Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Game #2-4

Costly Penalty Puts Habs in Deep Hole

The Canadiens Game in Review

Date: Wednesday April 30th, 2008
Opponent: Philadelphia Flyers
Venue: Wachovia Center, Philadelphia, PA


Team Stripes


Final Score: 2-4 - Loss

Habs starting goalie: Jaroslav Halak (L)
Opposition starting goalie: Martin Biron (W)

Habs goalscorers: Tomas Plekanec, Saku Koivu
Opposition goalscorers: R.J. Umberger (2), Scott Hartnell, Daniel Briere



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 Playoff Start for Halak
1st Time the Habs have lost 3 straight in regulation since Feb. 7-12



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

The play of the game tonight wasn't our nicest play, in fact it was our worse. I am singling this play out simply because above all others it determined the outcome of the game.

The Habs had worked their butts off all night and had finally drawn even with Philly and had all the momentum in the world. Instead of continuing the attack Carbo decides to put the 'waste of time' (neither defensive nor offensive) line out there. It didn't take long after that for something to go wrong. With the puck nowhere to be seem and a brain which apparently was even farther away Steve Begin came in and hit perennial NHL tough-man Sami Kapanen. The play led to a Power-Play, thus ending the game, potentially ending the series and, I can only hope, ending Begin's season.



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

Tomas Plekanec

For a second game in a row it was our 'under-sized', 'out-matched', 'diminutive' centres providing the offence. Plekanec proved yet again tonight that skill and speed are the most valuable tools in this league. The Flyers would argue that the most valuable tools are Richards and Carter down the middle, but I don't believe that is where we are being beat. Pleks did really well in all aspects of play tonight as he and the Kostitsyn's generated a lot of quality chances.



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
- I can only wonder what Saku thinks about Begin's penalty. Saku himself took a penalty that led to a goal, but unlike Steve's it wasn't the right call. The captain had worked so hard all night, had scored the tying goal (and shown unbelievable enthusiasm) only to be left wondering why a scoring line wasn't on the ice at 2-2. Koivu extended his points streak to 6 games in these playoffs - every game in which he has played

Andrei Kostitsyn
- Once again Andrei was very dangerous with the puck. His line seemed to generate more 'edge-of-the-seat' chances tonight than any other line. He was fast and was always going hard to the net. His level of play has been exactly what we needed as it totally exposes Philly's weaknesses

Tomas Plekanec
- Tom finished this game with a + rating, a goal and a 57% face-off percentage. He was not phased one bit by the size of the opponents tonight as he simply used it against them. His speed and creativity allowed for a lot of quality chances and had it not been for Biron he would have easily had a multiple-point game

Defencemen

Francis Bouillon
- Bou got his first 2 assists of the playoffs tonight and continues to play well. The team, however, since his return is a dismal 2-4. I wouldn't consider that Franc's fault at all though as he is playing solid hockey. I rarely see him commit any mistakes and he continues to do a good job of blocking shots with another 3 tonight

Josh Gorges
- I am really happy that Josh and Franc are playing well, but our #5 and #6 defencemen are appearing in here way too often for my liking. The playoffs are about big players stepping up. We have seen it from some forwards, but I think it's time we see it from our D-men. I expect a lot more from Markov, Hamrlik and Komisarek and if they don't deliver this series will be over soon. Josh did, however, play a good game and should be given credit. He assisted on our first goal and led the team in blocked-shots with 4

Goaltender

Jaroslav Halak
- Jaro played pretty well tonight. 2 goals were on the PP and was into an empty net. He didn't steal the show by any means, but I believe he did give our team a chance to win. Thanks to Begin, though, we'll never know. I do, however, think that Carbo has to come back with Price in Game #4. We need an incredible performance if we are going to pull this series out now and that has to start at the back. I do believe that Halak right now is the better goalie, but on the other hand I think that Price has the most potential. I think our only chance to win 3 is to have Carey stand on his head, something that I don't think is doable for Jaro. Price has shown before he can be excellent or he can be average. Oddly enough he rarely has performances in between, that is Halak's domain. We need 3 excellent performances from our team and we can't afford to think about the back - Carey is my man. I am hoping that the anger he has inside of him now will fuel him rather than destroy him. It is time for him to play like the champion we know he is



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

Come on Alex. We need 4 players in particular to play the hockey of their season starting on Saturday. The other 3 are Koivu, Markov and Price. As of now only Saku is playing at that 'out-of-this-world' level, but that is not enough. Alex was OK tonight, but wasn't good enough considering the circumstance. He doesn't have to score that hi-light reel goal, he doesn't have to get any breakaways, he just simply has to be a star. If he plays like we all know he can he will give us a weapon that for the most part has gone unused in this series. Tonight I saw glimpses, but from now on I have to see the whole thing.

Kovalev's Assessment - Average


Overall Comments

We once again were the better team tonight, but not nearly as much as compared to games 2 and 3. Our chances were there, but I wouldn't say we really overwhelmed Philly. Once again the Flyers made the most of their chances and, unlike the Habs, managed to score at the exact right time. This was the fourth time in a row that we have gone down at least 0-2, yet every time we manage to mount at least a mini comeback. To me that shows how vulnerable this Philly team is, but more than anything it shows the importance of scoring first and scoring often. What I would like to see is our best offensive line-up from now on. I am sick and tired of icing 2 scoring lines, 1 checking line and 1 line that will fill 10 minutes of air-time...and take brutal penalties. All year we used offence to win games, why are we changing that now. We need goals in this series and with players like Grabovski and Ryder rotting in the press-box I am left wondering what is going on. Lapierre, Latendresse and Begin to me serve no purpose other than appeasing the minority of French-Canadians who need Quebec players in there. I am from Quebec too, and quite frankly I want to win, I don't care about where players are from. To take it one step further I am English-Canadian and I can't say that Price, Kostopoulos or Gorges' presence in the line-up means anything at all to me; I simply see them as part of a larger group that I cheer for. The fact remains that we have to score goals. I will not spend the whole summer listening to people telling me how great a goalie Martin B. is and he stole the show; maybe Brodeur, but I'm sorry Habs the Biron excuse is a weak one, you'll just have to find a way how.

Of all the penalties that have been called throughout the playoffs and even throughout the year I have yet to see one that wasn't a play which was against the rules. I must hand it to the refs as every penalty they ever call is legitimate. The problem is why do they let it go 9 times then call it the 10th without warning? One team can get away with hooking 6 times, but if it is the other team's turn to get called for something the next hook will equal 2 minutes. Teams clearly have a choice to make. They could choose to never break any rules, thus they would never be penalized (and wouldn't be competitive at all). Or, like all 30 teams have chosen to do, they can break the rules all game long and allow the refs to decide when a team will be given a PP. It is a shame that hockey has become baseball in a way with each team being handed their chances one after another. The Flyers have proven yet again in this series that no matter how dirty you play the calls will always seem to even themselves out.

The bad news is that we are down 1-3 in the series and teams rarely come back from such a deficit. The good news, however, is that we have clearly been the best team in this series and if there was ever a good opportunity to win 3 in a row it would have to be now. We have played Philly 8 times this year and have outplayed them in each of those games. Some extremely bad luck, coupled with good luck for Philly, has put us in a hole, but will this run of luck continue? We obviously can't bank on luck at this point and we can't even bank on outplaying them. We have to be the better team from start to finish of each and every game and we have to dominate them. It is easy to think that the series should be over (4-0 for us) or that we should at least be tied, but we must also be thankful that we weren't swept. What has happened until now means absolutely nothing. It is upsetting that we are down and even though we all believe we should be up there is nothing we can do about it. All we can do now is hope for one good game and take it from there. We have to win 3 games in a row, 2 of those at home. I say we start with one - come on CH.

Goalies And Such: The All-Important Game 4

Slow news day. The main news: "The absence of news."

You know what? Today I am proud of Carbonneau again.

He has entered the game.

He's hitting back at John Stevens' ridiculous victim role-play with some mind games of his own.

Of course the Canadiens know who will be starting. They knew 5 minutes after the last game, they knew at lunch yesterday, they knew at all the press conferences. They knew all along. But by witholding their choice they do a lot more than annoy overly anxious bloggers.

He forces the Flyers coaches to brief their players on Halak (time waster?)

And, he temporarily puts their gameplan on hold.

You could ask, do the Flyers even care? My answer is that they should. They have scored their goals largely by exploiting a weakness that someone must have identified in Price (high shots). Evidence for this is not only in the goals they've scored (the ones that weren't deflections) but also in the fact that every time they get a clean shot, he shoots high. Were it not for their scouting (or luck in catching Price at a bad time), they might not be so thrilled with their goalscoring output right now.

Admittedly, it's not the be all and end all to the Flyers plans, and it won't prevent them from sorting out the other deficiencies in their game, or talking about containing forwards or hitting defencemen. But their plan cannot be complete. At least not until the last minute now.

Carbonneau, in making the goalie question linger for 48 hours, has also taken most of the media heat off the players. As the media publish an update every hour about the fact we still don't know who is in goal, they have taken a break from chipping in their usual criticism of Markov, Streit and Plekanec. When you play the same team 4 times in 8 days, and more, you need this sort of media leadership from the coach. I have an opinion about who should start, for certain, but I don't care about when I discover the starter - when the anthems are sung for all I care.

The Flyers care, that's why I'm happy.

Go Habs Go.

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Well Done Jaroslav

Thirteen months too late?Jaroslav Halak played in a pressure-cooker situation for the Montreal Canadiens.

Whether it's late or not. Whether he should have been given his chance last night or not. Tobalev asked whether anyone has considered the possibility that Halak could be better than Price. We touched on this in January as well.


Regardless of what Carbonneau decides, all that is important today is that we must tip our hats to the young man, who generally is not allowed to be described as young, talented, mature, successful in the AHL for fear that it might upset the applecart. However, I will leave the debates on positives of two excellent prospects for a quiet day in the summer...

For now, we should all recognise what a brilliant job Jaroslav Halak did last night for the Canadiens. He stepped into a game situation for the first time in a month. For the 5th time since he became number 2, and for only the 7th time this season.

For the third time in 7 appearances, he has left nothing wanting, no goals behind him. He made the critical difficult save that Carey could not on the night. He got his team believing again in one pad sweep.

He has been the model of patience and professionalism. He has shown great maturity. He has been the perfect backup.

Well done Jaroslav. And thanks for giving me something to be happy about this morning.

Was Briere Right?

Since the response from the readers hasn't been overwhelming and the response from the Habs has been downright underwhelming, I am foregoing the review of opposition players. Time to focus our positive energy on the team we want to receive it...

Nearly 10 months ago, when the Flyers were the worst team in the NHL and the Canadiens might as well have been, Daniel Briere stuck a knife in the back of all Montreal fans.

No, it wasn't his signing with Philadelphia - that probably ended up being a big favour to us - but it's what he claimed his reasoning was:

"The Philadedelphia Flyers give me a better chance at winning the Stanley Cup."


Following three games of evidence collected, although still a bit premature, I want to ask: Was he right?

The answer is not simple.

Our outrage at first must surely have been fueled by our fear that what Briere said may be true. But, at the same time, we all watch hockey and we know the Flyers don't have any Kostitsyns, any goaltending prospects and were for the most part the same team that managed the least regular season points in recent memory.

The answer is complex, but it shouldn't be, and wouldn't be, but for strange thinking among hockey people.

The complexity of the answer stems from the fact the NHL, and many of its influential touts, are intent on playing two distinct types of hockey in two distinct seasons.

Witness last night's game. Habs fan frustration towards the officials in this game does not originate from a perceived imbalance of calls on the night (we couldn't care less about that). It comes out of a recognition that a large number of tactics and plays that are being allowed to pass in these in these playoffs (including last night) would have been called during the 82-game part of the quest for the Stanley Cup.

Personally, I feel this "playoff hockey" officiating is to the ultimate detriment of the sport of hockey. While it allows jobbing teams like the Bruins and Flyers a chance to compete in the spring, it totally throws other teams, who've grown and built success over months, completely off course. It forces those teams, perhaps not built entirely around the use of size, force and loose interpretation of the rules, to play more tentatively. It forces them to relegate the game that won them their success to the sidelines while scrambling to stay in step with their sparring partner. The changes are sometimes even very tangible as players who contributed substantially to success are benched in favour of "playoff veterans".

Just last night, Tobalev and I were talking about how poorly O'Byrne played. Tobalev said: "Everyone knows you can't play a rookie defenceman in the playoffs. Amazingly, washed-up veterans are just what you need on D in the playoffs."

My feeling is that O'Byrne is out of step because he has not learned how to "cheat" yet, that is to play playoff hockey and get away with it. So, even though he's been better than Jason Smith over the season, he looks far worse after nights like last night. This would also be the reason for the futile decision to play Streit up front, I suspect.

A classic case of the regular season/playoff dichotomy were the Ottawa Senators of the early century (or early noughties, as they call them in England). Now that the Senators reign may be coming to an end, I would ask whether the league is happy that a team like Ottawa, an expansion success story and one-time model for how to build lasting success, never really had a shout at the Stanley Cup.

Sure, they made the final last year, but that was only after they had traded their former identity in Hossa and Havlat away to make more room for playoff heroes like Fisher and Neil. "Optimising" their line-up for playoff battles and Don Cherry did not even take them far enough. Ultimately, they came up short against a team that with the notable exceptions of Selanne, McDonald and Niedermayr were brought in to force a Stanley Cup shaped-peg into a square-shaped hole in Anaheim.

As Habs fans, perhaps we look at Ottawa and smirk and even have a chuckle about the pretenders we pretend they are. We shouldn't.

The Canadiens are a team being built in the image of Ottawa from that period. Our brain trust now was their brain trust then. We are trying to emulate the system of perpetual talent coming through, largely through outperforming competitors at European and US scouting. When we enjoy our decade of reward as Ottawa did, will we end up looking for Chris Neils to replace our Kostitsyns? I hope not.

However, after watching the games the past few nights, I feel that if the NHL does nothing to improve the consistency of its officiating (specifically from regular season to playoffs), then we are stuck. They will be encouraging us and other teams to play down to the level of playoff battlers, instead of striving to be exciting and positive like the Canadiens of this year and the Senators of this past decade.

I fear we may be in for comfortable 7-month stretches, followed by quite uncomfortable 1-month stretches – like the one we are experiencing now. The Canadiens will be forced to play a game they were not grafted in for. Sergei Kostitsyn will be hitting Hatchers instead of exposing his weak skating. Kovalev will be retaliating for hits instead of instigating highlight reel plays.

So was Briere right? If Daniel had said the Flyers gave him a better chance at making the playoffs, he would have been wrong. But, if these games (like the last 9 for us) continue, he may be closer to the truth than we initially thought.

For the record, I still think Briere is way off. The Canadiens have it in them to beat this team and then one or two more as well. Plus, he probably never thought about his statement like we have, I'd say anything for 10 million a year (and to get a grumpy wife off my back) too...

Monday, April 28, 2008

Game #2-3

Price Shaky as Habs Let Gimme Slip Away

The Canadiens Game in Review

Date: Monday April 28th, 2008
Opponent: Philadelphia Flyers
Venue: Wachovia Center, Philadelphia, PA


Team Stripes


Final Score: 2-3 - Loss

Habs starting goalie: Carey Price (L), Jaroslav Halak
Opposition starting goalie: Martin Biron (W)

Habs goalscorers: Tomas Plekanec, Saku Koivu
Opposition goalscorers: Scottie Upshall, Mike Richards, R.J. Umberger



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 Time the Habs are trailing a Series in 2008
1st Career Playoff Game for Halak
1st Game of the Series for Latendresse



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

With about 15 minutes to go in the game Halak made what turned out to be a very key stop. It was the only time that the Flyers, in my opinion, had a legitimate scoring chance all night. The puck was fed from Halak's left to his right, just outside of the crease. Patrick Thoresen was the player who seemed to have a certain goal, but Jaro got across with a great right-pad save. It kept the game at 0-3 which at the time may have seemed like a moot point, but as it turned out gave the Habs a serious shot of getting back into this one.



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

Saku Koivu

This wasn't the best effort so far from the captain, but he was still our best player out there tonight. As usual he won some key face-offs, none more important than his wins on our 5 minute PP. He scored a good goal and led the team in shots. The problem tonight was that we relied on him to shoot and score, whereas on most nights (when his wingers pick up the slack) all we really want are his world-class passes.



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
- Saku has now got at least 1 point in his each of his 5 playoff games to date and sits only 2 back of Kovy for the team lead. His 1.40 points/game is good for fourth in the league behind Malkin, Crosby and Jagr; just further proof that the playoffs are a time for big players and that is precisely what Saku is. He adapted well tonight to a variety of wingers, but was at his best with Kovy by his side

Guillaume Latendresse
- I didn't think that Gui was going to have a big impact on this game, but was thankful nonetheless that Dandenault was being benched. I felt that Gui played how you would expect all players to play in the playoffs; hard and with energy. He clearly lacks skill and speed, but certainly doesn't lack heart. He led the team in hits and shots with 5 in each category. He was actually a good addition to Smolinski's line as he played a similar came to that of Begin

Mark Streit
- Defenceman or forward? That is the question. I'll put him in here as a forward tonight simply because the pickings were rather slim. When times are good Carbo chooses to use Mark less than 10 minutes/game, but when we need a goal who does he turn to? That's right: Streit. It seems that when the situation is dire Streit is used as a defenceman and used a lot (over 20 minutes tonight). So, why does Carbo not think the first 2 periods are important? Why does he admit that his best possible line-up includes Streit at the back yet continues to come back with Brisebois and O'Byrne? The best part about Mark is that he does whatever is asked of him and as he showed again tonight does a great job wherever he plays

Defencemen

Andrei Markov
- Markov is the number one reason I didn't think Briere was playing tonight and that I forgot Prospal was traded to the Flyers. He is also a huge reason why we have only let up 70 shots in 3 games. Andrei did well tonight in his own end as I counted exactly 0 mistakes. He also played a good offensive game and chipped in with a PP assist

Roman Hamrlik
- This was Roman's best game of the series so far. He got very involved with the attack, but unlike some of his teammates never got stuck in Philly's end. He did end the game at -2, but you can thank a certain Mr. Price for that stat as Hammer played a great game in his own end. A team isn't held to 14 shots by accident, it was thanks to great work by all our D

Goaltender

Jaroslav Halak
- Halak finally got his chance, but is that it, will we go back to Price? I certainly hope not. Carey has played very poorly all series long and had he been even slightly less horrible we could be up 3-0 in the series. I wonder if anyone in the Habs management has ever stopped to think just who is our best goalie. Have they even considered Halak? I am not suggesting that he is the outright best G on our team, but I really think he might be. Carey played horribly with the puck (again), let the puck out of his glove, only to be stolen (again) and let in 2+ weak goals (again). Jaro only had 2 shots against him, but on one of those he was able to do what Price could not do tonight - make a good save. I would go with Jaro for Game #4, because we can't go back to MTL down by 2. Right now our goaltending couldn't be any worse, so why not take a chance to see if it can get any better



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

I had to think a long time about this one as I was thinking all the way from good, right to bad. As a regular winger Kovy didn't do too badly tonight; he made some good passes, played well on the PP, he even played well on the PK. As Kovalev, however, I think I can speak for all of us when I say we need something a little more. Alex is 'the' weapon we have that Philly doesn't, he is our game-breaker. At his best he is unstoppable, near his best he is still a major threat, heck even when he fades in and out of games he can have his unbelievable moments. He has been a factor in this series, and he can't be blamed for our goaltending, but I think it is time for him to play at a level where it really doesn't matter how our goalie plays.

Kovalev's Assessment - Average


Overall Comments

Count them - 1, 2, 3 games in which we have badly outplayed the Flyers, yet it is us that are down in the series. Hard work is great, but I don't even think that that is it, we are simply just a better team than them. I have to hand it to them though as they are making the most of their chances, or at least Price is for them. We seemed content to play a neutral game tonight until we had to score. Why, oh why don't we start games the same way we end them? We must start the first period with a serious sense of urgency, because quite frankly 0-0 is not as comfortable as it seems. 2 gaffes and all of sudden you are in that big hole again. The key has to be to get the first goal and to not stop. Philly has proven that they won't get many quality chances on us, so it is up to us to be relentless with them. The way I see it Wednesday is our Game #7 - it is a must win. If you can't beat a team that you are better than and that you constantly outplay, then how are you ever going to beat teams that are better than you? We need a complete team effort - from the goalies making all the saves they have to, right to the forwards who must score when the opportunity presents itself. Believe it or not you don't get to the Conference Final by hitting a lot of posts.

Carbo made 3 changes tonight, 2 of which came during the game and I think all 3 worked out well. The first change was taking Dandenault out, which was a great move. It didn't really mater who came in for him, it was just important to take him out. I would have frankly brought in Ryder rather than Latendresse as we already have too many players playing that have no hands. The second change was to move Streit back to D. This to me has been obvious since Septmeber 2005. Mark is a great, world-class, defenceman and that is probably the reason he does so well on the wing. If Markov was moved up front he too would get a ton of points, but that would be no reason to keep him from playing D. Streit's situation seems to be viewed by the team the same as Dandenault's, but I think the team forgot that Mark can actually play hockey, he can even play in his own end. The third change was pulling Price, and it was the right one. I personally would have pulled him right after he released to puck from his glove right to a Flyer. Not only have we seen this bonehead play already in the playoffs, but he proved again tonight that after such a mistake he is unable to mentally recover, thus becoming prone to pathetic goals. The give-up attitude has surfaced too often from Carey for my liking, it's time to go with Jaro.

Sunday, April 27, 2008

Game #2-2: Flyers Dome

Big win for the Flyers last night. So why is it so hard to identify the men responsible? One of those nights, I guess.


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

Forwards

Jeff Carter
– I've always been a bit indifferent to Jeff Carter when I've seen him. But I will say this, on the Flyers, he is looking like a pretty classy guy. That's saying next to nothing of course. Every half decent play from the Flyers last night was a result of something Jeff Carter did. And, fault Carey Price all you want, but if Plekanec was shooting like Carter did on his goal, we'd have won - a very good corner pick from a non-angle

R J Umberger
– if I'm indifferent about Carter, I would have to take that even farther for Umberger. I won't - that's how little I care. His 2-goal performance was memorable because though he scored the game breakers, he did virtually nothing else. An indication of how badly the Flyers forwards, in particular were outplayed, is his presence in the dome despite my disdain

Mike Richards
– he played quite poorly and got away with it - a perfect representative for his team. He played dirty and got away with it - again a perfect representative of his team. Maybe he's too busy thinking about his promised $80000 a game


Defencemen

Kimmo Timonen
- played well. He played the most of any Flyer, and actually looked good while doing it. He was not on the ice for any of the Canadiens goals, though he was on for plenty of chances. Mind you, he was on the ice for 3 Flyers goals as well. He has not had the impact Chara had in the previous series, but has been the best Flyer nonetheless

Randy Jones
- in the same way Hamrlik deserves a lot of credit for playing with Brisebois, so Jones with Hatcher. Hatcher can do what he does, but then it will take him a fair amount of time to get to where he needs to be next. Randy Jones, a bit more fleet of foot has helped this pairing to be an effective one. The two of them together are the reason we're all asking what has happened to Plekanec. A +2 performance with some decent stats to go with, get him in the dome


