Saturday, 29 October 2011

Montreal Canadiens classless?

Lot of talk about Elliott Friedman calling the Montreal organization classless for firing Perry Pearn. I just watched the segment and linked it below. What Mr. Friedman does is he repeats what coaches in the league have told him, so it’s not an editorial comment by him but rather his reporting of unnamed sources. Eric Francis chimes in later and he supports Mr. Friedman’s reporting, but takes it up a notch by saying “…it’s not just coaches, everyone in the game thinks it’s a low-class move…”
I guess there are a lot of hockey people out there who have a better finger on the pulse, they may know of some backroom events that we don’t and they want to stick up for their colleague who was fired in an unconventional manner. It’s been hard to get any insight into this, it seems that all reporters will do is criticize Mr. Gauthier for being vague, but won’t themselves tell us what happened, probably to protect their sources and their access to the Montreal organization. So Mr. Francis, Mr. Friedman, tell us what you know instead of broad, unsubstantiated hints and innuendo. The only one who has pulled back the curtains to any degree so far is François Gagnon.
As far as the decision itself to let Mr. Pearn go, it now seems inspired. The results speak for themselves, obviously, but also from what we can perceive when watching games, we have a more dynamic coaching team, who is more animated behind the bench, and a dedicated defenceman coach with possibly more credibility and knowledge in that area. The special teams seem to be rounding into form. So it might be an unconventional decision that wasn’t done in the best or most delicate manner, but in hindsight it seems it was a necessary step.
Hot Stove segment, Montreal discussion at 6:40 mark.

Don and Dave, dumbasses.

How infuriating it is that Don Cherry gets to set the agenda. Tonight he promotes the notion that Vancouver is the most hated team in the NHL. He lambastes them for looking to the referee when they are the recipients of cheap shots and infractions. On the other hand, he celebrates Bruins goon tactics as good hockey. Shaun Thornton is a great guy in his books.

I often wonder who’s the biggest boob on his segment, him or that crook Frank D’Angelo with his self-promotion and lowlight reel of horrible goaltending.

Game 11: Montreal 4, Boston 2

This summer was a time of heady optimism for a typical Canadiens fans. Visions of a strong, committed team, with a younger upgraded defence and a forward corps enhanced with the judicious addition of speedy, hulking, invincible Erik Cole and subtraction of a somnambulant Benoit Pouliot danced in our heads.

Then the season started, and the nightmare hit. Carey Price was revealed as something less than the personification of the Great Wall of China. Our youngsters on defence weren't NHL-ready and the veterans looked old and slow. Stalwarts PK Subban and Josh Gorges tried to do too much to compensate, and they committed crucial blunders. Our forwards lived down to their reputation of being too small and soft. The snipers looked like journeyman 20 goal scorers at best. Erik Cole was a money-pit who would kill our cap for four years. Andrei Markov's knee was septic spaghetti.

It seemingly only took a management reshuffling for the nightmare to end. Assigning Mr. Pearn's responsibilities to Mr. Ladouceur and Mr. Cunneyworth, and placing both behind the bench with a mission to provide verbal, enthusiastic direction and correction to the players seemed to tilt the ice our way. Pucks that used to hit the post or aggrandize Jacob Markstrom now find the corner mesh; Raphaël Diaz and Yannick Weber are effective and improve every game; Jaro Spacek seems rejuvenated; Erik Cole, Andrei Kostitsyn, Max Pacioretty and Travis Moen (!) are too much for opposing defencemen to handle. Carey Price is back to his usual unflappable self. David Desharnais plays like Scott Gomez should. Brian Gionta's snakebitten, Réjean Houle-Chris Higgins impersonation is currently humourous instead of dolorous. Lars Eller finally scores his first goal, after showing flashes of much-needed skill and strength during his trial-by-fire, for-keeps training camp.

Now comes a five day break until the next game, to solidify the confidence and goodwill within the dressing room. Andrei Markov returns to Montreal with a clean bill of health from his doctors and is set to resume on-ice training. GM Pierre Gauthier has slipped the team doctors a twenty, and they will be exquisitely careful with Mr. Gomez's shoulder treatment and rehab plan, with a resultant projected return to the lineup on February 31st.

As far as Andrei Markov is concerned, there is no question we miss him, he’s our best defenceman. What the recent spate of success does is it reduces the pressure to rely on him too much as soon as he’s back. In three to four weeks when he plays again (fingers crossed), we can baby him back into the lineup, with 10-12, 15 minutes of ice time max, playing him against the opposition third line (not fourth, don’t want him around crashers and bangers) and second-wave powerplay. We then gradually increase his minutes according to a rigid plan arrived at in consultation with the doctors and physios, as opposed to game necessities, kind of like a pitch count for a pitcher off Tommy John surgery.

The time also will come to put Mr. Gill and Spacek on a rotation, where they are healthy scratches to rest up in preparation for a playoff run. The Three Amigos can also be on a rotation, with Mr. Weber, Diaz and Emelin skipping roughly one game out of three. One defenceman shouldn’t be the odd man out every game, and especially not Alexei Emelin, who brings a skillset to the group that is lacking. I restate my contention that Mr. Emelin should be played over Mr. Spacek, but I understand that with the Seat of Heat Mr. Martin is on, he will play the absolute best lineup he thinks he can ice to restart the team and save the season and his job.

Does Sundin deserve to have his Leafs jersey retired?

Apparently Mats Sundin will have his jersey number retired by the Toronto Maple Leafs. I think this is not a deserved honour, it actually cheapens the gesture. Players who have their jersey retired should be titans who ruled the NHL and whose names are synonymous with excellence. Further, this player should have played the vast majority of his career with this team. Finally, playoff success should be a major considerations.

