Saturday, October 13, 2007

10-13-07: Hurricanes 3, Canadiens 1

It doesn’t really feel like the season’s begun until the first home game, especially in Montreal. The first three games, yes, they were real games, but somehow it doesn’t feel really real until there’s been a game at Le Centre Bell. Maybe it’s because the fans are such a big part of the Canadiens’ season. Thousands and thousands of people will be following the team voraciously, will be watching and reading and listening to the continuous media coverage, will be arguing and complaining and bragging and (maybe sometimes) crying from now through April and- insha’allah- beyond. Until the crowd is there, until the Habistani masses have made their cheers and boos and chants and taunts heard, something is missing. Unfortunately, this game was probably not the way one would hope to introduce the 2007-2008 Montreal Canadiens to their not-always-adoring public.

1. Although we already know, obviously, who these guys are, the introduction ritual is still a sweet thing. They did it a bit more peremptorily than last season- everyone lined up and stepped forward when announced, rather than skating out individually. But there was still a sense of excitement to it- even Carbonneau cracked a smile, and not one of those sarcastic, world-weary ones he throws out for a ludicrous call either. And just to prove that the Bell Centre crowd isn’t all bad, they gave a very nice, lengthy cheer for Brisebois, who looked more than a little apprehensive about the whole situation. Probably all is not forgiven, but it’s important to remember that in the right mood, a loud, aggressive crowd is not a bad thing. Unfortunately, the evening was pretty much downhill after the ceremonial part.

2. Here’s an embarrassing fact: in the first period, the Habs got 4 shots on goal. That’s pretty bad. Probably you could not win a game against any NHL goalie with only 4 shots per frame (well, maybe Theodore). You’d think that’s the sort of embarrassing fact that would inspire a team to come out with a really aggressive 2nd period just to redeem themselves. But no, apparently they figured because they got a goal in those 4 shots, that was a good enough rate-of-shooting to win the game, because in the 2nd, they still only got 4 shots on goal. So in a 24-shot game, 16 came in the 3rd, by which time Ward was clearly ready to cling like a codependent leech to the Canes thin lead.

3. However, the disturbing thing was that the shot count doesn’t seem very reflective of possession-time. I was surprised to see it, at the end of the first, because the Habs had held the puck for a while and spent a fair amount of time in the offensive zone. It was not the resurgence of the breakout-pass problem keeping their shots down, it was just an inability to get any kind of pressure around the Carolina net, even on their power plays. Some credit is obviously due to the Hurricanes- they played an excellent defensive game.

4. The first line, at least, seems to have found its rhythm, well-reflected in Higgins’ first goal of the season, off some nifty little back-and-forth puck-repartee between him and Koivu. They were also responsible for a third of the team’s overall shots and probably 90% of the decent ones. Plekanec and Kovalev also seem to be finding some sort of dialogue, in stark contrast to when they played together last season, but whoever else was on their line with them seemed like an afterthought.

5. Speaking of which, let’s all heave a mighty sigh for the return of Carbonneau’s frantic mid-game line-juggling. Are all NHL coaches this eager to remix their forwards throughout any given game? True, Kostitsyn wasn’t having a very good night, looking profoundly confused about what he’s supposed to do if he doesn’t have the puck, but it’s tough to see how he would do much better with Smolinski and Kostopolous. And Latendresse, while he’s clearly trying to work out whatever the hell his problem is, doesn’t do any favors for Plekanec, who at their current levels of play has about 432 times the foot-and-thought speed of the big bachche. I get that coaches are supposed to try to solve problems when they see them, but sometimes I think Carbo just tinkers for the sake of tinkering when maybe a little patience would be more beneficial. Line chemistry isn’t necessarily love at first sight, why not give it some time to build?

6. One thing that must be made absolutely clear: this is not Huet’s fault. He stopped 35 out of 37 shots, and one of those that beat him was on the team’s second consecutive 5-on-3 penalty kill- a situation where it’s pretty much never legitimate to blame the goalie. I understand that Price is going to be great, but games like this remind me that Huet is plenty great in his own way, and that he did earn that starting position by repeatedly being the only thing that stood between the Habs and 15th place last season. Wonder how Carey would feel after 20 or 30 games of facing the kind of shot-counts that Huet routinely had to hold off? Of course, maybe we’ll find that out soon enough.

7. Moral of the story: don’t blame the D anymore. Markov is as smart and solid as he’s ever been, and even showing quite a bit of offensive flare; Komisarek still smashes and shot-blocks as nicely as anything on skates; Hamrlik and Streit and, yes, Brisebois have all been calm, steady, and occasionally brilliant; and Bouillon- who I’ve generally not expressed a lot of affection for- has been vastly better than he was last year. Nope, it’s not worth worrying about the defensemen right now. Secondary scoring from the forwards, on the other hand… that you can worry about.

We took the Canes home-opener, and they took ours. According to RDS, the Habs haven’t won a game against Carolina on their own ice since approximately the Second Punic War, so I suppose it’s not a surprise, but it is a hell of a disappointment- even more so because it was a winnable game. Maybe not an easily winnable game, but ahbabi had most of what they needed- a great performance by the goalie, all-around good play by the defensive corps, and forward lines who were able to get the puck through the neutral zone. A bit more forechecking and a few more pucks tossed at Ward, it could have been won. It wouldn’t have taken that much more effort. Just a little more, apparently, then they were willing to give.

No comments: