Friday, 28 November 2014

Game 24: Canadiens 1, Sabres 2

Here are my Canadiens Express impressions of the loss against the Sabres tonight.  I had to watch the RDS condensed version of the game later on since the game itself was blacked out.

Thank you Gary Bettman.

-Too many chances didn't get cashed in.  Canadiens need to develop a killer instinct, instead of toying with their prey.

-Bryan Allen got five hits according to the boxscore, one of which was pretty spectacular at centre ice.  Good.  He has to do this to earn his keep.

-P.K., Andrei and Sergei have to get points on the board to earn theirs.  That's around fifteen million in cap space there, it needs to produce dividends.  No ifs, ands or buts.

-Nice homage to Gilles Tremblay from Pierre Houde between periods.

-I'll say this, the Habs forecheckers were effective, in that they ended up pressuring the puck away from the Sabres a surprising number of times.  Usually a skate towards a defenceman when he has clear possession is pro forma, you don't expect anything from it, except that your own hustle will sustain you during the game and pay off eventually.  Tonight Brendan Gallagher among others would come out of it with the puck what seemed to be half the time.  Maybe the Sabres are that bad.

-David Desharnais fought off Tyler Myers to at least a draw, if not outright wins in different puck battles during the game.  But we still all bleat that David is too small.  Maybe it's the Sabres defenceman who's too big.  Or maybe his heart isn't proportional.

-That bounce at the end of the game can be thought of as unlucky by some, but it's really a tactical error by Carey, a brain spasm.  'Everyone' knows that when the glass has those stanchions, those "unpredictable" or "lucky" bounces are actually expected.  To the point that a goalie plays dump-ins differently depending on the type of glass at the rink.

If there are stanchions, it's recommended that the goalie stay in his net for pucks whipping around the glass, because if just in case.  That's the prudent thing to do.  Around the boards, fill your boots, wander around and play the puck like Cesare Maniago, but around the stanchioned glass, stay in your net, as if Eddie Shore was balefully scrutinizing your play.

Instead, Carey ignored this rule of thumb, maybe not out of carelessness, maybe he just was anxious to help or he saw that the Sabres might have the jump on his boys.  Anyway, he got bit, and we can't write it off as an act of God.  He just got bit.

Tyler Ennis certainly seemed like he knew what he was doing on the play.  He fired the puck in and beelined to the slot, hoping for good things.  He got rewarded with an assist.

-This was meant to be a creampuff of a win, an easy two points, to palate-cleanse ourselves of the bitterness of the Rangers loss.  Instead, we tested the bear trap with our pointy toe until it snapped on us.

London Knights 2, Erie Otters 3 (SO)

I watched the London Knights game against the Erie Otters on Friday night, since the Canadiens-Sabres game was blacked out.

Thank you Gary Bettman.

My main point of interest was the play of 2013 first-round pick Michael McCarron, who has been playing centre on the first line with Max Domi for the Knights.  This is a bit of a surprise for Habs fans, and also for the brass, since when they picked him they envisioned a big powerful winger, not a centreman.  It seems to be working in our favour, aiding his development, since it forces Mike to play lots in all situations, and he's been found to be very good at taking faceoffs, which is not a skill to turn up our nose at.

The Sporstnet crew of R.J. Broadhead and Sam Cosentino were complimentary in their description of the Canadiens prospect.  At one point R.J. Broadhead uttered the words "McCarron skating smoothly over the blue line...", which is a pleasant change to all the criticism of his skating from last season.

Indeed there is a skip to his stride, less chugging and more churning.  He's quicker, more 'on the puck' rather than behind the play.  He's able to dish out bodychecks, to use his size and strength, since he's getting there in time to hit now, he not a second late, two steps behind.  He wins offensive zone draws, as well as in the defensive zone while killing a penalty, all of which is good news.

On a sequence thirteen minutes in the first period, he took a faceoff in the defensive zone and won it cleanly, outright, the puck going straight back between his legs to his defenceman.  He stayed back with his defencemen, and did a nifty give-and-go using a backward pass to get out of his zone.  Then on the dump-in to the offensive zone, he forechecked the defenceman who retrieved the puck in the corner.  He stickchecked and then bodychecked him, preventing him from clearing the puck.  A couple of seconds of battling for the puck later, he won clear possession for his team and, his job done, headed straight for the slot, ready for a one-timer.

Around two minutes to go in the first, having lost a draw in the offensive zone, he pursues the play and finishes a check on Buffalo Sabres prospect Nick Baptiste and propels him into the boards, getting the home crowd to ooh and aah, and preventing a clean zone break.  Instead the Knights regain possession in the neutral zone.  Having broken his stick on the play, he gets another one from the bench and streaks into the offensive zone to support a line rush by Mitch Marner and Max Domi.  On the way he falls to his knees but has the ability to get back up on his feet and corral a loose puck and get a backhand on the net, which was stopped by the goalie but left a juicy rebound in the crease.

Unfortunately, instead of staying in front of the net for such an eventuality, Mike had skated through the area to paste defenceman Darren Raddysh with another big hit.  The Sportsnet announcers took the time to explain that it was a good decision by the London head coach to put Mitch Marner on with Mike and Max Domi, to load up his talent on one line and get something going.

So a good first period for Michael, he's working hard and being a factor.  We've read about his point production, but these are apparently not due to him cheating and waiting for passes and breakaways.  He's down low in his zone, often supporting his defencemen by standing right in front of his net, or behind the goal line to provide an option for a pass.

Damian Cox was asked for his impressions of Michael during the first intermission, and he repeated pretty much what Habs fans have been discussing, that as a first-round pick, he underwhelmed in his first year in the OHL, but is a transformed player this year.

"We saw a lot of him at the Memorial Cup," he said, "and he really to me at that time didn't impress.  He just looked like a tall lanky guy who really didn't bring a lot to the party both in terms of skills or in terms of physical play.

"Well tonight, on the basis of tonight, he just has a much bigger presence on the ice.  He's using that body, he's crashing into people.  I don't know if he'll ever be a tough guy or anything like that, and frankly I don't think the Montréal Canadiens want him to be a tough guy, they want a big body on the wing.  He might take a while, (...), but I see a guy who's not just growing into his body, but a guy who's growing into the idea of being a big, physical presence out there."

"I think he'll be a good player in professional hockey," Todd Warriner essentially agreed, "like you said, I'm not sure he's going be a physical presence in the League, he's a big guy, you'd like to see him use his body more, but that's just not his style.  He's good down low in the cycle game, creating space for his linemates..."

Things took an interesting turn in the second.  On one sequence, Mike had a clear two-on-one break but was far off to the right and had no real angle to the net, so he tried a pass to Max Domi, but a sprawled defenceman deflected the cross-ice attempt.  It would have been nice to see him try to bring the puck to the net, use his body to shield the puck, rather than try to finesse the puck to his winger.

Later, Mike charged the net looking for a rebound, and ended up jousting with Kurtis MacDermid, a 20-year-old 6'5" 225 lbs defenceman he'd tangled with all game.  Both players invited each other to be the first to drop the gloves, but with a linesman between them it didn't come to anything.

This snapshot should give anyone who thinks that Mike will lay waste to humanity when he reaches the NHL pause.  Building on what the Sportsnet talking heads touched on, what we know of the Canadiens organization, and what we know of Michael's game, he'll drop the gloves when necessary, but he's not a testosterone-addled raw meat eater.  Bob Probert or Cam Neely wouldn't have hesitated at the first invite, they in fact might not have waited for it.  Mike McCarron is a different type of player than that, maybe more Joel Otto than Joey Kocur.

Seconds later, London forward Chandler Yakimowicz took it upon himself to confront Mr. MacDermid.  Being 18 years old, and giving up four inches and twenty pounds to his adversary, he got the worst of the exchange, losing on a technical KO, the linesmen jumping in to stop the beating when he could no longer defend himself, overwhelmed as he was.

It was interesting to think that this may have been a case of the coach not wanting to lose his #1 centre for five minutes or even longer if he suffered an injury.  It may have been the coach not wanting him to fight, the Milan Lucic "Coach Julien doesn't want me to fight, or fight third-pairing defencemen" angle.  Or it may have been a teammate sticking up for another teammate, knowing their roles on the team.  It may be an eighteen-year-old trying to prove himself to earn a contract after being drafted by the Blues in the sixth round this previous June.

In any case, this sequence should be used to provide a frame of reference when we try to project Michael on the Canadiens lineup in three years time.  Sure, things change, like when we read the pre-draft scouting reports on Max Pacioretty and they mention how he needs to work on his skating and his shot, but right now, we should think of Mike in terms other than being an enforcer who'll make the Bruins pay for the last two decades or so.

Mike finished the second period the same way he started the game, causing panic in front of the Otters' net, occupying defencemen, getting two clean shots at the net from in close that didn't connect.  He flubbed a couple of opportunities on the powerplay, not connecting with his passes.  He played on the penalty kill, at four-on-four, he backchecked hard on defence, picking up his man but not picking up a penalty in doing so.

In the third, we saw Michael's skating and energy flag, as if his batteries were drained.  Notably near the end, he tried to block a shot by going down on one knee, got spun around by a fake, and then struggled to get back on his skates, compared to earlier in the game.  At the very end of the game, when play went the other way from the offensive zone, he was visibly chugging back, unable to follow the play, and the Otters ended up buzzing around the Knights' net and almost scoring on a couple occasions as a result.

It's not great that his energy level waned like that.  Compared to Max Domi, who was still flying and dancing around defenders, he has a ways to go to match that level of fitness and game shape.  On the other hand, this is a known factor for Michael, he's had to revamp his approach and methods with regards to his off-ice training last season and this summer after a difficult transition to the OHL.  His improved fitness has been remarkable, and helped him transform his game, but he still has a long way to go.  This isn't a one-summer project, more of an ongoing endeavour that will again pay dividends next season, when he moves up to the AHL and takes another huge step up.  So Michael has come a long way, but still has a lot of room to improve in this area.

One reason he may have been running on fumes is that the Knight's coaches had him play huge minutes, every third shift he and his linemates were on the ice trying to battle back from a 2-0 deficit.  One penalty he and four other forwards played as one unit for the entire two minutes, and it was a dangerous powerplay.

The interesting part was how they mixed things up, Michael not necessarily staying in front of the net as a screen, but also moving up high in the slot, almost like a defenceman, but not staying close to the blue line.  He was about two or three metres in from there, and closer to the centre as opposed to near the boards.  From that position he got off a few good shots, including a sweet one-timer, but nothing that connected.

The Knights did manage to tie things up, scoring once on the powerplay and once at even strength, and the game moved to overtime.  While 4-on-4 play might not seem to play to Michael's strengths, he took a regular shift here too, and again we saw him struggling near the end of shifts, barely able to backcheck in time, and not able to jump on opportunities or loose pucks that skittered nearby.  We saw him wave for a change well in advance and far from his bench on one sequence.  At the end of OT, we saw him sitting on the bench, trying to catch his breath, helmet off, his night done.  Good work kid.

He didn't get a chance in the shootout, and Erie won it in the fourth round.

The Sportsnet guys during the game were batting around the possibility that Nikita Zadorov, who's playing with the Sabres, and Bo Horvat, with the Canucks, could be sent down to junior and reinforce an already strong Knights squad.  This seems like a long shot, reports are that the Sabres are increasing the minutes for their young defenceman, and the Canucks have made a clear announcement recently that Bo Horvat is staying with them.  Vancouver also doesn't have any likely candidates to draw from in Utica, and should injuries strike, they'll need the young centreman simply to fill out their roster.

So we definitely shouldn't bet on this eventuality.  Not to say that Bo Horvat's return would play against Mike, to the contrary, he'd still get lots of minutes.  If Bo Horvat and Nikita Zadorov were sent back, it would probably mean good things for our prospect, since they'd be loaded for bear and might go quite deep in the playoffs.  This kind of high-pressure experience can't be bought.

As it is, we should be ready for Michael to play a big role and continue playing important minutes in all situations for his team, which is all we can ask.

Wednesday, 26 November 2014

Canadiens call up Eric Tangradi, sniffing around David Perron, dangling Tom Gilbert?

The Canadiens, after trading for Eric Tangradi in return for backup goalie Peter Budaj, have now called him up to the Show, after recently sending down Drayson Bowman and Nathan Beaulieu.  Eric Tangradi has the size and the skating ability to contribute something to our lineup, and specifically to our fourth line, maybe more than Mr. Bowman could, and more than Travis Moen was able to with his declining speed.

Especially with the current brain trust, I believe that any trades which happen are rarely accidental or come about suddenly.  Scott Mellanby, Rick Dudley, Larry Carrière, Marc Bergevin, the pro scouts, they're constantly scouting games in the NHL and AHL, and they have their list of targets that they'd like to acquire at the right price.  The amateur scouts probably have some say also, they had their favourites that the team never had a chance to draft, but think there's some potential there, the right character and the right fit in the system.

So the team, Marc Bergevin, when he's on the phone or talking with another GM, he's probably always circling around the same names.  We heard that he's been after Sergei Gonchar since at least last summer, and also heard about P.A. Parenteau at least six months before he was acquired.

So my guess is that Eric Tangradi has been on this target list of 12 or 15 forwards who the brain trust has thought might be undervalued, might bloom in Montréal, in the right system, without any other forwards in the lineup already filling his projected role.  It's noteworthy that his size and mobility isn't really something the Jets were short of, they're already a big team that can skate pretty well, what they're looking for are defencemen, and now scoring.  Eric Tangradi may have been ice to the Inuit in the Jets organization, whereas he ticks off a lot of boxes in our organization, whether it's in Hamilton, or on our bottom six, with few NHL-ready big wingers.

Some trades may be a case of taking a mismatched part by necessity, like maybe Christian Thomas for Danny Kristo.  Sometimes a player is included in a trade just to even out the contracts going in either direction, like Florida taking Philippe Lefebvre in the George Parros trade, or Robert Slaney in the Hal Gill trade.  Sometimes a player already in the organization makes a bad list, like maybe when Sebastian Collberg stalled a bit in his progression, and lost his untouchable status, becoming a trade chip instead.

But the Eric Tangradi trade is exactly the kind of trade we've been pining for, swapping our surplus for stuff we've been short of.  We wanted Raphaël Diaz, Yannick Weber, Tomas Kaberle and/or Frédéric St. Denis to be bartered for big wingers, and that never happened, because they never got to the Marc Streit level in terms of value.  We want to trade some of our current defenceman depth in Hamilton, some of our prospects, for other prospects who play forward, who'll add to the organizations mix, add size and scoring.

We traded one of our backup goalies, a guy we habitually bundled with a second-rounder and Travis Moen for a frontline forward when we dreamed up trade scenarios on social media, for a spare piece of equivalent value in absolute terms, but which might fit our puzzle much better, and might have a greater chance to thrive in our system.  So it's a step forward.

And like I said before, maybe Michel Therrien can have his cup of coffee with Eric Tangradi, and run him through the daleweiseaficator, and turn him into a player who the other team kind of feels silly to have let go. He can be another big forward who can’t crack the fourth line of his team, has already bounced from another team before that, but Michel Therrien and his team of black arts practitioners turn him into the second coming of Willi Plett.

As in, maybe he can stand in front of the blessed opposition net during power plays, and get us frigging goal once in a blue moon.  Because that's what we're reduced to, with the doldrums the powerplay has been becalmed in.

We sometimes seem to think that just because a player is big, he's suited to play in front of the net and cash in rebounds.  Which is odd, since Mario Lemieux and Jaromir Jagr are big guys too, yet we accept that it's not their job.

Conversely, Brendan doesn't have the size we usually see for a guy who digs in front of the net, but he certainly has the skill set and determination.  And if he doesn't play that way, he can't play in the NHL, he doesn't have any other skills that really stand out beside his tenacity and hockey smarts.

Guys like Lars Eller, Max Pacioretty and Alex Galchenyuk are big forwards, but they're more nifty than big tough bruisers.  I like how all three have started playing more physical this season, in terms of going to the net more, instead of skating on the outside and trying to dangle and pass.  Lars especially has improved in this area.  But that's kind of the upper limit for them, they're not going to be Yvon Lambert.  They'd in fact be wasted in that role.

I don't really know anything about Eric Tangradi, but one thing he can do is at least say "I'll do that!  If that's what it takes to be an NHL'er, I'll crash the net and screen the goalie and deflect goals off my jockstrap.  I'll do it!"

Meanwhile, speaking of roster massaging and lineup tweaks, the Oilers are apparently ready to trade David Perron, in trying to radically transform their roster and arrest the freefall they're in.  They might be ripe for the picking.

Some will dispute that if the Oilers are this putrid, you don't want any of their players.  I agree about this in a general way, in theory. We’re batting this concept around with respect to Tom Gilbert and Mike Weaver: how useful is a bit player on a bottom-feeding team? Can a marginal player on a poor team help a playoff team? The Oilers’ role players probably don’t hold a lot of value right now.  Teams will be going after their first-round picks, or Justin Schultz.

There are exceptions to this general rule, of course. Glaringly, the Canucks last season were hard-pressed to put together a third line, let alone a fourth, yet Dale Weise was often a healthy scratch on that very same team,  And when he got to Montréal, he contributed immediately. So there are players who are miscast on also-rans who’ll benefit from a change of scenery and a role and system more suited to their skillset.

Again though, the big problem any Edmonton GM will have is that any Limited No-Trade Clause contract, one in which a player can specify which teams he can’t be traded to, will list the Oilers as one of those verboten teams. So Craig MacTavish has few options. He needs to bring in a veteran leader who can play centre to steady the ship, plug leaks, but who fits that description out there who’d accept to be dealt to that clown college?

Offhand, I was thinking a Paul Gaustad would fit all these categories, could go in and play the third line for the Oilers and really help out, but sure enough he has a LNTC. Instead, they’ll be reduced to batting around Oli Jokinen when talking trade with the Preds.

Sure, other teams also have as trade-bait young players and prospects who don’t have that protection in their contracts, but these guys are really, really valuable, they cost a lot in trade. And, they’re not really what the Oilers need, they already have enough talented but rudderless young players on their roster, they need the Brian Giontas and Josh Gorges that the Sabres acquired, to shepherd the kids.

I understand that the Oilers’ kids’ value is being frittered away, but there are vultures out there who know that a change of scenery and some coaching will re-animate them. I suspect Gord MacTavish knows this also, but he may be forced to trade from a position of weakness, while their value is depressed.

So as an unrealistic fan, I'd love it if Marc Bergevin could turn some mismatched parts which may not serve us very well any longer, and turned those into a Nail Yakupov lottery ticket.

Tuesday, 25 November 2014

24 CH, 2014-15 season, Episode 5: Notes

This episode deals with the trip out in the Canadian West in October.

01:25 We meet Lee Katchur and his son Brady, who became friends with Tomas Plekanec years ago when Tomas billeted with them in Camrose, Alberta when he played in the Viking Cup as a teenager.  Since then, Tomas has stayed in touch and provides them with tickets to games when he plays in Edmonton.  We can see how much Brady admires his big brother/hero.

A similar story came out during the many eulogies for Pat Quinn after his passing.  Darcy Rota explained that he was an Edmonton Oil King years after Pat played there, but he billeted with the same family, so they had that bond on top of Pat being Darcy's coach with the Canucks.  Years later, when the mother of their billet family passed away, both traveled together to attend her funeral, and Pat spoke at the ceremony.

02:28  Brandon Prust and Dale Weise on the bench communicating with their teammates on the ice, yelling "Time!" to indicate they don't need to rush a play.  We also see Tomas and Max Pacioretty going over their strategy for killing penalties.  It's cool that these two are used as a unit more often now, kind of a lethal shorthanded combo. 

02:50  Michel Therrien talking to Tomas after he return to the bench following a missed opportunity on a shortanded break.  "You're a shooter Pleky.  When you're on your off-wing you gotta shoot it there."  Which is exactly what every viewer has yelled at his TV screen, except not in such polite terms.

03:20  Between periods, Dale Weise takes care of the pep talk, while we see Manny Malhotra one-on-one with Nathan Beaulieu.

05:15  Strength and conditioning coach Pierre Allard walking to the pool to swim laps very, very early in the morning.  He's training for an Ironman, he's been competing for a few years now, that's where he gets his mojo now that he's retired from hockey.  He played pro in Europe for quite a few seasons.  Didn't know that.

He went back to school and was interested in the training side as a player, so he studied kinesiology.  We can see when he leads a workout with the boys that he's cutting edge, all new-school thinking, lots of compound movements and full-body lifts, footwork and ladder drills, with dynamic stretching that incorporates some yoga among other influences.  

When doing pre-game warmups, we see René get a warm bro hug from a Flames staffer, even years removed from having played there.  So again, we know that there were issues with René during his time with the Habs, but we can rule out any problems 'in the room'.  René doesn't seem to have any problems getting along with everyone, or being popular.

10:20  Cool shot of Michel Therrien pointing to P.A. Parenteau on the bench during the shootout, telling him he's next up,  P.A. has a chance to win the game, and he doesn't disappoint.

I kind of lost track of when or how or why the change came that coaches don't have to fill out a lineup card anymore with their first three shooters, like they used to.  I couldn't really see the point of that, what advantage it conferred, how it made games better or fair or whatever.  I like this better, the coach decides as the shootout progresses.

