Monday, 29 December 2014

World Junior Championships: Canada 8, Slovakia 0

Thoughts after watching the game unassiduously:

-Martin Reway was fairly invisible. Sure, he didn’t have a lot of help, his team was being swamped, but where was the fire, the passion, the temper that we hear about? It was incumbent on him to set an example, to lead his team, and I’m not sure I saw that, he played down to their level.

-Good to see that Team Canada went with skill rather than a ‘third line’ and grinders and heart-and-soul guys. No more Sutter hockey.

-Frédéric Gauthier is unimpressive, sticks out like a sore thumb. Big, but ungainly. Made sense that he was demoted to the 13th forward slot, and that his line started to click once he was taken off it.

-Samuel Morin seemed a giveaway machine, a lot of his passes were to Laveuglette, or straight to an opponent. His mobility is fine, just needs to add some stick skills I guess.

-Max Domi was a little punk the last game I saw, I think the exhibition against the Swedes, when he tried to blindside Jacob de la Rose but got the worst of it and then faked an injury on the ice. When it didn’t take, he went to the bench but jawed and threatened the Swedish bench. Add in a giant tomahawk of a slash to the top of an opponent’s shoulder (!), and a four-letter profanity that echoed through the rink, and I thought the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.

Tonight though, you have to give him his due, you can kind of see what the fuss is all about. He’s wearing the right colour jersey, so I’ll cheer him on for now.

-Zach Fucale got the shutout, was lucky on the shot that hit the shaft of his stick, and there were a couple of scrambles. You need luck to blank the opposition I guess. The encouraging thing was that he didn’t flub shots with his glove hand like the last game he played, when pucks would clang out of his glove for unforgivable rebounds. Tonight every shot that he could glove was handled cleanly. Way to go kid.

-I’ll be interested to see what the boys think of Jake Virtanen. Very impressive kid. Maybe the Canucks get another kick at the Cam Neely can, and this time they don’t trade him to Boston for a damaged-goods former star they’re looking to unload.

Saturday, 20 December 2014

Clayton Stoner doesn't face supplemental discipline for his hit on Max Pacioretty. Of course.

News item:  Report: No hearing for Stoner’s Pacioretty hit

How many ways could a referee have called the Clayton Stoner hit a penalty?

1) Interference. Max didn’t have the puck, wasn’t eligible to be checked. That rules and application have mutated to the point where a player now has an official, objective 0.8 seconds to ‘finish his check’ is deplorable. I understand the concern that a player may be in the process of checking an opponent a split second before he releases the puck, and in such a case the hit is unavoidable. In Mr. Stoner’s case, however, he took two extra steps to get there.

In the NFL, there was a lot of handwringing about this fact, how Mean Joe Green or Jack Youngblood, when they were about to hit the quarterback, couldn’t halt their momentum suddenly, that some collisions were unavoidable. This turned out to be a non-issue.

The standard now is that if the quarterback has the ball you can hit him. Even if you hit him as he releases the ball, you can hit him as long as it’s simultaneous. If you get there a split second late though, you’re expected as a defensive player to hold up, to ease off so as to minimize the collision. The more time you have, the more you’re expected to do this, to the point where defensive players now kind of bear-hug and hold up the QB when they’re late, and prevent him from falling to the turf. If you’re very late, like more than a step, it gives you time to avoid any contact whatsoever.

There’s no objective time measure of this, it’s obvious when watching the game, as the refs see it, and as it’s recorded on video. The onus is on the defensive player to get there on time, or to not hit the QB. In that grey area, the defensive player does his best to not give the QB an extra shot, to err on the side of caution, since the refs will definitely have an itchy flag itching to fly out.

2) Hit in the back. We can get into an ‘angels on the head of a pin’ argument here, but I’ll submit that Max was hit in the back. I’ll understand a Ducks fan for countering that the hit was on the side 7/8ths or whatever.

To say that Max was “admiring his pass” is the ludicrous stance of the truculence brigade. Max just made a pass to a teammate and wants to know if it’s coming back to him, if it’s going to the other point, so he can react accordingly. If he constantly has to have his head on a swivel to prevent getting mugged by Mark Stuart or Eric Gryba with a claymore, then we might as well dig foxholes in the ice and bring in the armour. Max was trying to make a play with the puck, the Ducks defenceman was scrambling to lay the lumber.

3) Crosschecking.
Rule 59 – Cross-checking

59.1 Cross-checking – The action of using the shaft of the stick between the two hands to forcefully check an opponent.

59.2 Minor Penalty – A minor penalty, at the discretion of the Referee based on the severity of the contact, shall be imposed on a player who “cross checks” an opponent.

59.3 Major Penalty – A major penalty, at the discretion of the Referee based on the severity of the contact, shall be imposed on a player who “cross checks” an opponent (see 59.5).

59.4 Match Penalty – The Referee, at his discretion, may assess a match penalty if, in his judgment, the player attempted to or deliberately injured his opponent by cross-checking.

59.5 Game Misconduct Penalty – When a major penalty is assessed for cross-checking, an automatic game misconduct penalty shall be imposed on the offending player.

59.6 Fines and Suspensions – When a major penalty is imposed under this rule, an automatic fine of one hundred dollars ($100) shall also be imposed.

If deemed appropriate, supplementary discipline can be applied by the Commissioner at his discretion (refer to Rule 28).

4) Boarding. What Clayton Stoner did easily qualifies as boarding.
 A boarding penalty shall be imposed on any player or goalkeeper who checks or pushes a defenseless opponent in such a manner that causes the opponent to hit or impact the boards violently in the boards. The severity of the penalty, based upon the impact with the boards, shall be at the discretion of the Referee.

Some will say that I’m living in a dreamworld if I think hockey will be refereed the way I describe it should be. And I am. I do dream of an NHL which features skill and speed and offence and spectacular tic-tac-toe goals, while still providing lots of contact and thrills. But it won’t happen until the NHL GM’s and the head office relax their stranglehold on the neck of the sport they purport to love.

An apologia for Manny Malhotra.

Habs fans were over the moon with Manny Malhotra early this season as he lightened the load on Tomas Plekanec, played superb defensive hockey and penalty kill minutes, and had a significant positive effect on the team's faceoff prowess.

As the season proceeds though, his non-existent offensive production has drawn more critical attention.  The very reasonable question is posed whether the team would be better off taking him out of the lineup entirely and replacing him with someone else, anyone who can chip in a goal now and then.

I don’t denounce ‘advanced stats’, or claim that I find all I need to know ‘just by watching the game’, but something that seems immediately apparent to me is that the Canadiens are a much stronger team this season, and a lot of that seems to derive from the strong faceoff performance the team has demonstrated.

A few years ago during the Gomez era, we’d lose lots and lots of draws and collapse into a shell, it was our M.O., with Hal Gill and Josh Gorges blocking shots, it was like the Alamo after every faceoff it seemed. We could rely on losing the draw and then ‘defending’. A faceoff win was a refreshing surprise.

This season, amazingly, we’re winning a lot of faceoffs, some games we’re downright dominant. Some of that can be attributed to our centremen growing more mature. There was recently a chart or article that showed that centremen improve their FO% as they age generally, even well into their thirties, that as they accumulate experience and grow stronger physically they win more and more on average compared to their younger counterparts.

A lot of that success in my calculation is also due to Manny taking on the toughest assignments, and Tomas and David and Lars and Alex facing relatively easier competition compared to last season. It’s a cascade effect. Our centres from last season have climbed down a notch in the degree of difficulty of draws they face, and have shown consequent dramatic improvement, more than can be shown by a simple age progression according to the charts.

So yeah, to my layman’s eyes, the Canadiens are quantitatively better at faceoffs, but also qualitatively better as a whole, we go on the attack rather than chase the puck and get banged up in the corners and block slapshots and get injured, etc. And it’s hard to tease apart the cost-benefit of the addition of Manny to our roster, but I would say it’s hard whichever way you want to make the argument, good or bad.

We have to fold in his other contributions, his size and physical assets, his leadership and experience, his dressing room presence, the domino effect he has on other centreman in terms of their improved faceoff performance, among others, and subtract his abysmal production thus far, to get a full picture of his value to the team. To reduce him to only his faceoff prowess, and say that's all he brings, is to caricature him as a player.

Game 34: Canadiens 4, Senators 1

Random thoughts on the Canadiens' 4-1 win against the Senators.

1)  I really enjoy watching Jiri Sekac play.  He acts like he wants the puck and when he has it he takes it to the net with authority.  He's big and rangy and swoopy when he skates.  Eye candy.  

In the '80's we went away from the Flying Frenchmen days, we had a bunch of big thumpers on our roster, Steve Rooney and Dave Maley and Ryan Walter and Lucien DeBlois, and they weren't the most exciting team to watch objectively.  Sure we rooted for them, cheered them on, it was great to see them beat the Nordiques and the Bruins, but after our game we'd get to see the Oilers take on the Canucks or the Jets or Flames, and it was end-to-end hockey, fast-paced and high-test adrenaline stuff.  And I caught myself wondering if I didn't enjoy watching those games rather than watching my team play.

I'd resigned myself after the Bruins' tainted finals win and our debacle against the Senators in 2013 that if we wanted to win, we needed to size up, at the expense of skill and our viewing pleasure.  But watching our team now, I'm not sure that'll be the case, that I'll have to endure some snoozers like when we'd pound the Whalers into submission.  Not when we size up with the likes of Alex Galchenyuk, Dale Weise, Max Pacioretty, and the aforementioned Jiri Sekac.  

