadiens against the Penguins, Jacques Martin chose to put Hal Gill and Yannick Weber together as a defensive pair. The biggest, softest, slowest and most immobile D on the team, with one of the smallest, least confident and most recently mistake-prone. The combination, to the most casual observer's view, was wrong-headed and doomed to failure.

Sure enough, Weber and Gill were on the ice not only for the lousy tying goal, but also for the winner in OT. There is no excuse. It's overtime, Martin. You don't have to keep the same guys paired up, especially if they're obviously not performing overly well. You overplay your best in hopes of snagging the second point. For this alone, Martin must be questioned regarding his choice of personnel.

Scotty Bowman said the secret to good coaching is in knowing which players to have on the ice at any given moment. Obviously, Jacques Martin hasn't grasped that. He's got the paperwork and video prep down, but he has no instincts about who to play, when. For that reason alone, he must go.

Carey Price threw his stick in disgust after the winning goal, and rightly so. He was hung out to dry by the coach, yet again, and a surplus of games like this will make him think twice about signing long-term in Montreal. The coach is wrong. He makes bad decisions. I find it hard to watch.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Goalies Are Different

Everybody knows goalies are a different breed. From Glenn Hall puking before every game to Gary "Suitcase" Smith showering between periods and Patrick Roy talking to his goalposts, they're often on a planet of their own. Unfortunately, while their minds may seem to be elsewhere, their brains are actually still on the same plane, taking the same risks as every other player. However, a lot of the evidence proves when it comes to concussions, there's a different standard for goalies.

On March 16, 2011, the NHL's new concussion protocol came into effect. It says, in part, that "players suspected of having a concussion will be removed from the game and sent to a quiet place free from distraction so they can be examined by the on-site team physician. The physician will use the Sports Concussion Assessment Tool test to evaluate the player. Symptoms include loss of consciousness, motor incoordination or balance problems, a blank or vacant look, slow to get up after a hit to the head, disorientation, clutching of the head after a hit or visible facial injury in combination with another symptom." The league received immediate positive feedback for the change, and many brain-safety advocates saw it as a step in the right direction.

On March 18, 2011, the Canadiens took on the New York Rangers at Madison Square Garden. With the Rangers up 5-3 late in the third, Benoit Pouliot crashed hard into Rangers goalie Henrik Lundqvist, bowling him over. The trainer hurried to the netminder's aid as Lundqvist was very slow to get up, holding his head. Instead of the "quiet room" treament, however, Lundqvist got an on-ice neck massage from the trainer and stayed in to finish the game. He complained of a stiff neck after the game, but managed to play, and win, two days later.

On October 22, 2011, the leafs visited the Habs at the Bell Centre. Just over a minute and a half into the first period, Brian Gionta attempted to duck through the crease. In the process, he bumped goalie James Reimer, hard, in the head. Play went on during a delayed penalty call in the Canadiens end, while Reimer remained helmetless, on his knees, in his crease. Again, the goalie, although obviously rattled, was not removed to the quiet room. In this case, didn't even get the benefit of a neck massage, as the trainer wasn't summoned at all. The Hockey Night in Canada announcers called the hit "a pretty good jolt," and Glenn Healey commented that it was "a pretty good show by Reimer." The goaltender got up and played the rest of the first period. He left the game during the intermission, claiming something, "didn't feel right."

Toronto coach Ron Wilson said of the Reimer hit the following day: "He got an elbow in the head and felt whiplash like effects and he could've finished the game but it's early the season and we didn't want to risk it. He should be OK and we will see how he feels tomorrow." A month later, Reimer still hasn't played again because of "concussion-like symptoms," which Brian Burke denies add up to an actual concussion and Reimer's mother says is the latest of several career concussions her son has sustained.

