Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Game #76

2 More Habs Fall in Crucial Win

The Canadiens Game in Review

Date: Tuesday March 31st, 2009
Opponent: Chicago Blackhawks
Venue: Bell Centre, Montreal, QC

Team Stripes
Final Score: 4-1 - Win

Habs starting goalie: Carey Price (W)
Opposition starting goalie: Cristobal Huet (L)

Habs goalscorers: Alexei Kovalev, Guillaume Latendresse, Andrei Markov, Mathieu Schneider
Opposition goalscorers: Patrick Sharp



Play of the game
The play you're straining to see on the press catwalk monitor...

This play started with Higgins and a few minutes later ended with him. There was 4 minutes to go in the game and our 2-goal lead was not looking like it would hold up. Chicago was all over Montreal and 2 more goals (maybe even 3) looked like a very possible outcome. In a moment of attack Higgins hit Kostitsyn with a nice pass and he was then more or less alone in on net. Andrei got off a quality shot despite being slashed; that put us on the PP. 2 minutes of clock-wasting would have probably done the trick, but scoring a 4th seemed like an even better plan. Chicago thought that they had a clearance along the glass, but there, as he always is, was Markov putting up both hands and keeping the puck in. He quickly played it to Schneider who one-timed a shot by a screened - courtesy of Higgins - Huet. There is too great of a chance at 1 point only in OT - I like this approach much better.



Game puck
Trophies are for the end of the year, play well in the game, you get a lovely puck...

Andrei Markov
After Hamrlik went down we started seeing more of Andrei as he was at times being double-shifted. It should also say a lot for Hammer's ability as Markov was the only defenceman that Gainey trusted to mop up Patrice's mistakes after he left. Markov moved the puck very well all game and out-did all of Chicago's big-name (big-money) defencemen. It proves that over-paying on July 1st is a great way to pay too much for a player who wants to make as much money as possible, but that isn't exactly the way to get the best in the league. I would much rather have a player playing for me for less money because he loved the city and the team and not because I offered him the biggest contract.



Dome hockey team
We're going into the last minute with these 6 (and they're attached to the ice, so they're not coming off)...

Forwards

Guillaume Latendresse
Gui and Max played very well tonight and either player could have found their way in here. The clincher was Gui's goal and his fight to get it. It was a great example of how you should always stay with the play and never give up until the whistle. The shot was lucky to go in, but it does take a true scorer to get two quality shots on net back-to-back like that.

Andrei Kostitsyn
Kostitsyn did everything but score tonight and I really liked what he brought. It was his first game in a week and I felt that he came back a bit better than when he went out. He definitely added some punch to our second line and I believe it was him who set the tone for the whole game. Andrei uncharacteristically dropped the gloves to come to the rescue of his injured brother and, though it cost us him for 19 minutes and the team for 4, it was the right play. After missing most of the second period he came back to be an offensive force in the third as he got off two high quality shots and drew a crucial penalty.

Alexei Kovalev
His goal, 25 seconds in, was a great way for him and the Habs to start the game. That goal showed how alert the Habs were tonight and was also a nice example of, what I believe is, a more aggressive fore-check. He also added an assist on Markov's goal and now all of a sudden has 56 points. He has amassed 17 points in 15 games since his break and 8 in 4 games since being put on a line with Saku and Tanguay.

Defencemen

Andrei Markov
Andrei's career year continues and we still have 6 games to play. Like Kovy, Markov picked up a goal and an assist and now has 62 points - he continues to lead the Habs. If Hamrlik is to miss any time then we will have to rely on this pillar even more (which I am sure will be no problem for him). I hope, however, for the team's sake that isn't the case. I am confident that Markov will pick up the slack, if needed, but not as confident that Brisebois, Bouillon, Dandenault or O'Byrne can do what Roman does.

Mathieu Schneider
A few defensive zone giveaways for Mat tonight ruined an otherwise solid effort. Like Markov, Mat will be needed for more if Roman is out, but I think the veteran can do it. This is the time of year when you need guys with experience to help the younger players and I think Schneider has done a formidable job. He scored a late insurance goal tonight and now has 8 on the year. With Atlanta he had 4G, 11A, 15Pts and was -10 in 44 games. Since coming home he has added 4G, 10A, 14Pts and is a respectable -2 (lets not forget he lived through Carey's troubles) in only 19 games.

Goaltender

Carey Price
Carey had an excellent game tonight as he made some crucial saves and played with a supreme amount of confidence. His teammates rewarded him with some solid play of their own as they not only scored 4 goals, but also only let up 29 shots. He faced shooters at the top of his crease, often stood up, if the butterfly was not needed, and controlled his rebounds very well. He got a bit lucky with some near misses and posts, but then again, what goalies don't.



Eye-Openers
In this new section we are going to try and shed some light on certain plays or events that would otherwise go unnoticed

A lot was made before the game about whether the Habs were back on the right track after a decent haul last week. The main argument was that we were only able to beat Tampa and Atlanta while only getting a single point against the Sabres. Maybe the 'experts' who were doubting us failed to recognize that those are the types of teams that we usually lose to. Those are the types of teams that, had we beaten, would have given us enough points to avoid much of the slump talk. If you wanted to know if we had turned a corner you could have done what few actual experts do and that is to watch a full game. The way the Habs played last week was clearly an improvement from previous games and that continued tonight. Against the 'Hawks we beat a team that most people consider great and that was supposed to be a hard test. In the eyes of those on TSN and RDS we are back, we passed the 'good-team' test. In my eyes, however, we played as well tonight as we did last week and that is the evidence that tells me that we are back to being our old selves.


Overall Comments

The game couldn't have started better for as we scored a goal after 25 seconds. Poor old Huet was hung out to dry after his defenceman made a brutal giveaway. The Habs kept it coming despite a pretty constant parade to the penalty box. We didn't, however, sit on our 1-goal lead and by the end of the 2nd period we were up by 3. Then Chicago turned it on and got some (disappointingly predictable) help from the refs. Playing the puck from the bench, tripping, holding Higgins' stick and obstructing Kovalev all got over-looked as the refs let 'them play' - Don Cherry style. The refs of course claim they don't want to influence the game at this point which means that there is a huge advantage for the team who is cheating (Chicago). How on earth they don't think allowing a team to cheat and thus get the puck and more chances isn't a form of influencing the game I'll never know. Luckily for us though our hard work resulted in a penalty that the refs simply had to call (although I wouldn't have been too surprised had they not) and that killed any hope that Chicago had. The 2 points turned out to be essential as Florida also won tonight. We hold a game in hand, a one point lead and the advantage (for the time being) in the event of a tie between the two teams. With 11 games left to be played by the two teams, however, all of this will surely change. All we can do is win our remaining games; I think 2 more points this week is a must and 3 or even 4 would come in extremely handy.

I have a few questions that maybe some people can answer. Tonight we were supposed to wear our barber-shop 1912-1913 jerseys for the second time of the year, but instead we wore the 1915-1916 reds for the 3rd time overall and 2nd time in 11 days. Any idea why they changed this after it had been published? Also, why are we booing every ex-Hab? I am not as naive as I once was when I thought we were the classiest team in the league, but now I think we may have the worse fans, worse that Toronto. We boo every player who ever played for us (despite their excellence with us and the fact that they would have done anything to stay), we also boo every other team's best player (Bertuzzi can be booed, as can Samsonov and Briere, but Chara, Alfredsson, Sundin and Iginla? Really? Those are all great players who should be respected) and we also jump on and off the bandwagon more than Alouette fans. It is becoming a disgrace and even though I know that the boos aren't representative of what we are all thinking, I still ask the question as to why so many people feel that way? To think that I used to be annoyed by the D-Fence (this isn't football) cheer and that was it.

A Trophy Less Likely

The Bill Masterton Memorial Trophy is an annual award under the trusteeship of the Professional Hockey Writers' Association and is given to the National Hockey League player who best exemplifies the qualities of perseverance, sportsmanship, and dedication to hockey. The winner is selected in a poll of all chapters of the PHWA at the end of the regular season.

Today, it was announced that Patrice Brisebois would be the Canadiens nominee. Having not suffered major injuries of last season, and trading last season's nominee (Mark Streit – whose nomination is meant to hark back to a time when dedication meant more than rehabbing), they turned to Patrice.

These days, there is certainly a conception (probably based on the winners from the past 18 odd years) that the trophy is awarded to a player who has come back from career- or even life-threatening illness or injury. This is not strictly true. But it would be hard to imagine a player who had overcome a massive obstacle losing to someone whose nominating quality is that they are old.

