Tuesday, February 16, 2010

What a week...

...to completely fall off the face of the earth.

Well, actually, I was swamped last week working for the dreaded mainstream media as the Montreal Canadiens had one of the busier and more newsworthy six days of the season, so unfortunately The Daily Hab-it suffered as a result.

But now, in tremendously belated fashion, I will give you a blow-by-blow account of an extremely influential six-day stretch and how I experienced it:

Monday, Feb 8
I actually did weigh in on the resignation of Bob Gainey and coronation of Pierre Gauthier as his successor, seemingly for the long term. Pierre Boivin said Gauthier will be the Habs GM for "many years to come,"and I'm still not quite sure what to make of that. Gauthier has his bad sides and his good, but as we saw later in the week, he clearly had his own plans for the organization that didn't necessarily jive with Gainey's. The first of which we saw during the press conference announcing the switch when Tom Pyatt was called up from Hamilton and Ryan White and Brock Trotter were sent back down.

Tuesday, Feb 9
I attended Canadiens practice on this day in the hopes of speaking with Jaroslav Halak and Tomas Plekanec, mainly to get their reaction to Gauthier's comments a day earlier regarding their respective futures with the team. Halak, no dice. Not available. But he was available later that day for a sit down interview with The Gazette's Dave Stubbs, where we learned of his love of chocolate milk. We did get to speak with Plekanec, however, and I produced this report on his thoughts regarding contract talks with the Habs. What jumped out the most was his immediate clarification that "negotiations" hadn't necessarily begun, but that there was a dialogue that was opened. He then confirmed what his agent Rick Curran told me Monday night, that he would love to re-sign with the Canadiens. 

The one tidbit he added to that is he would be willing to sign prior to July 1 assuming he received an offer that made some sense. I think Plekanec is sincere when he says that, I really do, but I also believe it may take some time for both sides to agree on what makes sense. Plekanec is in a unique situation here in that the free agent class of 2010 is very thin at forward, and his two-way talents will make him quite valuable on the open market. The Habs will have to cover at least some of that value, even if they get a hometown discount. Even though Gauthier appears to believe the Habs cap situation going forward is very "manageable," the fact is Montreal will be squeezing right against it if Plekanec signs for any semblance of what he's worth. 

One other thing I didn't write about was Plekanec's reaction to the big deal made of Pierre McGuire's comments on the Team 990 that he was as good as gone if he reached July 1 without a new contract. There's nothing wrong with McGuire saying that, because it's true, but for some reason everyone felt it necessary to pick up on that and run with it, even though it appeared to me to be the most obvious thing on earth. Apparently I wasn't the only one.

"I laughed when I heard about that," Plekanec said. "To me, that's pretty obvious."

Wednesday, Feb 10
I covered the Washington Capitals skate that morning, producing this report on how the various Olympians on the roster - one in particular that wears No. 8 - were dealing with the impending tournament in Vancouver. It was a fun story to write, but what was striking to me was the mood in that room. The Caps had won 14 straight games, and everyone, to a man, basically said they just expect to win every game. A lot of players on a lot of teams can say that, but you can tell they don't really believe it. These guys did. Not sure if they do anymore.

That's because the Habs ended their magical run later that night with a tremendous effort, storming out to a 5-2 lead before falling victim to the Capitals offensive machine in the third, allowing them to tie it up but still coming out on top in overtime thanks to Plekanec's second of the game, coming off Sergei Kostitsyn's third assist of the night. It was Sergei's best game - by far - this season. The highlight for me personally on this night was that I managed to get a rise, even though it was an extremely slight one, out of Habs coach Jacques Martin. I really didn't think I'd be able to do that, but I did when I asked him if it was tough for him to watch his team blow a three-goal third period lead.

“Where I come from, when you beat the best team in the National Hockey League you should be happy," he responded, more than a little annoyed with the question. "Especially when you look at the number of injuries we had, you look at our lineup, I think it showed tremendous character and determination. What’s nice about it is we found a way to win the hockey game.”

Indeed coach. It's not the first time this season the Habs have managed to surprise everyone by gutting out a win when it was least expected, and it was the second time this season they've done it against the Caps. But the question was whether or not that kind of effort could be duplicated with a lineup laden with AHL call-ups. Perhaps, except something happened the next day that changed things a little bit.

Thursday, Feb 11
I wasn't supposed to work on this day (at least not covering the Habs) and actually wound up suffering through a treacherous day with gastro. By the end of it, I was exhausted when news broke that Gauthier had made his first moves as Habs GM.

First, the Habs finally called up P.K. Subban from Hamilton, a move Gainey appeared unwilling to make. Maybe he was having second thoughts on how he handled Price, maybe he thought Subban was too much of a liability defensively to take the risk, maybe he just didn't like the kid. Who knows? But Subban's play in Hamilton warranted a call-up, and Gauthier pulled the trigger. After suffering through reading the CBA to see if that had any impact on his free agent status, and ultimately getting some help from a reader via Twitter, it became clear that Subban can finish the year in Montreal and it will have zero impact on his free agent status whatsoever. So at that point, why not? Good on Gauthier.