On November 12, 2011, the Bruins met the Sabres in Boston. With the Sabres up 1-0 about six minutes into the opening period, Buffalo goalie Ryan Miller came out of his net to beat Milan Lucic to the puck and clear it out of danger. Lucic, with a full head of steam and no intention of letting up, drove an elbow into Miller's head. The goaltender lost his helmet and was later diagnosed with a concussion. Again, no trainer rushed to the scene and Miller ended up playing the rest of the first and the second period before finally leaving the game with "neck pain." The announcers during the game called it a deliberate attempt to injure, but NHL policeman Brendan Shanahan said the hit didn't deserve a suspension. Given some of the suspensions he's handed down for very similar hits on skaters, it seems the NHL discipline office thinks goalies should be judged differently. Miller himself had another opinion.

So now two teams just in the Northeast division are missing their top goalies with concussions, and in neither case did anyone take the hurt player off the ice for assessment according to the league's concussion protocol. Last March, the Rangers were just lucky the same thing didn't happen to Henrik Lundqvist. While it's true that goalies are better equipped than their teammates to handle pucks to the face and head, and may seem impervious to the kinds of injuries other players endure, one must remember the brain inside the helmet doesn't know if it belongs to a goalie or a centreman. It knows only the repercussions of a blow to the head, which are the same for a goalie as for anyone else.

On this day, when Sydney Crosby is set to come back from the concussion that has kept him from the game for the last ten months, head injuries and their consequences are on the public radar more than they ever have been. Hockey Canada has made important changes to women's and minor hockey on the road to preventing head shots. Researchers are improving equipment and even the dinosaur-paced NHL is moving toward harsher penalties for those who cause head injuries. Except when it comes to goalies.

Few people would argue Crosby is the Pittsburgh Penguins' most important player. It's his status and elite skill level that have shone a light on his injury and helped force the changes we've seen in the last year. For many teams without a skater of Crosby's ability, however, the goaltender can be their biggest, or only, star. Losing that player can be devastating. Just imagine, for example, the Canadiens with Carey Price sitting out a concussion for weeks or months.

Sadly, after the Lucic hit on Ryan Miller, one of the most common debates among commentators and fans was whether the Sabres were too "soft" and let Lucic "get away" with the hit. The problem with that train of thought is the reaction doesn't matter if the goalie has already been hurt. And, Miller's teammates should not have been expeted to protect him when the league protects everybody else.

Adam Proteau writes for the Hockey News, and he's the author of the new book, "Fighting the Good Fight: Why On-Ice Violence Is Killing Hockey." On the issue of how goalies are treated under the concussion protocol, Proteau says:

"It's about evening the playing field across the board and saying it doesn't matter how many minutes you play or what position you play. You deserve to be safe in your work environment, or as safe as possible."

Those are words the league needs to take to heart during the evolution of developing respect for the brain in hockey. A goaltender should have the same degree of protection as any other player, and hitting him in the head should carry the same consequences. Goalies may be different, but their brains are not.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Gorgeous Gorges

He might not be the most classically handsome man on the Canadiens' team, with his military haircut, blunt features and scarred visage, but Josh Gorges is a beautiful speciman of a defenceman. His best features don't show on the outside, with the possible exception of the determination in his eyes. Still, his teammates know what he's all about and in the absence of anybody more experienced on the blueline, the Habs' young D-corps is following him.

Gorges' story is an inspirational one. Undersized and undrafted, he came off a Memorial Cup championship as captain of the Kelowna Rockets and, after an injury-shortened season in the AHL, elbowed his way onto the San Jose Sharks roster in 2005. He never really found a permanent home on the Sharks' blueline, though. Relatively inexperienced, he played well when called upon, but was the easy guy to scratch when facing big, banging western conference teams. So, when the Sharks were gearing up for one of their innumerable failed playoff runs in 2007, they went looking for a veteran D-man to shore up their back end. Enter Craig Rivet, with Gorges and a Sharks' first heading to Montreal.

Looking back now, most fans consider that trade to be the best one Bob Gainey made as Habs GM. At the time it looked like the first would be the most important element changing hands. Gorges had a tough time finding a full-time spot in Montreal with Andrei Markov (remember him?), Mark Streit, Roman Hamrlik, Francis Bouillon, Patrice Brisebois, Mike Komisarek, Mathieu Dandenault and Ryan O'Byrne already there. He spent a lot of nights in the press box and was mentioned as a throw-in in more than a few trade rumours.

