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Thanks 2013-14 Habs

What a strange, amazing year 2013-14 was.

What started with so much promise quickly became a six-month long head-scratching festival, with the occasional dash of awesome. There were many Habs fans that didn’t understand why the Canadiens abandoned what made them so good in the lockout-shortened 2013 season in favour of a style of play that seemed to hold the team back. In the end, it all led to the what may be the ugliest 100-pt season in team history. But 100 points is 100 points. It’s not easy to reach that peak, and Michel Therrien did what he had to do to push the team there. Nitpickers, naysayers and haters would say that with different tactics, strategies, and personnel, 100 points could have easily been 110 points. Some people are very hard to please, apparently.

What followed the 82-game regular season was the most incredible, frustrating, and exhilarating playoff run the team has been on since their last cup win, 21 years ago. From sweeping the Lightning to vanquishing the evil Bruins in seven nail-biting games, to a hard-fought loss to the surprisingly amazing Rangers, Habs fans have a lot to cheer for and be proud about. Despite bowing out of the playoffs, it’s hard not to imagine that the best from this group is yet to come. Conjecture and opinions on how the team can get there is a topic for another day, but today is all about looking back on the season and appreciating what the team accomplished.

In Montreal, we like to say that it’s “Cup or nothing”. That’s bold, and it keeps the bar up where we all want it to be, but it’s also a point of view that ignores every incremental step on the way to victory. The Canadiens took some steps this year. I won’t pretend to know all of the steps required in order to be a Cup winner, but we saw this team battle adversity many times and come out on the other end with their identity, fighting spirit and most importantly, point totals intact. We saw elite players like Pacioretty, Subban and Price push their games to all-world levels. In the case of Subban and Price, we can’t ever quantify how a gold medal helps the quest for a Stanley Cup, but we can be sure that exposure to the game’s best and winning it all in the process is something that will certainly help. We saw guys like David Desharnais and Lars Eller raise their compete level to places we didn’t think they could, or would go. We saw late-season pick ups like Weise and Weaver make strong cases to stay with the team. We saw Rene Bourque make up for a season of futility (and making himself tradeable in the process?). We saw Alex Galchenyuk emerge as a difference maker.

We saw Dustin Tokarski.

We don’t have access to Bergevin’s road map, so we can’t know what he’s planning. He has a lot of personnel issues to resolve, the biggest of which is in signing PK Subban to a new contract. There will be plenty of time to talk about the free agent market (which is pathetic this year, best to avoid it if looking for big fish), and trades in order to improve the team, but for the first time in a long time, we can see the form of a contender taking shape. The core is young and talented. The farm is restocking with quality prospects that will be ready soon (or, immediately in the case of guys like Beaulieu, Tinordi, and Pateryn).

It’s safe to say that coming within 6 wins of the Stanley Cup pours cold water on those who were ready to run Therrien out of town. Those people were fully expecting a series loss to Tampa (oops). What they got instead was a giant helping of crow.

While we rolled out of bed this morning with the realization that the Habs won’t play another meaningful game until October, it’s nice to know that the plan that has been put in place is working and we should all be excited to see what’s around the corner.

Happy Landings, Bruins!

Don’t poke the bear? Why the hell not?

The Emperor is no more! Sauron has been defeated! Drago has been knocked out! Biff Tannen is wearing a truckload of manure!

For what feels like forever, the Bruins have been bullying and beating down the Habs with not just their size, but with goonery and cheap shots. Despite a bunch of regular season success against Boston, the 2009 sweep and 2011 seven-game heartbreak series still feels fresh. For a lot of guys, the physical beatings might feel fresher still. A little pay back was needed, not only for those playoff losses, but also for this type of dirty crap that has come to personify the Bruins more than the quality of their on-ice play:

On top of the joy of advancing to the conference finals, we got to do it at the expense of Boston. Their poor-sport fans, mopey, excuse-making media and sore loser skaters deserve to feel this loss, hard. It’s so sweet to know that the Bruins are being eaten up inside that they lost to the team that they’ve relentlessly tried to paint as weak, cowardly and dirty.

