Monday, March 31, 2008

2006 to 2008: Strides Ahead

Saku Koivu is hurt.

We are not sure how badly yet, but he'll miss some time, that's a certainty.


So, how does this bode for the Canadiens? Will his absence be felt to the same extent it was 2 years ago after that freak eye injury he suffered?

Firstly, I would like to address how surprised I am by the fear and worry surrounding the Canadiens from a large number of fans. Isn't Saku Koivu the player who we should have traded or unloaded? Isn't he just a passenger anyway? I find it interesting to see the very same people who criticise Koivu all year long turn around and say that his loss is critical to the team. Where is their logic?

Oh wait, if they were logical, they might have deduced the value of Koivu earlier – from the contributions of wingers he played with and results he influenced.

Despite the fact I rattle on about the value of Koivu to this team, I would not go so far as to write the Habs off should Koivu's injury be the worst case scenario. Of course his loss will be noticed. However, I think the team will be able to adapt and thrive again once they've done that. When thinking of the similarity of the current situation with 2006, I look to several different reasons to be optimistic about the Habs first-round playoff hopes, even without Koivu:

1) Opponent: Carolina (2006) vs. Undetermined (2008)

Even with our opponent up in the air, it cannot possibly be worse than 2006. That year, Carolina dominated the league for stretches, garnered 112 points and 52 wins, narrowly missed out on winning the East and scored nearly 300 goals. This year, each of our possible opponents has had at least one or two rough patches, have identifiable weak points and are not offensive juggernauts. Though we could still theoretically face any team, we are fortunate to be in a position where we are least likely to face Pittsburgh, the one team that most resembles Cup Winners Carolina from 2006.


2) Koivu's replacement: Bonk (2006) vs. Grabovski (2008)


Bonk may have had offensive potential at one point and even showed some flashes with the Habs, but realistically he was always going to be much too conservative for a number one centre. Grabovski, in contrast, has youthful exuberance, speed and creative flair going for him. For all his faults, you'd be hard pressed to hold lack of offense against him – 20 points with 8 goals in the 12 games he played during his demotion to Hamilton show how potent he can be.


3) The other line: Bulis-Ribeiro-Kovalev (2006) vs. Kostitsyn-Plekanec-Kovalev (2008)

Man to man this year's "Line 2" is better, better and better.


4) Supporting cast: Zednik, Plekanec, Perezhogin, Murray and Sundstrom (2006) vs. Lapierre, S Kostitsyn, Begin, Smolinski and Kostopoulos (2008)

Apart from Plekanec (but a rookie then), the cast from 2006 were either stalled or on the wane. There was hope with Zednik, but as we know it went unfulfilled that series. Less hope, more concrete this time. Lapierre and Begin bring more energy than any of the aforementioned. Smolinski can fill a number of roles. Kostopoulos is a strong and willing warrior. And Sergei Kostitsyn is bottled lightning. Add Latendresse who is probably resting for a return, and that gives one more legitimate NHL option.


5) The team: Playoff squeak-in and worst goal differential in the playoffs with Koivu (2006) vs. Best in the East and best offense in the league with Koivu (2008)

The Habs are just simply a better team in 2008. For reasons well-documented, they have scored more and won more games. Most importantly, they have won more important games. They have found new leaders to support Koivu. They have scored when the Koivu line hasn't. They traded their goalie because the back-up was too good to hold back again, but the starter was not in a career free fall.



6) Timing: Game 3 (2006) vs. Game -4 (2008)


In 2006, there was no hope of a Koivu return whatsoever. Even a recovery against Carolina would have left us searching for offense in the next round(s), ultimately prone to fail at some point. In 2008, Koivu may have broken his foot about 2 weeks prior to the playoffs. If he takes 2 weeks to recover, he'll be in for Game 1. If he takes 4 weeks, he could be in for the end of round 1.

Furthermore, the nature of the injury and the fact that aggravation of it is unlikely to ruin the rest of Koivu's life means that should he be sorely sorely missed, he could come back on a hobble.


So Habs fans, no need to despair. There's as much reason to be hopeful as there ever was. This Habs team has been a success because of the emphasis on team. The fact that superstar Kovalev would tell you that is proof in itself:

«Nous ne pouvons pas rester là à penser aux joueurs blessés. Nous avons d’autres joueurs qui ont travaillé fort durant toute la saison. Ils ont à saisir leur chance et montrer ce qu’ils peuvent accomplir. Les jeunes joueurs de notre pourront démontrer qu’ils appartiennent à la LNH », explique Alex Kovalev.


Playoff hockey is coming and our team is in the hunt. It's time to get excited...

Saturday, March 29, 2008

Game #79

No Koivu, No Luck - Habs Lose to Leafs

The Canadiens Game in Review

Date: Saturday March 29th, 2008
Opponent: Toronto Maple Leafs
Venue: Air Canada Centre, Toronto, ON


Team Stripes


Final Score: 2-4 - Loss

Habs starting goalie: Jaroslav Halak (L)
Opposition starting goalie: Vesa Toskala (W)

Habs goalscorers: Mathieu Dandenault, Tom Kostopoulos
Opposition goalscorers: Anton Stralman (2), Jiri Tlusty (2)



2007/08 first
There's a first time for everything, so they say. What they didn't tell you is that every game, something happens for the first time, you just have to look harder in March...

1st Game for Halak in his new mask
1st Game that Mark Streit has missed all year
1st Time that Dandenault has played defence this year



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

Ryan O'Byrne elbowed a Leaf halfway through the first period which led to a game misconduct and a 5 minute Toronto Power-Play. It was a brutal call by the ref(s), one which was surely influenced by the reaction the player had to the hit.

Out of this play came our best moment in the game and something that I must sadly call the play of the game. The Habs penalty-killers were absolutely fantastic for the 5 minute stretch allowing just a single shot through on Halak. It seemed that this kill, at the time, was the momentum-shifter the Habs would need to get going tonight; it turned out to be a rare strong point in an otherwise weak game.



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

Andrei Markov

Andrei had to step up tonight as our defence corps is starting to take some serious hits. With Komisarek and Streit out it was already a dire situation for the Habs. Added to the list of missing blue-liners throughout the game were O'Byrne (game-misconduct) and Bouillon. That left us with 5 defenceman (of 9) to play with, two of which are Brisebois (no explanation needed) and Dandenault - a player that hasn't played D in almost a year. Markov was our mightiest player tonight and made our situation look a lot better than it actually was.



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

Bryan Smolinski
- Bryan and his line played a good game and did exactly what was asked of them - they scored a goal, skated for 60 minutes and actually presented the Leafs with a fore-check. Bryan himself ended at +1 and was 10/14 on face-offs

Christopher Higgins
- Higgins was the only player on our 1B line that didn't look completely lost without Koivu. He skated very well and generated quite a few chances. He had 3 shots, including a near-goal on a penalty-shot

Tom Kostopoulos
- Tom played a hard game from start to finish and though he didn't play much he made the most of his ice-time. He managed to score his 7th of the year in the dying seconds of the game which is a good sign as it shows he has character and will fight right until the end for us

Defencemen

Roman Hamrlik
- Roman played another decent game in his own end as he ended up with an Even rating. He did very well on the PK as he spent almost 8 minutes of his 25 on the ice while Toronto had an extra man

Andrei Markov
- He led defencemen in shots with 3 and led all Habs in ice time (PK and overall - 9:04, 25:28). He played well on the PP, but the unit looked very lost without Streit - Markov took over point-shot responsibilities tonight and seemed to handle himself quite well

Goaltender

Carey Price
- This was not Halak's night. Jaro's game in the ACC should have been in April of last year, not tonight - this will be a night to forget. Carey deserved the night off and I am sure the fact that he got a rest will serve the team better over the next few weeks. Halak didn't look too comfortable all game and let in a goal (Tornoto's second) that he shouldn't have - it essentially killed the Habs' chance



Eyes on Kovalev
Did he flit and float? Someone ought to keep track...

Kovalev likely had his worst offensive game of the season and quite possibly worst one as a Hab. He was invisible in the offensive zone and he actually made a few mistakes which resulted in give-aways. His penalty-killing saved him a 'Bad' rating tonight, but I assure you we do not have him around to kill penalties.