Only 10 nominees have been revealed to date. There is a chance a Patrice would win, but it won't be ours:
Just a year and a half ago, Patrice Bergeron was nearly paralyzed and suffered a severe concussion from a hit from behind. His determination to be back by the 2008 playoffs nearly paid off, as he amazingly would have been ready to take the ice had the Bruins reached the second round last spring.

This season, Bergeron suffered yet another concussion, but has since returned to approach the high-caliber level of play for which he was known before the injuries. His credo of respect and "playing the right way" is reflected in his style on the ice -- always hard, always physical, always clean.

Brisebois is a decided outsider even among the ten, behind Beregeron, Numminen, Clemmenson and Mark Eaton. I think if old Patrice has his heart set on a trophy this year he'd better gear up for a run at the Conn Smythe...

Come on, be honest, even if you are a Brisebois supporter, it's hard to see him winning this one. I mean unless the NHL recognises his long career despite having to overcome a total lack of NHL level skill (couldn't resist).


Though the nomination isn't exactly front page news, it sure beats harping on and on about which of the four lines isn't scoring.

Plus, it gave us an opportunity to get some classic Brisebois quotes only a couple of days after looking as slow as he ever has in his career (think Hamrlik penalty...):
"Some media, some people say, 'He's getting old, he should retire,'" Brisebois said yesterday. "Not that it hurts, but I'm like, 'I'm still doing the job. I'm not slow on the ice. I watch myself on video and I don't look a step behind.'

"Sometimes, I'm going to get caught, for sure. The game is fast and I try things on the ice. If you don't, nothing's going to happen. We have fast forwards who need the puck on the tape. Sometimes, you see the opening and you try."

You can't say the guy isn't good for anything. He still makes me laugh (and cry)...


Incidentally, for those interested here are the previous Canadiens winners of Masterton award, and the wikipedia reasoning as to why:

Claude Provost – "Embodied the definition of perseverance and dedication to hockey" throughout his 15 year career
Henri Richard – This honoured a career with 11 Stanley Cups
Serge Savard – Awarded for "dedication to hockey", after he won his eighth Stanley Cup in eleven seasons
Doug Jarvis (while he was with Hartford) – Awarded after he beat Garry Unger's record for consecutive games played, with 914 games
Saku Koivu – Overcame non-Hodgkin lymphoma

Monday, March 30, 2009

Stubbling Into The Postseason

You can't have missed it, the past few games Alexei Kovalev has been visible again. More than that, he seems to have taken matters into his own hands at certain critical times.

As a result, the first line has been great; and, perhaps more importantly, the powerplay fearsome again.

I tell you what, say what you want about Kovalev, but he wants to make the playoffs as much as anyone on that team. How can I be so sure? He's wearing it on his face:


People mocked Laraque for his speech the other day, and perhaps they were right to. But one can't ignore that certain players at least seem to have taken some of his advice. Certain players have begun playing like this is knockout hockey (precisely because that's what it is). Alexei is clearly one of that number.

Since his reinvigoration, the coach has clearly taken notice of Kovalev too – I suspect that might have something to do with locker room goings on as well – as he gave him the most ice time of any forward against Buffalo, a whopping 31 shifts. Notable too was that none of his 24 and a half minutes were frittered away on penalty kill.

If anything can be said for this and the union of Koivu, Kovalev and Tanguay by Gainey, it is that this is the first time that the coach has been focused on getting the best from those top players – damn the rest. Carbo, for his part, seemed to prefer finding better average play. Gainey is riding the highs and lows of the "eggs-in-one-basket" technique.

I, for one, like it.


As a bit of fun, I've found this old post which includes a bit about Kovalev's beard. One more thing Wyshinski and I agree on is that Kovalev must certainly care for the outcome if he's willing to indulge the superstition that makes him look like that:
"... Kovalev looks like a carnival worker. The stringy blond hair coupled with the brown scraps all over his face evinces thoughts of cabbage smell and a rigged ring toss..."

Saturday, March 28, 2009

Game #75

Habs Put Up the Good Fight; Fall Short

The Canadiens Game in Review

Date: Saturday March 28th, 2009
Opponent: Buffalo Sabres
Venue: Bell Centre, Montreal, QC

Team Stripes

Final Score: 3-4 - Win (SO)

Habs starting goalie: Carey Price (L)
Opposition starting goalie: Ryan Miller (W)

Habs goalscorers: Christopher Higgins, Alexei Kovalev (2),
Opposition goalscorers: Adam Mair, Tim Connolly, Clarke MacArthur, (Toni Lydman - SO)



Play of the game
The play you're straining to see on the press catwalk monitor...

Higgins scored his 10th of the year tonight on an incredible shot. The timing for an even-strength goal couldn't have been better with the Habs trailing 0-2. The play started with Gorges hitting Dandenault with a pass as he entered Buffalo's zone. Mathieu then looked left and saw his two linemates to his left, perfectly lined up. He fired a crisp pass to the left which could have gone to either player. Metropolit made an excellent play (which froze defence and goalie alike) when he let the puck go right by him to Higgins. I really liked what Glen did on this play as it showed some great vision.



Game puck
Trophies are for the end of the year, play well in the game, you get a lovely puck...

Christopher Higgins
Chris scored a goal, but even until that point he had been our best player. He seems to have found a niche on the fourth line and is thriving on it. He looked very comfortable in his role tonight and almost seems relieved that he is no longer being depended on for goals. The areas that really stood out for me tonight were his fore-checking, his energy and his ability to win pucks with his great positioning.



Dome hockey team
We're going into the last minute with these 6 (and they're attached to the ice, so they're not coming off)...

Forwards

Alexei Kovalev
Kovalev scored 2 goals tonight as his line was once again a major threat. His first goal was kind of lucky as Saku did all the work before the puck apparently hit his stick. The second goal, however, was pure class. Standing at the side of the net Alex stopped a shot with his skate and was then able to get the puck into the net all before Miller had time to get down.

Saku Koivu
It originally looked like Saku had scored his 16th, instead he was credited with an assist. What that change doesn't take away from the captain is that he made an incredible play to get that puck at the net. He has been very good with the puck down low lately as we are seeing just how strong of a passer and puck-controller he can be. I was very impressed with not only his face-off percentage tonight (18-9, 67%), but also by the timing of his wins as he seemed to win all of his crucial draws.

Christopher Higgins
It is funny that a demotion to the 4th line has brought Chris more ice time, more responsibility and thankfully more points. He is doing so well as a penalty-killer lately, but also is seeing some occasional PP time. I have to agree with RDS when they speak about the benefit of players knowing their role. Chris now knows that he is a defensive guy who is put on to shut-down the opposition and hopefully deliver a consistent level of energy. In Higgins' case it is so far, so good, since Gainey took over.

Defencemen

Josh Gorges
I thought that Gorges and Schneider were our best pairing tonight in their own end. They were the ones that were committing the least amount of errors, and were also the ones moving the puck the best. Of the two I preferred Josh's game tonight though. He played close to 20 minutes and was hardly noticeable, to boot he picked up an assist to give him an unexpected 20 points on the year.

Roman Hamrlik
Let's get one thing straight, the Hamrlik-Brisebois pairing was weak tonight, Hamrlik was not. Patrice played one of his worst games of the year and it was poor old Roman who was often left out in the cold. Hammer, for his part, played alright on his own. When called upon to move the puck or to clean up a mess in his own end he was there. He took a penalty which led to a goal, but I don't think it was that bad of a penalty. Not knowing that Patrice was there to support him it was penalty or a Sabre in alone on Price in his head - he made the right choice.

Goaltender

Carey Price
Carey played alright tonight in his net. The thing that stood out for me, however, was how bad his puck-handling was. The good news is that he handles the puck more often when he is playing with confidence, the bad news is that he is pretty bad at it. The defence really let him down tonight with some pretty poor play so I won't blame him much at all for the goals. I was also happy with his shootout performance which was far better than last week against New York. It is just too bad that he couldn't have let in more tonight and none on the night where our forwards actually scored.



Eye-Openers
In this new section we are going to try and shed some light on certain plays or events that would otherwise go unnoticed

Watching the game here with an old friend made me look at certain things in a different way. A great hockey player himself he has a keen eye for positioning and for tactics and I listened and learned from what he said. Tonight the glaring problem was our defensive zone positioning. Whether this is caused by a lack of confidence in our goalie, the lack of a defensive coach or possibly just weak pieces on our blue-line is unknown. What is known is that this once strong defensive unit is having problems. Too many times was a player left in front of the net as our two D-men chased the puck or unnecessarily double-teamed a Sabre. We looked totally disorganized when the opposition is in our end and that only becomes magnified when they start cycling the puck. Unclear about where to go at certain times, or unsure if a teammate will stay with their man, seem to be the biggest problems for us right now. Of course much of this could be remedied with a little coaching (from a defenceman), but considering we are almost in April I can only assume that this ad-hoc approach will likely remain in place until next season.


