Monday, November 26, 2007

The New (My) NHL: Montreal Canadiens November 19-25

[Montreal Canadiens Week takes a look at the week that was and the week ahead from a subjective standpoint, and is supplemented by the objective analysis following every fifth game]

The week that was

Well guys, back to earth, eh?

Not quite yet, but close.

What I think we just saw was a week that will become more and more common as the salary cap era goes on. We saw the 14th place team go on a winning tear and the first place team lose 3 in a row. Our own 3rd (or 4th if you believe in giving free positions to divisions) place team suffered a bit too.

From last week, where there was starting to be some separation in the standings, we have now arrived at a situation where there is 8 points between 2nd and 14th. In Toronto they are flipping out because they are in 14th. From another point of view, they are a team that was going to be fighting for the playoffs, one point out of a spot (24 games in...).

This new parity amongst the teams in the conference also has implications for game preparation, road trip preparation and fatigue levels over the season. If every game is now a battle, is it possible to be in a position to win each one?

Well, I think we saw the answer and it is NO.

But the answer is also that sometimes the other team simply outplays you. They are afterall, trying to. The hardest thing to admit as a sports fan is that your team is inferior to another, or even was inferior that day or night. In Montreal, the media tends to ignore how the other team played and focus entirely on the Canadiens. Win, and the Canadiens played well. lose and they played poorly. On rare occasions, the media sometimes concedes the other team's goalie played well, but never that the other team did.

If the Habs actually looked at their worst in terms a of putting themselves in positions to win, they also benefited from an Islanders team that couldn't get over a hangover of their own. In fact, it helps me to think of games from the opponents' perspective for every game.

For example, we beat the Bruins 7-1. Both sets of fans will look at the game from their own point of view

Habs fan: The Canadiens played an amazing and complete game.

Bruins fan: The Bruins were lazy, lost battles and conceded too many penalties.

In reality, the answer probably lies somewhere in between. For usually, the team that plays better wins and the team that looks lazy loses. But, in the way that different Bruins can make Mike Komisarek look both like a giant or a shortie, opponents energy, desperation, skill and luck shape the way we see our own team.

As such, here's my view on the past week: Montreal played 4 quite similar games. Ottawa are a better team than us, and we need a special effort to beat them. The Islanders dogged their game and made us look good. And, the Sabres played some inspired hockey – probably emerging from some very stern speeches reminding them they went from top to bottom in 6 months time.

I also believe that there are 7 cities each week that go through this same down period, just like there are 7 who go through the up. Montreal may be unique in the number of passionate fans, but is hardly alone in their one-eyed view on home teams.

So, after 2 losses (or 3 in 4, whichever you think looks worse) is there need to panic? NO

The introspective approach to game evaluations is fine in the media, since it has no impact whatsoever on how the team will perform, practice or approach the next game. One can only hope the coaching staff and players can step back and admit their inferiority on a given night. With a realistic evalution, realistic solutions can emerge. Maybe the Koivu/Higgins/Ryder line plays badly against Buffalo, but could still function against Toronto. Maybe Huet doesn't like facing Crosby, but relishes Jagr shots.

Thankfully, I think we have the staff to produce rational and realistic solutions, and to ignore the panic that sets in every 2 games.

On ignoring 20 earlier games in an effort to get your quote in the paper (Guy Lafleur):
"En mon livre, on n'a pas de premiere trio a Montreal. On a quatre quatriemes trios"

"In my opinion we don't have a number one line in Montreal. We have four fourth lines."

Coming off a week that sent the media into a tailspin and bandwagon fans home packing...

... what might Rejean Houle do?

Trade Ryan McDonagh for a winger from out west.

... what might Sam Pollock do?

Talk to Paul Maurice's agent about possible interest in a return to AHL coaching down the road in Hamilton (in the eventuality...).

The week upcoming

If the last week saw the Canadiens get reabsorbed by the front of the peloton, then these next 6 must return at least 3 points for hope of breaking free again next month. A realistic evaluation, assuming no sulks infect the team as a whole, makes the task doable.

Tuesday night: Toronto Maple Leafs at the Air Canada Centre.

This game is critical. A win allows the team some breathing space both in the standings and from the media. Toronto is not going to be a pushover by any means, they will be fighting for their coach by all accounts. If the Canadiens can find a way to play and impose their own style on these Leafs, then I think it comes up W. After two lessons in how to impose a style, hopefully they learned a thing or two.

Leafs to watch: Mats Sundin and John Ferguson Junior – Sundin is having a great season (which recently doesn't seem to be able to go hand in hand with wins for the Leafs), JFJ will get some air time on the TV and should provide some decent expressions (from relief to despair depending on how things go).

Friday night: New Jersey Devils at the brand new .

Great. The Devils. Just when they decided not to be the worst team in the Atlantic. There are points to be had here, though. As we saw with the Islanders and Flyers, the Atlantic division is not the Northeast. Not by any stretch of the imagination. Our little vacation from the top right corner of the league gives us a good chance to remind the Devils of that.

One commenter on the site got a bit animated when I prognosticated on the Devils games earlier in the year. I rather conservatively said split. He did not agree. I think this game will give us the answer.

Devils to watch: Patrick Elias and John Madden – Elias is underperforming as much as anyone and has been known to enjoy playing the Habs, Madden will be on the ice to test Kovalev et al's commitment to defense.

Saturday night: Nashville Predators at the Bell Centre.

In my opinion, this is the difficult game this week. Nashville have been underrated this year. I did it, everyone did. While they lost Timonen and Kariya, they managed to keep together a very young and effective group of defensemen, and their forwards are taking "no name" effectiveness to new heights. Their November has been great and they'll be coming off a game against an Ottawa team with renewed vigour.

Predators to watch: Radek Bonk and Martin Erat – Bonk has 9 goals already! (10 less than in 2 seasons with the Canadiens) and Erat is the player we thought Bulis could be and would be the leading scorer on the current Canadiens.

Overheard on the Habswagon

Fan 1: What's that stuff you see rolling by in cowboy films?

Fan 1: Oh, that's called tumbleweed.

Fan 1: Right.

(If a foil cup falls over after two consecutive Habs losses, does it make a sound?)


  1. You're right about the other team being a part of the equation. A team who has it together on a given night will almost be default prevent the other team from playing its best. Particularly during a long season when a really high level of motivation can't be sustained.

    Lafleur's comment was poor. This numbering of lines bothers me sometimes. Unless you're lucky enough to have a superstar or two, what you need to build is four lines that can all be a threat (given that some have to emphasize checking more than others). Perhaps switching Ryder and Latendresse will begin to accomplish this better. We'll see.

  2. Switching Ryder and Latendresse can't hurt. If Latendresse starts to score great. If Ryder starts to score, just as good.

    Like you, I don't like the numbering of lines per se. I like to see the team win games. If the "third line" does all the scoring, I couldn't care less.