Sunday, January 07, 2007

Game Recaps are for Girls: Canadiens Midterm Report/Mega-Post

1-6-07: Rangers 4, Canadiens 3

1-7-07: Devils 3, Canadiens 0

Today’s game was #41 for the Canadiens, marking the official halfway point of their season. It was also their 3rd consecutive loss, marking their longest losing streak of the season and first real slump. In and of itself this may not seem catastrophic- Shanahan helpfully reminded everyone on Saturday that the Rangers went on a 7 game losing streak not so very long ago- but only a single victory separates it from the 2 losses in Florida. The Thrashers and Devils have passed Montreal in the standings, the Rangers, Hurricanes and even the Senators are closing in, and the Sabres have regained their considerable lead. So at exactly the moment when everyone will be looking around the League and evaluating the comparative worth of the various teams, the Habs are not looking so great.

There’s a lot of bitterness in the air, condensing now into little clouds of outrage. It is often said of Montreal that the team is only as good as its last game, and that’s very true. Even for the long stretch of the early season where they never lost more than once at a time, every loss would be followed by a spike of anger and anxiety, the audience demanding trades and new lines, that some players get sent down and others brought up. None of it mattered, of course, because Gainey and Carbonneau will do as they will do regardless of the public opinion; as well they should, for if one gave in to Montreal’s collective whims regarding the team, it’s likely that no player would survive the season. But more than that, it didn’t matter because the team would always bounce back, and if there is a saving grace to Habs fans it’s that their exultation after a win is equal to their desolation after a loss. Two games without a bounce-back, though, at this time of year, is apt to precipitate deeper responses: banshee-wails of distress, prophecies of doom, and the clattering demand that something, anything, be changed.

There are causes for concern. These have already been named, and if, reader, you are not familiar with them, you’ll no doubt see them popping up in various midterm report cards in the coming week. The highly paid forwards who are supposed to score early and often are not doing so. The team is often undisciplined and takes unnecessary penalties. And perhaps most worrying, their 5-on-5 play is weak. This last concerns me most, personally, because it is not just a quantitative fact but a qualitative one. It is not simply that the stats show that their full-strength scoring is unusually low, it’s that you can see, on the ice, that their standard game is off-balance. Compared to many teams in the League these days, even many who sit lower in the standings, and even compared to their own special teams, the Habs’ basic 5-man game is a strange, sputtering thing. It’s often listless, haphazard, arrhythmic. One feels that good hockey play ought to have a certain flow to it, the clicking e.e. cummings synchronicity that the Sabres have mastered so perfectly. Some teams have suffered because they’ve lost that flow, but the Habs have succeeded in spite of the fact that they haven’t even developed it. It’s impossible, I think, to follow the team at all and not be a little scared by this.

This, however, is the end of my complaining. I’ve done too much of it these days, and I don’t like it. It feels unnatural, as a fan, to spend too much time hating on the team. After the loss to the Capitals I broke my usual rule and posted angry, accused the team of essentially giving up the game for no reason. Subsequently, we all found out that they had been struck with a stomach flu which had several players vomiting in the locker room between periods, and which has since kept several players out and thrown the lines into considerable disarray. I regret my earlier lack of faith, or sympathy, or what-have-you. So in penance, today’s theme is gratitude. In spite of the problems, the very valid and oft-repeated criticisms, this year’s version of the Habs is a very, very good team and there are many things to be grateful for. Here are mine, in no particular order:

1. Special Teams- It’s been said before, but it bears repeating: 2nd best power play and penalty kill in the League, and the most short-handed goals. In a NHL increasingly characterized by bizarre officiating, these skills should never be underrated. Against the Devils this weekend, they killed off more than 3 minutes of 5-on-3 over two separate occasions. Put them a man up or a man down, and suddenly there’s a kind of focus that appears, as though they suddenly know exactly what they’re supposed to do. Moreover, the Habs’ special teams are actually not that specialized- virtually every player does one or the other regularly, and many do both. Both on the PP and the PK, they play a tight, precise, attentive game, and if they could find a way to play that game at even strength they’d be easily the best team in the conference. It’s been suggested that the Habs are often the beneficiaries of irrational calls, and sometimes they are, although it seems to me that bad officiating goes against them as often, if not more often, than it goes in their favor. Successful special teams, though, aren’t just about benefiting from the unsettled state of the League, they’re emblematic of flexibility and adaptability, the capacity to make something good out of a range of situations, an attitude which- if further developed- should benefit the Canadiens well beyond the extent of a 2 minute minor.

