Sunday, February 7, 2010

Well, what do we have here?

A 60-minute effort from the Canadiens that drops the Stanley Cup Champion Pittsburgh Penguins, granted, Malkin and Crosby were generally underwhelming in the match, but this was a team that had soundly defeated Montreal in recent history with their glut of talented forwards, defencemen and goaltending.

Most of us (including myself) considered a win very difficult to manage, if not impossible considering the talent they were going up against unless luck was seriously on Montreal's side. From the fluky goal that could have been called as a penalty to start the match to Gionta's backhanded beauty to Darche's blast that chased Marc-Andre Fleury from the nets and became the game-winning goal, the Canadiens for a full 60 minutes took advantage of a team that has not been at their best in a while. Halak did not have to stand on his head and you can call the 2nd goal he allowed suspect, but he made several beauty saves that could've left this a much closer game had he not been alert.

Montreal won thanks to the inspiring efforts of the Hamilton Bulldog's top line and Guy Boucher's haymaker against all the opposition he faces in the AHL, Brock Trotter, David Desharnais and Ryan White. Two of the top 15 scorers in the AHL in Trotter (25G, 28A) and David Desharnais (16G, 32A) with a born shit-disturbing energy player, Ryan White (12G, 8A and 95 Penalty Minutes) who plays the PK as well as anyone, hits and does whatever he has to for his teammates. They generated scoring chances, drew three penalties and kept the Penguins on their heels and nearly notched a goal more than once. They were a solid unit in Hamilton and surprised Pittsburgh with their well-executed play, a 4th line that has consistent line mates on a team is a rarity with how these lines are usually drawn up, but these Bulldogs had been linemates for some time and brought a level of coordination that the Penguins 4th-liners found hard to match.

Right now, it's hard to argue against sending the kids back down with the energy and effort they bring to a game, Boucher's work in Hamilton has created a highly coordinated unit that Jacques Martin was able to throw in whenever he felt he needed to send the Penguins off their game and force them to play defence rather than try to gain control of the game. The frustratingly inconsistent play of Montreal's most improved forward last year, Maxim Lapierre saw him have less ice time than any player on the ice, the kids each having at least a minute and a half more of ice time.

And that brings me to #40, Maxim Lapierre was at his best with his legs pumping, hitting and generally being a bastard but this year he's done that about 3 or 4 times in 59 games that's horrendous. I'd like to see if he can turn things around as at 24, he's a much better choice to anchor the 3rd line than a 35-year old Glen Metropolit for the long-term future but Glen's playing a whole other level above Lapierre and has all season. These kids can replace him, easily and will work harder than he apparently is willing to, which is frustating for me, a Canadiens fan who owns a #40 Maxim Lapierre t-shirt but sees a guy who defined work ethic in 08-09 to defining a performance that would embarass Alex Kovalev in terms of inconsistency. Hopefully playing this 4th line will illustrate to Maxim what is required from here in on to win hockey games because really, you take the Maxim Lapierre of 08-09, put him with Metropolit and Moen on that 3rd line and honestly, you should have one of the best checking lines in the NHL.

So what happens when we get some players back from injury if these AHL kids keep proving they belong here? Who plays where? With Sergei Kostitsyn becoming a reliable defensive forward and Benoit Pouliot resurrecting his potential as a star NHL player, there are some choices to make.

The Canadiens Offence at full health:

You have a 23-man NHL roster and Laraque unfortunately is a waste of space and taking up slot #23 and you have Carey Price and Jaroslav Halak, leaving you at 20 men left to work with, one reserve forward and one reserve defencemen.

1st Line: Ideally, you restore the line of Mike Cammalleri, Tomas Plekanec and Andrei Kostitsyn who had terrorized the opposition until Andrei Kostitsyn had injured his knee. The aggressive, punishing forecheck of Andrei Kostitsyn, his soft hands and great speed gave the opposition pause while Tomas Plekanec's great vision and passing ability has him always ready to feed a winger with a clear shot, while Mike Cammalleri's nose for the net had him on track for a 40-goal season before he fell to injury.