Maybe we can measure up to the big teams and win, but still play an exciting brand of hockey.  Maybe we don't need to turn heel to win, to adopt the tactics of Abdullah the Butcher or Michel 'Justtice' Dubois.  We can remain as pure as the Frères Rougeau if we watch each other's backs, and triumph in the end.

2)  I'm having trouble keeping up with the lines we're putting on the ice.  Now Brandon Prust is on the Tomas Plekanec line?  Was it Christopher Curtis who first coined the phrase "Michel Therrien's blender"?  I don't know how much latitude he'll have to play mixmaster for the next few games, since he committed to the Alex Galchenyuk transition to #1 centre and stated that they'd need to be patient with him, and the Lars Eller centering David Desharnais and P.A. Parenteau also needs to be evaluated on a somewhat extended term.  

3)  Not too much spark coming from that Lars Eller line tonight though.  It's not an immediate success, like the Two and a Half Men line, or the kid line of Alex, Lars and Gally from last season, combos that seemed like winners from the first game they were put together.

4)  "...Karlsson with the puck, being perniciously pursued..."

"...a Subbanian spinerama..."

Is Paul Romaniuk getting into a rhythm, finding his groove?  Never had a problem with his delivery, his intonation, but he was halting at the beginning of the season, a little rusty, hesitant when trying to identify players.  Tonight's effort was pretty good, with no glaring errors.

5)  Gary Galley however, had this clunker: "Maybe he re-aggravated an ongoing injury..."

Ugh.  Re-aggravate.  Always loved that redundancy.  You can aggravate an injury.  You can re-injure something.  But to re-aggravate an injury means something pretty specific.  That you got injured, then you aggravated it, meaning you made it worse, and then later on aggravated it again.

And don't get me started on the much overused techno-babble flavour-du-jour word 'ongoing'.  

Or the inherent contradiction in that phrase.

6)  I figure Alex Galchenyuk gets all the chicks, but not if he keeps getting high-sticked in the kisser like that, pretty soon he'll look like Réjean Houle.

7)  The Sens aren't so easy to hate when Chris Neil and Matt Kassian and Zenon Konopka aren't on their roster.  It makes even cementally-shod Eric Gryba kind of adorable, trying to keep up to the play, getting all winded from the slashing and the hooking and franticing.

8)  I liked the sober goal celebration by Tomas Plekanec to make it 3-1 and put the game away.  Not too much to get excited about when you beat a clearly inferior team that played the previous night and three games in four nights.  You took care of business, but nothing to do cartwheels about.  Nice.

9)  Also liked that Michel Therrien put out the fourth line for the last powerplay to end the game.  No sense getting the Sens all riled up by rubbing it in at that point, and it was a good opportunity for Manny Malhotra to pad his point totals.

Friday, 19 December 2014

Game 33: Canadiens 1, Anaheim 2

Canadiens Express thoughts on the Canadiens 2-1 loss to the Anaheim Ducks, I had to pirate the Saku Koivu ceremony on a stream that was difficult to find, with popups and delays, etc.

Thank you Gary Bettman.

Right at puck drop, I heard some low boos when Ryan Getzlaf was on the ice, and I was puzzled as to why.  I guessed that he was getting the business from the fans since he's the best player on the Ducks team.

Now, I dislike the practice of booing the opposition's best player as a matter of course, putatively to get them off their game.  I don't think Sidney Crosby or Jonathan Toews or Erik Karlsson deserve this treatment, we should appreciate their effort and artistry, as hockey fans.

Then I realized that the New Forum crowd was booing René Bourque, and to me that was just as dumb.  René underperformed for most of his stay here, he on some nights, and even some long stretches of games seemed to be sleepwalking, but I think it was beyond his control, it wasn't a conscious decision to play soft, uninspired hockey.  Certainly compared to Michael Ryder or Andrei Kostitsyn or Thomas Vanek it didn't seem so.  Those guys seemed to not care whether the team won or lost on some nights.  René was just lost in a fog in my opinion, and not to get too technical.

So yeah, disappointing showing for René while he was here, but he did have these enticing peaks in performance, when he dominated games.  The Tampa Bay series last spring for example.  He can still get it done under the right conditions.  So why would we do anything to add any further motivation, on his return to Montréal?  Why not let sleeping dogs lie?

It's not as if René was not likable as a person.  He was a popular teammate, thoughtful and humble when cornered by the press, we can wish he could have done more, but I don't think he did anything to draw the average Hab fan's enmity.

Speaking of big forwards who underwhelm, Eric Tangradi, who some may have thought could perform the role that Travis Moen did lately with the team, and I may have verged on that position myself, showed tonight definitively that he's not at all at that level.  During a sequence that Pierre Houde said lasted almost three minutes, he and Manny Malhotra and Michaël Bournival were backed up in their zone, unable to clear out.

Mr. Tangradi at first looked like he wasn't playing smart, by just staying in his position rather than pressuring the puck, and letting the Ducks cycle it easily along the boards.  Then I realized that it wasn't a tactical mistake, he's just immobile.  And on top of being slow, he was gassed early on in that sequence.  It seemed inevitable that the Ducks would burst through and they did taking a 1-0 lead.

After the game, Guy Carbonneau and Benoit Brunet both discussed the wisdom of having him in the lineup, and sending down Sven Andrighetto to the Bulldogs.

Based on my edited viewing of the game, Nathan Beaulieu and Tom Gilbert were effective and are rounding into form as a pairing.  One situation I noticed was when Andrew Cogliano was skating the puck out of his zone, trying to get it under control.  Instead of backing off, both defencemen stayed close, and Nathan actually skated right up to him and pokechecked the puck off him before he could get his wits about him.  All that was left was for Tom to skate after the puck in his zone and calmly retrieve it.

Our ideal partner for Nathan would have been a big tough defensively-oriented steady-eddie type who would stay back and cover for him while he charged to the attack, kind of what the Senators had in mind when they traded for Marc Methot so he could play alongside Erik Karlsson and mind the store.  We don't really have that guy in our arsenal right now, so maybe Tom Gilbert is a good option.  Together they're going to be mobile and effective in puck retrieval situations, and to make that proverbial first pass out of our zone.

The game, and a good chunk of our season potentially, turned on a typical NHL play, one where an undertalented player "finishes his check" against a more skilled opponent.  Clayton Stoner, who was in the Ducks' lineup because Sheldon Souray, François Beauchemin and Eric Brewer were on the injured list, hit Max Pacioretty in the back, a full two strides after Max had passed the puck, projecting him awkwardly into the boards.  Max left the game and didn't return.  No penalty was called on the play.

This is the kind of suicidal thinking that is keeping the NHL from taking flight, the idea that a Clayton Stoner must be allowed to do this, to equalize things a bit, or else he's going to get eaten alive, like Tim Gleason did on Tuesday when the Hurricanes were in town.  Somehow, Colin Campbell and Don Cherry and Mike Milbury, guys who hung on to an NHL career because they were allowed to live in the margins of lax refereeing, now set the agenda, and hammer the point ceaselessly that hockey is a rough and tumble game, that bad things are going to happen, that you need to keep your head up.

This is how an Antoine Roussel and a Jordin Tootoo has a career in the NHL.  Somehow the game is tilted towards them and away from the Max Paciorettys and the Teemu Selannes.  Hockey is the only game that does that.  Basketball, baseball, football, all foster a more offensive game with their rule-making to make the sport more exciting and fan-friendly, and as a corollary safer for the players.  This is how a Clayton Stoner, a fringe player who has four goals to his credit in 255 games in the NHL, has a more important effect on the game than a young star like Max Pacioretty.

After the it's-all-good business as usual non-call, Dale Weise tried to get some retribution by throwing a few hits, and drew a penalty from Patrick Maroon when the latter pushed Dale in the back, with the puck nowhere near.  Of course, Bruce Boudreau was incensed at the call.  I guess he would have been arguing that Dale dived on that call, and I have to wonder how it wasn't clearly, obviously a case of interference, in anyone's eyes, how this was up to debate from any observer, regardless of whether Dale had fallen or not.

David Desharnais tied the game up during the ensuing powerplay, he had to play sniper with Max unavailable, and he demonstrated again on that play that his shot is effective from in close.  We all know this, he just needs to believe it.

Unfortunately, the Ducks took the lead again soon after, on a nice shot by Matt Beleskey from the slot.  At first I thought Carey went down early, but on replay saw that he was in the Reverse VH position and guarding the post against Richard Rakell, who was coming in along the goal line.  Carey had to be up tight against his post and low, so the quick pass in the slot gave him no chance.

Down 2-1, the Canadiens tried to take the advantage, but any last gasp chance was nullified by a P.K. Subban interference penalty with two and a half minutes to go.  P.K. didn't play it smart on this one, Pierre Houde had remarked that he was lucky to not have received a penalty on a slashing he dished out seconds before.  We can guess that the refs were loath to hand out a late penalty, as is the custom in the NHL, but that their attention was drawn to P.K. on that play, that he was on super-duper double probation for the rest of his shift.

Instead of playing it cool and being a good boy, of capitalizing on this indulgence, he doubled down and threw a pick on Devante Smith-Pelley, a player he'd clashed with all game long.  P.K. tried to act nonchalant, as if they'd just happened to collide in the neutral zone while his teammate tried to skate away with the puck, but it was the straw that broke the camel's back.

