Wednesday, December 10, 2008
Watching the Canadiens handle another Western Conference foe last night got me to thinking about what's changed about this team since the same time last year. It's easy to forget that the Habs remarkable 2007-08 regular season run really got underway during their annual and traditionally disastrous Christmas road trip and Ryan O'Byrne's antics following the team's rookie dinner.
Prior to that trip, people talked about the Habs home record and the fact that it wasn't as good as their road record. Some people were worried about Tomas Plekanec's production. Others complained about Cristobal Huet, still others about unproven youngster Carey Price.
No one was worried about the power play. Such fears were allayed in the first game of the season, when Mark Streit one-timed a power play goal on a blast from the point in Carolina that began to erase the memory of Sheldon Souray, who was all but forgotten by this time.
This year, it's the power play. It's Alex Kovalev's goalless streak. It's a concern for some, myself included, that teams will take liberties with the Canadiens because there is very little fear of the once-mighty Montreal power play making them pay for their transgressions. Kovalev has not found the stride or lethal shot that carried the team last year. The issues on the power play are largely tied to the Artist. Teams have keyed on Kovalev and kept the Habs to the perimeter, forcing them to take ill-advised shots that are frequently blocked or miss the net completely.
Kovalev is the lightning rod for the Canadiens. His point production has been consistent (5g- 16a)but his goal-scoring has not been remotely close to the pace that saw him light the lamp 35 times last year. He's on pace for just 15 goals. Meanwhile Matt D’Agostini has emerged as the smart player with a nose for the net that many Habs prospects have never become. His four goals in five games since being called up put him on pace for 50 goals this year in only 61 games. We all know that’s not going to happen but his production makes for interesting comparisons with other young Habs.
Fans and journalists pick on Kovalev's lack of production but let's have a look up and down the lineup and see who else is disappointing.
Chris Higgins: The 25-year-old has been in and out of the lineup all year. He's got 5 goals (3 in one game against Ottawa) in 21 games after scoring 27 last year. Higgins is on pace for the lowest total of his career (15 goals) although his season may be cut short by injury.
Andrei Kostitsyn: I expected a monster year out of AK46 and his production has increased of late but his 6 goals put him on pace for 18 one year after bagging 29 in what looked like the prelude to a superstar-making season this year.
Tomas Plekanec: Pleks admitted in the playoffs last year that he was "playing like a little girl". His play this season has indicated that he may not have put away his dollhouse just yet although he's another forward whose play has improved recently. Plekanec was second on the Habs with 69 points (29g-40a) last year. This year his 6 goals and 7 assists put him on pace for an 18 goal, 39 point season which is probably the most disturbing regression of the bunch.
Guillaume Latendresse and Sergei Kostitsyn have both struggled this year but they are both just 21 years old. Growing pains are expected at that stage of a career. Neither can be sent to Hamilton without first clearing waivers so GLT and SK74 are likely in it for the long haul and in the case of GLT, patience will be crucial.
One might argue that the addition of veterans like Alex Tanguay and Robert Lang, who have both been outstanding, took the pressure of these younger guys to perform but the Habs were expected to have three scoring lines this year and cause matchup nightmares for opposing coaches
The point of all this number crunching is that for Alex Kovalev to be blamed for the Habs inconsistencies on offence is ridiculous. He is slightly below his production of last year but he's 35 years old! Were you expecting him to break the 100-point barrier for the first time in his career?
The distressing part of the Habs power outage is that younger players who should be even better this year than last have been worse. The problem is not that Kovalev isn't producing at last year's pace. The play of the younger guys should complement guys like Kovalev, Lang, Tanguay and Saku Koivu but that hasn’t been happening this year. The geezers are carrying the load.
With seven pending UFAs and three RFAs the Canadiens will be a different team a year from now. This years’ crop has a chance to learn and enjoy the mentoring of the Artist, who may have lost a step but continues to be a leader on and off the ice. They have 56 games to turn it around and if they do, a lengthy playoff run isn’t out of the question.
Thursday, November 20, 2008
5. Mike Komisarek - Komisaurus has been sorely missed since injuring his shoulder last Tuesday in Boston but the fact is that his play up to that point left something to be desired. Uncharacteristic turnovers and a lack of confidence against the forecheck have been a big part of his young season and in his absence, Andrei Markov just doesn't seem to be the same player.
4. The new arrivals - Plans for the Stanley Cup parade began during the offseason when Bob Gainey acquired Alex Tanguay from Calgary, Robert Lang from Chicago and singed free-agent Georges Laraque. Obviously plans have been put on hold indefinitely as the three have struggled to find their places on this team. Tanguay leads the Habs in goals and points but he has struggled in the last two games, not registering a shot in either of them while he adjusted to playing with Alex Kovalev. It appears that experiment is over as Guillaume Latendresse rejoins Koivu and Tanguay on a line that had success during the Habs 8-1-1 run to start the season. Lang is great around the net but his lack of mobility can be an issue when he's not paired with the right linemates. Laraque is a force when he drops the gloves but a -4 rating isn't and the Habs 4-4-1 record with him in the lineup is a troubling stat. (6-1-2 without)
3. Coach Carbonneau - Carbo was a favourite for coach of the year last year but this year he's gotten back to his line-juggling ways of two years ago, a time when things were much more difficult for the team. Implications that he could be losing the room are beginning to circulate. Such claims are premature but a team can only underperform for so long before the coaches grasp of the room comes into question. Oh how I long for the glory days when the only questions we asked about the coach were whether or not he would wear a certain tie on gamenight.
2. Missing chemistry - Last year's Habs were a loose bunch that had fun together whether in practice, during games or even hanging out together off the ice. This year's edition is still trying to find their identity but it's certain that they aren't having as much fun as they were a year ago. Lofty expectations, several players in the last year of their contracts and a lack of cohesion between linemates are all very real factors. With so many guys playing for contracts, competition for ice time and unhappiness with power play minutes could very well be coming into play and that's a bad sign this early in the year. With so much offensive firepower to play with there's bound to be unhappy campers every game.
1. The Kovalev line - Alex Kovalev, Tomas Plekanec and Andrei Kostitsyn were the Habs unquestioned number one unit last year. The arrival of Alex Tanguay changed that as he and Saku Koivu became two-thirds of the top unit. Andrei's struggles come on the heels of a new three year deal signed on the offseason and it's possible AK46 is having trouble with claims of his emergence as the dominant forward he was projected to be when he was drafted 10th overall in 2003. Plekanec is playing without the confidence that made him a 69 point guy a year ago. Kovy is Kovy. He has never benefited from Carbo's line shuffling and he isn't benefiting from it now. Carbo needs to find a comfort zone for his best player and soon. It's no coincidence the Habs best regular season in recent memory coincided with the Artist having his best year since his glory days in Pittsburgh.
Now that I've joined in the finger pointing it's time to kick back and enjoy the show tonight. The Habs and Sens have been two of the leagues' least potent offenses so far this month only one year after they were 1-2 in goals scored across the entire league. Something's gotta give and Habs fans are hoping it's Sens goalie Alex Auld who loses the showdown with Carey Price.
Wednesday, November 19, 2008
After a shootout win on Sunday, Carbo said "everyone played really well, I thought it was one of our best performances of the year." then he proceeded to give his team the next day off in scenic Raleigh. His team responded by giving up a season-high 48 shots while the $15 million line of Saku Koivu, Alex Tanguay and Alex Kovalev produced a grand total of 3 shots on goal.
I'm all for trying new things but these guys need a wakeup call. Ryan O'Byrne was exposed last night in a difficult third period for the young blueliner. Sergei Samsonov made him look like a beer leaguer on the Canes first goal and O'Byrne took a bonehead penalty that led to the game-winner. Lack of depth on the blue line is an issue for the Habs. If Carbo wants to send a guy down to Hamilton that guy has to clear waivers unless it's Sergei Kostitsyn or O'Byrne. There's no viable option for replacing O'Byrne in Hamilton so that idea doesn't hold water.
The other option is the pressbox. The production of Alex Kovalev's line has tailed off severely from last year. It's hard to pinpoint where the issue lies with that line but their production has reached a new low. Their success was such a huge part of what the Habs accomplished last year and their play up to this point leaves much to be desired. There is a lot of finger pointing happening in this city right now but the buck stops with that line. The Artist needs to start playing angry. His linemates need to start playing.
The fact is it's impossible for the Canadiens to live up to or exceed what they accomplished during last year's regular season. It's also easy to forget that it wasn't all easy all the time. There were struggles, trials and tribulations. There has to be. If a team never has to overcome adversity they will fail when the going gets tough in the playoffs. That's what happened last year.
The 2008-2009 Canadiens are a team better built for the postseason than last year's version. There will be peaks and valleys throughout the season but better they happen now than in the playoffs. As long as they can stay reasonably healthy and Carey Price finds consistency they will make the playoffs and surpass last year's postseason accomplishments.