Gradually, however, Gorges wormed his way onto the daily roster. With blueline injuries in his second year in Montreal, he ended up playing a solid 81 games and has never looked back. We've seen his value increase as he's proven he can take a beating (remember the Mike Green slapper to the head?) and keep on going. He's been so indestructible, in fact, that when he announced he'd been playing essentially without an ACL in his knee for seven years and would finally need surgery last season, it was shocking. Not surprising at all has been his return from rehab, as though nothing ever happened. This, in contrast with poor Andre Markov's trials, is a testament to his recuperative abilities.

He was a leader on his Memorial Cup team in Kelowna, and he's done the same thing in Montreal. During the Habs miracle playoff run two years ago, just before Game Seven against the Caps, three guys spoke to the team. One of them was Gorges, and every ear in the room was tuned to him. He even got several mentions as a potential captain before Brian Gionta was awarded the C. Now we're seeing him stand up and support a decimated defence corps on which he, at 27, is the veteran.

Gorges has been a rock for the majority of the season. He's killing every penalty, and taking on the most skilled players on the other team. He's even putting up points at a faster rate than ever. Already this year, with no PP time, he's got 8 points in 18 games. That puts him on pace for 36 for the season, a third better than his previous career-high 23.

It can't be overlooked either that he's very close to Carey Price and is a steadying presence for the sometimes mercurial goaltender.

One could argue this is a contract year and Gorges, as always, has something to prove. On the other hand, it's hard to make the case that a player who's always given his heart and soul to the team was holding back in anticipation of a better deal before now.

Gorges admitted he was a little hurt the Canadiens only offered him a one-year deal last summer. It must have been particularly hard to swallow in light of the more-frequently injured Andrei Markov's three-year contract. He's not letting that interfere with his job, however, which is testament to his total commitment to the team.

If Pierre Gauthier has an ounce of sense, he'll be drawing up a long-term deal for Gorges right about now. It would be a lovely New Year's gift for Habs fans to see #26 locked up for a few years. He's got nothing left to prove.

Josh Gorges may not be beautiful, but he's a beauty. And the Habs' blueline would be a much uglier place without him.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

A Dear Jacques Letter

Dear Jacques,

It pains me to write you this letter. We've had some good times in the past, but this season you've turned so cold and unmoving. I thought about whether I should just wait and see if you'd come around, but I've decided things have dragged on long enough. So, I have to ask, why do you hate me? I give you chance after chance, but you don't seem to care. All I want to do is go dancing; have a little fun. Maybe score once in a while.

You proved you don't love me anymore, so I wanted to go out with Tomas Plekanec. You can't let me be happy, though. You always find something else for him to do. One day he's digging ditches, next day taking out the garbage. At the end of the week, he's got nothing left for me. You never let him get my motor running.

No. Instead you push me at Mathieu Darche. Mathieu Darche?! I mean, he's a great guy and all, but he's really not my type. He's hardworking, sure. He just doesn't make me respond to his Edward Scissorhands-like touch.

I confess, I'm desperate. At this point, I'd take an impotent Scott Gomez rush. At least it's exciting for a little while, even if he's got the finish of raw lumber. You keep telling me it'll be different when Andrei Markov arrives, but you've been saying the same thing for two years now. I can't deal with this teasing for much longer.

I'm just a mess. When I look back at old videos, I don't recognize myself. I used to be hot and dangerous. Now I'm sloppy and disorganized. I've gone to hell and, Jacques? I blame you. You think you know what's best for me, but you keep setting me up with the wrong guys. There's no chemistry and my chances of scoring are among the lowest in the league. What I don't get is why you don't see it. Everyone else does. The pundits are all talking about it. Fans are pointing at me and gossiping about my problems. People are calling me useless and pathetic.

