Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Habs Mid-Season Report Card

The Habs 4-2 loss to the Ottawa Senators, on Monday, marked the official mid-point of their season. Having now played 41 games and with ALMOST the entire team healthy, I thought it was a good time to review the 1st half of the season. I have provided an overall review, a look at special teams and grades for each player CURRENTLY on the roster broken down by position. Finally, I have listed the biggest surprises and the biggest disappointments so for. So here goes...

From a team perspective, we know where we stand. The Habs are a .500 hockey team (19-19-3) and have 41 points in the standing. Repeating this same performance over the next 41 games will leave them with 82 points on the season - not nearly enough to make the playoffs. Needless to say, that Habs have to play better than .500 hockey if they want any chance of making the playoffs.

Now that the Habs are getting their injured warriors back (Markov, Gionta - Hamrlik is about a week or less away), we are finally starting to see what this team can really do. Keep in mind that the Habs played all but 5 games without Markov this year - who is one of the top three defensemen in the league. Also, Markov and Hamrlik - arguably the Habs top two defensemen - have not played in the same game yet this season i.e. one or the other has been hurt. Once the Habs get Hamrlik back - which could be this week - Montreal should be in much better shape. Perhaps not good enough to challenge the Penguins or Caps, but definitely good enough to beat the Leafs, Sens, Panthers and such, of the hockey world. These teams are the ones that the Habs are in a head-to-head battle with so, barring injury, the Habs SHOULD be able to make the playoffs.

Special Teams, A+:
With a powerplay and penalty kill that once ranked 25th - 28th in the league, the Habs have somehow turned things around. As of this morning, the Canadiens have the #1 power play in the league - a crown they have held in two of the last three seasons - clicking at a 25% success rate. The PP has been fueled by Marc-Andre Bergeron's (MAB) booming shots from the point and by Markov's return.

In addition, the Habs' PK unit now ranks 8th in the league operating at an 84.2% success rate. Both special teams plus solid goaltending have been the keys to the Habs success so far this season. That is a slightly worrisome stat, however, since the Habs are near the bottom of the league in 5 on 5 scoring. This is something they will have to correct, going forward, because as we all know, power plays are more difficult to come by during the playoffs.

Tomas Plekanec, A+
44 points (8G, 36A) in 41 games and is +8
Plekanec has simply been the Habs best and most consistent forward all season long. Also, as he has shot to the top of league scoring - he is currently tied for 7th overall with - Plekanec has been getting more and more physical attention/abuse from opposing players. No matter though, as Pleks is ready to fight through checks night after night. He is truly hitting his stride and will be an excellent addition to the Czech national team at the Olympics.

Mike Cammalleri, A
35 points (19G, 16A) in 41 games and is +12
With 19 goals in 41 games, Cammy is on pace to pot 38 goals this season. So much for him needing Jarome Iginla to be successful, eh? Also, he has not been a force on the PP like he was in Calgary. This year he only has 3 goals and 6 assists on the PP, meaning he is scoring more 5 on 5. That is a good thing for the Habs. The downside? Cammy has shown to be a bit of a streaky scorer, but that is usually the case with true snipers. This is witnessed by him scoring 6 goals over 7 games and then scoring zero goals over the following 6 games. The other slight problem is that Cammy doesn't/can't score much on the road as only 5 of his 19 goals have been scored away from the cozy confines of the Bell Center. That aside, Cammy has been an outstanding player for the Habs and is proving that Gainey made a good call in signing him for 5 years. Not to mention that he has fully embraced the history and pride that comes along with being a Montreal Canadiens. It says here that he should be the next captain of this team.

Andrei Kostitsyn, B
25 points (12G, 13A) in 38 games and is +4
Ahh Andrei, Andrei, Andrei. So talented and so young. Hopefully Jacques Martin has knocked some sense into him. When the season began, Martin said that his two biggest 'projects' this year were the two Kostitsyn brothers. The strategy he employed to get them on board was 'divide and conquer'. While Sergei was banished to his room (Hamilton) to think about what he had done (ride the bus and eat fast food), Andrei was kept in Montreal and was relegated to the 4th line. He was being punished for not conforming to the system. Then, when Martin thought he had enough, he slowly started giving Andrei more ice time, and it worked. After scoring 5 points (1G, 4A) over his first 20 games, Andrei got the message and woke up. Since then, he has scored 20 points (11G, 9A) over his next 18 games including at least 1 point in his last 6 games. Andrei is currently on pace to score 24 goals this season, but with a little vigor could get closer to 30. There is no question that Andrei is a 30+ goal man, and hopefully this season was the kick in the butt he needs to get over the hump.

Scott Gomez, C+
24 points (5G, 19A) in 37 games and is +1
When Bob Gainey traded (Chris Higgins, Ryan McDonough and Pavel Valentenko) to the NY Rangers in return for Gomez (and Pyatt), and then tried to pass him off as THE 1st line center we had been needing, a lot of people were upset. Upset because of his ridiculous salary - he is currently being paid 8 million dollars per season - and that Gainey gave up too much in adding McDonough to the mix. That being said, there is and was never any question that Gomez was a great player just that he is not, and will never be, an 8 millions dollar man. That aside, when the season started, Gomez looked pretty good lined-up next to Gomez. You could see the obvious chemistry the two of them had together and Gomez, while not putting up Earth-shattering numbers, we definitely contributing. However, when Gionta went down with a broken foot over a month ago, Gomez disappeared from the map. Night after night, he was completely invisible out there and not able to contribute at all. That changed, over the last 10 games or so, as Gomez seemed to be finding a bit of a groove and started putting points up on the board. Now that Gionta is back, that line - with Pouliot - looks like it might be a legitimate second line. Time will tell. That aside, Gomez has so far been a disappointment. He needs to bring more, over then next 41 games, and be close to a point per game player if the Habs are going to get into the playoffs.

Glen Metropolit, A+
19 points (10G, 9A) in 35 games and is -2
Quelle surpris! Aside from Plekanec, I would have to say that there has been no bigger surprise on the team than Glen Metropolit. Picked-up off of waivers last year, Metro has come in and pushed Maxim Lapierre out of the 3rd line center role. That is as much a reflection on Metro's good work as it is on Lapierre's bad work. Playing on a solid third line and contributing on the 2nd wave of the PP, Metro is currently on pace to pot 20 goals this season. Who woulda thunk it?!

Brian Gionta, A-
14 points (8G, 6A) in 20 games and is +3
Despite being injured for 27 games so far, Gionta has been another excellent off-season addition to this team. Aside from his play on the ice - he is on pace to score 20+ goals despite missing two thirds of the season so far - he has been a leader for this team in every way. He, along with Cammy, is another leading candidate for the vacant captaincy position on this team. Having him back, for the second half, should only help Gomez and could make the Habs give the Habs a 2-line scoring punch for the first time in years!

Max Pacioretty, C +
13 points (3G, 10A) in 41 games and is -4
MaxPac is currently on pace to score 26 points this season. That is not bad for a rookie but also not that great given the 'potential' we were told about him at the draft. When he was chosen, 21st overall two years ago, Timmins said that he was an Eric Cole type player. A true power forward that is extremely difficult to acquire via trade. While this may still prove to be true, MaxPac hasn't showed more than a few flashes so far this year. While it is true that he is playing in only his 1st full season and that with line mates Moen and Metro, he is not playing on a full-tilt offensive line, he still has not shown enough consistency. He is young, however, and I believe that a playoff run this year will go a long way towards helping him start to peak, next year.

Travis Moen, B+
10 points (7G, 3A) in 41 games and is -2
Moen has been a solid, consistent contributor all season. He comes exactly as advertised and is an excellent grinding, gritty player. He hits, he fights, he scores the occasional goal, he kills penalties and generally drives opposing defensemen crazy. Another solid pickup by Gainey. If there is one reproach, it is that -2 next to his name. While your 3rd and 4th lines won't score a lot, you expect them to at least keep the puck out of their own net.

Maxim Lapierre, D
8 points (2G, 6A) in 41 games and is -10
The 2008-2009 NHL season saw Maxim Lapierre arrive as an excellent NHL player. He beat out Kyle Chipchura for the 3rd line center spot and became an excellent player in all three zones. This season, however, Max has taken an unequivocal step back in his development. Expected to carry the third line with Latendresse and Moen, Max instead fell flat on his face. This can be evidenced by his -10 rating. Watching him on the ice is watching the epitome of tentativeness. Watch how often he pulls up on a hit rather than finishing his check. Maxim looks lost out there on the ice and is no longer helping the team in anyway. He, in my opinion, is a player that could be moved as part of a package, later in the year.

Matt D'Agostini, D-
4 points (2G, 2A) in 25 games and is -6
Speaking of players who could be moved a part of a package, Matt D'Agostini is another disappointment for the Habs. He looks like he is constantly on the verge of scoring but for some reason he just isn't able to find the handle. Granted, Dags was injured with a severe hit vs. Chicago earlier this year and missed significant time with a concussion. But even before that, you could see that the effort was there but that the results are just not coming.

