Friday, January 02, 2009

Game #37

Canadiens Defence And Goalies Not Prepared For Tight Game

The Canadiens Game in Review

Date: Friday, January 2nd, 2009
Opponent: New Jersey Devils
Venue: Prudential Center, Newark, NJ

Team Stripes

Final Score: 1-4 - Loss

Habs starting goalie: Jaroslav Halak (L), Marc Denis
Opposition starting goalie: Scott Clemmensen (W)

Habs goalscorers: Max Pacioretty
Opposition goalscorers: Brian Gionta, Zach Parise, John Madden, Jamie Langenbrunner



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

Not much to crow about in this loss, unfotunately. Several players had good nights and chiefly among them were newcomers Pacioretty and Chipchura. The play of the game, rather predictably, was the Canadiens goal. It merits recognition because, not only was it a good shot, but the build up was also smart and noteworthy.

Kyle Chipchura received the puck following a takeaway just in front of Halak. From there he accelerated for a few strides then decisively caromed the puck off the boards to provide a tasty free puck just inside the Devils blueline. Shocked Devils defenders, used to more lethargic plays from the Habs by this point, were caught off guard as Pacioretty sped down the right wing and collected the free puck. His speed carrying him into open ice, he then righted Halak's earlier wrong by loosing a great snapper just under the crossbar gloveside on the hot Clemmensen.



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

Tomas Plekanec
In a game where your goalie falters early, you hope as a fan (and probably as a coach) that certain players will step forward and play harder, play creatively and add a spark to the resistance and comeback effort. This game the player who responded best in this way was Tomas Plekanec.

Tomas looked lively all night and was able to get around and behind Devils defenders all evening with his shiftiness and speed. The best parts of his effort on the night were exemplified by the way he killed a penalty midway through the first period. On the play he took a pass sweetly from Kovalev out of the Habs zone, built speed and challenged the defenders. He then flipped the puck behind the Devil and turned on the afterburners. The New Jersey player ended up obstructing Tomas (which was good for killing the penalty and a PP for the Habs), but I think Pleks might just have made it there.



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
Besides his examplary penalty killing, Pleks was also the pivot of the liveliest and most dangerous Canadiens line on the night. He, Kovalev and Kostitsyn were the only forwards to sustain pressure or create confusion virtually at all. His speed and shifty sating were also put to good use on the PP, where the Habs didn't score, but nonetheless looked like they might have a few times. Add to that his recurring theme of faceoff superiorrity and we nearly have our old Plekanec back, I think.

Kyle Chipchura
Joel Bouchard talked about youngsters making an impression to cement a place, well Kyle did just that. Chipchura showed that he is more than defensive forward material most of the night as he demonstrated his intelligence, efficiency and unfailing effort - his part in the goal the icing on the cake. Honestly, there were countless times where I said "good play", followed the player to catch the number and saw 28. This is a very good sign for me. He is more ready for the NHL than Maxwell, D'Agostini and perhaps even Sergei Kostitsyn. Another couple of games like this one should make him a fixture.

Alexei Kovalev
The Devils had this young Canadiens team worked out this game. Much of the frustration we had with our forwards at the end of this affair can easily be traced to the way the New Jersey defenders forced our young players to the periphery time and time again. Most were willing to take the open lane down the boards (destination: dump in and turnover), but Kovalev was not. I noticed throughout the game, and particularly later on, that Alexei was the NJ trap breaker. He refused to be marshalled, refused to play the puck behind the net without a plan to get it back. His determination in this regard led to his line looking the threat (and indeed they were with 9 of the Habs 33 shots, 6 to Kovalev) and most of the Habs real scoring chances, PP included. It was just another demonstration from Kovalev of why you someties can't just give in and play brainless Benoit Brunet dump and chase (i.e., when you watch your teammates failing so badly at it).

Defencemen

Josh Gorges
No defenders should get off the hook for this loss. But once again, at the top of the list of those who played soundly (even in a loss) is reliable Josh Gorges. It's hard to pinpoint exactly what he did right, but it's probably best demonstrated by the fact the Devils did not score on the late second period PP when Halak was more than a little lost. On that PK, Gorges blocked 3 shots and had two steals to ensure the Devils lead would remain at 2 for Denis.

Roman Hamrlik
Like Gorges, Hamrlik had mistakes (they were both on for goal 1 for example), but Hamrlik stands out with Josh for having an even rating at the end of the game. Where he had his usual moments of constancy and poise, he also made one desperate recovery after a giveaway that was impressive in its deication to defence and skill. Of course, it was his giveaway.

Goaltender

Marc Denis
Marc was solidly in the dome by the third Devils goal. While it pains me to agree with Brunet and Bouchard, particularly as they had the knives out for Halak after one goal, they were right that Jaro needed to make a save on one or two of the first period goals. The first goal was particularly painful as it looked the most stoppable. The second was from a future 50-goal man, but nonetheless went through the five hole. I think Carbonneau did the right thing for Jaro in leaving him in after the first and by letting him regroup to finish the second. Though he ended up almost resepectable statistically, he was never dome-worthy on this night.

Denis for his part did well to stop long range slappers that the Devils thought would go in all night, but was not perfect either. We certainly did not have a Ty Conklin moment from him. He played as would be expected from a nervous comeback player. I for one hope Carey's injury heals quickly and that Jaro rebounds for next game.



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

Though there were several things worth talking about from the game itself - the way we get caught on odd-man rushes, the way we don't create them, the way we allow ourselves to get pushed to the boards, the way our PP point men conspire to hold the puck until defenders are set and so on - I thought I would go off the board for this instalment.

As most of you will know, the NHL all-star voting closed during the game at 9 pm EST. This, of course brings to an end the inane exercise that has been going on far too long, an embarrassing period for the Habs, the Penguins and the league. It is a true shame that poor Jean Beliveau will be associated with this farce as he announces the lineups in an "exclusive" (for those who can't read or count) event on Saturday. As it stands the Eastern team will be made up of 4 Canadiens and 2 Penguins, with the only races that mattered between Price and Fleury, Komisarek and Gonchar and Kovalev and Koivu.

There is some good to come of this voting. Injured players didn't make it in the end. That's about it. Komisarek making the team is comical, but considering the alternatives (Gonchar, Whitney or Numminen, if the fans are to be trusted) and that Bruins fans are too busy enjoying an extended winning streak to care, it's OK, I suppose. Kovalev is not a top-three forward on performance (so say Jeff Carter, Alexander Ovechkin and Marc Savard), but he will do a credit to himself during the skill competition and the game, so I'm happy for the spectacle that he will be there. The other four players are more or less right considering the ballot options.

None of that, to be honest was very eye opening at all. I merely wanted to mention my thoughts. The eye opening moment for me came when I totalled up the Russians. 3 in the Eastern conference starting lineup. This is incredible considering the country has but one NHL team's worth of players across the entire league, and didn't have a bloc of fans (that we know of) voting day and night by text for the whole group at once.

Now, you may comeback that Kovalev is one of them and hence, the Russians got a free pass. But realistically, he's only taking another Russian's place. There are even others behind that who could fill in ably.

I certainly think it is noteworthy that a country that is withdrawing (for the most part) from participating in this league, that they are still stocking it with top top players. If nothing else, you have to agree based on the polling that Russian players at least play hockey that fans want to see.

It brings to mind something I read the other day from Paul Romanuk who's writing on the Spengler Cup again. He, of vast NHL and international broadcastng experience, states unequivocally that the Russian players there (on a non-NHL team, remember) just have skills that North American players can't match. Puckhandling, obviously, and interestingly the oft-overlooked skill of pass reception.

Pass reception is one thing I have noticed for some time has made our Russian stars (even Belarussian ones) stand out. Markov is an all-star due to a lot of factors, but his top skill, even ahead of passing, is pass reception. Kovalev too has exceptional pass reception and agility upon receing a puck. Why does this skill lead to more attractive hockey? Well if I watch an average NHLer receive a pass, two bobbles and a second to settle down and the defence are in place. In a league where coaching is consistently of a high standard and where conditioning and defensive strategy is on the up, it is hard for forwards (or any players) to make space and offensive plays. By receiving even bad passes cleanly and even directing them into their streaking path, the all-stars from above all stand out form their peers.

This eye opening fact brings me to two conclusions:

1) There is a gold mine to be had in Russian players who can handle the puck at top speeds. Thinking of Ben Maxwell too much makes me also think of Alexander Perezhogin.

2) In an affair with no hitting (like the all-star game), a team with Markov, Kovalev, Malkin, Ovechkin, Kovalchuk and possibly Semin should put on a show worth watching after all.


Overall Comments

It bears repeating that the Canadiens have just collected 6 points on a four-game Xmas road trip. In past years, a mere two would have been a treat - 6 is exceptional. The loss last night was coming. Losing Tanguay was manageable, but losing Price was not.

I am not sure if I heard correctly, but I think I heard Brunet or someone on RDS say that the Canadiens had returned home in between the Tampa game and the New Jersey game. Makes sense from a family point of view. Hardly, though, form a hockey point of view. A couple of days at home to be with family and make up for all the eating, drinking and revelry missed while in Florida is not a recipe for athletic success. I'm not sure it affected the play, but the Canadiens defencemen in particularly had less than springy legs on this night.

The game will also be remembered for the inclusion of a boatload of youngsters. The second line was Sergei K, Lang and D'Agostini? Not one you'd write in for a team with limitless depth. The other two lines had ineffective members as well. I'm not sure how the Canadiens can be expected to manage much longer with these youngsters. But if Sergei Kostitsyn, Latendresse and D'Agostini don't show more signs of doing something more than occasionally and Begin and Kostopoulos are determined to entrench themselves on non-offensive lines with their displays, then we may be in trouble. One immediate switch that might pay dividends is Weber in (even at forward), he couldn't shoot less effectively into defencemen on the PP than Brisebois, Komisarek and Gorges. Beynd that, Saku? Carey? Chris? Help...

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