Monday, 31 March 2014

Brooks Orpik's hit on Jonathan Toews isn't illegal or suspendable. But it should be.

I have to admit I'm confused by what is or isn't charging or boarding in the NHL, since what is in the rulebook isn't what directs on-ice officials in their decision-making based on what we see on the ice when we're watching games.  TV analysts also do a poor job of explaining rules and referring to the rulebook themselves, think about all the natter about 'distinct kicking motion', or in football 'the empty hand' when trying to decide if a quarterback fumbled or made an incomplete pass.  No one ever stops and says "Here is what the rule says, here are two clips that show a fumble, and an incompletion, you'll note that the quarterbarck's hand is 'empty' when..."

I'll just make the general point that if the Brooks Orpik hit on Jonathan Toews is not against the rules and isn't 'suspendable', then it darn well should be.  If there is a play or a rule that tilts the ice towards the less-talented player, and makes star players more vulnerable to injury, shouldn't you change that rule, or the way it's enforced, right quick?

The NFL passed the Brady rule a few seasons back, after Tom Brady's knee was blown out on the first series of the first game of the year.  A defensive player who had been blocked came in low at Tom Brady, and partly in a desperation do-anything-to-sack-the QB mindset, but with a healthy dose of make-the-quarterback-pay, make-sure-he's-not-too-comfortable-back-there, let-him-know-we're-coming philosophy, dived into his knee, rupturing his ACL and putting him out for the year.

The NFL reacted instantly, forbidding low tackles, or tackles around the knees when the quarterback is in the pocket, based on a simple fact: the NFL is better off with Tom Brady on the field playing, on your TV screens, than it is with him gone for a whole season, and returning with possibly diminished skills due to lengthy recovery periods.  It's obviously better for the league, for everyone involved, that the stars of the game, the Bradys and Mannings and Rodgers, be allowed to play and entertain and wow us.  And that includes the defensive players and the old-timers who whine that "you can't touch a quarterback anymore, why, back in the day, we would..."  Even those guys are making money, and will make more, if the NFL is successful and draws eyeballs and the ratings go up.  If Matt Cassel and Cade McNown and Luke McCown are on the field, the NFL is worse off than if those guys are holding clipboards and the #1's are on the field flinging the pigskin.

And the Brady rule is just one thing the NFL did to protect its stars.  You also can't hit a quarterback on the helmet, with any force at all.  You were just trying to bat down a pass, and your arm grazed Ben Roethlisberger's helmet as you whizzed by?  Tough noogies, you're not allowed to touch him there.  Hit the quarterback a half-second after he's passed the ball?  You kind of held up anyway, since you sensed you might get there late?  Not an excuse, that's a fifteen yard penalty, explain it to your coach.

There used to be situations that would make old-timers gleeful, like how on an interception, the offensive team now is playing defence, and is trying to tackle the ballcarrier, so the defence can now block the offence to improve the return yards.  Well, what that used to mean was 'open-season' on the quarterback, he was now a target for every defensive player to make a huge block on, and knock him into next week.  Defensive tackles and linebackers would converge on the quarterback, no matter where the return was headed, and try to put as big a lick on him as they could, to knock him out of the game.

Quite reasonably, and to protect its stars and its investment, the NFL legislated that you can't block the quarterback anymore, unless he's actively engaged in trying to make a tackle.  And of course, coaches are telling their QB's to walk over to the sideline when they make an interception, not to worry about tackling, save yourself for the next series.

Gary Bettman and his nincompoops in New York don't get that.  You would think that the Commissioner, who comes from a basketball background with the NBA, would understand the merit of trying to showcase your stars, of giving your league the best chance of being spectacular and successful.  Instead, he makes ice in L.A. and is looking to putting on games in Europe, but doesn't worry about the quality of the product.  He's the restaurant owner who only cares about sales and seatings, but not the quality of the food or the reviews and feedback.  If patrons come and don't enjoy the food, we'll take care of that by doing more marketing and getting other patrons, he thinks, not by making sure every meal is superb and grow the business organically, by word of mouth, through customer loyalty.  As if there's an infinite pool of patrons that are lining up to your restaurant that doesn't care about its food quality.

Whether that's stupidity or willful blindness, or something more pernicious is open to question.  I can't shake the memory of the horrible series of commercials the NHL used to re-launch the league after its suicidal lockout of 2004-05.  That the league chose to use actors and generic 'warriors', faceless nobodies to showcase itself is instructive.

The Lightning and Flames had played in the Stanley Cup final the last time it was awarded, with moderately exotic, immensely photogenic and likeable stars Vincent Lecavalier and Jarome Iginla as their respective captains.  The champion Lightning also had Brad Richards on its roster for the teeny-boppers to swoon over.

The league was full of bankable stars.  Towering defencemen Zdeno Chara and Chris Pronger were certainly worthy of attention.  Classy, superb scorers Markus Naslund and Ilya Kovalchuk had been featured in a memorable Nike ad that displayed their personality and sense of humour.  Even voluble goofball Georges Laraque, larger than life, could have been harnessed to win over casual fans.

Instead, the NHL went with nameless actors, caricatures, to showcase itself.  It's bizarre, baffling, but only so if you don't take into account the meanness, the adversarial stance the league has taken toward its players.  The NBA embraces Michael Jordan, knowing full well what it's doing.  The NHL locks out its stars, eyes replacement players, believes that fans will watch whoever as long as they're garbed in the right branded jersey.

So when it comes to the play on the ice, the NHL runs commercials with words like 'battle' and 'warriors', and revels in bloodied faces as proof that the players care and the games mean something.  And it gets sucked into that motif, and circles closer and closer to the drain.  Instead of caring about the show, and ensuring that Sidney Crosby and Alex Ovechkin are featured and at their best, they propound the meatgrinder aspect of its game as somehow noble, not self-defeating.

If the NHL had any sense, the hit on Jonathan Toews would be seen as a problem, and would rule it as such, either by drawing up new rules, or more simply by interpreting its current rules strictly.  It should very simply announce to the world, and directly to its teams, players, GM's, coaches, and fans, that the National Hockey League is a skill league, a talent league, and that the talent is cherished, valuable, and worth protecting.  Things that take away from talent, like hooking and slashing and boarding and kneeing, they'll all be punished harshly, and not judged based on severity, but objectively, absolutely.  There will be no kneeing, no slashing, no headhunting.

The Brooks Orpik hit on Jonathan Toews was against the NHL's own rules, in that he wasn't carrying or handling the puck at the time.  It was also high-sticking, in that Mr. Orpik lost control of his stick and swung it wildly in the air as he made contact.  The play-by-play guys can dissemble all they want, inured as they are by the routine thuggery and lawlessness in the NHL, it still doesn't change the fact that the NHL is refusing to enforce its own rulebook.

Curmudgeons will attack this view and state that they think the game is fine and don't want to watch hockey refereed any other way.  These same curmudgeons also attack the NFL when it takes steps to protect its stars, its quarterbacks, its defenseless players.  They prophesy that the game is being debased, is being 'pansified', will be killed with too much kindness.  Yet the League grows in leaps and bounds, by every measure, everyone involved getting richer.  While the NHL stagnates by comparison.

Saturday, 29 March 2014

Game 76: Canadiens 4, Panthers 1

Like the 2-0 win against the Sabres recently, this 4-1 win against the Panthers seemed pre-ordained, according to what the standings and common sense told us, but it wasn't easy, and didn't quite feel in the bag until David Desharnais' empty-net goal late in the third, which sealed it.  The Canadiens passed the puck at will and seemed to spend the first period in the Panthers' zone, and came off the ice with a 2-0 lead.

In the second though, they seemed to take the foot off the gas and rely on Harlem Globetrotter moves to add to their lead.  Like in the recent 2-0 win in Buffalo, there wasn't this apparent desperation to win, as we saw in Boston, the boys seemed to want to coast to the end, without having to sacrifice too much.  Their shot totals went from 11 in the first to 5 to only 3 in the third period, whereas the Panthers increased their intensity and fired more shots from one period to the next, and eventually tallied 37 against Carey Price.

While I watched and cringed, I was reminded of the classic horror movie trope, where near the end the hero puts the monster/Jason/rabid bear/mean-girl-with-a-crush out of commission, and all the tension drains as he checks on the heroine, who was about to be dispatched but was saved in extremis.  Except that's the wrong move, as attractive and disrobed as the heroine is.  Instead he should grab the rail gun/kitchen knife/shot gun/skillet and put a lasting end to the danger.  Not brush hair out of the heroine eyes and whisper sweet nothings.  He should finish the job.  But he doesn't.  And inevitably, accompanied by a sudden salvo of music, the antagonist rises, revived, angrier, meaner, for another five minutes of mayhem before the kill shot.  Because the hero didn't, in the first place, finish the job.

Which the Canadiens didn't/couldn't/weren't prepared to do.  They missed passes and flubbed clearances and were unable to deal with the size of some of the Panthers' forward, guys like 6'6", 220 lbs Jimmy Hayes and 6'6", 215 lbs Nick Bjugstad, who took up residence near Carey's crease and refused invitations to depart.

Carey was cool and calm throughout, didn't go all Hasek and flip out on his teammates, he made 36 saves and cooled things off repeatedly.  The only goal he allowed was tucked in as tight as possible top corner, in essence a perfect shot.  I took comfort in the fact that while it was glove side, he wasn't down on his knees in the butterfly already, he stayed in his crouch when the shot came.  He seems ready to go, getting stronger game by game.

One allowance I'll make for the Canadiens is how they are down to their last reserves at forward, due to Tomas Plekanec's absence for family reasons, which piled on top of injuries to Brandon Prust, Travis Moen and Dale Weise, meant that George Parros drew in the lineup.  George is a sympathetic figure, but has a deleterious effect on our team at this point, being unable to contribute in terms of hockey, and preventing Ryan White and Michaël Bournival from being effective.

