Thursday, 9 January 2014

Game Forty-Six: Hawks vs. Habs


Okay, what the heck was that?!? Coming off one of their worst team performances of the year in Philadelphia; coming off another matchup where the head coach had no idea how to put up a proper lineup; coming off an horrific loss where the team's best player was bench most of the final period while the club was only two goals down, the Habs ... our Habs, go out Saturday night and play their best game of the entire season. Heck, that might have been the best game played by this franchise in five years.

This hockey. I just don't get it

What is there to say other than the team deserves its collective dues. Everybody deserved a gold start from top to bottom. Alexei Emelin, who's been totally ineffective since his return from injury delivered two thumping hits last night and played his zone with apt and ease. Gold star for you. Thomas Plekanec, while -1, looked like a Selkie Trophy candidate, not only commanding countless rushes (and successfully gaining the opponent zone), but his backchecking was ferocious. Gold star for you. Raphael Diaz and Doug Murray, who had two nerve-racking shifts in the first period, amazingly started clicking and settled down for the rest of the game, nullifying Joel Quennevielle's line match tactics. Gold Stars for the both of you.

Rene Bouque was dangerous all night, David Desharnais another solid outing, and George Parros, yeah ... that George Parros, was an actual asset tonight - his screen was probably the difference in Markov's first goal of the night. Gold stars for all of you.

Carey Price, outstanding as usual. Andrei Markov with his game of the season, spectacular and deserved the star of the night.

On and on we could go - but the bottom line is simple. There were no passengers on the Habs bus Saturday night. Everyone came out to play, and everyone delivered.

It was a statement game. A win that can catapult teams to lofty heights. We will see shortly whether Saturday night was an abboration, or perhaps an indication that this Habs team might be a bit more special than we've given them credit for.


Montreal 2, Chicago 1 (OT)


- Plekanec on a break. Death.

- MARKOV WINS THE GAME. And what a game. Heroic performance tonight by the Habs. Wonderful!!

Third period:

- Habs Fenwick through 2 periods, 55% (very good), and 61% while on even strength (very great). Outstanding numbers against a team like Chicago.

- Crawford the reason why Chicago isn't done like dinner this point in the game.

- Crawford. Dear lord. What a show tonight. Those in attendance getting very cent value of their ticket.

- A playoff game in January. That's how intense these two teams have played tonight. Can we have 80 minutes, please?

- Might be one of those very, very rare nights where I've got nothing bad to say about anyone in the Habs lineup.

- Hawks just one shot through 9 minutes. Brilliant period played so far by the Habs.

- And as I type that in, Towes sets up Sharp to Hossa, outstanding transition by Hawks, Gionta couldn't keep up with his check (Hossa), and the game is tied. Got quite a finish on the way.

- Watched that Chicago goal on reply. It's so brilliant - it's the kind of goal they use in clinics on "how to play hockey very, very well". 

- Well, I won't get 20 more minutes, much as I'd love it, but maybe 5 or less? Tremendous game, outstanding effort by the Habs.

Second Period:

- Question answered - Hawks with spirited start to the period.

- Habs can't be pretty - too many fancy passes on the rush will go nowhere. Just drill the net and look for a Crawford rebound.

- Emelin with quite possibly his best hit since coming back, levelling Smith who had his head down. Hawks don't like it, but Habs fans will be heartened.

- Habs have had the better legs tonight and it's helped give them 3 powerplays to Chicago's none so far.

- Can the Habs just decline the penalty? Just dismal tonight with the man advantage. Beyond tentative.

- Not surprisingly, the Hawks get a boost from the kill and generate two sparkling chances on Price. Ergo, the desire to just say no to a powerplay.

- Halfway through this game Hawks have just mustered 8 shots on Price, which is kind of crazy.

- A zillion bucks says next penalty call is on Montreal.

- Price hasn't been very busy but the few he's faced have been pretty tough saves.

- Markov! Shot on net! Goal! Did Parros make that play?? 

- Habs have collectively been very good tonight, but Eller has (again) been distant, tentative, and relatively ineffective. It's been that way at least a month.

- At some point Price has to start getting into the Hawks' head. He might have already.

- Penalty. Habs. Told ya.

- Excellent blocking and recovery by Prust on the PK.

- Oh, Lars Eller. How can you miss that?