Let's analyze Mr. Sundin's case. While he was an All-Star in his years in Toronto, he didn't win a scoring championship or any major individual awards. He only scored over 100 points once, and did so as a Nordique, and never scored 50 goals, reaching 47 once and 41 on another occasion. He had limited success in the playoffs, contributing offensively but never taking his team deep into the playoffs. Finally, his first four seasons were spent in Québec, and he finished up in regrettable fashion in Vancouver. He did show loyalty to the team, but some in Toronto argue that he should have waived his no-trade clause in his last season, when he had already made up his mind that he wouldn't re-sign with Toronto in the summer any way.

To honour him by retiring his jersey speaks to the hunger of Toronto fans for success and champions more strongly than it does about the standard he set for future Leafs. It's not as bad as Vancouver fans and the organization thinking of retiring Pavel Bure's number, but it does debase the practice.

Some may feel that I'm too critical of Mr. Sundin. They may bring up his success in international play, which I appreciate but is not germane to this issue.

I have spoken on this issue in the past, and I don't think the Canadiens are above blame on this issue. I believe the only jerseys that should be retired in Montreal are numbers 1, 4, 7, 9, 10, and am unsure about #33. The others who are presently retired should be honoured in another way, maybe like is done in the NFL in Pittsburgh and Denver, for example, with a Ring of Honour or some such method.

The Great One

In 1996 Team Canada held its training camp in Whistler in preparation for the World Cup of Hockey (why did we change the name from the Canada Cup?) They were here for a week and a few of my friends volunteered to provide security, in return for which the team paid a lump sum to local minor hockey. One of my friends described how the bus would arrive to the back of the arena before practice, and metal gates would control the fans who wanted to see the stars or get autographs. As the players disembarked, an official or two would shout to the throngs that the players were going straight in to get ready, but would be available to sign after practice.

Sure enough, after practice Wayne Gretztky pops out the doors and starts signing and talking to fans, but quickly notices that he’s alone in doing so, and sees other players make a beeline straight for the bus door, where my friend Scott is posted. Wayne excused himself for a moment and walked into the bus, where he told off the guys, singling out Paul Coffey and Mark Messier, probably because they were teammates at one point. He then walked out of the bus, followed by a sheepish and sulky Messier and Coffey, and most of the other players as well, at which point a proper meet and greet and autograph session was conducted. It was apparently quite pleasant and cheerful, since there wasn’t a tonne of people and most were real fans as opposed to the aggressive collector type.

That anecdote was enough for me to permanently inscribe Wayne Gretzky in my good books, and it goes to show that leadership can take many forms.

Boston 'hockey fans' never welcome

I’m in total agreement with Mike Boone’s comments regarding the Bruins fans invading Montreal.

I attended a game at the Forum in the early 80′s against Boston, and we had a couple of their pathetic fans in our blue skyboxes, otherwise known as the rafters. They both had O’Reilly jerseys on and didn’t seem to follow the puck or play, they would just wait and cheer when one of their orcs, wearing jerseys as black as their hearts, would charge one of our pure Blanc samurais. There was lots of swearing and shrillness, which was off-putting since there were families and older ladies in the area. I was there with some buddies I played rugby with, we made eye contact with them a couple of times, and they averted their jaundiced eyes and tried to behave as much as their inebriation would allow.

In the middle of the second they were down by four or five goals already, when Terry O’Reilly jumped over the boards, an action they cheered as if he were the Second Coming of Milt Schmidt. “Hunt, Terry, HUNT!!”, they bellowed, which he assuredly did, skating awkwardly in a zigzag pattern, reliably indicating the direction and area the puck was not going to by his trajectory. The fans continued their encouragement, and oinked and snarled (!) Sure enough, he finally caught up to Mike McPhee or Dave Maley, I can’t really remember, and went at him with a huge highstick and elbows high. After the scrum was separated, he put us on the powerplay long enough that we potted a couple of goals and put the game away completely. Yet our two drunken buffoons were overjoyed by O’Reilly’s charge, they didn’t see it as a poor play by an even worse player, they saw it as a cause for celebration, even as the goals against mounted.

I haven’t seen the Bruins play since. I heard some comments that the Vancouver crowd gave the Bruins fans a hard time during the finals and may have gone over the line, but I remember how a couple of Boston losers had tarnished a whole section’s experience a couple decades back, and I thought to myself that maybe the Vancouver fans were staking their territory and trying to not give those idiots an inch.

Friday, 28 October 2011

The evil triumvirate of Jacobs-Edwards-Campbell deals in the black arts

Is Daddy Campbell now in charge of scheduling for the NHL? How did the Canadiens have to play a game on Wednesday night in Montreal, then travel to Boston and play the Bruins, who had last played four days before, on Thursday night? And then both teams travel back to Montreal for a Saturday night game? Wouldn’t it have made more sense to have to Bruins travel to Montreal on Thursday?

It’s not paranoia if they’re really out to get you.

Thursday, 27 October 2011

Game 10: Montreal 2, Boston 1

What is it about the Bruins that brings out the best of the Canadiens. Lately I always fret that we are outclassed against them, they have all the high-draft picks, the size, the pugilistic acumen, that we're going to get run out of the Gardens. Somehow, the undersized, speedy Canadiens regularly find a way to slay hideous, loathsome Goliath. Tonight was another example, as the tottering heroes entered the Bruins' lair, avoided a mauling and escaped with a confidence-inflating 2-1 win.

The game started off slowly, with the Bruins buzzing and hitting. I noticed Jaroslav Spacek in the defensive zone giving Milan Lucic a big cushion instead of checking him tightly, memories of the Beatdown last year possibly still fresh in his mind. This led to a nice pass from Mr. Lucic that wasn't converted into a goal. I concentrated on Mr. Spacek for the rest of the game, and didn't see any gaffes or instances where a mild shove from a Bruin caused him to disintegrate. I'll be darned if a couple of times he didn't make the right play. I still contend that Alexei Emelin should be in the lineup rather than Mr. Spacek, especially since they are a physical team.

