Friday, October 31, 2008

On Scoresheets

Trying To Find Time Of Event Ain't Easy

Remember Lang's breakaway?

I was a bit confused as to how Robert Lang was the one to eventually exit the penalty box when the three Habs were in there for a minute or so. I know the RDS guys were confused for a second too, but I think they had an explanation.

So today, I wanted to check what happened. No luck.

Although, the NHL GameCenter scorekeepers often keep a 5 secondly account of goings on in a game, there is a 1:40 black hole when Lang and/or Higgins should have been exiting the box. The omission is curious, considering a breakaway is quite a noteworthy occurrence.

So I tried a trusted source, but there I am told that Josh Gorges had a scoring opportunity 9 seconds after Chris Higgins penalty should have expired. But then, they also have the Habs playing with 3 skaters for far longer than they did and then suddenly becoming 5 when Hamrlik returns. So they make errors...

I think the explanation must be innocent enough, the scorers saw 26 instead of 20 and delayed a little on entering the data (Lang may be slow, but 9 seconds from centre to goal is excessively so, Latendresse 07 slow).

Does anyone know what happened? It's nagging me now. Did Lang come out when his penalty ended or Higgins'? This is one of those rules only the refs need to know, not us casual fans...

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Game #9

Habs Penalty-Killers Steal the Show and a Couple of Points

The Canadiens Game in Review

Date: Thursday October 30th, 2008
Opponent: Minnesota Wild
Venue: Xcel Energy Center, Saint Paul, MN

Team Stripes

Habs starting goalie: Carey Price (W)
Opposition starting goalie: Josh Harding (L)

Habs goalscorers: Francis Bouillon, Andrei Markov
Opposition goalscorers: Brent Burns



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

The play of the game for me wasn't just one quick play that lasted just a few seconds, but was instead a play, or series of plays that lasted 5 minutes and 51 seconds.

During nearly 6 straight minutes the Habs were shorthanded for all but 10 seconds and faced 2 successive 5-on-3s. Price was phenomenal, but so were our penalty-killers (other than those who took penalties #2, 3) who allowed Price to see every puck and kept the shots against down and from the outside. That group that deserves mentioning, led by Markov and Gorges, there was Bou, Komi, Saku, Pleks and Kovy.



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

Carey Price
Carey played his best game since the end of last year's regular season. He was imposing in his net as he gave the Wild shooters very little to shoot at. His patience against shooters was very good tonight as was his movement - up, down, left, right, he was everywhere. He followed the play so well and was obviously into the game in a big way.



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
It was a special night tonight for Saku as he was playing against his brother, for only the third time ever, and both their parents were in attendance. A Habs-Minnesota match-up doesn't happen that often these days which makes these games that more special for both boys. Another exciting factor is that these two are both at the height of their careers, both were wearing the 'C' and both are presently on scoring leaders. It was actually the first time since the Sutter brothers (Brian and Darryl) in 1986 that 2 brothers/captains have faced-off against each other. Koivu was on the ice for both goals, playing a big role in each. He was also one of the best forwards at penalty-killing tonight.

Alex Tanguay
Alex collected 2 more assists tonight giving him 5 on the season. He was very good on the point of the power-play tonight and did well killing penalties too. It was truly a special-teams/new-NHL type of game and players like Alex thrive in those situations.

Tomas Plekanec
Pleks was our most dangerous forward tonight and came ever so close to scoring a third goal for us near the end of the 3rd. His line is obviously having a little trouble so far this year, but at least the chances are there. I know, however, that they can be better. Despite playing quite well tonight I know that Tom can be faster when it comes to skating and quicker with his hands as too many passes are being intercepted or are simply too obvious.

Defencemen

Andrei Markov
One of the problems with having a lack of depth on the blue-line is that your top guys run the risk of being over-used. The good news is that, despite our situation, in Andrei we have one of the best in the league, probably second only to Lidstrom. He can do absolutely everything and never seems to get too tired, so carrying Brisebois and co. becomes much more manageable with this super-human talent on our side. He was absolutely phenomenal on the PK and it was also great to see him get one on the 5-on-3 - his first of the year.

Josh Gorges
Bou isn't the only one who is about to leap-frog Komi on the depth chart. Gorges played a very solid game tonight. He racked up over 8 minutes on the PK which is something you may see on the Ducks or Flyers, but is a rare occurrence in Montreal. He kept things very simple tonight which meant no mistakes, smart plays and knowing when and when not to use his speed and puck-handling abilities.

Goaltender

Carey Price
I am happy that Carey played so well tonight. Winning games in Minnesota is never easy, especially not this year. He was our best penalty-killer, it's a good thing too as the Wild had 10 PPs which lasted more than a 1/4 of the game. The NHL wants power-plays and scoring chances and goals, but unfortunately for them, at 0/10, Price doesn't.



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

When is a penalty ever going to be our fault? That is a question I would like to ask Carbo. It seems that he argues every call that goes against us, so does that mean the players are getting off easy. Arguing calls is a good strategy as you may be inadvertently influencing future decisions, but only with certain refs. The opposite is of course a possibility as some refs use arguing as the fuel they need for even more bad and bias calls. I have no problem with how Carbo treats the refs and actually think arguing, in the long run, does more good than bad. What I am concerned about is our players learning that penalties are neither useful, nor a necessary part of the game. I want to see players benched, players yelled at and basically players becoming scared of taking penalties. Some penalties (a trip on a breakaway, a slash on a 2-on-1 etc.) are worth it, but the majority of ours tonight were useless and resulted in no good. We took 10 minors and we didn't even have Laraque in the line-up. That is way too many and the players must be made aware of that. We won't be able to go 10/10 every night on the kill so we were really playing with fire. Stupid penalties to me are as bad, or even worse, than brutal giveaways or horrible goaltending, because, generally, they could be avoided if the player were only thinking a little clearer.


Overall Comments

This game lacked a bit of flow. It started great with both teams flying and some good chances at both ends. Then came the penalties, call after call, both ways - 17 minors, or 34 minutes (>1/2 the game). The result of this were grins on NHL executives faces and frowns on the fans'. What happens when there are this many penalties is the flow is totally disrupted. The excitement the league is constantly trying to create was staring them in the face in the first few minutes, but then they followed the book and put both teams on the PP, more to the home team of course. I would have no problem with this if the calls were good calls, but they weren't. Because of poor referees and horrible league-wide mandates we are left with too much judgement in the hands of 2 men and the players and fans alike are left there wondering why we are man down. What was a hook tonight may have been a solid defensive play 2 nights ago, a blatant dive was perhaps a reason to call a trip and maybe a cross-check to the back was just part of hockey. Can you imagine the strike-zone being knees to chest one day followed by left side only the next, how about a face-mask in football being a slick tackle a week after being called. The NHL has a real problem here as they really have no defined rules. The calls are left to the sole (x2) discretion of refs who clearly don't understand the game, nor watch much other hockey. Their discretion and desire to meet their quotas costs teams on a nightly basis and tonight it cost the fans.

I did, however, like how the Habs adapted to the new rules tonight. No, I wasn't happy that they couldn't learn from their mistakes and simply stop taking penalties, but more so with how they defended and ultimately attacked when they had their own chances. We are getting pretty spoiled so far this year as we near expect a win each time out, but it isn't always that easy. It isn't always Habs-Good-Game=Win, Habs-Bad-Game=Loss. The other team is trying to win too, and who knows maybe they are having a good game as well. Tonight Minnesota did play a good game and we matched with a superior effort, and even better these 2 points came on the road.

Valentenko in Russia

Has A Trip To See His Family Led to A KHL Contract?

Precarious times with the KHL have left the door open for this sort of thing.

Now, I don't read Cryrillic, or understand Russian, so I'm trusting this link, but there are murmurings that Valentenko has flown the coop.


His name has indeed been removed from the Bulldogs roster page and now has an ominous (X) beside it on the stats page. so either someone has been hacking the Hamilton website for a bit of fun, or he's gone.

Big loss
This represents a big loss for the Canadiens franchise, as he was a very strong prospect who could have fit nicely into the 4th, 5th pr 6th defenceman role in the very near term.

It just goes to show that there are plenty of consequences to signing and sticking with washed up ineffective veteran Dmen. Some rookies must just not see any future in it.

