Monday, May 31, 2010

Bettman Very Small-Minded

This morning, I read that Gary Bettman had recently slammed the IIHF for its comments over players.

The elfin commissioner was right about Rene Fasel being out of line, but completely short-sighted in the rest of his commentary:

"I'm not happy with the way the IIHF somehow feels it has an entitlement to these great athletes who risk their careers, and put themselves out of their own time without anything but love of country to be belittled by the IIHF. If I sounded a little passionate on the subject I apologize, actually, I don't"

I understand that Bettman is the man that has been hired by the owners of the NHL teams (and the men that they believe they own the men who play for them) to make sure the NHL is where hockey lives. I understand he wouold rather not have any hockey games outside the 30 cities where his teams have jurisdiction. But that is small-minded.

The perfect juxtaposition for Bettman's feeble foresight is the grand est sporting event on earth about to take place in 10 days time. Football's World Cup is an event played by professional footballers for their countries, for free. Like the NHL, the English, French, Spanish, Italian, German and every other league worldwide laments the problems of injury and fatigue that the World Cup (and particularly the two-year long qualifying campaign) has on their paid employees.

However, the leagues around the world have gotten over it. More to the point, they have rejigged to be able to take advantage of the surge that such a tournament (and other similar tournaments provide. Savvy teams travel to markets like Malaysia and Japan where equity for the sport has been built internationally, but unmatched in their domestic competition. And, as the owners of Milan Baros' former contract would attest, teams aren't shy to equate international performance (and the spotlight it provides) to tack on millions and millions in transfer fee demands.

In short, while no sport has had the perfect approach, it seems that in football teams and international federations have at least come together enough to realise that they can grow the game together and feast on the harvest together as well.

Hockey is a poor cousin by comparison. Every international competition is met with great reluctance, if it is held at all. Sure the Olympics were great, but even there most NHL owners want out. Instead of looking to Sochi in 4 years as a chance to galvanise another country behind its host team's quest for Gold, NHL relics worry about their 41 homes games only.

But hockey has a real chance to be a number two sport in some countries in Europe. Scandinavia and certain Eastern countries are already there, but comsider that Switzerland, Austria and even Germany already have a keen interest, and this without any of the world's best competing in their home leagues. In Germany at the recent World Hockey Championships, a world record 77,000 fans watched their country's team play the USA. To put that in context, that's more fans for one game most Canadians would never think about watching on TV than teams with 19,000 seaters can hope to pull for a sevent game Stanley Cup series with home ice advantage.

There are a lot of fans in countries like Germany, waiting for the chance to see the world's best, apparently. When the world's best decide they'd rather have an extra week tacked on to their 5 month summer instead, then it's easy to see why the tournament organizer would be a little miffed.

The IIHF is trying to mimic FIFA's model by setting up meaningful competitions like championships and Champions' Leagues, but the NHL wants none of it.

So while we read how the NHL is living its greatest TV moments since 1999 with a final between two American cities where hockey fans actually live, it is still a pathetic set of numbers.

1/3 of TV sets in Chicago and a quarter in Philadelphia as well as 3% of Americans watched the Stanley Cup final Game 1. Sure it looks good next to a Pittsburgh final, but consider for a moment what football can do:

- 93 million viewers on average per game for the World Cup
- Nearly 300 millions viewers around the world for the Final
- Nearly 6 billion viwers over the whole tournament


The NHL TV numbers are child's play in comparison. As a fan of the game. And a believer that hockey really is the best game on earth, it's more than a little bit disappointing to have to sit behind leadership who see their middling success and want to call it a day.

A very small-minded approach indeed.

Monday, May 24, 2010

Game #3-5

Montreal's Luck Runs Out - Season Is Over

Details



Date: 24/05/10
Opponent: Flyers
Location: Philadelphia

Loss: 2-4

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

Habs goalscorers: Gionta, Gomez
Opposition goalscorers: Richards, Asham, Carter (2)



Play of the game


Scoring first is the key (for us at least) to winning, so, getting up within a minute was special and was reason to celebrate. That one goal told us what we all believed all along - Leighton was beatable, their D was penetrable and we still knew how to score. It was a Gionta-Gomez goal which was right off the practice rink. Gio to Scott as he broke in, and then back to the marksman to finish the job. It gave us the start we were looking for and we were off. A few bad plays later (story of the series) and everything was completely undone.



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 a strong game as he scored a goal and added an assist. You can't ask much more of players like that than to score and to get to the net. His 7 shots and tenacity around Leighton made him the single standout in that department for us.

Scott Gomez
Scott finally scored and it couldn't have come at a more crucial time. That, combined with his assist, was really enough from his line, but with Camms, Pleks and Kostitsyn doing little to contribute Gomez found it hard to add too much more. Scott certainly proved himself as a number-one centre these playoffs and I do look forward to seeing him in action next year.

Mathieu Darche
This can't be, can it? Nothing against Darche, but in yet another 'most important game of the year' we needed someone other than Darche to be here. He worked alright, but didn't do too much to stand out. What he did do, though, may get him a contract this summer and that is that he ended at +2 (the only + on the team). Not sure if he was great in our own end, but at least he can look at himself in the mirror and honestly say that he wasn't the reason we lost. How many other Habs can do that?

Defencemen

Roman Hamrlik
The first goal was not Hammer's fault, not one bit. Yes, it was he who crashed into Halak, but what on earth was Jaro thinking? Roman was going to be there and at worst it would only be a backhand partial-break if he wasn't. Aside from that play, which clearly stood out, Hammer played alright. He actually ended the game at 'even' as he was on the ice, a few minutes before his collision, for Gionta's goal - he picked up his 9th assist on the play.

Josh Gorges - Game Puck
Josh was the only other defenceman that I thought actually played well (Spacek was next best with a decent performance). Best of all, he made a few outstanding plays to break up some odd man rushes. These playoffs were a very clear example of why we must keep this guy for as long as we can. Building around him, Markov and Subban would be a very wise move. Add to that the fact that we have Hammer, Spacek and Gill under contract and one may suggest that we should be looking at a little more depth-scoring this off-season, not D.

Goaltender

Jaroslav Halak
Halak really dropped the ball on that first goal, a goal that really broke our back (it was short-handed). After that (and even before) he made some fantastic saves and actually kept the game closer than it probably should have been. Not his best game, but not the reason we lost. All in all a good season and good playoffs. I think we all hope to see him back as the solidified #1 next year as a full season with him could be very interesting indeed.


Comments


There is the 'at least we made it this far' part of me that is happy and that is grateful that, after 17 years, we have come this far. I am happy that Halak, Cammalleri and Gionta have all emerged as big-game players. Happy that Gorges and Gill and Lapierre and Moore are all a lot more than I thought they were. Then there is the part of me that is bitter, is mad and is wondering how a team that looked so deadly two weeks ago (for a month straight) could, all of a sudden, have trouble getting around this ordinary opponent. Both of these parts of me meet in the middle and my conclusions are that we did well to get here, but we blew what may be our best chance for the next 10-20??? years. 'Blew' is a harsh word, but that is what it feels like.

Chances like this don't come around for the Habs or Flyers of this league very often and to lose as we did (being out-played for most of the series) hurts. We can all look to next year with the hope that we'll be back, with the hope that this was the start of something, but there is also that part of me that wonders if this was our fluke year and if next year we'll be back to normal. What can never be taken away, however, was that excitement in beating the Caps and the Pens. Habs fans haven't felt like that in years and it was fun to, once again, have the city living and breathing the Habs. Hockey is a big part of our lives and we need a run like this, every now and then, to remind us why we watch 82+ games a year. This was reward (slight as it may have been) for all of those fans who believed last July 1st and who gave Gomez, Gionta, Gill, Cammalleri, Spacek and Martin a chance. So, thank you Habs, thanks for giving me good bang for my buck this year. 101 games in your 101st season is pretty good. I do, however, want one more year where those numbers correlate because once you get a taste all you want is more, more, more.

The Karma Initiative

Last night the finale of Lost dominated the airwaves as recaps, interviews and the show itself were aired for nearly 6 hours. If the theme of the lengthy series was being lost (either in body or soul) then the ending, if it were a self-contained movie might be called Found.

One of the favourite devices of the writers of the TV program was to bring back long since "deceased" characters to resolve a plot line or move the story along. As the main protagonists all attempted to move to where they needed to be, these forgotten friends often appeared to help them along. Setting the whole thing in motion was Charlie, and then finishing the job were some cameos from Rose and even Shannon.

