Tuesday, 22 April 2014

Game Four - EC Quarterfinals: Bolts vs. Habs

Here's P.K. being awesome signing autographs at Brossard on April 21st. My son is (barely) visible in the blue cap. There were literally a dozen pairs of hands shoving a variety of objects into P.K.'s face. He took and signed each and every object.


Well, this feels different. Up three games to none? You've probably already read or heard that the Habs haven't been in this position since 1993 when ... well ... you know what happened that year. Anyway, it's a luxurious place to be, but it's a position that does bear some responsbility: To finish the job as quickly as possible.

The Habs are in terrific position to gain a massive playoff advantage by being the only team in the first round to advance in four games. The advantages are pretty obvious - at least a week to ten days without having play, giving the entire roster ample time to rest and recover. It'll allow the Habs current list of injured bodies with sufficient time to fully recover, including the likes of  Alex Galchenyuk and Travis Moen. And, it will allow players who almost certainly are playing through injuries the opportunity to reach something close to 100% health - the list including Brandon Prust, and (likely) Alexei Emelin, Andrei Markov, Lars Eller, Brenden Gallagher, and Josh Gorges.

The time off will also give the Habs coaching staff with more than ample opportunity to prepare for their next opponent, whomever that is. This could be the most significant advantage, especially in light of how remarkably well the Habs prepared for Tampa in the first round.

Regular readers here should know I've been a frequent critic of Michel Therrien and his staff this season - my main beefs being this team's rapid decent in their possession rating as the season progressed. From a top five team to a near bottom five team at season's end. I've also been terribly distrought over Therrien's player usage - prefering to play dregs like Doug Murray and Frank Bouillon over the likes of younger, just-as-capable talent like Nathan Beaulieu and Jarred Tinordi.

But then something odd happened as we shifted into playoff mode. The Habs have suddenly transformed themselves to a team that much more resembled their early season selves. Instead of being a team that barely managed to crack the 43% Fenwick line, the team has suddenly become a possession monster again, putting together a 56% Fenwick, 54% Corsi rating in their opening round series, which not only matched, but actually beat their early season numbers.

So what happened? I think it starts and ends with how this team prepared for their opponent. The Lightening are built two significant attributes - speed and skill. That means the more they possess the puck, the more difficult they are to beat. So the Habs put together a gameplan based on frustrating the Lightening off the puck. The centerpiece to the strategy has been a focus on dominating the neutral zone. The Habs have been stacking their forwards at centre ice, which has prevented Tampa from organizing anything resembling an effective transition. Instead of having their forwards flying towards the Habs line, a fearsome sight for any defender desperately scrambling to keep pace, the Habs have blocked passing lanes, positioned bodies to slow Tampa's flighty forwards, and the odd time when the Lightening have worked the puck into the Habs zone, the Canadiens have done a very good job not only clearing their zone, but in working the puck up to their forwards.

Tampa hasn't been able to answer the Habs counter strategy, because they can't answer. The team is so heavily dependent on speed and blistering the puck into their opponents zone, that any adjustment would require a total rebuild of how this team plays the game. You can't do that in a day, week, month or even in a year. Tampa has placed their chips on one marker, and they've little choice but double down and hope for the best. It's a desperate hope, at best.

Of course, there have been extenuating circumstances which have only added to Tampa's woes. The injuries to Bishop and Palat were devastating. Imagine the Habs' chances with no Carey Price in net - not good. But injury considerations aside, the Habs overall approach to the series was pretty much exactly what it needed to be, so even with a healthy Bishop and Palat in the lineup, I don't think the results would have been much different. The Habs have dominated thoroughly.

So tonight? Why should anything change? The Habs will continue to play the same lines, push the same strategy, leverage their biggest advantages, and feed off the insane noise and energy the exudes from the Bell Center.

Puck drops at 7:10 EST. I'll be posting live from the Bell.



Hey - happy gameday. Habs look to sweep the series tonight at home, while Tampa seeks to live another day, and maybe get a few very hurt bodies back into their lineup. Let's see what's happening this morning:

- Tampa's practice this morning, here's their lines (very similar stuff):

Line 1: Palat/Johnson/Stamkos
Line 2: Killorn/Filppula/Callahan
Line 3: Purcell/Thompson/Crombeen
Line 4: Pyatt/Paquette/Brown

- Oooooh guess who practiced this morning? Ben Bishop!! Jon Cooper already ruled him out for game 4 ... beyond that .. well ... I guess the Habs might be wise to wrap this up ASAP.

- Controversy aside from him playing a period after suffering a head injury, Steven Stamkos is reportedly a go tonight.

- Optional Habs skate this morning, the following showed up: Starters: Gallagher, Gorges, Weaver, Briere, Bournical, Emelin, Subban, Markov. Scratches/Backups: Murray, Moen, Parros, Tinordi, White, Budaj. 

- Hey, guess who's the referee tonight? Yup. CHRIS LEE. Habs have been drawing some pretty crappy officials this round. First Tim Peel, and now Lee. Yay.

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