Again we have to call into question P.K.'s situational awareness.  Down one goal, late in the third, it wasn't the time to continue his little battle with Mr. Smith-Pelley.  This is the kind of dumb penalty that was completely avoidable.  He should have been concentrating on getting the puck into the Ducks zone, on getting his shot to the net, instead of his in-game rivalry.

The RDS boys were discussing other elite NHL defencemen, and explained how guys like Shea Weber and Drew Doughty are in the vast majority of cases the reason you win a game, while P.K. this year has often had at best a neutral influence, if not being the reason we lose.  It's one step forward, one step back with our boy this year.

The Sven Andrighetto decision may be reversed almost as soon as it was taken.  Apparently Max was taken to hospital after the game, so we'll have a big, big hole on our Top 6, one that Lars Eller's return will not start to fill.  Maybe Sven doesn't get to unpack and comes right back to Montréal.  Or would it be Charles Hudon who gets a kick at the can next?

Thursday, 18 December 2014

Predator James Neal first player to receive NHL's slap on the wrist for embellishment.

So the National Hockey League got tough on diving, and announced that it fined James Neal $2 000 for a shameful, transparent flop against the San Jose Sharks.  Barclay Goodrow had just given him a relatively innocuous tap on the pants, which is par for the course in the NHL.

Instead of having this labyrinthine system of warnings and inconsequential fines and public shamings, wouldn’t it easier for the NHL to declare that diving is an attack on the integrity of the game, like spitting at an opponent, or doctoring the ball or corking your bat in baseball? That this is an infraction that is grounds for a major penalty and an immediate expulsion from the game, and further suspensions?  It would clean it up overnight.

There might be some actors out there who’ve made a few incidents look very natural, but how many more are so transparent they leap right off the video for you? Think about the Bruins diving video, every single one of these dives is as clear as the day is long, there is no debate about these. So you hit those incidents, just like when you catch a pitcher red-handed with the nail file in his pocket.

The thing is, when a player dives, he’s trying his best to make it look good, and doesn’t really know how it looks outwardly. So the players have no way of telling which dive they’ll pull off, which they won’t. With a substantial penalty, with consequences, with the fact that they may hurt their team by doing so entering their mental equation, I think 90% of dives are eliminated, at least.

Further, to assist referees, let’s use video, like in instances when a player is not penalized for an action on the ice, but can still be punished later by the league. Do the same with diving. If the refs can’t make the call instantly, but it can be seen clearly on video, the player will be disciplined.

Another change would be to discard the section in the rules that states that non-aggressive slashing isn’t really slashing, and just tell the players that you can only play the puck with your stick. That would help the referees to not have to evaluate how much slashing, in what situation, under which circumstances, and at which point in the game or season does it take to actually constitute slashing.
Rule 61 – Slashing
61.1 Slashing – Slashing is the act of a player swinging his stick at an opponent, whether contact is made or not. Non-aggressive stick contact to the pant or front of the shin pads, should not be penalized as slashing. Any forceful or powerful chop with the stick on an opponent’s body, the opponent’s stick, or on or near the opponent’s hands that, in the judgment of the Referee, is not an attempt to play the puck, shall be penalized as slashing.
61.2 Minor Penalty – A minor penalty, at the discretion of the Referee based on the severity of the contact, shall be imposed on a player who slashes an opponent.
61.3 Major Penalty – A major penalty, at the discretion of the Referee based on the severity of the contact, shall be imposed on a player who slashes an opponent. When injury occurs, a major penalty must be assessed under this rule (see 61.5).
61.4 Match Penalty – The Referee, at his discretion, may assess a match penalty if, in his judgment, the player attempted to or deliberately injured his opponent by slashing.
61.5 Game Misconduct Penalty – Whenever a major penalty is assessed for slashing, a game misconduct penalty must also be imposed.
61.6 Penalty Shot – refer to Rule 57.3 – Tripping.
61.7 Awarded Goal – refer to Rule 57.4 – Tripping.
61.8 Fines and Suspensions – There are no specified fines or suspensions for slashing, however, supplementary discipline can be applied by the Commissioner at his discretion (refer to Rule 28).

Wednesday, 17 December 2014

Game 32: Canadiens 4, Hurricanes 1

These are my Canadiens Express thoughts on the Canadiens' win, I had to resort to the condensed RDS version of the game, since I was blacked out of the game by the new whiz-bang TV deal that's going to last 12 years and is going to serve me so much better as a hockey fan.

Thank you Gary Bettman.

"Y'en aura pas d'faciles", as Claude Ruel used to say.  I tempted fate after the Kings game when I wrote that this next game against Carolina should/would be an easy two-pointer.  The Canadiens let them hang around instead of finishing them off when they were down, and in the third I started having a bad feeling about how it would all go down.  We had the makings of a Buffalo Sabres situation, again.

The Brandon Prust, David Desharnais and P.A. Parenteau line seemed to have a great start to the game, unless the Canadiens Express editors had an agenda and cut out all the sequences where they struggled.  The trio was dangerous, buzzing around the Hurricane zone.

On the Canadiens' first goal, P.A. made a good cross-ice pass giving David a great look at the net, and forcing Cam Ward to push out and challenge him.  David showed patience, skated around to behind the net while the 'Canes goalie slid far out of his net, helpless to stop himself.  From then it was a simple matter to slip the puck to Brandon Prust who tapped it into the empty net.

This misstep by Cam Ward is reminiscent of situations Carey Price would get himself into a few years ago, how he'd end up far, far out of his net on goals against.  He never, ever does that anymore, since Stéphane Waite has become the goalie coach.  We can guess that there was some communication between the brass and the goalie, and he'd explain that he was doing what he's coached to do, what he's been practicing, and that this may have among other factors triggered the coaching change from Pierre Groulx to Mr. Waite.

During the game we saw various examples of 'strong plays' on the puck, and not so strong plays that drive coaches crazy.  This is hockey newspeak, and a strong play simply means being decisive and safe with the puck, especially in your own zone, rather than making a fancy stickhandling play in your zone that is riskier.

One example of a not-strong play was when P.K. deftly intercepted a Zach Boychuk pass in front of his own net, and ended up with the puck right at his feet.  He tried to take a moment, a mere second to reposition so he could pass the puck and start the breakout, but he didn't have the 'time and space' (another buzzword) and got pushed off the puck from behind by Mr. Boychuk, which created a scoring chance for the Hurricanes.

This is one of those plays that gets evaluated based on the result.  If as a result of his hesitation he'd made a nifty pass out of the zone he'd have gotten a pat on the back.  Since he got burned, it looked bad on him, he didn't make a strong play, which in this case would have been a quick wild stab at the puck as soon as he possibly could to sweep it into the corner or bang it off the boards.  Josh Gorges and Hal Gill were great at those.

Another not-strong play by P.K. happened during a four-on-four in the second period when, on the offensive blue line with the puck, he was being pressured by Eric Staal, and instead of flipping the puck in the corner and out of harm's way, where one of his forwards could go retrieve it, he tried to stickhandle and protect the puck, with no one backing him up.  Mr. Staal stole the puck and skated off on a partial break.  Again, no harm done, so no spotlight on this poor decision by P.K., there was no need to try the impossible when his team was already ahead 2-0, and he was in such a precarious position.

Another example of a player failing to make a strong play was Tom Gilbert with the puck behind his net, covered by a Hurricane forward, during the second period.  He'd been given the puck to allow a line change, so he was on his own and in a bit of a bind, and when he bobbled the puck and the Hurricane closed the distance, he gave the puck away and caused a half-minute of panic in his zone.  The easy Don Cherry play would have been to bang it out of his zone off the glass, a strong play, instead of the fancy whatever he was attempting.

The thing is, if a team or a defensive squad does nothing but strong plays all game long, it will in effect be a succession of giveaways, and these will come back to haunt a team as surely as a gaffe in front of one's net.  So the hallowed safe play is almost akin to putting off the inevitable.  Which is why a defenceman is forced to make decisions based on the risk and reward of his options.  A flip pass out his zone to a streaking Tomas Plekanec to potentially send him on a breakaway is low risk-high reward, while a cross-ice pass from his own zone to Dale Weise blanketed by forecheckers is high risk-low reward.

Sven Andrighetto fell off his expected scoring pace by 100%.  Playing with Manny Malhotra and Michaël Bournival for part of the game instead of Tomas and Jiri Sekac may have played a role.  With Lars Eller about to return to action, Sven can't mess around.  We'll be wanting two goals out of him against the Ducks Thursday.

Alex Galchenyuk on the other hand did meet expectations, bagging his first career hat trick, with all three goals featuring a sweet pass from Max Pacioretty.  This is similar to last season when Thomas Vanek played on Max's line, and his role wasn't so clearly defined anymore, he wasn't solely the sniper on the trio, but rather could pass Thomas the puck for good scoring chances.  So that may be a benefit of the switch at centre, Alex is a dangerous sniper too, he and Max can play off each other, at times playing the setup man, at times the triggerman.

Alex's first goal came in the second period, on an odd-man rush created by Andrei Markov, who skated up the middle and dished off to Max to his left, who spotted Alex trailing up the middle and slipped him the puck.  Alex had a wide open net to shoot at, Cam Ward having committed to Max's side.

The Hurricanes made it closer in the third with a goal that trickled in on Carey Price.  Jeff Skinner got the puck over Carey's left shoulder, it rolled down his back and landed on his leg pad, pressed against the post.  Victor Rask came in and poked at the puck, dislodging it so that it ended up in the net.  David Desharnais did what he could to prevent Mr. Rask from doing this, trying to tie up his stick to no avail, and I thought how a Bryan Allen or Douglas Murray or Craig Ludwig would have simply barred his way to Carey, and never allowed this goal to happen.

