Thursday, 18 April 2013

Game 44: Canadiens 3, Lightning 2

In the most recent win by the Canadiens against the Sabres, we talked about how this was a formality of a win against a listless team that has already checked out.  Tonight's win against Tampa Bay had a different feel, but should bear the same degree of caution for the mercurial fans of the team.  While it will serve as a bad-streak breaker, and might help settle down Carey Price, the Canadiens can't hang their hat on this victory and proclaim, George Bush the Lesser In A Flight Suit-style, "Mission accomplished."

The first period was an even affair, with chances to score going both ways, and Tampa Bay notably plinking three pucks past Carey Price, with one each ending up on either post and one on the crossbar before bouncing out.  The Lightning unleashed a barrage of bodychecks on the Canadiens, following the gameplan established and proven effective by the Leafs, Pens and Flyers recently.  Marc Denis mentioned on RDS that an Eastern Division coach had told him that the strategy his team would use against the Canadiens would be to hit them hard and often, and to crash Carey Price's net, so the secret's out.

The second saw the Canadiens slowly take the game to the Lightning, having withstood the early onslaught, and put two pucks behind giant Ben Bishop, but before the hardy few who tried to start the "Olé Olé" chant prematurely could really get going, the Lightning closed the gap by scoring on a late power play.

While I think there are too many fans who obsess over the "Olé" song, and confuse its meaning with the "Na na, hey hey, goodbye" song, we should set up some widely agreed-upon parameters to delineate when it should be deployed.  I think it broadly should be used when our team is rolling and the building is rocking, but maybe only when the Good Guys have a three goal lead, or maybe two goals with five minutes to go in the game.  Any less than that is hubris and may tempt the Gods, or more practically it could fail to whip up our boys and motivate the opponents instead, who might think they are still in the game and want to shut the crowd up, prove a point.  Anyway, in this game at least, I did clearly formulate the thought that the "Olé" song was being heard way too soon, when Les Glorieux had a very tenuous hold on the game, and sure enough a minute later we were down to a one-goal game.

Vincent Lecavalier tied up the game in the third, on a goal which when replayed didn't make Andrei Markov look very good.  While the Lightning don't have much depth, they are always a threat to score when players such as Martin St. Louis, Steve Stamkos and Vincent Lecavalier are on the ice.  All through the third, the Canadiens attacked the Tampa zone, but the Lightning counterattacked with these three, and we were on the edge of our seats, thinking how easily they can snipe a puck.

Patrick Roy on l'Antichambre had a good laugh and quipped that the Canadiens waited a long time for Benoit Pouliot to be a difference-maker in the third period for them, and in this game it finally happened.  He was referring to the penalty he took for a stupid hold on P.K. Subban 200 feet from his own net, during which the Canadiens capitalized and won the game on a nifty Brian Gionta goal.

Now, I didn't look a second time by rewinding the PVR, but it seemed as if P.K. didn't fight very hard to stay upright when he was wrapped up by Mr. Pouliot.  The latter is a big strong guy and certainly powerful enough to bring P.K. down, and he had a good wrap on him from behind, with his stick and gloves and forearms on the defenceman's shoulders, but then again halfway through his brain cramp he seemed to realize what he was doing and was about to hold up his hands and let go of the stick, to plead his innocence to the refs, but it was too late, the damage was done.

And herein lies the imbecility of the NHL and its abysmal practice of calling penalties based on situations.  On the play in question, Benoit Pouliot was clearly beaten, he was a clear step behind P.K. Subban at least, who had a clear path to the puck.  In football or basketball, that would be tough noogies for the guy trying to catch up.  If he tried to grab an arm or a handful of jersey, a clear infraction would have occurred and would be called.  In hockey, however, factors such as the identity of the players, the score, what the clock reads, how many penalties have been called to each team, and how recently, whether Don Cherry is in attendance, what the barometric pressure is doing, and a myriad others are used to determine if a penalty is a penalty.  So that Benoit Pouliot is allowed to do little hooks with his sticks, and grab him a little, and slash him around the legs and waist to some degree with a nebulous limit, but he can't overdo it, or the ref will 'have' to call it.  You see, he doesn't 'have' to call all the penalties committed, just those he 'has' to, capisce?

So in this instance, P.K. could have been a good Canadian kid and fought through the hold, and stayed upright and muddled a play on the puck, and no penalty would have been called most probably.  Even if the muddled puck ended up in his net.  Or, he can let the hold happen and present the ref with a decisive result, demonstrate the degree of interference he was faced with.  Maybe even amp it up a notch, in case the ref is hard of seeing, as he usually is.

And that's how we get a 'diving epidemic'.  If the refs called every slash, every hook, each instance of interference, there would be no need for players to dive.  If there wasn't this 'borderline hook' mentality, if instead it was clearly explained and arbitrated consequently, that a player who is a step behind or out of position has only one option, which is to put his head down and skate like crazy to get back in position, there'd be no upside to 'embellish', no epidemic.

Two other instances where this concept comes into play caught my eye.  One was the Eric Brewer tripping call on Max Pacioretty, for spinning Max clear around as he was trying to get to the net.  Max spun 360 degrees and ended up near the net, tottering, and I thought could have maybe kept his balance, but I surmise that he thought since the puck was nowhere near, there was no play to be made, and no advantage to stay upright, so he may as well complete the fall that was initiated by Mr. Brewer.  The latter skated to the penalty box protesting mildly, knowing he clearly held/hooked/tripped Max, but also suspecting that Max could have stayed up on his skates if he'd given it his all.

Another instance went the other way, when Brendan Gallagher skated the puck from his zone all the way to the Tampa slot, having beaten Matt Carle on the play.  Mr. Carle was a full step behind, and the entire way slashed and hooked Brendan at the waist, his legs, his hands/stick, unceasingly, until Brendan kind of coughed up the puck to end the play and threat.  There were 12 to 20 instances that could have been penalized, but they all fell beneath the threshold that was conjured up for this particular play, at this particular juncture of the game.  So Matt Carle made 'a good defensive play', he 'backchecked'.  And I wondered if Brendan had embellished on one of the hooks at his waist, or the slashes at his ankles, would that have been better than what he did, which is what he has done all season, meaning bravely soldier on and fight his way to the net.

So P.K. I suspect helped the ref make the right call, by showing him clearly that he was being held, illegally, by a slower, dumber player who was out of position and made a brain-dead play when he had a multitude of options so far from his own net, and the Canadiens cashed in the powerplay, and won the game, not decisively, but it's two points and it stopped the skid and we can take a breath and see about those resurgent Capitals on Saturday.

And if I ran the NHL drug testing program, and if I'd read the Bill Simmons article about how no sudden surge in production of performance, or dramatic decline, is now beyond suspicion in the post-Lance Armstrong era, I'm waiting for Alex Ovechkin with a sample cup when he gets in to Montréal, despite Gary Bettman's stern reminder that what's good for the Capitals and what's good for NBC is good for the league and good for my continued employment.

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