Kovalev's Assessment - Average


Overall Comments

Toronto didn't let their recent elimination from the playoffs stop them from playing another hard game against us. No matter how high or low either team is in the standings a Leaf/Hab match-up will always be a tough game. We seemed lost without Koivu out there all night, even Kovy's line lacked direction. You never really know the value of a player (or players - Streit too) until you play without them. The last time I remember Koivu being out for a while with an injury was in the '06 playoffs against Carolina - a series in which we lost four straight without Saku. Sak is our leader, both on and off the ice. His offence was surely missed tonight, but more importantly was his leadership.

This loss means little in the grand scheme of things which has become a very nice luxury to have. All we need is one more point to clinch top in our division and a top 2 seeding. Coming first in the East would be nice, but knowing that at least second is now quite likely I must admit that I am happier than I thought I would be at this point in the season. Winning or losing games has now become my second priority as the new focus is getting 100% healthy in time for the playoffs. Komisarek, Streit, Koivu and even Bouillon have all been huge reasons for our success this year and I fear that without them we will not be the same team. We need absolutely every player at our disposal in 2 weeks time starting with players like Saku and Kovy and going right down to others such as Dandenault, Smolinski and Begin.

Friday, March 28, 2008

Game #78

The Habs Refuse to Stop Amazing Us; Another Incredible Comeback Win

The Canadiens Game in Review

Date: Friday March 28th, 2008
Opponent: Buffalo Sabres
Venue: HSBC Arena, Buffalo, NY


Team Stripes


Final Score: 4-3 (OT) - Win

Habs starting goalie: Carey Price (W)
Opposition starting goalie: Ryan Miller (OT)

Habs goalscorers: Alexei Kovalev, Tomas Plekanec (2), Christopher Higgins
Opposition goalscorers: Drew Stafford, Nathan Paetsch, Daniel Paille



2007/08 first
There's a first time for everything, so they say. What they didn't tell you is that every game, something happens for the first time, you just have to look harder in March...

1st 97+ Point season for the Habs since '92-'93 (Stanley Cup, 102 Points)
1st Time that Price has ever started 4 games in a row
1st Time that Higgins has scored an OT winner



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

Often times the little things will win you games and a good team is generally one who does all the little things right. The play of the game isn't the obvious OT winner or even one of our other goals, but it is a play that enabled us to leave Buffalo with any points at all.

With less than a minute left and with Price pulled the Sabres came out of their zone on a 2-on-2 and looked primed to score into an empty net. A mistake on their part was made when they shot for the goal from their side of centre. At that point Streit hustled back as fast as he could and when the puck went wide he was there just in time to beat the Sabre and have icing called. The play by Mark allowed Price to remain on the bench as it gave us a face-off in Buffalo's end and inevitably to our goal. This was a perfect example of how never giving up on a play will pay its dividends in the end - no matter what 100% effort is always required.



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

Mark Streit

Streit made a mistake behind our net which led to Buffalo's third goal - it was a bad play and he knew it. Instead of hanging his head in shame for the last half of the third period Mark made it his mission to repay his team. What he ended up doing was quite incredible. Within a 6 minute stretch spanning the 3rd period and OT he set up 3 goals to give him a career high 3 assists in a single game and basically steal 2 points from the Sabres. The look on Mark's face after his mistake and the look after goals 1 and 2 (of the 3) said it all - utter dismay followed by slight relief, but nothing more. It wasn't until the goal in OT that he fully celebrated, not until he knew the job was done.

I remember Wayne Gretzky doing something very similar after he scored into his own net of Game #1 of the '93 Cup Final at The Forum. Wayne had the same looks on his face that night and it wasn't until the game ended with a 4-1 L.A. win that he knew he had accomplished what he had to do, what he felt he owed his team. I am in no way trying to compare Streit to the incomparable Great One, but just wanted to point out this very special quality I saw tonight. Streit has the heart of a champion and this is something that cannot be taught. It shows how much he cares for his teammates and for the success of his team. I hope he doesn't make too many more big mistakes like he did, but if he does it is nice to know that Mark the redeemer, Mark the winner will be there for the Habs.



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

Tomas Plekanec
- He scored 2 goals in the last 3 minutes of regulation in what has to be one of the best single-game performances by a Hab all year. His goal total now sits at 29 and he has 4 games left to hit 30. Was very effective on the PK and in his own end as well as in Buffalo's (obviously)

Christopher Higgins
- Chris scored his 24th tonight which is his 49th point - both career highs. Sometimes the talent of this player is forgotten as he has often been over-shadowed by others on the team this year. This game, however, was a perfect example of his true vale - he hit, skated, generated chances, shot (game-high-7) and ultimately scored the OT winner

Alexei Kovalev
- His control of the puck on the PP was at the heart of our second goal. Without him on the ice I don't believe that we would have gotten the chance that we did as Buffalo gave him so much space. The Sabres were reluctant to attack Alex, mostly because no player wanted to be undressed by him. His goal was very nice, a perfect passing play with Grabo

Defencemen

Mark Streit
- His defensive play tonight, other than his cough-up, was solid again. His offensive play from the point was just unbelievable. His 3 assists give him a mind-boggling 46 on the season to go along with 12 goals. That now brings Mark's season total up to 58 points which ranks 3rd in the NHL and 1st (by 1 point) on the Habs. People will argue that a lot of those points came as a forward and to that I say that he gets more points from the point/playing as a D-man than as a forward. The fact that he plays forward has slowed him down! What a replacement to Souray - he costs way less, can actually play defence and can do more that just shoot on the power-play. I would take 58 points, -9 and creativity over 64 points, -28 and a shot any day

Andrei Markov
- This was a very solid night of work for Andrei. He was fantastic in his own end again as he is now making Gorges look like a top-3 defenceman. He was on the ice for our 2nd and 3rd goals and although he didn't get any points he did play a significant role in our comeback

Goaltender

Carey Price
- This was a very good game for Carey. He was confidant all game and didn't let his mistakes or goals against change his game-plan. The Sabres took 38 shots as they were applying offensive pressure all game, but Price was up to the test. Tomorrow will be a well deserved night off for the 20 year-old and then it will be all Price from here on in



Eyes on Kovalev
Did he flit and float? Someone ought to keep track...

For just the second time in his career Alex has hit the 80-point plateau. The first time he did it he was 7 years younger and playing with such superstars as Lemieux, Jagr, Lang and Straka. So, I think this is quite possibly his best season ever. His goal was something that wouldn't have happened up until this year. Not because he scored it, but because of the confidence and creativity Grabovski showed in sending the puck back to him. I attribute those qualities of Grabovski's (and other youngsters) to Kovy himself as he has shown he is a true leader on and off the ice.

Kovalev's Assessment - Very Good



Overall Comments

Buffalo were desperate to win tonight and looked like they were going to do it too. They outplayed us for pretty much the entire game, until the last 2 minutes that is. Their offence did everything in their power to get the win tonight, but their D and goaltending couldn't hold down the fort. Had they not scored their third, thus infuriating Streit then they win this game 2-1. Our team wanted to win, but Streit HAD to. This win, along with so many other great comebacks and moments from this season, will prove to be a valuable lesson learned come playoff time.

Tonight's display by Buffalo made me sit back and wonder what happened to this team, how were they so much worse than they had been just last season. The answer of course is simple - they lost Briere and Drury. So, does losing two good players always change the fate of a team? I don't believe so, not if you have players to back them up in your own end. If you look at teams that have been good over the past 5-10 years for a year here and there you see Ottawa, Carolina, Buffalo, Tampa Bay, Nashville. What all of these teams have in common is that they relied heavily on offensive star-power. As went Richards, St. Louis, Brind'Amour etc. so went those teams. None of those teams are or were dynasties and none stayed at the top for too, too long. If you want to see great teams over the past 5-10 years that have always remained at the top you have to look no further than Detroit, New Jersey, Dallas, Anaheim and Colorado. What all of these teams have (had in the Avalanche's case) is a great defence (system and players) and excellent goaltending. So, if you want to make it to the top the answer if offence and if you want to stay there you need a back end.

