Thursday, April 30, 2009

Sometimes You Thank The Stars They Are Just On TV...

Jacques Demers is the latest broadcaster/analyst to whip off a quick who stays, who goes article; despite the fact everyone stays until July 1 nearly two months away (barring trades of course, but this is Bob Gainey we're talking about).

His analysis over the season left me wanting, but I thought he improved with time. This latest analysis is his worst work in my working memory.

Now, I have plans and work in progress to present my own reflections on all these comings and goings, but I thought I would pick a few gems from Jacques to have a go at:

1) "Je n’hésite pas, j’accorde un nouveau contrat à Kovalev."

I wish I had the links (maybe I'll find them), but Jacques you hesitated massively. This is the manic depressive talking here. The minute Kovalev has 10 good games without a goal, Demers will have forgotten his sudden willingness to pay Kovy.

This comment goes with the rest of the article, in that you can see it was put together over a fifteen minute period.


2) "Il n’y a aucun doute, je garde les services d’Alex Tanguay."

Except that you seem to be willing to despatch our proven scorer and captain in Koivu. I think there's plenty of doubt, stemming mainly from the fact he was not a big contributor when he wasn't surrounded by the best. Can we afford to pay for someone who needs so much support to make goals? I think we probably can, personally. But there's at least some doubt.


3) "Je n’hésite pas une seule seconde et j’offre une nouvelle entente à cet ailier qui a démontré une belle progression." (Guillaume Latendresse)

Pardon me for noticing guys, but Guillaume did not improve this year. He certainly relished the chance to have his status downgraded from scoring prospect to checking line winger, but as he is not great defensively nor a great bodychecker (although a frequent one), one must surely question this re-up. particularly in light of Demers keeping both Higgins and Plekanec, both better players who'll also be looking for less responsibility on the third or fourth line.

There's a lot of hesitation here for me as it becomes clear that Guillaume may top out as a not-so-scary or physical winger who can score 16-18 goals from now on. I'd give him another chance (for obvious reasons), but would easily trade him if even a decent offer came through.


And the insane comment that kick-started this article:

4) "Je ne doute pas une seule seconde que Denis mérite un autre contrat pour servir de police d’assurance."

What on earth? More hyperbole from Jacques about no doubt. Funny the guys he has no doubt about...

Marc Denis, after Georges Laraque, was the unmitigated failure of a signing for the year. Can you remember when Halak was struggling to stop a puck in early January? Denis seemed to be in line for minutes (he got domes from the bench – that's how bad Halak was), but Carbonneau at the time would have none of this guy. There was no confidence whatsoever in the goalie from Hamilton.

Even his record in Hamilton is sketchy. He started out really well (as would be expected of a 31 year-old first round pick in a league beneath him), then e came up to Montreal. after his redemotion he had a horrid stretch and then bounced back. Hamilton squeezed into the playoffs where they were (and Marc in particular) a sorry bunch.

He is not an answer for Hamilton next year, let alone Montreal. It should be so long and thanks for all the fish...


Wow, that was heavy. Jacques Demers, being the Don Cherry of French Canadian TV is prone to saying stupid things off the cuff. But these were some of the worst. I'm just glad he's no longer associated with the decision making for this team and that he is kept at a safe distance from the ice in the RDS press box...

All But The Important One...

It seems when I pick with my head and not with my heart, I'm alright at this prediction thing (well this time, anyway). But though it's nice to be sitting ahead of the Al Strachan's of the world in the Score playoff pool, I'd give it all up for heart over head and a match-up against the Capitals...

This is what I had for Round 1:

Habs over Bruins in 7
I couldn't have picked the Bruins, Markov or not. I hate that I was wrong. Hate it.

Capitals over Rangers in 6
I didn't trust in Lundqvist, but he did OK, at first. Washington's a strong one.

Hurricanes over Devils in 7
I couldn't have predicted the way it would happen, with the drama and swings; but I've always liked the power of the Eric/ks

Penguins over Flyers in 6
This was a no-brainer. Just like the guy who entrusted another year in the playoffs to Martin Biron.

Anaheim over San Jose in 7
I didn't expect Anaheim to be so quick, but with Niedermayer (player of the decade with Lidstrom) and Pronger, the Ducks were much more dangerous than their totals suggested. they still are.

Detroit over Columbus in 6
Columbus were weaker than I thought. That's saying something.

Canucks over Blues in 5
All those who hyped the Blues should have learned that a late streak does nothing to overcome a good offense with a great goalie.

Flames over Hawks in 7
Oops. I thought the Hawks were earlier in the development than this. Gotta like teaming young team with reliable veteran goalie. I wonder if any other teams ever had success with that approach. Maybe last year? Can't think...



Enough gloating. Here's where I suffer the fall, as I have to make more predictions and will likely fall to the very predictable .500 level that suits 50:50 chance of success in prognostication (and faceoffs).

Carolina over Boston in 6

This isn't just my heart here, though it is involved. The Bruins were not tested at all, not at all, in their opening series. The Hurricanes beat the mighty Devils with a better goalie than Boston have and a better version of the same defensive system. Plus Staal is a stud vs. Savard. The weakness comes at the back for Carolina a with Montreal, but Boston would be blessed to get as many well-timed and easy goals as they eventually relied on to coast through round 1.

Pittsburgh over Washington in 7
Watch this series and you'll begin to understand why there should be some urgency about winning sooner rather than later in Montreal. Ovechkin, Semin, Malkin and Crosby could become conference final fixtures if they wanted to. They'll show us why with Pittsburgh's Stanley Cup creds giving them the final edge. This is OT in game 7 type stuff.

Detroit over Anaheim in 5
Whereas San Jose couldn't have looked at Anaheim with any relish, Detroit know they can counter. Hiller may be better than Osgood, but he is not as good as SJ made him look. He'd do well to come out of a match with Zetterberg, Datsyuk and company as unscathed as he is now. Lidstrom outplaying the big two will be key. I have faith in the best player of our time.

Vancouver over Chicago in 6

We must watch while Vancouver proves how waiting for Sundin was leagues better than trading for the consolation prize. It helps to have a good goalie who makes saves, too. I stand by my earlier statements as well – not Chicago's time yet.


There you have it. It will be mocked and ridiculed on The Score, so why not here. But as we've seen, even silly predictions like Anaheim over perfect franchise (exhibit A) happen; so you never know.

If I muster up the interest to watch after my sulk, there are match-ups here to like. Pittsburgh vs. Washington should be a great one, Carolina thumping Boston would be nice too.

Is it October yet?

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

We're Out, But At Least We Didn't Think Joe Thornton Was The Answer...

A week ago, life on the outside was a lonely place. Us, Columbus and St. Louis, not exactly the company we thought we'd be keeping. But as the week wore on, we were able to greet (and taunt) new groups of fans, something that brought us (and will continue to bring us great comfort, however empty some will tell us that it is.

On the weekend, the Broad Street Braggarts were ejected to a synchronous cheer from everyone who cares about hockey but doesn't live in that corner of Pennsylvania. And yesterday it was the Calgary Flames and the San Jose Sharks.

What brings greatest pleasure, or perhaps solace is the more appropriate term, is that though building around Carey Price has not been the answer, nor has fashioning a complement for Mike Richards and his first 26-game superstar mirage partner Jeff Carter. Having Rick Nash does not save you anymore than having Alexei Kovalev does. Joe Thronton is not an answer, nor is having 2 big centres (not on its own, anyway).

All 5 of these teams will be feeling disappointment, just like we do. 2 more will join in tomorrow. Whereas, we were prepared and only had to deal with the pop from a bubble with a mere week's worth of hope inflating it; fans in San Jose are once again left in the tricky position of questioning their perfect franchise model, fans in Philly must be wondering why their built-for-playoff players can't score on Marc-Andre Fleury and Calgary has lost another Jarome Iginla year.

San Jose must be the worst of these. Back in January you couldn't turn on a computer without having to sit through or listen to accounts of San Jose's brilliance. This year they had got it right. Marleau was back on track, Thornton was still the best passer in the universe; their defence was impenetrable and Nabokov was avoiding his odd numbered off-year. Even back in January, though, people knew that as impressive as 5 losses to that point was, the Sharks might still be the more likely of any two teams to lose 4 of 7 just like all those times before.