2nd Line: Benoit Pouliot will not be gone for long, which will lead the restoration of what the fellows at Four Habs Fans affectionately termed the Giant Mexican Chicken Line, that is, Brian Gionta, Scott Gomez and Benoit Pouliot. Together, they had brought a secondary scoring threat up behind the top line run by Plekanec until Andrei had been injured. When restored, the speed, size and net prescence of Pouliot will give Gomez, a great playmaker himself a partner to feed while Gionta's impossible speed and fearless nature in the offensive zone further endangers the oppostion.

3rd Line: I am conflicted, but as it stands, Glen Metropolit, Travis Moen and Sergei Kostitsyn would be a wise pairing. Sergei has been snakebitten this year in scoring but anyone who's seen his passing ability, speed and stick skills know he's a solid threat when he's on the ice. Glen Metropolit is a surprising threat to anyone who faces him, a journeyman for much of his career and a defensive forward much like Sergei Kostitsyn, it's hard to slip around these two if they want to keep you out of the offensive zone. Travis Moen brings a respectable physical prescence to this line, he has a good solid check and while it has been some time since he found the net, he's always willing to hang around the front of an opposition net. His hands are not much better than that of the man he essentially replaced, Tom "The Bomb" Kostopolous but his larger size and commitment to his physical game is a key component of any good checking line.

4th Line: The Inglorious Bulldogs as I like to call them, David Desharnais, Brock Trotter and Ryan White. Desharnais surrenders an inch in height to Brian Gionta, but he's got just as much heart as his fellow teammate of small stature and great skills in the offensive zone including a very crisp pass. Brock Trotter was an undrafted college free agent, but has become a solid signing, 4th in points in the AHL before his call up, his scouting report calls him a 'beast from the blue in' and nearly scored more than once and led the entire game in SOG with 5, he and his line mate Desharnais were even rewarded with power play time for their solid effort, granted that also was due to Benoit Pouliot, Andrei Kostitsyn and Mike Cammalleri also missing with injury. Ryan White had a previous stint with Montreal and showed a great willingness like Moen, Pouliot or Kostitsyn on the other lines to engage the body, he scraped with and wrestled down Bill Guerin towards the end of the game as the Penguins became highly undisciplined as they were losing to an Eastern Conference bubble team. White can manage a penalty kill and has speed to keep with his linemates, Mike Boone of the Gazette termed them the best 4th line the Canadiens have had this season, it's impossible to disagree, especially considering how many games that 4th line including George Laraque. Brock Trotter never played an NHL game before that night, David Desharnais had one game and Ryan White, 14 games. They took the Penguins to task for not taking the Canadiens seriously and made them pay, it's hard to argue with results like that. Perhaps they knew they had nothing to lose as emergency replacements, but you have to admire their commitment.

Spare Parts: This leaves Matt D'Agostini, Maxim Lapierre and Marc-Andre Bergeron out as 4th-line players but D'Agostini has been terrible this season and needs either a term under Guy Boucher to right himself, provided he could clear waivers to return to Hamilton or needs to be moved out of the organization, his flash in the pan goal scoring streak seems like a distant memory and D'Agostini a very different player. Marc-Andre Bergeron's laser on the power play is a luxury the Canadiens, a team that needs to challenge their opposition with a strong work ethic and 60-minute hockey can't afford to have really. He's not a forward, he's a defenceman with a very limited range outside of the power play, he's small, not overpowered in strength for his size like Francis Boullion was and doesn't have good defensive instincts compared to anyone else on the team except Paul Mara. Maxim Lapierre needs to sit in the press box and think and hard about his future because if the Bulldogs line does what they just need for 10 games in a row, he could get a very sore ass from sitting in the Press Box for the remaining 22 games in the season, or out the door in a trade package much sooner than that, along with Paul Mara, our depth defencemen who's leading the team with a -16 differential.

Power Play: The power play with the team at full health can avoid the need for Bergeron simply by moving a forward back to the point, preferably Andrei Kostitsyn. By placing him at the point with Andrei Markov for the rest of the season, you maintain the powerful slapshot at the point, while you move Benoit Pouliot to play wing, then use Mike Cammalleri and Tomas Plekanec to create a 5-point scoring threat for a team's PK to deal with. With Markov's great instinct to rush the play and join the attack or move the puck, Andrei Kostitsyn's bomb from the point, Benoit Pouliot's front of net prescence and reflexes, Mike Cammalleri's right faceoff circle one-timer and of course, Tomas Plekanec's ability to put the puck on anyone's stick, that's a nightmare for a PK unit, especially a tired one.