Further, he was invited to a dance by Krys Barch and accepted, and wrestled him to a draw, as I cringed some more, hoping that the Panthers enforcer wouldn't be able to get a clean shot off.  As they skated off the ice, Mr. Barch was given an earful by the Canadiens bench, who according to RDS' Marc Denis thought he should have held off the unnecessary staged fight, in light of George's concussion woes recently.  Which effectively shows that George isn't trusted to contribute in that area either.

So our depth is being tested, and our resolve as well as the march to the playoffs continues.  The boys will need to focus not only on the 'big' games, like the tilt against the Lightning coming up, a classic four-pointer.  The gimmes against the Sens and the Islanders coming up are also going to count in the standings.

The Pacioretty-Desharnais-Vanek line piled up seven points, and our expectations are already rising.  I want more.  Especially during power plays against the worst penalty kill in the league, I want results.  I want to ride that Vanek pony as hard and as long as I can while we have him.  Max scored twice, once on a beautiful pass by Thomas Vanek, to bring his season total to 35.  He also smartly and unselfishly passed to David Desharnais with the Panthers net empty so that the latter could put the game away, while the inclination might have been to shoot himself and complete the hat trick.  Max has a realistic shot at fourty goals this season, with the way his line is going.

The kid line, which we anticipated so much from based on previous success, had much more muted results.  Gaston Therrien on l'Antichambre pointed out that all three right now are struggling to a degree, so putting them together isn't necessarily a recipe for success.  In any case, it's not like the coaching staff had many options.  A game against the Panthers was as good an opportunity as any to try something with the kids.

Until Josh Gorges returns, we're getting yeoman work out of Mike Weaver, Douglas Murray and Francis Bouillon.  Francis had a tough game in Detroit along with his partner P.K., but all three of our veteran defencemen are hard workers, they don't shrink from contact, and can hold down the fort while the kids learn their craft in Hamilton.  They're a bit of a motley crew, none of them is unblemished or strong in all areas, but they're getting results, and putting all-out effort on the ice, which is all we can ask for.

Let's hope that all goes well for Tomas Plekanec, and that he can rejoin the team for the showdown in Tampa on Tuesday.

Friday, 28 March 2014

Ben Scrivens says the Oilers' jersey is sacred. He should have acted like it is.

Just to get this off my chest about the jersey thrown on the ice in Edmonton, I appreciated what Ben Scrivens had to say in response, much more than Dallas Eakins' pompous, fabricated reaction the first time, but Ben kind of flubbed it with what he did with the jersey.  Instead of picking it up with his hockey stick, like a teammate's dirty underwear on the floor of the dressing room, and flinging it over the boards like dog poop into the neighbour's yard, he should have acted like the jersey was indeed sacred.  He should have taken it off the ice, brushed it off, folded it, and maybe handed it to a youngster sitting near the boards, not disposed of it like a hornet's nest.

Game 75: Canadiens 5, Red Wings 4

Purists will decry the win last night as a sloppy and poorly played game defensively, but I enjoy a 5-4 game much more than a 2-1 slashfest, in which the goals are all ping-ponged in during a cluster in front of the net.

One big takeaway for me was the camera shot from inside the dressing room during the intro to the RDS broadcast of the game.  As the camera panned and showed us various Wings, then Canadiens gearing up before the game, we saw Alexei Emelin about to pull on his hockey sock.  Directly on his thigh, worn under his sock, was a honking huge hinged rigid knee brace, the type that football offensive linemen wear after a knee injury.

We all understand that Alexei is coming back from injury, that ACL reconstructions are difficult to rehab from and can take a long time to be back to 100%, Adrian Peterson-type miracles aside.  But knowing this intellectually and showing tolerance and patience when Alexei looks less than agile on a goal against are two different things.  We've gnashed our teeth at some plays where he and Andrei boot around the puck, or where a sprightly forward skates circles around them, and despaired that our Top 4 defencemen are anything but.

Seeing the brace brought me back to reality.  It illustrates, it emphasizes that he's still not completely 'over' the injury.  Whether he's wearing it because he still feels minor discomfort or pain during sudden or awkward moves, or because he's being ordered to by team doctors and physio staff, the result is that he physically is diminished, and/or psychologically so.

There is no universal standard as to which patient wears what brace under what circumstances, when it comes to knee injuries.  The most common practice, in football anyway, for the heavy guys along the line, is that they wear the brace for a set period of time after surgery, even if they experience no pain or looseness, for precautionary reasons.  Some coaching and medical staffs insist that the player wear the brace permanently, to guard against future re-injury.  Some colleges or pro teams even mandate that all their linemen wear a brace on both legs as a precautionary measure, to prevent injury from happening in the first place, in games and practices.

Of course, there are advantages and disadvantages to each approach.  While the brace is generally accepted to be effective at protecting the knee from bending the wrong way, it is cumbersome and limits mobility in the athlete.  It is also heavy, and acts as a drag on speed and explosiveness compared to if the athlete doesn't wear one.  It also is a constant reminder to the player that he's injured, recovered or not.  Some players report hating wearing it, while others find it a comfort and derive confidence from having it on.

Generally, football players who play skill positions, who need speed and agility to be successful, like running backs or defensive backs for example, tend to want to ditch the brace as soon as they can, while the big boys in the trenches, who need to show stoutness and anchor in their position, aren't as opposed to wearing the brace as a rule.

So Alexei may have to wear the brace until the end of the season, or for a full calendar year after returning to the ice, or to game action.  He may be advised to wear the brace for the rest of his career.  In any case, this requires an adjustment period of him, and his performance will be affected still, as he acclimates to the brace and the way it impairs his movement and agility, and as his knee starts to feel 101% as opposed to 98%.

Of course, recovery is not the same for every athlete.  We saw Josh Gorges come back from ACL reconstruction two years ago and barely skip a beat, compared to Andrei Markov more ponderous return to the ice, marked by setbacks.  Josh stopped wearing a brace early on, and hasn't suffered any relapses.

Even Steve Quailer, the former Canadiens prospect who was dealt to the Kings this season, can be used as an example.  He suffered an ACL injury while playing at Northeastern University and missed an entire season.  When he returned he was made to wear a brace, and didn't like how it felt and limited him, so he stopped wearing it, and promptly re-injured his knee.  He was candid later on that this was a mistake, and he'd never take the brace off as long as he played.

So Alexei isn't 'healed' yet, and it's unrealistic to expect him to be right back to the playing level he showed before blowing out his knee.  We need to show, yes, patience, and appreciate the slow progress in his play as he adapts and gets closer to full mobility and strength.

The Pacioretty-Desharnais-Vanek line is another facet of the Canadiens that is showing progress, and not the slow kind either.  They didn't take to each other right away, as far as the tangible results showed, but they've been finding their stride, and yesterday were dominant, against an admittedly depleted Wings roster.  Coach Therrien felt compelled to double-shift his first line in the third period, which is a pleasant development.  For years, we've had a 'balanced attack', meaning we've rolled three or four lines and hoped that one or two would click that night.  We didn't really have a line with a Toews or a Kovalchuk on it that was felt to be so superior it should get more than its fair share of minutes, strictly due to its offensive ability.  The Canadiens, in fact, usually ride a defensive line hard, so that Doug Jarvis' or Guy Carbonneau's line gets more minutes thwarting the opposite #1 line than our putative first line.

It's easy to be optimistic on a night when all three linemates got a goal, and everyone is all smiles, but it bodes well for the team as it approaches the playoffs with a line that is near-lethal, and appears to still be improving.  They are finding each other with their passes more often, but the obvious instances when they'd make one pass too many are decreasing.  The play where Thomas Vanek outraced Niklas Kronwall to a loose puck, and knocked him on his keister for good measure, before feeding it to David Desharnais for the Canadiens' third goal, was refreshing.  Thomas Vanek is turning out to be what the Canadiens needed, a big winger who can play when it's physical, and can score.

And of course, on a night when I had to sit Tomas Plekanec on my fantasy team, due to my having too many forwards playing games on the same night, and due to his long unproductive streak, he went off for two goals, and hopefully finally broke out of his slump for good.  The experiment with the kids is not a success yet, but we can see progress, and we can afford to be patient during this streak of wins and with our relatively comfortable position in the standings.

What is there to say about P.K. that hasn't been said, either last night by the talking heads, or during his entire career?  On a night when he played on a national stage, in front of Team Canada coach Mike Babcock, and had an opportunity to make a statement, he started off spectacularly, assisting on both Tomas Plekanec goals in the first period.  He then, inexplicably, had a meltdown, and was on the ice for four Red Wing goals, one of which was directly caused by a mistake a Pee Wee player wouldn't make.

Note that this isn't a mistake in the sense of Jarred Tinordi misplaying a bobbling puck near his net, or Tomas Vanek failing to convert a scoring chance by stuffing a puck into the goalie's pad.  This wasn't an error of execution, like a defencemen flubbing a pass that is intercepted by a forechecking opposition forward.  This was a mental mistake, and even goes even further than that.  It's not like he had two options to make a pass, and he chose the wrong one.  It wasn't a 'bad decision'.

Instead, P.K. went against years of coaching, entire seasons of experience and instruction, and insisted on passing a puck through the middle of his defensive zone.  The pass was intercepted and ended up in his own net.  P.K. could have banged the puck up the boards, off the glass, where Tomas Plekanec was waiting.  He could have made the safe play, as coaches have been inculcating in him for years.  As Hal Gill and Josh Gorges and Andrei Markov have repeated to him again and again.  As Don Cherry roars from his pulpit every Saturday night.  As the dressing room chatter before games and between periods always insists, every single time: "Don't get fancy boys, just make the safe play, don't try to do too much, ..."

It's not like P.K. isn't smart enough.  It's painfully obvious to anyone that he's a really bright boy.  He should get this, maybe he understands this intellectually, but he obviously doesn't have this instinct ingrained in him, it's not reflex response from him.  That he's unconventional in his decisions and actions often pays off, as we saw last night when he executed the give and go with Tomas Plekanec on a three-on-two, or during the comeback win against the Senators when he passed to David Desharnais instead of shooting, with a second left in the game.

I was again reminded of Magic Johnson's line about Vlade Divac, that the latter was "a quick learner, but a quick forgetter also".  We keep reminding each other that P.K. is young, but he's not, really.  He's twenty-four, in his fourth full NHL season.  He's been playing high-level competitive hockey his entire life.  He shouldn't be making blunders like this, that beer-league players wouldn't make.  P.K. had a chance to prove something to Mike Babcock, the battle was already won.  He had two assists in the bag and the game was well in hand.  And he then went ahead and proved something to Mike Babcock all right.  He proved that Mike Babcock was right.

Wednesday, 26 March 2014

Mac Bennett gets a contract from the Montréal Canadiens.

With the University of Michigan hockey team's season over, Canadiens prospect Mac Bennett was now free to sign a pro contract, having finished his four-year career there.  Which raised the question as to whether he would actually receive a contract offer from Les Glorieux.

On the one hand, we'd read nothing but glowing reviews about the kid's skating and smarts and work ethic.  Last summer he showed up at the rookie camp proud that he'd met Player Development Coach Patrice Brisebois' target weight of 195 lbs.  He was enthusiastic about his experience at the camp, and was looking forward to applying a lot of what he'd learned there during his final season at Michigan.

On the other, his final season hasn't been a triumph.  He served as captain on a team that underachieved in the eyes of their coach, the legendary Red Berenson.  The Wolverines weren't included in the NCAA tournament, the second consecutive season this has happened after 22 straight seasons of being in.  This is so disappointing that Mr. Berenson has had to field questions about whether he will retire.

Further, Mac's point totals have been relatively stagnant in his four years at Michigan.  While a defenceman is not strictly evaluated on goals and assists tallies, the normal progression for a college player is to gradually increase these numbers as you progress.  A Senior in College is often 22 or 23, playing against players three or four years younger, and derives an advantage from that which is usually reflected by the points he amasses.  In contrast, Mac's points went from 18 points last year to 14 this year, in one fewer game.

So in his case being signed was not a foregone conclusion, at least in the eyes of this hockeydb-reliant expert, and depended on the number of contracts the Canadiens have available to offer out of their 50-contract limit, among other factors.  With the news that he's now entered into an Entry Level Contract with the team, it's apparent that the scouts and Canadiens brass have evaluated him and have decided he fits in the team's plans, and he'll join the Bulldogs in the fall.

Mac will be in a curious position, in that being left-handed will be an advantage for him in trying to make the Bulldogs roster, but a disadvantage if he were to have an unbelievably good training camp and were being considered to make the Canadiens.

We all know that we have only P.K. Subban and stopgap measure Mike Weaver as right-handed defencemen currently with the Canadiens.  Everyone else is a leftie, and this has forced players such as Francis Bouillon, Alexei Emelin and Jarred Tinordi to play on their off side, with mixed results.  So even if Mac Bennett looked like the second coming of Tom Kurvers next September, he'd have a tough time to crack the lineup.

In Hamilton though, when it comes to our prospects, the situation is somewhat reversed.  Trevor Timmins seems to have made a concerted effort to draft righties on the blue line in the lower rounds.  The blue chippers, Jarred Tinordi and Nathan Beaulieu are lefties, but everyone else shoots right: Greg Pateryn, Morgan Ellis and Darren Dietz.  Magnus Nygren, who was a Bulldog for half a season before he defected back to Sweden, is also a rightie.  So is Dalton Thrower, who should also receive a contract offer and join the Bulldogs next fall.

I'm also thinking there's a chance Josiah Didier could make the jump to the AHL next season and forego his Senior season in college, and this is pure speculation on my part based on the fact that his game may be better suited to the pros than the NCAA, and the Canadiens brass may encourage him in that direction.

So on the right side, we have Pateryn, Ellis, Dietz, and potentially Thrower, Nygren and Didier.

Meanwhile, on the left we have Tinordi, Beaulieu, Davis Drewiske and Mac Bennett, but in reality we should expect that at least one of Jarred or Nathan will be in Montréal full time next season.

So Mac will, possibly for the first time in his career, since it's rare for a defenceman to be in this situation, be valuable because he's a leftie.  He'll be playing on his natural side, and not be asked to play the right side once in a while, that will be covered by all the other righties.

This scenario also doesn't include any veteran AHL defenceman, to calm the waters and ensure the rookies aren't being led to slaughter.  This season, Nathan McIver, Drew Schiestel and Joël Chouinard were brought in to guide the youngsters and provide experience and a more competitive club.  Next season, we should expect that a couple of these vets will be brought in again.

Which will make for a crowded blue line, and brings us to the point made on a couple of occasions on social media, which is that having such a glut of defenceman isn't that great actually, in terms of their development, since there are only so many minutes available in a game to spread around, there's only so much powerplay time and critical situations to dole out, someone's going to be left wanting.

So yeah, maybe my hunch doesn't make sense.  Maybe Josiah Didier stays in college for another year.  And most probably Magnus Nygren will compete for a job with the Canadiens in training camp, and if he doesn't make the team, he'll be allowed to go back to Sweden, since we can't really force him to stay in Hamilton.

And which probably means that Marc Bergevin will try to deal some of our prospects on the blue line for prospects in areas of need in our organization, namely wingers with size, and scorers.  

Will the Sabres current rebuild end like their Scotty Bowman-led 80's rebuild?

It's no wonder that Canadiens fans are concerned about the arms race happening in Buffalo right now.  They're going scorched earth, but they've been divesting themselves of assets since the 2012 season, dealing Paul Gaustad to the Predators for a first-round pick.  In a couple of seasons they've amassed blue-chippers like Mikhail Grigorenko, Zemgus Girgensons, Rasmus Ristolainen and Nikita Zadorov.  I'm told players in their pipeline like Jake McCabe, Joel Armia, Johan Larsson and JT Compher are quality prospects.  I had man-crushes on Nick Baptiste, Justin Bailey, William Carrier and Hudson Fasching before last season's draft, and the Sabres somehow drafted or traded for all of them.

In the next two seasons, the Sabres have a bewildering number of picks or conditional picks in the first and second rounds, so they'll add more prospects to their gushing pipeline.

So yeah, I worry.  Two big centres, two huge defencemen who can move and play, a panoply of players who'll mature together and hit the bigs roughly at the same time.  

About the only thing that comforts me is that the Sabres have done this before in the early eighties, when Scotty Bowman left Montréal and took over in Buffalo, assuming the GM-Coach role.  He set out to rebuild what had been a powerhouse team in the seventies, featuring the immortal French Connection line of Richard Martin, Gilbert Perreault and René Robert, All-Star defencemen Jerry Korab and Jim Schoenfeld, nifty scorer Danny Gare, superb defensive forwards Don Luce and Craig Ramsay, and the goaltendending duo of Robert Sauvé and Don Edwards, at the time arguably the best tandem in the league.

Scotty Bowman is now seen as a semi-retired legendary coach who benignly opines on various shows about the state of the game, he's almost cherubic in his manner and demeanor, but at the time he was thought of as a cold, acerbic tyrant who rode his teams hard and didn't mind stepping on toes or bruising egos.  He left Montréal with a chip on his shoulder, irked at having been bypassed for the GM role, which Sam Pollock had bestowed on his assistant Irving Grundman.  While this is rightly seen as a monumental blunder, Mr. Grundman frittering away a lot of the depth and strength of the organization in disastrous trades, the alternative may not have been better, according to then-Vice President Jean Béliveau among others, who explained that after tough losses Mr. Bowman regularly had to be talked down from the ledge.  If he had been in charge, they feared he'd ride half the team out of town in a huff.

In any case, Scotty wheeled and dealed when he got to Buffalo and amassed a bunch of picks for the 1982 and 1983 drafts.  He picked up Phil Housley, Paul Cyr and Dave Andreychuck in the first round, plus two more players in the second round in '82.  The next year, he snapped up Tom Barrasso, Normand Lacombe and Adam Creighton, and another couple of players in the second round.

As a teenager who was already nerding out on the draft, I was petrified.  While the Canadiens were losing Hall of Famers through trades and retirement, the Sabres were picking up sure-fire All-Stars.  The one that really stung was Normand Lacombe, for some reason I really wanted that guy on the Canadiens, a local Pierrefonds boy who'd gone the U.S. College route instead of the LHJMQ, which was unheard of.  I knew there was no chance we'd get a shot at Pat Lafontaine from the Verdun Juniors or Sylvain Turgeon of the Hull Olympiques, those record scorers would be long gone by the time we picked, but maybe Normand Lacombe might last, or heck, maybe even defenceman Bobby Dollas, who had great seasons playing with Mario Lemieux on the Laval Voisins.  

But no, our now-nemesis Scotty Bowman snagged Mr. Lacombe tenth overall, and Mr. Dollas was also gone, to the Jets, so we picked Alfie Turcotte at 17, and I instantly hated the pick.  It wasn't just his stupid moonpie face staring back at me from the sports page of La Presse, or his 26-goal season as a Winterhawk, or the fact that he stood 5'9" but wasn't a Cournoyer-like speedster, but rather more of a playmaker, it was really just his stupid, stupid name.  A wasted pick, I decided instantly, and this was confirmed when he showed up to camp doughy and out of shape, and he offered the feeble excuse that he thought he should 'bulk up' to play in the NHL.

Of course, I was ecstatic that we got Claude Lemieux and Sergio Momesso in the second round, those two were always described in glowing terms for their offence and their toughness in the daily LHJMQ reports on CKAC.  That season, all the focus was on the scoring race between Pat Lafontaine, Sylvain Turgeon and youngster Mario Lemieux, but Sergio and Claude were just a tier below in quality, I thought.  Anyway, I hoped that the latter two would help withstand the onslaught of these new Sabres who were now loaded for bear and would rampage through the Adams Division.  

