Friday, December 11, 2009

Montreal-Pittsburgh, or why NHL Officiating has to Change...

I'm trying to cool down from my anger over the blown call on a Scott Gomez goal, but more on that later. Not going to get as detailed, the action's not as fresh in my mind tonight and I'll be more brief than usual.

Pittsburgh visited Montreal for their first visit to the Bell Centre this season, the Stanley Cup Champions had defeated Montreal 6-1, then 3-1 in their last two engagements, thanks to the weak play of Montreal against contender teams in October and the half-AHL lineup in the 2nd match. Montreal had a full D-group besides Markov/Mara and their forwards were at a much better level than previously.

The Roster:
Jacques Martin decided to mix things up, while Pleks/Cammy/AK46 and Max-Pac/Moen/Metro stuck together, Lapierre joined the Gomez/Sk74 line to start the game, while D'Agostini, Laraque and Pyatt formed the fourth line. Hamrlik/Spacek, O'Byrne/Bergeron and Gorges/Gill formed the defensive pairs, Price had the start in nets.

The Opponent: The Penguins are probably the strongest team in the East, thanks to their centre line composed of Crosby/Malkin/Staal, with a defensive lineup of Letang, Orpik and Gonchar, plus goalie Marc-Andre Fleury. I've stated before, I really, really don't like the Penguins these days with how much time they spent sucking only to be rewarded with the top draft picks.

The First Period: A fair exchange of action really, both teams took their chances but nothing came through until just after 6 and a half minutes of action. A defensive breakdown by Montreal's first line of Pleks/Cammy/AK46 in their own end (seems to happen once a game that these guys are screwing up on a scoring chance by the other team) led to a Bill Guerin pass going to Sergei Gonchar to slip a goal in past Price. Penguins up 1-0.

Hits were exchanged, some things could have been called but they weren't, referees seemed to be in favour of a wide-open game. Shots were 11-7 Pittsburgh to end the first period, not a bad exchange really.

The Second Period: The first penalty went to Montreal's Max Pacioretty on holding, a fair call against Montreal, albeit there would be few of those, the nigh-invulnerable Montreal penalty killing unit would go to work once more and stonewall a rather ugly Penguins Power play, how can a team with Gonchar, Crosby and Malkin have such a crappy one anyway?

Penguins forward Mike Rupp would get caught on a boarding penalty with about eight minutes gone in the period, Montreal would get a chance to bring the score even but failed on the attempt, an aggressive Penguins penalty kill unit denied them any opportunities.

Josh Gorges would be called next on a holding penalty just about a minute in to their power play, a Jordan Staal breakaway during the PP would nearly become a scoring chance, although upon review of the play I fail to see how Gorges could have been called for Holding. 1:10 of 4-on-4 action than a brief Penguins Power play. Montreal's penalty killers would again have to be sharp, especially since Gorges had formed a very strong pairing with Gill on previous PK units. A scrum around the net quickly following a Malkin shot that Price would stop resulted in Malkin and Plekanec both leaving the ice, Malkin for high sticking and Plekanec for roughing, but the game remained 4-on-4.

Nine seconds after the PK had expired, a Matt D'Agostini wrist shot that would deflect slightly off a Penguins defencemen would find the back of the net, it was D'Agostini's 2nd of the season on one of the best plays he'd managed all season, Montreal tied with Pittsburgh 1-1.

Ruslan Fedotenko after dislodging his own net on a play would be cited for delay of game, Montreal's power play unit came together once more to take the lead. A smart in-zone play by Bergeron would pass to Cammalleri, who would feed Hamrlik, Andrei Kostitsyn screened Fleury to allow Hamrlik a perfect slap shot to make the game 2-1 for Montreal.

A defensive breakdown later in the game would see Sergei Kostitsyn not commit to a shot block, which allowed a flying Sergei Gonchar slapshot to be deflected in flight by Pens forward Matt Cooke to tie the game 2-2, this would lead to him being benched in the 3rd period, as was Laraque.

Pittsburgh outshot Montreal 15-8 over the period, for a total 26-15 shot advantage.

The Third Period: Talk about a lousy start, 1:40 in, Ryan O'Byrne served the first of his two "Playing my Position" penalties that he would take, Montreal's PK unit would again have to work hard and tire themselves out while the Penguins, despite having a massively talented squad, ran a rather poor PP unit compared to what they should manage.

Just about two and a half minutes later, Hal Gill would collect a tripping penalty, the long minutes of the night and his PK time wearing him down so a reaching move to poke-check would fail and he'd be in the box. Montreal again had to overplay their better players to keep the score even, Carey Price would make several key stops, as he had all game.

Ryan O'Byrne would then collect another phantom penalty at just about 10 minutes in to the period, another power play for Pittsburgh, brilliance by Price and shot-blocking by the PK unit would keep the score even, but trying to contain the Pittsburgh offence and the multiple power plays had a wearing effect on Montreal, especially Jaroslav Spacek whose knee was definitely not 100% for the match after injuring it in Ottawa.

The Penguins would gain the lead off a Pascal Dupuis shot with just less than 7 minutes to go in the period, the shot would slightly deflect on Hamrlik's waving stick, then Price would fumble on his glove hand, but considering the number of game-saving stops he had previously made, I and any rational fan let it go, he was heroic for nearly the entire night.

Montreal would take back the offensive with an intent to draw the game even and without any more power plays for Pittsburgh hampering them. With 5:40 remaining in the period, Montreal would apparently score a goal and this is what drove me nuts. The puck was in play, Fleury did not have any kind of hold on the puck with any part of his body, Scott Gomez tapped the puck in and the game would appear tied. Then there was a problem that has vexed Montreal for some time.

For those of you who have a less than flattering opinion of Kerry Fraser, Chris Lee is his protege it seems, but he focuses all his efforts on making sure Montreal doesn't win hockey games. Montreal's favourite referee initially called it a goal if you check the highlight footage and go 1:38 in, you can watch Montreal being robbed of a game-tying goal. Lee moved in and started to signal a goal, then stopped, blew his whistle under everyone's favourite rule "Intent to Blow" that means the referee can cancel a goal by saying he meant to blew the whistle earlier than he did and no video review to see if the puck crossed the goal line before the whistle was blown. Part of the bush-league referee nonsense the NHL still has to fix.

Montreal was denied a goal and failed to convert on any of their remaining time including when they pulled Price but the aggressive play of Pittsburgh against a tired Canadiens team resulted in no close chances, although Referee Chris Lee managed a nice screw you moment where he called Pittsburgh for a penalty after ignoring multiple infractions with 3 seconds remaining on the clock.

Pittsburgh outshot Montreal 41-21 total, thanks to their power play advantage and the fact that they field a much better team, Montreal is still missing key forward Gionta, Top D-man Markov and Spacek was playing hurt. Price was heroic but he made a mistake against a top team that you can't make mistakes around if your team is on a lower level than theirs is.

It's a hard time to beat the Penguins if you aren't at your best and again, to hell with this team for being smug about their success after being failures for most of the team's entire history, then cover it up with an Aw Shucks attitude about how successful they are. Give any team the No. overall 1 pick twice and the No. 2 overall pick twice and see how they do, the League is now on a system of rewarding intentional failure and too many teams are finding ways to exploit it to build up a contender without having to do any hard work.

The Offence: A surprising night from Matt D'Agostini, he finally got his second goal and made some good offensive plays. A disappointing night from Sergei Kostitsyn, who had been emerging as a more two-way player than his brother Andrei, but held back from blocking a key Gonchar shot that tied the game for Pittsburgh, I don't recall seeing him in the 3rd period. Scott Gomez should have had his 5th goal of the season, but he was robbed of it, but he was strong all night long. Max Lapierre had a strong showing and helped set up what would have been Montreal's 3rd goal, he's certainly got a lot more jump in his step since Latendresse was booted.