When some prospects don't look as good as before, and vets look like they've played a few years beyond their best before date, can we really afford to lose this (from Hockey's Future):
Valentenko is blessed with a big shot -- one that earned him hardest AHL shot honours in the 2007-08 season. He combines that with a physical game that borders on, but never crosses into, dirty play. Valentenko's been described as one of the most-hated players in the AHL and combines an ability to get under opponent's skin with the willingness to back it up.

His offensive abilities are limited, but he's able to play a solid fundamental game: making the smart first pass, starting the rush, and taking care of his own end.

I think I will now informally rename this old article. I guess we'll wait for the big websites, though, to confirm it before giving it the old E5...

Time For A Change

Coach Can We Lengthen The Shifts Now?

With a second article on ice time already this season, you probably all think I sit there with a stop watch analysing line changes all game. I don't, but the length of NHL shifts (and the inherently related topic of player fitness) has been something that has interested me for some time. A recent event triggered a memory and the memory triggered a rant. And so it goes.

Sitting at home watching the final stages of the Canadiens Hurricanes game the other night, I was fully astounded by what I saw. It was something so uncommon, running so purposefully against the grain of ingrained coaching wisdom that one couldn't help but sit up and take notice.

With half the overtime period gone, Mike Komisarek plasters Eric Staal into the boards. As Staal was not injured, the hit was clean. But the separation between the two players and again between player and boards made it an awkward hit. Legal in the eyes of the ref. Obviously not in the eyes of Staal. From his prone position, Staal tangled himself in Komisarek's legs and brought him down. A penalty is called, in overtime. Hallelujah there are rules in OT (that's clearly a topic for another time).

What happened next was the interesting bit.

For the 4 on 3 opportunity, Carbonneau sent out what could only described as the old boys. Well, old boys with Markov instead of Brisebois or Hamrlik. Lang, Kovalev, Koivu and Markov then proceeded to put on the most exciting display of hockey (form a Habs point of view) for the whole 65 minutes. They had sustained possession, pressure and were peppering the net with shots (4 on target, 5 off-target or blocked). For a good minute after winning the puck back, the Habs group had complete possession and control and had no opportunity to leave the ice.


The first stoppage was at 4:26 in OT making the shift 1:51 seconds for all four players. Interestingly (and sensibly), Carbo stuck with the four same players to finish out the game. All told, the three forwards ended up playing the final 2:25 of the game with only a minute or so rest. Markov, who had been on the ice for the infraction before the PP played almost the entire final 4 minutes, in addition to a 40 second shift to start the period.

My point: It is possible!


The fixation on 45 seconds
The basis for a 45 second shift is not random. Average human physiology shows that relatively well-trained athletes can endure about 45 seconds of anaerobic activity in a spurt without inducing the lactic acid system. So players can sprint, check, stop, start, all at full power for about 45 seconds without requiring too much recovery time. If a player slips into the lactic acid zone, the time for recovery is exponentially longer than it would be if he hadn't. Repeat incursions into the lactic acid zone require a good few minutes to shake it out (so not very conducive of good hockey).

So the theory is correct.

The problem as I see it, is that the theory relies wholly on the assumption that players are exerting themselves to the fullest extent (at least 135%, not a mere 110%, if you hear the players) all the time.

I don't know about you, but in watching a lot of hockey, it doesn't seem to me that that is the case. Maybe in the final period of the Stanley Cup finals, maybe for 5 minutes here and there throughout a season. But game in game out, I don't think some of these players are even doing anaerobic exertion for more than a few seconds every other shift. And, if players aren't going all out, then the 45 second reasoning is less valid.

So, is it time for a moratorium on short shifts?

Consider this point of view, which I borrow from a very well hidden article in an IIHF hockey forum:
Short shifts produce two frustrating results. First, teams spend so much time changing lines on the fly that they rarely have a chance to generate momentum or create an offensive flurry. They go up and back, get to center ice, dump the puck in, and head off on a line change.

The second problem is that star players don't play nearly as much today as stars of previous eras, both on a shift-by-shift basis and an overall ice-time basis. Wayne Gretzky routinely stayed out for lengthy stretches, double-shifting at his coach's insistence. Today, Sidney Crosby routinely is on the ice for 30 or 40 seconds and then heads off to allow those proverbial fresh troops on to the ice.

I do sympathise with a coach who needs to impose a universal system, designed so that even the least fit, least intelligent player (lowest common denominator) can adhere, but this guy makes a point. I have at times both recently and in the past been frustrated by what appears to be intense focus on making a line change instead of getting a shot or scoring chance. I've also had moments of annoyance when the stars shifts only last a few seconds, even if 30 seconds of it were spent trading errant passes in the neutral zone.

What Carbonneau allowed us to witness the other night in overtime was the product of letting players do what they do best – play. The forwards knew they weren't going to face the wrath of the coach for overstaying their time on the ice and so concentrated on winning the game (they nearly did). It also showed that the players were fully capable of playing for more than 45 seconds at a time and well into what should have been failure time had they been playing in the lactic acid generation zone. What Koivu, Kovalev, Lang and Markov did was give a clinic in efficient hockey.


Fitness
Every part of this argument is predicated on fitness. Fitness and efficiency.

The 45 second shift rule became popular at a time when it was probably more applicable. A time when players' idea of preparing for the season was drinking 12 beers a day instead of 18 for the month of August. Nowadays, there is much more of a focus on fitness throughout the league. The Senators are always, always on those bikes. And overweight players are even frowned upon – you must now come to camp ready to go.

In this league with fitter players, the question of shift length becomes more flexible. Because not only can players now actually do a full 45 seconds of anaerobic activity (I doubt most players of the 70s could have if asked), they can also do a lot more at an aerobic level because that system is fitter too.

The greater fitness around the league to me means that physiologically-speaking, the 45 second premise is out of date. All averaged in (part of the shift being aerobic that is), I bet most players would be comfortable over a minute with the next two and half off. The thing keeping the system in place is strategy and man management, and of course unfit players.


Strategic line deployment
I've learned it's never a good idea to criticise all the time if you don't have something useful to propose as an alternative. So, I do. I call it strategic line deployment.

On any team in the NHL, you will have very fit players and relatively unfit players. Some unfit players are well known (Jason Allison) as are fit ones (Rod Brind'amour, Chris Chelios). Seeing as even I know this kind of stuff, I am going to make a leap of faith and bet that an NHL coach will have some idea of how fit every player on his own team and the team he is about to face is.

Based on this knowledge I would suggest not only a system of line matching to exploit differences in fitness, but also a plan to extend shifts beyond the 45 seconds in order to exploit the gulfs. In fact some teams are already doing this (like the Canucks).

From watching the Canadiens a bit, I don't think it would be wrong to suggest that they are a pretty efficient and fit group (exceptions of course). As such, I think it would be wise for the team to start taking advantage of fitness mismatches in the way proposed as much as they can. In doing this, Carbonneau could potentially leave out the efficient line of Plekanec, Kostitsyn and Kovalev for say 1:30 seconds to push the checkers into fatigue. Thereby forcing the checkers to either change or play on at half strength – either way you can create a temporary advantage by getting second choice checkers or by playing against a fatigued line.


Ever since the salary cap, teams have become closer in terms of quality and personnel, so it is important to look for any little advantage to stand above. The Red Wings have chosen to focus on passing and patience. This would still be a good idea for us, but why not also the strategically employed long shifts like OT two nights ago?

In the old days there was a term in the old days to describe a star player. He was known as a 60-minute man. This was in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Perhaps with a little irreverence to the established norms we can evolve a modern alternative, the 60-second men...

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Game #8

A Win That Was 4 1/2 Years in the Making

The Canadiens Game in Review

Date: Tuesday October 28th, 2008
Opponent: Carolina Hurricanes
Venue: Bell Centre, Montreal, QC

Team Stripes


Habs starting goalie: Carey Price (W)
Opposition starting goalie: Cam Ward (L)

Habs goalscorers: Alexei Kovalev, Alex Tanguay (PS), (Saku Koivu - SO)
Opposition goalscorers: Anton Babchuk, Matt Cullen



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

I had to wait till the very end of this one to see a play that inspired me. And, there it was a game-winner that couldn't have made us all happier and couldn't have made the Bell Centre roar any louder. The moment was during the shootout, it was yet another priceless Koivu penalty-shot. Saku has been one of the league's best in the shootout since its inception (11/22) 3 years ago and has certainly been the best Hab. The move that he did tonight was simple, looked easy, but was fantastic. The key to scoring in these situations is to be one step ahead of the goalie and to do something that he isn't expecting. Everyone was thinking forehand-backhand-forehand for Saku, but instead he stopped on the backhand and slid the puck ever so softly between the great divide that was Ward's 5-hole.