- Really should be 2-0 Habs but no matter, I think there's little question this has been the Habs' best quality effort all season. They've given the Hawks everything they could handle and more. It's impossible to be overtly critical when you see an effort like this. Really want to see the team come away with two points tonight. They roundly deserve it.

First Period:

- Hawks appear to be targeting Diaz/Murray for line matching, sending their biggest guns out once that pair is sent out. They know their opposition, they know what they're doing.

- Holy moly, when Chicago takes possessin of the puck they just don't let to. Hawks are everything the Habs need (must) be to win.

- Spurt of pressure for the Habs generates a powerplay, Briere and Bourque with some nice work, hard to believe, I know.

- Hawks will give you the point on the PK, but they shut down the lanes against anyone who's got a dangerous shot from the line. Which means, Subban and that's it.

- Two straight powerplays for Habs, they've generated some decent pressure, Hawks have had trouble adapting.

- Remeber when Diaz was a major specialty unit weapon? He was - for about three months. Now, not so much.

- Sticking Gorges out with the man advantage is essentially conceding advantage. Has it never entered the minds of the strategists to use four forwards?

- Well at least the Habs are competing. But you just have the feeling the Hawks are a cat with a yarn ball. Just toying with the Habs now, but eventually they'll pounce.

- Diaz/Murray continue to be an adventure.

- Well, be darned to say this but very good first for Habs, outshooting Hawks by 5 and outhitting them by 4. Also won 10 out of 14 in the circle. A very un-Habs period of play, which is a good thing. It will be interesting to see what adjustments the Hawks make during the intermission. I'm sure Quenneville wasn't  pleased with what he saw.


Gameday Game Preview:

Hoo boy. What to do about this one.

By all rights, tonight's game won't be much of a contest. The defending Stanley Cup champions make their only (thankfully) visit to the Bell Centre this season, as they take on the hobbling Montreal Canadiens.

As we discussed the past couple of days (read my article about Michel Therrien below), the Habs are going the wrong direction in a very bad way, not unlike the Toronto Maple Leafs. Once one of the team's top puck possessors, the Canadiens have seen the production of their once top-rated offensive unit fall like a rock to the bottom third of the NHL.

While the Canadiens nearly desert-dry red line has seen it at least score at a slightly higher pace the past week, the blue line has suddenly fallen on very hard times, likely a result from the moves made by Therrien resulting in the removal Raphael Diaz from the starting lineup to make way for the use of Doug Murray and Francois Bouillon. The result: a string of losses to what was supposedly weaker competition, 4 goals surrendered to Florida on December 31st, 5 to Carolina, and 4 to Ottawa. Once tied for the top-rated defense in the National Hockey League, the Habs have now fallen to 4th overall - still "elite", but definitely headed in the wrong direction.

Tonight, it could get ugly. The Habs will take on the likes of Patrick Kane, Marian Hossa, Jonathan Towes, Breant Seabrook, and Duncan Keith.

Counterparts to this powerhouse? Why, none other than Geroge Parros, whom inexplicably will get a start tonight. I guess the "rationale" for Parros' start is that the Hawks have drawn the 3rd most penalties minutes in the League this year - but they aren't an extraordinary rough team - they have just 7 majors this season, tied for second fewest in the League.

And so the decisions, however inappropriate or illogical, continue to be made, and the Habs, conversely, continue to flounder.

It could get ugly. It should get ugly.

Puck drops at 7:15 EST.

About Michel Therrien

When Marc Bergevin announced on June 5, 2012, that Michel Therrien was to be the 27th head coach in the Montreal Canadiens' history, I wasn't particularly thrilled with the decision. The Habs were coming off one of their most disastrous seasons in franchise history, finishing in last place in their Division, and nearly last overall in the entire National Hockey League.

At the time, there wasn't a whole lot of people to choose from to be the next Habs bench boss. The Habs ownership and upper management were stubbornly determined that the next head coach had to be Francophone, or at the very least, fluent in french. It's a requirement that's always baffled me - while the team does play in a language-sensitive city, I've always held the belief that fans of the Canadiens don't give two figs about what language their head coach speaks, as long as the team produces a winning product. Scotty Bowman, who couldn't speak a lick of french much beyond bonjour, did just fine, thank you very much.