Eat it, Bruins. Eat it, and like it.

Lucic’s post-game petulance…fantastic. Iginla’s depression…love it. Marchand’s lack of words…fitting for a guy with a lack of goals.

As for our boys, it has been amazing to watch this team consistently up their game. THIS is what a championship team looks like. This is what a winner plays like. This is the what the best are willing and able to do to.

Michel Therrien has done a wonderful job in preparing his team for these playoffs. More than that, though, we’re seeing guys like Carey Price and P.K. Subban elevate to superstars right before our very eyes. We knew they had it in them, and many among us probably considered them as superstars. But now they’re doing it on National stage. The rest of the hockey world is taking note of these guys and they’re envious. On top of those two pillars, Pacioretty, Desharnais and Vanek woke up in the knick of time. Emelin has found his hard-hitting game. Beaulieu has plugged a major leak. Gallagher, Gorges, Weaver, Weise and Prust are providing the blood and guts. Brière is doing what he always does in the playoffs, same goes for Plekanec. Bourque is reborn. Eller has been a revelation. Anyone who thought the Habs were robbed in the Halak trade can crawl back under their rock.

There are no passengers. They’re all in.

Who knows what else this team has left to give. You’d think that given the recent history between the Rangers and Habs, that a trip to the Cup Finals is a lock. But these are the playoffs, and the Rangers are looking good. Better than good. But for today, we get to revel in a great victory against a hated rival that is going to have a long off-season of regret.

Subban’s Olympic Participation

With the news that Mike Babcock will be resuming his duties as Team Canada’s Head Coach in Sochi 2014, we can flip the egg timer on when the list of players invited to camp is announced. (UPDATE: no sooner do I publish this post that Hockey Canada has released it’s invite list)

The Habs are sure to have plenty of representation this time, with Max Pacioretty, Raphael Diaz, Tomas Plekanec sure to grab roster spots with their respective teams. Add Alexei Emelin, Andrei Markov and Carey Price to the list of maybes.

What? No mention of Subban.

Of course he’ll be invited to camp. If the reigning Norris trophy winner doesn’t get an invite, the whole system is broken, right? The real question is whether or not he will actually make the team. Again, if the reigning Norris trophy winner doesn’t make the team, the whole system is broken, right? In Habsland, Subban has not only made the team, he is Team Canada’s go-to guy on the blue line. Is it really that simple? No, not really. Given the embarrassment of riches that Babcock has at his disposal, and given how Hockey Canada has often gone with “experience” over youth, it’s not outrageous to think that Subban gets used as a 6th-7th defenseman, or left out altogether. Of course, Subban would make my Olympic team, and would be a top-four guy in doing so. On the large European ice, I would not hesitate to use him in any situation over slower, less mobile players. Will Babcock, his staff, and Hockey Canada see things the same way? With elite defensemen like Duncan Keith, Brent Seabrook, Shea Weber, Kris Letang, Drew Doughty, and Alex Pietrangelo to choose from, who knows how the selection camp will shake out. Some people will say that with Weber, Doughty and Letang as right-handed locks, Subban’s task to make the team is already much harder. I don’t know if I believe that which side a player shoots from becomes a determining factor in making the team or not, but if the team wants to be balanced (i.e. one righty, one lefty per pair), then one of Letang, Doughty, Weber or Subban is going to be the 7th man at best, or left out at worst.

There is no great message to discern or take away from this post. Subban will be invited to camp, and I can’t see how he fails to make the team. But it is conceivable to me that the old boys club stays true to its roots and overlooks the NHL’s reigning best defenseman in the name of keeping the same group together that won in 2010. In that case, Subban simply gets two weeks of rest for the stretch run. Not a bad consolation prize for Habs fans.

Sink or Swim

One of the pillars of success in the salary cap era has been the reliance on young stars on entry level, or “bridge” contracts. Teams with Stanley Cup aspirations use their elite young talent to produce at seasoned-veteran levels to achieve their goals:

  • 2005-06 Hurricanes had Eric Staal and Cam Ward
  • 2006-07 Ducks had Corey Perry and Ryan Getzlaf
  • 2007-08 Red Wings yeah, well….
  • 2008-09 Penguins had Malkin, Staal and Letang on entry deals
  • 2009-10 Blackhawks had Toews, Kane, Byfuglien, Keith, Niemi and Ladd,
  • 2010-11 Bruins had Marchand, Krejci and Seguin
  • 2011-12 Kings had Quick

Ok, so the Wings and Kings didn’t have many raw rookies as key contributors but we know that Detroit has been an exception to the rule for 20 years now. The Kings, however, had Conn Smythe winner Jonathan Quick. You could probably insert other names and you could probably test the seaworthiness of the above claim, but by and large recent Cup winners have won by leveraging a burgeoning contingent of cheap, young, high-end talent. A core of highly paid veterans do (or should do) the real heavy lifting, while complimentary pieces round out the mix.

This year the Habs got massive contributions from their growing youth core. Down the stretch, and in to a brief playoff series, the Habs best players were the blossoming Lars Eller, the as-advertised Alex Galchenyuk, Calder candidate Brendan Gallagher and Norris candidate PK Subban (the Habs real season MVP). All four players are being paid a mere pittance of what their contributions indicate they ought to be paid.

There are those Habs fans who believe that considering the 28th place overall finish from just one year ago, that simply making the playoffs this season was more than enough of a step forward and olive branch to make up for last year’s gong show. That the team managed to finish second in the conference, and first in the Northeast division was at extra hot fudge sauce with five cherries on top. All told, the playoffs were a bonus, and win or lose, whatever happened, happened. When you lump in the widely-assumed belief that the Canadiens ‘Stanley Cup window’ is not quite yet open, then this season was just a five-month glimpse in to a very bright future. The glass half-empty view is that you need to strike when opportunity presents itself, and as a second-ranked home seed, they failed. Assuming that they will be a contending team in the future is a mug’s game, despite the widely held assumption that the Habs are a team on the rise. If you’re glass-half-empty, the Canadiens overachieved, caught teams off-guard and need to treat this year’s success as an aberration more than a new benchmark. Would taking a step back make more sense for the team’s long-term future. There are those who believe that to be the case.

Whatever side of the fence you live on, you had to be pleasantly surprised by the emergence of Alex Galchenyuk and Brendan Gallagher, who is up for the rookie of the year. You had to be blown away at how P.K. Subban took his game to yet another level, earning himself a Norris nomination. You had to be impressed with Therrien’s rebirth as a coach, and how Bergevin brought respect, credibility and fun back to the Habs in such a short time. We also saw that the defensive pipeline in Hamilton is preparing talent for the NHL, and the fruits of those labors will show themselves in Montreal sooner rather than later.

In Montreal, the goal is always the Stanley Cup. Even if we take in to account the last 15 years where marketing led us all to believe that 8th place was good enough, fans with long enough memories remember the one true goal. If the Habs want to take advantage of what’s left of the “cheap” end of their elite youth to reach that promised land, the veterans that get paid the big bucks need to produce to expectations not only through the regular season, but in to the playoffs as well. That means that Tomas Plekanec no longer gets the “defensive responsibility” free pass. Andrei Markov has to find a way to elevate his game in the post season at least once in his career. Carey Price has to elevate his game several notches. David Desharnais has to bring more than the nothing that he brought this season. Max Pacioretty has to play like the power forward that he used to be.

If this doesn’t happen, then we’ll be right back in this same spot next year wondering what went wrong with the team.

The bar has been set

So what really happened in the 2013 post-season for the Habs?

From Pacioretty, Plekanec and Price to Desharnais, Markov, Gorges and Ryder, the veterans on this team did not accomplish enough good things collectively in order to have a deep playoff run. Simple as that. No player bashing, no nailing to the cross. A lot of guys were hurt, or playing hurt and as much as they refuse to use that as an excuse, the fact is no team can sustain the losses and injuries that the Habs did to key players and hum along like nothing happened…except for the Senators. The Habs veterans were average-to-below average and that doesn’t get it done in playoff time.

Here’s what you really need to know:

  • Senators goaltending outplayed Habs goaltending, to the tune of a .950 save percentage for Ottawa versus .870 for Montreal.
  • Ottawa scored an average of four goals per game, while the Habs chimed in with less than half of that total, at 1.8.
  • The Senators scored 13 third period goals to the Canadiens’ grand total of zero.
  • The Canadiens centermen scored a grand total of zero goals.
  • The officials stymied the Habs at least once in a very costly way.

Game, series, and season…over.

What may come as a relief is that the Canadiens missing ingredients are painfully obvious and I think we can expect Marc Bergevin to remove some of the redundancies on the Habs current roster and fill the voids with what he, and the rest of us believe to be the missing pieces.

With the team set up with talented youth and a General Manager who seems to have a firm grasp on the realities of the league in 2013, there’s very little doubt that Marc Bergevin has a cogent plan to continue to remake his team. Even the most passive fan has been able to identify areas where the Habs need lots of help:

Size with toughness and scoring ability on the wings: The top nine forwards include the following names from the under-six foot clan: Plekanec, Desharnais, Gallagher, and Gionta. It’s hard to imagine the Habs charging in to 2013-14 with that many smaller bodies despite “how big they play”. 5’8” does not have the reach or power and dominance of 6’3”. To ignore this is to think yourself above the laws of physics, or that they don’t apply to the Habs. Dredge up any stat you like, but when everyone has long since come to the realization that small bodies wear out faster and more often than big bodies, the road map becomes clear. Even if the impact of physical dimensions of any given player is a point of debate, what the Canadiens do need both up front and on the back end is aggression and that typically that comes in larger packages. I’m not here to say that the Habs are criminally small and weak and fragile. While the Habs loss to the Senators is not specifically due solely to size, if you take a moment to scan the defense corps of the Habs division foes for next year, it isn’t a stretch to think that adding some beef and snarl up front is unreasonable. Of course, one-dimensional thugs need not apply, and Bergevin strongly hinted at this in his post-mortem press conference. Although we can be fairly sure that Michel Therrien would love to have one of those guys in his back pocket, it appears unlikely that Bergevin will waste a roster spot on a goon.

Universally respected as he rightfully is by his teammates, coaches, opponents, the media and fans, With Gionta’s contract going in to its final year, it’s not impossible that Bergevin could move the captain at some point once he has proven to be healthy and productive again. It would be an unpopular move to trade him but forward-thinking GMs do unpopular and bold things on the road to success. Fact is, they could use a right-handed, large body to compliment Pacioretty and Rene Bourque on the wings. Gionta may be an interesting acquisition to somebody out there who needs leadership, and scoring ability.

Clarity at Center: There’s a jigsaw puzzle down the middle. Tomas Plekanec is the Habs most complete forward, and until he can be adequately replaced on the fly, and not under an assumption or hope that Eller or Galchenyuk can replace him, there’s little sense in talking about trading him. That said, Plekanec is currently the Habs best centerman and would fetch the most return on the trade market. At 31 years old, he’s not getting any younger, and Bergevin appears to be in to moving “aging assets” before they’re worthless, but trading Plekanec now is premature, lest the Habs GM invoke the “unpopular, but bold” clause. Lars Eller was on the verge of breaking out in this shortened season. 2013-14 will be labeled as, and expected to be his full coming out party, but he is not yet ready to take on all of the duties currently held by Plekanec. We know Desharnais is both one dimensional, yet secure with his new deal, so the Habs will have to work around his, umm, shortcomings. Alex Galchenyuk remains the wild card. Drafted as the team’s future frachise #1 centerman, the 19-year-old spent nearly all of his rookie season on the wing, and with good reason. Though he led the team in +/-, that is the single most misleading stat in hockey. Rely on that number at your own peril. However, he cannot be counted on defensively just yet, especially when it comes to defensive zone faceoffs. Between his and Eller’s inability to take draws reliably, the Habs have much work to do, and until they get one, or both of them both up to speed, it makes Plekanec’s presence on the team a must.

Another top-four defenseman: This is a tricky one, but needs to be addressed. Andrei Markov’s play collapsed at even-strength in 2013; anyone with a pair of eyeballs could see this. He is no longer the team’s best defenseman, but is heavily relied upon nonetheless. He was very often caught behind the play after a bad pinch, and with ravaged knees, he no longer has the speed to recover, and once he gets back in to position, he is not physical enough to knock opposing forwards off the puck. Bergevin can get on his hands and knees and pray that Markov spends the summer strengthening his knee, and that Jarred Tinordi’s imminent arrival as a regular will be enough to save him from shopping for a pricey free agent, or trading assets to shore up the defense, but that’s a risky gamble. The blueline for next season is already crowded what with Subban, Gorges, Emelin (who may not be ready until November or later), Markov, Bouillon, and Diaz all but assured spots in the top seven (Weber and Drewiske won’t be back), which means that only one place remains for a kid like Tinordi. No upgrades have been made yet aside from the natural progression that young players demonstrate, and that’s no guarantee, either. For Habs fans who treat free agent frenzy like a free-for-all, this is sobering, disappointing news. If Bergevin decides to look outside the organization to make his defense better on the top two pairings, he’ll have a tough choice to make in terms of moving Markov or Gorges. Moving Bouillon is the easy call, but doesn’t create the hole needed to upgrade the top-four.

Iron in the bottom-six forwards: As a simple one-year band aid solution, Colby Armstrong won’t be back. Travis Moen disappointed many in 2013 on the heels of signing a four-year extension and may be moved as a result. But both players brought something to the table in terms of penalty killing and character. Bergevin will need to replace those traits, to the chagrin of the fancystat propeller heads.. Michel Therrien’s (and most fans, too) face turned unhealthy shades of greenish-purple when the Leafs and Sens (among others) took turns slapping the Habs silly in lopsided losses. In that respect it is the expectation of most fans that Bergevin fetch a player or two who can throw his fists. Therrien may be a changed man in front of the cameras and microphones, but I’d bet my last dime that he, too wishes he had at least one player with the ability to bust heads on a nightly basis. The rub is that players who can carry a regular shift (i.e. actually play hockey), yet acquit themselves well when the rough stuff starts don’t grow on trees, and Bergevin will need to decide how much this is truly a priority before investing time and energy in bringing in this sort of player.

The debate will rage all summer as to whether or not the real Canadiens were the team that streaked to a 26-9 record or the team that gave up 3.9 goals per game after clinching a playoff spot. That said, and whether it’s fair or not, expectations for the 2013-14 season are going to be sky-high for the Canadiens. Bergeron and friends will have no other mandate – both internally and externally from fans to build upon what was statistically speaking the best season from the bleu-blanc-rouge in 20 years. I hope you enjoyed drafting Galchenyuk at third overall last season because it will be the last time that they select that high based on merit for quite some time – at least that’s going to be the plan. Bergevin may not be able to make ALL of this changes required THIS summer, and no doubt this will piss off Habs fans who want it all right away. This year was like a honeymoon that ended with a nightmarish trip home. Fans will no longer be so willing to accept future first round exits if they are preceded by strong regular seasons, that much is plain and simple.

