Friday, 28 March 2014

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.

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