Mike Cammalleri missed on two golden chances, but the 17-goal man for Montreal can't be the saviour every night, albeit had he completed them, game might have gone a whole other way. Tomas Plekanec and Andrei Kostitsyn had good offensive drives, Kostitsyn's best scoring chance was blocked by a quick Pittsburgh defencemen, but he was good at shooting the puck on net for Montreal.

Travis Moen, Glen Metropolit and Max Pacioretty, they were work horses as usual and nearly cashed in on several opportunities, but failed to deliver, but did a great job of preventing general offence by the Penguins.

George Laraque and Tom Pyatt, didn't see much of Pyatt beyond 4th-line and penalty kill, but he was pretty good on the Pk and Laraque served a whole of 4 minutes ice time, why he was even in on a Pittsburgh game I have no idea, he needs to go and someone should take his place, hopefully upon Gionta's return we can ease him out of the lineup and then send him to a team looking for a goon.

Defence: Spacek had a lot of giveaways, but I give him credit for suiting up with a hurting knee and doing what he could against a tough Penguins team, Hamrlik was heroic but he couldn't be everywhere at once, he is a shot-blocking machine and played great in his own end, plus he scored the Canadien's 2nd goal with a sharp slapshot that hit the net dead on.

Gorges and Gill do their best as always, but I think Gill's minutes were overdone, the way he was dogging it in the game at times and that tripping penalty he drew when he was falling, 22 minutes TOI is way too much for a guy who's meant be 3rd-pair, O'Byrne should have been eating up at least five of his minutes tonight, especially at even strength.

Bergeron and O'Byrne had a good night, O'Byrne was guilty on perhaps one of his two penalties, but the second was clearly a lousy call and kept him out of action and helping keep the game tighter and give Montreal more of a rest. Bergeron's play in the Hamrlik goal was perfectly executed, he's going to be fearsome once he pairs with Markov in PP situations.

Goaltending: Carey Price simply can't make a mistake it seems if the team is going to win the way it's going against Top teams. the team is too often worn down by tough penalties that force their top players to tire themselves out on PK shifts, limiting offence especially by the 3rd and the defence is even more hampered. He made a mistake on the Dupuis goal but prevented about eight other goals at least on the night, he's an elite goaltender that could mean the difference between playoffs and no playoffs, but I don't see how Montreal can get there when they're the 2nd most penalized team in the league for no good reason and Price has to stand on his head to deliver wins because the team has trouble setting up a transition game because they're so tired from PK work. It makes me crazy the way he overplays the puck at times, but at the same time the way the D is nearly burnt out by the last half of the 3rd period, I can hardly blame him for wanting to manage the puck a bit himself, he's definitely one of the better goalies out there for handling it.

Thoughts: I don't know what it is, has the NHL instructed the on-ice Officials to keep Montreal down and work aganst Canadian teams in general to make sure they don't take up space in the playoffs? Are there that many referees from outside of Quebec that never forgave the Canadiens for their unbelievable Dynasty of the 1970s? Is anti-Quebec bigotry that prevalent that referees from other parts of the country just want to take Montreal down a bit because they hate Quebec? I don't know, it all seems outlandish but it's a bit crazy when Montreal is 2nd in penalties taken considering we're not packing any dirty shot characters like Cooke, Rupp, Lucic or Pronger, yet the penalties pile up all the time. Montreal was outplayed this game, but take away three undeserved Pittsburgh power plays and the shots advantage would not have been what it was and Montreal might have won this thing. They weren't that good and Montreal was still fighting hard, but with a foot in quicksand.

Atlanta comes this weekend and I believe Montreal can drop them come out of the week with six points in eight and keep working towards that Playoff spot while Markov mends for next month's return.

Again, screw Pittsburgh for failing their way to victory as a hockey club.

Note: Due to my moving to Brantford next month and doing an initial move this month to get myself set up, my game reports may be abridged, Hawks and Capitals reports will be less frequent and other details may be left out, as things are getting hectic around here for me.

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