Turns out that while Tom Barrasso and Phil Housley were every bit as good as advertised, and Dave Andreychuck ended up having a terrific career, the Sabres themselves never made it out of the Adams Division in the playoffs for the next decade or so.  They were talented, always thought to be a team on the brink of taking the next step and going deep in the playoffs, but it never panned out for this group, for whatever reason.  

So that's the hope I'm clinging to, not that the Sabres are cursed or anything, just that maybe a team purposefully losing and stockpiling draft picks and hoping for it to turn out isn't a guaranteed recipe for success as was shown a few decades ago in Buffalo.  Now if only there was a more current example of this...

Tuesday, 25 March 2014

Game 73: Canadiens 2, Bruins 1 (SO)

After being handed a win, or at least a very good opportunity to win, by the referees on Saturday night against the Leafs, the Canadiens stole a Halakian win against the Bruins on Monday night, beating them 2-1 in a hotly-contested game that ended in a four-round shootout.

Michel Therrien, who draws more than his fair share of critics, has on occasion taken some puzzling lineup decisions these past two seasons, and often he comes up smelling of roses.  More often than not, these fortunate calls regard his use of his goalies.  He has regularly used Peter Budaj in less-than-obvious circumstances, and has been rewarded.  In Mr. Budaj's recent weak spell in Carey Price's absence, Coach Therrien played a hunch and threw Dustin Tokarski out against the Sabres and was rewarded with a shutout win.

His call to start Peter Budaj in Boston wasn't as unconventional as it might seem.  With Carey Price freshly back from a lower body injury, it made sense to rest him on one of two back-to-back games, and since the backup has had success against the Gooins, the harder road contest was Peter's to deal with.  He made 28 saves, the only puck skittering past him caused by a tipped shot.

One decision which Coach Therrien can revisit is the toughness quotient in his lineup.  With Jarred Tinordi, Ryan White and George Parros scratched, and Brandon Prust injured, the only available First Responders to thwart Bruin thuggery were Douglas Murray and Travis Moen.  Travis did his job early in the first in trying to stick up for his linemate Dale Weise, who was cross-checked in the back into the boards by Bruin defenceman Kevan Miller.  Unfortunately, Travis caught one flush early in the bout, went down, but got back up and gamely continued the fight, until a second one on the button ended the tilt.  Travis got up with Bambi-legs and was escorted to the dressing room with the help of teammates.

I'm concerned about Travis' health, his career, and his ability to contribute to the Canadiens' success in the future.  Last season, he was often the target of pointed questions on l'Antichambre and on social media, with his near $2M cap hit not equivalent to his production.  The thing is, he'd suffered a serious concussion the previous season, and seemed unwilling to match up against heavyweights night in, night out.  This year, maybe feeling healthier and more confident, and maybe thinking he had more support with George Parros and Douglas Murray aboard, he took on more of a load in that aspect of the game.  

For this specific game, the Bruins took untold liberties, and it was hard not to think of the previous game, when the lineup was loaded with tough guys, and the Bruins meekly concentrated on hockey.  Which only confirms the fact that the Bruins aren't tough as much as they're bullies.  They're tough against Andrei Markov and Tom Pyatt, but don't push the issue against Brandon Prust and Douglas Murray.  

How will Travis feel about mixing it up in the future?  Like it or not, his value comes not only from his forechecking and ability to kill penalties, or from his veteranship.  A big part of his appeal is that he can bring a physical presence, and negate some of the pugilistic aspirations from opponents.  He's a big boy who inspires respect.  If he retrenches from that part of the game, he's markedly less valuable, less useful.

Speaking of valuable players, our first line of Pacioretty, Desharnais and Vanek were not first-rate.  They were rarely threatening, and when they were, they seemed to try to get too cute, attempting one too many passes instead of getting a shot off.  It's great that they seem to get along, but now they're almost too deferential to each other.  On one occasion, David tried to pass to Max through the crease past two checkers, when he had an open lane to the net.  I skipped back a few times and imagined him faking the pass and then dekeing Tuukka Rask, who was already expecting the pass to Max and cheating to his left.  From now on, I want Max and Thomas to be a little more selfish, and pull the trigger when they get the puck, not look for each other for a pretty pass.

Alexei Emelin continued his war with Milan Lucic, and as usual the Bruins were petulant and dangerous in the worst sense of the word.  Alex started the game with a great hip check in open ice on Mr. Lucic, and the Bruins' thug-in-chief Zdeno Chara immediately retaliated and drew a minor penalty.  Milan Lucic and Alexei hit each other through the rest of the game, until the Bruin decided he didn't like it anymore, and speared Alexei in the groin region.  

Of course, in the grand lying tradition of Chara, Ference, Julien et al., Mr. Lucic blithely stated to reporters after the game that "he didn't spear" Alexei.  Which is hogwash, and is clearly seen on video of the game.

NHL rules are also quite clear that he did in fact spear him.

Rule 62 - Spearing
62.1 Spearing - Spearing shall mean stabbing an opponent with the point of the stick blade, whether contact is made or not.
62.2 Double-minor Penalty - A double-minor penalty will be imposed on a player who spears an opponent and does not make contact.
62.3 Major Penalty - A major penalty shall be imposed on a player who spears an opponent (see 62.5).
62.4 Match Penalty - A match penalty shall be imposed on a player who injures an opponent as a result of a spear.
62.5 Game Misconduct Penalty - Whenever a major penalty is assessed for spearing, a game misconduct penalty must also be imposed.
62.6 Fines and Suspensions - There are no specified fines or suspensions for spearing, however, supplementary discipline can be applied by the Commissioner at his discretion (refer to Rule 28).

Of course, Mr. Lucic has a black and yellow 'Get Out of Jail Free' card that he can hand in to Daddy Campbell, and that's just par for the course for the NHL, run as it is by Mike Milbury and Don Cherry.

We saw an illustration of the lunacy of the NHL in how the refs, after handing out a number of penalties to the Bruins, needed to even things out in the third and called four straight minors on the Canadiens, while the Bruins kept running Canadiens seconds after they'd moved the puck.  Pierre Houde pointed out that the game ended with both team receiving seven minors each, and scoring a powerplay goal each.  Which is 'fairness' in the NHL, even though Boston commits three infractions for every one the average team makes.

P.K. had an uneven game, which is understandable considering what a marked man he is in Boston.  I'm going to hold him to a very high standard, but I wish he'd stop the mugging and appeals to the refs, and the attempts at instigation and retaliation, and just focused on the game, like Raymond Bourque and Chris Chelios used to.  Both were physical defencemen who were central to their team's success, who were targets for fourth-liners and cheap-shot artists, but they just kept their cool and played hard.  There's a tendency for histrionics in P.K.'s game that I wish he would phase out, though I'm not sure if that's ever going to happen.

So a big two points in the bank, on a night when Tampa only picked up a single, and the Buffalo Cream Puffs at the New Forum tonight.  That's another two points guaranteed, right?

Sunday, 23 March 2014

"Shape up or we'll trade you." Does that work on an Oiler or a Jet?

One thing I’ve wondered about with franchises like the Oilers and the Jets is how the threat of a trade may not exist there. I’m just speculating here, but if the vast majority of players include these two towns on their list of cities they wouldn’t accept a trade to, wouldn’t at least a few of the players on the Jets or Oilers see the prospect of a trade to Tampa or Nashville as not much of a motivator, if they wouldn’t outright welcome the deal?

I know most athletes are proud men, and it’s humiliating to them to be told “We don’t want you anymore”, but if you’re stuck in Edmonton, and you’re not winning and not having fun at the rink, and your coach is a bit of a diva and martinet, aren’t you checking with your buddy who plays for the Ducks or the Coyotes, and see how things are over there?

I had another schadenfreude moment yesterday watching the dastardly Andrew Ference suffer along as the Captain of the Oilers. Who the heck ever thought that mendacious thug was a good choice for that position?

And again I thought of Justin Schultz, who had his choice of teams to sign with two seasons ago, and chose the Oilers over his home province Canucks. I thought at the time that was a misguided decision, that he could have played an instant role as the right-handed guy on the third pairing who played the powerplay, and been on a contender. Sure, the Canucks now are almost as big a mess as the Oilers, but if they’d had Justin Schultz on their blue line, they could have made some other roster decisions and a playoff push last season, might not be in the mess they are now. The cascade of dominoes might have gone a different way.

The CBC is not a national broadcaster as far as 'Hockey Night in Canada' is concerned.

I watched the Canadiens 4-3 defeat of the Maple Leafs last night on RDS, which is the French equivalent of the national broadcaster TSN, but in actuality handles the local broadcast of the Montréal Canadiens.  Still with the miracle of satellite technology, Canadians from coast to coast to coast can receive their signal and watch every single Canadiens game with great production values and impeccable play-by-play and analysis by Pierre Houde and Marc Denis.  The pre-game show and intermissions sometimes suffer from the presence of Benoit Brunet and Mario Tremblay, but overall they put out a good product.

Their coverage is tilted toward the Canadiens and/or Québec or francophone natives playing or coaching in the NHL, which is understandable given the demographics of their audience, but there is still a real effort to be somewhat objective.  There are no 'Homer' Joe Bowen moments during a telecast, the announcers display probity while working the game.  They focus on the Canadiens, but endeavour to give the whole story, and give context as to who the adversaries are.

During the telecast last night, they heaped praise on the young Leaf defenders Morgan Rielly and Jake Gardiner, told viewers of the great season Phil Kessel and his linemates are having, using graphics and video, and covered the recent controversies involving coach Randy Carlyle and James Reimer.

