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Bizarro Habs

Going in to last night’s game in Washington, the first of a back-to-back set, it’s safe to say that nobody was sure what to expect. Memories of the stunning playoff upset from 2010 is probably still the first thing that comes to mind when we think of the Capitals. But that was what feels like a lifetime ago, and in the fast-paced NHL, it is a lifetime ago. Roster, coaching, and management turnover has rendered those halcyon days (hey, that’s all Habs fans have to hang their hats on for the last 20 years) buried in the past. The reality is that the Canadiens have struggled mightily against the Caps recently, going 1-5-1 since the start of the 2011-12 season. In those seven games, the Habs had been outscored 22-10, including being shutout twice. Four of their 10 goals came in their lone win, so it doesn’t take a genius to figure out that the Habs have been curb-stomped by the Caps lately.

The Canadiens are best described as an up-and-down team this season, and with backup Peter Budaj starting last night’s tilt against a Caps team featuring a renewed Alex Ovechkin, the initial knee-jerk reaction may have been to write off the game entirely and look forward to a traditional Saturday night game. Even the most off-beat uk betting sites couldn’t have predicted how last night’s game would have unfolded.

The Habs got even-strength goals from noted non-sniper Travis Moen, as well as goals from the stone-cold duo of David Desharnais and Daniel Briere, the latter’s coming on the powerplay. Taking in to account the entire roster, guessing that Josh Gorges would be the guy to pick up two assists to lead the team would have been somewhere between a longshot and a miracle. Wait, there’s more weirdness on this Freaky Friday. Despite having Ryan White and Brandon Prust in the lineup, it was PK Subban who dropped his mitts and sat for five minutes.

If you’ve watched any sport for long enough, you probably think you’ve seen it all, but as is clear from last night’s game, there’s always room for more odd-ball occurrences. What the hockey gods have planned for tonight’s game vs the Penguins is anybody’s guess, but it’s safe to say that expecting ham-fisted checking wingers and 4th line grinders to bail out the Habs against Crosby and his traveling death squad is a fool’s bet.

Then again, we do remember those 2010 playoffs, right?

Desharnais Tests Therrien’s Patience

When David Desharnais was awarded his long-term extension last season, it seemed hurried, sudden and most importantly – inexplicable. With their stalwart at center in Tomas Plekanec, an on-the-rise Lars Eller and the team’s best prospect, Alex Galchenyuk all laying claim to future center spots (unless you believe Galchenyuk’s future is on the wing), the move to lock up Desharnais made many fans – myself included – fearful that either Plekanec or Eller would be moved. Let’s be blunt – any move that sees Plekanec or Eller moved to accommodate Desharnais would be a disaster, and we wouldn’t even have to wait to see the return to make that call.

But things are never only about hockey with the Canadiens, and such was the driving force to keep Desharnais. Fully sensitive to the criticism of not having enough Francophone talent on the roster, the Canadiens made a public relations and marketing decision to re-sign Desharnais. Bergevin was certainly aware of the abundance of centermen at his disposal, so he had to know that he’d eventually have a problem on his hand. He just hoped it would be a good problem, with four productive centers. Instead he has the type of problem that keeps the codeine in the coat pocket. Just how bad is it? We don’t need to delve deep in to fancy stats to see the answer. In this case, the basic hockey card stats will do just fine: In 36 regular season games since signing his extension, Desharnais has two goals and 11 assists for 13 points. Last year’s brief playoff run doesn’t help his cause, with just one assist in five games. In the “what have you done for me lately” world of armchair GM’s, the tale gets even sadder. Through 15 games of the 2013-14 season, wee Davey has one lone assist, and has often looked lost, which is never a good look for a player thatis knocked off the puck with a light breeze.