Goaltender

Marin Biron
- I was harsh to put Nittymaki in. Biron plays a solid game. While some of his spectacular saves in fact turn out to be misses or posts, he did make a couple of enormously important glove saves to stop the Canadiens comeback in its tracks (heard of the glove hand Carey? you can move it too). What e did best last night though was to make the easy saves. Every time Steve Begin, Mathieu Dandenault or some other non-goalscoring forward took a shot, it was a Canadiens turnover. This was thanks to solid positioning and preparedness from Biron. He has shown, it takes patience to get a goal past him - something the Canadiens do not seem to have at the moment. The first star for his team for certain

Saturday, April 26, 2008

Game #2-2

Habs Outplay Philly, Biron Outplays Price, Series Tied

The Canadiens Game in Review

Date: Saturday April 26th, 2008
Opponent: Philadelphia Flyers
Venue: Bell Centre, Montreal, QC


Team Stripes


Final Score: 2-4 - Loss

Habs starting goalie: Carey Price (L)
Opposition starting goalie: Martin Biron (W)

Habs goalscorers: Saku Koivu, Andrei Markov
Opposition goalscorers: R.J. Umberger (2), Jeff Carter, Daniel Briere



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 Goals of the Playoffs for Koivu and Markov
1st Assist of the Playoffs for Higgins
1st Saturday Night Home Loss in 2 Months (Feb. 23)



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

Our first goal was a result of hard work and effort and gave the Habs life at a time in the game where it seemed like we wouldn't get anything past Biron.

The puck ended up behind the net on the Power-Play and in came Koivu. He made a great hit to win the puck, but was then subsequently knocked off the puck and he fell to the ice. While he was on the ice he got the puck back, got to his feet and took a look at Biron on the other side of the net. Martin was expecting Higgins to emerge with the puck on his right so there was a gap at the left post for Saku. Without wasting anytime Saku quickly wrapped the puck in for his first playoff goal since 2004.



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

Saku Koivu

For the third time in 4 games Saku was our best player. He was absolutely dominant tonight as he seemed to be involved in almost every one of the Canadiens' serious chances. His play has inspired Higgins who is playing great hockey right now too. What I continue to notice about Saku that is so unique is the way he uses his body, his stance and his skates to keep and win the puck. He is constantly not only winning open pucks, but is holding on to them long enough to find an open winger or point-man.



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

Sergei Kostitsyn
- His passing was on tonight, especially the passes he made to his brother Andrei. He applied a very good fore-check all night and played well in the corners. He refuses to back down from the older, tougher opposing players as he showed again tonight that he will mix it up with pretty much anyone

Christopher Higgins
- Chris came ever so close to tying the game up in it's late stages when he ringed one off the left post on the PP. That was the story of Higgins' game - tons off chances, no luck. He had a great pass on Marky's goal for just his first assist of the playoffs. He did an excellent job of winning pucks tonight and getting them back to the point, or to Saku, as quickly as possible

Saku Koivu
- Just where might we be without this playoff performer? I know it was a tough loss tonight, but there are 26 NHL teams out there who wouldn't mind being tied at 1 in the 2nd round. Koivu continues to give the Habs another option around the net. He had another 2 points tonight, giving him 6 so far - in only 4 games. Once again he was big in the face-off circle as he won 58% including a few in key, PP, situations

Defencemen

Josh Gorges
- The more and more I see of Josh Gorges the happier I am about that trade. Then I watch San Jose play and see what we gave up to get Josh (Rivet) and I can't seem to thank my lucky stars enough. Once again tonight Josh did all the little things - he stayed out of the box (0 PIM in the playoffs), played simple D, pinched when the time was right and best off all drew a penalty late in the third which very nearly resulted in a tying goal

Andrei Markov
- Andrei didn't have his best game of the playoffs, but was still quite effective. Tonight, however, it was his offence that stood out more than his defence. He scored a key goal and played extremely well on the PP. He seemed a little lost at times in his own zone; especially on our fourth goal where he could be blamed as much as Price. The fact that he is in here despite sub-par defensive zone play should serve as a wake-up call to the others; Komisarek in particular

Goaltender

Jaroslav Halak
- Carey let in 2 weak goals within the first 9 minutes, on only 5 shots. At that point in the game I thought to myself that we would be able to score 2 to at least send this game to OT, so it was up to Carey to let up no more. Well, you can add two more weak ones to the list as he was the biggest reason we lost this game. The time was right to give Jaro a shot halfway through the first, but Carbo didn't budge. I would still come back with Price (which I guarantee Carbo does) in the next game, but he MUST cut out the mishandling of pucks, we can't afford to lose games in which we outplay the other team



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

Kovy played a decent game, but ultimately was not a factor. He looked particularly dangerous on the PP and had it not been for bad luck and Biron's heroics he would have had a few points and a higher game rating. From the red-line forward I thought he was way better than he was behind it as he seemed to lack a bit of conviction in his own end. Once again he worked very well with Saku and considering how much chemistry the Kostitsyn's have together I would find it hard to believe Carbo would put Alex back with Pleks just yet.

Kovalev's Assessment - Good


Overall Comments

Our skaters outplayed their skaters in this one from start to finish, without question. The difference in this game was goaltending. Price was never really tested yet let 4 in on just 23 shots. Biron, on the other hand, played his best game of the playoffs as he made one spectacular save after another. Overall he stopped 34 of 36 shots, most of which were high quality. The Flyers played exactly as I thought they would; slow, dirty and disorganized. They took penalties at the wrong time (right for us) and it was almost their downfall. The Habs skated harder tonight, won more battles and must have out chanced Philly 5:1, but we simply didn't get the goaltending support we needed. We have now outplayed Philly in 2 games, but believe it or not are quite lucky not be down 0-2 in this series. Hard work is essential, but if we want to win this series we will need better team defence and more dominating performances from Carey.

We now head to Philly for 2 games and we MUST return home with at least 1 win. Boston proved to us just how hard it is to recover from a 1-3 deficit, no matter how well you play. Hard work gives you a chance to win, but it basically comes down to skill and luck for the Ws at this point. I know the type of player Price is and that makes me confident for Monday night. He will be better, so all we have to do is keep working hard. If we play like we did tonight and the goaltending differential between the two isn't so vast then we will win more games than the Flyers from here on in. If we really want to put the pressure on Biron and Philly then Game #3 has to be one of our best of the playoffs; judging by what I saw towards the end of the game tonight that shouldn't be a problem.

The DeciBell Centre

What made me read an email in my junkbox from Eklund, I'm not sure. Maybe it's the fact he's an unabashed Philly supporter, even through the worst of their delinquencies in the corners and into the boards.

I suppose I wanted to see what ridiculous things he might say about luck and misfortune. He did have a bit of Philly bias, particularly his fix that someone pouring beer on Mike Richards was a huge event. (Did anyone in Montreal even notice? we were busy winning a hockey game...). But, on the whole his note was addressing his love for Montreal and the awe he felt when in the Bell Centre - particularly at how loud it can be:

I was warned by the talented Eric Engels to bring earplugs, but of course I ignored him...A bit of a mistake there.

The crowd is very loud, but a different kind of loud. In cities like Nashville and Washington it is a "party" kind of loud. Here is a loudness from absolute JOY. In a similar way, the quiets when the Habs were down 2-0 were really quiet. not just a sad quiet, but a "concerned" quiet. There is so much passion here. SO much desire to win that these fans aren't having a good time if the Habs are losing. They are devastated in fact.

And then when the Habs tied it and won it in Overtime, the party on the street was louder than I had ever seen following a NON CUP CLINCHING Game. We made a joke about it..."Geez, Only 11 more wins to go!" but please understand that joke is not saying, "these fans are ridiculous to be partying like this" it simply saying, "I can only begin to imagine this place with 10,9,8,7...wins to go.


