Friday, April 22, 2011

Scapegoat, Spacegoat, Martygoat?

Well I'll admit it, Spacek looks bad, looks like he's in training camp trying to get into game-shape in what are the most important games of the year.  He looks slow and a little lost on the ice, a lot of which can be attributed to the fact that he had been out of the lineup for 2 months prior to the playoffs.  So the big question is, with Paul Mara and Yannick Weber lying in wait, 2 players that appear to be more up for the task of 6th defensman, why is Spacek still in the lineup? It seems that Habs fans and media alike have argued about which player(s) are the scapegoats for all the losses this year, but almost everybody can agree that Jacques Martin is the real problem. 

It should have been clear after Weber's goal and solid performance in game 2 that he deserved to be back in the lineup, but he was benched.  It should have been clear that Spacek looked extra rusty in game 3's loss and that it was time to take advantage of their D depth, but no changes were made.  Martin's obsession with giving veterans a limitless leash could very well be the straw that breaks the camel's back.  With that said, my biggest problem with Martin is, and has been all year, his inability to adapt to in-game situations.  Last night was another glaring example of this.  The second the team took a 3-1 lead, which capped off about 7-10 minutes of complete domination, the Habs clearly took their foot off the pedal and resorted back to a completely defensive system. From that point on they never looked the same, and the Bruins began to take control of the game.  The change began immediately after the Bruins timeout, where Julien riled up his team, probably telling them to start playing like the Canadiens.  I don't know what Martin said to his team, if anything at all, but somehow they got the message to start playing like the Bruins. 

The key word here is aggression, or lack there of.  In the first two games, the Habs were super aggressive on the fore-check and one-on-one battles in all three zones.  Not only did this result in great scoring opportunities, but our defense became more aggressive on the puck carrier as well.  When we switch from this aggression to ultra passivity (as seen in the 2nd period of last nights game) the defensemen become nothing more than pylons to shoot around.  The reason Spacek gets caught flat-footed on the Ryder goal is because he is barely moving to begin with.  It's like a goaltender who gives up a goal because he hasn't seen a shot for ten minutes: You're more likely to screw up if you're constantly waiting for the action to come to you, instead of being constantly implicated in it.  That doesn't mean that the d-men need to pinch all the time, or that the forwards always have to fore-check like crazy--no team, especially a smallish one like the Habs can sustain that kind of pressure. However, you're only adding fuel to the fire, i.e. giving the Bruins confidence (that they had little of), by continuously putting no pressure on their D, and letting their forwards walk willy-nilly into our zone, time and time again.  The Habs lost the game because they went into a defensive shell, and it's not the first time we've seen this.  Hopefully if we get a lead of this magnitude again, we'll know how to handle it better, because last night was a complete travesty.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Habs/Bruins: Anger Management

It's been 3 games of pretty intense competition thus far between these two storied franchises. There's been a lot of energy, a lot of nice hits, goals and saves.  Overall, it's been very entertaining, and the casual fan is probably enthralled.  For me though, I sense something integral to the series missing: visible hatred.  Besides two moronic plays, one being Chara rubbing out Plekanec for no apparent reason, and another where Pouliot ran a Bruin player for equally obscure reasons (you'll remember that White had already done the job quite satisfactorily on that play), the series hasn't really displayed any of the anger-filled elements from the regular season series.  Strangely, it appears as though the Canadiens are the more angry and physical team, as if the Bruins are convinced that if they resort to violence they'll lose via the power play.  This strikes me as odd because the Bruins seemed to be an unstoppable force when they controlled the physical side of the game during the regular season.  It would appear that both coaches are instituting their very own schools of anger management, so to not let the series careen out of control.  Sadly, this may mean that the games from this point forward will be, in a word, boring.  If the Bruins start playing Jacques Martin hockey, which is to get the lead and try to stifle the neutral zone, limiting the opportunities for an up-and-down, ebb-and-flow-like game, it could become a real snooze-fest.