Overall Comments

A lot was made about this game being a must-win for Buffalo that somehow lost in all of the reports was the fact that we too desperately needed the points. The Habs started the game very well and I felt were unlucky to go down by 2. I remember thinking at that point that there was no way we were getting shutout tonight, so we needed Price to keep us in it. Then, within a 7-8 minute span in the second period we scored 3 goals and things were looking good. In the third period Buffalo came out gunning for a goal (and some) and we seemed happy to sit on a one-goal lead and then eventually a 3-3 draw. Like we did on Thursday, we played the last portion of this game for OT. We were so worried about getting 0 points that 0 is almost what we got. Then, in OT, we were back to being the more aggressive team, but we couldn't get one by Miller. We then had 5 chances to win the game in the shootout as Price made the first 5 stops. Our top 5 guns were denied the role of hero and then Lydman scored to really put the pressure on. Lapierre didn't really get off a good chance as Miller went 6/6. I am, however, happy to report that we secured a single point and that we bagged 5 of 6 this week. We have 7 more games to go and it would be nice to get 10 points, but 8 may do it. We stayed afloat this week, but barely.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Game #74

Captain K Saves the Day After Habs Squander Their Chances

The Canadiens Game in Review

Date: Thursday March 26th, 2009
Opponent: Tampa Bay Lightning
Venue: Bell Centre, Montreal, QC

Team Stripes

Final Score: 3-2 - Win (OT)

Habs starting goalie: Carey Price (W)
Opposition starting goalie: Karri Ramo (L)

Habs goalscorers: Alexei Kovalev, Guillaume Latendresse, Saku Koivu
Opposition goalscorers: David Koci, Lukas Krajicek



Play of the game
The play you're straining to see on the press catwalk monitor...

Saku's goal was the most crucial, but for me it wasn't the play of the game. I am bestowing that honour upon Latendresse for what was a spectacular goal. He showed his true nose for the net on this one and also showed how he can use his strength and positioning to make up for his lack of speed. The play started with Gui rushing down the left wing and beating his man to the outside. Ramo bit and went down, Gui kept going around the net. With his soft hands he wrapped it into what was a wide open net.



Game puck
Trophies are for the end of the year, play well in the game, you get a lovely puck...

Andrei Markov
Markov was on the ice for both of Tampa's goals and did get beat pretty bad on their first. His play, however, for the rest of the game was phenomenal. He had great vision with the puck and was the main reason why the Habs had a strong breakout game. He was also very strong offensively as he chipped in with 2 more assists and now has 50 on the year. Markov played over 29 minutes of hockey and quarter-backed a very sharp looking PP for over 11 minutes.



Dome hockey team
We're going into the last minute with these 6 (and they're attached to the ice, so they're not coming off)...

Forwards

Alexei Kovalev
Whatever Bob said to Alex or whatever Alex said to Alex last month during his 'rest' is surely paying off now. He once again was one of our best players tonight as he out-did Vinny and St. Louis at the Bell Centre for a change. Since that break he has 13 points in 13 games and is obviously getting hot at the right time. Tonight he was held to a single goal, but could have had quite a few more had Ramo not played so well.

Saku Koivu
With 13 points in his last 15 Saku is also getting hot at the right time of the year. Tonight he pivoted our most effective trio as they were often (especially on the PP) too much for Tampa to handle. He did well to stay with the puck on the winner as he did what we are told to do since we are kids - put the puck on net. It wasn't pretty, but it was 2 points. The game-winner was his third in our last 6 wins; all 3 being 1-goal wins. It was his 2nd OT-winner for Gainey the coach.

Alex Tanguay
I wouldn't dream about leaving the third member of this line off tonight as he too was very good. He quietly went about his business of making great passes. He didn't match last game's 5 points, but did chip in with 1. He was great at gaining the zone and then doing something constructive with the puck - mostly hitting a wide-open trailer.

Defencemen

Andrei Markov
What a game, what a season. Tonight was just a sample of what this player has brought us this year. He has been our most consistent player all season and also our best. Tonight he reached the 50-assist and 60-point plateaus for the first time in his career. League-wide he is 1st in helpers and 2nd in points among blue-liners and must be a serious candidate for the Norris. In his past 17 games he has a very impressive 18 points.

Mathieu Schneider
One thing that I noticed tonight (obviously not for the first time) was that Mat can really shoot. Now shooting is 3 parts - power, placement and timing - and Schneider not only possesses all of those qualities, but he excels at them. After Markov there is no other D-Man on the team who even has any 2 of those. He was very effective on the PP and his 1 point on the night was well below what it should/could have been.

Goaltender

Carey Price
With 2 shots to face in the first and only 6 in the second Carey was not a busy man. He, however, did exactly as we needed and that was not let anything by him. The worst thing a goalie can do when he faces so few shots is to let a soft one in. Price played solidly and remained focused despite what might have seemed like a boring 40 minutes from his point of view. The Lightning picked it up a bit in the third as they took a whopping 11 shots to give them 19 on the night (they had 0 in OT). Carey was beaten twice, but I can't fault his style on either as he was there. The team looked comfortable in front of him, but more importantly he looked comfortable in his net as he picked up a 2nd straight win.



Eye-Openers
In this new section we are going to try and shed some light on certain plays or events that would otherwise go unnoticed

Are you still haunted by Bill Lindsay taking a defensive zone draw in the 2002 playoffs for the Habs? I am. Tonight we had a similar situation as in OT Tampa had won an offensive (our defensive) zone face-off. Gainey, realizing the importance of the extra point - after seeing that Florida had won their game - played this one very careful, but very smartly. He looked down his bench and decided to send out 2 centres. He didn't go with the 2 best face-off men on the night (Lapierre and Metropolit - Alou would say they were due for a loss anyway), but instead he went for his 2 worst. Saku, however, is the best Hab on the season and is top-20 league-wide. He knew the importance of winning the draw (even if there was a false-start), but of also controlling the play in the offensive zone. By putting on two of his top-6 forwards (top-4 really with Andrei out) he was icing a very potent duo to counter Vinny and Marty. The two rewarded Bob for his foresight with a big face-off win and a great give and go that was the foundation for the goal. I like the play because it is cautious, but also because he didn't concede the flow of play to Tampa's top guns, instead he countered with two of his best - and it paid off.


Overall Comments

The Habs started the game very strong in what looked like a continuation of Tuesday night's effort. They got right on top of Tampa in the first period and it paid its dividends. Within minutes we had had a few quality chances, had gotten the crowd behind us and had kept all Lightning players over 100' away from Price. The hard work paid off over and over again with Tampa penalty upon Tampa penalty. Our 4th line proved their worth as each of the three players drew a penalty to let our big boys go to work. The rest of the first period and the whole second period went this way. The main problem, however, was that we only were able to take a one goal lead. I have seen too many examples of a team (us) failing to capitalize on their chances and eventually letting a game they should have won slip away. Guillaume didn't like the idea of a 1-0 lead and with his goal did his best to ensure the 2 points. The Lightning didn't give up though and within minutes the game was tied. A nervous group of Habs played the last 5 minutes not for the win, but for OT. It was obvious we were scared of Tampa scoring a third as we started playing 'defensively'. This style of play does not suit the Habs and the game (and all points) was almost lost then and there. OT, however, was a different story as we, knowing we had at least 1 point, looked more comfortable. We went back to attacking and came very close a couple of times before seeing the winner take two bounces then ending up in the back of the net. This is a game we should've won and is something we can celebrate...until the morning. We have a very important game against Buffalo on Saturday night, so there is no more looking back.

The Reluctant Checkers

"I'm just trying to do exactly what they want. I'm becoming a checker," he said with obvious displeasure after Monday's practice. "We're just doing what we have to do to win games. I'm not complaining. It's important to win the games. I just don't feel as important as I did before when they were riding me. I don't feel they use me as much as they did before. If they don't give me the confidence or trust me, I will never be playing the way I was before, the way they want.


Who said it?

Could have been anyone.

Could have been Andrei Kostitsyn after Bob Gainey decided that 7 games without a goal (for a guy whose career best pace gives him a average of 3 games drought between goals) means he must transform from poacher to digger.

Could have been Sidney Crosby as he tried to play the trap Michel Therrien so cleverly decided upon the trap as his strategy (probably since he didn't have any supremely talented scorers on his squad).

Could have Alexei Kovalev as he turned in some of the best defensive efforts for a forward under Guy Carbonneau.

Could have been anyone to play for Jacques Lemaire (even Guy Guy Guy Lafleur). Marian Gaborik?