I honestly believe that the Habs have the makings of a great team that can last 5-10 years at the top and not just follow in the footsteps of the Lightning or other one-year wonders. Our defence has become the envy of the East as we now boast 7 excellent NHL-calibre defenceman with at least another 5 stand-outs on the way. Gone are perennial #4-5s (Souray and Rivet) and in are mobile, puck-handling, talented defencemen. Markov is a bonafide #1 and Hamrlik and Komi are easily #2s. Streit's offence is simply incredible and if you put that together with his average to above-average defensive skills he comes out as a #3. Gorges has come a long way this year and is now considered a #4. Bouillon brings experience, speed and grit; that makes him an easy #5. O'Byrne, our current #7, can play on most nights and to me is a #6 on the rise. So there you have it, dynasty-ready D. The last thing we need is good, reliable, long-term goaltending - it's a good thing we have 2 options there.

The SK74 Era: Lions Reader Sheds Light on Habs Stats Since December

Not sure I've ever done this – post a reader's comments in an article – but, as we say there's a first time for everything, even Brisebois goals wobbling in...

Yesterday I wrote that despite the Habs success, the team was still not competing for the league title. I cited many specific reasons I thought might explain this, the main crux of which is that this story is developing and the Habs may indeed be on the path to a good decade, but that only time will tell.

One of you dedicated readers (thanks all), wrote in to tell me (through a link to ForumIce) that based on statistics we already stack up nicely against Detroit. His optimistic and confident sign off is that we are already Detroit.

Well, I responded a little bit on the forum, but I thought it was interesting enough to those of you who may not follow every link from every comment to post a bit on this main page.

Enter the stats then. DiscoLafleur first breaks the season into parts:

Habs First 17 Games
GF 52 - 3.05 - 250 year
GA 42 - 2.35 - 192 year


Next 13 Games (yeah, if you are guessing, I'm on a post Sergei/no more 8 D's direction)

GF 31 - 2.38 - 195 year
GA 44 - 3.38 - 277 year


In a nod to a pet theory of mine (and some others recently), he chooses game 31 as the start of the new era:


In comes Sergei Kostitsyn, out goes Chips, out goes our 8 D system, Pleks and company start to gel, maybe AK is inspired by brother SK...Koivu hangs in there no matter who his wingers are.

Habs have played 47 games since.
Rolling along decently. Few injuries.
3rd liners rotated in and out.
Koivu lines still not super productive but better.

The good stuff - Habs last 47 Games - (SK74 Era is what I like to call it)

Injury free, this is our new Habs team my friends.

GF - 159 = 3.38 G/G = 277/Year
GA - 124 = 2.63 G/G = 215/Year



This is where it gets into the interpretive bit. Basically, showing what would happen if we wiped out the first 30 games. What it shows that we would be top by quite a significant margin in terms of offense:

3.38 G/G average is a good bit stronger then the top offenses of this season.

GF GF/g
1 252 3.23 OTTAWA
2 247 3.21 MONTREAL
3 244 3.17 DETROIT
4 242 3.14 BUFFALO
5 239 3.06 PITTSBURGH



Next, Disco looks at the other end of the ice, because we all know that scoring 400 goals isn't any good if you let in 450. The picture gets pretty rosy in Disco's eyes as he discovered the following:

Top 10 in defense?? We are already there.

BUT...

Here's another, very interesting aspect of our Habs development...

Enter the Carey Price/Halak Era...

Since February 26th....14 Games played

GA 38 = 2.28 G/G = 186 year

That 2.28, my friends, is top 3-5 in the league, right there with Detroit and friends.

GA* GA/g
1 167 2.17 DETROIT
2 175 2.24 ANAHEIM
3 174 2.29 SAN JOSE
4 177 2.30 NEW JERSEY



And then the clincher, where Disco lays down the friendly gauntlet:

...the answer to Topham at Lions in Winter is...

We pretty much already are Detroit.



Where to begin?

I think the first thing that needs saying is that when I said the Canadiens are not Detroit, I was not really referring to Detroit 2008, but Detroit 1995-2008. I want the Canadiens to be a dynasty again. I want the nonsense of worrying about the playoffs to be relegated to the lesser teams. So, in that context, no matter what stats anyone can show, the Habs just can't be there yet. They must earn that tag with several years of success.

I suppose as a secondary point, I do also disagree with the assertion that we are as good as Detroit 2008. Ultimately, this comes down to the reality that we have 12 less points than them, and, critically, 8 fewer wins.

No stats can spell out winning other than wins. Sure there is correlation, but while one team could win 60 1-goal games, another may pad stats with 8-0 wins, all the while losing 40 1-goal games. If I use Detroit as the example, I would suggest that they simply have a superior ability to win games than the Canadiens at the moment. Their ability also stretches over the entire length of seasons, something which the Canadiens have yet to show. While my feeling is that this is indeed the path the Habs seem to be on, I simply cannot make the declaration of a consistently dominant team on half a season's worth of games, casting off all the results from pre-SK74.

My final objection to the data shown us by Disco, was the bit about the Carey Price era, which began after the trade deadline in his post. I do believe in Carey Price and I would be a fool if I denied his remarkable improvement over these 6 months. However, from one scientist to another, you simply can't cherry pick like that. First of all, Carey Price had been with the team all season, so statistically speaking, how can we throw out all his previous games, how do we know he's not just on a hot streak? (anyone believe Conklin is the next coming??). Secondly, if we commit to the idea that SK74 day was the critical change in Canadiens philosophy, then I think we must adhere to that for all stats.

First 30 games:
85 GA = 2.83 GAA

Next 47 games:
128 GA = 2.72 GAA


With SK74 era as the defining moment when the Canadiens turned to offense (that's my allegation now), we observe that they remained consistent at the back, but did not see remarkable improvement. I suspect that this will be the continuing trend as the GM looks at the upcoming assets and considers how offense can win games after all. In other words, I don't expect a reversion to 8 D, nor a push for the Jennings trophy anytime too soon.

That said, the goal differential is still up and most importantly the Habs have also shown that they have learned to win (even in tough situations). These changes should help the team progress as we all hope they will.


Thanks DiscoLafleur for doing all that work and providing the impetus for more debate. Please don't take any of this disagreement harshly. As you know I do think the Canadiens improved the day of that promotion, we just disagree slightly at the moment as to how to prove it all.

Incidentally, what a luxury to be discussing how the Habs could be teetering on something so positive on the dawn of the Leafs first day on the lottery trail...

Thursday, March 27, 2008

First, But Not Home and Away

All's rosy in Montreal. First place in March. It has been truly impressive.

However, a couple of nights ago, it was the West who clinched the rights to the President's trophy.

Even with all the positives floating around, I thought it would be worth a look at the reasons (I believe) that the Habs are not Detroit, not running away with the league or, indeed, the East title. In keeping with the accepted format, I'll list my 10 reasons here:

1. Michael Ryder – he's had some great games, even playing the standout role in a few important wins over the season. But, it remains that up until February or so, he was not playing first-line calibre hockey. He has scored 10 less goals than he normally would have, and less than half of what we might have hoped. His play in November in particular, before line 1B got going, probably cost the team some possible points. His play since February, however, probably played a big role in that much vaunted 10-3-1 since the Huet trade.

2. Young players – when you start the season with so many players under the age of 23, you should expect some nights dedicated to learning from mistakes. Carey Price certainly had a few before his competition for the number one job came from Slovakia, not France. Andrei Kostitsyn took a couple of months more learning than some might have hoped. Latendresse, also a mere 20 years of age, is learning how to play nightly.

3. The West – better than the East at the moment. When I say better, I refer to their top few teams, that is Detroit, Dallas, San Jose and Anaheim, all of whom handled the Habs with relative ease. More wins in the West would have added daylight between us and the pack. Not to worry, we have a couple of months to figure out how to do it...

