Thursday, 29 September 2011

Pre-Season Game #7: Tampa Bay 4, Montreal 0

Well the Canadiens lost 6-0 against the Lightning, but with a couple of assists from the referees whittled that down to 4-0. The fact that it was a pre-season game soothed the sting a little bit, and the fact that I have Steve Stamkos and Vincent Lecavalier in the HIO Memorial hockey pool was another balm.

I was ready to be patient, and I preached calm even though the Canadiens had won only one game out of six so far, since its roster was rife with AHL'ers and no-hopers. This was the first game the Canadiens would have a legitimate roster out on the ice, and my expectations were ratcheted up. To finally see the Cole-Pacioretty power tandem on their respective lines wreaking havoc and the vaunted third scoring line with an Andrei Kostitsyn eyeing a big season to reap a big contract in the summer was going to be a treat.

This game was a mild disappointment, and there are many culprits who will participate in the Airing of Grievances. Let's work from the net out.

Peter Budaj didn't look solid or confident in nets. He battled the puck, got caught by the camera looking behind him on saves, let a slapper from Mr. Lecavalier dribble through his pads into the net but was saved by the referee's whistle. He made easy saves look difficult. This is worrisome in that a shaky goalie makes his defencemen tense, and the forwards press to score goals, instead of being loose and confident.

This summer I supported the decision to let Alex Auld go, since I wasn't impressed with his play last season anyway, and believed the management team was in a better position to evaluate options in goal. Much was made of the fact that Mr. Budaj had played without a dedicated goalie coach in Colorado, and that the tutelage of Canadiens goalie coach Groulx would allow him to reach his potential. It appears that he still has a lot of work to do, and some confidence to gain before Jacques Martin will be willing to rest Carey Price on a more regular basis than he did last season.

The defence corps seemed to be a strength this summer. Notwithstanding the absence of Andrei Markov, the replacement of long-in-the-tooth veterans Roman Hamrlik, Brent Sopel and Paul Mara with Yannick Weber, Alexei Yemelin and Raphaël Diaz seemed a definite upgrade. I now have to temper my enthusiasm and accept that even though they are younger and more mobile, they may not be quite ready for NHL duty. Having said that, I think it's a positive step for the team to play its prospects rather than veterans, even if it costs us a few wins in the regular season. Long-term, we will benefit, but I may have to accept that there will be growing pains. The signing of Chris Campoli will mitigate these somewhat.

PK Subban is a magician, but may be putting too much responsibility on himself to do too much. Again, I see him choosing to make the difficult play rather than the simple play on a regular basis. You can surprise a forechecking forward by faking a pass or clearing attempt then rushing the puck if it's not your go-to move. After a while, if that's what you regularly do, opposing coaches will pick up on this, it will show up on game films, and they will tell their forwards to not bite on the first move and simply go for the body. PK needs to calm down a little bit, keep making his outlet passes and choose his spots carefully when to make his end-to-end rushes.

In the forwards, I saw flashes from the players we need big seasons from , but it's worrisome that they couldn't manage a goal, even with many power-play opportunities, including a 5 on 3. They may still be discombobulated by the abating cavalcade of rookies, but Mr. Gionta, Cammalleri, Gomez, Cole and Plekanec need to bury their chances.

Brendan Gallagher seemed to come back down to earth. He again showed flashes of brilliance, but the fact that he hasn't yet scored in the pre-season, despite playing with frontline players, may have ended his hopes of starting the season with the grand club. I think it's probably best for him to play first line minutes in junior with the Giants and have a chance to play on the Canadian team in the World Junior tournament this season.

Then again, maybe playing on the same line as Mr. Kostitsyn is what sapped the strength of the Canadiens putative new Mighty Mouse. Mr. Kostitsyn was abysmal tonight, noticed only for his many faults and failings. The sequence which was highlighted on TSN, during which he carried the puck over the blue line in the Tampa zone, coasted and then feebly tried a one-handed pass through the skates of a Lighting defender, was a headscratchingly awful decision. We often talk of players with high 'hockey IQ' or hockey sense. We should admit to each other that Andrei has low hockey sense, kind of like Gaston Gingras and Mark Napier and Gilbert Delorme had, lots of physical tools dulled by a marshmallow mind. It doesn't help that he often chooses the easy play, in this case the low-percentage pass, instead of the demanding play, which in this case would have been to try to sweep around the defender or to chip the puck in the corner and outskate him. I wrote after the third pre-season game against the Senators, during which Mr. Cole and Mr. Pacioretty shined, that their example might inspire him. That may still be true, since in this case Mr. Cole and Pacioretty didn't set the world on fire, and Mr. Kostitsyn was even more sedate.

Mike Blunden distributed some good bodychecks and was noticeable on the ice, contrary to his linemate Andreas Engqvist. Michaël Bournival hit a post on a wicked wrist shot, he's another junior player who should find a way onto the World Junior team.

Saturday is another opportunity for the team to jell, followed by a retreat at Blue Mountain. Thankfully, the start of the season should be relatively easy, with games against the Leafs and Jets, then at home against the Flames and Avalanche. While the first two will not be walks in the park since they will be played in arenas filled with rabid fans, these four games can serve as final tuneups before the real season starts with a game against the new-look Sabres.

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