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Sunday, May 23, 2010

The 2010 Montreal Canadiens - Great Expectations

by Tyg

Where to begin? So long and thanks for all the pucks?

I suppose I could choose to be flippant about the season that the Montreal Canadiens are on the version of closing out, but that would be a disservice both to me and to the team that I love.

While the great expectations for the Habs' post season were indeed mine (and many others), they were clearly a direct result of their actions, which was to set the bar much higher than it ought to be for a team cobbled together on the fly in what Gainey admitted was a crap shoot.

For most of the year, a lot of the players went onto the injury roster at one point or another.  Still, post-olympics they managed to rally, and even though they had their full roster back near the end of the season, they still couldn't get it together to do much more than squeak into the playoffs, one slot behind Philly, for a precarious 8th place.

That meant facing Washington, so there was a small glimmer of hope. The Habs were one of the few teams that had held its own vs. Washington this season (2 Wins, 1 Loss, 1 Loss in O/T), and at the very least I thought they'd last past the 4 or 5 games most experts predicted.

After going down 3-1 in the series, I resigned myself to the loss, glad they had at least taken one of the games to avoid a sweep. Then, magically, the Habs pulled themselves together and started playing tight defensive hockey.

This is the system of hockey coach Jacques Martin prefers, and it's pretty much the entire reason why I dislike him as head coach for the Habs.  For a team of small, speedy forwards, this defensive system effectively hamstrings your own offensive output, because it's always going to be secondary by design.

It's basically rope-a-dope hockey, and against an outright offensively built team like the Washington Capitals, it can and does expose a defensive weakness.

There's no denying that the Capitals deserved their reputation as a scoring powerhouse. They completely steamrolled the rest of the East, and had their playoff berth locked up for quite a while, cooling their jets while they waited to see which lamb would be led before them to slaughter.

But although Mike Green is a Norris Trophy candidate, he is, quite simply, a poor defenseman, especially when on the ice vs. Hal Gill, Josh Gorges or Andrei Markov, who know how to stop a fast foward coming over the Habs blueline and box him out so the goalie can make the save.

Green tried so hard to help produce offensively against the Canadiens' superior goaltending (which says more about his role as a defenseman than I ever could), that he often took stupid penalties which more than once led directly to the Habs scoring a goal.

He wasn't alone in creating opportunities for the Habs, and while the Capitals are a formidable team and deserve their reputation and respect, in the playoffs it's not all about firepower. If that's all it ever took to win a war, no one would ever bother to fight.

You'd know beforehand you were beaten, so why bother?

There's a reason it's often said that playoffs are won via goaltending, and that's because to a large extent it's true. Habs starting goaltender Jaroslav Halak did, however, get yanked in game 2 of that series after being perforated by the Caps superior firepower, and although the Habs made an admirable run for it and only lost 6-5 in overtime, the fact is they blew a 4-1 advantage during that game.

It was a game the Habs had in hand, and they let get away from them.

By the time game 5 rolled around, they had figured out how to play the defensive shell system that Martin knew could expose the Caps weaker defense. It was a solid and sound strategy given the opponent, and however Martin managed to finally sell it to them after being unsuccessful with it during the regular season, during the playoffs the Habs bought it hook, line and sinker.

Halak took on the appearance of near-invincibility and got lauded—deservedly so—in the press, but in that stunning 3 game winning streak the Habs eeked out lay a recipe for disaster.


The Pens will expose them

I thought surely the more well-rounded team of the the Pittsburgh Penguins would expose Martin's fatally flawed strategy.

The Pens had pretty much dominated during the regular season. The Habs managed to get only a single win against them in the four games played.

Yes, the Habs had injuries during that time, but the Pens were the defending Stanley Cup champs with all the knowledge and experience that brings, and had a much tighter defensive team than the Capitals.

Even if the Habs managed to shut down Crosby and Malkin, the Pens were still a formidable opponent, with a strong goalie. Marc-Andre Fleury had proven himself a solid goaltender, and even if his stats weren't as impressive as Halak's were going into the series, he had both the experience and the offensive/defensive balance required in front of him.

Again, the Habs won in game 7, and this time didn't have to play as much catch up with the Pens as I predicted, but frankly, it was the Pens series to lose.