But this move was announced only after news had leaked that Gauthier sent a 2011 second round pick to Florida in exchange for Dominic Moore, an honest, "serviceable" player in the eyes of Panthers GM Randy Sexton. Second round draft picks are far from a sure thing in the NHL, but they have pretty tremendous value. Cristobal Huet was worth a second-rounder. Same goes for Mikhail Grabovski. Ditto Robert Lang. The list goes on and on. Gauthier, while watching his injury-riddled club squeak by the best team in the NHL, decided he'd had enough of Ben Maxwell and wanted Moore on the team for the final two games prior to the Olympic break. That's his prerogative, but it appeared a bit rash to me.

In my eyes, the Habs were already at that point far further along than anyone could have reasonably expected them to be. Even had they lost the two games against Philadelphia, which we now know they did, they were still well positioned to enter the break in a playoff spot. Was Dominic Moore something that was so desperately needed for two games? No, and I don't think Gauthier thought so either, even though that was the justification he gave. This, in my eyes, was a prelude to something else that will likely happen after the Olympic trade freeze is lifted on March 1. I'm not sure what exactly that could be, but this trade convinced me that Gauthier will indeed be a buyer at the deadline. I'm not so sure that's a good thing.

Friday, Feb 12
The Habs are in Philadelphia and coming off a really big win. Everyone expects that momentum to carry over into a key game against a team Montreal is in direct competition with for a playoff spot. But yet again, expect the unexpected. The Canadiens sleep through the first 40 minutes, get a couple of bounces for two goals early in the third, and come up a goal short. Carey Price, after getting the call against Washington and winning in spite of a couple of ugly goals in the third period, was not very strong in the first when the Flyers jumped out to a 3-0 lead. But he gave his team a chance to climb back in it by shutting thew door the rest of the way. That counts for something.

Saturday, Feb 13
I'm back at the Bell Centre for a visiting team skate, this time to try and talk to Jeff Carter about his travel plans the following day. He'd been asked by Steve Yzerman to fly to Vancouver just in case Ryan Getzlaf couldn't go in the Olympics, and I, along with probably the rest of the country, wanted to know how he felt about perhaps having the opportunity to play. Alas, Carter blew me off. Didn't want to talk to me. So, rather than wallow in failing to complete my assignment that day, I salvaged my morning trip to the Bell Centre by writing this story on Olympic teammates Chris Pronger and Mike Richards. Of course, these two supposedly aren't the best of buds (they didn't even take the same flight out to Vancouver the next day), but they were heading to the Olympics in a day so I figured it was worth a chat.

Later that night, the Habs caved in huge in a 6-2 loss, one where Jaroslav Halak was chased after allowing five goals on 17 shots (you'll notice I screwed that up in my story, saying he only gave up four goals. It happens). Subban had his second straight impressive game, wowing the Bell Centre faithful and drawing chants of "P.K., P.K." a few times over the course of the game. He was very good, and I was most taken with his poise with the puck and the way he instinctively uses his body to shield the puck from defenders. You can;t teach stuff like that.

Afterwards, the Canadiens room was not all that sombre. It was kind of like when you knew you bombed your last exam, but it was still your last exam so you were kind of relieved. That's the kind of feeling I got talking to some of the guys after that game. Jaroslav Spacek, who didn't sleep the night before after having his head sliced open by the Flyers Darroll Powe, wasn't impressed with his team's effort. But he was pretty excited to go spend a week in Florida with the family. Carey Price looked downright happy to be heading home to B.C. for a while, hoping to get down to Vancouver to catch some of the Olympics.

The Habs five Olympians were nowhere to be seen in the locker room, but they quickly emerged in the area just outside, already showered and dressed and heading for their cars with their hockey bags and sticks in tow. Tomas Plekanec, who is never in a good mood after a loss, looked to have a little jump in his step as he accepted wishes of good luck from journalists he whizzed by on his way out the door. But Halak, standing by the door leading to the players garage dressed in a sharp suit, did not look all that pleased. He's given up 11 goals on his last 65 shots faced over three starts and was on his way to perhaps his biggest opportunity to sell his virtues as an NHL starting goaltender. That lack of playoff experience everyone always brings up whenever his value is discussed? It would become a moot point with a strong Olympics, especially if he could somehow manage to get Slovakia through the group of death and into the medal round. Standing by that door, waiting for whatever it was he was waiting for, Halak looked to have the weight of the world on his shoulders.

