Wednesday, February 13, 2008

2-13-08: Canadiens 2, Panthers 1

Hockey, like most sports, derives much of its entertainment value from the underlying presumption that the result of any match is just; that the team that wins does so because they deserve to, because they actually played the game better. While there are always exceptions, most fans assume this kind of fairness unconsciously, to the point where they’ll assume that the losing team somehow fucked up even if they saw no actual fuck up, based solely on the principle that a loss must be the result of a deficiency. It is surprisingly difficult, then, to recognize that your team might be playing competently- even playing well, playing better than their opponent- and yet still, technically, losing. The Habs outplayed the Panthers for the vast majority of this game, and yet for that same vast majority, the score was 1-0 Florida. And watching it, it was extremely difficult to keep any kind of faith in the evidence of my own eyes. I almost wanted to believe that they were doing something wrong, even though I could identify no major error, simply because it was actually psychologically easier to assume they were playing badly than to see the game as unjust. It must, I think, be even harder for the players, to maintain the habits of good play in the face of no numerical reward. By the beginning of the 3rd, they must have been feeling a huge urge to change their style, to do something anything differently just because what they were doing wasn’t working and must therefore be bad. Good thing, then, that all it takes is one goal, one good moment, to turn doubt into confidence and skepticism into faith.

1. The interesting thing here is to contemplate that in most games where the result is perceived as ‘unfair’, the blame is usually placed on either the referees or the goaltenders. I understand why goalies are so freaking defensive about their rights and prerogative, because when other players exercise their skills far beyond the level of their teammates, it’s ‘carrying’ the team to a win, where as when goalies do so, it’s ‘stealing’ the game. Nobody ever talks about changing the rules to slow down Ovechkin or Heatley- their success is considered good for the League. Whereas goalies’ success is a problem, and changing the rules to make them play less effectively is considered a net benefit to the game. In a way, the League and a lot of fans put goalies in the position of being the enemies of good hockey- hell, I’d be touchy too. There’s a sense that it’s less fair when a team wins on the strength of its goaltending than based on any other quality. If the Habs had lost this, I’d be bitching endlessly about Vokoun and how he ruined our terrific effort and gave Florida a totally undeserved victory. Fortunately, however, since he made just enough mistakes for us to win, I can just say: Good game, Tomas. Better luck next time.

2. Speaking of goalies, this was also the best game in a long time for Price. On the whole I’d say Vokoun faced the tougher shots, but the Habs’ baby goalie was in excellent form and played beautifully through some really tough PKs. So let the bickering resume: who’s the real number one in Montreal?

[Answer: Huet. But thanks for playing!]

3. Also a real resurgence for Koivu, who got assists on both goals and five shots, including at least three really excellent chances, and Higgins, who in spite of his goal still must be rocking one of the lowest shooting percentages in the League. I’m concerned, however, that this doesn’t represent an improvement for their line, (this time with S. Kostitsyn instead of Ryder), but rather largely individual improvements. Which is still good, glad to see them playing better, but I’d be a lot more thrilled if it seemed like a more sustainable threat. The success (when they have it) of the Plekanec line has really persuaded me that the Habs’ best offense comes from constant puck movement, and I think part of the reason that a lot of Koivu’s chances failed was because he had no passing options and thus his actions were predictable, no matter how skilled.

4. I know this is an odd thing to say about the guy who got the game winner, but Kovalev is looking really off to me these past few games. He’s gone back to playing the perimeter a lot and isn’t being very tenacious about pursing plays. Plekanec and Kostitsyn are still buzzing around industriously and getting their share of opportunities, but Kovy seems to have slowed down. But thank god he’s still got that high-right-from-the-left-circle shot- it’s goalie kryptonite, I swear at least half his goals have been scored with it.

5. Other notes: Excellent game for Markov. Uneven one for Lapierre- more mistakes, more chances, but hell, I’d rather notice him than not. O’Byrne is a surprisingly pretty skater, for being such an otherwise ponderous creature. I don’t really know who he is, but ‘Kamil Krepps’ has definitely earned a spot on my mental team comprised of players with the coolest names. Finally, when McGeough makes the gesture for ‘hooking’, it looks like he’s miming seppuku. Is there a two-minute minor for ritual suicide? Should there be? Discuss.