Monday, November 17, 2008
Sure, the Alouettes won the Eastern final on Saturday night. The problem is, nobody cares about the Alouettes. Everyone in the city likes a winner but next weekend's Grey Cup festivities will likely be buried by the hype surrounding the retirement of Patrick Roy's jersey and talk of how amazing or how terrible the Canadiens are depending on the results of this week's games on Tuesday in Carolina and Thursday in Ottawa. Anyone who has attended an Als game will tell you the vast majority of fans are there to hang out and drink outdoors and rarely cheer their team on when their support is sorely needed.
Guy Carbonneau was happy to get out of Montreal after Saturday night's loss to Philly. He knows that what I just said about the Als works pretty much exactly the opposite way for the Habs. It's hard not to read about yourself and given the fact that writers and commentators in this city spent the first six weeks of the season putting the Habs over and talking about how awesome they are despite largely mediocre performances. If you read enough of that stuff it's bound to go to your head. On the road the players are less distracted by all the hype surrounding the team, hype that has reached epic proportions for various reasons, mainly the teams' unbelievable run last year and the citywide centennial celebration.
It's easy to lose perspective after a performance like last Tuesday's in Ottawa. Ottawa is a shell of the team that dominated the Northeast division for years. It was easy for fans to get excited about that win after Carbo called it "a near perfect performance." and also because Ottawa has been so good for so long and had so much success against the Habs in recent years. As if to prove that point, the Sens went on to lose to the brutal Rick DiPietro-less New York Islanders in their next game. Meanwhile the Habs were awful against Boston in a performance that officially set off panic mode in Montreal.
One of the constants throughout this difficult period has been the lacklustre power play. Alex Kovalev has been turned into an ordinary winger with the man advantage and it seems every team in the league has figured out his moves. Andrei Kostitsyn is still looking for his first power play goal of the year after putting up 12 last year. The passing is still crisp but there is a level of hesitation out there that never existed in the past two years. It's becoming more and more clear that the loss of Mark Streit is far more significant than the loss of Sheldon Souray one year earlier. Streit was so effective at getting pucks in deep and keeping posession, something the Habs current powerr play unit has a very hard time doing.Tomas Plekanec is a fractured shell of the centre who led the team with six game winning goals and was second only to Kovalev with 69 points and a +15 rating last year. In 2007-08 he became Kovalev's main man. In 2008-09 (so far) Plekanec has completely lost confidence in himself and his linemates have lost faith in him. He was terrific on the penalty kill yesterday but the explosive two-way player of last season remains M.I.A.
Luckily for the players, they can focus on guns and NASCAR in Raleigh tomorrow before they return home and start to hear everyone rant and rave about how great or how awful they really are before heading to our nation's capitol to face the Sens on Thursday. Both opponents will be fierce and compete but there is no reason the Habs shouldn't pick up at least three of the four available points.
The tough thing will be keeping things together when Milan Lucic and the Bruins are here to try and ruin Patrick Roy's jersey retirement night for what will surely be a rabid crowd baying for blood after what the Bruins did to them when last they met. Circle Saturday night on your calendars boys and girls, and don't stay out too late after the game... The local football team plays a game of some significance the next day.
Wednesday, November 12, 2008
Last night, CH stood for Chris Higgins. His lightning-quick acceleration was on display throughout the game. He had more confidence than usual shooting the puck and some slick passing from his teammates earned him his first career NHL hat-trick and first since his Ivy League days at Yale. Carbo singled Higgins out for well-deserved praise after the game and Higgins himself dedicated his effort to his mom. Awwww.
Carey Price was very solid and more importantly, his defence was mean and spirited defending their end. Roman Hamrlik's return was a huge boost to the group and Ryan O'Byrne had his best game of the year with an assist and a +2 rating.
24 hours ago, it was doom and gloom for the Habs. Now as quickly as fall becomes winter, fans are back on the bandwagon and optimism is again the theme for radio talk shows throughout the city. The Canadiens served their fans and critics with a reminder of what this team is capable of when they work together and get on the same page.
Explosive in transition. Deadly on the PK. Tough.
Georges Laraque kept his gloves on all night but Chris Neil didn't take his usual liberties with the Habs late in the game when it was no longer in doubt, definitely a testament to what BGL brings to the table for opponents mentally.
Guillaume Latendresse scored his first goal in eleven games on a beautiful set play off an offensive zone faceoff won by Robert Lang. GLT roofed it about 1.7 seconds after the puck was dropped with the kind of release that elevates the unrealistic hopes many have for this kid.
One of those nights where it all comes together in a game with a late season level of intensity. The Sens did not go easily but to have a game that spirited this early in the season bodes well for this rivalry going forward. These two teams flat out don't like each other and it's becoming more and more obvious each time they meet.
Jason Spezza demonstrated this admirably by going after Saku Koivu away from the play as both were skating to the bench and Jarkko Ruutu took it a few steps further by attempting to decapitate Maxim Lapierre later in the game. Ruutu then did what he does, clutching his way through a terrible fight with Habs little big man Francis Bouillon that ended no contest.
Would've been nice to see Laraque get his hands on Ruutu, his former teammate.
The Canadiens 9-2-2 mark and 20 points in 13 games is good for first in the Northeast division and second only to the New York Rangers 24 points in 18 games, five more than the Habs. They have one point and a game in hand on the Sabres.
It gets no easier for the Habs who travel to Boston tomorrow and are back home to face Mike Richards and the Flyers on Saturday night.
Tuesday, November 11, 2008
It's Remembrance Day. One of the rare days on the calendar that puts things in perspective as we reflect on the sacrifices made in generations past and today by the men and women of our armed forces. Having said that, the Habs are the subject of this blog and I will now proceed onward into hockey-talk.
The Canadiens haven't been overly impressive in any of their first twelve games. They looked pretty good in Buffalo on opening night but lost in a shootout. The next day they decimated the Leafs in what was likely their most complete performance to date, a 6-1 final at the Air Canada Center.
Fast forward four Saturdays. Mikhail Grabovski and the Leafs put on a clinic beating the Habs by crashing the net, winning battles and pounding the Habs D which was without its cornerstone, Roman Hamrlik. The Canadiens played an undisciplined game and you almost got the sense they were waiting around to start one of their famous comebacks until they realized they were out of real estate.
The Leafs got to Carey Price much the same way Philly did in the playoffs last year. They ran him and got in his face. When opponents get into Price's head, the Habs are in trouble.
With an 8-2-2 record it's hard to get too dramatic but that hasn't stopped Habs fans. They're freaking out and the bandwagon is actually losing passengers which isn't surprising given many fans never left it after the shock of last season's playoff exit.
Fortunately, 70 games remain. Starting tonight against a team the Habs struggle against. The Sens' line of Heatley, Alfredsson and Spezza have teamed up for 41 points so far this year and always they do well against the Habs. The Habs need to get back to the three-pronged attack that looked so promising early in the season.
Guy Carbonneau thinks his team needs to get back to playing fundamentally good defense. He's right. With Hamrlik back tonight things should improve on the back end and that's great news for Price and the Habs.
As for this blog, all we can hope for is a more inspired effort from its author which will hopefully be inspired by his home town team getting out there and working.
Alex Kovalev needs to play like he just got high-sticked and the ref missed the call. Andrei Kostitsyn needs to play like Kurt Sauer didn't make him scared to take on NHL defencemen by trying to take his head off. Mike Komisarek needs to continue to make opposing forwards pay when they choose to attack his side of the ice. Andrei Markov needs to get his legs back under him after looking tired in Toronto, not a good sign at this point of the season.
It's going to be a long ride of ups and downs this year but better to hit a roadbump at this point of the campaign. The sign of a championship team is how they handle adversity and this team still has a lot to prove.
Wednesday, October 8, 2008
BOTTOM OF THE BARREL
15. Toronto Maple Leafs - The good: Vesa Toskala, Tomas Kaberle.
The bad: Ryan Hollweg, Jeff Finger and Jamal Mayers are your prized offseason acquisitions. I'm not going to include Niklas Hagman in that group, he's a great checking forward.
The ugly: Coach Ron Wilson came out and said the Leafs won't give veterans ice time just for the sake of staying in hockey games. Even their coach is thinking about next year and John Tavares. It will be a long and ugly season in T.O.
14. New York Islanders - Where to begin? Rick DiPietro is a good goaltender. Beyond him, things look grim. Habs fans know Mark Streit is not a number one defenceman. Andy Sutton and Brendan Witt will be doing their best to support him. Up front Bill Guerin, Mike Comrie, Doug Weight and Mike Sillinger are all in contract years and looking for strong performances. These guys will get ice time to stay in close games, which is why they will be better than the Leafs but only by the slimmest of margins. They won't get blown out a whole lot but won't win many games either.
13. Atlanta Thrashers - Poor Ilya Kovalchuk. The NHL's leading goal scorer since the 2001-02 season has very little support. Mathieu Schneider will help but who does Kovalchuk play with? The answer is Vyacheslav Kozlov and a third liner. Thanks to the utter craptaculence of Toronto and The Islanders, the Thrashers won't be the worst team in the conference.