Martin's post-game press conference was worthwhile. First of all, he expressed no concern over the health of Andrei Markov and his participation in the Olympics, saying he trusted his player would do what was best for both him and his team, the one that signs his paycheques. What exactly ails Markov is still mired in secrecy, but Martin's body language seemed to indicate it was nothing that major. Of course, that begs the question of why Markov didn't play in either of the two games against Philly, but Russia is not playing until Tuesday. That is three full days after the final Habs game, ample time for Markov to believably recover from a nagging injury that would have affected his performance on Saturday.

Martin was asked how he would assess his team's position at the Olympic break in light of everything the team had gone through in the first 63 games of the season. In spite of taking a drubbing from the Flyers just minutes earlier, Martin was able to keep some perspective on his team's performance.

“You’re never satisfied with where you are, but you have to be realistic," he said. "Sometimes it’s not the number of injuries, but who is injured. With a player like Markov, for instance, you just don’t replace a player like him. Up front we have three forwards out of our top six out, and it’s not just missing a couple of games.”

I couldn't agree more. The Habs are lucky to be sitting in eighth right now, even though it is a bit of a phantom hold on a playoff spot since every team trailing them in the standings hold games in hand. I say they're lucky, but they've earned that position by refusing to die. Every time it looked as though the Habs would go on a long losing spell, they pulled out a miraculous win of some sort. And they did it just often enough to stay afloat.

The Habs will be welcoming back, in all likelihood, Benoit Pouliot and Andrei Kostitsyn when they get back to practice on Feb. 24. Markov should be good to go when he's done with the Olympics. Mike Cammalleri should be ready sometime in early March. The Canadiens have only really played two games all season with their whole team healthy, so hopefully for them, they can finish the season with a full roster. I remain convinced that when healthy, this team is pretty good, we just haven't seen it yet. If the Habs get a dose of good luck on the injury front, I think they should make the playoffs. And if Gauthier adds an interesting piece or two at the deadline, even though I think he shouldn't, then who knows what can happen?

One thing about the Eastern Conference is that it will allow the old mantra to hold true, the one that says that once you're in the playoffs, anything is possible.

And with that, I'm also going to take a break from the blog for the Olympics, and simply enjoy watching great hockey. I might check in from time to time here, but it's going to be relatively quiet at least until the Habs start skating again on Feb. 24. 

Enjoy the Olympics everyone, and Go Canada!

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

A bit too late

I have no intention of coming to some snap judgment on Bob Gainey's time as the Montreal Canadiens general manager today, even though it is the most appropriate day to do it.

Why won't I? Because I can't. Much like those who decide to rate a performance at the draft as soon as that draft is over, it is far too soon to judge Gainey's work when his primary act as general manager happened only a few short months ago.

It is impossible to judge what he did here without first seeing how his summer overhaul of the Canadiens pans out, and if I have one criticism I would like to express about Gainey tonight, it is just that.

He spoke today of preferring to leave the job a little too early rather than staying too long, but in my eyes he did overstay his welcome because he went ahead with that re-shaping of the roster.

I was fully expecting Gainey to step down following last year's playoff ouster from the Bruins. At his post-mortem press conference last season, he looked tired, worn out. He was still reeling from the loss of his daughter Laura. His eldest daughter had just had a son, his first grandchild, and in my eyes it just looked like he didn't quite have that fire in his belly that is so necessary for this job.

The timing would have been perfect. The team would be able to conduct a thorough search for his successor (more on that in a bit), who would have a practically blank canvas to work with. A new coach needed to be hired, there was tons of cap space to work with and roster spots that needed filling, while Gainey could have still advised the new GM on which incumbent players he felt should be prioritized.

But Gainey stayed on, to my mild surprise, knowing full well that he might not be invited back after this season. Once that season began at the NHL Draft with Gainey still in place,  it became his responsibility to see this process through.

The timing of today's announcement was described by Pierre Boivin as being a case of letting Gainey's successor make the decisions at the trade deadline that he would have to live with after Gainey was gone. Well, even though I'm sure Pierre Gauthier played a very big role in the summer shakeup, that's not how this was ultimately handled.

In that sense, having Gauthier come in to replace Gainey makes perfect sense, simply because he is the only potential candidate who could still have some degree of accountability for all the moves made last summer.

“I’m going to leave the stage so Pierre can answer your questions and design for you the future of the team.”

Those were Gainey's final words to the Montreal media he so rarely spoke with. I found them curious, a bit awkward even, but notable that the last word was what Gainey was all about: team. And just like that, Gainey was gone.

Which brings me to my second point, and that is the process behind Gauthier's selection as his successor. Boivin essentially admitted today that no other candidate was even considered for the job, or if they were considered, it was not for very long. With the trade deadline looming only two months or so after Gainey told him he would not seek a contract extension, Boivin obviously felt he needed to act quickly.

“We spent the month of January thinking over our decision, and we decided to make as quick a transition as possible," Boivin said. "There are key periods in the year, with a couple that are coming up, and I thought it was important that the person who will be making those decisions will be the one who has to live with those decisions.”

