Saturday, 15 November 2014

Canadiens vs. Bruins, P.K. vs. Milan Lucic, Nathan Beaulieu vs. Matt Fraser.

I have to disagree with this passage in a Dave Stubbs article in the Montréal Gazette about the Habs' 5-1 win against the Bruins:
Lucic managed to do that all night Thursday, and he resisted the overture — foolhardy if courageous that it was — of P.K. Subban, who hacked and cross-checked him following the Bruin’s skeleton-rattling open-ice hit of Habs’ Jiri Sekac.

He faked chucking his gloves with Subban but in the end, his team down 3-1, Lucic chose the route of discipline.

I don't think that's what happened. Milan was probably surprised that P.K. fronted him, but was also licking his chops at the prospect. He shook his gloves to invite P.K., but didn’t want to drop them unilaterally, and get an instigator penalty. He was waiting for P.K. to reciprocate.

P.K. we could say wisely didn’t follow through on his threat, but he didn’t cover himself in glory either. He’s famously strong, it wasn’t a terrible mismatch, he just chose to not risk it.

When Mr. Stubbs says that Milan Lucic was "fake chucking" his gloves, I think we’re making allowances for P.K. here. Usually, when two guys want to fight, one guy makes a motion with his hands, a show of shaking his gloves, and will say something like “You wanna go?” The other player can then drop his gloves, the first player drops his, and the fight is on.

Sometimes the second player can choose to respond with shaking his gloves and the same phrase, “Do YOU wanna go?”  Both shake but no gloves are dropped and nobody makes the first move. The refs usually move in and separate them and get an eardrum workout as both players jaw at each other.

In this specific case, Milan Lucic shook his gloves, asked P.K. if he wanted to drop them, but P.K. studiously avoided that, kept a death grip on his stick, and gave a theatrical crosscheck to the Bruin before spending two minutes in the box.

Point Lucic.

Now it’s not P.K.’s job to tangle with Mr. Lucic, but that’s the second fricking time he’s pulled that garbage recently. Last season, when Derek Dorsett tried to amputate David Desharnais’ leg in a knee-on-knee, P.K. rushed to the scene, full of piss and vinegar, and didn’t go through with it, just did a fly-by. Francis Bouillon, who’s much smaller than P.K., took the Ranger to task, and gave him all he could handle.

If P.K. wants to lead, and wants to redress wrongs, he can’t do those crosscheck-scowl jobbies, he has to be ready to follow through. I’d prefer he not get involved in those at all, he gets enough abuse already, I don’t want him getting injured in a meaningless tilt, but if he walks right up to that line, he can’t be unwilling to cross it.

The post-game chatter, from both teams' sides, or at least the media charged with covering them, centred on the role toughness and fighting play in the NHL, whether it's an advantageous stratagem, or an antiquated practice that's irrelevant to the final score.  The Canadiens side is emboldened by decisive pugilistic wins by Dale Weise and Nathan Beaulieu, while the Bruins lament the loss of their toughness, of their Big Bad Bruins.

We’ve had discussions off and on lately about intimidation, about whether an NHL player can be scared off his game, and many assert that it’s impossible, these guys are playing at too high a level for that to happen.  They've been through the wars in Junior, in the AHL, they wouldn't be in the NHL if they could be intimidated, the thinking goes.

I however think that some players do get intimidated, some teams do, and it’s a range, a spectrum where some are more than others, in certain situations. The Habs of the seventies would beat any team anywhere no matter the style of play. Yet the vets still chuckle over how tense everyone was before a game against the Flyers and the Bruins. They tell tales of unnamed players who would come down with the ‘Philly flu’ and not be able to play.

Another illustration of intimidation affecting a team's play is last spring in the playoffs.  Former Habs member of the seventies Cup-winning teams and subsequent head coach Mario Tremblay of RDS was disgusted, outraged after a couple of periods where the Canadiens were playing “du bout de la palette”, meaning from the tip of their stick, they weren’t getting into scrums in the corners or in front of the net, but gingerly poking at the puck from a safer distance. The Canadiens’ smaller players were essentially playing scared, avoiding contact. Yet they got it back under control, turned things around, ‘paid the price’, and ultimately won the series.

Former Bruins player and noted pest P.J. Stock of Sportsnet was ranting on the same issue post-game, that the Bruins aren’t playing Bruins hockey, they’re not hitting, fighting, etc. He obviously thought that intimidation was a useful tool for the Bruins, at least in the past.

The thing is, it’s all dependent on the refereeing, how the rules are made and called. If the refs adopt a Colin Campbell-mandated, Don Cherry rubber-stamped 'anything goes' attitude, and put the whistles away, then yes the Bruins should definitely play the Bruins way, and profit from their thuggery, which will mean rushed passes, and anxious opponents hampered in their efforts to play hockey as they swivel their heads looking for any check-finishers coming their way.

