Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Game #77

Ward Outstanding As Habs Come Up One Short

Details



Date: 31/03/10
Opponent: Hurricanes
Location: Montreal

Loss: 1-2

Habs Goalie: Price (L)
Opposition Goalie: Ward (W)

Habs goalscorers: Bergeron
Opposition goalscorers: Sutter, Staal



Play of the game


I am not about to give too much credit to Ward, so I feel a save from him is off the table (even if some did come from some nifty plays). What I preferred was our lone goal, a PP goal from Bergeron, at home, at last. Our specialist had gone almost 4 months without a home goal and we really needed not just him, but the PP as well, to get going. It wasn't however, by lack of trying that he wasn't scoring, at least not tonight as it seemed everyone of our shots on that first PP was a blast from MAB. He eventually got one by Ward after great plays by both Gionta and Gomez who got the puck to a surprisingly wide open Bergeron.



Dome hockey team

The 6 players we're playing in a no changes, do or die contest in the dome

Forwards

Andrei Kostitsyn - Game Puck

I was very impressed by Andrei tonight and, after having missed last week's games, was very surprised to see him be our top forward. When I left for vacation Cammalleri was still out and Kostitsyn was struggling to find his game. Well, it seems that the bad Habs week that I missed at least brought us back this talented player. He was everywhere tonight and came so close on many occasions. When he wasn't almost scoring himself he had likely just set up someone who was coming close themselves.

Mike Cammalleri
The one knock on Mike tonight would be that he seemed to be trying to do a little too much himself, a little too much stick-handling. Other than that, however, I felt that he played a fantastic game that was filled with chances and creative plays. I have no doubt that he will play a significant role in the last week and can only hope the rest of the team follows.

Dominic Moore

I didn't see too much I liked from our bottom two lines tonight, apart from Moore's play that is. We were hurt when Sergei went down and at that point it seemed like we were back to being a two-line team. Dom, however, did his best to give us a third option as his speed, face-off abilities (80%) and tenacity led to a few chances, for himself and his teammates, and to some pretty sound play in his own end.

Defencemen

Marc-Andre Bergeron
I know that he didn't play D tonight, but what he did from the back end (mostly the goal and other PP-related stuff) was more impressive to me than the play of our 5 other defencemen. I am not sure if I would like to have him on the blue-line instead of the 4th line, but somehow feel that tapping his offence for more than just a few minutes a game (PPs) may very well be worth it. The question becomes would you rather see Pyatt in than O'Byrne or than Gill? I may try it as I don't feel MAB is that far behind those two in his defensive play and may even be more careful now as he must now realize that people don't really think that he is that good.

Jaroslav Spacek
It seemed that every time I looked Spacek was blocking a shot or breaking up a Carolina play. His meager stats (which include a -1 rating and just 4 blocked-shots) don't really do him justice as I really felt he was our best blue-liner all game. What we hoped for was an offensive weapon, but we are now getting a player that is outplaying Hamrlik and even Markov, defensively, on a semi-regular basis. Spacek is key to our success going forward and I can only hope that Martin now realizes this too.

Goaltender

Carey Price
Carey got unlucky on the first goal and the second could have been avoided with better D - all in all he played quite well. What I really liked tonight was the way with which he took mid-distance shots. Those shots, the ones from about 15'-35', have often caused Carey trouble, but tonight he seemed to handle the shots themselves well and the rebounds even better. He looked tight when he faced those shots and always seemed to have a plan as to where the rebound would go. A lot of use of his blocker and upper pads tonight kept me very happy indeed.


Comments


I have to put tonight into perspective for just one minute before I get ahead of myself. Tonight was my first game in 10 days after being away in Cuba and also marked the end of my own hockey season as our team went out 2 games to 1 in our playoff series. So, when I think of my personal pain of my season ending and of missing 4 Habs games that I would have really liked to watch I can't help but feel a bit better about tonight. Yes, we didn't get points that could have helped us, but the bottom line is that we didn't need them, they just would have been nice. Our season isn't over, people, and we are still very much in the mix, so let's stop the booing and the throwing-in of towels and get behind our team for these last 5 games. I feel that 90 points is a guarantee for the playoffs, 88 probably will do it and even 86 may be enough, so with 10 potential points left (we currently sit at 82) I am not too worried, yet. Tonight's game was the type of game that you would have liked to have won, but is also the type of game that you have to be pretty pleased about. First off, we generated more quality chances than Carolina (and more shots) and we also scored a PP goal on a tidy looking Power-Play. Then there is the fact that I saw some serious chemistry from our top 2 lines and lastly the fact that the Habs seemed in control, for most of the game, in almost every aspect of play. This is a game that you must leave behind, but isn't a game that we should be ashamed of. It now, of course, puts the pressure on, however, as we seriously need some points from this weekend's two games. 3 or 4 points would, of course, be great, but right now I feel that we simply must get 2. I don't want to cut it too close, but I can't say now that without 3 points we are out of it. Other teams will lose too, so keeping pace, at the very least, should take us into the final week.

A quiet word in Rutherford’s ear

As we head into Game -6 of the season, there is a definite whiff of playoff attitude in the air. Scott Gomez put the fans on notice that there aren’t any tomorrows beyond this game, at least not in the clich├ę’ed world that NHL minds live in.

In fact he is right. The Hurricanes game is critical. Not just because it could be two much sought points for this Habs squad, but also because of what it would do to the overall playoff race. If the Canadiens beat the Hurricanes tonight it would leave Carolina with a less than 0.015% chance of making the playoffs – essentially elimination. Given that the Canadiens are slated to play Carolina once more, the gentle persuasion of all but formal elimination could mean an easier game, or at least some rookie opposition later in the schedule.

Here’s the thing though, right now Carolina does have a chance, but it’s really only in the theoretical realm. Sports Club Stats gives them about a 0.2% chance of making the post-season, and most scenarios ask for 6 wins from the team that’s on 32 wins and 44 losses. Rather than rely on actions to do the talking, shouldn’t someone just go and have a quiet word in Jim Rutherford’s ear?


What harm could the Canes do in the playoffs?

And intrinsically tied to that: Does Rod Brind’amour even have a playoff run left in him?

A minus 29 on the season suggests he may not. With Matt Cullen gone as well and Zach Boychuk still learning at a very rookie-like pace, this is not a team with much down the centre.

A look at the wings is no more flattering. Erik Cole is not the Erik Cole of old. And as it stands, Kostopoulos is the 4th leading winger in points among healthy choices (and his 8G 11A aren’t convincing anyone he’s become a playoff machine since leaving MTL).

In short, the Canes are in transition. And it’s not a transition that will lead to Cup this spring.


How deep is the draft?

No matter what experts say, people who have ended up with 5th as their highest pick in the last 20 years know that no draft is knee deep in team-changing players. This year shouldn’t be any different. The Hurricanes currently sit in 25th position (or 6th from the bottom). As the lottery goes their best pick would be 2nd, their worst 7th, their likeliest 6th.

6th or 7th won’t turn many franchises from 25th place ones into 5th place ones, much less ones who trade Jack Johnson for virtual nothings. A 2nd or 3rd pick might.

Jim has the chance to help his team drop like a stone and rival the current bottom 5 for the cream of the crop in the draft.


Hurricanes position unique among bottom feeders

The other factor that goes in favour of a forced swoon for the Canes is the fact they look wholly different from their rivals. The Oilers, Leafs, Islanders and Panthers are perennial failures. There must be legitimate concern about fan fatigue with the futility, even in the face of a better pick.

Not so in Carolina. 4 years ago a Cup. Last season a conference final. The fans have had a fill of good hockey and probably thirst for more. That said, the realists among them must see this is not a conference final year and a quick turnaround to coincide with a Ruutu return and a Staal good year might be the ticket.

Furthermore, the Hurricanes are darlings of the NHL. A competitive success in the South. If Florida and the Islanders stink out the place, their very being could be questioned again. The Canes seem safe for now. So too is Rutherford who has won favour with his owner for patience and delivered with patience. There’s little reason to believe patience won’t be on his side this summer.


Collusion isn’t really allowed or encouraged. I am writing this half in jest. Gentle whispers and backroom deals aside, won’t Rutherford be thinking all this already? Wouldn’t any GM faced with a 0.2% of a playoff first round sweep or 1st overall possibility with 3rd or 4th in the bag see things this way?

Let the intrigue begin…

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

A Pouliot Move:

Tactical Manoeuvre or Costly Experiment?

Pouliot hasn't been scoring at a goal every two games – just in case you haven't noticed. Even the Gomez line (the best for the past while) has been pretty quiet for about 6, maybe 12, periods of hockey. The solution is nothing new. Player is switched to a) jump start line or b) jump start player.

It's worth talking about simply because Pouliot happens to be (averaged over time) our most productive player. Since coming to the Canadiens 30 odd games ago, he has scored 14 goals, his average over 60 minutes of play is in the elite realm of 1.5 G/60. What's more, with 10 goals created, he's been clipping at just less than Cammalleri offensively.

The question then, why take Pouliot off the very line he jump started in the first place at the first sight of slump?

The answer begins with an objective look at things. Thankfully, the tireless Olivier has been looking into this for us and provided some numbers we can get our teeth into. Olivier's analysis looks at the effect that different centremen have had on the play of three wingers (Darche, Pyatt and Pouliot).

Pyatt, who we're not as interested in for today shows a predictable pattern of scoring chance distribution – putting up a positive balance with Metropolit, mainly fueled by the fact they hardly tried to score while they were on. With Plekanec, Pyatt's been on for more chances, but been caught more as well.

Darche has been better with different partners, probably because he has had to be. A good addition to nearly every line he's been on, he shows the experience he's had at moving teams by adapting quickly to new circumstances.

Pouliot has been an absolute star with Gomez. Olivier points out that he's not been as good with other centres. However, it must be said that because he and Scott have clicked so well, the reason to play with anyone else has been put on the backburner.

Olivier's scoring chance tabulations tell us a lot. They tell us who likes playing with whom and who can adapt/who can't. But they can't reveal everything. For example, they can't tell us what is the best combination for the team on average, and certainly not against a specific opponent. For that all stats leave us to the mercy of a bit of intuition and gut feel.

There are several reasons to mix the lines, stir the soup as they say on RDS:

1) Get the Gomez line back to where it was

If this is the aim, I think it is an unnecessary measure. Gomez and Gionta have been great since the Olympics and before. A few goalless games haven't changed that. It merely seems to be a case of a 30-goal and a 15-goal man playing to the level they play at (i.e., not scoring half the time).


2) Get Pouliot scoring at his previous pace

This is as off kilter as the first reason. Pouliot is essentially a rookie forward, still getting his feet in a new city. He exploded onto the scene, so we forget, but his adjustment is only natural.


3) Get Darche into a contributory role

I like Darche as much as the next guy, but it only takes a game or two in the audience to see the gulf between him and Pouliot in talent terms. The benefit of getting Darche firing at a better rate is probably less than getting Pouliot an extra 25% production.


4) Put Pouliot on alert that he needs to work harder

This is primitive coaching method. Taking an elite player off an elite line to serve a message is silly. It may be acceptable in Game 2 of the 82-game schedule, but not in a playoff race. I would be disappointed if this was all there was to it.


5) Get more out of Sergei Kostitsyn

There are seven substantially talented offensive forwards on this club. Sergei is the latest one to emerge. While he has been excellent with Dominic Moore and others of late, there may be inkling that he could reach loftier heights with a sniper who has one-touch capability. Pouliot may well be the player to unlock Sergei's potential, but I don't think Sergei is even ready for that yet.


I personally think (thought, now) that reasons 1, 3 and 4 were unworthy and only 2 and 5 made sense at this point in seeking offense (presumably the goal). I had more to say about Martin and the impact of the decision, but on a new day, I rewrote the ending...


Back to normal

After having come through all the scenarios, it seems Martin has reverted (in practice) to the established norm with Pouliot on the Gomez unit. I certainly agree with the move back.

I won't likely ever know why Martin moved the players yesterday, I can certainly guess. It seems he might have done so to accomplish a couple of goals: wake up Pouliot and see where Darche might fit if he is to return. I said above the Pouliot slight was primitive, and I stand by that, but restricted to practice the move carries no risk -- it seems a softer and more sophisticated warning. Furthermore, seeing where Darche might fit is critical as situations to force the hand may yet arise

Martin may get a bad name, and lots of unfair (and knee jerk) criticism, but he does a lot right. Keeping the lines together in this mini scoring slump is not the easiest course of action, and is not what less experienced predecessors would have chosen to do. He earns points from me for that. If Pouliot adds a bit of his original jump back due to a day of press hounding then it will be more points for Martin. As off days go, he may have accomplished a lot.


Thirst for stories

I left this article intact to demonstrate a point. What's a story one day is not a story at all the next. Bloggers after a season of digging for something to write about have jumped on this, many faster than me jumped twice: yesterday and again today. It does leave me chuckling at the end of it all. After all, on what other team do they fret about lines in practice (Martin can still change them by game time, after shift one, or in any situation). Where else would so many respond so fast as to need to retract the story on Day 2?

We Habs fans are a bit crazy. And this time of year, it seems, brings out the true fanaticism in all of us. Scott Gomez said "The city rocks". It certainly does, but it also racks -- racks its nerves unnecessarily over events that shouldn't even be news.

Until the next cause for uproar...

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Game # 76

Habs Get An Early Taste Of Playoff Hockey

Details



Date: 27/03/10
Opponent: Devils
Location: Montreal

Loss: 2-4

Habs Goalie: Halak (L)
Opposition Goalie: Brodeur (W)

Habs goalscorers: A. Kostitsyn, Plekanec
Opposition goalscorers: Elias, Langenbrunner, Zubrus, Rolston



Play of the game

The Devils were pretty tight tonight (when Skoula wasn't on) and it took creativity and sharpness to undo their defence. The cliche goes that a team must keep up a consistent level of forecheck and effort in order to wear an opponent down, only then breaking through. It's not exactly true. A team can also put together momentary flashes of brilliance for their breakthroughs. 4 of those ending in goals beats many games of 65% possession. My favourite play of the night came to nothing in the end, but was quick, sharp and very clever – it was more elite than a lot of what we've seen. Cammalleri, Plekanec and Kostitsyn were breaking in together and unlike their 3-on-2 that ended after a skirmish in a messy and somewhat questionable goal, their break in was smoothe. From there, they fanned out, AK the trailer. Andrei passed very firmly to Tomas who without a second's thought sent it back again. The defence on ther heels, Andrei unleashed a hard shot immediately. It was blocked, but I tell you, try that play again and it will be better than 25 Benoit Brunet dump ins.



Dome hockey team

The 6 players we're playing in a no changes, do or die contest in the dome

Forwards

Tomas Plekanec
His line played most against Elias, Langenbrunner and Parise – the original Devils style line. Given good efforts from all those players, I thought Tomas and his linemates did very well. Pleks himself had a hand in a few nice plays, and his goal was a masterful and stealthy redirection. I don't know if he's 1/2 injured, 3/4 healthy or what. The way he seems to be enjoying Cammalleri's return, I find no reason to harp on his minor knocks.

Andrei Kostitsyn – Game Puck
Andrei will never please those who adhere to the tenet that everything in hockey comes through hard work. I have seen hard workers come and go in the hundreds, and I'd rather have Andrei's shot with the combination of positioning and luck that he had in this game. The first goal was a goalscorer's effort. The second goal was his miss, kept alive by his presence of mind and ending with his forceful pass to Pleks' skate. The scoresheet only records 2 shots, but he was the engine behind many good chances.

Mike Cammalleri
The time has come to recognise Cammalleri following his return. First of all, someone needs to be congratulated about bringing players back who are ready to go and contribute from the first shift. Past years players must have been rushed back, as we've never seen anything like these healthy bodies being reinserted. Mike himself must also be commended for approaching each game back as if nothing had happened at all. This game I mistook Mike for Gomez on a few occasions as he flew across my screen – his new knee looking the least of his concerns. There were also two assists on the two goals, and the fact that he was part of all these dangerous moves that I've been discussing.

Defencemen

Roman Hamrlik
Fresh off a proud dome appearance, Roman repaid the recognition with another good game. Playing big minutes again, Hammer was often facing down either Kovalchuk's combo or Parise's. He made his mistakes (as highlighted on the 4-on-4 "tripping" play by RDS, but he also won a lot of the puck for his team. It was mostly sound and lacked the wild "Hail Mary" style that Markov was bent on trying out, a reliable game.

Jaroslav Spacek
Spacek played the most minutes of any defender in this game, and he played the hard minutes too. I thought he made his mistakes like Hammer, but they were fewer than say Gorges. I wouldn't go so far as saying the Devils looked like they disliked playing this pairing. With Spacek there, though, it seems the nights of being penned in for periods at a time by this team from NJ may be on the way out.

Goaltender

Jaroslav Halak
While he made some very good saves, a couple even with the game on the verge of getting out of reach, he still lost. In typical fashion (at least for this season) he dd keep the contest alive. In fact, some of his best saves were made once the Devils opened their account, but before the Habs scored, and also when the Devils were up 3-2. This wasn't a loss to be blamed on Halak, nor would I have given the goalie the game puck had a late one popped in to be followed by a shootout win. Average to below average by his new standards.