Later, I asked Boivin if he ever considered opening this process up to the rest of the hockey community, considering it is one of the most prestigious jobs in the sport. Here's his answer:
“The list of individuals who can adequately be general managers in the National Hockey League is not a list that goes on infinitely (he actually used a Latin term for 'infinitely,' but my Latin spelling is not what it used to be). There are very few people in the world who can do this job, and the vast majority of them are under contract and are untouchables. When you look at the criteria to be successful in this job, in this market, you come to a list of individuals who have experience, who have the ability to communicate in both languages, who have a track record and who are prepared to be here. Your list now is down very quickly. So it’s not a typical hire. You do your homework, you make sure you turn over every rock and you hire the best person available. We were fortunate that person was in our organization already.”
I'm sorry, but if you are going to hire a new GM just after new ownership took over, you should go through a selection process of some sort. Maybe I'm the only one who feels that way, but it appears obvious to me.

The problem, of course, is that Boivin is correct when he says the selection criteria greatly limits the field. When you are seeking someone who is both bilingual and experienced, it's a very small pool. There's Gainey's former GM Serge Savard, Gainey's predecessor Andre Savard, former Colorado GM Pierre Lacroix, his successor Francois Giguere and that's just about it. The other three men that come to mind all work for the Canadiens already - Rejean Houle, Jacques Martin and Gauthier.

So, if they were going to stay in house, I guess Gauthier was the best man for the job. But really, would it kill them to loosen that selection criteria a little bit? It appears it would.

"Pierre had an advantage because he was on the inside, we knew him well and we worked well together," Boivin said. "He also had a lot of experience in this position, and it’s important for this franchise to have a man with experience and maturity."

On the language part of the selection criteria, Boivin was pretty clear that it's a deal-breaker.

“You bet it’s important, there’s no question," he said. "This is one of the unique aspects of our franchise. It’s part of our life, it’s part of our culture, it’s part of our mission. We operate in the province of Quebec, two thirds or three quarters of our fans are Francophones. I think it’s the minimum of respect to be able to communicate (with them).”

That's perfectly fair, but you can't have your cake and eat it, too. If you want a Francophone GM, or at least a bilingual one, you need to be open to hiring one that has no previous NHL experience. You can find a director of scouting somewhere, or a junior GM (a pretty popular one happens to work just up the river from here), or even a player agent.

So now, the Pierre Gauthier era begins. He doesn't appear to have a very good reputation as far as his demeanor is concerned, earning the nickname "Grouchy" and taking to managing cookie counts during pre-game meals.

But I will say this, both teams he has managed went on to varying degrees of success, and in both cases it was immediately after he left. Gauthier resigned in Ottawa in 1998 to move back to California, but the Senators reeled off nine straight seasons of at least 94 points starting the following year. In Anaheim, the Ducks made the Stanley Cup final the year after Gauthier left. On top of that, he was responsible for laying the bricks in Quebec City as head of scouting, which eventually led to a Stanley Cup champ in Colorado.

So it could be argued that Gauthier's strength is laying the foundation for success, not for getting a team over the top. But that's not what's required here. The foundation has supposedly been laid for years, what's missing is someone to grab that missing piece of the puzzle to make this team one that is consistently in the top tier, which Gauthier repeatedly stated was his goal today. 

Gauthier did enlighten us in terms of his plans for the direction of the team in the short-term, which was the focus of my story for The Canadian Press today. For all intents and purposes, he put to rest the suspense of which goalie would not survive the March 3 trade deadline by declaring in no uncertain terms that he feels the Habs have a better chance of making the playoffs with both of them. He did, however, say he would never say never, which means the rumours probably won't stop.

Gauthier, in speaking to reporters a bit more informally, said later that what is separating the Habs from being an upper crust team is being able to shake off the injuries that have plagued the club this year and still perform. He gave the example of the New Jersey Devils still rolling along without their number one defenceman Paul Martin.

“That’s where the top-tier teams are with their identity, with their chemistry, with their system," Gauthier said. "So whether we have our top players or not, we need to continue this process of building that identity, that leadership and that strength of the team. That’s what we’re working on.”

But the fact the Canadiens have had trouble thriving without some of their better players also speaks to the depth of the organization, particularly among the forwards. I asked Gauthier whether or not he should use his position of strength in goal to shore up other areas of his roster. He went on to compliment my analysis of the situation, which I couldn't tell if it was sincere or condescending, but ultimately fell back on his position that he prefers having both goalies in Montreal.

He also said he'd begun discussions with Tomas Plekanec's agent Rick Curran, who was nice enough to call me back to confirm what Gauthier told us. Curran was clear to me that he does not negotiate in public, but he could confirm that a conversation had taken place and that there is a mutual interest to get something done. With Gauthier saying the Canadiens cap situation "very manageable," it appeared to me that an agreement could in fact be reached because the willingness appears to be there on both sides.

