There’s so many things which could be said about Montreal beating the Penguins last night. You could focus on the USS Hal Gill’s gritty contributions despite injury, or Jaroslav Halak’s umpteenth incredible performance in these playoffs (which have become so routine that they’re not even remarked on much anymore), or the clutch offense of Brian Gionta and Camel Larry, or the complete absence of Evgeni Malkin (who had absolutely nothing to do with this series- he pulled a Semin), or the atrocious game 7 performance of !~Sidney~! and his contribution to heaping a giant amount of pressure on his team in the first 30 seconds, or the complete indiscipline of the Penguins which led to that Sidney penalty, multiple too-many-men-on-the-ice penalties, and whatever the hell Sergei Gonchar thought he was doing for that shorthanded goal; but I choose to focus on this:
The #8 seed in the Eastern conference has defeated the President’s Trophy winner and the defending Stanley Cup champions in successive rounds, winning decisive seventh games on the road, and in the conference finals they’re probably going to face… the #7 seed. That’s just hilarious. There’s no real good reason for this to be happening; it’s ridiculous. It’s beyond unexpected, beyond improbable, it’s the kind of thing which virtually no one would have given even a 1% chance of happening before the playoffs began; and yet here we are, and only a completely terrified Bruins team stands between now and this eventuality. What? You have to have a tiny little heart of stone or work in marketing not to be enjoying this.
It must be said: as a neutral, I’m enjoying the playoff run of this year’s Montreal Canadiens more than just about anything else in the recent history of hockey. This team is like a hairball caught in the collective throat of the NHL, a hideous, lumpen and unwelcome mass obstructing the vital flows. They have a negligible offense, no stars, they give up 40 or 50 shots a game, seem like they have no business being in the playoffs let alone succeeding in them… but they KO’d the team of the league’s second biggest star and today they played the exact same style of game to win on the road against the team of the biggest star. Every time they score, I picture Gary Bettman tearing off his toupee and stomping on it in cartoonish anger, and it fills me with mirth. After all the Ovechkin and !~Sidney~! hype, it’s been a combination of Camel Larry, the U.S.S. Hal Gill and a Slovakian backup goaltender who no one’s ever heard of which has become the story of these playoffs. This is a tremendous thing.
I hope these fuckers go all the way.
So, with the Canadiens in the midst of an improbable 5-game winning streak, I figured I’d pop my head in and say hi. While Jaro Halak has gotten many of the plaudits (and rightfully so, especially with that ridiculous save on Marco Sturm with 3:20 left in the 3rd to ensure the win vs. Boston), this guy has a valid point as well. Dominic Moore is indicative of the type of player that I think Bob Gainey was going for, but could never quite get right – Max Lapierre, Matt D’Agostini, etc.
Whatever the problems this team has (oh please oh please oh please don’t let us get Philly in the 1st round), you can’t fault their heart and character, especially in close games. Nobody on this team is going to get 50 goals or 100 points, Halak isn’t going to win the Vezina, the defense can be ropey at times. But, does anyone other than the Flyers want to play us in the first round? All it takes is Jaro keeping us in it long enough…we have three lines that could theoretically score.
Yes, I’m talking myself into this team. I don’t think we’re going to win the Cup or anything silly like that, but the second round would be a fantastic accomplishment that I’d applaud gratefully.
So, OK, how many 40+-save games does Jaroslav Halak have to have before he is once and for all installed as the No. 1 goaltender in Montreal?
The Habs beat the Canucks 3-2 tonight despite getting outshot something like 47-25. This is, what, the 8th or 9th win like this Halak has pulled off this season? Whatever his issues about puck-handling and giving up soft rebounds, he’s won the No. 1 job at this point, hasn’t he? What the fuck else does he have to do, cure fucking cancer?
All 7 readers of this fine blogging institution are well aware at this point that I have barely contributed anything in quite some time. Of course, some of that is due to my consistently busy schedule…but, that hasn’t changed from last year when I was blogging at a much more frequent rate. What has changed, however, is my level of apathy towards the main subjects that I have tackled here – the Montreal Canadiens and Arsenal (with the SF Giants a distant third). Let me tackle them in order from “angriest at” to “pretty OK with, actually”.
The Giants are, top to bottom, arguably the most incompetently-run franchise pound-for-pound in all of sports. Sure, they aren’t nearly as bad as the Pirates or Royals or the other usual suspects (Stephen Baldwin’d!). I believe that is what makes me more annoyed, though. If I were a Pirates or Royals fan, I’d be much more philosophical about their fortunes given that whole “being penniless” thing. Now, I’m just going to cover ground here that Only Baseball Matters already has (and done so much more thoroughly)…but it’s the wanton and willful mismanagement from the GM position on down that has turned whatever part of me was still into baseball off entirely.