4. Christopher Higgins – obviously not a bad player to have around. However, if Koivu was given a star winger, Higgins would not have to play the role that he has been trying to play for most of the season. Chris is a great player, but in only his 3rd season, may need more time to figure out how to be a top-line goalscorer. Chris has also done exactly what should have been expected of him, with steady improvement of his totals. Some wild predictions for him early, which had they come true, would have made him a 40-goalscorer and earned the Habs points in the standings.

5. Too many defensemen – signing Brisebois, playing Dandenault, these were early season mistakes. Now on the radio you will hear about rolling 4 forward lines. Well, that's not how it started in October. Playing 8 defensemen (sometime 2 up front), in hindsight, was clearly holding back the best offense in the league. The change, I think was made around the Sergei Kostitsyn move, what I think was an admission the original plan (including overloading with D) was going awry.

6. Goaltending choices – first and foremost, not playing Halak. Halak could have and should have played. He is a very good goalie who could have stolen points. Instead, Carey Price (in December) and Cristobal Huet (in February) were played, even when they probably needed some rest and recalibration.

7. French Canadians – Pascal Leclaire, Dany Sabourin, Martin St. Louis. Come on. Every French Canadian seems to play that much better in Montreal than anywhere else. Their superhuman efforts on some nights have cost the Habs.

8. Summer signings – Smolinski, Brisebois and Kostopoulos. Initially these players played more than they do now. Clearly, as the season progressed, they have found their proper roles. In addition to the signings that were made, consider the signings that were not made: Brian Rafalski, Teemu Selanne. These moves could have helped the Habs in the short-term garner more wins.

9. The plan – most of the above also fall in some way into this category. We didn't sign a scoring winger for Koivu because we chose to develop young players instead (NOTE: Gainey would have gladly obtained someone, provided the cost was acceptable – see Hossa – but not at the expense of people integral to his plan). Basically, I think even Bob Gainey would tell you this year has come sooner than anticipated. But consider that if Buffalo and Ottawa were gunning for 110+ points like a year earlier, the Habs would be in a fight for 5th. The Canadiens, in essence, are right where they planned to be, it's the rest of the teams that have slipped or fallen.

10. Jason Spezza and the Ottawa Senators – the antithesis of the Bruins. The Senators know the Canadiens have weaknesses and exploit them. They, as the best team in the East coming in, understand how to exploit a rookie defenseman and goalie. It's not magic what they do, it's called setting the tone. They know that if they set the tone, the Habs will begin to question how they can possibly climb back against Spezza, Alfredsson and co. Last game, the Habs set the tone and won. Is the lesson, therefore learned? Let's hope so.


All that realism, here's my disclaimer. As I said, I believe the Habs are right where they wanted to be and should be (maybe 4-5 points better, or a couple of Boston wins). This list should not be seen as a negative piece, but rather as a list of things that, in some cases could be improved, in order to step up to Detroit's level.

In some instances, the lessons have been learned on the fly. In fact, if you look at the pace since Game 29 or so, you'd see an upturn in the points-per-game average of the Habs: the 8 D is out the window, Price has learned a lot (as have other youngsters), Ryder has been steadily improving. To call it a season of two halves would be an exaggeration, but it would not be crazy to say this team has, especially since January, taken big steps beyond some its Eastern rivals.

As we know the quest for 96 is over, so we can look for 100+ and first and more importantly then move onto the quest for 32 more big points this spring...

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Experts Share More Wisdom

We all know how the experts told us the Habs would do this season. Even the most generous among them was only willing to give in to battling for 8th – which, incidentally, is the biggest cop out of all time if you are making predictions.

Today, I came across this lovely article
, in which revered Habs expert Pat Hickey tells us, in his expert analysis, why the Habs are better this season.

If I can recapitulate his answer for the Habs for you, it would be: "Well, everything."

Here are his 10, without the explanation:

1. Kovalev
2. Gainey
3. Experience
4. Depth
5. Health
6. Play on the road
7. PP
8. Top 3 defensemen
9. The kids (those 25 or younger)
10. The coach

So, let me get this straight, we have the coach, the GM, Kovalev, all players under 25, the top 3 defensemen, the PP, depth and experience.

What's left Pat? Oh, a few people I suppose: Pierre Boivin, forwards over 25, Bouillon and Brisebois. Not much.

I'm glad he left out his prediction for the playoffs which would probably be about as committal as the Habs winning between 0 and 4 rounds, with a max of 16 wins.

Excuse my bitterness, but I do get tired of reading articles that promise to explain something and instead just list everything under the sun. I do agree with all his points, but abhor the catch-alls like youth, experience and depth that allow him to defer any decisions on completing the list.

I'm sure Pat Hickey has ideas for why the Habs have succeeded that pinpoint things a little better. I'll court controversy a little bit closer and try to give some specific reasons for the improved points haul this year.

1. Alex Kovalev – like Pat, I'll put him first. I don't believe his play on the ice has improved as markedly as some of you, but I have noted that his attitude following games has turned around completely. From finger-pointer to mature leader, that was a very important change for this team.

2. Andrei Markov – I'll be as bold as to put him on his own. If we were talking about defense alone, it might be apt to group him with Komisarek and Hamrlik, but Markov makes that PP go, so he deserves recognition all his own.

3. The promotion of Sergei Kostitsynas I wrote yesterday, that move marked a philosophical shift and also unlocked Andrei for some reason.

4. Man rotation – players have been rotated in and out of the lineup as it suits the team, and not merely for punishment or reward. If playing a game where some muscle is needed, Kostopoulos will dress, if not he may sit. The system, which perplexed experts when Begin was benched after a good effort in October has paid dividends as players learned that they could be benched without taking it as an affront (like Rivet) and get some deserved rest.

5. Souray out – Souray was the man on the camera, the man taking the shots, the man we called the real leader. In hindsight, it looks like he was taking up too much space for a player of his (limited) ability. If nothing else, Kovalev has been uncuffed on the PP, allowed to do something more than passing to 44.

6. Cristobal Huet – forgotten. Huet gave us January. Have a look. January is the difference between 1st and 8th. January is also an important month for momentum and positioning coming into that useless trade deadline. It's a shame Pat Hickey decided to omit Huet, a real shame. To say the Canadiens have improved because he left is over the top – ask Washington.

7. The schedule – it hasn't been that it was lopsided or anything, but it seemed every time we got on a bit of a skid, we could look up and see Boston or Philadelphia waiting. We are built to dismantle ineffective defenses like those and those games seemed to relaunch us every time. In addition, having the western road trip at then end of the schedule meant the Canadiens would be more focused (even in California) and any losses would not (and did not) derail the whole campaign. You might remember that last year, not only did the team get flu, but the schedule at that time was absolutely packed. When most players were ailing there were 3 games in 4 nights. Given one point was the difference, you can see how scheduling can be a help over 7 months of hockey.

8. Mark Streit – he has at times erased question marks at forward and defense. Without him, the depth would not look so good. Carbonneau must surely appreciate having a PP ace who can play any position on the ice.

9. Saku Koivu – usually not one to be confronted with an underrated tag when it comes to Montrealers, he has quietly done a great job this year. Even with his usual wingers demoted when struggling, he found ways to get the replacements scoring, whether it was Sergei, Guillaume, Mark or even Mathieu. I also hold that he was big in the bigger games this year, and that his knack for an extra gear will continue to bee a key for our success.

10. Claude Julien and the Boston Bruins – their inability to adapt to a team they played 8 times until the final minutes of the series was ineptitude of the highest degree.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

From 0 to 96 With Time to Spare

The Canadiens have done it. They have reached the target I set out at the beginning of the season: 96 points. And, lo and behold, they clinched at the same time...

Robert L at Eyes on the Prize, once again providing me food for thought, stated last night's game was one of 4 pivotal games leading to these 96 points: Briere's first game vs. Montreal, the NJ comeback, the NYR comeback (and last night). Of course, every game is important, but I would also point to three critical junctures, which (in my opinion) allowed for the success we've seen:

1) Game #31: S. Kostitsyn Debuts in Habs Win

Not only was this the second game where Tobalev added headlines to his posts, it was also a turning point for two big reasons.