And frankly, where can San Jose go from here. Every year they come in as dark horse favourites. Every year they don't disappoint in the regular season. How can a team evaluate their own playoff holes when the players refuse to play anything but top-notch hockey until April. On a normal team, you can run some tests, take a few losses and send the player back to the minors when it doesn't work. On the Sharks, sure you can jettison a few pieces, but the problem with their experiment is that it takes a year to get any meaningful results.

If you though Bob Gainey's job was going to be hard, spare a thought for Doug Wilson.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Habs Gone, But You Won't Shake Me So Easily

Last season, I'll admit I'd had enough after Game 5. I guess all the ups and downs were tiring. This season's elimination seems to have reinvigorated me (at least today). So I'll be posting whenever I have some hare-brained thoughts about this team just as if none of this ever happened.

One thing you won't see from us is some kind of tracking of the rest of the NHL teams. While I am interested in the others, the passion comes from the Canadiens and nowhere else. In fact, I realised after reading all there was to read about the Habs (and then again) that I didn't even really know what was happening in the other games. I guess the RDS reports were in one ear and out the other. With that in mind, I would never commit to trying to watch two teams I don't care about for a full game.

Watching last night's game, I felt there was a need this morning to reacknowledge some of the work done by the players in very difficult situations last night. Tobalev's dome was dead on for me, but I'd like to go beyond and mention a few guys whose effort and pluck I appreciated last night and the preceding weeks:

1) Roman Hamrlik
Say what you want about this guy, but he was signed to come and play the third man in. Not since his days in Long Island has he been a number one, and with that in mind, I thought he did very very well. It's a shame that his game gets tainted with another timely Ryder goal.

2) Chris Higgins
This slump is the best thing that ever happened to Higgins and us. We need a player on the bottom lines like Chris and his stats now make him affordable in that capacity. He'll get 20+ goals again one year too.

3) Josh Gorges
This guy was playing over his head too, but he gives us something to build on at the back. He has shown fans that quickness and stick work is as good a defence as most.

4) Yannick Weber
Despite getting the Swiss treatment (pre-judgment on not being able to play defense properly), he played defense properly. He has to be the brightest prospect that we can hope to see for a few years.

5) Jaroslav Halak
He sits there at the ready. He even bows his head with disappointment at the end of it. He could have thrown a tantrum (he might yet), he could have been the one making gestures; but he conducted himself with everything we ask a Canadiens player to be. Of everyone on this team, he has had the most tumultuous season and probably learned a bundle. I look forward to watching his next game – hopefully in bleu, blanc, rouge.

6) Tomas Plekanec
No he can't score at the moment and bad things seem to follow him around, but his example for trying to break the hex has been stunningly good. Many will not shed a tear if he finds new pastures, but except against unwieldy expectations, he has mostly delivered.

7) Matt D'Agostini
This guy wasn't even on our prospect list before last season. It's amazing how he's filled in. He got us into the playoffs in our first "playoff" game vs. Boston and has done whatever was asked of him.

8) Maxim Lapierre
For doing what he knows how to do consistently and consistently well. If the QMJHL were full of Max's I'd be all for the drive to dedicate half of our picks to that league. Alas, it isn't so...


This list could go on. Obviously our stars need no further recognition, both of them were stars even in this series. The injured boys deserve acknowledgement too for trying their darndest to try and make it back, and for playing injured (rather than sitting healthy as the cynics would prefer you to believe).

Finally, I'd like to acknowledge what must have been a big achievement for the young man, Carey Price as he finally showed some anger on the ice – it's a good first step, now let's channel it into a summer of reflex work...

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Game #1-4

Defence and Scoring, Not Toughness, Sends Boston Through

The Canadiens Game in Review

Date: Wednesday April 22nd, 2009
Opponent: Boston Bruins
Venue: Bell Centre, Montreal, QC

Team Stripes

Final Score: 1-4 - Loss

Habs starting goalie: Carey Price (L)
Opposition starting goalie: Tim Thomas (W)

Habs goalscorers: Andrei Kostitsyn
Opposition goalscorers: Michael Ryder (2), David Krejci, Phil Kessel



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

Our lone goal had 21,273 people believing that a comeback may just be possible. The Habs started the game extremely well and managed to score that goal 40 seconds in. Nice passing by Kovalev and Koivu led to Kostitsyn having the puck on his stick just outside of the high-slot. A quick, well-placed, shot found its way through and gave the Habs the lead they so desperately needed.



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

Christopher Higgins
Higgins completed what was quite a solid playoffs tonight with another convincing performance. He has gone from a player that I was ready to let go, about a month ago, to a piece that I think is crucial to our success. We will need 6 better forwards than him, that is for sure, but as a penalty-killer and third-liner he has done well. I liked how he fought for pucks in the offensive zone tonight and how he never gave up. He has played some of his best hockey of late, when it counted the most.



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

Forwards

Alexei Kovalev
Kovy chipped in an assist tonight as he was once again in on our main chances. His line played well, but went up against the dominant Chara on too many occasions. He was our best player on the PP, but we were missing the point-men to really get anything going. I think that the way he played in this series was another great indication of his true value and I hope that this wasn't his last game in le bleu, blanc et rouge.

Christopher Higgins
Chris had a look of frustration on his face all night and one would have to think he was showing a year's worth in this one. His season started with injury and only went downhill from there. He worked his way off a top-2 line by mid-season and only towards the end did he turn it around. This season Christopher may have cost himself future millions, but I think that he still belongs here. That look also showed that he cared, that he was upset about the way this all ended.

Andrei Kostitsyn
I am glad that Andrei scored tonight and only wish that he would have had another couple in him. He also played a strong game without the puck as he was quite physical along the boards. His main talent, however, is clearly his shot and it will be the new coach's challenge to find a way to get that shot off more during a game. Tonight he showed that playing alongside Kovalev is no problem as they were both two of our strongest players.

Defencemen

Mathieu Dandenault
Mat has probably (hopefully) played his last game as a Hab and tonight it was a decent one. It is unfortunate when he outplays players like Hamrlik and Komisarek, but tonight that was the case. Tonight he played for 25 minutes, blocked 4-shots, was even and joined in the attack quite nicely as he contributed 2 shots.

Josh Gorges
Josh was one of only 2 of our defencemen (Weber) not to be on the ice for a goal-against tonight which is considerable because he led the team with 26 minutes of ice. His highlight was a hip-check on Lucic during the first period, when the game was still within reach - the crowd went wild. I don't think that Josh can really be a top-3 defenceman in this league, but tonight he played with enough heart that he made up for it. I hope that he'll be back, but he needs at least 3-4 guys to step up ahead of him as 26 minutes is too much for this guy.

Goaltender

Jaroslav Halak
Carey didn't exactly cost us this game all on his own, but he didn't help the cause by any stretch of the imagination. Letting in 4 goals on 30 shots won't win you many games and isn't really what we needed to claw back into this one. There were a few key saves early on, but he never looked sure of himself all game. Aside from the goal there were posts and other near misses (on which he was beat) and my personal favorite, his arm-wave to the crowd after an easy save. It reminded me of Roy's last game as a Hab, maybe this will be the end for this 'All-Star' too.



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

The Habs were, once again, obsessed with physical play tonight. It was as if their pre-series strategy was based on TSN and CBC's false analysis which suggested that we weren't tough enough to face the Bruins. The ironic part of all of it is that while we were running around hitting them, they were the ones using their speed and scoring against us. Once those were considered our qualities, but I am no longer a believer of the myth that we art a fast team. If we were fast I would have liked to have seen Phil Kessel-like speed in at least one of the games, but I never did. Instead I saw Komisarek thinking that he was tougher than actual tough guys and I saw players who don't know how to hit getting hurt or penalized for their careless play. In the end we tried to play a new style, we tried to change our game, while the Bruins took a page from our 2008 books and beat us with goals and speed.


Overall Comments

I really liked how the game started and felt that after the first 17 minutes the Bruins were lucky to only be down by 1. We were all over Boston and I was thinking that a win tonight, coupled with some players coming back for Saturday's game could make this a real series. The Bruins, however, had other plans as they scored 2 late goals in the first to go up for good. First it was Hamrlik's turn to make the cough-up of the year to Ryder and then it was Komisarek (going to centre-ice to lay an unnecessary hit - at least he can use that to make more money when he is contract searching this summer - luckily for him no one watches hockey and they all actually think that he is good) and Higgins (getting badly beat on the half-boards) that made the mistakes on goal #2. We had a chance in the second to tie it up on the PP, but instead it was Boston who got the best chance after killing it off. The play was off-side, but that didn't stop Kessel from firing past a motionless Price. At that point the game was over and unfortunately the Habs played like it until the final horn.

I felt that some players played well tonight and some had great seasons. I am disappointed with the way that it ended, but not too surprised. Here is a team that is playing one of the worst goalies in the league on a nightly basis (the frustrating part is that we had a viable option), that has injuries to 4 of of it's top 10 players, that was up against the top team in the East (who were playing not only their best goalie, but one of the league's best and who had no major injuries) and that posted a pathetic 14 wins in the final 42 games of the year. It is of course upsetting tonight, but we all knew that this was coming, we knew it about 3 months ago. I want to thank you all, however, for what has been a fun season for me of talking and writing about hockey. I will never give up on this team and tomorrow marks the first day in a long countdown until training camp.

You Asked For Optimism

Every 33 Seasons Teams Come Back From 3-0 Down

It took 33 years after the founding of the seed NHA league (which became the NHL) for a team to come back from a 3-0 deficit in a seven-game series – never mind the seven-game series wasn't the standard format, that's irrelevant.

Exactly 33 years later, the New York Islanders overcame the Pittsburgh Penguins when their nose was to the grindstone.

You're astute is you've done the math and figured that that means there should have been a comeback in 2008 – 33 years on from 1975. What you're missing, just like the Canadiens marketing money grabbers, is that no season took place in 2004-05 and the NHL skipped a season of play in their own books. That means that the Canadiens (I guess St. Louis missed the memo), in their 99th season of play have put themselves in prime position to be the first team to pull off the incredible feat.

Robert L has a nice entry on the power of numbers in the Canadiens organisation as he focuses in on unlucky 13.

While I appreciate the effort, the connection of the number 13 with the Canadiens specifically is tenuous. I would suggest there's much greater cause to believe in the power of 33.

Isn't there?


Invoking the greats (3 Montreal boys who've done the deed – albeit with a Boston team)






Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Get Gainey The Heart of Gold

Even Bistromath Can't Save Us Now

Here's a synopsis for you from Arpon Basu's CP work:
The Montreal Canadiens feel they have to move mountains just to get a goal, while the Boston Bruins are having goals fall in their laps.

You can read this two ways (clever man that Arpon). For one thing the Canadiens believe the Bruins got lucky. For another, they think the Bruins have a pretty proficient goaltender (with the obvious juxtaposition).

It's not a quote, it's a synopsis, so are we putting words in the Habs players' own mouths? I don't think so. The implication of real quotes like these:
Saku Koivu: "... they got their second goal (early in the second period) basically out of nowhere."

Bob Gainey on the first goal: "It did feel like a punch to the midsection.

They were clear in pointing to luck on the first goal, but is it not coded that their own lucky bounces were saved, the Bruins' were not. Our shots gave no rebounds, theirs were delivered straight onto sticks.


No goalie can save us now

That ship sailed a few hours ago. Carey can't be expected to, nor can Jaro now. You know we're quick to point out that Halak is better than Price here, and I think we have convinced most of you by now (rather the two of them have). But we seldom mention one main reason Price plays is because Halak is not that much better. Had he come in with a few shutouts and pulled a Steve Mason, or even a Chris Mason 2007, he'd be in right now. He's sidelined because he too has made life for the forwards very very difficult since December. Whatever you think of either of the two men, I don't think anyone at this point can realistically hope that #31 or #41 will pull 4 games out of the bag now.


Hence, luck.


The good news is they've been hoarding their pills since the Jason Blake and Garbageski hits. The bad news is that the team now needs more than a little helping – they need the maximum-allowable dose. This all sounds very familiar to me, sort of like being rescued when suffocating in deep space... The Infinite Improbability Drive is surely about to kick in, isn't it?

You see that way:
"Any event that is infinitely improbable [such as winning a game in April this year] will, by definition, occur almost immediately."

After all, the Canadiens need nothing less than Markov. They could use Lang, Schneider and Tanguay too. They need Carey Price to get his hand slammed in a car door. They need the referees to simultaneously drop their whistles to the ice when Thomas half controls the puck. They need Bruins high sticks to draw blood. They need Chara to make an error, maybe three. They need Marc Savard to think he's back in Atlanta. They need Laraque to ask to sit out.

All possible, if unlikely on their own. But together my friends, that's infinite improbability staring us right in the face.

Gosh, I knew these 4-2 scorelines were trying to tell us something. What's more, wouldn't Carey Price make a good Chesterfield? It'd certainly be easy to get the vacuum around and behind it. Might look good under some warm red lighting...


So for Wednesday, don't panic. But, do bring a towel.


[Apologies to those of you who were not as smitten with Douglas Adams' Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy as I was...]

Monday, April 20, 2009

Game #1-3

Injuries, Gainey's Choices and a Weak Third To Blame This Time

The Canadiens Game in Review

Date: Monday April 20th, 2009
Opponent: Boston Bruins
Venue: Bell Centre, Montreal, QC

Team Stripes

Final Score: 2-4 - Loss

Habs starting goalie: Carey Price (L)
Opposition starting goalie: Tim Thomas (W)

Habs goalscorers: Christopher Higgins, Yannick Weber
Opposition goalscorers: Phil Kessel, Shawn Thornton, Michael Ryder, Chuck Kobasew



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

I knew that scoring first would be a huge boost for this team that needed a good bounce tonight and thankfully we got it. After an offensive-zone turnover by the Bruins Weber was very quick to hit Higgins on the left-wing with a breakout pass. Christopher led the charge in what turned out to be a 3-on-2. The defence conceded the shot and Chris was able to put a good one on net. At the time it looked like the Habs were on track.



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

Yannick Weber
Nothing against this intriguing rookie, but player-of-the-game, really? How about Price stealing one for us, maybe a veteran D-Man like Komisarek or Gorges dominating or guys like Plekanec or Latendresse contributing? I am very happy with the way that Weber played, but would have hoped to see another name in here on such an important night. It is, however, nice to see that we at least have one youngster coming up who may actually exceed expectations (rather than fail like Chipchura or Price).



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

Forwards

Alexei Kovalev
Alex could have been better as it would have been nice to get a dominant performance out of him, but I am not surprised that we didn't. He has been our best player this series and is probably wondering when some support will arrive. He didn't score tonight, but did have a very strong game with Koivu and Kostitsyn, Tanguay's replacement.

Christopher Higgins
Our 4th-line secret-weapon scored another goal tonight as he is creeping up towards his regular season totals. Aside from the goal he played a pretty decent checking game and contributed with a few other chances. It would have been nice to maybe see him and Metropolit play with Sergei or even Pacioretty instead of Laraque who proved that he is useless no matter what line he is on.

Andrei Kostitsyn
Now here was a player who stepped it up tonight. Don't let the media tell you that he had a bad game because he killed our momentum in the first with a penalty as that just happened to be the one of about ten offenses that got called. He was our most exciting forward tonight as he complemented Koivu and Kovalev in a way reminiscent of the way Zednik did back in 2004. His four shots on net tonight led the team and were all good, hard chances.

Defencemen

Ryan O'Byrne
It looks like we can throw the 'experience' of Dandeault out the window and by now we have realized that Komisarek is just plain bad. I thought that Gorges and Hamrlik may have done better, but they have been pretty good as of late so I won't go on much about them. Ryan, therefore, was our second best D tonight; both are rookies. He didn't get into any trouble with penalties, made good and timely hits, but only got to play for 11 minutes - Bob preferred to go with those players who were playing worse.

Yannick Weber
For me, this is about the only positive to come out of this game. Weber proved tonight that he can do well on the biggest stage and that he can shoot the puck hard - something we are lacking at the moment. He scored a goal and added an assist (a real, goal-generating assist), so who knows where we would have been without him.

