Thursday, November 20, 2008

Five Issues

The roller coaster season is just getting going but doom and gloom abound in Montreal. Finger pointing is at a season high right now for a team that's 10-5-2 through 17 games. It's impossible to pinpoint the exact problem but that won't stop me from trying. Here are the top five issues plaguing your Canadiens.

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


Watching the Canadiens against Carolina last night was a painful experience. Carey Price was outstanding but the signs of trouble continue to multiply for this group. Guy Carbonneau's revamped lines have provided no inspiration for the team and his post-game comments are becoming more and more ridiculous. The coach is running out of ideas fast and the catastrophic November continues tomorrow night for this team.

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

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.