Conversely, the CBC coverage of the game was strictly focused on the Maple Leafs.  I didn't stopwatch it, but my wager would be that the discussion on the Leafs-Habs game was around 90% Toronto-focused during the pre-game Hockey Tonight.  A couple of mentions of Tomas Vanek and Carey Price, but aside from that it was the Phil and Randy show, with James Reimer as the tragic hero.

Further, while watching the 'HNIC Replay' of the game, I again got the distinct feeling that Jim Hughson was calling a local broadcast of the Leafs, instead of their ballyhooed 'national' game.  Mr. Hughson is a great play-by-play caller, I have a good opinion of him from his days calling Canucks game before his move to the CBC, but the only excuse I could make for him is that, since he is almost exclusively assigned to broadcast Leafs games by the HNIC brass, since the latter are unfailingly the national game covered by the #1 broadcast team, is that he doesn't know the stories, the players on other teams.  By necessity, by dint of the toxic exposure, each play is a Leaf play.  A David Desharnais near-miss is actually a great defensive play by Nazem Kadri, according to Mr. Hughson, whereas both aspects were highlighted by Pierre Houde.

Last season, I would watch Canadiens games on RDS, but catch them when available on CBC or TSN, just to change it up, and get a different perspective on the game and the team.  The fact that I didn't get RDS in HD helped that decision along.  This year though, now that I've changed providers to one which carries RDS in HD, I've stopped this practice.  The precious few nuggets I get from Elliotte Friedman or Kevin Weeks, the enjoyment I derive from the broadcast's nonpareil opening video montages, do nothing to counteract the incompetence or boorishness of Bob Cole, Don Cherry, P.J. Stock and Ron McLean, and the resultant frustration I experience.

So the inexcusable abdication of the CBC's responsibilities as a national broadcaster have driven this viewer and taxpayer away.  And as I used to miss "La Soirée du Hockey" on Radio-Canada, but eventually grew to appreciate the work that RDS was doing, so can I hope that the handover of HNIC to a private broadcaster eventually works itself out.  The CBC has done little to drive me to resist the change.

Trademark infringement or sincerest form of flattery?

Am I mistaken, or didn’t Bruce Arthur of TSN’s ‘The Reporters’ just use the phrase “relentless ineptitude” while commenting on the Edmonton Oilers?

Game 72: Canadiens 4, Maple Leafs 3

Well, this is a win that we can feel was stolen, and not by Carey Price.  I kind of have to say that the refs handed us this one.  That goalie interference call on James van Riemsdyk was questionable at least, seeing as he was pushed from behind by Andrei Markov.  His trajectory indicates that he might have contacted Carey in the crease even without the push, but it's hard to make the case either way.  Usually the refs swallow their whistles in the third period in a tied game unless a decapitation occurs.  Let's give Carey an Oscar, and move on before too many Senators fans congregate and point and scream blue murder, and insist on a recount of their last loss at the New Forum.

Carey was actually solid in goal, back to his usual reliable self.  He made the saves he needed to make, his posts and crossbar pitched in, and he skates off with another win.  It's interesting to note that he saved 33 out of 36 shots.  This is the same number of shots faced by Toronto goalie James Reimer, who made exactly one fewer save.  Apparently one of Pierre Maguire's witticisms is that the game shouldn't be called hockey but 'goalie'.

The Canadiens stormed out to a 2-0 lead thanks to some poor efforts from Mr. Reimer.  He was teetering on the edge, all wobbly, one more softie would have had him yanked, but he made a couple of stops soon after and got back in stride and regained his confidence.  Again, too bad for the Canadiens that they had a goalie on the ropes but they couldn't finish him.  But then again, maybe we should look at it as if they spared him, left him there as a Trojan horse who would come in handy when the time was right.

The game served as a streak buster for a couple of Canadiens.  René Bourque, after sitting out a few games, was reinserted in the lineup, on a line with Daniel Brière at centre and Brian Gionta.  The three veterans were effective, and both wingers tallied a goal and an assist.  René Bourque played like he can, if he's focused and motivated, skating hard, and got off six shots even if he didn't quite take a regular shift.  It's reassuring that he showed he can still play, still get results.  At his cap hit, a big body who can skate like him is actually a bargain, if he just performs as expected, he doesn't even need to overachieve.

Tomas Plekanec had a bit of a rough game.  He took a hooking penalty in the offensive zone that the Leafs converted into a goal.  Late in the third period with the Canadiens protecting a slim lead, frantically defending in their own zone, he somehow was running around jawing at the refs, protesting a non-call on what he thought should have been a penalty at one point, then a close play at the blue line which he felt should have been an offside.  It was puzzling behaviour from a veteran leader of the team, as play was going on.

Tomas has been in a long slump, as I'm painfully aware from his deleterious effect on my fantasy teams lately.  He hopefully took a big step in breaking this unproductive streak by scoring the go-ahead goal in the third on the powerplay, on a bank shot off James Reimer, who gosh darn it tried hard on the play, although we'll have to wait to see how his coach will characterize his effort and performance.

Maybe Tomas' uneven performance can be attributed to his new linemates Alex Galchenyuk and Brendan Gallagher.  Do we still expect Tomas to the be the shutdown center if he plays with the two youths?  At one point, with Nazem Kadri lazily skating up ice with the puck, considering his options, Alex retreated, to assume a defensive posture.  And kept retreating.  I had time to yell out: "Close the gap, Alex!" before Morgan Rielly got off his shot that hit the crossbar.  

Alex didn't seem his usual affable self when interviewed by Pierre Houde during the pregame show, and I don't know if I'm reading too much into it.  By the questions Mr. Houde asked, I guess Alex knew by then that he wouldn't be centering René Bourque and Brian Gionta during the game, as he had done in the previous practice.  I have to believe that the Canadiens coaching staff learned that Dave Bolland was going to play as the Leafs third-line centre, and they decided that this wouldn't be the most propitious time to let Alex have a go at playing centre.  Maybe not a bad call, Dave Bolland is a handful, as Vancouver Canuck Ryan Kesler can testify, but it seemed to affect Alex based on his demeanor.

Lars Eller left the game with a lower-body injury, which seemed to come on an innocuous play.  RDS showed footage of a faceoff he took in the offensive zone, after which he immediately skated to the bench for a change.  I suspect he suffered a strain earlier, and either aggravated it on the faceoff, or tested it and realized it wasn't going to allow him to continue.

In response, or maybe rather as a stroke of fortuitous timing, Michaël Bournival is done his conditioning stint in Hamilton and will rejoin the team in Boston.  While a healthy Lars is an asset to the team, having Ryan White or Michaël ready to sub in is not a bad spot to be in, especially if René Bourque is also ready to contribute.

A final observation might be on how tame the proceedings were, in terms of toughness and penalties.  While Colton Orr and Troy Bodie were dressed for the game, they played little, and had no effect on the game.  We may have feared that the Leafs might make use of the absence of George Parros and Brandon Prust in the lineup as a 'get-out-of-jail-free' card, but they actually just concentrated on hockey, and tried to beat the Canadiens with their Lupuls and Kessels instead of their fists.  Good on you, putrid blue, save that for your first-round matchup against the Bruins.

Wednesday, 19 March 2014

Game 70: Canadiens 6, Avalanche 3

On a night when I was primed to experience jealousy with respect to the opposition's head coach, and social media centered on the Canadiens was ready to self-immolate in case of a loss, the Canadiens competed for two periods with the hottest team in the Western Conference, before pulling away in the third for a convincing 6-3 win.

All the media appearances Patrick Roy put in over the last couple of days, in which he was confident, thoughtful, calm, humourous, eloquent, and inspirational revived my belief that the Hall of Famer and legend should be behind our bench.  Dagnabbit.  As I wrote in May 2012:

Which brings me to state, again, that especially with the dearth of great coaching candidates, either guys with lots of experience and a winning background, or up-and-coming natural choices like Guy Boucher or Kirk Muller, we should not try to bunt our way on with a safe choice like Bob Hartley or Marc Crawford.  We should swing for the fences and hire Patrick Roy, instead of hiring a more middle-of-the-road candidate and then watch Mr. Roy go to another franchise within a couple of years and make us regret it.  It's kind of like when you're at the bar: you don't sell yourself short and just talk to the plain girls, you suss out the best-looking one and then go for broke, despite the hurdles and that little voice in the back of your mind that's telling you you're wasting your time.
Patrick Roy would bring fire and passion behind the bench, something we've been missing for a few seasons now.  He would bring instant credibility, no one would disrespect the Hall of Famer.  Kids would have stars in their eyes.  Much is made of his volatility, but to hear him speak nowadays you get the sense that he's a grown man, in full command of his team.  He's respectful, humble, frank, insightful. 
I could go on and on.  And I did.

The perfect methadone was a good win by our boys and stepchild of a coach.  There were many factors in this victory.  An obvious one was a more comfortable Carey Price in net, and the resulting surge in confidence his teammates seemingly play with when he's backstopping them.

Another bright spot was the play of the fourth line.  They kept the Avalanche bottled up in their zone for long sequences, and they created a lot of chances for themselves.  But we can say that often about a fourth line, what was unusual was that they actually cashed them in.  Brandon Prust, who I've thought this season sometimes tries to make too-pretty plays, and loses opportunities or causes turnovers in the process, tonight was strong on the puck and was rewarded for his efforts.  He set up a beauty goal by Travis Moen with a great diving effort, and scored himself on a one-timer, cashing in a pass from Andrei Markov.

To cap things off, the third member of the fourth line Dale Weise scored the empty-net sixth goal, on a generous play from Tomas Plekanec, who recognized that Dale had created the turnover and goal opportunity.  Good for Dale, who played a great game, and good for Tomas, who is himself in a bit of a dry spell, of which I'm very much aware due to his presence on both my fantasy teams.  Tomas nevertheless fed the puck back to Dale as was fitting, and we can hope that the centreman can use this game to break his unproductive streak.