At the time of signing his four-year, 14-million dollar extension, a lot of Habs fans (mostly Anglo) were enraged, feeling that he was overpaid, that the contract was too long, and that he only got it because of his birthplace. He was being overpaid, but not egregiously so given what he had done the season before. At 3.5 million per season, we are not even talking second line center money, so the cries of overpayment were a bit over-the-top. If a reasonable expectation of 45 points was what motivated the extension, then Bergevin could almost be excused. Knowing what we know now, Desharnais is stealing money for his level of production. I don’t think you’ll find many people who will say that his effort hasn’t been there, but 14 million dollars aren’t doled out because a guy tries hard. As one of the only offensive-minded Francophones on the team, Desharnais enjoys a special status; one that grants him a certain amount of immunity from criticism, and one that buys him bought him a boat load of patience. Or at least it did. With his awful production, Coach Michel Therrien can no longer justify Desharnais’ spot in the lineup, nor can fantasy hockey owners for that matter. With the need for balanced offense, there’s nowhere left to hide the small center. With his trade value basically reduced to ash (if he ever had any), Desharnais has put the Habs in a very tough spot. While Therrien is having a hard time protecting and justifying Desharnais’ once-safe roster spot, it’s harder for Bergevin to justify 3.5 million dollars tied up in one 4th-line player, and it’s nearly impossible to justify those dollars eating hot dogs. In short, Desharnais’ poor play has twisted the Habs up like a stale Bell Center pretzel.

Certainly Desharnais has pride and has tasted a modest level of success, so this has to embarrass and burn him in the worst way. I don’t for one second believe that he doesn’t care now that he has the protection of a contract that sets him up for the rest of his life. At this point the likely diagnosis is that Erik Cole and Max Pacioretty made him look better than he is, and without two bruising wingers, he is simply incapable of consistent offensive production.

I doubt the Habs are primed to cut ties with Desharnais permanently, both because of the “backlash” it would still produce (though any backlash now would be nothing more than disingenuous hot air from bloated gas bags) and because they are dealing from a position of absolute weakness. The solution, if one is to be found, has to come from Desharnais himself. There has to be a level of responsibility in signing a long-term contract, and coaching staff has coddled him with quality ice time and line mates. Before he’s cast away, the Canadiens will systematically take away Desharnais’ cheese – his ice time and roster spot – as a last ditch motivator before calling it quits for good. Remember the “NO Excuses” team motto? If Desharnais has any ability to control his own fate, now’s the time for him to get off the treadmill to oblivion.

There’s a lot of “I told you so” going on now about Desharnais, although there’s not much point to it considering everyone has been parroting the same line for well over a year. While the media focuses on Subban vs Therrien, the subplot is even juicier, for it tears at everything the Canadiens build themselves on nowadays. How long will the Canadiens cling to one of their marketing linchpins is anyone’s guess, but we know now for sure that the egg timer has been flipped, and Desharnais has only himself to blame.

The Story to Here

Sometimes you need a good calling out, and thanks to a few loyal readers (who I’m very grateful for), I’m back posting my blatherings on the Habs, at least for today. With a life that has become uncomfortably busy in a short time, blogging has had to take a back seat while other priorities play themselves out. In my own defense, I have not been totally absent from the interwebs. For a couple of years now I’ve been posting my thoughts with the good folks at The Montreal Bias. Today’s topic was our thoughts on Daniel Briere, if you’re interested. While I cannot commit to post-game reviews as I did last year, I will try to post a little more regularly. Thanks for your patience and readership. It would be awfully dull ’round here without you.

So, where were we? Ah yes, enjoying the Habs sneakily solid 4-2 start. The stink from the opening night bust to the Leafs is long behind us, and the Habs have only lost once since, in a place where they haven’t won since the early 2000′s. A loss in Calgary was pretty much expected, so really it’s almost as if they’ve gone undefeated, right? They’ve weathered their Western Canadian swing in grand fashion, exceeding everyone’s expectations (and maybe even their own) with 3 wins in four games after tonight’s dusting of the Jets 2.0.

Pending the results of Max Pacioretty’s injury, the season has yielded more pleasant surprises than letdowns:

Galchenyuk, Eller and Gallagher: Simply brilliant. While they haven’t played every game together, they have each picked up from last year and are to-date the Habs most potent offensive weapons up front. They are dynamic, determined, skilled and most importantly, still getting better. Gallagher is still a Calder-runner up gem, Galchenyuk has risen to the top of the 2012 draft prospects list, and Eller is making Pierre McGuire duck for cover.