I liked this game. True, like many Panthers games, it was low scoring and dull for long stretches, but that’s a small price to pay to have my faith in the ultimate fairness of the sport renewed. The hockey gods still smile on hard work; good chances do eventually turn into scoring, which turns into winning. At least, most of the time.

[By the way, I haven’t said anything about Richard Zednik and his horrible accident thus far- such will be forthcoming. But since this is a Panthers recap, I’d just like to take a second to extend my sympathies to him, his family, and his teammates, and to wish him a full recovery.]


Anonymous said...

T'was the kinda game that makes you feel your life is gonna be a little bit shorter (or the kinda game that the next morning, when you find a new grey hair, you just know what is responsible for it!).

I'm glad to see Koivu closer to his old self again. He did some good plays, and I sometime feel that if he was the lucky one playing with A. Kostitsin and Plekanec, he would have a lot more assist this year. Of course, one could argue that his last night two assists were mere luck (I still can't figure out how he touched the puck on that Higgins goal, and for the other all he did was plainly pass the puck to Kovy), I maintain I saw some great play there yesterday, and if Higgins can get back on track, at least that part of the line we'll do good.

I also share your impression of Kovalev slowiness. He seemed slumpy, made several handling-puck mistake (wich isn't quite like him). I was glad to see him be more energic during the OT. He'd better not be also coming down with the flu!

All that's left now is for the team to capitalize on this return of momentum, and hope we won't have to face another stretch of loss for a while. :)

Go Habs, go!

Anonymous said...

I also fully agree on the fact that Kovalev seems slow. I think he was slow last year, but that the difference this year is that he adjusted. He also has trouble handling the puck, thus confining him to the periphery.

But I do have an explanation. He isn't anomic, it isn't about what the french press likes to call "les mystères de l'âme russe", he isn't brooding.

He got a freaking slap shot on the thumb a week ago, remember? I think that said thumb is more or less functional ever since that unfortunate event. Repeat after me: slap shot square on the thumb.

Kovy can play trough it, somewhat. But he won't be as effective. And it's gonna last for the next few weeks I think... Oh well...

E said...

yamp- to a certain extent koivu's assists were lucky, in that they weren't dazzling set-ups, but they show that he's exerting more of a presence on the ice. i also think it's worth noting that his line was the only one to come out + in the game against tampa and was neutral in the ass-whooping by the sens. in other words, they've been taking a lot of the defensive labor and doing pretty well at it, which is probably restraining his ability to make dramatic offensive efforts.

olibou- good point about kovy's thumb. i wasn't going to attribute it to laziness or moodiness in this case anyway, i rather feel like he's too invested in this season to lose interest at the most critical moment- i've said it before, the man has a definite sense of theater. but the injury would certainly explain his sub-par (by his standards) puck-conservation and attendant willingness to forgo more of the play to plekanec and kostitsyn. not that that's necessarily a bad thing, since i do think more and more responsibility needs to be shifted to the younger players...

Anonymous said...

Olibou : May I point out that Kovalev’s thumb injury happened 15 days before the Panthers game, and that he’s been playing great hockey immediately after it, and is only starting to slow down? I’d rather invoke fatigue or illness to explain his momentary slowiness than a former injury that’s most likely had time to heal. I mean, he’s been giving a great deal to the team this year, and I agree that any player can have a bad night once in a while. If Kovalev was a constant player, I wouldn’t hold much thought to it, but I’ve been burned last year, and some part of me still fears that Kovy might lose it before the end of the season. I doubt it will happen, but still...

E : I think that the +/- of Koivu this year is a great amelioration for him. Eventually, age is gonna catch up with him (some argue it’s already happening, and maybe it is a bit), and I think it would be a great advantage for him to better his defensive play. This way, he could eventually play on a more defensive line, therefore giving space to the younger, faster player, but keeping a place amongst the team he likes. Don’t get me wrong, I really like Koivu! I’d be sadden if he were to be exchanged because he’s having an “average year”. I think most of the fans are quite harsh, too harsh, claiming he’s a no good captain, or that he’s finished, or that would should exchange him now before he loses all value. But I think that eventually, being realistic, his role in the team will surely have to change. And I, for one, don’t think that being a defensive player is less respectable than a forward centre (Oh, how I miss Bonk!).