Carey was otherwise solid, notably stopping Nathan Gerbe on two rushes to the net, when he beat Andrei and then P.K. on the left side and wheeled to the net.  Meanwhile I wasn't so solid, fearing déja vu.

Alex put the game away with two more beauties, and comforted my fretful self, short-term and long-term.  He's going to be a good one.  I don't have buyer's remorse, or long for Nail Yakupov, Ryan Murray or Mikhail Grigorenko.  Or even Filip Forsberg.

Tuesday, 16 December 2014

Charles Hudon, an undervalued fifth-rounder.

So Charles Hudon picked up another goal and assist in his team’s overtime loss against the Amerks Sunday, and is four point clear in the AHL scoring race.

One thing which I’ve been thinking of is how we describe him as a “fifth-rounder”, usually to feel good about our prospects, and to congratulate Trevor Timmins and the rest of the brain trust. But we use the tag as an absolute, as when we deem him to be an Alma native. As if 122nd overall was his place in line, and justly so.  He always was meant to be a fifth-rounder, and always shall be.

So that a fifth-rounder is leading the AHL in scoring in his rookie year seems spectacular. It indicates a player who’s made tremendous strides in his development, a diamond in the rough who was overlooked, whose brilliance wasn’t perceived by other myopic scouts.

The thing is, he was drafted in 2012, the year after the Bruins had swept to a tainted Stanley Cup victory, aided and abetted by NHL refereeing and Daddy Campbell. Every team at that draft was looking for thumpers, for Milan Lucices and Shawn Thorntons, the ‘Boston Model’ was all the rage. Truculence ruled that day.

But, like at every draft, there were disagreement on rankings, on ‘upside’, about this prospect’s value compared to that one. Various scouts argued for their boy. And Serge Boisvert started advocating for Charles Hudon starting in the second round, but didn’t win over Marc Bergevin and/or Trevor Timmins until Dalton Thrower, Tim Bozon, and Brady Vail were drafted.

So maybe we shouldn’t view Charles as a fifth-rounder, but rather as a second-rounder who got caught in the rip tide of idiocy that gripped the league at that time, and which may be petering out. Just last month, Brian Burke and Marc Bergevin spoke at a conference, and Burkie was explaining how before every year they start scouting meetings by going over previous drafts to see where they might have made mistakes. He spoke of how Blackhawk Andrew Shaw, another fifth-rounder, is one player who’s stood out, one who they’d decided was too small.

The thing is, as Burkie cracked, “He doesn’t realize he’s too small.”

Other examples abound.  Dustin Byfuglien was a project, a player with a few great tools like size and strength and a great shot, but was far from a total package. So that the ‘Hawks took a flyer on him in the eighth round makes sense. That’s an appropriate round to take a chance on a longshot to ever make it.

Charles Hudon in comparison was already a frontline player who’d dominate games in junior, the only real knock against him was his size, and whether he’d expire when exposed to the pro game.

Conversely, a player like Keegan Kanzig of the Victoria Cougars was picked in the third round by the Flames strictly for his great size, his zero goal, seven assists season does not justify that high a draft status. In his case, he was an eighth-rounder who was also affected by the NHL zeitgeist, and Burkie’s predilection for brawlers, but for him it played in his favour and moved him up in the draft, as opposed to Charles.

If we really are in the throes of a puck possession era and moving away from intimidation as a tactic and dump and chase hockey, and if the 2012 draft were held in similar conditions, Charles Hudon would never have slipped all the way to the fifth round, but might have been on most teams’ radars by the time the second round rolled around. So maybe we should see Charles as a second-rounder who we bought when his stock was low, as opposed to a true-blue fifth-rounder.

The mumps, hockey players and water bottles.

Regarding the mumps epidemic sweeping the NHL right now, with 14 players stricken officially, including the game's brightest star Sidney Crosby, medical experts explain that a dressing room is a perfect environment to spread this disease.  Beyond the fact that this may be a new strain of the disease the regular MMR vaccine doesn't quite protect you from, and the disheartening fact that many of these players may not have been immunized to begin with, doctors explain that the mode of transmission is through saliva.

Hockey players are forever spitting, on the ice, on the bench, there's spray everywhere.  They use towels, they're always handling their mouthguard, taking it out, putting it back in, and then touching everything with their contaminated fingers.

I wonder if we'll get enough players to fall ill that we'll have a large enough sample size to check if centres will be more likely to be infected.  I would think their close quarters battles during faceoffs might make it easier for the virus to jump from one team to another.  Idle thought.

One of the methods which seems obvious to me is water bottles, how teams will share bottles and drink from the same ones, how that would be an easy way for the virus to hopscotch from one player to another.

I remember a movement a few years ago, when a minor hockey player died from meningitis, and I think it was traced back to sharing water bottles. Anyway, all of a sudden instead of having team bottles, as we did when I was a kid, now every player’s parent was expected to buy his child a bottle and label it with his name clearly, so there would be a much lower risk of contamination.

To give credit where it’s due, Don Cherry did a lot of work on that issue, spent a few minutes on Coach’s Corner encouraging parents to equip their kid appropriately.

Also, at the Rugby World Cup in 2011, the water bottles had these raised plastic pieces guarding the spout so no one could put their mouth on it, you had to squirt, but couldn’t suck. These were meant to dramatically reduce the chance of contamination from one player to another. I thought these would become the way of the future, but I haven’t seen these types of bottles used since then.

Nowadays, especially in football, we see staff on the sidelines running around squirting water or Gatorade at players during breaks. I still don’t have a handle on this, I thought that the main reason was to ensure proper hydration, since during exercise we forget to drink, we don’t feel thirsty, and when we do, it’s too late, we’re low on fluids and can’t replenish fast enough at that point.

Anyway, I wonder if the risk of disease transmission also plays a role, we don’t want players’ spit on the bottles.  Actually, anyone wouldn't want someone else's spit on their water bottle.  Or, that’s what I thought.

On a road trip a couple of summers ago a friend and colleague was sitting in the passenger seat, and I had my water bottle in the holder on the middle arm rest. It’s a Camelback fancy bottle that’s spill-proof, you can use it at your computer, but you do have to suck from a straw through a mouthpiece.

So we’re driving and we’re having a good time, until he reaches and grabs my bottle and takes a big chew on the mouthpiece and a big swig of water. I’m uncomfortable for a second, he caught me off-guard, but then I realize he must have thought it was his own, since he has the same exact model.

“Uh, that’s my bottle,” I stammer out, “did you think it was yours?”

“Nah, I knew it was yours, I didn’t think that was a problem.”

And we were silent for a while, and I couldn’t read the couple in the back, how they’d read the situation. But I didn’t think I was off-base. Regular squirt bottle, have at it, sip of a drink out of my cup, maybe in some specific situations, but not out of this kind of bottle I thought. Right?

Shortly thereafter, I lost that bottle and was forced to purchase a brand new, squeaky clean, untainted bottle.

David Desharnais trying to find a new role after demotion from #1 line.

A new role for David Desharnais, now that he's been taken off the #1 line with Max Pacioretty, and put on a third line with P.A. Parenteau and Michaël Bournival and/or Brandon Prust.

Things change.  David Desharnais played his way off the #1 line, he can play his way back onto it.  It's not immutable.  It may be a little premature to pen his obituary.

The way he is a little bit rueful and introspective shows what a humble, character kid he is.  He's self-effacing, a good teammate, modest, a hard worker who's proven himself at every level, with an extra dollop of production to overcome doubt due to his size.  His light-hearted comments when Max was placed on a line with Alex that it was similar to a breakup with a girlfriend, when at first you think you'll never find anyone else, were clearly a joking allusion to illustrate that it's not that big a deal, that things work out.

But some posters were oh-so ready to twist that into a dark Freudian tangle of jealousy and bitterness, a campaign to reverse the change.  Some specifically stated they hadn't seen the video, but forged on anyway, and spouted more conspiracy theories.

Just as he's popular on RDS and with francophone fans due to his heritage, he's a favourite target on English social media because of it also.  His utility as a player is even more under the microscope because there is a significant segment of fans who will attribute such a player's presence on the roster and icetime solely due to marketing reasons.

Offered by analysts after Mike Cammalleri was traded to Calgary was the fact that he was a bit of a malcontent, always in the coach's office, with one of his demands that grated being that he wanted to play with David, not Tomas or some other centre.  Same with Erik Cole, who had a great season in 2011-12, but cooled off the next season after Gary Bettman's Third Lockout, and apparently resisted any discussion of how he should be used, including on another line.

Thomas Vanek upon his arrival in Montréal stated clearly that he was a left wing and much preferred that to right wing.  Michel Therrien had that discussion with him and accommodated him by putting him on the left with Tomas and Brian Gionta on the right, and gave them a few games to hit their stride.  Then, clearly thinking that time was of the essence, that "on a pas l'temps d'niaiser", he abandoned that experiment and put him on right wing with Max and David, and it took a couple of games, but they took off.  The line only was dismantled when Thomas Vanek's performance grew more muted against the Big Bad Bruins.  After the Habs were eliminated, he was forthright in explaining that he wished he'd been left on that line, that he thought they worked well together, even though that went against his stated preference to play left wing.

There must be some value to playing with David, or else these players wouldn't want to, wouldn't have reacted the way they did.  It seems they impute a greater benefit to it than many of David's doubters.