Also early in the game, I thought Sean Thornton might have found a playmate in counterpart Mike Blunden, but the Canadien laughed him off. Considering Mr. Blunden fight record, that was probably for the best. All in all, he and the other more physical Canadiens forwards such as Mathieu Darche, Erik Cole, Travis Moen and Petteri Nokelainen provided a barrier against the usual egregious Bruins transgressions. We did see Milan Lucic throw a clear punch at Travis Moen after a whistle in the last minutes of the third, a clear punishable offence which should have been penalized, but I guess that is allowable in Boston when the refs want to get out alive.

Speaking of Bruin thuggery, how did Brad Marchand escape being called for an extra or instigator penalty in his tangles with PK Subban? He started the whole ordeal by putting him in a headlock, then on the second occasion threw a punch. Somehow, everything was handled with offsetting penalties. The Canadiens, short-manned on the blueline, were the clear loser on these exchanges. The fight also provided a clear illustration for those who pined over the summer for the day that PK executes Mr. Marchand that it won't be that easy. Also, we should take into account that Brendan Shanahan might not look too kindly on homicide. In any case, we saw two little punks who wouldn't be denied, and I'm glad PK is our punk. As opposed to the rat in black.

All in all, another good win which should relieve some pressure on Mr. Martin and Mr. Gauthier. It was heartwarming to see Jacques after the Tomas Plekanec goal, his countenance as he scribbled delightedly in his notebook displayed his often-discounted passion for the game. I bet the i's are dotted with emphasis and the t's are crossed with a flourish tonight.

As far as Mr. Gauthier, as the game ended I tried to think of which of his decisions, always much maligned, were vindicated at least until the next game. The decision to let Benoit Pouliot walk seems inspired. Now if Benoit could only turn into a hybrid of Terrel Owens and Sean Avery, he could cause some turmoil in their dressing room and finally help the Canadiens. The decision to keep Carey Price instead of Jaroslav Halak seems beyond debate. He overpaid for the right player this summer, as Erik Cole more and more seems to find his stride and on the verge of paying dividends.

I've spoken before about how Mr. Gauthier listens to my suggestions, and the decision to reassign Perry Pearn follows suit, since I've posted before on how I wanted a former NHL defenceman to be the coach in charge of our defenceman, and for that coach to be behind the bench proffering advice and encouragement to our young crew. My wish was granted tonight as I saw Mr. Ladouceur talking animatedly to his d-men during the Bruins timeout. Mr. Gauthier, if you're reading this post, aside from disregarding my strong recommendation to sign Shane O'Brien over the summer, thanks for listening.

Game 9: Montreal 5, Philadelphia 1

I've remained resolutely optimistic in my game recaps so far, and tonight's score will make it easy for me to stay on course. All the scheming and dreaming we did over the summer, with endless line permutations and visions of power forwards taking it to the net was realized in one panic-smothering swoop.

Let's start by giving Max Pacioretty serious props. A wrist injury which was reported to involve ligament damage and putatively might have required surgery was not enough to keep him out of the game or off the scoresheet. I initially questioned whether a sniper like him, as opposed to stone-handed players like Mike Blunden or Mathieu Darche, would be severely limited with such an ailment. Mr. Blunden could bang and crash with a sore wrist, but how could Mr. Pacioretty be effective with only one hand on his stick? I wondered whether we might be better off resting him to ensure he returned fully healthy, as opposed to he rushing back too soon and suffering through a nagging injury most of the season. It is fortunate that it is his right wrist which is hurt, since it is his top hand on the stick, which is not as important in wrist shots, and will not ache too much from the impact of slap shots. In any case, he showed leadership and courage by playing tonight, and it was great that he was rewarded for it.

Another player I was impressed with was Erik Cole, who skated fast and was strong on the puck all night. While some have uncharitably described his performance so far this season, based mostly on his lack of production, I have been happy with his play. The goals will come. He is an upgrade to our lineup, a big strong winger who knows what to do with the puck.

Which is take it and drive to the net. Which brings us to Mr. Kostitsyn, who once again went on one of his aimless skates with the puck. Lucky for me, Ray Ferraro on the TSN broadcast caught it too, and commented on it on a lengthy replay. To see him wheel around the net and carry the puck back toward the blue line, where he coughed it up, made my blood pressure rise. I hope that the coaching staff, however its responsibilities are reallocated, takes responsibility for le frère Andrei. Apparently simply watching Mr. Cole and Mr. Pacioretty isn't enough of a clear example for him to follow, he needs to be sat down and watch video of his low-IQ plays, as compared to some of Rick Tocchet's and Kevin Stevens' greatest hits.

Another blemish was Mr. Spacek's performance. He was jostled and bounced all game, and muffed a scoring chance. I would much, much prefer that Alexei Emelin be given those minutes. The future is now, we can't keep a 25 year old KHL top-pairing defenceman in the press box to make room for another one who is aging, fragile and ineffectual.

As far as the Flyers go, the overhaul they underwent this summer, along with Chris Pronger's absence, make them a seemingly much less ornery team. Claude Giroux scuffled with Tomas Plekanec, but aside from that the evening was relatively tame, except for Wayne Simmonds running around and acting like a big, big punk. We have seen this before this season, a big player with a nasty streak not finding anyone to rub up against, and looking for trouble.

And please, enough with the deification of Jaromir Jagr. Enough with his infectious good mood in the Flyers' dressing room, and his mentoring younger players, and his newfound energy and appreciation of the NHL. This is the guy who Czech-teased the city of Pittsburgh all summer and inexplicably turned tail and bolted for their mortal enemies. This is the guy who stole money for years from the Capitals and Rangers, and was a dressing-room dark cloud. Let's give it half a season before we fall for his act.

