Wednesday, 14 March 2012

Game 71: Montréal 3, Ottawa 2 (SO)

This has been a tough couple of days for this Canadiens fan, as he watches his other favourite team, the San Diego Chargers, being dismantled by salary cap pressures. The shuffling of players in and out with no consideration for the fans' attachment for players they have grown to know and love over the seasons is one of the facets of the league that makes the NFL really tough to love sometimes.

The NHL isn't immune to those issues, although it is an order of magnitude removed in severity. A team can hold on to its most important players and create a core, then tweak the roster with peripheral additions over many seasons.

The Canadiens used to have unparalleled organizational depth and stability, which slowly eroded during the Irving Grundman years, solidified during the reign of Serge Savard, and then collapsed under the cursed touch of Réjean Houle, our very own version of an anti-Midas. We thought that the Bob Gainey-Guy Carbonneau régime would set the ship on the right course, and the last two seasons' results during the playoffs seemed to indicate smoother sailing ahead.

Which brings us to this season. The Canadiens seem almost bipolar, capable of good to great performances, with outstanding athletes leading the way, or of putrid outings where half the roster doesn't seem NHL-worthy.

This victory against Ottawa was another illustration of what this team can be capable of. The number one line flies up and down the ice, constantly threatening to score, and never stinting on effort. Josh Gorges and P.K. Subban were a study in complementary tandems, with Mr. Gorges sacrificing his body to block shots and kill penalties, while P.K. is an exhilarating offensive force, who is strong and fast on his skates and protects the puck well, and used a nice wrist shot to set up David Desharnais' deflection on the second goal. Andrei Markov had a more discreet game than his first two, with no gems on offence or clunkers on defence, but with every outing will solidify our confidence that he will reclaim his #1 spot on the defence depth chart, and push everyone else a rung down, closer to where they belong. Carey Price was the solid, confidence-inspiring goalie who will anchor our team for the next decade.

The rest of the roster is riddled with question marks. We can choose to believe that this was a one-off, a blip of a season which will be rectified by next season, with one or two shrewd free-agent acquisitions and the return to health of Brian Gionta, Travis Moen and Mathieu Darche. Some of the low-performers on this team will be counted on to round out the roster however, and to plug holes when injuries strike. Hamilton will not necessarily be of more help than it was this season, we will have an influx of young players there who are all at least another season away from being able to contribute.

Does Tomas Plekanec return to form next year, with better linemates and a clean slate? Does René Bourque produce the expected streaky 25 goals, along with his good work on penalty killing duty? Do Lars Eller and Louis Leblanc continue their progression and become strong, regular contributors? Does Alexei Emelin continue to develop as a second pairing defenceman who hits like a train and shows some nascent offensive skill? Does either Yannick Weber or Raphaël Diaz or both become effective NHL defencemen after a difficult baptism by fire, if their responsibilities are reduced appropriately?

These questions are important in that in following the team so closely this year it is impossible to not become attached to these guys and want the best for them. I want them to develop together, individually and as a team. I don't want a shakeup and a blowup for the sake of change, with a whole slew of new faces, some tarnished by having worn the wrong uniforms. I want at least some of the boys who come to Hamilton next season to be in our organization for their whole career, and to seep into the roster and absorb the culture and pass it on to the next generation. I want a team. I don't want to, as Jerry Seinfeld put it, just cheer the laundry, cheer the uniform and not care who is inside the jersey, who wears it and how they do it.

The Chargers on Monday cut Marcus McNeill, a left tackle of immense proportions, talent and promise, because he is suffering from spinal column and spinal cord issues he incurred at least partly while playing for them. It was a heartless, ridiculous move that is completely sensible and rational according to NFL rules. The fact that he has a 'contract' is of no import. He is now a liability, and must be removed from the roster. If possible, he will be re-signed for a lower amount, and even less guarantees on his salary. Somehow that's not wrong. We're not supposed to care that we cheered for this guy for years, that he played at a Pro Bowl level for our team at the risk of his health and maybe even his life. We'll applaud the next guy plugged in his spot.

I want the revolving door on the Canadiens to stop. I don't want Carey Price to do his lunging pokecheck on another team. I want David Desharnais to continue to grow as a player in our uniform, not for him to be traded while his value is high. I want Brendan Gallagher and Max Pacioretty and Tomas Plekanec to retire as Canadiens. I know it is, but is it really too much to ask?

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