David is a player who I've compared to a scrappy scrum half in rugby, one who isn't a physical specimen with great wheels, but who always does the right thing with the ball and plays smart, or a wide receiver who doesn't wow you when running a fourty-yard dash, but during the game runs impeccable routes and becomes the quarterback's most trusted target, his go-to guy.  David is not Ryan Getzlaf, he's not the prototypical #1 centre, he is a player with many strengths and a few blind spots.  He's a puck distributor who makes superb, inventive passes, and works hard fearlessly.  We can wish he was tough and stout like Bryan Trottier or more productive like Adam Oates, but he is who he is, a player who if used correctly can be very effective.

As Michel Therrien said, “David knows exactly what we expect from him. He’s having trouble producing, just looking at his goal totals for example. But in the past, he’s always worked very hard to bust out of these slumps and I’m confident that he’ll do so again.”

24 CH, 2014-15 season, Episode 6: Notes

I'm falling behind on these.  This one deals with Guy Lapointe's jersey retirement ceremony.

02:00  We see the elbow/high-stick on Alex Galchenyuk by Brandon Bollig, sending him back to the bench with a fat lip and groaning in pain.  After a couple of minutes, one of the trainers is telling him he needs to leave the bench and go to the quiet room, which Alex spontaneously resists.

"You don't have a choice, you got hit in the face."

"Yeah, but it's only my lip," Alex protests.

"Just go and come back," Manny Malhotra cuts in, and Alex gets up and walks off.  Good leadership by Manny being demonstrated, again.

What we did see though is how refs are loath to 'inject themselves in the game', how they want to allow the players to decide the outcome of the game, how they 'let them play'.  In this case, by not intervening in the proceedings, they allowed a plug like Brandon Bollig to definitely have an effect on the game, by removing a talented young player from the play, and it was fortunate it was only to miss a few shifts, and then be 'off' for the rest of the game due to the pain and stitches.

05:15  Carey's superman-type save of a carom that was headed in the net, but he knocked out of the air and over his net.  Such an unorthodox save, I don't know that it'll make it in any year-end lists, but seeing that one during the game, I had to rewind on the PVR a few times to understand what happened, and appreciate it.  The boys on the bench sure do.

08:00  We see a small glimpse of Stéphane Waite's work with his goalies, in this case Dustin Tokarski preparing to start against the Sabres in Buffalo.  They work on some specific situations with shooters, talk about specifics with regard to mental prep before the game.

I don't understand goalies.

08:40  An Yvon Lambert sighting, he's solidifying his reputation as a bon vivant, acting as MC for a game night at a Montréal brasserie.  We sure could use one of him right now, to tack onto the David Desharnais line with P.A. Parenteau, for example, a big guy who can occupy opposing defencemen in front of their net, and deflect a few pucks.  Yvon was really good to have on the team in the seventies, with Mario Tremblay and Doug Risebrough they were quite a good line.

09:55  Michaël Bournival's shoulder injury.  What a difference a year makes.  Last season he started as if shot out of a cannon, scoring big goals and being a factor throughout exhibition season and early on, earning a spot with le Grand Club.  This year, circumstances have conspired against him.

10:15  Max Pacioretty getting the boys up between periods, laying it on thick.  First he targets Brandon Prust.

"Go north.  They can't contain you.  You think Georgy's going to contain you?", referring to Josh, before turning his witty banter to Lars Eller.

"Your skin's too sensitive," he tells the Great Dane, "you can't go south."  Classic.

11:45  P.A. Parenteau scores in the shootout to seal the win, as Dale Weise, who was miked up, predicted earlier on the bench.  P.A. has picked up a nickname, they call him Master P.  Not bad.  Could be worse.

Tomas Plekanec inherits the boxer cape from Carey.

12:40  We see preparations at the New Forum for Guy Lapointe's jersey retirement ceremony.  During this segment, there's talk of how well the Canadiens pull these off, and some mentions of Jean Béliveau, some eerie foreshadowing there.

Guy Lapointe tells the story of how he was invited from the Junior Canadiens to attend the Canadiens camp, and he had made up his mind not to attend, since he thought he was just being asked to fill out one of the four teams they make up at camp for scrimmaging, that he was just going to be a body for the real team to sharpen their skills against.  In his mind, his career was going to be as a policeman, and he didn't want to 'waste' his time going to camp.  It's only due to his father telling him to take advantage of this invite, that these don't come around again, and that at the very least he'll be able to say years later that he skated with Jean Béliveau, that he decided to attend.

It's shocking to me that an eventual Hall of Famer, a player good enough to be on the powerhouse Canadiens Junior, didn't think he seriously had a shot to make the Habs.  That his career hinged on this, that we almost never got to see him play makes me wonder how many other players fell off the treadmill, never to be heard from again, accidents of history.

I imagine also how great the Police de Montréal hockey team would have been with Guy on their blue line, they'd have been unbeatable.

15:10  Media briefing on the day of the ceremony, with Serge Savard and Larry Robinson flanking him.  Then, Michel Therrien meets Guy Lapointe and congratulates him, there's a great camera shot again with the Big Three re-united.  Michel Therrien is asked by someone if he'll put them in the lineup that night.

I miss those guys.

Guy, ever the prankster, creates a mini-crisis when he dons the jersey he'll wear for the ceremony, and struggles to get his arm in, complaining to everyone that it's too small.  After a few seconds of this he cracks a smile and pulls it on smoothly, ceasing his O.J.'esque 'It doesn't fit' shtick.  Amusing to see that his wife and daughter, who've known him all this time, still fell for it, and now cluck their disapproval at his attempt at comedy.

Larry being interviewed in an aside says that Guy is using humour to decrease the tension, but that he's underneath a very emotional guy, and that he probably doesn't understand what a big deal it's going to be going through the ceremony.

16:50  Still think it's a great idea to involve Andrei and P.K. in the ceremony, have them bring the #5 banner to Guy.  Great way to plant that seed.

18:50  Jean-Jacques Daigneault to Nathan Beaulieu on the bench:  "Are you all right Nate?  What are you pissed off about?  No shot?  Yeah, all right.  Just relax," and then taps him on the shoulder.

Jean-Jacques Daigneault to Nathan Beaulieu and P.K. on the bench: "Time and space on the puck carrier, time and space."

"I was going to," P.K. replies, "but I thought it was an odd-man rush, that's why."

P.K. is definitely not a 'Sir, yes sir!' guy, he needs to get his two-cents in, needs to be heard.  For some old-school coaches that will rub them the wrong way, definitely.

This is one of those areas where I hope P.K. can develop the self-confidence to just accept the coach's patter, nod, and let it go, instead of having to discuss and explain his side of the story to everyone, the coaches, the refs, the media, etc.  Like I've said before, I'm sure there's a background there, there are reasons he wants to explain his viewpoint, but it's a waste of his energy, his focus.  Not everything he's told needs to be discussed or refuted.

19:40  Thomas Vanek's assist on his crazy no-look pass that he's patented, like a quarterback looking off a safety before throwing a pass.  No look is actually not quite the right description, it's a 'see the pass and the passing lane, then look away in another direction to fool the defender before making that pass' pass.

20:00  A couple of cool goals against Minny, one where Brandon goes face first into the post, but the refs clearly see that he's being pushed and goalie interference isn't called.  Then it's David Desharnais one-upping Thomas Vanek with his no-look behind the back drop pass to Master P to Max for the clinching goal that makes it 4-1.

20:30  Another look at the Nathan Beaulieu KO of Stéphane Veilleux.  Again, it's clear that Mr. Veilleux was approaching Nate, who was trying to back off, but doesn't hesitate to start the fight when he realizes that it's on.

Later in the dressing room, he explains to a trainer that he "missed him", that he punched him in the neck rather than the head.  That explains why Mr. Veilleux dropped like he did, getting hit in the right area in the neck is essentially the same as being subjected to a Lateral Neck Restraint, the mis-named 'choke hold'.

For his trouble, Nate receives the boxer cape from Pleky.

Saturday, 13 December 2014

Game 31: Canadiens 6, Kings 2

"Canadiens Express" thoughts on the Canadiens' 6-2 loss to the Kings.  Uh, I mean win.  This result was unexpected, really went against script, for a few reasons, not the least of which is our inferiority complex against big teams, or Stanley Cup winning teams, or Western Conference teams, or...

-You'd have thought that the Kings were the fresh team and the Canadiens were the ones with the dead legs and had played and traveled the previous night.  Shots: 46-20 for the Kings.

-The Canadiens Express didn't give you a real sense of the flow of the game, they have to snip out some minutes here and there.  Tonight, they chose some sequences when the Canadiens were bottled up in their zone for a while and probably had to ice the puck.  There'd be the flash-forward effect, a couple of minutes or so would disappear off the clock, and Pierre Houde would comment on how the five players on the ice were exhausted as they lined up for a faceoff.  

So watching the game, with all the scoring and all the Canadiens highlights, I didn't get that the Kings were that dominant.  

Thank you Gary Bettman.

-Why did the Canadiens win?  Opportunistic offence, sure.  More saliently, Carey Price kept the Canadiens in it and finished with a .957 save percentage.  L.A. King goalie Martin Jones?  .700.  Yikes.

-We often say that a goalie can't be blamed for this or that goal, but over a long season, these things average out.  Eventually, a goalie has to make difficult saves.  There were a few occasions where Carey was borderline miraculous, got a huge gasp and cheer out of the New Forum crowd.  They chanted his name a few times.