It is an insight into how some players' views on hockey (particularly those that feel what they can offer does not originate from a dump and chase) can differ drastically from coaches' views.

Hockey is a team game, yes. But not all components of a team have been selected and brought in to get the job of winning done in the same way. When a GM signs a scoring winger for $6 million a year, it is understandable that said GM would be upset if coach X uses the winger like he would use, say, Trent Klatt. It is understandable that said winger might be a bit perplexed too. When a team is evaluated on the eve of the playoffs and the overriding concern is lack of scoring, does it then seem to make sense to turn the only players who might score into third line troopers?

The key phrase from the quote for me comes at the end (when he clearly starts complaining, a mere two sentences after saying he wasn't complaining):
"I will never be playing the way I was before, the way they want"

Good coaches understand this. Good coaches understand the value of playing a player the way they like to play and the way they were expected to play in October. Good coaches try to maximise their assets. Ultimately, you can win a Stanley Cup when you convert your Steve Yzerman into a shadow, but not if you don't have a Sergei Fedorov.


As it happens, the quote comes from Ales Hemsky, not one of ours. Ales, who some guy in the video below once said some nice things about:



What does he know?

And will the Oilers make the playoffs? Not sure. But take Hemsky out of the scoring equation, and I don't think San Jose will be upset about it.


Just a reflection. Let's see how this Kostitsyn thing goes...

It's All Relative

George Gillett's in a huff because the media are focused on him these days. We all know the story of his asset review at the moment, we all know about his big loan up for renewal. But George is being as adamant as he can be about his intentions to sell (undecided) and the state of his businesses:
"The businesses are all in excellent shape financially, they all are healthy, they've got strong incomes and relatively small debt in this difficult world," Gillett said.


Why shouldn't we believe that? After all, as we can see, George Gillett has the stature of an NHL player. It's all relative as they say.

I think to understand Gillett's statement, one needs to spend a minute in the man's shoes. How else could someone state that one club with an estimated $510 million in debt and another with and estimated $240 million in debt have relatively small debts in this difficult world.

I am well aware that many businesses are run in this way. But a lot of things we knew to be certain about business have changed in the past few months, haven't they? Isn't it true that banks used to be able to take risk so long as they could sell it along to other banks and gamblers? I think this practice is now seriously in question. Is it not fathomable then, in a financial environment where banks' purse strings are tight as they've been in a while, that running a business on more than 2/3 debt might be going out of fashion. Don't tell me you don't think so too, George. If you didn't, BMO would be looking to help another billionaire come multimillionaire.

To be fair, one can see where the rosy picture of the Canadiens comes from. In relation to his other assets a team with 72% debt and an operating profit (albeit shrinking thanks to currency markets) is a gem. In total, George has been taking a hit if you trust the estimates. According to this article, George Gillett had a net worth of $1.1 billion in November 2007. Whereas this new list from January of this year shows his dramatic fall from grace to £300 million (or $435 million in USD). Not a good year.


Canadiens (Gillett's) debt can hurt them (him as Habs owner)

I find it hard to fathom that in all the articles I read about the Canadiens value (from Forbes) that no one bothers to mention the Canadiens debt load (also from Forbes). Because of this debt, the Canadiens owner must earn more money than, say, Mike Ilitch in Detroit (who has no debt) in order to service his interest payments.

If revenue goes down across the league – Detroit suffers because they might have to get a loan, but Montreal suffers more because their owner (already in debt) runs closer to the line. This is the kind of situation where owners start sapping profits to make sure they don't default on payments. This is the situation fans in Liverpool have been complaining about for a while.

I'm not saying Montreal is going to fold. I am merely suggesting that despite the operating profit that we all hear about, the Canadiens might not be a good enough investment for Gillett to hang onto at the moment – hence the portfolio review.

In terms of the way this bad news can hurt the performance of the team – I'd think that's minimal. Compared to the bombshells of the weeks before this one was tame. Last season, this would have been the Canadiens bombshell of the year, this year it's almost good news.

It's all relative. Aren't you glad?

Canadiens Night Off Playoff Musings

Thank you, Maxim Afinogenov...

During this whole losing streak, the Canadiens have done more to solidify their playoff standing by watching rivals' games on TV than by gaining points themselves.

Two important things seemed to have happened:

1) The Ottawa Senators got delusional
2) Teams 4-7 (directly ahead of us) became impossible to beat

As a result, teams 9 and 10 (those we are most concerned with) have found livelier opponents than they may have been expecting and have lost a fair number of games the past fortnight.


Delusions of grandeur

Both the Ottawa senators and the Toronto Maple Leafs have turned around their seasons recently. Strangely, February 7th was a turning point for both teams. Going into games that evening, Ottawa had 42 points after 50 games and Toronto was slightly better with 45 points after 52 contests.

Toronto have played well of late (despite shipping most of the players we might have called their best at the deadline). They have gone from favourite to land a top 5 pick to favourite to continue their painful rebuilding effort with a 12th overall choice with a 13-5-4 record over their last 22. They might have been a factor for the Canadiens, except that they have only hurt us – beating us once and losing at every opportunity to Buffalo and Florida.

Ottawa on the other hand have been kind in every way. They have trounced Buffalo in the 4 past meetings allowing them only a single point. And they have beaten every other playoff rival at least once. Their one slip was not letting us beat them twice in our 2 games. Since February 7th, Ottawa are a gaudy 15-6-2.

The difference they have made to the playoff is clear; but while Toronto seem to largely have done all they have done by accident, Ottawa has been deliberately targeting a playoff berth. Fair play to them, it says a lot about their sportsmanship and faith in themselves. However, it does not say much about their grasp of simple arithmetic or indeed of probabilities.

You see, on February 7th, when their hope grew into delusion, Ottawa would have needed to amass 50 points from their remaining 32 games to make the modest and generous playoff cutoff of 92 points. To do that they would have needed a record of 25-7-0 (or if they like to lose in OT something like 23-5-4). Perhaps not impossible for the San Jose Sharks, but the Ottawa Senators were clipping at less than a point pr game to that stage. Not only that, but in order to make the playoffs with such a low point total they would have to also wish for some monumental collapses from all the right teams.

Well, Ottawa got their collapses from Florida and Montreal, but despite this and their great play, they would need to win all their remaining games to make 92 points now. The painful part of the delusional ways is that they are now firmly planted in the middle with a shred of playoff hope and the thinnest hope of participation in that draft lottery.

Still, thanks Ottawa, you sure have helped your neighbours down the 417 a whole bunch by repetitively kicking the Sabres...


The Atlantic 3 and Carolina


The Flyers are 6-4-0 in their last 10 and and 12-6-1 in their last 19.
The Penguins are 7-1-2 in their last 10 and 11-1-2 in their last 14.
The Rangers are 7-3-0 in the last 10 and 8-3-0 in their last 11.
And, the Hurricanes are 7-1-2 in their last 10 and 9-1-2 in their last 12.

All this has meant the Habs have been distanced from their former homes at 4th and 5th, but in winning so thoroughly, these teams have been keeping precious points away from teams that could encroach on 8th. Buffalo has gone 1-5-1 against these teams and Florida has gone 1-1-2. Critically, Buffalo has kept Florida in check also (else they might have felt good about their 1-1-2) by beating them twice themselves in regulation.


Last night

Last night was a perfect example of how scoreboard watching can go well. Buffalo, as I mentioned, beat Florida and Carolina beat Ottawa.

The implications of the two games both played in the Habs favour. For one thing, Ottawa is out, all but mathematically. They received the blow late from Carolina, but only after all their hard work in crushing Buffalo for the past two months. The other game keeps the battle for ninth hot, but gives the Canadiens room for maneuver. With a game in hand on Florida, 2 points lead and the tie-break, the Habs are in good shape. If the Habs win 7 of 9, there is nothing that can keep them out of the playoffs. In order to beat us out, Buffalo has to go 2-0-1 better than we do and Florida must get at least 3 more points than us in 1 less game.

There's still work to do, obviously, and the Canadiens must climb over 90 points by a decent margin. There's no room for sub-500 stuff here. But if we have a modest 5-4-0 run, Florida will have to be incredible (6-1-1), Buffalo too (7-2-1), and Toronto and Ottawa will be outside looking in.

I don't think it's a stretch to say that the past two days have been two of the brighter ones in 2009 for the Canadiens.

To 7 wins! Go Habs Go!