Comments

The first thing you notice when you end a period against the Devils is that they're a cut above the Panthers. As a team, they do things right. They anticipate better, the find better position, they don't waste many passes. Facing a team like this takes a big adjustment after some of the games the Habs have just come through. Waiting for the puck on the boards (Gionta) won't do, passes an inch off or too feathery (Pouliot) will be picked off. The Canadiens knew this was coming of course, but any team coming off a Panthers game could be forgiven for being caught by the new pace.

The team came out very well and dominated early. Two things happened to turn the tide, though – Brodeur saved everything and Metropolit got injured. The Brodeur saves meant the Canadiens had expended a lot for a nice display and some marks in the shots column, their resulting fatige was to be seen in the third. Losing Metro meat Martin cut his bench to three lines, pretty much, only compounding that fatigue issue in the end.

Overall, the game was not a complete loss. As I said in the play of the game, there were occasions to sit up and take notice of an offensive move – something previous editions would have been proud to say once a season vs. the Devils. The defensive play was mostly tidy, and apart from two early (and costly) pens, discipline was dead on. If the Devils gave a rendition of some playoff hockey this night, then the Habs didn't make fools of themselves. If the Devils are indeed to be the first opponent, I don't see reason to throw up the white flag, even with the loss.

Anyway, 6 more games. 6-7 points must be found. Twice Carolina, Islanders, Philly, Buffalo and the league's annual close-out game between habs and Leafs. It should be an interesting and nerve-racking two weeks. Hope you enjoy.

Friday, March 26, 2010

Game #75

Habs Redo Late 2-0 Scenario

Details



Date: 25/03/10
Opponent: Panthers
Location: Montreal

Win: 4-1

Habs Goalie: Halak (W)
Opposition Goalie: Vokoun (L)

Habs goalscorers: Pouliot, Gionta (2), Plekanec
Opposition goalscorers: Dvorak



Play of the game

As The Buffalo game was replayed, complete with a reply goal late and an early empty net, I think we all braced for the worst. There were two options: Halak saves the day, or someone opens the release valve. The moment came as Plekanec continued his excellent night. With his typical PK hustle, Pleks ushered his man into a dead end. As they tried to pass their way out of trouble, Pleks stripped the Panthers and went to the races. Sensing he wouldn't have the speed to walk it in, Tomas instead demonstrated some beautiful skill as he lofted a puck into the dead centre of the net that may have even beaten some of the more challenged trapper operators in the league.



Dome hockey team

The 6 players we're playing in a no changes, do or die contest in the dome


Scott Gomez
Once again, the Gomez line brought the goods. The past few games haven't necessarily been scoring race magic for Gomez and his linemates, but they've created chances, played good defence and tipped the ice many times in Montreal's favour. IN this game, I thought Gomez stood out. His signature rushes were there again, but retweaks since Ottawa meant his passes were finding the mark and his shots finding the net. As Higgins plays out what might be the end of his career in Calgary, Gomez contributes at a #1 level. He's overpaid, sure, but most people I talk to are coming around to the idea that it's only about a $2 million overpay, which Higgins (at his worst) was anyway.

Tomas Plekanec
Thank Cammalleri for coming back as areal danger. Last game the space he made for Andrei was clear. This game, it was Pleks who seemed to lap up the easier coverage. There were more chances than we'd been seeing for the last little while. On top of that, Pleks played a defensive stunner with 5 blocked shots, 3 takeaways, lots of harrowing (see goal) and a clean sheet on the PK.

Benoit Pouliot
Pouliot continues to give Big Gui a run for his money. While he's not the same player, he's certainly got talent himself. Foremost among his talents are supple hands and exceptional spatial awareness. His goal was a gorgeous example of his quick control and his skill at setting his feet from an awkward stance. Sometimes a goal can be an icebreaker, Ben's it seemed was a gamebreaker, as Florida changed their game for the chase, much to Montreal's advantage.

Defencemen

Andrei Markov - Game Puck
There's a limit to how many games I can go without recognizing our best player. There's a real danger at taking Markov for granted as we put others in the dome for a few blocked shots or for completing simple plays. While all of that is important, Markov really is just on another plane. He attempts harder moves and he completes them. Once this game settled into a back and forth, I thought Markov played the general well wile he was on. He actively sought the puck and either made his clearances count, connected on rush starting passes or carried into good position himself. One play in particular that I sat up and noticed was a quick pivot away from full pressure, another player might have lost the puck or ended up passing up the middle. It's something he does all the time, without enough recognition.

Roman Hamrlik
Hammer's another guy we need to appreciate. Yes he had his moments of confusion, but that's playing defence in the NHL for the vast majority of players who start at the position. Besides, no one on the Habs is so perfect in this regard anyway. I pick out Hamrlik tonight for the dome because once the game zagged in the Canadiens favour (after that first goal), he and Spacek really settled the play. In this game, he was tasked with facing the big line. When you can do that and come away with a clean sheet, it's a success. What Hamrlik does night in, night out is simple, that's why he's Jacques Martin's favourite many nights. Puck control, limiting blind passes and shutting down ice rather than chasing stats, the Hammer is still a very good #2.

Goaltender

Jaroslav Halak
Weren't these two games just the microcosm of the season for Price and Halak? Price played the better team, Halak faced less shots, less danger and got more goal support. The loss and the win follow naturally from the explanations. We think we have it all figured out. Put the win aside a moment though. Put the fact that Price deserved a win, possibly a shutout. Halak played extremely well here. He took a shutout to 56 minutes. He kept the game 0-0 so the Habs could score first. He saved a few one-on-one chances. He deserves to be a #1 at this point not because he mysteriously wins, but because he did all those things I mentioned.


Comments


It's a tad cliche to go on about deja vu as the Canadiens nearly blow a lead. 82 games a season for 30 teams, so many end this way, there's no need to pretend that this was some mystical moment. I suppose the unique point here was that the loss was as fresh as 21 hours at the puck drop, the wound still open. I've heard much worry about the Canadiens allowing themselves to get into this situation again. I think it's unwarranted. Two teams battling for the playoffs will always compete till the end, pull goalies early and play conservatively with a lead - it's not a new playbook. If Florida had rolled over after a goal or two, this wouldn't be a league worth watching. And I understand the cockeyed view that everything turns around the Habs, but really it doesn't. Sometimes the Canadiens look bad because the other team steps it up. Sometimes the Canadiens look good because the other team eases off. Everything is relative and expecting a full effort is fine, expecting the Habs to look sharper than the opposition for 80% or more of a game is unrealistic now that the 1970s are over.

And so it was with this game. On paper I think the Canadiens have a better offering than Florida. The expectation was that if things went well, the Canadiens would look better for as much as 60% of the game. In this one, I thought there was a lot of very even play, peppered with bursts of superiority from each side. Paper won in the end, though as Pouliot's hands aren't matched on the Panthers, Kulikov hasn't a patch on Markov yet and Halak outshone Vokoun.

In short, I don't think there's any reason to be anything but positive about what we saw. A win against a rival, timely saves, timely (if lucky) goals and good efforts from almost all. 82 points with 7 to go is a lot better than fairweather fans were predicting in January. It's worth remembering that too.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Game #74

Another Tight Game, Another Loss

Details



Date: 24/03/10
Opponent: Sabres
Location: Buffalo

Loss: 2-3 (SO)

Habs Goalie: Price (L)
Opposition Goalie: Miller (W)

Habs goalscorers: A. Kostitsyn (2)
Opposition goalscorers: Connolly, Gaustad, (Connolly, Vanek - SO)




Play of the game

Sometimes it takes a whole game to understand what the play of the game was. It's context you see. Knowing now how the Sabres would react after sniffing blood and the Habs were prone to folding like a cheap tent, I have to choose an early save. The save that was most worthy was Carey's stop on Adam Mair in the first period. Having stopped a decent shot from Hecht, a rebound was left to slip. A hungry Sabre was there waiting. Mair pounced and actually unleashed a very testing shot that looked a goal. Carey had stayed with the play and had none of it. Flashing his glove he knocked the threat away and conserved the one goal lead for the Canadiens. Sitting here after 65+ minutes, it doesn't seem a stretch to say he won a point with that save.



Dome hockey team

The 6 players we're playing in a no changes, do or die contest in the dome


Forwards
Brian Gionta
Another game, another dome for Brian. He played a solid one this night. More shots, a few testing. He even set up the best chance of the night, while Gomez did his best Higgins impression for the nostalgic amongst us. Really though, I thought Brian made the dome out of sheer effort. He played the most minutes of anyone on the Habs. He was a leader in PK minutes and PP minutes too. He was the workhorse right up till that final minute when Martin chose to sit him.

Andrei Kostitsyn
Last game Andrei played great and actually earned criticism. Nothing but goals will do, apparently. Well this game was different. This game was goals. His first was a goalscorer's effort slotted in with ease. His second was more of the same as he took advantage of the space he found in the slot to unleash a powerful low one past Miller. He may not have done much else tonight, but put the last two games together, and i think we can say the boy's awake now.

Sergei Kostitsyn
Dominic Moore had a fine game, and I'm glad he's the "Monster". I thought Dom was actually outshone just a little by the more beguiling Sergei Kostitsyn this time. Speed matched by intelligence, sometimes only missing people on the same wave length, I thought SK74 continued his stunning roll here, for most of the game, at least.

Defencemen

Andrei Markov
Another funny effort from the D. 42 shots doesn't look good on the CV. Many weren't testing though, and rebounds were cleared well at even strength. I thought Markov was the class tonight. Despite his foolish penalty in OT, he makes the dome for being the most reliable route out of the zone and least scary to watch. Runner up for play of the game was Markov stepping on the ice after shaking off that blocked shot in the wrist. Don't want to think anymore about it.

Hal Gill
Gill was big. And for the first time in a while, it mattered. Buffalo seemed to cater to Gill's invitations to go outside -- I guess they haven't watched his recent lowlight reel. Our assistant captain stood out among the other D for blocking more shots (4), playing more successful PK minutes (nearly 8 minutes) and for being smart enough not to get penalized. He even had two hits. Though I think i saw them, and I'd score those differently.


Goaltender

Carey Price - Game Puck
Carey played an excellent first 58 minutes. 65 minutes really. I had plaudits lined up (only in my head, don't worry) in case of the win, or, heaven behold, a Carey Price shutout. He came into the game as a professional. If preparation had been a fault in the past, he corrected it for this night. Carey seemed prepared to play, to move; he even seemed to be prepared for his individual adversaries. Carey even showed he's learned something from Halak as he covered up mistakes with aplomb. The nagging question after this game is why Carey, a once dominant shootout goalie, was completely ignored by Buffalo skaters as they picked where to shoot and scored with ease. It looked like Price may have checked out early. It tarnished a good night. Had anyone done anything remotely heroic, he'd have lost his game puck.

Comments

Consider yourselves lucky you didn't have to choose this dome or game puck. After a deflating end like this, rational thought is hard to come by. As the blood boils, it's hard to remember why my notes say what they do from the 55 minute mark. This game was another tough contest. For some reason Pierre McGuire wanted the story to be Ryan Miller holds the fort. I'm not sure why, except of course for the fact he's a buffoon. I mean Miller was good, but like Elliot from the other night wasn't tested to the maximum degree by the Habs. Carey Price made more saves on paper, but thought Buffalo was shooting in the first two periods, his tests were on par with Miller's for the most part -- both played well, both deserved praise.

But let's talk about the last 4 minutes shall we? It's on my mind. First, Ryan O'Byrne taking a very ill-timed penalty. Yes, it's something that happens, but pinching in the offensive zone (why is he doing that anyway?) with a few minutes to go with an undeserved lead. Keep calm Ryan. Next, blind clearing doesn't work? Shocker. Buffalo intercepts a weak attempt to get sustained control and multiple shots? The first goal against was predictable.

I don't always see eye to eye with the Monster-maker, but I do when it comes to Cammalleri on the ice after the 2-1 moment. Cammalleri is OK defensively, but only when you consider his upside. Pyatt and Moore had been playing very well. Gomez and Gionta are always good. Sergei is a good option. The Plekanec line looking for an empty netter was a coaching error. Carey Price couldn't be faulted on goal two.

OT was a mess with another penalty, an opportunity wasted, considering the shootout was to pit a cold and shaken youngster against the ultra-confident Vezina candidate. The forwards might have done more on the shootout, but Carey's play was lamentable. I can only assume he was ruing the loss of his first shutout for 18 months.

A point may be the decider. Will it be the point we gained or the point we lost? We may have to wait another 8 games to know that. I know I'm done talking about this one now.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

The Bugle Sounds For The Cavalry

Are We Right To Expect of Cammalleri and MAB?

You know what they say: absence makes the heart grow fonder. In many cases, that fond heart might benefit from an override from a cooler head.

Sometimes when a player returns, the expectations about the impact he will have reach silly proportions. We can all remember the ludicrous anticipation that preceded Ryan O’Byrne’s return as he replaced a very similar Paul Mara in the lineup.

On the eve of Mike Cammalleri and Marc-Andre Bergeron’s return I offer then some stats for the nostalgics to ponder and some counterpoint to the staunchest critics.


Mike Cammalleri

When Cammalleri was bent to breaking point in our previous loss to the mighty Senators, the team was a messy 0.500 outfit. That night, the standings put the Habs in the mix for 8th with a 25-25-6 record. Mike was the top goalscorer by a furlong and he was often the only dangerous threat going forward. The naysayers saw the game as reason to close up shop.

Since that time, the Habs have played 17 games with a return of 11-5-1 (mostly thanks to a recent spell of wins).

So Cammalleri, member of a middling team returns. What will happen to the group? Will his return upset the applecart, or will he fit silkily into Tom Pyatt’s place on a top line?

It’s hard to predict exactly what will happen. It’s worth providing more context, though.

First, Cammalleri was indeed member of a 0.500 team, but that team was largely one that played without Markov and Gionta, started Price and put hope in Guillaume Latendresse and not Pouliot. Markov’s return, closely followed by Pouliot’s debut and Halak’s usurping the throne made the Habs a different team. In fact, the twenty games that Cammalleri saw with the group saw them return 10-7-3 from 20 games (albeit even many of those lacked Andrei Kostitsyn). Without analyzing this to death, I think we can say the team was at least as good with Cammalleri as without and should benefit from having 4 top wingers for the first game in some time.

Furthermore, there are stats you just can’t argue with. Offensively, Cammalleri is the premiere player on the Canadiens bar none. He posted numbers over 56 games that others have struggled to match in 73 and his pro-rated scoring for such a long stretch is only surpassed by players who streaked and are waiting for the tail off.

Take goals created for example:

GC: 22.17 – 2nd (Plekanec – 1st, 24.75)
GC/60: 1.21 – 1st (Gionta – 6th, for reference, 0.88)
ESGC/60: 1.11 – 1st (Gionta – 6th, for reference, 0.82)

Impressive stuff. These numbers are leagues above his teammates, showing that even amongst some players we call scoring stars, he stands out.

Consider also that apart from his own goals, he is also on the ice for more goals from others than anyone else. In a league where being on the ice for 3.00 goals at even strength puts you in the top 10%, Cammalleri is right there:

ESGFON/60: 3.15 – 3rd (Gionta – 2nd, for reference, 3.20)
ALLGFON/60: 4.21 – 1st (Gionta – 5th, for reference, 3.50)

If that weren’t enough, we could cite chances for while he’s on, chances of his own (surpassed only in the past couple of games by Gionta and Gomez) and the fact that his giveaway count is scarily low for a Habs player.

The negatives are harder to tease out, but there may be some worry that other people’s numbers will suffer as Cammalleri takes more ice time and puck. I can’t worry too much about this, as every point surrendered by Pouliot or Gomez will be matched by Plekanec and Kostitsyn’s possible rebounding.

Fond hearts rejoice, even the biggest cynic couldn’t stare these down and choose Pyatt over Mike.


Marc-Andre Bergeron

We’ve touched on him already this week, so this will be brief.

MAB has one dimension at the NHL level, there’s no secret. Looking at his total numbers, his defence, his CORSI, etc. is all pointless if you don’t first consider his stats isolated from the PP. And isolated they can’t fail to impress:

PPGC/60: 2.76 – 2nd (Markov – 1st, 2.82)
PPG: 6 – 3rd
PPPts: 20 – 2nd
PPGFON/60: 12.75 ¬– 5th/1st among PP regulars (Markov – 2nd among PP regulars, 11.35)

As you can see, his contribution has been outstanding to the PP. As much as a goalmaker as Markov, it seems (by GC) he is also a boost just by sheer presence. 12.75 GF/60 if he played half of every PP (assuming 2 minutes) would mean a rough PP% of 21.25%, even when if the other unit was blanked on every occasion.

It’s not all trumps, the drawbacks are noticeable too. He’s slow to anticipate, favours dangerous passes over the hard work of taking checks and presents a substantial liability on defence. Managed in the right way, though, Martin has shown that MAB can contribute at one end, without contributing to Jack Todd’s list of zeroes.

The PP may not be in dire need of a boost, but the addition of MAB can’t help but make the defenders a little more jittery. As a result the defending that has stifled our forwards without appropriate fear for being called for fouls should also come under test.


How fast?

I write this article today because today is the day of return. That doesn’t mean I think these changes will be instantaneous. Returns from injury take time, and these two were long layoffs. I believe that all the positive repercussions will filter through, but how fast I’m unclear. I’d tell you all to be patient with this, but patience isn’t the word for staring down the Thrashers in April.

If I had to guess, I’d say give MAB a game, he won’t have forgotten how to shoot, and the rest of his “abilities” aren’t what we’re looking for anyway. And Cammalleri – he may not score this week, or reignite Kostitsyn’s 50-goal pace, but the name on his sweater alone should at least cause stir enough from the opposition to show his impact over Pyatt.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Game #73

Ottawa Claims 5th Place In Tightly Fought Game

Details



Date: 22/03/10
Opponent: Senators
Location: Montreal

Loss: 0-2

Habs Goalie: Halak (L)
Opposition Goalie: Elliott (W)

Habs goalscorers: None
Opposition goalscorers: Regin, Karlsson



Play of the game

It was a strange game. Despite the downbeat take from RDS and the unenviable scoreline, there was some worthy play contending for this honour. In the final analysis, I thought Halak's quick pad save on Mike Fisher early in the third period with the score still at 1-0 was a key moment. It maintained the hope, if not the momentum, that a victory was within reach.



Dome hockey team

The 6 players we're playing in a no changes, do or die contest in the dome

Forwards

Brian Gionta
I believe this is what analysts would call a rich vein of form. For some time now, Gionta has been the major factor in the Canadiens attack, something he kept up in this game. The shots were there, and were it for a bit of luck or a bounce or two in a different direction, Brian's 5 shots and 10 attempts on net might have yielded another multi-goal game and further heroic acclaim. As it stands, the stats will only tell us he had a lot of shots.

Andrei Kostitsyn
I think it was right for some people to be worried about Andrei. The past few games, he has played adequately, but without fire. Well, tonight he reignited the fire. Of all the forwards, I actually thought Andrei was best. Even in messing up plays, he seemed to make highlights – once making a pass of the game with his foot, another time turning a botched breakaway into a slick feed. Had this gone differently, I was going to be clamouring for Cammalleri. As it happens, I look forward to him complementing two players in relative form.

Sergei Kostitsyn
What a transformation from the younger Kostitsyn. Not only from the sulky days of Hamilton, but also from the solid, but unthreatening return to the lineup of winter. Spring, it seems, has added some pep to Sergei's game, and I'm convinced that of all the Olympians, he gained the most. He was lively off the puck, always fighting and skating good lines. And on the puck, he orchestrated some dangerous moves. Jacques Martin noticed too (though probably too late) as Sergei was transplanted onto a scoring line at the expense of Pyatt late on.

Defencemen

Jaroslav Spacek
Spacek played for his money on this night. Though we might have enjoyed a deflection or two on his point efforts, he still ran a solid point on the PP – banishing all memories of Brisebois, at least, with zone conservation as clockwork. Really the strength of his game was in the defensive end and in puck control. He played a decent defensive game, never turning to cross-checking or hooking to get out of trouble, instead trusting his instincts, his puck control and his partner. We might be taking this for granted now, but Spacek in this form is a massive upgrade on Brisebois/Dandenault/Bouillon.

Josh Gorges
Another solid game from Gorges. He was on the ice for both goals, but the second one certainly wasn't his fault. The rest of the game, I thought our 4th come 3rd defenceman did a very good job. If I could only find a way to be as calm as Josh while watching Hal Gill stumble around the ice.

Goaltender

Jaroslav Halak – Game Puck
The dome was a certainty. The game puck was a tight call. Halak played well tonight, making several instrumental and timely saves, but the goalless forwards had their moments too. What tipped the balance for Halak in the end was his total and utter calm in the face of waves of Sens pressure (and open shooting chances). The evolution that has brought him from jumpy and acrobatic youngster to the calm starting goalie we have craved for some time in one form or another.


Comments


This loss was a bad one. For the standings at least. It was definitely a game that one might have hoped for a storming effort. The effort, however, was not as bad as those who colour every comment by scoreline make out. In my opinion, the Canadiens and Senators played symmetrical games. Both teams played with relative discipline, both teams took about 30 shots, both teams had several dangerous efforts. While the Habs got the referee's on this night, the Sens seemed to get the nice bounces. Time and time again, the Canadiens seemed to end their build up with a pass just short or too long, a bounce just out of reach or into a Sens shin pad. The PP will be recorded as a failure, but had one shot seen its way cleanly to the net as Karlsson's did, the result and the analysis would say differently. The Sens first goal too was a marvel, as a pass snuck through our behemoth of assistant captain without veering off course to an expectant stick and unexpectant goalie.

In short, I think the loss was just one of those things. And for a team that seems to prefer to do things the hard way – almost predictable. I neither think this indicts their play of the past two weeks as fluke, nor tells us a thing about how Game 74 will begin and/or end. The Senators played with their peers and took the goals on a night when the game could have gone either way.

In the positives column, Gionta continues to be electric and Andrei may have re-awoken, Halak calmly answered the questions asked and the defence (if it didn't prevent first shots) cleared the zone well. Let's not also forget that Cammalleri might make a healthy return, which would be a boon to both the PP and the top two lines.

Final thoughts go to Travis Moen, who we hope is OK and free of damage to anything more than the bridge of his nose. Once again, the trainers and the medical system in place since McCleary must be commended for its speed of response.

The Lost Boys

I didn't know Corey Haim well on screen, I only knew him from hearsay and friends magazines from school days. It's always sad when a young life passes. I reflect on it and wish his family and friends well as they mourn his loss.

Corey was once in a movie called the Lost Boys (one of his most well known), and it seems to me he lived his life, as many child actors do, as a bit of a lost boy in Hollywood. There are hockey players who can relate, I think. Players that came up as talented youngsters, players that performed when they thought they needed to perform, and for one reason or another never made the draft or perhaps never made the cut.

The Canadiens recent success has been buoyed by a group of these lost boys. A group of players, who, however proficient they seem now, have been overlooked, dismissed and discarded each over the years. Between them, they have experienced every form of slap in the face from GMs ¬– release from roster, placement on waivers, traded for nothing – and have all come back with more to prove.


Glen Metropolit – Waiver King

Metro’s back story has been well documented. His hockey career has been one hurdle after another, a total contrast to the free rides ordained on first rounders. If his story is not unique, it’s because undrafted players like Glen get typical treatment after they audition in the league. Often entering via free agency (Glen did with Washington in 1999), their try-out is expected to be short if it is not sweet.

Metro’s first stint with an NHL outfit was his most prolonged stay to date. From 1999-00 he plied his trade with the Capitals organization (NHL and AHL). But cracks began to show in Washington’s commitment when they exposed Glen to waivers and lost him 2001. Tampa used him in a limited way for a couple of games before he was back on waivers and in Washington until the lockout.

Following the lockout, Glen was in Europe and with all the young “hopefuls” around, grossly overlooked. Atlanta retrieved him first, and he stayed there until being packaged for a Tkachuk rental. Boston was next, then Philadelphia and then for the 4th time in his career Metropolit was claimed on waivers – this time by the Habs.

Glen’s status as a lost boy has been cemented by those organizations that seem to choose release over retention when push comes to shove. Hindsight, as we know, is 20/20. For those GMs that gave up on Metro, a dose of foresight might have helped. Of his 2002-03 class in Washington, Glen is one of a couple of surviving NHL players. Atlanta, still in the hunt for decent depth might regret jettisoning Glen for an 0-4 run with Tkachuk.

Who knows where Glen will be in a year’s time. History tells us that the Canadiens won’t likely commit anymore to a 36-year-old with something to prove anymore than anyone else has. Instead, they’ll pour resources into younger (but not necessarily better) players out of sheer hope they’ll call upside. Glen will move on for another season or two and then again, and may just end up with more career points from now till when it ends than Maxwell, Trotter and others combined.


Dominic Moore – Deadline Superstar

Dominic Moore is another wandering soul. Unlike Metro, he was drafted. But being drafted as an over-ager from a school that isn’t called Michigan is often a prescription for the same short tether afforded to try-out signings anyway. At least in Moore’s case, his parent club was talking about him as a prospect.

His NHL debut came way back at the age of 23 in 2003. Habs fans may remember the day, as Moore launched a career in style by racing around Habs defenders and setting up 3 Rangers goals. The next season, however, was the lockout. And although Moore was still a shiny prospect and a good performer with the Wolfpack in Hartford, the year without NHL contact would be costly for the player. Whereas before the lockout Dom was a depth chart climber in a shallowish prospect pool, the Rangers re-jig in summer 2005 changed his fortunes somewhat. Holik, Nedved and Lindros were replaced by centres Nylander, Straka and Rucchin, and the Wolfpack was starting to look a better outfit too. His season was full, and an extremely solid rookie effort. But an NHL GM is an NHL GM and when faced with flashy free agents and younger players, Moore’s 26-year-old offering was judged as lost players have always been judged – a single full season (thank lockout) and 9 goals (thanks 4th line minutes) wasn’t enough to stir Sather to drop Dawes for Moore.

