Monday, November 17, 2008

Sweet Relief

Alex Kovalev allowed Montreal to breathe a collective sigh of relief by roofing the backhander that beat the lowly St Louis Blues last night. The slide the Habs have been experiencing combined with the news that organizers of the Grand Prix will not pay off extortionist Bernie Ecclestone and lose the race that has become a staple of summer in this fine city was making it hard to stay optimistic as temperatures drop.

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.

No comments: