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.

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