This was the start of more of the same as Dominic was now a veteran (1 season, remember) because of his age. Having left his parent organization, he now faced the biases of new scouts who never watched him Hartford or Harvard and preferred their own prospects instead. Traded twice at the 2006 draft, he landed in Pittsburgh, and it was there he became the perennial late season acquisition. First Minnesota (2007), then Toronto (waivers, 2008), Buffalo (2009) and Montreal (2010). Lost boy, indeed.

Toronto looked like a real home for Dominic, but with one thing or another it was never meant to be. Montreal, with its sometimes dire need for a sensible and calming influence may yet be a home for more than a month or two.


Mathieu Darche – Branded from the start

There’s a reason Mathieu Darche is the only Redman in the NHL today – the CIAU hockey stream is not valued by GMs. Preferring instead to take 3rd liners from junior, Europeans who have no interest in leaving their home and high school players from the US, the NHL GMs overlook Canadian Universities. It’s a shame really, as Canada could benefit from keeping its own academically-minded players on home turf, were it not for the silly prejudice.

Darche made the NHL by sheer force, as he was not an average CIAU player, but a superstar. Yet, it is better to be 6’2” from the Omaha Lancers than an above average sized captain of McGill. Columbus was the team to take a chance, perhaps only because they needed to stock from nothing following expansion. If this was a fortuitous turn for Mat, the ineptitude of that organization was a cruel turn.

Darche, you see, progressed handsomely through his next tests. Despite the shameful dearth of talent in Columbus, though, he was never afforded a true chance. How anyone could entrust Doug MacLean – who now parades his simplistic adherence to commandments like “never give up on a young player” for TV audiences – is a question Ohioans have been asking for a few years now. The way he botched his choice of players to commit to (including Darche) is comical. When Darche led the Syracuse Crunch in scoring in 2002-03, the NHL team was setting standards for futility again. He played one game. His rivals for minutes: Whitney, Sanderson, Nash, Shelley, Kallio. That summer he was unsigned as Columbus chose to enter the season with Nash, Sanderson, Shelley and Nedorost at LW. You tell me, Doug…

When you’re coming into the league with CIAU tag already, CBJ giving up on you is not a great boost for the brand. The branding stuck too. Nashville tried, but not really (2 GP), so did San Jose (2 GP). Tampa gave him a go, but the next season was back to career AHLer with Buffalo (0 GP). Even his signing in Montreal was viewed in this way. A few times, I floated his promotion, just as an idea on the blog, and it was laughed at with the familiar smirk of a knowing GM.

22 games into a Canadiens recall, Darche is showing the meaning of branding – not much. He has already supported the first line, the second line and reignited the dismal bottom lines. Like Metro, history tells us he’ll be judged by his diploma more than his gameplay in January in the cold light of June, but this is another lost boy whose shining light on the silly prejudices that said Garth Murray would have better days in the NHL in 2009-10 than he.


Marc-Andre Bergeron – A Difficult Fit

The Habs final lost boy is Marc-Andre Bergeron.

Unlike the others, he wasn’t overlooked from the start. Although, he wasn’t drafted, that was probably due to an unfortunate truncated season in draft year. His next two junior campaigns were eye-catching and he put up massive points. In 2001, he was sought and snagged by Edmonton who treated him as a hot prospect from there. He played good minutes in the AHL, got a fair audition and then had a place made for him in the NHL. All this was answered with what was promised – offense from the backline.

MAB’s career veered to the point of summer 2009 as GM’s realized that the defenceman was really a forward wrongly named, and one that struggled with the responsibility of his chosen position. Edmonton traded him to the Islanders, where he briefly thrived. The Ducks, having traded for the services of a rental cannon from the point. They set the wheels for what was to come by letting MAB go in the summer of 2008. Minnesota tried out the specialist for a season, but also found it difficult to compete. His place in the league then in question, as GMs opted instead for defencemen who play defence and forwards who aren’t 150 lbs. Lost not because of some outdated bias about the draft, but rather due to minds with such lack of creativity that they couldn’t see how to squeeze out a 5:00 minute enforcer in favour of a 5:00 minute PP-only option.

In picking Bergeron this time, Gainey seems at least to have understood what he was acquiring. What’s more, the Canadiens, having already built a home for Mark Streit, know how to manage a line up with someone offering so much in a single dimension.

Even I am beginning to see the cracks with this policy, though. It’s one thing to deploy MAB in a lineup without Markov, but now the maestro is back, the dressing a PP booster seems luxurious. Still, he’s definitely a man for the active roster, especially in the playoffs, as the threat of dressing a near unstoppable PP is enough to make any opposing coach pull his remaining hair out.


Onward the Lost Boys

I was wrong about Metropolit, you’ve been wrong about Moore, I dismissed Bergeron, many overlooked Darche. The team that we have on the ice is better than we thought it could be.

10 games to go, and the post-Olympic period has given us new appreciation for contribution across the board. We can already thank the Lost Boys for points in the standings, a PP to be reckoned with and the fact we have any hope this March.

As we face Ottawa tonight and jockey for position in the final sprint to the line, keep an eye on the Lost Boys whose joy at winning each game, at even playing their next NHL shift is a major impetus for this Habs resurgence.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Game #72

Habs Fail To Capitalize Against A Weak Leafs Squad

Details



Date: 20/03/10
Opponent: Maple Leafs
Location: Toronto

Loss: 2-3 (SO)

Habs Goalie: Halak (L)
Opposition Goalie: Gustavsson (W)

Habs goalscorers: Gionta (2), (A. Kostitsyn - SO)
Opposition goalscorers: Bozak, Kessel, (Kulemin, Mitchell - SO)



Play of the game


The nicest play tonight was our first goal, it not only put the Habs back into the game, but also reminded us of how talented some of our players really are. The play began with a long, stretch pass coming from the back end from Gomez. The pass went to Pouliot, who was covered in the neutral zone. Ben, however, was able to use his size and positioning to win the puck and put a very slick, through-the-legs, drop pass to a streaking Gionta. Brian took the pass, that went into his skates, very well and quickly had the puck on his stick. With one defender to beat he raced into Toronto's zone with full control of the puck and one thought only. That thought, of course, was to score and it didn't take him long. From just inside the face-off circle he got off a very good backhand that handcuffed the 'Monster' and put Montreal right back in it.



Dome hockey team

The 6 players we're playing in a no changes, do or die contest in the dome

Forwards
Scott Gomez
Scott was very quick all night and was one of the biggest reasons that we scored both of our goals. One thing that I think he isn't, however, is a shootout-type player. He is a very smart player and an excellent passer, but tonight's shootout attempt was, for me, another example of why he shouldn't be used every time that we go to the tiebreak. I think he should be left to gain the zone on the PP, put pucks on net and collect assists.

Benoit Pouliot
Ben wasn't at his best in this one, but, overall, he was still better than most of our forwards. To me, the disappointing thing is that a lot of our players were out-worked and out-played by the Leafs, but I felt Pouliot wasn't. He made a great pass on our first goal and was also involved on a few other chances throughout the game.

Brian Gionta
- Game Puck
2 more goals for the player that has really become one of our most crucial and clutch players. Both goals demonstrated his ridiculous hand-eye coordination and, of course, his chemistry with his linemates. His shootout attempt was weak, but you can't fault a guy that takes 6 shots and scores his 22nd and 23rd goals on the year.

Defencemen

Andrei Markov
I wanted to see O'Byrne or Gorges in here, but the bottom line is that no one, other than Spacek, was as good as Markov on an off-night. He was still decent in this one and made no real mistakes, but it wasn't the type of performance that we have come to expect from our best blue-liner. I am, however, happy that (unlike 2 of his visits to the ACC in the last 12 months) he didn't walk away from this game injured. So, not a horrible game, just a reminder of how far above certain players he really is.

Jaroslav Spacek
Jaro was our best defender tonight and a lot of that has to do with the fact that he made Hamrlik (on a horrible night) a +1 (on for our PP goal too) player. It was Spacek, not Roman that saved us on numerous occasions tonight with some very good work in his own end. He also chipped in on the PP-marker with his 18th assist on the year.

Goaltender

Jaroslav Halak
If I needed someone to blame for these goals I would have to tend to Gill more than Halak as I really felt Hal played a miserable game and let his 'tender down on numerous occasions. Jaro, however, wasn't spectacular, but, as usual, he got the job done and kept us in it. In OT he made 3 saves, including one right at the end, that gave us the chance at 2 points. He was weak in the shootout (getting beat 3 times), but the fact that he took us there was good enough for me. A loss, of course, hurts, but getting a point out of it and moving Boston 2 points away from 1st overall helped to soften the blow.


