Saturday, January 19, 2008

1-19-08: Penguins 2, Canadiens 0

It is the joy and the sorrow of the Pittsburgh Penguins that they cannot be discussed outside the context of Sidney Crosby. A joy, certainly, because they can all bathe in the sunny glow of his refracted glory. His sheer presence guarantees them an inevitable, inescapable level of attention from the wider hockey world, and favored-son status in the eyes of the League’s powers. No matter how poorly they do, they will never be ignored and seldom disparaged while The Venerable Sidney resides amongst them (until, that is, he starts getting older and less cute and Tavares starts tearing things up in Edmonton and everyone starts wondering if he has the ‘leadership’ to win). However, it’s also a sorrow, because the rest of the players- and the coaching staff, and the management- are permanent supporting cast as long as he’s around. No matter how good you are at whatever you do for the Penguins, you’re never going to look that great in proximate comparison to TVS’s supernaturally effective hockey abilities and unnaturally wholesome grin. And no matter how charitable and humble he tries to be, his formalistic modesty only reinforces the extent to which the team’s victories are really his victories, their story really his story.

Now, although he’s out with the first serious injury of his adult hockey career (I’m going to guess about 6-8 weeks, although the NHL is doubtless scouring the mad scientific community for indestructible bionic ankles as we speak), his absence dominates just as much as his presence did. It’s safe to say that I wasn’t the only one watching this game through a lens of extreme skepticism, doubtful of the Penguins’ capabilities without their shiniest of stars. Last week they were the Sidney Crosby Show. Now they’re the No Sidney Crosby Show. Turns out, though, the latter is almost as interesting as the former. I’d stay tuned, if I were you.

1. While I’m sure he was very sad to see his teammate get injured, if this game shows anything it’s that Malkin is fully cognizant of what this opportunity means for him. Like a long-time understudy on the night when the diva comes down with laryngitis, Malkin threw himself into the performance of ‘star’ with so much enthusiasm it was almost difficult to watch. But entertaining too, because although his goal was only a last-minute empty-netter, it was the capstone of a bravura evening of two-way play.

2. Laraque (he of that oh-so-poignant story about how he used to be the best player on all his teams as a child, and how much he treasures the opportunities he gets to score goals rather than just push people around) was also surprisingly effective in an ungoonish way. Granted, I never really got why the Pens thought they needed an ‘enforcer’, given that they’ve got a team loaded with brawl-enthusiasts who seem to be tactically interchangeable, but I guess that enthusiasm doesn’t always make for effectiveness in the fine art of facial-injury-infliction. (Yes, that was a partisan dig, not a reasoned analysis. I’m allowed.)

3. The No Crosby Penguins, however, are a lot more businesslike than the Crosby Penguins- usually their games here are a lot like the first period of this one, with a lot of chippiness and assorted extracurricular smacking and bickering. Tonight, however, they seemed to get that out of their system early and settled down to a lot of uncreative but nevertheless impenetrable defensive play. I’ve rarely seen a team protect a one-goal lead so well, making the Habs bite and claw for every inch of ice beyond their own blue line. And even if they made it into the Penguins’ zone, there was Sabourin, who may be only a back-up, but apparently has yet to give up a goal to Montreal. Ever. I don’t even mean just the Habs, I mean the city. The entire population could come at him with like a million pucks at once and he’d block them all.. He’d probably die in the attempt, but he’d still stone us. Really. (Okay, not really, but then again, it hasn’t been tried, has it?)

4. Therefore, if I don’t seem angry at the Canadiens for this loss, it’s because I’m not. They played well. They out-shot, out-hit, out-blocked, and very often outran their opponents, they made a terrific effort. Sometimes you make a terrific effort and you still lose. That’s hockey. That’s life. But they’ve got very little to be ashamed of coming out of this game.

5. A few shining spots: Komisarek, who for his birthday decided to give the crowd at the Bell Centre a present, in the form of one of his best games of the year. He made some of his trademark punishing and strategically glamorous hits, got into some miniature but enthusiastic confrontations with assorted Penguins, and even made some uncharacteristic, encouraging offensive efforts. Every day I love this guy a little more. Also, Huet deserves a gold star- he was quick, responsive, on top of everything, and gave the Habs as good a chance to win as anyone could have expected. And some days I wonder how we were ever a defensively competent team without Hamrlik. Then I remember that we actually weren’t. Finally, I am very entertained by Kostitsyn al-Asghar. Perhaps even more so than by his more-experienced and better-situated brother.