So the Gauthier era began Monday with a press conference and a roster move, Brock Trotter and Ryan White being sent back to Hamilton while Tom Pyatt was called back up. There will be many more moves to come, but the core of this team is set in stone for the near future.

When will we be able to judge Gainey's time in Montreal? Perhaps never, because the man running the show now was so intricately tied to the decisions made by Gainey during the most important period of his tenure. In a sense, the Gainey era was extended Monday, and it will be very difficult to untangle it from supposedly new era that is about to begin.

Monday, February 8, 2010

Major announcement this afternoon

The Canadiens have called a news conference for 4 p.m. this afternoon to make a "major announcement" regarding the team's hockey management, which would lead me to believe the Bob Gainey era has now ended.

That's not confirmed, but with the trade deadline approaching and the team considering making a decision regarding its goaltender of the future, I wouldn't be stunned if Gainey was poliutlely asked to resign.

Again, I'm just speculating, but a "major" announcement about hockey management could be little else other than that.

Stay tuned.

UPDATE: TSN is reporting that Pierre Gauthier will take over for Gainey on an interim basis. Discuss.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

To be expected

Jacques Martin was not a happy man after watching his team lose 3-0 to the Boston Bruins on Sunday, only a day after looking so thoroughly dominant in a 5-3 win over the Pittsburgh Penguins. Perhaps asking for a weekend sweep or the team's third four-game win streak of the season was too much to ask?

Not in the eyes of the head coach, who had trouble understanding how his team could play so poorly in the first period and so well in the second and third.

"What’s disappointing is the way we came out, we lost the game in the first period," Martin said. "If we’d played in the first the way we played in the second and third, we still might have lost the game but at least we would have given it our best. Certain individuals needed to give us more.”

Obviously, Martin would not get into specifics about which individuals he was referring to, preferring to say that would be handled internally. It was yet another reminder of part of the reason Martin was hired, because he was never going to manage or motivate his players through the media.

That's fine, every coach has his own way of handling players, and this has always been Martin's style. But I think it's clear that he meant his top two lines could have given him some goals, or just a goal, for that matter. He wasn't talking about his Bulldog line, because even though there was a huge dropoff from their energizing performance a day earlier, it would be unfair to expect them to do that every night. Martin said as much. I also have my doubts he was talking about the line of Maxim Lapierre, Glen Metropolit and Ben Maxwell, because they got a considerable amount of ice time, far more than they've been accustomed to on most nights.

So that leaves the top two lines, the ones that will have to score in the absence of Mike Cammalleri, Andrei Kostitsyn and Benoit Pouliot. From the looks of it, Tomas Plekanec and Scott Gomez had a pretty good night, combining for 16 shots on goal and going a respectable 17-16 in the faceoff circle between the two of them. Plekanec in particular was extremely dangerous, with three grade-A scoring chances in the second period thwarted by a very sharp Tuuka Rask in the Boston goal.

In fact, it could be argued that Rask stole a win for the Bruins, that the Canadiens once again outshot their opponent and generated a number of scoring chances, but just ran into a hot goalie. If there's one team in the league that can't really complain about that happening to them, it is indeed your Montreal Canadiens, because that has been their formula for winning on too many nights this season.

But, to get back to Martin's point, I think he would have liked to see his scoring lines score a goal or two despite those shot totals, and I think it has a little something to do with the fact those shots don't reflect an accurate picture of how those top two lines played.

The excellent blog En Attendant les Nordiques calculates scoring chances for and against in each Canadiens game, and does the same specifically for each player when they are on the ice. According to the blog's author Olivier, who sometimes comments here, Plekanec and Gomez came out even in the scoring chance department with 11 for and 11 against between the two of them.

Against a team that has so much trouble generating offensive chances, let alone scoring goals, that wasn't good enough in Martin's books. I feel he's probably being a little harsh, but his point is clear. He can't rely on any of his bottom six forwards to score goals or generate chances, so if the top two lines don't do it, they are cooked. Plain and simple.

Still, I think that after two good night's sleep, Martin will head back to practice on Tuesday and realize that what his team accomplished over the previous week was way better than anyone could have possibly expected. Wins over Vancouver and Pittsburgh are essentially four bonus points in the standings, two of which were given back after Sunday's loss.

But with three of the team's top four finishers around the net out of action, a shutout like Sunday's was bound to happen.

So I didn't feel much sympathy for the players. I did, however, feel some for Jaroslav Halak who had no one to blame but lady luck on all three goals he allowed. To have two shots tipped in by teammates and a third come off a perfect bounce on a blocked shot is disheartening. I heard a lot of people talk about how he looked tired, and I have to admit he did, but that's not why he allowed any of those goals or lost the game.

A lot of people were throwing out the stat after that Vancouver win that Halak is 7-0-0 this season when facing 40 or more shots. But you know what's weird? His winning percentage dips drastically as he faces fewer shots. When it's between 30 and 39, his record is 6-3-1, and when it's between 20 and 29 - as it was the last two games - his record falls to 4-6-1. Maybe there was something to that joke Martin made after the game in Boston on Thursday that the secret might well be to give up a ton of shots. I doubt it, but it's a strange stat.

But, despite the possible perception that Halak is tired - which I don't believe to be the case, at least not physically - I would still come back with against Washington on Wednesday. First of all, you can be sure Halak will see a lot of shots in that game. But most importantly, would Carey Price have any chance of halting Washington's 14-game win streak when he will have two weeks without a start? I would have to say no, so Halak should stay in.

The loss to Boston left the Canadiens with 62 points after 60 games, essentially the three-quarter pole in the schedule. With the loss to Boston, the Habs are on pace to finish the season with about 84 points. Even in a weak Eastern Conference, I'm not so sure that's going to cut it, especially with the start of a potential - some would even say likely - losing streak on its way.

The Habs close the pre-Olympic schedule with Alex Ovechkin's Capitals and a home and home with Philadelphia. When the break is over, the Canadiens travel to Boston, San Jose, L.A. and Anaheim, with the NHL trade deadline hitting in the midst of those games, which means Bob Gainey will be far from the local media hounds when he either does nothing or makes some sort of foolhardy splash on the trade market.

P.S. If you're interested, you can see what I wrote on today's game here. And I'm really happy the Saints won. My brother's been a fan since the "Aint's" era, and that must have been quite a moment for him. 

Saturday, February 6, 2010

A strong day at the office

Goaltending and special teams.

We've heard Jacques Martin mention those two things as being the most determining factors on the outcome of games, that tip the scales of a loss into a win.

Too often this season the Habs have relied on one or the other or both to win games, just treading water 5-on-5 - at best - while their goalie bails them out until they can get on the power play to score. Get enough power plays, you win the game.

Well, Saturday afternoon against a formidable opponent in the defending Cup champs, the Habs did not fall back on their not-so-reliable formula for winning. They found a new formula, one that, if adopted, would likely lead to a lot more wins than the old one.

They played. The whole game.

The Habs didn't need Jaroslav Halak to be outstanding, just average, which he was. The Habs didn't need power play goals. They did get one, but the more important number to me is that they got six power play chances. In the last 50 games, the Canadiens have had that many power plays in a game only twice. Why? Because usually, they don't spend nearly enough time in the opposing end of the ice, which is where penalties are drawn. But today the Habs were all over the Penguins territory, setting up camp in the offensive zone and generating long stretches of pressure, which almost always leads to either a goal or a power play.

So the six power play chances, which matches a season-high for the Habs, is probably the best indicator of the way they played in the game. It was a team victory in every sense imaginable.

I was covering this afternoon's game (you can read my report here) and afterwards asked two people how important it was to pull out a victory where the team did not completely rely on Halak to save its ass (I worded my question a little differently).

The first was Brian Gionta, and he appeared to think I was in some way slagging Halak by asking the question, which obviously wasn't the point of the question at all. But after talking about how well Halak played, especially in the final minutes of the third to maintain Montreal's 5-3 lead, Gionta said this: I thought it was a better defensive effort. We didn’t give up too many chances. Especially against a talented team like that, that’s what we needed. We were getting up ice better, our forecheck was better. We weren’t sitting back waiting for them to come to us. If you sit back with those guys they’re going to pick you apart. I thought we did a good job of initiating the tempo of the game.”

Gionta was right on the mark, the Canadiens were the initiators in this game and created a lot of turnovers while keeping the puck away from their net. I find too often the Canadiens are forced to go the entire length of the ice to get an offensive chance, and more often than not that process gets derailed by the team's lack of an effective breakout system. But in this game, the Habs picked up pucks in the neutral zone and actually retrieved pucks on dump-ins, which led to some good cycling and puck control in the same area code as the opposing net.

The second person to get a shot at the same question was Jacques Martin, and his answer was very interesting.

“If I go back to early in the season we had a stretch where we played extremely well," Martin began."It might have been from our third game at home to our eighth or ninth game we had games where we limited the opposition to less than 10 scoring chances. We were playing very well, we were very effective on our forecheck and putting pressure on the opposition. Today was a similar game.”

Martin is referring to a stretch of games where the Habs allowed less than 30 shots seven straight times, where they drew at least four power play opportunities in five straight games, where they topped the 30-shot mark in six of seven games. 

He's referring to a stretch of greatness that was finished by Halloween.

It's taken the Habs more than three months and 50 games to play another game like that, but they did, finally. The Penguins may have looked past them to the Washington Capitals showdown Sunday at noon on NBC, but if that was the case (head coach Dan Bylsma obviously dismissed the theory), it was a fatal error.