As for this year, as I pointed out, the fact that he’s a play maker and that people he plays with seem unable to put the puck in the net isn’t quite good on the stats. If Higgins, Ryder or Latendresse would have managed to score every time they received a great pass from Koivu, then thing wouldn’t be as grim. But Latendresse is still a young inexperienced player, Higgins is just getting back on track, and Ryder... Well, Ryder is having a bad year (I’d really like to know why, because he’s got talent that’s for sure, and I can’t quite figure out what’s going wrong).

And about the crappy captain part, I really think it’s an unfair statement. Koivu’s been captain of a team that was fallin’ apart, touching the bottom of the barrel, and this ain’t the situation to make a captain glorious. But even so he remained in Montreal, did his job, and now that the team is finally back on track and that hope is permitted, fans want to guillotine him. Maybe he’s not as talented as Maurice Richard or Wayne Gretzky (and he’s suffered many injuries over the years), but he’s got heart and force of will, and I think that we should at least give him a chance to play with the Habs now that the Habs are a better team. Sentimental, you say? You’re right, and I know compassion is not what you need in the making of a great team. I can’t rationally defend this argument, but I still value a certain sense of honour, as if we owed Koivu at least one chance to make up for all the time he gave to the Habs. And still, as I mentioned earlier, HE’S NOT FINISHED! :oP

I don’t know why I’m telling you all of this, because you obviously also like Koivu. I guess I just needed to get it off my chest! ;)

E said...

(readers who are not koivu fans are asked to discreetly avert their eyes from the following- it won't interest you and i'm not looking to start an argument).

yamp, i totally understand the need to vent. i love koivu myself, but i find that he never gets discussed fairly, especially not in terms of his on-ice play. the extremity of loathing that some people have for him is completely irrational, more so even than my own irrational dislike of kovalev, and probably comes from seeing him as the symbol of the past decade of frustration rather than seeing him as a player.

personally, i think montreal fans are far too quick to take the evidence of any game, any series of games, as proof of skill level, when in reality most hockey players are inconsistent and go through hot and cold streaks many times in a season. last season koivu went on a cold streak and still had a career year in terms of points. he's had a cold streak this season too, but we've still got more than 20 games to go, and even 'cold' he's still one of the best playmakers on the team.

i think, honestly, that there's no position harder in the nhl than being a well-above-average but not extraordinary forward. those are the guys that fans get most upset with, most disappointed in, because they're good enough to have flashes of greatness but not quite good enough to do it all the time. scan any hockey fan message board and you'll find him- the guy who everyone wants to trade because he's 'not a real first-line [center, for example]', and yet their list of players who are 'real first-line [centers]' is usually limited to about 10 in the entire league, and 5 of those are the same guys that are getting bitched about in their own fan communities. sometimes i think half the hardcore hockey fans in the world want to trade their captain, and every hockey fan in the world lives under the delusion that they could potentially trade the 2nd or 3rd best player on their team for the 2nd or 3rd best player in the league. koivu suffers from being judged not by his own standards but always in comparison to everyone's fantasies.

so me, i don't think he's done, i don't think he's even slowed down that much. i think he's doing just fine playing on a young team with a lot of guys who still have more flash than finish, and i think that his numbers by the end of the year will be fairly well in line with what they've been before- i.e. perfectly respectable for a 2nd line forward on any team and comparable to the 1st line center on many. and yeah, hopefully he will start segueing more and more responsibility to the youth, as they grow more and more capable of undertaking it, and perhaps he will end his career as an unusually creative defensive forward. but i don't think that's happening right now before our eyes.

what i'm saying is, regardless of the guy's symbolic value, i don't see how anybody could contend that he's not an asset to the team. there are good sentimental reasons for keeping him, but there are also a hell of a lot of good pragmatic team-building reasons to keep him, and i have yet to see any of those effectively counter-argued by anyone without resorting to nonsensical wet dreams about lecavalier.

Anonymous said...

Kostitsyn Highlights Video: