Friday, April 30, 2010

Game #2-1

NHL's No-Rest Policy Costs The Habs

Details



Date: 30/04/10
Opponent: Penguins
Location: Pittsburgh

Loss: 3-6

Habs Goalie: Halak (L), Price
Opposition Goalie: Fleury (W)

Habs goalscorers: Subban Cammalleri, Gionta
Opposition goalscorers: Gonchar, Staal, Letang, Adams, Goligoski, Guerin



Play of the game


The play of the game all started with a nice little move by Malkin at our blue-line. That moved made Gionta's potential hip-check into an obvious trip and, with the diving police still in Washington, it meant a PP was coming the Pens' way. On that Power-Play we had the chance to impose our dominant PK, but, instead, I felt that one play would end up, for the worse, being the turning point of the game. It came when Pyatt's stick broke and he stayed there, useless, trying to kill. A team that is so good at 5-on-3 PK should be ready for this (it happens all the time), but, alas we weren't. I would make it a team policy that that player races to the bench either to sub or get a stick. The remaining 3 players would then play it as though it were a 5-on-3 for the 5-10 seconds that that player was gone. Instead, the Habs tried to play on for quite some time and stayed in their 5-on-4 configuration, despite being down two men. Pittsburgh exploited this and, at that point, took control of the game and of the series.



Dome hockey team

The 6 players we're playing in a no changes, do or die contest in the dome

Forwards

Scott Gomez
I am not a fan of the 2 penalties that Scott took, but was impressed with his 2 assists; the one on Cammalleri's goal in particular. While he wasn't taking penalties Gomez actually had a decent game in both ends, especially in the offensive zone. He has been better on the PK, but his 7 shots on net shows that he realizes that their goalie is as weak, if not weaker than Washington's.

Brian Gionta
I was waiting most of the last series for Gionta to step up and be a dominant player, but it never really came, not in long stints at least. Tonight, however, I saw signs that this may be more his type of series. Washington seemed to be a faster and more explosive team, whereas Pittsburgh is a bit grittier, a bit more North American. Whether that suits the Habs better is yet to be seen, but it at least seems like Gio likes it more. Like Scott he got into penalty trouble, but, also like his buddy, picked up 2 points.

Michael Cammalleri
It would seem that Mike's line (save him) missed the plane from Washington. That line, for the most part was only visible because of the missed chances and blunders. Mike's best moments actually came when he was on with other linemates, especially when he scored his goal; courtesy of Scott Gomez. His line will have to be better, but being worried that they won't seems like a childish reaction (Martin).

Defencemen

PK Subban- Game Puck

This kid is the real deal and he may have to be even more than that if Markov is gone for any length of time. Tonight he was very impressive as it seemed that every time he carried the puck up something good would come of it. He scored his first NHL goal early and that really set the tone. He seemed like the only player who didn't think that beating Washington had earned us a night off as he was playing with emotion, speed and grit. It may hurt Hamilton if we keep him up, but right now (Markov or not) can we afford not to?

Roman Hamrlik
I wouldn't go as far as saying that Hamrlik played an amazing game, but I will say that he played his best game of the playoffs. In my opinion he was certainly our second best D-Man and, who knows, that may have a lot to do with his new partners (O'Byrne, Subban). I thought that he was effective when he went up on the rush and was happy to see that he was only on for one goal against (the least of any Hab D-Man, other than Markov).

Goaltender

Carey Price
Poor old Jaro. He couldn't see much and when he could see the shots he looked like he was out of gas. Pulling him was the right move though, not because it was giving him a rest, but mostly because at that point him not in nets was our only chance to win. Price may have only faced 3 shots, but, believe it or not, that is the first game this year in which he has not let up at least a goal. I can't say he was spectacular as his dome-spot was secured after goal #5 anyway.


Comments


We started well, but then two incidents in the first threw us off and may have very negative implications as we move forward. First, Pyatt's stickless play on the PK may have taught the Pens that our killing isn't super-human after all. And, even worse, Markov going down could be the loss that we have feared, the loss that crippled us in last year's playoffs and this year's first half. The hit wasn't dirty, but when it comes from Matt Cooke you have to wonder if it was necessary. Hitting a team's best players at every opportunity clearly has its upsides, but you could see that the Habs, although presented with many chances, would not play that game. Maybe it is because we haven't had a player as dirty as Cooke in eons that I am forgetting what it is like, but, injury to Markov or not, I see no point for players like him in the league. From that point on the Habs looked lost - lost on the PK without him, lost on the PP without him and, of course, lost at ES without him. PK, who may not fully comprehend Marky's importance, seemed the least phased and may be the one player that can fill his skates the best. He did well tonight, but can he play to that level in every game?

The rest of the game seemed very odd to me. Kostitsyn was being punished for having some off moments. Even when we needed a goal Pyatt (who at his best offensively offers nothing to write home about) was being favoured. Pouliot, who has looked like our worst forward this playoffs even doubled Andrei in ice-time. All the line switches were weird to me as now is not the time to change something that is going so well. And, the oddest thing, was the spreading around of ice-time as though the players needed rest. I have news for you, Martin, if the players are tired now what are we going to do about playing 3 more games in the next 6 days? Never, ever, give up on a game, because you never know, this may have been our best chance at a win in the whole series.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Game #1-7

The Team Effort We've Always Wanted; Habs Win, Habs Win!

Details



Date: 28/04/10
Opponent: Capitals
Location: Washington

Win: 2-1

Habs Goalie: Halak (W)
Opposition Goalie: Varlamov (L)

Habs goalscorers: Bergeron, Moore
Opposition goalscorers: Laich



Play of the game


With 3:30 left and millions of fans wondering if 1-0 would be enough something very good happened for all of us. It started with a very good Hal Gill clearance that, instead of being whistled for icing, ended up being a winnable puck for the fast Max Lapierre. Max had just had a goal disallowed and I think we all know the type of warrior he can be when he is pissed off. Well, it was that emotion that fueled him as he barreled in on Mike (Norris?) Green and won the puck easily and fairly. Moore then flew in himself to pick up the loose puck and to head in alone on Varlamov. A perfectly placed shot on the far-side ended up being the winner; it was a goal that we apparently needed more than anything.



Dome hockey team

The 6 players we're playing in a no changes, do or die contest in the dome

Forwards

Scott Gomez
No forwards were used more than Gomez and Gionta tonight as their composure and experience went a long way in this one. Scott ended up taking 34 of the 65 face-offs in the game and did a formidable job by winning 50% of them. His defensive play was outstanding tonight and without it we wouldn't be moving on. His offensive play, limited, yes, was also good at times - especially when he made a beautiful pass to Bergeron on our first goal.

Maxim Lapierre
It baffles me that a lot of people didn't even think Max should be in the line up in these playoffs. It isn't, however, those peoples' opinions that trouble me, rather, it is the fact that Lapierre actually deserved those assertions. After this series, though, I think that it is clear that he is playing the best hockey of his season, quite possibly of his career. Towards the end of the game he truly stood out with an impressive 'assist' and a very courageous and timely shot-block in the dying minutes.

Dominic Moore
What a steal this move turned out to be for the Habs. For a second-round pick we found ourselves a played that could play a position that you only hope will one day be filled by a second-round pick of your own. And, we didn't have to wait 6 years to find out. Scoring the game-winner tonight, in game 7, in his first playoff series in which he had a significant role to play must be a highlight for him and it is most certainly good reward for all of the hard work he and his line did against the Caps. Tonight he kept up the good work that we have seen since his arrival on the eve of the Olympics as he was truly a force in his own end. I'm not surprised that his ice-time has creeped up to 15+ and hope that he is used in the same was as we go forward.

Defencemen

Hal Gill

Tonight was a clear example of what a farce the Norris trophy is. Why doesn't the league cancel the vote and just award it to highest scoring winger who calls himself a defenceman and get it over with. Hal Gill showed a lot of people what defence, real defence is tonight. He has gone from defensive-liability to quite possibly one of the best signings of Gainey's career in a matter of a few weeks. He was all over Ovechkin's line, again, and, once again, was coming up huge on shot-blocks. Obviously he is now a sung hero, but how about unexpected hero? Will that do?

Andrei Markov
Nothing against Gorges, who played a great game, but Markov, I thought, was so good tonight. He played with such poise in his own end as he made clearance after clearance, break-out pass after break-out pass look easy. He picked up an assist, led the Habs in ice-time and tied Gill for the team lead with six blocked-shots.

Goaltender

Jaroslav Halak - Game Puck

I thought that the defence did an awesome job, but let's face it, where would we have been without Jaro tonight. Their 42 shots were 3 times more than our total and when you consider the quality of their shooters the word 'steal' certainly comes to mind yet again. This game may not have been as jam-packed with highlight reel saves as Monday's, but when you remember that it is a game #7, on the road, against a team that topped you by 30+ points in the table, this may be the best performance of a Hab goalie since 1993.


Comments


Washington started this game as tentatively as we did as they knew very well that, thanks to our better goaltending, a Hab-lead could mean the end of their season. So, in the early going they weren't as lively as one would expect. They did control the flow of play, but it seemed like that was an easier period for Halak and the D than one would have expected. A late break led to a 1-0 lead for us and, so, we were off. Washington, however, came out in the second period to play and they kept that up for the remainder of the game. In all they out-shot us 31-8 over the final 40 minutes of their season, but only managed a 1-1 draw. That, of course, is thanks to the very hard work of Halak, our D and all of forwards, who all bought into the defensive system and did their best to shut down the machine. The refs tried their best to be even during those last 2 periods as both teams had a goal disallowed for goalie interference (was anyone at all shocked when they waved ours off???). Also, to make the PP-chances even, O'Byrne drew a very timely penalty (for the Caps) late in the third. It was, quite possibly, one of the weakest calls I had ever seen. You can't underestimate the power of TV revenues (OT) and of Ovechkin in the next round - the refs know that. The Habs, however, were up to the test as, once again, their PK, was beyond excellent. The game couldn't end soon enough as the palms couldn't stop sweating, but in the end we got what we came for.

It is now off to Pittsburgh for yet another huge test. The team must be on a high right now, but I really hope they understand what they have gotten themselves in to. The Pens are just as good, if not better, than the Caps and, so, we'll have to be better than we were. We won this series thanks to Halak and quite a bit of luck. No one can expect those two things to always line-up, so I think we must work harder. We have to go back to playing hockey in the offensive zone, we have to stop allowing 40+ shots and we have to believe that we too are a good team. Good enough to do it all again.

Monday, April 26, 2010

Game #1-6

Not Even The Refs Can Solve Halak

Details



Date: 26/04/10
Opponent: Capitals
Location: Montreal

Win: 2-1

Habs Goalie: Halak (W)
Opposition Goalie: Varlamov (L)

Habs goalscorers: Cammalleri (2), Lapierre, Plekanec
Opposition goalscorers: Fehr



Play of the game


Don't want to sound like a broken record, but I think we would all agree that the play of the game has to go to Halak. Now, there are just too many clutch plays to choose from tonight, so instead of deciding which save set us up the best for game 7 I decided to go out with the prettiest of all his saves. That save had to be the glove-save that he made on Joe Corvo. You know, the one that brought back memories of Roy's big glove-hand. Tonight Jaro may have put on the best single-game performance of any Hab since Roy himself as this series is now down to a one-game, sudden-death battle.



Dome hockey team

The 6 players we're playing in a no changes, do or die contest in the dome

Forwards

Michael Cammalleri
He set the tone this game with two goals in the first ten minutes. From then on he was certainly one of our best forwards as he was quick on the turn-over and creative in the offensive zone. His shot, which is incredible, isn't his only trick, however, as a great pass on Plekanec's empty-netter meant that we had at least two more days of winter left.

Maxim Lapierre
The refs decided to call a penalty they never call tonight and they called it twice on Max. It is unfortunate that falling coincided with the refs (and league's) desire to have an Ovechkin-Crosby conference final, though, as it took away from what was a fabulous game from Max. He was all over the ice all night, got in people's faces and scored what I considered the most crucial goal of this series, thus far.

Andrei Kostitsyn
Andrei was very engaged all game long and added a very dangerous third element to his line that we need on a top-unit. He was instrumental on a few good chances, but, more importantly, was strong in his own end. That all came to a head late in the third when he made a very smart clearance, off the boards, which ended up being an assist on the goal that sealed the win for us.

Defencemen

Hal Gill

I was told last summer that Hal Gill would prove his worth in the playoffs. Then, I was told during the season that his play may be a contributing factor in our missing of the playoffs. So, it was with mixed feelings towards Gill for me when this series started. I must say, however, that after tonight I am almost sold on the idea. He used all of his reach and PK-ability as he was an absolute horse when we were down a man (2-men down in particular). With players like Markov, Gorges, Subban and Hamrlik playing well all you need from Hal is strong defensive play and I think that, tonight, he really stood out for just that.

Josh Gorges
Like Gill, Josh was on fire tonight. He was a machine in his own end as he made very few (maybe no) mistakes. He, at times, looked like Gill on the 5-on-3 as he crouched down in the slot and took away any chance of a goal-mouth Capitals goal. PK's arrival tonight meant that Josh could have a night off of the PP which meant that he could concentrate fully on his defensive and neutral zone play.

Goaltender

Jaroslav Halak - Game Puck

Are you kidding me?


Comments


This game will go down as a steal by Halak, as a game in which the Habs were totally outplayed (shots were 54-22). Lost in that, however, will be that the Canadiens quite possibly played their best period of the year in the opening 20 minutes. The good thing was that we managed to take advantage of our opportunities and goodness knows we had to do that tonight. It quickly became obvious that the refs were quite happy to not have a Hab 2-goal lead in this game. Bad for American TV ratings you see. Trips against us were our dives, fluffy holds were 2 minutes in the box, a 5-on-3 was called on a have-to-call (puck over the glass...why is that a have-to-call and hooks, trips, cross-checks, hits to the head, too-many-men, obstruction, holding infractions aren't?) after an even-up holding call (horrible, horrible call). No matter what the refs and Caps threw at us, however, there was nothing that Halak couldn't handle. He refused to let the refs dictate the score and decided that his best form of protest was by keeping his cool and playing the game of his life. The Habs now have the opportunity to make something substantial of this season and to give a big thank-you to their best player, the player that has made all of this possible. It is hard to believe that the kid has had to deal with doubters every week for the past three years and I am indeed enjoying these good times. It would be nice if this would do it, if people would give it a rest, but you know that somehow, at some point, people will question Jaro's abilities; I just hope that that time doesn't come this week.

What's In A Name?

PK Subban Must Feel NHL Playoff Debut

karl c.
1. man (male human)
2. husband
3.(male) member of a work force, employed to perform some particularly heavy or physically demanding job


PK Subban has been recalled for the Canadiens as a replacement to Jaroslav Spacek, and hopefully an on-ice replacement for Marc-Andre Bergeron. I applaud the move by Gauthier on the eve of the Washington showdown. It shows hope, tactical thinking and an acknowledgment of how winning in the new NHL may be changing.


Karl: Swedish for NHL-ready

Karlsson, Carlson, Pernell Karl. All three young defenders making an impact in professional leagues long before perhaps it was expected of them. But what’s in a name?

The name Carl/Karl seems to be found in many languages and has many meanings. For hockey etymologists, the roots of most interest come from the hockey hotbed of Sweden. As I noted above, the name Karl in Sweden means man, or thereabouts. Notes on the origins of the name go further, talking about connotations of manliness (to the extent that it is frowned upon by believers in gender equality) and of of possessing abilities to perform certain tasks.

According to the wiktionary, you can use Karl in an expression: karl för sin ... (with some attribute). This denotes someone who is up to par with his role, and is able to perform at least by some minimal standards on his own. Karl för sin hockey is quite apt in this case.


Leveraging young talent

I don’t want to criticize what the Canadiens did with Subban this season, I think it was right. But there is an onus on a team with its collective back against the wall to evaluate all options and come up with the best solution – whatever it takes. In this case, whatever it takes means calling up the mercurial scoring talent from the recently conquering Hamilton Bulldogs after his 9 points in 6 AHL playoff games.

