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The Day Goaltending Was Forgotten

Regular season game #21

If ever a game was played to define the “last shot wins” cliché, it was the Penguins vs Habs. On a night where neither team was interested in such things as team defense or goaltending, the only question to be answered was how many goals would these teams combine to score? The answer was 13. The Habs gave up a touchdown while only managing two field goals.

It was the sort of wild game that leaves neither team extracting much value. Goaltending was too atrocious for either offense to take much credit, and defense was a word totally lost to both teams. And yes Habs fans, Price was simply awful. His excuse-makers still tried to pin all seven goals on a porous defense, but if Price was a shred of the phenomenal goalie that he is on most other nights, the Habs win this one easily. He had issues with virtually every aspect of his game; from rebound control, to positioning, to tracking the puck, and handling the puck. That is not to say that the loss is necessarily Price’s fault. In a weird and wacky game such as this was, we are all better off in taking it for what it is: a gong show.

If you’re looking for a glimmer of hope as a Habs fan, put stock in the likelihood that Price won’t have a repeat performance tonight vs Boston. Giving up seven goals is just not in his repertoire and Therrien would be wise to throw him back in between the pipes tonight against the Bruins. In the Montreal Bias’ podcast, recorded on Friday night, I alluded to the possibility that the Canadiens would look beyond the Penguins game and to Sunday’s big game in Boston. I won’t go so far as to say that I was right, but given the odd and almost anomalous nature of the game, you’d have to think it really is possible. If that’s the case, then we can be pretty sure that the Habs will be the polar opposite of the team that wanted to play shinny instead of professional ice hockey.

Here’s all you need to know about the insane nature of this game, and the only stat that I’ll reference tonight: on a night where the home team coughed up a converted touchdown, maligned defenseman Tomas Kaberle had two assists and was plus three. Yeah, it was that weird.

Follow me on twitter: @kyleroussel

Afternoon Delight

Regular season game #8

When it rains, it pours. Once the Senators scored what should have been the tying goal, you couldn’t help but feel like you had seen this movie before: the Canadiens cling to a fragile lead only to lose it in the third period or overtime as they were unable to re-emerge from their defensive shell. It came as a welcome surprise that the officials called off the goal and assigned a goaltender interference penalty to Jakob Silfverberg. No contact was made with Carey Price, yet the zebras saw it differently. Indeed, things are going mostly in the Habs favour these days, and it shows in their 6-2 record.

Yesterday’s game showed a version of the Habs that took full advantage of a team ready to be trounced. Today’s team showed a willingness to take the extra lumps in blocking 25 Ottawa shots en route to a tight 2-1 win. Full marks for character.

We’ve still got to show some restraint in both our assessment and praise of the Habs. The 6-2 record is certainly something to write home about, but it has been a soft schedule full of home dates. We need to see this team on the road for an extended stretch before we can get a clear picture of what they’re all about. But the body language, attitude, and desire seems fully entrenched in the right spots.

This Superbowl weekend was successful on many fronts for the Habs: David Desharnais finally came to play, Subban made his second start and added his second assist to the ledger. Lars Eller woke up on Saturday, Tomas Kaberle is finally where he ought to be – in the press box, Max Pacioretty made a successful return (adding an assist on his first shift), and Erik Cole scored the winning goal while throwing 6 hits on Sunday. With the first line rounding in to shape, there can be no better news as the schedule verges on getting tougher.

With the Bruins coming to town on Wednesday, the opportunity is there for the Habs to send the message that fun time is over on Bell Center ice for visitors.

All in all, Habs fans have very little to complain about, but a few things to be concerned with. Staked to an early 6-2 record, Michel Therrien has his team on the right track and has a healthy squad to iron out the kinks with and prove the doubters wrong.

It’s been a while since the Canadiens were in such a favourable position where whatever happens to them will depend entirely on how they continue to execute on the ice.

Follow me on twitter: @kyleroussel

Swan Song

At the end of the day, the Habs just didn’t have enough left to “fight the good fight”. If we’re looking for reasons as to why the Habs fell after owning a 2-0 series lead, certainly the injuries will rise to the top of the list. And not just the injuries to Markov, Gorges and Pacioretty. Desharnais left the series, Kostitsyn was skating on a bad paw, Halpern wasn’t ready to return from injury, Gill and Hamrlik were reportedly playing with injuries…incredibly the list goes on, yet the Habs pushed this to 7 games and gave the heavily favoured Bruins more than they could handle. We can only wonder how things would have been different if the Habs would have been closer to their real identity.

This series was an epic battle to be sure, and each team had to dig deep for results; Boston salvaged their playoff lives just in time after falling behind two games (a shame that now is the time they get their first series win after dropping the first two games), while the Habs fought back to force a deciding seventh game; and fought back even harder to push that game in to sudden death. When a series goes to overtime in a seventh game, it’s obviously anybody’s to win, and sadly for Habs fans, there was only so much blood to be squeezed from the stone.