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

Alexei Kovalev
Kovy was sharp tonight and I think that the return of the elder Kostitsyn helped. Their trio, completed by Plekanec, looked quite dangerous all night as they really controlled the puck in the offensive zone. Alex's goal, the Habs' first, was just what we needed late in the 1st. Until that point we had been badly outplayed and we needed a spark. Alex stole the puck along the right half-boards and came in and fired a laser of a wrist-shot up over Ward's glove. It got the crowd into it, got the players into it and wiped out a 1-goal deficit which Carolina would never re-establish.



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 had a great game in both ends. He played over 20 minutes which was great to see, but even better was that Carbo was using him as one of his main penalty-killers. He did a great job at controlling play while the Habs were man-down and often saw 2 shifts on the same kill. He was very effective on the PP, especially when Carolina were down to 3 men (it happened twice). He saved his best for last though with the game-winner in the shootout.

Alexei Kovalev
Alex was flying tonight. There were spins, dekes, incredible wrist-shots and even a one-timer off Ward's head in overtime - a shot that was going in. I felt that the veterans, led by Koivu, Kovy, Lang and Markov were a huge reason for the win tonight. That group was instrumental in all aspects of play and their example was there for all to see. After all, it can't always be the young-guns stealing the show.

Alex Tanguay
Why Tanguay was chosen to take the penalty-shot, I don't know. There is no rule (other than it has to be a player on the ice) as to who takes it when a player covers the puck in the crease. So, the choice was up to Carbo, and he made the right call. Since we were on a 5-on-3 at the time there were definitely some great choices, but Alex proved to be the right one. Besides his goal he played quite well tonight. His puck-control and positioning weren't all that they have been, but his speed and effort definitely were.

Defencemen

Andrei Markov
He was fantastic tonight. Carbo had him on the ice for over 1/2 an hour which isn't too surprising considering the way that he played. His passing and ability to carry the puck, safely, through the neutral zone were great. Also, and I know that I've said it before, he may be the best in the league at keeping the puck in at the point on the PP. He uses his arms, legs, backhand, whatever he has to to keep the puck in and better yet he generally gets the puck to someone fast or controllers it quickly himself. This skill may seem a bit odd and a bit unessential, but I tell you it is far from that. The amount of plays Marky keeps (and kept tonight) alive results in tons of chances, goals and reduces the opposition's time with the puck.

Francis Bouillon
18 minutes is a little bit better from Carbo. Franc was still only the 4th most used defenceman and would have actually been the 5th had Hammer not got hurt. Even still, 18-21 minutes is perfect for him as I wouldn't expect too much time on the PP. He was very good at winning the puck after collisions tonight. He displayed the ability to make a hit and show that he has a plan for the aftermath. Hitting someone isn't just about hurting them, it is actually about regaining possession and Bou understands this as well as anyone. As usual he skated well and moved the puck crisply and safely.

Goaltender

Carey Price
Carey does very well in the shootout as his big frame and patience seem to be the answer against some of the league's best shooters. I thought that Price played a very solid game tonight and at times was purely spectacular. He made some incredible saves which were thanks in huge part to his ability to get back on his feet and his overall great positioning. The second goal against was partly his fault as poor rebound-control and then a lack of a sense of the severity of the play caught us out. At the end of the third, however, it was his puck-handling which again let him down and almost cost us 2 points. Trying to be the hero and prove he could do it all himself he tried to clear the puck rather than leaving it for Markov who was right there. Had that player been Brisebois I would understand Carey's rush, but come on, it was Andrei. The result was a 2 minute penalty and some nervous times for Habs fans everywhere.



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

What I enjoy seeing more than anything in sport is effort. Some athletes have all the talent in the world, yet they hardly try. Some, on the other hand, aren't as lucky and need to always give their best effort to make up for their lack of skill and thus sometimes just barely survive. What I saw tonight from one particular player was encouraging to say the least.

The subject was Christopher Higgins. He doesn't fall into the category of players who lack skill, which makes it that much more exciting to see him bring the high level of effort that we saw tonight. No race was not worth running, no chase was useless, no hit was just a formality. It is obvious that some players and teams just go through the motions of an NHL season, rarely rising to the level of all-out effort. It was so good to see Chris buzzing all over the ice tonight and as a result breaking up Hurricane plays and more often than not making stuff happen for us. I think that it is only a matter of time till we see Higgs up with Sak and Tangs at which point the league better watch out. That line will then have one the league's best 'clean-pests', 2 of the best passers and 3 incredible talents - all I'll be able to say to the opposition is good luck!


Overall Comments

It took the Habs awhile to get into this game, but once they did it remained fairly even. I don't think that either team would have felt robbed in a losing effort nor do I think that either team should feel they deserved the win. This was one of those games that is really up for grabs right until the end. There were missed opportunities all night for both teams, so I wouldn't say I am ecstatic at our play. I am, however, happy to get the 2 points as you can never get enough of those.

Here are a couple of things that I noticed that have been bothering me for the past few games. The Canadiens aren't playing the simple, possession game. We are trying to do an awful lot on each play which may look great when put to music, but is a high-risk way to play a game. The Hurricanes played a simpler game and maybe we can learn something from them. They had 4-5 men back on nearly every play and were not giving us very much space at all. Aside from one cough-up and a perfect shot by one of the league's sharpest-shooters and 2 penalty shots they were near impenetrable in their own end. When they have the puck and are coming forward I notice that they do a very good job of supporting their puck-carrier. We often try to pass through or around defenders, whereas they are skating side-by-side and are getting multiple players inside our defence. It is a simple way to play, and it may not be pretty, but hopefully we can take a little bit of what we saw tonight with us. Carolina have been a tough team for us to beat at home as of late so it was nice to finally get a W. Tonight marks the first win against Carolina at home since February 2004, so long ago that we didn't even have Kovy yet.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

The Unknown Quantity

Which Hurricanes Are Visiting Tonight?

North Carolina's state motto is: Esse Quam Videri

Roughly translated from Cicero's Latin, this means: To be rather than to seem.

I thought this was rather fitting. For me last year they seemed like a contender. With Williams, Cole, Ward, Staal and Brind'amour, they had a nice group. Their approach was new NHL. They had a Cup to prove it.

Although they have lost a favourite of mine (apart form his Hab killing exploits) in Erik Cole – getting Pitkanen in return was canny, giving them a puck-moving defenceman – they still seem like a serious odds-on favourite to me to make the playoffs. And given the success of SE division teams in the playoffs after a season of rest in the past, it would seem like they have a chance to make noise in the East.

But can they be a contender? Can they be in the playoffs after missing out twice?

We'll get a better idea tonight.

They are certainly off to a decent start at 4-2-1. They sit in the playoffs for the moment.

Players to watch
Among the forwards, Eric Staal, as usual is a player to watch. He has started slower than some of his flying starts to the season, but still ha 4 goals in 7 games. Carey Price must beware because Staal is the kind of shooter who can really pick corners. He shoots high and scores high often. Carey's traditional weak spot will make him salivate.

The rest of the forwards look a little out of place on their new line assignments, as the Canes are still making up for the trade of Erik Cole and the long-term injury to star (and fellow Hab-hungry) Justin Willians. Brind'amour will do what he does. Whitney as well. The rest could surprise one way or the other. Personally I would be more worried about line 3 with Matt Cullen and Patrick Eaves than Rod and Sergei Samsonov...

The defencemen, while wholly improved over the squad from 2 years ago have also been decimated by the loss of Joni Pitkanen and Frantisek Kaberle. The group still has an offensive threat in Joe Corvo and able defenders among the remaining guys.

Cam Ward is the other player to keep a special eye on. He hasn't ever lost in Montreal. That goes back all the way to that series. Damn you Gerber... He has been off to a patchy start in what is now becoming a patchy career. Michael Leighton has played in 3 and won 2 for the Canes – so that tells you an awful lot. Will the Bell Centre ghosts put this situation right?

As you can see the Canes are not quite 100% for us tonight. In addition to offering the Habs a good opportunity to take advantage of the injury-ravaged roster, it also makes the evaluation of the team tricky.