Unlike other sad-sack franchises, the Giants have not been afraid to spend money. However, while intelligent teams give it their all to sign a quality player like Matt Holliday or Roy Halladay (or at least get declining-but-still-good veterans on the cheap), we’re backing up dump trucks full of money to past-it retreads like Edgar Renteria and Freddy Sanchez. I don’t have to bring up the Barry Zito contract or the Joe Nathan trade, do I?
It’s the same shit every season, going back to the Bonds years. Either we’re wasting the prime of the best hitter in the history of the game (if Brian Sabean killed off my already-flatlining baseball fandom, the hysteria and witch-huntery surrounding PEDs has exhumed the corpse and ritually burned it in the manner of a Viking funeral) with a collection of stiffs on the mound, or we’re wasting one of the most dominant rotations in baseball with a pop-gun offense and a shaky closer. WHISKEY TANGO FOXTROT, OVER.
I don’t know what the shit this guy has to do to get fired…and their recent climb back up to mediocrity has probably bought him another 5 years to operate. Great. By the time someone finally slays the beast, Timmy Lincecum will be in fucking pinstripes. It’s enough to swear me off the sport forever.
Speaking of mismanagement, the Canadiens haven’t been much better. However, I’m not quite as upset (with the Giants I’m a mushroom cloud-laying motherfucker, motherfucker – I’m the Goddamn Guns of the Navarrone…with the Habs, I’m more a race car in the red) with the bleu, blanc et rouge because it isn’t as much willful stupidity as it is a complete and utter lack of a plan with regards to putting together a coherent roster. I understand the idea behind developing your own talent, but doesn’t there have to be a plan in mind for it? Whatever you want to say about Arsene Wenger’s youth policy (and while I probably have too much patience for it at times, and I do wish he’d blend in some more top-quality experience), you have to admit that he at least has a specific end-goal in mind in terms of what the team-sheet will look like in 2012 and beyond). With the Canadiens, there are so many unanswered questions. What does Matt D’Agostini do, anyway? Is Max Pacioretty supposed to be a power forward? An energy line guy?
I could go on and on, but the point is that when you take the entirety of the roster and view it from 30,000 feet, there’s no story there. With the Penguins, you know what you’re going to get – a slightly-soft team that will concede goals, but is designed to ride their goaltender long enough for Crosby, Malkin et al to score more goals than you do. On the other hand, the New Jersey Devils are built to prevent goals through smart defensive play and the individual brilliance of Marty Brodeur, and they’ll wait in the reeds and pounce the second you make a mistake. Again, it’s a coherent and obvious team structure with a consistent goal in mind every night.
So, what the fuck are the Canadiens supposed to be? A run-and-gun team? You can’t be that when THERE’S NO ONE WHO CAN FUCKING SCORE. A defense-and-special teams outfit? Can’t be that when NO ONE OTHER THAN MARKOV CAN FUCKING PLAY DEFENSE. What you have is a team with a great power play and a shockingly-decent penalty kill that hopes that Carey Price or Jaroslav Halak can make the 30 or 40 or 50 stops necessary (often with no help) to give the Canadiens enough time to fluke a goal or somehow get to the shootout. This is a gameplan expected to consistently win in a league that has more parity now than in any point of its history? Long gone are the days when you could get 4 definite wins each season over the Isles and Panthers and whatever other teams sucked that season. Don’t look now, but I WOULD FUCKING TRADE ROSTERS WITH THE ISLANDERS RIGHT NOW. Has it really come to this?
Last night, the Canadiens put up an absolutely disgraceful display in a 6-2 loss to the Rangers. Look, I know even the best teams will lose 25 games or so in a season. I know even the Devils or Red Wings or Penguins will lay a stink bomb every now and then. But, very rarely do you see those teams go out to a 2-0 lead and then cravenly fucking capitulate the first time something goes wrong. It’s unprofessional and it’s fucking gutless. I mean, even the Rangers have a coherent game plan – maybe they’re not as good at it as the Devils, but they are built to reduce the opponent’s chances through defense and Henrik Lundqvist long enough for Marian Gaborik (or veeeeeeeery occasionally someone else) to get on the board. Like I said, they have their own problems (secondary scoring and at least one more top-four defenseman would be at the top of their wish list if Glen Sather were anywhere in the time zone of competent), but the point is that they are hardly an offensive juggernaut, and no team this side of the Columbus Blue Jackets should ever concede six goals to these guys. But, here we are, having this conversation. I swear, I was inches away from EVERY FUCKING BLOOD VESSEL IN MY FUCKING BRAIN bursting at once watching that steaming pile of horseshit last night.
