Tuesday, January 29, 2008

All Star Week: Montreal Canadiens January 15-28

The weeks that were
Let's start with the weak excuse that was. I am sorry I missed last week's update/preview, but I let work get the better of me. I will endeavour to see that it never happens again...

As for the Habs, well they had a pretty good couple of weeks in my books. 4 wins and a loss against teams in the playoff picture is tidy business.

Two weeks ago, the team was looking good getting the majority of their points and happily holding on to a playoff spot. Now, the Habs have the second highest point total in the East and fifth in the league. So what's changed?

Well, let's be honest. There are currently 21 points between first and last in the East, and only 15 between us (number 2) and Tampa (number 15). A streak of 8 points in 5 games, especially when all the games come against Eastern rivals will vault you up. It's as simple as that. So, enjoy the standings by all means, but remember to keep one eye on the intermediary goal: 96 points. If we get to 96, then we can be happy about the standings – that i guarantee.

Quite apart from the standings, the Habs have been doing positive things. There are two things in particular I would note:

1) Remember all those games I described as games that good teams would win (i.e., those teams that start to separate themselves from the pack in mid-January)? Well, we won those games. For the recent editions of the Habs, this constitutes a very big step, because remember, the Islanders, Thrashers and bruins all also wanted to take that critical step.

2) We beat the big boys. That's right, and in New Jersey too. And, it wasn't Terreri, Burke, Clemmensen or Weekes – it was the man himself. What's more we beat them with offense! That Devils win feels good for the fans because it should. It confirms what we have been seeing since December – that the team is on the rise.

While addressing ascendancies, I think it would be apt to mention two players in particular who have grown into integral parts of the team in the same vein as Koivu, Kovalev, Markov and Huet:

1) Mike Komisarek – leading the league in categories that matter, superseding Hamrlik (in the season dome, no less) as the number two defenseman and growing into a leader of leaders. Higgins and Chipchura have been downgraded to future assistant captains of this team. Mike is starting to show all his mettle.

2) Andrei Kostitsyn – I knew he was vital, I knew he was oozing talent, but even I didn't expect the turnaround to come quickly as this. 79 games into a career, we can't even agree how to spell his name, and he's scoring the types of goals we hoped for: beautiful goals, skillful goals, important goals, game-breaking goals. Whoever told this boy to shoot deserves a lot of thanks.

Quote of the weeks
On losing your place on the team (and your mind?), what does he mean???, what do the Kostitsyns have to do with anything???:

"L'équipe est jeune et les vétérans doivent montrer l'exemple. Aujourd'hui, j'étais dans le gymnase et j'ai invité Guillaume (Latendresse) à venir me rejoindre. Ca ne lui tentait pas vraiment. Mais une fois l'entraînement terminé, il était très content. En ce moment, les frères Kostitsyn sont dans le gymnase.

"The team is young and it is up to the veterans to provide an example. Today, I was in the gym and I invited Guillaume Latendresse to come and join me. He didn't really want to. But, once the session was over, he was very happy. Right now, the Kostitsyns are in the gym."

Coming off two weeks of great positive strides...

... what might Rejean Houle do?

Starts calling GMs around the league to see if there's any interest in Michael Ryder.

... what might Sam Pollock do?

Sits down with Michael Ryder to talk about the future. Keeps calling Tampa and Atlanta about those draft picks.

The week upcoming

An old fashioned return to the Patrick division – the land of unending playoff overtime. After seeing a variety of teams, the Habs will be relieved to go back to seeing the same teams over and over again. At the very least, it means I can cut and paste in this section more...

Personally, I think this recent Canadiens form has been a long time coming and is no aberration. If the team is who I think they are, we'll have at least 5 more points towards that 96 by Sunday evening.

Tuesday night: Washington Capitals at the Bell Centre.

Remember those games good teams should win. Well, this is one. it will be tough with Ovechkin coming off a high in Atlanta, but our all-star Dman and deserving winger should be up to the task too.

Caps to watch: Alexander Ovechkin and Mike Green – Ovechkin's shootout competition entry was actually quite lame by his standards and anyone who thinks Rick Nash scored the goal of the decade should look back and see it wasn't even the goal of the decade against Phoenix; Mike Green is the talk of Caps town and I can see why. apparently new coach Boudreau is keen on using his talents to the fullest.

Thursday night: Washington Capitals at the Verizon Center.

Winning one game against the Washingtons of the league is difficult but vital, winning two in a row takes special concentration. This will take some Bruins style strategy, but again the points should be available come the third, if the Habs want them.

Caps to watch: Alexander Ovechkin and Niklas Backstrom – Ovechkin will probably always fill this space for Caps games for the next 15 years, and it would be a challenge not to watch him; Backstrom is a talented up and comer like Green, who has been outdoing Kane in the past few weeks (Calder possibility?).

Saturday afternoon: New York Islanders at the Bell Centre.

Islanders at home. Doesn't sound scary, but 5-game winning streak does. In isolation, this game is also there for this Habs team who outclass the Islanders at every position. Winning while keeping a streak alive would be a new mark of quality for the Habs.

Isles to watch: Rick DiPietro and Blake Comeau – DiPietro is a quality goaltender, no doubt and it's worth watching him handle the puck, but he was a token on the All-Star team who afforded Huet a welcome rest (thanks NHL policymakers), Comeau is one of three plus players on a team well in the playoff race. At plus 5, I'll be watching him as he might have something to do with this anonymous team's relative success.

Sunday afternoon: New York Rangers at the Bell Centre.

Rangers after the Islanders at home. Too bad they couldn't have played each other on Saturday night in between the two games for a little round-robin. We like playing New York teams after the derby game. The Habs will have to show they can handle the Rangers next and the the Sens if they want us to be serious about their chances. This game will be the first step. I think it will be a close affair, possibly involoving the play afterhours. If it's a shootout, I want to see Kovalev as he tries to top Ovechkin's All-Star move...

Rangers to watch: sean Avery and Jaromir Jagr – Avery just back from injury is always a factor, but you can never anticipate what he'll say and do, especially in this province; you can't really anticipate what Jagr will do either, but for entirely different reasons. That quality also makes him the player to watch.

Overheard on the Habswagon:

"Monster (indiscernable yelling). Monster (high-pitched squeal coming from somewhere near the floor). I have the book on Huet."

[The subjective look at the week that was and the week ahead in Montreal Canadiens Week is supplemented by the objective analysis following every fifth game]

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