Those with fear in their hearts as they think of a free-roaming Subban coming in and throwing a wrench in the works need only remember two things:

1) We already have a wrench in the works, so unless MAB and PK play together we’re no worse off
2) Teams around the league have shown that going against the conventional wisdom that Dmen age like a fine wine can be bucked with success

We don’t need to even look far for inspiration.

Our nearest rivals and underdogs in arms, the Ottawa Senators, just successfully initiated their defenceman of the future (Erik Karlsson) by entrusting him to play in all situations. His recent playoffs show that the 19-year-old has learned enough to hold his own, even if he does show plenty of room for improvement.

Even closer for now, is John Carlson. Like his namesake in Ottawa, Carlson has made a clean start to his NHL career – he currently tops Capitals defencemen in playoff scoring.

Watching Karlsson and Carlson has been a learning experience for me. As a firm adherent to the notion that rookie defenders can come and see me when they are 25 (coloured quite significantly by years of watching the Habs, no doubt), these recent upstarts have made me question these beliefs. Karlsson with a K was lively and creative from the Ottawa blueline and simply found avenues through the Penguins defenders that others may just be too jaded to consider. He looks like the best defender going forward in Ottawa and doesn't make me think of early hainsey much at all. Carlson with a C has been a standout too by skating out of trouble and confidently playing the game to win. If the Caps didn't have names on their shirts, I think most Norris voters would think this guy they'd voted for.

In both cases, I think that the brash confidence of the young draftee is showing through. Both youngsters have come through the ranks with success upon success. Neither has been tainted too deeply yet by the terror of losing. This played to their advantage this season and these playoffs as they play from pure instinct – something that is sometimes lacking in defenders.

For me, both successful career launches reinforce a trend that some younger players can play with the big boys, it’s just a matter of identifying which ones.


Enter then Pernell Karl Subban, The clear star of the Canadiens propect pool last season, NHL-capable based on his showings in September, and the leader and dynamo for the dominant Hamilton Bulldogs in the AHL so far this season. As the Canadiens sit at the edge of the precipice that is a summer too long, P Karl’s promotion was a question on the tip of many tongues.

As much as Karlsson or Carlson, it seems that PK Subban is ready to play with the NHL men, to test his smoothe skating and his bottomless energy at the top level. We know the boy can score, we know the boy can pass and we know he can win. The question that remains is whether he can be mature enough, sophisticated enough to play in the man’s league when weak hockey players are sent back to the career counselor. Players across the league, his Bulldog excellence and a name that his parents borrowed from Viking marauders suggest he’ll be just fine.


For those interested in getting more re-acquainted with Subban, I recommend reading this article from an admirer in Manitoba Moose country for a start.

Friday, April 23, 2010

Game #1-5

BOOMSHAKHALAK!

Details



Date: 23/04/10
Opponent: Capitals
Location: Washington


Win: 2-1

Habs Goalie: Halak (W)
Opposition Goalie: Varlamov (L)

Habs goalscorers: Cammalleri, Moen
Opposition goalscorers: Ovechkin



Play of the game


Choosing the player to give the play of the game to was the easy part, but choosing the save turned out to be the hard thing. The save I went with was in the third and, like many others, was a game and series-saver. This one in particular was on Semin who unloaded a heavy one-timed slap from very close in. Jaro made a perfect displacement from left to right and got all of the puck, sending it to the corner. In reality, though, it was one of a series of saves that were the plays of the game for me, but this one, for one reason or another, stood out to me.



Dome hockey team

The 6 players we're playing in a no changes, do or die contest in the dome

Forwards

Dominic Moore
Martin trusted less than 9 forwards at the end of the game and Moore was amongst the group that he turned to the most. Shift, after shift he was asked to fore-check hard, keep the puck in the offensive zone and allow no one to burn him. I would say that it was mission accomplished as he did exactly what we needed him to do.

Travis Moen
Moen did tonight what Pouliot hasn't been able to do all series (and for most of the end of the regular season) - score. It didn't take long either as the feisty winger got on the scoresheet, with the game-winner, 7 minutes in. In all he played 18 minutes, mostlty with G+G, and held his own. There were moments when I certainly wished that he had better touch, but others when I was thankful that he could play soundly in his own end.

Scott Gomez
Scott had a great first period as he picked up an assist and then almost another on a very great pass to Markov (Andre hit the post). I also really liked when he followed up an impressive AK46 rush and fought to get a shot on net. Tonight Scott was the ultimate playoff warrior as he was our best forward and seemed very capable of getting people to follow in his footsteps.

Defencemen

Andrei Markov

We needed the real Markov, Markov at his best and he was there for us tonight. On a day when Mike Green was nominated as the best defenceman (i.e. winger) in the league Andrei was able to outplay the kid at both ends. His assist was great and he came so close to making it 3-0 on a shot of his own. I can't however, overlook his defensive play as he was outstanding tonight. Both he and O'Byrne played well, but it was Markov who really stood out. Martin didn't restrict him to play the same minutes as Bergeron tonight as he nearly tripled the time of his former partner. Having Andrei on for 27 minutes sure makes the game go faster and makes it that much easier to watch.

Josh Gorges
I don't want to take anything away from Gill, as I felt he played a great game, but Josh was just too good tonight to overlook. Maybe someone is listening to us here or maybe the common sense that we have been preaching about the D is finally being adopted by our coaches. I say that because tonight Gorges was used more than any other player and was very, very solid throughout. With Spacek out and Hamrlik limited to 12 minutes (for some reason) we needed Josh to be our #2. Tonight he had no problem being a go-to guy in all situations as he helped shut things down as much as he helped to get the puck up the ice.

Goaltender

Jaroslav Halak - Game Puck

That is the type of performance that can win you games, the type of game that can turn things around for a team that needs a few things to go their way. Tonight Halak was on fire and very nearly got a shutout for his efforts. There was big save after big save as he showed no signs of nerves, fatigue or lack of focus. As well as the team played tonight there was no question who our best player was as time, and time again, he kept us ahead in the game. Monday now seems very doable knowing that we have the potential of excellent goaltending...we had all been wondering where that had gone for the Habs for the past 3 weeks (Game #1 excluded).


Comments


Montreal did tonight what they weren't able to do in games #2 and 4 and that is hold a lead. They started the game very well and never really looked back. Of course good 'tending makes this a good game rather than a bitter exit, but when I look at the other 18 players I genuinely did like what I saw. We were out-shot and were maybe slightly outplayed at times, but all in all I felt that we had a strong game against a very tough opponent who certainly wanted a win in their home rink. The best thing for me tonight, other than the sustained effort, had to be the line deployments by Martin. For example Bergeron was only used for 10 minutes, only 4 of which were at even-strength - excellent. He saw that Hammer wasn't playing well and cut his time in half. He was able to tell which forwards were on tonight (Moen, Moore) and which weren't (Sergei, Metro, Pouliot) and he made the right calls. He knew what players to have out when we had a lead, but still wanted goals. I really liked what the coach did tonight and would have put him in the dome too, if I could have.

It is now back home for another no-tomorrow game. The Caps, however, must be a bit frustrated with themselves and maybe a bit nervous. Could they really let a President's trophy season come down to a game #7 against the 8th seed? Should they mix things up to beat the suddenly hot Halak? The great news is that we may have Washington re-thinking things and that we seem to have a clearer view for ourselves. Well done Habs, now let's do it again.

Winning The Game

The Probability Of The Improbable

On February 10th, 2010, Lions in Winter carried this headline: Habs Put An Unlikely End To Caps' Streak.

It was a stumbling team beating a surging force. It was a more unlikely win than anything this Canadiens team faces now. The team was without Andrei Kostitsyn, Mike Cammalleri and Benoit Pouliot. The GM hadn't yet traded for Dominic Moore. Matt D'Agostini, David Desharnais and Ben Maxwell, they all played.

It now also stands as a prime example as to why the Canadiens have no course in giving up just yet, and neither do their fans.


You heard it here first


I don't Tobalev would ever claim to be prescient of outcomes. He merely takes some pride in learning from his experience. I like to think I am the same. If there's one thing that the internet has taught me, it is that "You heard it here first" is the most commonly uttered phrase (or some variation thereof) from sports fans.