Comments


This wasn't the performance that one would expect from the Habs after 6 wins in a row. One assumes that we should have been able to walk into the ACC and make quick work of one of the worst teams in the league and move into 5th in the conference in the process. It, however, wasn't like that at all as it was Toronto, not Montreal, that set the tome early. In fact, it seemed that the Leafs dictated the flow of most of the game while Montreal seemed to struggle as they attempted to play their own style. Toronto got that first goal and really seemed in control after that. We managed to get our goals, but our inability on our Power-Plays and our 0/1 play on the PK really hurt us. One thing that this game may have done, is it might have brought us back to reality. It may just serve as a wake-up call, a reminder that, despite our wins, we are really nothing too special. Maybe it is a reminder that we can't afford to not dress 2 healthy players that could have really helped our team, maybe a reminder that our 'tight' D can also be labeled as our 'porous' D or maybe simply as a reminder that each and every game requires a full-team effort for 60, not 30, minutes. Well, catch-up week is over and it is now time to see what we are made of. We have 10 games left and, although 10 points may be enough, I think we have to aim for 12. That said, it would be nice to get a few more and get up into 5th or 6th and to not just shoot for 8th, as usual. A big effort now, down the stretch, will help us come April as avoiding teams like the Caps or Pens is almost the same as avoiding 9th.

Friday, March 19, 2010

Back on Track

I have to thank Tobalev for holding the fort here. I've been away and/or in the process of moving for the past few weeks now.

Since I departed, a funny thing seems to have happened with our team – they have been able to take close games and picks up points consecutively for the longest sustained period in some time. Of course, this has led to a great change in the trade winds that govern fan opinion. Where January was the month of "blow it up, no wait, no blow it up", the wins have filled the bandwagon with sould and the Habs fan with the assurance that everything is going to plan.

My travels took me to Morocco – Marrakech and Fez mainly. Amongst other things, these cities teach you a lot about what you know, what you expect and how wrong you are. Fez, in particular, is an alien place to the English-speaking Westerner. Sights, sounds, smells and customs are all very foreign. More than all this, though, I will remember Fez as a labyrinthine city. Our daily challenge was to find our way down narrow cobbled passageways to mosques and medersas and cafes and then hope that we might retrace our steps and find our place to sleep. Days take on a new meaning when finding a familiar starting point for a walk home before dark is the ultimate goal.


Upon return to normality (another re-adjustment after getting used to the Fassi ways), I can see Fez all around me. I can especially see the experience I had down in the maze of tanneries and souqs in the maze of the Canadiens season.

Like us, the Canadiens set out in the outset with optimism and adventurousness. New players, new line combinations, new strategies – trying all things new, seeing where it took them. But like a couple trying to find a decent cup of mint tea at lunch, the Habs woke up in January some time with the realization that if they were going to get home, get to the playoffs where they believe they belong (not sleeping in the donkey shed) they needed to start understanding where they were and planning a route to where they wanted to be.

Easier said than done, right? Finding where you are is not a big challenge in the NHL. The standings are ubiquitous. In Montreal, "playoff position" is bandied about from Game 8 onwards. But finding the way back from 4th in the division, several games below 0.500 and a curious inability to both stop shots coming and stop important shots from getting past is more difficult. Entered thus the Canadiens a period of determined push with mixed result (the win-loss-win-loss days). This is where the Canadiens resided for months seemingly, going in circles, doubling back on themselves, walking through the same game of street football in search of that beautiful Riad they never thought they would find again and again.

We awake today with a team that seems to have found their way. That has passed landmark after landmark and seems in response to all our hopes and expectation to be heading towards that beautiful hotel of the playoffs.

In the hopeful space of my brain, I think as others do that everything is according to a plan, that this was always coming. But I wouldn't have learned anything in Fez if I hadn't learned this: Finding the right track for a few steps does not guarantee that you will turn that final corner to the hotel. In the NHL season, just as in Fez, you have only really arrived once you have arrived because there are enough intersections and alleyways to dive down headlong that take you off course right to the doorstep.

So as I revel that our team has not fallen the way of the Lightning these past couple of weeks. I present the reminder that being close to home is great, but getting in that door requires just a bit more effort. Let's hope we see it, starting Saturday.

(If I wanted to belabour this analogy, I'd tell you all how getting a beer in Fez requires as much hard work and dedication as a Stanley Cup run – but lets worry about the hotel door first).

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Game #71

Quiet Week For The Habs Off To A Great Start

Details



Date: 16/03/10
Opponent: Rangers
Location: New York

Win: 3-1

Habs Goalie: Halak (W)
Opposition Goalie: Lundqvist (L)

Habs goalscorers: Metropolit, S. Kostitsyn, Plekanec
Opposition goalscorers: Avery



Play of the game


This wasn't a flashy game from either team, but it seemed that the Habs held the upper-hand throughout. It also seemed that whenever they needed something to go their way it did. A good example, and my play-of-the-game, is Plekanec's goal in the dying seconds. We were down two men at that point in the game (Lundqvist was pulled) so that meant shooting on the open cage was a possibility. It also meant that New York would have a very good chance to secure at least one point and possibly rob us of one ourselves. So, I was happy, in this case, to see Martin put out some of his best PK elements (Pleks, Moen, Gorges, Gill) to save the points for us. The play started with a chip up the boards by Gill, Pleks then pressured Del Zotto at the line which led to a break for him. Tomas then waited until he had a clear shot, then, just by their blue-line, he put it into the heart of the net to win the 4-point game by that very margin.



Dome hockey team

The 6 players we're playing in a no changes, do or die contest in the dome

Forwards

Sergei Kostitsyn
Sergei wasn't as good as he was last week, but he still played a strong game. I thought that he was the best player on his line throughout the game as he, once again, brought life to our third unit. A highlight for him was his 6th goal of the season which ended up being a lucky goal after quite a bit of hard work. He also did the job on the PK and was a big reason why the Rangers went 0/5 on their PP.

Tomas Plekanec - Game Puck
Pleks capped off a nice game with an empty-netter that may just prove to be one of the biggest goals of the year. Aside from the goal he played a strong game, especially in his own end and in the neutral zone. He was used more than any other forward on the PK (3:41) and was a very impressive 12-4 on face-offs.

Brian Gionta
Brian had a pretty quiet game, but not quite as quiet as his linemates who never really got too involved tonight. Quiet by Brian's standards, however, doesn't necessarily mean bad, it just means not as great. Despite not collecting a point he still managed to lead the team in both shots and takeaways with 8 and 3 respectively.

Defencemen

Andrei Markov
Not needed, not used. Martin stuck to the game-plan tonight by only using Markov when needed, yet again - this time it was for less than 20 minutes. The management of Andrei's time down the stretch may just be the thing that I am most excited about as we head towards the Spring. A fresh Markov, at his best, is what we missed last year and is what has made us a very good team, for long periods, over the past 3 or 4 years. He still managed to be our best defender tonight and picked up an assist and 4 shots in the process.

Roman Hamrlik
Roman played 3 minutes more than any other Hab tonight and deserved every minute. He was very strong with and without the puck and played well with Spacek - they, again, made our best pairing. Hammer will have to be good for us over the next few weeks if we are to make anything of this season, for now that looks like a very good possibility.

Goaltender

Jaroslav Halak
Jaro let in one tonight, a deflection, but all, in all had a pretty quiet game. He still had to be on, however, as a bad outing would have likely ended in a loss. He faced 20 shots and 5 Power-Plays, but really seemed like he had little to do. He will benefit from a few days off before hopefully taking us to the 80-point plateau on Saturday.


Comments


I always like when Montreal can head into a building that has very little emotion and find a way to win. I wish that we could win every game 6-0 and play with tons of energy, but at the end of the day as long as you are better than the opposition in doesn't really matter. So, when I saw that New York had very little going for them tonight I was happy that the Habs still managed to find their own game, even if it wasn't their best. No one player on the team was bad tonight, but no one, apart from a few standouts, was at their best either. After 6 wins it wouldn't surprise me if Toronto, somehow, found a way to rise up and beat us and, so, I see Saturday's game as a big test. We have to prove that we can win all sorts of games and beating the Leafs, in Toronto is something that doesn't always come easy - I think that it is about time that we make that a priority. We can probably take the team and the fans out of the game early if we start strong again, but I can assure you that even after 4 days off that will not be a gimme 2 points.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Game #70

Mission Accomplished: Habs Beat B's In Regulation

Details



Date: 13/03/10
Opponent: Bruins
Location: Montreal

Win: 3-2

Habs Goalie: Halak (W)
Opposition Goalie: Rask (L)

Habs goalscorers: Markov, S. Kostitsyn (2)
Opposition goalscorers: Wheeler, Lucic



Play of the game


Sometimes watching the game with new people and new perspectives can be a good thing. I was all set to make Sergei's second, our insurance marker, the Play-of-the-Game, but after re-watching another play (and listening to some wise hockey minds) I changed my own mind. The play that I settled on was Halak's brilliant save towards the end of the third, while we held a one-goal lead. The chance came from the stick of Krejci who had passed the puck well with Recchi on a 2-on-1. The shot was low and looked to be a certain goal, but Jaro got across with his left pad and made a true game-saver.



Dome hockey team

The 6 players we're playing in a no changes, do or die contest in the dome

Forwards

Sergei Kostitsyn - Game Puck
Forget third line, the way these guys are playing it could be 1c. Sergei, again, found a way to be a high-impact player as he was very involved in the play and showed very good fore-checking skills on both of his goals. The first goal really started with a nice pass from him to Markov and was ended nicely with him finding a loose puck beside the net. His second was due to hard-work as he pressured Rask into making a mistake on what was a very easy play.

Dominic Moore
I think that it is safe to say Dominic Moore is giving the Habs something that not too many people expected. Tonight he recorded 2 more points (his first multi-point game as a Hab) and was, again, very good in his own end. In just 9 games with the team he has not just impressed me, but most of you too, I'm sure. In all he has 7 points is a +5 and the Habs are 6-3 during that stretch. The best part of all of this is that he has given coach Martin a third line to choose from, a group that is gelling and that is delivering at both ends of the ice.

Brian Gionta
This was a quieter than usual game from Gionta's line, but it was still a pretty good effort from Brian himself. Of the non-3rd liners I felt that he was the most offensive player on the ice and was one of the best at getting involved in the play. In all he played 19+ minutes of solid 2-way, was on the ice for one of our goals and neither of theirs and took a team-high 4 shots.

Defencemen

Andrei Markov
I wanted Markov to get the PP going, so he scored me a goal. I go through periods where I really wonder if there is anything that Andrei can't do. He was our go-to guy tonight and without his solid play a win may not have been in the cards. In addition to his goal he linked up very nicely with Sergei, at the end of the first, to give us a 2-goal lead. With 27 points in the bank I am still holding out hope that the last 12 games will bring him 13 points. With him hot going into the playoffs (as opposed to last year when he was out) we will be a much, much stronger team.

Jaroslav Spacek
Another player that impressed me on the PP tonight was Spacek. Two or three of his four shots were bullets from the point that forced Rask to make good saves. He has a good shot and, so, I was glad to see more of it tonight. Defensively there isn't much bad to talk about as his 20 minutes of ice-time didn't coincide with any Bruin goals - I really liked what I saw.

Goaltender

Jaroslav Halak
I am glad that Martin came back with Halak as the time for flip-flopping is over. I am also glad that Jaro put the bad game behind him and came to play tonight. It was a solid effort from start to finish and I was always confident that he would hold us in the game. His save towards the end of the game, on the 2-on-1, was an example of just how clutch he has become. The win was his 22nd and the chances that he hits 30 are very much still alive. His play, combined with that of Markov, Pleks, Gionta and the others has me thinking that we will be watching some meaningful hockey this April.


Comments


This game wasn't a must-win in that anything bad would have come from a loss, but beating a rival, in regulation, is at least a very- very-nice-to-win. Montreal, I thought, played very well in their own end right from the start as they never really gave the Bruins any great chances. The best part, really though, was that Boston never had sustained pressure, even when they were on the Power-Play. In all there were 11 Boston shots through 2 and the Habs were certainly in the driver's seat. It was also very nice to get an early goal in the third before the Bruins really got going on their comeback. The pace did pick up in the third as Boston tried to tie it up, but their 12 shots and one goal against simply weren't enough. This game was another great team effort as I felt all of the players contributed to keep chances down and to get our pucks deep into the Bruins' zone. The next 7 nights have us playing just once before we head into the final, busy three weeks. The win tonight was our fifth in a row (first time since October 2008) which, of course, sets us up very nicely for scoreboard-watching week. Cammalleri and Bergeron are also on the mend and will be back as soon as possible - hopefully before the end of the month. They will add a lot to our team and the prospect of playing with a complete line-up, for the first time this season, has every Habs fan very excited indeed.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Game #69

Canadiens Cut It Close Against Basement-Dwellers

Details



Date: 11/03/10
Opponent: Oilers
Location: Montreal

Win: 5-4 (SO)

Habs Goalie: Halak (W)
Opposition Goalie: Dubnyk (L)

Habs goalscorers: Plekanec, Gionta, Moen, S. Kostitsyn, (A. Kostitsyn - SO)
Opposition goalscorers: Nilsson, Gagner, Cogliano, Horcoff



Play of the game


This play was the main reason that Sergei got the Game Puck as it really was the best/most crucial play of the game. With the game tied at three I was a bit worried that we would find a way to lose to the league's worst team. Edmonton actually looked poised to go ahead and I thought a goal could come at any minute. I also felt that if they took the lead that would be it for us - so, that makes Kostitsyn's goal that much better. The play started with a weak dump-in by Gill that went right to the Oilers. Kostitsyn, however, fought hard in the corner and came out with the puck. He then moved in towards the net and put a well-placed shot up and over Dubnyk.



Dome hockey team

The 6 players we're playing in a no changes, do or die contest in the dome

Forwards

Sergei Kostitsyn - Game Puck
Sergei has been playing well of late, but his service on the third line doesn't usually have that great of an impact. He can be an impact player, from time to time, but playing a solid two-way game is good enough for me. He has some chemistry right now with Moore and I feel that this now gives us our best third line of the season. Tonight Kostitsyn was an impact player as he scored that crucial goal and also added an assist.

Andrei Kostitsyn
At times Andrei looked great in this one and at others he looked quite mediocre. The good times included some quality shots, an assist on Plekanec's goal and good work in the offensive zone. His missed shots, flubbed passes and occasional defensive lapses made him look average, at best, at other times during the game. Well, he sealed his fate in the shootout where he made a fabulous move to score the only goal, the winner. We needed that goal, but I think, maybe more importantly, he did too.

Travis Moen
Right now the battle for the third spot on the third line is heating up. I think it is really between Moen and Lapierre and maybe even Darche. Lapierre, however, thanks to his dirty and inconsistent play, is slowly falling behind. Tonight's effort from Moen will help his cause greatly as he was really a force. He managed to score a goal (first in 30+ games) and pick-up an assist too. If he can be the energy guy for that line and play like he did tonight, then I think that line has everything we need from a third unit.

Defencemen

Andrei Markov
Markov was of course good tonight, but I think one area that needs to be improved is the PP. Now, you can point to Bergeron's absence and also at the play of his teammates, but at the end of the day this is his unit to run. I feel that we are trying to be too cute and are trying too many passes and that is costing us in our quantity of quality scoring chances. What he didn't do with the extra-man, however, he did at even-strength as he picked up 2 more assists (21) and dominated the flow of play while he was on the ice.

Hal Gill
This was a much better game from Hal which, thankfully, didn't involve any assists on Oiler goals. No, instead, Gill was quite discrete as I didn't really notice him much. When I did notice him, however, it was because he was making a good poke-check or was blocking a passing lane. As a 6th defenceman he can be quite effective as his long reach, size and ability to stay in position do help us. I hope that we continue to use him wisely and in the right situations and that he finds a way to be at his best for the next 1+ months.

Goaltender

Jaroslav Halak
This game did not start well for Halak as 2 quick goals already had me doubting him and our chances. He continued to look shaky throughout the game and with that came 2 more goals. It was decided then, Price gets the dome. In OT and in the shootout, however, Halak clawed his way back to respectability and I found reasons to give him the spot. He played the shootout particularly well (and, admittedly got a bit lucky) as he did not let any of the five shooters score. I am not thrilled with his game, I know he can/should be better, but when you get a win on an off-night, you have done well.


Comments


We started this game very strongly and I was convinced that we would run away with it after an early goal. To me, their defence and goaltending was too weak to match up and I was ready for a pounding. Four minutes later I was humbled as I had just watched my team go down in a game that no longer looked like a guaranteed 2 points. The Habs, however, kept up with the pace of the Oilers and found a way to match blows. No one player, on either team, was that spectacular all night as this was a team effort (for better or worse) by both squads. It was nice that we got to OT as I had been worrying that we would get 0 points; to me, 1 point at that point would have been enough. In OT we had our chances, but again our PP couldn't connect. It was then on to the shootout where one would have to think we held the advantage. Well, the goalie who I had never heard of had different plans as he decided not to let any of the three or four players that tried score between his legs. Luckily, for the sake of that 2nd point, Halak had found his form and Kostitsyn found the back of the net. These were 2 points that you really should get and, thank goodness, we somehow got. Boston on Saturday will be a test, but mostly a test of our desire to get into the playoffs. We don't want to allow the Bruins to get points just as much as we need them ourselves. So, let's see if we can continue our hot play and head into our week of scoreboard watching with 2 more in the bank.