Monday, 12 March 2012

Game 70: Montréal 2, Buffalo 3 (OT)

Another heartbreaker in more ways than one. We tie it up with one second left to push the game into overtime, only to lose, and be saddled with a loss and the regulation tie point, which does nothing to enhance our draft status. We keep losing games but picking up a point, it seems Les Fantômes du Forum aren't aware that we are in a race to the bottom, pitted against the redoubtable Leafs in a Clash of the Inept.

Enjoyable game nonetheless. Whereas everything seemed to click in Edmonton and Vancouver, we were back to the same old song, with the first line providing all the offence, but with a different beat with Andrei Markov back. Unfortunately, Andrei seemed even more awkward in this game, so our fears that his magic touch alone will rocket us to ninth place in the standings can be allayed. We need to be logical and understand that he's going through the mother of all training camps, having not played in two seasons and doing so with a knee he needs to learn to trust again. It'll come, and despite some doubts it seems clearer yet that to play him in our remaining brace of games is good strategy.

Andrei was caught out of position, flagrantly so, on a couple of occasions, and was on the ice for all three Buffalo goals. There were fewer sparks of magic than on Saturday, but his smarts and hockey sense shone through on the tieing goal in the final seconds of regulation. Just before, the Sabres had barely gotten the puck out of their zone and were about to organize an odd-man rush on to the Canadiens empty-net. It would have been game over as soon as they started skating, except that Andrei correctly read the play, reasoned that there was no point in staying back to defend the empty net, and instead pinched up and rushed the puck carrier, knocking the puck free and enabling the Canadiens to regain possession. Andrei can read the play and can be aggressive, and needs to find the happy medium now that he's not feeling quite as agile on his skates, but this play was pure gold, like the Andrei Markov of old.

And then there's Scott Gomez, who again provided us with a demonstration of his ineffectiveness on his first shift of the game. He was standing off the left wing side of the Sabres' net, hoping for a rebound while his linemates attacked the front of the net, when the puck squirted free in his general direction, but corralled by the Buffalo defenceman. He made a move as if he was going to outflank Mr. Gomez along the back boards and then up-ice, a fake on which Mr. Gomez bit and thus started to veer in that direction to cut him off. The Buffalo defender smartly changed direction and went behind his net and got the puck out of the Sabres' zone. All this would be run-of-the-mill, except that this action initially took place when Mr. Gomez was less than a metre from the Buffalo puck carrier. Instead of biting on the fake, or even having to guess which direction he would go, to his corner or the other way around the net, he could have simply put his shoulder into him. Not that he needed to hit the man violently, or that it would have taken much of a hit, his opponent was skating from a full stop, so he could have neutralized him easily by a simple, basic bodycheck, separated him from the puck, and kept the pressure on in the offensive zone.

Rather than this, the Canadiens were left scrambling in their own zone, with the Sabres buzzing, and Louis Leblanc was able to showcase himself in that he did exactly the opposite of Mr. Gomez and was effective in doing so. While the puck was being batted around, Patrick Kaleta had an opportunity on Peter Budaj's right side, when a near pop fly came to him. He gloved the puck and tried to read/deke Louis Leblanc to figure where he should deposit the puck and then be in a position to shoot or pass it. Mr. Leblanc didn't bother trying to guess, he didn't give Mr. Kaleta an option, he simply stepped into him and separated him from the puck. This wasn't a very hard hit, he barely had taken a couple of strides toward him, but it was enough to do the job, even if Mr. Kaleta is bigger and stronger.

How a an undersized rookie can get this right while a decorated, crafty veteran will boot it all over the infield is incomprehensible. Unless you posit that Mr. Leblanc actually cares and expends effort.

Oh, and I will again ask all his detractors to please stand up and explain yet again how David Desharnais is too small to be a #1 centre. Please weave into your exposé supporting evidence from the performance of Tyler Ennis, all 5'9", 160 lbs of him.

While most naysayers now grudgingly admit that David has been effective, they'll still trot out the old tropes that he's too slow, he needs to be insulated by the two wingers that he was given as gift without ever earning the right to play with them. I think we need to rearrange our mindset to accommodate the fact that Mr. Desharnais has learned to play in a manner that capitalizes on his diminutive stature. He plays differently than a crashing, bruising Joe Thornton or Bobby Smith. He finds the open areas, darts in and out with quickness that behemoths can't match. He plays with intelligence and vision, since all his career he has not been in a position to overpower adversaries with physical dominance. That makes him hard to defend, as his decisions and positioning are unorthodox, unpredictable. We tend to think that in hockey, bigger is automatically better, but if David were 5'11" and 190 lbs, would he be that much better? Or would he have learned to play the same way as everyone else and not have the singular attributes that make him so effective in his second season? Or would he be incapable of moving around the ice in the manner that he does? Or would he get creamed along the boards routinely, instead of using his low centre of gravity to his advantage, and opposing greater strength with timing, quickness and precision?

All I know is that his pass on Erik Cole's goal was another beauty. It didn't look difficult, it wasn't a cross-ice saucer in full flight, but again it was a smart play that froze the goalie, and a pass that went tape-to-tape. On his goal, we saw a sniper pull the trigger after setting up the puck and burying it absolutely top shelf. Ryan Miller had slid across and was blocking most of the bottom of the net with the right pad and his blocker. I can think of a few Canadiens who would have hurried and mashed the puck into Mr. Miller's pad, but David took his time and didn't miss. These plays don't happen accidentally over a whole season, at one point we have to applaud the genius, as I did when I bounded off my couch and jumped for joy.

So another loss, another loser point, another lose-lose game. Bring back the tie games, these OT losses are worse than kissing your own sister.

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