Sunday, 16 March 2014

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.

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