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? 


Anonymous said...

I don't get how you can let pleky even talk to reporters at this point. He was backed into a wall with those questions and should have just kept his mouth shut. English is not his first language and you could tell he knew he was going somewhere he didn't want to but could not find the words to help himself out there. Put a guy like cammalieri, gomez or gionta who know how to work the media and not say stupid things. Like they need any more motivation. Now the PR staff will keep him under lock and key and make sure we don't hear much from him anymore.

V said...

Good article Arpon. Lots of fresh info here.

I am not too concerned with what Plekanec said. It's not like we have anything to lose with his comments... the Capitals are coming like gang-busters anyway. It might raise the bar on what Plekanec can expect personally, but shifting some focus on to himself like that is not a bad thing if it takes focus off other things.

And it just might raise a small seed of doubt in their minds. Particular Theodore's.

Arpon Basu said...

Plekanec has great command of the English language and that played no part in what he said. If anything, it's a lack of playoff experience talking. Check out Gionta's answer to my question on whether or not the Habs playoff experience is an advantage for them. He dodged it completely and praised the other team. In doing so, he showed the playoff experience I was referring to in my question.

TK said...

Does this mean Thomas the "little girl" is back?
Let's hope not

pfhabs said...


-very very apt title to your post

Anonymous said...

Arpon, you neglected the one factor which will make or break this series: Jacques Martin!

If he plays his system Washington will roll if he allows his team to actually play some offense they have a chance.

Andy J Smith illustration said...

FINALLY sent your blog logo. check your email. I think you'll be happy!

NYG24 said...


and plekanec is correct - habs have a big edge in the net and with either price or halak