It made me think of things I have heard in the past and how people who not been there cannot possibly understand what the atmosphere is like when the Montreal crowd gets going.

This all sounds like hyperbole, but believe me it isn't. I can think of three occasions in particular at which I have been in attendance where I have burned out my vocal chords and had ringing in my ears for days following the event (courtesy of the crowd). Montreal does loud like no other North American city, we've upgraded on loud to Loud 2.0:

1) The game that Saku returned.
There's not much point trying to describe it, other than to say that the ovation could have gone another 45 minutes were the NHL not so adamant about playing a game that night.



2) Game 4, Round 1, 2002.
Not so much in excitement, but in disgust - the building was raucous following the despicable hit from McLaren on M. Zed. The range went from claims for penalty to the loudest boos I've ever heard to Go Habs Go.

3) Concert extraordinaire: Arcade Fire & U2.
Some people who know a little bit about loud stood in front of us that night, looked at each other and were dumbfounded. The Montreal crowd consistently astonished Bono and the band. Bono expressed it best when he said: "This is impossible."

(Here's my audio from that night. Blogger forces me to make a video. Connaisseurs (Tobes and Stevens) will recognise the mismatch of picture and audio - sorry boys)



Big game tonight. If you're going to be in the building, blow that "anonymous" blogger Dwayne's ears off...

Game #2-1: (Belated) Flyers Dome

Another busy day, another delay in Opponents Dome. But watching the opposition is half the fun, so keep an eye on these six to see if they can solidify their claim to dome positions tonight...



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

Forwards

Scottie Upshall
– can I please just call you Scott? you are not 5, though you are on the right team if 5-year old histrionics is what you are best at. Scott played a good game in that he did what he does best. He won a lot of pucks and won a critical penalty from Mike Komisarek. In fact, I think he was the man responsible for taking Komi's head right out of the game. We need Lapierre to be more like this pest.

Jim Dowd
– probably just the Habs connection, but I really noticed him in Game 1. In terms of stats, he was the best Flyer forward by a long shot (no pun intended). In addition, he scored the only legitimate goal for the men in orange and black - a nice one at that.

Patrick Thoresen
– he made the nicest offensive play of the night for the Flyers with that pass to Jim Dowd. Other than that, he was on the best Flyers line and isn't named Downie (who I have given a lifetime suspension from all dome appearances, as should the NHL, for that hit on Bergeron).

Putting Thoresen in is also a reflection on how bad the Flyers true stars - Briere and Prospal - were on the whole, while trying to shake coverage. Stats maven Jeff at Sisu hockey shows that: "The Briere line was utterly destroyed, but through dumb luck managed to keep opponents off the scoreboard." with some crazy stats I find hard to decipher, but great to look at.


Defencemen

Kimmo Timonen
- If someone as in-tune as Jeff at Sisu hockey says so, I listen: "Timonen was dominant but through some bad luck wound up -2." Mike Boone may be ignorant about Timonen (in the puckcast he claims not to be able to tell Finnish players apart), but Timonen was the Flyers best defenceman as expected. I thought that Koivu in particular was well contained, and even Kovalev for the majority of the game barring SH breaks, PP and late faceoffs. Timonen was responsible in large part for this

Derian Hatcher
- played a solid game, that was enhanced by the fact he was allowed to get away with an awful lot. He may be slow, but on a couple of occasions he demonstrated why he is still in the league - his strength. He's also in here due to the fact that none of his compatriots did anything too exceptional over the night, he also played the most even strength minutes of any Flyer after Coburn. The best play he made was holding the puck along the boards for about 15 seconds, thereby running down the clock at the end of the period


Goaltender

Antero Nittymaki
- you can't make the dome if you play like Biron did. It's nothing personal, and it's happened to Price many times, as well. 2 posts, that Kostitsyn goal, and the tying and the winning goals could all have been saves on a better night. Stevens thought Biron was good, so we'll likely see him again. Nittymaki would start for me in a dome hockey game

Friday, April 25, 2008

Game #2-1

Late Comeback Gives Habs Early Series Lead

The Canadiens Game in Review

Date: Thursday April 24th, 2008
Opponent: Philadelphia Flyers
Venue: Bell Centre, Montreal, QC


Team Stripes


Final Score: 4-3 (OT) - Win

Habs starting goalie: Carey Price (W)
Opposition starting goalie: Martin Biron (L)

Habs goalscorers: Andrei Kostitsyn, Alexei Kovalev (2), Tom Kostopoulos
Opposition goalscorers: R.J. Umberger, Jim Dowd



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 2nd Round Game in MTL Since 2004
1st 2nd Round Win Since 2002
1st Playoff Penalty-Shot for the Habs Since 1984 (Naslund)
1st Shorthanded Playoff Goal Since 1997 (Brunet)
1st Come-From-Behind Win of the Playoffs



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

It was said that the Habs Power-Play had to be better than it was against Boston to win this round. All I could say to that was - didn't we beat Boston? Yes it could be better, but believing that law of averages would now be on the Habs side anyway I was never worried about our PP, only excited that we had won a series without over-using our main weapon.

With 1:11 left in the third period Kovalev made a great move around Mike Richards, a play in which Richards tripped Kovy and put the Habs on just their second PP of the night. Carbo's decision to pull Price for the whole PP was the right one; we had just over a minute to send this game to OT. He put out the core scorers (Koivu, Kovalev, A. Kostitsyn, Higgins, Markov and Streit) and let them go to work. 2 key face-off wins by Saku amounted to nothing and with 30 seconds left it seemed like we would have just one more chance with a draw to the left of Biron. Saku lined up his troops and went ahead and won yet another huge face-off. The puck went right to Alex who within a blink of an eye put the puck top-corner, short-side and sent this game to sudden-death.



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

Alexei Kovalev

His situational awareness is something else. Alex scored PP and a SH goals tonight, both of which were such good, heads-up plays. He looked much more active tonight than he did for most of the Bruins series as he no longer had the big Zdeno Chara keeping a watch on him. He basically did what we needed him to do tonight - score exactly when we needed. He tied the game up twice with two very good goals proving that he always knows exactly where the puck, the net and the chances lie. Not many people would have scored the goals he did tonight; he is the main reason we are now not trailing this series by one.



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

Tom Kostopoulos
- Tom's line was used a lot in the third period and then again in OT. To an outside observer one may question the use of Kostopoulos-Begin-Smolinski in key offensive situations, but I now think every one's doubts should be laid to rest. Their line (and Tom in particular) were relentless last night; never more evident than during OT. Tom worked feverishly to keep the puck in Philly's end and it paid off just 0:48 seconds into the extra frame - a goal which Tom himself called (in french mind you) 'the goal of my life'

Alexei Kovalev
- Aside from the obvious, Alex played a great game. His 2 key goals and penalty-draw were the reason we won, his solid play throughout was also a big reason we were close in this game to begin with. He played over 23 minutes, killed penalties, and dished out 3 hits - tonight he was the complete playoff performer

Saku Koivu
- Saku continued right where he left off in the Boston series. He played a game that was filled with hard-work and effort from the start right until the finish (no pun intended). He proved, yet again, that he may lack the size of a Derian Hatcher, but he makes up for it with a Lion's heart, and you know what heart beats size in one-on-one battles with 90's defencemen. He had 3 face-off wins on our last PP and was 17/24 (71%) overall. Like Kovy he was used in all situations, and was equally as effective. He, along with our assistants, led by example tonight and that is something that the whole team will have taken notice of

Defencemen

Josh Gorges
- Josh played another solid defensive game for the Habs. He saw almost 20 minutes of ice in this one and once again was used in all situations. He was actually preferred to Mike (stupid penalty) Komisarek when we were pressing at the end. He ended at +1 and wasn't on the ice for any Flyers goals

Andrei Markov
- Markov didn't play his best hockey of the year against Boston, but was still a factor in that series. From the looks of game #1 against the Flyers he will be an even bigger factor in this one. His best play came in OT when he assisted on the winning goal. He had the puck at the point and took a big hit with a Flyer bearing down on him. Most people would have turned away from the hit, thus sacrificing an obviously good scoring chance. He was on the ice for our last 3 goals and none of Philadelphia's

Goaltender

Carey Price
- This wasn't Price's best effort of the playoffs, but he did play a solid game. One goal was purely Brisebois' fault and one was a bad play by Carey, the third was neutral. To me, if you only let in 2 goals against a team like Philly you are giving your team a chance to win. After he let in an early goal in the third he stood tall to give us the ability to fore-check and not worry about the back-end



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

Alex picked up where he left off in Game #7 with another fantastic performance. He was used a bit with Koivu and a bit with Plekanec in this one, looking equally effective with both pivot-men. He was able to generate a lot more space than he could against Boston and I think that we will notice that the most on the PP in this series. You can expect our play with the extra man to be a big factor in this series. Thanks to Kovy we are already 1/2 when up a man.