Goaltender

Jaroslav Halak
Price, once again, couldn't steal us a game in another must-win, biggest-game-of-the-year scenario. I am not sure how many that makes in a row, but if you weren't convinced that this guy isn't quite the Steve Mason, Pekka Rinne, Jonas Hiller (need I go on with new goalies that are capable of stealing the show?) you were hoping for , are you now? Two of the goals against him were inexcusable and while he did play semi-decently during other parts of the game, what goalie, in the NHL, isn't good most of the time anyway. Halak has been our better goalie all year, but especially since January 1st. Since then Price has managed to win 26% of his decisions (7-20) post 0 shut-outs save 89.0% of the shots he has faced while allowing a whopping 3.42 goals/game. If you consider those to be his season stats (I do as 2008, to me, is too long ago to consider, ie. this is the Price we are getting, not the one before his injury) only Johan Hedberg (Atlanta's back-up) has worse numbers. A list of over 45 other goalies beats him and this is who we decided to go with. Halak had to start tonight and not playing him proves to me just how bad of a coach/GM Gainey really is and, on top of it all, it is a huge slap in the face of Jaro. Don't, therefore, be surprised when Halak asks for a trade this summer and we are left with absolutely nothing in the goaltending department. See, the price of waiting for someone to be good (rather than using players who are good) can be great indeed.



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


This game was the final straw, Gainey's last chance to set things right. I am now, however, convinced that he has to go as he does not give our team the best chance to win. He, of course, can't help the injuries to Tanguay, Markov, Lang, Bouillon and Schneider, but he can help in other ways. How about not playing your best LW on the 4th (checking line) line where he is more likely to get hurt. How about, as a GM, finding some strength and conditioning coaches that can prepare us better for a season and for each individual game. I am tired of us running out of gas in both an 82-game and 60-minute format. Also, don't think for a second that better fitness and health coaching wouldn't have prevented the injuries and sicknesses. He could help by playing Koivu and Kovalev for more than 3 shifts in the final 12 minutes in tonight's game, the game of the year, and maybe he could have gone easy with Kostopoulos (3 shifts in the last 6 minutes). And, for the sake of your job Bob (and this team), you could have given us the best chance to win by playing the better of our two goalies. Was our team good enough to win with Halak tonight? Maybe not, but we aren't good enough for Price, that is for sure. A team like Detroit can carry goalies like Osgood, but with our defence (especially the defence we have when Markov is out) we are not one of those teams.

As a coach Bob didn't give us our best chance to win this series and as a GM he didn't give himself, the coach, a chance to make this season a success. I have always liked Gainey as I think he is a great man and was a great Hab, but any man who thinks that Price is the future and that Huet and Streit aren't worth keeping around isn't really doing the best for this hockey team.


Overall Comments

I have said most of what I wanted to, but I will go on to give a brief re-cap of the game. We started this game very well and during the first few minutes looked like a team that should have been up 2-0 in the series, not down. We were all over Boston and we managed to score first and out-shoot our opponents. Then, Mike Komisarek (who is quietly having one of the worst seasons of any Norris hopeful (hahaha)) fired a no-look pass up the middle which was picked off and ended up in the back of our net. Price is not to blame on the goal, but a big save, with a minute to go in the first, might have helped. Poor defensive-zone coverage by Glen Metropolit, among others, led to Boston's second goal (by their fighter - see that BGL) on a shot that was too easy to not stop. Metropolit made up for his weak defensive play by winning a key draw in the offensive zone just moments later. Weber scored the ensuing goal on a shot that probably should have been stopped by Thomas. The period ended with Ryder scoring his second of the series into a wide-open net after a brutal rebound was given out by Price. The third period belonged to Boston as we never even really came close to tying it up. The Habs will play it out on Thursday, but I wouldn't hold your breath. This is not the team we saw before Christmas and is not the team we saw 3 weeks ago. Without Halak and Markov we are going nowhere and thanks to Bob I think we'll never even get to see what half of the solution would look like.

Canadiens Must Not Allow Bruins To Paint Themselves Victims

The Boston Bruins are in the process of taking a large page from John Stevens' ultra-successful contra-Canadiens playoff strategy book:
Play on the feeling that the league may just favour the Canadiens

After all, how else did this team win so many Cups? How did they scout and recruit better than everyone else for 30 years? Why did French Canadian stars want to play for this team exclusively?

The current rendition of the story has the league and their henchmen (that'd be the refs) turning a blind eye to the despicable and dangerous play form the dirty dirty Canadiens (or Europeans, if you prefer the xenophobic take).

As a ploy from the opposition coach, it is top notch. In theory, at its best it can distract the refs and make them see every Canadiens tumble as a dive. In practice, it seems to have done just that so far.

After all, how do we come out of a game where the Canadiens were assessed 5 of the discretionary penalties (I classify high-sticking as non-discretionary) to the Bruins zero with the Boston coach ranting about how his team has been cheated and treated unfairly?

There is no doubt that Sergei Kostitsyn, Glen Metropolit, Alex Tanguay and Kovalev all hooked, but as was pointed out in the broadcast, many of the calls were recognising plays that had just happened 50 times over in the preceding minutes. Even if the Canadiens were guilty of two thirds of the offenses, their rate of penalization was still disproportional.

The rate of penalty calls was also out of balance in Game #1, where we were all a bit perplexed to see the 47th crosscheck of the game called mid-way through the third period of a pivotal tie hockey game. And Plekanec was certainly the only player called for stick touching opponent's hip.


What should the response be?

This is much tougher than it seems. The Canadiens cannot simply stop taking penalties. They cannot stop hooking or interfering either quite simply because the vast majority of that stuff is not called and so not doing it would put them at a competitive disadvantage.

No, what I think they must do is meet the Bruins at their level. Feel a crosscheck in your back, go down. Player through the crease, flop out. Not quite getting around the player in the corner, go to the ice. If diving is a new standard of play, we should not be left behind. After all, the worst that happens when you dive is no call, or worse a coincidental minor?!?

It's not the high standard the ambassadors of the teams discuss with youngsters in schools, but desperate times call for desperate measures, eh? Besides, teams of the 60s and 70s couldn't have won so much without a little flex in their interpretation of the rules.


In addition, I feel someone from the organisation needs to meet Claude Julien head on and address the media in the following way:
"We feel that Milan Lucic got the suspension he deserved, because intentional or not sticks to the head need to be removed from the game. We also feel that it is insulting to have to listen to the coach of a team that enjoyed all the powerplays of the previous game insinuate that we are being favoured."



All of this nonsense comes out of the very gray area the league has left itself in with regard to calling penalties int he playoffs. In some circles, there is an understanding (nudge, nudge, wink, wink) that the rules from the season are put away from now on. And on certain nights, that seems to be the case.

Obviously, the league needs to be more consistent. I see only two ways to do that: 1) call everything, or 2) call nothing. All this in between leaves no one satisfied and more than a few with a sour taste in their mouths.


Anyway, here's to a better spectacle this evening. Go Habs Go.

How Does Gainey Regain His Stature Now?

Bob Gainey has had quiet a fall from grace in recent weeks. Not only did his team fail to respond to the firing of Guy Carbonneau quickly, he has also failed to correct the biggest problems that Carbo had under him – namely defensive coverage and defenders interactions with goaltenders.

His reprieve was gained through some masterful changes that led to the rebirth of Kovalev and the offense in general. But even that, he seems to want to undo in these playoffs.

Is there a way back for Gainey? What could he possibly do to find it?

For me the answer to this question begins with a big admission from the man. He must admit he has been wrong about Carey Price's readiness (no not his promise overall). He must admit Carbonneau knew better re: Halak/Price and swallow his pride. Thought I can see where Gainey's coming from on Price (he's bigger and with good coaching should be better than Jaro), Carey just isn't up to the task at this juncture.

Jaro Halak must start. He must start because he was better on Saturday, he was better in March, February and January. Recent history matters more in Game 3 when your team is down 2-0 than do 10-year projections.


Top line
Following that thinking, he must also admit that Laraque is not helping the top line. If Kovalev and Koivu are more open, they aren't showing me. Times they look open, they seem to have no options beyond themselves because the other is covered. Adding Tanguay back, or even Andrei Kostitsyn would give them each a second target.


Second line and Plekanec
Next Bob must focus on a second scoring line. Plekanec is the only realistic option, and if Kostitsyn is not gelling there, he must be moved. I would try Latendresse with Pleks, because (although I might get shot for being the only one to denigrate Golden Balls) Latendresse has stunk as much as anyone and his chemistry with Lapierre certainly isn't helping produce anything other than a good friendship. Lapierre is Lapierre and I don't think he'd play any differently with just about anyone on his line. Perhaps he might enjoy Andrei's company.


Communication on D
Finally, the defence has to be coached. They must be whipped into submission until they talk to each other on the ice. Each pair should have a designated leader – Hamrlik, Dandenault and Gorges probably. Communication would at least iron out the most basic of errors. Beyond that, perhaps remind them that they need to regain control.


As I've said before, it will take a bit of luck from somewhere. But if Gainey at least moves in the direction of what anyone with the capacity for basic intuition can see, then a win will bring him back a bit. A win with solid D, good goaltending from Halak and goals form the second line will have the fans revering his name again in no time.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Lucic Didn't Do It

Milan Lucic has been suspended for one whole game by the league, even after he already unfairly missed his final shift. This is wrong, if you are to believe bald head, bald-faced Claude Julien. The only thing Claude Julien doesn't say in the end of the interview is:
"Please don't take away our amnesty to hooking calls. We prefer our reputation as clean-playing victims (I learned that from Philly). Please?"

He does, however, make up whole lot of other stuff here:

CBC notes:
"Lapierre was sporting a welt under his right eye after the game that perfectly matched the shape of the frame of a stick, but Bruins coach Claude Julien insisted afterward that Lucic hit Lapierre in the helmet with his glove, not his stick."

The RDS feed isn't available to me on the internet, but I can tell you though the glove led, the stick came in full follow through on Lapierre's face. Lapierre is no angel, nor would I have him be one. But, I was of the understanding that the league didn't want angels. However, what they do want is a cut-back in dangerous and ill-advised hits to the head. Julien's bald-faced lying apart, I think the league must consider this. If Schneider cross-checked Lucic to the head beforehand, that must obviously be considered too.

All hits to the head have to be frowned upon, premeditated or not, inconvenient for your team or not. Julien deserves a little reminder of that from the spokesman for the initiative among the players. Then maybe he can put his petulance aside for two minutes.

The Lucic suspension was about as much as the league could muster for a playoff series, I suppose. But it clearly isn't enough if they hope to abolish tat kind of behaviour in the game.

It's truly shameful that the league is not more committed to this goal.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Game #1-2

Habs Weak, Price Weaker

The Canadiens Game in Review

Date: Saturday April 18th, 2009
Opponent: Boston Bruins
Venue: TD Banknorth Garden, Boston, MA

Team StripesScore: 1 - 5 Loss

Habs starting goalie: Carey Price (L), Jaroslav Halak
Opposition starting goalie: Tim Thomas (W)

Habs goalscorers: Alexei Kovalev
Opposition goalscorers: Marc Savard (2), Chuck Kobasew, Shane Hnidy, Michael Ryder


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

It's always upsetting when this is your play of the game, but once again Price getting the hook takes it. If one thing is obvious it is that Carey will not win us the series let alone the cup. I am not sure if Halak can pull off the 0-2 comeback against the Bruins, but I am willing to find out; at this point it can't get any worse. I think that the third period went well for Jaro as he played calmly, let in no goals and didn't get into any trouble handling the puck; after two games Carey can't boast any of those. It will be interesting to see if tonight's play-of-the-game turns into the play-of-the-series.



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

Alexei Kovalev
Gainey decided to dress less than a handful of offensive players tonight, but even worse was that he spread them out onto the four lines. The only good thing about that tactic was that Kovalev saw almost 23 minutes of ice-time and he was dominant throughout. At times he looked alone and, thus, did a lot of one-man stuff, but with linemates like Laraque can you blame him? He spilt the Boston defence on a number of occasions, had our only goal and was the player who I felt played with the most heart.


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

Forwards

Alex Tanguay
Tanguay spent most of the night on our 'fourth' line, but in reality it was almost line 1b; when Georges is on a scoring line it is hard to recognize them as a true first unit. Alex managed to score a goal late in the game which was unfortunately disallowed because a Bruin player obstructed his own goalie. It remains a mystery why players like Metropolit and Lapierre are seeing more ice than Tanguay. Alex has been, and once again was tonight, one of our best players. If we want to win we must start using our top players more effectively.

Saku Koivu
Koivu's highlight was the beautiful pass that he made to Kovalev on our only goal. Aside from that play I felt that the captain played alright - he wasn't at his best, but he was certainly a top-3 forward for us. Saku was our best centreman in the face-off circle as he won 59% of his draws; we were 35% as a team.

Alexei Kovalev
If there is one aspect of our play that doesn't need changing right now it is Kovalev's play. He was, once again, a force to be reckoned with tonight as Boston's defence had few ideas of how to stop him. As good as he has played the past 2 games though we still need more from his linemates - Kovy is capable of not only scoring, but of creating goals too. He can't, however, make Laraque into a goal-scorer, he needs Tanguay back.

Defencemen

Roman Hamrlik
Roman was on the ice for three of Boston's goals, but was still, surprisingly, our best defenceman tonight. He had his hands full as he dealt with a few too many Komisarek mistakes for my liking and should be rewarded for that. He didn't get too many opportunities to work in the Bruins' end, but when he did he did an OK job. Let's put it this way, he played a decent game and was a standout among a pretty weak cast - Gorges, Dandenault and Weber all struggled tonight.

Mathieu Schneider
Mat saw no time on the PP tonight as the refs decided to only meet their Boston quotas once they had ensured the Bruins were safe. I suppose that risking an injury to a top player once the game is over isn't a bad plan. He played well alongside Weber tonight who did an OK job, but was definitely showing some nerves. Schneids is capable of playing that role and I think this is a duo we should stick with. Until Bouillon or Markov are back this group of six is the group that we must go with, we have no other choice.

Goaltender

Jaroslav Halak
The Habs didn't play well tonight as Boston was all over us and I am not about to blame the loss on Price entirely, but at some point I need to see a little more in the clutch department. He was weak at controlling the puck behind his net, lost too many pucks behind or underneath him and, although he made some very spectacular saves, was unable to make an easy stop after we had scored to get back within one. The team, like this fan, has no confidence in front of him and that is why we have to go with Halak - Jaro has proven (this season and again tonight) that he is the better and mentally stronger of the two. I hope that Gainey goes with Halak for game #3, because I don't see how we can win with Price. Just because you made a decision 4 years ago Bob that Carey was the future, there is no reason not to believe that you were wrong, and there is no shame in admitting it.



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

Myabe all of this losing is making me delusional, but for the first time in a long time I agreed with Don Cherry tonight. He questioned why the Habs were trying to out-tough the Bruins and he is absolutely right. Our game isn't body-checking, fighting and toughness (which obviously leads to mass penalties), but is instead speed, passing and scoring (or at least it was). We are playing a game that Boston has excelled at since the beginning of time rather than a game that we have proven is the key to winning. We never won a cup a series or a game by being tougher than the other team, I guarantee that we won all of those by out-scoring our opposition. By playing certain players rather than others and trying to intimidate the brain-dead oafs of BeanTown we are straying from what got us here in the first place. We did well at the beginning of the year, and again towards the end, by scoring goals and keeping the play as far away from our goalies as possible. If everyone would take a minute to breathe and think about last year's playoffs (rather than buying into the hype that the mainstream media sells about us being too small and not tough enough) we would see that we lost because we didn't score enough, not because we weren't as tough as Philly. Besides, if the past two games are as tough as we can be, I am not impressed, it wouldn't win us a series even if that was the key.


Overall Comments

It was all going well until we took our first penalty of the game. The call was hooking on Sergei Kostitsyn who, until that point, was playing quite well. The PP led to a goal and sucked all of the wind from our sails. Boston would go up by two soon after that and then two more penalties would allow the Bruins to take complete control. Koivu and Kovalev generated a quick goal in the second period and it looked like we may have a game. That feeling of uncertainty, however, that comes with having a non top-20 goalie backstopping you was very unsettling. I believed that it was only a matter of time until another goal would be scored and so I knew we needed to keep at it. The goal, and two more, indeed came over the course of that period to give the Bruins a 4-goal lead. Two of those goals had to be stopped in what was the biggest game of the season as they were quite weak. The third period started on a positive note as I believe our only chance at winning this series stepped on the ice - Halak. Jaro stopped everything that came his way and, although he wasn't tested much, made a couple of good ones and didn't let any weak ones in. The game ended with its usual rough stuff and Lucic was once again at the centre of it. The dumb goon cross-checked Lapierre in face on what should be a suspendable offence. Given, however, the laughable nature of the NHL's discipline record I wouldn't be surprised if he gets off clean. I do, however, think that if we could get Markov back, have Halak in nets and have a game without Lucic to worry about we could pull off a win on Monday. Then if the Bell Centre crowd can work their magic and get us game #4 we will be right back in it with all of the momentum. We'll need some hot players to get this done and for that I am looking Jaro and Plekanec's way. I'll never count these Habs out as there is too much talent on the ice for us to simply lay down and die.

