Thursday, December 3, 2009

Who's responsible for the starts?

Generally, it's the coaching staff - and more specifically the head coach - who takes the heat when a team looks woefully unprepared to start a game.

If it was only a case of the last two games where the Canadiens looked horrible in the first period, it might be excusable. But this has become a season-long trend, and it's one that can't necessarily be blamed on injuries or anything else.

After Thursday night's 6-2 loss in Buffalo, the Habs have now been outscored 32-13 in the first period of games this season. The last two games, the first period meltdowns have been a lethal combination of poor goaltending and daydreaming defence. Carey Price should have been able to keep the two first period markers out of his net on Tuesday, and Jaroslav Halak didn't do himself any favours with poor rebound control in Buffalo, though I acknowledge it's not easy when you've been sitting on the bench for three weeks.

But, porous goaltending aside, how is it that teams regularly get the jump on the Canadiens right off the opening faceoff? Are they not mentally ready to play the game? Is it a tactical issue? Are their opponents being poorly scouted? Either way, all those factors fall under the purview of coaching. Over the last three games alone, the Habs have been outscored 7-0 in the first period. Only a tremendous second period by the Canadiens against Washington on Saturday night allowed them to salvage a point in those three contests.

With two key offensive players missing, the Habs can't afford to be playing catch-up hockey all the time. The Habs have trailed after the first period 17 times in 28 games, and they have a 4-11-2 record in those games. When they have led or tied after 20 minutes, that record jumps to 8-3-0.

I'm not saying coaches have to be fired or anything, but Jacques Martin needs to make some sort of an adjustment here, and fast. Because if there was one game where the Habs would be excused for having a slow start, it would be Friday, where the pre-game centennial ceremony is seemingly being directed by Cecil B. DeMille.

But a poor start against a hot Boston Bruins team that has picked up points in six straight games - winning five of them - will ensure a spoiled birthday party Friday night unless Price can pull off a miracle. And no hockey team should be banking on their goalie to steal them a win. The Canadiens appear unwilling, or unable, to play what used to be Martin's trademark - boring, shutdown hockey. When you have two key offensive players out and several others playing themselves back into game shape, it's what needs to be done.

Should the Habs fall into the same trap Friday night and drop the game to Boston - which looks extremely likely from where I sit - it would drop their record to 12-15-2. That would be the first time Montreal would be three games below .500 since Oct. 17, when they were 2-5-0 after losing five straight games.

Without Andrei Markov in the lineup, the Habs have done a great job sticking near that "magical" .500 plateau, which is where I believe they need to be when Markov returns to have any hope of a playoff berth. But if the Habs drop to three games back on Friday, with some pretty tough competition on the horizon over a busy month of December, a very real danger exists of dropping right out of the race.

Not to be overly dramatic, but the Canadiens need to win Friday to stop the bleeding and hang around the vicinity of eighth place. If they drop too far back, they just might not be able to make it all the way back when (or if) they ever get fully healthy. And, if that's not motivation enough for them, the Habs should consider this: the Leafs are only three points behind them, and Toronto has a game in hand.

Be afraid people.


M said...

I think the fault falls squarely on the shoulders of the GM. He killed the team in the off season. Letting all those players walk away without even trying to keep them was a mistake. Now he has a team that reminds me if the Rangers when they had a bunch of big name players who just could not, or would not work together. He traded Higgens for Gomez (a guy who skates as fast as he can away from the other teams net). One of many mistakes. The coaching staff can only do so much with what they have. If I were in charge, and I'm not saying I could do any better then him, but I would start by sending Price back to Hamilton to learn and become the tender we all know he can be (before he is ruined for ever), and get a vet goalie in there who can be the "good goalie on a bad team". cosungs

MathMan said...

Jacques Martin has to do much, much more than fix the slow starts (actually seems more that the team begins with jump and then ends up giving up a goal anyway, and collapsing).

What's with the crazy lineup? What is a line of Pyatt-Gomez-White supposed to accomplish?

Why the fascination with White and Pyatt, anyway? They are the two worst forwards on the Habs' lineup and the team has already traded two guys who are better than them, what gives?

Where's the defensive structure? Where's the system? Does he have one?

Why is the power play so ineffective? How can you not accomplish something even barely decent when you're starting with Cammalleri, Spacek, and Bergeron?

He was much better at the start of the season, but I've never been happy with how he handled some of the players (how's Latendresse doing for Minny, by the way? Exactly what he's done for the Habs before this year? You don't say!) But if anything, he's getting worse and worse. Or maybe he's just lost the room... not even 30 games in.

I had such very, very high hopes for Jacques Martin. They are rapidly and cruelly being dashed. He does not appear to be improving the team at all at this point -- in fact the team's game appears to be in freefall. The puck possession game we saw at the start of the season is completely gone, their Corsis are through the floor, the scoring chances are deeply in the red, and Carey Price basically had to steal all the points they got over the last 10 games or so.