Kovalev's Assessment - Excellent



Overall Comments

This game started great for the Habs. We were out-playing Philadelphia in all aspects of play and it really looked like we would win this one going away. Our defence were playing tight and were able to shut down the Flyer's top forwards. Coincidentally our forwards were playing extremely well and Philly's slow (as advertised) defence could not keep up. We ran into some bad luck early as it looked like an early series lead may not be in the cards. Luckily for us we didn't let the bad breaks affect our play as we just kept at it and stuck to our gameplan. In years passed overcoming 0-2 deficits would have been near unimaginable, but now, thanks to calm, patient players this year's group has made them a regular occurrence. The best part about tonight was it was complete team effort - everyone bought into the gameplan and everyone did their part. If we keep that up then there should be more Ws to come against Philly.

Winning the first game at home is huge, but, when you think about it, it is almost essential. There is a reason that they call it 'home-ice advantage' and that's because the crowd really can make a difference. We won't have nearly the support that we received in Philly as we got in Boston and that is why our home games must not be squandered. I am confident that this team has a road-win in them this round, but the more we win at home the less, and less that matters. A tight game like this was a perfect way to start the series as it will hopefully remind the team that no opponent in the playoffs is a push over - no matter how well you fared against them in the regular season.

Eyes For The Flyers

Quite a game. Interesting – to say the least.

Tobalev will be coming through with his full review of the game soon, as real-life got in the way of his journalist hobby on this very rare occasion.

On one hand, the game was a low quality affair. Two of the Flyers goals were poor quality. The Kovalev bunt was questionable. On the other hand, it was just what the Canadiens needed – in some ways a wake up call, in other ways a chance to prove to themselves that they could come back after losing all the games where they were scored against first the past two weeks.

Still brimming with that ecstatic buzz you get from watching your team tie and win the game in an 80 second span, I decided to watch the opposing teams interviews from the post-game scrum.

Now, can someone explain to me how the Flyers players and coach to a man thought they vastly outplayed the Habs, but were victims of extremely bad luck?

John Stevens did his best Jose Mourinho impression, complaining at length about the Kovalev goal.

(Admittedly, to an untrained eye, it did look like Kovalev may have touched the puck above the crossbar. However, the video judges holed up in Toronto must surely have access to more cameras and stop-start technology than RDS provides on its broadcast. I will give them the benefit of the doubt on that decision – especially considering they err on the side of no-goal in situations with doubt)

More cock-eyed vision, as he then had a good go about the bad luck they had with Jeff Carter's broken stick. Fair enough, but John, you did get a goal off our defender and another off an "accidental" deflection off a skate. You weren't hard too hard done by on the luck front. What's more, Jeff Carter hardly missed his stick as Kovalev scored right off the faceoff.

You want lucky John? How about even being in the second round after that travesty of a goal that got you here? Or playing a coach who continues to stick with Dandenault and Brisebois beyond all reason?

My favourite interview, though, had to be Martin Biron who complains ad nauseum about the Kovalev goal which he could not possibly have seen – his back was turned.

Posturing to the extreme. If you think a playoff series is 7 games, you are forgetting the games that go on between the hockey. Stevens and Biron trying to influence the refs for future games, no doubt. All part of the game.

As for their talent for objective analysis – I would recommend take another look.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Meet the Flyers: Key Pillars

So important are the playoffs that they warrant a special look at the special players on the other team for once. Anyone who has watched a game or two of the Bruins series will know plenty about the Habs, though you still may want to check our original playoff preview here: Tobalev's Habs Preview.

However after a bigger dose than anyone wanted of the Black and Gold, we now have a fresh opponent to tangle with. Without further ado:

The Philadelphia Flyers.

To begin, I thought I'd remind everyone of a few key thoughts:

1) Just like the Bruins, the regular season Flyers could not figure out the Habs

2) Unlike the Bruins, the Flyers had an inferior record against the rest of the league (only by 1 point, though)

3) The Flyers are hot in OT, coming off a series-ending OT win and another earlier in the series – they were prone, however, to losing in OT in the regular season (3-5) with a losing record in shootouts too (3-6)

So, on the whole these are not a superior version of the Bruins, but an equal, or quite possibly inferior. Who knows what would have happened if we had played them 8 times, like we did the Bruins – we are about to find out.


I have sent requests to a few Flyers fans for insight, but must go ahead before I get it. I will be sure to include any if and when I receive it.

The last line – Martin Biron

Canadian Junior goaltender of the year in 1995, Martin Biron was only the second goalie selected in his draft year (following Hartford's selection of JS Giguere). This immediately raises questions about Biron and his pedigree. Firstly, what happened? Well, as it turned out, Biron's charmed season with Beauport was to come to a crashing halt when Jose Theodore and his Olympiques handled them with ease in the QMJHL playoffs that year. Giguere, in contrast, didn't even make the playoffs, but was a talent on a poor and struggling expansion Halifax team.


The reason this history is important is because that playoff defeat seemed to derail this decade-earlier, French Canadian Carey Price super prospect of his day. To say he is prone to derailment would be false. the fact is he was, always was with Buffalo. This would be the reason he couldn't wrestle a starting job from Noronen, and why as soon as Buffalo acquired an American standard bearer for their franchise, Biron was set free. But things have been different for Biron this season: he has won a starting job for the first time, he won 30+ games for the second time and his best save percentage ever – an elite save percentage for the first time in 6 years. In other words, at the tender age of 30, Martin Biron has finally become what he was projected to be 13 years earlier: a legitimate NHL starter.

His stats, while not staggering, have been good, especially when you consider defencemen 3-6 on the Flyers on any given night: 2.59 GAA, 0.918 Save% with 5 shutouts. And while many will post his abysmal stats against Montreal this season, he has generally been a thorn in Montreal's side of the years, with a save percentage a good level above his usual play (not helped by this year's game, of course).


He owes some of this success to the innate ability of all Quebecers to come to Montreal and play on another plane. While we can't discount the possibility that he'll tap this resource for the series, history has shown that homeboys mostly find that harder to do over a series than they do for a single game.

If it's chinks in the armour that you're looking for, it's worth considering that, in 62 starts, there were 17 occasions in the regular season that Biron let in 4 or more goals. Also, note that he let in 4+ twice in the last 7-game series. So while he shuts out opponents with some frequency, and generally stops shots at an elite level, he is not immune to bad nights like Carey had in games 5 and 6. Finally, consider that tonight Martin will be suiting up for only the 8th time for NHL playoff hockey, just like his decade-his-junior counterpart.

All in all, I would expect good solid goaltending from Martin. He gives the Flyers a good chance to succeed (as is the case for all the goalies at this stage of the competition).


The Game Maker – Kimmo Timonen

One question I asked my blogging colleagues from the Flyers camp was:
Who do you think has played the biggest role in the Flyers turnaround this year?

