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Coach Therrien’s Future

With another day to kill before the start of game one, I figure now’s as good a time as any to yak about Habs coach Michel Therrien. Some like him, many can’t stand him. For those who value “process over results”, Therrien is the bane of their existence. For the rest, Therrien’s combined 75-42-13 record during his two seasons is proof enough that he’s pushing the right buttons and getting the most out of the team.

While both camps have valid points; valuing results over process is to be ignorant of what makes the Maple Leafs so hilarious to laugh at every year. Teams that rides percentages in either shooting or save percentage (or both) are doomed. On the other hand, the NHL remains a results-driven business, and few have done better than Therrien from a wins-and-losses perspective since the last lockout ended.

The 2014-15 season will be the final season of Therrien’s current contract. His future beyond that will hinge greatly on what happens in this playoff run. If the Canadiens bow out to Tampa with a whimper, the #FireTherrien camp will expect and demand Therrien’s immediate dismissal. If they bow out in a tough, well-played series, calls for his firing will still be loud and clear, no doubt, but won’t be as adamant. Short of a trip to the Cup Finals, there isn’t much that Michel Therrien can do to satisfy his naysayers. From an organizational perspective, if the Habs meekly exit the playoffs, then being bounced easily twice in two playoff years will not bode well for Therrien. He very well may be fired – to the delight of many, but he would certainly start 2014-15 on thin ice if he managed to avoid the axe.

If the Canadiens have a decent playoff run (which I’ll loosely define as a round one win, and at minimum a long, well-played second round, and more likely a second-round series win), then the #FireTherrien crowd will be sorely disappointed. A strong playoff run will not only result in Therrien emerging unscathed, and him starting 14-15 on terra firma, it will also likely see him get a contract extension during the off-season. The always-aware-of-optics Canadiens will not want questions swirling around their head coach when camp breaks, and a coach entering his final season – especially one that irks so many in both the media and fanbase (and perhaps even in the locker room) – will automatically carry the “lame duck coach” label. No team wants that distraction, so a strong playoff showing will probably end that discussion before it even begins. Then we’ll discuss how great or retarded Marc Bergevin is, again.

Personally, I’m not a huge fan of Therrien’s current strategy. The Canadiens have been less exciting and have been playing with fire all season long, with short bursts of hope to a return to playing “sustainable, effective” winning hockey. From last year to this year the Habs switched playing styles, and while the bottom line has been similar, the lion’s share of credit for this year’s success can go directly to Carey Price and the duo of Max Pacioretty and David Desharnais. Still, all teams ask of their head coach is to win games. That’s it, that’s all. They aren’t asked to win games under the constraint of demonstrating strong analytics (as much as we’d all like to see them). Therrien has done that, and in doing so has ticked the only box assigned to any coach. Initially I didn’t see Therrien making it to the end of his original contract, and that still may happen. The toughest road remains in front of him, but he has gone at least halfway in getting an extension for himself.

Cynics aren’t worried about the Canadiens doing well come Wednesday, and hence aren’t worried that the Habs will be toiling under Therrien for much longer. Of course, there are no guarantees no matter what happens. But the convergence of circumstances means that If you’re not a fan of Michel Therrien, this post-season puts you in a tough spot: the better the Canadiens do, the more likely it is that you’ll be stuck with him for the long haul.

So You’re Upset

Evidently it takes a snoozer of a game against a squad of AHL talent to bring me out of hibernation!

With home ice advantage in the first round of the playoffs still up for grabs, I think we all expected a stronger effort than what the Canadiens put forth last night. Not an unreasonable expectation given the opposition. What is verging on unreasonable, however, is the mentality that a team that was 7-2-1 in its previous 10 games needs to be needs to be even better than that before letting the foot off the gas.