The Canadiens look set to dominate the airwaves in this house tonight. What, with recap videos, interviews and the game itself, it all seems a little familiar. Like the ABC moneyspinner, the Canadiens are seeking a resolution. Lots of things they once held are now lost. Their fans hope some may be found.

Habs fans hear ad nauseum how lucky they've been to beat Washington and Pittsburgh. Cammalleri has been shooting over 20%, Gionta at nearly 13%. Their goalscorers have been lucky. And Halak, maintaining a save percentage of over 0.930 after a season at only 0.926 – well he had to come crashing to earth.

Perhaps they have. Turn around and hear Philadelphia's wonderful system creating a team worthy of moving forward. No out of whack stats there...

While Cammalleri and Halak have done their best Jack and Sawyer impressions, the dwindling cast of contributors might need more help. Lost for some time has been Benoit Pouliot. Once the man to mark, he hasn't been that man since early March. And the goalscoring of others has been AWOL too. Andrei Kostitsyn (who Brunet reminds us about every shift) hasn't scored since an April hat trick. Gomez's goals even more distant. And you can add Plekanec to the mix. If you've lost count that's 2/3 of the top lines. Add Metropolit to the mix, a 10 goalscorer on the PP and 16 overall, as he has 0 in the playoffs (as long a stretch as 1/4 of a season). And you might as well think about Hamrlik, goal-less, and Darche too.

There's not a 50 goal-man in there, but there are a few 20 goal threats. And while 20 goal men will have 60 scoreless games in a season, and are not at all unfamiliar with 18 game slumps, the thing about them is they do score 20 goals. Sooner or later, one of these players will bounce one in off Ryan Parent or score a goal with an ankle. Sooner or later, their line change will be cut short by an unlucky Flyers bounce to spring a breakaway for the Habs – one on which they actually score.

If this series were long enough (80 games, say), I'd even expect all these things to happen. The interesting thing here is that time is running out. Will the Canadiens, lie the writers of Lost be able to resolve their season. Will karma, like the writers of Lost call on the Shannons of the team to move the plot along.

We'll see.


Karma sometimes comes back to you too at some point

Or at least, that's what I hear.

Perhaps a team that made the playoffs on the back of a terrible second half and a shootout, and the Conference final due to a heroic turn of karma should be careful what they wish for.

Perhaps a guy that plays on the very edge of the rules and looks to all but the NHL disciplinary committee to step on the ice to end careers sometimes shouldn't count his chickens before they've hatched. Or perhaps be wary of calling others cheats, as he did the Bell Centre staff just the other day.

After all, who in the hell do you think you are? A superstar? Well right you are...

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Game #3-4

Flyers/American Viewers Get Their Afternoon Game/Win

Details



Date: 22/05/10
Opponent: Flyers
Location: Montreal

Loss: 0-3

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

Habs goalscorers: None
Opposition goalscorers: Giroux (2), Leino



Play of the game


Not much to speak of here, but, for a change, how about a defensive play from Bergeron. After a season of atrocity in his own end he finally made an outstanding play back there - didn't count for anything, but at least he did it. The play, of course, was the dive, swipe and crash that prevented a third (temporarily) Flyer goal. The puck looked certain to be a goal, but with great speed and a well-timed dive MAB gave Habs fans one last bit of hope.



Dome hockey team

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

Forwards

Glen Metropolit
It says a lot when your best centre is supposed to be your fourth best and when he only plays 5 minutes. Glen wasn't great tonight, but for the brief time that we saw him he did play with some life. Maybe he can teach something about face-offs against Philly players to Gomez and Pleks as they were a combined 10/38; Metro was 3/4.

Maxim Lapierre
Not as good as he has been, but surely he was plenty good enough. The Habs only managed 17 shots throughout this game as they were looking for cute shots rather than any old shot. It says a lot when a player who is on the ice for less than 1/4 of the game takes close to 30% of your shots (he had 5).

Andrei Kostitsyn
Camms and Pleks were shut down today, but one player that the Flyers let skate around was Andrei. He didn't manage to score that goal that we really need from him, but with 3 decent shots, in a game so bad, I can't simply overlook him. Is it time to let him loose, though, to get him on a line with Sergei? Wouldn't you rather a happy (and potentially dangerous) duo than a coach that has to prove a point?

Defencemen

Hal Gill
I can trace each of the first two goals to defensive blunders committed by a total of three players. First there was Gorges who was more concerned with his skate than the play, then there was PK who, although having a bad game, thought that he could breakthrough 4 Flyers and lastly Hammer who decided a rest was more important than covering his rookie partner. Add to that the fact that O'Byrne hardly played (why exactly are we dressing him if he is to play so little?) and Bergeron was, again, horrible and you can see how I got to Gill. Oh ya, he also saved a goal and probably should have got a penalty for it, but didn't - awesome.

Jaroslav Spacek - Game Puck
Jaro was the only defenceman that I thought actually played well today the only one that I wanted to see on the ice. Once again, though, he was not used very much as his partners simply can't be trusted. There must be a way to get Spacek into the game more as I think he has shown, over the past week or so, that he has the potential to be one of our best blue-liners. For me it was his defensive play that stood out again as he did the little things right and avoided any big mistakes.

Goaltender

Jaroslav Halak
Nothing to get mad about with Halak as I thought both goals were very high-percentage chances. Saves on one or both of those would have been nice, but shouldn't be expected, not even from Jaro. It is a shame that he getting out-dueled by Leighton, though, as I firmly believe (and I think 30 GMs would concur) that he is the better of the two.


Comments


Montreal started the game well, but after about 10 minutes, or so, looked out of it. The second period was a disaster for us and then, by the third, it was too little too late. I feel that if we don't get up early we are an easy team to beat and that was clearly on display again today. Philly didn't even have to take a penalty to stop us until the third, by which time it was over for us anyway. I think that a factor may have been the start time as the Habs never, ever play at 3. Why on earth Montreal has to start their home game, their only Saturday one of the playoffs, at 3pm is beyond me. I get it, NBC want to fit in a game before prime time, thus not sacrificing their precious evening line-up, but honestly, come on. We are, once again, bowing down to people who don't even want to watch hockey anyway. It says a lot that we are catering to fans that would rather watch re-runs of Grey's Anatomy or CSI on a Saturday night than a hockey game. It would be one thing if this was a Philly home game, but there is no good reason why we should all change our routines so the NHL can line their pockets just a bit more. I am convinced that a team that plays often during this TV time-slot (because that is all that hockey is now anyway) is going to have an edge against players who are forced out of their routine for a one off. This game represents just one more example of how much of a joke this league is, how far behind every other major sport we really are.

We aren't dead yet and we certainly have the tools to get it done. Encouraging too is that I believe, with Leighton in nets, Philly has the tools to meltdown too. So, it will be tough, but we all know what can happen with a win on Monday. I think that it has been a great season, but I am all for making it that much greater. It will be interesting to see which of the Habs feel the same way as I do.

Overseas Habs Fans Not Complaining

Those times I have been in Europe for Habs games have been interesting. Watching a playoff game on an internet stream on your own is bad enough. To have to do it from 1 am to 4 am is downright antisocial.

There's been a lot of griping about the afternoon game. A lot of the whining insinuates that this gives the players on one side an advantage and the players on the other a disadvantage. In separate pieces I have read about how the Canadiens might suffer from less time to recover and how the Canadiens will exploit Philly's fatigue.

Here's what I think. The afternoon game is no different for either team. I think champions will be champions regardless of a few hours difference in puck drop. In the World Cup, teams play at all different times. The Champions' League final is often won by teams tha play their domestic Cup final at 3 pm. Even hockey players get massive variety with games on either coast. The game will be the game.

I also think of the fans who are over in Europe. The Habs fans especially. I think of The Soft European , a blogger whose work i very much enjoy. I think of the significant following this blog has in the UK. I think of our Finnish readers who've made up hours on this site like a medium-sized Canadian city. I think fondly of The Famous Three Kings in West Kensington where I expect many a Habs fan I know will be taking in the affair with a pint for once.

All these fans, a true and hard core group, will probably relish a chance to watch with spouses, children or friends like I did. I hope they get a good show.