Seems to be too early to make a call on them


In Habs news, I just read that Brisebois will be resting tonight, along with Laraque and Begin. So Carbonneau has decided that the uphill battle is unnecessary like the rest of us (for now). Maybe he didn't like the Cullen line against D4 and current D6 either...

Monday, October 27, 2008

Politics And Hockey

Apparently They Mix...

How many times have I heard the argument ending "Don't mix politics and sports" when trying to make some analogy for my argument.

I understand the sentiment. I do. But even though I would like to keep discussions on this blog of mine apolitical, this story was just too cool to pass up:

Apparently, if you play NHL 09 online, you will be seeing live ads for Barack Obama. Whoa!

I've worked in advertising. Back when I was doing that, we thought it was pretty cool to have an ad on a bus shelter. I've seen the evolution of online marketing – some I like, some I detest.

I can't say I really feel one way or the other about whether the ads in my game were preselected Coke and McDonald's ones or real-time Obama ones, but I just think it is a big leap forward in advertising and also in the way online gaming can penetrate into our real lives.

Check out the link, it's a curiosity if nothing else.

Incidentally, for those who weren't aware, NHL 09 is worth buying even if you're not a fan of marketing, the Democratic party or Dion Phaneuf. It has a collection of Canadiens legends that you can use to play against current NHL opposition. I wonder if they all have flat stick blades...

Panic Stations?

Things On the Habs Worth Fretting Over

Oh, you could see we were all dying for a loss. So many topics we had been raring to blog about, so many things more than lamenting Kovalev's line only scoring 0.6 PPG. A loss is a good tonic. It brings it all out.

But as with all things, the Canadiens are never quite as bad as they appeared in a loss – never quite as good as we rave they are after a win. So, although the defence was bad in Saturday night's game, the fact is that they often play just as poorly and get away with (both on the scoresheet and the broadsheet). And, another fact is that Anaheim's defence (one we would all be envious to have on paper) was pretty piss poor as well.


For me, the underlying lesson from all this is that defence in this league is difficult. Very difficult. Talking about keeping a child fist-sized piece of rubber out of a sumo wrestler-sized net is hard – more so when people actually shoot straight. Blocking 90 mph shots and rooting the puck out of the corner when 230 lb behemoths are barreling down on you is no walk in the park either.

On most occasions, the team gets away with it, usually through a combination of luck, timing and goalkeeper skill. Occasionally, two or more of these things go the wrong way and it all goes pear-shaped.

Saturday night, all three things went in the wrong direction as far as I could see. The Canadiens hit posts and legs, the Ducks (by and large) did not, the Ducks anticipated their breaks well with many players jumping in and Halak and Price were unusually useless allies.

I do believe a lot of the fault lies at the feet of the defencemen for this one. In trying to be philosophical about the loss, I mostly give them the benefit of several players all having bad nights at once.

JT at The H Does Not Stand For Habs does a fine job at calling the issues with players. For my part, I wanted to supplement her views with some views on a couple of issues that go deeper than bad luck and miscues. In my mind these are:

1) The defensive system
2) The Brisebois situation

The system of defence
From the beginning of the season, one thing was very clear to me – we would need a good goalie this year. The Canadiens coaches seem to have gone with old faithful in terms of Habs strategies – hedge your bets on goaltending. From the my first memories of hockey until now, this has been the strategy employed by management.

One can hardly argue with the idea: get a good goalie and let him stop the shots. It is both cost effective and more reliable than trying to get the job done with 6 different guys paid at variable rates. And, in Halak and Price, the Canadiens have two reliable and efficient netminders.

The problem is not with the overall premise for me, but rather with the lack of much planning beyond the initial choice of “goalie or bust”.

Signing Hamrlik was a nice move to try and instill a second tier to the plan. But it kind of stopped short there. With Roman and Markov it means that for large parts of the game we can have 5 dependable players on the ice. The problem (as we saw Saturday) was that when one of them (the lynch-pin piece, no less) goes AWOL, then 4 dependable pieces just isn’t enough.

The system is naïve, as well. Over-reliance on a goaltender hasn’t been in style since Hasek left the Sabres. Even NJ, with the best insurance policy of all, have a system to fall back on.

If the Canadiens are to achieve any kind of meaningful success this year, it will happen through improvement to this, their greatest deficiency. Someone will have to help Komisarek take the next step in development (i.e., playing the puck to the forwards) and oversee the progress of Gorges and O’Byrne.

The question of who this person will be has been raised (again by JT):

Doug Jarvis isn't necessarily doing a bad job with the D, but I can't help thinking it would be better all around to have a guy who's actually played the position offering instruction.


It’s been an issue on my mind for some time. Personally, I’m not sure if a change in personnel is necessary – possibly just a renewed focus. Teach the defencemen to be consistent, how to trust themselves in possession, how to make time and room for themselves by anticipating the play, and teach them some safe rescue manoeuvres that don’t include dumping it up the middle. The system Detroit teaches is simple: it is patience over panic.

This is salvageable. Even with the current group. They are intelligent enough, can skate and have shown they can improve. Hopefully this game will highlight that this needs to be the focus of a season’s work – readying their system for April.


Brisebois

This, unlike the former is no minor indictment. It is major in my mind. This situation keeps on rearing its head and little is done to remedy it. The fact that it took until the Anaheim game to become apparent that Brisebois is still Brisebois is surprising. The fact that he had a game like he did is not.

Now, I can rant with the best of them on how much I dislike the moments where I have to sit through 60 seconds of a Brisebois shift, but this time, that’s kind of beside the point. He is what he is. He’s trying as hard as he ever did, and his skills are diminished now (if that’s even imaginable).


This whole situation is the responsibility of the management who continues to sign this player and the coaching staff that continues to play him. The fixation on Patrice, whatever it is, is and will continue to be the Achilles’ heel of this team.

As one fan in a throng who sees things on this dossier in the same light, I am puzzled. Of course I defer to the judgment of these men on hockey specifics. But in my mind, this is not a matter of expertise, this is basic: Patrice has glaring deficiencies, he is a free agent – don’t sign him…

(The fact that Anaheim, only two days earlier, had signed Bret Hedican (+17 on a team that scored 4 more goals than they allowed) was a reminder that our signing strategy on defence was haphazard to say the least. Far from being an advocate of signing another washed-up defenceman – Hedican while not a real option perhaps just highlights how silly our own signing, so early in the summer was.)

I much prefer the idea of promoting from within because it allows for two important benefits: cheap salary and open mind. In the case of the Canadiens, they actually did have the chance to promote from within. An opportunity missed as it turns out. Shawn Belle is a former Team Canada member, has NHL experience and is good enough to be a 7th defenceman. Opinions may vary, but both Valentenko and Weber could have handled the odd assignment in the NHL too, as far as I’m concerned.

If I accept that Brisebois should have been signed (and I don’t), I still object to him starting every game, playing every game and playing in every situation. I thought he was insurance. I thought he was a fall-back position – at worst.

The problem is, while management talk about Patrice in those terms many times, they use him very differently when it comes to action time. We are not privy to the private conversations between Gainey, Gauthier, Carbonneau, Jarvis and Muller. We can only guess. But it is certain now that one of this braintrust is a Brisebois-believer, and at the very least the other 4 are not adamantly against him. I have a feeling this decision falls to the coaches, and I have an inkling which of the three it might be. In any case, that is irrelevant.

And, to be honest, Saturday represents the least of my concerns here. Although young Ryan O’Byrne, a defenceman with half a year of NHL experience, was probably wrongly benched for poor play vs. Florida, it is the memory of the playoffs that makes me uneasy here.

Last season, after the most successful run the club had had in more than a decade, the coaches decided on the eve of the playoffs to shuffle the deck. In come veterans (because that’s a winning formula in the playoffs). Even when the experiment went awry with 3 losses against a team we had (and should have continued to) dominated all season, the coaches stuck with Brisebois. The lineup was contorted to fit him in. A goalscorer was benched when we needed goals, two defenceman moved up front when we needed goals and Brisebois played and played when we couldn’t really afford to let up more than 3 goals a game.

What troubled me last playoffs is now troubling me again: Is this management or coaching staff capable of learning from the mistakes of their collective past?

