Saturday, 2 February 2013

Game 4: Canadiens 4, Devils 3 (OT)

Another win against much stiffer opposition, as Les Glorieux overcome their traditional nemeses the New Jersey Devils, with bugaboo goaltender Martin Brodeur who should make the Hall of Fame if only based on his performances in Montréal.  While the wins against the Panthers and Capitals came easy, the Canadiens needed overtime to pull out a victory and improve to 3-1 on the season.  The game had a bit of déja-vu to it as the Canadiens held 2-0 and 3-1 leads only to allow the opposition to tie the game late in the third, but unlike last season the good guys didn't lose their resolve and won it in overtime.

A lot of supporters were happy at the start of the season that the fourth line will be staffed with 'energy' players, grinders who will be "difficult to play against", as opposed to the motley crew of last season.  Under the previous administration, we endured a fourth line constituted of odds and ends and miscast defencemen and AHL'ers, and the sum was even less than the underwhelming parts.  This year, we currently have Ryan White centreing Travis Moen and Colby Armstrong, and while they haven't set the Eastern Conference on fire, they are legitimate NHL'ers, and do not embarrass themselves when on the ice.  They are an actual, viable option for Coach Therrien in most situations, as opposed to a last resort when the other lines desperately need a breather.  They can help on the penalty kill, can rough-house if that's what's called for, and on this day even chipped in with the opening goal, by an opportunistic Ryan White who went to the net when his linemates had possession of the puck in the offensive zone.

Another positive development is that the Hamilton Bulldog on the roster is actually contributing, instead of being a plug for a roster hole as too many callups were last season.  Brendan Gallagher scored his first goal of the season on a one-timer wrist shot, on a feed by his rookie compadre Alex Galchenyuk.    The latter showed great speed and finesse, coming in on his off-wing, freezing the goalie with a potential shot before dishing to his linemate.  Later in the game, Brandon Prust got his first goal as a Canadien, a goal again set up by Mr. Galchenyuk on the forecheck.  That the youngsters are producing now, as opposed to forcing us to evaluate their future potential is a big boost to the team.

Carey Price was solid in goal, keeping his teammates in the game until, again, Andrei Markov scored on the powerplay to end the game in overtime.  He is showing a Midas touch early on, on this play once again sneaking up from his defence position to cash in a rebound on the side of the net.  With Andrei in full flight and the powerplay being productive, the Canadiens are a much more dangerous team and can afford to outwait P.K. Subban during these protracted contract negotiations.  

Game 3: Canadiens 4, Capitals 1

There was a lot of talk about Michel Therrien's new system before the season began, and I was skeptical as to how much it would differ from Jacques Martin's 'Le Système'.  Don't it seem like all teams now play 'dump and chase' in the offensive zone anyway?  Don't they all collapse back onto their goalie in the defensive zone and block shots, creating a big cluster in front of their goaltender and hoping that while they crosscheck and slash the opposition there will be a big enough tangle of legs and skates and sticks that a puck won't get through?

Gaston Therrien spent a lot of time on the video board on l'Antichambre on RDS, trying to educate viewers on the fine points of the new approach the Canadiens will employ.  He'd diagram how the team will put pressure on the puck with two defencemen and a winger in the corners in the defensive zone, with various rules such as: "The second defenceman will commit himself only if he's certain he'll get the puck".  In the offensive zone, he showed how the defenceman will pinch in and put pressure on the opposing puck carrier to prevent a zone clear, but it will be crucial that his winger be aware of this and cover him in case the puck/puck carrier does get through.  Anyway, Gaston demonstrated this with video taken at practice during the abbreviated training camp, and it all seemed to make sense and not be too earth-shattering, nothing too different than even what we were coached to do when I played rec league minor hockey.

So what's the big deal then?  Well, it seems that it has transformed the Canadiens in their approach and their entertainment quotient.  Whereas when we lost the puck in 'Le Système' one forward would put up cursory resistance and a semblance of a forecheck while the other four would race back to their zone to man the ramparts in Mr. Martin's Rope-a-Dope, the boys now are more aggressive, in a more attacking frame of mind.  They forecheck more, they don't abandon ship at the first hint of a turnover.  They don't yield territory willingly, promptly, to go turtle around Carey Price.

On offence, Nos Glorieux carry the puck more into the zone, instead of firing it into the corner and then chasing after it.  We've seen a lot more breakouts where the guys attack in formation, with the usual suspects on defence and even Josh Gorges on occasion joining the rush.

Now, this isn't objectively better or worse than the Jacques Martin Système.  It's not going to be judged on Gaston's videoboard or in a vacuum, but rather on the ice, and it's probably too early to make any definitive statements, but at first glance it seems to have had a very positive effect on the way the team plays.

First, the new style is much more entertaining.  While winning games is the ultimate goal and is fun no matter what system is being used, some of the wins last season were hard to stay awake for.  Most of the losses too.  Michel Therrien's system produces more watchable, fan-friendly hockey, if we discount the home-opening loss to the Leafs.

Another positive change is that while the team has cast off smaller/meeker players like Mike Cammalleri, Scott Gomez and Andrei Kostitsyn and ices a more physical lineup, the Canadiens are still at heart a skating team, with a forward corps that is smaller than the St-Louis Blues or the Bruins for example, and a mobile defence that is more adept at corralling the puck in the corners in flight and launching a counterattack, rather than squatting in its zone and slugging it out with the opposition.  As such, there were many analysts who proclaimed that we didn't have the right team makeup for the style we played, and that the constant banging and shot blocking it necessitated accounted for the parade to the First Aid room that endured for the last couple of seasons.  The new system is more suited to our mobile defence and lineup in general than the Système that Jacques Martin wrung so much out of.