Sergei Kostitsyn, D
4 points (1G, 3A) in 18 games and is -4
And that brings us to player #3 on the trade bait list. Sergei, to his credit, eventually took his lumps like a man when he saw that there was no way out of the Martin-Gainey snare. He put his head down and worked his butt of in Hamilton to make himself a better player. Since being called up, you can see that Sergei has checked his ego at the door. The problem is that he is not producing or contributing anything to this team. He used to be a gritty, aggressive player but now he seems like a soft, lost player. He is currently playing on the 4th line and if there is one thing we have learned with Martin, it is that the 4th line means that you are replaceable. We'll see what the trade deadline brings.

Georges Laraque, F
2 points (0G, 2A) in 22 games and is -6
I'll be short on this one. The Habs simply have no use for Laraque. He is a fighter who never wants to fight. He is a bully who refuses to intimidate. He is a heavy weight who needs a written invitation to beat someone up. He adds nothing to this team and takes away 1.5 million dollars of cap space. Release him on waivers or buy him out immediately. That would be my call.

Benoit Pouliot, N/A – too early, but so far so good!
1 point (1G, 0A) in 3 games and is EVEN
Again, too early to tell anything, he it is clear that Pouliot has a high level of raw talent. It remains to be seen whether Martin can mold him into an elite player or not. Keep in mind that he was drafted 4th overall.

Ryan O'Byrne, C
0 points (0G, 0A) in 22 games and is -2
Up and down season for OB. He started strong and looked to be filling the void left by Komisarek's departure until he went down with an injury in the 2nd game of the season. When he initially came back from injury, he looked like he was picking up where he left off. Since then, however, he has been up and down. At points, he has looked like the lost, confidence-less player of last season. At other times he has been throwing his hulking 6'5" frame around with great effect. I still think that he will become a solid 4-6th defenseman for the Habs. You never want to quit on a young defenseman as it takes much long for D-man to learn the NHL game than forwards.

Paul Mara, C-
7 points (0G, 7A) in 34 games and is -12
While there is no questioning Mara heart - playing through injury, putting it all out there on ever shift, sticking up for teammates - Mara just doesn't seem to be a very good defenseman and his -12 rating times him for 18th worst in the league. Not good. Not good at all. Mara, is another player who could potentially be moved as part of a package. His 1-year contract is not abusive and whether it is this year or next, I believe that Mara will be the spare part that will disappear to make room for youth (i.e. Subban and/or Weber).

Josh Gorges, B+
7 points (2G, 5A) in 41 games and is +1
Josh is as consistent as any player on the Habs and has been for years now. You might not notice him on the ice and that is because he neither does anything fancy nor does he make many mistakes. He is always a consistently solid 5th-7th D-man and great in the locker room too.

Andrei Markov, A+
7 points (3G, 4A) in 6 games and is +3
What can be said about one of is not THE best defenseman in the league. While we all missed Markov while he was out of the lineup, having him back has reminded us all just how good a player he is. Markov is THE General on this team and leads, on the ice, from the back end. Whether is it his great 1st pass, his jumping in offensively, blocking shots, cutting off passes or quarterbacking the power play, Markov does it all and excels at all aspects of his game. Give this guy a full season, this year, and he is in the running for the Norris Trophy.

Jaroslav Spacek, A+
12 points (3G, 9A) in 39 games and is +7
Roman Hamrlik, A+
14 points (5G, 9A) in 34 games and is -2
Spacek and Hamrlik both get top mark and I combined them because they have both been invaluable to the Habs this season. No other players on this team took more on their shoulders when Markov went down with an injury in the 1st game of the season. Playing 20+ (and often 25+) minutes a game 5 on 5, on the PK and on the PP, Spacek and Hamrlik, both over 35 years old, have played well above their physical age and have done an excellent job of anchoring an injury riddled defensive squad in the absence of Markov. It is frightening to think how bad the Habs would have been without their yeoman-like service.

Marc-Andre Bergeron, B+
21 points (9G, 12A) in 34 games and is -5
Along with Metro and Plekanec, MAB has been a pleasant surprise for the Habs and a need weapon on the PP. His booming shot from the point falls in line with the likes of Sheldon Souray and Mark Streit and has again helped the Habs PP rocket to #1 in the league. While there is no question that MAB has many weaknesses on the defensive side of the puck, his offensive prowess and his 750K salary make his a great addition to this team. In all honesty, he should play 5 mins a game on the 4th line, and on the 1st PP unit, and that's it. Keep him away from having any defensive responsibility and he could be an excellent, and cheap, keeper for years to come.

Hal Gill, C-
2 points (1G, 1A) in 27 games and is -4
Hal Gill is Hal Gill. He isn't flash, he is very slow, he makes a ton of turnovers but he does have some redeeming qualities. He is an incredible shot-blocker and is likely one of the Habs best penalty killers, down-low. Watching his lie down on the ice to block the cross-crease passing lane, is a thing of beauty. He is also apparently an excellent player in the locker room. So far this season, Hal has performed up to the top of his capabilities which are, unfortunately, severely limited by his excessively slow foot speed. I, personally, would not have signed him in the off-season and definitely not for three seasons but we are stuck with him now. If we keep in mind that he is extremely limited in what he can do but that he can put in a decent 10-15 mins and be a top PKer, then our expectations will be managed. If we are expecting anything more from him, then we will be extremely disappointed.

Carey Price, B+
26GP, 9W, 13L, 2.74 GAA, .912 SV%, 0 shutouts
While he started his season flat, and the team in front of him was terrible, Price found his groove and flashed the brilliance that we all knew he had within him. While he hasn't fully grabbed the reigns yet, he looks ready to do so. Keep in mind that he is still only 22 years old and goaltenders don't tend to reach their full capacity until they have had four or five years under their belt - as witnessed by the Pens Fleury. Give Price another year or so and he will be among the elite keepers in the league.

Jaroslav Halak, A+
17GP, 10W, 6L, 2.56 GAA, .924 SV%, 1 shutout
What could be better than asking to be traded and then going out to steal four game in a row AND subsequently being named the 1st star of the week by the NHL? Not much. Right now, the Habs are sitting pretty in net and sitting even prettier on the trade market as Halak's stock continues to climb. Halak is, in my opinion, the perfect example of a goalie that needs a few years of seasoning before he is able to show that he is truly a #1 goalie in this league. With every 40+ save performance he has, Halak is showing that he has arrived and that he is ready to take a team on his back. I think that Halak represents the Habs best trading asset this year and combined with a player or two and/or a pick or two, Gainey should be able to put together a deal to bring a star player to the team.

Biggest Surprises This Season:
Tomas Plekanec, MAB, Glen Metropolit

Biggest Disappointments This Season:
Maxim Lapierre, George Laraque

Agree with my ratings? Disagree? Let me know in the comment section and VOTE on Habs To The Top ( Poll closes Jan 16th, 2010 during the third period of the Ottawa game.


Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Post Game Quick Hits: Habs 2 - Sens 4

In an interesting turn of events, the Ottawa Senators pulled a 'Montreal Canadiens' move on the Habs by being outshot and outplayed but ultimately winning the game 4-2. Full marks to the Sens who were a team decimated by injurying and were missing Daniel Alfredsonn, Jason Spezza and Nick Foligno. On paper, this game should have been a walk in the park for the Habs and for the first 20 to 40 minutes, it was. Montreal roared out to a 2-0 lead in the first ten minutes of the game on goals by Cammalleri - his goal made it 1-0 and was the 20,000th goal in Habs franchise history - and Pouliot - his 1st in a Habs uniform - and continued to apply the pressure and outshoot the Sens. The problem is that A) Pascal Leclaire was spectacular on the night and B) the Habs couldn't cash in our their chances. That paved the way for Peter Regin to bring the Sens to within 1 with 8 mins left in the 1st. Up until that point, however, the Habs had the Sens by the scruff of their neck. They unfortunately let them get up off of the matt and that was their undoing.

1 - The Habs powerplay was a non-factor last night because the Habs failed to draw even one penalty. Yep, that's right, they were blanked on the penalty, while the Sens enjoyed the Habs indiscipline and the subsequent five powerplays - they converted on the second one to tie the game.

2 - Halak is human after all! Whew, what a run he had though. After being named the 1st star of the week in the NHL, Halak let in three goals last night and did not look like the brick wall that the last four opponents have faced. Also, and perhaps coincidentally, the Habs final outshot their opponent last night (31-28) and Halak faced less than 30 shots for the first time in a month. Maybe he needs that extra rubber to be sharp. Who knows. Either way, Halak can not be blamed for the loss last night.