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Game #73

The Comibination We Never Tried - Our 3 Best Players - Pays Dividends

The Canadiens Game in Review

Date: Tuesday March 24th, 2009
Opponent: Atlanta Thrashers
Venue: Bell Centre, Montreal, QC

Team Stripes

Final Score: 6-3 - Win

Habs starting goalie: Carey Price (W)
Opposition starting goalie: Kari Lehtonen (L)

Habs goalscorers: Alex Tanguay (2), Glen Metropolit, Alexei Kovalev (2), Saku Koivu
Opposition goalscorers: Joseph Crabb, Ilya Kovalchuk, Zach Bogosian



Play of the game
The play you're straining to see on the press catwalk monitor...

This play will go down as a serious candidate for the Habs goal of the year. A very nice pass to open space by Kovalev started it all off and then it was all Tanguay. Alex took control of the puck near the blue-line and made 2 very good moves to get around a flat-footed Ron Hainsey. It was then Lehtonen's turn to be undressed as the stickhandling continued. He finished it off by sliding the puck off Kari's pads ever so subtly.



Game puck
Trophies are for the end of the year, play well in the game, you get a lovely puck...

Alex Tanguay
What a game for Alex! He scored 2 goals and assisted on 3 others for a whopping 5 points. He looked very comfortable playing with Kovalev and Koivu as the 3 players seemed to click right from the start of the game. Tonight's Tanguay was the one we saw in October and, although we have seen glimpses recently, it is great to have him back. What I liked the most about his play was the puck movement and the vision. At heart I believe he is a play-maker who sees the ice like few others, but he obviously has great hands and can score too.



Dome hockey team
We're going into the last minute with these 6 (and they're attached to the ice, so they're not coming off)...

Forwards

Alexei Kovalev
On any other night Alex's performance would have been game-puck worthy. Tonight, however (and thankfully for us) he was one-upped by Tangs. Kovalev, for his part, also scored 2 goals and added an assist. Aside from that he had two other glorious opportunities (one of which rang off the iron) and drew at least 2 penalties. This is the type of big-game performance I expected from him and the type we will need from now until golf-season (whenever that may be).

Saku Koivu
Let's not forget the third man of a very impressive trio as Koivu too had a great game. 3 points (1 goal and 2 assists) matches a season-high he set on October 11th against the Leafs. The skipper now has his two best linemates of the season (no offence to D'Agostini and Higgins) and you could see the energy and enthusiasm in his play. I thought Gainey used him wisely tonight as he was finally brought back onto the PK. He was on the ice for 5 of our goals and none of theirs.

Alex Tanguay
For some reason people in Quebec haven't embraced Tanguay as the French superstar they have been longing for. I, for one, can't understand it as he is clearly a star and is our best French-born player (non-goalie) in years. He adds such a great element to our team when you consider the other weapons we also have up front. I hope this line sticks together even if they don't produce in every game as I saw more chemistry from those 3 than I have from any other trio in quite a few games.

Defencemen

Andrei Markov
We scored 3 PP goals in the second period and it, therefore, comes as no surprise that Markov was very involved tonight. In all he picked up another 3 assists to give him 48 on the year. He was on the ice for 4 of our goals and none against. Markov and Komi formed our best duo tonight as they both played a very solid defensive game. I was happy we only conceded 25 shots to Atlanta which is where it should be on a nightly basis. Andrei has been our best defenceman (by far) in both ends all season; tonight it was nice to see some others following his lead.

Roman Hamrlik
Komi played better tonight, but still took 2 penalties, and I liked what Josh and Mat did, but the stand-out amongst the rest was Hammer for me. He finally played like the #2 we so desperately need him to be. He didn't get in on the scoring parade, but did do some nice work on the second wave of the PP. In all he played over 23 minutes which included over 5 minutes on the PK.

Goaltender

Carey Price
The game started well for Carey as I noticed he was very active in his net. His head was in constant motion and he was challenging shooters at the top of his crease. The body language for me said he was confident. I can't say I was too impressed with his play, or style, on either of the first 2 goals, but he didn't let it bog him down for the remainder of the game. Letting in 3 goals is risky behind this team of hot/cold scorers, but he never put us in a position where we were playing catch-up. So, by always keep the game at least tied he gave us the chance we needed to win. I hope that he can build on this and I also hope that the offence can once again go about their work to make Carey's job a little easier.



Eye-Openers
In this new section we are going to try and shed some light on certain plays or events that would otherwise go unnoticed

We saw the value of Power-Plays tonight and not just because we scored on them, but because they disrupt the other team's flow. Too many times over the past few weeks have I sat and watched as the Habs shoot themselves in the foot by taking a bad penalty. Not only do the chances of an ensuing goal increase, but it basically saps all the energy out of the team. It doesn't tend to be just 2 minutes and then back to normal, often the effects can last for many minutes. In fact, it often takes a penalty to the other team before the momentum is shifted. This of course isn't the case with all teams, it is, however, the case with the Habs. You can see, therefore, the importance of avoiding successive penalties and the advantage of having a few PP's of your own in a row. Tonight our 4 straight PP's in the second led to 3 goals and a period owned by us (for a change). It effectively took Atlanta right out of a game that they were doing well in (2-2 and only having conceded 5 shots to that point). So, to me the most important thing isn't scoring on the PP (although that of course helps), but it is drawing penalties. A team that is skating hard and pressuring the other team will often get the calls in their favour. The importance, therefore, of a sustained effort from all players, at all times, is paramount to our success. My favorite penalty-draw tonight was when Lehtonen shot the puck over the glass. It was Sergei Kostitsyn who forced him to make this mistake with some very intense fore-checking. This, and other similar plays, are what the Habs have been missing of late and it all of course stems from effort, emotion and energy.


Overall Comments

We needed 2 points and it didn't matter how we got them. The way we did win that game, however, was quite encouraging. On one hand it is only Atlanta and you could also say that we were due for a win. On the other you could note that Atlanta has been decent of late and has owned us twice this calendar year. It is a win, it is 2 points, but 83 points won't get us into the playoffs - we must continue. The most positive thing about this game, however, is how we won. We never trailed, we scored 6 goals, our PP was working and we have gotten our stars clicking by finally trying the Ottawa approach of putting your 3 best weapons together. We played a decent defensive game allowing only 25 shots. I should point out though that we gave the puck up 19 times, Atlanta did it 3 times. Tonight was an example of how you can get away with some (a lot) of mistakes when you are scoring and when you are playing against a team that is nether great nor really trying. That approach won't, however, work against teams like Buffalo and Chicago who are more talented and have more incentive right now. At the end of the day I liked how we played tonight, but mostly only in relation to how we have been playing. This game wouldn't look so great had it come in December, but now I think every one's expectations are way lower now. So, I can only hope that we can build on this and that we can take the positives out of this one and remember them for the rest of the season. I think that Gainey gave us a very good look at the team he expects to use from now until the end of the year. I doubt we'll see much of D'Agostini or O'Byrne and think that Price will be given every chance in the world, at any cost. The only relief to come is Bouillon, who will be a very welcome replacement of Brisebois, and Lang if we get to the 2nd round and beyond. I say, leave the lines as is and work with this group, they showed tonight that they are capable, so I say no more excuses from them.

Habs Should Give Up?

Why, We're Having Our Playoffs Early

The Canadiens fans are growing weary. It seems that everyone has forgotten just how long 82 games is. Many of our number seemed to be coming in Leaf (it is spring) and are calling for the TNT. I heartily disagree with them.

The reason: the team is still alive. Their situation has greatly suffered of late, sure. There have been ugly losses. But giving up on the season makes little sense. I feel the arguments from the other side are hollow and clutching at straws, like this via Mike Boone:
A postgame rant from the pressbox a few games ago:

"I hope they don't make the playoffs. That way, they can spend the off-season cleaning house and getting their s--- together.

"If they make the playoffs, that will just camouflage everything that's wrong. Maybe they'll win a couple games or fluke off a round and everyone will say 'Great! This team is on the right track.'"

No, the ranter wasn't me. It was a veteran beat reporter who has seen the Canadiens rise and fall through many more games than I.

Hope the team doesn't make the playoffs? Clean house and get their s--- in order?

The outlook is as knee-jerk as they come. And I don't care how many games this reporter has seen the Canadiens rise and fall through. My main question to him would be: "What do you expect Gainey will be able to in the off-season that he wouldn't be able to do if they made the playoffs?"


Nonsense

In my mind, there's absolutely no added benefit from missing the playoffs. None.

Nothing is preventing the team from making the identical changes they would make come a playoff exit as they would in the event they don't make the playoffs. Would the public outcry be harsher? I'm not sure – out in the spring is out in the spring to this and many fans. The only thing that has the power to gloss over Habs fans demands are Stanley Cups, not second round charades in Philadelphia. The season will not be forgotten, and a playoff round lost will only accentuate any feelings.