One aspect which I think can't be underestimated is that the players must enjoy this style of play more, and it may account for an uptick in energy and commitment this season.  We routinely speculated over the last couple of seasons that Scott Gomez would insist on carrying the puck and then curling to the sideboards instead of shooting it in the corner and then chasing after it for the very good reason that going in the corners hurt, especially for a smaller guy like him.  He couldn't have been overjoyed at the prospect of facing off against Zdeno Chara or Anton Volchenkov, and we suspect that many other Canadiens felt the same.  Raphaël Diaz must have wondered what he was getting into when he had to stop a Jason Spezza shot with his ankle, and then go to the corner to wrestle for the puck with Chris Neil.

It's a little bit like football offensive linemen having to choose between the passing game or run blocking. While running the ball isn't that spectacular or necessarily a fan favourite, it's fun for the guys up front because they get to beat on the defensive players, compared to passing plays where they backpedal and the reverse occurs.  Lots of times, early in the game it seems pointless to run the ball, since it's only netting a yard or two per play, but  in the third quarter the toll mounts on the defence and often the results improve.  It's a cumulative result.

Similarly, last season we'd often see the Canadiens wilt in the third period and surrender a slim lead.  Going all out, giving 100% and sacrificing the body is all well and good, but when your shins are bruised and your lungs are on fire you can only do so much.  The Rope-a-Dope can work in extremis, but after a couple round of letting your opponent tee off on you a few shots inevitably get through and it starts to hurt.

Despite Mr. Martin's protestations to the contrary, the Canadiens were inherently defensive in their approach and designed to sit on a lead.  This season, if they don't so willingly retreat to their zone and act as punching bags, and are quick to the puck and quick to break out, it may be less likely that leads are frittered away, they may actually put teams away as the opposition presses to tie up a game.

This win against the Capitals was encouraging for a lot of reasons.  Tomas Plekanec again opened the scoring and seems to enjoy the company of his wingers René Bourque and Brian Gionta.  Andrei Markov again put up two points on the powerplay, was creative and dangerous on offence, and steady on defence, playing a total of 24 minutes and looking fluid while doing so.  Carey Price was solid, and seems poised to have the Vézina Trophy-contender type of season we've all been predicting for him.

Game 2: Canadiens 4, Panthers 1

Now that's more like it.  Grist for the fan mill.  A convincing win at home against an underwhelming opponent, the type of game the boys used to gag up last season.  A much better effort, with more direction and determination than was shown against the Leafs on Saturday.

The big story is the triumphant return of Andrei Markov, along with the Canadiens' power play, which was MIA last season, allowing opponents to take advantage of our overmatched squad.  That  Mr. Markov and the powerplay returned simultaneously is no coincidence.  I've listed Andrei as my favourite current Canadien for years, his wizardry with the puck and inventiveness make him a delight to watch and the most potent player on the team.  The common refrain amongst fans and analysts has been that if he can perform at 80% of his capacity prior to his knee injuries that he'll help the team.  His two goals today bode well, and demonstrate that this may have been a bar set too low.  Heck, I'd started to blunt my own expectations for the man.  He's shown a lot of doubters what kind of player he is, and what he can contribute to this team.

Tomas Plekanec notched a goal early to open the scoring, and was matched up with René Bourque on his left wing.  We'd had high hopes for Alex Galchenyuk in this slot, and agreed with each other that Mr. Bourque was more effective on right wing as he demonstrated in Calgary.  Some were disappointed that the rookie was not given a longer audition on the second line, but rather was put on a third line with Brendan Gallagher and Brandon Prust, but the latter combination was effective, with both rookies notching their first career point in the game.

The 'damned if you do, damned if you don't' situation Montréal Canadiens coaches find themselves in is well illustrated by the fan and press reaction to Michel Therrien's decision to sit Lars Eller for this game.  When asked why he felt the need to make a change in his lineup prior to only the second game of the season, Mr. Therrien replied: "We don't have time to fool around."  With this, he communicated a sense of urgency and dissatisfaction with 'good enough', and sent a message that moral victories will not be enough for him, that everyone will be accountable for their play, every game.  There will not be any opportunities for players to 'find themselves', à la Benoit Pouliot, they will have to work hard and produce results.

All this created a patented 'only in Montréal' mini-controversy, with critics storming the ramparts for Mr. Eller, and defending him as a young player who needs to be put in a position to be successful, with patience for his mistakes, preferably while playing center with talented wingers instead of third or fourth-liners.  His confidence will be affected, it was argued.  He wasn't even the worst Canadien against the Leafs.  We should have waited for this lineup to gel for three or four games before benching anyone.  All valid points, but which fly in the face of the frustration we felt at Jacques Martin's lethargic, almost apathetic coaching style.  We wanted him to coach with more urgency, to show more passion, to shake a few cans.  Now that we have such a coach, we pine for the more patient, phlegmatic type.  This would be good fodder for Jimmy Kimmel's "Can't Win Theatre" on "The Man Show".

So a good win, a refreshing cleansing of the palate after the clunker Saturday night, and a nice portend of what could be.