I wish I could say that the new coach this season, Jacques Martin, would be capable of changing the mindset and the system. I wish I could say that getting on the Fire Bob Gainey train and reaching its destination would seriously change anything. After we won the Cup in 1993, something changed to a large extent. It’s like we went from being a top-level organization to becoming the Buffalo Sabres, and I don’t understand why. Some of it was the weak Canadian dollar and the inability to attract top free agents. But, Minnesota can’t do that either and they seem to be doing OK. Others will point to the media fishbowl that is Montreal, but that didn’t stop the Canadiens before. The residency drafting rules were gone by the 1980s, but we still took it down in 1986 and were the losing finalists in 1989. Whatever the reason, we became a selling club – and once Eric Desjardins and John LeClair and Patrick Roy all left, I would argue that not one absolute top-level superstar has won the fabled CH since then.
Until that changes, we’re going to be the same “limp to 7th or 8th and get skullfucked in the first round 90% of the time” outfit we’ve been since Kelly Hrudey was forlornly wondering how yet another shot found its way through his Los Angeles Freeway-sized five-hole. The same problems are going to crop up on defense (failure to rotate properly, getting caught pinching, letting people blow by with only a token resistance, etc) because the makeup of the men on the blueline has always been the same. Be they the better versions (Markov, Gorges, Souray, Streit), the horrifically overrated (Hamrlik) or the just plain bad (Gill, Bergeron), we have never had more than one or two people around per season who were actual defensive-minded defensemen (and when we do, it’s guys like Jaroslav Spacek who have other flaws, such as being alive when Lord Stanley first commissioned his namesake trophy).
As for the pop-gun offense (hey, that sounds familiar – Price/Halak = Lincecum/Cain?), it all comes down to the fact that there hasn’t been any top-10 forwards on this team since, goddamn, since before my memory anyway. Back when the Habs were last holding the Cup aloft, they had a coherent plan…keep it tight long enough with defense (Desjardins/Schneider, y’all) and goaltending (St. Patrick) long enough for the other team to make mistakes. HEY, IT SEEMS LIKE A COMMON FUCKING THREAD AMONG TEAMS WHO FUCKING WIN THINGS, AMIRITE? I know the days of Lafleur and Shutt are long gone (never mind the days of Rocket Richard), but without an Ovechkin or a Crosby or Lecavalier or someone of similar ability, you can’t be a run-and-gun team because it’s too fucking easy to shut down one scoring line (like, oh, just throwing it out there…Cammalleri-Gionta-Pouliot) with the top defensive pair and/or checking line and assume that AHL-level chancers like Pacioretty and D’Agostini won’t beat you.
So, what we have is a team built to not play lockdown defense but also not built for speed or for scoring ability. They’re definitely not built for size, and they’re not built to reduce scoring chances. In short, you have an army of midget forwards not strong enough to maintain puck possession in the offensive zone, not quick enough to counter-attack effectively and not prolific enough to cash in what chances they do get…all in front of a reed-thin defense that isn’t strong enough to prevent scoring chances, not puck-proficient enough to spring the aforementioned midget forwards on counter-attacks, and not possessed of the minerals to physically punish opposing forwards or block shots themselves. Meanwhile, you have two kid goaltenders behind all this mess who are learning on the job (you don’t need a Six Sigma Black Belt to know that on-the-job training is the worst way to learn anything) and expected to perform miracles nightly when no one is there to block shots or clear rebounds, or EVEN TO PREVENT FUCKING SHORTHANDED FUCKING BREAKAWAYS.
Does that about fucking sum it up?
Keeping that in mind, things with Arsenal really aren’t that bad. As I already mentioned, Arsene’s insistence on not bringing in competent and experienced cover for the center back and center forward positions is maddening. But, a 2-0 win at home against Bolton (which would of course mirror Saturday’s result in the return fixture) will see them go top of the league in a season that has had some unquestionably frustrating results. At the end of the day, it’s hard to argue with that.
Sure, some of that has to do with this being a wacky season (Chelsea losing to Wigan, United losing to Burnley, Liverpool losing to everyone), but you can only make do with what is in front of you. And, I can’t help feeling that we’re in decent shape with the team getting several points (Everton away) and wins (Bolton away) in instances where they likely would have lost in the last few seasons. There have been other signs of life – Diaby has recovered from his nightmare start to have been consistently good over the last 9-10 games, Song has matured into the dominant ball-winning bulldog that only Wenger believed he could be, Vermaelen has been the buy of the season, etc.