12. Tampa Bay Lightning - Rod Francis pointed out on Melnick in the Afternoon the other day that the Lightning resemble a fantasy draft team. Fan favourite Dan Boyle is gone, replaced by Matt Carle, who took a drastic step back in his development last year in San Jose. Rookie Steven Stamkos will have his growing pains but being flanked by Ryan Malone and Radim Vrbata should help. People expecting an Ovechkin or Crosby-like rookie season for Stamkos should take a step back and remeber the growing pains Vincent Lecavalier experienced in his first year in Tampa. Mike Smith is a capable goaltender but is a huge question mark when it comes to handling the number one role. The Lightning will struggle.
11. New Jersey Devils - The Devils are still a few years away from getting back to their dominant years. Martin Brodeur is still Martin Brodeur but age and losing one defenceman after another every year will catch up. Brian Rolston is a great acquisition but isn't capable of providing the scoring the Devils need. Patrik Elias needs a huge season and Brian Gionta needs to rediscover his lightning quick wrist shot and scoring touch if the Devils want to avoid missing the postseason.
ON THE EDGE
10. Carolina Hurricanes - The 'Canes possess some of the game's best forwards in the form of Eric Staal and Rod Brind'Amour. They will be supported by guys like Sergei Samsonov, Ray Whitney and Matt Cullen. The loss of Justin Williams for the first three months of the year will hurt this club big time. The addition of puck-moving defenceman Joni Pitkanen will help but not enough to bolster a defensive corps that gave up 249 goals last year. Brandon Sutter is a heck of a player and should make life hell for the 'Canes opponents.
9. Boston Bruins - The Bruins showed a lot last year, overcoming the loss of Patrice Bergeron to a season-ending concussion. Tim Thomas was a revelation in goal, Zdeno Chara was a Norris trophy contender and Marc Savard filled the void admirably. I Don't expect all those things to happen again this year. Blake Wheeler made the squad and could turn some heads and I'd love to see Bergeron bounce back with a huge season but he is second to Savard on the depth chart in Claude Julien's defence-oriented system. They will be close but on the outside looking in.
ON THE EDGE
8. Buffalo Sabres - The Sabres had a rough time last year. Ryan Miller struggled, especially early in the season. The absence of a true leader after the departures of Daniel Briere and Chris Drury hurt. Also missing was veteran blue-liner Teppo Numminen. This year the Sabres will rebound and new captain Craig Rivet will shine. I'm expecting big things from Miller and Tomas Vanek will return to his form of two years ago.
7. Florida Panthers - Big additions on the blue line and a healthy Tomas Vokoun equal a return to the postseason for the Panthers. They will play a boring brand of hockey and win close games. Nathan Horton is a very good player and will likely lead the team in scoring. With 57 points. You heard it here first.
6. Ottawa Senators - Unless the Sens add Mats Sundin I can't see them contending for the division crown. They're thin up front beyond the big three of Spezza, Alfredsson and Heatley. They're thin on the blue line beyond Chris Phillips and Anton Volchenkov. Martin Gerber is their goaltender. Nuff said.
KNOCKING ON THE DOOR
5. Philadelphia Flyers - The Flyers are thin on the blue line. Beyond Braydon Coburn and Kimmo Timonen there are huge question marks on defense. Martin Biron is a capable goaltender but will have difficulty. The reason the Flyers will make the playoffs will be their forwards. Mike Richards is one of the best two-way forwards in the game. Daniel Briere, Jeff Carter and Simon Gagne will be the big-time players they're expected to be.
4. New York Rangers - They don't have a superstar anymore. Markus Naslund should have a big year with something to prove. Wade Redden is overrated and Nikolai Zherdev is a selfish jerk but having King Henrik in goal is enough. They will be lacking the physical edge they had last season with the losses of Sean Avery and Ryan Hollweg but more finesse isn't a bad thing.
3. Washington Capitals - They're a huge injury away from being in the cellar but the Caps look fantastic on paper. Mike Green is a beauty. Jose Theodore will get the job done. Alexander Ovechkin is a pretty good player. The supporting cast looks good. There will be nights when their blue line will look awful and be exposed but their depth at the forward position will win them the Southeast, which will once again be the worst division in the league.
CREAM OF THE CROP
2. Pittsburgh Penguins - They will feel the losses of Ryan Whitney and Sergei Gonchar to long-term injuries in the first half of the season but will come out of it a better team. Marc-Andre Fleury will have a big year. Sidney Crosby is the best player in the NHL and will get his team to the promised land again. Crosby will win the Hart.
1. Montreal Canadiens - The Habs are deep. Scary deep. Having guys like D'Agostini and Weber in Hamilton knocking on the door will bring out the best in the players. Andrei Markov is emerging as the leader on the blue line and is capable of putting up 70+ points. Mike Komisarek will continue to punish forwards who try to squeeze past him. Up front, Andrei Kostitsyn is going to be huge. If he can keep his head in the game and his intensity level is there he could lead the team in scoring. Saku Koivu and Alex Kovalev are in contract years. Carey Price will be dominant if can get his glove going again. Something special is brewing in Montreal. Expectations are high and it's almost impossible to follow up the magic of last year but the difference will be in the playoffs. This team is far better prepared for postseason play and the experience they gathered last year will only help.
Tuesday, October 7, 2008
The Western Conference is the stronger of the NHL's two halves. Detroit is the odds-on favourite to win it all again and San Jose looks very dangerous just to name two. Here's the way I see it, from worst all the to best.
ON THE OUTSIDE
15. Los Angeles Kings - The Kings have a great young core of Dustin Brown, Anze Kopitar and Jack Johnson. They also don't have anything resembling a legitimate number one goaltender. Jason LaBarbera and Erik Ersberg will have their hands full all season long. Rookie defenceman Drew Doughty should be a standout but it will be a long year in LA.
14. St Louis Blues - The future looks good in St Louis. Brad Boyes, poised to follow up his monster 07-08 campaign with another big one this year. David Perron, skilled sophomore could break out. Guys like TJ Oshie and Patrik Berglund are looking to have strong rookie campaigns and could exceed expectations but the loss of big blueliner Erik Johnson could have disastrous consequences. Jay McKee and Eric Brewer need to eat a lot of minutes if this team wants to contend, which it won't.
13. Columbus Blue Jackets - It's a make or break year in Columbus. The Blue Jackets are the only NHL team to have never qualified for the postseason. Management has made a commitment to end that streak this year. They added Kristian Huselius and Carey Price's nemesis RJ Umberger up front. And they brought in a new number one defenceman.... Mike Commodore. He'll likely be with Fedor Tyutin as the top pairing. You've got to feel for goaltender Pascal Leclaire.
12. Nashville Predators - They were surprisingly good last year and gave Detroit a run for their money in the first round of the playoffs. Then Alexander Radulov injured Jason Arnott while celebrating a goal. It wasn't the last time Radulov shot his teammates in the foot. This summer Radulov elected not to honour the final year of his entry level contract instead opting to go to Russia and play in the KHL for big money and pay no taxes. Hanging his teammates out to dry came easily to Radulov and they'll be reeling from it for to long to make the playoffs.
11. Colorado Avalanche - Colorado's difficulties are in goal as well. Andrew Raycroft and Peter Budaj are expected to platoon and that's a tall order. The fact that the Avs put a whole lot of eggs in one basket with last year's deadline acquisitions doesn't help. If Paul Stastny is healthy he could score 90+ points but the lack of goaltending and dependence on aging and oft-injured superstars (Foote, Sakic, Hejduk) equals disappointment in the Mile High City this year.
10. Chicago Blackhawks - Huge changes in the windy city this summer. Cristobal Huet is an upgrade on Nikolai Khabibulin but isn't a guy who can give you more than about 50-55 starts per season so his backup will be important. Brian Campbell joins a strong blueline. Duncan Keith is a beast, Cam Barker and Brent Seabrook are solid. Pat Kane and Jonathan Toews are electric. Patrick Sharp is one of the best two-way forwards in the game. The rest of the forwards... Well Martin Havlat is great but he's more fragile than the polar ice cap. Andrew Ladd is a certified first round bust. Dustin Byfuglien was good last year and will need to be exponentially better if the Hawks expect to contend for a postseason berth.
9. Minnesota Wild - Jacques Lemaire is a great coach. Kiklas Backstrom a very good goalie. Marian Gaborik wants out. The Wild play a mind-numbing, sleep inducing brand of hockey and the loss of Brian Rolston will be too much to overcome. If they fall out of contention by trade deadline time, look for Gaborik to be in play on the trade market.
8. Edmonton Oilers - You have to love what the Oilers did this offseason. Bringing in noted Hab-Killer Erik Cole and underrated (at least out East) defenceman Lubomir Visnovsky to a talented group that includes Shawn Horcoff, Ales Hemsky, Dustin Penner, super-sophomores Sam Gagner and Andrew Cogliano up front and guys like Tom Gilbert Steve Staios and Sheldon Souray on the back end. Dwayne Roloson and Mathieu Garon could very well determine whether the Oilers are on the outside or in when it comes down to the postseason.
