Friday, October 14, 2011

13/10/11: Calgary 4, Montreal 1; defense? we talkin' bout defense?

Ouch. That's about the best word I have to describe the Montreal Canadiens getting burnt by the Calgary Flames in the home opener at the Bell Centre last night. In a game that resembled the inverse of the Winnipeg Jets' home opener last Sunday, the Habs had chances but severely lacked killer instinct when it came to finishing around the net. The bigger problem, however, was the team's play in its own end which ranged from passable to atrocious. They looked to take play in their own end about as seriously as Allen Iverson takes practice.

Start with P.K. Subban, whose -1 rating was actually flattering to the way he played on the night (just because 2 of Calgary's goals came on the powerplay). He was hesitant with the puck, was regularly caught out of position, and couldn't get anything going in the offensive zone. After weak performances in the first two road games, Subban needed to step it up at home, but instead delved deeper into his slump. He may not believe in the sophomore slump, but unless he gets back to the basics of his game, he's going to be hearing that term very frequently. Perhaps he should have been in bed early the night before rather than hitting the Montreal club scene.

Raphael Diaz and Alexei Emelin looked like the rookies that they are, though Emelin did have a couple of good sequences to go with the bad. Hal Gill looks slow as he usually does at this time of year. The problem is, he's being counted on to play on a top pairing with Subban. Anyone that thinks the Canadiens can be a contending - or even playoff - team with a Gill-Subban top duo is dreaming in technicolour right now. If Andrei Markov is indeed going to be out long-term, the blueline needs help and fast.

As for the forwards, Lars Eller was likely the team's best on this night - sad when you consider it was his first game back from injury. He showed good speed, nice hands, and a willingness to throw some good hits. I'm a big Eller fan, and he looks poised for a good season, but needs to improve his finish around the net. I've said it many times but will reaffirm it now: Eller plays the game like Peter Forsberg. Of course, I'm not saying he'll be anywhere near as good as the amazing talent Forsberg was, but he plays in the same style with many of the same moves. That's a huge compliment to the young Dane.

Tomas Plekanec was ok, except for at the point on the powerplay, where he looks completely out of place. When can this experiment end already? He has NEVER looked good there this year, going back to preseason and through the first 3 games. A Subban - Yannick Weber duo on the first unit clearly makes the most sense, with 2 shooters resembling the game the team played with Subban and James Wisniewski last year. Admittedly, this leaves the second unit thin, but you can focus more on the forwards in that case if the top unit fails to score. Play Diaz with Emelin or Gorges... at least ice one completely good unit instead of two dysfunctional ones. Plus, Plekanec was one of the team's best face-off men in the first 2 games, so I don't understand why you wouldn't have him taking the draw!

Erik Cole has been a huge disappointment in the first 3 games, and while I advocated for him to get more minutes on the top line, he certainly hasn't deserved them. Whereas in preseason he was effective at stealing the puck away from opposing players in their own end, through 3 games he himself has been a turnover machine in the Montreal end. He also seems to be knocked off the puck far too easily in the offensive end. He is at least throwing some hits, but the Canadiens aren't paying him to be a fourth line grinder; he's here to produce offensively, and he looks far from being capable of that at the moment. Hopefully it will just require an adjustment period to Jacques Martin's system and his new teammates.

Brian Gionta has looked off his game through the first three as well. The penalty calls against him last night were quite questionable, so I won't fault him there, but he needs to begin generating some offense. He has had little in the way of quality scoring chances, and when he does get them, he has frequently fanned on his shots or missed the net.

And lastly, the one we all know but are afraid to admit: Max Pacioretty isn't the same player as he was before the Zdeno Chara hit. Now I'm not saying he's playing particularly poorly; I love Max and he has shown his great combination of size, speed, and hands. But the player we saw last year charged the net fearlessly, kind of like Brendan Gallagher did in preseason. He would challenge any defender in his way in trying to go around or right through them. This season's Max - again, still a great skill player - stays to the outside far more frequently, opting to just take his shots from weaker angles rather than head into the danger/traffic zones. If he's going to realize his full potential, he will need to get over this shyness (which may happen in time anyway) and get back to playing like he did when he was perhaps the team's most dangerous forward.

So that's it for now. Carey Price will have to wait at least one more night to earn his 100th career win. Don't get me wrong, I'm not suggesting it's time to panic. We're only 3 games into a very long and tough NHL season. However, with the degree of parity and number of quality clubs in the league's Eastern Conference, all the points lost now could and will come back to haunt Montreal in March and April. It is important for the team to start the year off strong, even if the hope is that they find their game midseason and carry that momentum into the playoffs. Pierre Gauthier has frequently shown he isn't afraid to make a move, so if the team doesn't wake up and play up to their potential in the near future, we should expect some changes to come.

UPDATE: - As an aside, anyone who considers themselves a Montreal Canadiens fan should read this article:

It's an interview in French with Patrice Brisebois. For those that don't speak la langue de Moliere, Brisebois talks about how big of an impact all of the booing and nasty comments had on him. He says he would often cry in his car after games and it made him isolate himself from others. It severely hurt his confidence and depressed him. Come on Habs fans, we're better than that. May no other player have to go through what Breeze did. We need to encourage our players to be at their best, and while the occasional boo from a paying customer is not a problem, the regular harassment of one of our own can do only harm.


kyleroussel said...

I have a hard time disagreeing with anything written here.

As far as opponents go, the Canadiens really couldn't ask for a better schedule to start the year than having 4 non-playoff teams to contend with, yet they are positioned to do no better than 2-2, with 1-3 being a distinct possibility.

As you rightly said, it's only 3 games and there's no need to panic yet. But with the margin of making the playoffs so thin, points lost now to "inferior" opposition may come back to haunt.

I also believe that blaming injuries for this loss is a lazy excuse. The Canadiens have (or should have) adapted to life without Markov. And if he's indeed going to be out much longer than expected, then the lazy will continue to have their go-to excuse until he not only returns, but is back "in game shape". Sigh. Spacek is replaceable and Campoli barely had a chance to introduce himself. Besides, the young players are arguably playing better than the vets anyway. Cammalleri's loss hurts, but it's hard to imagine that the outcome would have been different if he were in the lineup. Offensively, this team is lost. The disparity in shots belies the true nature of last night's game: The Canadiens had less than a half dozen quality shots at Kiprusoff at even strength. Not good enough.

Coldsnacks said...

Looks like the Plek on point in the Power Play experiment is finally over