Saturday, 31 December 2011

Game 39: Montréal 2, Florida 3

It's hard to see the positives in a game like this. This isn't quite the same December 31 we had back in 1975. We played a Panthers team on the second night of a back-to-back, and the Rangers should have softened them up. Maybe they did, and that's why we played them so close. Maybe without the Rangers' help this would have been a blowout.

P.K. Subban is out of control. I commended him last game on playing well, within the limits imposed by the game and the score. Tonight he ran amok, took bad, bad penalties, and picked a fight with someone tougher than he is, a fight he had no intention of finishing. He left that to noted strongmen Josh Gorges et al, who had to come in and clean up his mess.

To recap, at the end of the first period, P.K. is standing in the goalie's crease, looking for a rebound on an end of period set play. The horn sounds, the period is over, everything's cool. Erik Gudbranson gives P.K. the mildest of shoves to get him out of the crease, which is a dumb NHL 'send a message' type of behavior in itself, but it's pretty innocuous, except P.K. takes exception and points the blade of his stick at his body, pantomiming a spear attempt. Mr. Gudbranson swats his stick away, which is what P.K. should have expected. He also at this point should have realized that his adversary is listed at 6'3" and 200 lbs. He should remember that he had all he could handle when he grappled with Brad Marchand. Regardless, he crosses the Rubicon and takes a solid punch-shove at him, at which point the scuffle is on. Mr. Gudbranson grabs him by the head, probably a preamble to feeding him a few rights, but P.K., infallibly, puts his hand to his mouth as if he's just had dental work done by Dr. Szell. He swoons to the ice, both hands covering his face as if he's weeping. Meanwhile, Josh Gorges and other Canadiens, who if they had their druthers would prefer not to have to get into shoving matches like this, jump into the fray and defend their teammate. So they take a few jabs in the chops for P.K., who slowly staggers to his feet, moping, before he realizes that he's miraculously unhurt, and skates off the ice to what should be a lively dressing room.

I am so sick of his dives and fake injuries. Completely unworthy of our team. He starts trouble, retaliates like he’s a tough guy to a relatively anodyne push, but then has his teammates back him up for his nonsense. If he wants to be an instigator, he should pattern himself after Chris Chelios, not Mike Ribeiro.

It's so hard to focus on the positives. Sure, there's Natasha Staniszewski on SportsCentre tonight. Erik Cole managed to score a nice late goal, with, funnily enough, this David Desharnais guy at centre. Not the guy he played the previous 58 minutes with. Wait, that wasn't positive.

Thursday, 29 December 2011

How do I love David Desharnais? Let me count the ways...

A significant quote of his is telling: when he was first called up and the media were getting to know him, he explained that at every level of hockey that he’s ever played at, when he first joins the team he concentrates on defence and the role he’s supposed to play within the coach’s system. He said he did that to gain the confidence of the coach, and it would inevitably lead to more icetime and more offensive opportunities. I remember thinking what a smart kid he was, especially compared to Andrei Kostitsyn, for example.

He’s not a strong guy, but he makes up for it in quickness and agility. His assist on the Mike Cammalleri goal in Ottawa was telling, how quickly he pounced on the puck and wheeled around the net, no opponent could move in time to stop him. Along the boards, he gets low enough that opponents have a hard time getting leverage against him or getting a clean hit. He uses timing and a quick stick to steal pucks from bigger, stronger opponents all the time.

I may be partial to him since I remember how hard it was to play against quick shifty forwards. Sure, if the opposing defencemen can get a good lick on him it’ll hurt, but they seldom do. Unlike Scott Gomez, he has a variety of moves, and goes to the net or slot without hesitation, and is effective once there.

His linemates love him and want to play with him, and pout when they’re taken off his line. Max claims he’s the best player he ever played with.

This is his first full season in the NHL. He’s still young, he will improve, get acclimated to the speed, get stronger and fitter still.

The fact that he’s French-Canadian is a nice bonus. The Canadiens have a few competitive advantages. One is that they have a huge pool of hockey players who grew up idolizing the Habs, and will bleed bleu-blanc-rouge if they ever get a chance to don the jersey. I think we should use that to our advantage.

Game 38: Montréal 3, Tampa Bay 4

We talked earlier about how there's no substitute for talent in the NHL. The Canadiens were victims of a couple of questionable goals tonight, but more to the point, they were the victims of two great players, namely Vincent Lecavalier and Steve Stamkos. Both scored to help edge the Canadiens, who gave up a two-goal lead to a team they are battling with to get into the playoffs.

Raphaël Diaz continued his hot streak, with two more assists. P.K. Subban showed more restraint in his game, but at the end of the game, when it was appropriate, he took more chances to try to get the tying goal. I applauded his efforts as he rushed the puck and tried to go coast to coast with it with 90 seconds left. He also made a sound decision in deciding to stay on the offensive blueline instead of retreating to back up Alexei Emelin as he was pressured while trying to get a handle of the puck. When he did eventually lose it, P.K. raced back, showing great acceleration, and broke up the play. All in all, a good game for Mr. Subban, who I've been critical of this season, but only because I love him, and want him to succeed.

Hal Gill was also effective in his own way. I saw him play Ryan Malone close on a couple occasions, and that seemed to calm down the hulking Lightning forward tonight, compared to his appearance in Montreal during the pre-season. While some assail Mr. Gill for not dropping the gloves, he is still an imposing figure and he tends to cool opponents' tempers.

David Desharnais, denuded of his big wingers, is now condemned to ineffectiveness. Again tonight, he won puck battles along the boards, darted in and out of traffic, went to the front of the net, wasting everyone's time since it's hopeless for him without Erik Cole and Max Pacioretty. He had to slink off the ice with a puny goal and measly assist. In a completely unrelated matter, his new winger Mike Cammalleri seems to be reborn, with another goal tonight.

On a puzzling note, during the telecast on RDS the hosts and panelists chuckled on a couple of occasions about Eric Brewer getting his clock cleaned by Wayne Simmonds during the Lightning's most recent game against the Flyers. The latter showed again a propensity for picking his spots, goading and slashing Mr. Brewer into a fight that he won handily, and somehow did not draw the instigator penalty. The Lightning were concerned that Mr. Brewer might have suffered a concussion and he was almost held out of tonight's game, but somehow that amused Benoit Brunet and Vincent Damphousse. We still have a ways to go.

I'll be looking on with interest to see if Mr. Simmonds takes on Milan Lucic the next time he plays the Bruins. He didn't show the same determination to get at Mr. Lucic after his hit on Flyer Zac Rinaldo. I had also noticed that Mr. Simmonds acted like a cheap thug during his first game against the Canadiens, but was much better behaved the second time around when faced regularly with Travis Moen and Alexei Emelin, who had missed the first game.

Wednesday, 28 December 2011

Andrei Kostitsyn not getting a fair shake?

I'm asked again why I keep mentioning that Andrei Kostitsyn should be traded. It’s an itch I’m trying to scratch. I can’t not notice when he coasts on the ice. His occasional explosions only shine a spotlight on his nights off. I’ve fallen out of love permanently, and now I feel betrayed and vindictive.

He’s had many seasons to show dedication and consistency and productivity according to his talent. I’m expecting him to leave in free agency, or worse, for the Canadiens to resign him, another twenty goal scorer, to a multiyear five million dollar a season contract.

My best case scenario is that he plays lights out and we get good value for him at the deadline.

To be clear, I think we should trade all our valuable, moveable assets at the deadline to contenders for prospects and picks. I include Hal Gill, Travis Moen, and Josh Gorges in this list of availables. If a team out there makes a decent offer for Mike Cammalleri or Brian Gionta, we should let them go as well, although I understand their contract and no-trade clauses will make that difficult.