7. Phoenix Coyotes - Ilya Bryzgalov had his ups and downs in his first year as a number one goalie but he proved he can get it done. Up front, a dynamic group led by veteran Shane Doan and complemented by youngsters like Peter Mueller and Kyle Turris is joined by Olli Jokinen. New addition Kurt Sauer is one of the most underrated defenceman in the West. Don't mess with them either. With noted sluggers like Daniel Carcillo (one of my favourite players in the league), Brian McGrattan and Todd Fedoruk out there, oppposing teams won't be taking too many liberties with Phoenix players. Viktor Tikhonov is a sleeper pick for rookie of the year.
6. Vancouver Canucks - This pick is based on one thing: Roberto Luongo and his ability to win games single-handedly. Sure, the Canucks will have trouble scoring goals but it won't stop them from making the postseason and pulling one of their patented early exits.
GOOD BUT NOT GREAT
5. Anaheim Ducks - Chris Pronger, Scott Niedermayer and Teemu Selanne are some of the best of their generations. Corey Perry and Ryan Getzlaf are two of the best of theirs. Add in a JS Giguere in goal, a shake of role players like Sami Pahlsson, Travis Moen and Rob Niedermayer and the only question left is... Are Ken Klee, Kent Huskins and Steve Montador good enough as your bottom three defencemen? They're Good enough for 5th.
4. Dallas Stars - Is there a better vetran bargain than Brenden Morrow? Guy Carbonneau's son-in-law is signed in Dallas through 2013 at 4.1 million per season. A true leader. Brad Richards is overpaid but still great. Marty Turco is a good and possibly great goaltender. The question is can Sergei Zubov come back in time to help out on the back end. The other question is how long before Sean Avery steals Jessica Simpson from Tony Romo?
3. Calgary Flames - The addition of Mike Cammalleri and Todd Bertuzzi will answer offensive questions. What it all comes down to is Mikka Kiprusoff. The Flames will live and die with Kipper this year and I expect big things from the ginger-haired netminder. He'd better be good and healthy as backup Curtis McElhinney's NHL experience is limited.
LEAGUE OF THEIR OWN
2. San Jose Sharks - It's now or never in San Jose. Rob Blake and Dan Boyle are part of one of the West's best defensive units. Joe Thornton has this year's playoffs to prove he's not the A-Rod of hockey. The Sharks look to have the right mix of grit and raw talent, veterans and youngsters. They also have one of the best goalies in the game.
1. Detroit Red Wings - Take last year's most dominant team and throw in Marian Hossa and you've got a recipe to repeat. The deepest team in the NHL got deeper this summer and guys like Mikael Samuelsson and Valtteri Filppula will only get better. There defence is so good they make Chris Osgood look like a superstar. The Wings will have the best record in the regular season and shouldn't have much trouble skating to yet another Stanley Cup final.
There are many contenders for the last two playoff spots in the West and injuries will play a big part in who gets them. At the end of the day, it looks like Detroit and San Jose at the top and then everybody else. With the regular season right around the corner, it's time for some bruising Western showdowns.
Thursday, October 2, 2008
The expectation has to be a berth in the Conference or, dare I say, Stanley Cup finals. They have the team to do it and competing in the weaker Eastern Conference will do wonders for their chances. The hope of winning a Stanley Cup is unrealistic to me. We saw a Detroit team at the Bell Centre without its three best players (Pavel Datsyuk, Henrik Zetterberg and Nicklas Lidstrom) and managed a shootout win thanks to Carey Price's heroics in goal.
That Detroit team is scary. Adding Marian Hossa to a group of that calibre means that they have a number one line as good or better than any in the NHL. Having guys like Johan Franzen, Mikael Samuelsson and Tomas Holmstrom, to name a few, means depth and a second power play unit better than most teams number one unit.
All that being said, you have to like the Habs chances of repeating as Eastern Conference regular season champions.
Buffalo could have a bounce back year but there are big question marks for them on defence and at the forward positions. I see them back in the playoffs but not contenders for the Northeast crown.
Ottawa is thin on defence and in goal and depend far too heavily on their top line. They have a lot of good role players but no second line. They will contend for a playoff spot.
Boston is the wild card for me. They had an amazing season last year without Patrice Bergeron, who has looked excellent in the preseason. Tim Thomas carried the team in goal last year. He isn't even guaranteed a roster spot this year because youngster Tuuka Rask has been great and big money earner Manny Fernandez is now healthy. I think the Bruins will compete for anywhere between 7th and 10th place. Remember, they're pretty good when they're not playing the Canadiens.
The Leafs will be better than most think and probably won't end up with next year's number one pick, something many Leafs fans want. They will not make the playoffs.
The Canadiens should win the Northeast as long as they stay reasonably healthy. Losing Alex Kovalev for an extended period could be disastrous but the depth this team has could make up for it. The power play would take a huge hit however.
Carey Price will bounce back from his inconsistent and at times terrible performance against Philadelphia in the second round of the playoffs last year. He is healthier, even more confident and more mature than he was last year. The number one job is his and if his preseason performances are anything to judge by he could be one of the top goaltenders in the East this year. He's only 21 but his demeanour is that of someone far older. Having a leader with a calming influence in your net works wonders for a team.
The regular season gets underway next week. If you've never seen a hockey game at the Bell Centre get down there this year. It's an addictive, adrenaline-inducing night that leaves you in a bit of a daze.
Tuesday, September 23, 2008
Marc Denis picked up the win with 60 solid minutes of work but he did falter in the third period. Call me crazy but I don't know if it's a foregone conclusion that Jaro Halak makes the team. He has never cracked an NHL roster out of camp, a feat that Denis has accomplished on more than one occasion.
Like Maxim Lapierre, it wouldn't shock me to see Halak start another season in Hamilton. He is still the odds on favorite for the backup job.
Other standouts included Ben Maxwell, Max Pacioretty and Yannick Weber. The two big forwards didn't look out of place and on a team with less depth could contend for roster spots. Weber saw time on the PP and I found myself waiting in vain for him to unleash the slap shot that earned him the "Swiss Missile Launcher" moniker in Kitchener.
Not sure if that's an appropriate nickname. Not only is it a mouthful but the Swiss aren't exactly known for their missile launchers. Perhaps "the army knife" (a reference to his Mark Streit-like versatility).
Four games in the next five nights, looking forward to seeing how more of the young guys and vets are looking.
Monday, April 28, 2008
I don't see anything wrong with it and I think calling it a sucker punch is a bit extreme. It's so funny to hear the Flyers complain about something like this. Watching the coverage on American networks yesterday, coach Carbonneau was made to look like a smiling villain. Nationally in Canada, response varied but was generally slanted towards the Flyers. Even though they're the last Canadian team in the playoffs, the national media is incredibly quick to jump on the Canadiens.
A lot has been made of the CBC's alleged anti-habs bias, with Don Cherry making his usual colourful remarks. That doesn't bother me at all. Cherry is not without his redeeming qualities but all told, it doesn't bother me not to have him cheering for my team. This guy cheers for the biggest jokes on skates in the Toronto Maple Leafs and is a huge Bruins fan. Why the heck would he jump on the Habs bandwagon? Anyone who thinks there's no place for visors in hockey should have their views taken with a grain of salt.
I expect a high scoring and entertaining game. The horseshoe Marty Biron had up his ass for game 2 will likely be less of a factor. Carey Price will find his game. Someone will probably get hurt.
Sunday, April 20, 2008
The first part of the trip was slowed by traffic on the Champlain Bridge, which Murph speculated could be the result of inconsolable Habs fans jumping off of it. Very funny. We continued on to the border crossing and decided to pop into the Duty Free store to pick up some beers. Upon leaving the store and opening the trunk of his car, we realized the bellhop hadn't deposited Murph's suitcase into the trunk. After much intense debate, we decided to double back to Montreal and leave first thing Saturday morning.
Problem was, we had reached the point of no return, so while we waited in line to get into the States and then in another to return to the Great White North I was on the phone with radio station 1510 the Zone in Boston talking a little hockey and predicting a Boston victory in game 6 to force a game 7 in Montreal. I literally left Canada, entered the United States and then returned to Canada during the course of a telephone interview. Not what I would call a particularly promising start to the trip.
The next day we left as scheduled and after a few hours we arrived in Boston. Beautiful day but not much time to enjoy it. Murph hosts the fast hockey radio show on Saturday afternoons at 2 and we went straight from the car to the studio, located right on a gorgeous waterfront in the middle of a marina. The show was great, I had a chance to meet former NHLer Ian Moran who was co-hosting along with NHL.com's Bob Snow and Brian Malone and hang out with those guys in studio for a great two-hour show that was a lot of fun to do.
After the show, it was straight to Murph's place in Dedham, a suburb if Boston to get freshened up and then we headed to the Garden for a quick bite (the buffet there is free, dangerous where members of the media are concerned).
The game was quite an experience. You've surely read all about it and saw it for yourself. The bottom line for me is that the Canadiens best players aren't playing their best.
They look tentative and tender. Andrei Markov is a fractured shell of his regular season self. Tomas Plekanec scored a highlight-reel goal but was otherwise unremarkable as his postseason woes continue. Alex Kovalev was a minus 3 and made a weak attempt at clearing the puck that became the game winning goal.
The Habs defence, rock solid for most of the season, allowed 17 third period shots and as a shell-shocked Carey Price said after the game, "left a lot of open ice out there".
Game 7 goes Monday night. Habs fans aren't optimistic and with good reason. Even Saku Koivu's return couldn't inspire this team to hold three separate leads.
RDS is reporting that Patrice Bergeron could play in game 7.
I expect the Habs to win. This is Carbo's time to shine and if the game is properly officiated and he can get through to his players about protecting the lead, the Habs will face either New York or Philadelphia in a second round showdown.
Carey Price has been making a name for himself all year, he will be better than Tim Thomas when it matters most.
Lineup changes? I'll leave that one up to Carbo.
Go Habs Go. Daddy needs a second round series.
People rag on Habs fans a lot. Prove them wrong by staying on the bandwagon.
Political differences aside, The fans at the Bell Centre sing O Canada louder than any rink in the country.
Monday, April 14, 2008
It marked the second straight game that Boston has outplayed the Habs and this time they got the win. Tim Thomas was brilliant in making several stops through the third period and overtime to give his team a chance. Carey Price sparkled at the other end of the ice and couldn't be faulted on either goal.
There are some causes for concern for Habs fans. Mike Komisarek is back, but still hasn't looked like the shutdown guy that was drawing comparisons to Scott Stevens during the regular season. Saku Koivu and Francis Bouillon continue to recover from injuries suffered late in the season and their absence is becoming more evident. Mark Streit was brutal on the coverage of Bruins wrecking ball Milan Lucic on the first goal and it's becoming more and more obvious that he's more suited to playing forward when the going gets rough.
The Habs first line and power play were shut down big-time last night, due in part to Claude Julien having last change and also to the Canadiens inability to get pucks into the slot and high percentage shooting lanes when it counted. Adjustments need to be made.
Tomorrow night's game is HUGE, they say a playoff series doesn't really start until the home team loses a game. The Canadiens need to get this one started tomorrow night.
Sunday, April 6, 2008
It's been the best year of my life. Having a front-row seat to the magical ride that's been the Canadiens regular season has been unbelievable. So many amazing moments. Watching a young team come of age and veterans feeding of the youth. A goaltender who has only just begun to etch his name into history.
Carey Price is the real deal. Talking to him after the game yesterday he once again had a great, albeit brief quote when asked about the possibility of winning the Eastern conference,
"They don't hang conference titles in this rink, they raise Stanley Cup banners. It'd be kinda nice to get it but everyone here knows what the ultimate prize is."
He knows. It's a total cliche, but the real season starts when the Bruins and Habs get down to business at the Bell Centre on Thursday. This team is playing unbelievable hockey right now. Losing their captain made them kick it up a notch. Chris Higgins has been dominant of late, getting his 26th and 27th goals of the year last night.
"It was an up and down year for me, a struggle to find consistency in my game. I feel I've played better in the last couple of weeks, when it mattered most and hopefully I can continue that in the playoffs."
Well said by one of the ambassadors of the this team, and the author of what I feel is one of the big turning points of the campaign with a monster goal off a lucky bounce in Florida back in December.
However as Mr. Price pointed out, the regular season is over.
The Boston Bruins closed out their regular season with a flat effort in a 3-0 loss to Buffalo. It's hard to believe they're a playoff team. It's also hard to believe they play the Canadiens against whom their struggles have been extremely well documented. They took one out of a possible 16 points against the Habs this year. Tim Thomas was lit up by Habs players all year long. Zdeno Chara was exposed by the Canadiens speed in every game.
The thing is, none of that matters. It's a new season.
Thursday, April 3, 2008
Tonight's showdown with the Sabres is a chance for the Habs to deal their divisional rivals a knockout blow in their unlikely quest for the postseason. Derek Roy has being playing like a man on fire during his current 10 game point streak and is the key guy the Habs need to shutdown. Tomas Vanek is a funplayer to watch and has scored 33 goals this year, a huge drop from his 47 of last year which led to Kevin Lowe's infamous offer sheet. You could find a laundry list of reasons for the Sabres inconsistency this year. The fact is they don't look like a playoff team and even Teppo Numminen's return probably wouldn't change it.
There are car flags everywhere in this city. People are making a killing selling Canadiens merchandise as it seems every second window has a Kovalev jersey in it. A long playoff run would really get the city going as spring approaches. It would make the transition that much less difficult.
Tuesday, April 1, 2008
I used to be a big fan of the Canadiens and a part of me still is. It makes me happy to see this team succeed. I've been watching them my whole life. Now that I'm a member of the media I have to switch it off. It gives me no pleasure to report that Saku Koivu, the heart and soul of the Montreal Canadiens, is out with a fracture in his foot. I received solid information and reported it. I regret including the information I was given about the term of the injury but I did.
If I could go back in time and do it again, I would have done the same thing without including the info about the 4-6 weeks.
Life goes on.
The Habs take on the Sens in Ottawa tonight. The Sens are sliding big time and still haven't confirmed their spot in the playoffs. With the start the Sens had to this year, it's hard to believe but nothing has worked. A season-long goaltending controversy that never fully went away. A coach fired as a result. Trade deadline deals that didn't pan out (or haven't as of yet).
The Habs need only one point from the Senators to clinch the division but it won't be easy. They head into the game and possibly into the playoffs, without Mike Komisarek, Koivu, Francis Bouillon and the statuses of Mark Streit and Guillaume Latendresse are far from certain.
The team needs to focus and guys like Mikhail Grabovski and Sergei Kostitsyn need to seize the opportunities they're being given. With Carey Price as the foundation, there's no telling where this team can go and when your captain has a heart the size of an MRI machine, you know he'll be there if it's humanly possible for him to do so.
Saturday, March 29, 2008
The team has stated that the results of X-rays in Buffalo were inconclusive but that often seems to be the case when things don't look good. They say he is being re-evaluated by team doctors in Montreal so as of yet the story remains unconfirmed but I'm giving it to you first.
We'll see when the team makes an official announcement but the mere fact that the captain is in Montreal while his teammates play their last game of the season at the ACC is a bad indication.
Again, the team has confirmed nothing except that Koivu is in Montreal but I have it on authority that the first prognosis is a broken foot.
Timeframe for recovery is completely up to speculation but this type of injury can take 4 to 6 weeks.
What this means is the Canadiens need even more of their young players to step it up and give then strong play down the middle. The ability of their youngsters to step into roles and raise the level of their game has been a huge factor in their success so far, so a new chapter begins tonight of the Canadiens storybook season.
This also means Alex Kovalev will likely wear the captain's "C" tonight. He had an inspired effort earlier this year in New York as captain.
Tuesday, March 25, 2008
Athletes often talk about peaking at the right time. In the case of the Sens, they peaked about a month into the season and have played .500 hockey since then. In fact, if you take away the Sens first 17 games, they aren't even a playoff team. They're 26-26-7 since. Not good enough to make the playoffs.
The Canadiens on the other hand seem to be rolling in a big way. They've been the most consistent team in the conference all year long and their 247 goals are the most in the NHL.
Guy Carbonneau forgave them right away for taking their foot off the accelerator after jumping out to a 7-1 lead through 40 minutes by playing brilliant, mistake-free hockey.
Carey Price wasn't available to the media after the game and may have been a bit frustrated at being hung out to dry when the Sens scored four third period goals but looked pretty happy as he left the Bell Centre in his big Ford pickup truck. You got the sense that the team may have been heading out to celebrate and what better time to do it?
Carbo worked the team on Easter Sunday but rewarded their recent achievements with a day off on Tuesday and only off-ice workouts on Wednesday. They'll get back on the ice on Thursday before heading to Buffalo for a Friday night showdown with the Sabres.
Loose Pucks: Carbonneau pointed out after the game that clinching the playoffs this early may open the door for some guys to get some rest. He said we would certainly see Patrice Brisebois and Mathieu Dandenault in the lineup before season's end. Don't be surprised if Jaroslav Halak gets the nod for either Friday or Saturday. Andrei Kostitsyn became the 6th Hab over the 50 point mark last night, Chris Higgins needs only two more points to be the 7th.
Friday, March 21, 2008
Carey price was solid after a week-long layoff, beaten on shots he had no chance of stopping. He seemed to improve as the game went on in earning his 4th straight win over the Bruins.
The real story from this win could very well be the loss of Mike Komisarek. It's not clear how severe his injury is at this point but losing him for any period of time really hurts the team. What Carbo does here with his defensive pairings could be the defining moment of the season.
The line of Kovalev, Tomas Plekanec and Andrei Kostitsyn was a combined +8 last night. Kovalev has 7 goals in 7 games against Boston this year. He embarrassed Zdeno Chara big time last night and Chara and co. will likely be looking to put a hurting on the Habs big guns tomorrow night.
