Sunday, February 03, 2008

2-3-08: Rangers 5, Canadiens 3

It’s actually nice to see a bad loss. Not a they-did-the-best-they-could-but-were-outplayed-loss, not a bad-luck-bad-bounces loss, not a hey-you-win-some-you-lose-some loss, but a shitty WHAT-THE-FUCK-KIND-OF-TEAM-BLOWS-A-3-0-LEAD???? loss. It’s exactly the kind of loss the Habs (and their fans) need right now, because let’s face it: we were all getting a little uppity. Some of the past weeks’ wins have seemed to come so easily, things have seemed to be clicking together so neatly, that a lot of us- and I’m as guilty of this as anyone- were starting to almost overlook the rest of the regular season. It’s fun to start looking ahead; ahead to the next ‘interesting’ game (Sens, Tuesday); even ahead to the playoffs (closing in on the #1 seed…). But at this point in the season, nothing is certain. They can still lose. They could still miss the playoffs. There are a lot of teams behind- good teams, teams not merely hungry but ravenous- who will work extra hard now to grab two points from somebody ahead of them, and gain momentum from a victory against a leading opponent. It was necessary to lose like this, to remember these things.

1. Let’s get one thing out of the way first: This loss was not about a lack of toughness. It was about fatigue. The Habs haven’t played many back-to-back games this season, in fact, almost all of their schedule has been played on the classic Tuesday-Thursday-Saturday pattern. It’s become very nearly a routine. This weekend, with its afternoon doubleheader was a break in that routine, an anomaly, and it showed in the Canadiens’ inability to play the full sixty. Their speed, accuracy, and forward momentum declined noticeably throughout, and while I don’t want to take any credit away from the Rangers’ aggressive, determined effort, I think the weak last frame was more about the Habs’ inability to connect with each other than about anything NYR did. They were worn out and thought (subconsciously, I assume) that they could coast on the lead- which is pretty much always a bad thought.

2. However, regardless of whether it was the reason for the loss, it was a rough game that saw (as per RDS) 41 minutes of penalties given out in the first 40 minutes. Komisarek and Jagr spent virtually every shared minute of ice time in a state of constant war- thwacking, shoving and grabbing their way along the boards- and Avery provoked his obligatory pile-up. But probably the best exemplar is Kovalev’s egregious and unpenalized elbow on Hollweg, for which Hollweg retaliated on his next shift by smashing Kostitsyn al-Asghar from behind into the boards, which in turn provoked Gorges and Koivu to try (ineffectually) to maul him, and Bouillon to fight Orr, for some reason. Now, we are not going to defend Kovalev’s hit. It’s the sort of atypically violent play that Kovy sometimes does when he feels somehow wronged or just generally irritable. There have been a few such cases over the years where the normally disinterested winger decides that some opponent needs to go down, and he does so in a brutal but peculiarly businesslike way. We have no idea why he did it, but we would have understood if Hollweg felt compelled to exact some kind of vengeance. Which he presumably intended to, but sadly, the large creature is apparently illiterate and mistook poor lil’ Kostitsyn for Kovalev- an easy mistake, given that the child’s back was turned and the names are so similar. See, this is why we need adult literacy programs, people, so folk like Ryan won’t feel ashamed of their ignorance and can get the help they need. We have to do this, not just for Sergei, but for all vulnerable rookies everywhere.

3. Goalie gossip: Huet gets the second start, and although I do think there were moments when he was a little less sharp than usual, I don’t think he was responsible for the loss and I doubt Halak could have done better, given the erratic performance of the D. But we won’t know for a while, because immediately after the game Halak was sent down to the Bulldogs. Which can only mean… [cue surging violins]… The Return of the Expected One! Could be good- I think he might do a little better in the higher-pressure atmosphere of the final run of the season.

4. Other gossip: Speaking of people who are not doing well in high-pressure situations, Ryder gets scratched (as per my request- this is what you get for sending Carbo a box of chocolates and a big lavender teddy bear) and reportedly (and by reportedly, I mean according to totally unsubstantiated and unconfirmed fan-circulated rumors) storms out of the building in a huff. Because, you know, that worked so well for Rivet last year. There was also a rumor going around that he’d been traded- to Atlanta, in exchange for several crates of peaches, some of those crazy sugary nuts they make, and a case of exotic Coca-Cola products from around the world, because Pleks loves blackcurrant Fanta. Which only proves one thing: Ain’t no hockey gossip like Habs’ fan hockey gossip.

This is the time for the Canadiens to be in one-game-at-a-time mode, thinking of nothing beyond the match at hand. Of course, that’s a hockey cliché, something everyone says they should do but never actually does. And in reality, sometimes a long-range view is useful- for a team that needs to claw into playoff contention, for example, it can be useful to always keep an eye on the big picture of the standings as a whole. But at this point, I don’t think the Habs should (as Higgins said in a recent interview) focus on overtaking the Senators. I think they might be able to, of course, but the harder problem they face is not climbing but sustaining, and that requires taking every single opponent seriously. The rest of the teams don’t disappear just because they’re a few points below. They are still, just as much as Ottawa, our competition- for playoff slots, for seeding, and eventually, for the Stanley Cup.


alice said...

While Hollweg does have a bit of a loose cannon to him, it was unconscionable for Renney to put him out on the ice after that hit. He looked confused and fuzzy sitting on the bench, and I'd attribute his confusing Kovalev with Kostitsyn to that. And, since he's going to have a few games off, nobody's going to have to use the "c" word to account for his absence from the line-up.

LeeT911 said...

I'd just like to say that reading your commentary made me feel much better. That was a tough loss, especially when it seemed like it was going so well early on. You're right though, in that maybe we needed that loss, just to remind everyone that it can happen, and that nothing is given away for free.

Also, there's a part of me that feels the Habs deserved to lose that one, even if only because of what Kovalev did. I was ready to jump on the Kovalev bandwagon this season, but after that elbow he laid on Hollweg, I don't think I'll be able to.

Kovalev Fan said...

Let me set you straight about Kovalev. Hollweg made a habit of interfering with and hooking Kovalev earlier in the shift. A penalty should have been called, but wasn't (par for the course with Chris Lee, the most blatant Habs-Hater in Canada). Kovalev, as we all know, as the league knows, will take matters into his own hands if he does not perceive justice is being served by the powers that be.

That does not excuse his actions. It does, however, highlight a fundamental truth that referees MUST learn: if you lose control of a game, bad things will happen. Chris Lee and Mike Leggo did not have control of the game. Players in that sort of situation can be expected (not to be confused with "excused") to enact frontier justice.

So what happens next? Hollweg was not confused. He wasn't groggy or illiterate. He was upset, and he was determined to hurt someone, probably someone OTHER THAN Kovalev. It's the same strange, contrived logic that American League baseball teams use to justify hitting a batter who had nothing to do with the previous inning's beaning from the opposing pitcher.

Kovalev should have received a penalty. Yes. But the referees failed, and then continued to fail. To mitigate a Montreal 5-minute penalty with a phantom roughing call, and then to call a penalty against Komisarek for what amounted to "checking" was inexcusable.

These continued failings illustrated the larger issue--that Kovalev, far from being "disinterested" as you (unfairly) accuse, was very concerned with winning this one. When NBC's announcers accused him of being lazy on a Rangers goal, it was the same ridiculous prejudice that overlooked the fact that he was BUSTING HIS ASS to get to a loose puck. Busting his ass, unlike Brisebois, Hamrlik, or Smolinski have been doing.

Say what you want about Kovalev's (non-)penalty and whether it made a goon (who has a history of such things) act like a goon, but I will not tolerate accusations against Kovalev of him being a floater or of laziness. THAT is laziness--to simply say he's disinterested because that's what the TV says. Watch the man play. Pay attention to not only what he does, but why he does it. You will see method in his game, and you will start to understand that he cares, very, very much.