The Comforts of Home

Regular season game #47

Tonight’s game against the Jets had two distinct flavors to it. The first 40 minutes saw the Jets’ larger forwards have their way in the Habs’ end, giving the defense fits. Another collapse looked imminent. As has become recent tradition, the Canadiens D seemed too willing to give up odd-man rushes and full-on breakaways. Indeed, it is a concern when callup Jarred Tinordi was the most effective player in the defensive zone.

With a 2-1 lead heading to the third, and with their playoff hopes on life support, the Jets got the news that they had to know was coming. Both the Rangers and Senators won, dashing their playoff hopes for good. Whether the Jets sagged, or the Habs showed some urgency, aided by some powerplays that allowed the Habs to at least temporarily fire up the scoring machine that had worked so well through 40 games, the game tilted heavily in the Habs favor.

With fourth place in the Eastern Conference now the lowest the Habs can finish, if I were Michel Therrien, I would take a pre-emptive wiz on the CBC’s Habs/Leafs parade and make Saturday’s regular season finale as unimportant as I possibly could. I would take the hype right out of the game. The Habs don’t need it. Regardless of the outcome, the Leafs will win the season series and take that advantage to the bank, and it only brings the possibility that some Habs regulars could get further banged up, or hurt altogether. After all, when a team boasts such hockey luminaries as Colton Orr, Frazer McLaren, and Mark Fraser, why allow these glorified goons one last opportunity to take cheap shots at the Habs more important players? They’ll likely play very sparingly, or not at all in the playoffs, so any “discipline” that may be doled out by Shanaban would be totally ineffective. In short, Price, Plekanec, Markov, Ryder, Gorges, Prust, Gionta and Bouillon all get to watch the game from the press box while Bulldogs fill the void.

Tonight’s game saw the Habs show more push-back and spark than they have in a couple of weeks. Good news indeed, but the best news – by far – is that Carey Price looked like Carey Price. He made several big stops when the Jets were up 1-0, and could have given the Habs the confidence they needed to forge ahead without the fear of a softy going in behind them. If Price has indeed reasserted himself and found his game once again, it can be nothing but bad news for whoever the Habs face in the first round. But before we get ahead of ourselves, the defensive coverage that the Habs have been displaying lately was not much better tonight. The Coaching staff still has more work to do, starting with giving some tired legs time to recuperate.

There’s one more game to go, but with any luck it will be but a mere formality.

Follow me on twitter: @kyleroussel

You Can Cry if you Want To

Regular season game #46

If you’re a results-oriented fan, then this game was just another in the recent string of games in which the Canadiens walked away empty-handed. If you’re a glass half-full kind of person, then you’ll say that the Habs took a positive step forward by not being blown out for a change by showing some fight in not imploding when they fell behind 3-0. The only real tangible bit of good news tonight is that the Bruins lost, meaning the Canadiens still have an outside shot at actually winning the division.

But back to the Habs, and that pesky issue of falling behind 3-0 early in the game. Most blamed the refs, but the refs don’t kill penalties. Nor do the Habs for that matter. They need to stop this habit of playing themselves out of games so early. It’s killing them.

The fact is that the Devils were 1-7-6 against the Northeast division this season, and were playing their first game since being eliminated from playoff contention. That didn’t stop them from bottling up the Canadiens and holding them to just 21 shots in a game that the Habs really needed to win. The Canadiens now face a tough road if they want to clinch home ice advantage in the first round; they will need to reel off three out of a possible four points against a desperate Jets team, and the Maple Leafs, who have slapped the Canadiens silly for the most part.

For whatever reason the Canadiens are a heavy-legged bunch, save for  some young players, and on that note, it’s time for Coach Michel Therrien to consistently give Lars Eller more ice time over the sputtering David Desharnais, who has done next to nothing since signing his big contract. Tonight, both Alex Galchenyuk and Lars Eller had more ice time than Desharnais, and we can only hope that it’s a trend that continues long in to the future. Staying on the ice time beat, somebody needs to explain to me why Andrei Markov was the Habs top minute man tonight, topping even P.K. Subban? Anyone? No? Ok, moving on.

