Thursday, 1 March 2012

Game 65: Montréal 5, Minnesota 4 (SO)

For a game featuring the Wild, we were presented with a weird, wild game. I've had the opportunity to watch a few Minnesota Wild games against the Canucks. Often, a ticket magically becomes available at the last minute and I scoop it up, grateful for a chance to see NHL hockey, something which was a rare treat when I lived in Montréal. It took me a while to understand that tickets in Vancouver are easier to come by, especially against the Wild when they were coached by Jacques Lemaire. Very often I'd end up with tickets to the Wild games, but I'd have to scratch and claw to get a Canadiens tickets.

A couple years ago, I ended up with a gig where I'd drive a bus from Whistler down to the rink, watch the Canucks game with a busload of colleagues, and then drive the whole tired crew back, all while getting paid. Sweet deal, except when I had to try to stay awake through a Wild trap game, and then had to drive home and be alert. Red Bull was my friend on these occasions.

I'm not sure if Mike Yeo is trying to instill a more offensive mindset, but this game had flow and action, and lots of physical play. We saw Ryan White engage Stéphane Veilleux in a fight right off the faceoff, which Marc Denis of RDS posited was an attempt to energize his teammates at the start of the game. I actually wondered if he had started the scrap to relieve the pressure on his teammate Brad Staubitz to challenge one of his ex-teammates during the game. Not sure if I'm misinterpreting The Code here, but if so that was a cool move Ryan.

I'm not so sure about his next fight, again against Mr. Veilleux, since the latter was already engaged with Chris Campoli after a goalmouth scrum, and had no opportunity to drop his gloves or defend himself. The Wild bench was incensed at Mr. White's attack, and I can't say I was very proud of him either. I don't really want our team to be thugs and bullies. Having said that, I didn't see what started the affray, the cameras missed it, but apparently Stéphane Veilleux slashed someone hard enough and with enough frequency that he received two slashing penalties in the final tally, while Ryan got the 2-5-10 minute instigator.

The first period also featured a P.K. Subban performing nearly at the level he was at last season. He scored a goal on the power play and laid a solid, clean hit on Kyle Brodziak, one for which the Wild players tried to instigate a fight, but P.K. wisely held back and the Canadiens rallied to his aid. If P.K. keeps this up, I just may have to kiss and make up with him.

The first period saw another Canadiens goal scored on the power play, one set up on nifty passes from Chris Campoli and Scott Gomez. The New Forum crowd was in the process of booing Mr. Gomez whenever he touched the puck, possibly to dispute his presence on special teams, a hot topic these days. An uneasy truce endured the rest of the game, as Scott silenced his critics for one night, but he'll need at least a point per game until the end of the season to be off the radar of the boobirds.

Matt Kassian closed out the scoring in the first on a weird goal, in that while battling with Yannick Weber, which was a bit of a physical mismatch, he lifted Mr. Weber's stick, into which Alexei Emelin ran into face first. Mr. Emelin fell forward, prone in the goal crease, which effectively boxed out Yannick Weber and Carey Price, and allowed Mr. Kassian all the time he needed to cash in a loose puck. The referees apparently got the call technically right in not whistling a penalty on Mr. Kassian, since it wasn't his stick that injured Alexei, but it's strange that he was the one who lifted Yannick's stick and was therefore the 'irresponsible' one, yet benefited by not being called and potting a goal. Wild.

Alexei Emelin was fine to continue playing after some first aid on the bench, and in the second period he again threw his weight around, but his most notable bodycheck was on teammate Erik Cole. Alexei was going in for his patented hip check on Nick Johnson who saw him coming and ducked out of the way. As he continued on his trajectory, he ran right into Erik Cole, who luckily had time to jump up and mostly hurdle Alexei's rampaging rump. They both tumbled around but were uninjured, and chuckled about it later on the bench. Alexei had another check late in the second which again infuriated the Wild bench, since they thought he'd creamed Jed Ortmeyer in the back, but the replay clearly showed that Alexei held up when he realized that Mr. Ortmeyer was in a vulnerable position, you could see the spray flying up from his skates as he braked. He did make contact and push him into the boards, but that was a result of his momentum, and he didn't finish by flattening him against the boards. He let up, which I applaud.

The second period also featured a beauty of a goal by Max Pacioretty, one which showed that he can become more than a power forward and evolve into a sniper. He had the puck at the side of the net when Wild defenceman Marco Scandella sprawled on the ice to block a shot. With two more Wild defenders converging, most players would have felt they were running out of time and tried to jam the puck at the net and hoped it got through. Max instead was patient, withdrew with the puck into the slot, and Mr. Scandella was caught trying to decide whether to keep blocking the shot or getting up. When he did get up on one knee, and with the other defenders having retreated to cover the points and reform the defensive box, Max used the time he gained and the partial screen provided to calmly pick a corner and bury the puck.

