Thursday, April 29, 2010

On the road again

WASHINGTON - I hear Montreal was quite the scene last night, and why not?

While the Canadiens 2-1 win in Game 7 last night is probably not as big of a shock as everyone is making it out to be, it's still a pretty stunning development for a team that is still finding itself, still learning about each other, still working out some kinks.

Still becoming a team.

But even a work in progress was enough to beat the Capitals, because the Canadiens formed a more committed, more determined collective than the seemingly random grouping of individual talents here in Washington.

Hal Gill, perhaps the runner-up in the series MVP balotting (I don't think I need to mention who would win that award, if it existed), put it best in a very subdued, very business-like Canadiens dressing room last night.

“We knew if we just played our system, we had better team play than them," Gill said. "I think that’s what got it for us.”

But now, the challenge is a far different one. The Penguins have very strong team play, as opposed to their rivals from Washington. So the big challenge will be for Jacques Martin and his coaching staff to come up with a new plan for this new opponent, one that I feel will be a far tougher out than the Caps.

Speaking of Martin, I was hard on him after Montreal's loss in Game 4, and I think it was deserved at the time. But as I wrote in my column for last night, Martin deserves a boat load of credit for making adjustments to both his game plan and bench management mid-stream, something I and many others thought he was incapable of.

But really, the most pressure still falls on the slender shoulders of Jaroslav Halak, who was the obvious focus of my story for The Canadian Press last night. He shouldn't need to be quite as spectacular as he was in the final three games against Washington, but he'll have to be pretty close to it for the Habs to have a chance to knock off the defending Cup champs from Pittsburgh.

That is where I'm heading today, and I'm looking forward to a few days in the steel city. I didn't pack enough clothes for the extended trip, but the way this team is coming together at the right time, I should have known better.

See you in Pittsburgh, and congrats to my fellow Montrealers for resisting the urge to loot and pillage.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

A throw-in no longer

WASHINGTON - When Scott Gomez was traded to the Montreal Canadiens in the offseason, the big questions surrounded his salary and just how much Bob Gainey gave up to get him.

No one, except maybe the man himself, spent two seconds thinking about what Tom Pyatt could potentially bring to the organization.

So here we are, in Game 6 of the Stanley Cup playoffs, the Canadiens holding a 2-0 lead in the first period and the Washingotn Capitals enjoying a 75-second two-man advantage. Most of us were probably thinking if the Habs came out of it with a 2-1 lead, it should be considered a successful penalty kill.

But the Canadiens didn't even allow a shot on goal to the Capitals while down two men, and that was thanks to the incredible work of Hal Gill, Josh Gorges, Tomas Plekanec and...Pyatt. Of all people, the throw-in to the biggest deal of the summer for the Canadiens was the one entrusted to help extend their season by one more game. To help get them to tonight's Game 7 showdown.

“When I was on the bench Jacques kind of looked at me a couple of times, and it gave me a good feeling that he was going to put me out there," Pyatt told me today after the Habs morning skate. "It got me pretty excited. Those are the situations you want to be in.”

No one could have imagined he would be in a situation where he was even dressing for the Canadiens in a playoff elimination game, let alone playing such a key role. He played 14:15, nearly five minutes of it shorthanded. While a lot of the credit for Montreal's 29-for-30 penalty killing performance thus far rightly goes to Gill and Gorges, some should also be reserved for Pyatt as well.

Especially considering how far he has come in a few short months.

“Once in a while I have to ask myself if this is really happening, if I’m really playing for the Montreal Canadiens in the Stanley Cup playoffs," Pyatt said. "But in that first game when coach Martin put me out there on the penalty kill against Ovechkin and all those guys, it really kind of wakes you up. It makes you realize where you really are.”

Pyatt says he thinks that may have been the first 5-on-3 advantage he's killed off all year for the Canadiens. It was a pretty good debut.

NOTE: Again, I apologize for ignoring the blog but I've been overrun with (paid) work throughout the series. I'll be covering tonight's Game 7 for The Canadian Press, so if you check out the game story on tonight or any number of other Canadian sports websites, it's probably me writing it. I'm also blogging for, and you can see my stuff for them here.

Friday, April 23, 2010

Under the gun

WASHINGTON - How would it feel if you could never make a mistake? Ever.

The Canadiens are facing a 3-1 deficit in their series with the Washington Capitals not necessarily because they are that much worse than them (though really, they are), but rather because the Habs have absolutely no room for error.


In Game 4, Hal Gill tried to make a play on Alexander Ovechkin as he entered the Canadiens zone, the same play the Canadiens have been executing so well the whole series. Ovechkin, as he crosses the blue line on the left side, almost always cuts to the slot to unleash his lethal wrist shot. But the Canadiens have pretty consistently thwarted that by taking that move away, meeting it with a well placed stick or simply getting in his way.

That's what Gill tried there. Except this time, he missed. Result? Game winning goal.

"It’s frustrating because I made an aggressive poke check and just missed," Gill said. "It’s a fine line. If I poke it away it’s out of our end. But I miss it and it’s in our net. That’s the frustrating part of playing hockey, you’re an inch away from making a good play and he’s the type of player that makes you pay when you miss."

That "frustrating part of playing hockey" has been the story of the series for the Canadiens, because the Capitals are not paying for their mistakes with goals the way Montreal is. And the Capitals are making mistakes, perhaps even more than the Canadiens are.

"We feel like we're the better team," Habs centre Glen Metropolit said this morning after the skate. "We do."

That is debatable, to say the least, but the point he was trying to make is that the Canadiens have controlled the play for more of this series than their opponents. In fact, if you take out the blowout in Game 3, the Canadiens have only trailed for a shade over 16 minutes in the other three games of the series.

But Metropolit quickly added a condition to his comment, that Jaroslav Halak will have to bring it tonight and match his Washington counterpart Semyon Varlamov.

"You need your goaltenders to play well, too. Varlamov's been so great for them. He's given them life," Metropolit said. "You need your goaltender to be your best player."

