Wednesday, 21 May 2014

Game Three - EC Final: Habs vs. Rangers


- So it's two games for Brandon Prust for his non-head contact hit on Derek Stepan which, inexplicably, somehow broke his jaw. 

- Habs practice lines today, sans Prust:

Line 1: Pacioretty/Desharnais/Gallagher
Line 2: Galchenyuk/Plekanec/Gionta
Line 3: Bourque/Eller/Vanek
Line 4: Bournival/Brière/Weise

No shockers here, Bournival, as we knew, draws in for Prust, and Weise/Vanek trade spots on the 3rd/4th lines.

Markov - Emelin
Gorges - Subban
Bouillon - Weaver

Bouillion. BOUILLON. Good grief, Michel. Why? Why?! WHY!?!?

More later as it comes along.


CBC (Darlene Tokarski)

A few thoughts the morning after the night of the Habs game 3 victory.

- Dustin Tokarski becomes one of the most unlikely heroes you'll ever see. If you pause and think for a moment where Tokarski was just a short time ago, toiling in relative obscurity within the Tampa Bay Lightening organization. Somewhere along the way, Tampa more or less gave up on Tokarski as a long-term project, and shuffled him off to Montreal, in return for another "lost" netminding project in Cedrick Desjardins. While Tokarski did get some NHL work this year, filling in as a backup to Peter Budaj while Carey Price recovered from a knee injury, the premise that anyone in Tokarski's position would not only be playing, but winning a Stanley Cup playoff Conference Finals game is nearly preposterous.

In any case, Tokarski was superb last night - the two pucks that crossed his line were unstoppable. His performance behind a team that was often overwhelmed, has given the Canadiens life, and most importantly, a glimmer of hope where almost none existed last Monday, after the devastating news was delivered that Carey Price would no longer be able to play in the series.

- Habsland, as you might expect, is buzzing with joy over Thursday night's result, although if you look at the bigger picture, it wasn't a particularly impressive victory. The Rangers had their game rolling, especially headmanning the puck out of their zone, and creating multiple turnovers in the Habs zone, which probably would have resulted in a scoreboard thumping if it wasn't for Tokarski's heroics. Surely in reviewing the game tape, the Habs will understand that their performance in game 3 wasn't acceptable, in particular, their total inability to muster together much of anything resembling a transition, and numerous instances where their forwards were dogging it back to cover the Rangers' rush.

- Thomas Vanek. I'm pretty much ready to throw in the towel. Last night's game was truly abysmal for the enigmatic forward. You know it's bad when there's a collective reaction of joy amongst the Habs faithful when Vanek finally got a shot on net during the second period. Vanek was on full coast mode last night, just gliding around the ice, occasionally making semi-hearted efforts digging out pucks along the board, by and large letting his linemates do most the tough work while he drifted around waiting to receive passes that of course, never came. His backchecking was almost non-existent. It was a totally unacceptable performance by a player who's banking on landing a huge free agent contract this summer. I have no idea what Vanek is thinking by going through the motions in a Conference Final, but be assured that there are many League General Managers monitoring this series, who'll have significant second thoughts about offering Vanek anything long-term come this July.

- While Thomas Plekanec got the assist on the overtime winner, he, and his linemate Brian Gionta, have been pretty underwhelming in the series. They certainly haven't done a whole lot to contain the Rangers' speedy forwards, and they've offered very little in the form of an offensive contribution, the biggest culprit being Gionta, who hasn't scored in nearly a month. Michel Therrien has rightly expressed outward frustration about their lack of contributions, but calling them (gently) out doesn't appear to be working. Long-term, Marc Bergevin has some decisions to make this summer, one of them being (I hope) that Gionta is not offered a renewal. His age and steeply declining production levels simply don't warrant the reward.

- Lots of questions this morning about whether Brandon Prust will be suspended following his late open ice hit on Derke Stepan. The reply shows that the hit, while high and clearly illegal (the puck was nowhere near), did not make any direct contact with Stepan's head. I was pretty unimpressed with Stepan's reaction as he lay face down on the ice.  In retrospect, it appears that the Rangers' forward tried to oversell the hit, especially with the over-the-top rant he presented while exiting to the dressing room. The League has formally notified Prust of a telephone hearing, which means he could receive a suspension. I think it's 50/50 that Prust gets a game. We'll see.

- Speaking of hits, what in the heck was Daniel Carcillo thinking after he took a swipe at linseman Scott Driscoll? Stupidity at its finest (or worst).  It's been fascinating to read perspectives from the Rangers' analysis camp, which have downplayed the assault as a mere "shove" at the official. It was no shove. Carcillo punched Driscoll in the face. The League will almost certainly come down hard, suspending Carcillo probably at least 10 games for the act. While Carcillo isn't an integral component to the Rangers' offense, his removal from the series does present a bit of a problem for Alain Vigneault, who's already lost Derick Brassard - possibly for the rest of the series. Minus Brassard and Carcillo, the Rangers offense just got a whole lot smaller and less physical, which might have significant ramifications if we end up playing 6 or 7 games.