I had the Pens winning in 6, but the Habs with their never say die attitude and rope-a-dope system managed to shut down Crosby and Malkin.  The Habs caught a break in that Staal missed a couple of games, and since the Pens have so much money tied up in their three centers, the wingers are not high powered scorers.

The Pens offense - without Malkin and Crosby leading the charge - was not strong enough to counter the Habs defensive shell game.

The Habs, meanwhile, have a true sniper in Cammalleri—currently leading all playoff scorers with 13 goals—and he got two past MAF in a couple of games. Gionta was also formidable, and there was enough production from the Habs third line to lend a hand as well.

The Habs again played superior defensively, courtesy of Hal Gill who was now siding effectively against his former team, and when Crosby took a stupid retaliatory boarding penalty against Josh Gorges less than a minute into game 7, that was pretty much all she wrote for the Pens.

Their captain got flustered, they got flustered, and maybe too much hockey for too long—going into the Cup finals 2 years running plus the Olympics—had simply worn them out.

MAF proved inconsistent, leaked like a sieve, not helped by his defense at all, and Moen was practically greenlit by Gonchar into his own net for a short-handed goal.

The Pens weren't the same team that had fought so hard to win the Cup the year before, and it was not simply because Hal Gill was gone. Gonchar looked like he didn't want to play anymore, and so did a lot of his teammates, including Malkin at times.

The exception, as always, was Crosby.

While I don't personally like the Kid, I do admire his passion for the game, and his ability to play it.


Bring on the Philadelphia Flyers.
Actually, no.

They were better off with the Caps and the Pens. The Caps had defensive weaknesses and shaky goaltending, and the Pens were tired and also had superstars that could be shut down. They were exploitable under Jacques Martin's defensive shell system.

The Flyers simply are not.

Prior to the start of the season, while everyone was writing off the Habs, Philly was getting some good looks, with some experts believing they could actually contend for the Cup this year.

Don't laugh.  I'm not a fan of the Broad Street Bullies, and for me having the Flyers win the Cup is an affront to the very sport itself. 

Carcillo on the Cup?  I'd sooner see it melted down and sold for scrap metal.

And yet, here were are, with the Habs down 3-1 in the series. I doubt it will be a repeat of the Washington series where Les Boys clawed their way back via a 3 game winning streak.  Even if the Habs manage to eeke out another win, the fact is they are highly unlikely to beat Philadelpha. It's Jacques Martin's system—so good in the first two series—that is going to be the team's undoing in the ECF.

Against Washington, the Habs shut down Ovechkin and Backstrom.  Against the Pens it was Crosby and Malkin.

To take down the Flyers, the Habs have to shut down the entire team, which is impossible, even for a team with great defense like the Habs possess. 

The Flyers are all proven goal scorers and there's no real superstar among them.  Carcillo and Richards get the press, but when you've got Gagne, Leino, Briere, Laperriere and Carter, you have serious depth that was lacking defensively for the Caps and offensively for the Pens.

Whereas before the Habs were getting jabbed with a knife or two and could thrust and parry, now they're having to dodge pitchforks. Add into that the Flyers solid defensive core led by Pronger, and suddenly the Habs are the exploitable team.

It's a very different opponent and different type of war that the Habs are not built for, and their strategy is now a handicap.

The clear problem is the Habs' lack the offensive firepower—hampered by Martin's system that they have bought into—that is needed to counter the Flyers strong defensive shell.

Defensively, both teams are about equal. Offensively, the Flyers are superior.

The Habs have more speed, but with the exception of Gionta and Cammy, they lack the scoring depth.

Yes, Pyatt, Moore and Lapierre's line caused a lot of damage to game 3 vs. the Flyers, but it's a 3rd line, and when only 2 members of your top 6 forwards are producing in a series, it's awfully hard to win playoff games.

Unless Plekanec, A. Kostisyn, Pouliot and Gomez suddenly get hot, this series is over. The Habs might win Monday night—Halak is still a strong goaltender and the Habs defense has proven just as good as the Flyers—but I very much doubt they'd win another after that.

In game 3, the Habs used their speed to exploit Leighton and the Flyers defense, which suddenly seemed to be tired and vulnerable, both physically and mentally.