I don’t think it’s reasonable to expect our team to improve by just trading the players nobody wants, like Scott Gomez or Tomas Kaberle. If we want to make trades to get good value in return, we need to trade loyal soldiers who would be the final piece on a contender’s roster, but don’t realistically figure in our long-term plans. Kind of like when we traded away Craig Rivet. That one stung for a while, but it was ultimately a great trade for us.

Tuesday, 27 December 2011

Game 37: Montréal 6, Ottawa 2

A new beginning, with a team fresh off Christmas break, or a sieve in goal for Ottawa?

A return to form for a spirited and proud team, or a dead cat bounce?

Whatever the correct analysis, this is a breath of fresh air for the team and its fans, and a welcome boon for Randy Cunneyworth who is caught in a difficult situation. The team has been unfortunate quite a few times this season, getting few bounces, hitting posts, and running into hot goalies on a couple of occasions, it's about time they got lucky.

Many changes brought in by Mr. Cunneyworth, he rolled the dice on a few hunches and came up sevens on practically all. Lars Eller and P.K. Subban both made their way back onto the lineup, and played a positive role in the win. Chris Campoli was relegated to the pressbox and had a much better game, with no defensive gaffes to his debit. The coach also shuffled his lines, since at this point he has nothing to lose and was trying to find a spark.

David Desharnais was stripped of his hulking power forwards and thus was rendered ineffective, as many fans contended would happen. He was kept off the scoresheet. He was a measly #2 on the night. Uh, and he also happened to be on the ice for the lone powerplay goal the Good Guys scored. And his wingers Mike Cammalleri and Louis Leblanc each had a goal and an assist. The same Mike Cammalleri who hadn't scored since December 1. Hmmm, maybe we need to revise our theory that David is only effective because 'he has Cole and Max'.

Lars Eller showed some finish, finally, scoring a short-handed goal that came shortly after a Senators goal and may have plugged a hole in our leaky morale. It'll be interesting to see how long he keeps Erik Cole and Max Pacioretty, the trio is intriguing in its potential.

Rafaël Diaz chipped in three assists, which were very welcome, and need to keep coming in his case. He can't contribute physically like Alexei Emelin does, so he needs to bring smart passing and some offence to the table.

Andrei Kostitsyn was, again, invisible for long stretches of the game, which is inexcusable for a veteran player of his considerable skill. He needs to go on a long productive streak so that when we unload him at the trade deadline his value will be inflated.

Louis Leblanc, on the other hand, is chipping in some points and plays hard every night, which Aaron Palushaj and Andreas Engqvist were not able to do in their extended auditions with the Grand Club. He is doing his job, which is to make the management team think twice about sending him back to Hamilton.

Carey Price was his usual unflappable self. I did notice during the first penalty kill that he ably cleared the zone himself all the way to the other end. On the next play, he tried again, but this time was intercepted and this led to a dangerous opportunity for the Sens. Carey needs to continue helping his defencemen by handling the puck, but can't get lazy about it, the rest of the league can watch video of him and they're now expecting his long clears through the middle.

Lots of goals by the veterans who should be scoring, setups by the defencemen, solid goaltending, this team shouldn't have many more five-game losing streaks.

Thursday, 22 December 2011

Game 36: Montréal 0, Winnipeg 4

I'm going to concentrate on the big picture today, instead of focusing on, oh, I don't know, if I was to pick a subject at random, how bad Chris Campoli and Tomas Kaberle played tonight and how the Kaberle contract will cripple our organization for years to come. Truthfully, I couldn't really break down the game by periods or by crucial or noteworthy plays, since I snoozed on my comfortable couch during the first and second periods for long stretches, and didn't bother rewinding the PVR when I came to. I could tell by Pierre Houde's voice that there was nothing worthwhile that I had missed, except maybe some dominating stretches by former Vancouver Giant Evander Kane, a leader on the Whistler Marmots, who are currently 7-3 and battling for top spot in the HabsInsideOut Memorial Fantasy Hockey League ( ).

If I wasn't drifting off and snapping to, I was reading Neal Stephenson's 'Quicksilver', the first book of the Baroque Cycle trilogy. It's my second go-round, an amazing bounty of a read, 400 pages in and I'm not even halfway through the book, with two more to come ( Anyway, I'm really enjoying this part of the book, I'm having trouble putting it down, so I was reading and glancing up at the screen now and then, and it came to me that I haven't really done this all season. I've watched every game this season but one, and really watching, not having it on in the background while I do something else.

This is the first sign that I may be giving up on this season. To do so, I have to protect myself psychologically, and I usually do so by convincing myself that I don't really care how the Canadiens do, it doesn't affect my quality of life, so no sense in getting all worked up, kind of like I did during Réjean Houle's Reign of Error. I've already done that with the Chargers, and I've enjoyed this late meaningless winning streak they're on, watching the games is a real pleasure when you're not awash in fear at the potential playoff implications of a botched snap and fumble on the Chief's five yard line which negated the chance at a chip-shot game-winning field goal. The games are fun now, they're exhibitions of artistry and skill with no chance of a payoff and no risk of further heartbreak, kind of like a Cirque du Soleil performance.

The only problem is I can't shake the feeling that we are witnessing an implosion of our beloved team, from which wreckage it will take years (again) to emerge. Think Viggo Mortensen trying to eke out a living in the movie 'The Road', and that's the amplitude of the catastrophe we're going to have to crawl out of, with maybe some zombies and an expiring Maya calendar thrown into the mix.

The Canadiens seemed to be a team on the rise, with talented, respected veterans like Brian Gionta, Mike Cammalleri and Tomas Plekanec leading the way. Andrei Markov and Josh Gorges were on the mend, there were promising youngsters on the roster, including two guys you could potentially build a franchise around in Carey Price and P.K. Subban. Montréal was no longer a free agent last resort, we managed to overpay Erik Cole to come here instead of he being overpaid somewhere else. Things were only going to get better in the next few years, as more judiciously acquired free agents grafted onto a nucleus of promising draft choices, tantalizingly out of reach for now.

We now behold the ruins of a once promising and thriving team, which seems directionless and despondent. The players are committing the mortal sin of not even trying anymore, as if they adopted Andrei Kostitsyn as their role model. We're not even halfway through the season, and it seems as if we'll endure a Bataan Death March to elimination.

And that would be okay if we could retool next year, except that not only are we hamstrung by our salary cap situation, but now we have to be concerned that Montréal may not be seen as a good place to play hockey by free agents from without and by our current players. The organization transmogrifying in half a season from a strong and stable one to a Mickey Mouse outfit lurching from one crisis to another is one problem. The language issue, which used to be a hurdle but was now seen to be a quirk that made Montréal kind of cool and gave the cute girls adorable accents is once more going to be a disincentive for a lot of players. Playing at the New Forum and the loudest, most enthusiastic fans, another arrow in our quiver for attracting players, is not going to be thought of so highly when it generates the loudest, most enthusiastic boos in the league.

I've been seen as a glass-is-three-quarters-full kind of guy when it comes to the team and its management and future outlook, but I'm crestfallen at how quickly the wheels fell off this jalopy. Maybe this is something that a nine game win streak can turn around, but until win #5 or 6, I'm going to be hanging with Chicken Little.

Wednesday, 21 December 2011

Game 35: Montréal 1, Chicago 5

My buddy and coworker Mike played for the Dawson Blues in the late '80's when they were really putrid. Mike was a small shifty forward with the physique of an Alfie Turcotte. He also had a big mouth, a really funny guy who could be pretty caustic and not know when to shut his yap. I could imagine what he would be like to have on a team, seeing the crap he used to pull at work. His coach tried to put this rookie in his place right at the start of the season by not playing him. He didn't dress for most of the first 10 games or so, and when he did, he was mostly stapled to the bench. During a game when they were losing big, he whined to his coach that he should send him on the ice. "I'd understand if you were benching me and we were winning, but what are you saving me for?" He didn't get much icetime in the next few games either, but his point seemed valid when we were talking about it.