2. Ingenuity- How do get a winning record with a stable of underperforming stars? By having non-stars who find a way to score and not get scored on. Most of their goals-for are still by exactly the names you’d expect- Koivu, Souray, Higgins, Ryder, and Kovalev lead the team. But more often than not, the real difference between a win and a loss has been hella hard work by people of average (for the NHL) talent and above-average (for the NHL) commitment. Here I’m thinking particularly of Plekanec, Perezhogin, Dandenault, and Streit, who have all been called upon to play outside of their comfort zone and done well- held the team in games through ludicrously bad periods, covered for the defensive lapses of others, and every now and then managed to make an apparent disaster into a pretty nice scoring opportunity. I know every team has guys like this, and they’re what make most teams work, but the Habs this year haven’t just been functional, they’ve been amazing, and these guys deserve a lot of the credit for that.

3. Aspiration- It seems to me that the team is well aware of their problems, and many of them, even in their most successful weeks, have consistently reiterated how much they need to improve. The Habs have a lot of driven players, guys who I really believe are struggling to constantly improve their play, and while drive doesn’t always count for everything, it can go a long way. To deploy the relevant hockey cliché, they’ve got character, and tenacity, and once they’ve beaten the flu I do think they’ve got the volition to beat back the rest of their demons as well.

4. Talented Bachcheha- Latendresse, while he still has a long way to go, is rapidly developing a very mature style of play. Instead of resenting getting squeezed down to the 4th line, he seems determined to prove that he can make a difference in every game, even with reduced ice time and a rotating cast of linemates. Moreover, if there is true comfort to be had in hockey, it’s knowing you don’t have to worry when it’s time to call somebody up from the farm. Lapierre impressed everybody with his first run in the show and even now, recovering from the flu like many of the other players, still stands out whenever he hits the ice. In both games this weekend, Grabovski got the usually thankless job of centering the 2nd line, and has managed to make it look like, well, a real live 2nd line (in spite of Kovalev’s looking as though he too is probably ill). Throw in a few stellar performances by Habs-property in the recent World Juniors, and you’ve got to be glad that there’s no shortage of goodness in the future.

5. Saku Koivu- Koivu didn’t play in the game against the Rangers, out with the aforementioned intestinal flu, proving yet again that the Molson Cup is cursed and whoever wins it is fated to have something very bad happen to them on the day it’s awarded. It’s been a long time since I’ve seen a Koivu-less Habs game, and it reminded me of how remarkable his game is and how much his presence obviously means to the team. He has off-nights from time to time, but he always elevates the game around him, and when he’s at his best he can change the momentum of the entire thing by sheer force of will. It’s rare to find a player who is fast, talented, tough, and strategically smart. Koivu is not only all of those things, but can often bring them all together in one moment of play. I usually loathe melodramatic, partisan hyperbole, but in regards to Koivu, I will briefly indulge: He’s the best captain in the League, one of the few hockey players anywhere who actually deserves every last penny of his salary, and I would not trade him (literally or metaphorically) for all the tea in China, all the caviar in Iran, all the oil under Kazakhstan, all the diamonds in Botswana, or Sidney Crosby.

6. Cristobal Huet- Maybe he doesn’t have the best stats among the goalies in the League, but he’s way up there and not many among his competition have had to put up with the kind of punishment he has. To say he ‘keeps them in games’ is an understatement. He wins games for them, often facing nearly twice the number of shots of his counterpart at the other end of the ice and letting in half as many. There simply is no language to explain how necessary he is to the Canadiens, hence my running absurd-Huet-metaphor theme, suffice to say that as long as he’s there they’ll win more games then they deserve to.

