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Monday, May 26, 2014

Monday Musings: Habs Need To Dig Deep

Greetings Habs Addicts,

Monday Musings is back after a two week hiatus where it was replaced by a recap of the Boston series as well as a preview of the New York Rangers series.

It looks like the Eastern Conference Final will have to go seven games this year for the Montreal Canadiens to win it. The New York Rangers currently have a stranglehold on the series 3-1. But as we have already seen in the playoffs this year, leading a series 3-1 is no sure sign of victory. Last round, the Pittsburgh Penguins had a 3-1 series lead against these very same Rangers, only to drop the final three games and lose. In the West, the Kings were down 3-0 to the San Jose Sharks in the opening round before rallying back to win the final four games.

The Habs are going to have to dig deep if they want to come back and win this series. After all their regular season dominance over the Rangers the past two years, this Rangers squad is challenging Montreal with tremendous speed through the zones and puck possession down low. For as well as Dustin Tokarski has played, losing Carey Price early in the series has been a difference maker in both the confidence level of the Canadiens as well as their style of play. The Canadiens are playing a tighter defensive system to shelter the youngster at the expense of the offense. The powerplay has been rendered irrelevant by the Rangers penalty-killing scheme and the ignorance of Michel Therrien to adapt has rendered the man-advantage useless. The Rangers are the best shot-blocking team in the NHL and the Canadiens continue to run the power-play through the point. Subban and Markov have not been able to get open for clean shots and most of their attempts have been blocked. The Canadiens should be trying to set up down low and have one of their defenders pinch into the slot for a similar shot, or continually cycle players around. Keep P.K. Subban stationary at the point to hammer pucks at the Rangers shin guards is the hockey equivalent of trying to hammer a square peg into a round hole. Adapt, Therrien.

Dustin Tokarski makes a pad save.
Photo Credit: NationalPost.com

Some musings from the series so far:

- Thomas Vanek has been largely invisible for long stretches so far in the playoffs. The soon-to-be free agent sniper has not been playing a very inspired game this post-season. Through 14 games, he has 5 goals and 9 points with 3 of those goals coming on the power-play. In this round, Vanek has been held to only 1 assist through four games and has relegated to the fourth line. Michel Therrien and the team still have faith in Vanek to produce, but for a guy who is expected to command an eight-year/$60 million contract this off-season (Minnesota has been the rumoured destination all season long), his lack of production and effort on this big stage could be costing him money. Minnesota will free up cap room with the underperforming Dany Heatley coming off the books at season's end, do they want to risk taking on a potential Heatley 2.0 by giving a max deal to Vanek? Considering the money they owe Zach Parise and Ryan Suter and cash-flow being an issue already for the Wild, do they even want Vanek or would they try to sign a similarly skilled Matt Moulson who they traded for at the deadline. Only time will tell on that front. Meanwhile, Vanek is losing the fanbase and the media in Montreal. The Canadiens need him to put forth an effort. Max Pacioretty has struggled this post-season as well, but has been contributing hits, killing penalties and when he has scored, it has won games. Big difference in the effort level for a player with a similar stat line to Vanek. David Desharnais has struggled offensively as well, but has been putting forth tremendous effort and often times has been the best player on the ice. Its easy to forgive these two players because they are competing hard and contributing. Vanek is floating around and often looks lost without the puck. He is talented enough to take over a game (two two-goal games in the Boston series) but has yet to truly do so.

- With the news that Carey Price was lost for the series with a lower-body injury, the Canadiens turned to youngster Dustin Tokarski over veteran back-up Peter Budaj. The youngster has a big-game pedigree, having backstopped teams to a Memorial Cup championship and World Junior Hockey Championships as well as a Calder Cup win in the AHL. While none of this equates to the NHL level, pressure games are pressure games. Peter Budaj has been solid, but unspectacular as a backup to Price and has struggled when forced to shoulder the load for multiple games in a row. Michel Therrien felt there was more potential upside to starting the NHL-inexperienced kid over the veteran who has 8 career playoff wins in his 13 year career. The Anaheim Ducks turned to rookie John Gibson against the Los Angeles Kings over starter Jonas Hiller and nearly stole the series.