While I haven't received their responses, I am beginning to form my own picture of events through the research I have done. My conclusion is that Timonen is a man in the running.


His career stats page has more lines on it than I have seen in years. In the lockout year alone, he played for Finland twice and 3 different professional teams. I guess the man likes his hockey.

Timonen is no newcomer to the NHL. Since he made his first NHL roster in 1998, 5 years after being drafted in the 10th round, he has made an impact to his teams and the league. He has been one of the most consistent offensive defencemen around since 2002. Including this past season, he has 275 points over 6 seasons (an average of 45 a year). That is what made his trade and release from the Nashville Predators all the more remarkable, especially considering their need for salary just to make league minimum at the outset of the summer. The Flyers got themselves a real steal.

To the Flyers, Timonen has provided a steady NHL defenceman with legitimate potential to contribute up front. In other words, he is their Andrei Markov. And just like Markov, he has been charged with bringing up the main defensive prospect from the organisation in Braydon Coburn.

Coburn, not unlike Komisarek when alongside Markov, has benefited greatly from the wily Finn on his flank. Coburn, in the space of a year has gone from frustrating ne'er do well and throw away prospect (for Alexei Zhitnik!!) to pillar of steadiness on the Flyers top pairing. And, it is herein where lies Timonen's value to the team. While his own number's have fluctuated to an ebb by his standards (8 goals and 36 assists), his protege's contribution has soared.

Canadiens fans will surely be getting used to seeing Kimmo Timonen night in, night out, since his coach deploys him against all the top players in the league (read Kovalev). If Kovalev is hoping for an easy ride like he got against the Flyers in the regular season, perhaps he should cast an eye on the highlights of the just-completed Washington series. This is what his coach had to say bout him:

“He was unbelievable,” coach John Stevens said after the Flyers' 3-2 overtime win over the Caps in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference quarterfinals . “He looked like he could play all night out there (he actually played 28 minutes and change). He's playing against the guy (Derian) Hatcher said is the hardest guy (Ovechkin) he's ever had to play against.

“Kimmo embraced that challenge, he wanted it. Not only that but he contributes to the power play, penalty killing, all situations. He really stepped up for us. He wanted to be the guy and he brought (Braydon) Coburn along with him.”



The Game Breaker – Daniel Briere

Daniel Briere is on fire!

That could be my headline for a player I bill as the game breaker after he scores 6 playoff goals in 7 games with 5 assists to accompany them. Of course, the cynic in me want to write this headline:

Daniel Briere likes playing against AHL-calibre defences

That sort of headline would be grossly unfair to a player who is once again stepping up his play once the playoffs roll around for his team. This playoffs, his goals have been difference makers – with 4 out of 6 of them either tying up the game or putting the Flyers into the lead. In addition, his previous two playoff years, Briere has given point-per-game reliability – in fact, if you cast a glance at his career stats, you will see that he is PPG for the career in the playoffs. His kind of clutch play will be of utmost importance to the Flyers who would have to look hard to find another pure offensive talent on their roster.

In addition to having a great start to the playoffs, Briere actually had a pretty good season. If you accept that his contract-winning season of 95 points was an anomaly for the little man, you could see this season (his second highest goal and point totals ever) as quite a success. In trying to sell him short (yet again), I discovered that Daniel (or Danny as the Flyers homepage calls him) scored just as many points and goals against playoff-bound opposition as non-playoff teams. In doing so (and combined with his playoff excellence), he has once again shown his eager critics that he is a player to be reckoned with. You would only have to ask the Sabres to understand his full importance to his team.

As a game breaker, Danny is ruthless. He attacks with cunning and with speed. And unlike previous game breaker Marc Savard, Briere can do it all. His passes are top class and hiss goalscoring totals are impressive. As I mentioned earlier, he has a penchant for scoring important goals.

The Canadiens will no doubt put a lot of effort into creating a containment strategy for Briere. Luckily for us, we have some of the tools to do that. Especially with home ice, we can look to Komisarek and Markov every time Briere darts into the zone.


Of course, no preview of Briere would be complete without some mention of his Montreal snub just last summer. As we know, Gainey had at least approached the Briere camp with a stratospheric offer by Canadiens standards. For one reason or another (money), Briere turned it down (money). Some say his wife asked him not to play in Montreal (she wanted more money after tax), while others suggested he asked too much of the of the coach in line commitments. While the Canadiens would probably be a better team right now with 30-year old Briere on the team, there is no doubt in my mind that the offer rumoured to be for 7 years would have saddled the Canadiens with a player who would lose his value by year 6 and 7. While I am relieved we didn't sign Briere for the rumoured terms, I would be a fool to say i don't envy a French Canadian scorer who saves his best for the playoffs.


The Great Hope – Mike Richards

How many times did we have to hear about Mike Richards and Jeff carter being drafted by the Flyers as the major coup of the 2003 entry draft (ahem, Andrei Kostitsyn)? The fact is, it was a deep draft and the Flyers needed to get over that. The people who passed on Carter at 11 all got a better player in my estimation. Mike Richards was a good late round pick, but so were Corey Perry and Patrice Beregeron both picked later. Oddly, the Flyers have made a game of picking up whoever they can from the 2003 draft – with Coburn and Kukkonen both featuring on the big team.

As for Mike Richards, he has had a breakout season. Or rather, he had a breakout first three months. In his first 35 games, Mike looked like a real challenger for the scoring title, with 18 goals and 43 points. An injury helped to mask his lack of production which fell to 32 points (10 goals) over his next 38 games. I bring this up mainly because these first three months made Mike a very rich and famous man and rolled the Flyers fate for the forseeable future up with his own. That's because on December 13, he was handed a 12-year contract for $69 million with a maximum salary of $7.6 million for the 2013-2014 season. Quite definitely the most ridiculous contract in NHL history.

What the Flyers have now and what they think they paid for are two completely different entities. The Flyers, through their fixation on the year 2003, have committed to 12 years of Richards based on what they tab leadership. It is worth having a look at what they saw, as it could factor into the series at some point.

Basically, what the Flyers saw was the leader of every team he had ever been on. He captained the Kitchener Rangers to the Memorial Cup,and Canada to the World Junior Championship, while playing a huge role in Philadelphia's Calder Cup of 2005. This is what the Canadiens must also be wary of – a player with the extra gear. A clutch performer, so to speak. That said, I till think they could have signed him for less...

As if to live up to his best-case billing, he played very well in the first round. He posted 7 points in 7 games, playing in many important situations for his team. He'll look to continue making vital contributions to his team's cause in the second round.

If the Canadiens are to take heart, it is in the fact that Mike Richards was in play when they faced the Flyers before and they still managed to win. In addition, he was a minus player against the habs, just as he was against Washington this spring. He plays a straightforward game and gets his breaks from superior effort not otherworldly skills – as long as his effort is matched, the battle can be kept in balance.


So you see, there is more to the Flyers than their dirty play and skill-free bangers. How much more beyond these 4 is difficult to say, especially with Simon Gagne and Mike Knuble missing from their ideal line-up card. If the Canadiens can put complacency and doubt behind them and try to set the agenda in the majority of these games, then the talent math goes in their favour. Furthermore, the Flyers aren't as likely to use the same wait and see gameplan the Bruins did. When they try to open up, the Canadiens might just love the seams they begin to see.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Bandwagons and Paddy Wagons

I think just about everything that can be said has been said about the post-game riots that took place the other night – I only wanted to add a couple of thoughts.

People have been complaining that there shouldn't be a riot after one round, we should wait for something to riot about – as if rioting and looting at any time is acceptable. I will be just as disappointed if the rioting happens in mid-August. The issue is a lack of respect for our neighbours, a lack of reverence for peace and order. Obviously, it looks bad for the city, but at the end of the day, the people rioting probably had little if anything to do with hockey (any excuse to riot, so to speak). This doesn't mean Habs fans are off the hook for this, but it should not take away from excitement and support for the team. It only falls on Habs fans who do respect their fellow citizens to stand up to the delinquents in the minority.