3 - Who's 2nd line is it anyway? Wow, what a difference a day makes. More specifically, what a difference Brian Gionta made to that second line. Gomez, Gionta and Pouliot were a force last night. They had chance after chance after chance. The Habs new and improved second scoring line wreaked havoc on the Sens defenders all night and this can only bode well for the future. The result of all of their hard work was Pouliot's 1st goal in a Habs uniform, 1 assist for Gomez, 1 assist for Gionta and 14 of the Habs 31 shots on net. Wow. We all knew that Gionta and Gomez click, but Pouliot seems to be a good addition the that line as well. Now, one game does not a season make, however if they can keep it up, Montreal might suddenly have a great one-two combination.

4 - Markov is a stud. Andrei Markov continues to show that he is one of the best defenseman in the league. Last night he added another assist and a +1 to his stats giving him 7 points in 6 games. That and he is clearly helping the Habs breakouts and powerplays. Of course Habs' fans missed him when he was gone, but having him back is showing us, even more, how important he is to our team.

5 - Last night's fourth line consisted of Lapierre centering SK74 and Dags. Umm, ya. While they tried hard all night I could not help but think that all three might be expendable and could end up being part of trades going forward. It will be interesting to see what happens before the trade deadline but my question is: Who, if any, of those three players will still be playing for the Habs in April?

I guess we knew the streak couldn't last forever but last night was a VERY winnable game that the Habs let slip away. So instead of leapfrogging the Sens into 6th place overall in the East, the Habs now sit three points back of the Sens (who have two games in hand), and have to once again worry about the teams behind them in the standings.

Last night was the 41st game of the Habs season marking the offical halfway point of the season. So far, in this up and down season, that Habs are playing .500 hockey - 41GP, 19W, 19L, 3OTL for a total of 41 points. If they put up the same numbers over the next 41 games, they'll end the season with 82 points, a far cry from the 93 that got them the last playoff spot last year.

Now a day off before the Habs head to Tampa and Miami to finish off this road trip.


PS: I will have my halfway mark player grades going up soon. Checkback often!

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Post Game Quick Hits: Habs 5 - Canes 1

After waiting for 64 years the Habs finally won a December 23rd road game. I always find little stats like that pretty useless but as human beings we seem to track even the minutest of details. And as such, it is good to know that "the curse" has been broken. Ummm....ya.

In demolishing the Canes 5 to 1, the Habs extended their winning streak to three games and are now 4 and 0 with Markov in the lineup this season. Aside from Markov, there are a ton of things to be happy about, with this team, as we approach the 41-game halfway point of the season. Unfortunately, there a lot of bad signs that do not bode well going forward. Despite the ups and down of the season so far, the Habs have managed to remain a .500 hockey club - they are current 18-18-3 for 39 points on the season tied for 9th overall in the East. Let's hope that the return of Markov and the three-game streak can spur them to a better record for the rest of the season. If it can, the playoffs will be very much a reality for the Habs this season.

1 - While I usually start with the goaltending and while Halak was again incredible last night, today I simply have to put Tomas Plekanec at the top of the list. Plekanec who has 9 points over his last three games. Plekanec who, with 43 points (7G, 36A) now sits in sole possession of 6th overall in league scoring. Plekanec who last year had 39 points (20G, 19A) all season. Plekanec who has become THE offensive catalyst of this team and who is on pace to put up 90 points (15G, 76A) and become the 1st Habs 90-point man since Pierre Turgeon. Plekanec who, playing at even strength, on the 1st PP unit and the 1st PK unit, is on his way to being a TOP Selke Trophy candidate and who might start getting considering for the Hart Trophy too. Yep, that guy. Night after unbelievable night, Plekanec is simply dominant. Despite being given a ton of extra physical attention from opposing teams, Pleks is fighting through it all and is putting up a ton of points in the process.

While his line with Cammy and Ak46 - who is also on fire now with 18 points in his last 16 games - is on fire, we have to remember that Pleks spent the first 20 or so games playing with a revolving door of line mates. He also started the year as the teams 2nd line center but despite both facts he leads the team in scoring and is now the undisputed #1 center of this team. Now, I know a lot of Habs fans are freaking out that Gainey has not yet signed the soon to be UFA, but it was explained to me last night that by CBA rules a player cannot be offered two contracts between July 1st and December 31 of the same calendar year. The Habs already gave Pleks a 1 year contract, during the summer, and now must wait till January 1st, 2010 before making his another contract offer. Personally, I would not be surprised to see Gainey sign Pleks BEFORE the Olympic break so he can focus his energy on putting together a good package, with Halak, to try and get more top-6 scoring. While we all know that Gainey let all of his UFA'a walk last year, I think we can rest assured that he will not do the same with Pleks and that he WILL sign him before we walks.

2 - Halak, Halak, Halak. What can we say about Halak? Talk about making a statement. This guy asked Gainey to be traded, a few weeks ago, and since then has play three back-to-back-to-back games and put in scintillating performances. Over the last three games, Halak has seen a total of 137 shots against (40, 50 and 47 respectively) and has stopped all but 4 pucks for a 1.33 GAA and a 0.97 Save Percentage. Wow. Talk about upping your value! The talk, a few weeks ago, was that Halak, by himself, was worth a 2nd round pick at best. His play since then, however, has pushed that value up considerable and people are paying attention. I would have to think that by now he is worth closer to a 1st round pick or a good prospect on his own. If Gainey can somehow package Halak with a prospect and maybe even a pick, he should be able to a top notch winger or centerman in return.

While there is certainly no shortage of teams having goaltending problems - St. Louis, Detroit, Philly, etc. - I do not know if there is a deal that is imminent. While Halak has shown that he has a high trade value he is also showing how important he is to the Habs. A month ago, Price was on an incredible tear, playing solidly in ever start and also turning aside a huge number of pucks. But he stumbled against Minnesota and ultimately losing that game. This perhaps shows that while Price is an excellent goaltender, he is still young and will still make mistakes from time to time. Price is only 22 while Halak is 24. While 24 is also young, those extra two years can make a big difference in the development of a young goaltender. Are the Habs ready to hand the reigns over, full-time, to Price? Is Sanford or Desjardins an adequate back-up?

These are things that Gainey needs to figure out, however given that he has two young and talented goaltenders, it seems like a situation that cannot last forever. While both goaltenders are talented, there is no question that Price is the ultimate heir to the Habs goaltending throne and that Halak will be jettisoned. If Gainey plays his cards right, he could end up getting a very decent return for Halak. Let's see what the trade deadline brings.

3 - Metropolit the metronome. Aside from a few games where Metro took bad, game-costing, penalties, he has been as steady as any player on the team, this season. Last night, Metro potted his 9th and 10th goal of the season - putting him on pace for 21 on the season and 40 points to boot. Not shabby for an afterthought pick up last year by Gainey. While Lapierre was excelling as the Habs 3rd line center last year, he has clearly been surpassed by Metropolit this year. And at 1 Million dollars per season, Metro is a very cap friendly player. He plays 5 on 5, on the PP and on the PK, he is a great teammate, excellent with the media and does it all with a huge smile on his face. Gotta love it! He has met and exceeded expectations and is the glue that holds the 3rd line of Metro, Moen and MaxPac, together. Good on you, Metro!

4 - Markov is the General of this team. While the Habs powerplay had started to play better before his return, it has now become the #1 ranked PP unit in the league, since his return. Before last night's game, the Habs had the best road PP in the league and 2nd place overall PP. This morning - after scoring on 3 of 5 powerplays - he Habs are #1 in both categories and you can see Markov's influence on the pp. While MAB has had a great shot all year, he now has, in Markov, someone who can consistently set him up for a tape to tape blast from the point. In addition, teams now have to key in on Markov, as an additional weapon, on the PP - and he does it all. Markov can shot from the point, make a great cross ice pass, setup MAB for a one-timer, or pinch down low for an open net back-door goal. Between him, Plekanec and MAB, opposing PK units are finding the Habs pp too much to handle and that is great, because the Habs are not so great 5 on 5.

In addition to the PP, and speaking on 5 on 5, you can see Markov's influence on all aspects of the Canadiens game. Number 1 on that list of things that Markov does well, is to make a great 1st pass. The Habs, generally speaking, spend too much time in their own zone because they are difficulty getting the puck out. Markov, in contrast, is calm and smart with the puck in his own end. He is great as getting that first, quick pass to his forwards or carrying the puck into the neutral zone himself, to turn the play around to the offensive side of the game. With 4 points (3G, 1A) in 4 games so far this season, Markov is a holiday gift that keeps on giving!

5 - Scott Gomez looks like he might be turning a corner. With 10 points in his last 12 games - including 3 assists last night - Gomez might finally be finding his game again. Gionta - who just suffered a setback in his broken foot recovery - cannot come back soon enough. He and Gomez had obvious chemistry before his injury, and Gomez has looked lost without him. More recently, though, Gomez has started to makes some great plays again and looks like he might be coming out of his funk. Having a large Pouliot on his wing last night didn't hurt either. It will be interesting to see what Gionta, Gomez and Pouliot can produce together once Gionta is back.