Before going all crazy about Metropolit's pretty candid comments, know this: he's a guy who sees the end. 

Not that he wants to lose tonight, or lose the series, but Metropolit legitimately questions whether or not he'll be brought back next season. He also says that he's starting to think this might be his final season.

"It's in the back of my mind," he said.

The reason he thinks that way is the ice time he's been getting of late from Jacques Martin. He got five minutes in Game 3 and seven minutes in Game 4, with one shift on the power play. 

"When you're 35 years old, it's hard to play five or seven minutes a night," he said. "It's hard to sit there and watch it, you want to be involved. Then when you do get on the ice, you're cold. It's hard to tell a guy to pass it to you when you've been sitting around so long."

Martin said Metropolit's production on the power play dropped off in the second half of the season to explain his reluctance to throw him out there. But Metropolit says he never head that from the coach.

"I really don't know what happened," he said. "There was no communication. It seemed like when I was out there I was generating chances."

Metropolit is clearly frustrated with the situation, but let's be honest, he is not a player that will win tonight's game or the series for the Canadiens. It's pretty normal for a player in his shoes to want to gripe a bit, though the timing of it is not ideal. But do his feelings reflect a wider malaise on the entire team?

I can't say for sure, but I think Metropolit's thoughts on this matter may be an exaggerated version of how his teammates feel about Martin's bench management skills.

If you were a player on that team, how would you feel when your coach chooses to ignore match-ups game after game, even at home? When the series has essentially turned on two shorthanded goals, and there was one player largely responsible for both, yet he still sees a regular shift? When a talented, young defenceman remains with the farm club when the parent club has a dire need for help on the blue line? When he appears to refuse making any in-game adjustments whatsoever, even though everyone in the building can see they need to be made?

All those things, and all these as well, make me feel that the coach doesn't necessarily have the confidence of his players.

And I can't say I blame them for feeling that way.

NOTE: I know I haven't been updating the blog much of late, and I've chosen the most interesting time of year to do that, but I'm overrun right now. For those who don't know, I'm blogging the series (anonymously) for You can go here to see what I've been writing. Also, my regular work for The Canadian Press continues. I'll be covering Game 5 tonight for them and you should be able to see my story on most of the main sports websites tonight. Will it be a eulogy? We'll find out in a few hours. 

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Get down off that ledge

I know it's tempting, but don't do it. 

Don't jump.


The Canadiens dispiriting 5-1 loss to the Capitals Monday night was just that, a loss. One out of four that will be needed to eliminate the Canadiens from the playoffs, which is something that is still two losses away.

In almost any series that does not end in a sweep, there is one team that leads two games to one. One team that appears to have all the momentum. One team that has dealt a severe blow to the other. One team that appears to be on the ropes.

That team, right now, is your Montreal Canadiens. Why? My thoughts on the matter are summed up in my blog, but should you not be inclined to read it, my reason for the Canadiens loss can be summed up in one word: fragile.

That team was controlling the game last night until a bad break, an unlucky bounce, resulted in a shorthanded goal against. And that's all it took for the Habs to fold. To give up. To lose all confidence.

How can that be, considering the first period they had just put together? And if that was the case, do you think maybe the coach would call a timeout, assuming he actually has a finger on the pulse of his players? 

But, as I suggested earlier, that is all in the past. The reality of the present is that the Canadiens are down 2-1 in the series, which is exactly where they would have been if both teams had protected their home ice. It's not a disaster, especially when playing against the President's Trophy winners. 

But the pressure for Game 4 is squarely on the Habs shoulders now. It is a must-win of the highest order, and isn't it delicious that it will likely be Carey Price faced with the responsibility of delivering that win. (That irony was the subject of my game story for CP last night).

By the time the two teams take the ice Wednesday, it will have been exactly 50 days since Price's last victory.

Got confidence?

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Manufactured desperation

When the Canadiens departed for Washington on Wednesday, they likely all had one, singular goal on their minds: just win one game.

That one victory would shift home ice advantage back the Canadiens way, and it's what any road team hopes to accomplish in the first two games. So now that the primary goal has already been achieved, how do you come up with the urgency to win this next one?

Desperation, like most states of mind, is hard to manufacture out of nothing. It can trigger performances out of athletes, but only when it is genuine. The Canadiens were all saying this morning that winning this game was just as important as the first one, but really, in the back of their minds, you could tell it wasn't. They've already done their jobs, this game would be gravy.

"The key for us is not to worry about getting up 2-0," Mike Cammalleri was saying. "It’s important for us to try to play to our potential, and we like our team if we do."

Marc-Andre Bergeron all but admitted that this game would be like a bonus, whereas it's anything but that for the Capitals.

"We’re conscious that this is a crucial game for them, and we’re conscious that we’re going back to Montreal afterwards," he said. "It doesn’t mean we’ll win both games there, but it’s still an advantage for us. We know they’re all going to give a little bit more and it’s up to us to be ready. But we know what to expect."

Over at the Capitals practice earlier this morning it was a different mood entirely. The team and coach Bruce Boudreau are not in panic mode by any stretch, but Mike Knuble called Game 1 a "wake-up call" that this is a different brand of hockey and that the playoffs have officially begun. For a team that clinched home ice throughout the playoffs weeks ago and had little to play for, that comment says a lot.

Here's my story for today with line combinations for both teams and my belief that Bergeron has become the key player for Game 2 because of his increased ice time playing alongside Andrei Markov. It will be different when Jacques Martin gets the final change in Game 3, but Bergeron will need to be at least adequate defensively tonight as Boudreau keeps trying to put Alex Ovechkin out there against him.

Friday, April 16, 2010

The Daily cop-out

Yes, I'm going to do it again and just linking up the stories I did today for and The Canadian Press.

Here's my CBC story about Alexander Ovechkin messing the bed in Game 1 against the Canadiens. And here's my story for CP on the continuing maturity of Jaroslav Halak.