11:00  Brandon passes on the cape to Carey, who kept the game at one goal against to allow the Canadiens to eke out a shootout win.  As the players leave the arena by the service entrance to get on the bus, they are cheered on by a receiving line of Habs fans who've waited to send them off.

11:40  We get to meet P.A. Parenteau's family, as well as friends and former coaches, including Mario Durocher.  His story is similar to David Desharnais', a skilled player who had to play his way up from the minors before getting his chance in the NHL.  P.A. played more than six seasons in the AHL.

16:15  Pre-game before the Canucks tilt.  We meet legions of Habs fans in bleu-blanc-rouge at the New Pacific Coliseum.

18:15  After the Alex Burrows hit on Alexei Emelin that will eventually see the Canucks forward get suspended three games, but which goes unpenalized and results in an odd-man rush and a goal by the Canucks, Michel Therrien asks the referee to come over and have a talk.  The ref ignores him.  We see Manny Malhotra, who doesn't have an 'A' on his jersey, discuss the matter with the official, asking him "When can he talk to you?"  The exchange is calm and polite, and is another indication of the respect Manny has throughout the league.

20:15  We get to spend a few minutes with the Malhotra family on Hallowe'en night, when Manny returns after a long road trip.  He's not done though, he has to take the kids out for another round of trick or treating.

Monday, 24 November 2014

David Desharnais, Lars Eller and the Canadiens' #1 centre.

A common theme in hockey discussions is the eye test vs. analytics. One eye-test that jumped out at me was a 5-on-5 sequence last night during which David Desharnais and I think some mismatched wingers were forechecking and cycling the puck in the Rangers’ zone, for what seemed like a minute, to the point where they used the opportunity to do a flying line change. First the d-men changed, but eventually David swapped with Lars, who touched the puck once, gave it away, and the sequence was over.

I don’t hate Lars, and I can recognize that David has some deficits and gaps in his game, but David can do some things that Lars can’t right now.

I was struck by how on Max’s second goal against the Blues, David made a perfect pass on that play. By this I don’t even mean that it was ‘tape-to-tape’, but how he stood at the blue line in the offensive zone as an option for P.K., with his back to the wall, eyes scanning for Max. When he got the puck, he waited for the right lane to Max to open between backcheckers, and then passed the puck with his whole body, driving with the legs, and pushing the puck with his shoulders. He didn’t just flick it with his wrists.

It was noteworthy to me, how the pass wasn’t just a last-minute “Here, let’s try this” kind of move, but obviously what he saw happening a couple seconds ahead of time at least, and he had time to deliver it. His pass was perfect in the way a golfer will address the ball and take a strong backswing and follow-through compared to a duffer, or guys will flip a football during a Grey Cup or Super Bowl party in a living room, all wrist, compared to an NFL quarterback stepping into a throw.

I’ve made the comparison before of David to a scrappy scrum half, one who doesn’t have a lot of size or speed, but is amazing with ball distribution and thinking the game. He’s not much use tackling when defending the try line, when making a stand, or conversely when trying to punch it over himself, but he’ll be great at managing the game, giving great ball to the right guy at the exact right time.

When I had the ball, I had two settings. One would be to run over the nearest tackler, or bury the ball and try to post it for (hopefully) my support, or get rid of it, as quick as possible, to the nearest guy in the right colour jersey, whoever he was. But quick.

Meanwhile, a good scrum half will know which players to pass to and when. A good scrum half would never pass me the ball unless we were near the try line, and two or three yards were valuable. In the open field, they’d look for better options, or better, already know where these players are in their mind’s eye, they know where to look for them before they look for them.

So yeah, Lars has size and has been scoring the last few games, but in our haste to crown him we shouldn’t downplay David’s considerable gifts and talent.

Sunday, 23 November 2014

Game 23: Canadiens 0, Rangers 5

In the quest for brevity, let's put it this way: yikes!...

The Canadiens laid an egg on the second game of a back-to-back on the road, losing 5-0 against the rested Rangers, who benefited from an unscheduled day off on Friday, their game in Buffalo against the Sabres being canceled due to snow.

Humble thoughts, in very digestible point form:

-The Habs went .500 against the Pens, Blues, Bruins and Rangers, which is respectable.  It may have been the reasonable objective for this spell.  Anything better than that would have been nice.

-The Rangers are a fast team, too.  When people say the Canadiens are fast, I kind of nod, but take it for granted, when Max or Tomas go off on breakaways, when Dale Weise or Michaël Bournival are flying all over the ice.  Tonight, I saw that from Carl Hagelin, Mats Zuccarello and Martin St. Louis, and went "Oh, that's what that feels like..."

-Not blaming Dustin Tokarski for the loss, but this is the kind of game where Carey might have made one or two more big saves to keep the boys in it, motivate instead of deflate them until they found their legs and their inspiration, and mounted a comeback.

-Chris Kreider continues to roam the Earth, uncurbed.

-If my team is going to have an enforcer, I want him to play like Brandon Prust does.  He went after the puck hard in the third period, but put on the brakes and held up instead of barreling into Henrik Lundqvist.  When Kevin Klein insisted on finding fault with this and demanded satisfaction, Brandon filled in the mohawked palooka.  Nice job.

-Compare to Milan Lucic's putrid turn when he cynically went after Ryan Miller and the crooks at the NHL let him get away scot free.

-Nos Canadiens are honest and pure of heart.

-Which is more than we can say for Henrik Lundqvist, with that backwards flop like Earl Campbell had just run into him on fourth and 1.  Hey Henrik!  Enough with the wincing...

-Glaring turnover by Alexei Emelin on Martin St. Louis' goal, and obviously he knew it.  He just took his foot off the gas a touch, and 99% of the time he would still have made that play, but he got burned.  We have seven d-men playing now, wonder if he sits next game.

-Because I bet Michaël Bournival will be ready by the time we play again on Friday against the Sabres.  We'll run with twelve forwards then, and only six D.  Realistically though, Alexei has earned himself some latitude, and I would think it's Bryan Allen who sits Friday.

-And Nathan Beaulieu will be sent to Hamilton, where with him and Jarred, there will be even fewer excuses for the Bulldogs.  They have to make the playoffs, comfortably.

-Still waiting for P.K. Subban to wow me, consistently.  At $9M, he can't have off nights.  He will, but it's not permitted.

-It'll be good for the Habs to have all this time off between games, get a lot of practices in, and allow Sergei Gonchar and Bryan Allen to blend in better, integrate into the team.

Nathan Beaulieu's and Jarred Tinordi's growing pains, and Dale Weise's growing confidence.

Éric Desjardins repeated two points he’s made before Saturday night on L’Antichambre. He says it’s obvious that Marc Bergevin has seen enough out of his young defencemen and decided they weren’t quite ready yet. Meantime, he felt that his team was ready to go for it, so he added depth and experience to his team to get it ready for a playoff run. As the panel discussed, building for the future is a good concept in theory, but coaches and players want to win right now, and they’ll all see the addition of Sergei Gonchar and Bryan Allen as positives, guys who can help.

Mr. Desjardins also repeated that Nathan Beaulieu will be miscast as a third-pairing defenceman, that he’s not the right player to put out there against bangers and crashers. Previously, he’d said that he himself as a rookie d-man didn’t feel comfortable on a third pairing, that he felt it was easier on the second pairing, even though his responsibilities were greater, and the opposition tougher, it just suited his skillset better. So for Nathan, he feels that the best thing for him is to play in the AHL as a Top 4 in all situation, and to not hang on to an NHL job just for the sake of it, while changing his approach, changing his game and picking up bad habits.

Denis Gauthier and Pierre Bouchard were also on the panel and all three agreed that Nate wasn’t playing ‘naturally’, taking the puck and skating it up with authority, he was forcing things, overthinking things. Pierre Bouchard felt that fateful pass against the Pens sealed his fate, it showed he’s not comfortable.

Guy Carbonneau was the lone dissenter. The defenceman panelists welcomed the fact that former centre Guy put a large portion of the blame for Nathan’s giveaway on a forward (Dale Weise), with a few chuckles. Generally, Guy Carbonneau would have preferred to have Nathan and Jarred learn the ropes now, in the NHL, even though they’ll make mistakes.

Also, let’s give Michel Therrien some love. And his legion of haters apoplexy.

Here is a rough translation of Dale Weise’s thoughts as told to Chantal Machabée of RDS.

“Thank God for Montreal. I never had a coach who ever trusted me this much.

“I got to Montreal, sat down with Michel Therrien and his coaches, and they told me exactly what they wanted, what they expected from me. I felt my confidence rising instantly.”

Chantal pointed out to him that he had five points in five games, including four goals.

“I’m scoring goals because I’m lucky, I’m getting good bounces. Those things happen sometimes. But the confidence I have right now is because I know what the coach expects from me, and that’s phenomenal for a player.”

Guy Carbonneau chimed in that at the start of the season, Michel Therrien had his puzzle probably set up one way, how he thought it would go, with his lineup composed with the players’ names on magnetic strips on his board.

But things happen, like René Bourque, who had a good playoffs. You’d like to keep him going on his streak, but really it just wasn’t working. Additionally, he was dragging down his two linemates, who themselves weren’t happy.

Same thing on the fourth line, with a Brandon Prust who’d given loyal services to the team and wasn’t happy with his icetime and usage.

Guy continued that now that Travis and René are removed from the roster, Brandon finds himself on the third line with more icetime and more talented players. Same for Dale Weise, who a couple weeks ago wasn’t playing great, but once room was cleared for him and his icetime and responsibility increased, saw his confidence shoot up, as well as his production.

Saturday, 22 November 2014

Game 22: Canadiens 2, Bruins 0

Ho hum, these routine defeat of the Bruins are beginning to feel stale.  At least if they pushed back a little, gave us a game, we could get excited about these, but whatever, Carey Price gets another shutout, betters his 'rival' Tuukka Rask, and the good guys leave Boston with a 2-0 win.

Hockey Night in Canada tried its hardest to make me feel sorry for the poor Bruins, missing injured players Zdeno Chara, David Krejci, and other assorted rodents, how it just wasn't fair that they had to play so shorthanded, but if this is part of a karmic readjustment, they're not more than a couple of steps into their marathon.  A lot more bad luck has to befall these cheapshot artists, unrepentant liars and cheaters, and muck dwellers before we have rectified this koyaanisqatsi.

The Canadiens took a 2-0 lead into the third period, after a first period powerplay goal by Andrei Markov, and a second period goal scored on a four-on-two break led by Brendan Gallagher and finished by Tomas Plekanec.  Andrei Markov's goal was the 100th of his career, joining the members of the Big Three as the only defencemen to reach that total for the Canadiens.