That said, I want to take pains to say that on the other hand, I agree with 90-95% of what Brendan has said in this space about the team. The constant injuries have to be called into question, the Denilson flop the other week was amazingly gutless (I held my counsel on that until I heard anything about the extent of the injury – but with him in line to play on Wednesday, you have to put the “gutless” option back on the table), some of the results earlier this season were unforgivable, and of course WHAT THE FUCK IS WRONG WITH YOU, ALMUNIA? Given the slapstick comedy provided by the other top sides at other points this season, at the very worst this should be a two-horse race between us and Chelsea, with us about 6 points or so ahead already. The fact that we’re not is, at the end of the day, down to Wenger and a few others (like, oh, that Diaby headed own-goal for example).
However, I remain slightly confident in our ability to win trophies this season. The landscape of the FA Cup is clearing out nicely for us (it’s just us and Chelsea left among sides with a real name tag, and I promise you that they don’t give half a shit about it this season), and it’s all up for grabs in the league. Sure, we’re two hideous losses or so away from that not being the case, but at present we’re right there. As for the Champions’ League, if that absolute fucking shower of a Liverpool squad can win it twice in recent memory, anyone can.
So, that’s where I’m at. Any questions?
My god, I cannot describe the Montreal Canadiens in any manner that would hope to reach the awesomeness that HabsFan10 just came up with on Four Habs Fans. Awesome.
Even if you’re not a Canadiens fan, you should absolutely read this if you want to have any understanding at all about how much you can actually blame goaltenders for goals conceded. I have at times been especially harsh on both Price and Halak in this space – if you take away Halak’s brain-dead giveaway behind the net against the Islanders, the upshot of this piece is “Sean is going to shut the fuck up about our goalies for a while”.
Seriously, it’s an amazing read.
I have nothing further to add on the Machida-Rua debacle, other than that was the worst decision I’ve ever seen in my life (having far less experience in boxing and MMA than Brendan does). Steve Cofield’s snarky post at Cagewriter had some merit to it (it’s really not the end of the world, and I did roll my eyes when my co-worker said he’s not watching UFC again for a long time), but erred too far I think on the side of shrugging your shoulders and assuming that the fight was really that close. I was one of the ones who had it 4-1 for Shogun, and I only just barely gave that one round to the Dragon…5-0 Shogun is a much more defensible card than 3-2 Lyoto is in my opinion. While Lyoto intermittently tagged Shogun with some decent shots, I felt that Shogun a) connected more often and b) connected more often on power shots and in general controlled the bout as far as cage generalship goes. While it doesn’t necessarily automatically cost him rounds when Machida spends them backpedalling, he has tended to win in the past because his counter-striking was brutally effective. Saturday night, not so much.
But, anyway, the title of my post is because Jaroslav Halak is getting the start AGAIN in goal tonight against the Islanders. This would have been the perfect game to put Carey back in because a) JM could have cited the congested schedule as an excuse for giving Halak a rest and b) it would have been the perfect opponent to see if our recent improved play could jumpstart the goaltender that has a much higher talent ceiling. Look, JM has done a lot with a very little so far this season, and I’m beginning to kinda sorta maybe perhaps come around on these guys (they really are so much better than last season, and the effort levels are much higher from people not named Kostitsyn). But, I would be lying if I said I understood this insistence on playing Halak this often…not when he can’t make a single save without booming a rebound out back into the slot.
Please note that I am about to bitch about a 5-1 win – if this makes me the world’s most miserable prick, then so be it.
Here’s the thing – when it comes to Arsenal and NY Giants, I am an absolute fountain of positivity. Whatever problems those sides have (goalkeeping/Abou Diaby on one hand, a decimated secondary on the other), they have an identity. In those cases, it’s easy to latch onto that identity and enjoy them for the moments of individual brilliance that they provide. When Andrey Arshavin makes a bottom-corner finish look as effortless as waking up in the morning, or when Brandon Jacobs smashes through the line as three or four dudes cling to him in a futile effort at tackling, it (at least for me) more than makes up for Diaby headed own-goals or dying-quail throws from Eli Manning.
The Canadiens, however, have no identity…at least not yet. It remains to be seen if Jacques Martin can reshape this collection of riffraff into his image, but in the meantime this team is horrifyingly frustrating to watch. Are we supposed to win games 1-0? Are we supposed to be a counter-attacking team? Are we supposed to be a lunchpail collection of grinders? There’s nothing to capture the imagination to make up for the times where, say, Jaro Halak decides to gift-wrap the opposition a goal to let them back into a game they should be completely out of. You know, theoretically speaking.