Friday, April 17, 2009

Playoff Comedy

The Bruins Bias

I say comedy because i laughed at this:
The Bruins beat the Habs and they didn't even have their A game. On the other side of the coin, Montreal pretty much brought all they had. And still lost.

Apparently that was all we had. The Bruins didn't even try.

Russ at Bruins Report has a good blog, and we've had good spars in the past. His post last night, however, has nothing in it I can agree with.

Isn't it funny how the same game can look so different to fans wearing two different sets of distorting lenses.

What I really didn't understand was how us playing tough was pathetic, yet their "toughness" was so laudable. I guess he wrote the piece to fit the title he chose beforehand...

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Game #1-1

The Refs Let 'Em Play For 25 Minutes; Apart From Gorges

The Canadiens Game in Review

Date: Thursday April 16th, 2009
Opponent: Boston Bruins
Venue: TD Banknorth Garden, Boston, MA

Team StripesScore: 2 - 4 Loss

Habs starting goalie: Carey Price (L)
Opposition starting goalie: Tim Thomas (W)

Habs goalscorers: Christopher Higgins, Alexei Kovalev
Opposition goalscorers: Phil Kessel (2), David Krejci, Zdeno Chara


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

The Habs had just wasted their second (of only two) PP chances and I knew that was bad news. The hometown reffing, which gave the Bruins double our PPs, was unlikely to give us another chance so I thought that we had blown it. Just seven seconds after Yelle came back on the ice, however, Kovalev took an incredible shot to tie up the game. A great saucer pass came from Gorges and an alert Hamrlik let it go by him to the already wound-up Kovalev. Alex one-timed it upstairs above the ever-sprawling Thomas.



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

Saku Koivu
Saku was our most energetic player tonight as there was no battle from which he backed down. He was forced to play this game with only one winger (sorry Georges), but still managed to control the play and generate a lot of chances. He was back to his playoff self (although, to be fair, he has been playing like that all year) and was mocking the bigger defencemen on the other team. Toughness and size didn't cost us the playoffs last year and didn't cost us tonight (despite what TSN, CBC and RDS say - do they even watch games?) and that is because Koivu is tougher than most players that he goes up against.


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

Forwards

Glen Metropolit
One man's misfortune (Koivu) worked in Glen's favour tonight as he played on a line with Higgins and Tanguay. The trio generated the first goal of the game and were definitely one of our two best lines tonight. Metro centered those two very well and was quite effective himself. I thought that all three players were worthy of the dome, but it was Glen, thanks to his strong fore-checking, that takes the honour.

Saku Koivu
Koivu was a dominant player tonight and proved to me (yet again) that he doesn't need Laraque's protection at all. Ask Chara or Ward how many times they got out-worked, out-positioned and out-muscled by our captain and you'll know why I say that. He played 20 minutes tonight, but hardly any of that came on the PP or with two scoring wingers. Give him back Tanguay and give us some extra-man opportunities and he would show up more than the once that he did tonight on the scoresheet.

Alexei Kovalev
I have seen Kovalev play better and get no points and I have also seen him play worse and get more, tonight he was good enough though. We can't expect Kovy to carry us every game, but, of course, we all hope that he does. His goal was certainly the highlight of what was a decent, but not excellent, game from our star. I think that he was more affected by Tanguay's departure than Koivu was as I could see times where he held the puck because there was no winger on the other side to send a crisp pass to.

Defencemen

Roman Hamrlik
Hammer played more than any other player tonight and it was certainly well-deserved. He has to be our leader while Markov is out and tonight we was just that. He could be blamed for his penalty if the refs had reffed a fair game and if it would have been consistent with their other calls. Apart from that one 'mistake' he played a very strong game as he was our only defenceman with a + rating and took a team-high 5 shots on net.

Mike Komisarek
It was either Josh or Mike in here, but I will lean towards Mike tonight. The reason why I liked what he did was that he played a clean, strong game. Now, by clean, I don't just mean by not taking penalties (with these refs he could have been called three times, as could have anyone), but by also having good positioning. He made three hits which is about where he should be; he didn't overdo it. I like a good hit as long as positioning is not compromised and tonight, for Komi, it wasn't. His shots from the point, however, are pathetic as it makes it seem like Brisebois has a rocket; this is one area that he must work on.

Goaltender

Carey Price
I could have gone either way in here, but, because Carey made 35 saves, I'll go with him. I thought that all three of their goals were ones that he could have had and I didn't like the fact that they also beat him twice (cross-bar and post) in the third. He did, however, make some solid saves to hold Boston at two goals for a long time. I think that his play tonight, and as of late, is enough to beat the Bruins, but not to steal a series win. Our defence and offence both have to be better as we now know what we are getting from Price - solid goaltending with the occasional weak and very untimely goal.



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

The lasting impression that I have from this game is of how we fought for and won pucks. Our body positioning was great tonight and was far superior to that of the Bruins. Players like Koivu, Kostitsyn, Higgins and Gorges, amongst others, did a great job at taking the Bruin players out of the play with their bodies before collecting the loose pucks. This showed a couple of things to me; one was that we are faster than them when we want to be and the other was that we wanted it more tonight. Boston may have taken the win, but this Habs team played well. We played a good playoff-type game and that all comes back to the way that we were fighting for the puck.


Overall Comments

When Boston went up by two in the middle stages of the first period I didn't get too worried or nervous at all and I don't think that our players did either. You could tell by the way that they were playing that this game was far from being over. We went on to outplay Boston over the next period and a half and scored two goals in the process. Then, for no reason, the refs decided that it was time for the home team to get a PP. Hooks, trips, holds and high-sticks had gone uncalled for almost a period when they decided that Gorges' cross-check (and the ensuing Bruin dive) was enough for them to get a few cheers of their own. We didn't play that PP very well as we let up one shot that hit the cross-bar and then allowed Chara to shoot, unchallenged, on net. I was nervous watching and you could tell that the once confident Habs were nervous now too. The shot was thanks to Kostopoulos not sticking on his man (the golden rule against Boston is, or at least should be - don't leave Chara alone) and the goal was thanks to a great shot and Price going to the butterfly, hoping it would hit him or miss. The rest of the game went fast as Boston were now playing as well, if not better, than us. The refs did a great job tonight at giving Boston every chance to succeed and I can only hope that when the games are in Montreal we get double the chances that Boston gets; even if each team plays as dirty as each other, kind of like tonight.

The Score Playoff Predictions

As part of the Score Sports Federation, I was asked to submit my picks for the playoffs to a little pool they have going between bloggers and "experts".

The bloggers think they know best, while the staff at the Score, no doubt think they do. As a frequent loser of these types of pools, I can tell you I don't know what will happen, but I am sure of a few things: No team is safe, no series is over yet and no "expert" knows any different than me when it comes to the future.

Anyway, thought you'd like to know my picks:

Habs over Bruins in 7
A given that I pick the good guys here.

Capitals over Rangers in 6
Having watched Lundqvist a few times recently, I don't think he's enough to save this Rangers team.

Hurricanes over Devils in 7
The Eric/ks have put it together. And I like all the moves they've made for a while. Plus the Devils used a lot of luck up this season already.

Penguins over Flyers in 6
The real gems of the drafts vs. the ones Bobby Clarke pumped up.

Anaheim over San Jose in 7
San Jose's worst nightmare from the options. Pronger and Niedermayer can elevate their play after average seasons.

Detroit over Columbus in 6
Detroit may slip, but it shouldn't be against this weak squad.

Canucks over Blues in 5
The easiest match-up of the first round. This is where Sundin pays dividends.

Flames over Hawks in 7
The Blackhawks will be a formidable team one day. The day has not come. Iginla far outmatches anyone they can offer in the playoffs.


The other fun bit is that apparently the bloggers will be thoroughly mocked whenever possible on The Score Hardcore Hockey Talk. I can take it. If half of these picks come through, I'm in good shape, I think - minimal mocking.