The only time it does make sense to lose is when you are going to do it properly and get the rewards of a sure thing draft pick like Tavares or Hedman. However, thanks to the pitiful efforts from Long Island, Phoenix and Atlanta (yet again), it's too late for that. In our situation, picking 20th is not going to be that different to picking 13th, I'm afraid. Deep drafts are the stuff of mythology. Guaranteed goods beyond pick 3, let alone pick 12, don't happen, ask Benoit Pouliot and Gilbert Brule.

Losing more now, besides placating the "guru" quoted above, would achieve nothing at all. It angers me that someone would utter the words, even more so that he be revered for it.


This year's chances in context

Personally, I think this year's team will have better chances than any team we can assemble for next year, or probably even a few years. Sure, the team has slumped hard since mid-January, but if we let Tanguay, Kovalev and Schneider go, who does reporter A see coming in to replace these guys?

Our rookies don't have a 20-goal man among them (maybe Pacioretty one day in the distant future), much less a Kovalev or a Tanguay. Our defencemen are regressing, will they be better than Schneider in a season?

What's more, we're not the only team to bid in this year's UFA market. The Islanders (armed with the additional jewel that is Tavares or Hedman) will also have almost all their space to play with. Other teams like Toronto, Ottawa and others will all be there to play with money. Going into July 1 in hope of coming out with one useful piece is bad enough, to think you'll replace 3 or 4 is far too optimistic for the perennial bridesmaids in Montreal. Last time I checked we had Hamrlik, not Rafalski or Timonen; Lang, not Hossa.


Think of the season like a game

I find that this approach helps. To win the "game", a team must place in the top 8 in their conference, nothing more, nothing less.

Yes, it is disappointing that we all thought we'd be taking a few games off watching this team by now, singing some "Na, na, na, nas", but the game is not over. In this analogy, we blew the 4-0 lead we had coming out of the first, but we are still tied going into the last 5 minutes of the third. Perhaps it is a miracle that we are tied, perhaps there have been a few posts or wrongly disallowed goals, but a draw it is. No one complains about saves from the posts after a win.


The really funny thing is, just like a game, this is exactly the type of drama we all really crave. The scoreboard watching. The meaningful games. This is edge of the seat stuff. Everyone's favourite moment of last season was the 6-5 comeback. Everyone's favourite playoff series of late the 3-1 series turnaround. Nobody is harping on about the 5 goals we gave away to the Rangers cheaply or the 3 games we could have competed better for in 2004. And, let's face it, for this year the jubilation of clinching in game 82 will be a long-awaited OT-winner compared to the empty netter to go up 3-0 that the Bruins just scored with their clinch.

In my mind, the goal for this team hasn't changed: get into the playoffs. We'll worry about the rest later.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Why Are The Boston Bruins Where We Want To Be?

As things currently stand, the Boston Bruins have clinched a playoff position and the division title, while our Canadiens battle for 8th. With the progress we made last season, one could be forgiven for thinking that the league mixed up the teams. Alas, the Bruins have overtaken us (for now) in their progression and throw another obstacle in the way of Bob Gainey's 5- (going on 8-) year plan.

Why is this? How did it happen?

The answer is fairly straightforward – through a combination of hard work, good decisions and lucky gambles, rookie Peter Chiarelli has outperformed our supposed ace GM. I've subdivided his victories over Gainey below:

Eyes on the play – Blake Wheeler

The Bruins made one of the best signings behind the Hossa deal on July 1st last season. Signing one of the youngest UFAs on the menu did not look like much at the time, but it has provided the Bruins with the +/- leader for the NHL. The Bruins met Wheeler's demands for a big contract by loading him up with bonuses. Of course, they'll probably have to pay those now, but I doubt Chiarelli will be complaining.

The Bruins were on the ball with this move, as it was a low-risk, high-reward maneuver. It has made a massive difference to their team this year, since Wheeler was great to start and has good chemistry with Krejci and Ryder.

When was the last time the Canadiens grabbed such a young player like this for free? I think the answer goes back a long way if you leave out Brock Trotter. The Red Wings picked up Ville Leino for free last season too. When you look at our young forwards coming through, the question about Wheelers and Leinos is certainly a pertinent one.


Don't mind the depths – Phil Kessel

The Bruins were absolutely terrible in 2005-06 following the Joe Thornton trade, losing an astonishing 53 games in all. Their reward, of course, for their futility was a place in the draft lottery. While it didn't pay off with a lucky first overall draw, they still had a top 5 pick in what looks in retrospect like a good crop.

The Bruins don't plumb the depths very often, but every so often they do. Unlike their middling Northeast rivals Montreal and Toronto, Boston has been able to survive as a franchise and get top 5 picks. The last time Montreal picked so highly with a pick of their own was, well, never (Price was a lottery win).

If you're missing the playoffs anyway, a high draft pick is another free way to improve greatly. Push for tenth and you get the 12th pick, a la Montreal/Toronto. It is possible to trade for those top picks, but the days where GMs are total buffoons trading with Sam Pollock are long gone – the price of a first from a bottom team is steep.
To say that gunning for the top draft picks is a proven strategy for rebuilding in the NHL would be an understatement – just ask Pittsburgh, Washington and Colorado. Thus it is no surprise that it has paid off for a team like the Bruins once again.


Trade return – Brad Boyes and Paul Mara

When the Bruins scammed Brad Boyes off the Sharks for Jeff Jillson in 2004, the Bruins probably thought they were putting a building block in place for the future. The first season after the lockout, their move looked genius as Boyes was clicking with Patrice Bergeron and becoming one of the best young scorers in the game.

The next year it was sophomore slump time for Brad and the Bruins were playing poorly as a team. Trade deadline 2007 came and had the Bruins looking to trade their young scoring star. In what could have been another steal in a long line of Brad Boyes trades, was made palatable for the Bruins as they picked up their now number two defenceman, Dennis Wideman.

That same trade deadline, the Bruins (anticipating Wideman's role on the team) opted to unload underperforming Paul Mara. Instead of picking up a measly second rounder or something from the Rangers, they instead picked up an upgrade on defence with three time Cup finalist (2-time winner) Aaron Ward coming back the other way. Ward, from my assessment of the team vs. the Habs is a key defensive stalwart for the Bruins.

Think of similar opportunities with the Canadiens and you may come up with Rivet for Gorges. there are many more in the loss or lost opportunity column. Souray could have been traded but wasn't. Huet was traded for less than his value. Ribeiro was traded as a cast-off in what looks like an awful waste. Gainey's trades haven't been bad by any standards, but in being conservative all the time as he is, he misses on the big jump that winning a trade big can bring.


Goaltending – Tuukka Rask and Tim Thomas

Tuukka Rask was the number one rated goalie in the 2005 draft. He was taken 21st overall by the Toronto Maple Leafs. The Boston Bruins were lucky enough to acquire Rask as part of another JFJ special – Rask for Raycroft.

Tim Thomas bears little similarity to Rask in career path, prospect status in his youth, style or size. In fact, whereas Rask was touted, Thomas was written off completely. This season, Tim Thomas will win the Vezina trophy. He leads the league in GAA and Save%, has over 30 wins and 4 shutouts.

In addition to a top prospect and an all-star goalie, the Bruins have also chosen to carry a very expensive, yet effective back-up in Manny Fernandez. Though they probably had more reason to trade Fernandez for a second rounder than the Canadiens did to trade Huet, they chose to hold him – presumably because they want to take this chance while it is here.

The way the Bruins are managing 3 goalies as good or better than the Canadiens 2 goalies is interesting. For one thing, they seem to have learned the Price lesson already after a series of burnout goalie prospects like Raycroft and Toivonen. For another, it seems like they crave insurance at the back, almost knowing that goalies can go cold at times for seemingly little reason at all.

This strategy is certainly working well for them this season. And though the forward-looking among us might prefer to write off a season and develop a super-goalie at the top level through trial by fire; Boston seems to accept that playoff success is a tricky business and throwing away one year in the hope of 5 good ones in the future is not a plan they favour.

Here, Montreal has gambled and gone the other way. The problem is Gainey's planning vis-a-vis goalies does not coincide with his planning for other positions – scorers, for example. What's more, our team chose to fly in the face of a good situation one year by writing the playoffs off for a tutoring session. I don't know which technique will ultimately pay the most dividends (I suppose we'll need to count Cups in 20 years), but this piece does not try to answer that – only why Boston is 20-odd points clear of us now.


So, are the Bruins the better team?

Right now, yes. Going forward, probably.


Are these Montreal Canadiens that much worse than the Bruins?

The answer is probably a "no".


In fact, the whole reality to this answer is very clouded, I think. Sometimes, I feel the standings make you look better than you are (such as Montreal 2008 and Boston 2009), they may also make you look worse.