6 - Pouliot might turn into a great acquisition. While I want to caution fans that we need to give him a few weeks to a month to get acclimated, Pouliot might become an excellent player for the Habs. Last night, in his first game with the Habs, Pouliot played 13:28 and had two shots on net. A decent debut for the young man who was admittedly nervous the night before. One thing that was apparent is that Pouliot has obvious skills. He has great hands and uses his 6'3" frame well on the ice. The other thing that was nice to see was that he was always going to the net, with or without the puck. This is something the Latendresse was never able or willing to do, for whatever reason, and if Pouliot can do that on a consistent basis it will be a welcome addition to the Habs lineup. You can tell by watching him, that Pouliot has a lot of raw talent. If Martin has some time to work with him, you get the feeling that he might be able to develop Pouliot into an excellent 2nd line player. Time will tell.

While the Habs won the game last night - and their third in a row - we have to keep things in perspective. The Canadiens were again badly outshot by their opposition, 47-25. This is not a good trend and it has been a problem for the Habs all season long. You cannot continuously be dramatically outshot and expect to be successful in this league. Giving up 40+ shots night after night is a recipe for disaster and/or goaltender burnout. It is apparent so far, as we approach the half way mark of the season, that unless Price and/or Halak stand on their respective head, the Habs don't win games. The games that the Habs win tend to be ones where they are badly outchanced but their goalie keeps them in the game long enough for the offense to get going. Ok if it happens once in a while but not is that is your gameplay night after night, as it is with the Habs. It is clear that something has to change and I think that a large part of the problem is that the Habs are a small and not very physical team. That, in combination with Martin's passive resistance system, means that the Habs will continue to spend too much time in their own zone until Gainey brings in larger personnel to help out.

The three-game streak is great but we must also remember that it is on the heels of a 5-game losing streak. Moving forward, the Habs have to start to play better than .500 hockey is they want to make the playoffs. Let's hope they can push the trend into that direction starting Saturday versus the Leafs.

Happy holidays all!


Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Post Game Quick Hits: Habs 4 - Thrashers 3 (OT)

Habs win! Habs win! Long live the streak! A two-game streak that is. But, after losing 5 in a row, we'll take it. Last night in Atlanta, the Canadiens once again played the role of thieves, stealing two points from the suddenly within reach, Thrashers. Before last night's game, Montreal (35 points) were four points back of Atlanta (39). With the overtime win, the Habs gained one point on the Thrashers in the standings and now sit in 10th with 37 points to Atlanta's 40. The Thrashers still have three games in hand, and a regulation win would have been much better for the Habs, but two points is two points and the Habs desperately need wins before they fall completely out of playoff contention. With the win, Montreal now sits two points out of 8th place in the East, tied with the Rangers and two points behind the Panthers - who have played the same amount of games (38). A win Wednesday in Carolina, will put the Habs at 39 points in 39 games and send them into the two-day holiday break with a three-game winning streak.

1 - Halak it, Halak it a lot! Again last night, Jaroslav Halak showed the world that he does deserve more playing time and that he is ready to be a #1, somewhere in the league. After asking to be traded a week or so ago, Halak has come out of the shadows to throw down two scintillating back-to-back performances after Price was shaky in his last start. Not only did the Canadiens win both games but Halak was the number one reason why. If the scouts have been watching, they are likely salivating at the thought of having him play for them. And, with every spectacular save the Halak makes his value goes up.

Bob Gainey must be rubbing his hands together in anticipation of the holiday trade freeze being over and I'd have to say that the free-falling Flyers look like the most logical destination. Let's put Halak's performances into context a bit. Over their last two games, the Habs have been outshot 90 to 51 (40-28 vs. Isles and 50-23 vs. Thrashers). Halak has stopped 87 of the 90 shots thrown his way for a 96.7 save percentage and 1.50 GAA. Now, if asking for a trade, those are not statement numbers then I don't know what is. Good on you Jaro!

2 -! While Halak stole the show last night, Plekanec was a close second. With four points (1G, 3A) Plekanec participated on every goal the Canadiens scored and now has 40 points over 38 games, tying him for 6th overall in league scoring. Yes, that's right, 6th overall! Tomas is putting up points at a torrent pace and is on schedule to finish the season with 86 points (15G, 71A). His 33 assists tie him for seconds in the league - with Martin St. Louis - and put his second only to Joe Thornton. All of this fanfare and Plekanec maintains the same calm relaxed demeanor, hardly smiling in interviews and being very humble. The Canadiens brain-trust cannot sign him soon enough. Having just turned 27 in October and being in his fifth full season with the Habs, Plekanec has stepped out of the shadow of Kovalev and is now fulfilling his full potential. Actually, he is probably surpassing any potential that anyone thought he might have since as a 3rd round pick, no one could have predicted he would be having so much success.

Tomas has become THE offensive catalyst on this team, as evidenced by his 33 assists and despite getting a ton of additional physical attention from opposing teams, he is still able to put points on the board. It would be great if Montreal could muster some kind of secondary scoring threat to take some of the heat off of Pleks. If they do, and the Gomez line can finally start putting up some points, the Habs will be a much better and more dangerous team.

Oh and one last thing, I have said it before and I will say it again - now that others are starting to talk about it - Plekanec WILL get consideration for the Selke Trophy at the end of the year. You can bank on it.

3 - Mara is a warrior. While there is no question that he is a defensive liability - he leads the team with a minus 12 rating - Mara gives everything he has on every shift. A few games ago, when he was out with an injury and there was concern that Spacek might miss a game, Mara suited up and played injured. Last night, he blocked a shot that went off of his hand. The play continued and so did Mara, despite some obviously excruciating pain. This guy has a ton of heart and that is likely one of the factors that Gainey liked when he signed him. Mara is committed, if nothing else, and sacrifices his body for his team. Love him or hate him, you have to admire that trait in him.

4 - MAB and Markov are a deadly PP combo. In case you didn't notice, the Habs went 3 for 5 on the PP in Long Island and 2 for 3 last night in Atlanta. They connected for 5 goals on 8 power play opportunities, since Markov came back, for a 62.5% PP percentage. Wow. Sick. Markov is clearly the general and the quarterback on the pp and his return has stabilized and energized that part of the Habs game. While the Canadiens were starting to click on the PP before Markov's return, there is no question that his presence has kicked it into high gear. The tying goal, with less than two minutes left in the game, was a thing of beauty. A tic-tac-toe play cross-ice from Pleks to Markov to MAB with his one-timer howitzer into the back of the net.

MAB has a bullet from the point and Markov knows how to set someone up for a high percentage shot. Habs fans everywhere are rejoicing at his return. Oh and interesting stat of the year....the Habs are 3-0 with Markov in the lineup this year. Markov played over 26 minutes last night, like he never left, and now has three points in three games (2A, 1A). Great to have you back Markie!

5 - Despite the win there are MANY bad signs. Now that we have lauded the Habs for their win we need to look at the reality of last night's game, and it is NOT pretty. Montreal was once again badly outshot by their opposition and were it not for Halak this game might have been over in the first period - Atlanta held a 18-3 shot advantage after 1 period. Montreal simply gives up way too many shots and too many high percentage scoring chances. I don't know how many point-blank shots from the slot that Halak stopped last night, but it was a lot. You cannot play that way and win, long term, in this league. Teams will just chew you up. It is too much to ask for your goalie to be the 1st star every night.

Speaking of too much to ask, it is also a problem that the Habs have 1 scoring line. This has actually been their problem for years. A few years ago Kovalev's line was clicking but Koivu's line was flat. Last year Koivu's line was scoring, but Kovy's line was flat. As much as the Flyers problem, for years, has been a lack of quality goaltending, the Habs problem been secondary scoring and it is repeating with this new cast of characters. Now, to their credit, the Canadiens have had a ridiculous amount of injuries this year and this has affected their ability to score. Even last night, Mara, Moen and MAB were all injured during the game. Mara took the worst of it and did not return. Add that to Spacek, Hamrlik, Markov, Gionta, Gomez, Gill, Chipchura, D'Agostini, Laraque, etc, this team has had to overcome major adversity this season. We not not truly know what this team can do until Gionta is back because despite getting more points recently, Gomez has been largely useless since Gionta was injured. Gomez is a passer and he currently has no one to pass the puck to. We don't know exactly how much longer Gionta will be out, but he has started skating with the team again and it looks like maybe one more week. He will definitely help out Gomez but the Habs are still lacking. Who knows, maybe Pouliot - who makes his Habs debut in Carolina on Wednesday - will be the answer.