Here are the "experts" picks:

In this corner, the Hardcore Hockey Talk Experts:

Steve Kouleas
Al Strachan
Steve Ludzik
Mark Osborne

Notice the similarities...

Habs : Bruins

The Balance Of Power

Having been pressed to the full at work lately, I haven't had a s much time for a preview as I would have liked. I am hoping that some of my prep can be slowly leaked through as the series goes over the next week or longer.


But as I'm sure you're all as excited as we are for the first meaningful game of the 2008-09 campaign (barring that one where we had to get the last point), so I thought I'd do an abridged little preview to ready the tastebuds.

I would start this post with a proviso before going any further. If I wanted to look through the teams and their statistics and come up with a preview that could have put the Bruins ahead in every category, I could have nearly done it. However, as this is a Canadiens blog and I am charged with doing something a little less mainstream than everyone who got their previews in hours ago anyway, I have managed to find some categories where I feel nos Habitants have an edge over the cavemen.

Without further ado, here are the battles:

1) Top line – Tanguay/Koivu/Kovalev vs. Lucic/Savard/Kessel

This is a tough call. The first problem is that the Habs top line have looked good, but only for a handful of games. The Bruins top line, most notably Kessel and Savard have looked good the entire season (almost).

I think even the most optimistic Habs fan has to give this one to the Bruins in terms of offense.

I will say this, though. The Canadiens top line is made up of three players who can make a top line on their own, just by virtue of being written in. The Bruins top line is not a top line without Savard. As such, it will be easier to smother the Boston line (for ease in targeting the coverage) – a lesson that could be straight from Boston's play book of 2008 on Kovalev.


2) The secondary scoring

There is no doubt the Bruins had more success here this season. But you know what, how many career-best seasons did they have there? The Canadiens by contrast had decent secondary scoring despite pitiful stretches from all their second guns.

The question is whether the momentum in the playoffs will shift or not. Last season, Tomas Plekanec was quite possibly the best forward on our team in the second half of the season. But a change in momentum nullified his input in the playoffs. This season, the Bruins are toting a few Plekanecs in their line-up.

It's for that reason that I am giving the edge to the Canadiens here. It must be the Felipe Alou fan in me, but Kostitsyn has to break out, so does Plekanec. Higgins and Latendresse could also. They will have to to prove me right. Else, I could right be called a blind fool. My gut simply tells me Kostitsyn > Recchi, Pleks > Krejci, Gui > Wheeler and so on.


3) The checking forwards – Higgins vs. Axelsson

Somewhat fortuitously, Chris Higgins seems to have fallen into the role he was born to play. No longer forced into situations where he must produce, he can concentrate on being that intelligent and anticipatory player we all know and love. If I'm Marc Savard, I wouldn't relish a shift with this guy watching me at all. I don't think Koivu gives a toss if Axelsson is on the ice or not. Canadiens win this battle is Chris is deployed in the right way.


4) Top defenceman – Hamrlik vs. Chara


I could make some cockamamie tale about Hamrlik up here, but he does not measure to Chara in stature, skill or even experience. Boston wins this battle in a landslide.

However, if (big if) Markov can come back and be Markov; I feel that Andrei is the best defender in the East and the third behind Lidstrom and Niedermayer in this league. In that case, the Habs would have my edge.


5) The rest of the D

Some Canadiens fans have been kidding themselves when they say the Habs win this battle. Aaron Ward, for example, has oodles of Cup experience and was a main reason our number one line went AWOL last spring. He is what Komisarek should be and isn't. Then you have the steady, simple and obedient play of the others that helped bring (nay, brought) the Jennings trophy home to Boston this season.

Are the slow? Perhaps a bit. Are they deficient in the offensive skills department? Mostly, but Jennings doesn't care about that (especially when the forwards go second in the league on goals). Boston's defenders are a better group than the Habs, Hamrlik and Bouillon or not.


6) Backstops – Price vs. Thomas


Tim Thomas had one of those seasons. He should win the Vezina trophy. But you know what? Huet had one of those seasons and he was let go for nothing. I would never want to write Thomas's season off, but had Carey Price even had a semblance of a good second half, he'd have the edge here. As it is, Boston wins.


7) Discipline

Here's one of those categories. Can it carry as much weight as the others? Probably not, but it is a factor. It is a category that the Canadiens will win, I'll tell you why: they need to.

As such, discipline for the Canadiens will be written into the game plan. A lot was made of the Canadiens indiscipline in the regular season at times, but so many times that indiscipline was nothing of the sort. It was puck over the glass or non-call, or stick brush the waist. If you exclude Mike Komisarek from consideration, I actually felt the Habs on the whole were quite a disciplined bunch for most of the season.

I'll tell you why else: Boston's identity requires them to come out and bang. Sure, during the regular season the Bruins fans will tolerate a clean game vs. the Wild. But come playoffs, vs. the abhorrent Canadiens, no mercy will be tolerated. A goal must be answered with a fight. A shot with a cross-check. It's written in their constitution. We saw it a mere week ago.


8) Coaching – Gainey vs. Julien

Only one of these two men will be nominated for the Jack Adams trophy this season. However, only one made brilliant and brave decisions to turn his team around.

Claude Julien sure looked good again at the helm of a team that made it happen. Bob Gainey looked barely adequate at times. Even so, only one of these coaches has won any significant series in the playoffs (either as player or coach).

On top of that, Julien remains unique as a coach for twice being fired from teams when sporting a winning record – first the 19-16-6 Canadiens of 2006, then the 47-24-0 Devils of 2007. That Devils firing undertaken by a GM without peer and instigated based on the testimony of the best goaltender and many of the best students of hockey in the game, tells me all I'll ever need to know about Claude. Gainey is a better coach. Canadiens edge the Bruins here.


9) Extra gear


I'll list players I know have an extra gear on both sides:

Koivu, Kovalev and Mark Recchi.

Not that they won't be happy with status quo, as the East winners, but the Bruins will mostly have to make do with that. They do not have a Koivu, not many teams do. They have Recchi, but even he can't reach Kovalev control of a game. Of course, this is dependent on the players actually stepping up the rate. But since we can count on Koivu, the Canadiens already have the edge.

The question that lingers here is do any other players have that gear? Well, one could make an argument for Aaron Ward, and maybe if you're generous Chara or Schneider, but beyond that, it's youngsters with little history to go on. Both teams have intriguing possibilities like Kessel, Wideman, Kostitsyn and Lapierre.


10) Preparation

The Bruins prepared for these playoffs by practicing winning and not much else. They came back a number of times from goal deficits, but they never had to deal with a losing streak, a split in the dressing room, or things generally not going their way.

The Canadiens, if you can look at it in a positive light, earned their 3 credits this semester. They've had lessons on every topic and in the end they pulled it out. Bad losses, they've had a few to recover from. Non-existent goaltending, they're well versed. In a nutshell, nothing could happen to the Canadiens in game one or two that hasn't happened to them already. Nothing could rattle them more than they've been rattled. The Bruins? I'm not so sure.

Even so, the Bruins way of preparing is tried and tested. If they win, they know how to win again. If they go down a goal, they know they more often than not come back. If things go their way, as the experts predict they will, they'll know full well what to do with the situation.


The tally

Even at a stretch, it's hard to find things other than faith to put the Canadiens ahead. On the tally, I have a draw, but in fairness the Bruins have captured the points cards here with all defenders, goaltenders and top line scoring going to them.

We knew there would be ifs for our Habs, and they are big ones. But if Markov ever came back, we'd pull closer. If Koivu and Kovalev both play like the men-possessed they can be, then even a giant Slovak can't stop them. If Kostitsyn scores a few early in the series, the Bruins will have a lot of reorganisation to do. If Higgins is deployed as a shadow and plays like he has been, he could be a major factor. Dare I say, if Price actually plays like he has done in the past (the good times), then playing a goon line won't look so smart.

And, if dogmatic Julien is forced out of his comfort zone, well then we're on our way.

Lessons Of The Past For These Canadiens

The Canadiens are only too familiar with hearing about their turnaround from last year to this year. I'm sure they are well aware of their polar opposites as they prepare in that team's arena.

And, I'm sure that the Canadiens players and their fans all remember how regular season hotshots turned simple playoff participant as the season without rules began last spring.

They'd better be remembering that an awful lot, in fact, because there within lies a key to their fate this spring. That is, study how the Bruins tripped the Canadiens up and this team may figure out how to pull the inverse.

From a blogger's perspective, I have to say it is very useful to be playing the identical opponents in the first round of the playoffs for two years running. Thanks to the wonder of the archives, I am able to see exactly what I was saying at this point last year, what my fellow bloggers and reporters were saying too.

Predictably, the situation was very upbeat in the Canadiens camp. Most were picking the Canadiens in varieties of 4 or 5 games. All sounds very similar to the Bruins camp this season.

Prior to the first game last year, I don't think I made a prediction. I won't this year either. I believed the Canadiens could win. I knew either team could, though. This was the playoffs. I wrote something about the puzzling way the Bruins piled up points last season (94 in all). They had an average defence, a sub-par attack and a hot and cold goaltender. I called them cagey. I figured they wrested points, a lot of the time by sheer power of will. The playoffs

The Canadiens can take two lessons from this:

1) They pulled a Bruins this year. Sure they blew their early lead, but when it came to crunch time, they slugged it out. They won as many as they had to to make the regular season worthwhile. A team that can look at the last ten games, recognise the need for a good record and pull it off can do the same over 7 games.

2) The Bruins are pretty much that same team. Personnel-wise they are. If you want the truth, the Bruins 09 really only differ form the Bruins 08 by a 28-game run in November and December. Last season they lost there, this season they got 51 points and padded the stats we are wowed by today. Yes 28 games is a formidable achievement, but they are not the first, nor will they be the last, to streak so sweetly. The positive thing is they are not in the midst of that streak now.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

A Canadiens Win Possible:

Positives From The Statsbooks

Been reading around a bit on the playoffs. There have been a lot of keys to the Canadiens and Bruins victories floated around. One common theme I see coming up again and again is the fact the Canadiens must win a game in Boston to win.

Yesterday, I indulged in one of my other passions – football (soccer, that is). I watched one of the most amazing sporting contests I have seen in years – Chelsea vs. Liverpool in the Champion's League. Coming into the game, Liverpool were in a massive hole (think 8th seed coming in on a losing streak). They had to win at Stamford Bridge (no easy task), they also had to score 3 goals in doing it.

If you know a little bit about footie, you know that games with 3 goals are rare, games with 3 goals from a single team are rarer still.

Funny then that the commentator, right before starting on the game said he wanted to clear a few things up – with the facts. "The common thinking, he said, was that Liverpool must score early to have a chance at scaling the mountain". "Not so, he said, Liverpool can score those 3 whenever they want".

The parallel to the Canadiens is right there. The fact is the Canadiens need to win 4 games to get to the next round. The fact, given the home ice situation, is that the Habs must win at least once in Boston. Nowhere does it say when this win should occur.

I'll stand by this. The Canadiens cannot pin their hopes on a win in the first two games. They cannot let a failure to do so derail them. Getting to 1-1 or 2-2 in this series will be a moral boost, but the only important number is 4. Win 4, don't lose 4. Just the same, winning a game in the first two is no more an indicator of victory this year than it was last year.


Stats to encourage

When I was gathering information on this series, I came across a few interesting stats.

Powerplay
You might remember I touched on the Habs PP resurgence earlier this season. If you look at the rankings for the season, the Canadiens show the 13th best PP in the league at 19.2%. If you take away games 1-38, they actually had a 24% rate to approach their top rating of the past two years.

Boston for their part had a torrid start. At one point midway through the season, they had the best PP and PK, best GF and GA. No longer. I don't have intermediate stats, but that's enough to know they did worse over the past 4 months than the Canadiens did on the PP.

Leading/trailing
There aren't many statistical categories you can look at to pick up your spirits in Montreal. Record when leading after one period, though, is certainly one. The Habs are a mind-boggling 24-2-2 when they establish a first period lead (a rare enough event – 28 occurrences this season). It puts them at the head of the class.

Boston carried the lead into the second 6 more times than us, but only won 3 more. So the Habs are actually tighter at protecting a lead, if you can believe it. The slight hiccough is that Boston actually won 10 out of 19 games they were themselves trailing after 1. I'll ignore that...

1 goal games
Another stat I dug out to make us look competitive: 1 goal games. Montreal was involved in 39 games settled by 1 goal, Boston 38. Montreal put together a winning 20-8-11 record for 51 points. Boston didn't do quite as well, playing sub-500 hockey with 18 wins and 46 points.

Given the direct applications of one-goal records to playoff hockey, Montreal will be happy to be more proficient in tight situations.


Based on these random stats, it seems the keys to the Canadiens winning, among other things are to play tight, don't let the Bruins run away with; and if possible take a lead into the second. Nothing too groundbreaking there, but it'll do for now...

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

On A Wing And A Tie-Break

The Canadiens completed the task we asked of them. They did it by the slightest margin possible.

Come Thursday, the Canadiens will face off against the Boston Bruins because an NHL tie-breaking rule favours the record between teams with identical records over goal differential.

Amazingly, this team we support (who had 56 points after 41 games) managed to crawl to the same record as the Florida Panthers. Each garnered 93 points from a .500 season, each with an unhealthy complement of points for losing. The Panthers scored three more goals than they allowed; the Canadiens 2 more. The decider, as it is, were the 3 games that went to Montreal from 4 between the two squads. Funnily enough, coming into this season, the Panthers were the only team in the current league to hold a winning record against our squad.

The tight result reminds me very much of a similar experience of my own. In my case, it was a very important competition won against arch-rivals. In the end we did it by 2 points – on a recount. That was swimming, this is hockey; but the rewards of such a tightly fought race are the same.

Today Robert L writes how the Canadiens have been failed by their lack of supporting cast. He mentions the setbacks of Price, O'Byrne and Sergei Kostitsyn and the stalls of Higgins, Plekanec and Andrei Kostitsyn. While there's not much dispute about most of that here. It could also be said that the supporting cast actually played a very significant role in the end – in a season, that is, where every single point counted.

For us, the sweetest part was that tight swimming victory all those years ago meant every single member of the team that year was a contributor. Whether a 5-time gold medallist and relay anchor or a one-event finalist who beat one opponent. The same is true for the Canadiens. Every single member of the hockey team can look back at the season and find their part in getting that single point, OTL, game-tying goal, key blocked shot, etc. In fact, our stats tell me that no less than 28 different players at least earned themselves a dome and 16 won game pucks.

You only need to think of Matt D'Agostini and Tomas Plekanec, who on the whole have had pretty tumultuous seasons, but who both played starring roles in important victories at critical times. Sergei Kostitsyn, Tom Kostopoulos, Francis Bouillon, Mike Komisarek, they're all there alongside the Kovalevs, Koivus and Markovs who we expect to be looking to at this stage of the season.

If that's not something positive to take from this season, then I don't know what is. I can tell you from experience, this can bring a great energy to a team.


On that note, I thought I would highlight a few of the critical moments of the season and the performances that helped get us points:

1) Jaroslav Halak (Game 6)
Game puck, dome, 35 saves on 36 shots and a win vs. the Florida Panthers.

2) Carey Price (Game 18)
Dome, critical saves at critical times. Shootout win.

3) Tom Kostopoulos (Game 19)
Dome, game-tying goal and 2 point night.

4) Maxim Lapierre (Game 35)
Game puck, dome, hat trick against the Panthers, including the game winner and 2 insurance goals in the 5-2 win over Florida.

5) Andrei Kostitsyn (Game 38)
Game puck, done, 2 goals on 2 shots to make sure we made OT and beat the Panthers.

6) Sergei Kostitsyn (Game 41)
Good game, done and a game-winning goal with 22 seconds to go against Washington.

7) Chris Higgins (Game 49)
Game puck, dome, game-tying one-on-two goal with less than 2 to go in what would be a win for the Habs vs. LA.

8) Alexei Kovalev (reinvention)
Many lesser players would have taken the sit-down as a massive affront (Craig Rivet...), but Alexei turned his season around through sheer power of will. Pride may be a vice, but in the Habs case, Kovalev's pride saved us a season.

9) Ryan O'Byrne (Game 66)
A solid defensive effort from one of our worst defenders resulted in a solid, nerve calming win in Dallas (of no help to Carbo, obviously).

10) Matt D'Agostini (Game 81)
Game puck, dome, playoff-clinching goal vs. the Bruins in a wild one.