Tokarski had a solid debut in a 3-1 loss in Game 2, stopping 27 of 30 shots. Two of the goals went in off defenders. Game 3 was a different story as Tokarski stood on his head, stopping 35 of 37 shots in a 3-2 overtime win. The gamble was starting to pay off for Therrien. Last night was different, however. Tokarski stopped 26 of 29 shots in the 3-2 overtime loss. This loss cemented a 3-1 series lead for the Rangers. Most notably, the Rangers began to exploit the 5'11'' netminders tendency to go down early and give away the top part of the net. Both Derrick Brassard and Martin St. Louis in overtime had clear breakaways and both times opted to wire the puck top shelf. Tokarski had no chance to make the save on either attempt. This is the same weakness the Bruins thought they could exploit on Carey Price. If the Bruins thought they could capitalize by shooting high on a 6'4" goalie, no doubt the Rangers will be taking liberties on a 5'11" goaltender playing a similar style of game. And if the Canadiens keep allowing them clear breaks at Tokarski, Game 5 could be ugly.

Truth be told, the Price injury forced the Canadiens' hand with Tokarski. By adding him to the active roster for the playoffs instead of being one of the so-called "Black Aces" he would be on the 23-man roster at season's end. As such, heading into next season they would be unable to send him back down to Hamilton without him first clearing waivers based on his age/experience level at the professional level. He will never clear waivers, especially after performing as well as he has. As such, the future is now for the Canadiens and Tokarski is going to be the back-up goalie next season. Ever the consummate professional, Peter Budaj has continued to support the youngster and has not displayed any outward disappointment he may have over not being given the nod. Budaj will be dealt this summer and continue to thrive in a back-up role for another team.

- The veteran scorers have not been contributing any offense this round. On defence, Andrei Markov and Alexei Emelin have been exposed by the Rangers. Markov has been disappointing thus far in the playoffs, failing to contribute much in the way of offense after another typically sound regular season. Markov and Emelin have a combined 1 goal, 9 points in 15 games and each have a -4 rating. The Rangers have been beating the two in one-on-one races for pucks. Up front, Thomas Plekanec is a team-worst -7 while contributing only 3 goals, 8 points in 15 games. Our best shut-down centre has not shut down anyone very effectively. Secondary scoring has been an issue after being the strength of the Tampa series.

  • Thomas Plekanec: 1 goal in last 10 games (vs Bruins, Game 3).
  • Rene Bourque: 1 goal in last 10 games (vs Rangers, Game 1)
  • Brian Gionta: 1 goal in 15 games (vs Tampa, Game 1)
  • David Desharnais: 1 goal in 15 games (vs Tampa, Game 2)
  • Brendan Gallagher: 1 goal in last 10 games (vs Boston, Game 5)
The Canadiens have had a hard to time putting pucks past Henrik Lundqvist and the lack of offensive contribution from experienced veterans has contributed to this. Brian Gionta was expected to be a contributor in this series based on his experience playing the Rangers from his days with the New Jersey Devils. This has not occurred. Rene Bourque was a force for the entire Tampa series after a disappointing regular season but while the effort level has been there, the production has ceased. 

Brandon Prust's hit on Derek Stepan
Photo Credit: Modelsportsfan.com
- Michel Therrien needs to make some changes to his game plan. As touched on earlier in the article, the Habs have been forced to play a slightly tighter defensive scheme to shelter the young goalie in a way they do not need to do with Carey Price. Overall, Therrien has been outcoached by Alain Vigneault throughout the series and while he has made some big, risky decisions - inserting Nathan Beaulieu into the line-up against Boston; starting Tokarski in goal over Budaj - his in-game management has regressed as the rounds move on. His insistence of relying on dumping the puck off the boards as well as funnelling the offense through the point has allowed the patient Rangers to continually block shots and dump-ins along the boards while generating turnovers. This has in turn lead to fast breaks and scoring chances against. With Brandon Prust out of the lineup after being suspended two games for a late, violent hit that broke the jaw of the Rangers' Derek Stepan, the physical game that the Canadiens displayed against the Bruins has been largely invisible against the speedier Rangers. In Game 4, the Canadiens had only 18 hits which was essentially one period's worth against the Bruins. Therrien needs to change his game plan because after four games, he has not found any sustained offense, even when there has been sustained pressure.  

The pivotal Game 5 will be played on Tuesday in Montreal. Therrien needs to adapt and the Canadiens need to playing a strong 60-minutes or else next week's Monday Musings will be a season recap. 

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Nick Malofy is a transplanted Montrealer, currently living in evil LeafLand. He is a contributor here at HabsAddict.com and give him a follow, as he can often be found rambling on Twitter.

Past Monday Musings 

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