Why are you so stubborn, Jacques? I know Josh Gorges doesn't really have a silky touch, but he's performing this year. He's built up more points than any other blueliner you've got. I'd like a shot with him. You know, maybe give Plekanec a job he's more suited to do, so he's rested enough to take me out on weekends. When he's overworked, he leaves me hanging and I make bad, costly decisions. I'm letting strangers score as often as my own guys. Seriously, give Gorges a chance to make me happy.

I just want to be productive again. Honestly? I want to put out. This is probably tough for you to hear because I know you're pretty well opposed to offensive freedom. But, Jacques, this is the New NHL, and we have every right to score. Kirk Muller had the right idea, but he's left me in your cold hands and now I'm lost.

The funny thing is, as much as you hate me, you need me. You have to admit it, or you're going to regret it later. If I'm not happy, you and your players won't be happy either. So consider this a cry for help. Think about putting your dislike of me aside and being a little more flexible. Plekanec is your boy, I know, but he'd be so much better with me if you just gave him his freedom.

Please, Jacques. Before it's too late, loosen up. Let me do what I do best and I can help you. If you don't, well, it's going to be a long, depressing season and I'm going to cost you a lot of games. That's a promise.


Your Power Play.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Lest We Forget

In Flanders Fields

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

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

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

- John McCrae

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Think Tank

Photo courtesy of Josie Gold.

Picture, if you will, two Habs fans. One is the patient fan. He faithfully watches all the games, pays half a week's salary to go to the Bell Centre when he gets a chance and proudly wears his vintage Saku Koivu sweater during the playoffs. The patient fan tries to see logic in the coach's and general manager's decisions. He explains losses as unfortunate encounters with hot goalies or getting jobbed by the refs. He believes there's nothing fundamentally wrong with the Habs that a nice five-game winning streak can't fix.

The other fan is the angry fan. He's this close to cancelling his subscription to RDS, he regards ticket prices on Stub Hub with horror and is ashamed to wear his Guy Lafleur sweater in public. The angry fan thinks Pierre Gauthier should be fired for failing to address the team's pressing needs, and Jacques Martin is mentally deficient for not recognizing a forward on the point during the PP isn't working. He believes the Habs as constructed and managed just can't score, and they take a lot of minor penalties because they're stuck with a system that doesn't play to their strengths. He sees a long, disappointing season, probably culminating in a playoff miss, unless dramatic changes happen immediately.

The patient fan and the angry fan are so diametrically opposed in their basic philosophies, they rarely cross paths outside internet message boards. When the two worlds collide these days, however, they're like two sumo wrestlers grappling for purchase on black ice. The slippery ground in this case is the "tank" debate.

The patient fan takes the anti-tank argument. The basic points of debate include: a)these are the Montreal Canadiens, and the proud fanbase won't accept being a league bottom-feeder, b)missing the playoffs is too costly for the owners, c)players sign in places where they're going to have success and a tank season undermines that selling option, even for homegrown UFAs like Carey Price, and, d)tanking doesn't guarantee anything because you still have to draft and develop the right player(s), see Atlanta/Winnipeg as Exhibit A

The angry fan wants to tank the season, and preferably the sooner the better. He says a)the Montreal Canadiens have been mediocre for nearly 20 years, are on the verge of becoming irrelevant when discussion of modern success arises and can only break out of the middle-of-the-road rut by drafting a real superstar, b)missing the playoffs will be a wakeup call for the owners who'll then turf Gauthier, Martin, Bob Gainey and all their relatives and friends, c)free agents are not the way to build the core of a team and the Canadiens need to unload some of the ones they've previously signed at the trade deadline in order to facilitate the tanking process, and, d)tanking a year doesn't mean long-term failure because one great draft pick can make a huge difference, see Philadelphia as Exhibit A.

That, in some version, is pretty much how the debate proceeds. What neither side really says, though, is that the debate is in danger of becoming moot. With their latest two-game losing slide, the Habs bandwagon risks branching off the mainstream highway and taking a one-way turnoff to Tanksville, PQ, population 21,273. In short, the Canadiens may be tanking all by themselves, without any help at all from the debaters.