Go Habs Go.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Game #3-3

Leighton and Habs Back To Normal; We're Back In It

Details



Date: 20/05/10
Opponent: Flyers
Location: Montreal

Win: 5-1

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

Habs goalscorers: Cammalleri, Pyatt, Moore, Gionta, Bergeron
Opposition goalscorers: Gagne



Play of the game


A game can go many different ways, so getting off to a good start sure helps to tip the scales in your favour. Scoring the first goal is something that has worked well for us this year and, as we have seen recently, when we don't get the lead we are an easier team to beat. Tonight, seven minutes in, Cammalleri made a great play to put us up by 1; it was a lead that we would never give up. It started with Mike pushing a player towards the goalie to give himself room (being cheap and not getting called - excellent) and then a shot off net from P.K. came in. The puck came out the other side and Leighton, as he was trying to get over, got caught in the player that was pushed towards him. With an open net there was no doubt: 1-0 Habs.



Dome hockey team

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

Forwards

Brian Gionta
It is often said that players like Gionta (your big players; oh the irony) have to step up in games like this, must-wins, and that is just what he did. He scored a fabulous goal and had many other great chances throughout the night. His 7 shots on goal, again, impressed me as he always knew what to do, where to go.

Maxim Lapierre
Max plays best when he is mad, when the other team gives him a reason to be mad. Now, for the third time in these playoffs, Laps finally hates the opposition. The edge was back, the pestering revealed again and that is exactly what we needed from him. His line was dynamite all game as they scored 2 goals and spent a lot of time in Philly's end.

Dominic Moore
Lapierre's linemate, Moore, also played a very good game and, once again, gave a very good french interview after 40. With play like this and media relations like that one would have to be very blind to not see that he is a perfect fit in Montreal. He was back to his 1st/2nd round self with very solid play throughout the game, in both ends. He was a big reason why we won tonight as, in all, he had a goal, an assist and was +2.

Defencemen

Roman Hamrlik
- Game Puck
I had Roman in the dome before I knew the stars, then I found out that he was first star. Without a choice of my own yet I wanted to find out more. What I saw, I liked. He picked up 2 assists, although neither were crucial passes, but also did so much more. In addition to his points, and his +4 rating, he was very good in front of Halak and played a near perfect game with Subban. As good as everyone has been I think he has to be our general, he has to be Markov's replacement. If tonight was any indication (the day after Markov has been ruled out for the year) I would say he may very well be up for the job.

Jaroslav Spacek
Number three in D-man ice-time (Hammer, Gorges) was Spacek tonight and I thought that he deserved every second. He played with either O'Byrne or Bergeron the whole night and did a lot to make sure that they didn't look too bad. Early on Jaro was making big defensive plays on almost every shift and I felt that that played a big part in helping Halak get into the game in a good way.

Goaltender

Jaroslav Halak
Jaroslav made some huge saves early on which I think took the Flyers out of the game as much, if not more so, than our own goals. 26 shots against is a quiet night for him, but it was back to making it look easy, back to doing what he had to do. It was a shame to see that one goal go in, but, apart from hurting the stats (who cares), I have no problem with it.


Comments


One thing that we have to remember, even after this game, is that Leighton is a bad goalie and that Philly was barely better than us over the course the year. That gives me confidence, it gives me confidence that tonight's Halak is closer to the real goalie than Sunday's. It makes me even happier to know that Cammalleri hasn't forgotten how to score (I was really worried for a second) and that our D can play at the NHL level. Enough with idiotic statements, though, because all that matters is that this is the playoffs. Who has the best this or that doesn't matter at all. Can't the two teams in this series be example enough of that? The only thing that matters at this time of year is how much you want it. Tonight the Habs wanted it more than Philly and more than they wanted it since Game #7, and it showed. Our win tonight ensures that this series keeps going, not that we will win. We are as likely to win 5-1 on Saturday as we are to lose 0-6. The playoffs are like that and that is just a fact. Montreal knows what they have to do and they have the tools to do it, but the problem is that the same can be said for Philly. If, however, we can all play to our potential then we have the edge, we can win the series. If we don't want it as much, or more, than them then why would we even want to be in the Cup final? Saturday is the next step along the way and it would be a very good idea to win it. I won't, however, count this team out until they are out and I will keep believing as long as they believe themselves.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Game #3-2

Comeback Required As Flyers Take Page (Pages) From Montreal's Playoff Book

Thanks to Ian and my Dad who helped fill in the blanks as Tobalev and I were caught having to accept an award during sporadic iphone game viewing

Details



Date: 18/05/10
Opponent: Flyers
Location: Philadelphia

Loss: 0-3

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

Habs goalscorers: None
Opposition goalscorers: Briere, Gagne, Leino


Play of the game


Possibly Halak's save on Asham about midway through the 2nd. A defensive miscue (which has been par for the course this series) allowed Asham to get free with the puck and skate in all alone on Halak. Good fundamentals allowed Halak to completely shut down a dangerous breakaway with a 1-0 score, keeping the home crowd a little quieter and the momentum in the Canadiens' court. However sadly futile it turned out to be.



Dome hockey team

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

Forwards

Michael Cammalleri
Spearheaded the best of our offence, including some prolonged rushes in the Flyers zone. Had a great steal and a great chance off that. Played hard every shift, like he was desperate to score, which we are. Played just over 24 minutes, the most of any forward.

Brian Gionta
Another guy you can tell is doing everything he can every shift to put the puck in there - he led all skaters with 8 shots and really tried to get something going with Gomez and Moen. His dumb penalty should take him out of the running, but because of his lackluster teammates it really doesn't tonight.

Andrei Kostitsyn
Our friendly observers do not come out with agreement on the forwards after this affair, but on balance I choose Andrei as well. He caught our eyes several times with heads-up plays, including a dandy to get a nice solo chance on Leighton. In large part making it because so much of the rest of the team was poor (i.e. he also didn't catch my eyes with too many big mistakes), but also in part because the team needs an injection of what Andrei Kostitsyn can provide. Despite all my respect for Dominic Moore and his effort, finding the lethal shot is now much more important than reinforcing the value of hard work.

Defencemen

PK Subban - Game Puck
Proving he's the real deal by coming back from a bad night with an almost on-par performance; "almost" because Subban has set an unfairly high standard for himself with his performance so far these playoffs. He provided most of the flair on this night, and more energy than most of the team. He played decent defence, and was willing to take some smart risks to create some offence. His worst missed play did anger me significantly (should have gotten a puck and shot on a power play in the third), but at least it was in the offensive end - and arguably would have been too little too late in any case.

Roman Hamrlik
Gorges was in until that goal in the third period - while Halak was caught sleeping, there was time to yell at Gorges to hit his man 3 times before Leino, scored. Hamrlik, on the other hand had a fairly solid game at the back end – adequate if not spectacular. It pains me that a player could make the dome for Game #98 simply by show of effort, but that is what gets Roman in. His 5 attempts on net are at the very least a start, an example of how to beat the mysterious Philadelphia defensive system.

Goaltender

Jaroslav Halak
He teeters in here with the casual goaltending that deflated any hope of comeback in the third. But hear us out. Briere's goal was a beauty, one for the highlight reels - so top-corner that it bounces in off the crossbar. In addition, Halak made some downright spectacular saves over the next 30 minutes; he even made the first save on the rush leading to the second goal. Halak did everything to keep his team in it until he got caught sleeping on a shot that never should have been taken. It’s borderline for him, but given his early proficiency, the blame can’t entirely be laid at the goaltender’s feet when the team has scored no goals over 120 minutes.


Comments


Last night, Tobalev and I were both caught having to go accept an award for some volunteering we did together. Like the organizers of the event, who joked that they hold these things in mid-May to avoid Montreal playoff conflicts, we were caught in a happy/unhappy conflict. The meal was good, the speeches were good, and it's a good thing for Blackberries and iPhones, because half the room was on score duty. Many tables huddled around the tiny phone screens.

Anticipating the worst, we asked my Dad and friend and friend and stern habs critic, Ian, to fill us in with their impressions and select a dome. Having watched many games with both, we can tell from the comments that this was a game in which we'd have shared in the frustration. No initiative, no energy, tame shots, slow defence, incomprehensible tactics - these are all themes (and I'm sure you'd all agree). The result as always colouring the impression, yet how could it not. At some point players have to start doing anything, or at least appear to be willing to do anything to win.

If we stretch, we tease out some positives. Subban recovered. Halak was not world-beating, and let in a bad goal, but a team that could score at all would have a chance with him. The Plekanec line looks like they might be making inroads. Lapierre and Moore, though underused can be relied upon.

So where from here?

Well, we watch for a start. Clearly awards ceremonies are out.