It is also difficult when you judge a team by results alone. I have watched the Canadiens 72 times this season – they have won games they should have lost, lost games they should have won and had many scores misrepresent their actual play. I have not watched the Bruins except for a handful of occasions, but I wouldn't expect their run to be any different. I don't think that any assessment I offer of the Bruins beyond the basics presented here could stand up to our assessment of the Habs.

If I'm to take a rather more positive stance on the Canadiens situation, I could say that I think the Bruins might have had a bit more luck on their side. Call it what you will, but the Bruins have a 10.9% shooting percentage, and it was even higher during the early months of the season. Their "good" players were those whose shots seemingly never missed (like Krejci). The Canadiens have a 9.6% shot accuracy. Our let-downs are players whose shots have been saved.

I bring this up because the Canadiens were the Bruins of 2008 – they snuck a few wins by everyone with some luck and good timing. However, when their timing ran out (in the playoffs). In the regular season, our shooting was a whopping 10.8%, but in the playoffs scoring dried up as we shot at the goalie nearly 92% of the time. The Canadiens made good teams look bad in the regular season and those same good teams look great a few months later in the playoffs.


The answer (and this text) may be rewritten in a month...


It's all in the complicated game of building a team in this ridiculously long competition. Once the rules are changed to suit the Western style of play in a few weeks, you can throw regular season stars out the window. Michael Ryder's 25 goals will most likely become a footnote on another playoff series in which he struggles to contribute. The Ottawa management hand a clear handle on how to dominate the 6 months of meaningless stuff, but only latterly got a grasp on adjustments to be made to get past Toronto.

That s why they say you need to make the dance (or Laraque did anyway). Players who float in and out in the regular season can be activated by simple utterance of the word playoff (we know of one), whereas Boston knows as well as anyone that regular season phenoms can wilt just the same.

The fact is, the Boston Bruins are where we wanted to be in March/April and that is in the playoffs. But this Canadiens team can still get there too. If that is the case, us Habs fans are exactly where we wanted to be too, if only waiting for Game 3 to express our adulation in person.

Controversy Of The Week

Canadiens Possibly Up For Sale

We took a week off the off-ice controversies after 3 solid soap-opera plots, but we're back in business.

According to the Globe and Mail (via La Presse), the Montreal Canadiens may be put up for sale by American owner and perennial worldwide debt leaderboard member:
“BMO Capital Markets has been retained to evaluate all the possible financial strategies involving the Gillett family's interests in Montreal (which include the Bell Centre and Gillett Entertainment Group),” Habs president Pierre Boivin told La Presse, which reported speculation of a sale in today's editions. “We could be talking about re-capitalization, restructuring of debt, new investors, or even an outright sale. The process is under way, but we are still at the beginning of it.”


This all sounds very familiar, as there have been stories about Gillett's intentions for the team already this season.

In December, I commented on the story and highlighted the fact it could be true, precisely because Gillett is known to this Liverpool FC fan to be a slippery character. But as I said in December, the biggest reason for concern is not Gillett's character, but the way he runs his businesses – that is on the edge with a huge debt load.

In December, George denied the rumours (of course, he's denied the Dubai bids for Liverpool in the past too). But there's a saying isn't there: "Where there's smoke, there's fire."

In case anyone has been so immersed in hockey that they haven't noticed, running businesses on a massive operational deficit is not really working out for many people these days. Since the banks went under in the US and the UK, borrowing has dried up and rates for borrowers have been tightened. With Liverpool FC in astronomical debt and no buyer, it is not inconceivable that Gillett would dangle the Canadiens and their $240 million debt to help his own personal portfolio out from under a bit.

Last year I asked: Can people like Gillett continue to operate businesses as they always did without any consequences?

We may be about to get our answer.


What does this mean for the Canadiens?

That's a hard question to answer, especially for someone with such limited understanding of the ins and outs of big business deals.

However, you can be sure that if the Canadiens ownership is under review, it is not the coin-minting machine we all assumed it was. One reason must surely be the burden of the interest on Gillett's debt which could be crippling to the owner, if not the team. It certainly does not auger well for the team (a best case is a neutral outcome). It does not auger well at all for the league either, if a franchise with sell-out after sell-out and 24-hour TV coverage can be a loser.

This spring fans have been calling widely for a retooling, presumably through the free agent market (unless they fancy a Maxwell and Ryan White on the top lines). One has to wonder what a team stretching to pay interest on a league-high debt will behave like at the moment of truth. Big offers for many big stars? You'd have to be skeptical. A trigger-shy Gillett on July 1 could lead to another year of bridesmaid signings and another year of watching the teams who beat us that day, beat us later on in the year.

As for the rest of this season – will it be a distraction? I tend to believe this is quite minor compared to all the other distractions.

It is out of the players control and could hardly make them any worse than they have been. Will it hinder any rebound? If it does stop players from playing for their pride and championship aspirations, then that off-season retooling, big purse or not, probably can't come soon enough...

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Game #72

The Embarrassment Continues; When Will it End?

The Canadiens Game in Review

Date: Saturday March 21st, 2009
Opponent: Toronto Maple Leafs
Venue: Bell Centre, Montreal, QC

Team Stripes
Final Score: 2-5 - Loss

Habs starting goalie: Jaroslav Halak (L)
Opposition starting goalie: Martin Gerber (W)

Habs goalscorers: Maxim Lapierre (2)
Opposition goalscorers: Nikolai Kulemin, Mikhail Grabovski, Alexei Ponikarovsky (2), Jason Blake



Play of the game
The play you're straining to see on the press catwalk monitor...

Our second goal gave us life and gave the crowd something to cheer about. With 25 minutes of hockey to play we had brought ourselves back to within two. The play itself was a pretty simple play, the type of play that we are seeing far too little of from our forwards. Tanguay, after taking a pass from O'Byrne, was the one who really made this play. He stepped into the zone on the right and waited for Lapierre to be open on the left. Max took the pass very well and was able to beat Gerber with a very well-placed shot.



Game puck
Trophies are for the end of the year, play well in the game, you get a lovely puck...

Maxim Lapierre
Max played with heart and spirit all night long and was rewarded for his efforts with 2 goals. I liked how he skated and attacked the puck and the defence on each and every shift. At this stage of the year you would expect each and every player to have more good shifts than bad; tonight Max was pretty much the only one who could say that he did indeed do that.



Dome hockey team
We're going into the last minute with these 6 (and they're attached to the ice, so they're not coming off)...

Forwards

Saku Koivu
Saku came to life after the 2nd period line changes and actually went on to play some of his best type of hockey. He was trying hard on every shift and was winning most of his battles. He had a few chances (especially when he hit the post) that, had they been slightly better placed, could have made an enormous difference. He was 10-4 on face-offs.

Andrei Kostitsyn
Andrei looked very dangerous around the net tonight and in total had 3 shots, all of which were of quality. I am not concerned if he is the weakest defensive player on the ice for us, in fact I wish that were so. If our team was playing defence like we could very few people (even RDS) would be noticing a scoring-winger's defensive zone mistakes. Offensively he was on tonight and I hope it continues.

Maxim Lapierre
He took pretty much all of the energy that he had tonight and left it on the ice. Whether he was killing a penalty or chasing a defenceman with less than 2 minutes to go he was skating hard. He ended up taking 1/4 of all our shots as he registered 7 himself.

Defencemen

Josh Gorges
Josh was pretty strong in his own end tonight, actually he was one of our only competent D-men. He got very involved offensively which I liked as it was never at the expense of defence. I just wish someone could teach him 2 things: to put the puck on net and to shoot hard. I am pretty sure he is capable of these, after all he is in the NHL, but I have yet to see him do this as a Hab.

Mathieu Schneider
Markov wasn't great tonight, but neither were the rest of the bunch, thankfully Mat played semi-decently. He has had better games, but I really didn't notice anything wrong from him. The PP needs to get going, but I can at least report that he is doing his part - moving the puck well and taking good, hard shots on net.

Goaltender

Carey Price
With the team the way it is we really need a great goalie in order to get some wins. I was hoping that Jaro would be that guy tonight, but he wasn't. He didn't play horribly, but didn't play well either. The bottom line is that he didn't give us a shot as a 4-0 lead is always going to be enough against this version of the Habs. Carey likely wouldn't have done any better, but I would have been willing to find out, I mean the net result couldn't have been any worse.