Monday, 24 October 2011

Game 8: Montreal 1, Florida 2

If the servers don't crash, we will soon be swamped by howling posters demanding Jacques Martin on a platter and for Pierre Gauthier to be burned at the stake. I still think it's much too early in the season to panic and will accentuate the positive.

First off, it was a boon to the team that the Matt Bradley hit did not cause David Desharnais to end up in the morgue.

Also, while watching the pre-game interview with Travis Moen on RDS, I was quite taken by the vibrant hues on his jersey. I'm not sure if it's the texture of the material or if the designers monkeyed with the colour palette, but I found the blue stripe had an electric quality to it, it positively shimmered, so that the classic red, and crisp, brilliant white stripes were amplified.

A clear upgrade can be found over last year in the replacement of Benoit Brunet with Marc Denis. Mr. Denis is decisive without being hurried, is clear and informative, and works well in his pairing with Mr. Houde. We can look forward to this combination clicking for many years.

Saturday, 22 October 2011

Game 7: Montreal 4, Toronto 5 (OT)

Another one that stings. And more evidence that the Canadiens are not a Stanley Cup contender. This will be emphasized in our matchups against the Bruins and Flyers coming up soon.

There has to be a way to penalize blatant, shameful dives like the one John-Micheal Liles took to draw a penalty against Travis Moen. I don't want hockey to degenerate into soccer. It would be so simple for Brendan Shanahan and his minions to hand out game suspensions for those, they stand out on video review. It would also make his job easier, sorting out the serious boarding calls from those that are self-inflicted or embellished.

Also, the league needs to protect goaltenders from rampaging buffaloes like Ryan Malone and Cody McCormick or Brian Gionta. As much as it was controversial, we need to go back to the 'in the crease' rule like it was applied in the 90's. It cheapens the game to have players barreling into the goaltender because they can't 'solve' him, it's a cheat that shouldn't be allowed. Some argue that it would reduce scoring, but the goals that are scored that way aren't those that show up on highlight reels and take your breath away. Opposing players shouldn't be in the goalie's crease, end of story. Which, of course, by the way, Mr. Gionta wasn't.

Specific to this game, I noticed Erik Cole working very hard to make something happen. He's catching some flak because his production hasn't been what was anticipated, but I never saw any lack of effort. What I'd like to see is him lurking in the offensive zone, pouncing on a loose puck and cashing it in, but that will probably come when he gets a regular centre to be on the same wavelength with.

Travis Moen was demeaned by some this summer because he's not a feared heavyweight fighter. He's showing that he's more than that, a true energy player who plays with heart and can lift the team. Let's hope that he won't lead the team in scoring for long, but good to see him having success.

Hal Gill turned it up a notch tonight, maybe inspired by his family seated behind the bench. At times, the antics of his young daughters was the most interesting thing to watch, and certainly when compared to Mr. Martin's usual dour countenance. In any case, he stood out on many plays, instead of being his usual self-effacing defender. He was physical, surprised some Leafs by not always making the safe play off the boards, and showed leadership in a difficult situation.

I hate to be uncharitable, but Andrei Kostitsyn drew my eye again, demonstrating his wizardly skill and low hockey IQ in the same game; he is our resident idiot-savant, this generation's Gaston Gingras. He scored on a laser in the second, but also on three occasions that I saw gave away the puck when he had clear, unchallenged possession. Once on the powerplay in the opposing zone, and once while cruising inside the opposition blue line, he showed indecision and lack of hunger and the puck floated off his stick right to an opponent. Best case scenario is for him to score twenty before the trade deadline and we unload him to a contender for a first-round pick.

Mike Komisarek was booed lustily when he carried the puck, but I chose to remember him fondly for the good years we had, like that ex-girlfriend you run into who still looks damn good and you almost forget why you broke up. I caught myself thinking that if the Leafs don't want him we'd take him back, he'd bring a skill-set that is completely absent on the Canadiens blueline right now. Yannick Weber and Raphaël Diaz are clones of each other, and when Jaroslav Spacek returns he'll be our third defenceman who is reputedly slick with the puck but devoid of size and strength. Building a team is best accomplished by bringing diverse talents together. You don't build a great team with 20 Einsteins, you need a B.A. Barracus, a Face, a Murdoch and a Hannibal to lead them.

Brent Butt and Norm MacDonald to replace Don Cherry

I've been thinking about who should replace Don Cherry as our national must-watch everyone-be-quiet I'll-go-to-the-bathroom-later first-period break. Instead of having a buffoon on, let's get three comedians sitting down and talking hockey.

I nominate Brent Butt, Norm MacDonald and Peter Kelamis. All three have a good fan's knowledge of hockey and passion for the game, as demonstrated in their career. They could offer their insights on the issues of the day, maybe helped along by a moderator.

I don't want to expand the set too much, but a Québécois voice might be necessary too. I'm not up to date on who would fit the bill, it's hard staying current out here in BC, but Daniel Lemire used to riff on hockey. My only caveat is that all these guys should be brought together in a studio so they can play off each other, no satellite links, so the Quebec contributor would need to be in Toronto.

I'm trying to think of Americans who might be able to add to the segment, I know Nick Bakay is up on his Buffalo Sabres, but that might be useful.

I don't know that we want five or six guys sitting down with the host, but we could have a flexible set of guests who appear depending on their schedules. Mr. Butt and MacDonald should be the headliners, and appear regularly. Having these guys sitting down with each other on a set that looks like your average basement rec room would be eminently more watchable than Ron and Don's tired act.

Thursday, 20 October 2011

Game 6: Montreal 1, Pittsburgh 3

It was my contention this summer that the Canadiens don't have a Stanley Cup-worthy lineup yet, that this year should be devoted to developing our young players instead of spending assets to cobble together a playoff roster. Tonight's game is a textbook example: the Canadiens get outplayed by a Penguins team missing Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Kris Letang.