The first, explicit in the title, was the decision to promote Sergei Kostitsyn. This move marked a change in philosophy (possibly the moment Gainey convinced Carbonneau that this was not a defensive hockey team). Sergei would be promoted – ultimately leading to the demotion of Kyle Chipchura, a more responsible and generally less offensively-calibrated player. It would also bump Dandenault down the pecking order and, for the most part, relegate the 8-defenseman strategy to the history books.


The second reason was this promotion either coincided with, or indeed catalysed, the metamorphosis of Andrei Kostitsyn from hesitant apprentice into bona fide goalscorer. You will note that apart from occasional goal explosions (mostly vs. Boston), this game (or hereabouts) marked the birth of the new number one offensive line. Once Kostitsyn shoots, the line scores even strength goals – this was not a conincidence.

The fact that Sergei came up and flourished was a definite bonus, but perhaps, in hindsight, secondary to the ripple effects it created.


2) Game #58: Kovalev Strikes in OT as Price Finally Wins Again

We've heard how important the fact the Habs haven't lost 4 in a row is. This game was why. After 3 straight losses, this could have been the February derailment of a year past.

The Habs were playing out another boring low-scoring affair in Florida. Down 1-0 in the third, the Habs could have been excused for thinking they knew how this one would go. After all, they'd been shooting, getting PPs and were still coming up empty. Typically (in my memory anyway), it was Saku Koivu who brought big game play to the big game. He set up one in regulation and one in OT for a vital win. Incidentally, this win also kicked off a series of spirited games starting with a 4-game winning streak – and banished all thoughts and possibility of a bad February.


I think this was also the game that sealed the Cristobal Huet deal. Carey Price had been mediocre, bad and worse since about December. This game was his return to NHL form. He would shutout in his next.


3) Game #66: Canadiens in first, Canadiens in FIRST!

None of these Canadiens had really ever touched first in years (and even then, it had only been Smolinski, Kovalev and Dandenault). This game was the gut check: Were they afraid to be first? Were they afraid of mounting expectations?

The answer they returned was a resounding NO.

The whole team gave NJ a taste of their own medicine. Price would out-goaltend Martin Brodeur for the first time this season. Notable as well, Andrei Markov turned in one of those performances that gives oodles of confidence to players and fans for the playoffs – possibly his return to best in the East.


96 points! Have look at the way they did it:

2 points – Game #1

3 points – Game #2

5 points – Game #3

6 points – Game #5

8 points – Game #7

10 points – Game #8

12 points – Game #9

14 points – Game #10

15 points – Game #11

17 points – Game #12

19 points – Game #14

21 points – Game #15

23 points – Game #17

25 points – Game #19

27 points – Game #21

29 points – Game #24

30 points – Game #26

32 points – Game #28

33 points – Game #30: Canadiens Get Rare Home Point

35 points – Game #31: S. Kostitsyn Debuts in Habs Win

37 points – Game #32: Koivu Shines in 1st Habs Home Win of December

39 points – Game #34: Latendresse and Huet Lead the Habs to Victory

40 points – Game #35: Habs Burned in Shootout

42 points – Game #37: Habs' Big Names Steal the Show in Tampa

44 points – Game #38: Ryder Scores; Habs 2/2 on Florida Trip

45 points – Game #39: Habs Get 1 Point in the Big Apple

47 points – Game #40: Habs Start 2008 With Big Home Win

48 points – Game #41: Ovechkin Gets the Better of Habs, Price

50 points – Game #42: Habs Finally Win One in OT

52 points – Game #43: The Habs' Dominance in Boston Continues

54 points – Game #45: What Losing Streak? Habs Win on the Island

56 points – Game #46: Habs Get the Better of Thrashers in Shootout

58 points – Game #48: Habs Score 8, Win 9th in a Row Against Bruins

60 points – Game #49: Canadiens Mount Huge 3rd Period Comeback For Rare Win in Jersey

62 points – Game #50: Habs Win Big; Become Last Team In NHL To Record 10th Home Win

63 points – Game #51: Habs Come All The Way Back To Steal 1 Point

65 points – Game #52: Canadiens Start Super Bowl Weekend With Super Win

67 points – Game #54: Habs Finally Solve Ottawa, Sit Just 1 Point Back of Top

69 points – Game #58: Kovalev Strikes in OT as Price Finally Wins Again

71 points – Game #59: 1 Goal is Enough, Price Shuts-Out Flyers

73 points – Game #60: Habs Sweep Home and Home, Now 4 For 4 Vs. The Flyers

75 points – Game #61: Habs Mount Biggest Comeback in Team History

77 points – Game #64: Habs Get The First Win of The Price Era

79 points – Game #65: Another Big Canadiens Win Puts Them 1st in the Northeast

81 points – Game #66: Canadiens in first, Canadiens in FIRST!

83 points – Game #68: It Wasn't Pretty, But Mission Accomplished

85 points – Game #69: New Goalie, Same Result; Habs Back on Top

87 points – Game #71: Price Outduels Brodeur to Put Habs Back on Top

89 points – Game #73: Halak Shuts the Door as Habs Roll to Easy Win Over NY

90 points – Game #74: Habs Fall in Shootout to Blues as Halak Loses 1st in Montreal

92 points – Game #75: Kovy is Magic as Habs Win 7th of the Season Against Boston

94 points – Game #76: Habs - 8, Boston - 0; Canadiens Sweep Away Bruins With 11th Straight Win

96 points – Game #77: Canadiens Play With Fire Against Sens, but Get the Win and a Playoff Spot Nonetheless


Also interesting is to discover the key players from those games:

1) In out victories, Saku Koivu was most prominent for Tobalev. Saku collected 8 game pucks in wins.

Koivu 8
Huet 6
Kovalev 5
Markov 4
Ryder 4

2) In games where points were collected, Koivu and Kovalev were tied for tops with 8 game pucks apiece.

Koivu 8
Kovalev 8
Huet 6
Markov 4
Ryder 4
Higgins 4
Plekanec 4

3) 17 different players were recognised as the game's best in games where points were won. Not surprisingly, it was the lower line forwards and defensemen that missed out: Smolinski, Kostopoulos, Lapierre, Chipchura, Locke, O'Byrne, Gorges, Bouillon and Brisebois did not feature.

Monday, March 24, 2008

Game #77

Canadiens Play With Fire Against Sens, but Get the Win and a Playoff Spot Nonetheless

The Canadiens Game in Review

Date: Monday March 24th, 2008
Opponent: Ottawa Senators
Venue: Bell Centre, Montreal, QC


Team Stripes


Final Score: 7-5 - Win

Habs starting goalie: Carey Price (W)
Opposition starting goalie: Martin Gerber (L), Ray Emery

Habs goalscorers: Andrei Kostitsyn (2), Christopher Higgins, Francis Bouillon, Andrei Markov, Mikhail Grabovski, Tom Kostopoulos
Opposition goalscorers: Antoine Vermette, Dany Heatley (2), Martin Lapointe, Jason Spezza



2007/08 first
There's a first time for everything, so they say. What they didn't tell you is that every game, something happens for the first time, you just have to look harder in March...

1st Team to clinch a playoff spot in the East
1st 7 Goal effort against Ottawa this year



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

The first goal, the one that got all of the fun going was the play of the game. There was some very good puck-control and passing that went on between Hammer and Pleks which made this one possible. Most of the work for the goal was done in the neutral zone before Plekanec broke in on the right side with good control. His best option for a pass was Kostitsyn, but the defensive coverage was good so Tom opted for a non-conventional pass. The pass he made was very smart and something you don't see nearly enough of in the NHL - it was off the back boards, around the net and out the other side. On the left was Andrei Kostitsyn who received the tape-to-tape pass well and put it up into an open net as Gerber was over on the other side in reaction to the pass that had just gone by him.



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

Andrei Kostitsyn

Tonight Andrei hit two personal milestones - 25 goals and 50 points. His 2 goals tonight were goal-scorers goals as he had no hesitation whatsoever in putting them to the back of the net. He was dangerous around the Ottawa goalies in this one, especially at even strength. Aside from his goals he played a strong physical game; he won a lot of battles along the boards and in the corners.