Other assorted Habs thoughts through 6 games:

P.K. Subban: Just nuts. Not much else can be said about the current Norris trophy holder. He’s been utterly dominant in all facets of the game, and currently leads NHL defensemen in scoring with 8 points in 6 games. He is still prone to the poor judgement penalty from time-to-time, but at this point, he’s going to force Hockey Canada brass to not only include him on the team but give him a starring role, which Habs fans know he’ll embrace. The only question, which media that follows the team seems reluctant to ask is why he doesn’t get more time on the penalty kill. It’s as mystifying as trying to figure out the people that don’t like Subban. Seriously, what’s wrong with you people?

Carey Price: It’s been feast or famine so far. He was pretty weak in his two losses, but rock solid in his wins. If he’s actively looking to make his case for starting goalie for Canada in Sochi, he’s going about it the right way. He looks efficient, and economical in his movements, which is exactly the way he needs to play in order to have success. He has a lot to make up for after last season’s collapse, but with a new goalie coach and a new approach, Price looks to be up to the task.

The Quota: Desharnais and Briere. Just terrible. Not an ounce of production from Desharnais, literally, and just two measly assists plus an empty netter from Bergevin / Molson’s “prized off-season acquisition”. Sure it’s still early, and it’s tough to complain when the team is off to another solid start. But when the EGG (hate that nickname) kids come back to earth (and they will), the veterans who are useless unless they are offensively productive had better start doing something. When Desharnais and Briere are sharing real estate with Ryan White, Brandon Prust, Michaël Bournival and the injured George Parros on the team scoring list, you know things have not gone according to plan. Even the most cynical of Habs fans didn’t think they’d be this ineffective. Yes, Briere may have had himself a two-point night tonight, but let’s be for real here, shall we?

Tomas Plekanec: Still under appreciated. While his offensive numbers aren’t staggering and although he’s won less than half of his faceoffs, he remains the team’s undisputed, unchallenged go-to guy in tough situations. Until and unless Lars Eller can unseat Plekanec as far as tough defensive assignments and minutes go, Plekanec will continue to be an indispensable piece of the Habs puzzle.

Team scoring: It’s a drum that I’ve been beating for a couple of years now, and this season will be no different until fans come to realize it: Dominance at even strength is king, while the importance of the powerplay is vastly and grossly overstated. The Canadiens are once again showing signs of being a team that will thrive at even strength, scoring 2 goals per game at 5-on-5. That they are well over 25% on the powerplay is nothing but a cherry on the sundae.

As a group: the Habs are still in a period of transition. Last season’s 2nd place finish was not a total mirage, but the late-season malaise was a strong clue that the team isn’t quite deep enough to compete at the highest level yet. Bergevin addressed this by adding some toughness, size and depth on the defensive end. Up front, hopes will be pinned on development of youth and veterans staying healthy. Nobody knows how this will pan out, so it’s hard to make a determination on where they will finish out the season. They could just finish 5th or 6th in the conference, they could be a bubble team and they may fail to make the playoffs entirely.

That’s it for today. Enjoy the Habs win, despite the apparent serious injury to Pacioretty (keep your fingers crossed that it isn’t as bad as it looked). A shutout for Price, and another two points in the bank.

Lecavalier to Montreal, part 4692

No sooner did the news break that the Lightning announce the buyout of the former face of their franchise, Vincent Lecavalier, that media and fans alike exploded with speculation as to whether or not the Habs should snap up the former Art Ross trophy winner at a reduced rate.

For me this is a very simple proposition that only works on once condition: Dump the freshly-signed Desharnais, and sign Lecavalier to no more than 3 years at 4 million per season. With the log jam at center, somebody would have to go and suggestions of moving Plekanec to open up a spot for Vinny is about as pleasant as lemon juice in my chocolate milk. Moving Eller or Galchenyuk is a non-starter, and the reasons for this should be obvious. I also wouldn’t explore the option of having him around for one year just so that he can return to Tampa, where his heart appears to be. What clearer way to tell everyone that you’re just here as a tourist than to sign for just one year at a time when you may have one last chance at signing a long term contract? When bringing in a guy of his stature and birthplace to Montreal, you’ve got to make sure that he’s in the plans for a while because the circus surrounding his arrival will only just calm down before he’s out the door again. The Gainey/Gauthier/Martin era is over. The circus has left town.

If I’m Bergevin, I certainly reach out to Lecavalier’s camp and do more than just kick tires…but I cut and run at the first hint that he’s using Montreal as a way to bump up the asking price around the league. Either Lecavalier wants to come “home”, (as he has had the chance to do in the past and declined) or he doesn’t. He’s not the player he once was, and the Habs no longer need to beg aging, injury prone veterans on the downside of their career to join the team.
At the end of the day, General Managers are still intent on spending themselves silly and doing stupid things, so no doubt somebody will offer him the long, multi-year deal that he’s asking for. Let’s hope that person is not Marc Bergevin.
Follow me on twitter: @kyleroussel

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.

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

 

Flying Low

Regular season game #36

Let’s all take a collective deep breath….and exhale.

With the Habs turning in one of their worst performances of the year just hours after the trade deadline elapsed, it would be easy to slide in to a panic attack and question Bergevin’s decision not to make any moves to shore up the team.

Settle down.

Every team lays an egg once in a while. No, that’s not to say that it’s acceptable, because getting six shots in the final 40 minutes certainly isn’t acceptable. The fact is the final score flatters the Habs, since they did somehow manage to score twice in the second period. If not for the sloppy netminding of Ilya Bryzgalov, this game would have been a laugher.

The real concern following tonight’s game is the status of Tomas Plekanec, who left the game with just over 12 minutes left in the second period with a lower body injury. I’m only going to loosely make the connection, but without Plekanec, the Habs managed less shots during his absence than Flyers forward Wayne Simmonds had for the entire game on his own. If Plekanec is out for any length of time, the Habs are in serious trouble, since Eller, Desharnais, Halpern and Galchenyuk cannot replicate what Plekanec brings to the team. You can disagree, but you’d be wrong.

The Habs are a resilient bunch, and losing has not been their thing this season. All bets are off if Plekanec is seriously hurt, but considering how more than one goal deflected off of Habs defensemen and behind Price in to the net, I expect a livelier effort from the Habs tomorrow against Winnipeg coupled with a little more puck luck.

So with nothing more to talk about, the only thing to consider is what the plan becomes if Plekanec IS seriously hurt. Well, for starters, Lars Eller will take on a bigger role, and will hopefully be better than he was tonight. Jeff Halpern will also take on more minutes, especially when it comes to defensive zone faceoffs. Other than that, Desharnais will have no choice but to put points on the board on a consistent basis, and Galchenyuk will have to contribute a bit more than he has.

Again, let’s not let one loss set us on the path of despair. Until poor play becomes a pattern, assume that the Habs will bounce back, as they always have this season. If they lose the Jets tomorrow, raise an eyebrow. If they lose to the Bruins on Saturday…ok…go ahead and riot.

Follow me on twitter: @kyleroussel

Everything Happened

Regular season game #33

I’m not going to lie to you: I don’t know where to start. When you look up the definition of a roller coaster game, whatever is currently in the hockey dictionary is going to be supplanted by this game. The Habs blew a 2-0 lead, then came back from a pair of third period two goal deficits, finally tying the game with just seconds to go in regulation.

To paraphrase Stefon: “This game had everything”.

Fans of both the Habs and Bruins experienced the full gamut of emotions that hockey has to deliver; everything from despair to exhilaration.

With the Habs having played just one night earlier in Pittsburgh, many wondered how much gas the Habs would have in the tank. The answer is plenty, though Therrien may want to check that  Markov and Emelin aren’t having their gas cut with water. Markov is still a key cog for this team,and did score the game-tying goal, but it’s clear that his mobility has been affected by knee surgeries galore.

It isn’t often that we see Carey Price get pulled, but when Budaj came out to start the third period it was less an indictment of his play as it was a message to the team to get the lead out and to try and change the momentum. Message received, and Budaj was spectacular in Price’s stead, shootout included, as he did not surrender a single goal.

Other laurels go out to P.K. Subban, who played over a half hour of hockey, had a goal and an assist and was a +3 . Brendan Gallagher was also a difference maker, as he scored the goal that gave the Habs renewed life, was in Rask’s kitchen on the game-tying goal, and scored the shootout winner. He continues to make a name for himself, and his buzz saw style has inserted him in to the conversation for rookie of the year. Plekanec quietly had three assists and continues to be the glue that holds the team’s top six together. Captain Brian Gionta also had a pair of assists to go with his three shots on goal. Michael Ryder, who hit nothing but post in Pittsburgh last night had fortune in his favour last night, scoring two more goals. He now has 13 points in 13 games since rejoining the Habs (Erik Cole is stuck on two goals, and is a minus 9 in 13 games with Dallas, and he continues to make Marc Bergevin look like a genius.

You’ve got to wonder what Therrien told his team during the second intermission, but once again it worked. He also had the good sense to not put the struggling David Desharnais out for the last minute powerplay. Desharnais, plucky chap that he is, is useless on the powerplay on the road.

All in all, it was a badly needed win, and goes to show that winning ugly trumps losing while playing well.

And yes, the Habs can run with the big dogs.

Follow me on twitter: @kyleroussel

When Facing an AHL Goalie…

Regular season game #30

The Islanders have long been a doormat, but in recent years they have been a thorn in the Canadiens’ side…at least that’s the popular belief. Once again, a quick glance at recent history says that the Habs are 5-3-3 against the Islanders since the 2010-11 season. Certainly not what I’d call “owning” a team, but a .591 win percentage hardly qualifies as something to whine too much about when perception is out of whack with reality.

After leaving a point on the table on Tuesday against Buffalo, it was important for Montreal to get the win against Long Island. In the early going, things looked iffy, as some sloppy play from both teams led to a 2-2 game. The ingredients were present for the Habs to let another one slip away, but once again, the third period came along to save their bacon.

That, and one Kevin Poulin. The Islanders backup looked about as confident and graceful in goal as Martin Short did in his short career as a synchronized swimmer. He looked like he was terrified at the sight of the puck all night long, as pucks bounced off him in every which direction. Scrambling to stay on his feet and in his crease, Poulin finally gave up the ghost in the third period; surrendering three goals on 10 shots. The lesson? Shoot the puck at jello-legged AHL goalies.

The usual suspects were stirring the drink for the Habs tonight. P.K. Subban, Brendan Gallagher, Max Pacioretty, and newcomer Gabriel Dumont. Just two nights after being publicly admonished by his coach, Subban simply scored another pair of goals, and now has 22 points in 24 games. The cost to resign him goes up by the day. Rookies Gallagher and Dumont were busy raising hell and keeping the Islanders off their game all night long. While Gallagher’s a permanent resident, Dumont looks poised to unseat one of Travis Moen or Colby Armstrong with his in-your-face style.

We would also be remiss not to mention David Desharnais’ 100th and 101st NHL points, as he assisted on Brian Gionta’s game winning goal early in the third period, and also assisted on Gallagher’s tally. It was also his first point since signing his contract extension two weeks ago. Interestingly, Desharnais was finally held accountable by Michel Therrien for recent lacklustre play, as he saw less than four minutes in both the second and third periods. Let us stow the talk that he’s ben getting a free pass for now, yes?

Michael Ryder’s opening tally represented his 10th point in 10 games since joining the Habs (Erik Cole, for his part, is still mired in his season-long funk at two goals in nine games since joining the Stars). Bergevin’s trade looks better and better, doesn’t it?

At 20-5-5, Montreal has twice as many wins as combined losses. With the season 5/8ths complete, nobody on the planet could have predicted this. The Canadiens have been on a season-long run that shows no sign of slowing down.

Follow me on twitter: @kyleroussel


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