Up until the paddy wagons and riot police were loosed on Maisonneuve, my biggest concern with the fans was a that they would tire themselves out. Let me rephrase that – that the bandwagon would tire itself out. After all, the playoffs are a long haul and the manic depressive ride they have been subjecting themselves to over single wins and losses has been tiring even to an observer.

My good friend, who works across the road from the Bell Centre, told me that people were loitering around outside (call it tailgating if you want) a good 8 hours prior to the puck drop in Game 5. Now, I know we missed a year guys, but perhaps that's a little over the top for Game 5.


As someone who follows the Habs with equal fervour in both thick and thin, I sometimes find it hard to deal with the thought that 3 million people care about the Canadiens beating the Bruins. I suppose it feels threatening to have so many people encroach on what can sometimes be a very private endeavour. But after thinking about it, the bandwagon does also have many merits:

  1. Keep opposition goalies and defencemen from hearing each other:"Aaron Ward was in front of me and the crowd's so loud, he couldn't here me yell 'Screen!' so I didn�t see the puck until he stuck his foot out."
  2. Keep our superior Quebec broadcast afloat
  3. George Gillett could use some more fans that like him
  4. Propping up team finances by all seemingly having to own a spanking new red Kovalev sweater
  5. Spawning new fans for the future (as someone who was born from the late 80s Habs success, I should know)

So, join me in wishing the Habs good fortune (and less complacency) in the next round. Come on you Habs, keep these future hard-cores on the bandwagon long enough to set their imaginations alight. And fans on the street, let's keep those others from tarnishing our reputation and out of the paddy wagons from here on.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Series 1: Bruins (Summer) Dome

A busy day and refusal to acknowledge that game even happened on Saturday means that I haven't done the Bruins dome in days. (I can tell from all the comments that you all miss it dearly...)

Anyway, I thought it better, now that they're gone for a few months, that I should review the Bruins series - in this format of course.


Dome hockey team
They're going into the last minute with these 6 against the charity radio contest winners (and they're attached to the ice, so they're not coming off)...

Forwards

Wasn't looking great for the Bruins forwards on the whole up until Game 4. They came largely as advertised: inexperienced and nonthreatening. Between Sturm, Krejci and Lucic chances Ovechkin would have had 16 goals. Their talent around the net was, however, temporarily born (can't really say reborn, can we?) for a couple of games and a very hairy start to game 7, but ultimately, they left the way they came. A couple stood out, and one other makes the dome because the defence weren't much better for games 1 and 7.

Marc Savard
– a choice for the dome in every game but game 1, where understandable rust kept him out. When I called him the game breaker back before the series began, I meant it, but I never expected him to break so many.

For me, Marc Savard was the Bruins best offensive player by a full body length or two. He doesn't mess around with the puck, does Marc. His passes are crisp and they are smart. Even defencemen we rate very very highly were caught out by seconds on his passes. Unfortunately for Marc and the Bruins, so were his wingers. Even though he ended up leading the Bruins in points, from some of the passes I saw, he could have been leading the playoff tournament with even a half-decent finisher on his flank.

It's not all wax lyrical though. Even though he did save a goal, his defensive play was not the stuff that has people lining up to put him on for the last 2 minutes. Even so, I will here

Phil Kessel
– Claude Julien showed all the imagination he was known for in Montreal in this series. Benching Phil Kessel was the tactical error of the series. Amazing he managed to trump even Carbo's dandgerous duo gaffe. This was Montreal prospect development of old - make all of em into defensive forwards. Sorry Claude, Phil played selfishly and concentrated on offence not defence. Um, that's what he is paid to do. As the only talented goalscorer on your team, you truly missed out when a goal was all you needed.

Phil himself came back to prove that he was what he promised to be - an offensive threat and an unpredictable nightmare for defences. His goal in Game 5 was pure goalscorer, and his double in Game 6 were just reward. He even looked the threat again in Game 7, stifled only by his nemesis to be for the next 20 years, Mr. Price.

While Lucic gained all the praise for what in the end turned out to be having a big body and not much else, Kessel was the wonderful prospect on show. Like other small Bruins forwards before him, you only wonder how long it will be until he is packaged and sent away for a Dennis Wideman on defence or something

He gets into my dome on the basis of three strong games to finish up (oh wait, 3/4)

Marco Sturm
– as I said earlier, this forward gets the consolation prize. In game 1, I had Shane Hnidy up front. Nokelainen has made it. Even Schaefer. But Sturm was the class of the ones without skill.

It would be unfair to say he has no skill, for he is one of the fastest skaters I can remember seeing recently. He also plays a mean PK. But when he sniffs a goal, know that it will be single digit completion rates for Sturm. In this series, he directed 23 shots at Price on his own. The lasting memory of Sturm from this series will be of him missing those breakaways - he had at least three clear-cut breakaways and countless open chances. But, despite all that, he's still number three among the forwards and into the dome.

If Sturm were worse he would be Axelsson (hence his omission from my dome), if he were better I probably wouldn't have written about him while I sulked

NOTES:
How does Lucic miss?
Frequently. No, seriously, Lucic proved he was big, immature and unhoned around the net. When people stopped caring about his hits, he looked lost.

How does Axelsson miss?
If I believed the PK was the key to the series, I would have put him in here, believe me. But a team that scored less than a goal every 10 chances just made the second round. Where was Axelsson at even strength in games 1, 6 and 7? Add to that his total ineptitude going forward. You have an answer.


Defencemen

Zdeno Chara
- seven for seven I think. I called him gamemaker, and made games he did. Claude Julien pored over his arsenal incessantly between games for a weapon to use, but kept coming back with Chara. Not surprisingly either given how well he can play.

If anyone is confused about where the Habs offence went, you should have a look under Chara's equipment back. He almost singlehandedly took care of both Kovalev and Plekanec. And once Kovalev was frustrated, out went the PP and Kostitsyn too. His skill goes beyond his size (he's developed since the Islander days), as he plays a very good possession and maintain possession game with a functional shot and surprisingly deft pass. While I think it's a travesty he is nominated for the Norris trophy on the merits of regular season play over Markov, he certainly out dueled him over the seven games.

In addition to the dome, Chara is player of the series for the Bruins and another reason fans of the Senators are looking up at the sky these days

Aaron Ward
- standing out among Bruins defencemen is no easy task. It seems each D is mandated to play an ultra simple game, compounded by the fact that this is how they believed Montreal would be vanquished.

For me, over the seven Aaron Ward was the second standout among defenders. A good distance behind Chara in both execution and skill, any team should nonetheless be happy to have Ward in the fold

As a defensive defenceman, he didn't really do much to make me stand up and rave about, but there is one thing. I suspect that Ward was playing with quite a decent injury and playing well too. In addition, he carries himself well avoiding some of the dirtier play his counterparts partake in. All in all a good right for Chara's left

Goaltender

Tim Thomas
- alright throughout the series. Nothing more, nothing less. Amazingly, apart from the first and last 30 minutes of the series, that's pretty much all he needed to be. Having doubted him for so long, I almost expected him to rear up and kill the Habs like Andy Moog would have.

Instead, Thomas let in timely (or untimely if you're Bruins folk) goals in at least 3 losses. You cannot allow a goal a minute into a playoff series (with a second to follow in short shrift). Nor can you allow a Swiis defenceman to score the backbreaker on a breakaway. Not if you want to be a playoff here anyway. Still, if you want to be in the dome for a team that lost in the first round of the playoffs, all that will suffice.

I predict the next time the Canadiens play the Bruins in the playoffs it will be a goaltenders duel between 2005 draftees. I predict Thomas has played his Huet February here. Some team like Detroit might just benefit from Boston's youth movement yet


So, who's next? Who do we want? New York or Philly? A team we fear or another team we will underestimate?