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

Bryan Smolinski
- Smolinski had just a single point tonight, an assist on Bouillon's goal. At the time of the game that he set-up Bou the Habs were badly outplaying Ottawa and it was Bryan's line that was playing at the highest tempo. He was on the ice for our 5-on-3 and played well; he won 2 key face-offs during the 2-man advantage

Alexei Kovalev
- Kovy had 2 assists tonight, both of which were passes to the point and were on the power-play. There aren't too many players in the league that can control the puck and pass it like he does on the PP and for that we should be very grateful. His 2 passes weren't much, but I have a feeling a lot of other players would have trouble getting similar assists. He created so much space and time for his teammates tonight, especially his point-men - the points are just a clear example of his value to our team

Andrei Kostitsyn
- It is very nice to see Andrei hit the 50 point mark as he becomes the 6th Hab to do so this year. Believe it or not it was only 7 years ago that the Habs went 3 years in a row without a single 50 point man. Andrei was fast tonight and his shot was on, it was another very good game for the 'other guy'

Defencemen

Andrei Markov
- He played a very strong game, especially offensively. He scored a goal and added an assist giving him 57 points on the year. His play on the power-play is so dynamic that it just seems to baffle opposing teams. He may not be the most creative player on our PP, but I bet would rank top 5 in the East in that category - and that's the big reason we have been #1 on the PP all year

Roman Hamrlik
- Roman's best play of the game came when he had a 2-on-1 in the second period and came ever so close to scoring. The play was created when he himself blocked a shot and then used his surprising speed to get loose. He was solid in our own end for most of the game and added an assist to cap off a good night

Goaltender

Jaroslav Halak
- I am not entirely sure what caused the Habs' meltdown in the third, but I know that Carey played a bigger role than anyone else. The Canadiens looked like they were just playing the last 20 minutes as a formality and no one showed this more than our young keeper. Price is extremely lucky that our offence was on fire tonight because I guarantee that 9 times out of 10 we won't score 6+ goals against Ottawa. He was careless with the puck behind his own net (he cost us the goal I had foreseen, but fortunately not the game) and his rebound control was very weak. This game was a great reminder of the talent we have on the bench in Halak, a guy who must be given at least one more chance before the playoffs



Eyes on Kovalev
Did he flit and float? Someone ought to keep track...

Kovalev and his line dominated Alfie and his tonight...for the first two periods that is. He was darting all over the ice early and was creating chance after chance. His work with the puck was fantastic as he had no problem keeping it away from a very tentative Ottawa D. He worked well on special teams especially during some third period penalty-kills.

Kovalev's Assessment - Very Good



Overall Comments

Well, it wasn't the prettiest finish that I have ever seen, but at this point who cares. We did it, we got our 96 points and now we have officially clinched a playoff spot. We played two of our best periods of the year to start this game and most definitely our top two against Ottawa. We were all over the Sens' goalies and D right off the bat, so much so that Alfredsson and company were hardly noticeable for 40 minutes. Instead of sitting back and wondering what Ottawa was going to do next, how they were going to embarrass us in our own building, we took it to them and played like we do against almost every other team (still waiting for the same against Detroit and Anaheim). This unfortunately all changed in the third period as it was back to normal Habs-Sens hockey - us watching them as we try to hold on for dear life. Ottawa showed that they are indeed still a very dangerous team and when they are given an opening they will score. They outscored us 4-0 in the final frame and out-shot us by 10 (14-4). A win, however, is a win and this should be a great example to ourselves of how we can beat this team. Let's just hope that the next time we play them the team that went into the dressing room after 40 minutes faces them, and not the team that came out of it.

With the win we now sit on top of the East with a 3 point lead over the next closest team; Pittsburgh, who lost 1-4 to the Isles tonight. We now have a very comfortable 7 point lead on Ottawa as winning the division and a top-2 seed seems more and more likely (sorry Southeast). It is hard to pick out the story of the year for the Habs so far - is it Kovalev? Markov? Streit? Kostitsyn? Plekanec? Price? Trading a #1 for nothing? Having the league's best PP? Scoring the most goals in the NHL? Having 6 (soon to be 7) 50 point scorers? Or is it being 1st in the conference and assured of a playoff spot? To me, it has to be, all of the above. A team that has so much to be surprised about is surely a team that is not only on the rise, but a team that seems to have arrived. My biggest hope now is that the biggest surprise is yet to come, we'll just have to wait and see!

Saturday, March 22, 2008

Game #76

Habs - 8, Boston - 0; Canadiens Sweep Away Bruins With 11th Straight Win

The Canadiens Game in Review

Date: Saturday March 22nd, 2008
Opponent: Boston Bruins
Venue: Bell Centre, Montreal, QC


Team Stripes


Final Score: 3-2 (SO) - Win

Habs starting goalie: Carey Price (W)
Opposition starting goalie: Timothy Thomas (SO)

Habs goalscorers: Andrei Markov, Andrei Kostitsyn, (Saku Koivu - SO)
Opposition goalscorers: Marc Savard, Petteri Nokelainen



2007/08 first
There's a first time for everything, so they say. What they didn't tell you is that every game, something happens for the first time, you just have to look harder in March...

1st 11-Game Win Streak Over Boston in Team History
1st Point for the Bruins this season vs. the Habs (16 for the Habs)



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

With the game in his hands Saku Koivu was put to the test as the final shooter in the shootout. Price had stopped the first 3 Bruin shooters and Thomas the first 2 Habs. Koivu skated in very fast and immediately went to the backhand. We have seen him pull a variety of moves in the shootout from that position, but this one was new, and surprised us all. Instead of coming to the forehand to shoot or faking forehand and then going back to his backhand Saku didn't deke at all. He froze Thomas with the puck on his backhand and went five-hole to win us the game.



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

Saku Koivu

Saku's line, and the captain in particular, was an incredible force tonight. He, along with Ryder and Sergei Kostitsyn dominated most of their shifts as they kept Boston in their own zone for many extended periods. Koivu had a flurry of chances that seemed to last the whole game. His puck-control was the best that I have seen from him all season as he is now definitely into playoff mode. On top of having an excellent 65 minutes he added the shootout winner to cap off an exceptional night.



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

Saku Koivu
- His shootout goal sums up Saku with one word: confidence. He was not afraid of anyone tonight and wasn't afraid to try anything either. He was at ease in his own end and was more than alright in Boston's end. The search for permanent wingers for Sak is down to 4 (Higgins, Ryder, S. Kostitsyn, Latendresse) with tonight's 2 leading the way. Boston focused their attention on Kovy's line and Koivu's line was there to take advantage. Another spectacular night in the face-off circle: 14/21

Michael Ryder
- Koivu's confidence must be contagious because Mike had to have got it from somewhere. Ryder looked more his former self tonight than at any other point all year. He played a big part on the Habs' first goal and was at the root of many more chances throughout the game. Tonight he was fast and he hit, boy did he hit

Steve Begin
- Begin made his second return from a lengthy injury this season tonight. His most recent absence lasted 11 games and it was obvious right from the opening draw that he couldn't wait to be back. He played a typical Begin-type game as he hit, he hit and he hit some more. The Habs haven't really missed him as their results were still stellar while he was out, but he does, however, add a lot to our team and makes us that mush better. Look for him to have the most impact in our games against Ottawa

Defencemen

Andrei Markov
- When we found out that Komisarek would be out for 3 weeks we all wondered who would fill the void left by Big Mike. A lot of names went around, but few people suggested that Markov would be the one to step up. Well, he did just that, he played an even more complete game than usual and it made me even forget Komi was out. He was incredible in the offensive and neutral zones tonight and his 15th goal of the year was a piece of beauty

Josh Gorges
- 25 minutes of ice for Josh Gorges, who would have thought. Like Mark Streit 2 years ago Josh struggled to even crack the team this year. For most of the fall he sat out in favour of Brisebois as it looked like he had no real future with the team. Luckily for Gorges (and the Habs) Brisebois' extremely weak play caught up with him and gave the youngster his chance - he hasn't looked back ever since. Tonight he played alongside Marky and he did an excellent job. He joined in on the offence which was a very pleasant surprise

Goaltender

Carey Price
- This was a very solid outing from Carey. I would be hard pressed to find even one mistake tonight as he played a perfect game in and out of his crease. His play in the shootout was stellar as he gave absolutely no room for the Bruin shooters to shoot at. Each time he wins a close, hard-fought game like this one it is just another lesson learned for the kid. His team is starting to play with the same confidence in front of him that they were playing with in front of Huet



Eyes on Kovalev
Did he flit and float? Someone ought to keep track...