Once the Canadiens had that lead, the refs set about equalizing the teams' opportunities, put their whistles away, and let the Bruins hack and slash to their black hearts' content.  I thought of writing down every infraction, for posterity, but then elected to get some sleep instead of tackling that herculean task.  The litany of infractions reels the mind.  

David Desharnais in the offensive zone, skittering two steps ahead of Dennis Seidenberg in clear possession of the puck and curling in towards the net is taken down with a flagrant trip, under the indulgent nose of the refs.

A backchecking Milan Lucic takes a wicked slash at an onrushing Max Pacioretty.

Dougie Hamilton takes another two-hander at the back of Brendan Gallagher's leg, in the calf where there's no padding, because he's a big bad Bruin don't you know.  Jim Hughson euphemizes that he "tapped at" him.  He actually hit him so hard that he pushed Brendan's leg forward, and thus spun his entire body around, so that Brendan's stick flailed backward and hit Hamilton's arm.  Jim Hughson was very concerned that poor Dougie seemed hurt on the play.  What a shame if another Bruin was injured and sent to the infirmary he intoned, never mind that he was the author of his own misfortune?  

The worst incident was when the Bruins were being washingtongeneraled in their own zone by the Tomas Plekanec line.  Torey Krug, little old him, served up a buffet of slashes and crosschecks and interference, as well as an outrageous, spectacular trip of Alex Galchenyuk during which he lifted the Hab's skate up to his eye level with his stick.  Not one whistle from the refs, until the players' shoving and crosschecking degenerated into a fight.  At that point, both got offsetting five-minute majors for fighting.  It was theatre of the absurd night in Boston, with Tim Peel as the deaf, dumb and blind monkey officiating.  

The shot totals seem to indicate that the Bruins had the better game, but that's misleading.  Whatever chances they had seemed to get snuffed out by Carey Price.  Meanwhile, the Canadiens were outskating the Bruins all game and pressuring them with their speed.  One notable sequence in the third period saw the Habs bottle up the Bruins in their own zone for more than two minutes, with Patrice Bergeron hampered by having broken his stick and reduced to trying to kick at pucks.  He eventually took a penalty when in desperation he fell on a puck and closed his hand on it, something the refs reluctantly decided they couldn't pretend not to have seen.

Oh hum.  Up next, the Rangers.

24 CH, 2014-15 season, Episode 4: Notes

This episode deals with the games against the Wings and Rangers before the trip out West.  A large chunk of it shows the marketing and community/charity-based efforts of the team.

00:30  Team photographers past and present discuss the techniques and problems they face when taking the team photo.  Sample tactic to get everyone to beam on cue: "I need everyone to smile again.  Including Andrei..."  Tomas, Max and P.K. crack up in the front row.  Andrei condescendscooperates with a faint smirk.

"P.K., if you could just concentrate here..."

00:50  Smack talk between Tomas and Alex Galchenyuk.  Tomas starts off with:

"For your age, you're way too confident."

Later, Alex tells Tomas "You should go work out.  To handle my passes."

It goes on from there.  During practice, they're doing line rushes, and Tomas tells Alex "You see that?  You give me a horrible pass and I still put it in the net."

Being on a team playing hockey for a living must be fun.  I talk like that to a coworker who takes it the wrong way, I get a written warning.

02:30  Brandon Prust giving the refs advice on a missed call from his vantage point on the bench.  We saw him do this also in Episode 2.  You get a sense that Brandon has to modulate that, not yap too much in case he antagonizes the refs.

Later in the room between periods, we see a different dynamic between Tomas and Alex, with the veteran giving direction to his younger linemate, who is attentive and amenable, on how to deal with Pavel Datsyuk.  Again, strictly based on this access, we can see great dynamics in this team, loose and fraternal during practice, but all business during a game, and everyone assuming a proper role.

And we can see how players like Alex and Tomas are coaches delights, 'set 'em and forget 'em' types who almost invariably do the right thing, the little things that matter.  They're the players who, when it's said that you spend 90% of your time with 10% of your players, they're not part of the 10%, but rather the 90% of players who you don't have to micromanage.

Compare if you will to Phil Kessel or Nazem Kadri or Cody Hodgson.

03:15  Second period break, and Manny Malhotra encourages the boys, dealing with specifics about not worrying about the refs, about forcing the play with their defencemen, etc.  Again, a couple of notches above the fan-derided rah-rah stuff that Josh Gorges would use in his patter, in terms of the usefulness of the content.  He speaks well to the group, takes command of the room by standing when speaking, and other players pay attention.  We get a shot of Max focused on what he's saying.

I'm really liking what I'm seeing from Manny in this area, didn't pay attention to it when he was in Vancouver and the media guys said as much about him.  Now I get their love for him.  I can easily see a future in coaching for Manny.

03:45  Neat sequence wrapping a story together.  We're shown Tomas being strong on the puck in the offensive zone, and setting up the neat wraparound goal by Alex after outmuscling Kyle Quincey, and then both celebrating together.

04:30  David Desharnais' OT goal.  Andrei doesn't have to be told to smile as he celebrates with P.K.  Later, Michel Therrien ruins P.K. with an enthusiastic shove on the shoulder when greeting him at the dressing room entrance.

David gets the boxer's robe from prior recipient and equipment manager Pierre Gervais.

09:15  Team gala dinner for major sponsors of the club I guess.  Every table has a Canadien player or alumnus seated with a group from the companies' lucky representatives.  I'm torn between being delighted for the kids who get to have dinner at ice level of the New Forum with their heroes, and being jealous of those rich spoiled brats.  I never got no dinner with no Habs when I was a young punk.

It brings into focus again what the off-ice demands are on Canadiens players, how much that might drag on a more private person like Andrei or Carey Price.  Brandon Prust or P.K., those guys will love the spotlight and the opportunity to bathe in the adoration, but how much of a deterrent will it be for a player like Phil Kessel or Nathan Horton to ever sign a deal in Montréal?  Come to think of it though, maybe it's a useful filter, that these guys who just want to do their thing aren't really the type of player we want anyway.

A very nice lady explains what a privilege it is for her and her daughter to be seated with "Monsieur Price."  Just sayin'...

Shots of Mike Weaver and Brendan Gallagher animatedly chatting with their table seatmates.  An old-timer pats Alex Galchenyuk on the shoulder and gives him props for his goal the previous night.

10:50  The Canadiens pressing their advantage of being the most prestigious hockey franchise in a hockey hotbed.  They hold a clinic for minor hockey coaches, with some demos on the ice with Stéphane Waite among others, then a lecture and Q&A with Michel Therrien and Alain Vigneault, who's in town with the Rangers.

This is exactly what the Canadiens have to do, stock the Québec pond with ever-more great hockey players who will grow up to be Canadiens fans.  Sure, some will turn out like Vincent Lecavalier and Daniel Brière and shun Montréal, but a significant portion will be like Francis Bouillon or Dale Weise or P.K. Subban, in disbelief that they get to play for their favourite team.  This is something that the Coyotes or the Predators will have trouble ever matching, and every advantage counts in a salary cap system.

I'm surprised to discover that even at the Bantam BB level, for example, there are dedicated goalie coaches, which didn't happen in my day.

13:50  Yet more asked of the players as Leucan and the Canadiens host an evening at the New Forum for young patients.  And what a gut punch that is.  So proud of the guys for the way they interact with the kids at the end of the episode.  The players' wives pitch in as well.  And what a great boost it must be for those parents.

15:45  Notorious sequence during the game against the Rangers when P.K. leaves the ice after getting struck in the throat, even though it's an icing situation and he's not supposed to be allowed to change.  Later, he's discussing this with a ref, who's having trouble getting a word in edgewise, and finally says to P.K. "Just listen to me and then say 'Thank you'."  P.K. gets it and pipes down, says thanks, but it's emblematic of some of his character quirks, how desperately sometimes he needs to get his point across, instead of just listening and then saying "Got it."

This bleeds into his game, when during play he looks at the refs and pleads innocence, sometimes before a call is actually made, while play is going on.  P.K. needs to tone that down, but it will be a struggle for him to change that significantly now that he's an adult.  He'll still need to rein it in, be more Brian Gionta than Theo Fleury now that he's acting as an Assistant.

16:50  This summer when getting a tour of the facilities in Brossard from Pierre Gervais, P.A. Parenteau lobbied him to have his seat in the dressing room 'not too far' from David Desharnais, a friend of his.  We see here that he got his wish, he's sitting right next to him.

17:15  After a Brandon Prust vs. Kevin Klein tilt, P.K. and Martin St. Louis are picking up the equipment of their teammate, and P.K. says to Martin to take it easy, that "I'm still giving you free passes."  The Rangers vet lets that go with a smirk.

18:30  Brandon and Max being all Chip and Dale on the bench, making sure there's no ruffled feathers after a play on the ice.

"Sorry, I was just trying to get it to you, just to like..." Brandon tells Max.

"No no, I was just trying to get it too, I wasn't trying to sewer you," Max replies.

Not a bad thing when two players are hungry for the puck, as opposed to the reverse.  Within limits.  Most of the time.

18:45  Brendan Gallagher struggles to get off the ice after a collision/bodycheck/interference by Tanner Glass.  "Who was it?" Tomas asks him.

Max scores on a pass from super-sub linemate Dale Weise while Brendan is walking it off.  That should make ti all better.

19:15  After the win, David passes on the cape to Brandon Prust, although as the narrator says he neither scored or assisted on a goal.

More thoughts on the Maple Leafs fan snub.

I'm seeing various reactions to the Leafs fan-snub incident, with some commenting that it's no big deal, that the salute is no great tradition, and that fans should respect their team and players if they expect the same in return.  I get what they’re saying in the general sense. Specifically, this 'no big deal' approach breaks down for a number of reasons for me though.

1) The non-salute is not really the issue. The Canucks don’t salute after wins, they never took up the practice, and no one here feels slighted. It’s the specific decision by Leaf players to stop the practice, at that particular time, that caught everyone’s attention. It’s like Elaine Benes when she’s outraged that some acquaintance of hers has stopped greeting her with a nod. She barely knows the guy, didn’t really want to talk to him, but now that he ignores her in the halls, after their greetings lost their force and petered out, she notices it.

2) Phil Kessel not speaking to the media is another issue that is being defended. The thing is, all reports explain that Phil Kessel is given a lot of latitude by the Toronto media, they understand who he is, and don’t press the issue. It’s probably the same treatment Andrei Markov gets from the Montréal press corps, they only talk to him when the PR guy says it’s okay, occasionally. What the uproar is about is Mr. Kessel telling the reporter “Get away from me now”, with an aggressive, imperious, disrespectful tone, that crosses the line.

Phil Kessel is paid an obscene amount of money by the fans, and the media he faces only enhances the product he’s selling. They’re the conduit through which the fans can exchange with Phil, and he needs to understand that.

