Sunday, 18 May 2014

'14 Playoffs Round 3, Game 1: Canadiens 2, Rangers 7

One train of thought before the initial game of this new series started was that the Rangers were an easier opponent than the Bruins, so they should be an easy out.  Mostly because we don't really know them, except for their stars like Rick Nash, Brad Richards and Martin St. Louis, who we were foggily aware were in scoring slumps at the end of the season and during the playoffs.  Aside from that, we knew Henrik Lundqvist, knew that Benoit Pouliot had caught on with them, but that's about it.

Well Montréal fans, meet your 2014 New York Rangers, 7-2 victors over the home team on a Saturday matinée game at the New Forum.  While it was a blowout, there are explanations if not excuses for the sluggish effort, lackluster concentration and discipline, and ultimately poor performance by vos Glorieux.

While the team and its fans entered the game with carryover confidence from the previous series win against hated rivals and arch-villains Boston Bruins, we whispered amongst ourselves that there was a real risk that the Canadiens would be susceptible to a flat start, an emotional letdown.

Further, the game being scheduled for a 1300 hr start for NBC's sake augured poorly.  RDS had a graphic that showed that the Habs lost the three 'early' games they played this season, two during the Super Bowl weekend, and one in the previous series against the Bruins on a Saturday at the New Garden.  Benoit Brunet concurred, telling the audience that he used to "not have any legs" during matinée games during his playing career, that it disrupted his routine.

With this in mind, we were looking for clues as to how the team would respond.  After the national anthem, I cheered audibly when Brandon Prust was ready and eager to shake chanteuse Ginette Reno's hand, but winced when Daniel Brière didn't reach over for talismanic contact himself.  To add to my discomfort, Peter Budaj wasn't focused either, so when Ms. Reno walked by him where he was standing, she offered her hand high, ready for a five, just as he went low for a conventional handshake, so he ended up grabbing some forearm while she tapped him on the chest.  Now, we don't want to be superstitious, but these are details that are important, goldarnit.

Early on,  Mike Weaver laid a technically legal hit on Derrick Brassard, since even if the Ranger centre didn't have the puck, he had been the last to touch it and was deemed to be 'in possession', as described in a section of Rule 56 which governs contact and Interference:
Possession of the Puck: The last player to touch the puck, other than the goalkeeper, shall be considered the player in possession. The player deemed in possession of the puck may be checked legally, provided the check is rendered immediately following his loss of possession.
So it fell in that acceptable no-man's land of  'finishing your check' in the NHL.  Mr. Brassard had just dished the puck and committed the cardinal sin of 'admiring his pass', I could hear Don Cherry fulminate from three time zones away.  So he was fair game, got crunched by the Canadiens' super-rental, and missed the rest of the game.

Generally, if the NHL wants to make the game safer, reduce injuries, a really easy, low-hanging fruit is to end this concept of finishing your check, which is basically a licence for interference.  Mr. Brassard had passed the puck, there was no play to be made on the puck.  This was just an opportunity to beat on an opponent.  The rule as it is administered favours a less skillful player, one who might be bigger or tougher, but not as agile on his skates, to catch up to a better player and still be a factor.  It favours 'heart and soul' 'grinders', 'energy fourth-liners', over a skilled play-maker like Mr. Brassard.

Note that I don't fault Mike Weaver for his hit, it was clean and more than tolerable, all shoulder, and didn't contact the head.  But the standards need to evolve in the same way that the NFL has changed its rules to forbid contact by a defensive back on a wide receiver five yards beyond the line of scrimmage, known as the 'bump zone', and to protect its quarterbacks by forbidding defensive players from contact with the quarterback after he releases the ball.  These changes opened up the game, made it more exciting, favoured the offence and scoring and spectacular plays, and protect the stars of the game, the QB's.  It allows these guys to be healthy and drive attendance and ratings.

Critics of these rules howled that it would denature the sport, 'kill the game', and they could not have been more wrong.  NFL football's popularity has reached stratospheric heights and keeps soaring.  The big problem which was envisioned, that defensive linemen wouldn't be able to stop once they were close enough to hit the quarterback, has proved to be a non-issue.  After a period of time, the players and the referees adjusted, and roughing the quarterback calls are no more debatable now than they were before, it's just that the standards have been tightened, and less of it is allowed.  The line has been moved, and no one really thinks this is actually a problem.  If the tackler gets there as the ball is released, it's a legal hit.  If he takes an extra step, it's a penalty.  Simple.  And defensive players have learned to, when they can see or feel that they may be a half-second late, to ease off on the hit, to hug rather than cream the QB, which buys them some tolerance from the officials.  Everyone has moved on from that controversy, with happier fans even more ravenous for their game, and participants with fuller pockets.

Aside from that unfortunate event, one Ranger stood out, and that is left winger Chris Kreider, who is physically imposing, but ever so fast on his skates.  He blew by Alexei Emelin on numerous occasions like the latter was standing still.  It brought back memories of my playing days, when opposing forwards would realize I wasn't that agile a skater, and even less so going backwards, and couldn't really pivot to my right, I could only go left.  They'd lick their chops at the thought of taking me on on a line rush, and so will he the rest of the series unless Alexei and the Canadiens make some adjustments.

Mr. Kreider drew the ire of Canadiens fans and players when on one of his awe-inspiring rushes, he crashed into Carey Price hard, skate blades first, and seemingly unaided by an opponent.  No Canadien seems to trip or push him off balance.  Carey went down, grabbed at his leg, causing every Hab fan's heart to skip a beat.  After a while, he shook it off, and stayed in the game, but didn't return for the third period.  Coach Michel Therrien said it wasn't for injury reasons, but just to 'protect' him with the game possibly out of reach, the scoreboard showing 4-1 for the Rangers at the time.

