Wednesday, November 21, 2007

11-21-07: Canadiens 4, Islanders 1

I noticed something at the end of this game, as at the end of Bruins-whooping earlier this week: when the Habs left the ice, they left with blank, almost bored-looking expressions. Sure, there were a few exceptions, we all know Huet grins like a lunatic at irregular intervals for no particular reason, and Chupacabra still can’t shake that just-happy-to-be-here look, but for the most part, they’ve reacted to these victories- impressive victories, fantastic victories, the kind of victories one would think most athletes get wet dreams over- with all the solemnity of monks attending compline at the end of a particularly trying day.

It’s a performance; they are affecting the deportment of a habitually victorious team, which simultaneously combines a kind of dismissive arrogance (“What, another two points? Dear me, where shall we put them? There’s no room left on the mantle… have Kirk check the broom closet, perhaps there’s a little space left in there…) with a sense of etiquette (those who win easily and substantially should react with stoic grace, not rub the losers’ collective nose in it with gratuitous celebrations that might be interpreted as gloating). But it’s a weird posture to see my Habs in, because I still feel like they should be making burnt offerings in praise to the hockey gods after every goal and every point. We’re good enough these days, but we’re not that good… are we?

1. Bégin, at least, should be offering some sort of gesture of gratitude to The Powers That Be for this game, because really truly, how often does he have multi-goal nights? RDS can answer this: once every couple of years, and in this case, not since Valentine’s Day 2004. Think of it this way: there are lower orders of rodent for whom Steve Bégin having a 2 goal night is literally a once-in-a-lifetime event. Now, for their sake, doesn’t that warrant a little bit of a party? And if you can’t or won’t give thanks to The Powers, at least give thanks to Dandenault and Smolinski.

2. Is it too much to hope that Higgins has finally shaken his mysterious affliction and is going to start getting the sort of results on the scoresheet that his efforts deserve? Probably, but I’m going to go ahead and dream anyway.

3. If you’ll look to the comments of the previous ‘game recap’, you’ll find some very detailed, insightful analysis of Carbonneau’s coaching decisions in the Sens game by Jeff, of the now-tragically-defunct Sisu Hockey blog. One thing his comments reminded me of, though, is actually a post he did last season which incidentally discussed the kind of opposition Carbonneau matches against Koivu’s line (customarily labeled ‘1st’) versus Kovalev’s line (‘2nd’). The conclusion was basically that last year Carbonneau tried to give the 2nd line the softest possible match-ups, while the 1st line faced considerably stronger opponents, and that such must be taken into account when comparing the output of the two. Jeff pointed out, yesterday, that apparently this policy continues to hold in the current season, which does put rather a different light on the question of whether the 1st line is ‘struggling’ vis-à-vis the 2nd. Now, last year, the major problem was that the Kovalev-Samsonov-Random Miserable Stray Bulldog line didn’t produce anything even with easy minutes, whereas Kovalev-Plekanec-Kostitsyn is producing offence like pancakes at a Denny’s™. But I would be curious to know if it really is the case that they’re customarily playing very weak opponents, and particularly whom on each team. Unfortunately, I am far, far too lazy to do the research necessary to sate my curiosity. This ain’t no Oilers blog.

4. Cristobal Huet: Probably tastes like alligator jerky, but the good kind that’s made by eccentric Cajun folk in dank, orchid-filled bayous, not that interstate reptile farm crap.

5. I am not, for the record, anti-fighting, but I would like to take a minute to rant and rave about one aspect of it that does annoy me: the idea that fights ‘shift the momentum’ of games. Now, there are possibly lots of good reasons to have a hockey fight, but that is not one of them, because as far as I can tell, this is a complete and total myth. A fantasy. A delusion. It is hockey’s version of the classic ‘the white van is always parked around the corner’ fallacy- you notice the occasional game when a fight coincides with a shift in which team dominates the play, and assume causality between the two events, while conveniently ignoring the hundreds and hundreds of times when a fight makes absolutely no difference in anything that happens when the clock is running. I bring this up because, as I’m seeing the Habs get substantial early leads in more and more games, I’m noticing that they’re also getting in rather more fights (or attempted fights- ahbabi are peaceable, loving creatures after all) than they used to, and I have yet to see it make any difference. In fact, I have yet to see any game where a team with a solid lead and a general dominance over the rhythm of play collapsed into a pathetic heap of quivering terror just because some dude on the other team punched one of them a few times. Granted, I’m sure it’s happened at some point or another, but holy shit, how did that come to create this general belief that fights-change-momentum, over and against the vast majority of available evidence? (Note: this is what we in the hockey-blog business like to call ‘foreshadowing’. Cue dramatic music…)

Standings notwithstanding (yes, I did use that phrase purely because it makes me laugh), the Habs seem to be settling into a strangely familiar win-one, lose-one rhythm, which while not necessarily the worst possible thing, isn’t exactly worth getting all uppity about. Next time, boys, I expect celebrating. Leave the stoicism for the very good and the very bad, them what hover in the middle should be grateful for games won both well and easily.

And speaking of gratitude, tomorrow is American Thanksgiving. For some reason, in moving from the States to Canada, I totally lost Thanksgiving. I don’t celebrate Canadian Thanksgiving, because I always forget when it is and I don’t have any family here anyway, but neither do I celebrate American Thanksgiving, because I generally can’t get home for it and there aren’t any seasonal reminders of it here. So for all intents and purposes, Thanksgiving has ceased to exist for me. Which is a shame, because it’s the only real old-fashioned feast-day that us secular folk have left, and is a life without gluttony-themed holidays really worth living? But best wishes to those of you who still have it, enjoy your freakishly oversized, sleep-inducing bird.


Jeff J said...

There is no question Kovalev's line is being sheltered.

A good test is to look at the last two Leafs games at One was at home, one on the road. At home when Sundin is on the ice, Carbonneau's preferred choices are 1. Smolinski, 2. Koivu and 3. Drop to his knees and pray. Seriously, making sure one of those two is on versus Sundin is the first ordinal. All the other match-ups precipitate from that. At home we tend to see Smolinski vs. Sundin, Koivu vs. Antropov, Steen vs. Kovalev and 4th line vs. 4th line.

In Toronto, Maurice used Sundin against Koivu, Steen against Kovalev, Antropov vs. Smolinski and 4th (Belak, Pohl, other flotsam) vs 4th (Chipchura).

If you check out, you see who generally faces what level of competition in the QUALCOMP column. For Montreal, the Smolinski and Koivu lines are at the top, followed distantly by Plekanec/Kovalev, then Chipchura. On defense, it's Komi/Markov at the top followed by the rest.

Last night on Long Island Nolan mostly put Sillinger/Hunter/Hilbert out against Koivu. Nolan must have figured that it would be safe to put defensive liabilities Comrie/Fedotenko/Guerin out against the checking line - who would expect Begin or Dandenault to score? Kovalev/Pleks faced either Vasicek/Satan/Bergenheim (who, according to behindthenet have been facing soft opposition) or the 4th line which was centred by someone named Jackman.

At even strength, Begin et al outscored Comrie et at by 2 goals, and the Isles 4th line outscored Plekanec/Kovy by one. The rest was a push. Technically, Higgins' goal was ES, but it happened just as a PP ended.

This isn't the be-all-end-all of what makes a player good (Or is it end-all-be-all?) There are lots of complicating factors - the coach on the other bench may not be too keen on your game plan and may want different match-ups, sometimes you have 3 lines playing against 4, icings, PPs and injuries screw up lines, if you let the other coach dictate things you may have checkers play for 20 minutes compared to 10 minutes for your stars, etc. But trends do emerge and you can see the sort of esteem guys are held in.

MathMan said...

None of this really means that Carbonneau doesn't "trust" or "esteem" the Kovalev line. It simply makes sense to try to match up your most offensively-oriented line against an opposing line that is less likely to be able to stop them from generating offense and/or to take advantadge of defensive flaws they might have, whereas it is wise to oppose your strongest two-way lines (eg. Koivu) against opponents you want to stop from scoring (Sundin).

Line match-ups isn't so much about trust as they are about maximizing strengths. If Montreal is down one at the end of a game, you will tend to see Kovalev; if they are up one, you will tend to see Smolinski.

Jeff J said...