 - Speaking of a long series, the magnitude of game four this Sunday cannot be underestimated. The series, in my opinion, will probably be decided by Sunday's outcome. A victory for the Rangers will give them a total stranglehold on the series, a win for Montreal will give them an enormous amount of confidence, momentum, and a restoration of home ice advantage heading back to Montreal. 

Montreal 3, New York 2 (OT)


- See what happen when you fire it at the net? Plekanec, who's had a huge struggle in this series, with a seemingly harmless shot that's redirected by Lundqvist off Galchenyuk's face and in the net. The Habs pull out an amazing, season-saving victory, and are now back in the series. Remarkable.


- Habs incredibly sloppy with the puck, especially in their own zone. This will come back to bite then, eventually.

- Vanek with possibly his weakest effort of the playoffs tonight, if that was even possible. His performance now richly deserved a healthy game 4 scratch.

- Crazy considering how poorly Vanek, Plekanec and Gionta have played tonight, that this game is one goal away from victory.

- Both teams playing extra cautious right now, waiting for a mistake. 

- Vanek ... With a shot on goal? No way.

- Markov with a monster shift to bail the Habs out, and Vanek, unvelievably, feeds Briere who astonishingly banks the puck off Mcdonagh, and Habs take the lead late.

- Tokarski with some astonishing goaltending to protect the lead, and then a feed in front banks off Emelin's skate, and in. Kreider, of all, gets credit. I cannot understand why Emelin was even out there in the first place, or Brain Gionta. What was Therrien thinking? So bitterly disappointing.

- That's a brutal way to surrender a win that would have gotten the Habs back into this series. Devastating.


- Holy moly, Rangers had 68% Corsi in that period. That's horrible (for the Habs, of course). Eller line was particularly bad with the puck, but Plekanec and Gionta were particularly horrid. Man, I'm not sure what it's going to take to right this sinking ship, but Therrien simply must do something to get this team on track. Put Vanek with DD ... just ... something. 

- Habs breakout passing is about as bad as it could possibly be in this game of hockey.

- Habs finally do a proper breakout, and guess what? Goal. Weakish Lundqvist there?

- Desharnais and Pacioretty and Gallagher are working like monsters to score. Again, they're coming agonizingly close.

- Habs at least so far, with a decent bounce back period in comparison to the atrocity that was the first period.

- Kreider takes a run at Tokarski. Does not succeed injuring him. Maybe next time, Rangers fans.

- Habs powerplay picking a particularly bad time to go on summer vacation. Then again sending Plekanec and Gionta out there isn't helping.

- Disgraceful goaltending interference call on Gallagher. What was the referee thinking?

- That terrible call has given Rangers life, and momentum. It's so not fair.

- Kevin Pollock with two absolutely terrible calls on Gallagher in the 2nd period, the latest with just two seconds left, apparently a roughing, mere seconds after Gallagher received a nasty two handed slash from McDonagh.

- Well, a much, much better frame for the Habs, poor officiating notwithstanding. This is the situation the Habs wanted so desperately, a very good game by its starting goaltender, and a game up for grabs. Now, they must seize the opportunity to save their season. The key, I'm speculating, is some kind of production from their dormant powerplay. But that aside, this game can very much be won.


- So reassuring to seek P.J. Stock think that Tokarski is a huge mistake tonight. The last time he was right about anything was ... ?

- So Vanek starts, but on the 4th line beside Prust and Briere, the later of which Vanek played with back in 2006 in Buffalo. Other lineup notables - Bournival out (Therrien, why do you always make this mistake?), and Prust, as mentioned, is in. Oh well.

- Pacioretty drives the net, gets good quality chance on Lundqvist. Exactly more of this, please.

- Desharnais way too cute carrying the puck into the Rangers zone. Less of this, please.

- Prust with a dirty elbow on Stephan at centre ice. He's incessed, so are the Rangers and everyone else on the arena.

- Rangers early momentum. Habs trying to get under New York's skin. Appears to be working.

- Tokarski, so far, so good. That's a good early sign.

- Canadiens with a little chip on their shoulder early. Also a good sign.

- Dorsett chases Prust around looking to even scores. Prust serves him lunch. More good signs.

- Maybe if Vanek were offered ten grand a shot, he'd be willing to SHOOT THE DAMN PUCK.

- Bourque with a terrible shift, just going through the motions. Not acceptable.

- Derek Stephan full of rage over the Prust hit. Borderline out of control right now.

- Thomas Plekanec has dodged a lot of criticsm this series. Not sure why, but he's deserved it for his inability to effectively check the Rangers offense.

- Pacioretty doing all the right things. Excepting beating Lundqvist.  

- Oh P.K., 1-0 Rangers.  

- Deaharnais line has come so close so many times scoring on Lundqvist, it's crazy.