Nonetheless, the Habs focused their eyes on french-only speaking individuals, which severely limited their options. As spring progressed, the field of candidates had seemingly been whittled down to three - and none of them were particularly enthralling.

There was Patrick Roy, who had coached a few successful seasons in the QMJHL for the Quebec Ramparts. While Roy had a winning record with the kids, he'd also displayed an unpredictable temperament, leading some, including myself, to second-guess whether he had the emotional maturity to handle a big-league team.
There was Bob Hartley, whom after winning a championship as head coach in 2001, then put together a string of underwhelming seasons leading to his dismissal from the Avs in 2003, and later on with the Atlanta Thrashers in 2008.

Then there was Michel Therrien, who from the outset, seemed to be the longshot candidate amongst the bunch to land the job.

Dismissed from the Habs as head coach in 2003, largely from his inability to properly manage his bench, and his emotional immaturity that ultimately spun out of control during an infamous game 4 loss to the Carolina Hurricanes in the 2002 Eastern quarter finals. Leading by three goals midway through the 3rd period, and seemingly cruising to an easy victory which would have given the Habs a commanding 3-1 series lead (and almost certain berth to the Stanley Cup semis), Therrien went ballistic after a questionable cross checking call was made by referee Kerry Fraser on Habs defenseman Stephan Qunital. Standing on the bench and firing off a series of loud coarse epitaphs (much like what you'd see in the video above), Fraser, who'd had enough, called an abuse of official bench minor, giving the 'Canes a two minute, two man advantage.

Carolina took full advantage, scoring quickly on their powerplay, and then again, and from then on out, dominating the rest of the 3rd, tying the game late in the period, and eventually, winning in overtime, 4-3. Carolina would ultimately win the remaining two games with relative ease - the Habs were never able to recover from the shock of their game 4 implosion.

Therrien's meltdown not only cost the Habs their season, it ultimately cost him his job as head coach.

Therrien didn't stay unemployed long. In 2005, he became the head coach of the up-and-coming Pittsburgh Penguins, whom had build an exceptionally strong core of young players via high draft picks after a string of losing seasons. And then in 2005, the Pens struck it lucky - winning a lottery draft giving them the first overall pick, which they used to draft Sidney Crosby. The Pens were on their way.

Therrien, though, hadn't changed much of his personality. He was still temperamental, and still struggled to utilize his bench assets to their fullest potential. The Pens, who quickly emerged as championship-potential contenders amongst pre-season experts, stumbled to deliver on their promise.  Missing the playoffs in 2006, losing in the first round in 2007, Therrien finally got his talented team to a Stanley Cup final in 2008, ultimately losing to the Wings. Even with that series loss, there was little to believe that Pittsburgh wouldn't soon be raising a championship banner.

The 2008-09 season was full of promise. The Pens were the prohibitive pre-season favorites among most experts to win a championship. But the team struggled early on - and by the 57 game mark, had posted only 27 wins, and were in grave danger of missing the playoffs. Sensing the team was headed nowhere fast, Pens G.M. Ray Shero announced Therrien's firing on February 15, and replaced him with interim coach Dan Bylsma.

Three months later, the Pens won their 3rd Stanley Cup championship.

After spending a few years in the relative obscurity, beyond making occasional analyst appearances on RDS, Therrien's relevance as an NHL coach became an afterthought. So his reemergence as a possible replacement to interim Randy Cunningworth took many Habs fans by surprise. I certainly was one of them, never really taking seriously the premise that this man, whom for so many seasons, proved that he was incapable of managing an NHL team, could possibly get a second chance in Montreal.

But I was wrong. At least, in my assumption that Therrien would return.

However, at the time, I was willing to defer to the judgement of Habs G.M. Marc Bergevin, whom unlike his counterparts from the previous 20 years, seemed knowledgeable and capable. I assumed that during the interview process, Bergevin saw something in Therrien that gave him great confidence that he had found the right man to lead, much like the Pens were in 2005, a young and very talented roster.

The 2013 season seemed to play out as Bergevin had hoped. The Canadiens had, more or less, an excellent 48 game regular season, good enough to win their Division. This in spite of the team's tailspin the final 8 or so games of regular schedule, and quick exit in the first round to the Ottawa Senators. Still, there was plenty of optimism in Habs land that this franchise was headed in a very good direction, with Therrien behind the bench.

But then, this season happened.