Just one point of interest from today at Capitals and Habs practice, I was very intrigued to see how Washington handled the storm from the media. Especially Ovechkin. He really appeared to realize it was just one game and that doesn't mean he's a playoff bust, or he's injured, or he has the plague. His teammates almost all spoke the same way, and as you'll see in my CBC story Bruce Boudreau was the most composed.

But at the same time, the Canadiens know they won the game in spite of the fact they were utter garbage for the first period of that game. Boudreau estimated the Caps were ahead in scoring chances 10-1 after 20 minutes. If the Habs upgrade that first period even to mediocre, then we could have something here.

Be back tomorrow, but I'm on Twitter a lot more often so if you are one of the few who have resisted the urge to join, you can click on the link to the right to at least see what I'm saying.

Tomas who?

Tomas Plekanec, the "little girl" from the playoffs two years ago and the healthy scratch last year, has grown into a pretty fine woman.

Plekanec's overtime goal should ensure that Jose Theodore knows his last name now, and it gave the Habs a successful two games here in Washington, no matter what happens in Game 2 on Saturday.

Honesty time, I'm tired. Just wanted to let you all know where you can read my stuff for tonight. Here's a link  to my CBC blog, and here's my story for CP.

I'm going to bed.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Clutching at straws

That's all that was happening in the Canadiens dressing room Monday when Tomas Plekanec was asked about the Washington Capitals goaltending. Because really, that's one of the only places the Canadiens hold an advantage in the series.

So when Plekanec answered honestly, that the Capitals don't have dominant goaltending and that the Canadiens probably do have the upper hand in that area, it blew up in his face.

On Tuesday in Washington, the entire press corps jumped on the quote as a sign of trash talking coming from the lowly, eighth-seeded Canadiens, but that's just the nature of the beast. Jose Theodore, named Tuesday by Bruce Bourdreau as his starter for the playoffs, bore the brunt of that questioning, along with the obvious storyline of his opportunity to stick it to the franchise that gave up on him many moons ago.

But I figure while we're at it with clutching at straws, why not go all out and look for all the advantages the Canadiens might have in this series. It won't be an exhaustive exercise, simply because the list is a short one.

Advantage #1 - Playoff experience
One of the top criteria Bob Gainey used when acquiring players left and right this summer was a history of a winner.

Scott Gomez, Brian Gionta, Hal Gill and Travis Moen all have Stanley Cup rings, while Jaroslav Spacek and Marc-Andre Bergeron each played in the finals and lost by a goal in Game 7 with the Oilers. The Capitals, on the other hand, have two players who have ever made it past the second round in Matt Walker and Joe Corvo, both deadline additions meant to bring in that playoff experience. Most of the young core on the Caps have played three playoff series their entire lives, and not once as the top seed with huge expectations heaped on their shoulders.

Gomez alone has played in more playoff games in his career than Alexander Ovechkin, Alexander Semin, Nicklas Backstrom, Mike Green and Brooks Laich combined.

"It doesn’t really relate in the room as much as it does on the ice, when the pressure’s on in bigger games or the pace of the game goes up," said Brian Gionta after practice Tuesday. "Guys who have been there are used to that speed, used to that picked up pace, used to things happening quicker out there. But they’ve got a good team. They have world class guys over there that have played in big games, Olympics, world championships, and they’ve had playoff experience. So I don’t think too much should be made of that."

It's possible, not likely, but possible that maybe that status as the team to beat will be too much for the Caps to handle. Possible that the calm a playoff veteran can bring to a team will be sorely lacking should the Caps lose Game 1 or 2. Possible that no one will know how to stop the bleeding should it ever start. Again, not likely, but possible.

"We don't think of it as a seed," Laich said in Washington on Tuesday. "The home ice advantage is nice, but we play to beat the other team. Once you get on the ice the seeds don't matter. But when you're the No. 1 see, you do have a big target on your back."

The Canadiens, meanwhile, have two guys on their team who not only upset a No. 1 seed from the No. 8 slot, but rode that all the way to the Stanley Cup Final. Bergeron and Spacek were on the Oilers defence that year they made their improbable run to the Final against equally improbable Carolina.

Bergeron was in and out of the Oilers lineup that year, playing 18 of 24 playoff games. But he was in for six of the seven games it took to knock out the mighty Red Wings, who had 58 wins and 124 points that year to run away with the Presidents' Trophy.

"That gives me a glimmer of hope now that I didn't have with the Oilers back then," Bergeron said after practice Tuesday. "I'm not an idiot, I realize we're playing the best team in the league. But I know in my heart that it's possible."

On the other side is Mike Knuble of the Capitals, who was a member of the Bruins when they were knocked out in the first round by the eighth-seeded Canadiens in 2002. But for some reason, I think the message of hope that Bergeron and Spacek can deliver resonates a little more than the message of warning Knuble can. Just my impression, I could be wrong, but I have a feeling that if I were a member of the Capitals I would just say, "Yeah Mike, but we don't have Joe Thornton. We have Alexander Ovechkin. It won't happen to us."

Advantage #2 - Penalty killing
This series pits the No. 1 and No. 2 power play teams in the league, and even though the Canadiens are struggling with the man advantage, they still finished with the second best percentage over the course of 82 games. You don't do that by accident.

However, Montreal was also 12th in the league on the penalty kill, while Washington was a lowly 25th. Advantage Montreal. 

With the fantastic pairing of Hal Gill and Josh Gorges on defence as well as Plekanec and Travis Moen up front, Montreal has a foursome as good as any in the NHL when it comes to slowing down a power play. The Capitals showed some improvement to close the season, going 16-for-18 over their final six games. But in the four games before that, they went 10-for-16.

Montreal's power play was lethal in the four regular season match-ups with the Capitals this season, clicking at a 35.7 per cent efficiency rate. That will need to happen again for the Canadiens to have any chance.

Advantage #3 - Goaltending
Here's what caused all the broohaha today, but really, this remains up in the air as to whether it's a true advantage or not. Jaroslav Halak has not been at his best of late, Theodore has. If you look at their numbers over the course of the season, Halak is the clear winner. But right now, at this very moment, and considering the disparity in playoff experience between the two, I'm not positive this is a clear advantage for the Habs.