- Well, tough game to figure. New York 14-4 SOG, but only a few were dangerous. Habs seemed too focused on clearing their zone, resulting in too many puck giveaways on the Rangers side of centre ice. Basically, the Habs transition game was MIA that entire period. Still, Tokarski was strong, and we'd be scoreless if it wasn't for Subban muffing his snap shot at the blue line (know Habs puck luck in this series, that shot probably would have gone in). Rangers won the period, but it wasn't quite as dominating as the shot clock might suggest.


See the guy in the picture on the left? Yeah. You remember that guy, don't you? We picked him up on trade deadline day. A bargain, they said. A midling prospect in return for a star forward AND a draft pick. Man. That was some day.

How about the fellow on the right side of the picture? He was also traded away on deadline day, but the price was a tad steeper. Winger Ryan Callahan and two picks were needed to land St. Louis, who's got maybe two years left in his NHL body.

The thing about these trade deadline picks for big named stars is that buyers are more often surrendering known commodities (usually quality young talent and/or draft picks) in exchange for a snippet of elite performers. The price is heavy, but rational as long as the payoff is realized.

Well, it's been nearly three months since that trade deadline, and it's fair to say that based on the events that have led us up to the present, the unquestionable winners of that deadline day are the New York Rangers.

From the onset, it sure didn't look good for New York. Upon arriving with his new team, St. Louis' point production dropped through the floor, scoring a mere single goal and three assists in his first 17 games in a Rangers' uniform. But then, suddenly, on April 8, everything changed. In a relatively meaningless late season game against the Carolina Hurricanes, St. Louis stormed out of the game gate, setting up three Rangers goals on route to a easy victory. Since that date, St. Louis has scored 15 points in 18 games, and more notably, 2 goals and an assist in the first two games versus the Canadiens in the Eastern Conference Final.

A little further up the highway, Vanek's arrival in Montreal was hailed as a coup for Habs G.M. Marc Bergevin. It was difficult to argue differently. Bergevin gave up just a single prospect to borrow Vanek for a few weeks, which insofar as trade deadline sacrifices are concerned, wasn't exactly surrendering keys the organizational vault. Even though Vanek struggled at first to fit in with his new linemates, first getting paired along side Thomas Plekanec and Brian Gionta, where he scored just one assist in five games, Vanek suddenly caught fire when on March 16, coach Michel Therrien put him along side David Desharnais and Max Pacioretty. The net result? A hat trick performance against Patrick Roy and the Colorado Avalanche. With his new linemates, Vanek would score a total of 14 points the last 13 games of the regular season. The star had finally arrived.

But then, a funny thing happened. Vanek, mysteriously, stopped producing. Actually, he seemed to simply lose a skating step, somewhere along the line. Entering the first round of the playoffs, Vanek's point production didn't decrease significantly, but his effectiveness around the puck, and involvement with his linemates simple fell off a cliff. So far was the noted decline in play that Therrien began shuffling Vanek around, moving him down to third line duty, mainly. The net positive effect of this, however, has been pretty close to zero. Vanek's funk has only seemingly deepened.

The team and Vanek himself has repeatedly denied that he suffered an injury somewhere along the way, but I'm not convinced. No player as talented as Vanek can go from being so good, to being so listless and ineffective in such a short period of time. Looking back on scoring chances per possession stats, the turning point came somewhere around March 27th, in a game against Detroit, where somewhere during the second period, Vanek's possession numbers suddenly went very, very south. Something, I'm convinced, happened during that game that was significant enough to change one of the most dangerous snipers in the game of hockey, into a mere average, unremarkable forward.

So now it's come to this. Game three in which the Habs find themselves down 2-0, on the road, without their star goaltender, and badly, desperately needing production from the players who have been counted on to produce.

So tonight, many eyes will be cast down upon the stud acquisition - the player who many had counted on to help his team get over the post-season hump, towards a possible appearance in a Stanley Cup Final. It certainly can't get any worse for Vanek. He mustered up just two scoring chances in game one against the Rangers, the least amongst Habs forwards, and registered zero in game two.

It goes without saying, as goes Thomas Vanek, so too go the fortunes of the Montreal Canadiens.

Puck drops at 8:10 EST. Because NBCSN. 


Happy Wednesday. Here's what's happening in Habsland today.

- Brassard practice! Wow. Hardly anybody from the public came out to watch. That's a pretty good sign local fan enthusiasm has taken a tumble. Habs simply need to win two in New York, and then this practice facility will have to start turning 'em away.

- Morning practice lines. Hmmm ... isn't this interesting?

1: Pacioretty/Desharnais/Gallagher
2: Galchenyuk/Plek/Gionta
3: Bourque/Eller/Weise
4: Prust/Briere/ and Bournival/Vanek rotating.

Wow. Weise gets bumped up to the Eller line (interesting), Bournival draws in for ... Vanek?

I mean, I agree with the general sentiment that Vanek hasn't been a sparkle in everyone's eyes this series, but to scratch him for game 3? That's a pretty radical move.

- Dustin Tokarski will start Game 3. That's a surprise - there's obviously something about Budaj's game that's caused Therrien to lose his confidence in him.

We'll update as the day progresses.

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