-Conversely, it's hard to point the finger on any one goal on Martin Jones.  Well, this one was on a powerplay, and so was this one, and this one ticked off a stick, this one was one a 2-on-1, this one Jiri was alone in front point blank, ...  Eventually, a goalie has to make saves.

-I'll speak for the detractors and castigate Michel "Clueless" Therrien, who really needs to start heeding the peanut gallery, to heed our advice.  He couldn't resist his line-shuffling impulses tonight, mixing in Brandon Prust with David Desharnais and P.A. Parenteau.  What possible benefit can be derived from using a trusted, beloved, responsible, heart and soul veteran player on the third rather than the fourth line?  He never gave our 'Fringe Line' a chance to get off the ground.

-That David and P.A. responded with two points each is really beside the point I'm making.  It's actually inconvenient when your mention it, quite frankly.

-David got the monkey off his back by scoring his first 5-on-5 goal in half a season.  It came on a 2-on-1 with Pierre-Alexandre giving him a beautiful feed he could one-time into the net, that built the cushion back up to three goals after the Kings, who were trailing 3-0 at the start of the third, had scored to make it a little closer.  

Let's hope that the change benefits David, that it forces him to play a little bit differently, and not just look for Max or Thomas Vanek or Erik Cole for his seeing-eye passes.  Your shot isn't very hard Davey, but it's quick, accurate, you can surprise goalies when you're darting around in the slot.  Especially when opponents by now all expect you to pass.  Unleash that slingshot of yours.  It was enough to slay that 6'4" goliath in the L.A. net.

-Let's give P.K. a mumps scare four or five times a year, or maybe just on an 'as needed' dosage.  After being away for a day for flu-like symptoms, he got a goal and an assist tonight.  Heck, do that every night P.K., and we won't lose many games, and I'll allow you a couple of penalty minutes per.  He played just under 25 minutes, at +2, on top of his powerplay assist.  

-Sven Andrighetto muddied the waters further by scoring another goal, his second, and his third point in three career NHL games.  Hey kid, can you quit it with that, how we ever gonna send you down if you keep doin' that?

I'll stick up for my boy Davey here.  On that sequence, Manny Malhotra had gone to the bench for a change after he, Michaël Bournival and Sven had forechecked the Kings for a while in their zone.  David had hopped onto the ice and coming up behind the defencemen he probably let them know he was there, so Alexei Emelin could make the decision to stay on the blue line instead of falling back, and he broke up a zone exit by the Kings with a pokecheck.  

Michaël gathered in the loose puck, made a sweet pass to Sven who buried it on a one-timer.  But it all started with David providing cover for his defenceman, who could be aggressive on the opposing blue line.  

-Michaël Bournival must have let out a sigh of relief.  He's back in the lineup playing, had a great assist, it must feel great for him after a difficult start to the season for various reasons.

-Same with Manny Malhotra.  He finally racks up a point, his first in a Canadiens uniform.  When a guy can expect if everything falls into place to score 15-20 points, if he doesn't get the bounces, the dry spell will seem enormous, compared to a Phil Kessel or Max Pacioretty, who can't be denied more than a handful of games at a time.

On this assist, he got the puck in the zone by giving it Dale Weise, then headed for the net.  P.K.'s shot beat Martin Jones cleanly, but Manny did all the right things, and got rewarded with a bit of puck luck, finally.

-Obvious point coming up: it's easier to win games when you have scorers in your lineup, who can snipe goals.  Hear me out.  A month ago we were giving René Bourque and Travis Moen every opportunity as veterans, and Jiri was in the pressbox, and Sven was in Hamilton.  So you can't make a direct subtraction, it's not that direct a transaction, but I'm going to go ahead and do it anyway: without these two kids in the lineup, three of those goals don't happen.  

They won't score three every game, they'll cool off, they'll make defensive mistakes, but that's the bed we're in right now.  And it's a bit of a refreshing change.  Especially since Erik Cole and Mike Cammalleri left, we've bemoaned the lack of scoring ability on our team, and our farm system as well.  If we have guys who can skate, ingest the coaches' system and be positionally sound, and can be dangerous, productive at the other end, I'll take the loss of thumpitude we endured with the loss of Travis and René.

-Maybe that's an aspect that ended up on the cutting-room floor at "Canadiens Express" studio, but the Kings, for all their ballyhooed size and toughness and reputation for wearing down other teams, they played it straight.  We didn't see much cross-checking or slashing or facewashing and headlocky defencemen when Brendan Gallagher was nearby after a whistle.  

Same situation when we played the Blues a while back, for all their size and grit, no spearings or mayhem, just straight ahead hockey, with bodychecking and puck battles.

So the Bruins, it's not so much that they're big and tough, it's just that they cheat, they intimidate as a tactic, and the refs let them get away with it, bashful to incur the attention of Don Cherry.  

Same goes for the Leafs and the Senators, they've been sucked down that drain into the cesspool as well.  

-That slapper from Drew Doughty from the faceoff dot?  Whew!  Carey was cannon fodder on that one.  I'm glad it got by him, it might have broken his hand or clavicle or brain pan if it hadn't missed him.  That was such a free shot, it reminded me of James Gandolfini on Patricia Arquette in "True Romance".

-Aside from shots, the numbers looked better for the Habs.  2/3 on the powerplay, but they shut out the Kings in five attempts.  They blocked 32 shots, and won 40 of 63 faceoffs.

-Mario Tremblay was so enamoured of Jiri Sekac's performance, I thought he was going to say he's 7'4" and 540 lbs, and start calling him Jiri the Giant.

-The RDS boys have been preaching patiency with Jiri, that while he's rolling along we shouldn't put too much pressure, load too much responsibility on his shoulders despite a good start to the season.  They'll explain that players new to the NHL start to fade later into the season, so we shouldn't kill our golden goose so early, let him ease into the pressure cooker.  But the more he plays like this, the harder it will be to resist the temptation.

-Now we get three days off and an easy two-pointer on Tuesday against the 'Canes.  Right?

Friday, 12 December 2014

Manny Malhotra's null point production so far needs to be taken in context.

Canadiens fans are renowned for being hard to please.  We're now turning our focus to Manny Malhotra’s point production, or lack thereof, now that Alex Galchenyuk at centre or not, and David Desharnais as the #1 centre have been robbed from us as issues.

There’s a very healthy middle ground here. Manny is much more effective as the fourth-line centre than Ryan White or Daniel Brière could have been to fulfill this strict job description. He brought skating and size to the roster, functional size, not George Parros size that sits on the bench. He plays a large role in the team dynamics as a veteran with good communication skills. And of course, the effect he’s had on the faceoff prowess of our team is tangible, significant.

And yes, he shouldn’t be expected to bring in thirty points, not with his recent production. Not with his two most recent full seasons’ tallies being 18 points in 2011-12, and 13 last season.

But on the other hand, a total of zero points to this stage of the season is hard to ignore. It’s a part of his game that he needs to improve on. Maybe he’s in a comfort zone right now, one in which he cheats, but in the unusual way that he cheats towards the defensive side, an anti-Pierre Larouche, or Bizarro-world Nail Yakupov.

In her biography of Pat Burns, Rosie DiManno described how Pat Burns clashed with Guy Carbonneau, challenging him to give him the same level of play defensively, but to not satisfy himself with just that, telling him he needed some offence on top of that. There were bruised egos and ruffled feathers, but Guy responded with his best season in 1988-89 with a 26 goal, 56 point tally.

So maybe Manny can focus a little more on his offence, provide a little more pressure in the offensive zone instead of bailing out too soon, in a single-minded concern for preventing goals. Maybe he can easily tilt the balance a touch and provide some chances for his wingers, without taking away from his defensive priorities.

Thursday, 11 December 2014

Jean Béliveau nights: all fans to wear suits and evening dresses at the New Forum

Just as an aside, the practice of wearing a team jersey to games is a relatively recent phenomenon. In the seventies and earlier, very few fans, perhaps an oddball or two, would wear a Canadiens jersey to a game.

In fact, one of the marks of distinction of the Canadiens franchise was that the fans would get dressed up for the games, much the same way that some of my Western lout friends marvel at how people dress up to go out to the club in Montréal. Anyway, you’d see men in their finest suits and women in their evening dresses, with opera glasses, on a Saturday night. There’s untold “La Soirée du Hockey” and NFB footage of this.

And that’s a tradition that should be revived. Since I know Geoff Molson reads HIO and my posts assiduously, I’ll prevail upon him to declare one or two Saturday games next season as games where everyone should wear their best formalwear to the game. Make it a buzzworthy event, something women will love to attend, team up with menswear stores and rental places to get synergies. Offer discounts or gifts for those fans who participate.

This should probably be held for games against Original Six teams, add even more cachet to a Blackhawk or a Red Wing game.

Or, we could be strategic. These evenings should occur when we play the Bruins and the Leafs, such that these games become a hot ticket not so much because you can scalp it to a bozo from Scarborough, but because it’s the ‘it’ thing to do, one of the great events of the winter. Your wife or girlfriend would assassinate you with her stare if you told her you were planning to sell your tickets and not take her to the game. It might decrease the number of enemy fans in our own barn by half or more.

Wednesday, 10 December 2014

Penalty minutes are not a boon to a team.

Adam Gretz has a great article debunking the myth that players with high penalty totals are tough players, and benefit their team thus.  