3) To treat all their fans as if they all tossed a jersey on the ice is beyond stupid and reprehensible. It is not justification for their boorish behaviour after the win against Tampa. The players don’t complain when a hat trick is saluted with a hail storm of ball caps. When they play well, they don’t mind the Leafs hats touching the ice. When they stink up the joint, they need to take it in stride that one or two fans throw a jersey on the ice.

Watch the video of the Leafs leaving the rink after the win, and you’ll see three youngsters behind the glass to the right of the players exit from our perspective. It only lasts a couple of seconds, but you can see they’re so excited/deflated at having stood so close to their heroes. They probably banged on the glass and waved, wanting some fleeting contact with their players, and based on their reaction, they’re dumbfounded, crestfallen, it doesn’t seem like they got the thrill of a lifetime their choice tickets promised to be. If I’m Brendan Shanahan, that’s the two seconds of video I’m showing my players.

4) About reporters asking the same dumb questions over and over, there was discussion recently on how that’s the reporters’ job, to ask the players a question point blank so as to get their response on the record.

“Are you playing to get your coach fired?”


Now that’s in the public domain, and you can compare that verbal answer to behaviour in the past or future. You’re giving the players a chance to express themselves on a question that the fans are probably asking themselves. It’s the same as asking a politician a ‘yes-no’ question on a subject, it provides them a chance to tell the voters where they stand, even if most times they’ll refuse to be pinned down, or at least leave themselves some wriggle room.

And, there are the 0.0001% of the time when a player will say something noteworthy, like when Joe Thornton interjected in a scrum involving Thomas Hertl, that if he’d scored the same type of goal that he’d be “stroking it”. Sometimes you hit the lottery.

It may all seem like a stilted dance, but it’s part of the process, and NHL’ers get paid very well to take part in it. As Michel Bergeron says, he used to steel himself before difficult press scrums by repeating to himself, much like he would before the dentist: “Ça va prendre dix minutes… Ça va prendre dix minutes…”

5) About jersey tossing, I’ve said this before, and I would be aghast if a fan threw a tricolore jersey on the New Forum ice, but it’s the ultimate, most democratic protest a fan can have. He or she has paid a lot of coin for that jersey, to wear it proudly and associate with the team and its players, and to attend the game. If they are performing in a shameful manner, if it’s embarrassing to wear that jersey, what a way to send a message.

There’s a risk it becomes overused, but I don’t think we’re there yet, not by a long shot. We’ve only seen it at Oilers and Leafs games if I’m not mistaken, and it can be argued that the fans have good reason to react in that manner there. If ever it got to the point that after routine losses fans of teams with average or respectable records were chucking jerseys, then I’d agree that it’s a meaningless, self-aggrandizing gesture by a few clueless fans. In Edmonton, and recently in Toronto, that’s entirely apt, however.

Marc Bergevin turns water into wine, René Bourque into Bryan Allen.

First, Marc Bergevin flipped an extra, plodding, square peg veteran forward in Travis Moen, who has trouble contributing in the physical arena due to multiple concussions, and who was blocking the way for promising young forwards Jiri Sekac and Michaël Bournival, for Dallas' Sergei Gonchar.  The latter comes with a much bigger cap hit, but his contract runs out this year, whereas we had another year beyond this one on Travis'.

Now, suddenly, without any previous rumblings, he's transmuted René Bourque, who mere days before had passed through waivers with no claimants, into huge, tough, stay-at-home defenceman Bryan Allen.  Which is kind of the role we were hoping Jarred Tinordi would play this season.

So instead of Jarred and Nathan Beaulieu learning the ropes in the NHL and making mistakes, we now have veterans Bryan Allen and Sergei Gonchar, and a team that is obviously going to try to make a run for the playoffs.

Nathan Beaulieu has probably sealed his fate and bought his ticket back to Hamilton with that brain-dead pass across the middle of the defensive zone to Dale Weise, which was intercepted and ended up in his own net.  It was even more troubling when seen from the endzone camera, since it showed that Nate had an alley wide open to Drayson Bowman in the neutral zone if he'd chosen to go off the boards, as he's been taught to do his whole life, along with every other defenceman who ever played.  Instead, he tried to go against the grain, to be creative, he tried the dangerous play, and it bit him, hard.

Some will grumble that Michel Therrien isn't patient enough with youngsters, that he staples them to the bench after a mistake, but there are different degrees of mistakes.  I'm willing to bet that the coaches, Jean-Jacques Daigneault most notably, but also Sylvain Lefebvre and Donald Dufresne in Hamilton, have hammered the point home to him to take what the opposition gives him, to choose the safe play, to move the puck up and good things will happen, not to make risky plays unless he's in a desperate situation, etc.  I bet that Michel Therrien in his pre-game video and meetings emphasized again and again to his team that the Penguins were dangerous, to not try anything fancy, to work as a team and support each other, etc.  And then Nathan went and did the exact opposite.

There are different kinds of mistakes.  Fanning on a shot is one kind of a mistake, an error of execution, like a goalie getting beat by a soft shot through the legs.  You can take those as long as they don't happen too often.

There are mistakes when the player misses an assignment, blows a coverage, messes up a line change.  That's an error of focus, of concentration.  Those are a little more frustrating, but again, they happen.

Nathan's mistake was one of obstinance.  He did what he knew he wasn't supposed to do, because he thought he knew better, that he was better than that, that he thought the safe play was too predictable, so he should surprise the Penguins with a dashing breakout pass up the middle.

So the brain trust decided that they couldn't ride their young ponies this season, they needed some trusty Clydesdales instead, and we have an instant transformation of the back end, with a solid third pairing rough-and-tumble guy in Bryan Allen, and a borderline second-pairing guy in Sergei Gonchar if his minutes are carefully managed.

I’ve sometimes thought that Marc Bergevin did take the job in 2012 thinking that while he had a good core to work with, some good pieces, that he had a rebuild on his hands, although not one reflective of a team that should have been in last place in the conference. I think when play finally resumed, he was pleasantly surprised at the results, two seasons in a row, and decided not to go all Sabres on us, go scorched-earth, and adjusted his plan to win rather than swap assets for futures.

This season also, he may have been, as he stated, ready for a step backward in the standings, but again, solid goaltending and a resilient team that fights for every point may be causing him to rethink that. Surveying the landscape, he may have switched gears again, and decided that with a Carey Price at the height of his powers, there was no better time than the present to go for the Cup.

At no great cost he obtained patch-job defencemen that enhance the roster, sending away pieces that was more superfluous than useful this season. And his organizational plan that Jarred and Nathan would experience their growing pains on the big league roster gave way to one where, in light of the journeymen results of Alexei Emelin and Tom Gilbert among others, he modified to one where the youngsters got more miles in the AHL, since they are waiver-exempt this season anyway.

One thing about watching 24CH, or the press conferences at the trade deadline or the end of the season, is that it shows these gentlemen are all aware of the issues we rail about on HIO, they have a little more info than we do let’s admit, and they make the best decision they can. They’d love it if Jarred and Nathan were the second coming of Rod Langway and Tom Kurvers this early in their pro career, that’d make things easy, but since they’re not quite there, they have to make a decision.

Friday, 21 November 2014

NHL responsible for on-ice violence, not the NHLPA.

I'm coming across on social media the notion that the NHL Players Association is mostly responsible for the endemic violence and use of intimidation as a tactic in pro hockey, that they're the ones standing in the way of progress.

Relying on the NHLPA to agree that its members should bear the brunt of harsher discipline so as to eradicate fighting is unrealistic, and flies in the face of a union’s duty to represent its members. Why would the NHLPA, which has had to retreat significantly in hugely important areas of its CBA the last couple of rounds of negotiation, give a freebie to NHL owners, without getting anything in return?

There was a comic who once observed that the birth control pill was the wrong way to go about contraception, since if you want to keep everyone safe you take the bullets out of the gun, you don’t make everyone wear kevlar vests.

Same with the NHL. If it wants to make the game safer, instead of relying on tough guys to prevent other tough guys from being overly tough on that elastic toughness scale that’s so hard to quantify, why don’t they just remove the tough guys from the environment? And punish the teams that insist on employing such hazardous players? Which it could easily do, with fines and suspensions for coaches or GM’s, loss of draft picks or draft position, or salary-cap penalty.

Thought experiment: Chris Neil dummies rookie forward Filip Forsberg with a flying elbow, and Shea Weber responds as tradition wants and as he’s been encultured to do. He goes up to Chris Neil and tries to avenge his teammate by engaging him in a fight. Now the NHLPA should willingly agree that Shea Weber should bear the brunt of the blame for this situation?

I worked at a company where, despite what we thought were our best efforts, worker injuries occurred too often, and we even had fatalities. What caused even greater attention to safety in our workplace, about which some managers would shrug and sincerely think and say: “What more can we do?”, was the Worker’s Compensation Boards hammering us with punishingly high rates, and threats of doubling or tripling these, and even more draconian measures, if we didn’t shape up.

This caused a crisis at the very highest levels in our company, but suddenly the heat was on, and major changes occurred. Traditional work practices that caused high injury rates but were previously thought to be unavoidable were abandoned. Mandatory, documented ‘tailgate meetings’ at the start of shift to go over safety considerations were introduced, with great scrutiny on foremen and supervisors that these not be slacked on. Rigid adherence to the ‘New and Young Workers’ safety/initiation training, an province-wide initiative by WCB, again with documentation, and General Managers accountable for completion rates to be at 100% and remain there, was another method used. A safety awareness campaign through HR, featuring our own employees was a visible sign that we had to double down on this.

And what do you know, these and many other changes and initiatives had a positive effect, and the injury rate started creeping down. It wouldn’t have happened however without external pressure to do better, and a focus by the Directors to ensure that we did do better.

What we didn’t do, however, was threaten our employees that they’d face penalties if they got injured. But that’s the sole method the NHL relies on. John Moore elbows another player into next week? Three games suspension for you. Chris Kreider barrels into his fourth goalie in less than a year? You’re on a watchlist, buddy boy!

It’s absolutely crazy. If the Rangers were now facing a drop of ten positions in their draft position for the second round, and the next infraction would start messing with their first-rounder, and if Alain Vigneault and Glen Sather were just back from suspension and facing longer ones for the next infraction, there’d be real change in New York. They’d take players aside and coach them on how they want them to play. Players who are borderline maniacs would play less or not at all, and players who can actually play with the puck would find their way into the lineup. Danny Kristo wouldn’t be immediately described as slender or undersized, but rather as a scorer. He’d be playing in the NHL, and Tanner Glass and Ryan Malone wouldn’t.

Brian Burke and Marc Bergevin riff on player selection and development.

Here's a great passage in a TSN article about Marc Bergevin and Brian Burke speaking at an analytics conference in Toronto, in advance of the Hall of Fame ceremony and GM meetings:
“(Brian Burke) said they start every year’s scouting meetings discussing mistakes that they have made.