This attitude is especially common come times like these, times where outcomes seem to be written in the stars. It was around in February as it is today:
After the game on Sunday most people thought that a loss tonight was a certainty. People, more interested in being right than supporting their team, were writing the Habs off and predicting 2 points, max, from this week. I can't, however, stress it enough how the Habs are the type of team that can do this. They can lose to the worst and can beat the best.
There must be a certain irony in quoting one's own material from months ago to prove how others can be wrong in these situations. It's not my point to prove our point of view, especially as I think that "Anything can happen" is about as vague a point of view as anyone can have. There's simply a frustration in me when all the fans I read and respect reach automatically and frantically for the "It's over, you heard it hear first" line. And, having learned from our loyal readers that a positive outlook is sometimes welcome in these hours of doom, we prefer only to support the team, their 45% chance of winning (or whatver it is) and the knowledge that there will be plenty of time for it to be summer when summer comes.


Reasons to put your hope on the line


Last season, the Canadiens found themselves in an elimination game against the top team in the East as well. At that time, we rallied for hope (and there was genuine hope). The situation was more dire than this. Down 3-0. No Andrei Markov. 10 straight losses to the Bruins. A Vezina goalie and a Norris defenceman to go with the top offense in the league.

This season is a bit different. For one thing, the Canadiens have rallied in games. A realist will say this series could be 2-2. Someone extremely optimistic would say it could be 3-1. That is nothing in and of itself, only wins count here, but at least we know the team has belief.

Another reason for hope is this game is taking place in Washington. The first time the Canadiens played there, Price played his best start of the autumn and the Canadiens won 3-2. They lost the return affair, but have since managed to take two games to OT in the Capitol city. The Habs haven't been slouches in Washington at all. If you take the Capitals home record seriously, then you'll know that the Habs have actually been near league-leading in their Verizon Centre play.

We have written and read about the Canadiens need to exploit Washington's weakness – their back end. I think having now experimented with two goalies (one small, one big) the coaches now know where the strategy lies. There is reason to hope that lessons learned from a 1-4 comeback, a 5-1 drubbing and a 6-3 will trickle through. I don't think even Jacques Martin can deny this now, and Montreal may actually set out on a gameplan that may even suit their forwards best – try to score as much as possible. The hope in this is that Pouliot might actually been unfettered, the Kostitsyns driven, the others right there with them.

There's also hope from other series in this spring's competition. The players watch results around the league as well and if they're anything like the rest of us, probably take some inspiration/comfort from what they see. Philly beating the Devils, Boston pushing Miller aside till now, LA running with Vancouver, Ottawa dogging out a win. Ottawa's win last night was of particular relevance. Ottawa took a defensive approach to facing some fantastic talent. For a game it worked. For three games, the lunacy of the thinking was exposed. Last night, the Senators just floored it. They took the lead, extended it and should have extended it more. When the Penguins stormed back and evened it up, the Senators never forgot that keeping the initiative was the key, and for 3 OT periods they pressed until they won.


The Montreal players can take a lot of hope from all this. They can learn from their experience of losing repeatedly only to step out some night later to look like a contender. They can draw form the experience of Markov (1-3 down before), Gomez and others who can explain the wackiness of playoff probabilities and certainties.

As fans, we can do the same. In fact, there's no point doing it any other way. As we've said, there'll be plenty of time for summer when it's summer. Nobody will care if you or I are right or wrong. Let that go. Enjoy the possibility of a win tonight.

Go Habs Go. GHG.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Game #1-4

Caps Feast On Nervous Habs

Details



Date: 21/04/10
Opponent: Capitals
Location: Montreal

Loss: 3-6

Habs Goalie: Price (L)
Opposition Goalie: Varlamov (W)

Habs goalscorers: Cammalleri, Gionta, Moore
Opposition goalscorers: Ovechkin (2), Knuble (2), Chimera, Backstrom



Play of the game


The Habs were down by one, but had a quick answer for the Caps and it came in the form of a goal from #13. It was Mike who did well to win an offensive zone face-off before he found his way to the net. Hammer threw the puck around the boards and Sergei made a great play to let it go through to Metro who was behind the net. Glen showed his touch around the goal by getting the puck out to Pyatt's 4th line replacement; all of a sudden the Habs were right back in the game, in the blink of an eye.



Dome hockey team

The 6 players we're playing in a no changes, do or die contest in the dome

Forwards

Dominic Moore
Sub-par showings from Pleks and Gomez meant that the door was open tonight for Moore. He certainly didn't run away with the title of top pivot-man, but I couldn't help but notice his strong defensive play throughout the game. He added to that with a great effort on our 3rd goal (even if it didn't matter for tonight's game, it may set the tone for Friday) and was our only centre to be above 50% at face-offs.

Sergei Kostitsyn - Game Puck
Is it a good feeling or a bad feeling for a coach when you can re-insert a player who then, in turn, is your best? On the one hand, maybe he was motivated by his benching and, therefore, wanted to prove something. On the other hand, however, is the possibility that Martin sat a very useful player for no good reason at all. Sergei showed tonight that he is a valuable tool in the coach's toolbox as he was very involved at both ends. Martin only used him for 8 minutes (maybe fearing that people would question the benching), but that didn't stop Kostitsyn from ending the game at a team-high +2.

Mike Cammalleri
Maybe the only top-6 who played like one tonight, Mike actually did quite well. He scored a goal early and, while he did fade as the game went on, had other moments of greatness. I felt that he represented our best chance at a goal and my only wish was that he would have played for more than 18 minutes. Despite it all, however, he led the team in shots (5) and out face-offed all of our centres by posting a 60% winning percentage.

Defencemen

Ryan O'Byrne

Another player that wasn't being used was able to step in and play well tonight. I can say with certainty that he was better than Hamrlik and Bergeron and it is debatable whether he out-played the others. What I do know, though, is that this shouldn't happen. Your #6/7 should not be able to come in and be one of your top D-Men. The rest of the D has a lot to think about over the next two days as they really have to be better. I don't, however, want this to overshadow the fact that Ryan played well, stayed out of the box, led the team in hits (7) and blocked-shots (4) and was our only D better than even (+1)

Josh Gorges
Again, why can't all players just play like Josh? Maybe it wouldn't be exciting, maybe we'd never score, but don't you think if everyone played near mistake-free hockey for 60 minutes that we would have a chance, a very good chance, in every game? Like O'Byrne, Gorges was big on hits and blocked-shots tonight and kept the chances down to a tolerable level.

Goaltender

Jaroslav Halak

Is this 2008? Are we really still be cursed for trading away an All-Star for nothing? I don't expect our goalies to steal these games for us, but they both have to be miles better if we are to win. It is an uphill battle against the Caps and the time for 4+ goal-against games has to stop. The Habs aren't a team that will score 5+ goals a game, so we must be stronger from the back. Carey had a good first 39:53, but really seemed rattled for the remainder as he let in 3 goals and took 4 minutes in penalties. Halak probably wouldn't have done better, and that may be our problem, but, somehow, one of them has to find a way to be their best.


Comments


I am sure that you are all reading that this series is over, that summer is coming and you are probably all thinking about what players we can get. Maybe we can get Crosby and Ovechkin, oh wait, I'd actually prefer Datsyuk and Malkin. Who's kidding who, though, this is it, this our team. Who knows if we'll be in the playoffs next year or in the next 5 years. Who knows if we'll improve this summer at all. The time for worrying about the summer is, well, in the summer. We are down, but not out. I, for one, am focused on one thing only, our only option, a game #5 win. Who cares what players miss practice, who cares what the lines will be, who cares what the predictions are. All we should be caring about is getting one win, just like we do when we have lost 3 straight in the regular season.

There are 2 huge positives that I must call on and that are certainly giving me hope. The first is that we have outplayed the Caps for extended periods during this series and have led in 3 games. Washington is a team that we can beat in one game and that is all it is, one game. The second big positive has to be that we have the potential. While Varlamov, Backstrom and Ovechkin are all playing up to their potential we still have players like Halak, Markov, Pouliot, Plekanec and Hamrlik that can be better, much better. Halak may not be Brodeur, but the Olympics and regular season taught us that stealing games is something that he knows how to do. Markov didn't ignite a PP by chance, he can be better and rarely plays this far below his standard for too long. Pouliot may not be the scorer that he was in December, but he also isn't the scorer that Gui was(n't) in October/November - he has to find a way to be average, or better, and to contribute. Pleks led this team in scoring by playing with passion and determination throughout the season, let's hope that he remembers why some (me) were calling for him to be captain. Hammer has been better, much better, in his career (even this year), but has rarely been much worse. Focus and drive from him can mean there is only one way to go. The rest of the players, too, must find that extra gear as any little mistake or break in concentration often ends with a puck in our net.

