Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Not to burst anyone's bubble but...

... the Canadiens start to the the season is a bit of a mirage.

Don't get me wrong, a 5-0-1 start is a good thing, no a great thing, but there needs to be a dose of perspective thrown in.

First of all, let's look at who the Habs have played thus far. Their five wins have come against teams that have a combined record of 7-12-6 going into Tuesday night's games, while their only loss - albeit in a shootout - came against the one team on the schedule that's actually playing well, the Buffalo Sabres.

Among those five wins, I can count three where the Canadiens really deserved to lose based on their level of effort and execution. In Philadelphia, the Habs played very poorly for the first two periods but managed to wake up in time for the third and pull a victory from the jaws of defeat.

Against the Bruins in the home opener, the Canadiens had full control of the game with a 3-0 lead after the first, but then took their foot off the gas and allowed Boston to tie the game before winning in a shootout, giving up a free point to a division rival.

Finally, Monday night the Habs were bailed out by Jaroslav Halak on a night when most of the players wearing white played as if they were looking forward to their four-day break this week.

Now I know what most people will say, that the Canadiens have dealt with injuries but still won those games and that good teams find a way to win even when they're not playing their best. I'm fully on board on that one, but those wins are only supposed to happen every once in a while, perhaps when the team comes home after a long road trip or is playing a particularly taxing part of its schedule.

But the Habs have now had three of those wins in their last four games, and it must be a cause for concern for Guy Carbonneau.

The Canadiens are 23rd in the league in shots against at a whopping 32 per game, and the only reason that hasn't been a factor is the goaltending tandem of Carey Price and Halak has nullified it.

When I asked Carbonneau after Monday night's game how he feels about the potential of his team when it's undefeated despite not playing its best hockey, the coach noted how he wasn't pleased with the neutral and defensive zone coverage, as evidenced by the 36 shots allowed against the Panthers on Monday night.

But when I asked the same question to Saku Koivu earlier, his answer was completely different.

"Overall we've played fairly solid defensively 5-on-5, maybe even better than last year," Koivu said. "The power play isn't where it was last year, but we kind of expected that with the new personnel. Last year we wouldn't play that well defenively 5-on-5 but the power play would get two or three goals and we'd win the game. I think in the long run playing solid defensively 5-on-5 will win you games, and the power play will come."

Well, that's two entirely different views of the same situation, now isn't it?

Speaking of the power play, I'm convinced, like Koivu, that it will come together once Carbonneau can find combinations that work consistently. Right now it appears he's trying to settle that second unit, so the Tomas Plekanec line's power play time has suffered as a result because Carbonneau is still experimenting. Monday night, though, the Plekanec line with Andrei Markov and Patrice Brisebois on the points kept the puck in the Panthers end for an entire two minutes. They didn't score, but if they keep doing that the goals will most definitely come.

The power play's clicking at a 17.9 per cent clip thus far, 15th in the league, but even that's misleading. If you take out the Toronto Massacre on the opening Saturday night of the season, where the Habs scored three times on eight chances, Montreal has only scored two power play goals in 15 opportunities. That's not good, but it will get better.

The Habs schedule is a relatively easy one for quite some time, starting with the struggling Ducks at the Bell Centre on Saturday. After that, the only really tough team the Habs will face before Nov. 20 is the Minnesota Wild on Oct. 30 in the first of a four-game road swing that also includes stops in Long Island, Columbus and Toronto.

But the first really tough streth in the schedule for the Canadiens starts Nov. 20 when, in a 10-game span, they play at Ottawa, Boston, the Islanders, at Detroit, at Washington, Buffalo, Atlanta, the Rangers, New Jersey and Calgary.

There are only two "easy" games in that stretch, even though seven of the games are at home, but it should give fans a better idea of what this Canadiens team is made of. Because at that point, looking at their schedule, it's entirely possible the Habs will be riding high atop the league standings, even if they're not running on all cylinders.


Topham said...

I agree. A bit too excited considering.

But, I must suggest that you take away the losses to the Canadiens when you compare the records of teams after so few games. Doing that, you'd see that actually the 5 teams are a cumulative 7-8-5. Take away the Flyers and you'd have middle of the road teams realy, not bottom of the barrel.

I also think that come the end of the season, we won't be calling Buffalo, Boston and Philly easy draws, so those wins may yet be classed as good wins.

Sliver24 said...

I don't disagree with your assessment overall, but I don't necessarily feel that it matters how you win - just that you do. I especially feel that's the case early in a season when a team is establishing its identity - in the minds of its opponents as well as in the minds of its own players.

By starting the season so well the Habs are establishing themselves as winners and gaining confidence that will hopefully carry them through most of the season. The biggest concern from my perspective would be to ensure that confidence doesn't turn into misplaced cockiness. Hopefully the fact that the Habs players recognize that they still have work to do will temper that confidence just enough to keep them focused and working hard.

pierre said...

Excellent take about the beginning of our season Arpon..... 6 games doesn't mean much overall but its a good enough slice to indicate a some significant patterns allready.

The greatest news about our early season is that it has consolidated the fact that we are on paper the previledge team we are supposed to be.

Price is for real while Halak seems to be as good as claimed.... we saw it as you said.... for me its all I really wanted to see from our first few games... now I know that we are STOKED as a team to excelled in the three crucial areas of the game.

1- Goaltending
2- Evenstrength game
3- PP efficiency

Gainey's team is better equiped this year than it was last season.... all the pieces are there to substantially improved the quality of our 5-on-5 game over what it was last season.... the pieces are there and as a consequence of it we are 3 line deep in speed and offensive talent.... our team's profile is built to win games (our record so far can attest to that) and built to DOMINATE some games this season at a reasonable ratio... but this part will have to wait.... Gainey has done its part no doubts and its now in Carbo's hand to organized this team so that they can dictate the tempo of the game and imposed themselves under a wide variety of conditions... this is something that we hoped to see from Carbo's team this season.

Despite the lack of authority noticed our team's scoring differentials is the best leaguewide thus far..... less goals yielded while scoring more when playing at eventstrenght has been our lot thus far when compared with our poor/average ratio of last season.... thus both Koivu and Carbo are right.... our 6-on-6 is better than last season but our 5-on-5 game has been porous overall.... Carbo his previledged to have the team in his hand for 5 days.... game no.7 on saturday should be looked of as a definit statement on how Carbonneau wants his team to play the game this season.... I hope to see our team exceeds its puck possession time over that of Anahein.... doing so seems to be the best strategy for our team to follow this season and as far as I can tell we have yet to move in that direction in term of our basic system.