One of the most maddening elements of hockey analysis over the years has been the, at times, glorification of penalty minutes, from its inclusion as a key figure in fantasy hockey, to the way penalty minute leaders are often held up as a standard of toughness and “gritty” play.
Last season, an opponent in a fantasy hockey league got a huge boost when his player Milan Lucic had a night that should be standard for him but which rarely happens, since the refs seem to give him a wide berth, for some reason. On that night, he got a two, a five and two tens, something crazy like that, and the fantasy team owner got something like five or six points out of it. I went to the highlights and found that it wasn’t like Milan did a great job of righting a wrong or sparking his teammates, he just did something stupid and mouthed off to the refs and it degenerated from there.

I can’t remember the situation but I assume the ref got his walking papers from Daddy Campbell last summer. In any case, the Bruins forward didn’t get his penalties from his bruising, intimidating style, but rather from throwing a tantrum, and somehow the fantasy league team made points off that. Madness.

The penalty differential described in the linked article is a useful way to look at this. To go one step further, we should differentiate the lazy or dumb penalties, the hooking and tripping and other such administration of the game calls, from the type of penalties a player who brings toughness would sensibly be expected to take. So a Steve Downie would be excused if he got elbowing, crosschecking or boarding penalties, but not so if he got a holding the stick call, or misconduct calls from unsportsmanlike behaviour.

That might be a useful stat, if we do indeed accept the postulate that these players bring an intangible benefit to their team by playing a physical style.

Stéphane Robidas decks Shawn Matthias, skates away from supplemental discipline. So it goes...

Marc Crawford is on the phone with Bro Jake and Dave Pratt of TSN 1040 Vancouver, defending Stéphane Robidas’ hit on Shawn Matthias, saying that he played for him for two years and he’s “not that kind of player”.

This headshot and concussion crisis is never going to change until the mindset changes. I’m sick of hearing that the never ending parade of player committing dirty deeds are really just good boys at heart, that I’d love Chris Neil if he played for my team.

It’s so, so frigging simple. If a player hits another player in the head, or knee on knee, it’s automatically a penalty. Period. No muddling through the player’s intentions when he tried to crush his opponent. If he misses and hits him in the face or neck or head, it’s a penalty with automatic, severe consequences for him and his team.

The NFL has a much better handle on this. You can’t rough the kicker, period. If you hit the punter when he’s in the act of punting, it’s a penalty, automatically, unless you actually get your hand on the ball and block the punt. Cut and dried.  No exegesis of the defender's intentions before he snaps the punter’s patellar tendon.

Same with roughing the passer penalties. If you hit the QB when he has the ball, fill your boots, hit him hard, as long as you don’t piledrive him or hit him in the head or dive at his knees. If you’re a half-step too late, ease off, hold on to the quarterback and make sure you don’t deck him if your momentum actually carries you into him, or it’ll be fifteen yards against your team, and your coach won’t be too happy when you get to the sidelines.

Critics argued that the game was too fast and players wouldn’t be able to avoid contact, but the penalties have had their effect, and defenses have adjusted. It hasn’t ruined or pansified the game, everyone is actually getting richer. The sport is better if Aaron Rodgers and Andrew Luck are actually playing on Sundays rather than on IR. And the line, while still debatable on some calls, has been moved significantly in the direction of greater player safety, and of letting spectators enjoy a great sport that allows the stars to wow us.

The NHL, and the abysmal Colin Campbell, could easily move the bar, set the standard like the NFL did, and impose a strict liability on a player about to bodycheck another that if you get out of position and you ‘miss’ or are about to miss your bodycheck, you have to let your opponent go, rather than extending an arm or elbow, reaching out to make contact, sticking out your knee to not let him by you. It’s on you to make the check legally, or let your opponent go.

But that would be common sense. It would go against the circuits hard-wired in the calcified brain of an old no-talent thumper like Colin Campbell who thinks that the game will shrivel up and die if his idiot son isn’t allowed to “finish his checks” and “play with an edge”, that grinders have to be given a chance or else the skill guys will take over, and who knows where that might lead.

Tuesday, 9 December 2014

After weeks of denying expansion rumours, Gary Bettman fuels them, denies them some more.

Hearing Gary Bettman speak is so revolting, an insult to everyone's intelligence.  He's trying to get everyone to not read too much in the fact that he's 'not objecting' to a billionaire holding a season-ticket drive in Las Vegas.  To me, I'm reading quite a bit into it.  They've selected a robber baron to join their monopoly, and the location they'll use to pluck taxpayers of their public funds from.

Wasn't it just a couple of weeks ago that he was eye-rolling and condescending to the media scrum he was facing that the league hadn't even considered expansion, they just weren't there yet, they hadn't even taken the mental journey to evaluate this, so he couldn't discuss it with the scribes if they'd undertaken that fanciful, unrealistic trip themselves?  Wasn't he supercilious and not only evasive, but outright mendacious in his responses?

There might be very good reason for Gary Bettman to not want to discuss these matters openly, but he's supposed to the be the Commissioner of the League, and he acts like a cheap shill instead, completely the opposite of Jean Béliveau, whose word meant something and treated people with respect.

He could choose to remain above the fray and withhold comments, like when Marc Bergevin says he's always looking to improve his team, but he won't discuss rumours or specifics before he announces anything, since it's harmful to the process and disrespectful to the players.  Instead, he wades into the mire with glee, lecturing everyone out of one side of his mouth while in his actions he clearly is doing the very opposite, and spatters anyone within range with his filth.

Saturday, 6 December 2014

Game 28: Canadiens 3, Blackhawks 4

Dave Wannstedt, who's a dead ringer for Dennis Farina, and who was the head coach at the University of Pittsburgh and of the Miami Dolphins and Chicago Bears in the NFL among other stints, was introducing the PAC 12 Championship game between the Oregon Ducks and the Arizona Wildcats.  He talked about how both coaches had lots of freshmen and young players on their roster, and needed to approach the game in a positive, encouraging way, and set the right temper.

"In a game like this," he said, "as a coach, you're scared to death because you want your players fired up, you want your young kids playing reckless, you're talking about that all week.  But in the back of your mind, you're saying 'We don't need to force any big plays, just don't make the mistakes.'  That's what you're thinking, but you don't want to negative-coach.  So there's a fine line of a freshman going out there playing reckless, making plays, or making mistakes."

I thought of this analysis as I watched the football game and waited for RDS' Canadiens Express condensed broadcast of the game, since I was blacked out of the real-time version.  

Thank you Gary Bettman.

We've spent a lot of time angsting over the relegation of Jarred Tinordi and Nathan Beaulieu to Hamilton to make room for Sergei Gonchar and Bryan Allen, and earlier this season on Jiri Sekac being sat in favour of Travis Moen among others.  We try to balance the benefit of players apprenticing in a lower level, paying their dues, getting up to speed, versus being exposed to the speed of the NHL and learning on the fly.  So what Coach Wannstedt spoke of resonated with this Habs fan.

Of course, football and hockey are different in how players approach the game.  Certainly on defence and on coverage teams, you want football players to play with recklessness, with abandon, or at least controlled aggression.  Hockey requires a more cerebral approach.  By necessity, you need to pace yourself a little bit, you can't go all out for five seconds and then catch your breath for thirty. 

But it's easy to imagine Coach Therrien having the same inner battle when coaching his players, about wanting to foster their passion and creativity, but also wanting them to be positionally sound, and maybe wondering if one doesn't necessarily detract from the other.  

Lars Eller's injury, which seems relatively serious, and should require him to miss a few games, could crystallize this discussion.  There not necessarily being a centre in Hamilton who can step up and replace Lars as the third-line centre, even on a short-term basis, and Manny Malhotra being ill-suited for anything other than fourth-line duty, we may have to shift Alex Galchenyuk to centre for a few games, and live with the mistakes, and the games where he's just confused and overmatched and dominated.

And it does seem things will go that way, with the announcement that it's Sven Andrighetto who got called up from Hamilton, not centres Charles Hudon, Gabriel Dumont or Jacob de la Rose.

As far as the game goes, the fishtail ending was unfortunate, but this was certainly a better showing than the game in Minnesota.  End to end action, exciting play with lots of organized breakouts, scoring chances, pucks hitting posts, it's just too bad we came out of it with a 4-3 loss, when we were within a minute of sending it to overtime, and when we'd come so close to putting the game away ourselves.

Alexei Emelin and Tom Gilbert have received some deserved criticism lately, but they had some flareups tonight when they showed what they can do, why we can and should expect more.  Tom Gilbert had a couple of sequences in the third where he almost helped put the 'Hawks away.  Alexei earned an assist on Sergei Gonchar's goal, one that was fully deserved since he got the puck in the zone despite being slashed from behind.  We often talk about being strong on the puck, making strong plays, well Alexei's sequence could be the video exemplar of that.

Lots was expected of Andrei and P.K. tonight, having to go up against the dangerous Chicago forwards, and they mostly delivered.  P.K. seems out of his funk, and now has reverted to the incarnation from the playoffs last spring.  Just checking his numbers, he had 6 shots and 5 hits in 25 minutes of play, and scored a powerplay goal.  He just needs to do that 82 times a season, and shift into a higher gear in the playoffs, to earn his $9M.

Andrei had the unfortunate bounce of the puck off his backhand right to Brandon Saad for the game-deciding goal, and that was unfortunate, a little hard to overlook, but it's also true that he had that pokecheck off Jonathan Toews on the rush.  Andrei gets a warehouse full of mulligans from me.

But why is Dan Carcillo not in jail?  What possible justification can he have for his two-handed pile-driving of Alex Galchenyuk's face into the ice, a minute or so after the play was whistled dead?  And more saliently, why did the refs even listen to that maggot, instead of immediately sending him to the penalty box?  When they had grounds to assess five or six different penalties?  That's the NHL for you, killing hockey for decades now, for your enjoyment.