So now, the Habs have won three straight games since Mike Cammalleri's knee injury in a 3-2 overtime loss to Ottawa. They've beaten two top-10 teams in Vancouver and Pittsburgh sandwiched around a shootout win over the downward-spiraling Boston Bruins, the Super Bowl Sunday Bell Centre visitors.

Did I think this would happen? Uhh, no. I didn't. But I have to give credit where credit is due to Eric Engels, who, on Feb. 2, predicted the Habs would go 4-1-2 over their final seven games before the Olympic break. I called him crazy, demented even, but the Canadiens are one win away from making that prediction a guaranteed minimum.

But you know what? After those "wins" against Vancouver and Boston where Halak stole the show and took his teammates along for the ride, I wasn't all that impressed.

Suffice it to say I am now.

But I will add to that a disclaimer: the Canadiens need to duplicate that effort and commitment over and over again before anyone can say this is a bonafide playoff team. The roller coaster ride needs to stop and some consistency needs to emerge. 

Otherwise, these glimpses of just how good this team can be will be more frustrating than anything else.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Writer's Block

As someone who writes for a living I'm pretty ashamed to admit that I've run out of ways to say what needs to be said after Jaroslav Halak's 3-2 shootout win in Boston.

Yes, it was Halak's win, and no one else's. If Halak could get points in the standings, I would have to imagine he'd be ahead of the rest of his team for the number of times he's single-handedly won the Habs games this year.

Jacques Martin even joked after the game that the secret is to give up a ton of shots, before giving the gathered reporters in Boston a good-natured wink. Yeah, good one coach.

He's made 90 saves in his last two games, and in his last six starts he has a .955 save percentage and a 4-1-1 record. And why does he only have a 4-1-1 mark? Because the Habs have been outshot, on average over those six games, 37-25 and only produced three goals total in the two games Halak lost.

On the season, Halak has a .930 save percentage, third in the NHL and only two-thousandths of a point behind league-leader Ryan Miller.

Why go through all these numbers for the 9,000th time this season? Good question. Because numbers are not necessary to show that Halak has come into his own as an NHL goalie, and he's currently one of the best in the league.

And this is why I still feel Bob Gainey should trade Halak at the deadline if the right deal comes along, such as an actual roster player, and perhaps even that top-6 forward he was rumoured to be seeking in return way back when. It seemed a little far-fetched then, a lot less so now.

Frankly, I wouldn't want to be facing Slovakia in the Olympics at any point the way Halak is playing, and if he can pull a Dominik Hasek and take his country farther than it deserves to go in the tournament, his trade value will be as high as it's ever been. Probably as high as it ever will be, considering the Olympics only come around once every four years.

That is when you are supposed to trade someone, when his value is at his highest. Teams usually don't do that because they want to keep their good players, but Montreal is faced with a decision to make and I don't see why Gainey would trade Price when his value is at his lowest rather than the complete opposite situation with Halak.

Speaking of trades, thank God there was all this Ilya Kovalchuk stuff going on over at the Twitter rumour market, because I would have passed out during the game otherwise. Are any of you upset Gainey didn't put together a package that would trump what Don Waddell eventually got? My buddy Marc-Antoine Godin was thinking the Canadiens definitely could have put together a more interesting package than Nicklas Bergfors, Johnny Oduya, Patrice Cormier and a first-rounder, and he's right. They could have.

But should they have? I would say no because the Canadiens, with or without Kovalchuk, are not going to win the Stanley Cup this season. Perhaps, with the hot goaltending they've been getting, Kovalchuk would get them into the playoffs, and quite comfortably for that matter. But the guy has only played four playoff games in his whole life, and he has a goal and an assist to show for it. Not his fault, but a fact nonetheless. There's no way of knowing how he would react to a pressure playoff situation. The Devils are going to find out, and if Kovalchuk responds well he'll probably get someone to offer him the $11 million a year he's looking for this summer.

There's no way the Canadiens could have paid that, and rental players are supposed to go to teams with Stanley Cup aspirations. Well, I guess the Canadiens do have those, so I should re-phrase: realistic Stanley Cup aspirations. Gainey cannot seriously believe the team's he's assembled coached by the very expensive coach that he hired can win the Cup this year, so why would he lose three assets (four counting the first-rounder) for a rental?

What he should be doing is continuing to feel out his fellow GMs to see if they are interested in Halak. Gainey would be in a marvelous bargaining position because, unlike Waddell, he's not being forced into trading him. When your team has so many needs, you can't afford having a luxury item in one area of your team.

So Halak has to be traded, in my books. Gainey just better make sure he does it with a Western team, because with every passing game Halak is looking more and more like a dominant No. 1 goalie.

Going to extremes

I was driving around this morning when news of the Ottawa Senators franchise-record 10th straight win was mentioned on the news, and it got me thinking.