If the Bruins play their way and the refs call all the hooking and elbowing and interference, and the Canadiens’ powerplay is clicking, then they’ll get buried, and the next day the talk won’t be about the ‘Bruins model’, as it was here in Vancouver last summer, but of the ‘Canadiens model’, and how the Bruins need to get better skaters, players who are better at actually playing hockey instead of shawnthortoning, and to avoid the penalty box.

So yeah, the Bruins way, intimidation, it does work, but only if the refs and the league are complicit. If fouls are called, the Bruins are dodos.  And the Big Bad Bruins will have to remold themselves, since every slash and elbow that used to add up to their mystique and tilt the ice in their favour will now play against them.

Meanwhile, Marc Bergevin and his brain trust have been going against type for the Canadiens, trying to make the team bigger and tougher to play against, more resistant to intimidation.  One of his best coups was to attract Brandon Prust in free agency.  Last season he grafted George Parros and Douglas Murray onto the roster.  He's drafted huge, tough players like Michael McCarron, Connor Crisp, and Brett Lernout.  He signed potential fourth-liners Stéfan Fournier and Jack Nevins not for their high skill but rather their 'high will' to do anything it takes to defend their teammates.

Meanwhile, the NHL roster that we thought might, especially with Jarred Tinordi sent down to the AHL, be susceptible to intimidation, ripe for getting sand kicked in their face, has instead mostly skated away from trouble, and stood up for itself when it needed to.

Nathan Beaulieu’s fight with Steve Veilleux of the Wild and Dale Weise’s fight with Gregory Campbell are surprising in that they didn’t have to be backed into a corner to drop the gloves, which is often the case with the Canadiens, Brandon Prust and/or Jarred Tinordi excepted. You’ll sometimes see a Josh Gorges or a Max Pacioretty joust and repel crosschecks and facewashes for a few seconds before gloves come off and a true-blue fight occurs, a fight of last resort.

Instead, both Nate and Dale saw a guy coming in and they didn’t hesitate, they figured they were in a fight and they were willing to join in, they wouldn’t have to be goaded into it. Steve Veilleux especially may have been surprised, he might have been thinking he’d just go up to Nate and yell at him a bit, but he never got the chance.

As some have pointed out, Milan Lucic could easily have done the same thing Thursday night when he was being crosschecked, dropped the gloves and grabbed P.K., popped him a few before our boy was ready. Yet he relented, possibly afraid of an instigator penalty.

I also think that he may now be walking on eggshells, unsure of how to proceed; the Habs are in his head. He’s constantly being told by the coaches and the media to “play your game”, and to “not get drawn into silly stuff”, and really, those statements are as contradictory as can be. If Milan Lucic plays his game, he’ll crosscheck and facewash and hit from behind and run into a goalie, and the refs will let him get away with it and waltz to a pre-destined Stanley Cup, gift-wrapped by Daddy Campbell. His entire game is “silly stuff”.

After the handshake line fiasco, all of his bluster about not apologizing, and then on October 16 giving the game away with a late penalty, being fined for his obscene gesture, and offering a half-hearted faux apology to a Boston media type, but not directly to the Canadiens or their fans, he’s under the spotlight and he knows it. His crooked smile and equivocation shows that he’s tying himself into logical knots with his “I won’t apologize but I’m sorry it happened and if I offended anyone I’m just emotional and hate losing but I shouldn’t have done it” shtick.

And on the ice now, he’s not playing and reacting, but second-guessing every move. He’s going to soft-pedal every bodycheck, be cautious around Alexei Emelin, but then rough him up to show him that nothing’s changed, but take ten percent off just in case, as he did last night in a goal-mouth altercation that ended behind the net. It only lasted a second, and at the end he gave a punch-swipe to Alexei that didn’t connect, and he didn’t press the issue, and I thought “We have him. He’s done.”

Zdeno Chara is also not the same player against the Canadiens ever since his Immaculate Assassination on Max Pacioretty, from which he was given an Indulgence by Pope Gary the Ignoble. Since then, he’s been ceaselessly booed by Montréal fans, and he has had to answer questions from the media, and you can see how it affects him in how he sometimes could cream a Canadien, cleanly and legally, but he pokechecks instead or just bodies them against the boards, like he would in practice against a teammate.

Some in the media have explained that Zdeno Chara never really wanted to be a villain, that it weighs on him, the constant booing and vilification.  Deep down, he just wants to be loved, so he's been taking it easy, allowing David Desharnais to remain capitated.

So it’s kind of funny that Milan Lucic’s ballyhooed passion and competitiveness have caused him to rein that in so that he’s no longer very passionate or competitive. He’s eunuched himself, with his own petard.

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