Seriously though. The Canadiens really do have to start taking the initiative. The Flyers are taking a page from Jacques Martin on D. It's high time the Habs watch some Pittsburgh and Washington game tape. Just off the top of my head, I think I can point to shots from outside as key. Pittsburgh had to lose Game #2 before they understood that beating Halak from inside was going to be unlikely at ES. They adjusted and started shooting, and shooting smart from the bluelines. The Habs could learn big from this as Leighton is only human, and like Halak he can't save all that he can't see. Sooner or later a point shot will go in. Maybe two. It's easy to forget how close Pittsburgh came to winning by relying on Gonchar and Letang, but the time to remember that is now.

All is certainly not lost. I said today, that I have a feeling the final won't be Chicago vs. Philly. There's a comeback in these Conference finals. An early goal Monday, from the point, from in close, off a knee, anyhow, anywhere is the perfect way to make sure it's not Jumbo Joke.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

The Canadiens Need A Rethink

The other night was a mess for the Canadiens. But of the many ways to lose, 6-0 is not the worst. In fact, Don Cherry joined many a fan in thinking that a drubbing may be just the medicine for the Canadiens to open this series. A call as to what they need to expect and how far they have yet to go.

It’s a theory I have heartily bought all my years. When rivals of equal measure meet, the lopsided defeat is often the sounding of the turnaround alarm. An OT defeat, as Cherry points out gives too much optimism, sometimes warranted, often not.

It is the binding hope of all Habs fans today that Pronger, Leighton, Carle and Gagne will be so sure of their plans and abilities that they’ll forget the Canadiens are allowed to play better. It is the hope fed by that win that Carcillo and Hartnell will be unleashed, listening no more to their coach (and restrainer) as they try to get in on the act, while taking their eye off the prize.

Not minutes after a rare meeting of minds between Cherry and me did Elliotte (still dying for someone to answer a question) Friedman chat with Daniel Briere in the hallway of the Wachovia underbelly.

It was there the spanner in the works. It was there I realized that the Canadiens must beware not Briere’s shot, but his realism. For, while he succeeded in pointing a screened effort into the top corner in the second, most shots do not go in. But realism in the face of what should be bald-faced optimism by all Flyers is disturbing.

Briere would not take the bait from Elliotte on Halak, though he did admit they had looked at tape. Briere instead chose to invoke luck and timing rather than take the heaps of credit 6-0 victors usually reserve for their celebrations. It was fortune that felled Halak and fortune that prevented an answer from the bleu, blanc, rouge.

Not taking credit is nothing new. Players often credit their teammates, their goalie or their coach for what has clearly been successful exploits of their own. Players too often thank their luck.

The problem here is, rarely do I believe them.

In Briere’s case, there was too much matter-of-fact to sense it was rehearsed. He believed what he said, or so I thought.


The hockey playoffs are a race to the finish line. Each series a heat where a competitor must outrun another to succeed to the next.

As a racer, I learned a lot about psychological advantage, mind games. Most competitors have a breaking point, the point at which a lead cannot be covered, a comeback unattainable. Most competitors also have the inverse, a comfort zone from which they can drive the whole affair. The games come in with the strategy; sometimes a racer will allow his rival to lead to exploit the comfort that the lead induces, conserving energy for the strike that takes the tape away.

We’ve seen already that both these teams are plucky. Neither will roll over and die if there is a shred to hang onto. If the Canadiens, like their fans and Don Cherry, hoped that lulling the Flyers into a sleepy series was their key, I think they’d better think again. If these Flyers look to Daniel Briere in the least, they are a focused bunch.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Game #3-1

I Don't Get It, We Outshot Them?

Details



Date: 16/05/10
Opponent: Flyers
Location: Philadelphia

Loss: 0-6

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

Habs goalscorers: None
Opposition goalscorers: Coburn, Van Riemsdyk, Briere, Gagne, Hartnell, Giroux



Play of the game


Our best chance to be in this game was a predictable cross-checking penalty from all-time NHL bone-head, Chris Pronger. It was 1 minute in and it seemed like a goal would send us on our way to stealing home-ice. It, however, ended there. A penalty for Gomez on that PP was really the beginning of the end as it was all Flyers from that point on.



Dome hockey team

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

Forwards

Andrei Kostitsyn
Andrei had more dangerous moments than any other forward. They came in the form of shots and passes and he was also responsible for creating some turnovers. I don't feel like he, personally, played that much worse than usual, unlike the rest of his teammates.

Tomas Plekanec
Tomas played much worse than we need him to play, but was still better than most of his teammates. He worked well with Andrei tonight, but it seemed like Camms was a bit out of this one, which of course hurt their line. His 5 shots impressed me, even if they weren't too dangerous - shows how little impresses me in a loss.

Glen Metropolit
Metro was the only one of the bottom-6 to really play well. He wasn't great, but there were a few moments that I really liked in the offensive zone. Martin must have noticed something too as he more than tripled his usual ice-time and rewarded the ex-Flyer with a whopping 11 minutes.

Defencemen

Josh Gorges
Subban is out, Gill wasn't great, Hammer was on for too many against and Bergeron, despite not being at the root of any goals, still looked pretty bad. So, it has to be Gorges. Not sure what he did tonight other than not be as bad as those four, but so be it. O'Byrne clearly has to play and Bergeron, if he must play, must be used only on the PP, I really don't see any other way.

Jaroslav Spacek - Game Puck
Why the game-puck? Why not, I say. After all, can you name anyone who really deserves it, really? I thought that Jaro played the best in his own end and appreciated the fact that he wasn't on for any goals against. He led the team in blocked-shots with 4, but, for some reason (tied down with Bergeron as his partner, perhaps???) only saw 17 minutes of ice.

Goaltender

Jaroslav Halak
Both goalies were brutal, both have to be better. I go with Jaro tonight because I thought his puck-handling wasn't as bad and I felt that the goals he let in (3 while one-man down) were less stoppable than what Price faced. Halak, however, was the one who put us in the hole (or was at least there when the hole was dug) and we clearly need better from him.


Comments


Bad start to the series, but that is all it is, the start to the series. A loss is a loss, whether it be 0-6 or 1-2, a loss is a loss. The Habs are as likely to bounce back after this loss as they would be to lose after a huge win of their own. So, I am not afraid that all of a sudden we forgot how to play hockey, that we will never score again or that Philly is the most unbeatable team there is. No, I have faith that we will get back into this series, somehow, some way. The negatives are of course the goaltending (which we are all 100% certain can and will be better) and the lack of scoring. But, I do take away some satisfaction in the fact that we held the Flyers to only 25 shots and that Leighton is their goalie. He looks very beatable and, with the talent we have, how can one really be worried? Goals will come. Tuesday, I guess, is when this series will really start - do you think we can win 4 of 6?

Habs v. Flyers

Hope You Enjoyed Your Day Off Hockey

The last few nights have been luxurious. I haven't even played a second, haven't had to block one of 320 shots, and I appreciated a rest from the playoff onslaught. The Montreal fans I met and shared drinks with last night all felt the same. Some time off was welcome, a weekend without two hockey games a chance to remember real life.

I can only imagine that it was 100 times better for the players. Grab some time at home, see the kids, watch a movie, skip the media for a day or two.

Back to the grindstone today though.


Last night, I encountered a lot of trepidation for this upcoming series. Many times, I was asked the same question: "Which team would I have preferred for the Canadiens opponent?"

Each time, I answered the same way: "The team that lost".

A playoff series is a trying for any team. A 7-game series is a true test of any team's mettle. In my humble opinion, any team that can beat the same opponent 4 times in such a short span deserves to at least receive the credit they deserve for that win.

Coming into this series, both Montreal and Philadelphia are getting less than value for what they have done till now. Though Boston may have collapsed, it was Philly sticking with the task and staying out of the box that paved the way to victory. Forgotten, already in the shadow of their historic comeback is they beat many peoples' number one Eastern team (the Devils) very handily with a makeshift goaltending team. Montreal too has been questioned. Beating Pittsburgh the way they did still not worthy enough to earn them credit for their Washington victory.

But it doesn't matter. New Jersey, Boston, Washington and Pittsburgh are behind. Montreal and Philadelphia are worthy contenders for the Eastern crown because they are standing. Even if we can't quite explain how or why.

As I look forward and try to predict a series outcome, I find it difficult. The series till now offer little guidance. Philly has shown the ability to overcome trapping with goaltending, but that doesn't make them stand out from Washington or Pittsburgh as opponents. Montreal has pounced on rickety defences for timely scoring, but haven't yet had need, real need to make Plan Bs on attack.

