Thursday, January 24, 2008

1-24-08: Canadiens 4, Devils 3

It’s a whole new world.

I went out to the café to watch this game, and ended up chatting in desultory fashion with a couple of guys at the end of the bar through most of the 3rd period. And after Higgins scored, after we all finished laughing and hooting in surprise and disbelief, one of them looked over at me, smiled, and said, “Everything is possible.”

1. The thing that’s more impressive than the win itself is how it was accomplished, because the Habs began this game flat and only picked it up slightly through the first half of the second period. For the first 30 minutes, their efforts- although not terrible- seemed as futile and ineffectual as in any game against New Jersey, all their speed frustrated, all their shots poor. Usually, we know how this story goes, especially this season: they come out, make a perfunctory effort, and deflate as soon as the other team gets the momentum. Last year’s Habs, for all their other flaws, were a come-from-behind kind of team. This year’s Habs, although more successful overall, haven’t been. They’re usually the sort of team that needs to jump out, steal the energy early, score a few and cling to them tightly. Most of the time this year, if they’re down 2 goals, that’s the end; they’re pretty much always playing their worst hockey of the night in the 3rd. So to take a game where they were down 1-0 and the end of the 1st and 3-1 at the end of the 2nd and completely turn it around in the final frame? That’s unprecedented. That’s amazing. That’s... improvement.

2. Moreover, this win is impressive because it came on the success of players who haven’t had a lot of it lately. Personally, I’ve never had a problem with Smolinski, but I’ve also never been interested in him whatsoever. He’s kind of the definition of ‘adequate’ in my mind. But not only did he score the two goals in this game, but I think his line- with Kostopolous and Begin- deserves a lot of credit for keeping the team going early on. They, and to a certain extent Lapierre and Latendresse, did a nice job of capitalizing on being played against the Devil’s weaker lines and at least getting into the offensive zone in the first half, and against a team and a goaltender that shuts us out a lot, you really can’t underestimate the value of that first goal.

3. I know there’s been a whole hell of a lot of debunking of the concept of ‘clutch’ players among mathematically-oriented hockey fans, and in general I’m usually inclined to believe that it is a myth that comes mainly from the varying levels of emotional investment that fans have in certain goals and certain games- it’s the depersonalized euphemism you apply to someone who has scored goals that were important to you, but it’s more a term of endearment than a practical reality. However, whether or not it’s real, it’s probably only a matter of time before this label starts getting applied to Higgins. In spite of his streakiness, I remember when reviewing his stats earlier in the season that he does have a tendency to score more late in games, and more in games where the Habs are down. Thus far, it’s largely been futile, as they pretty much always lose anyway if they're down late, but he does seem to be the guy for whom that extra level of desperation translates into a little extra effectiveness. Something to look for, anyway.

4. Other thoughts: You know the Canadiens are hot when Komisarek is accumulating points and getting chances at the rate he has been lately. And yes, we did get lucky that Koivu’s goal didn’t get waved off for being borderline baseball-esque, but in a way that one is representative of everything that was good in the way the Habs played this match- taking every possible chance, no matter how improbable. Next, although they weren’t as prominent on the scoresheet, the Plekanec line was still impressively dominant. With more shots than any other trio, they probably deserve a lot of credit in the win just from stressing Brodeur. Finally, it appears that Latendresse is Carbonneau’s official bitch, being chosen to serve near-consecutive 2nd period bench minors for too many men and abuse of officials. I think that, in compensation, Guy needs to give each player a get-out-of-the-dog-house-free card for one future stupid penalty, because there’s nothing stupider than putting your guys down a man because you can’t fucking shut up.

5. It seems likely, however, that this win partly resulted from a bit of arrogance on Jersey’s part. They know how soundly they own us, and it did seem like after they got 3 goals, they let things slide a little bit, not playing with nearly the discipline for which they are deservedly known. Given how angry Sutter seems to be, I doubt they’ll be making that mistake again. But unfortunately for them, once a streak like they had on us is broken, the mind-fuck is gone and can’t really be brought back. Team-that-we-often-lose-to is a hell of a lot less intimidating than team-that-we-always-lose to.

The curse is lifted, the spell broken. Not only have they shaken the monkey from their backs, but tossed it to the ground and broken its legs with a shovel, thereby earning the Habs the eternal ire of PETA’s Metaphorical Primates division. But it was worth the risk of being picketed, because there is nothing so inspiring as accomplishing something- even something comparatively minor- that you’ve never been able to do before. Before tonight, the Canadiens had not won a game against the Devils since March 20th, 2004. They had not won a game in New Jersey since February 5th, 2002. That means that the only player dressed in tonight’s game who could possibly remember beating the Devils on their home ice was Koivu (although, from his place on the IR, Brisebois probably can too). For the vast majority of the team, playing New Jersey has always meant failure, the most probable- and indeed, seemingly inevitable- failures of their schedule. Based on how pathetically they played Brodeur and his acolytes last season, if you’d asked me at the beginning of the year, I would have told you that it was more likely that the Canadiens would win the Cup than even one of their regular season matches against the Devils. And even now, I still feel (in that rush of irrational pride that follows an unlikely victory) that this has fundamentally changed something. This has, actually, elevated my feelings for my team. Because I always liked them and often loved them, but now I truly respect them.

Most of the hockey world will wake up this chill Friday morning and think nothing is very different from it was yesterday. Still the regular season, where nothing changes dramatically from one day to the next, the upcoming All-Star Game a brief moment of frivolity to relieve the overwhelming sense of the mundane that usually sets in around this time of year. But Habs fans, attentive ones anyway, will wake up with a refreshed view of their team and its place in the League. We will get out of bed, turn on the TV or the radio, or look at the sports section, and smile. Because yesterday we didn’t really let ourselves believe it, but today we know it’s true:

Everything is possible.


Faraz said...

It might be noted as well that Montreal's last win in New Jersey back in 2002 was while Koivu was out with cancer. So even he wouldn't have been around to remember the last time this happened.

I think coming from behind in this game was, in fact, better than winning it outright from the beginning. If the Habs scored the first couple and managed to keep themselves ahead until the end, they wouldn't have learned anything except that it's physically possible to get pucks behind that Brodeur fellow. Coming from behind, though, meant that they also have the ability to respond to adversity, and that the ultimate desire to win can transcend any theoretical "curses" upon the team.

saskhab said...

The scoresheet listed Latendresse as the guy who received the "unsportsmanlike" penalty, not a bench minor. So it's possible it was Latendresse who said the offending remark to the officials, not Carbo. In any case, I don't think it means he's Carbo's bitch, it's just he's the last player Carbo is going to use in a PK situation. I mean, it's him or Ryder. Apparently Ryder is just a little more likely to be used killing a penalty than Gui is.

Yeah, Saku had never won a game in Jersey in his career. That includes the 2002 game, and the 1997 playoffs when the Habs lost all 3 games in Jersey. Koivu's NHL career started in 1995-96, and it's 2007-08... his 11th season. It's fitting he was a huge part of the comeback.

DarkoV said...

Love my Devils, but they have no one out there in the Blogosphere that does them write-up justice as you do.

Will there a bobblehead doll of you given away at any upcoming Habs game? Someone should get on the horn about that.