Thursday, February 21, 2008

2-21-08: Penguins 5, Canadiens 4

Once upon a time, it was said that the Habs had a system. This system, according to some, was the cause of all our troubles, for the system was supposedly a slow, dull, defensive system. Wholly unsuited to our strengths, it stifled player’s creativity, smothered their speed, and bored the fans. Every time the Habs lost a game 1-0 or 2-0, someone would start complaining about ‘the system’, arguing that a basic incompatibility between the hockey principles of the Gainey/Carbonneau administration and the natural talents of players would lead to chronic failure.

Now, one might say that a strong sense of order has not been the defining characteristic of the Canadiens in recent years, and therefore that it’s difficult to blame a system that may or may not exist and is almost certainly not being played properly. Even if there is a system that’s designed to be every bit as rote and workmanlike as critics have claimed, one could easily say that many of the Habs problems have stemmed from an inability to play consistently to that system or any other. They’re not a system team, they're an improv team; a different show every night.

This season, however, it is true that most of their wins have been played in an efficient, careful, and somewhat conservative manner. When they are successful, often they seem to put neither defense nor offense first, but play a sort of value-neutral style that is sometimes a bit passive, in that it tends to wait and watch for the best opportunities/worst risks in both directions, and adapt to each in turn. Last year they often alternated between very defensive and very offensive periods within the same game, creating both lots of lost leads and lots of come-from-behind victories, but this season they have indeed been more disciplined and more consistent.

Or, at least, they had been.

This game, perhaps because of the giddy high left over from the previous triumph, was completely different from most others I’ve seen the Canadiens play. They came out and just fucking floored it- full speed and nothing but forward momentum. The game moved back and forth so quickly it was like the players were ball-bearings on a tilt table, everybody rushing to one end, collecting briefly, then rushing back to the other. It was very exciting. It was also a loss. The question is, why? Let’s examine the possibilities:

1. Huet. This is probably going to be a favorite explanation, given the long shadow of Price and the always-simmering goalie controversy that lies beneath it. And it’s true, some of what got past him simply shouldn’t have. But on the other hand, they left him a lot more exposed on a lot more occasions than they generally do. A general principle is that a goalie is best when he and the team in front of him have a mutual understanding about how to play their zone, and if I was surprised at some of the gaps the D left here, my guess is that Cristobal was too. He was left hanging quite a bit here- not that he was always scored on when he was, or that such excuses the goals he let in, but in such an atypical and close game, blame-the-goalie is a cheap excuse that doesn’t really answer much.

2. Poor defense. Probably true. While the Habs D was, for the most part, on par with their usual performance, the rapid exchange of chances was doubtless wearying and didn’t leave them much time for precise positioning, and the forwards were absolutely invisible in the defensive zone. But don’t blame them entirely, it’s hard to for one guy to forecheck and backcheck effectively in the same shift.

3. The Penguins. This is actually the explanation I prefer, for the time being. Pittsburgh plays us well, and apparently they can play us just as well without Crosby as with him. They’ve always matched us neatly, goal for goal, chance for chance, we’ve had more intense back-and-forth games with them in the past season(s) and preseason(s) than I can remember with any other team. They are, in fact, rather like us, with a roster balanced on a fulcrum between the skillful and the thwacky. The primary difference between our team and theirs is that their team is divided even further between the two extremes: they have more exceptional skill on the one end and more brutal smashing on the other, but seem to have fewer players who can occupy the happy medium, or adapt between the two. It seems possible to me, in fact, that the Canadiens’ switch to this play style for this game was deliberate, an experiment in trying to find a new way to handle Pittsburgh.

The holy grail of hockey strategy would be to find the perfect style, one that has speed and aggression and creates lots of offensive chances while at the same time maintaining conscientious defensive coverage- the style that the Red Wings claim to have discovered, but which seems to elude the rest of the League. I have no idea if Detroit’s claim is true, since I read about them but am seldom able to watch them, and as such am ignorant of the style by which they achieve their results. But it does seem to be true that most people in the hockey world view offense and defense as mutually exclusive foci. The conventional wisdom states: a defensive team will lose because they don’t get enough goals, whereas an offensive team will lose because they let in too many. The question for Habs fans is, if the team is capable of playing both ways and losing both ways, which do you prefer to watch?

Most hockey fans will always say they prefer to watch offensively-oriented teams and high-scoring games. It’s more exciting, right? But I’m not sure if that’s entirely true, especially not for knowledgeable hockey fans such as are common in Habistan. Offense-oriented games like this one are often sloppy. For all but the best players, there’s a trade-off between speed and precision; so in a fast, aggressive game, there are often more glamorous plays, but also more egregious fuck-ups. Certainly that was true in this game, for the Canadiens completed more lovely high-velocity passing plays, but also made a lot more pointless turnovers in the course of trying to make such pretty plays. They pushed more deeply and rapidly into the Penguins’ zone (how’s that for (completely unintentional but nevertheless amusing) innuendo?), and got their chances, then got caught behind as the flightless birds burst back towards Huet.

I don’t think Canadiens fans have the stomach for the kind of errors that will naturally come with full-on offensive hockey. We’re too demanding and too critical of the kinds of silly-looking mistakes that are common to such styles. Those misdirected passes and unsettled pucks and wild rebounds and rapid turnovers are exactly the sort of thing that gets people routinely screaming that Lapierre should be sent down and Brisebois decapitated. Maybe in other cities fans are ignorant enough to be placated by all the pretty whirring and the big numbers, but Montreal fans are observant and detail-oriented, they notice bad plays and remember them just as readily as gorgeous ones. This is a city where a player can be vilified for weeks on the strength of a single ugly giveaway or untimely penalty, never mind a series of them. Yes, these kinds of games are great when you win them, but we don’t remember a win for more than a week anyway if there are losses in the interval.

Perhaps, then, the Habs’ tendency towards the conservative is not something that’s being foisted on the fans by Gainey and Carbonneau’s dogmatism, but is rather based on their astute understanding of what kind of hockey can survive in this city. It might or might not win more games, but it leaves the team less exposed to vitriol- and while winning the Cup may be the first goal of a team’s management, keeping their jobs is a close second. Gainey does an admirable job of resisting the media and the fan base when they take a dislike to a player, but it’s sure as hell easier for him to work if most of the fans at least tolerate most of the players most of the time, and that means he and Carbonneau have a practical incentive not to support riskier styles of play. Does defensive hockey win Cups? We’ll find out. However, it most certainly wins the grudging acceptance of Habs fans, in a way that I very much doubt offensive hockey ever could.

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