Scott Gomez being hurt once again prevented any forward line stability or continuity. I wonder how much of Erik Cole's struggles can be attributed to this. I also wonder if the Canadiens will play better with David Desharnais and Lars Eller having more icetime at centre. In any case, it was time for the Whistler Marmots, who are tearing up the HIO Memorial Fantasy League right now, to drop Mr. Gomez from their lineup, and they did. Five games with only one assist was enough of a trial period for him. The Hail Mary fell incomplete out of bounds.

I noticed Alexei Yemelin get flattened by the Reverend Lovejoy. I imagine he's still being surprised by the strength and speed of NHL'ers. He may not have expected a defenceman to step up in the neutral zone and lay a hit on him. We were dreaming of him being a tank on our blueline this summer, it may yet happen with more exposure to our game and more confidence, but we'll need to be patient with him.

The powerplay was anemic, but what was unforgiveable was how it played without passion or determination. The Canadiens seemed lifeless during the game, and during the man advantage seemed to be wondering how in the heck they would ever score, instead of passing and shooting the puck with authority and playing like it was just a matter of time. Again I wonder if Mathieu Darche should be on the powerplay when Erik Cole is on the bench. We need to get that guy going, he has a lethal shot and is a better option than Mr. Darche.

Andreas Engqvist took a punch to the mouth on the play in which Brian Gionta crashed into Marc-André Fleury. He was standing near the crease and a Penguin popped him good, his intentions I imagine being partly to create space after the whistle, as is unfortunately too often seen in the NHL, with rarely a penalty called. I suspect there was also a desire for retribution after Mr. Fleury was run over. In any case, neither Mr. Engqvist or a teammate stood up to this affront, he meekly skated to the bench and got his bloody nose fixed. Word is rapidly spreading that the Canadiens are an easy target, with no consequence for transgressors.

Tuesday, 18 October 2011

Game 5: Montreal 1, Buffalo 3

I am being tested to remain consistent when analyzing this game. I have preached patience and that the first half of the season would be trying as the young defencemen learn their craft, and while Andrei Markov rehabilitates. So far, the results make me seem prescient.

Tonight's game was entertaining, in that the Canadiens skated well and showed imagination and flair on offence, but frustrating in that there is no tangible result to their domination. 1 goal out of 41 shots. 0 for 6 on the powerplay. Another loss.

Carey Price was competent in net, but gave up a juicy rebound that led to the first Sabres goal. His stats are okay, but in the end he didn't make the big save the Canadiens needed.

The defencemen played relatively well. Alexei Yemelin made me sit up and take notice, he was sound positionally, and distributed bodychecks. Raphaël Diaz scored a beautiful goal. Yannick Weber was effective. PK Subban played within himself and didn't commit any major blunders.

Josh Gorges did commit the goof of the game, icing the puck as the period was winding down, the kind of play that would have been a run-of-the-mill bad play, except that the Sabres cashed it in with a perfect play off a faceoff in the Canadiens zone with seven seconds left. We often see coaches furiously diagramming set plays for a crucial faceoff, and I often think of how these are examples of micromanaging and overcoaching, but in this case it actually did turn out just how they drew it up.

The Canadiens forwards did well, although I'm having trouble figuring which lines did best, whether those formed at practice this week, or those that Mr. Martin re-jigged during the game, or those with four forwards used during powerplays, or those necessitated by powerplays and penalty kills that interfered with the normal flow of rolling four lines, or those cobbled together by the necessity to replace Travis Moen during his five-minute penalty.

A penalty minute is not a boon to your team

So this week I’m playing Hobie’s Ham Hawks in the Habs Inside Out Memorial fantasy league on Hobie’s team, to his everlasting shame, include one Lucic, Milan. For being a clown tonight, he showed up on the scoresheet for 12 penalty minutes, which garnered his team 3.6 points.
I hate this scoring system that somehow rewards a team for a player’s lazy play. If a player is lazy and hooks another instead of skating and backchecking, somehow that’s worth points. I know that some people think that a player with high PIM totals is a truculent and bellicose player, and is somehow more valuable than a gentlemanly player, but this is a reflection of how ESPN views hockey, and how the NHL has a long way to go still before it emerges from their self-inflicted Dark Ages.

Markov has an appointment with Dr. Andrews. A week-long appointment

So it's official that Andrei Markov will not play in October, so the start of the season will be more difficult than anticipated this summer. The trick will be for the team to play hard, believe in themselves and value the fact that Yannick Weber, Alexei Emelin and Raphaël Diaz are getting a great opportunity to improve. If the Canadiens stick together and weather this storm, they will be in good shape when the playoffs come.

The trick for the fans will be to understand that this is not a Stanley Cup-contending caliber lineup, and that they should temper their expectations and be patient. Rejoice in the fact that this team is exciting to watch and promises to get better in the future, which is more than we could say five years ago.

Sunday, 16 October 2011

Game 4: Montreal 5, Avalanche 6 (SO)

The season has not started with a bang. With a talented but not necessarily deep roster, the Canadiens need a few things to go right for them to win regularly. The goaltending needs to be solid. The young defence corps needs to play dependable hockey. The forwards need to outskate the opposition, convert some lucky bounces. The power play needs to click, to ensure adversaries don't take too many liberties with the relatively small Canadiens roster.

So far, not many things are going right for our team. Carey Price had excelled so far this season, but admitted to playing poorly against the Avalanche. PK Subban has tried to be the second coming of Paul Coffey, and has committed some glaring errors. The power play had been anemic, but showed signs of life last night. The forwards played with heart, skating and hitting all game, as they haven't in the first three games.

It's a copout to mention injuries as a reason for losses, since every team needs to contend with them during a long season. Instead, it would be news if there were no injured Canadiens. Yet players like Ryan White and Mike Cammalleri are sorely missed for what they bring to the lineup. Those two would have been the antidote for guys like Shane O'Brien and Kyle Quincey facewashing and crosschecking our forwards in front of the net all night. Had Mike been there to convert on a couple more powerplays, and had Ryan brought more size and toughness to our lineup, the final score might have been different.

The return of Andrei Markov also cannot come soon enough. His presence in the lineup will settle the defence down, bump Hal Gill and Jaro Spacek further down the depth chart where they belong, provide mentorship for the Three Nuevos Amigos (Yannick Weber, Alexei Emelin, Raphaël Diaz), and a living, breathing, skating template for PK to observe from the bench ( "Hey, Andrei just bounced a pass to Mathieu off the boards, and even if Matt didn't corral it in, it didn't end up in our net. Maybe my next shift I'll try that instead of trying to deke my way through their entire lineup every single time I touch the puck....")

Paradoxically, I want the Canadiens to wait until Andrei is 101% ready before bringing him back, instead of 95%. We're not neck and neck with another team for the President's Trophy. Let's use the regular season as an extended training camp during which we feed ice time to our youngsters while Andrei rehabs.

I hate to beat on PK, because he works hard and tries harder, but he needs some coaching. He needs Mr. Ladouceur or Pearn to sit down with him in the video room and show him what he's doing on the ice, how it's costing the team, and some video examples of what other players in the same situations do that is simpler and more effective. He has to understand that when you fake out a forechecking forward by pretending to pass then keeping the puck and stickhandling with it, it will work the first couple of times, or if you only do it once in a while, but when it becomes your go-to move you make yourself vulnerable to having your pocket picked, as he had his picked last night. He needs to know the situation, what the score is, who his teammates are on the ice and where they are, before he makes these decisions, and to vary his play. If a forechecker is aggressive, expecting him to try to rush the puck, and PK beats him with a simple pass, it's just as good as if he'd stickhandled past him. It also make him more effective the next time he's up against that forechecker, who will be leery to commit one way or another.

I'm not going to panic, since I'm not expecting the Canadiens to waltz to the Stanley Cup. Instead, I think this year is one we will use to build toward a legitimate run soon. We can live with a slow start to the season, as the youngsters develop. There were a lot of positives yesterday. The trio of Weber, Emelin and Diaz did some good work, and logged some serious minutes, which they need to improve. Max Pacioretty was inspired, after a couple of listless games. Travis Moen plays with determination and seems to want to silence the naysayers. Lars Eller made me sit up and take notice, which I haven't done since he got here from St. Louis.

Sunday, 9 October 2011

Game 2: Montreal 5, Winnipeg 1

I've decided that I don't like the Jets' logo. I'm no graphic design expert, I'm no esthete, but it seems to me that its elements fight instead of complement each other. The jet obscures the maple leaf, so that it isn't really visible, you almost have to actively discern it. The jet itself being silver doesn't contrast enough with the white background of the roundel, so that it blends in with it. The result is a logo that washes out, instead of being bold and instantly recognizable. This was evident in the CBC broadcast, with the small logo not standing out on the score ticker at the top of the screen.

I've stated recently that Jaroslav Spacek is not physically strong enough to play NHL hockey. This may not be a proper indicator of this, but Evander Kane's bodycheck on him really seemed to hurt him. Maybe any of the Canadiens players would have felt it, workout warrior or not, but he is soft and the word is probably out that he's an easy target for forecheckers.

Let's play the kids on defence. It's not like there are many other solutions, Rod Langway's not waiting for a callup in Halifax. They're not going to learn on the bench, so let's see what they have and enjoy the energy and mobility they can bring. I'm happier with Yannick Weber, Alexei Yemelin and Raphaël Diaz on the blue line than I am with last year's crew of Roman Hamrlik, Jaro Spacek, Brent Sopel and Paul Mara. We might even lose a couple of games with the youths that we would have won if we still had the veterans, but I'm happy to take a small step back for the future.

PK Subban has to decide if he's a skating offensive defenceman, or if he's a tough all-round defenceman who's got a nasty streak and can mix it up. If it's the latter, when he starts trading cross-checks with an opponent, he can't pull off halfway through because he got popped in the mouth. He can't slash or mouth off another player, then skate away and look over his shoulder to see if Hal Gill is coming in to save his butt. He could very well play a Nick Lidstrom role, with a physical but gentlemanly side and avoid penalties, and avoid getting his teammates into shizzle. However, if he decides he's a hard-nosed all-round defenceman like Chris Chelios, then he has to put up a couple times and finish what he starts. If he wants to be a pitbull, he needs to be the first one on Mark Stuart when he runs Brian Gionta, and be on him hard. And he can keep battling with opponents for the puck, but he must not stop halfway through and throw up his arms in a show of innocence, letting go of his stick and looking at the referee.

It was good to see our snipers bury some chances, the preseason had us a little antsy. Our forwards have got some wicked shooters among them, let's pull the trigger Let's also hope that Mike Cammalleri isn't out for too long, that guy works too hard to have that amount of bad luck.

It's certainly not a run-of-the-mill start to the season. All these injuries are going to challenge our lineup, and possibly cut into Mr. Gauthier's salary cap cushion.

Saturday, 8 October 2011

There is no merit to Al Davis hagiographies

The owner of the Oakland Raiders, Al Davis, passed away at the age of 82, and the NFL deification machine is now running on all cylinders. The eulogists will gloss over his many failings and chuckle at his status as a renegade and an iconoclast. I do not share the warm feelings they will tell us we should hold for this departed NFL titan.