Friday will be hard to watch as no one wants to see the season end, but now we finally know that there is no tomorrow, now we can see what this team is really made of. I have seen enough losing, and subsequent winning, streaks from the Habs to know that we are still in it. If our group can believe and the Caps can, somehow, not be at their best then we certainly have a shot.

The Real Goaltending Battle

It's Halak And Price Vs. Caps, etc.

Who will play against Ovechkin tonight? Markov or Spacek?

Who will play the most minutes? Gomez or Plekanec?

Who will play on the PP? Pouliot or Metropolit?


All questions we could be asking. All questions we rarely ask. Instead we fixate on the question of who starts in goal for the 90th time this season.



Who’s playing the next shift?

The pursuit of the Stanley Cup is notoriously difficult – due to the physical nature of the game, the frequency of play and the sheer number of required victories.

No other major competition has such a conspiracy of factors. The World Cup, far more laden with pressure is at least less physically grueling. The NBA playoffs take the same format, but the sport of basketball is a different kettle of fish to hockey. The World Series is both shorter and incorporates more rest time. The Super Bowl spaces it games for recovery and hype.

It’s puzzling then that the same expectations are laid on by hockey fans as those of other pursuits. That one player will dominate every night, that one coach will have all the answers, and in this case that one goalie will carry all the load.

Starting this game is by no means a declaration that one goalie is better than the other or that one goalie will be favoured in contract negotiations over the other. What it comes down to for a goalie is, I think it’s time we as fans change our perspective here. The Habs’ pursuit, as over-reaching as it sounds this morning, is not to win this series, but rather to win the Stanley Cup. As such, why not start looking at it this way. Especially with regard to Halak or Price.

Instead of asking who the franchise goalie is, why not just ask: "Who will be playing the next shift?"

The goalies are no different from all skaters – everyone wants to play every minute that their body can bear. Like other skaters, they also want to win, and by their age know that winning takes not only skill, hard work and luck, but also the maturity to withdraw and let your teammates help.

While we’d never want either goalie to be happy about being withdrawn under the circumstances that Halak was the other day, we shouldn’t make this unhappiness into something it’s not. Halak is unhappy with himself, first and foremost, not the injustice of the universe. If Price starts tonight, Halak will not necessarily be eternally insulted and shun all future offers. If Halak starts, Price has enough know-how by now to understand that the decision is situationally based and not built to offend him.

There may be a time when goalie concerns about meeting time played and win bonuses cross their minds. In the Cup playoffs, when the prospect is to stay alive in this grueling competition, I think everyone understands that shifts will come and shifts will go. From all evidence, both goalies want to win and seem to be willing to contribute directly, or by sacrifice, to make that happen.


On that note, I don’t have much inkling as to what I’d do in Martin’s situation, which weapon I’d deploy. More than hearing one name or the other, my hope is that the decision is delivered well and explained to both eventual starter and back-up in terms of this 2-month competition. Like it or not, we need them both.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Game #1-3

Montreal's Great Start Gets Them Nowhere

Details



Date: 19/04/10
Opponent: Capitals
Location: Montreal

Loss: 1-5

Habs Goalie: Halak (L), Price
Opposition Goalie: Varlamov (W)

Habs goalscorers: Plekanec
Opposition goalscorers: Gordon, Laich, Fehr, Ovechkin, Bradley



Play of the game


Tonight, as I am struggling to think of a good play, I am going to go in a different direction. Instead of saying how good Moore's hit on Backstrom was or how our goal gives us hope for the next game I am actually going to focus on the one play that may help us more than anything on Thursday. With the game winding down MAB was on for one of his last of 27 shifts (27!!!) and made two of the worst plays I have ever seen him make (and I had been watching the whole game). A pass up the middle which was intercepted and thrown towards Price was only to be outdone by another soft clearing attempt that went straight to a Cap and then to the back of our net. I am hoping that this play will result in the benching of Bergeron as I am struggling to comprehend what Sergei could have done that was anywhere near as bad as what Marc-Andre did (or didn't do) tonight. Him out of the lineup may be our only chance to sure up our D as, clearly, playing him for 20+ (more than Hammer, Spacek and Gorges) is not the answer, no matter how hard he can shoot.



Dome hockey team

The 6 players we're playing in a no changes, do or die contest in the dome

Forwards

Tomas Plekanec
Anytime that a player can be -4, take 6 minutes in penalties, be out-played by the opposition for most of the game and still be one of your top-3 you are in trouble. I liked a bit of what Tomas did tonight, especially the goal, but, for the most part, am not pleased that he is in the dome. The team needs to be better and that has to start with our top regular season point-getter.

Maxim Lapierre - Game Puck
Max actually played a decent game and I felt that he, at least, understood that tonight was a playoff game. Putting him on the 3rd line may or may not have been the right move (would not have taken Sergei out), but at least he did what was asked of him. The fact that during his 11+ minutes (all at even-strength) he was able to lead our team in shots says a lot.

Mike Cammalleri
Another player that was -4 and another player that was still better than at least 9 other forwards. You never want to be the guy who is on for 80% of the goals against in a loss, but I think that the goalies and D have a lot more to answer to than does the winger whom we knew was no defensive specialist. He had moments of danger early on and I am beginning to believe that he is back and that he represents our best shot at consistent scoring.

Defencemen

Andrei Markov

Kudos to Markov for going all out to draw us that high-sticking penalty. If the refs aren't going to call stuff that actually happens to us then at least we can get them to call stuff that hasn't. Markov was one of our top-2, but after a Spacek blunder, a Hamrlik off-night (way off, horrible in fact) and a Bergeron catastrophe (playing him) it wasn't really too hard to do: outplay Gill and you're in. Nothing going on the PP and -2 and you can see how bad the rest of the corps was if Andrei is in here.

Josh Gorges
Josh is the only D-man that I actually felt played a good game. Unfortunately he probably played about 4-6 minutes less than he should have as the need to see MAB on the ice was consuming Martin. He and Gill (and Hamrlik) were only -1 tonight which tells me if more players had followed Josh's lead we may not be down 1-2. I was happy, in particular, with his puck-movement/puck-carrying and shot-blocking tonight and, for some reason, really hope that he plays better and plays more next game as it seems reliable options on the blue-line are hard to come by.

Goaltender

Carey Price

Jaro didn't get much help, again, tonight, but at the same time was not strong at all. We need him to not just be good, but to be great as without him at his best we are perhaps a nothing team. It wasn't Halak's fault that we lost (or that we are down 1-2), but I think that he is the path to the upset, and he must be at his best. Carey came in and played quite well. Washington took 23 shots on him and he only let in two. The best part was that I was never too worried with him back there (but that may have been because the game was slipping away very fast). I'll leave guessing the starter for Game #4 up to you guys and my only hope is that whoever they choose it is the right decision.


Comments


A good first period, in which we didn't score, was like a curse. You have to be careful when you start that well, because if you don't score the other team always finds a way to get you. We certainly had our chances early on, but players like Pouliot and Spacek had to score. The goal isn't just to play well and give effort, it has to be to score at all costs. Right now Washington are doing what it takes to score (pushing our goalies in the net, capitalizing on weak D and taking slap-shots). We are countering with gentle play in their crease, letting their D look good and taking 10's of weak wrist-shots from the point or beyond; we simply aren't being aggressive enough. With aggression will come those bounces that we never seem to get, by getting in Varlamov's face the refs will eventually blow a call in our favour and by shooting with some authority we'll earn some respect from a D that is having a pretty easy time with us of late. Game #4 is obviously a must-win as a loss on Thursday would likely mean a certain exit. I feel that Washington have been the better team thus far and that we had better start trying our all-out hardest. We may get a lucky win here or there, but to go anywhere in these playoffs we have to be harder and more opportunistic, we can't keep seeing if the other team will beat us, we have to go out and beat them.