Boston's game-plan tonight was their best all year against us, but still was not enough. They decided to focus all of their attention on Kovalev's line and on Kovalev himself in particular. He did well to create some chances and even drew a crucial penalty, but I think that it is safe to say this was his least effective game against Boston this year. His offence may have been halted tonight, but one area that he dominated was the PK, especially during the last 2 minutes of the third period.

Kovalev's Assessment - Good



Overall Comments

The Bruins gave us their best game of the season tonight, but still it wasn't enough. We have absolutely dominated Boston ever since Game #5 of the 2004 playoffs as our once fierce rivals are slowly becoming the Habs' favorite opponents. Giving them one point tonight was probably the smartest thing we could do as helping them get into the playoffs is exactly what we should be striving to do. If the playoffs were to commence tonight we would quite possibly be playing them in the 1 vs. 8 match-up; a match-up that I think we all would love to see. Our winning streak is now at 11 games over Boston which is our longest ever streak against them (our previous best was 10 straight during WWII). Boston is actually a better team against the rest of the league than we are, but thanks to our 8 wins this year we are now 10 points clear of them in the table. The Habs didn't have their strongest offensive effort tonight, but they definitely played with a certain playoff intensity. Boston was a desperate team, desperate to get into the playoffs and desperate to beat us. I would like to think that we may have helped them with their first issue, but when it comes to beating us they can forget about that for now.

This was a really good week as we got 5 of a possible 6 points giving us 94 with 6 games to play. 100 points is well within reach and, thanks to some other results, winning our division (and quite possibly the conference) has never been closer. We are only 2 points away from our goal and from what will be more or less a guaranteed playoff berth. Our 6 games left are against Ottawa, Buffalo and Toronto (2 each) and all promise to be very heated games. Unlike Boston, those 3 teams have very good records against us in recent seasons and all have a lot to play for right now. I would deem the remaining two weeks of the season a success if we won 3 of those games and didn't allow Ottawa any extra, OT points. The end of the regular season is near and then it will be time for the best season of all in Montreal - The Stanley Cup Season!

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Game #75

Kovy is Magic as Habs Win 7th of the Season Against Boston

The Canadiens Game in Review

Date: Thursday March 20th, 2008
Opponent: Boston Bruins
Venue: TD Banknorth Garden, Boston, MA


Team Stripes


Final Score: 4-2 - Win

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

Habs goalscorers: Alexei Kovalev (2), Michael Ryder, Andrei Kostitsyn
Opposition goalscorers: Mark Stuart, Dennis Wideman



2007/08 first
There's a first time for everything, so they say. What they didn't tell you is that every game, something happens for the first time, you just have to look harder in March...

1st Game in White since February 17th
1st Player to get over 75 points in a season since Damphousse had 81 in '96-'97 (Kovalev 77)



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

If you can think back to the summer of 2004 you may remember the World Cup of Hockey. In that tournament Kovalev scored an unbelievable goal against Team USA which I will never forget. Well, tonight he did it again and, like last time it was truly magnificent. He picked up the puck in the neutral zone and quickly blew by one forward on his way into the zone. He then was looking at a 1-on-2 situation vs. Chara, Wideman and Thomas - 2 of which were all-stars. He went through the defenders like sand slips through your hand and ended up alone in front of Thomas. Once at the net he simply slid the puck 5-hole; it made the game 2-0 and must have turned a lot of the Bruins' cheeks red.



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

Alexei Kovalev

Until halfway through the second period Alex was having a very average night at best, it was actually going pretty badly. The Habs were being outplayed and winning a 10th straight against Boston was looking doubtful. With 32 minutes left to play, however, the game turned around for the Habs and for Alex in particular. His first goal, scored on a spin-o-rama in front of Chara, was quite something and was only to be outdone by his second tally of the night. In the third period he added an assist when he gave Kostitsyn a perfect no-look pass from behind the net.



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

Saku Koivu
- Sak had another strong game against the Bruins tonight. Boston is a team that Koivu has always enjoyed playing as his game is perfectly suited for the slow, numb-skulled approach of their defence. He had a perfect pass on Ryder's game-winner, as did Latendresse. Was solid again in the face-off circle and played a good game in our own end

Andrei Kostitsyn
- Andrei had a goal and an assist tonight giving him 48 points on the season. Tonight's game was a pure reflection of the season he is having. He played with confidence and never seemed afraid to try a move or take a shot - a vast difference from a lot of former Habs prospects. 50 points will happen soon for Kostitsyn which is an incredible feat considering he only had 8 in his first 23 games (40 in his last 48)

Alexei Kovalev
- This was yet another magnificent performance from the player we all love. I remember both Topham and I arguing that last year, despite his low-point total he was a major factor, and that having Kovy on our team was better than having any Daniel Briere or Ryan Smyth out there. I believe we referred to him as a game-breaker and a game-stealer and that players like this are very few and far between. Tonight he won us the game, no question - I just hope people remember this quality the next time he goes through a o.5 point/game stretch

Defencemen

Mark Streit
- Streit was called to the blue-line to fill in for the injured Mike Komisarek. I hope that it is nothing serious in Komi's case and that he'll be back soon. I also hope that tonight's performance will serve as a reminder to Carbo that Mark should be playing defence. He was spectacular tonight ending at +1 with yet another assist

Roman Hamrlik
- Roman started the game with O'Byrne, but once Mike was hurt played with his partner of more than half the season; Streit. He showed great adaptability tonight as his game did not change one bit when Mark came to take Ryan's spot. He finished an impressive +3 and wasn't on the ice for either of the Bruins' goals. He stepped up in Komi's absence as he logged over 22 minutes of ice

Goaltender

Carey Price
- Price was very solid tonight and never put the Habs in danger of leaving Boston with anything less than 2 points. He mishandled the puck a few times, but I think that can be mostly attributed to the poor ice conditions as all players were suffering to find their control. I found his puck-handling behind the net tonight was very weak and he very nearly got caught on a few occasions. He often chose to make a saucer pass over a Bruin's stick rather than make the simple play the other way. I can most certainly appreciate confidence, but at the same time I can recognize cockiness and this was somewhere in between. Great players make simple plays and never make mistakes and this is something he must learn to do better



Eyes on Kovalev
Did he flit and float? Someone ought to keep track...

Do you still believe in 40 goals this year? I think Alex does. With 7 games left an Ovechkin-like streak will be needed to hit the 40 mark, but if there were any player right now in the NHL (other than Alex the GR8 himself) who could pull it off it has to be Kovalev. I am sure Kovy is also well aware that 90 points will be ever so close too. He will continue to be a huge player as we make the push now not just to the playoffs, but to first overall. 7 goals in 7 games is entirely likely, and so are another 6 assists.

Kovalev's Assessment - Excellent



Overall Comments

Teams I want in the playoffs - The Habs, The Bruins. Normally I cheer against Boston as much as possible (unless they are playing Toronto), but this may now have all changed. I always have what's best for the Habs in mind and I think that this year that means Boston to make the final 8. Playing them in the playoffs would likely not be as easy as our season series has been against them, but I am sure they would be an easier opponent than New York, Washington or Buffalo. With our win tonight we are now 7-0 against the Bruins this year and we have a 10 game winning streak which dates back to last year. In our 7 games against Boston this year we have outscored them 36-14 which is mind-boggling when you think of it - 5-2 in each of the 7 games. The game tonight started off fairly even with Boston quite possibly applying more pressure early on. Once Kovalev made fools of Chara and Thomas (for the first time) Boston changed their style completely. They were no longer capable of sustaining a potent attack and actually looked very tentative and nervous for the second half of the game. Having a mental edge over a team is probably the most powerful weapon one can have in the NHL - we all know what it means for Ottawa over us.