Good thing we have the Sharks/Kings to watch.  Last night's game was absolutely absurd.  Here was a case of two teams, the Sharks in the first, and the Kings in the second, completely dropping the ball defensively.  If you're a Habs fan and want to find out what happens when Price doesn't sit on his head, now that was the game for you.  Niemi gave up 4 goals on 10 shots, the goals being the shots that were the toughies, so to speak.  You expect your star goalie to at least make a couple of big saves: he made none.  But who cares about defense, let's talk offense, and in particular the San Jose Sharks.  If you want to know what kind of forwards I'd like to see on the Habs, just to take a quick look at the Sharks second line of Heatley, Couture and Clowe.  Each player can score, hit, pass and control the puck with ease in the down-low cycle. The smallest player on the line: Couture at 6'1 200.  Clowe is like Travis Moen but better at everything, Heatley a 6'2 version of Cammalieri, Couture plays with the same gusto and perseverance as Plekanec, but can actual score on a breakaway. In short they're a dominant trio, and need i remind you, it's the Sharks SECOND line.  Oh to dream...

Saturday, April 9, 2011

Habs report: Game 82

The last game of the year has arrived and all I can say is, what a bizarre season it has been.  We currently sit in 6th with 94 points, and considering our two best players have been a goalie and a rookie, I’m surprised we’re not in 12th.  But that’s what the current edition of the Habs are all about: defying the odds and critics alike, every step of the way.  They enter the playoffs as the team nobody is afraid on paper, but for some reason nobody really wants to play.  There are two major reasons for this. One is obviously Carey Price.  He’s the type of goalie that rarely misses a shot that he can see, and has taken his game to a new level this year.  Price used to be a goalie that relied solely on his technique and positioning to stop pucks.  This year he has learnt the art of scrambling and fighting for pucks, making desperation-type saves.  This is bad news for any Hab opponent. The second thing that makes the Canadiens a scary team to play has less to do with the team, and more to do with the arena they play in.  The Bell centre, with its loud and lets face it, annoying fans, can be a very hellish place to play in.  If there’s a packed house that can make you lose your concentration, it’s the Bell Centre.  All the players know it, and they can’t help but think about it when they first step on to the ice. It’s no fluke that the Bruins play so badly in the Bell Centre, and so much better at home.  If the Habs draw the Bruins in the playoffs, it would only make sense that the series would go the distance. There are few teams in any sport that have a fan base as passionate as these two clubs. After all that has gone on between these teams all year long, it would be fitting to see them go head-to-head in the first round—any sports fan would tend to agree.

As for tonight’s game, well it would be nice to see some actual chemistry on the Plekanec line.  I feel like they’re close, but not quite there yet.  Getting a goal (or two) tonight against a Leafs team that will definitely not be going through the motions, would be a huge plus going into the playoffs.  Another player I’d like to see have a strong game is Benoit Pouliot.  He’s looked completely out of sorts lately, nothing like the Pouliot we saw at the beginning of the year, when he was scoring important goals and being a fore-checking nuisance for opposing defenses.  Maybe he needs his old linemates Mathieu Darche and Jeff Halpern to get going, I don’t know.  What I do know Is that he’s a player that can get hot and be a serious thorn in the side of opponents, but unfortunately can be the complete opposite as well; as in a player that takes bad penalties and does nothing but hurt his own team.  He’s the type of role player that can make a huge difference, good or bad, in the upcoming playoffs.  Besides that, I hope to see the Canadiens, win or lose, put in a playoff-type performance tonight.  They aren’t a team that can afford to put up a stinker in its last game, and go into the playoffs doubting their own abilities.  Being supremely confident is not one of their top qualities, and if there’s a playoff-bound team out there that needs to end the season on a positive note, it’s the Canadiens. So regardless of how little this game might mean in the standings or whom they play, to win tonight’s game would be a boon for the team psychologically, if nothing else.  And as I’ve said before, the mental aspect of the game, being zoned in and confident in yourself and your teammates, has proven to be the ultimate factor in winning or losing, in all sports.  In a league like the current NHL, one that is the poster child for parity, the mental edge is, in my opinion, the ultimate intangible for who comes out on top. One only has to look at the Montreal Canadiens’ run last year to the Conference Finals, or perhaps their unexpected Stanley Cup victory in 1993, to see that the proof is undoubtedly in the pudding.