Leading The Habs Through Ups And Downs

Veteran leadership is a term bandied about quite a bit this time of year. I find it funny, actually, as with so many clichés; few people actually stop to think what they are talking about.


Take this year’s Canadiens, for example. How many times have you heard the name Hal Gill when those quotesters are talking up experience? If you’re like me, the answer is too often. Hal Gill is a veteran, and he has had a long career with quite a lot of playoff experience, right? Well does he? We assume: he’s old, he’s seen it all. But has he? We mustn't assume.

A lot has been written (good and bad) about the coach. I have to say I am not delighted with his in-game adaptation, but I also think too much is expected from coaching tweaks. At the end of the day, I really think shifts in attitude, momentum, energy have to come from on the ice. With a lot of nervous and tentative guys up and down the lineup, we look then to veterans to provide here.

Veteran leadership I would value on a team would probably come from a player that has a combination of experience (i.e., lots of game 3s or game 7s) and some demonstration that the “leader” has learned something from the repeat exposure (i.e., winning some of those series). The other thing I consider to be important is the notion that at some stage the player suggesting himself a leader now played some leadership role in what happened to him in the past. Matt Duchene, laughing all the way to the series victory for example, probably isn’t grasping all the lessons from his team’s run that someone who realizes things can go differently would be.

In looking down the Canadiens lineup, there are plenty of player who have been in the playoffs. This is a first step. However, while this is great when a rookie needs to be coached that tomorrow will come after a playoff game, it doesn’t mean much more. Within that group, there are also players who’ve won playoff games, won playoff series, won two in a row, a Cup.


Relevant experience

Ahead of tonight’s game, for the first year in long memory without Koivu, the question is who does the team look to for reassurance, for guidance. It’s easy to spew off veteran names, but are they all pertinent here? In wanting to sort this out for myself, I’ve started to lay it out for you as well.

Among he vets with relatively successful playoff experience (not Hamrlik), I had a look to see who has ever lived a 1-1 scenario.

Scott Gomez: 9 series – 7 wins, 2 losses
Brian Gionta: 4 series – 2 wins, 2 losses
Hal Gill: 4 series – 1 win, 3 losses
Jaroslav Spacek: 2 series – 2 wins
Andrei Markov: 4 series – 2 wins, 2 losses

As you can see, Gill despite a wealth of playoff games and two consecutive Stanley Cup finals hasn’t actually outlived everyone in this scenario. In fact, his Pittsburgh experience adds nothing to the opening split, and most of his knowledge with this scenario comes from before the turn of the millennium.

Gomez, on the other hand, his tenth straight season in the playoffs, has seen this all before and seems to have a grasp of how to win from here.

I wouldn’t discount Hal’s influence here, but suffice to say that a player who can say: “1-1, ha. I’ve been in 9 series where we ended tied 1-1 and won 7. I know what we need to do.” Is of great value to the youngsters.


I think we can all agree at this point, however, that 1-1 is not the breaking point for this team. The outcome of Game 3, whatever it is might cause a scenario of discomfort. That’s when experience will really begin to pay off.

If it’s a win, the vets seem to have it covered. Records from 1-1 to 2-1 in series terms look like this:

Scott Gomez: 5 series – 5 wins
Brian Gionta: 2 series – 1 win, 1 loss
Hal Gill: 0 series
Jaroslav Spacek: 2 series – 2 wins
Andrei Markov: 2 series – 1 win, 1 loss

Combined vets (8 wins, 2 losses)


From a loss, it looks like this:

Scott Gomez: 4 series – 2 wins, 2 losses
Brian Gionta: 2 series – 1 win, 1 loss
Hal Gill: 4 series: 1 win, 3 losses
Jaroslav Spacek: 0 series
Andrei Markov: 2 series – 1 win, 1 loss

Combined vets (4 wins, 7 losses)


Keep this in mind as you wade your way through the stats on Game 3 that are due to flood your screens and your minds tonight. Win or lose there will be experience in the room to rally from it. Enough players have lost from 2-1 or won from 1-2 to know it’s not over after this game. Enough players have played enough games to know that life is easier if you get your wins in the bank, though.


These Caps

Interestingly, there are two players on the Habs who have played these very Caps in the playoffs before. Scott Gomez led his Rangers to a 2-0 early series lead and an eventual Game 7 last year. Gill’s Penguins then proceeded to dig an 0-2 hole, only to wrestle games back for the series win on the way to their Cup.

Both players know the Caps are temperamental and more importantly beatable. If situational experience matters in terms of series scenarios, then knowing a playoff opponent so intimately surely does as well.


The mantle to Scott Gomez

A picture, his record, his experience with the Caps, I think you see where I'm going with this.

What I’d like to see tonight is the emergence of Scott Gomez as a vocal leader. He has been an excellent player so far and a willing mucker (see fight), but he hasn’t grabbed this team by the scruff of the neck and really given them the full benefit of his Devils upbringing.

With a decorated record (3 finals in 4 years, 2 Cups) and a long list of setbacks, comebacks and playoff kills from which to draw on, he rises to the top for me as the player to turn to. Starting with Pouliot, I hope he can tap into his 21 previous playoff series educate and inspire, and generally drag this team with him where he’s gone many times before.

Not many dwell on Gomez as the captain candidate anymore. A lesson in how to follow his lead in 1-1 series could well change that.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Game #1-2

Canadiens Show They Can Play It The Caps Way

Details



Date: 17/04/10
Opponent: Capitals
Location: Washington

Loss: 5-6 (OT)


Habs Goalie: Halak (L)
Opposition Goalie: Theodore, Varlamov (W)

Habs goalscorers: Gionta, A. Kostitsyn (3), Plekanec
Opposition goalscorers: Fehr, Backstrom (3), Ovechkin, Carlson



Play of the game


This was a game full of interesting plays. Had the Canadiens won, there were probably even defensive plays to choose from. The play of the night, considering the result, was Plekanec's goal in the end. It was a play full of skill, of patience and of teamwork. The play really starts as Plekanec chases a loose puck into the zone. Blocking a clearance and controlling it in one swoop was clutch play at its finest. Cammalleri never doubting his centre was there to take the pass, sell the shot and produce the sublime control that allowed him to keep the puck long enough to pass to the lingering Plekanec. After Andrei's hat trick, this was the icing on the cake for the one-time first line. More clutch play from other teammates might have made this goal more significant.




Dome hockey team

The 6 players we're playing in a no changes, do or die contest in the dome

Forwards

Brian Gionta
Gionta played his usual solid game up front. Kicking off with a goal a minute into the game was key to the Canadiens self-belief in this one, and it's no surprise that it was Brian to score, given his reputation for being a sparkplug from the opening whistle. Over the game he grew quieter, but still found ways to shoot. In addition he killed some key penalties while getting his miniscule frame in front of several Caps shots.

Andrei Kostitsyn
Three goals, well two and a quarter. This was the game of a goalscorer. Over the night, I thought he was the quietest on the top line, yet with that shot was probably always the biggest threat. His first goal was a thing of beauty and one could see the confidence he took from it. If nothing else, his hat trick gives Boudreau something serious to think about as he attempts to deal with Montreal's threats with a big and sometimes lumbering defence.

Mike Cammalleri – Game Puck
I thought that in this game Cammalleri did the most things right of any Hab. The game ended with him recording three assists, and he really did play a major role in two of those key goals – Kostitsyn's second and Plekanec's play of the game marker. In addition, Mike was able to draw a couple of penalties (one for a PP with a goal), which I think has been a real deficiency of late, even all season with the Canadiens. He was charged with a penalty as well, but I'm never sure how intact sticks are when they break under some slashes that are penalized.

Defencemen

Andrei Markov
One of the main reasons that Markov may not have stood out as he could have, but he played a good game. But where I have praised Martin for getting his players to buy his plan, I must chastise him for not knowing what he has in Markov. When the alternatives are struggling, one would hope the coach would turn to Andrei. Instead he limits his ice time at ES, presumably because he wouldn't be so foolhardy as to play #47 any more than he had to. This is thinking of very limited scope, and I'd like to see Markov play with other partners (Spacek, Gorges) to get him into the fray more.