Al Davis is the main culprit and first perpetrator of the NFL franchise kidnapping, and of holding communities hostage with the threat of relocation. He dispossessed the Oakland fans of their team, bolting for the riches of Los Angeles and guaranteed revenues, underwritten by its taxpayers. When he felt the movement to build him a new stadium (at no cost to himself) was too slow, he pulled the same crap on LA and returned to Oakland, with a deal in his pocket that again guaranteed him set minimum revenues, again at taxpayer expense. He spoke of a commitment to excellence and loyalty, but he showed none of it to the fans of Oakland and LA. His legacy is largely blighted by the reality of the Rams playing in St-Louis, the Cardinals in Phoenix and the Colts in Indianapolis. The good people of Cleveland lost their team because that little weasel Art Modell, emboldened by Al Davis' litigations with the NFL, absconded with it to Baltimore (the same city that cried bloody murder when it lost the Colts), but they managed to hang on to the name 'Browns' only when the NFL Commissioner intervened.

Al Davis is also a man who gained control of the Raiders under shady circumstances. He started as a minority partner, and somehow ended up owning the team, despite numerous lawsuits by former partners who claim they were defrauded.

His team thrived on an 'outlaw' reputation, and has been frequently the most-penalized in the league, accused of being the dirtiest and of thriving on cheap shots. It appeals to troubled adolescents with its black uniform and logo, which is catnip to misfits and criminal gang members.

Sunday while I try to watch the pre-game shows and actual games, I'll be subjected to glowing testimonials about this putatively great man, but I won't drink the Kool-Aid.

Thursday, 6 October 2011

Game 1: Montreal 0, Toronto 2

Well, I just finished watching Maple Leaf Night in Toronto, a tough loss for the Canadiens, but I did learn a lot about the Leafs, lots of cool infographics about them and their players. Good of CBC to tailor the coverage towards me as a Montreal fan, I guess they knew I'm quite familiar with all the Canadiens players and their stories, so they thought they'd focus on Dion Phaneuf and David Steckel.

The game itself didn't have a lot of flow and emotion. The Leafs I think were kind of surprised to score the first goal and having an opportunity to win after being dominated in the first period, kind of like Vince Wilfork with an interception falling into his hands, so they started rumbling and stumbling with it, kind of like Vince Wilfork running with the ball after an interception. The Canadiens looked disjointed and listless, like they would have benefited from one or two more pre-season games with a full roster.

Jaroslav Spacek isn't strong enough to play NHL hockey. Every hit he took was enough to cause him to fall to the ice. He may be fitter than last year, but he's still overmatched by most players he comes up against.

My eye was drawn to Andrei Kostitsyn during the game, and I was rarely impressed. I don't know if I'm developing an unhealthy obsession with him, but every time I saw him he'd be circling aimlessly in the offensive zone. On his give and go with Tomas Plekanec in the first period, he floated too long before realizing he should charge the net, and got there too late to pot a fat easy rebound. Maybe the coaches saw the same thing I did, and maybe the experiment didn't last even a whole game, but Erik Cole found himself on the top line in the third period.

I also noticed that the Canadiens have Perry Pearn and Randy Cunneyworth behind the bench, but defence coach Randy Ladouceur is up in the press box. With all the young and new defencemen the Canadiens have, I think it would be important to have Mr. Ladouceur behind the bench doling out tips and encouragement. Especially if Chris Campoli is injured and we have to press Mr. Yemelin into service, this should be considered.

Not a great start to the season, and it stings that it's to the Leafs, the CBC's second favourite team after the Bruins, but it may be a little early to panic. For now.

2011--12 season prediction for the Montréal Canadiens

I was moderately optimistic about the Canadiens' season outlook this summer, but lately I've come to temper that enthusiasm. I thought the addition of Erik Cole, the return of Max Pacioretty, Josh Gorges and especially Andrei Markov, the rejuvenation of the defence corps with Yanick Weber, Alexei Yemelin and Raphaël Diaz, and an upgrade at our backup goalie position meant our team would be much improved. Any return to form by Scott Gomez would be gravy.

Training camp has caused to reconsider. My concern is on defence, as it is probably with most observers.

My main worry is the delayed recovery of Andrei Markov. I wrote frequently this summer that while recovering from ACL reconstruction is no walk in the park, Mr. Markov's work ethic and dedication to his physical conditioning, along with the fact that his operation occurred early last season and afforded him plenty of time to rehab, would ensure he would be raring to go by the time the season started. My only concern was that he might look good as new and the coaching staff might overwork him, as opposed to easing him in. That is no longer an issue, the problem now is that Andrei might feel the urge to return before he's 100% ready to go, with his teammates playing without him.

Surprisingly, Josh Gorges has come back feeling as fit and ready as ever, even though his surgical procedure occurred a couple months later than Mr. Markov. Notwithstanding the fact that this is his first reconstruction, as opposed to Mr. Markov's second, I expected him to lag behind because his recovery window was shorter. In any case, I was counting on Andrei to provided limited but valuable minutes early in the season, and to take on more and more minutes as the season progressed.

I was also counting on Yannick Weber to assume the role of a full-time NHL defenceman, after a few seasons of preparation as the #7 or pressbox D-man. I also hoped, and almost expected, that Alexei Yemelin was mature enough and seasoned enough, at 25 and after a few seasons in the KHL, to step right into the rotation and become a workhorse relatively quickly. Unfortunately, Mr. Weber wasn't able to gain the trust of the coaching staff and is now relegated to playing forward on the 4th line, Mr. Yemelin has been slow to adapt, and this forced GM Pierre Gauthier to sign free agent Chris Campoli as an insurance policy. Swiss free-agent signee Raphaël Diaz, who I thought would need some time in the AHL to get his bearings, has snuck in and will be starting for now. Overall, this is a disappointing development.