I was waiting for Mike Boone to post his About Last Night regarding this game, hoping it would express many of my current misgivings with this team (and with last night’s performance). Unfortunately, it seems to largely consist of “whew, glad we finally got a blowout” relief. On one hand, yes, it’s nice to finally see the Habs rack up a few goals on the scoreboard. However, that relief quickly turns into something more sinister when you stop looking at the single-game perspective and start thinking about what this relates to the overall narrative of the season.
Let’s not mince words – the Isles are a better hockey team than they were last season…they have some exciting talent, they’ve upgraded the goaltending position and they’ve given one or two teams a tough game this year. But, they were spectacularly dreadful on the night last night, and the fact is that the Canadiens should have laid a much larger beating on them.
The Islanders were disjointed and played like crap right from the opening faceoff – and while it was great that a lucky deflection (combined with a horrific attempt at batting down a puck in the air from the NY defenseman) gifted Scott Gomez with the easiest goal he’ll score this season 7:55 in, the truth is that it could and probably should have been 1-0 or 2-0 by then. The Isles continually gave the puck away, and both their forwards and their d-men couldn’t get their skates moving. Mike Cammellari had a wide-open shot in the slot, but panicked and hurried a slapper when he had time to move in alone on Martin Biron.
To be fair, the Habs picked it up from there, and from that point until the final buzzer of the second period, they jumped all over their opponents and barely let them into the game. Even when Hal Gill took a silly holding penalty, Brian Gionta was one heroic defensive catch-up moment away from firing home a short-handed goal. It was almost inevitable given the steady stream of Isles going to the sin bin that we’d finally see light on the PP. A pretty series of passes led to Marc-Andre Bergeron having a free look from the point. His slapper was on target, and Biron had no hope, what with his own defender screening him and all.
Have I mentioned that the Isles SUCKED last night?
Through two periods, the Canadiens outshot the Isles 30-12. If you factor in shots off the net or blocked, the domination was in even sharper relief. But, I remarked to Brendan as we watched the game that we never seem to score on any half-chances. Gomez got a gift, Bergeron’s shot is probably saved against better opponents, and as I said to Brendan, even Max Pacioretty on current form isn’t going to miss if he’s all alone in the slot. That was a defensive breakdown by NY of a magnitude that even our lot couldn’t manage in the worst of times last season.
So, 3-0 after two, but it probably should have been 5-0 or 6-0. Against a better team, the shot advantage would probably still be there, but the chances of us being tied or behind would be better than you’d think. Besides our inability to finish any chance that doesn’t come with a bow attached, our goalies either a) let in soft goals (cough cough CAREY cough cough) or b) are unable to make a save without kicking out a huge rebound.
But, the good does come with the bad – the defense seems to have been largely sorted out from last season. Despite the presence of some passengers (Gill has his own personal seating car), you’re not seeing other teams get 30 and 40 shots a game with regularity like they were last season. Yeah, the Canucks pretty much skull-raped us a while back, but that’ll happen to every team once or twice during the span of 82 games. It’s much more damaging in the long term to give up tons of shots a night, and that’s not happening. And, as Boone pointed out in ALN, the defense largely did a good job of clearing out the rebounds.
But, at 3-0 and completely in control, Halak fails at basic stickhandling and all of a sudden it’s 3-1 with 19 minutes left to play. Really? FUCKING REALLY? Not only did this present include a goal, but it came with the game’s momentum at no added charge. All of a sudden, the Isles were buzzing around our net and the defense corps seemed to become just a little demoralized as well. Where the first two periods saw a white shirt unable to move without a Praetorian Guard in red shadowing his every move, the third saw gaps open up…even worse, it saw several occasions where a Isles attacker simply danced around a pylon garbed in red. Against a better team, I am absolutely convinced that 3-0 would have become a 4-3 OT loss.
However, the last two goals were absolutely a product of our opponents. Biron didn’t have his best game, and his inability to stop a soft shot from the sideboards ended the Islanders’ resistance. The fifth goal was largely ceremonial, but also a delicious indictment of the Isles’ play on the night – a bad giveaway led to a delayed penalty, where the defender didn’t even get his money’s worth and actually stop Tomas Plekanec’s progress. Biron made the save, but couldn’t deal with the rebound and allowed Maxim Lapierre to sweep it home. Just clown shoes all around.
In the end, I am probably overreacting somewhat, especially since the Habs dropped an unacceptable number of points against these idiots last season. But, please don’t fall into the trap of beliving that this game tells us fuck all about where the Habs are as a team. The slightly-faltering Rangers come to town tomorrow night on the back of two straight bad losses, so how we deal with them will go much further in our attempt to assign some kind of identity to this lot.