The second unit loses some strength with Sergei Kostitsyn, Brian Gionta and Scott Gomez being the forwards with Roman Hamrlik and Jaroslav Spacek manning the points but it's still a good unit with Gomez's passing ability, Gionta's net prescence and reflexes while Sergei has an ability to thread a pass where it needs to go, Spacek and Hamrlik are a natural pair on defence really as well so they'd work naturally together. Less firepower of course, but second wave is second wave for a reason and they can still do damage.


The defensive pairs right now, I wouldn't change a thing.

1st Line: MVP defenceman Andrei Markov has Ryan O'Byrne, a tough, physical defensive partner who can hit, fight, has a right-handed shot and is brimming with potential to easily replace Mike Komisarek with far superior instincts about handling the puck than Komisarek ever managed. Markov is just the best D-Man Montreal's had since Chris Chelios left town in terms of pure ability.

2nd Pair: Roman Hamrlik is the model of a consistent defencemen, probably not the flashiest of defencmen to be taken 1st overall in the draft, but you can't say he was a wasted choice either. He plays a solid, consistent game with no complaints, he gives hits, block shots and rarely makes the wrong move and saved the Canadiens season while they waited for Andrei Markov to mend. Jaroslav Spacek has been less successful in his first season as a Montreal Canadien, but partnering with his fellow Czech has created a pretty good defensive pair, albeit I could go without his required useless penalty every other game.

3rd Pair: Hall Gill, yes he's slow, yes he doesn't fight, yes he doesn't hit the way you'd expect a 6'7" NHL player to constantly pound his opponents but he has a good check he can use at times, a highly active stick that breaks up plays effectively and he can police the front of the net. He can shove guys right out of a goalie's face and when scrums start, he can seperate players with a sweep of his hand. If you have a 5-on-3 to kill, you also want him out there because of his ability to ruin plays by breaking up passes and blocking shots, dropping himself so he'll cover the goalie's lower half without obstructing the view. Josh Gorges is a good partner for him, a constant, battling defencemen who pours his heart out on every shift, he'll do whatever he has to do and gives some mobility to the Gill line to cover his partner's lack of speed. Together, they form one of those solid 3rd pairs on defence you like to see, you don't really notice them and that's what you need from them.

Conclusions: Can a team of this composition contend? When they want to, they can. We've seen it this season, albeit rarely but they can do it. Hard work, 60-minute effort from checking lines like I mentioned and scoring threats from a very capable, very potent Top 6. That's a team that can surprise in the playoffs if they can actually maintain their health when their Top 6 forwards start returning. I won't say we'd do something unexpected like roll over the Washington Capitals given the year they are having, but we could certainly bleed them dry before the final buzzer sounded.

I haven't mentioned goaltending because I'm tired of the debate. What Price did when the team needed their asses saved in Early October and then all through November can't be forgotten, but Halak stepped up in key points too and for longer stretches and is for now, the #1 goalie in Montreal with 17 wins. The big point is, the goaltending can't carry this team all year along and the skaters have to help the goalies. Price should get some starts to stay sharp and give the team an option of sending out a goalie on any night who isn't dead tired or stone cold from the bench.

The composition I lay out I believe can be competitive, provided the Bulldogs line continues to do what they are doing now and the offence stays healthy. The team has an easier March compared to several of their Conferecne opponents with so many games before the Olympic break, so they'll have more time to rest, heal and prepare for March and boost their record to the point where they stand much higher in the East than they are right now. They will not capture a Division title, but getting to 4th/5th in the East with a healthy lineup does not appear out of reach, it is an 8-point seperation from 5th and 9 points from 4th, but I doubt the Ottawa Senators will be going on any more 11-game winning streaks this season and they could slide badly after the Leafs bursting their bubble. Canadiens have a chance to gain ground on their opponents with an easier March schedule and they'll need to exploit that.

Playoffs are possible, the team isn't as weak on the depth chart as some would like to say, the opportunity is there if the team can take the opportunity to exploit it and Jacques Martin can take his hand off the team and not squeeze so tightly to regulate them. The Canadiens are set up for firewagon hockey, JM needs to let them use that and while he should preach defence, he needs to encourage his offensive forwards to follow their instincts.

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