But it will have to become that if Montreal has any chance of winning the series, which is what I wrote in my debut blog for the CBC today. If Halak or Carey Price are not clearly better than Theodore, like leaps and bounds better, the Habs are cooked.   

As far as I can see, that's about all the Canadiens can lean on in hoping to pull off the colossal upset here. Yes, perhaps some magical chemistry will be found prior to Thursday's game and the Habs will morph into some team of destiny. But it's also possible that a giant meteor will strike the earth and render the entire playoffs moot.

So when faced with such a limited selection of things to talk about positively, can anyone blame Plekanec for making the comments he made? 

Monday, April 12, 2010

Washington bound

So the Canadiens draw the mighty Capitals in Round One, and everyone will quite rightly say that regular season match-ups mean nothing in the playoffs. Fair enough.

But throw the 2-1-1 regular season record against Washington out the window and just look at how the Canadiens played against this team in those four games. They competed in each and every one, save for maybe the 4-2 regulation loss on Jan. 5, but even that was a one-goal game late into the third.

The Capitals are a fine offensive machine, no question. They have the league's most exciting player, most offensively dynamic defenceman, and two supporting players that would be the best on just about any other team. It's a daunting challenge.

But the playoffs are all about challenges, and I'm not willing to write off the Canadiens in this one just yet.

I'll spend the next couple of days breaking it down, but this post was more to announce that I'll be hitting the road to cover the series for as a playoff blogger for a third straight year. Very excited about it, but it means this blog might not be quite as full as it should be in the midst of a playoff series. I'll still check in here very regularly, and will provide links to my work for CBC and The Canadian Press so you can check out what I'm up to.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Pick your poison

Well, the Habs are in, but their first round opponent is not yet known. It comes down to two games today. First, if the Rangers and Henrik Lundqvist can walk into Philadelphia and beat the Flyers and Brian Boucher, the Canadiens finish seventh. If not, it's eighth place and a date with Alexander Ovechkin and the mighty Washington Capitals. The Rangers-Flyers sudden-death match-up is on at 3 p.m. on the NHL Network. 

Should the Rangers win, then Montreal gets the winner of today's game between the Sabres and Devils in New Jersey, starting at 5 p.m.

Here's a look at how Montreal did against each of its three possible playoff opponents this year:

Buffalo Sabres 
2-3-1 record.

Oct 3 - 2-1 OT win in Buffalo: Carey Price commits larceny in upstate New York while Brian Gionta bats a puck out of the air to win it in overtime. Montreal was outshot 35-17.

Dec 3 - 6-2 loss in Buffalo: Jaroslav Halak gets shelled for six goals on 37 shots, but at least the Habs penalty killing was perfect on two opportunities.

Dec 14 - 4-3 loss in Montreal: Halak allows four goals on 27 shots as Andrei Kostitsyn, in the midst of his one torrid stretch of the last two years, scores twice and adds an assist on Mike Cammalleri's goal. The Sabres won it on a power play goal with 5:19 to play.

Jan 3 - 1-0 loss in Montreal: One of Carey Price's toughest losses of the season, a 29-save effort resulting in zero points in the standings, typifying his year. Cammalleri had a chance to tie in the dying seconds when he unleashed a laser-beam one-timer toward an open side, but Ryan Miller got across to deny him.

March 24 - 3-2 SO loss in Buffalo: If the last game was one of Price's toughest losses of the season, this was the toughest. A 2-0 lead squandered in the final 1:59 of regulation and Price looked like he gave up in the shootout. Afterwards he said, "We played hard for 55 minutes and after that we just sat on our asses and let them come to us." Ouch. Regardless, the Canadiens did control most of this game and showed they could skate with a Sabres squad that was not missing any key pieces.

April 3 - 3-0 win in Montreal: Buffalo was missing Tomas Vanek, Tim Connolly, Pat Kaleta and Andrej Sekera, but it was an impressive win nonetheless. Halak pitched his second straight shutout.

New Jersey
1-2-1 record

Dec 16 - 2-1 loss in New Jersey: Price stopped 26 of 28 shots and lost as Martin Brodeur tied Patrick Roy for the all time games played record.

Jan 9 - 2-1 OT loss in Montreal: Halak made 26 saves but was outdueled by Brodeur with 29 stops as Zach Parise won it in OT.

Jan 22 - 3-1 win in New Jersey: One of the more surprising wins of the season, Benoit Pouliot, Mathieu Darche and Cammalleri scored as Halak stopped 31 shots for the win.

March 27 - 4-2 loss in Montreal: The Habs fell behind 2-0 and 3-1 but still kept it close until the Devils scored in an empty net to clinch their 13th straight playoff berth. Halak made 22 saves in the loss.

2-1-1 record

Nov 20 - 3-2 win in Washington: A depleted Habs lineup missing Andrei Markov, Brian Gionta and Hal Gill handed the Caps one of only five regulation losses they've suffered at the Verizon Centre all season.

Nov 28 - 4-3 SO loss in Montreal: Habs erase a 2-0 deficit to tie it by the end of the second, go up 3-2 in the third, allow Eric Fehr to tie with less than 12 seconds to play in regulation then lose in a shootout. Shots were only 24-23 for the Habs.

Jan 5 - 4-2 loss in Washington: Price made 39 saves as he was bombarded by the Caps in a 4-2 loss. It was a one-goal game until Alex Semin scored with 2:02 to play in regulation.

Feb 10 - 6-5 OT win in Montreal: The Caps score three in the third to tie it with 19 seconds left in regulation, but see their 14-game win streak come to an end as Tomas Plekanec gets his second of the game at 4:52 of overtime.  

Let's not get snooty now

There are countless numbers of reasons for Canadiens fans to be griping about the state of their team heading into the playoffs, but there's one very big reason not to.

That would be that the team is going to the playoffs at all.