Yes, I know the team has to deal with injuries, but right now, this is a BAD hockey team. Lottery bad. Toronto Maple Leafs bad. Worse, even. And I think the roster is better than that, even with the absence of Gionta and Markov.

Forget about the playoffs. This season is lost, was lost from game 1 when Markov went down, and it's only being compounded by the additional injuries and the team's deteriorating game. The Habs need to take a step back, look at next year, figure out who they want to draft and -- sadly, but oh so very importantly -- take a long, hard look about whether Jacques Martin is actually the right guy for the job.

MathMan said...

M: I'm not inclined to blame the GM's roster moves.

Gomez is not going to drive to the net and it would be stupid for him to do that, he doesn't have the skillset to do it, whereas he has the skillset to be very useful in the type of game he's playing. (This obsession for driving to the net is getting scary, and very counterproductive. I could understand to a degree when people wanted 230-pound Lats to do it, even though he was a better player back when they didn't try to drill that into his head... but Gomez? His job is to set up other people who go to the net, that's what his skillset is like!)

Gomez is doing exactly what I thought he'd be, and that's drive possession, which is infinitely more useful with real wingers, not rookie grinders who have an inexplicable amount of the coach's favor. Martin wasted Gomez' skillset for an entire period and ended up pitting White and Pyatt against Roy and Vanek's lines as a result. One wonders what he thought that would accomplish.

The lineup Martin has to work with, despite the lack of Markov and Gionta, has enough talent to be a middling NHL team. Right now, they are playing like a team very near the bottom. I think that's only on the GM in the sense that he's the one who hired the coach. But then I expected that to be a good move too so I can't really blame him.

As for sending Price to Hamilton, forget it. Never, ever, in a million years, would he clear waivers. Besides, he's been stealing games for the Habs routinely lately, what's wrong with him?

V said...

Mathman... agree with much of what you have here. I particularly agree with the assessment that their puck possession and zone clearance was much better at the start of the year. That looked like the early makings of a JM coached team.

I have not actually seen a game lately as I've been travelling. As for how bad they appear to be playing right now... I hate to keep bringing us back to the injuries but they explain a lot. The high-skill players in the lineup typically miss the high-skill players out of the lineup. We likely won't see the type of team we are hoping for until we get a bit more continuity with a full lineup.

If that does not happen until the playoffs are a lost cause, so be it. I am not as concerned with playoffs as I am with building a team that is very competitive every year.

V said...

Arpon... as for your question about who is responsible for the starts. My answer is coaches and players. Everyone is and it's clearly breaking down somewhere.

I think it starts with awareness and intention. It's the coaches job to maintain awareness about the problem and work with the players to form a clear intention about the way they start games. I'm sure they will sort it out.

nk said...

Unfortunately V, with only Markov and Gionta out of the lineup right now, it's tough to blame the team's horrendous play on injuries.

I blame a fair bit on the coaches putting ridiculous lines together (as noted above) but I'm also noticing that there's an utter lack of trust between players on the ice - which is why everyone ends up on the same side and half the sabres team is open on the other.

It doesn't get much worse than what we saw last night.

V said...

nk... thanks. Sounds like it was pretty bad last night. With most everyone getting back from injury, I agree that the time is coming soon when you can't attribute the record to injuries (although Gionta and Markov are 2 of top 5 players on team, so significant losses until they both return).

But up to now, they can't be disregarded as factors. Once we get people back and they have a chance to get reacquanted, we will see what we have.

Gainey and Martin must be so dissapointed... this is the last thing they wanted to see. From their comments leading into the season, I think they were pysched to see what this team (full team) could do. From game one, they have not had the chance to put their best product out there and have been pillored for results that have been significantly influenced by events completely beyond their control. Sometimes life sucks.

This is one reason why I try to stay as positive as I can through times like this... it feels like one small thing (about the only thing) I can do to contribute to the team in a way that promotes what we all want - success.

nk said...

V, I agree with you that up to now the habs have dealt with events that could not have been predicted, which is why most of us are satisfied to hover around .500.

I was so disappointed in last night's 'no show' that I stopped watching the game and, from what I've read, it seems the habs got their act together by the third period, which is something.

However, whether or not an AHL team was on the ice last night, there is no reason for anyone playing in the nhl to miss basic positional assignments; to leave their goaltender so exposed; nor for the coaches to expect scoring from pyatt and white. These are aspects of the game that are directly controlled by those who were able to contribute to last night's game and there was no excuse for it - despite the team's troubles.

john deere said...

The current rendition of the Montreal Canadiens remind me a lot of the Winnipeg Jets from the eighties and early nineties. Having small skilled players they had to rely on taking the the play to the other team and operate with their metabolism running 20% higher than the other team.

If Montreal is going to have those kind of players that is part of the package, games when they look great and games when they look absolutely dreadful. Small guys tend to get worn out and tired much more than the bigger guys, especially when they are playing a high energy, up tempo kind of game.