The season series isn't much help either. 2-2 all told. Philly boosters look to February's back-to-back to say Montreal is outclassed, but conveniently overlook Game 4, the playoff clinching (in retrospect) 1-0 shutout from Halak.

It's an interesting series, and far from predictable. Let's consider the matchups:


Goaltending


Montreal has Halak. So far the best goalie in the playoffs, one of the best in the season. Has won in pressure games, has stoned Ovechkin, Malkin, Crosby and Backstrom.

Philadelphia had a charmed run from Boucher, but now must rely on Michael Leighton. It was Boucher that won the shootout to attain the playoffs and overcame Parise and Kovalchuk. Leighton so far has been great, but one wonders if the anemia of Boston's attack, and overcoming Satan and Recchi (in 2010, not 1998) means a little less than what Halak has put forward.

My edge here goes to Montreal. Anyone who has ever written off a goalie (ahem) will know that the edge is often les than it seems.


Defence

Montreal has has allowed so many shots that stats bashers are having fits. The fact it is systematic troubles some even more. Still, letting a goalie see shots and clearing rebounds has been the priority since Game 5 in Washington and it's been taken on board as the priority. Gill has been an obstruction machine while the whistles are away, and should still be. Gorges, Spacek and co. also pretty good at what they do.

Philadelphia has been impressive in this regard. Against NJ, the corps allowed only a single ES goal against in their 4 wins. Pronger's name gets mentioned a lot, but Montreal mustn't overlook Timonen who drew the big assignments two years ago and blanketed Koivu to little acclaim.

Even with a Markov return, Philly has the edge here. Their lack of penalties against Boston shows why building around obstructers like Pronger, Carle, Coburn and Timonen works if you can make the playoffs on a shootout. Though I think there's something to Martin's use of his staff on D, I can't shake the feeling I'd like those bigger bodies when the whistles are buried.


Forwards


Montreal has 2.5 lines spread over three lines for scoring. Gionta, Cammalleri and Kostitsyn are real threats, while Gomez, Plekanec and Lapierre have found ways to get things done. The defensive play of the forwards is top notch, and shouldn't be forgotten.

Philly has shooters and star power. Richards is a big-game player. Briere and Gagne are earning their money and the supporting cast have goals in them.

Without Jeff Carter and Ian Laperriere in the lineup, the Flyers depth is tested. The match-up is close. If Pouliot ever awoke, this would be a Montreal edge. However, even as a staunch supporter, I've stopped waiting for that. The same could be said for Philly with a return from injury or a new scorer emerging. Until then, this is a push.


By tally that's even in my mind. My thought is that these two teams, both winners in 5 precipice games so far (if you include making the playoffs) aren't here to make up numbers.

Though I'd love to relish a Canadiens victory over a weekend off from hockey watching duties in a couple of weeks, both teams behaviours so far point to a pitched battle.


On a final note, I'd like to offer a word to the know-it-alls who grace the panel TV shows. The idea that this series is all for naught, and that SJ and Chicago are playing for the Cup starting this week is insulting. It's insulting to the players, as it is to we who watch. While it's true that both Montreal and Philly will both be underdogs because of points accumulated, the reporters would do well to remember that both Eastern outfits were among their precious predictions for Cup glory merely 18 months ago. Some picked Philly this fall.

I have learned a valuable lesson about the playoffs again this year from a certain Hal Gill. The lesson is that the regular season might as well be filed under completely irrelevant come May. The players who succeed in piling up wins in winter months are not the same players who make up series winners necessarily. Those same reporters, currently falling over in adoration of Toews and Thornton shouldn't forget this either.

Champions have to be made somewhere. 7 and 8 may be meeting for the Prince of Wales trophy, but it was not from luck alone, nor does previous luck determine future outcomes. Making the Stanley Cup final will be a formidable achievement for one of these teams. Don't think either would be satisfied at that.


Go Habs Go.

Friday, May 14, 2010

Somewhere In Between:

Habs Playoff Success

I am constantly amazed by the material I am able to find written about this edition of the Canadiens. Whether it be journalists who wrote off the team 6 times over the season and certainly after Game 4 in Washington pretending to have prophetic tendencies, fan-bloggers getting a little bit carried away with matters of the divine right and more than a little mixed up about historical events, or bitter rivals inventing frameworks that predict failure based on their limited viewing.

We (and by we I include you readers) have watched this team intently all season, seasons back. We have become familiar with what players are capable of, what is beyond their reach. We may not understand why the Habs ever win, or ever lose, but we are wise enough by now to know that we’ll probably never know.

It is why I take special offence with the extremities of the arguments both for and against this edition of the Habs. For the team, conveniently-postdated theories about Gainey’s prescience, Martin’s tactical genius and Montreal’s perfect mix are just as absurd as the curmudgeons who hang to the thread that luck has determined all and that luck is bounded by some beginning and some end.

I think we all try to find some sense here in our discussions, and I thank you all for that. Is it not then sensible to think that a combination of luck, skill, strategy and tenacity is what we just witnessed? That the combination found by the Canadiens was no more valid or invalid than the combination used by any of the three rivals set to battle for a place in the finals?


Smells of the Cup?

I used to be a big believer in destiny, in teams of destiny. Yes, I was once twelve.

Nowadays, every time I catch an RDS post-game with scenes of newly-minted fans screaming that the stars are aligned, I cringe. While I have come to accept that Montreal is a city full of manic depressive sports followers all gagging for the chance to wear a winner’s sweater, it is the misinterpretation of history that I frown upon more.

“Feels like 93” is perhaps the most hollow statement made by Habs fans these days. What does this mean? It is overused to the extreme, not only after playoff qualification, but in November, January and even August. To some, every year feels like 1993. It leads me to believe that few actually remember what 1993 was like at all. Why 93 anyway? Why not 65 or 73?

When the more thoughtful get involved, you’d think it would get better but it doesn’t. Many also dabble in the mythology of 1993. But not the real story, more the one that’s been rewritten to fit the current circumstance. Always the implication that 1993, 1986, these were somehow underserved Cups, that were it not for some celestial redirections goals would have been misses and misses against goals. I’ve written before on what a dis-service I think this is to the teams of those eras, chock full of all-stars and playoff successes both before and after these triumphs.

1993 felt a lot to different to me. After vanquishing the Nordiques, remember taking the Sabres very lightly, celebrating more for an Islanders win against Pittsburgh than any Habs win in Long Island and thinking the final could go any which way. This year feels nothing like that, except that I didn’t know we’d win the Cup until Game #5 of the Stanley Cup finals, and I don’t know anything of Cup winner now either.

Hockey is not a game of destiny. Though we talk of conspiracies, we’re aware of how impossible they would be to carry through. The playoffs are a tough slog. Winning 4 games against the same opponent in two weeks is hard work, particularly if they have talent. Hard work, commitment to playing as a team and flashes of skill all play a much more significant part than destiny.


The Luck Will Run Out

While the euphoric parade aluminum foil around the city, those who hate the Canadiens are having a parade of their own. A parade of cynicism.

As Sidney Crosby sat there in disbelief after Game 7, citing his theory that the Canadiens strategy was not a workable one (should the Pens then be virtual champs?), acolytes of the same sorts of theories did the same. While foil Cups and pretenses at prophecy make me cringe, the statisticians are making me chuckle.

Corsi-backers, whose material at the moment is so cockeyed I won’t even bother to link, are heading a column. No less than 10 posts have been made on certain sites the Montreal Canadiens, their luck and the prediction that it will al run out.

I know there’s been luck. I understand probabilities. But clearly I’ve been out of it for a while, because I must have missed the part where the stats grinders showed me the incontrovertible proof that they can show where luck begins and ends. I was still of the illusion that a coin flip has a 50% chance of being heads or tails, regardless of what the previous coin flip showed, what the previous hundred thousand showed. I didn’t know that Halak’s save percentage in one series dictated what it will be in the first period of game one of the next.

Most offensive here is the way those who follow their lovable stat with blinders call others deluded in the face of the data. Had they spilled an ounce of effort to employ real scientific curiosity as to the validity of Jacques Martin’s new (and most counterintuitive) model of hockey, then perhaps their dismissals would hold some weight. Instead they wait for the die to fall on seven without checking if they are weighted in any way.

