Tuesday, 7 February 2012

Game 54: Montréal 3, Pittsburgh 2 (SO)

What an exciting game tonight for the fans of the Canadiens. While I've covered how the losses don't sting so much now in that they help the Canadiens' draft ranking for next June's draft, we all watch games to see them play hard and win. Halfway through the third period, I thought that there would be no shame in losing tonight since they battled hard and played well, as opposed to Saturday against the Capitals, but it was quite a thrill to see them prevail after eight rounds of the shootout.

For two games I've noticed P.K. Subban's play, and for a change in a good way. While he's not the P.K. from last year's playoffs, the guy with the Midas touch, he's playing solid, effective hockey. He's toned down the curlicues and mostly makes the right decisions, and uses his teammates effectively, instead of trying to do everything himself. He's staying out of the penalty box, but still playing hard and hitting the opposition. He won a clear decision in his fistfight on Sunday against Blake Wheeler when the latter objected to an attempted hit. Tonight, he battled hard at the end of overtime against Evgeni Malkin. While his stick was held high, so was Malkin's and as a matter of fact so was everyone's, as the refs decided everything goes, including Zbynek Michalek behind his net crosschecking David Desharnais five or six times around the head and shoulders, not fifteen feet away from a zebra.

I don't want P.K. to fight, he's too valuable to waste in that way, especially after a perfectly legal bodycheck attempt. What is positive however in his performance in the last couple of games is he kept the antics and instigation attempts and general buffoonery to a minimum, but stood up for himself instead of flopping and and turtling and mugging for the refs. He has attracted lots of attention in his short career and garnered a negative reputation, but if he keeps playing like he has in the last couple of games, he can shed that target on his back and affirm himself as one of the better young defencemen in the league.

Another interesting aspect of this game is the icetime afforded Mathieu Darche (17:12), especially when compared to, hmmm, I don't know.... let's say Andrei Kostitsyn (11:24). Like everyone I clamored for more Erik Cole and less Mathieu early on, and especially on the 'power' play, but lately Coach Cunneyworth has again started relying on the steady veteran to a curious degree. Tonight the phenomenon can be explained away by pointing to his checking assignment against the Malkin line, but it's sure to rile some of Mr. Darche's detractors.

We need to accept that coaches love Mathieu Darche, and players of his ilk. Every game he brings all of his limited skill and considerable desire to bear, he never takes a night or a shift off, and his coaches know what they're going to get from him and that they can rely on him. That's a considerable benefit for both parties.

Another thing about Mathieu is that he's not an elegant skater, and it almost spotlights his modest talent, when he is observed chugging up and down the ice. That is however another indication of his effort. He's often parked in front of the net, whiffing on pucks skittering by him, and that can be frustrating to observers, but the point is that he did stop in front of the net and absorbed a few crosschecks in exchange for a scoring chance, instead of veering off to the periphery.

Which brings us to Andrei Kostitsyn. Against Winnipeg, immediately after coming out of the penalty box in the first period, he again amply demonstrated his low hockey IQ and lack of drive and passion. In the Jets' zone, he pursued Mark Stuart who had the puck to the right of Ondrej Pavelec. Mr. Stuart faked to the right, as if he was going behind the net but went left instead to the corner, and Andrei bit and kept going around the net. What he should have done was brake and pursue Mr. Stuart, but he took the easy lazy way out. Coaches hate it when their players skate around in big circles, trying to conserve their momentum, instead of fighting and going for the puck, which means stops and starts and expending energy. Coaches also hate it when a sniper skates behind the net instead of fighting for position in front of it, where he can be an asset. Andrei is not Wayne Gretzky, he's not Henrik Sedin, he has no business going for a skate back there.

As play continued, Mr. Kostitsyn backchecked into the Canadiens' zone. I was tempted to fault him for not pressuring the puck carrier from behind, as he was held up by the Canadiens defencemen who held up at the blue line, but I'm ready to allow that he was following the system and refused to let himself be drawn out of position by the puck carrier. In any event, the puck ended up behind the net and after a puck battle, it squirted through a scrum to Andrei who was positioned in the slot right in front of the net. Andrei corralled it and had clear possession, wheeled around and was pressured by the Jets' defencemen as he tried to exit the zone. Andrei, inexplicably, instead of dumping the puck off the boards or clearing it up in the air through the middle, tried to stickhandle and veered to his left, started going laterally and then, still under pressure, carried the puck back towards the goal line behind his net, where a puck battle ensued.

And there is the difference between Mathieu Darche and Andrei Kostitsyn. Mathieu works hard and skates hard and routinely makes the right decision. Andrei can be compared to an idiot savant, a guy who does a few things astoundingly well, but has vast holes in his game, and who gives a coach cause to pause when considering which line to throw on the ice next.

Another player with more limited skill but high hockey IQ who saw seemingly more ice than what he was entitled to was Louis Leblanc. He plays as if he wants the puck, he doesn't wait for it to come to him, but instead goes to get it. He scored a beauty of a goal, and was dangerous all night as he buzzed around the net and had a few scoring chances that he played a large part in creating.

The power play was impotent again, and the penalty kill was perfect, in large part due to P.K. and Josh Gorges' stalwart efforts. Josh's efforts often go unnoticed by me, but he was highly visible tonight, battling the Penguins' big line and dishing out and taking a few hits. While he's not what most NHL teams would consider a top pairing defenceman, he's been faking it quite well all season.

Alexei Emelin is becoming as steady a defenceman as we can hope for this early in his career, you can plug him in and not worry about him. My campaign to give him more icetime early in the season has been crowned with success, and I can move on to other battles.

An odd pairing that had me quaking in my boots was Tomas Kaberle and Chris Campoli, but there weren't any obvious lapses in their work or epic fails. Maybe their combined experience works to their advantage, and their puck moving style complement each other's. If they can keep this up and showcase themselves with a few good games this may work to our team's advantage.

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