The Habs swarmed like angry bees, and while Leighton had really no chance on the first two goals, the Moore goal was soft, and Gionta's should have never gotten through.

Since his defenders for the 5th Habs goal were putrid, I'm not even going to bother with MAB's PP goal—the only one for the Habs so far this series. 

Leighton's defensive core let him down, just like Halak's did in game 2 vs. Washington.  The Flyers' defense came back in game 4 and the Habs stopped skating after the first period.

They only took a single shot on net in the 2nd period, and only a single shot during the 2 power plays they eventually got.

The Habs PP has gone ice cold because 4 of its top 6 forwards have gone cold, and there's not much left to pick up the slack.

Also, without Markov the PP lacks a defenseman to quarterback its attack, and while Subban has size and skill, he is still a rookie, as evidenced by his many mistakes in game 4. 

It's too much to expect him to fill Markov's skates so soon, and the other Habs defenders simply cannot do it either.  The loss of Markov has always meant problems for the Habs, and even though they've spent much of the season without him and can cover for him defensively, the stats don't lie.  They need his offensive output.  

Here's an excellent summary of the importance of Andrei Markov to the Habs.  I'm not sure he would have made the difference, but I feel pretty confident in saying he would have made a difference in their series vs. the Flyers.

http://www.habseyesontheprize.com/2010/5/4/1456792/is-a-cup-dream-over-without-markov


What about Leighton?
Leighton—the career NHLer that has just been handed his 3rd shutout vs. the Habs—is not all that and a bag of chips, despite what the experts say.

Having watched the Habs ice Vezina and Conn Smythe trophy winning goaltenders for years, I can confidently say he isn't anywhere near them in the required mobility, quickness, and skill.

Halak has better instinct and reflexes, is a solid butterfly goalie, and will only continue to improve. Leighton hasn't singlehandedly stolen a game for his team—like Halak arguably did in game 6 vs. the Caps.

What Leighton has is a very solid defensive core surrounding him.

In game 3 he was lit up like the type of goalie he is—a backup. There's a reason he's 29 and no one's ever made him their number one goaltender before now. If he was that good, he'd have landed on the top of the heap long before this series, and we'd have never had the great Halak/Price wars of 2009-2010.

Leighton's a bit above average at best. Backing a team with a lesser defense, he'd have been exposed by now. Unlike Halak, Leighton has not had to make impressive save after impressive save. You'll never see him get peppered with 40 or 50 shots a night, and come out of it having let in only one or two—something Halak has done consistently even against the high powered offenses of Washington and Pittsburgh.

Sure Leighton gets a couple for the highlight reels every now and again, but that's the law of averages, and they're very few and far between.


Whatever happens, I've enjoyed the run
I've had a lot of fun with the Habs this post season, more than I expected really and I'm grateful for it, because it's the first time since 1993 that I've had that kind of time in the playoffs with my favorite team.

I wouldn't be a fan if I didn't want more, and after their performances vs. the Caps and Pens, I began to expect more, even though logic dictated that I shouldn't.

There are Habs fans in both camps right now—some saying we should be able to make it all the way and we still can—others like me happy for what we got.

I can see the appeal for those frustrated Habs fans who think there's no reason we can't go all the way this year. No one wants the party to stop or to give up, and I certainly don't expect the Habs to go down without a fight, but the fact remains that this team is as flawed now as it was in the beginning of the season, when the experts predicted it wouldn't even make the playoffs.

It's certainly better than anyone expected it to be, more than many fans—including myself—hoped it would be, but to be brutally honest here, they're not yet a Cup contender.

I take solace in the fact that the foundation is there, and that is pretty much what has allowed the Habs to get this far in the post-season.

I'm excited at the potential that finally exists, because prior to this post-season I didn't really see much progress being made within the Montreal organization to seriously ice a true Cup contender anymore.

Gainey, and I've never been a fan of his, achieved that much at least, with his drastic overhaul this past summer.

There's no superstars, just a core of hard workers, some experienced, some new, full of heart, grit and determination, who have made history once again, which is hard to do on a team as storied as this one.

They are the only 8th seed to ever topple a 1st seed after a 3-1 game deficit. They are the only 8th seed to ever oust the President' s Cup Trophy winner and the defending Stanley Cup champions in back-to-back series. So there's no shame here, just pride at what they have accomplished.