7. Sheldon Souray- The worst thing you can say about Souray is that he’s kind of a one-trick guy, beyond which he’s got more than a few negative points, not least being the occasional egregious defensive fuck-up, which is always a little irritating in a defenseman. But you know what? It’s a freakin’ amazing trick. I mean, it’s just a slapshot, he does it all the time, everybody everywhere in the League knows that he does it all the time, and yet no one can defend against it- if it doesn’t go in immediately, he’ll get his own rebound and try again, and eventually it either beats the goalie straight-up or somebody tips it in. Plus, if you’re one of those Habs fans who is really troubled by the whole being-outshot problem, you’ve got to love him- he’s taken 119 shots this season, significantly more than anyone else on the team.

8. Alexander Perezhogin/Radek Bonk/Mike Johnson- It’s got to be stressful to be the most consistent part of the League’s most inconsistent team, but somehow these guys have found and held on to the kind of chemistry that makes a line more than just the sum of its parts. At +11, +9, and +6 respectively, they don’t score much but very rarely get scored against, which is no mean achievement when you consider that they’re inevitably playing against the opposition’s top lines. It seems like an insult to call them reliable, because reliable sounds awfully boring, but I think sometimes in hockey that may be the best compliment you can give. It’s a long, crowded season and it’s gotta be incredibly hard to bring real energy to every damn game, but they do.

9. Mike Komisarek/Andrei Markov- A yin-yang sort of defensive pair that prove how well different styles can compliment each other. Markov plays a very mobile, intuitive game, as though he can see dimly into the future and knows where a rebound or a bounce or a loose puck will end up. Komisarek, on the other hand, is making body checking into the elegant art form we always knew it could be- he’s got the 3rd most hits in the League, and virtually all of them neatly executed and painful-looking. But what they have in common is that they’re both remarkably good tacticians in a game which is usually too fast for such thought.

I know, I know, this is all little bit saccharine, Go Habs Go and all that. Generally speaking, I don’t like this kind of fan-ranting either, and many thanks to anyone who actually read this far- if we ever meet, mention this sentence and I’ll give you a cookie. But it’s been a rough patch of hockey season both for the Habs and for myself personally, for reasons that have nothing to do with the slump. I felt it necessary, in service to the Tao of Hockey, to try to restore a sense of balance. This, I think, is where we stand, the Canadiens and those of us who’ve latched onto them. I’ve got absolutely no idea where we’re going, up or down or more of the same, but it’s been the best and worst kind of dramatic thus far, and I can’t wait to see where it goes next.

1 comment:

Jordi said...

Oh thankyou thankyou! This post really made my day. I mean here I was, thinking that I was supporting a team with great fans to find them jumping ship before the smokes turned to flames. I hear people calling for the heads of players and it really makes me feel sad that as a fan, one really feels that unless the player is scoring they're not worth it. It reminds me of the kind of lame arguments you see where people feel that a player who scored less than 80 points (or something close to superstar status) was a player who wasn't neded on the team.

(Additionally does this mean I'm meant to write game recaps?)

I love the optimism and I agree with almost all you say (I think Souray is replacable though I would expect high offensive return for what we give to negate the loss).

And Saku Koivu IS important to the team, I would chat with my friend (a Canucks fan) and she'd talk about how Naslund who had just broken a 17 game scoring drought and how much fans started to feel that they didn't want him anymore - something fans would never have with Saku because he is just too valuable. Koivu could go pointless for all I care but if he continues playing with the enthusiasm and effort - coupled with his ability as a natural leader - I think he is what we pay for in a captain. (And he's a pretty well priced captain).

And I think despite the panic - this seems to be reasonable. I think people did make certain premature assumptions that we had nowhere to go but up. This reminds me more of the record we had before we had our winning streaks or regulation wins even. It's got no superstars, the wins are so low key or overshadowed by a recent loss. And probably most of all, media hounds have probably decided the Leafs were more interesting - like always.

Sorry for the extremely lengthy comment. I just want to believe - as naive as it sounds.