In spite of losing Andrei Markov for most of the first half of the season, in spite of losing Brian Gionta, Mike Cammalleri, Benoit Pouliot and Andrei Kostitsyn for big stretches, in spite of needing to find some cohesion among a group of disparate players brought in through free agency and trade and in spite of needing to adjust to a new coach with a very rigid style.

The Canadiens are in the playoffs when there would be no reason to believe they should be, and even though there was a time many moons ago when simply making the playoffs wasn't good enough, that era is long gone. The greatest evidence of that came Saturday night, with the Canadiens clinging to a 3-3 tie with the league's 29th ranked team, and the Bell Centre crowd rose to its feet to will its team to overtime and the playoff berth that came with it. Then, when Cammalleri and Pouliot each hit posts before Dion Phaneuf ended it with a stoppable shot that got past Jaroslav Halak, the team gathered at centre ice to salute the crowd and take a bow.

And good for them, because making the playoffs in the modern NHL is not a given, and I think people need to realize that. Just ask the Leafs. 

But, and you knew it was coming, the playoffs will be no easy task for a team that comes in looking very mediocre. Looking very much like a non-playoff team.

Halak lost his third straight game, the first time that has happened all season, and what once looked like a closed debate now appears to be open again. I still think Halak will get the start in Game 1, but after looking like the situation was a bit too serious for him Saturday night, I don't think his leash will be very long. Another loss, and Carey Price gets the call.

Another problem is the play of Andrei Kostitsyn and Benoit Pouliot, neither of whom seemed to want to raise their level of intensity one iota to match the gravity of the games the Habs had this week. How these guys can watch a guy like Brian Gionta get murdered while he fights for space in front of the opposing net and not want to match that level of compete is beyond me. The more I watch Gionta play, the more I believe he should be captain of the Canadiens even though I've been an Andrei Markov guy all along. He is relentless. It's just too bad not enough of his teammates are.

Those aren't the only problems here, just the main ones, and we have a few days to pick them all apart. But remember, the only reason we're still talking about this is that the Canadiens have qualified for the big dance. That still means something, like it or not.

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Morning playoff check-up

Tonight’s Habs-Leafs match-up has taken on massive significance due to the Rangers big win at home over the Flyers last night. Not to beat a dead horse, but the Canadiens only need one point tonight to secure a playoff berth. Of course, that’s been the case the last two games as well, and it apparently served to make the Canadiens think it was in the bag. It clearly isn’t.

If the Bruins win today against Carolina – hardly a given – then they would clinch a spot. A loss, in overtime or otherwise, would mean Boston still might miss the playoffs and would need another point or two in Washington on Sunday to clinch. Of course, if the Rangers-Flyers game Sunday ends in regulation, both Boston and Montreal are in no matter what they do, along with the winner of that game.

Boston Bruins – Sixth place, 37-30-13, 87 points
Last night: Did not play
Next game: v. Carolina tonight
2 games remaining, 1 against teams in playoff spot
Home (1) – Car April 10 
Road (1) – Was April 11

Montreal Canadiens – Seventh place, 39-33-9, 87 points
Last night – Did not play
Next game: v Toronto tonight
1 games remaining, 0 against teams in playoff spot
Home (1) – Tor April 10
Road (0)

Philadelphia Flyers – Eighth place, 40-35-6, 86 points
Last night: 4-3 loss to New York Rangers
Next game: v New York Rangers Sunday
1 games remaining, 0 against teams in playoff spot
Home (1) – NYR April 11
Road (0)

New York Rangers – Ninth place, 38-33-10, 86 points
Last night: 4-3 win over Philadelphia
Next game: @ Philadelphia Sunday
1 games remaining, 1 against teams in playoff spot
Home (0)
Road (1) – Pha April 11

Friday, April 9, 2010

Is it hot in here?

One week ago, the Habs had just completed an undeserved 1-0 win in Philly, and were about to embark on a pretty encouraging 3-0 win over the Sabres. The playoffs, it appeared, were a lock.

They still are extremely likely, no matter what the Canadiens do against the Leafs on Saturday night. But the Rangers 4-3 win over Philly on Friday night makes for a tense situation at the phone booth Saturday night.

One thing I'm eager to see is how the crowd reacts to this team to start the game. I've found that generally, Bell Centre crowds communicate their nervousness through ear pounding screaming. That was the case in Game 7 against the Bruins in Round One of 2008, in Game 5 against the Flyers a round later and in Game 3 last year against the Bruins. in each case, the fans had little hope to see their team perform to their potential, yet they still supported the team extremely well.

Will the same thing happen Saturday night? Not sure, but the start to the game will speak volumes as to whether this bunch has finally learned to appreciate the urgency of the situation they find themselves in. A win, and they sleep well Saturday night. A regulation time loss, and it's scoreboard watching time Sunday.

Just to recap, the Habs make it in if the Rangers lose or if they win in regulation time against the Flyers Sunday, or if the Bruins lose both of their remaining two games against Carolina Saturday and Washington Sunday. Or, if the Habs make it to overtime Saturday night.

It's not a bad position to be in, but still...

Morning playoff check-up

Seeing as the Canadiens refuse to do it themselves, they can lock up a playoff spot tonight despite themselves if the Rangers lose to the Flyers, who may or may not be welcoming back Jeff Carter.

Should the Rangers win, particularly if they do so in overtime, then things will start getting very tight around their collar for tomorrow’s game against the Leafs. That extremely unlikely scenario whereby the Habs didn’t make the playoffs we described to you a few days ago? Well, it’s not falling into place, helped especially by the Canadiens total lack of effort last night.

If the Rangers win in OT or a shootout tonight, suddenly the Habs would be in eighth place in the conference, only one point up on New York with one game remaining for each team.

But again, if the Habs can get a single point against the 29th overall Toronto Maple Leafs at home Saturday night this is all moot. Right now, that’s a very big if.