There are still holes that need plugging, and it's up to Gautier and Martin to do it if they want to make a serious run at the Cup in the season to come.

I'll write about the holes some other time, though.

If you need even more solace, as I suspect many Habs fans will, then consider the following: While the Flyers do have a strong playoff team, the Chicago Blackhawks are better.

I've watched them both play, and Chicago has an attack led by the red hot Toews who is deserving of the reputation he's getting. They have better depth offensively and defensively, and are a much faster team than the Flyers. They are constantly dictating the play of their games, and for them it is all about speed, precision and execution.

Then there's their goaltender, Antti Niemi, who also has a strong defensive shield in front of him.

As stated above, playoffs are also largely won via goaltending, and Leighton's 'Magical Mystery Tour' is about to come to an end.

The Flyers have a big hole of their own to fill before Carcillo ever defiles the Stanley Cup with his name. And the Hawks are an Original Six, even more overdue for a Cup win than the Habs.

I can get behind that.

---
Tyg used to frequent the old Forum during her early childhood when her father was a corporate season ticket holder, where she fell in love with Larry Robinson, so her lifelong obsession with the Habs is entirely his fault.

3 comments:

Very nicely done, Kamal.

The Habs have played a nice shell game, not only with their opponents, but with their fans, too.

Who are the real Montreal Canadiens? What is a reasonable expectation of them?

By the time the regular season wrapped up, they had finished right where many experts had predicted: 8th in the conference. But I don't know if they would have predicted 88 points as the total required to qualify for post-season play. Once they limped in to the playoffs, they flipped a switch. They were a completely different team from the frustrating bunch we witnessed for 82 games.

I think it's safe to say that the Canadiens cannot play the way they have played in the playoffs during the regular season. With the shot blocking and sacrifices they've been making, it would be nuts to expect them to go in to next season playing a similar style.

In an backasswards way, I sort of believe that this post season run has given the fans, and the organization a reason to stick with the status quo. If any of us wanted the team to ever "tank" and start a proper rebuild, we can forget about it now. This post season has served to remind everyone that as long as you make the playoffs, you have a chance. It's in that respect that I don't expect the Canadiens to go out and make any major changes. A tweak here and there, but I think come next season we will bear witness to largely the same thing we saw this year: Inconsistency that is just barely good enough to make the post season.

But let's not jump the gun just yet. The Canadiens are still alive, and as bad of a matchup the Flyers are, they still have Michael Leighton in goal. We saw how he can be in game 3. He can be that way again if the Canadiens just use their speed. If it is all to come to an end Monday, I don't know how I'll feel. I know what I *should* feel, and that is grateful that the Canadiens got this far. They were never supposed to. But now that they are this far, I find myself wanting more, and I don't think the Flyers need to be an impossible roadblock to get over.

Hi there Kyle! Actually, this article with written by Guest Write, Tyg.

This section, Addict Alley, is all articles written by fans.

That being said, yep, I thought it was an excellent piece and a great overview of the year it has been so far for the Canadiens.

Like you said, it's not over till its over, but I think the problem is that there have been some severely discouraging signs in this series that we haven't seen vs. the Caps or the Pens.

At the end of the day, Philly has the best D we have seen so far, and the most depth. Their Achilles Heel is their goaltending, and the Habs have done very little to expose that (except for in Game 4).

As for the off season, I think that the Habs are a few tweaks away from behing a contender, but with the limited cap space I'm not sure what they'll be able to accomplish.

On to Monday! Let's see what the Habs still have left in the tank!

Hi Kyle and thank you for your kind comments. I agree, the Habs have played a shell game with the fans also, much to my dismay, as I'm one of them. There is no way to expect the Habs to perform like this all season long, so yeah, mid-pack next year at best, depending on the off-season tweaks. That said, they've proven they can up their game in the post-season, so they'll have no excuses for not doing it again next year, in which case - as you said - anything can happen. I'll get into the tweaking bit in another post, but I hope you'll come back then and provide some more insight.

Les Boys won't go down without a fight, but this is a much tougher and totally different type of battle than the first two series. I hope they prove me wrong about picking the Flyers to win. I'm up for eating some more crow.

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