It is the arrogance of the critics that puts me off. How they dismiss Halak as lucky. How they dismiss the Canadiens run as a dead end. How they bundle the Gionta goal at the end of Game 7 into the same shot category as the Orpik shot from the blueline. Just because one may not be able to come up with an adequate explanation for the way things are just yet does not mean that the only alternative is by default infallible. Maybe they should ask Lamarck about that, or any real scientist in the history of time, for that matter.


In between land

As I’ve said many times, I’d like to be able to put a finger on the reason for wins, to attribute points no one could dispute to our players and theirs for how things went. It’s complex, I can’t do that at the moment.

I know from watching that there’s been luck. Lots of luck. Luck that opponents haven’t found rebounds quickly enough, luck that the net isn’t an inch wider, luck that shots go in for the good guys.

I also know that there’s been skill too. Cammalleri scoring, for example. If anyone else had been in the position to have puck hit their knee, they’d probably not be noted as goalscorer on the play. Cammalleri has certain skills, and hand-eye coordination is near top the list.

And strategy. I know it’s highly counterintuitive that allowing shots will work. But the fact that it has should arouse curiosity rather than immediate blinders. Remember that in 1993 most would have laughed Swedish coaching of the trap right out of the room.

The answer is probably in between luck and skill. In between probability and strategy.

But I’ll tell you this as well. No part of the analysis, half-baked or not, tells us one iota of what might happen next week. Predicting the future is a carnival trick – make enough predictions and one will be right. The Habs have ample chance to win Game 1, the series and whatever else. While it would seem likely they’ll be deploying the tactics that work, there’s nothing to say the team won’t simply pack up that tent and find a new strategy. Don’t let anyone tell you it’s over one way or the other. The games are played for that reason. Accept it and enjoy.


The team is wiser

Thankfully, I watch the interviews and I can see all of this is understood by those players. Thankfully, I think that these players have the sense to know they’ve found something that works, but also the experience to know they’ve enjoyed some luck. Thankfully, they are not the one-dimensional adherents to the theory that shots released from the stick, if provided in enough volume, will always prevail.

These Habs have been coached well not only in back-checking and counterattack, but also in grounding. They know that luck received must be appreciated, but never expected, and that hard work doesn’t always pay off.

Most importantly, they seem to have learned that the future is unclear, that a conference final in hand is better than two, three or ten in the bush.

I have to say, in light of all the rest, their good sense makes them even more intriguing to watch.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Game #2-7

Pens Players Not As Ready As The Habs; Next Please!

Details



Date: 12/05/10
Opponent: Penguins
Location: Montreal

Win: 5-2

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

Habs goalscorers: Gionta (2), Moore, Cammalleri, Moen
Opposition goalscorers: Kunitz, Staal



Play of the game


Pittsburgh was coming hard and they were getting the calls they needed to mount their comeback. With the Habs up by 2, and 13 minutes left, Gill got called for touching Crosby. That meant that the Pens, who not only had the momentum, had a chance to get within one with a whole lot of time to spare. Halak, however, was simply unbelievable on this kill and made save after save to preserve our 2-goal lead. One save in particular was too much, it was just too good to be true. The pass/shot came in from Gonchar and went right to Malkin. The Russian deflected it into what he thought was an empty cage. Instead, the puck met the outstretched pad of Halak who, once again, amazed us all.



Dome hockey team

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

Forwards

Brian Gionta
Brian got the ball rolling with a goal early and sealed it with another one late; both were scored on the PP. He wanted this win and you could see it on his face, with every penalty-kill and each time he shot. All of a sudden he has 7 goals in the playoffs and is giving us a potent threat from our second line.

Tomas Plekanec
Pleks doesn't seem too worried about goals or points and seems to only care about winning, winning as a team. He is doing all of the little things fabulously, like getting under Crosby's skin. Where he is standing out the most for me, however, is on the PK. Tonight he played more than any other Hab (6:33) while a man down and was a big reason that the Pens couldn't score on their 6 chances. He also made an incredible pass on Cammalleri's game-winner - just to remind us he can play in that end too.

Travis Moen
Nothing against Cammalleri, who once again was a warrior, but how could I leave out Moen tonight? He was fantastic and filled in very well on the second line. His short-handed goal proved to be more crucial than we could have imagined at the time as he made a complete fool of the way-too-casual Gonchar. Like Plekanec, Travis was a force in both ends as he played a perfect playoff game.

Defencemen

Josh Gorges
Our D was good tonight, but I did feel that Hamrlik, Gill and Bergeron could have done more. Those three made a few too many mistakes for my liking and they could have cost us. One can only wonder if Darche at 2:10 is better than Bergeron off D (O'Byrne in) - especially when 2 guys are just back from injury. Anyhow, Gorges compensated very well for his teammates as he, once again, played an outstanding game. He does, however, now get a lot of praise and I think I'll steal one from Topham when I say Gorges is no longer under-rated, no, now he is simply 'rated'.

P.K. Subban
Subban has proven to be quite the addition to this team and one can only wonder if a series win here (or in Washington) would have been possible without this youngster. It is hard to believe that he is only 20 and that he only has 11 games under his belt, isn't it? I can't, however, always dwell on the fact that he is young and must focus on the fact that he is an able (very able) NHL defenceman. His 5 blocked-shots led the team and his 23 minutes were second only to Gorges. Tomorrow this boy turns 21 and becomes a man, but has been playing like one for what seems like ages.

Goaltender

Jaroslav Halak - Game Puck
After Game #1 Jaro really settled down and had a great series. Getting the hook in that game gave him a chance to rest and get ready for the rest of the series. From that point on he was unbelievable and is, again, the biggest reason that we are moving on. His goaltending, right now, is really as good as it gets and could be enough to take us to where we want to get to. I think that after two long rounds he will benefit from the longer break (we can't start earlier than Sunday) and will hopefully be ready to go in Game #1 in Philly or Boston.


Comments


Montreal started very well, but before we had the chance to start Crosby took a very bad penalty. Maybe a little too excited, maybe trying to get back at Gorges, he hit Josh from behind and it cost him 2. It sunned him (his words) because it was early in a Game #7. Too early to be making a cheap hit? No, Sid thought it was too early to have a penalty. We scored 2 goals within 14 minutes of that and seemed to get in Fleury's head. A particularly brutal hold (uncalled I might add) took Orpik out of the play on our second as he chose to hold Lapierre against the back of the net instead of covering his man, Moore, out front. I felt that our sound play gave us a lead and we were 40 minutes from the end.

The second period started well with another 2 goals, but a bounce off a ref's skate and a dropped stick by Hamrlik got the Pens within 2. The next 15 minutes of hockey would be nearly unbearable as it seemed like it was chance after chance for Malikn and co. We, thanks mostly to Halak, stood our ground, though and then got a 5th to seal it.

The next round, in theory, should be our easiest, but I think we all know that it won't be. Things only get harder as you go through and you can bet your bottom dollar that our opponents will still see us as a beatable 8th seed. Crosby seems to think that getting out-chanced and out-shot isn't the way to go as he 'has never heard of any team doing that as a strategy', so I guess we are doomed. Maybe, however, instead of being sarcastic about our chances he should realize that it was him, more than anyone, who was responsible for the Pens loss here. I don't mean that in a bad way, I just mean that without Sid this isn't the best team in the league, with him, I would say that it is. Montreal found a way to take him out of the game and it worked. Of course it helps when you have a better goalie, but our D also did a great job. Let this be another lesson to those who think that shots and chances should equal wins. No Sid, our strategy is as old as the sport itself - score more than the other team, no matter how on earth you can.

The Canadiens Model

Look around the headlines this time of year. The search for heroes is on. A good story has a hero right? One man who overcomes all adversity to vanquish his counterpart, the evil villain.

Montreal played Washington, the story going in was Ovechkin the hero vs. the pretenders. The story on completion was Halak conquering Ovie.

Similarly, the Pittsburgh series. Crosby vs. Halak.

For the media, it’s a winning formula. People have gobbled up tales of heroes since long before the Ancient Greeks committed their tales to paper. Hero stories capture minds and hearts and in this day and age, sell papers, turn on TV sets and drive web traffic.

It’s a model that amateur media like us bloggers often follow as well. Game after game, we try to pinpoint a moment, try to select a single most heroic player. We try to write a Greek myth. Last game, I wrote on the returning hero that was Jaroslav Spacek, his a tale of adversity and unlikely success. But as I prepare for tonight’s game I have decided rather than to single any one player out to revert to what I know in my heart – that these Montreal Canadiens don’t rely on a single hero, that they do what they do now as 20 men, as a team.