Boston Bruins – Sixth place, 37-30-13, 87 points
Last night: 3-1 win over Buffalo
Next game: v. Carolina Saturday
2 games remaining, 1 against teams in playoff spot
Home (1) – Car April 10 
Road (1) – Was April 11

Montreal Canadiens – Seventh place, 39-33-9, 87 points
Last night – 5-2 loss to Carolina
Next game: v Toronto Saturday
1 games remaining, 0 against teams in playoff spot
Home (1) – Tor April 10

Philadelphia Flyers – Eighth place, 40-34-6, 86 points
Last night: Did not play
Next game: @ New York Rangers Friday
2 games remaining, 0 against teams in playoff spot
Home (1) – NYR April 11
Road (1) – NYR April 9

New York Rangers – Ninth place, 37-33-10, 84 points
Last night: Did not play
Next game: v Philadelphia Friday
2 games remaining, 2 against teams in playoff spot
Home (1) – Pha April 9
Road (1) – Pha April 11

Thursday, April 8, 2010

This is where you earn your dough

No, I'm not talking about Scott Gomez, who looked like he approached Thursday's crucial 5-2 loss to Carolina like it was a big game of shinny. I'm actually not talking about any of the players. I'm talking about the coach, the guy who took a big money contract to be pried out of the general manager's office in sunny Florida and come to Montreal, back to his "first love" of coaching.

Well now, Jacques Martin, you have some coaching to do.

I'm not going to go into the depths of what was wrong with the Canadiens in Raleigh tonight. You're not stupid people, and you know that the team was outworked, outexecuted, outsmarted, outpassed, outchecked, and, worst of all, outcoached.

There's little time to dwell on that, because the task at hand is a great one. To have a team look so completely devoid of any purpose two games in a row against lesser competition with a playoff spot within its grasp means there is a message that is simply not getting through. Either that, or the players are being told to simply take it easy because a spot in the playoffs is just going to be handed to them.

After looking so impressive in handling the Sabres at home Saturday night, that team has disappeared completely. Where did it go? That is an impossible question to answer for any of you or I, because we are not in that room. We don't know these players intimately, even though we like to think we do. No, the man whose job it is to find that answer is Martin, and he better do it in a hurry.

Not because the Canadiens playoff lives will necessarily come down to Saturday night's game against Toronto at the Bell Centre. It still might, it might not, but that's not the point. The point is that the last two games should have been approached by everyone on that team, from the coaches down to the stick boy, like playoff games. Like Game 7's. You win this, you move on, so give it everything. 

Some might say that at this time of year, the players shouldn't need the leadership of a strong coach to get up for these types of games. You would be right. I've defended Gomez all season long, insisting that this is the player he is, and if you disregard his salary he's not a bad guy to have on your team. Also, he has a strong recent history of raising his game in the playoffs, with 45 points in his last 42 post-season contests. But Gomez tonight was the epitome of cool, in that aloof, annoying way. Loose on the puck, careless turnovers, unimaginative play, he was just horrid when the Canadiens needed him most. That could be said of a lot of guys tonight, in fact most of the team except the goalie and a couple of defencemen.

So when that's the case, don't you need your high-profile coach to rattle the cage a little? To step in and do some coaching? I'm not saying Martin should have done more than he did in tonight's game, because he did shake up the lines and shorten the bench in an effort to get at least to overtime. But sometime between now and Saturday night, Martin has to find a way to take this suddenly reeling team and turn it around 180 degrees.

Let's just look at the first periods of the last two games as an example of the deep malaise that is now engulfing this team. On Tuesday night, the Canadiens were outshot 15-5 in the first and down 1-0 after 20 minutes. If the league kept track of how often teams touched the puck, it would be documented proof of how embarrassingly bad the Canadiens really were. Tonight, same thing. The disparity in shots was not nearly as flagrant, with the Canes up 10-7, but were it not for Jaroslav Halak bailing out his sleepwalking teammates, that game would have been a rout far earlier. The first period has been an issue all year, the Canadiens have the fifth-worst goal differential over the first 20 minutes in the league at minus-15. But you would have thought that in these two instances, the first period would be a case of a pack of lions being released from their cage. Instead, what we got were little kittens, content to play with a ball of yarn.

Martin has less than 48 hours to figure something out. Anything to get his talented players up to their potential. Because even if the Canadiens qualify for the playoffs Friday with a Rangers loss, there's very little point going into the playoffs like this. The team I saw Saturday night was the one I though could pull off a first-round upset, and then who knows how far momentum and goaltending takes you. 

The team I've seen ever since is ripe for a four-game sweep.

Morning playoff check-up

The Rangers are still alive after drowning the Leafs 5-1 at home, allowing them to control their own destiny. If they sweep their home and home with the Flyers in regulation, they’re in no matter what anybody else does.

The Canadiens have a chance to clinch tonight by reaching overtime in Raleigh, but if they come out for this game the way they did in Long Island, forget it.

Montreal Canadiens – Sixth place, 39-32-9, 87 points
Last night – Did not play
Next game: @ Carolina tonight
2 games remaining, 0 against teams in playoff spot
Home (1) – Tor April 10
Road (1) – Car April 8

Philadelphia Flyers – Seventh place, 40-34-6, 86 points
Last night: Did not play
Next game: @ New York Rangers Friday
2 games remaining, 0 against teams in playoff spot
Home (1) – NYR April 11
Road (1) – NYR April 9

Boston Bruins – Eighth place, 36-30-13, 85 points
Last night: Did not play
Next game: v. Buffalo tonight
3 games remaining, 2 against teams in playoff spot
Home (2) – Buf April 8, Car April 10 
Road (1) – Was April 11

New York Rangers – Ninth place, 37-33-10, 84 points
Last night: 5-1 win over Toronto
Next game: v Philadelphia Friday
2 games remaining, 2 against teams in playoff spot
Home (1) – Pha April 9
Road (1) – Pha April 11

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

A repeat performance?

Not to freak anyone out or anything, but the scenario is playing out in such a similar fashion that it needs to be mentioned.

Sorry if this causes some of you to break out in hives or start convulsing on the floor, but if bad memories tend to have that effect on you, stop reading now.

I want to go back to the spring of 2007, the first time Jaroslav Halak was being touted as a saviour in Montreal. It was March 8, the Canadiens had just lost their fourth straight game, and it was Halak that was on the losing end of a 6-2 score to the division-leading Atlanta Thrashers.

The loss left the Habs with a record of 33-30-6, 11th in the Eastern Conference, but only one point behind the 8th place New York Rangers.

David Aebischer got the nod the next two games and won them over St. Louis and the Islanders,  before losing 6-3 in Pittsburgh on March 16. Despite winning two out of three, the Habs were still in 11th, and now two points back of the 8th place Islanders.

In came Mr. Halak, who proceeded to win the next five straight and seven of the next eight. A 2-0 win over Boston on April 3 allowed Montreal to maintain its tenuous hold on the eighth seed, one point up on Toronto with two games left for both teams.

When both the Leafs and Habs lost their next game, Montreal needed a single point in Toronto on Hockey Night in Canada to sew up a playoff spot. I don't think I need to go into the details of what happened next, but here's the video for those who need their memory jogged.

The scenario is somewhat different now only in that the Leafs are out of it, and have been for a very, very long time. Almost from the very first day of the season, in fact. But with Toronto's brutal 5-1 loss to the Rangers tonight, the Habs still only need one point to make the playoffs, and it could be the Leafs standing in their way Saturday night if they don't get it done in Carolina on Thursday.

Not sure why I decided to remind everyone of this very dark hour in recent Canadiens history. Maybe it's to say that people learn from history, and there are still some players on the current edition of the team who were there in Toronto that night. Tomas Plekanec. Andrei Markov. Maxim Lapierre. Andrei Kostitsyn. And Halak.

Oh yes, Halak. The one who was replaced by Guy Carbonneau with Cristobal Huet, who allowed all six goals on 35 shots. Halak watched that game, and I can't remember if it was as the backup or from the press box. But either way, he watched as all his hard work was undone by someone else.

That had to hurt.

Perhaps that's why Halak was announced today as the team's Masterton Trophy nominee, despite the fact he's only 24 years old and hasn't had to persevere through much more than your average goalie does at that age (can you tell I voted for Glen Metropolit, who made it out of poverty and a rough neighbourhood through childhood and played all over the world before finding a steady gig in the NHL? But I digress).

Still, tomorrow night in Carolina is an opportunity for those five guys, and especially Halak (who I assume will get the start), to not allow that situation to repeat itself. They just need to go out and...

Morning playoff check-up

Well, you can’t say this isn’t interesting. The Canadiens appear to relish in this end of season squeeze into the playoffs, or out of the playoffs, despite the fact the owner, general manager, coaching staff and players are all different.

Montreal remains in the driver’s seat for a playoff spot, and the chances of elimination are infinitely small. As near as I can tell, the only way Montreal doesn’t make it is if the Rangers beat Toronto and sweep their home and home with the Flyers. Meanwhile, the Bruins would also need to collect at least three points in their three remaining games. The Flyers would also need to lose one of those two games against New York in overtime. And finally, the Canadiens would need to lose both their remaining games in regulation time.

Not likely, but possible.

In terms of tiebreak scenarios, the first one is wins, which the Flyers currently hold an edge in. If the Rangers or Bruins win out, they'll be tied with the Habs at 39 wins. The next is head-to-head records. Montreal took the season series with the Rangers and Bruins quite handily, losing only twice in 10 games between them. They tied at two games apiece with the Flyers but would lose the tiebreak based on goals for and against. So, one point against either Carolina Thursday or Toronto Saturday means the Habs are in, but they could still finish as low as eighth and earn a date with the Capitals. But, if they win their final two games, they finish sixth and draw the Sabres. Or Devils. Or Penguins.

If they lose in Carolina, it may very well come down to needing a single point against the Leafs in the final game of the season. Where have we seen this before?

Montreal Canadiens – Sixth place, 39-32-9, 87 points
Last night – 4-3 shootout loss to New York Islanders
Next game: @ Carolina Thursday
2 games remaining, 0 against teams in playoff spot
Home (1) – Tor April 10
Road (1) – Car April 8

Philadelphia Flyers – Seventh place, 40-34-6, 86 points
Last night: 2-0 win over Toronto
Next game: @ New York Rangers Friday
2 games remaining, 0 against teams in playoff spot
Home (1) – NYR April 11
Road (1) – NYR April 9

Boston Bruins – Eighth place, 36-30-13, 85 points
Last night: Did not play
Next game: v. Buffalo Thursday
3 games remaining, 2 against teams in playoff spot
Home (2) – Buf April 8, Car April 10 
Road (1) – Was April 11

New York Rangers – Ninth place, 36-33-10, 82 points
Last night: 5-2 loss to Buffalo
Next game: v Toronto tonight
3 games remaining, 2 against teams in playoff spot
Home (2) – Tor April 7, Pha April 9
Road (1) – Pha April 11

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Points count coach

I honestly have no problem with the Islanders getting a much deserved two points over the Habs on Tuesday, but honestly, could it not have turned out differently? Could we not be sitting here talking about the Canadiens clinching a playoff berth tonight instead of needing a point in their final two games to simply make the postseason dance?

Because in spite of a horrendous game played before a weaker opponent, the Canadiens got to a shootout against the Islanders after blowing a 3-2 lead with 2:01 to play in regulation and killing a penalty to finish overtime. And once in that shootout, Jacques Martin decided to choose as his opening shooter a certain Maxim Lapierre. Yes, Lapierre was good tonight. A hell of a goal on a breakaway after splitting the defence, five shots on goal to match a season high, an all around solid night. But does that mean you should be the lead shooter in the shootout? No. Not when this shootout is so vital, when it can clinch you a playoff spot.

But really, that's not what lost the Habs the game. A horrendous first period where they were outshot 15-5? That was a contributing factor. Blowing two one-goal leads, leads that Martin evidently felt comfortable enough to sit on? Yeah, that didn't help. Or how about allowing the Islanders to make 81 shot attempts. 81! That's a phenomenal number, well over one a minute. There were 42 of those that hit the net, three went in, another 26 were blocked and 13 missed the net. That makes 81. Just digest that for a moment, and then try to incorporate the fact the Canadiens managed only 52 shot attempts at the other end.