To this point, I’ve been only mildly concerned about their recent slide. While the optics of the last six games are horrid, it is this game that truly has me concerned. After two days of practice, the Habs said all the right things and presented a united front that they were going to be a refocused and tighter group. If tonight’s effort was what they were talking about, then they can feel free to go back to the drawing board any time now.

During this slide, I’ve encouraged fans to remain patient and let the Coaching staff pull the team out of their first real slide of the year, and I’ll continue to do so. With that being said, I’ll no longer hold it against the fan who wants to hit the panic button, for they have been given no reason not to.

Follow me on twitter: @kyleroussel


Ugly, but Effective

Regular season game #44

Well I’m glad that’s over. The losing streak that is.

While beating Tampa Bay is hardly reason to doll up Ste-Catherine street for a Cup parade, or even declare that all is well, the two points were paramount. Though it’s been less than a week since their last win, the Canadiens badly needed to remember what it feels like to win a game at this point of the season.

Credit is spread far and wide tonight, starting with Carey Price’s goalposts, which sent no less than four resonating “PINGS!” throughout the Bell Center. For his part, Carey Price had a number of huge saves, several of the game saving variety. He looked like himself, not a moment too soon. Galchenyuk scored a goal for the fifth consecutive game, and Gallagher picked up an assist on the play. Still it is rather odd that Galchenyuk’s ice time was the lowest on the team given his recent productivity; this defies logic, as does David Desharnais’ 5:44 of powerplay time. As a side note, it was a pleasant surprise to see the game begin with Pacioretty alongside Tomas Plekanec and Brian Gionta. David Desharnais has had more than enough time to reestablish chemistry with the big winger. Tonight, however, the biggest pat on the back goes to the aforementioned Brian Gionta, who has been feeling heat recently. It was his ability to finish that finally put the stop to a gushing wound. For someone who is either criticized for his size, his production and his “leadership qualities”, Gionta once again showed how to answer all three of those criticisms.

Not all has been set right, however, as the defensive side of the game still plays to the tune of Yakety Sax, and special teams have been especially bad, winning goal notwithstanding. There is still a lot of work to do, and a lot of question marks surrounding the defense. Markov looks horrendous, and Bouillon, bless his heart, cannot hack top-four minutes. Diaz is reported to be a possibility for Saturday night, but he’s no Hal Gill. If and when the defensive game gets tightened up, the Habs will be alright. Until then, fans will be bambi-legged, even if the team will sleep very soundly tonight. Won’t you? After all, a fourth consecutive loss with the smoking Capitals coming to town on Saturday wouldn’t leave you feeling cozy, would it?

Before we sign off, let’s remember that this was the team’s fourth game in six nights, and they have had very little practice time recently. For a team that needs structure in order to thrive, this cannot be overlooked. The tight schedule is punishing the Habs, but they still sit in first place in the Northeast division.

No harm, no foul….right?

Follow me on twitter: @kyleroussel

Flightless Birds, Flightless Habs

Regular season game #43

Tick tock tick tock.

That sound you hear is the clock winding down on the regular season that has seen the Canadiens go from a well balanced, disciplined and resilient team to an impotent, wayward and fragile bunch. What gives? Is this more than just a simple slump?. Recently the Canadiens have been out of games in the first period, so perhaps some questions from Habs Nation are justified.

It was another all around rough night for everyone, including Norris trophy contender P.K. Subban, who looked out of sorts and eventually found himself tossed from the game in the third period. Conversely, two bright spots were Lars Eller, who had a pair of assists, and Alex Galchenyuk, who eased the pain of yet another beat down with a beauty goal from in-close on Fleury. While the vets look to keep the pace up, these two youngsters have turned on the jets.