Well, it's "on to Dallas", as Bill Belichick would say, where a win will still salvage a .500 record for this roadie, which isn't half bad.

Tuesday, 2 December 2014

Game 26: Canadiens 4, Avalanche 3

Thoughts on the Canadiens win against the Avalanche, after gleaning the gist of how it went, this due to being reduced to watch in on RDS' "Canadiens Express."  I have to say I'm feeling very well served as a hockey fan by the new Sportsnet-TVA deal.

Thank you Gary Bettman.

-Idle thought that upwelled in my mind during Saturday's loss to the Sabres: Are the Canadiens the worst in the league at committing offsides when entering the offensive zone?  Is that statistic kept, somewhere we can look it up?  Do the coaches notice that, and coach the players on this subject?  As in, you have the puck, cross the blue line no matter what before you start dipsy-doodling, or else?  Can they make this a point of emphasis?

On 24CH a few weeks back, Dan Lacroix was trying to fire up the guys, and gave them the mission to reach fourty shots before the end of the period.  The Canadiens were trailing at the time, but he didn't focus on that, he focused on the process.  "Fire pucks at the net!  Let's get two more, get to fourty!" he told the boys, not "Even up the score!", which is tenuous direction.

Maybe one game, it could be "Headman the puck, or bang it in off the boards, every time."  No stickhandling.  No going East-West when a defenceman closes the gap, for cripes' sake.  

-I won't go into how all these offsides are tedious and officious, they do nothing for the flow of the game and for the spectators.  Hockey would do well to look at how rugby handles offsides.  Instead, it's similar to how NFL football stringently enforces illegal procedure penalties.  Sure, you don't want the offence to have an advantage over the defence, but so many of them are for technicalities like not covering up the tackle or twelve men in the huddle.  No Fun League indeed.

Good thing I won't go into it.

-But sure enough, the first goal was scored when Brandon Prust carried the puck into the neutral zone on a three-on-two, but had Jiri Sekac ahead of him.  He fed him the puck, and deprived the linesmen of an opportunity to whistle the play dead and wow us with their subsequent kabuki at a never-boring faceoff.

-Another good thing on that goal, once Jiri Sekac had the puck, both Brandon Prust and Lars Eller went directly to the net.  It didn't directly result in the goal, I think Jiri beat him clean, but maybe they gave the Avalanche goalie something else to think about, maybe he couldn't go and challenge the shooter freely.  And, we had two big guys in front of the net ready to bat in a rebound if it came to that.  Nice work.

-This line had gone a bit cold over the last few games, after a torrid start post-René Bourque.  As I posted during the playoffs last season, when René and Lars were scoring, and Alex Galchenyuk found his stride, we suddenly had three lines that were clicking, and a formidable lineup.  Lately, not so much.  

If the Canadiens can get back on the winning track, it will probably have to come from the other lines taking pressure away from the Desharnais line.

-The Ironic Department of Irony brought us Daniel Brière's goal against his former team, ironic in the same sense that the cat burglar Malloy was caught by Homer Simpson, the very same person that was trying to catch him.  

-On that play, Lars Eller was caught trying to poke at the puck with his stick and missed, he was already turning up-ice, leaving Danny a clear path to the net.  Lars missed a great opportunity to bury his shoulder in Danny's xyphoid process and essentially take him out for the rest of the game, but I guess that's not the type of player he is, and not the way we coach.  A Shawn Thornton or a Ryan Smyth would have slavered at being given the same opportunity, but our boys look for the quick break out, they're not out to thump and outhit other teams.

To flip it around, other teams know this too, and may be a little more confident when playing against the Habs.  Daniel Brière's head would have been on a swivel against the Bruins or Kings with the puck at his feet, he might have backhanded it behind the net at the first opportunity, 'cycled' it.  Against the Canadiens, he doesn't need to play 'du bout de la palette', as Mario Tremblay would say, he can take a few more chances, hold on to the puck a little longer, keep his head down to find the puck.  

-I know this stat is unreliable, but the Avs were credited with nine hits in the first period, the Canadiens three.  See?...

-Early in the second, we see a good illustration of the maxim that there is no defence against perfect execution.  Alex Tanguay makes a perfect pass from behind the net to Ryan O'Reilly in the crease, who puts the puck in a small opening above Carey Price's shoulder.  Pierre Houde seems to think that Alex Galchenyuk was caught out on this play, but short of tackling someone, I don't see how you stop that play.

-Same principle applies to the Canadiens powerplay goal to tie it up at 2-2.  Alex Galchenyuk from behind the net makes a perfect elevated pass to Andrei Markov who's sneaking in back door, and immediately shoots the puck in the deserted net, with goalie Calvin Pickard still hugging the other post.

-Imaginative use of personnel on this man-advantage, the coaches had Lars and Max with David Desharnais up front, and P.A. Parenteau on the point with P.K.  I fear poor Bob Cole having to call the play for this combo.  In any case, the puck moved well, the players roamed around, and that's two big guys up front who can shield the goalie.

-I've been hard on P.K. Subban and Nathan Beaulieu in the past for making a singularly dumb play, and breaking one of the Commandments for defencemen, which is that you don't pass through the middle when in your zone.  Sure enough, Andrei did that tonight, but it didn't end up in our net this time.  He had a clear lane to pass to Jiri Sekac who was open along the left side boards, but instead he tried to sneak a pass behind two Avs, to go counter to their flow as it were.  It was a risky move, the danger being that the pass might be intercepted.  Sure enough, he flubbed his pass, and Daniel Brière pounced on it.

A few seconds of scrambling later, the crisis was averted, but it's a surprising mistake from a vet, an error of execution, yes, but more grave, a mental error, a move which he knew he shouldn't do but still went ahead and did anyway.  There's no risk he'll land in Hamilton for it, he's earned our indulgence, but it was startling to see it happen, and not from Bryan Allen or Gaston Gingras, but our most trusted and smartest defenceman.

-Mike Weaver earned some quality bench time for being indirectly responsible for the third Avalanche goal.  He pinched deep into the offensive zone but the puck skittered by him on the boards, and suddenly they were off on a four-on-one.  Tom Gilbert did the dead-man-sprawl and defended it well, but a backchecking Brandon Prust also slid in extremis, and once Tyson Barrie threw he puck at the net it went in off Prusty.

Have I ever told how much I hate the slide?  It's anti-hockey, no skill needed.  I can make that play, anyone can lie on the ice.  

When I'm NHL Commissioner, that's one of my first decrees, no sliding to block shots or defend odd-man rushes.  Stay on your feet boys, use your stick.  Or go to the box and feel shame.

-P.K. Subban tied it at three on a blast from the blue line.  The Avalanche's Maxime Talbot had broken his stick on the faceoff, and les boys controlled the puck and took advantage.

P.K. played an excellent game.  He skated hard, was creative without taking gasp-provoking chances.  When he makes his tight turns and protects the puck, and uses his moves to can-opener a team's defence, it's like an aardvark busting open an anthill, with opponents flailing around in panic.

-We see the pressure on David Desharnais to score more, to shoot more.  On a couple of occasions he took an extra second to shoot instead of passing, and nothing came of it.  Justin Bourne wrote about this, how a player's game should be instinctive, and when they start to try to do something different, it can sometimes hurt their game, not improve it.

-David made up for it with an assist on Max's go-ahead goal.  It was noteworthy that Max scored on a two-on-one with Dale Weise, using him as a decoy and taking a great snipe.  David had the same situation thirty seconds earlier, but he tried to toe-drag to the front of the net to improve his angle and got stick-checked.

-I like the way Michel Therrien and Dan Lacroix have been sprinkling Dale Weise on various lines for effect, it's like a shot of adrenaline for whoever gets him for a shift.  In keeping with Michel Bergeron's principle that you have to reward your heart-and-soul types, not bury them on a fourth line, and especially since I've started to note what an offensive black hole his centreman Manny Malhotra is, it's not a bad practice to give him some shifts like that on Tomas' or David's line, to mix things up, and keep everyone on their toes.

-Tyson Barrie, a player I shrewdly acquired for my fantasy team when the computer auto-drafted him for me, was a whirling dervish in the last couple of minutes.  Off the faceoff, he carried the puck to the net, wheeled behind and passed in front, creating a great scoring chance for the Avalanche.  Later on the same sequence, he drew Pierre Houde's admiration for a poke-check at the blue line that prevented the Canadiens from breaking out cleanly.  As it was, Eric Tangradi ended up with the puck in the neutral zone, but his long-range wrister missed the net.  

Later, he twice prevented Max Pacioretty from scoring again and putting the game away, once by playing goalie behind Calvin Pickard, who had gone in for a neutral zone faceoff, and once by playing goalie, without a stick, and deflecting away Max's shot at the yawning cage.

-I'll ask the question again: are the Canadiens the worst team in the league at scoring into an empty net?  Is there a stat for that?

-Excellent game overall, as these Avalanche tilts have been lately, with lots of skating and end-to-end action, but no goonery or mindless antics after the whistles.  Lots of scoring chances, posts hit, lots of chances to ooh and aah for the crowd.  I'd watch games against the Avalanche rather than the Leafs or Senators any day.

-Lars Eller should play like this every game.  Strong on the puck, decisive, shooting at the net rather than trying to dangle through the entire team.  He got credited with six shots, but RDS noted that he had six in the second alone, so he must have had at least double that in attempts, with a few being deflected or blocked.