(And, by the way, when Kovalev gets mad, he does not go head-hunting at random. He will kick the snot out of the guilty party, not an innocent bystander.)

E said...

kovalevfan- (sorry alice, leet, but i think his/her comment demands more immediate attention. forgive me?)

first a couple of things: the thing about hollweg's illiteracy was a joke. i assume he knew perfectly well what he was doing, and in attributing it to idiocy rather than malignancy i was- more or less- just trying to entertain myself. bad taste? probably.

secondly, by 'disinterested', i didn't mean in the game, but in the chippy violence. i have no doubt that hollweg was annoying him earlier in the shift, but kovalev is our most dangerous scoring threat right now, of course people mess with him. my point is that 9 times out of 10, kovy couldn't seem to care less about that kind of bullshit and doesn't participate in it. every now and then, though, he gets extremely pissed about it, and when he does, he ain't shy.

i will say this, though: i respect the fact(s) that kovalev is a very talented and a very smart player. i respect the fact that he is having a very good season. i also respect the fact that you have every reason to like him. however, just as i, as a koivu fan, have to acknowledge that he has a history of taking crappy o-zone penalties at bad times, i feel that kovalev fans ought to acknowledge that he does have a history of being (shall we say) 'selective' about the occasions on which he chooses to exercise his talent. does that mean that people will sometimes accuse him of laziness unfairly? yep, just like koivu sometimes gets called for hooking unfairly, but you have to realize that people see such things because they do have a past reason for doing so. i appreciate everything kovalev is doing for the team this season, but for me, it's also difficult to forget everything he didn't do for the team last season, everything actively counterproductive that he did. there should be a statute of limitations on that, i know, eventually we (those of us who have them) should get over our grudges, but it's difficult not to fear that he could just start disappearing at any given moment, for reasons we will never know. i respect the hell out of the guy. but i don't trust him, not the way a fan usually trusts their own players.

this is all just an elaborate way of saying that we all have our biases, in favor of certain things and against others. that may be unfortunate, but it's inevitable. i'm sometimes fairly open about mine, and i'm sorry for that, but i'm not sure it's going to change any time soon. however, i'd like to think i'm perfectly open to being persuaded by reasoned argument, so do feel free to elucidate for me things i might be missing about kovalev's style and attitude. i may not be won over, but i do appreciate it nonetheless.

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

It was a horrendous loss after that kind of a lead, and sort of reinforces for me that, despite our proximity to the Sens, this isn't quite The Team for 2008; there's still learning to be had, and this loss is one example of it. However, seeing the way this team played Saturday against the Isles, and for the first half of this game, after months of only intermittent viewing, says to me that this could very well be The Team (well, A Team) for 2009, which was really the goal all along. The kids are coming along just fine (Serjozha from between the circles on the penalty shot? That was vintage. Pure, beautiful vintage.), Carbo seems to be learning, compared to last year, and the team is not only healthier but obviously defensively better than last year's team. What they need to do now is win in the playoffs -- and lose in the playoffs, and learn how to play in a much less forgiving environment (as if there's ever been much forgiving in Montreal ;) ).

I dunno how much stock we should put in Tuesday's game against Ottawa -- when 2/3 of the Pizza Line is in sickbay, it's really hard to take the Senators as seriously, at least not the way you should normally take a first-place team. I'd actually be a bit disappointed if they failed to take advantage of the vulnerable opponent, and be concerned about their ability not only to put away a team that is currently quite beatable, but to generally recover from a bad loss.

P.S. Shame about the result, but damn, that was an entertaining game, anyway. I love fast, chance-filled, "thwacky" hockey.

Yamp said...

'this a weird sensation, being edgy when your team is having a 3 lead goal. But it is a situation that most Habs fans have experienced, I'm sure. And when something like yesterday happens (which isn't as uncommon as one would like), you're only confirmed in that edgy-ness.

'this a weakness of our Canadiens, I'm afraid. They play quite well for the first period, mess up in the second and in the third, either give up or play frantically, without that much success.

Somehow, I think this season, I'll be more hopeful on the outcome of a game when we are losing 0-3 than when we are winning 3-0.

At least, one may feel a bit better acknowledging that in the third period, the Habs didn't collapse but played frantically, i.e. clumsily but compulsively, with absolutely no result what so ever, but hey... Watcha gonna do? Crying won't solve anything! ;) And, I at least, am reassured about the teams combativity in a difficult situation, that "last-years-giving-up" always on this Habs fan's mind. As for the team's confidence, well, it might go two ways : they feel like they worked hard to make up for their mistakes and that they could've win this won with a bit more coordination and/or luck, or they can feel discouraged because they did work hard in that third period and it didn't produce any result. Or, maybe it won't change a damned thing and I'm just speculating, trying to rationalize this loss and it's repercussion! ;)

As for the Kovy question, I tend to agree with E on this one. Kovalev has that incredible talent, but for some reason, his motivation seems a bit manic-depressive to me. I often refer to last year (because it was my christening as a fan), but my first experience of Kovalev was "that Russian-guy everyone claims is incredible, but who doesn't do anything but scandalizing the over-sensitive Montreal's press". I couldn't understand why the Habs hung to that player and didn't trade him for a better one, and as this season started, I was still quite sceptical of his "so-called" talent. I’m very glad Kovy proved me wrong and has a great year, but when he scores a magnificent goal, I can’t help but shout at the TV : “Dammit Kovy! You’re so great! Why didn’t you play like this last year”! Last game, he did some great move, but he also fumbled, making me edgy again, because this Habs fan is always subconsciously reminded how fragile the Canadiens can be. I guess one can assume he was tired and all, but still... And that elbowing : inexcusable. One cannot tolerate a player “making is own justice”, because that’s how one gets a little Kostitsyn face down on the ice, Hollweg I’m sure quite assured he was justified for making the Habs pay for what they did to him.

The referees. Now here is one point in the league which is really crappy. Either they are all severe, are all loose, but uniformity is the key here. Rules are made to be followed, and no matter how much you hate a team, no matter how much a team is losing, no matter about the fluidity of the play, if a player commits an infraction, then he should be penalized, period. And oh! how I wish hockey was like football and a coach could, within the rules of the game, challenge the decision of a referee. Let’s face it : referees have an incredible power over what’s happening on the ice, and it seems they don’t have to answer to anyone. They can make quite arbitrary decision, miss calls, be forgiving to one team but not to the other, etc, and nothing is done. And what’s that I hear RDS’s “Pierre et Yvon” say? The league asked them NOT TO TALK about the referees on the air? Come on! If a referee is doing a crappy job, than he is, and no one has to protect his sorry *ss! And don’t get me started on the “freedom of speech” part of that comment. I didn’t think anything could make me twitch like this even more than seeing my team lose 3-5 after a 3-0 lead.

Kaz said...

Blowing that lead was almost certainly due to exhaustion. They came roaring out of the starting gates and then slowly petered out.

The only part that might concern a Habs fan is the way in which they lost. They are small and fast, so if they lose a step -- due to fatigue or whatever -- the other team is gonna "thwack" them (using Doogie's parlance). Sure Bouillon, Komisarek, Begin, Kostopolous and maybe Hamrlik on occasion will thwack back. But in the playoffs, things tend to grind down a bit, esp in OT when the refs swallow their whistles. So their speed won't be nearly as useful then.

And what's with all the angst over what I thought were some fairly innocuous and light-hearted comments about Kovalev?

Doogie said...

Hey, I just borrowed the term "thwacky" from E. ;)