Monday, March 24, 2008

3-24-08: Canadiens 7, Senators 5

Here’s a tricky problem: how does a team score seven goals, beat a close division rival who’s given them trouble all season, solidify the conference lead, and clinch an absolute guaranteed playoff spot in a single game, and yet do so in a manner that leaves everyone feeling vaguely queasy and dissatisfied at the end? Seems impossible, right? How could anything possibly be disturbing enough to unsettle all those warm fuzzy achievements? Yet our Montreal Canadiens, ingenious creatures that they are, have found a way to do it. Truly, there is nothing, no matter how improbable, that is beyond their capacities.

1. The secret formula for a great win that still feels icky is two periods of absolute dominance followed by a grand finale of abject shittiness. At the end of the second, the Habs were up 7-1, having gotten goals from everyone from Kostitsyn al-Akbar to Kostopolous. Fourteen different Canadiens on the scoresheet, everyone clicking merrily along both at even-strength and on the power play, a whole range of pretty moves from Kovalev, Koivu, and Kostitsyn al-Asghar (it really was a good night for the legion of KO- too bad Komisarek is hurt), and some opportune garbage goals as well. Gerber chased after giving up three, and Emery looking terrible after giving up four more. All good, right? Like a Bruins game or something. And then they came out in the third and sucked. Total, complete, unmitigated suckage. An endless succession of lazy penalties, ugly rebounds, failed clearing attempts, misdirected passes, and just general stupidity that allowed the Senators to come back with four consecutive unanswered goals. There was a moment, with about ten minutes remaining, when I felt absolutely sure they were going to find a way to lose this in the most spectacular on-ice implosion of the season, leaving the Bell Centre nothing but a pile of rubble under a blossoming mushroom cloud of failure. Such were the depths of the suckage.

2. Except, interestingly, for Higgins. I’ve never been persuaded that ‘clutch’-ness is a real phenomenon among hockey players; rather, I prefer to view it as one of hockey’s many metaphors that define the mysterious and unpredictable elements of the game. However, I am persuaded that there is something peculiar about Higgins. He is, for lack of a better word, backwards, the inverse of a normal hockey player. When everything is going well, he can be a total stress-monkey, squeezing his stick so hard it’s a wonder he doesn’t crush it to splinters every shift. In good times, he is the most misfortunate of Habs, king of the crossbar, master of the blown opportunity, a perennial thwackee who endures physical punishment with the dour resignation of Droopy Dog. But somehow, when things suck, Higgins gets better. I have no quantitative evidence for this other than my mid-season research into the Habs’ late game play that found that he scored late goals in losing games far more frequently than any other player, and observations of his superlative skill at 5-on-3 penalty killing (as displayed in this game). It’s not that he flourishes under pressure, exactly; he flourishes under despair. He’s like that pink slime in Ghostbusters II that goes apeshit in the presence of bad feelings. Only with more angst.

3. Personally, I thought Lapierre was remarkably effective on a couple of levels- tenacious on the attack, responsible in his own end, and an excellent sponge for Ottawa’s attempts at agitation. Maxim seems to have the admirable ability to turn his pest-like qualities on and off at will, and in this game he used it to perform an impressive feat of misdirection. Via a careful combination of chippy plays, trash-talking, and irritating swagger, he managed to draw to himself much of the Sens’ ire, thereby providing the rest of the Habs with a welcome reprieve from the tedious bullshit of Chris Neil. This is the real value of a pest: the ability to cancel out other pests.

4. Other gold stars: Hamrlik, who is so consistent, competent, efficient, and intelligent that he’s virtually undervalued on a $5 million contract (hopefully he doesn’t decline too precipitously with advancing age); S. Kostitsyn, who I’m going to start thinking of as mini-Koivu for his playmaking skill and fierce determination, the way I think of his brother as mini-Kovalev for his artistry; and Kostopolous for spooking everyone with the evil eye. Demerit to Ryder, for being a slightly-befuddled looking void all night long.

It’s surreal to have clinched a playoff spot with five games remaining, another indicator of ahbabi’s inexplicable dominance of the conference. All season, even with a successful team, you try to tell yourself not to get too far ahead, not assume too much, not get your hopes up. The hockey gods are capricious beings, right? You never know when they might change their minds. And yet, apparently these Habs have secured the Mandate of Heaven, and now is one of the rare occasions in the sport when you can with absolute surety see the future. We’re going to the postseason, people, not possibly or probably, not we might or could make it. It’s a glorious certainty. Enjoy it.

(Just don't think too much about that third period...)


hambown said...

Blistering barnacles! Things are falling apart for the righteous brothers (known in lay terms as the Ottawa Senators) at the moment; to allow seven goals to a divisional rival is a disgrace.

Still, I must tip my hat collectively to le Tricolore for their excellent display over two periods. This crew looks like it could go far in the playoffs. Send Komisarek to the special hyperbearic healing chamber though, without him ye may be loste!

E said...

the sens aren't looking these days much like the glorious phenomenon they can sometimes be, are they? such a chronically streaky team. i've often wondered why that is; how they can vacillate so readily between utterly dazzling and utterly terrible. i don't think the answer is just emery's ego. (also, has anyone else noticed that pierre et yvon seem to always refer to him as 'rayemery', full name, as though it was one word? why is that? they don't customarily refer to other players by first and last name simultaneously.)

as much as i love komisarek, though, i think this team is tough enough and flexible enough to get along without him for a while. i have a strong feeling he'll be back before we get too far into the playoffs- dude won't want to miss out, and adrenaline can cover for a host of physical woes.

MathMan said...

I think the Sens are very much like the Habs were for much of last year -- a team that feeds on, relies on, and depends on momentum. Only more so. They're a team of anti-Higgins.

If things are going poorly for them, their goalie gives up a couple of weak-looking early goals, they have a bad turnover or a bad bounce and fall down early... then they don't want to fight their way out. They give up a bit, don't work so hard, let their opponents come to them... and wait. They wait, going woe-is-us and why-is-this-happening, but they wait for something to happen.

Give them any amount of hope and suddenly they come alive again. Just one bitsy goal and they can turn from a beaten team to one that can pump three more unanswered scores, just like that. They have an extremely talented first line that can turn a game around on a dime when they choose to show up. Thankfully for Montreal, they had a six-goal lead and could weather the outburst; Buffalo was not so proficient in the first part of the game, and so got burnt.

And conversely, even when things are good... have one thing or two go wrong, go against them, a bad call, a resulting PP goal by a guy they traded, and suddenly they go back into shell-shock mode, so bad that they can turn a 1-0 lead into a 5-1 blowout where they give their much-hated ex-defenseman his first career hat trick or lose a lead in the third against an archrival that's missing its top two forwards and won't make the playoffs.

This is a very moody team we're dealing with, a team that SHOULD be a lot more consistent and a lot more even-keeled given their experience level, and yet one that is incredibly inconsistent not just game to game, but within a game, blowing this way and that depending on the way the luck turns and the chips fall. It's all about momentum for the Sens, a team that is awesome when things go their way and terrible when things turn sour, only to flip completely the other way as soon as there's a momentum shift.

IMHO this is why their goaltending woes hurt them so much, because nothing sucks out momentum like a bad goal. This is why they seem like they've turned the corner at times, and then they have a bad break or two in a game, look awful as they lose, and look like they're back to square one.

E said...

i agree with your assessment almost totally, but there are a couple of things that make it particularly interesting in the case of the sens (versus other teams who surge or sag in the momentum of a given game). firstly is the fact that it seems to be such a team-wide phenomenon. a couple of moody players? that's normal. an entire roster that behaves that way? that's either bad luck or some kind of problem with the institutional culture. because (secondly) it's not just within games, as you describe, that this happens; it's entire streaks. the sens don't just win or lose spectacularly within one game, they go on rolls or skids that last into the double digits.

i don't often wish that i had behind the scenes knowledge of a hockey team, but the sens are the exception. not because i like them (i actually find them kind of creepy, in a totally irrational way), but because i'd really like to know the source of their massive instability. it might be an instructive lesson on the aspects of good or bad team-building beyond just the collective stats of players.

hambown said...

I'm not sure about the periodicity of he Sens' mood / momentum swings, but I can make a good argument as to the institutional makeup of the Sens. Basically it is to do with their status as a team which built diligently in the draft for many, many years. Until Eugene Melnyk bought the team, they had been a small market team on a shoe-string payroll. Until a year or two after they first made the playoffs, they were abysmally bad. Shockingly bad. Going into the season, there was no expectation of competing for anything other than a club-best record, maybe squeaking into the playoffs in a lucky year. The culture of the club is rooted in those successive years of failure and uncertainty, all of which were given lots of exposure in Canadian sporting media.

It might be illuminating to compare the Sens with the Sharks, who entered the NHL in the same year, and were similarly crappy for many years. Yet now, who speaks about those dark years where they drew few fans, and were so poor on the ice? As a collection of ideas in my mind, I perceive the Sharks as the fast & physical bunch they are now (Ron Wilson's team).

So, media coverage influencing the psyche and ability of both the club's culture and player's confidences. What say yous?