Tuesday, April 29, 2014

An Open Letter to the NHL

Dear National Hockey League,

I hope this letter finds you well. I hear your bottom line is healthier than ever and should stay that way, at least as long as the Canadian dollar is competitive. (Of course, Canadian teams don't even need to win for that...ha ha!) You're talking about getting tougher on debilitating head injuries, and maybe someday you'll treat them with the kind of automatic penalties you call when a high stick makes contact with a player's head. This is all good stuff.

So, anyway, I thought I'd drop you a line because my Habs are about to start their 57-thousandth playoff series against the Boston Bruins. The funny thing, NHL, is teams seem to acquire reputations over the years, and then they seem to stick to them, no matter who's playing or who's in management. The Bruins have always been known as a tough, relentless, hard-working team. The Canadiens have always been fast, skilled, exciting and passionate. Even in years when those things haven't really been true, they're the images we call to mind when we think of those teams, built on decades of rivalry and respect. Those are the identities teams earn and sustain even in lean years because of the proof of history.

Now, however, the Bruins are in danger of straying from their (mostly) classy history and acting as though thuggery and bullying are what they're about. So what I'm asking is that you step in when it's needed and remind the Bruins there are actually rules in the game and every team, including the one from Boston, is answerable to them. So, for example, when Alexei Emelin or P.K.Subban lays a classic hip check on a player in black and yellow, if you could kindly inform both the checked player and the on-ice officials that those are legal and, actually, very solid defensive plays, that would be great. And, when someone like Zdeno Chara goes all ape-like on the guy making the legal hit, it would be great if he's punished properly. Every time.

Also, if a guy like Milan Lucic chooses to spear an opponent in the 'nads, which he's done quite obviously twice in the last month, it would be much appreciated if you could censure him accordingly. Failing that, giving Emelin or his chosen proxy a shot at the Lucic family jewels with a similar free pass would be acceptable. You probably can't do much about a guy who not only spears someone in the groin, but then after the game calls him a chicken because he won't endanger his surgically-repaired face to fight in defence of his stick-endangered virtue. Calling the penalty would help, though.

As for the diving of which Bruins coaches and players will undoubtedly be loudly accusing the Canadiens, I must be totally honest with you. There is diving in Habs/Bruins games. We've seen it time and time and time  again. Don't let your officials be fooled into calling cheap penalties when these blatant dives happen. We all want a fair, clean series.

So, in the interest of being completely up front, the Habs aren't guiltless either. They have been accused in the past of faking a life-threatening injury after a good, solid hockey play. Zdeno Chara, in that case, didn't know the stanchion was there, and lots of people believed him. And, Montreal fans made a terrible fuss about poor Andrew Ference's glove malfunction. He said later he really did mean to flip off Habs fans, but that was probably just to save them from embarrassment of their overreaction. Also, in just the last couple of weeks, the Canadiens have been guilty of playing in games officiated by Francophone referees. To top it all off, the Habs are far from blameless in the many, many times they have beaten the Bruins in important series in the past. We won't even talk about too many men on the ice. As you can see, there's lots of blame to go around when games degenerate into less-than-stellar displays of pure hockey skill.

In conclusion, NHL, all of us want to see the best team win in this series without any help from you or your officials. Let's allow the play on the ice speak for itself, and if it happens to throw out some figurative dirty language, we'd like you to wash out the offending mouths with soap.

Thanks in advance for your consideration,

The Moments

So, I said PDTB (pre-demolition of Tampa Bay) I wasn't going to get crazy about this year's playoffs. I wasn't going to drag out the superstitions or chew my nails to the quick. I refused to work any further on an ulcer 30 post-seasons in the making. I vowed to enjoy the moments, and I have to say, it's working. Of course, it was probably helped by the unusually low number of heart-attack-inducing minutes involved in a four-game sweep, but, nevertheless, it's working.

I think the best thing about the complete satisfaction involved in the Habs first-round win was the fact that every single Canadiens player had a moment worthy of enjoying and remembering. A week later (and what a long week it's been!), I can still picture Tomas Plekanec, lifting Steven Stamkos' stick from behind, clearing the puck away on a potentially dangerous 2-on-1. I see him smiling as a Tampa fan flips him off on the other side of the glass. And I see him taking the team in hand after the Lightning grabbed the momentum with the series' first goal, faking a rookie D out of his shorts and roofing one to bring the Habs back into it, emphatically.

Then there's Rene Bourque. I've written about his resurgence during this post season, and maybe he'll keep it up. Or maybe he won't. Either way, we could certainly savour the sight of him driving the net like a true-blue power forward on every shift. That was so much fun! And Lars Eller, right there with him, feet constantly in motion, relentless on the puck, rewarded by five points in four games, including that laser we'll remember from Game Four.

I enjoyed P.K.Subban taking his own game back in the second match, yelling at J.J.Daigneault behind the bench, then going out there and dominating in a way reminiscent of last year's Norris-calibre style. That was so gratifying, as I've wanted to yell at Daigneault all year. Then, Subban's absolute control on Brendan Gallagher's Game Three goal was a beautiful thing to see. And Andre Markov. Even if Markov didn't (unbelievably) have a point in that series, he was a rock on defence. His clever breakout passes and great positional play gave Alexei Emelin time and space to lay the body, which meant he was able to play his best game. Even Mike Weaver and Francis Bouillon kept their gaffes to a minimum, and I'll remember Weaver's nice clear that led to Brian Gionta's shorty in Game One.

Oh, and Dale Weise and the fourth line were outstanding. Weise turned out to be a speed-demon revelation. Michaƫl Bournival complemented that speed with his own wheels and a bulldog-like ability to pin the puck in the opposing end, and Daniel Briere proved the mythical "Playoff Briere" actually does exist. It was like discovering the Tooth Fairy riding on Bigfoot's back, distributing leprechaun gold. Briere did all the work on Weise's big game winner in Game One OT, and he scored the all-important opener in Game Four: the one everyone says is the toughest game to win.

Gallagher on Plekanec's wing was a force of nature, as was Gionta in his new home on the third line, with his bold, aggressive penalty killing and opportunistic speed. So many other little moments: Carey Price clearing the puck out on the PK by himself, then robbing Stamkos and Purcell in tight. Briere shaking hands with Ginette Reno after the anthems. Thomas Vanek potting his first playoff goal for Montreal and looking exhilarated about it. David Desharnais breaking the PP slump with the vital opening goal in Game Two. Brandon Prust playing hurt, but busting his butt on the PK anyway. Max Pacioretty, who hit more posts than a carpenter through the series, scoring his very first playoff goal at the best possible moment to win Game Four and send Tampa home. The crowd, roaring. The team, paying tribute at centre ice. Marc Bergevin dancing. The handshakes, with the goodwill hockey players generally show, even in defeat. Jon Cooper telling the media, "This is not the team we saw in the regular season."

No, thank goodness, the team we saw win its opening series was a better, tighter, more exciting team than the one we watched all year. Of course there are questions now about how well the Habs will stand up against a bruising team like Boston, which plays to hurt. Whatever happens, I'll remind myself to soak up all the enjoyment of the moments and remember them, whatever the outcome.

Now, bring on the Bruins!

Monday, April 21, 2014

The Resurrection

If Brendan Gallagher and Travis Moen had gone to the tomb and found the stone rolled back, with the spirits of the Rocket and Doug Harvey standing there in blinding white announcing "He is risen," it would be no more unlikely than the rebirth of Rene Bourque in these playoffs. He proved again on Easter Sunday that there is such a thing as resurrection. Well, at least the resurrection of a hockey career.

Two weeks ago, there wasn't a Habs fan on the planet who wouldn't have seriously considered paying another team to take him away, just to clear up a roster spot. And, the majority opinion wasn't wrong. Bourque sucked this year. With 16 points in 63 games, he recorded the most dismal points total of his NHL career. He alternated from "complete disinterest and invisibility" to "trying, but completely unable to hit any part of the net other than the post." (Seriously, how many posts did Bourque hit this year?!) Given time with every centre on the team other than David Desharnais, he seemed to click with none of them. While he had limited ice time, largely because of his ineffectiveness, he still got over a minute a night on the PP, which didn't seem to motivate him much. No matter what the team tried to do with him, Bourque was deemed by many to be a lost cause. Dead weight in a lineup that needed solid oak on the right wing. When he finally sat for five straight games as a healthy scratch, his career looked ready for Last Rites.

Fast forward to opening night of the playoffs and Bourque wasn't only noticeable, he was effective. Effective. Rene Bourque. Unless in reference to his ability to look pretty in his many shirtless 24CH cameos, those three words weren't used in the same sentence all year. Yet, there he was, on the left side with Brian Gionta and the previously equally-underachieving Lars Eller, and he was unrecognizable as the slug we saw slide his way through the regular season. This Bourque was fast, relentless, strong and skilled. He was a threat whenever he was on the ice, and he gave his line a chance to make a difference on every shift. He was a Super Bourque. In Games Two and Three he was even better, scoring crucial goals and helping Eller and Gionta raise their level of play as well. The line people were hoping would at best be a limited liability has been leading the way.

As the complaining about the where the hell this Bourque has been all year fades, fans are realizing the value of what he's finally bringing now. Before the playoffs, when Jon Cooper was drawing up Tampa's strategy for beating the Habs, you can bet it focused on containing Max Pacioretty, Thomas Vanek and Desharnais. He may have talked about countering Tomas Plekanec's inevitable checking of Steven Stamkos, and about rushing the Habs defence and crashing Carey Price's crease. Few would have predicted that by the end of Game Three, Pacioretty would have no goals and Rene Bourque would have three. Bourque was an afterthought in Cooper's game plan, because he made himself one all year. Now that he's become Super Bourque, Cooper and the Bolts have no answer for him.

This is what teams need to win in the playoffs. A healthy team with good goaltending, motivated players and the surprise awakening of a 6'2" power forward is hard to contain. Bourque is giving opposing defencemen fits because the new, fearless #17 is using his speed to blow by them, and his strength to push through them. Sooner or later, coaches are going to have to assign coverage to his line, which means less attention on Pacioretty and Vanek. And, of course, a guy like Pacioretty isn't going to go goalless forever. It means Cooper has almost run out of time in which to redraw his game plan, as his team survives on life support.

This is the best possible development for the Habs post-season hopes. If two strong lines were dangerous, the resurrection of Bourque gives the Canadiens an outright lethal three scoring lines. The question now, of course, is how long it will stay this way. It's a joy to watch Bourque raise his game from the dead and use his talent to its full extent. With a round-one series still to close out and a date with the Bruins or Wings looming, he'll be needed.

As with all resurrections, though, it's better late than never. And, standing in the bright light of a new day, it's hard to remember just how dark it used to be.

Sunday, April 6, 2014

A New Approach

There's an old folk song people used to sing at house parties when I was a kid, called "21 Years." It's about a guy who's sentenced to prison for 21 years for some unnamed crime, and it goes, in part like this:

I waited, I trusted, I longed for the day.
A life-time so lonely, my hair's turning grey,
My thoughts are for you love, I'm out of my mind,
For twenty-one years, love, is a mighty long time. 

I remember lying awake and listening to the adults singing that on a Saturday night, thinking how awful it must be to spend 21 years in the cold and dark. In the decades since, Habs fans have learned exactly how it feels. We have watched the years slip by with very little real expectation of our once-haughty franchise giving us a new reason to brag. And we know now that 21 years is, most certainly, a mighty long time.

In the desert of playoff seasons between the 1993 Cup and today, there have been too many in which the Habs didn't even make the cut. Those futile years don't bear remembering. Even so, the biggest problem for me has always been when the Canadiens do make the post-season. Every year, I do the same thing. I suspend disbelief and I tell myself "anything can happen." It doesn't matter if the team barely scrapes into the playoffs as the eighth seed, or if they're obviously a one-line squad that lives off its power play. I blithely ignore it if a particular edition of the Habs is riddled with injuries, has a terrible coach or depends almost totally on its goalie standing on his head until his face turns purple. I don't care if the team is the smallest in the league. I fall into the same trap every single time. Get to the playoffs, I tell myself, and anything can happen. 

I even look for examples to back up my belief. Remember the 1971 Habs, I say. Or the '86 team nobody expected to win. Look at the Kings, winning the Cup just a couple of years ago after qualifying on the last day of the season. I refuse to notice that the 1971 Habs were the intersecting point of two dynasties, that the '86 team had a rock-solid defence and Patrick Roy playing out of his mind, and that the 2012 Kings were a big, strong team with Drew Doughty on the back end, two guys who scored a point-per-game and Jonathan Quick playing incredible hockey. Sure, I say. There's no reason why the Habs can't duplicate that.

Then, inevitably, reality hits. And it hits hard. The Habs who live and die with their power play face a stepped-up defensive effort and collapse. The ones with the terrible coach blow a series lead when the coach takes a stupid bench minor. The ones with all the injuries can't match a healthy opponent. The ones who need the goalie to be perfect can't support him with goals, no matter how well he plays. And the small, skilled team loses out to the big, skilled team it can't control. In the end, all the sparkly faith I invest in them every spring becomes tarnished with bitter disappointment.

So, this year I've decided I won't be fooled again. I'm very happy the Habs have qualified for the playoffs. I'm delighted they've got a chance to clinch home ice this week, but I recognize the team has issues that could be costly. 

While the Desharnais/Pacioretty/Vanek line is on fire, the secondary scoring is inconsistent. The penalty kill is strong, but the power play sputters at inconvenient times. Carey Price gives the team a chance every night, but the defence is spotty and sometimes downright porous. The Habs match up well with Tampa on the ice, but Michel Therrien is known to make strange personnel decisions and have trouble with in-game adjustments when things aren't going well. There are a lot of little guys in the Habs' lineup and sometimes they fall prey to indiscipline. 

I know these things are true, so I'm going to go into these playoffs with a clear head and a sensible attitude. I will not spend overtime with my head under a pillow because I can't stand the suspense. I won't pace when things are close, or fear if I don't wear a special Habs sweater at least two hours before game time they'll lose. I will not have unreasonable expectations of Carey Price, Tomas Plekanec or P.K.Subban. If Steven Stamkos gets away and scores, as he is wont to do, I will take it philosophically.

Most importantly, I will take the best moments of the playoffs as they come and truly enjoy them instead of pinning all my hopes on an unreasonable big-picture dream. The risk of ignoring the team's flaws is disappointment erasing all the fun of the games themselves. Twenty-one years is a mighty long time, but it's longer when you expect things you can't have and dismiss the things you can. Maybe this is the year the drought will end for Montreal. Perhaps the magic that makes a good goalie great and guides a puck off the post and in the net instead of out will touch the Canadiens this time around. If it doesn't and a good team eventually bows to a better one, I will have enjoyed the journey.