I thought Thomas Vanek's dam-breaker would be the game against his former team in Buffalo two nights ago, but it finally came tonight.  He played as he has for the last few games, always lurking around the net, somehow finding the puck and putting it on net.  Tonight, luck was on his side, and instead of coming oh-so-close on a number of occasions, he scored a hat trick.  The third was a beauty, with a waist-high deflection of an Alexei Emelin shot that was going to be wide of the net.  He ticked it in on the inside of his stick blade, and we can hope that we'll see many more of these in the near future.

David Desharnais and Max Pacioretty both picked up two assists.  There was some worry on the pre-game show on RDS that having two shooters on the same line might not work, but I think that's not a concern.  If anything, it opens up Max more, since he won't be blanketed by other teams as closely now, the defence has to worry about two snipers.

Also, it opens up more options for David, who can be magical with his passing, but previously had to key on Max, and failing that, tried to create an opportunity to a trailing or pinching defenceman.  This is no knock on Brendan, who often couldn't be the target of an intended pass since he was tied up absorbing crosschecks with his occipital lobes.  Now that Thomas is lurking around the net, defencemen won't be able to collapse so tightly around the opposition net, and Max will find the open space he seeks to get his shot off closer in, whereas before he had to circle farther out in the periphery.

While the Gallagher-Plekanec-Brière line didn't get on the scoreboard except for Tomas' pass on the empty-netter, they're also a work in progress, with some promise showing tonight again.  If the refs allow them to play, if they 'let them play', and by this I don't mean the Clarke MacArthur interpretation, but the logical, sensible one, whereby the skilled players are allowed to play hockey and the puck without being elbowed, boarded, slashed or cross-checked, but if that happens, that line, loaded with quickness and smarts, can be lethal.  The proof may have to wait until the playoffs.

And the playoffs look more and more likely, after a bit of a scare while Carey was injured.  With the Leafs and Blue Jackets losing tonight, we get a little more breathing room.  It looks like the Bruins are in the clear now, with that ten-game winning streak, but we have a chance in the next games against the Jackets and Leafs to take a stranglehold on a playoff slot.

Monday, 17 March 2014

Game 69: Canadiens 2, Sabres 0

Not a game that will be remembered, as opposed to the NHL-record comeback win against the Senators, but two points is two points, and we'll take them, on a night that the Leafs lost to the Capitals and tightened up the standings even more.  The Canadiens went up against the depleted roster of the Sabres, scored two scrambly semi-lucky goals, and won 2-0.

Dale Weise scored his first goal as a Canadien, a few minutes after being set up in the high slot on a pass by Travis Moen and missing the net.  I commented to myself  at the time that good old Dale hasn't changed from his Vancouver days, he's always buzzing around the net, bringing the fans out of their seats, but still failing to finish.  So maybe I'll just keep quiet about him for the time being, and good on him for playing hard again tonight and being dangerous, and finally potting one.

Lars is still struggling though.  In the first period, he snagged a puck in the corner, started to stickhandle toward the slot, then kept going toward the blue line while checked by Drew Stafford, bobbled the puck, and lost the footrace back into his zone chasing the puck, giving the latter a scoring chance on Dustin Tokarski.  Lars needs to understand that when he's stickhandling and he finds open space, it's most often because he's being allowed to go there, the defenders are plugging up the middle and steering him to the periphery.  Much like a defensive tackle making good progress upfield against an offensive guard, he needs to stop and ask himself whether he's willingly going exactly where his coverage wants him to go.

I imagined the Canadiens coaching staff sitting Lars down in the video room, showing him this error, along with a few others where he tries to stickhandle his way over the blue line and into the offensive zone, and then showing him some strong, safe plays, of putting the puck in deep and then using his size and speed to retrieve it.  And lots of video of Brendan Gallagher taking the puck from the corner and making a beeline to the net, defencemen be damned.  

As some have pointed out, maybe it's not a bad thing overall that Lars regressed a bit this year, he may come cheaper when it's time to negotiate his new deal.  It would be hard for him and his agent to make a case for a Tyler Bozak or Sam Gagner-type deal.

As mentioned, Dustin Tokarski got the nod from Coach Therrien, which was a bit of a surprise, everyone expecting Peter Budaj to start the game.  Various reasons were discussed on RDS to explain the decision, but again it was a gutsy call, one which was rewarded with a shutout win.  

Michel Therrien has many detractors, especially on English social media.  He's not warm and fuzzy, he's inelegant in his speaking style, has some mannerisms that grate, but we're forced to admit that he's doing a good job overall.  Coaching is at base a results-based occupation.  As much as some complain that his system doesn't work, he can't make coaching adjustments, he doesn't motivate his troops and have them ready to play, among other grievances, we're still forced to recognize that he took a last-place team two seasons ago to second place in the Conference, and this season has again battled to remain at the top of the standings, with a thin roster, little offence and lately the loss of his franchise goalie.  Whereas we remember Scotty Bowman, Jacques Demers and Pat Burns, and look longingly towards Colorado and fiery, inspiring Patrick Roy, we have to give Michel Therrien his due.  He's doing a good job with a team that most didn't give much of a chance to succeed at the start of the season.

Two steps forward, one step back for P.K., in that tonight he played a lot of minutes, but the lowlight was the knee-on-knee collision with Matt D'Agostini.  P.K. knew he was beat and stuck out his knee, he could have caused a serious injury, possibly even on himself.  The NHL has to crack down on these plays, there is no justification for knee-on-knees, no matter how many talking heads explain that they're a reflex, a reaction, that the player didn't intend to injure his opponents, etc.  If the League automatically suspended players who did this, the 'reflex' would disappear, much like the 15-yard penalty for horse-collar tackles in the NFL has eliminated injuries that used to be caused by them.  Horse collars are now much milder in nature, accidental, and players release their hold when they realize they're going to be called for it, same as with facemask penalties.

Again, knee-on-knees occur when players are facing each other, and the checker realizes he'll whiff on his check and sticks out his leg.  It's not accidental, it's voluntary, it's realizing you're going to be beat, and thinking that the consequences to a knee-on-knee are mild compared to the wrath of your coach.  Stiff automatic suspensions would change everybody's mind about this.  

Good thing I'm not a gambling man, because before the game I would have bet money that Thomas Vanek would score at least one goal in Buffalo.  It didn't happen, but he got off what seemed like ten shots on net, and seems to be developing a rapport with David and Max.  So the dam bursts on Tuesday against the Avalanche.  I'd bet.

Sunday, 16 March 2014

Hamilton Bulldogs lose 4-1 to Toronto Marlies

In a game which accented some broad organizational patterns, practices and trends, the Hamilton Bulldogs played hard but came up short, losing 4-1 against the Toronto Marlies, the Leafs' AHL farm team.

There were so many similarities between the baby Canadiens and the parent team.  They dominated in the shots department, sending 34 shots against the Marlies keeper, and allowing just 24.  The 'Dogs also looked slick on the powerplay, controlling the puck and passing it around with ease in the offensive zone, but couldn't finish.  The Hamilton forwards looked small and skillful, skating circles around the defenders, but got mugged a few times and were at a disadvantage due to the sight-impaired referees.

Meanwhile the Marlies are a carbon copy of their parent club.  They have lots of big burly defencemen and, ahem, 'players', who can't really skate but are really 'tough', whatever that means.  Korbinian Holzer, an overhyped dud in the grand Leafs tradition of Luke Schenn, Mike Kostka and Carlo Colaiacovo, sure covered himself in glory going after Sven Andrighetto, who's half a foot shorter and a rookie to the league.

Jerry D'Amigo did a lot of jawing, at one point messing with Gabriel Dumont, a player who's listed as 30 pounds lighter than he is.  Gabriel didn't think twice, and made a clear show of inviting his adversary to a dance, but D'Amigo meekly returned to the safety of his bench, although he did keep chin-wagging, and had this real snide expression on his face, so he had that going for him.  Later, during an extended scrum, the Marlie was on the ice and was kind of shamed into backing up his previous tough talk, and finally received his beating at the hands of Gabriel that he'd been angling for.  Daddy D'Amigo must be proud.

It was good to see Morgan Ellis in uniform, actually playing, he's often been hurt or a healthy scratch when I catch a Hamilton game on TV, and this afternoon he made a few nice plays with the puck, and defended well generally.  He didn't take to the AHL as quickly as we might have liked after his strong Memorial Cup season, but the reports lately have been encouraging, let's hope he keeps developing.

The other defencemen I had an eye on were obviously Nathan Beaulieu and Greg Pateryn.  While they were obviously the stronger of the Bulldog defenceman, they didn't look dominant or like they didn't belong in the AHL.  While we pine for these guys to flip a switch and suddenly be ready to take a regular shift on the Canadiens blue line, we should remember how we all swore a couple of seasons ago that we would give the kids time to develop in the minors, we wouldn't rush them to the bigs before they're ready we said.  We'd let them marinate and grow the skills and confidence at a lower level until they were ready, at which point only they would progress to a bigger challenge.  Well this is where we need to keep our promise, despite the presence of Mike Weaver on our blue line currently.

Also, Davis Drewiske played a lot of minutes, and it's hard to make an assessment of his game since he's basically in his own version of training camp, and he's not flashy like Nathan, the camera doesn't follow him around, but he did seem sure-handed and dependable, which we'd expect for a player who spent a few seasons in the NHL, albeit as a #7 d-man.

Louis Leblanc skated well and played hard, but given his pedigree and his level of experience, we'd expect him to be the leader of this team, to be head and shoulder above the competition at this stage.  Instead, he was generally outplayed by Sven Andrighetto, who was quick, agile and dangerous with the puck, and Gabriel Dumont, who is showing signs that he's mastering the AHL, being the most dangerous Bulldog forward despite being projected as a checking third or fourth-line player in the NHL, if he makes it.

It will be interesting to see what the Canadiens brass does with Louis in the summer, his entry level contract is up, and he will be eligible for waivers.  My guess is that they'll sign him to another two-way deal, and let him work on his strength in the offseason and his game in Hamilton next season.  If he's swiped by another team on waivers coming out of camp next September, so be it.

Finally, a word about the Sportsnet broadcast team of R.J. Broadhead and Sam Consentino.  They generally do good work, they've grown on me since I've started watching the games they cover, but Mr. Broadhead made the unfortunate error of calling Drew Schiestel "Shystel", to sound as 'shyster'.  The Hamilton blueliner was clear when he signed his contract that his name is pronounced so as to rhyme with 'pistol', it was in the press release by the team.  Yet Mr. Broadhead didn't get the memo.

I understand these two cover the AHL and the CHL for Sportsnet, that's a heck of a lot of teams so they're busy and can't know everything, but it's also emblematic of a practice by some play-by-play teams to make the best effort they can of pronouncing an unfamiliar name, instead of going to the source, of finding out what the name actually is, and allowing the player that small courtesy.  So many foreign players names are anglicized for convenience, Mario Lemieux became 'Le-mioo', and David Desharnais becomes 'Day-har-nay'.

René Lecavalier, the impeccable broadcaster who worked "La Soirée du Hockey" for decades, was rigourous with his pronunciation, he'd go right to the player and ask how his name was properly pronounced, and explain this to his viewers.  So that Mats Naslund was called on Radio-Canada 'Ness-loond', as he should be, while Bob Cole was unshakable in his errant 'Naz-luhnd'.

Pierre Houde continues this tradition to this day, of respecting the pronunciation of players' names, and I wish more play-by-play teams did their homework and followed suit.

Game 68: Canadiens 5, Senators 4 (OT)

What a game!  Love to see my team make a big comeback, and the Senators lose their excrement because of it.  What looked like a disappointing loss, a reason to start asking some tough questions, and a good night to avoid social media turned into a comeback for the ages, and the sweetest 180 I've seen in a long time.

As Pierre Houde and Marc Denis pointed out during the game, the Canadiens dominated play in the first period but came off the ice at the first intermission tied 1-1, which isn't a recipe for success.  You let an adversary hang around, and he can get a second wind and come back in the fight.  When you have him on the ropes, you want to finish him.  Sure enough, the Sens scored late in the second period, and twice early in the third to seemingly put the game away.

Carey Price looked at least rusty on a couple of those goals, if not weak.  He seemed to go back to last year's bad habit of 'flinching', of dropping to his knees into the butterfly before the shooter has fired the puck.  Now, that might work on shots through traffic when you're screened, you're playing the percentages, covering the bottom of the net, and hoping that the shooter couldn't pick a top corner.  In these two instances though, the shooter had a clear sightline, and had time to go top-shelf, so dropping down before they shoot was at least counter-productive.

The thing is though, Carey didn't capitulate.  He kept making saves in the third period, notably on a couple of breakaways, and made them look easy sometimes, so that was encouraging.  I did formulate the defeatist, pessimistic, uncharitable thought that Carey wasn't achieving much by doing so, he was only keeping the score respectable, and adding saves to 'amortize' the goals he'd allowed.  Aside from padding his save percentage, there was no benefit to these saves.  It was too late for heroics.

Except Lars scored to make it 4-2.  By being in front of the net and cashing in a bouncing puck, I hoped he'll note, not by skating a big circle around the periphery of defenders in the offensive zone, stickhandling himself into knots while his checkers breathe a sigh of relief that he's not taking the puck to the net.  Anyway, unlike Yannick Bouchard opined on l'Antichambre, I think Lars celebrated this goal appropriately.  He'd had a tough game to that point, being -4, so I'm glad he didn't go into a prolonged touchdown dance, as you'll see some NFL players perform even when their team is down by 30 points.  Lars was sober, almost dour, he saluted his teammates, and indicated he wanted to get back to work, instead of mugging for the fans.

Then Brian Gionta, who's being pushed down the lineup with the resurgence of Daniel Brière, the addition of Thomas Vanek, and his own unproductive play, tipped in a smart feed from P.K., and it was 4-3.  The celebration was more pronounced on this one, the boys encouraging each other that it wasn't over, that they still had a chance.  A chance which got much better half a minute later when Kyle Turris was called for hooking on Andrei Markov.

Again we see the NHL in all its brain-dead glory on this play.  Mr. Turris was beaten on the faceoff, the play was going the other way, and he was caught behind it.  He reacted by hooking Andrei.  He broke the rules.  He tried to cheat.  He was caught by the refs, and appropriately given a two-minute penalty.  Except the Ottawa coach indicated he thought Andrei, or maybe in his parlance "player seventy-nine", had dived, and the play-by-play team kind of agreed.  He had been hooked, sure, but he should have 'fought through it', to allow the officials the discretion to not blow their whistles.  They should have "let them play".  And by "them", of course, we mean the cheaters.  Let the cheaters play, don't send them to the box.  Let the hookers hook.  Let the slashers slash.  Let the facewashers facewash.

It's utter madness, and the NHL can't see it, can't understand it.  The NHL is the proverbial frog in the pot of water that's being brought to a boil gradually, and doesn't know it's being cooked alive, it doesn't notice the change in the environment it's immersed in.  It's like the zombies in that episode of "The Walking Dead", who slowly, inexorably, approach the pikes staked into the ground, clearly in front of them, and unseeingly, brutishly, impale themselves upon them.  And don't flinch, but keep trudging forward, on the stake that's going through their chest.

The NHL spouts off about player safety, but allows Chris Neil and 6'4" Eric Gryba, he of the 6 goal, 4 year collegiate career, to be desirable components of an NHL team.  By calling only some of the infractions that are being committed, by allowing some grey areas in penalties such as slashing, by raising the bar as to what constitutes a penalty depending on the clock, the score, the uniforms being worn, what has transpired earlier in the game, or what Don Cherry might say, the NHL allows players of low talent to remain on teams and on the ice, and bring 'energy' and concussion and broken teeth to the proceedings.  So Tom Sestito plays, but Yannick Weber sits.

Thankfully in this case, Kyle Turris sat, deservedly, and Michel Therrien decided not to let the foot off the throat of the Senators, and pulled Carey to put six skaters on the powerplay.  It was a risky move, in that the comeback could abort if a clearance from the penalty killers hit the net, but he pushed his chips in, and he was rewarded when David Desharnais tied the score with three tenths of a second to spare.  We'll see if the coach gets credit for his decision, or whether the naysayers change the subject and criticize him on something else.  Like how stifled and ruined P.K. looked tonight.

The ensuing faceoff was a mere formality before the horn sounded for overtime, and Sens captain Jason Spezza took the opportunity to take a vigourous hack at the puck, and on the follow-through, hack at the referee's skate.  Mr. Spezza was agitated throughout the game, and his emotions got the better of him, but I fully expect that he'll have to face some discipline for abuse of an official.  There are no mitigating circumstances here, it was a transparent act, and screamed of a lack of respect for the game and the officials.  Now, the Canadiens often enough are victims of questionable refereeing, but I would never countenance one of our players doing something like this, let alone our captain.

As if to pile it on the Sens, they lost early in overtime, on a play on which the referees judged that goalie Robin Lehner hadn't quite frozen the puck, and the Canadiens never stopped digging for it, until it squirted loose, right to an onrushing Francis Bouillon who made no mistake and cashed it in.  And the Sens' recriminations went hypersonic.

It was Francis' first goal of the season, and I'm glad he got it.  He's been assailed on social media as being terrible, and frankly I don't see it.  He's a very cost-effective player, on a one-year extension to his very reasonable deal from last year.  He sat out a long stretch of games when the coaches felt that Douglas Murray brought more to the team with his size and toughness, but now that Josh Gorges is injured, he's drawn back in, and appropriately so.  He won't wow anyone with his play, but as a replacement for Josh, a guy who'll play a regular shift and kill penalties and make sound decisions and not kill you with inexperience and mistakes, he's providing what the Canadiens are paying him for.  To hear some speak of him, it's like he's Tomas Kaberle and Sean Avery wrapped into one player, so objectionable his presence on our roster is to them.

Francis' partner P.K. had a hell of a game.  He doled out big hits early, although he almost mangled David Desharnais on a missed check on a Senator.  Luckily, he let up and David saw him coming at the last second, or else he would have JVR'ed him, as Marc Denis rightly pointed out.

Over and above that, P.K. made good decisions all game.  Once the Canadiens were down, he opened it up and tried to make something happen with a few rushes and desperation plays at the offensive blue line.  He showed good situational awareness in doing so.  P.K. is too smart to not understand this, I think it's just that he lets his passion and emotion cloud his judgment sometimes, but he'll eventually figure out when to step on the accelerator, when the team needs to score, and when to make the safer plays, when the game is close or the team has a lead.  Again, like Larry Robinson or Guy Lapointe used to do, he should go on rushes occasionally to keep the opposition honest, or when there is a clear opportunity, but not force it when it's not there.  Push it when you're behind, ease up when you're leading, and you'll be fine P.K.

P.K. also seems to trust his teammates more the last couple of games, he is passing the puck sooner, not looking for a perfect pass to create a breakaway every time now, but rather just headmanning it, moving it to a teammate ahead of him with a head of steam already generated, moving it out of his zone and towards the opponent's net, and that's a net plus.  If he starts to think of the game as golf, where you're better off over eighteen holes to hit the ball safely to an area where you have a high percentage of making another safe shot that'll get you closer to the pin.  Or, he needs to think of it like a game of pool.  Sure the big hammer shot is satisfying, but you're better off sinking balls under control, controlling your cue ball, leaving yourself in good position to make your next shot, and the one after that.  A succession of safe plays stacked on top of each other will lead to a positive result more often than a bunch of Hail Marys.

A nice aspect of this win is that it relieves a lot of the pressure on Thomas Vanek, compared to if they'd slinked into Buffalo after another demoralizing loss.  Now, with a bracing win in their pocket, fingers won't be pointed at the new acquisition, wondering when the results will come.  Instead, the heat has been turned off the boiler, and I have a suspicion that, on his return to his former team's rink, the dam will burst in his case.

