Sunday, January 4, 2009

Momentum can be fickle

How exactly does momentum work?

I find it amazing how quickly and obviously you can see it swing from one side to other in the midst of a game, but how subtle it can be when looked at in the context of an entire season.

Take the Habs 6-5 shootout win over the Florida Panthers as a perfect example.

The Canadiens had the momentum at the start, but then the Panthers grabbed it after completely shutting down Montreal's first power play of the game, with Florida getting the only shot on goal over those two minutes.

"The first time you get on the ice on a power play you need to be sharp," Guy Carbonneau said afterwards. "We want fewer finesse plays and more passes to the defencemen and shots from the point. The first two minutes we got on the power play, we might have spent 10 or 15 seconds in their end. It’s just a lack of work."

That lack of work - best exemplified in poor puck retrieval on dump-ins that invariably get dumped right back out - gave the Panthers the wings they used to build a 2-0 lead after one period.

But then Maxim Lapierre, Guillaume Latendresse and Tom Kostopoulos started the second period with a great energy shift, and the momentum instantly swung back to the Habs as they scored twice in 28 seconds on the very next shift to erase the two-goal deficit. Montreal rode that wave to another two goals before the period was done, and looked like they might coast to an easy win.

"That Lapierre, Kostopoulos and Latendresse line really got us going," Mike Komisarek said. "They were putting pressure, getting pucks in deep, working hard and making their defencemen pay a price. It’s not easy playing against a line like that when they’re going, so I think the whole team fed off their energy. You don’t see those guys take any shifts off. There’s no better example than them, and they’ve been playing this way for a few weeks."

The Canadiens had another power play in the third period work against them, however, when Alex Kovalev tried to deke out the entire Panthers team and their training staff while entering the offensive zone. That didn't work, and Radek Dvorak wound up with a breakaway the other way to make the game 4-3 and give the Panthers life, a goal that ulimately allowed them to tie the game with 1:38 to play in regulation before falling in a shootout.

So, for those counting at home, one game and five swings in momentum, which were largely caused by lethargic play from the Habs.

"It’s all about momentum swings, and you need to find a way to respond and have a big shift," Komisarek said. "When the other team scores, or if they kill off a power play of ours, we need to go out there and respond and have a good, high-energy shift in their zone. There’s no better line that’s been doing that than Latendresse, Lapierre and Kostopoulos."

It's clear the grind line is leading the way with the Habs right now, and who could have predicted that at the start of the season? The line had 15 shots on goal and Kostopoulos established a new season-high with 17:27 of ice time and tied another with six shots, though three of those came on his goal alone.

Carbonneau even used them on the power play, which shows just how much better they are playing than every other unit right now.

"You want to give the usual guys chances, because you can't forget we had the best power play in the league last year using mainly those players," he said. "But we’re nearly at the midway point of the season and we’ll have to start trying other people."

Another one of Carbonneau's experiments Sunday was taking Andrei Kostitsyn off the "first" line with Alex Kovalev, and put him with his little brother and Robert Lang. The result was two goals, the first coming off a feed from Sergei.

Carbonneau was asked afterwards if the elder Kostitsyn was a better player when taken away from Kovalev, and his answer leads me to believe that we may have een the end of last year's top line.

"I think he shoots it more, and that’s what we want," Carbonneau said. "Sometimes they feel like they have to pass to Alex, maybe, that’s the only thing I can see. But when this guy decides to play, he’s pretty hard to stop. He has one of the hardest shots in the league, and when he decides to take control of a game he can do it. We just have to push him everyday like this."

As well as the Kostitsyn brothers played with Lang, that's how bad of a game Kovalev had with Max Pacioretty and Tomas Plekanec. Of course, these are the types of games you have to accept with Kovalev, games where he simply doesn't feel like thinking. They're frustrating to watch, but they happen, and Sunday's won't be the last one.

But getting back to our momentum theme, I don't think people realize to what extent the Canadiens as a team have a ton of it right now.

Ever since Nov. 29 the Habs are 10-4-2, that's 22 of a possible 32 points, and it was shortly after that date that everyone on the team began dropping like flies. Christopher Higgins and Mathieu Dandenault went down Dec. 9, Saku Koivu was two days later, and Mike Komisarek didn't come back from his injury until Dec. 18. There's no real significant event that coincides with Nov. 29 except for the fact that was the day Ryan O'Byrne essentially used up his Get Out of Jail Free cards and was banished to the press box, and that's also the day Matt D'Agostini played his first game of the season.

But since then, it's been a mish-mash lineup, a persistently horrific power play, more line changes than I can count, and a whole lot of winning. Just think of what this team might do when it's healthy and scoring on the power play, even if it's just one every two games or so?

"Our top line is on the shelf, there are five or six guys that would be part of our club who are out, but despite that we’re playing really well," Carbonneau said. "Tonight was an off night defensively, but we’ve played extremely well over the last month while we’ve had these injuries. It’s a good sign for our club because it gives experience to the young guys, and when these (injured) guys come back – which is hopefully quick – we’ll be a better club."


Arjun said...

I can't help but think Gainey has to make a trade. Just to wake people up. Something needs to happen. As good as the record's been, I can't say the play has been great. It's been barely good enough. It's been that way all year (practically) and it's time this team woke up from whatever ails it. There's a weird complacency on this team that I don't get. And it's going to bite them in the ass.

Anonymous said...

you're right that kovy tried to deke out the team and their trainers (lol) however, i don't believe he 'wasn't thinking' against the panthers. kovy's problem is that he tries/likes to do things himself and that 'instinct' is perpetuated when he's playing with a kid in his second nhl game. patches might have scored in the last but that, by no means, warranted a promo to the 'first line'. i'm not saying i agree with it but chances are, with a newbie and a struggling player, he's going to take a lot on his shoulders and that'll end in mistakes.

ps. it drives me crazy when carbo calls out a players' attitude to the media (andrei kostitsyn), especially when he's playing well.