This mini losing skid has been so surreal in the way that the Canadiens have completely imploded on defense, and on a compete level that you get the sense that there’s some sick joke at play from the hockey gods; teams that have played as well as the Habs have all year don’t suddenly forget who to play hockey. Unless you prefer to panic, or denigrate the team’s work to this point, then it’s important to note that the Habs success through 38 games was not a fluke nor an accident. They won games by being great at even strength, and not relying on goaltending to keep their even-strength dominance afloat. That they’ve given up 22 goals since losing Emelin is certainly a concern but I believe his loss is felt more in the domino effect of having to create new pairings, and ask more of older bodies more than the loss of the player himself. Let’s not forget that Emelin was struggling mightily on his own before tearing his ACL. So while the Habs are better with his physicality on the roster than without him, to suggest that this three-game slide is solely due to his absence is ludicrous.

If you’re glass half-full (and there’s no reason not to be), then chalk this up to a team that is going through what every team does at some point during the season. This team needs a break, and then it needs to get some quality practice time in, and in between it needs a players-only meeting to clear the air. While this is not a disaster yet, it hasn’t stopped Habs nation from plunging in to full-blown panic mode before the losing streak has really even heated up. Given the embarrassing the results of the last three games, giving in to panic might feel justified, but things won’t be allowed to fester for much longer. With a game tomorrow night against the saggy Lightning, the down time and the practice will have to wait at least another day.

Tick tock, tick tock.

Follow me on twitter: @kyleroussel

They’re Dead, Jim

Regular season game #40

Whatever you do, don’t let this game get the better of you. Yes, it’s fun to watch the Habs run roughshod and totally dominate an opponent, but let’s be honest: the Sabres have quit. They had no will to compete tonight and once the Habs took a 2-0 lead, the game was over. The Habs outshot the Sabres 42-15, just to give you an idea of where the action was in this game; I’m not even sure if the zamboni passed in the Habs end of the rink. The Sabres were wildly undisciplined, granting the Habs eight powerplays. Some teams don’t get eight powerplays in three games, so it’s safe to say that the Sabres were more intent on making this a street fight rather than forcing the Habs to wait one more night to punch their playoff ticket.

But we’re not going to penalize the Habs for the unwillingness or inability of an opponent to compete, so on with the accolades for the night, yes? You could blindly pick any member of the team and find something nice to say about their game tonight. The usual suspects like Subban, Plekanec, Gallagher, Pacioretty and Ryder all made substantial contributions to the score sheet, but let’s reserve a measure of praise for Francis Bouillon, who stood up for Brendan Gallagher by taking on Sabres agitator Steve Ott after the latter delivered a high hit to the Habs rookie. By the book it was a clean hit, and I’ve never been ok with a player having to fight after delivering a by-the-book hit, but Steve Ott was looking for trouble all night, and it’s a comfort that Francis Bouillon took on the job of dispensing some justice. In my opinion, he earned his recent one-year extension on that scrap alone.

Tonight’s win finally clinched the playoff spot that we knew the Habs would secure back in late February, but now that they’re in, we can concentrate on winning the division and starting the playoffs with home ice advantage – a virtual necessity to winning the big prize. The win was also important because it showed once again that the Canadiens are a very resilient team that does not take to losing lightly, and with the playoffs around the corner, avoiding prolonged losing skids might come in pretty handy as you might imagine. Tonights two points also vaults the Habs past the Bruins once again and in to the Northeast division lead. With just eight games remaining, it will go down to the wire to see who takes the division crown.

The Leafs on deck Saturday night, we’ll get a potential first round matchup preview, although the two teams will meet each other for the final time at the end of the regular season. Rest assured that both teams know the potential to bump in to each other in the post-season and will be looking to get in to each other’s heads.

Follow me on twitter: @kyleroussel

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