October was a relatively successful month for the Habs. Their early schedule was relatively difficult, matched up against very competitive western conference teams. The Habs though, managed to hold their own, and as the stiffness of the competition lightened, the Habs began to pile up victories, putting them in a fairly comfortable position in their Division.

But along the way, something funny happened. The team, which posted some very impressive possession numbers against those tough western conference games in October, as high as 4th overall in the League, suddenly started giving the puck away. A lot.

There were other troubling signs. The Habs defense, which many of us considered to be one of the team's core strengths, struggled to feed the puck to their forwards, which had not only a significant impact on the team's puck possession, it was also chocking the transition, which in turn, suffocated the Habs ability to score goals.

And so December arrived. And the tail started to spin. Downwards. Very quickly. The offense dried up. Entering the month, the Habs had the League's 7th rated offense. Today, it's 21st. The powerplay, once near the very top in the League, has now fallen to 10th.

And then there's possession. Earlier in the season, the Habs Fenwick percentage was 4th best in the NHL. Today, it's 21st. It had the 5th best Corsi rating. Today, it's 26th. Only Edmonton, Calgary, Toronto and Buffalo are worse. This is not good company to be in.

Nonetheless, the Habs somehow find themselves with 55 points, good for 3rd place in their Division, and a comfortable 8 points removed from a wild card spot. The reason for the Habs somewhat comfortable position is two fold. First, the team plays in a very weak Eastern Conference, where with exception of possibly two teams, nobody could possibly compete for a playoff spot if they were in the West. The second is Carey Price. His performance behind a team that's now falling apart from all seams, has been exceptional. Without Price, the Habs, even in the weak East, would almost certainly be barely north of 40 points.
And maybe that would have been a good thing. A 40 point Habs team a this point in the season probably would have resulted in significant changes.

Still, the Habs are a ship in the sea without sails, or for that matter, a mast. Or even a rudder. They are a team whose coach hasn't demonstrated a capacity to make necessary adjustments, beyond simply throwing out a neverending array of line combinations that ultimately lead to nothing. They are team that employs two aging and totally incompetent defensemen in Francis Bouillon and Doug Murray, both of who are far too slow in their zone, and utterly incapable of feeding the puck forward - the few times they actually win battles.

The Habs are a team whose coach stubbornly refuses to play his very best player to his full potential. They are a team whose coach somehow has come to believe that one of their better playing defenseman, Raphael Diaz, ought to be a healthy scratch to make way for the likes of Murray and Bouillon.

They are a team that can't score, even with a lineup that's near full health. They are a team where one of their young sparkplugs in Michael Bournival, barely sees more than 6 minutes of ice time, while washed-up clunkers like Rene Bourque and Brian Gionta, readily see 14+ minutes a night.

And then, there's last night. Hoo boy. Last night.

Down two goals with a period to play, Therrien decided to send a message - to the team's scoring leader and very best player, because of a single penalty he took in the 2nd period. The net result? Zero shots on net for the first 10 minutes, and ultimately, just 5 shots for the entire period, only one of which bore anything resembling a scoring chance.

In a sense, the incident from last night's game indicates just how little Therrien has progressed over the years. The fundamental issues he struggled with during his first term with Montreal, and then later with Pittsburgh, still hampers him today. An inability to cobble together a properly functioning lineup, an inability to adjust to gametime situations, an inability to make adjustments either during or leading up to games, and an inability to formulate a gameplan. One might summate Therrien's failings as a coach is an inability to develop a team identity. Unless you consider the dump and chase, which is a losing formula in today's game, to be an identity.

There is one aspect in Therrien that has changed. In years past, this man, with an immature temperament, externalized and projected to his rage and fury, often to his own detriment. Therrien admitted as much when he started his second tenure with the Habs, and professed he'd changed his ways - he'd become a much calmer, level-headed individual.

Last night, we caught a glimpse of just how false that declaration was. Therrien is no different, except that his immaturity has been internalized, and converted into passive rage. Instead of berating others with words, he berates them with silent actions which are almost certainly tearing this team apart. P.K. Subban was a victim of this passive anger last night, and his mates, in response, quit.

It has come to this. Michel Therrien has lost this team. He is what we thought he was. He has no business being an NHL coach. Whether Marc Bergevin will, or even can, make the right decision, we will soon find out.

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