I’ve spoken a lot in the past about the need for home ice advantage if you want to win the Cup. Over the last 20 years, it’s been more or less a requirement, with only a couple of teams starting the playoffs on the road and going all the way. From that standpoint, you’d love to see the Habs lock up home ice and at least put themselves in the camp that have won the vast majority of Stanley Cups in the last 20+ years. We in Montreal have become used to the Habs wearing the underdog tag, and wearing it quite well, if only for a round or two (2010 excluded). A lot of fans actually want the Habs to start on the road in Tampa, the logic being that if they can steal a game there, the Lightning are screwed. I would suggest that those people are unaware of the importance of home ice, are blind optimists, have forgotten about 2011, or don’t consider the Stanley Cup a possibility for this team whether they have home ice or not.

Playing the second game of a back-to-back at home vs a “weak” opponent had trap game written all over it, and whether the Habs sprung the trap or simply didn’t care enough to avoid planting both feet directly in to it, they were booed lustily for most of the night by fans seemingly unaware that their team has 98 points and playing decent hockey. What have you done for me lately, indeed!

Here’s the rub: the Lightning have been hot on the Habs heels for home ice for a few games running, and if the Canadiens want home ice, they would have had to nearly run the table, going 9-2-1 in their final 12 (for a total of 102pts), assuming Tampa Bay wins its last two games (leaving them with 101pts). Only Habs fans get upset when their team doesn’t play .792 hockey down the final stretch…”Geez guys, if only you cared, you could have gone undefeated!”

I find it difficult to stress out too much over last night’s game. While it was a waste of an evening, that’s all it was. With a win over the Rangers on Saturday, the Habs will force Tampa to win both of their final games to grab home ice away from Montreal. But from the amount of anger thrown around last night over the loss, you’d think the Canadiens were limping in to the playoffs with a 2-5 record down the stretch.

Which they did in ’93.

Just saying.

So long, Raffy Diaz

Yesterday, Habs GM dealt misunderstood/misused/missthenet defenseman Raphael Diaz to the Canucks for some guy named Dale Wiese. My initial reaction was something along the lines of *headdesk*. Diaz is a useable guy who had become useless to Therrien for reasons only known to the Habs coach. Whether it was a lack of physicality or lack of scoring (he hasn’t beaten an NHL goalie in a long, long time, folks), Diaz found himself on the bench for the last 8 games.

Pretty clear that he’s not in the team’s plans especially now with Beaulieu in the mix, so Bergevin shipped him out to the West Coast, where he’s free to take Yannick Weber’s job for a second time.

Of course, the Habs can’t make a single move without generating utter madness among the fanbase, so it came as no surprise that the interwebs were lit aflame when news of the trade broke. Sure, a few people who want the Habs to get bigger approved of the trade. For the most part, however, the trade made people upset; not because of the trade itself, but because of the mindset that it represents. Bergevin during his short tenure as Habs GM has made a habit of bringing in bottom-six forwards and bottom-pairing defensemen. Surely more was expected, and definitely more talent is needed, so this move is an exercise in exasperation. Instead of trading Diaz for virtually nothing, people wondered, why didn’t they:

  • Actually play Diaz over Murray?
  • Get more for a guy that the advanced stats say is a good d-man?
  • Get a draft pick for him?
  • Keep him?

We can cry about Murray all we want, but the Habs like him. Why didn’t they get more for Diaz? Because he wasn’t worth much thanks to his own inability to produce. Sure he may be efficient as a D-man, but perceptions are hard to shake and Diaz is seen as an offensive guy who can help a powerplay, which he didn’t do. So long, trade value. Being benched for 8 straight games? R.I.P. trade value. Why didn’t Bergevin just take a mid-round pick rather than a useless player who will likely be in the AHL next year? That’s a good question, and all I can imagine is that the Canucks don’t want to part with assets, either. Smart thinking. Finally, why didn’t the Habs just keep him? Well…with Subban, Gorges, Emelin, Beaulieu and perhaps Markov all laying claim to top-4 slots for 2014-15, where does Diaz fit? As a UFA, it’s his chance to cash in, and unless he’s dumb, he probably has no interest in being a bottom pair guy in Montreal. Just a guess.

So while we can piss and moan until the sun goes down about Bergevin picking up yet another useless, insignificant player, we can and should take some comfort in the fact that he did not and has not moved any prized prospects or draft picks for short-term rentals to save the current season. Diaz may have been sabotaged as an asset and shipped in a trade that was totally unnecessary, but in the end, had he scored a goal against an NHL goalie in the last 2 calendar years (January 21, 2012 was the last time he scored a real goal), maybe he would have retained his value all by himself.

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.

Sabotage

Playoff game #4

Through 40 minutes, the Habs had done everything right, resulting in a 2-0 lead. Then they took a page out of the Jacques Martin playbook and sat back to defend that lead through the third period. Predictably, it did not work out for them. Without going through the painful exercise yet again, here’s why I think the Habs lost:

We can complain about the officiating all we want. By the letter of the law, the Sens’ first goal was legit. The tying goal was rife with officiating blunders from the icing call, to not calling Turris’ interference with Price.

In the end none of this matters.

The Canadiens were their own worst enemy last night when they had been their own best ally for two full periods. Now with Eller, Gionta, Prust, Pacioretty, and Price (that we know of) either playing hurt or outright injured, the Habs face a huge uphill climb.

After being the better team in three of four games in this series so far, the Canadiens certainly deserve better, but the hockey gods don’t work that way. Those of us who remember 2010 know this all too well.

Follow me on twitter: @kyleroussel

All’s Well That Ends Well

Regular season game #48

Canadiens coach Michel Therrien decided that resting key players was not as important as going all out to win the division. He did not rest any of his key players except for Carey Price, feeling that going for second place in the conference was the priority. As has been the case for the most part this year, his decision turned out to be the correct one.

Led by Lars Eller, Alex Galchenyuk and Brendan Gallagher once again, the Canadiens regained a measure of confidence against the Leafs, who had inflicted the season’s worst beatings on the Canadiens. If Leafs forward Joffrey Lupul’s claim that the Leafs were the bigger and tougher team riled the Canadiens (despite the validity to the claim), then we can thank the injury prone big mouth for giving the Canadiens something to prove.

The Canadiens were clearly the better team all night, holding a listless Leafs team to just 17 shots in the entire game, including just one shot in the second period while they built a 3-1 lead. Once the Habs took a 4-1 lead early in the third period, the Leafs did what you’d expect. They tried to batter and pummel the Habs. Referees Wes MacAuley and Marc Joannette had to know that was inevitable; they cut off all antics at the pass, issuing game misconducts to both Frazer McLaren and Clarke MacArthur for things that would have otherwise been let go under different circumstances.

Fans always tell themselves whatever they need to in order to feel good about their team’s chances in a given situation. So if the Leafs and Habs do end up playing each other next week, both sides will have supporting arguments that seem entirely valid in their own minds. If you’re a Leafs fan, you tell yourself that you won the season series 3-2, including a 2-1 season-opening game in enemy territory, and two humiliating beatdowns in which they outscored the Canadiens 11-1. You tell yourself that the bigger Leafs will quickly wear down the smaller Canadiens. If you’re a Habs fan, you say that you won the final game of the year in convincing manner, that there is little connection between head-to-head regular season success and playoff success, that the Canadiens were fundamentally sound for most of the season while the Leafs were not, despite their winning record.

We don’t know who the Habs will play yet, but it has to provide Habs fans with a substantial measure of relief that the Canadiens won their last two games by a combined score of 8-3 when previously to that they were unable to do anything right. They look playoff-ready, which is the most important thing. Now we find out if the Canadiens perceived lack of size will be a problem, or if they will able to dig deeper and buck conventional wisdom.

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

New Equipment, Same Pain

Regular season game #41

This game was over before it began, and there’s no need to search high and low for the reason. Carey Price was not prepared to start this game. Let’s shelve any talk about unfamiliarity with new equipment; Price chose to wear new equipment in a big game. It is incumbent upon him to make sure that the new gear does not compromise his performance. Whatever the reason, surrendering three goals on four shots is inexcusable considering that two of the three goals were as soft as soft gets.

