Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Aftermath: Horse Racing

Sometimes, a win is in the bag as the last note of the national anthems dies away. It's like watching a horse pull away down the stretch and you know nothing's going to catch it. Sometimes, though, it's like steeplechase, with mud pits and obstacles all through the race. Last night was the latter kind of win. The important thing for the Canadiens, though, is when they arrived at the finish line, they were ahead by a nose.

This is not the same team we watched last tank last season. Not entirely, anyway. There are still some old habits present, like blown leads and drops in intensity that can last an entire period. Last year, the leads were blown in the third period as the energy level seemed to flag every night. This year, it seems the second is the let-down period after a strong first and a rallying third. Inconsistent special teams are still there too, only last year, the penalty kill was brilliant and the power play anemic. This season, Andrei Markov, Tomas Plekanec and Raphael Diaz have transformed the PP with their precision puck-moving, while the PK has fans crossing their fingers hoping for the best.

The difference we're seeing is partly in attitude, and partly because of noticeable changes in strategy. The attitude says, "Okay, we're taking bad penalties, but we're hanging in there because we believe we can win." The strategy involves using the speed they have to advance, rather than hang back waiting for mistakes. The defencemen don't waste time looking for the perfect outlet. They move the puck ahead, rather than across the ice, and the forwards are in motion to receive it, not stationary at the blueline. They're carrying the puck with speed and short passes, rather than dumping and chasing it as the go-to play. They're showing what "active stick" is supposed to mean, meeting the opponent head-on, feet and sticks always in motion. That's forcing turnovers and keeping the other team on the defensive for long stretches. Carey Price, who would once have lost focus after a softie or two, is proving he can mentally regroup and raise his level of play when it's required.

As long as the Canadiens keep doing those things right, they can compete against any team. When they stop moving and start retreating, that's when big, talented teams like the Jets (and Bruins, Rangers, Senators, Blackhawks, Blues...) can push back. For the most part, though, the Canadiens are sticking to the plan, and it's working for them. Credit for that must go not only to the players, but to the coaching staff. Michel Therrien has tailored a system to suit the team he's got and he has everyone buying in. Even the comments from the players about P.K.Subban's return to the lineup are uniform in their consistency, which indicates leadership at the top is setting the agenda.

What we're seeing is a businesslike approach to the game plan from a group of players who don't want to experience a year as dreadful as the last one ever again. As a result, the wins are coming and the team feeling is building. Watching the two rookies, Gallagher and Galchenyuk, blossom in this environment is more exciting than anything we've seen from this team since the 2010 playoffs. The difference is, this feels like a real step toward building a strong, competitive team, rather than an ephemeral, miraculous playoff bubble that can be burst by the first physically aggressive team it encounters.

Now, if the refs would stop calling diving on clear boarding infractions, the Canadiens would only have to worry about the opponent. A steeplechase is tough enough without running against zebras. In any case, five games in, admittedly a small sample size, the Habs are showing they have the horses to be respectable every night. Sometimes they'll pull away and sometimes they'll grind out a close one. Some nights, they'll be the team left in the dust. The least they'll do is run their best race.


Steve said...

It shows how out to lunch JM was. Whats surprising is that Gallager is the better player of the Gallies so far.

Raj said...

I agree with Steve but I would go further. How out of touch and, dare I use the word, incompetent, the whole previous regime must have been...

a) No protection for our skilled players. Thankfully Max P is ok, but imaging if he had been paralyzed for life after that ape tried to kill him.
b) Dumping and chasing WITHOUT a forecheck
c) A coach AND a GM who didn't talk with the players. We gave away James Wisniewski, Dominic Moore and SK74 for nothing, AK46 for almost nothing. All might have been assets to develop and keep, but no communication ever developed that could do that.
d) A GM who couldn't develop a a management team. Kirk Muller might still be here if he had had a good idea of what trajectory his career path in Montreal might have taken. If Marc Crawford could learn French, Muller could have, too -- and I believe he would have had he thought there was a point to it. What about the scouts we fired? And our Quebec scout...wait, we didn't have a full-time one, did we?
c) Collapsing around the goalie in our own end as the predominant strategy on the PK and when we were hemmed in.
d) As a result of dump and chase, no forecheck, passively waiting in the neutral zone, and collapsing around the goalie, players were worn out in the third period. So blowing leads was an expected consequence -- for which the remedy was a bag skate the next day.
e)Tired players get injured, too. I don't think the injuries we had the last couple of seasons were an accident.

In retrospect, I am amazed I defended JM and PG at all (yes, I did, sometimes). To paraphrase Joni Mitchell, sometimes you don't know what you got till it's gone; then only do you realize what you had was pretty bad.

I'm still not convinced MT or MB are Scotty Bowman and Sam Pollock redux, but they do seem to be an improvement over JM and PG. At least the players seem to be having fun again. That was a scarce commodity the past few seasons.

Normand Prejet said...

Right on Raj!!!