I thought of Mike's travails tonight while I watched Chris Campoli flat on his stomach trying to defend a two-on-one, while I watched Hal Gill chugging down the ice barely yet barely moving compared to Viktor Stalberg, and while I watched Tomas Kaberle's disgusting lack of effort on the 5th Chicago goal. Haven't we seen enough already from these gentlemen? Meanwhile, we have a 23 year old and a 25 year old defenceman who are part of the Canadiens' future sitting in the pressbox. Mr. Weber and Mr. Emelin must be on the ice, they cannot do any worse than Mr. Campoli, and they will improve by playing, compared to Mr. Kaberle and Mr. Gill who are on the downslope of their careers.

P.K. Subban is his own conundrum. He is immensely talented and will eventually be an excellent defenceman, but right now his mind just isn't right. He makes mental errors, he's lazy on many plays but then expends effort on needless individual plays. The problem is that there isn't enough talent and experience on the blue line to reduce his icetime accordingly. That is, it we're still hoping to get into the playoffs. If we throw in the towel and this season becomes a training camp for next season, however, we need to pull in the reins on Mr. Subban, and for there to be a reckoning.

There is no rivalry between the Hawks and the Canadiens, and it showed during the game. There was little intensity or emotion, and it almost looked like the Canadiens might lull them to sleep, but in the end we could kind of tell that Chicago had two or three extra gears that they could shift into when needed. Ultimately though, they managed to beat us at cruising speed. When they celebrated their third period goals, we didn't see great joy or relief, just the satisfaction of a job well done, like a tradesman who puts in his hours and inevitably succeeds.

We may be in for a long fishtailing end to the season. As I contemplated the horrors that may befall us, I wondered why Bob Gainey wasn't asked to take up the interim coach position and offer some stability and credibility to our team, which it is sorely lacking now.

Monday, 19 December 2011

Game 34: Montréal 2, Boston 3

Meet the new boss, same as the old boss, or so it seems after another loss by the Canadiens. Unfortunately, they seem to be losing the habit of playing up to the strong teams' level, sliding just under the bar again tonight, at least on the scoreboard that is.

Randy Cunneyworth has the responsibility to shake things up and wring more out of the lineup than Jacques Martin could, but that's difficult without fresh horses. His changes tonight, the lineup he iced and his use of it are no more reasonable or evidently beneficial and no less questionable than Mr. Martin's. He committed the sin of relegating Alexei Emelin to the pressbox in favour of Chris Campoli. Yannick Weber and his slapshot were also left out.

Mr. Weber being left out did mean that the Canadiens had a big fourth line, something which fans have been clamouring for, with Petteri Nokelainen between Mathieu Darche and Mike Blunden. They were effective and played with heart and determination, creating a few scoring chances, notably a shot off a goalpost by Mr. Nokelainen. This is where the controversies begin though, especially in a loss. While trailing by one goal, shouldn't the top 2 lines have been in heavy rotation to try to equalize matters? I'd like to see Mr. Cunneyworth justify this decision, especially in Français Radio-Canada International.

P.K. Subban looked weak, seemingly affected by a virus and almost being scratched from the lineup. He went through the pre-game drills and it was decided to play him, but maybe we shouldn't have bothered, especially with two healthy defencemen available. He looked weak for other reasons. P.K. committed a doozy of a blunder, a soft frilly what-were-you-thinking, didn't-we-go-over-this-?, wasn't-it-the-same-kind-of-horsebleep-that-almost-cost-us-the-game-against-the-Islanders pass that was pounced on by Andrew Ference and was behind Carey Price faster than you could say 'glove malfunction'. I'm tempted to excuse Mr. Subban for his transgressions tonight due to his enfeebled state, but I'm also tempted to stick him in the press gallery for a couple of games for the entirety of his oeuvre lately.

The Bruins were again, like the last game, on their best behaviour. Claude Julien has probably given his boys strict marching orders to not lose their heads while trying to decapitate Canadiens. With the popgun powerplay the Glorieux ice though, we may wonder why Mr. Julien would bother. Maybe it was the suspension meted out to Milan Lucic, the Bruins were chastened and have seen the error of their ways. Yeah, that's it, that's the ticket....

Benoit Pouliot is rounding into form, he scored tonight on a nice goal, in that he was in position to accept a great feed from Rich Peverley. Mr. Pouliot has been appearing on the scoresheet with some regularity lately, after an appalling start to his season. While I normally wish homeboys and former Canadiens well, in this case I want nothing good to ever happen to that traitorous treasonous turncoat. He can't go back into his deep hibernation soon enough.

Coach or Instructeur: the Canadiens' next head man

An interesting point for all the tub-thumpers out there who say the Canadiens should just hire the best, most-qualified candidate, regardless of language.

In 2007, the Miami Dolphins interviewed for their head coaching job and eventually settled on Cam Cameron as the best candidate and offered him the job. In the process, they also interviewed John Harbaugh and Mike Tomlin, but found them both lacking somehow.

Ultimately, it’s impossible to know which candidate will succeed and will mesh well with the team and city and whose philosophy will best showcase the talent available on the roster. The Canadiens should form a short list of the best up-and-coming talent and focus hard on their own backyard, and from there pick the best one.

To say that language shouldn’t be a consideration is to ignore the history of the team and the reality of the market they serve.

The hypocrisy and moral bankruptcy of Mike Milbury

The hypocrisy and moral bankruptcy of Mike Milbury is astounding. He is currently accused of misdemeanor assault for shaking a 12 year old boy, an opponent of his own son who were playing hockey and participating in a sort of skills competition.

Mr. Milbury denies any wrongdoing, and claims that he was merely protecting his son from repeated attacks and bullying from the alleged victim in the quote below:
“I want to be clear about a couple of things,’’ said Milbury. “No one was punched, kicked, or assaulted in any way. I know the ‘Mad Mike’ image that I have and all that. I love the game, I’m passionate about it, but I don’t smack kids around. I grabbed the other kid by the sweater to stop a fight and, yeah, I swore at him. That’s it. That’s what I did.

“And … this was also after watching my kid get verbally bullied by the other player for over two hours. It was the third time that night that Jake and the kid got into it, and that was the last straw for Jake. I mean, what kid can take that?"

Mr. Milbury is a master of twisting facts to fit his distorted logic. As a former coach, he should know what every hockey parent knows, every parent of any child who participates in team sports should know: you never step on the ice, or on the field of play. Of course, keeping in mind his charge into the stands at Madison Square Garden decades ago, it can be argued that Mr. Milbury has a poor sense of boundaries, whether geographic or behavioural.

He should also know what any reasonable person does, and what every teacher or coach definitely does, which is that it is never allowable to lay hands on a child for disciplinary reasons.

More broadly, the ludicrously paradoxical relationship between his explanation and his conduct as a player and broadcaster is enough to give one whiplash. He felt a need to protect his son from a prolonged harangue and physical provocation from an opponent on the ice, yet Mr. Milbury's entire playing career was one of verbal and physical intimidation. Apparently being slashed and mugged and taunted and threatened was acceptable for Pierre Mondou and Mats Naslund, but not for his son.

Some will argue that adults who play pro sports should expect this kind of treatment, but Mr. Milbury contributes to this climate of fear and intimidation and violence with his work as a hockey analyst. He constantly lionizes 'tough guys' and physical play, and intimidation as a tactic. For example, when Ryan Miller was bowled over by Milan Lucic earlier this season, he didn't see this as an outrage and an assault on a talented player that should be dealt with harshly by the League. Instead, he focused on the Sabres' lack of retaliation as the target of his opprobrium. They were soft and unresponsive and were therefore partially to blame for their own misery. They should have 'taken care of it on the ice', he thundered, not rely on Brendan Shanahan and supplemental discipline.

When Brad Marchand repeatedly punched Daniel Sedin in the head during last year's Stanley Cup finals, he explained that the playoffs were not for the faint of heart, and that winning by any means necessary was the order of the day. The Canucks were 'soft' and lacked grit and the intimidation tactics by the Bruins proved "they wanted it more." Mr. Sedin should have reacted, instead of waiting for the referee to call a half-dozen well-deserved penalties and toss Mr. Marchand from the game. Mr. Sedin had allowed himself to be bullied. He was the enabler, not a victim.

Mr. Milbury has been poisoning the well of hockey for decades now. He can't be all that surprised when this environmental thuggery splatters his son. He should be ashamed for his actions of December 9, and ashamed for his work as a commentator, for preaching that it's okay for bigger players to bully smaller players.

He cannot have it both ways. He should plead guilty, and if he doesn't he should resign from his commentator jobs and apologize to the sport that has supported and tolerated him all these years.

Saturday, 17 December 2011

Game 33: Montréal 3, New Jersey 5

I'm perplexed about tonight's game. Should we be patient with the team now that Jacques Martin was terminated? Does this reset the populace's goodwill again, wipe the slate clean like the Perry Pearn termination, and like the Tomas Kaberle acquisition was supposed to do? Or, oppositely, should expectations be ratcheted up now that the Fire Everyone Brigade got one of their two most sought-after head on a pike? Should we have expected a re-energized, inspired group to storm the Brodeur fortress? Was it too much to hope for at least a dead-cat bounce?

I was tempted to blame the officiating for the loss, seeing as the perfidious Chris Lee was one of the henchmen delegated by the League to rob the Good Guys of a win in another creative manner. I did see some whoppers, like the interference call on Mr. Cole in the second period, for having been in the path of a blind Devil who ran into the 7 on the back of Erik's jersey. I saw Mike Blunden deliver a good, clean hit behind the Devils' net, and be rewarded for his efforts with two solid crosschecks to the back of his helmet, in full view of an indulgent referee, who nevertheless looked on with bemused interest, like a phrenologist encountering Tie Domi for the first time. The Devils scored on the counter-rush. They also scored when Dainius Zubrus held Chris Campoli and made him fall down and lose the puck, albeit on a ill-advised rush up the middle in the defensive zone. Mr. Zubrus even held up his arms on the play and failed to attack the net, occupied as he was looking at the referee, looking as guilty as a young pajamaed P.K. caught by Mother Subban with his hand in the cookie jar.

Ultimately, the change was not a strong enough stimulus to transport the Canadiens above their station. They are not a powerful team, any injury leaves them shorthanded with the Hamilton team denuded of talent. They are currently playing with two NHL lines. The third line has a Mathieu Darche who should be a relief pitcher, shuttling between the pressbox and fourth line, and Louis Leblanc, who should be in Hamilton eating up minutes. Lars Eller, the center, shows flashes of brilliance interspersed with long stretches of youthful ineffectiveness. Our fourth line is a talent-free zone, currently being stocked with any warm body we can find: a Swiss puck-moving defenceman, a warranty-return from and to Philadelphia, career AHL'ers, the corpse of David Maley...

To add to our woes, one of our two lines is hibernating right now. Tomas Plekanec and Mike Cammalleri have no chemistry with Andrei Kostitsyn, who for most of the game activated his cloaking device. This means our four-banger is actually misfiring on three cylinders, no wonder the ride ain't smooth.

The Canadiens defence has many candidates but few contenders, lots of candidates for a #5 or 6 role but none able to claim the #1 spot. P.K. and Josh should be a second pairing, not a first, and poor Hal Gill should be seeing spot duty and more of a specialist rather than a generalist role. Tomas Kaberle and Chris Campoli ably demonstrated tonight that they are not The Answer.

We need to embrace these facts. We can't refuse to accept our situation.

Friday, 16 December 2011

We need stability, not wholesale dismissals

I’m sick of reading posts enjoining Mr. Molson to fire everyone, right now, in the middle of the season, even without a clear plan for the future.

Geoff Molson has owned the team for barely a year now, he is still getting his feet under him and getting to understand the business. The last thing I want him to do is go in guns blazing like a George Steinbrenner. I don’t want him to play fantasy hockey with my team, to aggrandize his ego by playing GM like Jerry Jones does with the Cowboys.

I’ve seen Mr. Molson interviewed on RDS, and I liked what I saw. He spoke flawless French, didn’t at all seem like the rich spoiled kid some posters make him out to be, but rather a guy who got lots of advantages and made good use of them. He plays hockey himself, he’s a hockey dad, talked about how much the Canadiens meant to him, to his family, and the province of Quebec. He talked about stability and winning the Stanley Cup. A couple of days before the interview he’d spent time online checking out the Habs ticket site to see what ticket-buyers were up against and whether the system can be improved.

Mr. Molson, I know you’re reading this, please don’t make any rash decisions to please the pessimists and alarmists. In your position you’re the best person to know how those in the organization are performing and when changes need to be made.

Thursday, 15 December 2011

Game 32: Montréal 3, Philadelphia 4

During long stretches early in the game, the crowd seemed, from what I could tell from the comfort of my living room, as quiet as I could remember at any time recently. I could hear the players talking to each other on the ice during play, and not a peep from tonight's ticket holders. I wonder if the nervousness of the team is starting to rub off on the crowd. Do they, like the players, dread what's coming next, and expect the worst? There was no overconfidence, no "Olé Olé Olé" from the stands, but there was a nice moment when Louis Leblanc scored his first NHL goal and he was the recipient of a long ovation.

David Desharnais had another strong game with a goal and an assist. On his first shift, he forechecked in the Flyer zone, bodychecked Braydon Coburn off the puck and came out of the corner with it, only to have it end up on Hal Gill's stick, who tonight had his goal-scoring streak snapped. Regardless, this impressive play along the boards was reminiscent of his work against Joe Thornton in San Jose, and refutes the notion that he is too small and not physical enough to be effective as an NHL center. Once again tonight, he was the best of the Canadiens' centres.

Tonight also saw the return of Mike Blunden, who was recalled from Hamilton to replace the injured Travis Moen. He played little, racking up only 3 minutes of icetime, but he did make a penalty kill appearance. His presence was noteworthy at one point when he stood in front of Carey Price after a stoppage in play, and guided Wayne Simmonds away from the net. On this occasion and another where Mr. Simmonds was faced with Alexei Emelin, he moved along and got ready for the faceoff, as compared to earlier games this season where he acted like a big thuggish jerk against Yannick Weber or Raphaël Diaz. This once again shows that the 'physical' teams like the Bruins and the Flyers tend to pick their spots, they're brave against Tom Pyatt but strategic against Georges Laraque, when all of a sudden they remember their coach's instructions and rationalize that now would not be a good time for a penalty.

It also shows that Mr. Blunden has a role to play on this team, and was playing it well during his first callup earlier in the season. His assist on the Louis Leblance was not a cheapie, as was in front of the net keeping a Flyer defenceman occupied and screening the goalie. He may not be a great fighter, but his size and hard work are appreciated by his teammates I'm sure. It also shows that the Canadiens would benefit from one or two more rugged wingers to mix in with the current team. We don't need a Chris Neil or John Kordic, but a player with Mike McPhee's skillset would be great, if such a beast was attainable anywhere for a reasonable price.

A goal by Tomas Plekanec was waved off by the refs for goalie interference by Erik Cole, but a remarkably similar goal was scored by the Flyers later, and this one was allowed. I was left to wonder if Erik Cole had been wearing a black and diarrhea Bruin jersey, otherwise known as Ref Camo, would that goal have counted?

Some attention was paid to the bad play committed by Alexei Emelin in his zone that led to the second Philadelphia goal. It was reminiscent of the play P.K. Subban made against the Islanders on Tuesday, but as Mr. Emelin's apologist, I worked hard to try to find mitigating circumstances for him.

The short pass to the forward positioned in front of the net is an option for the defencemen in Le Système™, in combination with the very safe clearing against the boards to the waiting winger. I am getting used to this play, although at first it was disconcerting to me, I had been coached all my life to never pass the puck to the middle of the ice. Done properly, it makes the zone breakout easy to achieve, as it provides the defenceman with two avenues for his pass. The boards is the preferred method, but if the opposing winger is already positioned to intercept, the defenceman can pass to his centreman, who is usually 3 or 4 metres away and ready for the pass. This proximity makes it an easy, safe pass, with very little chance of it being intercepted or mishandled. What broke down on Tuesday for P.K. and tonight for Alexei is that their pass was a little bit rushed and imprecise, and the centreman wasn't completely ready to receive it. In both cases, the puck ended up on the opposition's stick, and resulted in a goal.

Again, as the founder of the Alexei Emelin Booster Club, I was quick to notice that his partner Tomas Kaberle went for a little skate, a wild goose chase after the puck, which he could have avoided by staying in his proper position, since the puck would have come to him. I think we need to resign ourselves to the fact that Mr. Kaberle will make these errors, and coaching won't cure him of these bad habits. Mr. Emelin can still learn and improve.

Another point of interest is P.K.'s insistence during the powerplay to try to blast the puck throught the goalie on a one-timer. This has been a hobby-horse of Michel Bergeron on l'Antichambre, it annoys him, and they paid a lot of attention to it tonight, but I have to agree that Mr. Subban needs to demonstrate adaptability and try something different, since while this approach worked late last season, it is not producing results this year. Our powerplay is predictable, when his stick is up in the air it telegraphs what we are about to do, and even if the goalie is screened he can see the stick and slide in position and let the puck hit him. P.K. needs to double-clutch, and then try a quick slapper or wrister, or try a slap-pass to a forward, or deke the cringing forechecker who is hoping to block the shot and skate around him to drive the net. Doing so will keep the opposing penalty killers honest, and make his shots more effective when he lets them go.

Another measuring-stick game during which we come up a little bit short. The powerhouse Flyers, minus Chris Pronger, Claude Giroux and Brayden Schenn, against our guys missing Scott Gomez, Brian Gionta, Travis Moen and perennials Andrei Markov and Ryan White. We're playing at home, and will probably have to go through these Flyers for a deep run through the playoffs. We lose the game, are not outclassed, but have the sense that the Flyers had another gear or two to shift into if necessary. This season's outlook gets less murky the further we proceed.

Tuesday, 13 December 2011

Game 31: Montréal 5, New York Islanders 3

As the game started, I decided to pay attention to the defensive play of P.K. Subban, as I had read a few reports recently about how he had concentrated on this aspect of his game and Jacques Martin had praised him accordingly. Sure enough, right away I saw a couple of instances where his mobility and anticipation allowed him to snuff out an incipient threat before it had a chance to develop. I was of a mind to begin composing a congratulations/apology open letter to P.K., having been critical of his tendency to try to do too much and to do the complicated, dangerous play instead of the simple one since the start of the season. As if to reassure me that I wasn't off-base and that my observation skills were still sharp, P.K. made a pass/clearing attempt in his zone through the middle of the ice instead of off the boards, and sure enough Pierre-Alexandre Parenteau easily intercepted it and fed the puck to Matt Moulson for an easy goal.

Another of my whipping boys, Andrei Kostitsyn made me jump off the couch because of a beautiful goal he scored, one that wasn't just a sniper's goal or lucky, but rather one that he created by playing hard and smart. He accepted a pass in the neutral zone and then did many little things he often forgets to do. First, he skated hard into the opposing zone, instead of coasting or being hesitant. When challenged by a defender at the blueline, he pushed the puck ahead, and this is where it gets really interesting, he kept skating hard and outmuscled his coverer. He then reached the puck at the same time as another Islander, won a brief puck battle by lifting his stick up and stealing the puck, and then went hard at the net, shooting after a couple of strides. These are the kind of goals we envision Andrei scoring all the time, and why we accuse him of being asleep or lazy or not caring when he disappears during a game or ten. Maybe being exposed to the rampaging Erik Cole, who every game plays like he wants the puck and knows the way to the net, is having a positive effect on le Frère Andrei. The rest of the game, Andrei was hungry and energetic, and fought for the puck and created scoring chances. Good on him, and good for us.

Speaking of whipping boys (not mine but possibly yours), both Mathieu Darche and Petteri Nokelainen scored, ending personal droughts and chipping in the secondary scoring we need with the Plekanec line not clicking right now. A good aspect was that they were confidence-building goals, on strong slapshots rather than lucky deflections, and hopefully these guys will have a weight lifted off their shoulders and a spring in their step for the next few games.

We have two players who were injured early in the season and are starting to attract attention for their lack of contribution on the scoresheet. Mike Cammalleri tweaked a knee and missed a couple of games, but has come back and has not met expectations since. I think we need to be patient with him, he's playing hurt and it's affecting his speed, his strength in the corners and his mobility to get in position to get his shot off. Same goes for Max Pacioretty, who hurt his right wrist and has been carried a little bit by Erik Cole and David Desharnais. While he's not being the dominant player we got glimpses of last season and we hoped for, he's being a warrior, knowing there isn't anyone else available to allow him to take a few games off. Now with Brian Gionta and even maybe Travis Moen missing time, we have to applaud Mike and Max for soldiering on, instead of grumbling.

Erik Cole continues being a one-man wrecking crew, skating hard and battling for the puck, he's an inspiration and everything we hoped for. His rushes where he sweeps around the opposing left defencemen are bound to draw attention from future opponents who will back away to protect their net, and give more room to the other Canadiens.

Hal Gill sealed the win, finally, when he lobbed the puck out of the zone, intending just to clear his zone but almost causing an icing. Instead, it dribbled into the Islander goal, and he sheepishly accepted the congratulations and good-natured ribbing of his teammates. I thought I even saw a bit of a facewash by P.K. A good ending, but Mr. Gill according to Marc Denis played an even greater role in the second intermission, when he button-hooked Mr. Subban and took him aside for a heart-to-heart as they left the ice. Mr. Denis respected the confidentiality of the chat, but broadly implied that Mr. Gill brought his former protégé to account for his mistakes in the game. While Mr. Gill is slow as honey from the fridge, his presence and leadership are hard to sacrifice, and while he may not be talentwise properly in the top 6 of the defencemen on the roster when everyone is healthy again, he will be hard to keep off the ice. I've been advocating that he should be given occasional games off to rest, but I can see how Mr. Martin would be leery to willingly forego his services.

Overall, a salutary win for the Glorieux, but nothing to crow about, the 'weak' Islanders having pushed us right to the end. Let's hope the Good Guys can play up to the Flyers on Thursday, who will be without Chris Pronger and Claude Giroux, and therefore more susceptible to surrender another important two points to the Canadiens.

Sunday, 11 December 2011

Who plays, who sits on the Canadiens blueline?

So the question is posed: who plays, who sits on the Canadiens defence corps when everyone's healthy and rehabbed and we're living in Happy-Land, in a gumdrop house on Lollipop Lane.

In order of my depth chart:

1) Andrei Markov comes back in time to play 35-40 games, mid to late-January, but takes five games off as Sidney Crosbyesque 'maintenance games', ideally during the second of back-to-back games. He is limited to 15 minutes a game for the first two weeks, and if his knee is 110% after that we increase him to a 20 minute maximum for the rest of the season. We outfit Mr. Martin with a shock collar that buzzes him when he exceeds these strict guidelines, since he does love his veterans, and who could blame him for being tempted?

2) Pernell Karl Subban is a young buck, takes a licking and keeps on ticking, and plays every game and eats up minutes. Only hiccup is if he needs a Jacques Martin Pressbox Timeout™, which he will probably richly deserve if it happens. Randy Ladouceur is on his left shoulder like the Great Gazoo on Fred Flinstone, and directs his attention to Andrei whenever he's on the ice, or at Nick Lidstrom or Brian Boyle or Duncan Keith when they're the opposition.