The 'esteem' comment was meant to indicate the amount of respect opposing coaches have for a player, not Carbonneau. But I think it applies to Carbo as well. If line matching is about exploiting weaknesses, why is it that Carbo and Paul Maurice agree on the Steen/Stajan vs. Pleks/Kovalev match-up? Steen/Stajan are nice young players but still only 3rd liners on a bad Leafs team. Why isn't Maurice hiding them from Kovalev? Same goes for Ted Nolan. He uses solid vets (Sillinger/Hunter) against Koivu and 3rd/4th liners against Kovy.

Wouldn't it make sense for John Paddock to use the best shutdown pair in the East - Phillips/Volchenkov - against Montreal's biggest offensive threats? So far this season Phillips/Volchenkov have played 30 minutes against Koivu and 12 minutes against Kovy at ES. Not only does Carbo use Koivu against top opposition, opposing coaches use their best players against Koivu.

Kovalev's production is valuable, no question, but you have to keep things in perspective. His production would be much easier to replace than Koivu's.

E said...

what have i gotten myself into?

to a certain extent, the thing that makes this interesting is that carbonneau can be (or certainly seemed to be last year) so freakin' rigid about his lines and his matching. which means that it's not always just a matter of circumstance (i.e. put kovy out b/c we need a goal), although that does play a role, but of some preordained system he has planned. one of the things that troubles me about him is my sense (perhaps wrong) that he sometimes tries to force the team to meet some mental mold he has of a certain line structure, rather than letting the line structure emerge from the talents of the players available to him. granted, the latter is probably a much more difficult approach, but last season it seemed like there were a lot of square-peg-in-a-round-hole problems, and one sometimes wishes that he'd just change the size of his fucking holes- a line system doesn't have to be set in stone.

but i'm curious jeff, there seems to be an implicit contradiction in what you're saying- on the one hand, that carbonneau is deliberately matching kovalev's line against soft opposition on the theory that they'll score more that way, but on the other hand, that opposing coaches are content to match weaker lines against them, suggesting that they're not seen as a threat. almost as if they're been ghettoized by mutual agreement, really, rather than sheltered.

but my original point wasn't so much to raise the old koivu-kovalev debate anyway (very likely everyone knows all too well where i come down on that already), but more to speculatively defend the other parts of the first line- ryder and (to a much lesser extent) higgins have come under criticism for lack of production comparative to the second line, but i haven't seen much discussion of the quality of opposition as a mitigating factor.

Jeff J said...

It's not just Carbo. I think every coach matches lines to some degree. Pundits talk about coaches who simply roll lines - play them in order, no matter who is out there for opposition. Pat Quinn was supposed to have done this. Looking at shift charts for Montreal games, I haven't noticed anyone doing this but I haven't looked too hard either. There are degrees of line matching and it looks as though Carbo has loosened up somewhat so far this year.

As for his line choices, first you put your best players together and get as much out of them as possible. It's sort of like the top of a batting order. I think everyone would agree that Higgins and Koivu are the best LW and C. On RW, it's obviously between Ryder and Kovalev, and they're obviously very different players. This is where the qualitative, hand-wavey decisions come in. Pundits say things about one being more of a finisher and one being more of a puck carrier etc. therefore Ryder is the better fit for Koivu's line. They may be right.

From another angle, Carbo is not alone in his usage of Kovalev. He's not a top-line player anymore. When he was (which was rare), he had Mario for a centre and the Pens weren't a playoff team. His best seasons happened while playing behind Jagr. He's a PP specialist and a guy who can pick apart weaker opponents but doesn't have the legs to compete against Sundin, Alfredsson, etc. I hope this doesn't sound like Kovy-bashing because that's not my intent. There a lots of valuable, skilled, wealthy players in the same boat - Satan, Tucker, Vanek last year, Federov, Cheechoo - all playing 3rd line opponents. Scoring goals, even against against bottom-6 NHLers, is no small feat. If you can get your top guys to play the other top guys to a standstill and have your bottom lines shred the other teams' bottom lines, you're in good shape. Ideally they arean't being paid $4.5M to do it, but everyone makes mistakes. Whether Kovalev really is shredding his opponents is a discussion for another day.

So, that's why the top line exists in it's current incarnation. Most of the rest falls into place almost by necessity. The checking line is ingrained in Habs culture. Not all coaches do this, in fact most don't. Montreal, Anaheim, NJ, definitely do, some other clubs have what appear to be checking lines. Most coaches go with strength vs. strength. I don't know which approach is best, and it's a moot point because barring a huge shift in attitudes we're going to see a checking line employed. By the process of elimination Smolinski (solid, versatile vet) will centre the checking line, Plekanec (skill) centres a 'scoring' line, Chipchura (rookie) gets 4th line minutes and is eased into the NHL. Kovy has to play with Pleks because he's no checker and he's no 4th liner. So we have:


with Kostsitsyn, Latendresse, Begin, Kostopolous, Grabovski to fill the holes. Dandenault and Streit are capable of playing on the wing. These are essentially Carbo's only real line-up decisions.

Now, onto your 2nd paragraph. It's not so much a case of Carbo deliberately playing Kovy against weaker opponents as it is making sure Koivu/Smolinski against top opponents, and the rest of the chips falling into place. That's how it happens in Montreal. On the road he still has some degree of control. It helps that opposing coaches see Koivu as the biggest threat and match him with their top line or checking line. Also, he can send out Kovalev right after Sundin leaves the ice, send him out for the shift immediately following an opponent's PP (this happens a lot), shift on the fly when the puck is on it's way into the attacking zone, keep them on the bench for defensive zone faceoffs. I guess these are the 'sheltering' situations. Vic F at IOF has made good cases for a lot of this stuff.

Once in awhile (not often) you see some gamesmanship, with a coach sending out a weaker line then switching to a top line on the fly. Icings now are another monkey wrench in plans. But for the most part you hit the nail on the head - it's ghettoization by mutual agreement. That's a great way of putting it.

Something that doesn't get enough attention is defense matching. It's easier to do, both at home and on the road because top defensemen play a lot. Trying to keep your top line away from the opponent's shutdown pair will severely cramp their icetime.

As for seeing quality of opposition enter the discussion, it's not going to happen. Not in the media, anyway. The Montreal media are well known for hyperbole. I can only comment on the gents at the Gazette (because I don't know French), and they're fantastic. They're among the most knowledgable in the league. But looking at things in this light just isn't done anywhere.

Jeff J said...

Jeez, sorry for the length of that novel. Maybe I should get my own blog.

MathMan said...

So if Kovalev can't skate with Sundin, why doesn't Maurice try to match up Sundin against Kovalev? Is he afraid of Plekanec? Wouldn't that generate more scoring than against Koivu's presumably stronger line? Or is it because he fears what Koivu might do without Sundin to neutralize him?

Steen/Stajan are good young players and are also Toronto's more defensive guys. Maurice is sending his checking line against Kovalev and his big line against Koivu -- which is, by the way, a match-up I feel doesn't favor Koivu at all, but the Habs don't really *have* a guy who is a good match-up for Sundin. At least that line has Higgins, who is another good two-way player.

But the point here is that the third line are often the best defensive guys on any given team (excepting two-way top-liners like Hossa, Higgins, etc.), so while they won't produce goals at nearly the same pace, it's not necessarily much easier to score against them than against an offensively-oriented first line.

There's no doubt in my mind that Kovalev is better than Ryder when he plays hard (as he has all year), or, at least, he is certainly more intimidating to opposing coaches. I also believe Kovalev is a top-line player, perhaps more so even than Koivu. But as you point out, he wouldn't be an ideal player to play with Higgins, plus I honestly wonder if Ryder can be productive away from Koivu as he really needs a playmaking centre whereas Kovalev can do without if need be. I also believe Carbonneau when he says that keeping him away from Koivu is a matter of spreading the offense around -- it keeps opposing coaches from matching their strongest line against all of Montreal's best offensive players and forces them to split their defensive attention between Kovalev and Koivu.

I think Carbo would like nothing more than a more offensively apt, two-way third line and I think Latendresse-Chipchura-Dandy/Kosto will eventually develop into that.

Doogie said...

I have to laugh at how, in the precise post in which you explicitly distanced yourself from the hyper-analytical Oilogosphere, you wound up with your first-ever comment thread of that exact nature. I love irony. ;)

Jeff J said...

mathman: So if Kovalev can't skate with Sundin, why doesn't Maurice try to match up Sundin against Kovalev? Is he afraid of Plekanec? Wouldn't that generate more scoring than against Koivu's presumably stronger line? Or is it because he fears what Koivu might do without Sundin to neutralize him?

To be honest, I don't know why. I'm just reporting my observations and speculating. Maurice likes Sundin vs. Koivu and Steen vs. Kovy. Carbo likes Smolinski/Koivu vs. Sundin, and Kovy vs. Steen. Most coaches play best on best up front, and they play their best defensive d-men against the other team's best.

Steen/Stajan are good young players and are also Toronto's more defensive guys. Maurice is sending his checking line against Kovalev and his big line against Koivu -- which is, by the way, a match-up I feel doesn't favor Koivu at all, but the Habs don't really *have* a guy who is a good match-up for Sundin.

If Steen/Stajan are the core of a checking line, I would expect them to play against the obvious big dogs - Spezza/Heatley, Jagr, Kovalchuk, Crosby. Versus Heatley/Spezza, Sundin has played a combined 55 even-strength minutes. Steen has played 33. Versus Jagr, Sundin has played 15, Steen 8:30. Versus Kovalchuk Sundin's played 11, Steen's played somewhere under 6:50 (too few to register at In one game versus Crosby, Sundin played 7:30, Steen - too few to register.

If the Leafs are using a checking line, it's Sundin's. To be fair, that's more than I expected to see Steen play against those guys so maybe Maurice considers him the #2 option against tough opposition. I agree that Montreal doesn't really have a great match for Sundin. Not many teams do - the guy is a tremendous player. The Leafs really pissed away a dozen years of his career with nothing to show for it.

The 'third line' concept is a bit of an anachronism. We Habs fans cling to it because it's still true here, but in most NHL cities the so-called shutdown line just doesn't exist. In Detroit, Draper plays against other 3rd liners - it's Zetterberg/Datsyuk who line up against Modano and Sakic. Off the top of my head, Madden/Pandolfo are still used in a checking role, Pahlsson/Niedermayer are in Anaheim, Bonk is in Nashville... there are probably some others. Shutdown defensemen, however, are alive and well.

Here are the 5 on 5 goals-for and goals-against that Montreal's top two lines have been on the ice for (from

Koivu +9, -9, 273 minutes
Ryder +9, -7, 250 min.
Higgins +8, -10, 277 min.
Kovalev +9, -11, 270 min.
Plekanec +8, -13, 248 min.
Kastsitsyn +8, -7, 188 min.

Not only is the 2nd line facing easier opponents, but they're also doing worse than Koivu's line. Kovalev has been great on the PP, and I think that blinds people to his ES weaknesses.

Julian said...

I have to laugh at how, in the precise post in which you explicitly distanced yourself from the hyper-analytical Oilogosphere, you wound up with your first-ever comment thread of that exact nature. I love irony. ;)

Exactly what I was thinking. Careful E, you never know where this sort of line matching/shift-chart analysis might lead. It's a short step to spending hours at

E said...

jeff- i never doubted that pretty much all coaches line-match, although the level of commitment to the ideal match-up may vary. what i was, obliquely, trying to indicate about carbo was more along the lines of what you refer to when you say the checking line is “ingrained in habs culture”- carbonneau has a passion for the best-scoring-line/second-best-scoring-line/ checking-line/detritus-line hierarchy that (in my very ill-informed opinion) has occasionally kept him from using his players to best advantage. it strikes me that that structure is, while certainly prototypical, not necessarily the only way to arrange a set of forwards. moreover, i’m not enthusiastic about the status prejudices it inculcates in fans- the idea that a player who takes on a prominent, ‘first line’ offensive role is somehow better, more important to a team, worth more money, worth more devotion, than those who do other things. but i’m digressing horribly now. it’s interesting to me, however, to think of two opposing coaches implicitly agreeing on their line-matches. one generally imagines it as a process of trying to trick, or one-up, the other guy- an analysis which flatters the coach, while i suppose mutual agreement flatters the players.

and no need to apologize for the length of your comments- i adore lengthy and intelligent responses, even when i’m not particularly qualified to discuss them in full depth. but it is a pity you gave up sisu, because your analysis deserves a proper forum where it will get proper attention.

julian, doogie- yeah, yeah, go ahead and gloat. i’ll comfort myself with the inner knowledge that i’m just a dilettante at this stuff…