6. I have a theory: the problem with Higgins and Koivu right now, as a duo, is that they never get second chances. They set up potential-filled initial rushes on probably one-third to one-half of their shifts in a game, but when those don’t work (as most initial rushes by anybody don’t), they can never seem to recover the puck and try again- it always ends up with a mad dash back to the defensive zone. Not only can they not sustain pressure, they can’t even initiate it. Whether this is due to the nature of the opposition they get matched against, or unfavorable defensive support, or sheer bad mojo, I’m not sure, but I’m rapidly losing optimism. Probably I would have lost optimism already, but I missed about a month of games in there that I haven’t fully caught up with yet, so I’m a little slow on the uptake these days.

Now, of course, the Penguins will probably go on to get their asses whooped up and down the Conference, thereby suggesting that it was just our streaky offense that lost this game, rather than their competent defense that won it. But until then, I call this a good close game against an intrinsically worthy opponent, and honorably concede the rightful victory. This could be a very interesting postseason match-up.


Julian said...

Tavares tearing it up in Edmonton?

I'm not sure if you're being nice to us, or saying it looks like we're gonna be even worse next year than we are this year.

Ian said...

I think this was one of those classic games where you go up against a team that's missing its best player and so it pulls together and gives a brilliant effort. I think the Pens might lose a few games but I wouldn't say that this will reflect poorly on us--I think that the Pens won't be able to sustain the sort of defensive, team-first effort they put on last night, but it's also typical that a team is able to do so the first game after the big gun is sidelined. So in a way we were unlucky to have caught the Pens during their first game without the Kid. If it'd been a few games later, then fatigue might have set in and the Pens might have been more vulnerable. Anyway, I'd put this down to bad luck--and, again, our lack of a real even-strength go-to guy on offense.

E said...

julian- the two aren't mutually exclusive, now are they?

ian- out of curiosity, would you be willing to give me a list of who you'd consider to be a proper 'even-strength go-to guy on offense'? doesn't have to be comprehensive, i'd just like to know where you're setting your standards. after all, a lot of people complain about the habs needing an offensive star, but depending on how you define that, such creatures are so rare and so in-demand that it's probably futile to hang too much hope on getting one.

Julian said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Julian said...

I'm not completly sure that that's being nice to us. Yeah, Tavares would be nice, but... another year of this? Fuck, that might involve Lowe trading for Bryan McCabe.

Doogie said...

Tavares starts tearing things up in Edmonton

Never happen. Lowe will give that pick to Chicago as part of a Brent Seabrook offer sheet.

saskhab said...

No rebounds, no traffic, every shot from the perimeter... no goals, even on Dany Sabourin. Pretty simple. Kudos to Pittsburgh for making the Habs players believe they were initiating the play.

There's always a letdown on the first game back from a road trip, especially a successful one. This is made all the more exaggerated by our Habs' new found absentee, workaholic father identity of being a success on the road, getting the job done, but coming home and it's such a disappointment that he can't wait to get back on the road again.

And we don't need a star, but we could use a more north-south player to play with Saku.

Higgins is really showing me now that we have to concentrate on making him more of a shutdown player. He wants to be an offensive player, but it just doesn't seem to have as much benefit to us. Hopefully Latendresse starts scoring soon so we can make the shift permanently.

Kaz said...

No offensive star needed. The problem was alluded in #6: Higgins and Koivu shouldn't play together. I think Scotty Bowman first pointed that out, last season when he was scouting the Habs vs the Panthers. Separate Higgins from Koivu, and now opponents have more than one line to concentrate on. And now Kovalev finally showing some effort this year adds another dimension to their offense.

So it's no coincidence that their offense finally woke up when those three were split up. Guy had 3 scoring lines and one energy line (his words), with Koivu, Higgins and Kovalev getting each of their respective lines scoring. It was a matchup nightmare for opponents. Who do you try to shut down?

The only problem was the energy line was a little defensively deficient, but with Begin coming back, that ought to be somewhat rectified.

Of course let's see what happens tomorrow night. Apparently Carbo still had Higgins with Koivu in practice. Maybe Scotty ought to give him a call.