I think that that’s an important thing to remember as we wait out the hours until puck drop. That Pouliot has played in 7 playoff wins, just the same as Lapierre, that Kostitsyn is on a rampant scoring line, just like Cammalleri.

The trigger for me came at the end of Game 6. All series, all playoffs really, I had been waiting on Plekanec. All season, he had been the one player I knew I could rely on to deliver performance night after night. He could set up 4 goals one night to return the next as penalty killer extraordinaire, then solid support player. In the playoffs, I sought his scoring self, his dominant forecheck and his visionary passing. I was left wanting.

The other night, Sidney Crosby was driven to distraction at the end of the game, assessed a penalty that most will have missed during the euphoria. “Ah, it was just Plekanec” Sid said after the game. Just Plekanec, getting under his skin, making his life miserable.

Hearing this quote opened my eyes. Plekanec has been playing well. Intent that if he’s to play like a little girls, he’ll be that one who kicks your ankles and spits on your face in the playground. This series, Plekanec may not be a scoring machine, but he’s been doing his job, called to be a shadow each and every home game, bringing out the whine. In a series with 3 wins, he's been vital.

The same goes for Gomez, of course, who’s been given uphill assignments as well. Something that's easy to forget sometimes when we see that single goal on the score sheet.

But why stop there?

Heroes unsung abound. We know about the praise for Gill, Gorges, Subban and Spacek. The other Ds have been integral too. Markov contributed hugely when he was around. O’Byrne and Hamrlik have been valuable components in wins. Bergeron has played quite a role too. Consider for a minute he’s playing longer than 80% of NHLers who were signed before he was last summer.

The forwards? Gionta and Cammalleri are scoring. Plekanec's contributions have been uncovered some more. Kostitsyn has been on more than off, especially in wins. Gomez has been the rallyer on the bench and the calming force on the ice. Pouliot is coming up blank, but is essentially a rookie in his first playoffs, he's been less than his January self, but still trustworthy. Pyatt is a rookie too, stunning his June 29th overlookers (namely Sather). Moore, Metropolit and Moen are pulling more than their weight. Lapierre has turned his season around. Darche does whatever is asked.

Halak has been great, of course. But don’t overlook what Price has been able to achieve. Apart from a questionable slip (his comment to Sergei), he has been the consummate cheerleader and a much more mature Carey Price from the bench.


If saying hockey is a team game is a cliché, it is only because it is a simple fact. Hockey is a team game. Slumping scorers, alternate defencemen and back-up goalies may not get all the headlines, but when it comes to beating a team like Pittsburgh, one with relative balance and quick strike power, it takes a whole team. A team can't afford massively weak links. That includes those guys.

I await tonight’s game with much anticipation knowing that our team, our Canadiens, seem to have learned these lessons well, and that in the learning they have gained what makes them a contender no matter what any fancy stats say.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Game #2-6

Habs Farthest In Since '93; Bring On Game #7

Details



Date: 10/05/10
Opponent: Penguins
Location: Montreal

Win: 4-3

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

Habs goalscorers: Cammalleri (2), Spacek, Lapierre
Opposition goalscorers: Crosby, Letang, Guerin



Play of the game


I was thrilled that we came back in the 2nd period to tie it up and then take the lead, but I was never going to be comfortable with just that one goal. I had a feeling, as well as Pittsburgh was playing, that they would score again; so playing D for 20 minutes was not going to work. Therefore, it comes as no surprise that my play-of-the-game is Lapierre's goal; the winner. Initially he got stopped coming up the left-wing, but somehow (thanks to the Pens) got the puck back and went into the corner. There he doubled back on Goligoski and quickly lost him. He then cut out from the corner to the front of the net where he froze Fleury, got around another D-Man and lifted the Habs to victory.



Dome hockey team

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

Forwards

Mike Cammalleri - Game Puck
Cammalleri is proving, time and time again, to be a big-game player. Tonight he set the tone early with a goal 1 minute in. He then would add his second of the night (11th of the playoffs) halfway through the second. That goal in particular was really a thing of beauty as he converted a very good Kostitsyn pass with a swift backhand. Beyond those two goals he was far and away our best forward (which was very hard to do tonight) as it seemed like most major chances involved him. His 11 goals are the most by any Hab in the playoffs in the last 20 years, a mark he now shares with Vinny from 1993 - Camms has done it in 7 less games.

Andrei Kostitsyn
Oh, how things can change. This is why you stick with your talent as they are the players that can make the difference. Yes, it may be frustrating that Andrei doesn't get points or contribute in each and every game, but the fact that he can play like this once in a while (hopefully more often as we go forward) is reason enough to stick with him. Both of his assists were very good passes and he came close, on numerous occasions, to adding more to his tally. To put an exclamation mark on his night Martin had him out there in the dying minutes, with a defensive assignment, and I thought that he did quite well. The points give him 8 in 13 games which is pretty much what you would expect/hope for.

Maxim Lapierre
There are certain players that want to win more than others and who will, seemingly, do what it takes to go deep in the playoffs. Their time of the year (like 90% of fans) is now. Max, almost shockingly (after a weak season) seems to be one of those players. His winner tonight was just one of a series of good plays that he and his linemates strutted out before us. Right now, thanks mostly to Max and Moore, our third line is playing as well, if not better, than theirs and that is something that no one expected and is something that is helping us immensely.

Defencemen

Jaroslav Spacek
How hard must it have been to sit out the past 9 games for Jaro? At first he misses Game #4 and, with an injury, must surely think that his season is done. In fact, there may have been a couple of days where he just went through the motions of rehabbing. Then, the Habs started winning and all of a sudden we are in the second round. At that point he must be thinking about a return, as quickly as possible. That is when it must have been hard, that is when the hunger must have grown. Having a player with that much passion, skill and hunger come back into the line-up is invaluable and one can only wonder if it would be good to rest players for the sake of them having that added incentive? Risky, yes, but you can't deny that Spacek likely played better tonight than he would have had he not missed a game and had fatigue set in. He was very good all night, especially defensively where he did exactly what was asked of him. Scoring a goal must of been as sweet for him as ever and I sure know that it meant a lot to us fans. One can only hope that there are more defenders on their way back, but, for now, thank goodness he was able to play.

P.K. Subban
Where would we have been without Spacek? You could easily ask that question about Subban too. In just his 10th game of his career you can't be faulted for forgetting that he is still a rookie, still 20 years old. His play was calm, exciting and impressive. I thought that he was our best D-man going forward all night and that he made very wise decisions throughout. He was also a rock in our own end (on for 2 of our goals, 0 of theirs) and Jacques knew it - he gave him 29 minutes of ice!

Goaltender

Jaroslav Halak
Another game in which you think Halak was good, but not great. Then you start remembering the saves and the fact that he stopped 91.9% of their shots and all of a sudden you realize that he was, once again, a major factor. He did get very lucky (3 posts, one disallowed goal), but to keep us in the lead for over 26 minutes he deserves some credit. He wants to win and doesn't want to let his teammates down, so I believe that we are going to see a spectacular performance on Wednesday from Jaro; hopefully one that will send us to the Conference Finals.

Comments


Montreal got the Bell Centre into it (like they needed a reason, but still) very early with a goal from the top line. From that point on you knew that the crowd was going to be a factor. You can't however, underestimate the skill and desire of Pittsburgh and it wasn't long until they were up. With 35 minutes to play, the Pens all over us, and a goal down many teams may have turtled, many would have packed their bags; not the Habs though, not this year. They weathered the Pittsburgh storm, that came in the form of 3 posts and a disallowed goal (brutal call by ref - huge break for us), and, somehow, found a way to go up. Despite being outshout 27-17 we went into the final 20 minutes of the game with a lead. The third period was nerve-wracking, but luckily Lapierre's preemptive strike was all that we would need.

It is now off to Pittsburgh and we have one thing on our mind, one thing only. We aren't worried what will happen if we lose, we aren't worried what people will say. We don't care how we win, or who will score our goals. No, we head to Pittsburgh as a true team, a team that is working together, working for each other. Let Wednesday be the last game at Mellon Arena and let us go to the Conference Finals for the first time in 17 years - come on boys, I think that it is about time now.

The Spacek Debt

In the summer, I was amazed at the reaction to the Canadiens signings. There was at once unbridled optimism and unchecked pessimism. Every fan content only to occupy one extreme or the other.

While, divergence of opinion seemd to reign over Gomez, Higgins, McDonagh, Gionta, Kovalev, Cammalleri, Koivu and Tanguay there was also broad convergence for others. Jaroslav Spacek, for example, was almost universally ignored. Funny so much ink was spilled over departing Komisarek, unsigned Beauchemin and yet so little reserved for another top 10 option UFA Dman.


At the time, I wrote on the subject in great detail, such was my amazement at the coverage. I pointed out how he had always climbed through hi teams’ depth charts, was always missed when he left and how generally he was the prototype for underrating in this league.

"No one really knew how good of a hockey player he was because he was playing for obscure, losing teams," agent Stephen Freyer said from his office in Beverly, Mass. "The exposure in Edmonton helped, but the new NHL was incredible for his game. He's the prototypical post-lockout defenseman. He can skate, pass, get the puck out of the zone. He's got a boomer from the right point." (Source article here)
Well, here we are once again in media report melee. Once again, there’s ten stories a day with plenty of optimism and pessimism from all quarters. Gill is getting well deserved praise, as is Gorges. Markov’s injury is being watched as closely as possible through the iron curtain. Once again, Spacek in injury as in play, or in signing is being largely overlooked.

Over the year, I kept some interesting statistics that weren’t available on the NHL website. There was the Goals Created project that LIW undertook, but on top of that, I played with plus/minus figures to deconstruct and reconstruct stats I thought might be more meaningful.

We hadn’t really had any Spacek time at that point of his signing. We’d known him from Buffalo and from Corsi leader charts, but not much else. A season into his tenure in Montreal, we are now in a better position to confirm or adjust what praise we offered in the summer. While he came to the team as Buffalo’s offensive engine from the back, the year did not play out in the same way as it did in Upstate NY for Jaro. His points totals were down, his goals were minimal, his PP contribution was near meaningless. By conventional statistical methods he was a bit of a bust at the salary.

Strangely though, he still stood out and was an interesting player to watch in my spreadsheets over the year.

#3 choice defenceman

Even strength minutes per game, for example. Spacek was second to his partner with 18.56 minutes a contest. Hamrlik and Markov the horses, again, but Jaro was third in overall TOI/game as well.


On the ice

Good things also seemed to happen when Spacek was on.

He led the team in even-strength goals he was on the ice for with 64 (a whopping 9 more than Cammalleri, Hamrlik and Gomez). He led the team in 5-on-5 GF and 4-on-4 GFwith 52 and 7 respectively. By minute, he can’t approach the forwards rates of production, but trails only Markov in making good things happen per game (2.796 ESGF/60 vs. 3.442 ESGF/60).


Solid foundation

I am not sure what to make of all this quite yet, but like the Corsi adherents, I think there’s a lot of credit gone missing for players who are on the ice for goals, yet only contributing through their sound positioning, back-checking, coverage and other non-offensive play.

Spacek is the poster boy for the silent contribution. In all, he was on the ice for a whopping 51 goals without statistical credit (other than +/-). The next closest teammates were on for 39 and 38 (Hamrlik and Gorges), after them Markov at 29 and then a sharp drop to 20.


Better than team average at D

All that might be for naught if he was Shawn Belle going backwards. But he wasn’t. On the ice for 65 goals against, all told, his GAA translated to a respectable 2.42. At even strength, considering he was on for nearly a third of every game, his 2.19 GAA was a very welcome addition to the Habs team.


Continued in the playoffs

The cherry on this cake is that Spacek continued his steady excellence into the playoffs. Over 3 games, he managed to find himself on the ice for 3 more ESG and though matched against Ovechkin and Backstrom was not torched for GA.


On the eve of the crunch game of the year, a game against most peoples’ Eastern power, the wire is all aflutter with injuries and possible returns. As Spacek looks set to lace up, I present to you a large dose of optimism as to what this means for the team. We get a leader back, a top-tier pairing and a complement for Hamrlik who thrives with support.

I’ll be watching intently to see if this other Jaro can weave the magic that led to 54 goals at even strength so far this season as the Habs try to break the ice and then break the back of the game.

Enjoy the show. GHG.

Saturday, May 08, 2010

Game #2-5

Tired Habs Group Run Out Of Gas; Lose Gill

Details



Date: 08/05/10
Opponent: Penguins
Location: Pittsburgh

Loss: 1-2

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

Habs goalscorers: Cammalleri
Opposition goalscorers: Letang, Gonchar



Play of the game


Too little, too late, so the goal isn't really in consideration for me. No, tonight, it was a glove-save that Halak made, point-blank, on Letestu in the third period. The save kept the game close enough to give us a chance as I believe a goal there would have prematurely sunken us. In the end it wasn't a game-saver, but it still was a very pretty play.



Dome hockey team

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

Forwards

Mike Cammalleri
Let's start with the good, shall we? He scored a late goal, his 9th, and fired as many shots on Fleury throughout the game. He was our most consistent threat (out-shooting Crosby by 8) and was likely our best forward from start to finish. What wasn't so great was the fact that he was getting in too close to the net; he wasn't making life very hard for the Pens. A lot of shots, and more chances than any of his teammates, but still not the level that we need from him.

Mathieu Darche
If Darche can be inserted onto the third line and out-perform 9 teammates then it makes you wonder who else may be able to do the same? Mat wasn't able to do so tonight because he has more skill, no, it is more about fatigue or, in his case, lack thereof. Fresh legs and a certain hunger to be in the playoffs (and playing for a contract), combined with energy, can be a valuable tool in this marathon. Could Sergei give us more of the same? Do I care that he may or may not be a jerk? Do I give that his teammates may or may not like him? I think so, no and no. Just like in Darche's case he is a healthy alternative who could bring something new. Darche, for his part, used all of this to his advantage and played a very good fore-checking game. I liked his work with Laps as they came close on a few separate occasions.

Maxim Lapierre
Another spirited affair from Lapierre tonight. He also looked like one of the least tired players as the top two lines couldn't really breakthrough. There were a few occasions where I thought that he could have been more aggressive offensively, but at the end of the day he did his job. Also nice to see him go 5-0 on face-offs.

Defencemen

Josh Gorges
Losing Gill could be very bad news for us, but tonight we made sure it didn't effect us too much. The main reason for that is that Gorges was able to take on more responsibility and lead (with Hammer) this suddenly inexperienced group. No Markov, Spacek, Gill and Mara...who would have thought, eh? Having 5 NHL D-men that are even eligible, at this point, is miraculous when you think of it. Josh will have to do more of the same on Monday if Gill is out, but are you the least bit surprised when I tell you that I think he can handle it?

Roman Hamrlik
The young D and Bergeron slipped up a bit in this game, so thank goodness for Hamrlik. He was very steady all game long and helped Subban through a learning game. I was surprised that Martin didn't use him more actually, towards the end. He has been a consistent offensive threat from the back over the years and, when you need goals, I may use him more than Bergeron as the fear of letting one in, at any time, is drastically reduced.

Goaltender

Jaroslav Halak - Game Puck
It is funny how a .920 night feels like an off night, but it somehow does, doesn't it? I got past those feelings, though, and realized that, yet again, he was our best player. I would love for someone else to play even better, believe you me, but you also can't beat this type of goaltending. He is giving our team a chance to win each night, in every situation and that is what makes our prospects in this series seem so exciting. The second goal was a bit weak, the first was a PP blast, but beyond those two shots I though that he was very good.


Comments


Tonight the reffing wasn't great, but wasn't the reason we lost, let's just call it typical. Our D was good, but not great, no one to blame though really. Halak was himself, not his best self, but certainly his usual self. The offence had chances, many of them actually, and even out-shot the Pens, but they didn't capitalize when they had to. So, there you have it, no one was bad, but no one stepped up and took the bull by the horns. The forwards got in, almost scored, but no one player (or group of players) really didn't do more than, the generic, 'generated chances'. At this stage of the year, when you are trying to knock a second great team in a row you can't play pretty well. You can't play a game that may have been good enough for a 4-1 win against the Islanders in February. No, it must be the game of someone's life, the goal of someone's season or the dominance that we could speak of for years. We looked tired and out of ideas by the end which is upsetting as that tells me we weren't prepared enough. I don't, however, believe that we can' t win this series and I don't, for a second, believe that there aren't a handful of players that could step up to the plate. On Monday night we need 1, 2 or more players to be at their best as you can rest assured Pittsburgh will want to get it done. These are the types of games that players dream of, so we musn't fear them. We must shoot for the glory and players must strive to be their best because, at this point, what do we really have to lose?