It's not that they're not trying. They are. These are professional hockey players, several of them Stanley Cup winners. They're proud and they're skilled enough to have reached this level and won before. As a collective, though, something's missing. Whether it's a lack of bench leadership with the departure of Kirk Muller, a lack of on-ice cohesion, particularly during the PP, with the loss of Roman Hamrlik and James Wisniewski or just plain bad luck with injuries and weird scheduling, there's something wrong with the Canadiens. Maybe it's just as simple as playing in a league in which a poor start can put you permanently behind the eight-ball for the season. Parity's a bitch, especially when you've been drafting in the middle of the pack for years and really haven't upgraded the big team very much in the last three seasons.

It feels terribly disloyal, but even the most patient of fans, when faced with an inevitable tank, can't help thinking about the sure-thing, rock-star junior players just waiting to be plucked out of the NHL lottery. Imagining slick winger Nail Yakupov in the starting lineup makes even the most ardent playoff-lover think how much better a chance the Habs would have in the post-season with that kind of scoring talent in the lineup.

In the same way, even the most angry fan, when he knows the season could really be lost, feels the regret of missing out while other teams go for the Cup. He finds it hard to admit it, but cyncism takes a back seat to hope when the post-season begins, as long as his team is in it. And even the angriest fan knows that there are no guarantees with those tempting prospects. Yakupov could be the next Kovalchuk or the next Patrik Stefan. One doesn't know how a change of league or an injury could influence the way that kid will turn out as a pro.

In the end, nobody really wants a tank season. The irony is the fans who swear they do and those who vow they don't come together only when tanking becomes a certainty. Looking at the distinct possibility of a lost season now, tankers and anti-tankers can agree a top draft pick might make a difference next year, but the price is very, very high. If tanking happens despite the team's best efforts there's little we can do about it, but the team really needs to take whatever drastic measures it must to prevent it.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Hit and Sit

Here's a newsflash for those who admantly disagree that all head shots...accidental or not...should be removed from the game, for fear of losing good, clean bodychecks: hitting is already leaving hockey. It's not the rules-makers doing it, either. It's the guys on the ice; the players and referees themselves.

The Canadiens lost to the Rangers because Mike Blunden laid a solid bodycheck and the Rangers, as so many teams do these days, took exception. In the unjustified scrum that followed, the Habs drew the short-handed straw and lost their fourth-line centreman. The Rangers scored on the 5-on-3 and that was enough to get them rolling. Without a fourth line, the Habs played catch-up all night and, despite showing lots of heart (when they weren't in the box), they couldn't quite make it all the way back.

We see this so often. A perfectly legal check, intended only to remove the puck from the puck carrier, triggers foolish and unwarrented retribution. Players say they want hitting in hockey, but when someone actually delivers a good hit, they take offence. There was no reason for the Rangers to get all up in arms over the Blunden hit. When they did, the refs shouldn't have fallen for it and punished the Canadiens with the extra penalty. They shouldn't even have called the first penalty. They called the Blunden hit interference, but the definition of interference is "impeding the motion of a player not in possession of the puck." The Ranger player had the puck when Blunden hit him, which made the check legal.

In the end, it didn't matter. The refs called a lot of borderline penalties on the Canadiens and not the Rangers. That's the way it goes sometimes, and you can give the Habs kudos for pushing back. It's just too bad a good effort was spoiled because the Rangers can't take a check.

Saturday, November 5, 2011

Habs Sit, Rangers Flit

An inauspicious start. Pax is slowing down after his first few games of offensive aggression.

Habs killed that PP easier than Raid kills ants.

Blunden hit looked clean to me. So now, if a guy falls down after a check, it's a cue for a line brawl? Sometimes I hate the NHL.

Excellent. Habs down two men after just killing off a penalty. It stretches the limits of faith to hope this will even out in the end.

Something you didn't know: the name "Jaroslav" means "glory of spring." Let's hope Spacek is living up to his name next May.

If the Habs were ever playing with a manpower advantage this game, they might have a chance.

If this game was a musical, it'd be Little Shop of Horrors.