One of the many advantages Wayne Gretzky had was his ability to stretch time. When other players would feel time running out and they felt they had to shoot or get rid of the puck, he would extend the play with a clever little spin or pause or deke, and put the pressure on the defenders, they now would feel as if time was running out and they needed to do something, and he would take advantage. Now, I'm not making a direct comparison between Mr. Gretzky and Mr. Pacioretty, but we often see Nos Glorieux shoveling the puck at the net, hoping it slides in along the ice through a forest of legs and skates and sticks. We see the snakebitten Mathieu Darche rushing shots at the net and not getting enough wood on it or air under it. We see desperate forwards hacking the puck three or four times into a goalie pad instead of drawing the puck back, cocking it and flipping it high. It's refreshing to see a talented, smart hockey player like Max, or like David Desharnais on his shootout deke goal, have that killer mentality and be cool under pressure, and take the time to score with confidence.

While we're on the subject of David Desharnais, let me fret again about his lack of height. He is much too short to be that effective a #1 centre. If we allow him to continue unfettered, we might be stuck next year with a 5'7" point a game #1 centre who is loved by his wingers and teammates and the fans, and then where will we be? We must get a mucker grinder larger centre who will score at a more sedate pace but will look the part and will draw admiring glances from Brian Burke and Don Cherry.

The third period was filled with more action and oddities. First and foremost, at the 17:56 minute mark, was a competent defensive play committed by Tomas Kaberle. You read it right, Tomas was useful on defence, in his own zone no less, and along the boards behind the net to boot. He effectively stripped the puck off Matt Cullen and passed it on to Chris Campoli, his defensive partner. There is no word yet from the Hockey Hall of Fame on whether they will ask for his stick to be donated to commemorate this, but if it did it might be in a fight with Michel Bergeron to obtain it.

The game grew increasingly chippy as it progressed, even though the refs had tried to get a handle on it early by whistling most infractions. The problem is, they relented as the game came to an end, notably on a clear, dumb knee-on-knee hit by Cal Clutterbuck on René Bourque. They chose to decide that they didn't really not observe anything too illegal. To excess. Within the context of a close game. Where they'd already handed out a few penalties to the poor Minnesota players and kind of felt compelled to try to even things out a little bit. Fast forward to the last minute of regulation, with Max Pacioretty breaking in on the Minnesota zone and its empty net, with Kurtis Foster in tow. Literally. Mr. Foster had the hook out and was water-skiing behind Max, in full view of the referee. He hooked Max once, no call. He hooks again, still no call. Note that his stick was parallel to the ice, in the crook of Max's left hip, the very side of the ref looking on. On the third hook, Max, at this point losing his foot race, made a dumb move and instead of firing the puck at the net and hoping it squeaked through a backchecking defender, dove to the ice to try to draw a penalty. By this time, the referees were paralyzed with indecision, working their mental abacus furiously trying to figure out where they were in their 'let them play' arithmetic. They realized they should have called either of the hooks on Max.

(NHL rule 55-Hooking: 55.2 Minor Penalty - A minor penalty shall be imposed on a player or goalkeeper who impedes the progress of an opponent by “hooking” with his stick.)

But they also knew that that would trigger Rule 57.4...

(57.4 Awarded Goal - If, when the opposing goalkeeper has been removed from the ice, a player in control of the puck in the neutral or attacking zone is tripped or otherwise fouled with no opposition between him and the opposing goal, thus preventing a reasonable scoring opportunity, the Referee shall immediately stop play and award a goal to the attacking team.)

...and the wrath of Don Cherry for 'injecting' themselves in the game, so they remained of stone. So when Max flopped on the ice, they couldn't in good conscience call a penalty to him, it would have kind of sort of been not cool, so they kind of sort of didn't 'see' it. Which then led to a Minnesota goal, so that in fact they decidedly did inject themselves into the game. And into the standings. And into the playoff race. Isn't it great when the refs 'let them play'?

A troubling note is the eye injury suffered by Aaron Palushaj. He left the game in the first and did not return. What is curious is that he wears a visor, and we have seen many players recently who get nose or eye injuries even though they have the protection of the visor. What may be happening is that the visors tend to be thinner and thinner, with the protection starting higher and higher on the face, as opposed to the eighties when the visors would come down to the player's upper lip. Also, visors now have mounting channels instead of holes, allowing a player to affix it in an upward orientation. Add to that the fact that most players wear flimsy helmets that are too loose and do not grip the player's head, and the visor is easily brushed aside when the puck or a stick blade taps it. We can see when the players are sitting on the bench, those with visors tend to push it up so that it acts more like a baseball cap bill than anything else. It's no wonder that with all these factors the visor fails to protect the players in an increasing number of incidents.

In summary, a nice win by the Canadiens, but once again one which shows that the Canadiens are overmatched on most nights. In a game where the power play finally clicked and their penalty killing was flawless, where the #1 line produced, one in which they had a three goal lead, they needed a shootout on home ice to escape with a win against a team that has been in a free fall in the standings. So it's nice to enjoy, but it doesn't remove any of the concern about the lineup for this year and beyond, and about organizational depth and team asset management.

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