Just two night after clinching a playoff spot, it would be a little unreasonable to blow a gasket and suggest that Therrien panic by putting the team through a bag skate at his first opportunity. What he does have to do is take a breather on Sunday and spend the day questioning why his team can’t consistently put forth a good effort against the Leafs. If we want to cling to the idea that once the playoffs begin that the slate is wiped clean, that would be convenient. But the fact is now the Canadiens have given the Leafs as much confidence as they’ll need in a potential first round matchup. Should the Habs and Leafs meet in the first round, Montreal has one more chance on April 27th to grab back a measure of confidence.

There’s not a lot of sense in picking apart individual performances tonight, aside from the one that cost the team the game before the first period was halfway over. Once the Habs were behind by three goals, they went for broke in trying to claw their way back, to no avail. More mistakes were made as a result, and the gap only widened after briefly being shrunk to two goals. Lots of guys played terrible games, but under the circumstances none of it mattered much given the situation that Price left them in. With only seven games left before the playoffs begin, Price is running out of time to get his act together. As good as he’s been this season, he has not been great, and no amount of smoke from his exonerators can change that. Fact: three of his last seven starts have been hard to watch.

Everyone and their dead dog knows that a Leafs – Habs first round matchup is a distinct possibility, and although the Habs are a demonstrably better team in nearly every statistical category than the Leafs, it has to be a little bit of a concern that the Habs have laid three eggs of different size and shape in four games against this Toronto team.

We could sweep all of this under the rug and look at what happened the last time the Habs were embarrassed by the Leafs. The Canadiens went on to get points in 11 straight games, and put a stamp on this season. If that were to happen again, we’d all welcome that.

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Ryde On!

Regular season game #37

Just 24 hours after the apocalypse, the fallout has cleared, the sun has broken through, and the world has righted itself. Situation normal.

While nothing went right in Philadelphia, everything went right against the Jets. With major concern swirling around Plekanec’s absence, Habs fans wondered how their team would conduct itself minus their most important centerman. We’ll concede that while the Jets aren’t hockey’s Harlem Globetrotters, the Habs did pretty damn well, especially the two young centermen with the spotlight on them: Lars Eller and Alex Galchenyuk. Eller had a goal and an assist, and looked much more like the active, versatile player we’ve become accustomed to while Galchenyuk emerged from a prolonged slump to score his 4th goal of the year. It’s not abnormal for a rookie, even one with Galchenyuk’s gifts to lose their way a bit during their first season as a pro, but on his goal, he was circling like a shark in chummed waters. He found a dead spot eight feet in front of Pavelec and waited for the inevitable. Slump = over. Michael Ryder continued his torrid pace, with two goals and an assist, and P.K. Subban was up to his usual tricks with another two assists to vault him in to the NHL’s top scoring defenseman with 30 points. Peter Budaj for his part turned in another strong performance as Price’s backup, turning aside 33 of 34 shots in front of members of his family. He was well deserving of the second star, and should strongly be considered for a contract extension. It never fails to entertain me when fans denigrate his work by saying he only plays “weak teams”. Newsflash: he’s designated, and paid as a backup…of course he plays the “weak teams”! (Let’s conveniently forget that he’s 2-0 against the Bruins this year.)

We could be worried about the Habs two-game trend of taking minimal shots on goal in the third period, but with the team as battered as it is, it would probably make more sense to cut the team some slack considering they actually won the game quite handily and kept their grip on first place in the North East with just 11 games to go.

With a huge showdown on Saturday night against the Bruins, this was a home win the Habs simply had to have, and it’s par for the course to see them rally minus their best center to get the job done. Michel Therrien has kept a stern hand on the wheel and his decisions continue to work out remarkably well. He may not win the Jack Adams trophy, but he sure as hell deserves to be a finalist.

With Plekanec listed as day-to-day, Bourque scheduled to practice with the team, and Diaz skating for the second consecutive day, Bergevin showed that sometimes the best deals are the ones you don’t make. And in Ryder’s case, he showed that sometimes the best deals are the ones you DO make.

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