The specific example he cited was Chicago Blackhawks forward Andrew Shaw, who wasn’t drafted until the fifth round of his final draft-eligible season, yet has played an important role for the Blackhawks over the past couple seasons.

Burke said what stood out in their evaluation was that Shaw was too small, with the problem being that, “He doesn’t realize he’s too small.”

Which could apply to Brendan Gallagher as well.

Also, before we get carried away with this quote about Marc Bergevin liking Morgan Rielly but deferring to Trevor Timmins’ judgment, there’s clearer context in this article. It’s more a case that he got to see Morgan Rielly play, but not Alex Galchenyuk, who was injured his draft year. So it’s understandable that he ‘liked’ Morgan Rielly.  It's not a case that he preferred him to Alex, like Brian Burke said he did, that if he'd had the #1 pick, he would have chosen Morgan Rielly first overall.

Another interesting point is made by the Canadiens GM, and aligns perfectly with his oft-stated philosophy about letting young players learn their trade in the minors:
Miller also asked about player development, and whether teams should send teens back to junior for further development.
"I'm convinced some teams keep kids as a marketing tool," Burke said. "I told Sean Monahan he was going back to junior, but he forced us to keep him."
Bergevin added, "The players make the decision, but the road to Montreal goes through Hamilton."
Bergevin comes to this decision with perspective, having played in the NHL as a 19-year-old himself. "I played in the NHL at 19, and what happens is that, because you want to stay in the league, you change your game, and maybe not for the best in terms of overall development."
That last sentence tells us everything we need regarding his hesitation to bring up young defencemen from Hamilton before he feels they're ready, and his recent trades for Sergei Gonchar and now Bryan Allen.

Finally, this is relevant when we make our line combinations, or cobble together trade proposals, or argue about bringing up a certain player from Hamilton and playing him instead of an incumbent:
Burke: “I don’t pay attention to anything anyone says in media. If someone in media makes a suggestion and you haven’t thought of it, then you should resign.”

Manny Malhotra leads Canadiens to league-leading faceoff percentage.

As of this writing, the Montréal Canadiens are leading the NHL in faceoff percentage, with a 54.7% win rate.  Last season they finished 17th overall at 49.6%, and recently, this has been the trend for the team, to be average at best.

Amazing the change in one season. Fans used to say we should hire Yanic Perreault as the faceoff coach, but instead the acquisition of unrestricted free agent Manny Malhotra apparently has done the trick.  His steady veteran presence and leadership, his speed and size, his superb defensive play were all thought to be an upgrade on last year's incumbents at fourth-line centre Ryan White and Daniel Brière.  It was also thought that he'd relieve some of the responsibilities and corresponding wear and tear on Tomas Plekanec.

Oh, and we thought he might help on faceoffs too.  Has he ever.  He leads the NHL with a 61.6%, nearly two points clear of Patrice Bergeron and the rest of the field.  And his injection into the Habs' centre corps has played a large role in changing the Canadiens' fortune in the faceoff dot.

One obvious way he may be helping is by giving the guys tips and advice. One thing he said so far this season is that strategy, how you approach them is very important. In some situations he says that he’s not necessarily trying to win the draw, but ensuring that he doesn’t lose it clean. If the other guy has a greater chance of winning, but very little of having a clean draw back to a d-man, he feels that’s preferable, and if it goes that way he’s done his job.

The latest 24CH showed him in the dressing room between periods, as they’re about to head back out on the ice, doing a demonstration of a technique, exaggerated for effect.

Another reason I thought might be involved, and maybe anyone with more expertise on this may chime in, is that now Manny is taking the important faceoffs against the best guy on the other team, it’s not Tomas who gets those all the time now, and there’s a cascade effect. Manny is a beast and he gets a 60% taking on the best in the biz in crucial situations. Tomas now gets many more faceoffs against the #2 or #3 guy on the other side, and his percentage improves by 10 or 12 points against reletively weaker opposition. Same for David and Lars, they’re now going up against comparatively less accomplished faceoff men, and their average has shot up.

So yeah, better info, and more focus on this area, and a domino effect where with Manny our other centres aren’t facing competition as tough as last season, and voilà, we’re strong on the dot now.

NHL can't get out of its own way, enforce its own rules written black on white, to protect its own stars, interests.

Nicolas Deslauriers got a match penalty for spearing Vladimir Tarasenko, as he should have, during the November 11 game between the Sabres and the Blues.

Spearing is considered so abhorrent, so against the spirit of the game and fair play, that the rules call for a very strict interpretation of the offence, and the penalties are very harsh.
Rule 62 - Spearing

62.1 Spearing - Spearing shall mean stabbing an opponent with the point of the stick blade, whether contact is made or not.

62.2 Double-minor Penalty - A double-minor penalty will be imposed on a player who spears an opponent and does not make contact.

62.3 Major Penalty - A major penalty shall be imposed on a player who spears an opponent (see 62.5).

62.4 Match Penalty - A match penalty shall be imposed on a player who injures an opponent as a result of a spear.

62.5 Game Misconduct Penalty - Whenever a major penalty is assessed for spearing, a game misconduct penalty must also be imposed.

62.6 Fines and Suspensions - There are no specified fines or suspensions for spearing, however, supplementary discipline can be applied by the Commissioner at his discretion

The thing is, this rulemaking should have taken care of the issue, except the league acted like it painted itself into a corner, like a parent who threatens to send a child to bed without supper, but then relents.  The league and its referees rarely interpret this rule as it's written, so we've been seeing spearing run rampant, despite measures being available to deal with this subject decisively.

Last season, we saw Corey Perry and certainly Milan Lucic among others get away with spears, repeatedly, and it ballooned and mutated until we now get a situation where a worthless plug like Nicolas Deslauriers, who doesn't belong on the same ice as Vladimir Tarasenko, is somehow charged with covering him on a faceoff, and gives him the North American-game, Nick Kypreos-approved 'shot to let him know you're there', and then another, then more, until he's trying to apendectomicize him with his VaporLite.

This is what fighting begets.  Goons run roughshod over smaller players, who are deemed not be 'an NHL'er', like David Desharnais and Brendan Gallagher, because they're violence-averse.  Instead of having guys who can play hockey, we get to watch Nicolas Deslauriers, with his 'big body', and a 35 goal 4-year junior career under his belt, ply his trade for the Sabres.

Schadenfreude: Ron Hextall, Dallas Eakins and Vince Carter

Interesting night in the NHL Wednesday.

After a 2-0 loss to the Rangers, Flyers GM Ron ‘Helter Skelter’ Hextall loses it on his team in the dressing room, which the reporters outside can hear, and the players subsequently confirm. Yet Pokerface Ron lies like a Bruin, saying he didn’t, pleading ignorance, and then weakly backtracking that he wouldn’t confirm or deny that he did or didn’t. Delectable stuff.

In Edmonton, the Canucks beat the Oilers, with Radim Vrbata scoring two awesome powerplay goals, and Yannick Weber getting a goal and an assist. Highlight of the night was Kevin Bieksa filling in Andrew Ference after the Oilers, ahem, ‘captain‘, pushed him right into Ben Scrivens. Somehow taking exception to that, Intrepid Andrew decided to avenge his goalie’s honour, and laid a generous beating on Kevin Bieksa’s fists with his chin.

After, Dallas Eakins spoke.

And in Toronto, there was a love-in with Vince Carter, just like Vancouver recently had with Pavel Bure. Sure Vince, get all weepy and stuff, everyone forgot how you dogged it for entire seasons while trying to force a trade out of town.

Gary Bettman, Dion Phaneuf are big fat idiots.

Gary Bettman is a nincompoop.

With that out of the way, I'm catching up to some PVR'ed stuff, and on ESPN's "Around the Horn", they have a segment on the Leafs snubbing their fans yesterday.  Now ESPN has little time for hockey or the NHL, they'll usually stoop to dealing with it only when there's nothing NFL or NBA going on,  or when some truly outrageous and violent incident occurs.  "Pardon the Interruption"'s Tony Kornheiser's shtick includes a plea to viewers not to switch the channel when he announces they'll soon talk hockey.

This is what happens when you ghetto-ize your league by giving one network monopoly on your product, thus giving others the green light to safely ignore it, actually make it in their best interests to.  ESPN will give a short snippet of attention to an unbelievable Tarasenk-goal, or an entire segment to a team embarrassing itself, because it's outside the norm and conversation-worthy, but refrain from doing too much to drum up a league and drive ratings for NBC.

And yeah Dion, nice moves there, you got on ESPN for being a mendacious, capricious puckhead.

Monday, 17 November 2014

Game 19: Canadiens 4, Red Wings 1

Thanks to Gary Bettman, RDS's broadcast was blacked out for me, so I thought I'd be forced to watch the game against the Red Wings on Sportsnet, but then realized I could try to sync Pierre Houde's and Marc Denis' call from a feed, and just get the image from Sportsnet.  This way I'd see the game, except for when the director cuts to a shot of Roger Millions itching a testicle, and when they splash a graphic on the screen selling me that I can play scratch’n’sniff along with the Sportsnet gang and have a chance to win a meelion dollars, or a toaster from the Try’n’Save, blocking my view of the initial faceoff kicking off a powerplay.

And it was so much better listening to Pierre Houde and Marc Denis, instead of Dave Randorff, as hard as the gentleman tries, I find his calls annoying.  The Sportsnet image and my feed were perfectly synched, I didn’t even need to finagle it.  Of course, I had to put up with all the screen splashes touting the quality programming available for viewing on other channels in the Ted Rogers family. All of them imports from American networks, but still…

All in all, it was an adequate response to the situation, and an enjoyable way to view the Canadiens 4-1 win.

Following along Mike Boone's Liveblog on Hockey Inside Out, I was amused by his witticism:
That's cool: the Joe (Louis Arena) has a Gordie Howe Entrance.  The Bell Centre should have a René Bourque Exit.
"Only if Tomas Kaberle and Scott Gomez get bigger, more luxurious exits dedicated to them," I posted in response.

Before the game, talk was still on the Sergei Gonchar for Travis Moen trade, and the current unwieldy 11 forwards and 7 defencemen lineup the Canadiens have been icing.  A lot of it fretted about the effect on P.K. Subban.

One big consideration is that we now don’t need to ‘save’ P.K. so he can play 100 seconds of PP. If the pairings concocted recently split the duties on the man-advantage, P.K. doesn’t get into an anaerobic state five or six times a game, and doesn’t need to recover for long stretches. A minute at a time, he can play every second shift and not break a sweat that kid, so hell yeah this can actually help him rather than hurt his development.

Hopefully things shake out, the pairings solidify, and P.K. settles down after an uneven start to the season, and starts eating minutes like a hungry hungry hippo.  Heck, he can now even kill penalties.

And sure enough, while killing a penalty, P.K. gets the assist on Brandon Prust's opening goal early in the second period.  This was aided in large part by confusion by the Red Wings during a line change as the penalty ended, and Danny DeKeyser had to rush to his bench and avoid playing a loose puck that went right by him.

Coming in on a two-on-one rush, the goal was a very nice snipe by Brandon. He faked the pass, or rather 'showed' pass for a whole second, like a quarterback looking off the safety, then went glove side. Almost a no-look shot. Amazing what a little confidence can do for a guy.

Michel Bergeron used to say on L’Antichambre that you can’t ask a guy like Brandon who’s the stereotypical ‘heart and soul’ player, who sacrifices and leads by example, to play eight minutes a night and square off against the other team’s tough guy. You have to reward a guy like that. His icetime, by playing on the third line, with talented player who aren’t just checkers, and by killing penalties, is more reflective of the service he provides the team.  It's also not over his head in terms of his ability and hockey sense, Brandon isn't John Scott or Colton Orr.

As far as salary cap considerations, one of the concerns is that you can’t pay a fourth-liner what he gets paid, the current 'model', the new way to go is to have young players on Entry Level Contracts, or cheap vets on short term deals to fill out your roster.  Maybe if he can continue to click with Lars Eller and Jiri Sekac, even if it’s off and on through the season, it goes partway to quell that concern. Even so, taking into account the impact he’s had on the roster and team chemistry, and factoring in the mandatory overpay for a high-tax, high-pressure destination like Montréal, and for a July 1 UFA signing, his compensation is completely reasonable.

Brandon's linemates also got some positive feedback, with RDS' Vincent Damphousse showing Jiri Sekac the love with the following observation between periods:
“On a enlevé un boulet à Eller en envoyant Bourque à Hamilton et en ajoutant Sekac.”
Translated: We removed Lars Eller’s ball and chain by sending René Bourque to Hamilton and playing Jiri Sekac.

I don’t know who likes that kid more, Mario Tremblay or Vinny.  Mario touted this kid so much at the start of the season, it was sounding like a fisherman's story, he had the kid at 6'3" and 220 lbs at one point.

Soon after Brandon, P.K. scored a goal off a seeing-eye slapper that bounced off Kyle Quincey's groinal area.  Ouch.  Big ups to the man for not flopping around like a soccer player, but rather wincing and limping his way to his bench.

In the third, it was the Brendan Gallagher show.  He picked up an assist by passing on a 2-on-1 to Tomas Plekanec, and then a goal to put the game away after the Wings had made it 3-1 on a mildly controversial score.

First, to deal with the Red Wings goal on a powerplay by Riley Sheahan, the problem is that on a shot that occurred earlier in the sequence, Dustin Tokarski was hit in the mask and it unsnapped one of the straps on his mask.  He could be seen motioning twice to the refs, and we can assume he was yelling at them at the same time to get their attention and a stoppage in play, to no avail.

Interestingly, in a similar situation earlier this season, Carey Price shook off his own mask with a vigorous shake of his head to get a whistle, since once a goalie's mask comes completely off the play is immediately blown dead.  Maybe Carey can show Tikker that trick.

Never fear though, Brendan then scored to ice the win, after battling behind the net with the much bigger Joakim Andersson and falling to the ice.  Alex Galchenyuk, also down low and battling for the puck along the boards, pushed the puck back to him, and Brendan, on his knees and behind the goal line, made a bank shot off Jimmy Howard, who didn't have a great night all in all.

There's been some worry about Brendan Gallagher and the punishment he takes, whether he can sustainably play the game this way and still have a long career. Some suggest he should play more like a sniper, and rely on his point totals in the WHL to support this.

I only saw him play live a couple of times in Junior, but Brendan played the same way for the Vancouver Giants as he does now, always digging for pucks, taking it to the net, getting crosschecked and abused in the process. While he did snipe pucks often, it may have been more due to the lower talent level of the players he was competing with. He doesn’t have a lethal shot from the slot, he’s more of an average shooter that way. So to think he can play more like Mike Bossy or Mike Cammalleri is not realistic, he’s not that type of player.

What will prolong his career will be having a tougher player on his line, in the mold of a Connor Crisp or Michael McCarron, who will be able to tamp down the regular assaults he faces after whistles, to the powerless, speechless, whistle-less, sentience-less gaze of the referees. If they can’t teach other players that Brendan is allowed to stand near the net, that his being there doesn’t mean they’re allowed, or even necessitated, to put him in a headlock, maybe a snarling Jack Nevins can perform this function.

At 4-1, a lot of Wings fans called it a night, leaving the rink to a significant number of fans in bleu-blanc-rouge.  It was a pleasant surprise to hear the very loud “Olé” song in Detroit’s own rink.

Now to pull that in Boston this week…

The rest of the way, there was only one fly in the ointment, and it was this: Are the Canadiens the team with the worst shooting-percentage when facing an empty net?  The Wings pulled their goalie with something like five minutes remaining, but the Habs couldn't manage to nail down the coffin's lid.  Instead, they kept icing the puck and facing defensive zone faceoffs.

What's it going to take to score some empty-netters?  Andrei Markov can sharpshoot the crossbar from his defensive zone, but no one can put it in the frigging empty net for five minutes straight?

Again, minor foibles, having to criticize the lack of empty-net scoring prowess shows how well things are rolling for the Habs, with a 6th straight win in the bank, acquired on the road on the back half of a back-to-back.  Not too shabby.

Sunday, 16 November 2014

Game 18: Canadiens 6, Flyers 3

You know that dude who wanted to 'go steady' with your older sister in high school and got shot down, and tried to push you around because of that, and then you run into him later on when you're full grown, and you look at him and think: "Well what now, tough guy?"  That's the same thing as the Habs playing the Philadelphia Flyers now.

They're faintly ridiculous, with Vincent Lecavalier and his anchor contract being unmovable from the "good sports town" he crowed Philadelphia was.  Their tough guy is Zach Rinaldo, and Brandon Prust did him a favour and let him have a go.  He beat him so handily that at the end I half-expected Brandon to give him a noogie and pinch his cheeks.  They have an elephant graveyard of a defence corps, with at the top of that dung heap failed Leafs Carlo Colaiacovo and Luke Schenn, who were great-white-hyped before being dumped for the next flavour-of-the-season. 

(Did you hear that Morgan Rielly was a healthy scratch?  Did you hear that Jake Gardiner was a healthy scratch?  Did you hear that Mike Kostka was put on waivers by the Rangers?  Because they may need the room for Tomas Kaberle?)

The story of this game is the resuscitation of the Canadiens' powerplay, which had been ranked near the bottom of the league in terms of efficiency, but went 3-for-3 tonight, including two early ones.  At 3-0, the game was essentially over, although the Flyers and the refs conspired to make it interesting, but the Canadiens won going away, with a final score of 6-3.

So all you naysayers who castigated Marc Bergevin for the Sergei Gonchar trade, time to self-flagellate.  You were wrong.  I believed in him all along, and said as much, I'm on the record.  I think I posted on this somewhere.  Or said something to someone at the pub.

In any case, while Mr. Gonchar had two assists, he didn't do anything remarkable, he just was effective with his passes, and when he shot the puck it got to the net.  The main contribution he brought was a change in the setup and execution of our powerplay.  He is the catalyst for a change in philosophy, by which instead of having P.K. and Andrei Markov playing most of the time on the first wave of the powerplay, and having a second pair do mop-up duty with the remaining twenty seconds or so, we now have two equally balanced pairings splitting up the time.

Further, instead of having a Mike Babcock-approved left-right combo for each pairing, we're now using two lefties, Andrei and Sergei, and two righties, P.K. and Tom Gilbert, as pairings.  What this does is it allows one player to be on his strong side and pass from his forehand, and the other to be set up for one-timer slapshots.  

Last season, P.K. and Andrei would often switch sides after a faceoff and thus were both ready to unleash one-timers, but penalty killers figured this out and squeezed them tight against the blue line and got into the shooting lane, so this method was scrapped, but I always thought we should revert to it once in a while, for variety, and especially since the 'one d-man/shooter, three forwards and Andrei goes in for a wander' strategy wasn't getting us results either, after a while.

Regardless of the preceding, I think the main effect this is having is by giving the powerplay a changed look, it changes the luck, and is a break with the system that brought on this streak of futility.  Sometimes that's all that's needed.  It's as if the Canadiens man-advantage team got a placebo effect from Sergei Gonchar.

Another point, and I think the boys on L'Antichambre discussed this also, is that it removes some pressure from P.K. to do it all himself.  Sometimes I sensed a lassitude in him, physical and mental, when he went back to retrieve a zone clear.  It's like he wondered what he could try next, nothing was working.  I was afraid he might be pacing himself too, so he'd coast up with the puck rather than race with it up to the offensive zone.  

Now, there's another pairing that's on the ice, getting results, it's not all on his shoulders, it relieves some pressure, but also kind of lights a fire, he's not getting 90 seconds of automatic PP time by default.  He has to earn it. 

Pierre-Alexandre Parenteau has received grudging assent on social media, but he continues to produce, and it's hard to argue that the Canadiens are getting the better of this trade.  While Daniel Brière didn't work out at right wing, and was miscast as a fourth-line centre, but couldn't dislodge David Desharnais, Tomas Plekanec or Lars Eller, P.A. is a very good addition to our roster.  He is a natural, effective right-winger, has played up and down the lines in the Top 9, and has worked hard.  We could wish that he was bigger or tougher or better in his own zone or that he was more of a sniper, but with two more goals tonight, and some big shootout goals this season among other highlights, he's a puzzle piece that fits very well in the overall picture.

His linemates also picked up two points each, so David and Max are busting their mini-slump.  If the powerplay continues to click they should get their fair share of points, and will relieve some of the pressure for Carey to, uh, carry the team.

Carey Price wasn't spectacular stats-wise, or compared to his lofty standards, he just made all the saves he needed to make.  Which is more than Flyer goalie Ray Emery can say.  Carey fell victim to some bad bounces and scrums in front of his net, but it's good when he can rack up a 'W' without being miraculous.

Dale Weise, after a start to the season that more closely resembled his tenure in Vancouver, in that he generated a lot of heat but little light, hitting posts and flubbing shots, has seemingly found his range.  He potted two goals tonight after his Gordie Howe hat trick the previous game against Boston.  Again, when he's fired up and skating with abandon, that big boy can do some damage, and not just with his fists as the Canucks thought he should focus on.

The only discordant note about the game was the predictable horrid work by the referees.  Now, I may not be the most objective observer, but after les Glorieux notched two quick powerplay goals, I said to myself: "Self, get ready, the refs will now try to even things up."  Which they did.  A blatant trip of Alex Galchenyuk right in front the referee?  Nope, he didn't see it.  

On the other hand, a Flyer defender holds Brendan Gallagher's stick in front of the Flyer net, has it nice and tucked in his armpit?  Yes, let's call Brendan for a penalty on that, and wave off a Habs goal while we're at it.

It's ridiculous how referees officiate based on the score.  You wanted to scream at this crew "All the penalties you called on the Flyers early were deserved!  They've got horrible defencemen, you can expect them to trip and hook and slash, they're outmanned!"  

In football, when an offensive lineman false starts, holds, false starts again, then holds again, he'll get penalized, four times, on four successive plays.  The referees won't think to themselves "Hey, let's give that guy a break, we'll pretend we didn't see that hold.  And let's call penalties on that other team, fair is fair, gotta keep the game close."  Instead, it will be up to the lineman's coaches to make adjustments, call plays that limit his exposure, get him a tight end to help with the blocking.  At the end of the game, if one team has had twelve penalties and the other two, nobody will blink.  It will make sense to anyone reading a recap of the game that one team was outclassed or undisciplined, not that the referees goofed by picking on one team.

So despite the refs' best efforts, the Canadiens still won, and now sit at the top of the NHL standings.  Since the swoon that started with the trip out West, the Canadiens have won five in a row, starting with that halting win against the Sabres, and they're picking up speed.  Next up, Dustin Tokarski takes on the Detroit Red Wings at Joe Louis Arena.

Saturday, 15 November 2014

Canadiens vs. Bruins, P.K. vs. Milan Lucic, Nathan Beaulieu vs. Matt Fraser.

I have to disagree with this passage in a Dave Stubbs article in the Montréal Gazette about the Habs' 5-1 win against the Bruins:
Lucic managed to do that all night Thursday, and he resisted the overture — foolhardy if courageous that it was — of P.K. Subban, who hacked and cross-checked him following the Bruin’s skeleton-rattling open-ice hit of Habs’ Jiri Sekac.

He faked chucking his gloves with Subban but in the end, his team down 3-1, Lucic chose the route of discipline.

I don't think that's what happened. Milan was probably surprised that P.K. fronted him, but was also licking his chops at the prospect. He shook his gloves to invite P.K., but didn’t want to drop them unilaterally, and get an instigator penalty. He was waiting for P.K. to reciprocate.

P.K. we could say wisely didn’t follow through on his threat, but he didn’t cover himself in glory either. He’s famously strong, it wasn’t a terrible mismatch, he just chose to not risk it.

When Mr. Stubbs says that Milan Lucic was "fake chucking" his gloves, I think we’re making allowances for P.K. here. Usually, when two guys want to fight, one guy makes a motion with his hands, a show of shaking his gloves, and will say something like “You wanna go?” The other player can then drop his gloves, the first player drops his, and the fight is on.

Sometimes the second player can choose to respond with shaking his gloves and the same phrase, “Do YOU wanna go?”  Both shake but no gloves are dropped and nobody makes the first move. The refs usually move in and separate them and get an eardrum workout as both players jaw at each other.

In this specific case, Milan Lucic shook his gloves, asked P.K. if he wanted to drop them, but P.K. studiously avoided that, kept a death grip on his stick, and gave a theatrical crosscheck to the Bruin before spending two minutes in the box.

Point Lucic.

Now it’s not P.K.’s job to tangle with Mr. Lucic, but that’s the second fricking time he’s pulled that garbage recently. Last season, when Derek Dorsett tried to amputate David Desharnais’ leg in a knee-on-knee, P.K. rushed to the scene, full of piss and vinegar, and didn’t go through with it, just did a fly-by. Francis Bouillon, who’s much smaller than P.K., took the Ranger to task, and gave him all he could handle.

If P.K. wants to lead, and wants to redress wrongs, he can’t do those crosscheck-scowl jobbies, he has to be ready to follow through. I’d prefer he not get involved in those at all, he gets enough abuse already, I don’t want him getting injured in a meaningless tilt, but if he walks right up to that line, he can’t be unwilling to cross it.

The post-game chatter, from both teams' sides, or at least the media charged with covering them, centred on the role toughness and fighting play in the NHL, whether it's an advantageous stratagem, or an antiquated practice that's irrelevant to the final score.  The Canadiens side is emboldened by decisive pugilistic wins by Dale Weise and Nathan Beaulieu, while the Bruins lament the loss of their toughness, of their Big Bad Bruins.

We’ve had discussions off and on lately about intimidation, about whether an NHL player can be scared off his game, and many assert that it’s impossible, these guys are playing at too high a level for that to happen.  They've been through the wars in Junior, in the AHL, they wouldn't be in the NHL if they could be intimidated, the thinking goes.

I however think that some players do get intimidated, some teams do, and it’s a range, a spectrum where some are more than others, in certain situations. The Habs of the seventies would beat any team anywhere no matter the style of play. Yet the vets still chuckle over how tense everyone was before a game against the Flyers and the Bruins. They tell tales of unnamed players who would come down with the ‘Philly flu’ and not be able to play.

Another illustration of intimidation affecting a team's play is last spring in the playoffs.  Former Habs member of the seventies Cup-winning teams and subsequent head coach Mario Tremblay of RDS was disgusted, outraged after a couple of periods where the Canadiens were playing “du bout de la palette”, meaning from the tip of their stick, they weren’t getting into scrums in the corners or in front of the net, but gingerly poking at the puck from a safer distance. The Canadiens’ smaller players were essentially playing scared, avoiding contact. Yet they got it back under control, turned things around, ‘paid the price’, and ultimately won the series.

Former Bruins player and noted pest P.J. Stock of Sportsnet was ranting on the same issue post-game, that the Bruins aren’t playing Bruins hockey, they’re not hitting, fighting, etc. He obviously thought that intimidation was a useful tool for the Bruins, at least in the past.

The thing is, it’s all dependent on the refereeing, how the rules are made and called. If the refs adopt a Colin Campbell-mandated, Don Cherry rubber-stamped 'anything goes' attitude, and put the whistles away, then yes the Bruins should definitely play the Bruins way, and profit from their thuggery, which will mean rushed passes, and anxious opponents hampered in their efforts to play hockey as they swivel their heads looking for any check-finishers coming their way.

If the Bruins play their way and the refs call all the hooking and elbowing and interference, and the Canadiens’ powerplay is clicking, then they’ll get buried, and the next day the talk won’t be about the ‘Bruins model’, as it was here in Vancouver last summer, but of the ‘Canadiens model’, and how the Bruins need to get better skaters, players who are better at actually playing hockey instead of shawnthortoning, and to avoid the penalty box.

So yeah, the Bruins way, intimidation, it does work, but only if the refs and the league are complicit. If fouls are called, the Bruins are dodos.  And the Big Bad Bruins will have to remold themselves, since every slash and elbow that used to add up to their mystique and tilt the ice in their favour will now play against them.

Meanwhile, Marc Bergevin and his brain trust have been going against type for the Canadiens, trying to make the team bigger and tougher to play against, more resistant to intimidation.  One of his best coups was to attract Brandon Prust in free agency.  Last season he grafted George Parros and Douglas Murray onto the roster.  He's drafted huge, tough players like Michael McCarron, Connor Crisp, and Brett Lernout.  He signed potential fourth-liners Stéfan Fournier and Jack Nevins not for their high skill but rather their 'high will' to do anything it takes to defend their teammates.

Meanwhile, the NHL roster that we thought might, especially with Jarred Tinordi sent down to the AHL, be susceptible to intimidation, ripe for getting sand kicked in their face, has instead mostly skated away from trouble, and stood up for itself when it needed to.

Nathan Beaulieu’s fight with Steve Veilleux of the Wild and Dale Weise’s fight with Gregory Campbell are surprising in that they didn’t have to be backed into a corner to drop the gloves, which is often the case with the Canadiens, Brandon Prust and/or Jarred Tinordi excepted. You’ll sometimes see a Josh Gorges or a Max Pacioretty joust and repel crosschecks and facewashes for a few seconds before gloves come off and a true-blue fight occurs, a fight of last resort.

Instead, both Nate and Dale saw a guy coming in and they didn’t hesitate, they figured they were in a fight and they were willing to join in, they wouldn’t have to be goaded into it. Steve Veilleux especially may have been surprised, he might have been thinking he’d just go up to Nate and yell at him a bit, but he never got the chance.

As some have pointed out, Milan Lucic could easily have done the same thing Thursday night when he was being crosschecked, dropped the gloves and grabbed P.K., popped him a few before our boy was ready. Yet he relented, possibly afraid of an instigator penalty.

I also think that he may now be walking on eggshells, unsure of how to proceed; the Habs are in his head. He’s constantly being told by the coaches and the media to “play your game”, and to “not get drawn into silly stuff”, and really, those statements are as contradictory as can be. If Milan Lucic plays his game, he’ll crosscheck and facewash and hit from behind and run into a goalie, and the refs will let him get away with it and waltz to a pre-destined Stanley Cup, gift-wrapped by Daddy Campbell. His entire game is “silly stuff”.

After the handshake line fiasco, all of his bluster about not apologizing, and then on October 16 giving the game away with a late penalty, being fined for his obscene gesture, and offering a half-hearted faux apology to a Boston media type, but not directly to the Canadiens or their fans, he’s under the spotlight and he knows it. His crooked smile and equivocation shows that he’s tying himself into logical knots with his “I won’t apologize but I’m sorry it happened and if I offended anyone I’m just emotional and hate losing but I shouldn’t have done it” shtick.

And on the ice now, he’s not playing and reacting, but second-guessing every move. He’s going to soft-pedal every bodycheck, be cautious around Alexei Emelin, but then rough him up to show him that nothing’s changed, but take ten percent off just in case, as he did last night in a goal-mouth altercation that ended behind the net. It only lasted a second, and at the end he gave a punch-swipe to Alexei that didn’t connect, and he didn’t press the issue, and I thought “We have him. He’s done.”

Zdeno Chara is also not the same player against the Canadiens ever since his Immaculate Assassination on Max Pacioretty, from which he was given an Indulgence by Pope Gary the Ignoble. Since then, he’s been ceaselessly booed by Montréal fans, and he has had to answer questions from the media, and you can see how it affects him in how he sometimes could cream a Canadien, cleanly and legally, but he pokechecks instead or just bodies them against the boards, like he would in practice against a teammate.

Some in the media have explained that Zdeno Chara never really wanted to be a villain, that it weighs on him, the constant booing and vilification.  Deep down, he just wants to be loved, so he's been taking it easy, allowing David Desharnais to remain capitated.

So it’s kind of funny that Milan Lucic’s ballyhooed passion and competitiveness have caused him to rein that in so that he’s no longer very passionate or competitive. He’s eunuched himself, with his own petard.