Thursday, January 17, 2008

1-17-08: Canadiens 3, Thrashers 2

We don’t often like to admit it, but there’s a part of sports fandom that thrives on failure. Of course there’s a thrill and a rush to winning, but it doesn’t have the captivating power that losing has. What do you do after a win? You bask in the glow, rewatch the highlights, gloat a little bit. But a loss… oh my, you can spend days analyzing a loss. Worrying, bitching, wallowing in self-pity; it’s a full-time job to be a fan of an unsuccessful team. So much so, in fact, that even fans of good teams will find excuses to complain- I remember going to Ducks’ blogs last year, even when they were light-years ahead of everyone around them, only to find lengthy agonizing about the sub-par quality of their power play.

The question, then, is when should a good and reasonable hockey fan finally gather up her courage and make the most difficult admission of all: that her team has no real problems. I’m starting to think that, for the Habs, if that moment hasn’t come already, it’s coming soon. Because as much as there are things to complain about- there are things to complain about on any hockey team if you look hard enough- the Canadiens are doing pretty well by most measures. They’re holding their own at 2nd in the Northeast, 4th in the Conference, their scoring is up, their goal differential is reasonable, their power play is excellent, as is their road record, and while they may be lacking a 40-goal scorer, it’s increasingly looking like they’ll end up with five or six 20-goal scorers, which is possibly better. So at what point is it nothing more than unflattering self-flagellation to whine about their poor faceoff percentage? At what point do you admit that what we have here is basically a good team in need of some tweaking to become a better team, not a crap team struggling for adequacy or good fortune?

1. But if you wanted evidence of marginal improvements, this game offered some cheering signs. Firstly, they were down 1-0 at the first intermission, and yet they won, which means that at least one of those .000s is going to turn into .(something infinitesimally small which I’m too lazy to calculate but is better than 000). True, it was a close win in a shootout, but hey, that still counts- in fact, it counts more, because it also improves their dubious shootout record. And it was a shootout against Atlanta. With Huet in net. Hell, that’s a classic formula for a happy-just-to-survive 1-point night- the W is a real achievement.

2. Additionally, Ryder scored, and scored pretty too. It’d take a mighty effort for him to redeem himself, point-wise, this far into the season, but dude’s always been streaky and it’s certainly good for everybody’s confidence to see him have something to celebrate. He’s this season’s great unrealized potential for the Habs, but the fact that they’re doing this well and still have potentials yet to realize is (when you think about it) a reason for optimism more than pessimism. We should thank him, really, for having a big ugly slump that the team could be successful in spite of. Hell, thank Koivu too while you’re at it, although he’s at least been coming up with frequent, if irregular, assists.

3. If you’re going to pick something to bitch about, however, bitch about Huet’s puckhandling. The misplay that led to Dupuis’ goal, and to the shootout, was so horrific that it’s hard to imagine that Cristobal wasn’t doing some sort of metadramatic self-parody of his own incompetence outside the crease. Now, I’m assuming that Carbonneau et al. are not complete idiots and they’ve tried to work with Huet to improve this flaw in his game, but whatever they’re doing has only made it worse. The time has come- in fact, the time came and went long ago- to tether him to the goalposts and just deal with the consequences of an immobile goaltender, which cannot possibly be worse. However, to Huet’s credit, he didn’t let the mistake shake him, and in fact compensated for it with an excellent performance in OT and in the shootout, thereby ensuring that everyone will still love him in the morning.

4. Big night for Kostitsyn al-Akbar, who scored gorgeous in both regulation and the shootout. For all the Canadiens’ increased scoring this year, it’s still comparatively rare that any of them puts out one of those classic, highlight-reel rushes. That one is going to get the kid at least a solid week of well-deserved adulation from the Habistani masses.

5. Finally, a question for all the stat-lovers out there: does anybody know where I might get data on the probability of a team recovering possession after an unsuccessful shot? I mean, there are basically three things that can happen after a shot is taken: (1) a goal is scored, (2) the puck is caught by the goalie or deflected out of play, leading to a stoppage and a faceoff, or (3) it rebounds/ricochets off something or someone and play continues. There’s obviously lots of data being collected and parsed on the number of shots that turn into (1). What I want to know is what percentage of shots taken (including missed shots and blocked shots) become (2) and (3), and more specifically, in what percentage of (3) cases does the team that took the shot recapture the puck in the immediate aftermath? So, does anybody know if somewhere out there this information is available? Or do I have to try to do it myself?

I don’t think it’s likely that Habs fans, as a collective, will ever see this as a pretty good team. Not so long as there are other teams out there who are better in any way, and even then, not so long as they fail to live up to the achievements of past generations of Canadiens. If there are things to complain about, we will find them and blow them up to epic size and cry that we are still the most flawed and disfavored of teams, only pausing in our self-absorption to mock the Leafs for being even worse. It’s understandable, I suppose. There have been a lot of disappointments in recent years, it’s enough to make anyone feel that bottomless skepticism is the safest route. But me, I’m starting to be persuaded: these guys are good. And maybe even getting better.


saskhab said...

It's nice how little there is to complain about, but we still have a horrendous PK unit. In time, I think that'll improve as well, but more in the long term than by this year's playoffs.

I think our team's potential is to make it to the Conference Finals. That's how many wins I can see us pulling off come April and May, but not more. In reality, I think one series win and bowing out in Round 2 is more likely.

My point is we're a pretty good team, but it would take a few injuries to the really good teams to knock them down to our level.

The thought of a Montreal-Pittsburgh first round matchup is awesome, although a Montreal-New Jersey one would be terribly disappointing. However, slipping back to the 6th seed would be the best of both worlds... no home ice advantage for our road warriors, and we face the SE champ, who is currently on pace to actually finish 9th in total points in the East.

But it's nice to talk about the playoffs again.

Ian said...

As usual, a great column. I think, though, that the team is a bit fragile. We still have weaknesses on defense and upfront--I think to really compete we still need a top-flight center. Also, our main go-to guy on offense is Kovalev (although with Plekanec coming up strong). Kovalev is going great guns now but he's streaky and in the long run he isn't a real soltuion. Next year--who knows where he'll be. Of course, that's next year. And in an era of parity, you're right, we're not doing too bad.

Kaz said...

Whining? Self-flagellation? Sure, there's a bit of that. But I also think it's something akin to a pitcher throwing a no-hitter. You don't talk about the positives. You definitely don't talk about the no-hitter. So the only thing left to talk about are the relatively insignificant negatives.

And, truth be told, hockey fans are a superstitious bunch. For all our babbling about PP TOI and the like, I think deep down we all feel that the W's and L's are only due to how the Hockey Gods are feeling that day. So far be it from us to gloat and feel anything less than humble, lest the Hockey Gods vent their wrath upon our unsuspecting team.

E said...

saskhab- i dunno, i think habs fans have a chronic habit of overestimating the abilities of other teams. yeah, there are a couple teams in the league who clearly ahead of everyone this year, and if we were to meet one of them in the playoffs i'd definitely have to fall back on 'anything can happen in the postseason' irrational optimism. but honestly, other than the senators, who are the 'really good teams' in the east that are that far above our level? (discounting the devils, who i don't really think are better than us objectively, but we still can't beat).

ian- this is a conversation for another time, of course, but it strikes me that perennial excellence is a tough thing to achieve for any team these days- kovalev may not be a long-term solution, but i have to question whether there is any long-term solution to be had. how much can a gm really 'build' a team? how likely is it that even gainey can keep all the pieces that work while simultaneously acquiring upgrades to those that don't over a period of many seasons? or, given that short-term contracts seem to be the general policy here, are we just going to be in a constant process of replacement? i'm not trying to be ultra-negative here, but i really do wonder sometimes what the value is in looking beyond the current season.

kaz- i can see where you're coming from, after all the first principle of tragedy is that the fates punish hubris. but i don't think that endless criticism of one's own team- of anything, really- is 'humility'. refusing to be satisfied or even mildly pleased with anything less than perfection is, in it's own way, just as arrogant as claiming perfection. there has to be a balance, no?