In goal, Jacques Martin and I shared the same qualms about starting Alex Auld, so we signed Peter Budaj as what was thought to be an upgrade, and a safer opportunity to rest Carey Price more often during the regular season. Mr. Budaj had some relatively poor performances in training camp, to the point where I'm concerned that we may have gone backward in that area. Much was made of his lack of access to a regular goaltending coach while in Colorado, so it is hoped that Canadiens coach Pierre Groulx will be able to work with him and get him to perform at full capacity.

At forward, we have more talent than any time in recent memory. Scott Gomez has made good on his promise to work hard over the summer on his fitness so as to perform better than last season, and had an encouraging camp, showing good chemistry with a seemingly fully healthy Max Pacioretty. Captain Brian Gionta should normally complete that respectable second line. The first line combo of centre Tomas Plekanec and Mike Cammalleri seemed destined to be teamed with Erik Cole, but for now their right winger will be the enigmatic Andrei Kostitsyn, on a one-year contract before being eligible for free agency next summer. It can be hoped that this provides him with a source of motivation. The third line will be a mix and match of youngsters Lars Eller, David Desharnais, Mr. Cole or Kostitsyn, and Mathieu Darche. The fourth line should include waiver claim centre Blair Betts with Travis Moen, Ryan White and occasionally Mr. Weber. This should be as strong a fourth line as was iced in recent memory, one that will be able to contribute defensively and provide a physical presence. While the Canadiens will be on the smallish side, the lines should have some balance with a big winger on each three top lines.

The coaching staff is experienced and capable, with Mr. Martin as head coach, his trusty assistant Perry Pearn, the aforementioned Pierre Groulx, and newcomers Randy Cunneyworth and Randy Ladouceur. Mr. Cunneyworth having played and been team captain under Mr. Martin probably will ensure a smooth transition.

Having reviewed these considerations, I have to agree with most experts who expect the Canadiens to battle for a playoff spot and finish eighth. The Canadiens need too many things to go right to finish much higher, and don't have the depth to weather many injuries. While this can be said of many teams, the fact that we are pouncing on players not good enough to be signed by other teams or put on waivers by them is instructive.

Another reason to be realistic is the strength of the other teams the Canadiens have to compete with. For example, the Flyers are deep enough at forward that they waived centre Blair Betts, who was pushed out by free-agent acquisition Maxime Talbot and first-rounder Sylvain Couturier. The Canadiens have no such depth in their roster. Looking at the Eastern Conference, there are many such teams loaded with talent, such as the Penguins, Capitals, and Bruins. I'm not convinced, but all the experts agree that the Sabres are much improved. This would mean that a top 4 finish is unattainable, and puts the Canadiens in a dogfight with Tampa Bay, the Rangers and Carolina for a 5-8 finish. This is discounting any surprise showing from the dregs of the conference such as Ottawa, Winnipeg and Toronto, and the Devils or Islanders who could be stronger than they appear on paper.

Having said that, I don't think this will deter from a great season. The Canadiens are much improved from five years ago, are slowly building depth in Hamilton (although the cupboard seems bare for reinforcements this season) and have many talented prospects in junior and elsewhere. We should have some exciting games this year, cheering a team that is skilled, fast and plays a fan-friendly skating style, and is filled with character players. My hope is that come trade deadline time, we can trade in bargaining chips like Andrei Kostitsyn, Jaroslav Spacek and Chris Campoli for some draft picks and continue to stock our team for the future.

Saturday, 1 October 2011

Pre-Season Game #8: Montreal 5, Tampa Bay 1

Aaaaah, that feels much better. We saw a near-NHL-lineup on the ice for the Canadiens, and the veterans seemed to understand that it was time to get going. The team played with more resolve and authority. Having a legit goalie in our net helped as well.

There were nice moments. It was cool to see Jaro Spacek contribute offensively, and that all-around good guy Mathieu Darche benefited. Seeing both acknowledge each other was great. Also great was the sheepish look on Scott Gomez' face after his ping-pong ball goal, and Andrei's beaming smile also, before he reactivated his cloaking device and disappeared for most of the game. Obviously Steve Downie's sensors are of the finest quality, since he managed to find him for a bullspit fight. Mr. Downie must have some modesty, he could have chosen Mr. Desharnais to pick on, but instead targeted a middleweight. Of course, Mr. Downie could claim to have the colour of right, since he was avenging a very late hit by Andrei, whose low hockey IQ was in evidence again.

Encouraging signs from the lethal Erik Cole, who will hopefully snap quite a few wristers like tonight's during the regular season. He will be able to accomplish what Benoit Pouliot could not, provide a fast and physical presence on the top line with the ability to finish. Scott Gomez is showing that his conditioning program is paying off, his upper-body strength is obviously improved, based on the shots he took. Last year, his shot was his last option, and it was a fluttering floater that goalies would pluck out of the air as they stifled a yawn. Tonight he took a wrist shot from just inside the blue line that was legitimate. He also is no longer routinely curling east-west when he crosses the offensive blue line, he now sometimes goes to the net.

Aaron Palushaj finally showed signs of life, showing speed and driving to the net. Unfortunately, Andreas Engqvist couldn't do the same. He should have been checking Vincent Lecavalier on the lone Tampa Bay goal. Granted, that's a tall order, but it should be something he can accomplish since he comes advertised as a defensive specialist.

We also saw good things from the Campoli-Gorges combo, these two complement each other quite well. They're not bruisers, but they are sure-handed with the puck and get it out of the zone quick. We can only hope that Mr. Campoli is not injured badly.

I heard the Antichambre denizens calling Ryan Malone a goon, to which I have to disagree. He played like the biggest baddest dude out on the ice, which he was. We would welcome such a player on our team. My impression is that he's a good player who committed a dirty play and will pay for it, but he's not a habitual offender. I also heard them say the Canadiens need some big tough players who can play hockey. If only we could find a Rod Langway and Mike McPhee on the waiver wire, we'd be set.