In the end, the Habs stole two precious points in the standings and two points is two points. We'll take them. Despite the win, there are many worrying trends on this team that if left unchecked, will sure mean the Habs slip out of the playoffs. That being said, having Gionta and Hamrlik back will give us our first look at this complete lineup all season. Then we can truly see what kind of team we have. Once thing has become clear, however, and that is that he Habs have an overabundance of third and fourth line players. I think that this might actually be a good thing for Gainey as he tries to trade Halak. If he can put some kind of package together for say Claude Giroux or Jeff Carter, that includes Halak and/or D'Agostini and/or Weber and/or draft picks, etc., that will go a long way towards improving the team. Montreal has a bunch of moveable pieces because they have a bunch of similar players. What they need is an impact player to play with Gionta and Gomez. Who knows, maybe Pouliot will end up being that player. He was drafted 4th overall. Let's see what Wednesday bring. For now, we can bask in our stolen booty - a precious 2 points in the standings.


Sunday, December 20, 2009

Post Game Quick Hits: Habs 3 - Isles 0

The return of Andrei Markov was the storyline of the night and the game - a 3-0 win by the Habs - could be summed up as great goaltending, great special teams and a very special player. While Markov's two-goal performance warmed the cockles of Habs fans everywhere, the real hero this evening was Jaroslav Halak who in turning in a 40 save shutout performance continues to raise his trade value and his value to the Habs.

1 - As is often the case this season, goaltending ruled the day. You've got to admit that before the puck was dropped it was almost unfathomable to think that anything but Andrei Markov's return would be the story of the night. To his credit, Markov did his part, but there is no question that Halak stole the show. Without Halak's shutout performance, this game might have been lost early as the Isles had many excellent scoring chances and Halak was forced to make many spectacular saves. There is nothing quite like asking to be traded because you think you deserve more playing time and then going out and putting an exclamation mark on your statement by getting a shutout. In doing so, Halak not only raises his trade value, but also shows that maybe Gainey shouldn't trade him just yet. While Price has been mostly solid for the last month, he showed last game that he can still have his moments of weakness and that ultimately, the Habs still need both of their young netminders. With all the scouts attending Habs' games, we can be pretty certain that Gainey is talking to multiple teams. However its tough to say whether a deal will be made before or after the Olympics. Only time will tell, but Halak represents a pretty big hunk of meat for Gainey to use as bait.

2 - Markov!!!! Yep, that's right, Andrei Markov is back. And how! In playing over 20 mins last night and scoring two powerplay goals - the Has went 3 for 5 on the pp - Markov reminded us all of how important he is to this team. He is simply the best player on the Canadiens roster and that is saying a lot considering how well Plekanec and Cammalleri tend to play. I have to admit that its been so long since I last saw Markov play that I forgot just how good he is. Except for his slip on the Habs second PP - its his first game back so we can excuse him - that led to Richard Park having a short handed breakaway, Markov was simply flawless. He made great defensive play, he helped the Habs breakout IMMENSELY and best of all, he was a General on the powerplay. His two goals on his two shots put his shooting percentage at 50 - he went 0 for 2 in his first game of the season. Keep it up my friend and welcome back.

3 - Plekanec the penalty taker? While Pleks was again the Habs most effective forward last night, he uncharacteristically took three minor penalties in the second period: Interference, Holding and Tripping. This was, in my estimation, due to the incredible physical duress that he was under all night. It was plain to see that the Isles game plan was to physically abuse Tomas Plekanec in order to shut him down. This is what happens you top players on teams around the league. They are given a ton of physical attention/abuse in order to shut them down. Last year, and in previous seasons, Plekanec would have become a shrinking violet. Not this year, however. The new and improved Plekanec of this season fights through checks, hits people and is still able to set up scoring chances. Last night, however, the abuse started in the 1st period as Sutton clearly got his hands up in Pleks face as he skated by. The result was a bloodied mouth for Plek and NO penalty call by the refs. This set Pleks off and as he started to fight back. The problem is that he got a little overzealous and got his team into penalty trouble. Good think the Habs PK is firing on all cylinders. Oh, and Pleks ended the evening with two assists, one for each Markov goal.

4 - After going 6 games without a point, Scott Gomez now has 7 points in the last 10 games. As much as I have been chastizing him for being invisible on the ice, he looks like he might be starting to get things going. The cross crease pass he made - during a Habs third period PP - to and open Metropolit was a thing of beauty. This guy is a passer and since Gionta went down, he hasn't really had anyone to pass the puck too. He and Sergei K seem to have some chemistry together, but they are both passers. I am thining that when Gionta returns - which should be within the next week - he should add a nice boost to that line. Who knows, if Pouliot can get his game together that Sergei might lose his spot and Gomez might suddenly be playing with two goal scorers. That is what he needs in order to be successful. Without goal scorers on his wing, Gomez becomes invisible. So maybe the problems with Gomez have more to do with his GM's lack of ability to get him good wingers - aside from Gionta. You think that Gainey is maybe using Halak as bait for exactly that type of player?

5 - Don't look now, but the Habs special teams are starting to click. Last night, the Habs went 3 for 5 with the man advantage and killed off all 6 Islander penalties. That gives them a 20.0% (12th in the league) efficiency rate on the PP and a 83.4% (8th in the league) rate in the PK. Given that the Habs are the one of the most penalized teams in the league, they need that PK to keep clicking. And given that they don't score many goals 5 on 5, they need that PP to keep clicking. They say that in order for your special teams to be a factor that the combined percentage totals needs to equal 100. Well, as of this morning, the Habs are at 103.4 (20%PP+83.4%PK) and you can see the results in the games.

6 - What happened to MaxPac and Sergei? While both players were on un upward swing a few weeks ago, they now both seem tentative and ineffective on the ice. MaxPac, keep in mind, the Habs drafted instead of David Perron so he needs to pan out. Sergei looks like the same ineffective Sergei from last year. He looks lazy and complacent on the ice and it shows as he has zero points and is minus 4 in his last 9 games. Ouch! MaxPac has two assists and is even for the same period. For the Habs to be successful, they need these player to be producing points. This brings up the question of what will happen to Sergei when Pouliot is ready to join the big club - he is presently on a conditioning stint with the Bulldogs. I think that it does not bode well for Sergei and that he might be part of any deal that Gainey can put together.

Things don't get any easier for the Habs as they fly to Atlanta for their second game of a seven game road trip. This is the make it or break it trip for the Habs as their 35 points ties them with the Rangers for 9th in the East, two points out of a playoff spot. An extended losing streak on this trip could put them too far out of contention. An extended winning streak could propel them up the standings. With Atlanta at 39 points and holding three games in hand on the Habs, Monday's game is another 4 pointer. Let's hope that Markov, Halak et al. can keep this part rolling.


Saturday, December 19, 2009

POLL: Who should be the next captain of the Habs?

Now that Andrei Markov is recovered from his injuries and will be playing his first game since October 1st, it brings up the question of whether the Habs will name a captain this year. If they do name one, who is the best candidate to be captain, right now? While there are potentially a couple of dark horse picks like Josh Gorges and maybe Maxim Lapierre - although I don't see that - I think the front runners are Cammalleri, Markov and Gionta. Who would you pick?

VOTE NOW to the right of the screen. Poll closes during the third period of tonights game.

Andrei Markov
Tomas Plekanec

Brian Gionta
Mike Cammalleri

Friday, December 18, 2009

Post Game Quick Hits: Habs 1 - Wild 3

Another day, another loss. It seems that us Habs fans are getting used to the idea. We're not happy about it, mind you, but we are definitely getting used to the heart break. You could tell, in the third period last night, how unhappy the fans were as their boos changed focus from Latendresse to their beloved Habs. The booing started with about three minutes left in the game and ushered the Habs off of the ice. While the 3-1 loss to the Wild was bad the worst part is that it is now glaringly obvious that this team just does not have the horses to get it done in this league.

1 - The Price was not exactly right. While you cannot blame Price for the loss and for the second or third goal - he should have stopped the first goal - he clearly did not look in top form last night. The bottom line is that you do not win games by scoring one goal unless your goalie gets a shutout so the Habs offense has got to get going. Over the last few weeks, Price has looked solid and confident in every start he has had, whether they win or lose. Last night, however, he looked shaky. You could see that he was not always square to the shooter and as a result was flopping around in his net a lot. The first goal, by the Wild, was the perfect example of how he was off his game. He crouch into that 'one pad down' stance, and the puck went right through this miniscule 5-hole space. It is never a good sign when pucks go THROUGH your goalie and it usually reflects a lack of focus. In addition, Price did not handle the puck as much or as well as he usually does. This is a clear sign that something was off because when he is on his game, Price handles the puck a lot. Watch for that as one of his tells in the future...the more he plays the puck the better he is feeling. Not to worry though as this was one game and Price will come back strong. That much I am sure of.