Can we please let McDonagh go? Lamenting his trade is as productive as crying about drafting AK instead of Getzlaf or Perry.

This is not Desharnais' finest night.

Well, the good thing is, it's the Rangers. No team in the league likes blowing leads more.

Interesting. Looking up NHL player ratings of best/worst officials in the league, and Tim Peel finishes second-worst.

Dirtiest trick in hockey is holding the stick with your armpit to make it look like you're being hooked. Dumb refs fall for it every time.

Spacek is doing a good job on his proper side.

ANOTHER Habs penalty?! I can't watch this much longer.

Moen to Pleks on the bench: Sorry, man. Didn't mean to go offside. Pleks: No problem. (under breath...idiot)

Jesus lives! The Rangers got a penalty!

Andrei Kostitsyn should be extended. Now.

Just realized: Erik Cole is a better-skating Michael Ryder.

Avery's face makes me wish someone would kick him in the nuts with skates on.

Gionta's got to start scoring. He's been an anchor most nights.

Is it just me, or does that thing that sticks up out of the back of a goalie's pants look like an overnight maxi-pad?

They're pulling Price. Stats say Rangers win 5-3.

The game was thrown from the first penalty. NO chance for the Habs to come back. Too bad, because they were hot at even strength.

Friday, November 4, 2011

The Streak Continues - Habs vs.Sens

Anybody else sick of telling leafs fans, "Talk to me in April?"

Gill's reminding us why a ten-foot stick is good on the P.K. Price must have a long one too.

Habs looking as good as Wild Bill on the draw so far tonight.

Sometimes Hal Gill has an out-of-body experience and plays like Ray Bourque. Tonight may be one of those nights.

I might be wrong (happens a lot), but I think Lars Eller has a chance of making the Halak trade look like pure genius.

I wonder how long players spend practicing flipping the puck into their hands to give to the linesmen, while looking completely nonchalant?

If a D is supposed to give up a penalty shot for closing his hand on the puck, what should Gonchar get for catching and throwing it out?

On these nights when the Habs have a thousand chances, do they ever score?

David Desharnais is really a tiny miracle. Who would have put him in the NHL two years ago?

Okay, Habs are dominating through half the game now. That means they're gonna lose, right?

Just noticed I'm asking a LOT of questions tonight.

Ha ha! Chris Neil with a nosebleed. I hope Desharnais gave it to him.

Cole scores his third, and Martin is frantically writing in his notebook. Hope it says, "I will not limit his ice...I will not limit his ice...I will not..."

I know people hate him 'cause he's dumb, but he scores! Sign AK to an extension!

It sucks when the PK gives up a goal, but when it's obviously cleared and the linesman flubs the call, that sucks. Fortunately not this time

One would think a team with a big "O" on its sweaters would feel like a bunch of losers. So far, not so much.

Nice job Pleks, mirroring Foligno and annoying the life out of him.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Take a Seat

For a team that's spent most of this young season dealing with a depleted roster, the Canadiens now have an interesting dilemma. By all accounts, Andrei Markov had some successful tests on his knee in the last couple of weeks and is now skating in Montreal. If all is well, one might imagine he'll be cleared to play sooner rather than later, which is wonderful news for the Canadiens as a whole. It may not, however, be good tidings for whichever defenceman has to sit out to make room for him. Similarly, a forward will have to take a seat with the imminent return of Scott Gomez from a minor injury.

Neither of these decisions will be easy to make. Up front, it's tough to argue that either of David Desharnais, who's got 7 points in eleven games, or Lars Eller, who's been using his size to great advantage and just scored his first goal, should be bounced to the wing to make room for Gomez. The veteran had just one assist and was minus-one in the six games he played before his injury. The Canadiens have won their last three games without Gomez and, it could be argued, haven't missed him at all. Considering the performance of the team's young centremen in his absence, a case could be made that the Habs, as a team, function better without him. However, unless Pierre Gauthier is willing to trade or demote Gomez, he will be back in the lineup, and getting significant minutes as well.