So speaking of player safety, this is another area that should be addressed.  Because of the declining goal production in the league, with goalies becoming ever-more adept at stopping the puck, and coaches at installing defensive systems that thwart scoring opportunities, the league has fretted about producing more goals.  One strategically suicidal way that coaches have come up with, and the league in its boneheaded way has essentially assented to, is that you have to 'create traffic' around an opponent's net, you have to disrupt a goalie, get him off his game, get under his skin.  You have to 'crash the crease', a practice that is actually relatively new, and didn't exist before the invention of MaggNets.  In fact, you used to be careful when coming into the vicinity of the goal crease when goalie cages were solidly anchored in the ice, lest you shatter your leg as happened to Serge Savard early in his career.

Obviously, the pendulum has swung too far, and players now intentionally plow into goalies in their headlong rushes, sometimes with the help of a defender trying to keep them from scoring.  Just as often though, an attacking player will use contact by a defender as justification or cover to make hard contact with the tender.  They would have stopped, they imply, if not for losing their balance due to that very contact.  It weren't me, it wuz him.

The time has come to change this practice, by simply putting the onus on the attacking player for avoiding any contact with the goalie.  Make it a strict liability, like 'puck over glass' situations.  It is the responsibility of the opposing players to stop in time, to avoid the goalie, no matter what the defender does.  Concurrently, keep defending players from the little slashes, the medium hooks, the pushes in the back of the player with the puck.  Give attacking players every chance to make a play, to shoot the puck, as long as they don't pile into the goalie.  There.  Problem solved.  Goalies are safer, but they allow more goals, since Sidney Crosby isn't crosschecked or hacked every second he spends on the ice.  Win-win.

Another player who drew some attention on the Blueshirts was a kid named Ryan McDonagh, who's a big strong defenceman who can rush the puck, and plays on their first pairing.  He used to be in the Canadiens' system, but was part of the package used to acquire Scott Gomez from the Rangers.

He picked up one goal and three assists, and wowed a few fans with a rush off a faceoff that ended with a shot on Carey Price from in close.  Now, the thing is, if he was still a Canadien, and in bleu-blanc-rouge, his four points, the four goals he created for the Rangers, they wouldn't have happened, they would have gone our way instead.  So subtract four from NY, add four for the good guys, instead of a 7-2 loss, the score would have been 3-6, we would have won this blasted game.

So we can begin to see that the Scott Gomez, Tom Pyatt and Micheal Busto trade for Chris Higgins, Ryan McDonagh and Pavel Valentenko may have been ultimately ill-advised, and the pigeons are now coming home to roost.  Imagine having Ryan McDonagh on P.K.'s left side, our first pairing would be tops in the league, with only the Chicago pairing of Duncan Keith and Keith Seabrook to compare.

On the Canadiens side, there were few standouts, except for maybe the wrong reasons.  René Bourque took three penalties, of the lazy-ish kind, hooks and holds.  René has to play better, Alex Galchenyuk is waiting in the wings, getting ever closer to drawing in the lineup.  René had a great first round against Tampa Bay, but was much milder, almost timid against the Bruins.  If he doesn't focus, if he reverts back to regular-season form, when he wasn't hungry for the puck and determined with it, he'll get bumped down or even out of the lineup.  We'll be watching him closely, I'm not sure if the big goal he scored in the second period did enough to outweigh the rest of his work.

We have to discuss Brandon Prust, who took a double minor and a major misconduct for hacking and slashing at Chris Kreider, in obvious retribution for his slide into Carey Price.  While the intent is laudable, and Brandon was trying to stick up for a teammate and send a message for the Rangers' future reference, he didn't go about it the right way, and it cost our team.  It's possible the game was already out of reach.  Some interpreted Peter Budaj starting the third period as a surrender, but we have seen the Canadiens react positively to Carey being pulled, and storm back to win the game.  The 5-on-3 opportunity given to the Rangers sealed the deal.

Brandon is a veteran and we expect leadership from him.  He's not a Dan Carcillo or a Jordin Tootoo, a player who is a loose cannon who can just as much hurt as help his team.  We've seen Ryan White be disciplined by his coaches for taking penalties like this.  Brandon had to find a better way to equal things out, to send his message, not blatant stickwork while in the process of killing a penalty, in a new series that isn't expected to be a goon show as that against the Bruins was.

Brandon was supposed to bring a little extra against his old team, but he may well be the man who sits out, to subtract his journeyman skating and stone hands and replace them with Alex Galchenyuk's.

Overall it was an ugly game for us, but we can see it as a reality check, a wakeup call.  The glow we felt for eliminating the thugs from Boston has to recede, and we need to focus on the task at hand.  And it's not catastrophic, after a bad first period, the Canadiens seemed to be finding their stride, and were taking it to the Rangers in the second period.  The fans were even singing "Olé Olé" while we were a goal down, to the probable consternation of Bob Cole back at home, in all likelihood muttering to himself "Why are they singing?  They haven't won yet.  No, baby."  The two quick goals at the end of the second cut out legs out though, and the failed penalty-kill early in the third was the finisher between the eyes.

So now we get to regroup, and go back to the team's creed: 'Pas d'excuses.'  The rest of the games are evening games, the Rangers are at least as fatigued as we are with their two seven-game series behind them.  We need to get to work.  The coaching staff will probably make their adjustments and massage their lineup as they've done so far in the playoffs.  The players will focus on the guys in front of them, not the apes in the rearview mirrow.  They're not going to be complacent or over-confident, they know they're in a hole and have to climb their way out.

And the over-confidence goes for the fans.  I saw too many take these Rangers lightly.  We have to be respectful.  I, for one, am still predicting the Canadiens will win in four, but I'll diplomatically concede that it'll be accomplished with a greater degree of difficulty score now.

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