Here's hoping the Bruins goons don't get their way.
Thursday, March 13, 2008
It's the second time the Sens have brought the Habs crashing back down to earth, the first was on February 9th when Jason Spezza had a six point night and they pounded the Habs 6-1. Spezza has the Canadiens number. He has absolutely decimated the Canadiens this year and tonight was no different.
The Sens made a statement. They're still the best team in the Northeast division and look to be back to form right now, although time will tell whether they can win consistently. Martin Gerber was perfect although he wasn't frequently tested. His team played well in front of him, didn't really allow the Habs a chance to get pucks in deep and scored on two of their five power plays.
The Canadiens were 0 for 3 with the man advantage, including a power play 42 seconds into the contest that the Sens stifled and never looked back. When their power play doesn't connect early it can often take the wind right out of their sails and this game was a perfect example. They looked tired, pucks weren't bouncing their way and Carey Price was beaten on shots he had basically no chance of saving. He talked about the Sens getting bounces after the game but I think we can all agree that putting up a goose egg on the scoreboard is a pretty good way to lose.
You can't overemphasize the importance of Saturday night's showdown with the low-scoring New York Islanders. Every point is so important right now, losing to the bottom-tier teams is not an option. The difference between finishing atop the Northeast division and finishing second is playing either Pittsburgh or New Jersey (that would be bad) and playing Philly or Boston (that would be good).
Winning the division will be a very tough task to accomplish but these guys can do it. Two more games against Ottawa and one last monkey to get off of their collective backs.
Tuesday, March 11, 2008
Hot for the Devils: Martin Brodeur (3-0-0, 0.98, .972 in last 3 GP), Zach Parise (5 pts in last 3 GP)
Cold for the Devils: Arron Asham (0 pts in last 10 GP), Dainius Zubrus (0 pts in last 7 GP)
Hot for the Canadiens: Alex Kovalev (10 pts in last 6 GP), Andrei Markov (12 pts in last 11 GP)
Cold for the Canadiens: Michael Ryder (0 pts in last 5 GP), Francis Bouillon (0 pts in last 6 GP)
Quick notes: Devils centre Patrik Elias is 4 assists away from surpassing Scott Niedermayer as the Devils all-time leader in that category. Zach Parise has emerged as a solid two-way forward and his +23 rating reflects that. He also leads the team in goals and points.
The Devils have scored 180 goals and allowed 159. The Habs have scored 223 and allowed 197.
Tomas Plekanec is apparently a gametime decision as he continues to deal with flu-like symptoms. He didn't skate today but could still suit up. Steve Begin has missed the last six games, three with an ankle injury and three that Carbo left him out of the lineup.
Devils defenceman Colin White left Friday's game with an upper body injury and missed their last game, against Toronto. Another Devils defenceman is dealing with injury as Paul Martin deals with several minor injuries, he's missed their last four games.
Sports Illustrated's Michael Farber has this great piece on Mike Komisarek. Farber is a top-tier talent in the field of Hockey Journalism and he doesn't hold back when talking about Komisaurus.
Sunday, March 9, 2008
They allowed an average of 38 shots per game during the four game trip and were undisciplined. Eight minors against Anaheim. Alex Kovalev had a tough night despite scoring his 30th on a terrific individual effort from disgruntled Belarussian Mikhail Grabovski. Kovy was called for three penalties and had most of the Habs best scoring chances but couldn't bury it again.
On the plus side, the Habs stayed in the game despite being shorthanded for long periods of time and had some great chances to pull ahead when the score was tied. The Kostitsyn brothers continue to impress, it's great when Carbo gets them on the ice together. It's going to be a lot of fun to watch them play for the next few years. The Kostitsyn era? Maybe that's a bit premature, still.....
Patrice Brisebois is not the answer. Ryan O'Byrne hasn't had a minus game since returning from his broken thumb. The Canadiens need him down the stretch so expect him back in the lineup for the home stretch. Twelve games remain, nine of which are against Northeast division rivals.
You really get the sense that this is a group of guys that are very confident and comfortable. A four game homestand gives them a chance to settle back into their home routine, wonder what they'll think about the latest dump of snow.
This weather is absolutely ridiculous. At this rate people will need to bring ladders to next weekend's St. Patrick's day parade to see the floats over the six foot snowbanks. I hope it all melts before then. I think we can all agree that we've had enough snow and we're ready for spring. Playoff hockey at the Bell Centre. Bring your earplugs.
Loose Pucks - Hopefully Tomas Plekanec comes home and gets some rest after missing yesterday's game with the flu. The Habs need to be firing on all cylinders if they want to beat New Jersey in a showdown for first place at the Bell Centre on Tuesday night.
Sunday, March 2, 2008
Since the uproar surrounding Bob Gainey's trade deadline activity, or lack thereof, the Habs have won three in a row and seem to approach each game with a new level of confidence. You could hear and see the relief of guys like Michael Ryder and Chris Higgins on Tuesday night. Losing Cristobal Huet was a blow, but the Carey Price era is upon us, and the Canadiens look pretty happy with it. It's tough to lose a teammate like that but clearly the Habs didn't think they could win a playoff series with him between the pipes.
The Kostitsyn brothers are looking more dangerous every game. Their parents were in attendance last night and must have liked what they saw. Andrei got the game winner on a ridiculous wraparound, victimizing the best goaltender in the world in the process. Sergei got 7 hits and was setting up his linemates all night long. They're a lot of fun to watch, especially when they're on the ice together.
Alex Kovalev is on another level out there, especially on the power play. Pucks seem to find him and guys have an incredibly difficult time clearing the puck when he's around. His anticipation is perfect. There really aren't any holes in his game. He won't get consideration for the Hart trophy but he deserves to. He is the MVP of the top team in the East, averaging over a point per game and playing in every situation. Opposing players are terrified of being embarrassed by him. Kovy is everything a Hart trophy candidate should be: leader, mentor and finisher. The success of the Canadiens begins and ends with number 27.
Tough road trip begins late tomorrow night. The Habs have struggled against Western teams this year but if the new-look Habs stay with the current formula, they should have success.
Today, let's just enjoy first place.
Thursday, February 28, 2008
Speaking of Halak, the Gazette's Pat Hickey writes today that the Slovak netminder hopes to give Price a run for his money when it comes to the starting job. Halak doesn't have Price's ridiculous pedigree or hype but has performed admirably for over a year and shouldn't be overlooked. He got the Habs back into the playoff hunt last year when it looked like season was all but lost only to see a might-not-have been ready Cristobal Huet start the infamous last game of the year in Toronto. Halak could be the next Dominik Hasek!!
Now Jim Matheson, who writes for the Edmonton Journal, decided to do a piece on a team that's got some good things going for it. It's a real shame how far the Oilers have fallen since their Stanley Cup run a few years back. With a new owner in place, things could be looking up soon, although they have a lot of money tied up in questionable deals. In any case, Matheson writes about Carey Price having history on his side as he tries to get the Habs into the postseason and beyond. You've gotta love the Dryden and Roy comparisons being drawn here, I wonder if the kid reads any of this stuff....
And that's it. Huge back-to-back games this weekend in Buffalo and hosting the Devils on Saturday. Should give the Habs a better idea of where they stand in the East right now. With Toronto making a push, the games at the end of the season may yet have some meaning. I'm not saying they're making the playoffs but stranger things have happened. With the Philadelphia Flyers experiencing a New York Mets-like meltdown, there are spots up for grabs and you can bet Mats Sundin would love to grab one.
Tuesday, February 26, 2008
The big news is that the Cristobal Huet era is officially over. It ended with a whimper, much the way it started. Huet was subdued in his comments to the assembled members of the media and made it clear that he was disappointed to be shipped out for a 2009 2nd rounder, what amounts to peanuts as far as most fans are concerned.
On the plus side, with the way Trevor Timmins handles the Habs scouting, that pick could easily become a blue-chip prospect, unfortunately not until well after the Canadiens centennial year in 2009.
Bob Gainey made it abundantly clear that he doesn't see his team as a Stanley Cup contender at this point. Mortgaging the future for a Hossa or Richards wasn't in the cards. Bob Gainey may catch some flak for his inactivity right now, but his is a longview.
Pittsburgh payed through the nose for Hossa and he's a rental player. With all of their young talent, the Penguins can afford to lose a few cogs like Erik Christensen and Colby Armstrong. They want to win now. Their priority is now to re-sign Evgeni Malkin and possibly Jordan Staal to long term deals. Hossa is reportedly looking for a 4 year deal in the neighbourhood of $34 million. If the Habs want him, they can offer him those terms when he's a UFA.
The chemistry in the Montreal room is something you can't easily quantify with trade terms. This is a team that's winning together and growing together. The next few years look just as bright as they did two weeks ago. Brighter! They have a 2009 second round pick!!
Keep the faith, Bob knows better than any of us.
Saturday, February 23, 2008
The Canadiens certainly know how to have a ceremony and I expect this one to meet the high standard set in the past.