3) Josh Gorges gets lots of minutes and is on the first wave of the penalty kill, and whenever we're protecting a lead at the end of the game.

4) Alexei Emelin plays a tonne of minutes, and we give him time on the special teams. To borrow from Whitney, I believe that Alexei is our future, coach him well and let him lead the way.

5) Tomas Kaberle is on the powerplay, and cross your fingers. Forgive him his sins, for (unbelievably) he (still, at this point in his career!) knows not what he does.

6) Hall Gill gets a regular shift and PK minutes. He gets regular days off for a breather and to get ready for a playoff run.

7) Yannick Weber sits some games, plays some games at forward/powerplay specialist on the blueline, and spells Andrei Markov and Hal Gill when they take their maintenance days. He gets constant encouragement and assurance that the team believes in him and he has a future here, that he's still young and will become a regular. He's coached up something fierce, gets lots of extra attention before and after practice.

8) Chris Campoli is kept as insurance. Unfortunately, the insurance policy had a loophole and didn't pay off when we needed it. He may get sent down to Hamilton, and may get claimed on waivers, and we wouldn't mind too much if he did.

9) Raphaël Diaz gets sent down to Hamilton since he is not subject to waivers. Unfair, since he's playing well, but he isn't Top 6 with everyone healthy. We only have room for 23 skaters, and he shouldn't be in the pressbox constantly, so he goes to Hamilton and plays and plays and plays. He's the first callup if we need injury help. Some will argue that he is outplaying Yannick Weber and should get to stay, but they're essentially equal in production and what they provide to the team, and Yannick's seniority means he's subject to waivers, so Yannick's not getting sent down to Hamilton.

10) Frédéric St-Denis is the feelgood story in Hamilton.

As far as pairings go, nothing too fancy:




When Weber is in the pressbox, PK goes up to the first wave, and Alexei Emelin gets on the second wave.

Penalty Kill


Bell wants to own the Canadiens AND the Leafs?

So Rogers and Bell aren't happy just being in bed with each other already, now they want to engage in unnatural acts involving the Canadiens and Maple Leafs? It will happen, but it shouldn't happen.

As far as the NHL is concerned, Bell's share of the Montreal Canadiens should be easy to sell profitably on the open market, we're not talking about the New Orleans Hornets or the Phoenix Coyotes here. Mr. Bettman should keep any appearance of impropriety (at least in those instances not involving Jeremy Jacobs and Colin Campbell) to a minimum by enjoining Bell to sell their stake in the Canadiens relatively quickly.

In the wider view of the Canadian economy and consumer protection, the purchase of a sports and entertainment franchise like MLSE by the two great collusionists, er, 'competitors' of the telecommunications world is risibly indefensible. Rogers and Bell talk about how they'll compete internally for the Leafs games among their broadcasters, possibly by using already established practices by which they set prices for mobile phone plans among themselves ("You want to raise prices 7%, we want to raise prices 9%, why don't we settle on 10%?")

Two companies who are supposed to be fighting tooth and nail for customers, putatively by independently competing with each other to offer the lowest prices possible to customers, should have no opportunities to legally cooperate with each other in any area. We're not talking about disaster management here or charity, where you can put differences aside for the greater good of the nation. They are trying to purchase MLSE to obtain valuable content for their telecom empires and get much much richer in the process. They are also trying to legitimize their de facto oligopoly in the eyes of Canadian society.

The Canadian Competition Bureau, if it has any usefulness, should put the kibosh on this one immediately. While some might argue that it's only sports, and therefore no big deal, in fact that in my mind makes it an even easier call to forbid this merger. This isn't about being able to resist international competition or the survival of a company or saving jobs, as merger pirates always claim. This is about acquiring a cash cow and locking out competition, with no national interests threatened if the deal doesn't happen. The Ontario Teachers' Pension Plan simply can continue owning their stake until a better deal comes along.

Saturday, 10 December 2011

Game 30: Montreal 2, New Jersey 1

An early game for the Canadiens today, and it seemed like both teams were asleep as the game began. The Devils really started waking up after the break in the third when rink glass had to be replaced. And wake up they did, coming very close to tying the game late.

There's not really a theme or an angle or overriding subject I can think of to focus on in this recap. The guys on l'Antichambre are riffing on Mike Cammalleri's poor performance, and that is a bit of a concern with me as well. I've been trying to defend him, telling others to be patient and that he's probably hiding an injury. Today, he hit a post on a two-on-one with Andrei Kostitsyn, and missed on a golden chance on a wide open net with Martin Brodeur out of position. The worrisome aspect is that Chantal, who has access to the dressing room and practice sessions, mentioned that he seems perturbed, and not as upbeat as he was last season. I'm still hoping that he has a couple of dings that will get better, and he'll regain the form and confidence we need from him if we're going to be successful.

Carey Price was his usual calm self, and showed some emotion when he stopped Zach Parisé on the penalty shot late in the game. It's good for him and good for us that he was successful in such a situation, he's been struggling in shootouts, and it would be great if he regained his stone-cold bravado. He certainly looked more prepared and technically sound on this attempt, as he came out to cut down the shooting angles, and retreated under control and with good balance, so that he made the save look easy, and Mr. Parisé relatively pedestrian. I'm not sure if he's been working with Mr. Groulx, but he certainly looked more like the World Junior tournament-version of Carey Price, instead of the more recent version.

Brian Gionta was announced to be injured severely enough that he will miss all of next week. This is going to complicate matters, in that while he has not shown up on the scoresheet regularly, he works hard every game, and we don't have a valid replacement option. It means more games for Louis Leblanc with the Grand Club, and not that I think he looks out of place, but I was really hoping that he'd get a lot of icetime in Hamilton instead of 7 minutes a game up here. This also points out how unrealistic it is to expect the Canadiens to at some point have a full, injury-free roster. Those who fret about the glut of defencemen on the team right now need only wait a game or two before someone's hamstring goes pop or someone blocks a shot with their wrist.

Tomas Effin' Kaberle

I'm too tired to really discourse on the Tomas Kaberle trade today.

Tired and stunned. Bludgeoned. I was glancing at the headlines on the Globe website, and felt a cold chill when I saw the news. I, literally, had to lie down, and, no lie, moaned for a while, like I had a bad hangover, and I swore repetitively, catatonically. No exaggeration, it wasn't theatre. I needed to. Tomas Kaberle. I triple-checked that it wasn't April 1.

I sat around all day, disconsolate, glancing at my computer, dreading the monumental task ahead of me. I just had a framework in my mind of the many reasons why this was a colossal blunder for my favourite team. My team. I don't own the Canadiens, Mr. Geoff Molson and his group of investors owns it, along with BCE. But it's my team. Mine.

I wanted to intro with a reference to the Jerry Seinfeld quip that nowadays, in this era of player movement and free agency and salary caps (spit), we don't really cheer for a team, but cheer for the laundry. Go into a further disquisition how the jersey has become a brand, and those who are cloaked with them are merely replaceable cogs. Raymond Bourque is a Colorado Avalanche, and we're supposed to cheer when he 'gets his Cup'. Tracy McGrady and Vince Carter are snakebitten superstars who for some reason never could win or gain full respect. Somehow. Guy Lafleur decided to quit smoking, cut down on the blow, and make a comeback with the Rangers. Celebration time. LeBron James. Terrell Owens. Randy Moss. Adam Oates. Chris Pronger.

