Saturday, 29 October 2011

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.

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