I'm also hoping the buffet is something good. Like maybe burgers n' tater tots. These are the things I think about.
Looking forwawrd to seeing Rick Nash in action tonight, he's a hell of a scorer. I think he could be a consistent 50 goal guy if he had the right linemates. Unfortunately, Columbus' bad draft record and bad luck with injuries has put them in a bad spot. They are on the cusp of contention and actually have a shot at their first ever playoff berth. Tonight's game is huge for them.
It will be interesting to see how the teams will respond to the long ceremony prior to the game. They don't see this type if thing in Columbus very often.
Gainey is a really funny guy and has dealt with more tragedy in his life than anyone should. It will certainly be interesting what develops on the trade front in the coming days.
Thursday, February 21, 2008
Ty Conklin, the guy who was in net for Edmonton at the Outdoor Classic a few years back, has emerged as the Penguins starting goaltender and leads the NHL with a .932 save percentage.
The Canadiens have matched a season high by winning their fourth straight game. They remain tied with Ottawa and New Jersey with 75 points, though the Sens still hold a game in hand.
Trying to make sense of Tuesday night's magic has been difficult. Jay Onrait of TSN called it the greatest game Habs fans under the age of 30 had ever seen. It was the most amazing game I have ever seen and I was lucky enough to experience it firsthand. It said so much about what this team is all about. They are a resilient bunch who go to war for each other. Say what you will about their lack of a tough guy, Steve Begin is out there punishing opposing players. Mike Komisarek is the scariest blueliner in the Eastern Conference. He has the ability to take over a game. Andrei Markov is among the best, if not the best passing defenceman in the NHL. Alex Kovalev is on another level. He explodes past opposing defenders seemingly at will and his one-timers are scary. He kills penalties, lays guys out with hard hits and is a true leader on this team.
All the talk of trades, Sundin, Hossa et al provide interesting fodder for debate but this team has chemistry. I would be reluctant to make a major lineup change, especially after Tuesday. On the other hand, it's not every day you get the chance to add a guy like Sundin or Hossa. I'm just less enthusiastic about a Tanguay or Havlat and don't really see those as positives.
Le Journal: Carbo is Thinking About the Cup
TSN's Jay Onrait on Tuesday
La Presse says Hossa deal all but done
Edmonton Journal: Lowe is After Hossa
Le Journal: Hockey Madness has Officially Set In
Wednesday, February 20, 2008
Michael Ryder of all people kept the Habs in it long enough for the rest of the tem to catch up. Mike Komisarek looked like a bull at the rodeo waiting to get out of the box late in the second period. When he did, he punished several Rangers and got penalized again. It was one of those good penalties you hear about sometimes. The team got an inspired effort from Cristobal Huet and Kovy sealed the deal when he tied it on a late third-period power-play.
People are freaking out. The Habs have had some huge wins this year but this one was something else entirely. The Bell Centre was as loud as I've heard it in my professional career or my time as a mere fan. "La Foule" never gave up on their team, although a chant of "Hossa, Hossa." did start when it was 5-0.
This is the only city in the NHL that cheers a faceoff win with 19 seconds left.
Komisarek said his ears were still ringing after the game. He also said there is no doubt that the Canadiens have the best fans in the NHL.
I agree. Sometimes, I miss being one of them. Hopefully I can get away with some unprofessional fan-like activity when circumstances dictate.
Penguins demain soir, hard act to follow.....
Sunday, February 17, 2008
I had a lot of confidence in the Habs going into this weekend, citing the fact that they matched up well with the Flyers and had turned a corner in winning a game against a Florida Panthers team that played a more complete game on Wednesday night but still lost. The Habs really stepped it up. They played fantastic team defense and Francis Bouillon in particular was brilliant in bothe weekend games.
The play where Bouillon did his Bobby Orr impersonation and went end-to-end, finally roofing it with 1.2 seconds left sums up this Flyers team perfectly. Instead of playing some D, Jim Vandermeer decided to go to the corner and attempt to get Josh Gorges to drop the gloves, easily creating a 2 on 1 break. Bouillon even looked back in astonishment before scoring. Carey Price saw the play all the way and yelled at Gorges not to drop the gloves, "wait! wait!" he cried, and Gorges just pointed at the other end and skated away when the puck was in the net. Bouillon's first goal in almost a year.
Saku Koivu and Michael Ryder scored at a time a time when both of their futures on this team look uncertain. Ryder is the one between the two who may be gone come Feb 26.
All of a sudden the Canadiens have a calm goaltender who has taken the helm of this team since being recalled from Hamilton. Before his demotion earlier this year, Price had ups and downs, but since being recalled from Hamilton he has been a force between the pipes for the Canadiens, who are tied for first place in the Eastern Conference, although the Sens hold a game in hand.
It's the first time the Canadiens have been in such a postion in a long long time. As the playoff races heat up, the Habs are hot and the Flyers are in a freefall. So are the Sens. It's time to start thinking about playoff matchups and if a deadline deal can improve this team going forward without sacrificing too much.
Thursday, February 14, 2008
Now that we've gotten that out of the way, let's talk for a moment about Carey Price. The kid had the best game I've seen from him with a CH on his chest. He was blameless on the only goal he allowed and was cooler than Miles Davis for several third period power plays. He created space in front of his net by removing bodies himself. He cleared the puck out of the zone himself and looked like Rick DiPietro in the process during one PK. Yvon Pednault had it right when he spoke of Price "closing the door." on several Florida chances.
He didn't beat the Detroit Red Wings, but he did get his team a win when it seemed impossible. His confidence is contagious and when he's rolling people tend to win Gold Medals and Calder Cups.
Cristobal Huet is probably squirming and it will be interesting to see what Carbo does with the back-to-back games this weekend.
Loose Pucks: Trade rumours continue to swirl around the NHL and the Habs are believed to be
in the thick of the talks. It's absolute lunacy to suggest that there's any interest in Michael Ryder. I would be happy to get a 4th round pick for Ryder. One guy I'd like to see out there is Chris Gratton. He is strong on faceoffs and has a mean streak that's sorely lacking on this team. He's also more mobile than Bryan Slowinski.
Things certainly changed with the Higgins goal last night. All of a sudden the Habs are still contending when it looked like they may be in a total freefall at times last night.
Tuesday, February 12, 2008
The problem I have with it is the timing. Going out to celebrate the night after being ripped to shreds by your closest geographical and at one time statistical rival. But no one's telling me I can't hit the town if I have a rough day at work.....
It's back to business for the Canadiens with four games in the next six days. They can't afford to let this business affect their game. It's crunch time and they're facing teams that they shouldn't have any trouble beating. Tampa Bay is actually playing some good hockey right now, going 6-3-1 in their last ten games but this Habs team should come out of the gate hungry. The Panthers are another team the Habs should beat, and Carey Price looks to be the guy who'll get the nod tomorrow night in Sunrise.
Both Cristobal Huet and Price need to be better than they were on Saturday night if they want to get points out of these games. The other thing the Habs need is secondary scoring. The Kovalev line will only take this team so far before teams devote everything to shutting them down. If guys like Saku Koivu, Chris Higgins and Michael Ryder can't light the lamp then the Habs are in more serious trouble than some may currently think.
If they can't win tonight, the panic button will be pressed by 95% of Hab nation. Demands for trades, benchings and more cowbell will resonate all the way down to Bob's office at the Bell Centre.
Sunday, February 10, 2008
Chris Higgins can't catch a break. I thought Michael Ryder looked pretty good with his old linemates, on one shift in particular they did a great job of creating havoc in the Sens end but couldn't get one over the line. The Habs just kept hitting the post all night long whereas the Sens top line could do no wrong.
The Senators were hungry to make a statement and re-establish themselves as the top team in the Eastern Conference and did just that. It's one of those games that you just have to forget. The Canadiens can't afford to live in the past and frankly deserved better last night.
Loose Pucks: One of the worst games of the year for Patrice Brisebois, one of the best for Sergei Kostitsyn, who caught a serious punch to the jaw from Wade Redden. The Kostitsyn borthers were the brightest spot on the night for the Habs. Roman Hamrlik should be back on Tuesday night, and not a moment too soon. The Habs have given up an alarming 18 goals in the last four games.
Thursday, February 7, 2008
1. Ryan McDonagh (NCAA) - 12th overall, 2007 entry draft - The Habs got McDonagh at 12 and many teams had him rated even higher than that. He missed the US team's development camp over the summer and as a result was left off the US team at the recent World Junior Tournament. Should be there next year. A big body on the blue line who has drawn comparisons to Mike Komisarek. Winner of the 2007 Minnesota Mr Hockey award as the best High School hockey player in the state and currently patrolling the blueline at University of Wisconsin-Madison in NCAA division I and has 5 goals and 7 assists for 12 points in 28 games. Considered a blue-chip defensive prospect which many teams are rumoured to be interested in adding to their lineup as soon as next season.
2. Yannick Weber (OHL) - 3rd round, 73rd overall, 2006 entry draft - A later round gem for Trevor Timmins and co, Weber recently won the OHL hardest shot contest at the all-star game with a 99.2 mph shot. In his second year for the Kitchener Rangers, Weber has emerged as one of the top defenseman in the OHL with 19 goals and 26 assists for 45 points in 41 games. Played for his home country of Switzerland at the World Juniors and received some consideration as the tournament's top d-man.
3. Alexei Emelin (RSL) - 3rd round, 84th overall, 2004 entry draft - Emelin is still playing in the Russian Super League and has had success there. A mobile defenseman who makes a good first pass and plays with a mean streak. 111 pim in 48 games and a big part of that mega-brawl which took place earlier this year in Russia.
4. Pavel Valentenko (AHL) - 5th round, 139th overall 2006 entry draft - Valentenko possesses a hard shot, good skating ability and has shown some flashes of pro potential in the last few weeks as he's been asked to play a bigger role for the Hamilton Bulldogs. Good size at 6'2 and 212 lbs.
5. Mathieu Carle (AHL) - 2nd round, 53rd overall 2006 entry draft - Carle impressed the Habs brass in training camp before getting hurt. He has since bounced back and is giving coach Don Lever quality minutes in Hamilton and is a quality prospect at this point.
6. PK Subban (OHL) - 2nd round, 43rd overall 2007 entry draft - Subban is one of the fastest defencemen in the OHL and a gold medallist for Team Canada at the 2008 World Junior Tournament. He played a limited role on that team but should play a major role on next year's squad. Subban is confident, funny and looks like a future NHLer at this point. Subban grew up cheering for the Habs and was on the verge of tears of joy on draft day.
7. David Fischer (NCAA) - 1st round, 20th overall 2006 entry draft - Fischer is another Minnesota Mr Hockey winner with size and ability. His viability as a professional has been called into question on numerous occasions, especially recently but has had a strong second half of the season for Minnesota and looks to be emerging as a quality prospect.
The theme here is the Canadiens wealth of the talent on the blue line is one of those "good" problems you hear about. They are far less deep at centre and right wing but with the amount of defensive talent they have coming up in the system, you'd have to think that some space will be created. Some questions still surround all these guys but the future on the blueline certainly looks bright.
Wednesday, February 6, 2008
You can't help but wonder who will end up making the big club and who will spend their years in lesser leagues, especially with the trade deadline less than three weeks away.
Here's a review of what's going down on the blueline and what the Habs are looking at going forward and who fits where.
1. Mike Komisarek - The foundation of this defence for the the foreseeable future. Just turned 26 and has emerged as a bona fide number one with upside. Bob Gainey needs to lock him up long before any kind of restricted free agency comes along, teams would gladly give up their future to add a guy like him.
2. Andrei Markov - The other cornerstone. Signed through 2011 and emerging as a Norris trophy contender. Markov gives his team quality minutes in every situation and plays a solid defensive game. He's very hard to beat and makes one of the first passes in the league. Not going anywhere.
3. Roman Hamrlik - A veteran presence who came pretty much as advertised and exceeded some expectations. Hamrlik plays a solid, mistake-free game and is a smart player. The only knock on him is that his contract is big and lengthy. In the first year of a four year deal that pays him $22 million. That's $5.5 million per season for a guy who will be 36 years old in the final year of the deal. Obviously, the Canadiens organization has a lot of faith that Hamrlik will continue to compete at a high level for years to come.
4. Mark Streit - A 7th round sleeper who does it all. Streit co-quarterbacks (did I just make up a term?) the number one power play unit in the NHL, kills penalties, plays forward when needed and gets a tidy pile of points along the way. Sometimes has trouble in his own zone when things get physical and some might argue is far more effective as a forward in even strength situations. Pending unrestricted free agent who may be looking to cash in. I'd like to see Streit signed to a two-year deal for about $1.75 to $2.25 per season but would be reluctant to pay even that much with the guys coming up in the next few years.
5. Josh Gorges - Starting to look like a solid 5th or 6th defenceman when he gets to play an everyday role on his natural side. Makes a good first pass and has settled into a groove since struggling to find an identity on the team at times since being acquired a year ago. Never going to blow you away but at 23 his upside remains a factor.
6. Francis Bouillon - Good skater who can hit. 32 years old so we've likely seen the best of Bouillon. Prone to the occasional defensive error or breakdown but generally solid. Maybe a tad overpaid at $1.875 million. Probably not a big part of any long term plans.
7. Mathieu Dandenault - Not really a defenceman anymore. Making too much money ($1.75 million) with another year remaining on his deal and a team-worst -10 rating. Someone who may be on the way out if Gainey can find any takers. Chances are he won't. Dandenault works hard and has three more Stanley Cup rings than anyone not named Brisebois on the Habs blueline.
8. Patrice Brisebois - A veteran presence who makes a lot of mistakes. The Canadiens have a dismal record with Brisebois in the lineup and many fans wouldn't be sad to see him gone. He's here for this year only and I'd be shocked to see him play in the postseason.
The unit has stayed remarkably injury-free throughout the year and that's paid huge dividends for the team.
The gist of the rundown is this:
-Hamrlik, Komisarek and Markov are the foundation of a solid future.
-Streit and Gorges are good options, although Streit looks better at forward while manning the point on the power play.
-Dandenault, Brisebois and Bouillon are the guys least likely to be here in the next two or three years and more likely to be dealt in the coming weeks although probably not too attractive to most teams.
On Friday I'll get into the prospects that will be challenging for jobs in the coming years.
Tuesday, February 5, 2008
The Canadiens look like they'll be without Roman Hamrlik, who missed the morning skate today with the flu after going -3 on Sunday against the Rangers. Michael Ryder is likely to be the other guy left aside. If the Habs win, they're only one point behind the Sens, who once had what looked like an insurmountable lead in the division and conference.
TSN.ca releases their power rankings every week and this week, the Sens were dropped to #17 and the Habs jumped up to #2, their highest position of the year and trailing only the mighty Detroit Red Wings. I don't know if any f the Sens pay attention to things like this, but it's indicative of the attitude of the hockey world toward their team. They're not really taken seriously as a Cup contender, especially given their current situation between the pipes and with injuries.
Martin Gerber has been brilliant for periods of his career and dismal at others. It seems that every time he's given the title of number one goaltender, he loses his composure and has a bad game or five. He's a guy who's at his best when competing for a starting job, ideally in a tandem situation. He melted down against the Habs in the playoffs a few years ago before Cam Ward stole his starting job and went on to win the Conn Smythe trophy. If that version of Gerber shows up to the Bell Centre tonight, the Habs may be battling for first place on Saturday in Ottawa.
But let's not get ahead of ourselves.
This Senators team does a great job against the Habs. Chris Neil always gets under Alex Kovalev's skin. Jason Spezza doesn't have Sheldon Souray to undress anymore but he still has a lot of success against the Habs. Mike Fisher is a great player who will have to step up if the Sens want to stay on top.
The story broke last night that the Senators head scout Frank Jay was signed by the Habs after resigning his post with Ottawa. This is a real coup for the Canadiens. Their much-maligned pro scouting gets a boost on this one and adding a guy to your staff with a track record like Jay's bodes well for the next few draft years, which are supposed to the best since 2005.
The Bell Centre will be rockin tonight, that's for sure. The only question is whether the Habs will keep them in the game as their 7th man.
Monday, February 4, 2008
The Habs had an up and down weekend. After pounding the lacklustre Islanders on Saturday afternoon, the Habs came out flying and jumped out to a 3-0 lead. The Rangers turned it into a game by getting physical with the Habs and playing their style of hockey. The Habs are more of a finesse team and that was evident for the first half of the game, when they were flying all over the ice and their crisp passing had the Rangers on their heels. The game turned right after that and Ryan Hollweg took his frustration for out on little Andrei Kostitsyn for an elbow he absorbed from Alex Kovalev. Guy Carbonneau kept Kovy off the ice for about four minutes after the hit and finally Hollweg just went after a guy with the same initials.
I maintain that if Sergei hadn't sold the hit to the officials by laying prone on the ice for a minute or two, no major or game misconduct penalties would have been assessed on the play. Look at Chris Higgins the day before: Just as vicious a hit, but Higgins bounced back up so it went mostly unpunished.
I'm not overly concerned about the loss being a turning point for the Habs. I didn't give them much of a chance going into the game but I admit to being surprised they managed to blow a three-goal lead. Mitch Melnick was on point today when he mentioned that several veterans, including Roman Hamrlik and Saku Koivu, looked tired on Sunday afternoon.
It's too bad the Habs couldn't close out the Rangers, if they had then tomorrow night's game would have been a battle for first place in the Eastern Conference. It's still a huge game as the Habs can pull to within a point of the Sens with another tilt on Saturday. There's no reason to think that the Habs won't come out strong, the time is now for them to overtake the Sens, who are dealing with infighting and injuries to Daniel Alfredsson and Dany Heatley. If they don't catch them with those two guys out of the lineup, they won't catch them at all.