2 - Is that a second line I see emerging? Last night, coach Martin tried another chemistry experiment by placing Travis Moen and Matt D'Agostini on Gomez's wing and while they didn't produce any points, you could see that there was chemistry. In Moen, that line gets a banger that can grind in the corners and go hard to the net, resulting in plenty of room for Gomez to skate. In Dags, that line gets a shooter. someone who, hopefully, can capitalize on the great passes that Gomez will make. Watching the game, you could see them causing problems for the Wild's D. Hopefully they will be able to put some points up on the board going forward, because it is just too easy to shutdown a one line team and that is what Montreal is right now. If Cammy, Pleks and Andrei can't create goals the Habs simply do not score.

3 - Moral victories abound! While this was the Habs' fifth loss in a row, there were some positive signs. Last night, the Habs only took one penalty in the game AND they outshot their opponent for the first time in weeks. While neither positive resulted in a win, they are both steps in the right direction. The problem is that you can hear analysts talking about the Habs in terms of 'steps in the right direction'. That is great in the first twenty games of the season when the team is still trying to find itself. But when you are closer to game 40 than you are to game 20 - as the Habs are right now - the time for 'steps in the right direction' has come and gone. We need action and we need wins. With 5 loses in a row, Montreal now has to look in their rear view mirror and the sight is NOT pretty. With 33 points in 36 games, Montreal sits in 11th spot overall in the East, two points out of the 8th playoff spot. Montreal is currently tied with the Isles and Rangers - who have 1 and 2 games in hand respectively - one point ahead of Philly (with 3 games in hand) and two points ahead of Toronto and Tampa (who each have 2 games in hand). This is a bad place to be and if they don't right the ship soon, this season will be lost.

4 - Once again the only real scoring threat all night was the 1st line. That line has not only become a force on the ice, but they are also Montreal's only offensive catalyst. After going down 1-0 to the Wild, AK46 scored a beautiful goal - with a great setup by Gomez - less than a minute later to tie the game at 1. Here, watch the replay:

Great move to the outside and then he goes roof from a VERY tight angle. That gives Andrei 6 goals in his last 5 games and officially puts him in the "I'm on fire" category.

5 - Et tu, Hamrlik? Roman Hamrlik has been the key cog on the Habs D since Markov went down, and you felt the lack of his presence last night. While Mara did a pretty good job filling in for him on Spacek's wing, it is clear that he is not a top line defenseman. We do not yet know what the status is on Hamrlik's injury, but if it is anything long term, it will be another disastrous blow to an already staggering Habs line up.

6 - Last but not least the Return of Latendresse was a non story. Latendresse played just like he did in his days in Montreal and that was largely in the role of the invisible man. He admitted in interviews after the game, that it was very difficult and that he was not able to get into the game properly. Understandable, I would think. The trade is too fresh and I think he is still traumatized. Whatever. Good luck in Minne.

There is no question that the Habs have a ton of injuries to key guy but that is no excuse as a lot of other teams in the league are suffering from the same affliction. While Markov and Gionta are big losses to this team, it is apparent that we have a bunch of third and fourth line depth, fifth to seventh defensemen depth, but not a lot of top line depth. You've got to think that Gainey also sees the problems with the team he has assembled and is trying to make some moves to change things up. Last night there were reportedly 14 scouts from 12 different teams, in the building, and 2 were from the Detroit Red Wings - the second game in a row that they were scouting the Habs. Something is clearly brewing. In my opinion, Montreal needs a top-6 forward and a top 4 D-man before they can start being competitive and/or a real threat. You can see that there are some good things about this team, but after the 1st line, there is a serious drop off in scoring ability and it is killing us. I don't know if Bob will be able to pull a move off before the holiday roster freeze or not, but if not, he better get something going quickly, once January rolls around or his team will slip out of the playoffs and into contention for a top-10 draft pick. Who knows, at this point, maybe that is not such a bad thing.


Thursday, December 17, 2009

Post Game Quick Hits: Habs 1 - Devils 2

Who knew, when Brodeur was selected 20th overall by the New Jersey Devils in the 1990 NHL draft, that he would go on to have such a prolific career. Clearly, he was a good player to have been selected so high in the draft but even at that I don't think anyone would have been able to predict the brilliance that this man has displayed year after year. And in continuing to pad his resume, Brodeur's start last night tied him - at 1029 games played - with Patrick Roy for the most games played by an NHL goalie in their career. Congratulations, Marty! You can add that to your record 578 career wins and 103 career shutouts. With a shutout last night against the Habs - a team that Brodeur LOVES to play against - he would have broken Terry Sawchuk's all time shutout record. But alas, it was not meant to be. While the Devils did win the game - 2-1 in regulation - Travis Moen broke the goose egg early on to ensure there would be no shutout.

The Moen goal, unfortunately, was the highlight of the game for Montreal. Apart for the Brodeur angle of historical significance, this was likely one of the most boring games I have watched in a long time. But I guess that's what happens when you have Jacques Martin coaching against Jacques Lemaire. The two Jacques' both run defence first systems and as a result we witnessed a lot of neutral zone play, much like a soccer game. There was a lot of trapping and dumping the puck into the opposing zone only to have the goalie (both Brodeur and Price) come out to play the puck and pass it right up to their defenders and up the ice to repeat the play on the other end. Bo-ring. Very few scoring chances on either end, very few dangerous shots, no hitting, lots of clogged up neutral zone...blech. At least if had got two points out of this game, it woulda been worth it. Instead, I feel that those are 2.5 hours of my life wasted.

1 - Apart from Moen's charging goal in the 1st, Montreal amassed very few scoring chances, were again outshot by their opponent (27-18), and were decimated in the faceoff circle 23-36. Losing that many faceoffs does not lead to a 'puck posession' game that Martin preaches.

2 - Penalties, penalties...when will they stop with the penalties. Like every game over the last few weeks, Montreal's mantra going into it was 'discipline'. The Habs, before last night's game, were the third most penalized team in the league. Considering that they are not a physical team and don't have many bangers, that is hard to believe. Hard to believe because physical teams often get penalized but if non-physical teams are taking a lot of penalties that means they are either slow, lazy or tired. The Habs, are definitely not a slow team so that leaves the latter two - lazy/tired - as the only logical options. The last three games that the Habs have lost have all been lost, during the third period, by taking stupid penalties and letting the opponent snatch the two point out from under their clutches. Last night, however, the Habs started early, with the penalites. Four 1st period penalites, including a 1 minutes 5 on 3 PP for New Jersey, are not the way to start a game.

3 - Continuing with the theme of bad penalties...for some reason, O'Byrne seems to have made a habit of taking bad hooking/tripping/"I'm behind the play" type penalties. Given that O'Byrne is not the most mobile guy on the team - he is not slow like Gill but he is definitely not excessively mobile - he needs to be positionally sound in order to make up for it. When he started the season and when he first came back from injury, O'Byrne WAS playing very positionally sound hockey. He seemed to always be in the right spot and was able to angle opposing forwards out of harms way. Lately, however, he always seems a step behind and is trying to make up for it with his stick. Sorry buddy, that is pre-lockout hockey you are playing and it doesn't fly.

4 - A lot of, if not most of, the Habs problems right now come down to fatigue. On top of the fact that they have second tier players playing top tier minutes - and largely playing over their heads - they also have the compressed pre-Olympic schedule that is grueling to say the least. This is the second week in a row that the Canadiens are playing 4 games in 7 nights, and it is starting to show. Now, Montreal is not the only team with this kind of schedule, as all teams are playing on a compressed timeline, however the Habs smaller less physical forwards seem to be wearing down by the time the third period comes around and it is costing them games. Yesterday's loss to the Devils was the fourth winnable game in a row that they lost due to their own malaises. That is 8 points in the standings. Those eight points could mean the difference between 5th place and 13th place in the end of year standings.

5 - Price was solid all game until he wasn't. That might not seem like a sensical sentence unless you watched the game last night. From the drop of the puck, Price matched Brodeurs work save for save. He played the puck just as often and effectively as Brodeur, was always square to the shooter and looked poised in his net. That was until he threw is glove up to catch a puck that was destined to go over his head and hit the glass behind him. With the Habs leading 1-0 in the second period and the Devils seemingly unable to get anything going offensively, Ilkka Pikkarainen - ummm....who? - flicked a shot at Price, from just over the Habs blueline. It was a high rising shot that was in the process of sailing over Price's head. However, Price threw his glove hand up, failed to catch the puck and instead deflected it down behind him, it hit the post, then hit is skate as he backed up looking for the puck, and went in the net. Price let in the same kind of goal against the Penguins a week or so ago, and it ended up being the winning goal. Last night's goal tied the game up and let the Devils back into a game that they looked to have checked out of. That set the table for Patrick Elias to pick up the rebound off of the Brian Rolston shot, to take the lead with less than three minutes to play in the game. And that, ladies and gentlemen, was all she wrote!

