Tuesday, 15 October 2013

Game 6: Canadiens 3, Jets 0

The Canadiens have overall been effective on this road trip.  They got in a hole in the Calgary game, and couldn't make up the deficit in a furious third-period comeback attempt.  Josh Gorges says they had a team meeting afterward, even if I was prepared to be charitable and not demand they go into crisis mode, due to the long layoff after Game 2 against Philadelphia, and the long flight out West.  In any case, the team regrouped, got their legs underneath them, and comes back from that historically difficult road trip, after tonight's defeat of the Jets, with 3 wins out of four, which is more than respectable.

Not that they faced any powerhouses.  Bob Hartley has his young Flames playing an apparently furious forechecking style, and it will be interesting to see if they can sustain their surprising start, but aside from that the other opponents have been underwhelming.  The Oilers have a lot of talent, and admittedly a few roster holes, but this is the second season that they're expected to charge out of the gate, after years at the bottom of the standings.  It looks like if the Dallas Eakins régime will be successful it will be a process, rather than a Patrick Roy-style electric reanimation.

As far as the Canucks are concerned, the pessimists were apparently right.  The window is closing fast, if not already shut.  I wouldn't trade our fourth line for their third, or our third for their second.  They have Daniel and Henrik, Ryan Kesler, and a quartet of dependable defencemen but no stars on the blue line.  No one else on their roster is playing well or inspires confidence in the future.  Their farm team is barren.  

And the Jets, well, I don't know them too well, but I used to consider them a young team on the rise, one that would eventually reap the benefits of their many years of picking at the top of the draft.  Looking at their team on CapGeek though, we see that they are paying average to above-average players very well, and are very close to the salary cap.  I would have expected them to not be so close to the cap.  Their serviceable players like Blake Wheeler and Bryan Little carry a high cap hit, for a lot of years.  We're familiar with how the Canadiens evidently have to overpay to offset the high taxes players incur in Montréal.  It appears that the Jets have to overpay plus, for nebulous reasons.

The upshot is that while I expected a young hungry team to come out firing like the Flames did, we saw more of a confused, uninterested team, who gave up two goals early and then didn't seem to be able or willing to battle back.  The guys who should carry this team, Dustin Byfuglien and Evander Kane, did not impress.  Mark Scheifle played himself closer to being dropped off my fantasy team.  The only bright spot was Jacob Trouba, the 2012 9th-overall draft pick, who only played one NCAA season, and who looks like he'll stick around for a while.

For the Canadiens, Carey Price is quelling some of the rumblings.  While I was ready for a longer process, whereby new goalie coach Stéphane Waite and he would work on some new approaches and drills, and it would take some time to lose some habits and pick up new ones, we might be witnessing the harvesting of some low-hanging fruit.  I get an inkling, which is somewhat confirmed by observers more steeped in goaltending technique, that he is playing a more basic style, more instinctive, rather than the butterfly system which defaults to dropping down early and covering the bottom part of the net.  In the past, I'd fault Carey for almost 'flinching', dropping to his knees early, at the merest suggestion of a shot.  It wasn't noticeable when it worked out for him, but was glaring when a sniper would wait and pick the top corner on him.  

In any case, there was a lot of noise about how Carey plays, and whether the defencemen were to blame for the precipitous drop in his save percentage at the end of last season.  I tended to think not.  A lot of the goals which went in on him were bad goals from a distance which he flubbed.  There seemed to be a crisis of confidence.  And at the end of last season and the start of this one, I made the point that the distinction between a great goaltender and an average to mediocre one is very thin, almost like the milliseconds which separate luge medalists from the rest of the Top 30.  

In the NHL, a goalie is expected to stop 9 out of 10 pucks at the very least.  If he flirts with or falls below this level, he'll be out of a job.  A Vezina winner All-Star though, instead of stopping 9/10 shots, will stop 19/20.  That works out to one more puck every twenty shots.  And as someone pointed out in response to an earlier post, that is a record breaking pace, a .950 save percentage has not been sustained for an entire season.  The NHL record is .940, set by Brian Elliott in 2011-12, but he only played in 38 games, which is a smallish sample size.  Dominik Hasek, Tim Thomas, all the best goaltending seasons, have yielded a smaller save percentage.  Last season's winner, Sergei Bobrovsky, maintained a .932.

So we can see that the difference between a champion goalie and one out of a job is something like .025, which works out to one shot out of 40.  Over the course of 50 games of facing 30 shots or so per game, thus is the wheat separated from the chaff.

Last season, Carey finished with a .905, after the late-season swoon dragged down his record.  This year, after tonight's shutout, he's at an excellent .944, which is fifth in the league if we look at other goalies with at least four starts, behind Semyon Varlamov, Josh Harding and, interestingly, Tuukka Rask and Robin Lehner.  Jonathan Bernier is in sixth place with a .939.  So Carey is where he should be, in the lead pack, but so are our closest rivals' goalies, so we can't start snapping our suspenders just yet.

Daniel Brière responded to the coach's challenge with an assist on the opening goal by Brandon Prust, and the empty-netter to close out the game.  Mr. Brière may be called upon to replace Max Pacioretty's scoring for the next while, so his purgatory on the fourth line may have been short-lived.  Max took an awkward fall early in the first period and immediately grabbed his left leg, it looks like a hamstring injury or worse felled him, and he was escorted off the ice and didn't return.  Judging by the fall and the degree of pain he showed, he may be out for a while, but we shouldn't assume anything when it comes to Wolverine.

P.K. Subban had his usual strong performance, committing a couple of giveaways early, but came out of it with another goal off a booming shot from the blue line.  If that's what we can expect from his 'bad' games, we'll take it.

Ryan White again took on a giant in 6'4" Eric Tangradi, who is listed between 220 and 230 lbs.  Whitey got the takedown, but I'll feel more comfortable when Douglas Murray and George Parros are in the lineup and can match up with the opposition's goon who is trying to start something and spark his team, maybe he won't be so eager as when he's facing Ryan or a diminished Brandon Prust.

Josh Gorges and Raphaël Diaz were regularly singled out during the game for praise by Pierre Houde and Marc Denis, but their efforts were not of the eye-catching variety.  I did try to focus on Mr. Diaz, and saw him skating quickly to retrieve pucks and making good passes to clear the zone, nothing fancy.  I think these instances are often overlooked by fans, who will notice when a player is bottled in his zone or fails to clear out opponents in front of the net, but not realize when crises are averted before they begin by his steady, heady play.

So again, a good win for the good guys, who pick up the two points that were there for the taking, and bank them now rather than fumbling the opportunity and having to chase them later.  

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