Sunday, 24 March 2013

Game 31: Canadiens 1, Sabres 2

A lot of commentors describe last season as one in which anything that could go wrong did go wrong for the Canadiens.  Such analysis is inaccurate, hyperbole.  We could point to a myriad of things that went well, or at least didn't didn't fail.  The Pacioretty-Desharnais-Cole line was magic once it was brought together halfway through the year.  Carey Price had a strong season and was healthy until the final few games.  Uh...  Oh, yeah, Alexei Emelin, Raphaël Diaz and Yannick Weber all got significant minutes and seemed to improve as the season wore on.  Andrei Markov finally played a few games.  P.K. Subban, after a frustrating, uneven start, seemed to settle down and resume his progress.

Last night's game is one of those instances, where observers may be tempted to say, again, that 'everything went wrong'.  It didn't.  Only the score did.

I saw some amazing stats on various game recaps, such as the wide margin the Canadiens had in zone starts and Corsi and even-strength Fenwick, and I would have been even more shocked had I understood what any of them meant.  I've learned and forgotten and tried again to memorize what these numbers mean, but have been taking them with a grain of salt, since they are based on the notoriously unreliable NHL secondary stats such as takeaways/giveaways and shots and faceoffs.  I also view them with a jaundiced eye because some practitioners of these dark arts used them to 'prove' that Scott Gomez was more valuable to the Canadiens than David Desharnais.  The enhanced stats guys seem as reliable as Paul Ryan with budget data.

In last night's game however, theses stats lined up with what we saw, in that the Canadiens were constantly in the Sabres' zone, buzzing around their net and peppering Ryan Miller with shots.  The Sabres would finally get the puck out over the blue line, where a feeble pass would be intercepted by the Canadiens, and the whole cycle would begin anew.

No, this was an example of luck evening out over a large sample size.  The Canadiens have played well, but have had some bounces go their way and managed to eke out win after win, sometimes in extremis.  Everything Michel Therrien touched seemed to turn to gold, the latest example being the Colby Armstrong offensive surge once being placed to the right of Lars Eller.  Last night, the bounces didn't go our way.

Offensively, Nos Glorieux, who all season long have taken turns doing the scoring, were held off the sheet simultaneously.  Not that they didn't show effort and skill, just that they couldn't convert, all at the same time.

Meanwhile, the Sabres were bottled in their zone and rarely threatened Carey Price.  Their two goals were fortuitous, the first on a 5-on-3 powerplay due to highly questionable penalties to Mike Blunden and P.K. Subban, the second when Brendan Gallagher fanned on a pass in the neutral zone due to a broken stick, which led to a quick counter-attack and a nifty move by Thomas Vanek.  Looking at it with Buffalo-coloured glasses, you could say the Sabres 'found a way to win'.

P.K. has been the subject of social media conversation the last few days, or at least more so than usual, and yesterday it was apparent the pressure may be getting to him.  Enjoined by his coach to be more disciplined, he vigourously argued his first penalty for delay of game, and the video replays seemed to confirm his point of view.  On his second penalty, he tripped Patrick Kaleta in the neutral zone, a half-lazy, half-unlucky brain cramp of a play, in which he tried to get at the puck along the boards through the Sabres' skates.  He seemed agitated on his way to the box, in my view trying to communicate to his coach, his teammates and the fans that he was mad at himself for the penalty, that he understood, like the kid who broke the vase while playing baseball in the living room, after being told not to play baseball in the living room because he'll break the vase.  This is one of these instances where the coaching staff will be wise to pat our boy on the back and relieve the pressure, instead of adding to it.  Go get 'em next time kid, we know you're trying hard, we can't win 'em all.

Lars has caught my eye recently with his greater confidence and authority with the puck, but in this game on a couple of instances demonstrated that he's still a work in progress.  He stickhandled his way through a lot of defenders in the offensive zone, except he was being guided to the outside and the blue line by his opponents, and twice coughed up the puck across the blue line and the Canadiens had to exit the zone and tag up.  This reminded me of Andrei Kostitsyn's habit last season of taking the puck from the corner in the offensive zone to the blue line, where he'd flip it hot potato-style in his defenceman's shin pads, while the defenders who'd shepherded him there licked their chops.  Lars will learn.  While I don't extol the 'cycle game', it's the equivalent for the forward of the 'bang it off the boards' approach for the defenceman, the safe approach.  The puck is safer deep in the opposition corner than it is skittering along the offensive blue line, primed for an odd-man rush.

The balm which will take the sting off this loss is that the Bruins lost also, so we 'kept pace' in our division.  Especially since the Maple Leafs will fold, and the Senators should come crashing to earth.  Anytime now.  They can't survive all these injuries.  Right?

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