I was going to go over my formative years, and how I knew every Montreal Canadiens player, with their jersey numbers, as well as those numbers that are retired. I would rattle off the Expos' rosters, the teams whose games I used to listen to on CKAC broadcasts with Jacques Doucet and Claude Raymond, Cromartie, Dawson, Valentine, Rodney Scott and Chris Speier, Larry Parrish, Steve Rogers, Tim Gullickson, Dave Palmer, Scott Sanderson. Bill Lee with his beard, fuller and wilder than Steve Rogers'. I would talk about the Alouettes and how so many of the players spoke French, even the anglos, I wanted to grow up big and strong just like them. Dickie Harris. Randy Rhino. Tony Proudfoot. Gabriel Grégoire. Junior Ah You. Glen Weir.

I was then going to talk about heroes, the people I looked up to as a kid, and how today's generation don't have that. For them, training camp doesn't start every year with the same heroes as the previous year.  I might have had maybe a couple of new young guys vying for my worship, but it was the same team. I knew that the Canadiens were the best team.  They didn't win every game, they were human, but they tried hard, they fought every game. They conquered evil, Bruins, Flyers, Nordiques, it didn't matter. The Expos were young and had promise, and would win, if it wasn't for friggin' Dale Murphy and Willie Stargell and Dave Parker. Rick Monday. They'd win eventually, you just had to work harder. Believe. The Alouettes were the best, except that the Eskimos had this freaky quarterback, Warren Moon, who could throw the ball like you couldn't believe, my father would get all excited about his short delivery, even if he was on the wrong team. They also had this weird receiver, Brian Kelly, with a squeaky high voice, and he didn't look like much, but he killed us. You learned a lot from all this.

I'd then circle back to Tomas Kaberle, how he'd been a Maple Leaf forever, how it was shoved down my throat for so long how on the one hand he was such a great offensive defenceman but on the other how the Leafs forever tried to trade him but couldn't find any suckers to take him off their hands. How I don't necessarily even dislike the Leafs, but I hate the undeserved focus on them, I'm living out in BC now and have to listen to English broadcasts, and man am I sick of hearing how this year, this is the year they make the playoffs, every year, year after year. But now I do dislike the Leafs, they have these criminals playing for them, Tie Domi and Wade Belak and Darcy Tucker. Marchment. Now I do kind of hate them. And I hate this lazy, passionless defenceman they have, that guy with the red cheeks who looks like he's twelve years old. The guy who routinely skates back to his bench after a goal against, impassive, after letting some guy stickhandle around him and beat him like a meringue. I hate how they talk him up but he's so obviously incapable and lacking emotion.

I'd have to touch on his brief stay in Boston, and then Carolina, how both teams were hornswaggled into believing the Big Lie that he's the poor man's Phil Housley. I'd have to give props to Brian Burke, who simultaneously built up and undercut his man, dangling him forever as trade bait, but never getting anywhere near his asking price, to my delight, until the Bruins bit. I thought Mr. Burke should have been happy with a 2nd round pick to unload this stiff, but he got a bounty for him eventually. The Bruins got fleeced, the Leafs improved, I was conflicted.

I'd have to stipulate, as if this wasn't obvious enough already, that there are players who have disqualified themselves from ever wearing the bleu blanc rouge. Sean Avery. Ken Linseman. Jordin Tootoo. Nevin Markwart. Brad Marchand. Pavel Bure. Tomas Kaberle is obviously on this lengthy list of Untouchables.

If I had any resolve left by this point, I would have to talk about how this trade is horribly detrimental to our goal of winning a Stanley Cup. How Erik Cole was an example of a free-agent signing that has worked, while Mr. Kaberle was the posterboy for horrible wastes of cap space, how Carolina GM Jim Rutherford was already offering his mea culpas about it. I'd have to explain how this contract was going to hamstring the Canadiens for three seasons, while we needed cap space to go after impact free agents and sign our own.

I'd have to touch on how whatever skills he had were rapidly abandoning him, how 33 year-old players who were losing their touch were a bad investment, that we should have learned the lesson by now that you invest in young players, you buy low and sell high. Get players before they peak (<25), unload them, if necessary, while they're still producing (>30).

I'd have to bring up the poorly conceived tactical plan, how Mr. Kaberle is a passer, not a shooter like Mathieu Schneider, Marc-André Bergeron or James Wisniewski who fixed our powerplay in previous seasons. That our forwards are not deadly snipers who can finish his passes, that they know this and have lost confidence and pass the puck like a hot potato instead of slavering for it, in eagerness to score the winning goal and pad their stats. That opposing penalty killers would not challenge Tomas Kaberle like they did to Tomas Plekanec and dare him to shoot.

I might have got myself all riled up that Mr. Gauthier had ignored my frequent posts encouraging him to trust our trio of young defencemen and invest our organization's energy into preparing them for the future, instead of quick fixes, like he listened to me when I advised him to let Roman Hamrlik go and to re-sign Andrei Markov. I might have but I figure by then I might have been dejected and apathetic, and wonder why I'd bother.

Thursday, 8 December 2011

Game 29: Montreal 3, Vancouver 4 (SO)

The Canadiens again played just well enough to lose a close game. They were playing the Canucks, a much stronger team than the Blue Jackets they faced on Tuesday, and thus modulated their effort accordingly, and played up to the opposition. Almost. They took advantage of a shaky Roberto Luongo to grab a lead of 3-0 early in the second, at which point their rubbery knees and clammy palms took over, and they couldn't finish him off with a fourth tally.

The Canadiens defence rolled along well without Yannick Weber, banished to the pressbox in favour of Frédéric St-Denis. Mr. St-Denis scored his first NHL goal with a simple wrist shot from the blue line, as did Raphaël Diaz. Hal Gill did his Human Zamboni act on the penalty kill, which is disconcerting to observe, and causes a pseudo-expert to yell at him through his 50-inch Toshiba to get the heck up on his feet, but dang it if it isn't effective, as he helped kill off the 5-on-3 thusly splayed on the ice.

The forwards are cooling off to a dangerous degree. Travis Moen has been lucky this season, but tonight missed a few chances by a foot or so. Mike Cammalleri's one-timers aren't working, or even threatening. Max failed to convert a seeing-eye pass from David Desharnais through two defenders. As they cool off they seem to be tightening up, pressing too hard or trying to fire the shot through the goalie, extra hard, instead of smoothly potting the chances, with calm.

The Canucks seemed to be the adversaries tailor-made to send the Canadiens on a winning streak, in that while a stacked club, they are more of a finesse and skating team with which we match up well. Especially after a promising start, this kind of game is hard to swallow.

Tuesday, 6 December 2011

Game 28: Montreal 2, Columbus 3 (SO)

It's not as much fun memorializing my thoughts in this forum when the Canadiens lose. It's probably not as painful as having to pay to watch the game at the New Forum, but looking at my own humble Canadiens-related expenditures, I now idly reconsider my full-slate HD cable package.

The Canadiens may be a golden goose, but for the rest of us they laid an egg on Tuesday night. After showing spirit and heart against the Sharks and the Kings, the Good Guys went back to their torpid Anaheim incarnations.

The only Canadiens who seemed to play to their full potential were the ever-vigilant Carey Price, and controlled demolition contractor Alexei Emelin, who distributed crunches liberally. I may have missed good performances by usually low-key performers like Travis Moen or Josh Gorges, but I won't take the blame for it, their teammates lulled me to sleep for half the game.

After losses to weaklings like the Islanders and Hurricanes, the Canadiens usually follow up with a dynamic performance against more inspiring opponents, which we can take heart in, but losing points to teams like the Bllue Jackets gives us a strong sense that we are at best a middling team. We will be in a battle to make the playoffs.

And we can't count on the cavalry to come to our rescue. Ryan White is a ways away, and can inject some energy in games like these, but he won't tilt the ice in our direction. Andrei Markov is also still not on the horizon, and when he returns I think we'll need to treat him with kid gloves and temper our expectations. Scott Gomez has shown that he cannot produce a positive effect when in the lineup. Hamilton is devoid of NHL talent.