Eye-Openers
In this new section we are going to try and shed some light on certain plays or events that would otherwise go unnoticed

I noticed this trend for pretty much the whole game. There was a 15-20 minute stretch where we outplayed Toronto, but for the most part they were all over us. What I noticed was that the Habs are always attacking from the corners and from behind the net. Toronto, however, (especially on their first two goals) attack on the counter and they do it with speed. We are dumping the puck in and are then chasing it down at a not-so fast pace. We remarkably do get possession quite a bit using this technique, but the problem is by the time we do the other team has 5 players in their own zone and we have nowhere to go. It takes speed right out of our game (our strength that we never use) and we are reduced to a pretty poor cycle which often leads to nothing. I feel this all has to do with confidence as a scared and cautious team will always take the easy route - that route is the dump-in, the lob pass or the coasting in the neutral zone. We must learn how to attack before the defence gets set, kind of like the way we scored goals until the playoffs last year.


Overall Comments

The first 30 minutes of this game were the worst I have seen from the Habs in a while. Defensively they were disorganized, they lacked drive up front and worst of all they simply weren't moving their feet. Toronto, on the other hand, was playing really well. It shouldn't really surprise me because if you forget the first half of the year we are one of the worst teams in the league, we should be going down in these games. Getting excited about playing teams that are lower than us in the standings is a thing of the past as we have become one of the most disjointed groups in the league. We went on, after the horrible start, to have some moments of brilliance and the ball really got rolling when Lapierre scored a brace. A late 2nd period PP gave us the chance to get right back in the game, but despite our best efforts we fell short. That PP was probably our best 2 minutes of hockey since Gainey took over as players like Markov, Kovalev and Schneider were absolutely dominant. Not scoring on that chance, however, was bad news, and add to that the fact that the Leafs added a fifth; it was then back to pretty poor play for the last little bit. This team showed tonight that they just aren't cohesive enough to make it happen when they need it to. We can have moments, but what team can't? Making the playoffs, at this rate, will be a stretch, succeeding in them, if we get there, is highly unlikely.

Friday, March 20, 2009

Game #71

Halak Shows How Wins Are Possible - With Saves

The Canadiens Game in Review

Date: Thursday March 19th, 2009
Opponent: Ottawa Senators
Venue: Scotiabank Place, Kanata, ON

Team Stripes

Score: 4 - 5 Loss

Habs starting goalie: Carey Price, Jaroslav Halak (L)
Opposition starting goalie: Brian Elliott (W)

Habs goalscorers: Guillaume Latendresse (2), Alex Tanguay, Tom Kostopoulos
Opposition goalscorers: Nick Foligno, Jason Spezza (2), Jarkko Ruutu, Daniel Alfredsson


Play of the game
The play you're straining to see on the press catwalk monitor...

Gainey made the play of the game tonight, it was, however, made too late in the game. He had the chance to make it before the game started, he then had chances to make it after our third goal and even after the 1st period, instead he waited till Ottawa scored 4. The play of course was pulling Price and putting in our best goalie, our best chance at a win. Since I have seen this film before I knew that after the second goal Price was done, there was no way we could win with him in nets. The 2 subsequent goals proved that he can be very consistent at certain things.


Game puck
Trophies are for the end of the year, play well in the game, you get a lovely puck...

Guillaume Latendresse
I have an idea - Gui is playing well, let's move him up to a top 2 line. Ha, that not only would be about the third time we had rewarded him this year in a similar way, but it would also likely be the third time he shuts down. Gui does very well on the 3rd line and if that works for him, then it works for me. He played with a lot of energy and heart and scored 2 very important goals. He once again proved how good of a scorer he can be when he gets the puck in the right spot. Put him in the slot, put the puck on his stick and give him a bit of space and I like his chances.


Dome hockey team
We're going into the last minute with these 6 (and they're attached to the ice, so they're not coming off)...

Forwards

Tom Kostopoulos
I quite liked the way Tom played tonight and to boot he added 3 points. 1 goal and 2 assists led the way for the Habs tonight who were happy to get some serious production from their often quiet players. He may not have had too much to do with any of these goals (a deflection being the highlight), but it was the way he played in the lead up that was encouraging. He is not afraid to fight hard for the puck and what he lacks in skill is often made up for by persistence.

Christopher Higgins
Chris had a few chances tonight, but was once again good at what are becoming his bread and butter: fore-checking and battling. I no longer think of Chris as a scorer, I don't think you do, I don't think the team does, but finally I don't think he does. Since about January he has realized he will likely never be a 40-goal man, so instead he has focused on other areas. Tonight he stood out in those areas and for that I am happy.

Guillaume Latendresse
Gui became our 10th 10-goal scorer which shows just how spread out our scoring has been. It probably explains why coaches (and media and fans) with little patience can't stand watching each player go between 60-70 games without scoring; hence the constant line changes. Gui was our best player tonight, but probably won't be on Saturday and that is really a huge trend with the Habs this season. When we realize that the only thing that matters are wins, and not personal stats, or how many goals our stars get, we may actually get some of them. Keep the players happy, keep them working and get goals from whoever. Tonight Gui played a great game, as did his linemates, but don't be too shocked if we don't see them on the scoresheet for a few.

Defencemen

Andrei Markov
How many pucks did Andrei keep in at the point tonight? He wasn't just keeping plays alive on the PP, but was doing it on a consistent basis at even-strength. It looks like Gainey finally saw what I (and everyone in the world) have been seeing from Komi - horrible play. The solution was Schneider was playing with Markov and Mike played only 16 minutes (his second lowest total of the year). Andrei was only on the ice for 2 goals tonight, both were against, but neither were anywhere near his fault.

Roman Hamrlik
Roman contributed with a big shot (assist) on our 4th goal, a goal that looked like the start of what was going to be a great comeback. The comeback was not to be, but that didn't stop Hammer from finishing the game very strong. He played a solid defensive game which included a solid play on Ruutu's goal - it was shot that should have been stopped. Hamrlik had taken Jarkko to the outside and given him nothing (on most goalies) to shoot at.

Goaltender

Jarsolav Halak
Price was quite bad tonight as he once again let up 4 goals. This time it was 4 on 15 shots; by 22 minutes he had given us a mountain to climb. Jaro came in 1 goal too late, I thought, but still gave us a serious chance to win. He let in 1 goal on 24 shots and made a save on a breakaway. The worst part, however, is that Halak took the official loss tonight, not Carey. Fuel for Carey supporters (Gainey), no doubt, at the end of the year when they compare the two keepers. They should have another column, a 'cost the Habs a game' stat, something to show this wasn't really Halak's loss. The bottom line is this; we are not a good enough team to go anywhere with Carey. He could probably win the cup with Detroit and we have even seen him do very well with good teams in front of him (Canada, Hamilton), but we also saw that he was no miracle worker in Junior (a bad - average team). Our only other option is Halak and we all know he can't do any worse. Can he make the playoffs for us, or better? Who knows, but I will say, for the 100th time, why not let him see how far he can take us?



Eye-Openers
In this new section we are going to try and shed some light on certain plays or events that would otherwise go unnoticed

There was a play in first period that was simple enough, but I think really sums up a lot for the Habs. The puck was sitting on the side of the net, by Price's feet, and he swept it, quickly, into the corner. Markov was right there, about to collect the puck before Carey had basically given it over to Ottawa. The turn-over led to over a minute extra in our zone and another 30-45 seconds after an icing. This play tells me a few things. When players rush things such as simple plays in their own end they are nervous, nervous players cannot win. The fast sweep was the equivalent to a soccer team kicking the ball out of play at all costs when it is in their end - it is desperation defence. It also says that there is very little trust between goaltender and defence and vice versa. This is a sad fact, especially considering the two players concerned were both All-Stars and we are in March. It was a simple play which was amplified into some serious chances against us. This play, unfortunately, was a just a snippet of what is happening in our own end on a much too consistent basis. Trust, Patience and Confidence apply to virtually every facet of life, including sports. And, like in life, you will never succeed in sport until you, and your teammates, posses all 3.


Overall Comments

Sadly I thought that the Habs played one of their best games, if not their absolute best, under Gainey. Whether Carey was derailed thanks to Tuesday's shootout or because of today's 1st couple of goals is neither here nor there as an NHL-starter cannot get hung up on previous mistakes. I felt that the team played quite well in front of their goalies tonight as 4 road goals is no small feat. We once again let up a lot of shots (39), but at least we were able to take 32. Ottawa allowed us to play the style we wanted which was an open, offensive style. Had Jaro been in the whole game I think that this would have been a big win. We were smart about penalties as we were only called for 2 minors, we lived without any unnecessary boxing matches (no fighters were dressed) and were really just interested in trying to score. We are at our best when we can skate fast and when we can get creative in the offensive zone. We are horrible at trying to be defensive and, when we do pull that off, it is our offence that tends to suffer. So, overall this was a positive game, I thought. The best thing that could come out of this is, of course, Halak gets more starts which will hopefully lead to the only thing that matters at all - wins.