Thursday, March 12, 2009

Is that what you meant, Bob?

When Bob Gainey fired Guy Carbonneau on Monday, he mentioned a lot of reasons, but one of the major ones was the way the Habs responded to a 5-1 loss in Buffalo by totally laying down in a 2-0 loss in Atlanta.

Games against teams below them in the standings should be victories, Gainey said at the time, and the Habs didn't seem "emotionally engaged" when everything surrounding the game should have made it so they were fired up.

With the New York Islanders in town Thursday, Gainey had to hope his team would show up because it was the exact same scenario as that fateful night in Atlanta, except the pressure to win was even greater because the Habs were at home.

Well, they didn't show up once more, though it was a tiny bit more respectable because the Canadiens made it to overtime. But really, when reaching overtime against the Islanders is a positive, something is seriously wrong.

I asked Gainey if he felt his team was emotionally engaged in Thursday's game, and this was his response:

"I think our team is hard to read. Our guys are trying, but they’re not always trying the right way. It’s difficult for them when we play five, six, seven consecutive minutes and we’re not able to generate anything except moving the puck out of our own zone. But our players are ready to play. They want to play, they want to do well."

Gainey is not a stupid man, and he knew if he admitted his team wasn't emotionally engaged he would also be admitting that maybe Carbonneau wasn't the culprit. But first and foremost, I feel Gainey realizes that the Canadiens remain fragile, a team with zero confidence where one mistake suddenly snowballs into entire periods of ineptitude. Carbonneau would have taken that question and ripped his team to shreds, but Gainey didn't, and I think it's because he senses that fragility.

"We sometimes give off the impression that we’re like a deer in headlights, but the players have more instinct than that," Gainey said. "The other team is taking advantage of our hesitation and our lack of assertiveness and confidence in making simple plays. Occasionally it’s very simple execution, it’s a pass between two players that isn’t completed and that starts a string of problems that we’ve created ourselves. That’s really where we need to begin, to stop these stretches of time that we help create ourselves. If we do that, more and more of those minutes will stop being minutes where we’re hesitating and behind the play and we look completely confused.”

Confidence like that comes from not only winning, but controlling the play for long stretches, which the Canadiens have not been able to do for quite some time. In fact, I would say you have to go back to early January to find a time where the Canadiens could go home satisfied that they put in a good day at the office.

That's over two months ago, more than enough time for the confidence of this team to become so mired in this funk that it will take at least a week to emerge from it.

The Habs tendency to go to sleep in the second period came up again Thursday night. Over their last eight games, Montreal only has 47 shots on goal in the second period, an average of just under six per second period. By that measuring stick, the Habs actually had a good second against the Isles with seven shots, though the bulk of those came in the final few minutes of the middle frame.

"We've got to change our second period, something's going on there, we've got to get more emotion and better forechecking," said Tom Kostopoulos. "In the second, we seemed to sit back."

There's that emotion word again, you think maybe some of the players felt that not all their teammates were "emotionally engaged" Thursday night?

I shudder to think what might happen Saturday night when the Devils come to town with Martin Brodeur seeking to tie Patrick Roy for the all-time wins record. If the Islanders are able to take advantage of the Canadiens hesitation, what will the Devils do?

Will they stop at eight goals?

Stay tuned.

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