Considering that, the Habs were lucky to come out of it with a point. But that second point would have been nice, and leading off with Lapierre in the shootout was not the way to go and get it.

Morning playoff check-up

The Bruins lost in overtime to the Capitals last night, giving them sole possession of seventh place, one point ahead of the Flyers and one point behind the Canadiens. All three teams have three games left to play.

The playoff picture can become much clearer tonight. If either the Rangers lose in Buffalo or the Flyers lose in Toronto in regulation and the Canadiens pick up a point in Long Island, the Habs are in the playoffs. (UPDATE 12:03 p.m. - Thanks to "hockeyzombie" for pointing out in the comments that this is blatantly wrong. The Habs would need to win to clinch a spot if either the Rangers or Flyers lose in regulation. They can also clinch if both the Rangers and Flyers lose in regulation and they get a point in Long Island.) 

If the Thrashers lose in regulation or overtime and the Flyers win, Atlanta is officially eliminated. The Rangers could lose in regulation tonight and still make it through a number of scenarios, though winning out against Toronto tomorrow and sweeping a home-and-home with the Flyers to close the season would be the easiest one.

The Bruins still might not make the playoffs, though their chances improved by over 6 per cent with that loser point last night, according to They have three difficult games remaining on the schedule with Buffalo and Carolina at home and in Washington to close the season. The saving grace may be that both Buffalo and especially Washington could be resting some banged up players, though the Sabres still have a good chance of finishing second in the conference. Buffalo finishes the regular season in New Jersey, which could ultimately determine that seeding.

Current playoff likelihood odds at are Habs at 97.9 per cent, Bruins at 82.9 per cent, Flyers at 75.3 per cent, Rangers at 42.5 per cent and Thrashers at 1.4 per cent. The Islanders, still not mathematically eliminated, are nonetheless listed at 0 per cent (UPDATE 1:33 p.m. - Oops, the Islanders are indeed eliminated from playoff contention. The Gazette mentioned this morning that they would be eliminated with a loss tonight, but it's moot now seeing as the Isles can only tie the Flyers in points but would have fewer wins. Not a good day for me so far.) 

Montreal Canadiens – Sixth place, 39-32-8, 86 points
Last night – Did not play
Next game: @ New York Islanders tonight
3 games remaining, 0 against teams in playoff spot
Home (1) – Tor April 10
Road (2) – NYI April 6, Car April 8

Boston Bruins – Seventh place, 36-30-13, 85 points
Last night: 2-1 overtime loss to Capitals
Next game: v. Buffalo Thursday
3 games remaining, 2 against teams in playoff spot
Home (2) – Buf April 8, Car April 10 
Road (1) – Was April 11

Philadelphia Flyers – Eighth place, 39-34-6, 84 points
Last night: Did not play
Next game: @ Toronto tonight
3 games remaining, 0 against teams in playoff spot
Home (1) – NYR April 11
Road (2) – Tor April 6, NYR April 9

New York Rangers – Ninth place, 36-32-10, 82 points
Last night: Did not play
Next game: @ Buffalo tonight
4 games remaining, 3 against teams in playoff spot
Home (2) – Tor April 7, Pha April 9
Road (2) – Buf April 6, Pha April 11

Atlanta Thrashers – 10th place, 34-32-13, 81 points
Last night: Did not play
Next game: v New Jersey tonight
3 games remaining, 3 against teams in playoff spot
Home (2) – NJ April 6, Pgh April 10
Road (1) – Was April 9

Habs a strong even strength team?

In the current context, with the Canadiens struggling to score goals at any time, let alone 5-on-5, to suggest this is a strong even strength team appears quite ludicrous. But when you're good at math and know which statistics to look for, that seemingly absurd notion stops sounding so crazy.

Alas, I'm not good at math, nor do I know which statistics to look for. But Timo Seppa, a writer at Puck Prospectus, has crunched the numbers and decided that Montreal's play since the Olympic break makes the Habs a prime darkhorse contender to come out of the east. His logic appears pretty sound, namely that since Andrei Markov's return from the injury the Canadiens have become a much stronger defensive team at even strength, which offsets some of the current offensive woes.

Seppa also goes through an exercise I tried to do about a month ago, projecting what a fully healthy Habs squad would like. Except he uses something called GVT, which stands for Goal Versus Threshold. It's a statistic that Puck Prospectus author Tom Awad devised in order to be able to compare offensive players with defensive players and goaltenders to know who is most valuable to a team. Or at least that's what I can understand. The explanation of GVT by Awad is in two parts, part one is here and part two is here.

Seppa's number crunching also presumed that Jaroslav Halak would have started 10 more games at this point, which brings us to today's news that he was named the NHL's first star of the week in a bit of a no-brainer decision.

The crux of Seppa's thinking is that if the Canadiens had no injuries to their key players, and if Benoit Pouliot spent all season in Montreal and if Halak had played more often, the Canadiens goal differential would improve by about 30 goals. That's a very significant jump. He uses that to determine, seeing as all of the factors he used are currently in place, that the Canadiens will be a very difficult out in the first round of the playoffs and beyond. He concludes his piece like this:

"With all of their stars healthy and with Jaroslav Halak in goal throughout the postseason, there’s a strong case to be made for Montreal being the fifth best team in the playoffs and the second best team in the Eastern Conference. Translation? The second through fourth seeds––Pittsburgh, New Jersey and Buffalo––should be wishing for anyone but Montreal in the first round, because those are upsets in the making. And, believe it or not, the Habs might just be making the Capitals sweat out a long series in round number two. And from there on…You never know.
Montreal? Nous croyons."
The methodology appears sound, but I'm not sure if there's a way to statistically project how a team will respond in the playoffs. Still, I thought Seppa's work would be of significant interest to all of you.