Are the Senators that much better than the Habs? On paper, I would say no, and I think a lot of you might agree. You could argue that they are benefiting from better coaching than the Canadiens are, but can coaching alone lead a team to 10 straight wins? Sometimes, but somewhere along the way, your players have to suddenly click. They have to find that identity, that winning formula, and run with it.

The Canadiens have been looking for that identity all season. The winning formula thus far has been to ride hot goaltending as far as it will take you, which usually isn't very far. While Brian Elliot has been masterful for the Sens over this streak (.957 save percentage in eight starts), they have a lot more going for them right now than the guy between the pipes.

The Sens were 22-21-4 after they lost their last game, tied with the Habs for eighth in the standings. Now they're at 32-21-4, 11 points clear of eighth and 10 ahead of the Canadiens. The streak, sparked by the return of Daniel Alfredsson and, later, Jason Spezza, has not come at the expense of the league's cream-puff teams. Ottawa has defeated Chicago, New Jersey, Pittsburgh and, last night, Buffalo over the course of the last 10 games.

Could the eventual return of Andrei Kostitsyn and Mike Cammalleri lead the Canadiens to a similar run? Could the last win against Vancouver be a sign? Personally, I doubt it, but there's no reason to say it's impossible.

On the other side of the coin is tonight's opponent, the Boston Bruins, who are in a tailspin with eight straight losses and 11 in their last 12 games (with only two of those losses coming in extra time). They were 22-13-7 after beating Ottawa on Jan. 5, putting the Bruins solidly in fifth place in the conference, six points ahead of the eighth-place Habs. Now, they are 23-22-9, two points out of a playoff spot and sitting 12th in the conference standings.

The Bruins, like the Habs and the Sens, have been hit hard by injuries to key players and some underachievers, most notably Zdeno Chara. All is not lost for the Bruins, but with expectations sky high this season GM Peter Chiarelli appears to be looking for a way to spark the team into salvaging a playoff berth.

I mention the Bruins woes because as easy as it is to look at the Sens and wonder about the Habs ability to duplicate their tremendous run, it is just as easy to see the Bruins and say the Canadiens could find themselves in a similar predicament. What happens if Jaroslav Halak suddenly loses his game? Or Andrei Markov turns his little mini-slump into a major one? Or Benoit Pouliot stops scoring?

The way the Canadiens have had a roller coaster season, with five losing streaks of at least three games and three winning streaks of at least the same length, the team has avoided either extreme. Only once all season have the Habs been as many as three games away from the .500 mark, a pretty admirable performance in light of the important players they have had to do without.

Is that about to change, for better or for worse? We'll see. My point is that in spite of some people who still see potential in this team and others, like myself, who believe it would be better to pack it in and hope for a high draft choice, the possibilities are indeed limitless even though there's only 25 games left to go.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Still not convinced

I feel a lot of you are likely pretty pumped after last night's big time 3-2 win over the Vancouver Canucks, a team that lost in regulation for only the fifth time in 25 games, if you can believe that.

Well, I don't blame you, because it was yet another example of the Canadiens going into a game where they had absolutely no business winning, and then doing just that. They did it in Washington way back in November and in New Jersey very recently. Good on them.

Positives can definitely be drawn from last night's contest, starting with the inspired play of Sergei Kostitsyn, who finally looked like a forward who belongs in the top-6. Then there was Maxim Lapierre and his rag-tag linemates Mathieu Darche and Marc-Andre Bergeron, who earned every minute of ice time they got (well, maybe not the power play time Darche received alongside Scott Gomez instead of Kostitsyn, but you get my drift). The fact both Kostitsyn and Lapierre along with Tomas Plekanec managed to score at 5-on-5 after a 223:12 drought only added to the euphoria that surrounded the Bell Centre last night.

I was assigned to cover the losing Canucks room after the game and produced this report, and if you feel like reading it, I think you'll be able to decipher my general impression of the game the Canadiens played.

Overall, the Habs were spanked in every area except the scoreboard. The Canucks did everything they could possibly do to win the game, quite handily in fact, except Jaroslav Halak was on top of things yet again and stole another win. This, of course, is what is separating him from Carey Price thus far, his ability to steal victories from the jaws of defeat.

So I give top marks to Halak for his game last night, and even though Jacques Martin alluded to Price's two wins over the Bruins this season, I can't imagine Halak not getting another start tomorrow night in Beantown.

But last night's win did nothing to convince me that this team as currently constructed can make a run to the playoffs. Perhaps another win in Boston will do it, but frankly, if it's another case of Halak stealing two points I still won't be sold. I'd like to see more wins where the team wins the game, as was the case in New Jersey or Washington.

The fact we have so few reference points for just such a win is a perfect case in point as to why this may still remain a lost season for La Sainte-Flanelle.