The signing showed that Gainey was still prone to a soft spot with Patrice. And, the first seven games of the season show me that Carbonneau and co. are no less immune. Heaven help us…

Outlook
In a way it was fortuitous that Brisebois played spectacularly badly in this case in a loss. And that he did not score on a knuckler to cloud affairs. If we could ever hope for this group to learn and question their ways, it will take a loss like the one we had on Saturday.

I look on now with interest to tomorrow morning for the announcement on who will be playing. I look forward to seeing how the staff reacts in their plans and game-tme decision-making.

Saturday, October 25, 2008

Game #7

Goaltending? Defence? A Little Help Please

The Canadiens Game in Review

Date: Saturday October 25th, 2008
Opponent: Anaheim Ducks
Venue: Bell Centre, Montreal, QC

Team Stripes

Habs starting goalie: Jaroslav Halak, Carey Price (L)
Opposition starting goalie: Jean-Sebastien Giguere (W)

Habs goalscorers: Alex Tanguay (2), Saku Koivu, Tom Kostopoulos
Opposition goalscorers: Kent Huskins, Ryan Getzlaf, Corey Perry, Chris Kunitz, Travis Moen, Teemu Selanne



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

The second most penalized team in the league gave us 6 chances on the PP tonight, we scored on one. Our nicest goal and play-of-the-game was this 1/6 moment.

The Ducks' penalty-killers obviously haven't played against Kovalev much as they gave him way too much room to work on the half boards and seemed stunned with his dip-in-the-slot move. With so much time you know that Kovy is going to find a hole to make a pass or possibly score himself. Right after he gained the slot for himself he passed it through Niedermayer and right to Tanguay. The Power-Play Point-Man merely had to flick it over Giguere to put the Habs on the scoresheet for the first time on the night.



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

Alex Tanguay
For a second straight Saturday Alex potted 2. His line looked quite sharp tonight and he was especially potent. His excellent positioning and speed allowed him to get into great scoring positions all night and it was his great hands that allowed him to score 2. He is a very dynamic player and is one that is able to be a top player. With 5 goals in 7 games I am sure there are a few people out there whispering 40 and even a few dreaming about 50.



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
Tom took 13 shots tonight which is more than some teams get in whole games sometimes. He showed some frustration tonight after being stoned time and time again by Giguere, but I have to hand it to him as he was actually getting some good shots off. He was very creative in the offensive zone and had it not been for an above average performance from Giggy he would have scored a few. The good news is he is in the right place and he and his line are getting chances. The bad news is that Sergei is not Andrei.

Robert Lang
Lang played a good game tonight and worked quite well with Higgins. It will be interesting to see where Higgs ends up, but whether Lang plays with Gui, Sergei, Tom or Higgins doesn't seem to matter as Rob is a good enough player and centre on his own that the wingers are simply a bonus. He managed 2 assists tonight and was a very impressive 14-3 in the face-off circle.

Alex Tanguay
Tonight Tanguay looked like the fastest Hab on the ice. We are known for being a really fast team, with a lot of fast youngsters, so I never really thought that the addition of Tangs would bring more speed. What he has brought, however, is not only pure speed (Dandenault), but the ability to control and handle the puck at high speeds. I think that after years of searching he has found a niche in Montreal and I think that Montreal is just about ready to fall in love with him.

Defencemen

Josh Gorges
Not being bad gets you a ticket into the dome tonight on defence. Gorges played over 20 minutes and wasn't on the ice for any goals against. Tonight he and Bou formed our best tandem as Markov and Hammer were simply not able to carry their respective dead-weights. Josh also did some good - he saved a goal (and was wrongfully called for closing his hand on the puck resulting in a penalty shot), was good in the offensive zone and moved the puck very well.

Francis Bouillon
Franc had a great game tonight and is now giving Komi a good run at #3. From what I have seen thus far Bou is having a fantastic season. Tonight he threw a lot of great hits, won important defensive zone battles and even stood up for Latendresse by fighting Perry. He was limited to 14 minutes of ice which is surprising as that was the least of all the defencemen. His speed and puck-control coupled with his physical play should surely be enough to earn him 20+ minutes as he is once again proving to be a leader at the back.

Goaltender

Jaroslav Halak
My initial instinct was to put Price in here. Halak let up 4 goals on 12 shots, but to be fair the defence weren't really lending a helping hand. Don't get me wrong, he didn't play well, but in my opinion not quite as bad as Price. When Carey came in he knew what he had to do, yet all he did was looked as unprepared as Dominik Hasek used to look when coming in as a back-up. Price didn't look ready at all to play which may serve as a vote of confidence towards Halak, but to me shows a lot of unprofessionalism. What tipped the scales for me was his play on the Perry's unsuccessful penalty shot. Had it not been for bad ice and a slight loss of focus from Perry he would have been beaten very badly. So, don't get too happy Jaro, you didn't play well, but I would have stuck with you till the end in this one.



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

Trying to find some sort of un-sung hero tonight would have been a stretch. Just getting a dome that made sense was a hard enough. Tonight the eye-opener is more of a eyes-still-wide-open piece.

I watched Brisebois closely tonight as I needed to know whether or not he actually deserved to be in the line-up ahead of O'Byrne. I hadn't been impressed with Ryan this year and was wondering if he would hold his spot, he obviously didn't, but I don't think Carbo made the right call here on his replacement. I haven't seen a defensive effort so poor as the one that Brisebois offered tonight in a long, long time. That in itself is an incredible feat as I have been watching Patrice for 17 years. When Breezer is on the ice a few things happen that worry me - his teammates don't trust him, thus they have the look a being a man-down, he pinches at all the exact wrong times and he makes everyone in the building (apart from the Ducks) think that we have 'a man there'. I lost count of his miscues tonight as it was even overwhelming by his standards. There were defensive zone clearances right to the other team, spin-o-ramas which resulted in a lost puck and a huge wipe-out (twice!), checks that were missed and resulted in huge wipe-outs, chickening out of hits by ducking and 'passing' the puck right to the other team and how could I forget the hook after he almost tripped over his skates beside our own net.

Brisebois for some reason continues to get playing time in the NHL which baffles me every minute of the day. The only rest I get from this Gainey-blunder is while I sleep, that is provided I am not having nightmares of him tripping over the blue-line or knuckling one into our own slot for a Heatley one-timer. I think that I know at least 100 guys personally that could play an NHL shift on defence and look less out of place than Patrice, and some of those guys have trouble skating backwards. Can we really ask Hamrlik to throw away another season of offence to baby-sit this burden? Or do we put him on the 3rd unit and pray that little ice-time and no PK time will help ease the pain? We are a team deep with defensive prospects which makes this all the much worse. We are carrying 8 defencemen again this year, but I know that 2 of them aren't anywhere near the organization's top-10. I wish that certain coaches and managers would put language, friendships and loyalties aside and think about the team, because even one weak link in the armour may yet again cost us a trip to spring-time hockey.


Overall Comments

Had our defence and goaltending been just a bit better we would have won tonight. They didn't even have to be good, just better. We took 51 shots, hit a couple of posts and scored 4 goals, surely that should be enough for a team as good as us. The fact of the matter is that we aren't the same team blue-line and back that we were last year. The loss of Huet and particularly Streit (who was surprisingly good defensively) hurt us tonight and it may not be the last time. Our forwards seem to be gelling and the right combos seem to be forming, so why not that on D. 2 bad games by O'Byrne (during wins) was enough for Carbo to forget how important consistency and positioning really are for defencemen. If we aren't careful we may become one of those teams who can't score enough goals to win. Our goalies are at least average NHL goalies, but until we field an above-average defence we shouldn't be surprised with results like this.

After not playing since Monday I wasn't too surprised to see some rust. For some reason the NHL gave us a 5 night break in October! Why on earth does a team who has only played 6 games in 5 1/2 months need 5 nights off? It obviously had a negative effect on our team which is bad news as it happens again in a week. After 5 wins, however, I am not getting too excited about all of this as I know losses are inevitable and I am also a big believer in the theory that if you are going to lose you may as well make it count. We have a new week coming with our usual 3 games. Let's forget tonight and keep the momentum from our quick start going.

Friday, October 24, 2008

Blogging the NHL

Habs Inside/Out A Rare Ally Among Mainstream Media

More than a week late on this one, but you'll have to forgive my oversight. A wedding and a wonderful winning streak had come in the way of this article and the blogsite.

As I often try to do when I notice conflict and contrast in hockey and its loyal media, I wanted to write a piece about two recent stories I had come across. The first, and most encouraging, was this one from Habs Inside/Out about adding new bloggers to the site and the second was this one from Puck Daddy about the Oilers losing a blogger.

I'll begin with the latter...

Blogger booted

It was during the Oilers first game of the season that blogger Dave Berry of Covered in Oil was accosted by press (gang) guys and asked to cease his blogging activities from the Oilers pressbox. I won't recount the whole story, but if you want to read the drama, read on at Dave's last entries here and here.


The fact that I neither read nor particularly have any inclination to read live blogs while I'm watching a game is neither here nor there. The fact of the matter is, the Oilers have overstepped the mark on this occasion. Berry was doing nothing to contravene any oath he had taken or any law of society. He merely ticked off the brass, at which point they had to invent a set of rules which they would then go on to impose for all of 24 hours.

Their battle, as has been pointed by many a commentator, is rather futile. Anyone watching on TV, at the game with a blackberry or even still in the pressbox can easily live blog negative thoughts about the team if they want to. Covered in Oil, even, is still up and running, and will probably just replace Dave by someone else at some point.

What's more, even though the content was largely negative, how many people did the Oilers think this material was reaching. Judging by their comments, its probably only in the low thousands.

No, all the Oilers have ended up doing in this mixed up situation is anger a lot of very very vocal people. The story of the incident has been picked up by every hockey blogger under the sun (it must have if I'm in on it too) and every corner of the hockey playing universe. In terms of PR for the organisation, it was a -10 – I didn't read a single article taking the Oilers side here.

For me, as interesting as the saga was, what intrigued me more was who ratted Mr. Berry out in the first place.It must have been:

a) someone reading the blog that night (especially because it emerged the problem was content)

b) someone who doesn't like the idea of live blogging

c) someone who had contact with the Edmonton Oilers press guys


As big and popular as blogging is, I think it's a stretch to believe that anyone to do with the hockey team operation or ownership would be reading snide remarks instead of watching their team. This leads me to believe that it was either another blogger or someone from the traditional media.

Now, I thought that bloggers stuck together. And all the response in this case leads me to believe that is true, even though Berry did try to drag a couple of peers down with him belatedly.

So, that leaves the big bad media. Berry, a member of both fraternities himself, even expressed that were he not blogging he'd have had nothing to do while waiting for his quotes anyway. That throws the "too busy working" alibi right out the window. Yeah, I think the Edmonton media landed a scoring low here.

After all, there is a certain implicit agreement in the "I'll scratch your back, you scratch mine" arrangement between bloggers and media who work together. In the case of the Oilers organisation, it went to the extreme - the blogger was dissing his team and those "scratching his back". They decided to tell Mommy and Daddy.

Gosh, the media really do have their knickers in a twist over this new-fangled blogging thing, don't they...


... Well not all of them actually.

The progressive team @ Habs Inside/Out

Though I don't always agree with their take on matters involving hockey, I have to hand it to the boys from the Gazette and the blog they have nurtured over the past two seasons. I think they deserve acknowledgment for their efforts here.


For one thing the blog is done in the right spirit. It neither takes itself too seriously, nor does it take hockey too seriously. It simply provides an addendum to all the material that is published in its parent publication, the Montreal Gazette. This hasn't stopped the main page and Mike Boone's blog from being the most complete, up-to-date and reliable source for Canadiens material (in English, I should qualify).

The other thing the blog has done right has been to embrace the bloggers. I can't say that I have personally experienced their favour on too many occasions (there was a recent link attributed to another blog), but I still laud them for interacting and even linking with bloggers like Robert L, TC Denault, the Four Habs Fans and others. The step they have taken to formalise this relationship by serialising some of these authors on their Other Wing page, is either ahead of the times or right with them, depending where you're from. And the manner in which they interact with the bloggers does them credit too.

Habs fans should count themselves very lucky to have these guys. And, when you think about it, English Habs fans are the luckiest of all – with probably the most intense and disproportionate amount of coverage of any team in the NHL (given the size of our group).


So, in general, can bloggers and the media get along?
I think they can. Other than Habs Inside/Out, I think that there are countless examples showing that they can. In Long Island they fraternise, and in Washington they get along too. Thankfully Edmonton is one of a few teams who tread a more archaic path.

Personally, I don't think Tobalev or I would have any problem getting along with any of the professional Habs media (though as I said, we would have plenty to debate and disagree about – hockeywise).

Incidentally, I also wonder whether co-habitating is the right approach for everyone at the end of the day. I think the root of blogging and what makes it powerful and compelling is its independent nature. On this occasion, I tend to agree with Matt (the Flames fan) at Battle of Alberta, when he says:
There's a reason I've never attempted to contact the Flames organization, get a press pass, an interview, or the like. Actually, there's two reasons, the first of which is that I like this blog the way it is: it's personal, I don't owe anyone any favours, and I don't have to abide by anyone's rules and guidelines but my own.


It is certainly a dilemma that some lucky bloggers get to deal with. It's still all theoretical to me.

In any case, I am thankful I support Montreal, where the door to the halls of media discussion has been left wide open with a sign saying "Welcome bloggers".

Story Of A Lost Love

When We Fell Out of Love With Higgins

Do you ever regret taking something too far? Thinking that perhaps other people didn't quite understand that your gibes were merely tempered love and not simmering hatred?

Sometimes throw away comments can have this effect. I remember a few times in my life where I have said a couple of critical things about a person in passing and in the heat of the moment, that I then spent months trying to repair later. Words whether misinterpreted or not, never reflected a true opinion I held. Sometimes those words can go on to propagate negative sentiment about that person. Sometimes there's personal regret. I fear I may have done the same thing with our friend Chris Higgins...

Not really, I'm not actually having a delusion of grandeur. I merely needed an intro for this piece. I do think someone probably said something similar (I'd like to know who) because Chris Higgins, in the space of one short year (actually far less) has gone from media and fan darling to (by and large) a nearly forgotten and cast-aside man.

The Rise of Christopher Higgins
The ascendancy of Higgins is an interesting story. He was a first round pick and all, but never regarded as a sure fire prospect, even on the day he was drafted. Oh sure, we were fed all the same tripe we hear every time the Canadiens choose a player whose stats are not mind-blowingly impressive from a lesser league we can't relate to – he was to be a two-way forward and a leader (they should buy that, right?).

He spent the next year at Yale University again, in relative hockey obscurity (as far as Montrealers are concerned) and went about his business without anyone bothering him too much. Looking back, it is easy to say now that he showed great promise, and the Habs must have thought so. But the truth is we didn't know what 20 goals in the Ivy League hockey meant very much in NHL terms. After all, Yale isn't and hasn't been a massive hotbed for NHLers over the years (Jeff Hamilton anyone?).

But impressed the Canadiens brass he did. In a time when Habs prospects were more likely to be ending their careers in Europe than achieving any milestones, Higgins was an exception. He led his team in scoring, was among the top 6 scorers in his league, was a star on the US National team, MVP of the ECAC and his team and a finalist for two prestigious American hockey awards, the Herb Gallagher (top player in New England) and the Hobey Baker award (top player in US College hockey). In other words, there was more to this guy than stats.

The next year Higgins would forego the rest of his Ivy League education to sign with the Canadiens and give professional hockey a go around. As pro rookies go, he had a good season. He put up some goals and assists and even got a couple of NHL games under his belt – remembering that time now, I remember liking the fact we had a prospect that didn't play like Jason Ward. Really, though, it was the lockout season that was Higgins' breakout. This report from mid-way through the season spoke of his adapting to all the NHLers then in the league, but also gave him top-3 prospect billing with potential for first line winger (for the first time). It is worthy of note that he did turn things around later that year and scored more goals while playing a bigger role on the team. He was even selected Bulldogs Player of the Year that season.


His ascendancy entered its final stage the next year, during his rookie season in the NHL. Starting well enough, it was when he found himself thrust onto the top line with Saku Koivu and Michael Ryder to end the regular season that things really began to take off. In the final 25 games of the season, when the Canadiens were in the midst of yet another playoff push, Higgins picked up the torch and ran with it. He netted 16 goals in those final 6 weeks and built himself a huge fan base in the process. He was clutch, he was exciting, he was perfect.

Honeymoon over
The honeymoon would continue for Higgins over the entire following season and the beginning of the next. But, strangely, it all ended. When? It's hard to pinpoint. But it was certain when one of the two untouchable players became the number one chip in every fan-generated trade rumour coming out of forums in February.

The fall was not ugly, nor was it sudden. Perhaps that's how Higgins went from hero number one to peripheral in the minds of fans across the city.

The evidence of this fall, for me, is for all to see now. Last season we could not move for quotes from Higgins. We heard about what he ate in the summer, how many stretches he learned, when he saw himself becoming captain, how he would change the team. everyone wanted to know what Higgins was thinking about everything. He was the "it" boy of Fall 2007 and it showed. In contrast, we had this fall where Higgins showed up to camp with little fanfare, played the same way he always did, and then got injured.

What on earth happened?
The truth is, I have no real idea (well maybe a couple...)

As I related in my intro, there were some people during all that mega-hype of "future-captaindom" who were trying to cool things off a bit (myself included). I can only speak for myself really, but I remember on several occasions questioning whether there was a 40-goalscorer there, even when he was on 60-goal pace.

These negative comments probably had little to do with anything. But certainly, once the prophecies of another 25-30 goal season started to look more realistic some time around the end of December, it is possible fans who never harboured ill-will to Higgins before began to buy what we had been selling (i.e., reality).

I also harbour the personal theory that someone inside the team had a little sit-down with the human quote machine last season – probably some time when his mouth was much more productive than his stick. This would certainly explain why we don't hear as many Higgins quotes coming through. And I think it would probably contribute to a bit to his fall down the media darling pecking order.

Frankly though, I think there's something more. I think it probably has something to do with Chris Higgins' timing. After all, it was his once-fortuitous timing took him form rookie fourth liner to first line hero as he played a massive part in games during the final quarter of the schedule. The opposite effect was true last year, where Higgins scored 13 goals in the first 31, 11 over the next 49 and then when things were all signed sealed and delivered got 3 in the last 2 games.

Perceptions you see are a funny thing. And Montreal has always been a bit "What have you done for me lately?" with their heroes (ask Kovalev, Koivu, Huet, Lafleur even). The perception that 25-30 goals would not suffice after teasing us with 40 was palpable by the end of last season. It was also heightened by Ryder's similar problems and the appearance of four new darlings Kostitsyns, Kovalev (again) and Plekanec. The fact we won more when Higgins was scoring less and making just as important contributions to the team overall escaped most people. He was no longer the golden child, just the second line winger.

And this year has started the same way last year ended. Higgins, at the moment, apart from showing up in injury updates now and again is being largely overlooked. No one seems that concerned because we still have Kostitsyn and the wonder line from last season and the French Connection with Koivu has also applied ample distraction.

Recalibration needed
Though I certainly didn't like the media hoopla around Higgins last September, I would never have wanted his popularity to slump to this point. I feel it is my place now, then, to remind everyone what a thoroughly good player he can be, and is.

Perhaps we'll never love Higgins as fully as we did before, perhaps we still can. Perhaps Chris will never score 40 goals now, perhaps he'll pull it off. I don't think either matters. I could go on about what he's proven already, about his skating or his nous in both zones (but I think I did enough of that). What it comes down to for me really is just a few things I know about Chris that are unlikely to change:

1) In battles he never gives up, he seems to battle for a few seconds longer than his opponents – a winner of the puck

2) He cares about winning – a lot

3) He is still an absolute bargain in this league at his rate of pay


You need players with those qualities to win the Cup. You need them desperately in the playoffs. Someone who doesn't relent, who overcomes shadowing, who works out ways through the defence when the going gets tough.

And with Chris, I just have a feeling there will be a night one May, soon, where all the hopes of 40-goal seasons gone amiss will be forgotten as he jumps up and down in celebration of a seventh game OT winner.

That's the type of player we have here. He's always had that look about him.


(For those of you who read French, I should give a nod to En Route Pour La Coupe for their piece on Higgins too. In different ways, I think we're speaking the same language...)

Thursday, October 23, 2008

The Elephant in the Arena

The Return of the Eight

Now that many of my peers have become syndicated members of Habs Inside/Out, I see even more need to express views that just don't get press – perhaps because they are overlooked topics, perhaps because they are difficult for people so close to the team.

(Once again, this minor incident - like Saku's ice time - is hardly a controversy worth taking to 110% or Team 990 airwaves, but is just about worth the few minutes of exposure it will get on this site. We Habs fans don't really have too many elephants around yet - thankfully - so please indulge me again while I make an elephant out of a mole, so to speak, to get this weekly segment rolling...)

We were all very relieved to see Francis Bouillon return to the lineup after a lay off of 5 games. But, to be honest, the manner in which he was reinserted in to the lineup was very strange indeed.

You will all no doubt recall (despite the unusually long interval in between games) that Francis started Game 6 against the Panthers on the fourth forward line with Maxim Lapierre and Mathieu Dandenault (his former partner on defence).

I say it is strange because anyone who knows a little bit about hockey and has been following the Canadiens knows two things:

1) We have a queue of forwards forming waiting to play
2) Our biggest weakness is on defence

This situation is a mirror of last season, where all the quality reinforcements were up front as well, but has been exacerbated even further by the subtraction of Mark Streit from possible defenders only to be replaced by Robert Lang.

When I wrote about this very same topic at the outset of last season, I posed three questions to get to the bottom of things. They were:

1) Do we have too many NHL quality defencemen?
2) Are the extra guys here to get a look at the NHL?
3) Are we so low on forwards that it makes no difference?

The answers for me still run the same way as last season, with no, no and no. You should also remember that the Canadiens turnaround last season, to the exact game, occurred when Carbonneau realised these answers, scrapped the 8th defenceman in the lineup, and opted for the much much more dynamic Sergei Kostitsyn to better complement the team.

So, I am a bit baffled as to why Carbonneau opted for the return to this tired and largely failed option. Even on the night it looks like a bad decision. Looking at our lineup vs. Florida, it would not be too controversial for me to say that our bottom four players being iced came from the group of 8 defencemen.

Too conservative
From a strategic standpoint alone (money from Gillett's pocketbook aside), the decision was baffling considering the opposition. Florida have about 2/3 of one line that needs any kind of shadowing and were always going to come in with their go-to gameplan of 1-1, see what happens in OT. This game, played in Montreal as well, offered a perfect opportunity for Carbonneau and his team to impose their will on a lesser opponent, to practice all that they preached and to just generally go for it. Instead Carbo replaces his injured (and most dynamic) goalscorer by Francis Bouilon straight up.

To borrow a thought from a previous post – the Habs need to start thinking about creating wins rather than preventing losses. Playing 8 defencemen is not innovative, new or proactive. Nor was it the right strategy to rack up goals against a team that can't really offer a scoring threat themselves. Of course, we won the game, so some could say this disproves my point. I disagree. If holding on to tap in an empty netter vs. Florida is the limit of the Canadiens and the coaching staff's creative aspirations then we could be in for some rude awakenings later in the season.

To suggest an alternative: I would have either played Georges Laraque or Steve Begin and benched the unmentionable one (who's due a break). Alternatively, 71 plays and Bouillon's in for Dandenault. Both ways we get to shed some dead wood and play an extra forward. An even wilder idea would have included calling up someone who could actually score (Maxwell, Pacioretty) to take Andrei's place, then Begin in for 71.

Learn the lessons

All in all, this strategic hiccough didn't cost us, and we come off unscathed this time. And, to be fair to Carbonneau, he did even adjust during the game, which allowed him to bench O'Byrne in the end. But strategic misplay, it was.

I only hope someone (hopefully Carbonneau, to be honest) learned something from 2006-07 and early 2007-08 that playing 8 defencemen does not suit the group of players that we have. And, I hope that paying Gregory Stewart's salary and airfare for one game will never stand in the way of putting the best team forward (and forward is the operative word) again.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

100 Years: 98 Octobers

Gosh, I'm nitpicking today. Sorry. Guess I had quite a day at work, didn't even realise...

IN more news that gets on my nerves, this:

100 Seasons of October

I've been relatively lenient with the headline writers with their 100 seaosns of this and that, but this takes the cake...

I think one is right to expect at least a sliver of research from the employees of the official website of the team we all love. I can't even count the number of friends I have now that cover this team for free in a conscientious and professional way.

All of them know that the Canadiens franchise was born in December 1909. Most of them remember that we missed a whole season. Many know a heck of a lot more than that.

Adding it all up, that's 98 Octobers for the Montreal Canadiens. Not 100. I can't say I'm surprised that his erroneous info popped up where it did and not on one of the well-written amateur sites. But frankly I still expect a paid employee of the team to know that.

There, it's off my chest.

Wow, sorry about that, won't happen again...

Gaborik in Montreal?

Not Impossible As Some Suggest

If gaborik is going to be given away, then I am hoping Bob Gainey is listening.

For all the bad press he receives about his injuries, he only really had one fantastically long injury. I suspect bitter journalists like myself must have had him in their pools that year. He picks up niggling stuff as well (like at the moment). But let's not forget he has been a pont-per-game player on Jacques Lemaire's team since we returned from the lockout and that he has scored 30 goals in all but two of his NHL outings - even impressively during that 48 game season he had.

At the tender age of 26, Gaborik will be a major piece to any franchise who can lock him up.

He is a true talent and to dismiss him off hand because the Canadiens would have to get creative with the cap or even trade a player we currently like is silly. To say things like this:
There might come a day when the Canadiens are forced to deal Halak, but I suspect he'll fetch more than a talented, but injury-prone winger who is in a position to bolt next spring.

as Pat Hickey did today, is just downright inane. Especially if we all can force ourselves to recall the going rate for all-star Canadiens goalies from last spring. Quotes like that offend me, because, although I can appreciate the attempt at glib, it is homerish to suggest that a goalie who has played 26 NHL games is better than a 26 year-old 200 goalscorer. I like Halak as much (and probably more) than the next guy, but Gaborik is being paid $6 miilion + for a reason.

If we made the Slovak swap and were forced to get a little bit creative to open up $4 million in cap space by December, I'd be OK with it. Of course knowing that Gaborik, Koivu, Tanguay, Markov, Price and Kovalev would not be on the same team coming out of summer 2009, I'd be lamenting the impending loss of a favourite while probably learning to love the young sniper. At the end of the day, I'd still love the Habs more than teams where player 1 and 2 from the list above ended up.

So, as I see it, a Gaborik trade with the Canadiens, though probably too much work for any GM to take on, could happen. As per my earlier post, I simply don't believe that Gainey or his staff would have ever admitted to being in on the dealing - not their style.

Also for my own piece of mind, I'd be hoping that the second salary shedding trade or deal yielded someone to shield us from Cedrick Desjardins, rookie backup.

So, we're back where we started. A rumour and some fun. Nothing more.

Monday, October 20, 2008

Game #6

Halak Shines as Montreal Holds Off Florida

The Canadiens Game in Review

Date: Monday October 20th, 2008
Opponent: Florida Panthers
Venue: Bell Centre, Montreal, QC

Team Stripes

Habs starting goalie: Jaroslav Halak (W)
Opposition starting goalie: Tomas Vokoun (L)

Habs goalscorers: Saku Koivu, Francis Bouillon, Tomas Plekanec
Opposition goalscorers: Keith Ballard



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

There were great saves tonight and our first 2 goals were also nice, but I am going to go in a different direction for this one as the following play was as crucial as any.

After we took a penalty with about 2 1/2 minutes left (as per league's orders?) I thought that was it. I had confidence in our team holding on, but after what happened against Boston last week there was some lingering doubt. The Panthers were all over us in those final 2 minutes and came close on a few occasions to tying it up and stealing 1 maybe 2 points away. Towards the end of the penalty we caught a lucky break and the puck was sitting near our blue-line as the other net was wide open. Plekanec took a pass from Kovy and then went in on a 2-on-1 and fired it home, sealing the deal. I am happy for a few reasons here. First it was good of Pleks to shoot and to not try a pass to Kovy for stats sake (had that been intercepted we're looking at a 5-on-2). Secondly you don't want to give away points within your own conference. I didn't want to lose, but I also didn't want to only gain one on Florida. It was a simple play, but it potentially made a huge difference.



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

Jaroslav Halak
Best 'back-up' in the league? After watching him over the past 2 games, the past 2 seasons and following his Hamilton and international careers very closely I would say a resounding YES. Tonight he was near unbeatable and played with a certain level of confidence and poise, something that is generally reserved for goalies 5-10 years older than the kid. He let up one juicy rebound which resulted in a goal, but apart from that one instance he was very solid.



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 played a simple game tonight, but was very effective at what he did. Tonight the violence was down as certain players weren't in the line-up. It strikes me as funny that our stars only need to be protected in games in which we choose to dress a fighter. How on earth do they cope on most nights? Anyway, this change of play meant Tom could focus on offence rather than the rough stuff. His fore-checking paid off as he was the one that forced the turn over on the game-winner.

Saku Koivu
I noticed Saku a lot tonight. He was all over the ice as he played extremely well in both ends. He scored another goal and added to his league leading +/-. What stood out the most tonight was the way in which he was winning and protecting pucks. As a small player Sak has always had to rely on good positioning and lower body strength. I noticed how well he was able to keep the puck away from players 6" taller on numerous occasions.

Maxim Lapierre
Max played a feisty game tonight and also showed what incredible amounts of speed he has. He was very good at winning battles, beating the opposition to pucks and moving the puck. He had a good night in the face-off circle too as he won 2/3 of his draws.

Defencemen

Andrei Markov
Marky notched his league-leading 9th assist of the year tonight. The pass was kind of a fluke as he whiffed on his own shot and then made a great backhand pass to Saku - Vokoun had no chance. Andrei was also very good in his own end as he stopped the Panthers time and time again and made up for Komisarek who played a sub-par positioning game.

Francis Bouillon
This was Frank's first game of the year, but it didn't show. He started the game as a forward, but was to soon bump O'Byrne as he was reunited with Gorges once again. He played quite a physical game and I thought looked very quick, both with and without the puck. He scored the game-winner on a very good, low shot, a shot that reminds us all of his ability to play and shoot from the point - something that will surely come in handy now that Streit is gone.

Goaltender

Jaroslav Halak
Halak certainly doesn't waste his opportunities. If Price wasn't also playing so well I think it would be safe to say that Halak could steal the #1 spot. I am, however, for now, happy to have such a dependable back-up. The Habs have always been known for having good starters and above average back-ups, but this may be the best tandem we have seen in a long time (pre-Huet that is). He made some fantastic save tonight, his puck and rebound controls were outstanding and his positioning was near flawless.



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

Robert Lang got called for diving tonight on a play on which he was clearly tripped. The replay clearly shows that his skates were taken out from under him by Booth so Booth also got a penalty. What I don't get is why the refs are scared to call diving penalties. Since the lockout all we have heard is that 'diving will not be tolerated' and 'we don't want this to become soccer'. Well then NHL, call a dive. Let's see some bold calls by refs and stop this double-minor business. If Fraser truly believes that Lang was tripped (which he must have) why does it matter what he does after the trip. If he things Lang took a dive then don't punish Booth. Are they calling embellishment, but simply naming it diving? If so, let's start calling a player every time he jerks his head back and grabs his face after a high-stick, let's call a player for stopping to skate when he is being hooked or held and why not fault a player for getting knocked over when being cross-checked.

If we want to get embellishment out of the game then let's do it properly. If all we care about is diving then let's see some refs grow some ***** and call a dive.



Overall Comments
I thought that this game was unnecessarily tight. Florida kept us on our toes all night and although I was never too worried about losing in regulation, I also didn't breathe easy until we scored into an empty net. The Panthers, believe it or not, are the only team in league history to have a winning record against us. Thanks to our win we are now 23-25-6-2 against them. Just 2 little wins away from being .500 or better against all teams, but more importantly from shedding this embarrassing stat. They aren't a brutal team, but I really don't know where they are going. Their unique mix of underachieving veterans with unexciting prospects leads me to believe it will be another few years of early golfing for the Miami troop.

The Habs themselves didn't exactly light the world on fire tonight, but at the end of the day they got the job done. You don't have to be a great team to win games, make the playoffs or even win the cup. All that you have to do is score one more goal in each game than the other team, being great is an added bonus. Our offense showed some signs of frustration tonight as our quality chances weren't as numerous as they had been in previous games. We seem to be trying a little too much for the perfect pass and the perfect goal. I can't, however, fault a team that scores 3 goals and bags 2 points, so why not have some fun and go for the pretty goals. At the end of the day all that matters are the wins, and so far I like what I see - 5/6, it has been a great start!