Prior to the start of the series, if I had told you that David Krejci, Milan Lucic, Zdeno Chara and Tomas Kaberle would combine for a total of 2 goals and 4 assists in 27 games played, and that the Bruins would score exactly zero power play goals in the series, you would have thought that the Habs were certainly going to take it. Strangely and cruelly enough, you’d be wrong.

Today isn’t the day to point fingers, but here’s a stat that reveals a fatal flaw in “The System”.

The Canadiens and Bruins both scored 17 goals in the series, for an average of 2.43 goals per game. It doesn’t get tighter than that. The issue is this: While the aforementioned invisible Bruins combined for a paltry 6 points, they were also a combined +1. How does that happen? Looking at the teams a little more closely, we see that only 5 Bruins players were on the wrong side of the +/- stat: Krejci (-1), Thornton, Seidenberg, Paille, and Campbell were all -2. Needless to say, three of those guys are not what I’d call crucial to the Bruins success and as such don’t receive a heck of a lot of ice time. Contrast that with the Habs, who had 13 players on the wrong side of the ledger: Gionta and Gomez at -6. Cammalleri at -5. Wizniewski at -3, Spacek at -3, Subban at -2, Sopel at -2, and half a dozen others at -1. Only Weber and Eller were +1. Again, I’m not pointing fingers at individual players, but rather at a system that forces the Habs to win the special teams battle by such a wide margin that it essentially negates what happens at even strength, where the vast majority of a hockey game is played. The power play was terrific, and the penalty kill was better than perfect when you factor in Plekanec’s short handed goal. But without even strength production, you can’t win in the long run.

There are other factors contributing to the series loss, and I’m sure you’ll read about them. While losing to the head-hunting, bird-flipping, lie-telling Bruins stings in the worst way imagineable, there’s never been more reason to be optimistic. The Habs core is in place, and youngsters like Price, Subban, Eller, Desharnais, Pacioretty all revealed themselves to be superb NHL players over the course of the season – and they’re all going to make huge strides in development in the coming years (Dear Salary Cap: Please keep rising!). Gauthier has a lot of work in filling out and improving the roster, but this is clearly the best team we’ve seen in a very long time, and I’m already looking forward to October.

Markov’s Future With the Habs

While the rest of the hockey world focuses on what a Russian star will be doing in 2027, let’s focus for a few minutes on what a closer to home Russian star will be doing in 2011.

It would not be sacrilege to say that Andrei Markov belongs in the same conversation with Doug Harvey, Larry Robinson, Serge Savard, Guy Lapointe and Chris Chelios as some of the best defensemen the team has ever had. When he’s in the lineup, the Canadiens are a drastically better team than when he’s not in the lineup. His tenure as current longest service Canadien and his undeniable skill has put him in the conversation to be the team’s next captain. Yes, Markov is without a doubt one of the franchise’s all-time best; one of the bright spots, along with Saku Koivu during some depressing years in Montreal. It should also come as no surprise that if Markov plays his entire career as a member of the Canadiens, he will have his jersey retired whether he wins a Cup or Norris trophy, or neither. Have I made my feelings on him clear? Is this enough of a disclaimer? I hope so, because some of you may not like me when you finish this article.

Markov is entering the final season on a contract that pays him a very palatable $5.75 million dollars per season. At that price, Markov is an absolute steal. Based on his numbers and abilities, he ought to be making at least $7 million dollars. Come July 1st, 2011, he’ll probably get somewhere close to that number. The question is – who will be the one to give it to him, and for how long?

Markov has suffered 3 major injuries to his lower body in the past 18 months. Maple Leafs pest Mikhail Grabovsky sent him flying in to the boards, which demolished his knee. He missed the end of the season and the sweep vs the Bruins in 08-09. To kick off the 09-10 campaign, he had his achilles nearly severed by Carey Price’s skate blade. After a shorter than expected rehab (but still too long for the Habs and their fans), he made his return and everyone thought the worst was behind him. Wrong. In the second round of the playoffs, Penguins dirtbag Matt Cooke knocked Markov off his feet and in to the boards. The awkwardness of the fall again badly messed up his knee. Don’t kid yourself, these injuries take their toll, and it doesn’t take much when you’re older than 30 to permanently lose a step. This on top of the injuries that Markov has suffered in the earlier stages of his career. These all add up and have their cumulative effects. When Markov returns from his latest setback, the microscope will be on him more than ever. Has he lost that step? Can he still keep the opposition’s top players at bay? Trust me, everyone will be watching.

So here we find ourselves today wrestling over what to do with Markov as his free agency looms. Make no mistake, until Canadiens General Manager Pierre Gauthier says something definitive, which he won’t, this will be among the top 3 topics of conversation among Canadiens fans this year.

The pollyanna-ish hope is to give Markov a new offer and simply he’ll sign it. All indications are that he loves Montreal, and wants to play his entire career here. Sure, that sounds simple enough, but sadly it doesn’t reflect the full reality of the situation. Surprisingly, in the era of the salary cap the Canadiens tight cap situation is not the biggest factor in whether or not Markov resumes his career with the bleu-blanc-rouge.

Does he really want to be here? Would he be willing to sign a similar deal to the one that is expiring? If the answer is yes to both of those, then Markov will be back, sans doute and Habs fans everywhere should smile at their good fortune. On the flip side, if he wants to be here, but for upwards of $7 million for 5-6 years…houston, we have a problem.

It takes two to tango. Do the Canadiens want him back? He’s a good guy, a team leader and means a ton the team’s success or failure. None of those things are the issue. Do they think he’s reliable enough from a durability standpoint, considering he’s on the wrong side of 30 to continue being the team’s #1 defenseman? That’s a question none of us have the answers to, as much as we think we might. No doubt at some point this year we’ll hear a clip from the tight-lipped Gauthier that will sound an awful lot like:

“Andrei Markov is a key part of this franchise and we’d love to have him back as a part of this team going forward.”

This is nothing but canned speech. Of course they’d love to have him back…what else are they going to say?

“We think Andrei has run his course as a member of this team, and we’re going to look at trading him”. This destroys his trade potential trade value.

“We are going to let Andrei explore his options come July 1st”. This would spawn a public relations nightmare. I’ll eat my monitor if we ever hear either of those from the Canadiens.

If the Canadiens truly want Markov back, then Gauthier will need to break away from tradition and find a way to get Markov signed to an extension before the trade deadline. Why before the trade deadline? Two reasons (at least):

1) Because Gauthier cannot risk losing Markov for nothing after July 1st, 2011.

Some team will be willing and able to pay more than the Canadiens can afford for Markov, and he’s worth way too much in terms of prospects and picks to simply let walk away for nothing in return. Yes, the Canadiens will have some cap room, but not a ton of it. They can’t get carried away and start matching $7+ million dollar offers for his services on a long-term contract that will take Markov in to his late 30’s. If he has his priorities straight, Gauthier will get him signed to a reasonable long-term contract before he is wooed by teams looking to bolster their playoff chances. But as I said, the cap isn’t really the issue.

2) Avoid the inevitable distractions.

I’m aware that the Canadiens don’t typically weaken themselves at the deadline, or wave the white flag on the season, but I don’t want to hear anything from Gauthier and the Canadiens along the lines of staying status quo and negotiating when the season concludes. The hand-wringing and hair-pulling will reach fever pitch in Montreal as the season progresses if Markov remains unsigned. The media will incessantly flog this issue on the radio, on tv, in print and on the web until (and after) it is resolved. The fans will light forums, blogs and twitter ablaze with nervosity. It will be unavoidable, and such issues of this magnitude always disrupt team unity and divide fan bases.

Yes, I know. The mantra in Montreal is “playoffs-or-bust”. This mantra usually means that the Habs hang on to their assets in an attempt to ensure 8th place or better. This time its different. This is not the same as letting beloved captain Saku Koivu go for nothing. Markov is worth far more than Koivu. If Brian Burke can demand a King’s ransom for Tomas Kaberle (which, granted, has yet to be met), Gauthier can ask for a God’s ransom for Markov and be more likely to get it. This cannot be ignored. It would be downright silly and irresponsible for Gauthier to not know what he can get for Markov via trade, just in case he can’t get him signed before the deadline. Many people don’t like Gauthier already, and for him to bury his head in the sand would do nothing but stoke those fires. Every General Manager knows what his assets are worth, whether he wants to move them or not, and if he doesn’t, I’m willing to bet that his team isn’t doing very well.

At the end of the day, I believe, and hope Markov will be back as a member of the Canadiens. Pierre Gauthier has surprised me during his brief reign as General Manager, and I think he’ll do things the right way here. I can never know the answer to this, but I believe Markov wants to remain a member of the team, and Gauthier knows that he has one of the league’s top-5 defensemen in his stable. But Habs fans should absolutely prepare themselves for the possibility, however remote, that Markov be elsewhere come opening day of the 2011-2012 season. It’s a heartbreaking possibility, but one that if you aren’t prepared for it, your resulting sadness and anger will be brought on by none other than yourself. We should have all learned this lesson multiple times as free agent after free agent left Montreal for other cities in recent years. Only Plekanec’s recent signing has turned the tide. At the very least, prepare yourself for LOTS of chatter from fans who insist that Markov be traded before he walks away for nothing. It’s the nature of the beast in this town and we should all be used to it by now.

However, if Markov is not extended by March 2nd, 3 p.m. EST, I would stock up on crying towels.

Just in case.

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