So, one forward will have to sit, and the easy choice from Jacques Martin's position is Mike Blunden. The big winger got called up from Hamilton to bring some size and sandpaper to the fourth line in place of Aaron Palushaj. His arrival, together with the trade for fourth-line centre Petteri Nokelainen, helped solidfy the bottom trio. Those guys won't be a huge risk to score, but they can withstand a pounding from the other team's fourth line, and they, especially Nokelainen, can kill penalties and take faceoffs. If Blunden sits, Mathieu Darche and presumably Travis Moen would flank Nokelainen.

That would leave some combination of Erik Cole, Andrei Kostitsyn, Mike Cammalleri, Max Pacioretty and Brian Gionta as legitimate top-nine wingers. With Tomas Plekanec entrenched as the number-one centreman, that means one of Eller, Desharnais or Gomez would have to move to the wing. Considering the strong play of Eller and Desharnais during the winning streak, it should probably be Gomez who takes a winger's spot. The two younger guys aren't as good as Gomez on faceoffs, but there's nothing stopping Gomez from taking draws, even if he's playing on the wing. It makes sense to move him because once Gomez crosses the opposing blueline, which he does very well, he peels off to the wing anyway. Eller and Desharnais go to the net more directly, as a centre is supposed to do. It may work, or it may not, but it's worth a try. Gomez surely wasn't doing much at centre, so maybe a change of assignment might spark him a bit. At the least, it would disturb the lines that are scoring now as little as possible.

The bigger dilemma for Jacques Martin will be on defence. Young, relatively inexperienced guys like Yannick Weber and Raphael Diaz have steadied their play in the last several games. They're learning on the job, which can give a cautious coach like Martin another reason to dye his hair. All in all, though, they're doing relatively well. Jaroslav Spacek has brought stability since his return from injury. The veteran is playing moderate minutes on his natural left side and is looking pretty solid. Josh Gorges, despite a couple of glaring gaffes, is a workhorse and is putting up more points than he ever has before at the NHL level. P.K.Subban eats minutes as well, and even when making mistakes is a threat to the opposition. Hal Gill is, perhaps, the sketchiest of the D-men so far this year, but Martin loves him on the PK and would never sit him.

While those six guys are in the lineup every night, an (one would imagine) unimpressed Alexei Emelin is downing steamies in the Bell Centre pressbox. This is a guy with size, mobility and a mean streak...exactly the kind of defenceman the Habs need...who the Habs have been courting since they drafted him seven years ago. He finally arrived in North America and now finds himself the odd man out in a defensive logjam in Montreal. This is a touchy situation. Presumably Emelin left Russia because he believed he'd be playing in the NHL. We know he's got an out clause in his contract that allows him to return to the KHL if he's not on the Habs roster. So, how long will it be before he decides this healthy scratch stuff is crap? The problem is, the Canadiens need a guy like him. The bigger problem is, they need him to be NHL-ready right now. He's not as ready as the other young guys, even though he's not making any terrible errors, and Martin has chosen to trust Weber and Diaz instead.

The difficulty Martin faces is that the Canadiens are in a competitive division and need to give themselves the best chance to win every night. To do that, they have to ice the best defence they can. At the same time, they have to give their young and inexperienced players a chance to develop so when injuries hit, they've got the depth to handle it. They're risking losing Emelin if they don't play him.

Exacerbating the situation is the return of Markov. If he stays healthy for more than a week, another of the current six defencemen will have to bow out to give him a spot. Knowing Martin, that means one of Weber or Diaz. Again, it means one of the young, promising defencemen will be stunted in his development for lack of ice time.

Given the situation in Montreal now, with Gorges being the only defenceman in his prime, it's important for the younger Ds to get some playing time. That means, even if they make mistakes, Emelin has to play instead of Gill some nights. Diaz will have to draw in instead of Spacek. However, knowing Martin, he'll play the veterans every night, regardless of how many mistakes they make. If he does, and Emelin or Diaz walk, it will hurt the Canadiens. It's a dilemma, without question. Whether Jacques Martin can sort it without costing the team in the long run is a test of good faith. If only our faith wasn't already stretched thin.