The week ends with our 8th and final regular season game against these same Bruins in Montreal on Saturday. Nothing would be sweeter than sweeping an 8-game season series against our bitter rivals and I am sure each and every Hab shares that sentiment. With a win we will be at 94 points which will likely be enough to get us into the post-season given the way things have turned out. At the start of the year we made a conservative goal of 96 points for our team, a total we thought would secure us a place in the second season. It now looks more and more likely that even our current total of 92 will get us in which is a very comforting thought to have 75 games into the season. Until the x is beside our name in the standings, however, you never know what could happen. All I know is that if we keep playing as we did tonight (and as we have been doing all season) we will not only get into the playoffs, but we will be a serious contender once we are there.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Alex Kovalev: The One and Only

Always a favourite for quotes. Certainly always a favourite to watch. We found out yesterday that Kovalev is also one to admire for his generosity.

Not that I don't admire his generosity, but I was blown away by something peripheral to the whole video story, which I will have to revisit at some later time for distraction. In Pat Hickey's story about Kovalev and his 100% to charity project, I was stopped cold at this quote:

"I was seven years old and I was training five or six hours a day," Kovalev recalled.


Five or six hours a day?? Can we even comprehend this??

If you ever wanted to know why so many NHL players can't hold a candle to Kovalev, and look like children on the ice when Kovalev applies himself, we should look to this quote. After all, practice makes perfect. And, there is no substitute. If you think about it, Kovalev has probably practiced the one-handed backhand shot more than most junior players practice over a four-year career.

Kovalev was obviously also one determined little hockey dreamer as he managed to keep playing through his problems and conceal them from his parents for a while. So, when Gretzky quotes Messier calling him a Force of Nature, it's worth considering how hard he worked to become a natural talent.

Indeed, much could be learned from an example like this. For example, Canadian hockey programs could revise their schedules and look to add more practices to reverse the current skew in game to training ratio. I would be happier if the Canadiens took some lead in working this way with their young draftees, as opposed to getting into game simulations from the get go.

Five to six hours... It shows in those clips of the video doesn't it?

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Game #74

Habs Fall in Shootout to Blues as Halak Loses 1st in Montreal

The Canadiens Game in Review

Date: Tuesday March 19th, 2008
Opponent: St. Louis Blues
Venue: Bell Centre, Montreal, QC


Team Stripes


Final Score: 3-4 (SO) - Loss

Habs starting goalie: Jaroslav Halak (SO)
Opposition starting goalie: Emmanuel Legace (W)

Habs goalscorers: Christopher Higgins, Saku Koivu, Mikhail Grabovski
Opposition goalscorers: Keith Tkachuk, Andy McDonald, Brad Boyes (1, SO)



2007/08 first
There's a first time for everything, so they say. What they didn't tell you is that every game, something happens for the first time, you just have to look harder in March...

1st Career Loss for Halak at the Bell Centre
1st Game for the Blues in Montreal since January 2004



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

The play of the game was our third goal of the night, a goal that essentially earned us a crucial one point in the standings.

The Habs had just seen their 5th Power-Play of the night expire, making it look like a comeback was not in our midst. After the man-advantage Carbo sent our 3rd line out there to try and keep some of the momentum. Right away, it seemed, the Habs gave up the puck and into our zone came the Blues. Grabo, using his excellent speed, made a great play to come back and help the defence as he stole the puck at our own blue-line. Mikhail then quickly sent a pass to the equally speedy Sergei Kostitsyn who was joined on a 2-on-2 with Latendresse. Grabovski, showing more great hustle and speed joined the attack as the 3rd man in on a 3-on-2. Sergei took a good look at Legace and then at Latendresse and finally at the incoming Grabo. A perfect pass was made and before I knew it the game was tied at 3 on Grabovski's 2nd career goal. The shot was a far-side, top-corner wrist shot - it was quite amazing.



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

Mikhail Grabovski

He may just be the fastest player I have seen in a Habs uniform in the past 10 years. Images of Oleg Petrov, Russ Courtnall and Guy Lafleur come rushing back every time I see him with the puck. His goal and assist tonight were his 6th and 7th points of the season, with 5 of those coming in his last 6 games. He was our most explosive forward tonight and was constantly buzzing around the offensive zone.



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

Mikhail Grabovski
- It looks as though we have found room for this youngster in the line-up after all. He fits very nicely onto our third line as he played another solid game alongside Sergei Kostitsyn and Chris Higgins. He offers us a lot more offensively than Lapierre, Begin, Smolinski or Chipchura, but still has a lot to learn about face-offs and play in our own end

Christopher Higgins
- Higgins had another 2 point game tonight bringing his season total to 47. I think we can all admit that this isn't the season we had hoped for based on his occasional spurts of dominance. But, let's hold on just a minute and remember that we had very little expectation for this player 3 years ago and the fact that he will have a 50+ point season is bonus enough for me. He was good on the fore-check tonight, played very well in the low slot, right in front of Legace

Sergei Kostitsyn
- Kostitsyn now has 25 points and 10 in his last 13 games. Tonight was another great example of how he is in no way intimidated by the NHL or by other NHL players. His former linemates from London (Patrick Kane and Sam Gagner) are both also having great seasons and it just goes to show the importance of learning to win and being successful at a young age, prior to the NHL. He had 2 very good passes tonight as his line was clearly our best in this one

Defencemen

Andrei Markov
- He was unlucky to be on the ice for St.Louis' 3rd goal - he has Komi to thank for that one. Aside from that one blemish he played a good game defensively. I thought he was very good running the PP tonight. Kovalev and Streit weren't at their best tonight in that department and it was Markov's play at the blue-line that kept the unit together

Josh Gorges
- This was yet another solid game for Gorges at the back. Carbo rewarded him for his solid play with the 3rd most ice-time among defencemen, behind only Marky and Hammer. His skating was very smooth as was his passing. He did not make any mistakes all night and is proving to everyone he be counted on in all situations

Goaltender

Jaroslav Halak
- After Saturday's gem I am not that surprised that he came back down to earth so to speak. He was solid tonight, but wasn't anything exceptional. He proved that he deserves his shot in the Habs net, but this performance was not enough to consider continuing the great goalie debate. He looked a little too casual at times tonight as he mishandled the puck behind his own net, juggled rebounds and was caught napping on Boyes' goal. Despite all of that he brought us very close to the win and should be recognized for that



Eyes on Kovalev
Did he flit and float? Someone ought to keep track...

He had the chance to prolong the game in the shootout, but he came away empty-handed. Let's face it, we need him to score in those types of situations and we have now come to expect it from him. He isn't to be blamed for the loss as he did play a pretty decent game, but unfortunately he didn't steal us another point. The passing between his line was off tonight as everyone seemed a little out of sync with each other - let's hope that it was a one game occurrence.

Kovalev's Assessment - Good


Overall Comments

The first 2 periods didn't quite go the Habs' way. After we took the lead on Koivu's goal we seemed to stop playing. I thought that the St.Louis goal that put them up 3-2 (as well as the 2-2 goal) was a direct result of our goal. Momentum can be funny like that, it could have been 1-1, but instead we saw ourselves down by a goal. The third period was a better period for us as we dominated them and even came very close to winning it before OT. In the extra-frame we were the better team coming ever so close a number of times. We got a bit unlucky in the shootout as Boyes' shot went off the post and in and Koivu's went off the post and out. I can't really complain though as I feel we have been luckier than not all year long. Coming out of this game with a single point isn't that satisfying especially considering we all thought 2 was highly likely, but it is one more point in the bank and that means only 6 to go.

The week will end with 2 straight games against our favorite rival: the Boston Bruins. We have owned this team all year beating them in all 6 of our meetings and outscoring them by near to 20 goals. This is exactly the situation we want to be in at this point of the season, but exactly the situation that we should be wary of. The Bruins are desperate to get into the playoffs themselves and are likely not very interested in being swept by the Habs this year. These will be 2 hard-fought games and they should not be taken lightly. All we have to do, however, is play the same way we always play against them - fast, intense and non-stop. We may very well end up meeting these same Bruins in the playoffs and what better way to set-up a series than to go into it on a 10-game winning streak.