Overall, last night game was the brand of boring, put your to sleep hockey that they tried to legislate out of the league when they took out the red line. It is the type of hockey that the Devils have been playing for over a decade and while it is not enjoyable to watch it is usually a pretty effective strategy. You can tell how unexciting it is by the lack of people in the stands. Man, how the heck do the Devils pay their bills with a bulding that is constantly half full? But I digress....

Last night, Montreal simply got lulled to sleep by a team that plays their system even better than they do and it again cost them two valuable points. But, no rest for the weary as Montreal flew home last night to take on Gui! and the Minnesota Wild tonight at the Bell Center. I wonder what the over/under is on how many penalties the Habs will take tonight. If the trend continues, I'd say 4.


Monday, December 14, 2009

Post Game Quick Hits: Habs 3 - Sabres 4

Today is the 15th of December and as we hit the official half-way point of the month we also hit the half-way mark of the Habs' 17 games in 28 nights. And how have our beloved Habs fared so far? Hmmmm, looks like a win one/lose one trend, much like the rest of the year has been for them. Sadly, this team could have a lot more points that it currently has (33 in 34 games) if not for tripping over themselves. In losing last night's game, 4-3, to the Buffalo Sabres, Montreal let another winnable two points slip away. Why? Because of stupid, undisciplined penalties late in the game. Two minutes after Cammalleri tied the game at three, with less than 8 minutes remaining in the game, Montreal took back-to-back penalties resulting in a Buffalo 5 on 3 powerplay. While Montreal's PK has been tremendous lately - currently clicking at a 83.4% good for 9th overall in the league - you cannot consistently put yourself in penalty trouble and expect to win games.

When Glen Metropolit took a pointless slashing penalty, followed by O'Byrne's high stick less than a minute later, Montreal sealed their own fate. I hear a lot of people talking about bad refereeing, but you cannot blame the refs for the lazy, indiscipline that has seemed to have crept into the Habs play, of late. While the Habs had a powerplay with 2 mins left in the game, they were ultimately unable to find the back of the net and pull even for a third time in the night. As frustrating as it was to watch, Montreal truly got what they deserved.

1 - Halak was ordinary. This is the first time in a long time that the first point of my list is not about a Habs' goalie stealing the show. Not surprisingly, then the result is that we lost the game. As we break the 30 game barrier on the season, it is more and more apparent what kind of team Montreal has. Granted, they have had a ton of injuries and they have been missing Markov and Gionta - two key guys on this team - but even with them in the lineup, this team is a little flat. So far, Montreal has developed two patterns; the first being that they win games by their goaltender standing on his head and the second is that they lose games by taking bad penalties in the third period. They did it against Pittsburgh and against Atlanta and are now on a three-game losing streak. While Halak was ordinary last night, stopping 23 of 27 shots on net, he certainly cannot be blamed for the loss. The team in front of him just hung him out to dry. You simply cannot keep making mistakes, in this league, and expect your goaltender to always bail you out. You don't win a lot of games playing that way.

2 - What has happened to Ryan O'Byrne? What happened to the confident young man who started the season, got injured, came back and played every bit as inspired as before his injury? What happend to the guy who made a steady, reliable first pass out of the zone, who never panicked with the puck, who displayed tremendous defensive coverage, who was hitting people in the corners, blocking shots, and becoming a stalwart on the backend? Unfortunately, he seems to have been replaced by a guy who's confidence is shot. A guy who makes bad passes, bad decisions with the puck and takes bad, lazy, untimely penalties. O'Byrne looks like the O'Byrne of last year, and that is not a good thing for the Habs. Unless he can find his confidence again, he could be headed on a bad path. One that will lead him to the minors or more likely dealt at the trade deadline. Either result would be terrible as I truly believe that he can be a very serviceable NHL defenceman. Only time will tell...

3 - Gomez...calling Scott Gomez...are you out there? If 'bad' or 'lacking confidence' is the way to describe Ryan O'Byrne right now, then 'invisible' would be the word to describe Scott Gomez. Gomez has simply been dismal this season. 4 Goals, 12 assist and a minus 1 rating are not the numbers an $8 Million man should be putting up. Now, to his credit, Bob Gainey got, in Gomez, a guy who is a passer and not a scorer. The problem right now, is that he has no one to pass the puck to. Since Gionta went down with a broken foot, about a month ago, Gomez has been completely ineffective and invisible on the ice. Not for lack of effort, mind you, but he simply looks lost out there without Gionta on his wing. Unlike Plekanec, who is making anyone he plays with better, Gomez is simply not able to contribute anything. In desperation, Jacques Martin has him paired with Sergei K and Maxim Lapierre. Both are good players, but neither compliment Gomez tremendously well because neither are finishers. Sergei is also more of a passer and Lapierre is a grinder. All three have the ability to get the puck to the scorer, but there is no scorer to be found on that line. Will Gionta coming back completely change that? Having Sergei and Gomez on his line will certainly help, but I think that the second line - and that is what Gomez's line is - needs another scoring punch, along with Gionta, in order to be successful.

4 - The Habs' first line of Cammy, Plekanec and AK46 is starting to clicking like gangbusters. Andrei Kostitsyn, in particular, has woken up. With 2 more goals and an assist, last night AK46 is officially on fire. Aside from having back-to-back two goal games, Andrei now has 14 points in his last 11 games. Add that to Pleks 17 points over the same 14 games, and Cammy's 14 points over the same period, and Montreal has a true, bonafide 1st line that is firing on all cylinders. Moreover, anyone watching the game last night saw some moments of pure magic, between those three. You can see that they are starting to know where each other will be on the ice and the result is simply baffling to opposing defensemen. Let's hope they keep it up! Aside from AK46 coming to life - and let it be known that he has ALWAYS been a slow starter - Cammy potted his 18th of the season (and 150th of his career). This puts him on pace for 43 goals this year. Ummm, hey, Steve Yzerman and the Olympic selection team, you guys paying attention? And Pleky? Wow. Just wow. He has 34 points in 34 games and has consistently been the Habs best player, all season. He excels in the faceoff circle, on the PK, PP, even strength, and if he keeps playing this way he should get consideration for the Selke trophy at the end of the year. Yep, that's right. I'm calling Pleks as a Selke candidate right now.

5 - Ultimately, the story of the game was bad, untimely penalties....again. Metropolit took ANOTHER game losing penalty, in the third, and was benched for the rest of the game for it. I can only surmise that with all the injuries and the compressed schedule, the Habs have a lot of guys playing more minutes than they should be, resulting in third period fatigue. This fatigue leaves them a step behind their opponents and results in hooking, tripping and obstruction penalties. Martin's style and system is allowing him to squeeze every ounce out of most of the players on the ice, but it has become apparent that Montreal just does not have the horses right now. Even when Gionta and Markov are back, the Habs will need more juice to become a factor this year.

The bottom line is that the Habs undisciplined play once again lost them the game again. Last night's loss to Buffalo was the Habs' 3rd loss in a row. The loss still leaves Montreal in the 8th and final playoff spot, but they are now tied with Florida (33points) and only 2 points ahead of Philly, NY Rangers, Tampa, Toronto and the Islanders. And, except for Florida, all of those teams have at least 1 game in hand over Montreal.

Markov and Gionta cannot come back soon enough, but be cautioned that I do not believe that Montreal will suddenly be an incredible team with those two back. A better team, yes, but Montreal's problem is the same right now as it has been for the last four years; we only have 1 scoring line. Even when Gionta comes back, Montreal look like a team that is in need of a top six winger in order to be a real threat in this league. The interesting thing, is that for the first time in a long time, Montreal actually has a lot of moveable assets and might be in a good position to pull off a major trade to bring in another top-6 player. Ideally, we need another scoring winger to play with Gomez and Gionta and having tradeable assests like Halak, Lapierre, Yannick Weber, Matt D'Agostini and perhaps even the Kostitsyn brother (although I seriously doubt they will be moved), Montreal can and SHOULD make a move to upgrade their team. There were apparently a lot of scouts in the stands last night and rumours are abound of Gainey talking with various teams. I think there is no question that at a minimum, the tire kicking has begun. All that is left to find out is how bold Gainey is willing to be. Usually, he ain't that bold, but with his rebuild - and in a lot of ways his own butt - on the line, something tells me that he will not stand pat this year.

Tomorrow night the Devils and Brodeur (groan....) then we welcome Guillaume Latendrese, and the Wild, to Montreal the following night. Enjoy the week, all!


Friday, December 11, 2009

Post Game Quick Hits: Habs 2 - Pens 3

Wow, not THAT was an interesting game to watch. As I sit looking outside at this cold, windy Friday morning I am basking in the afterglow of last night's Habs game vs. the Pens. Not basking in a win, mind you, but rather in a 3-2 regulation loss, one in which the Habs probably deserved a better fate. While on the one hand, Montreal got what the deserved, again being outshot badly - 41 to 21 - and again taking way too many penalties - handing the pens 5 powerplay - on the other hand, the skated with the pens for a full 60 minutes. Ok, maybe not a full 60 minutes, as the Habs seem to have developed a specific M.O. which is to be M.I.A. in the first 20 minutes and to count, heavily, on their goaltender to bail them out until they find their legs in the second. Considering that this is how they opperate, one cannot be totally shocked that it finally caught up with them and that they lost.

However, this was a game that, after the 1st period, was very winnable by the Habs. An early whistle, by referee Lee, in the third - when Fleury did NOT have control of the puck and Gomez fired it into the open net - meant that the Habs were denied their comeback bid. After going down 1-0 in the first, storming back to get a 2-1 lead, letting the Pens tie it back up and taking the lead, Montreal was determined as heck to get that tying goal and they displayed a dogged determination in the process. They showed that when they want, they can play with the best of them. The more the Habs play like this, the more I can't wait to see what this team can really do once everyone - read Gionta and Markov - are healthy. Considering Markov took part in full practice lined up next to Hamrlik, two days ago, I think that that reality might happen sooner than later.

1 - Montreal's goaltending tandem continues to shine. In stopping 38 of the 41 shots he faced last night (.938 save %), Price continues his brilliant performances in the face of total onslaught. He looks so solid and confident in the net that, as a player around him, I imagine that you can't help but be buoyed by his confidence. Way to go kid! He is even starting to get whisper of Olympic mention - although in reality there is no way he will be ahead of Brodeur, Luongo and Fleury for the Olympics this year. But four years from now?

2 - Mike Cammalleri is a man possessed. He was all over the ice and shooting pucks from everwhere. While it only resulted in 2 shots on goal, Cammy had many chances, including a 2 on 1 break with Pleks, where he was beautifully setup but couldn't find the handle and hit the side of the net instead. Cammy won't miss too many of those in a season, but it happens every once in a while.

3 - SK74 continues to elevate his game. This kid needs to play with a goal scorer on his wing, because he is one of the best setup men on the team. His on ice vision is close to being unparalleled. Him and MaxPad has to be the two most improved young guns on the team.

4 - Speaking of MaxPac, he continues to be the catalyst to that third (3M) line of Metro, Moen and himself. He displays youthful vigour, he hits, he passes, he shoots and generally makes things happen for him line every time he is out there. If there is one trend that is becoming a constant, it is that our third line seems to spend most of the game in the offensive zone.

5 - While I understand that everyone is upset at the ref for blowing the whistle when it should not have been blown, we have to remember a couple of things. The first being that the ref blows the whistle when he loses site of the puck, which the clearly did. It doesn't mean it was the right call, it just means that for HIS perspective, the play was dead. My only beef with the whole thing is that they did not go upstairs to review the play, but I guess going upstairs is not done if the ref has ruled the play dead, but only if the goal is disputed. The other thing to rmemeber, is that Montreal's habit of being asleep in the 1st, and getting brutally outshot during games, was bound to catch up to them. It is not, in my opinion, a good strategy for winning. Now, to their credit, Montreal keeps getting outshot by such a high margin because they take so many penalties. When your opponent is always on the power play, then tend to have many more shots than you do. The other interesting thing, is that Jacques Martin's system means that the opponent will get a lot of shots, but most are from the outside as the Habs vigourously protect the slot and keep the opponent ot the outside. So while they get outshot, many shots are of the less harmful variety. That being said, the winning goal, last night, was of the less harmlful variety. Dupuis simply fired the puck, one step over the blue line, and it took a wierd descending trajectory and flopped over Prices glove and down into the net. This just goes to show, that the Habs' style of play can come back to bite you in the butt, and it did last night.

Overall, it was an enjoyable game and you see that this team has fire in its eyes. While on the surface, it looked like a game that the Habs' should have had at least 1 point out of, the important thing is that they showed determination in pushing for that tying goal. There are still many more games to play this season, and many more injured player yet to return. I can only imagine that the powerplay will be a few percentage points better once Markov is back.

One last note is that there has been a lot of chatter, the last few days, that Montreal is actively shopping Jaro Halak. While that might be true - as there are certainly no shortage of teams needing help in nets - it remains to be seen whether something like that will happen before the Christmas trade freeze deadline. I am more inclined to think that this kind of move will happen closer to the trade deadline. Only time will tell. Next stop, Atlanta.


PS: Thanks to all that voted in the Habs To The Top poll. Check back often for other game time poll and updates!

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

POLL: Who is the best agitator in the league? VOTE NOW!

Who is the best(most effective) agitator in the league?

RDS was talking about the league's agitators on a broadcast recently, and that made me think about who YOU think is the best - meaning most effective - agitator in the league.

Vote, in the poll on the right side of the screen, to let us know who you think should be named champion! You love them, you hate them, you LOVE to HATE them. So here are your candidates: Sean Avery, Maxim Lapierre and Jarkko Ruutu. VOTE (to the right) and start a discussion below!

Post Game Quick Hits: Habs 4 - Sens 1

Don't look now, but your Montreal Canadiens have a three game winning streak going! Not only that, but all three wins have come in regulation. Not only that, but their penalty killing unit has become the backbone of this team. Not only that, but their powerplay is slowly starting to get its act together. Not only that, but they seem to have 2, yes that's right, 2, starting calibre goalies in Carey Price and Jaroslav Halak. Not only that but....ok, enough of that! You get the point.

1 - The goalies have it. If it's not Carey Price stealing the show it's Jaro Halak. After getting shelled, 6-2, vs the Sabres last week, Halak turned in one of his most solid performances of the season last night. Stopping 45 out of 46 shots - the Habs were outshot 46-27, had 14 penalty minutes to Ottawa's 4, and won 24 draws on the faceoff versus the Sens' 47. We were just outplayed, again. Or rather, outshot, again. And, yet again, we were able to win. That winning all started in nets, where Halak was sensational, made the key saves at the key times, and kept the lead for his team all the way to the final buzzer.

2 - A goal and an assit for Andrei K, 3 assists for Pleks and a goal for Cammy. That is six points between them. That is Cammy's 5th goal in the last three games. That gives Pleks 31 points in 31 games this season and it gives Andrei K 4 points (2G and 2A) in his last four games. Ladies and gentlemen, we have a true #1 line. For those of you keeping track, Pleky's 31 points in 31 games ties him for 15th overall in league scoring a measly 9 points behind first place Joe Thornton and 7 points behind 2nd place Marian Gaborik. Wow. Note to Bob Gainey: You cannot sign this guy soon enough! Lock him in for 6 years with an average cap hit of 3.5 to 4Million a!! Is it done yet?

3 - Cammalleri's 17th goal of the season ties him for 6th overall in goals scored. Cammy is in good company tied with former Flames teamate Jarome Iginla and Tampa's Steven Stamkos, and he is only four goals back of league leader Marian Gaborik (21 goals). This guy is proving all the critics wrong and is proving Gainey right. He is a bonafide goal scorer, regardless of who he plays with. Last year he scored 39 playing on Jarome Iginla's wing and the knock on him, by critics, was that he would not be able to repeat the feat without Iginla making space for him out there. Well, with 17 goals in 31 games, Cammy is currently on pace to score 45. Ummm, ya. That's right. Sounds to me like he doesn't need Iginla after all.

4 - Hamrlik and Spacek have become and outstanding duo together and will definitely be the 1st paring for the Czech Republic come the Olympics. Speaking of Spacek, he blocked a shot with his foot early in the 1st period, and did not return for the rest of the game. While O'Byrne filled in nicely for Spacek as Hamr's partner, I cannot underscore how bad a loss it would be for Montreal if Spacek is out for any prolonged period. No word yet on his condition, but he was not able to put any weight on it while leaving the ice. It certainly doesn't look good. Let's hope its just a bruise.

5 - Kill 'em all. Montreal's PK has quietly become one of their most potent weapons, over the couse of the last few weeks. Last night, the Habs' penalty killers killed off all seven Sens' PP's. This pushed the Habs PK unit to an 81.7% efficiency rate. That might not sound so great, but considering it was in the mid to low 70% range, at certain points this season, this is a huge accomplishment. From Plekanec to Moen to Metro to Gomez to SK74 to Hal Gill, all of the guys are buying in and all of them are helping the Habs' PK become stronger and stronger.

Overall, Montreal once again won a game where they were badly outshot and in which their goalie stood on his head. To their credit, the Habs were opportunisitic and good a capitalizing on their scoring chances. Also, their PP was a key component in last nights game resulting in two goals - with another howitzer of a shot by MAB.

Next stop, the Pens - who at last check have not yet arrived in Montreal. They were supposed to have an 11am practice, today, at the Bell Center but given the viscious winter snow storm that is it town, it is causing havoc on their travel plans. They now hope to be able to arrive in Montreal tonight. Ya, sure. Good luck with that boys.