Josh Gorges
Josh Gorges, the epitome of steady can be counted to mark off games for Spacek and Hamrlik. When they falter, we prefer Josh for the dome. While I wouldn't go to the lengths that some do to praise Josh, I think he offers lots of lessons for his comrades. His simple approach, his quick anticipation, his measured time on the puck are all the stuff of winning defence.

Goaltender

Carey Price

Halak had one of those games. 4-3 up, Halak was sitting on many saves to rival the game puck. While Washington didn't pepper the Habs goalie with as much rubber as in Game #1, they still let loose a few shots of quality requiring some alert rebukes. But we cannot overlook the saves he didn't make in this game, particularly the final two Washington goals. Good shots or not, he has to look more like saving a shot to his trapper side from Backstrom on both occasions, else we risk falling as we did to the Flyers in 2008. I wouldn't be altogether surprised if the next start goes the way of Carey Price after this display, and I wouldn't bat an eyelid. If nothing else, Carey has impressed me immensely with his new mature comment as the reliever interview and I think that maturity would carry into the net. I wouldn't say Halak has lost his right to play again, but as the Caps can be so unforgiving to netminders, sharing the brunt might be the way to go anyway.


Comments

Welcome to the playoffs Montreal. Apart from obvious trips, pucks over the glass, fights, broken sticks and too many men, the rules have been altered. The most significant alteration to the rules of play seems to be the complete reversal on goaltender interference. More frightening is that Washington has taken note.

I am not embittered after this loss, as it really wasn't down to the refs in the end. The unstoppable force want goals and it made them. However, I hope the Canadiens start to see the light of day with this new lenience, else get left behind. For one thing, they must stop collapsing so close to their own goal, I think, because at the moment they seem only to make themselves implements for moving Halak. Also, it might not hurt to move Varlamov or Theo at some point, that way the net might come off for a valid reason.

We must also realize that we just witnessed a tour de force from two of the top scorers in the league. When the Caps went down, Ovechkin and Backstrom awoke and took the bull by the horns.

I have to say I am encouraged in a lot of ways by this effort from Montreal as well. The forwards producing the way they did spells a turn in the tide, and a very welcome one. The defence was perhaps not as great as in Game #1, but had good periods of play. The loss in the end was caused by a few breakdowns, but Halak on most other nights would not have done his best Aebischer impression. Encouraging also were the post-game interviews in which the positivity I seem to cling to was held by many of the players reached for comment. Cammalleri in particular had lots of good points to take and several players called it a good game – which it was.

It's a cliche to say the Habs should be happy to come into Montreal with a series tied at one. I am not going that far. But they need to be positive about a few things. First, they have shown they can win a defensive battle, even when entrenched for periods in their own zone. Second, they have shown they can win an offensive battle. If Washington ever thought they'd ride their 121 points for a few more wins, they must now know they are in for a fight, Montreal-style. To have Cammalleri, Plekanec and Kostitsyn there ready to take part is something I look forward very much to watching.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Habs Vs. Caps

Beware The Comeback Kids

The Montreal Canadiens won an important game the other nigt in the lion's den, an arena where the Capitals had secured 30 wins on the season to go with 6 OTL (that's 66 of 82 pts). But as much as Habs fans don't want to hear it, it was only a game. Montreal beat Washington once in the regular season in DC as well, but that didn't prevent them from limiting their remaining losses to four.

The Washington Capitals of 2009-10 are one of the strongest teams to play in the Eastern Conference in some time. They didn't get lucky in all departments a la Boston Bruins 08-09 or squeak out a paltry 104 points to win the conference as the Habs did a year earlier. They won all those games despite their faults. They won all those games because their strengths can, if allowed to, truly overwhelm.


Comeback potential


Among all their talents, one of the most dangerous for the Capitals this season has been their ability to come back. Though resilience is a feature that endows all top teams through the years, the striking thing about these Caps is the degree to which they outshone their rivals in returning from deficit.



There are a few teams that managed to score first nearly as often as Washington (52 times), but all suffered massive loss of points when this occurred. Consider Washington's 8 regulation losses from 30 games in which the opponents grabbed a lead vs. Calgary's 21 losses from 32 or Philly's 25 losses from 33.

Where scoring first is a good omen for winning (only Florida allowed a sub-500 record from first goal scored positions), coming back from the opposite position really seems to separate the wheat from the chaff. Washington stands atop those teams, out-distancing San Jose this year by a healthy 7% and are the only team to be above true 0.500 (16W, 14L).



This second look at the comeback capability of the Washington Capitals is also telling. The 22 games in which they trailed after 2 periods ended in comebacks for at least a point on more than 50% of occasions (12/22 games). The Montreal Canadiens, who we've been calling battlers at times, or plucky, have only managed 8 true come backs from 33 opportunities. The Pittsburgh Penguins with their much vaunted captain only managed to climb back 10 times from 33 opportunities.


Games vs. the Habs alone

Even a limited sample, such as games against Montreal is enough to serve notice of this resilient tendency of the Washington opponent.

In Game 1 in Washington, the Habs had a lead going into the third and extended it midway through the period. The Caps scored late to make it a one goaler and only Price holding off the next 4 shots prevented OT.

Game 2 in Montreal was even more dramatic. The Habs are the team that mounted the initial comeback to lead from the 6th minute of period 3. Washington, undying as usual, pressed on, tied the game with 12 seconds left and won it on a shootout goal.

Game 3 in Washington was more of a wash, but the return game in Montreal again served warning of the offensive potential to undo mistakes. Lead after lead was clawed back, to the point that a 3-goal lead heading into the thrid period was negated from a Mike Green effort and 2 from Brooks Laich. Montreal won in OT for another critical point, but Washington were no pushover.


Lessons for the Montreal Canadiens


The Capitals are true standouts in this regard, and it speaks to their skill, their plan and most of all their attitude to games.

The playoff series is not unlike a game. As in games, the first strike does on average predict the likely victor. What the Canadiens must consider here, though, is that they are not playing an average opponent. They are not playing the New York Rangers (for whom 3rd period play is merely formality). No, the Capitals won't be down in the dumps over a series deficit because they don't look at deficits the same way that you or I do. For them, a goal against early is merely a bell to alert them to score one extra. A loss early will only serve the same purpose.

The main lesson I would stress from these numbers is that the Capitals must never be counted out. Never. Our team's experience alone must be enough to stress this, but to know they did it to everyone else (and probably to Florida every time) makes it even more resonant.


The way forward

I don't mean this piece to be a downer. I am thrilled the Montreal won this game. One game is one in the bank towards the four they seek. It's not meaningless. I intend as usual to merely level the ship. Expectations as to the outcome in this series haven't changed much for me with the win. I thought Montreal would win games in this series and like the chances of an upset. The order of the wins, however, is meaningless

For fans the way forward is to enjoy the improved play of our team. The way they played in the 60 minutes that counted (the last 60 minutes of game 1) was a revelation compared to recent outings. The way players adhered to a plan for the distance was encouraging. Positive too were the repeated incursions in to the Washington zone. Getting carried away can wait until after win #4.

For the team, I think the way forward has to be quick-thinking adaptation and shifting strategy. Double teaming Ovechkin was the right plan for a game, but teams don't post 121 points with so many from comeback efforts if they are so easily disarmed. The coaches must expect a change of strategy from their opponent.

I think Martin needs not only to be able to allow flexibility when Ovechkin shows up on longer and longer shifts, on different lines, or when Semin is placed with Backstrom and Knuble, but also to anticipate what a coach like Boudreau might do.


The first strike has landed. This series just got very interesting.

Go Habs Go.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Game #1-1

Habs's Big-Guns Show Up When They Have To; Habs Win!

Details



Date: 15/04/10
Opponent: Capitals
Location: Washington

Win: 3-2 (OT)

Habs Goalie: Halak (W)
Opposition Goalie: Theodroe (L)

Habs goalscorers: Cammalleri, Gomez, Plekanec
Opposition goalscorers: Corvo, Backstrom



Play of the game


I would be foolish to neglect the importance of Plekanec's OT winner, but I think that we can all appreciate the value of that. For me, however, the play-of-the-game is Gomez's goal, the goal that gave us the chance to even go to OT. It all started with Gomez skating hard through the neutral zone, as he does, with good speed and control. After crossing the blue-line he left the puck for Pouliot who wasted no time in finding the open man, Gionta. In the meantime Scott had found his way into the slot and in no time his buddy found him the puck. If you haven't seen it, find it, but who am I am kidding, we were all glued to the TV no matter where we were, right?




Dome hockey team

The 6 players we're playing in a no changes, do or die contest in the dome

Forwards

Tomas Plekanec
Great players sometimes have quiet games and then show up when it counts. I won't say too much, but 2 great players had quiet games tonight and it was Plekanec who was able to unload the perfect shot behind his old teammate. The overall word was that he had a bad game, but don't confuse quiet with bad as he was still worthy of his title of #1 centre.

Scott Gomez
Gomez also delivered a goal in this most important of games, but on top of that played a solid game. Don't let his 32% on face-offs take away from the fact that he and his linemates, especially in the second period, offered a very good threat for the Habs.

Mike Cammalleri
Is there any Hab fan out there that still cares Mike hadn't scored since January? Is there anyone out there still willing to admit that they were worried that he may not be as good as we had hoped. Topham summed it up on Monday night when he said that Mike was getting closer (hitting posts vs. TO) and that it was only a matter of time till he got his aim back. Thanks Topham for restoring my confidence, thanks Mike for getting the ball rolling in this series with an absolutely sick shot.

Defencemen

Andrei Markov

One of the main reasons that Ovechkin hasn't been at his best vs. the Habs over the years has always been the outstanding play of Markov. Well it was Andrei, again, who foiled his countryman tonight with some superb defensive play- he was also able to outshoot the great #8 3-0. This will be a tough series, no doubt, but if Markov plays like the Norris hopeful that he is (as he did tonight) then more results like we saw tonight wouldn't be out of the question.

Marc-Andre Bergeron
Martin made the right call when he put MAB in for O'B as I think we can all see that the upside is far better than the downside. Sure Bergeron is weak defensively, but so is Ryan who in turn offers nothing, whatsoever, ever, going forward. Tonight Marc-Andre was able to play a pretty clean game (with less mistakes than usual) and was able to contribute in a positive manner. Not only did his presence on D allow for us to have 4 lines, but it also proved that he can play the position that he has been playing for 20+ years. Crisp passes, limited mistakes and the occasional solid play in his own end meant that Markov didn't have to end the game as worried as he had started it.

Goaltender

Jaroslav Halak - Game Puck

I never was too worried that Jaro had all of a sudden lost his touch, but am sure glad that he found it tonight, when it really counted. In all he faced 47 shots (47!) and, somehow, made it look like we outplayed Washington. Despite a nervous first few minutes he was calm and seemed very much in control of his net. Performances like this are what we need to go anywhere this year and I am happy to say that he is one for one. Keep it up, it was fantastic.


Comments


The Caps came out all over us and dominated the first 20-30 minutes. Despite that, however, we were able to get the lead and eventually get out of that period of time all tied up. Montreal then, with about 5-10 to play in the 2nd, started taking over. For the rest of the game we were the better team and it was, thus, a shame when Backstrom scored a lucky one to start the third. The Habs, however, didn't let that get them down as they stuck to their gameplan. They kept working hard and that hard work would pay off with a goal. In OT the refs did their best to keep it fair (ie. give the advantage to the team tripping players on breakaways), but despite all of that Halak would resist. It seemed that each blown call resulted in a Caps chance that, thankfully, didn't end up in our net. Then, out of nothing, Spacek got the puck to his new favorite countryman (no offence Hammer) and a perfect shot against Theo (nice to see that Pleks can back up his 'not good goalie' talk with a goal) put the Habs in the driver's seat. This will be a tough series and it is far from over, but tonight, if anything, proved that the Caps are a beatable team, Ovechkin is a controllable force and that Theo is, indeed, not a Brodeur nor a Miller.

Habs vs. Caps

More Reasons To Be Positive

Numbers to consider:

46 games: 24-15-7, 55 points

That is the record of the Montreal Canadiens since December 17, 2009. It happens to coincide with the return of Andrei Markov. Prorated over 82 games, that's 98 point pace. That's 6 points less than the total the Habs posted 2 seasons ago to win the East. Many of these games were played with Pyatt on the first line.

What's my point?

Not sure. But I just want to point out that these numbers are as relevant as the whole season record, the record against the Caps, the record against playoff teams, the playoff record over the last 15 years. In short, not that relevant, certainly not predictive, but numbers.

This number doesn't only reflect Markov's return, but also finding the balance with goaltending starts, finding the right line combinations and the acclimatization of the newbies (notably Gomez). Is this the real Habs? As I said, the number can't predict that. All I'd say is that it's as least as relevant for me.

As the Canadiens skate for the last time ahead of the game in washington tonight, they'd do well to remember this. Ottawa did, Philly did, Colorado did.


Matching up well

Sometimes a team’s mix of players doesn’t work against the average opposition but is extremely well suited to facing a given team. Such was the case for the 2005-06 Canadiens (with Koivu) against Carolina in the 2006 playoffs. Losing Koivu created the necessary shift in the ground to make it the blowout it was predicted to be. If Koivu doesn’t get high-sticked, who knows – I’d wager the Habs would have won at least another game.

The Canes, of course went on to win the Stanley Cup. However, until they met Edmonton (another skating team) they didn’t face a test as stern as the Koivu-led Canadiens. What was true in 2006 may be true again with the Capitals. Like the Hurricanes, the Capitals play the game Montreal likes. Like the Hurricanes (going in with Gerber, anyway), the Caps are beatable at the back. The Capitals must be favourites for the Cup, but where they’d love to play Boston who can’t score and would struggle to use goaltending first as a strategy against the Caps firepower the Canadiens can score against undisciplined defences.

Another straw for Has fans to clutch at is that this team has been best at teams that open up at the back. Counter-attack offense is not built for the Devils who outwait the counter. It is built for teams like the Caps who go all in on offense and expose the last D-man for a break.

The Habs won't win if Pouliot and Cammalleri don't sort out their shooting. But if they do, the Caps will have a lot to think about.

Go Habs Go.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

If Only Words Won Cups

Mtl 1, Wash 0

Tomas Plekanec seems to have scored the first goal in the parallel series that is the verbal bandy played off ice. He offered a searching shot, a sort of snap shot from behind the goalpost:
"It’s not like we’re going against Brodeur or Miller. They don’t have a dominant goaltender. When you look at the goaltending matchup in this series it favors our team. I just believe that our goaltending is more solid than theirs. I’m not saying their goalies are bad. I’m just saying our goalies are better."

Washington got wind. Bruce Boudreau responded, but I think we can outright disregard comments that say a coach would prefer having Theodore to the Vezina frontrunner and a man who the trophy would be named for had he played 80 years earlier.

Theodore responded too. But his technique was reminiscent of his displays when opponents tried on the high shot in Montreal:
"Tomas who? Jagr? Oh, Plekanec. OK. I thought you meant Jagr."
Jose might have been able to save the innocuous shot had he any semblance of wit. instead, he offered a nonsensical comment about Jagr, or Jagr's lesser known cousin Tomas.

It's a goal and a win for Mtl.

For the next round of banterball, Theo might do well to take some tutelage from his namesake Mourinho in Milan who once replied to
"Is Mourinho up for my job at Milan? We’ve already found someone to replace [Alessandro] Costacurta, but if we’d known earlier, we could have found him a job. Helping the goalkeeper coach? No, he’s never played football, he wouldn’t be capable of shooting on goal."
not with:
"Carlo who? Lagerfeld?"
but the more apt and cutting:
"My dentist is great, even though he’s never had a toothache."

Maybe it's a lot to ask a hockey player to say something interesting. Whatever the case, it seems that in this series, simply having the shot reach Theodore will be enough to score points. If only hockey were so straightforward.


The great unsaid

No one on the Caps would say it, but it's the great unspoken truth. The Canadiens may not need to worry about Theodore (maybe they do). One thing is for sure though, the Caps didn't lose in 20+ straight games in regulation when he was in. What the Canadiens must worry themsleves about here is that even if the Caps do have a weaker goalie to face, they have shown repeatedly that they can win, and win well, despite him.

In no other city would the name "Three-or-more" be thrown around with such affection as Washington, they the city where seeing 4 goals scored at home is cause for a refund.