Tuesday, 26 March 2013

Game 32: Canadiens 0, Penguins 1

The boys on the pre-game show on RDS were evaluating the chances that Canadiens General Manager Marc Bergevin will pull off a trade to improve the team and prepare for a playoff run.  They offered that the next two games, against Eastern Conference powerhouses Pittsburgh and Boston, would provide a good indication of what course he should take.  Well then, after tonight's close loss against a Penguin squad energized by the return from injury of a positively rust-free Kris Letang, we can almost forego tomorrow's result and state that yes, this year's team is worth investing in.

One aspect is that while they're missing two big, physical pieces in Brandon Prust and RenĂ© Bourque at forward, they still forechecked and buzzed around the Penguins' zone relentlessly.  The forwards, decried by many as too small to make a difference, were too quick for the Pens defencemen and were often first on the loose pucks.  Michael Ryder hit two posts, and missed a couple more clear chances.  Generally the Canadiens could easily have won this game.  Yes, they measure up.  They are good enough.

Another way of looking at the result is that while Les Glorieux came close, they've been coming up short recently, whereas earlier in the season they'd find ways to win.  So while they're still competing and still in it, they seem like they could use a hand.

There's always a worry that newcomers may upset the chemistry of the team, but I have a hunch that the boys would welcome some reinforcements.  Fresh faces don't inevitably ruffle feathers, they can sometimes bring a jolt of energy and renewed enthusiasm.

I remember Brad Staubitz's impact last season.  While he didn't play big minutes or contribute offensively, he seemed to re-energize a team that was drifting and going through the motions.  His bromance with Ryan White was endearing.  I'm not saying that the Canadiens need to bring in an enforcer, but if this year's team saw a new player or two as bringing skills or attributes that are in need, they'd be seen as brothers-in-arms instead of job stealers.

I like watching defencemen play, and tonight paid close attention to Kris Letang, and what a player he is. Too many see his point totals, offensive acumen, smooth-skating stride, and they dismiss him as strictly an offensive defenceman, a finesse guy, a member of the fast-paced Penguins who benefits from playing with Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin.  Of course, that's selling him way short.  We saw tonight how effective he is in his zone, and not only in breaking the puck out, but also in the corners and in front of the net.  He blew up both Alex Galchenyuk and Lars Eller when he bodychecked them while battling for the puck.  It looks like all the work in the gym over the summer is bearing fruit on the ice.

And speaking of physical and talented defencemen, P.K. Subban played a strong game tonight.  Time and again, when there was a loose puck in his zone, he'd explode and beat his opponent to the puck.  His first three strides are so quick and powerful, especially for a guy his size, it makes him very hard to forecheck effectively.  He was effective carrying the puck, protecting it and feinting this way and that, and sure-handed when stickhandling and trying to create something in the offensive zone.  If he continues to play like this, and tries to replicate Kris Letang's all-effort, all-business approach to the game, we'll be sitting pretty on the blue line in Sochi.

Jeff Halpern paid early dividends in a strong night at the faceoff circle and killing penalties.  Pierre Houde highlighted his value when the Canadiens were able to put the Tomas Plekanec line on the ice right after a penalty, since Mr. Halpern had done most of the penalty kill work.  If he can relieve some of the pressure on Tomas on the PK, it's going to allow Michel Therrien more flexibility with his scoring lines.

It's impossible for me to ignore the idiocy of Matt Cooke, and the NHL in general.  Late in the second period, Tyler Kennedy, possibly still woozy from getting punched in the head by Gabriel Dumont in the first period, crashed hard into his own goalie.  Marc-AndrĂ© Fleury was shaken up, finished the period, but didn't return in the third.  A scuffle had ensued after the incident, because, well.. because it's the NHL.  Hilariously, the Penguins tried to go after Brian Gionta, who was standing in front of Mr. Fleury but had nothing to do with this.  Big, bad, dirty Brian Gionta.  In the third, Matt Cooke was lined up across Mr. Gionta for a faceoff and started beaking at him, so much so that a referee approached him and warned him to cut it out.  Even so, right after the puck was dropped, Mr. Cooke proceeded to slash and crosscheck Mr. Gionta, repeatedly, with no response from the referee.  Only after a second display of thuggery ten seconds later did the refs finally decide to hand out a two-minute penalty.

Why talentless hacks such as Matt Cooke are allowed to pollute the NHL, repeat offence after repeat offence, is beyond me.

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