The RDS boys are starting to look in Geoff Molson's direction now. I fail to understand what they think he can accomplish mid-season with this team. The solution is not a quick fix away. There is a fundamental lack of depth and talent on our roster, and we can't put a band-aid on it. We need to be patient with our youngsters and prospects, keep drafting well and amassing assets. Mr. Molson's role, if it comes to that, will begin this off-season when an organizational review may properly be conducted.

Our boys are going to have a tough time keeping their chins up for the next couple of days, but will have a worthy opponent on Thursday to measure themselves against in the Canucks. A win might be enough to rinse the taste of this bitter defeat out.

NHL Realignment Produces Clear Advantage For Some

The clear winners of the conference realignment in my eyes are the so-called Atlantic teams: the New York and New Jersey axis, along with Pittsburgh, Philly, Washington and Carolina. Their conference is grouped very close geographically, as opposed to the other Eastern Conference. They are also lucky in that they are in a seven-team conference, so they will have an easier time making the playoffs than the 8-team conferences.

The Western groupings will have a better time of it than they do now, but will still travel more than the Eastern teams. That's kind of inevitable given the human geography of North America, the wide open West just isn't as densely populated.

The odd grouping will be the Northern teams lumped in with the Florida teams. That will entail more travel for the Canadiens, but in the near future it will be against traditional weak-sisters teams, and I suspect that the Florida teams will not turn into consistent powerhouses for various reasons (fanbase, financing, climate, etc.)

Overall, we have to believe that this system will be an improvement, in that most teams see it as a positive move, and that the fans will get to see a greater variety of teams without sacrificing regional rivalries.

Chalk one up on the plus side for Gary Bettman, and make it a big mark, since there's a lot of empty room in that column and the other side is way more crowded, it's looking pretty lopsided on that toteboard.

Saturday, 3 December 2011

Game 27: Montreal 2, Los Angeles 1

As a taxpayer and thus an owner of the CBC, can I add my voice to the clamour concerning the eroding skills of hockey play-by-play man Bob Cole? I haven't been part of the campaign against this gentleman before, so I would consider myself relatively unbiased, but right at the outset of the game he drew my attention, by bungling and mangling the call repeatedly. These accumulated until I was paying attention more to his syntax than to the actual game. I think a play-by-play man should be judged like a referee, which means he usually excels when he isn't noticed, aside from the occasional Al Michaels "Do you believe in miracles?!" moments. Mr. Cole, among other misses, said that "Carey Price stopped it with a bullet!" (?), mistook Raphaël Diaz for David Desharnais, and frequently would refer to someone as 'the player' or 'the goalie' when he couldn't come up with their names.

There is great unrest and misery in the land. Unemployed peasants are storming capitals around the world. There is such a shortage of gainful employment that a multitude of completely unqualified or morally disqualified people are applying to the presidency of the USA. In such a climate, isn't time now, or at least at the end of the season, for Mr. Cole to step aside and allow a sprightly fifty-year-old go-getter to embark on a new career? There must be at least twenty qualified aspirants who could take over this role, which would dispense us from having to watch Mr. Cole desiccate into oblivion.

Another jarring moment in the Hockey Night telecast was having to hear hulking Matt Greene, skilled practitioner of the forearm shiver delivered to the back of the head of Frédéric St-Denis in the first period, speak during the intermission on the need to reduce dangerous hits in the NHL.

As far as the game itself, the win provides some relief to the undermanned, snakebitten, affirmation-seeking Canadiens. The Good Guys scored a couple of nifty goals, and missed and bungled on a few more opportunities, notably by Erik Cole and Mike Cammalleri, who both work hard and are creative but need to finish a little more than they are doing now. Mathieu Darche has no confidence and on a good opportunity he set up, waited for Jonathan Bernier to be good and ready, at which point he wristed the puck right into his chest pad. I've called for 'intervention' coaching recently for players such as Andrei Kostitsyn and P.K. Subban, where video is used to delve with the players on some of their decision-making. Mathieu needs to review this scoring chance with a coach and think about three other better options he could have explored rather than giving Mr. Bernier a straightforward shot.

The last three minutes of the game made me question the Canadiens' strategy. It is fashionable for fans to lay the blame on the head coach for instances such as these, but I'm inclined to believe that the Canadiens' lack of finish and poor results on the power play make them skittish when protecting the lead, and more intent in killing the clock than on scoring an insurance goal. We saw during the last two minutes, when the Glorieux were on the powerplay, how they weren't grabbing the puck and rushing up the ice to give the Kings the coup de grâce and pad their individual stats, but instead scrambling and shambling and glancing up at the clock. We saw P.K. ice the puck while on the powerplay, and with a Kings empty net. This play occurred because they were lax in retrieving a Kings clearing attempt, which led to a good deal of buzzing in the Canadiens zone.

Maybe the big news of the day, which is that Andrei Markov's knee will be scoped to clean out scar tissue and debris, requiring him to sit out at least another three weeks (a great decision by all, and good news, since it explains the swelling and soreness he has been experiencing) will point the Canadiens towards self-empowerment and self-reliance, instead of looking over their shoulders and waiting for reinforcements.

Thursday, 1 December 2011

Game 26: Montreal 3, San Jose 4 (SO)

Before the game started, RDS was cycling through the NHL news and back-to-back mentioned that Mike Grier had announced his retirement, and that the Bruins were sending Jordan Caron down to the AHL. I immediately thought how either or both of these players would make our team instantly stronger, mitigating the lack of depth and plugging giant holes on our fourth line, and even nowadays on our third line.

The Canadiens played a second game in two nights, on the road and jet-lagged, yet showed more spring in their step, more fight along the boards, and more creativity offensively. We saw Alexei Emelin flatten Joe Pavelski with a thundering hit in the middle of the ice. Erik Cole suffered the same fate against Jason Demers, and showed determination in getting up, readjusting his cup and his grasp on his personal identity and consciousness, chasing down his pinwheeling stick, to then grab the puck in the defensive zone and rush it into the Sharks zone. We saw David Desharnais produce offensively, after being relatively quiet on the score sheet over the last few games, and win a puck battle against gigantic Joe Thornton that led to Erik Cole's goal. To achieve this, Mr. Desharnais had to show resolve despite the foregone conclusion that he was wasting his time, since it is dogma that he is too small to be an effective NHL centre.

Benoit Brunet attributed the higher energy level displayed by the Glorieux on the Price-Budaj Effect, whereby they play with more confidence and enthusiasm with Carey in nets. He argued that the Canadiens should have gone for the 'sure' two points in Anaheim by playing their #1 goalie, and then taking their chances at two much more elusive points with Mr. Budaj against a stronger Sharks team, and in hindsight it's hard to disagree with his logic.

When the Canadiens went into overtime, we saw how their brisk skating pace and crisp passing is an advantage when playing four-on-four. The action was relentless, up and down the ice, and the Canadiens weren't outclassed by the big bad Sharks. It led the dreamier Canadiens fan to wonder how much better hockey would be if the skilled players had a bigger ice surface to work with. This fan then wonders how much more exciting the game would be if all the half-slashes and full-crosschecks were called by the refs. He fantasizes about how the team might have fared if it had opted to draft Jarome Iginla rather than Terry Ryan. He then wonders how much better a job he would have done had he produced and directed the reincarnated 'Charlie's Angels', given Minka Kelly and a casting couch. The fan then snaps back to reality, and just in time, as Mathieu Darche is about to join the rush.

The shootout again proved to be Carey Price's kryptonite. The Sharks' pro scouts apparently had done their job, as their shooters seemed to have a very definite plan, going low stick-side on repeated successful attempts. Evidently Mr. Price and Pierre Groulx have yet more work to do. It was gratifying to see the Canadiens shooters succeed, wince-inducing to hear Mike Cammalleri's shot ping off the post, and puzzling to see PK Subban taking the last attempt while Tomas Plekanec was still available on the bench.