It will be interesting to read the reaction from Ottawa on several controversial events in this game.  For example, the Brandon Prust-Milan Michalek fight was a bit of a surprise, but based on what I saw, and maybe my biases, the Senator got what he wanted.  There was a lot of mugging and slashing from both players, it was all fair game according to the refs up to that point, until Mr. Michalek gave Brandon the first couple of gloved punches.  Also, on the tying goal by the Canadiens, apparently the Senators were up at arms that a penalty should have been given to the Canadiens beforehand for tripping.  Pierre Houde and Marc Denis misidentified the culprit as Max Pacioretty, but I believe it was actually Thomas Vanek who tripped a Sen as he skated to retrieve a loose puck.

Trouble with this is that the only reason the Sen was in a position to skate for the open puck is that he or one of his teammates had just crosschecked Mr. Vanek in the back, to the ice.  And before that, there were any number of muggings and holds and slashes that could have been called on them.  Now the Canadiens were not virginally virtuous, but realistically, they were playing 6-on-4, and trying to pass the puck around so they could score, whereas their opponents were desperately 'defending', with all the thuggery and lawlessness that entails.  So maybe a penalty could have been called on the Habs, but I'd wager that for every one in that sequence, the Senators were guilty of three.

So a great win, one that made me jump off my couch, and one which made me glad I didn't start fast-forwarding in the third period.  I love my PVR, but when it comes to hockey, we need to be careful not to give up on games before the players do, and this was just further evidence of that.

Saturday, 15 March 2014

Canucks lose 4-3 to the Washington Capitals

Some notes on tonight's defeat of the Canucks against the Capitals.

1)  Yannick Weber again was in the lineup as the seventh defenceman/12th forward.  He didn't have much ice time, playing less than 10 minutes, but looked skillful and assured when playing the point on the powerplay.  He got off a few shots and was impressive walking the line and dealing the puck to the open man.

It looks like this may be his ceiling in Colin Campbell's SmashUp Derby NHL, which is too bad, since he can actually carry the puck and pass and shoot, but he can't crosscheck or elbow with the likes of Mark Stuart and Eric Gryba.  So he doesn't get to play, but they do.

2)  As an illustration of my very casual expertise when it comes to the Canucks, let me offer the fact that I don't really know the difference between Jannik Hansen, Jordan Shroeder, and Nicklas Jensen (yes, I had to look up their names to spell them correctly).  In my mind, they're nebulously the same player, kind of slender, kind of fast, not bruisers or bangers.  They're the reason why the Canucks felt they could let Mason Raymond walk in free agency, they had the 'speedster with wooden hands' angle covered with these three.

3)  Henrik Sedin is impressive.  He's stoically excellent, always working hard, not giving up on himself or his team or the season.  Even down Ryan Kesler and Daniel Sedin, and devoid of the quality goaltending the team had last season, and things looking grim for the 'Nucks, I never saw him give any less than 100% effort in this game.

4)  Jason Garrison, who was brought in to great fanfare as a free agent from the Florida Panthers, is on third pairing playing with Ryan Stanton, a guy the Canucks got from the Blackhawks on waivers at the start of the season.  At $4.6M for another four seasons, that's pretty expensive for a #5 defenceman.

The galling thing is that when the Canucks were negotiating with Mr. Garrison, they had to leave Sami Salo twisting in the wind, asking him to wait and they'd make him an offer.  Knowing full well that he could be left without a chair when the music stopped, the latter decided to accept an offer from the Lightning and not wait for a putative offer from Mike Gillis.  At the time, once Jason Garrison was in the bag, the departure of Sami Salo was rationalized in Vancouver, he was pretty brittle after all, struggling to stay healthy, and his input on the powerplay would be replaced by the former Panther's big bomb from the point.

It hasn't worked out that way.  For some reason, Jason Garrison hasn't been as effective with the Canucks' powerplay, at times he's really struggled to get his shot through.  He's a leftie and Sami was a rightie, and a right-handed shot seemed to work better with the Sedin brothers' preferences, and Ryan Kesler's tendency to lurk in the faceoff circle to the goalie's right, ready for a one-timer.

We bellyache about some of the problems with the Canadiens' roster and salary-cap situation, but most if not all teams have these.  The Canucks have four defencemen who are dependable and can play quality minutes, all wrapped up for a few more seasons at relatively reasonable cap hits around $5M per season.  But it's not perfect, the fans think they're paying too much for what they're getting, and that they need another rightie, they're having to use young Chris Tanev too much too soon, since he's the only rightie other than Kevin Bieksa.

Very rare will be the team that has Mike Babcock's desired symmetry on the blue line.  And for those who think Kevin Bieksa can be swindled from the Canucks this summer, since they're on the rebuild, that's being optimistic.  For them to let go his combination of leadership, toughness, and potent mix of offence and defence, and deprive themselves of his services on the right side, the returns will have to colossal.

5)  David Booth.  Sigh, David Booth.  He's the Canucks' René Bourque, in that he's a bigger scoring winger by reputation, but if anything they have given up on him to a degree greater than we have with René.  He's due another $4.25M next season, and most believe he'll be bought out.

It's not like he's not talented.  He's had two 20-goal seasons, and one 30-goals season.  Since he's joined the Canucks though, he's declined steadily, precipitously, through a combination of injuries and poor relationship with his coaches.  Alain Vigneault wasn't happy with his effort during games and practices, so you can imagine how John Tortorella feels about him.

At the start of the season, when I wondered if the Canucks' window to contend for the Cup could stay open for another season still, I thought that Zack Kassian and David Booth would have to be the pleasant surprises.  If Zack could crash and bang and put it all together, including his sweet hands, and if David Booth could just give a steady twenty-goal contribution like he's shown he could, then the Canucks had a shot.  If he could recapture some of the magic he had for a brief while with Ryan Kesler and Chris Higgins on the 'American Express' line, that would take some of the pressure off the Sedin line to do everything themselves.

Instead, he's been injured again this year, and when healthy has often been chained up to Torts' dog house.  On one shift in the second period, he won the foot race to negate an icing call against his team, and had the inside position to gather the puck behind the Caps' net.  Instead of banking with speed and trying to pick up and protect the puck, he took two glances over his shoulder at the Caps' defenceman, and seemed more concerned with protecting himself.  Sure enough, he lost the puck.  Later on, he was standing alone in front of the net and got a bobbling puck on his stick.  He had time, but he ineffectually batted the puck right on Jaro Halak's pads.  Not that this was an easy play to make, but if he's not going to muck and grind in the corners, he better pot some goals.  We'll forgive a few soft plays from Michael Ryder if he cashes in some chances on a regular basis, but not when he grows cold.

Thursday, 13 March 2014

Game 67: Canadiens 1, Bruins 4

I'm put off seeing Milan Lucic beating on our big defenceman.  Tonight, it seemed he was trying to komisarek Alexei Emelin.  And the Bruins shook off a long streak of futility against nos Glorieux and easily beat them on the scoreboard, so much so that they didn't really ambush us in the alley.

I noted there were three francophone officials for the game, and I assumed they're all from Québec, and therefore could be accused of favouritism while working a Canadiens game at the New Forum.  So I wondered if they'd bend over backward to not seem biased.  Sure enough, Milan Lucic ran Alexei from behind into the boards, when he didn't have the puck, twice, and subsequently scored on one of these instances.  There were no whistles on these plays.  The refs had a good look at the assaults, but other things on their minds.

Meanwhile, Lars got tagged with a boarding call on Jordan Caron on a check that was much milder.  It was also laughable how the Bruin tried to embellish, falling to the ice like an extra in a cheesy Western, but then after two beats getting up with suddenly clear spirits, all ornery and seeking justice, which he obtained by punching/facewashing big bad Brendan Gallagher.  I'm sure Mr. Caron was a nice boy who loves his mother and was a great kid growing up, but after a few years as a Bruin, he's been assimilated into the Borg, and is now a cheat and cheapshot artist and thug and bully and scoundrel.  Resistance is futile.

At the start of the season, there were hopes that the Canadiens would score by committee.  Lacking an Ovie or Sidney, we'd rely on three scoring lines, share the load, the defencemen would join in the attack and pitch in, we'd get the job done somehow.  Well, the scoring has cooled off gradually as the season progressed, but we palliated with timely powerplay goals.  Now that the powerplay has gone south, and only one line is a threat, we're approaching the crisis stage.  RDS showed a graphic showing that the Canadiens are 29th in the league in 5-on-5 scoring, ahead of only Buffalo.

Tomas Vanek needs to find his game and help turn this around.  I'm not at the panic stage with him, he's had too brief an opportunity for us to start pointing fingers.  And we are relatively healthy in the forwards, all things considered, meaning we can't really blame injuries, but I think getting back Michaël Bournival will be a great help.  The fourth line seemed toothless tonight, the combo of Ryan White, Brandon Prust and Travis Moen is a bit too slow of foot to cause headaches to the opposition.  And coach Therrien can play René Bourque and Daniel Brière off each other, starting one or the other based on the opponents and the results they obtain.  Like tonight, for example, Daniel didn't get on the scoreboard, so let's try René against Ottawa.

Carey can't come back soon enough.  While Peter Budaj had done great work so far spelling Carey during back-to-backs, he's been disappointing while carrying the load.  A .875 save percentage isn't going to cut it, on any night.  He again gave up at least one bad goal.  To give the Canadiens a chance, he needed to make saves, not give up three goals in the second.

With two games coming up against Ottawa and Buffalo, the boys have a chance to right the ship and pick up four points, get back to cruising speed.  While it will be a back-to-back weekend, with travel to play the Sabres, no team has an easy schedule right now, so we can't use a jaunt to upstate New York as an excuse.  Anything short of four points after this series of insuccess will be a disappointment.