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Tuesday, February 27, 2007

A Word on the Habs' Inactivity Today

When talking about the Habs' deadline day strategy most people, fans and hockey experts alike, dichotomize it into two opposite directions: 'buyer' and 'seller'. If the Canadiens are buyers, the pundits say, they should make a splash for a big-name impact player such as Bill Guerin or Todd Bertuzzi. If they are sellers, however, then the Canadiens should trade away their assets, most notably Sheldon Souray, for a large return. Today, Bob Gainey decided not to go either way.

I tend to disagree with the notion that a trade is necessary on deadline day. It has to fit the team's needs at the time of the deal, and making a trade for the sake of it is not necessarily the best thing to do. If you look at Bob Gainey's moves, you see that he always thinks them out very carefully, and never pulls the trigger on a deal that is doubtful to help the team in some way. Trading for a Bill Guerin would have cost the Canadiens a roster player, a prospect, and a draft pick, which they could have afforded but are probably better off not having done. Trading Souray would have done more bad to the team short-term than the good it would have done long-term. In fact, the only player I think the Canadiens should have traded for was Peter Forsberg, but the return for him was phenomenal, his health is questionable, and there's a good chance he'll re-sign with Philadelphia in the summer.

That being said, I think the one area that Gainey has been consistently lacking is in looking out for the surrounding teams that matter. The Canadiens are in a fight for the eighth and final playoff spot with the Islanders and Maple Leafs, and both made significant trades today that make them better teams. The Canadiens' Northeast division rival Sabres made a big move today in acquiring former Hab Dainus Zubrus; the Senators and Bruins also made trades, albeit minor ones. The point here, though, is that Gainey ought to be extremely confident that his team is still on the right track compared to the Isles and Leafs if he decides not to pull a move in reaction to theirs.

I know I'm going to sound contradictory here, but Gainey is an incredibly intelligent hockey man and if he thinks that the offers being made to him would not improve his club, then there was no sense in him making a move. With Craig Rivet gone, Sheldon Souray is more a backbone of this team than ever, and we all know how fans react when you trade a pivotal player for picks and prospects (are you listening, Kevin Lowe?). And while the Leafs and Isles are certainly better teams than they were yesterday, the Canadiens are gaining momentum again and another trade might have thrown them off course. Sometimes, no news is good news after all.

Tuesday, February 06, 2007

Shameful conduct

Sorry that this is a bit of a late post, but I wanted to take a moment to comment on the atrocious conduct by the referees in Sunday's Pittsburgh-Canadiens rematch. After the Thursday game, Guy Carbonneau and his players complained about the one-sided call which saw Sheldon Souray get a 2-minute instigator penalty, a 5-minute fighting major, a 10-minute misconduct and a game misconduct for jumping Colby Armstrong after his questionable hit on captain Saku Koivu. Despite dropping his gloves and throwing punches, Armstrong received no penalties, and Souray's penalties resulted in a 7-minute Penguins power play, during which they scored two goals.

In the Sunday game, the referees awarded the Penguins six power plays in the first two periods, many of which were questionable calls against the Habs. The Penguins, meanwhile, were not assessed any penalties, and it was clear from the way the game was being called that this was in direct retaliation for the way the Canadiens organization reacted to the reffing last Thursday. Even the CBC commentators, not usually known for their allegiance to the Habs, were hinting that the six power plays were not a coincidence and were not all fair calls. This was a less subtle example of the refs not being on the Canadiens' side, and most of those who scoff at the notion of a conspiracy against the Habs were in agreement that the one-sided bombardment of penalties was deliberate.

Conduct such as this by the NHL's referees is absolutely unacceptable. It is a disgrace that clubs should not be allowed to comment when they feel they were treated unfairly in a game, and that the NHL should allow its officials to retaliate in such an unscrupulous manner. Pete Rose was banned from baseball because gambling is seen as motivation to fix the outcome of a game, and I believe that retaliation by referees such as that which took place on Sunday is no different. It is immature, unprofessional, and borderline illegal. The NHL would be smart to denounce its officials' actions and to establish a proper system for making complaints about calls, but, unfortunately, 'intelligence' is not an adjective that has been associated with the league's head offices very much in recent years.

Friday, February 02, 2007

Pittsburgh: A great hockey town

At first, all the talk about the Penguins' potential move out of Pittsburgh didn't really phase me at all. Being Canadian, I really didn't care about the prospect of an American team moving from one city to another, especially since, earlier on, it seemed like the Pens moving to Hamilton was a distinct possibility. However, that was before I realized what a great fan base the Penguins have, and what a shame it would be for Pittsburgh to be without a hockey team next fall.

It's one thing for a team like the Florida Panthers to move, or even fold. Their attendance numbers are mediocre, and hockey in the Miami region almost always takes a backseat to football, baseball, basketball, and football again. On the other hand, the Penguins average a 93.2% operating capacity at Mellon Arena, an impressive number considering that the Pens haven't made the playoffs since 2001 and that Mellon is the NHL's oldest arena.

Evidently, the reasons for the Penguins' successes at the gate this year have a lot to do with Evgeni Malkin and Sidney Crosby, two of the league's youngest and most explosive stars. Another factor is the Pittsburgh faithful's attachment to former superstar Mario Lemieux, who is part-owner of the team. In general, though, Pittsburgh is just a strong hockey market, and it would be a huge mistake to allow the Penguins to leave for Kansas City or wherever else the dollar signs may lead them.

Last night's Habs-Pens game was one of the most entertaining I've seen in awhile. The best aspects of the game were in full display in Pennsylvania: passion, speed, and skill. As Pierre McGuire mentioned on TSN, the NHL should "bottle this game up and show it to people around the world." The Penguins put on quite a show last night, and for that, they are my new second-favourite team. And the best part of it all is that they did it in front of a screaming, raucous, sell-out crowd of 17,132.

The atmosphere was unreal, and you could feel it emanating from the TV. If only all American NHL teams were the same way.

Friday, January 12, 2007

Unspecial teams

In a follow-up to a post i made last year, I made a comment on the Gazette's Habs Inside/Out blog (link on the right of this page) regarding officiating against the Canadiens:

In March of last year, I got so fed up with the refs during Habs-Leafs games that I did a statistical analysis to determine if there was indeed a bias against the Canadiens. I compared games that were officiated by referees from Ontario to games refereed by American refs or by Canadian refs coming from outside Ontario. What I found was that when the Habs played the Leafs with the other refs, they got slightly fewer power plays and slightly more penalties than their average against the 28 other NHL teams. This means that the Habs do get into penalty trouble against Toronto. But the numbers became a lot more significant when the refs were from Ontario: the Habs received 7 more penalty minutes than the Leafs per game, and were awarded 2.5 less power plays than Toronto. The analysis may have been simplistic and not exhaustive in its methods, but it still provides some numbers to back up the claim that certain refs have it out for the Canadiens (unfortunately for us, Chris Lee is from NB and not Ontario, however).

Some people have speculated that the past successes of the Canadiens have bred a generation of Habs-haters that are now in control of the decision-making at various levels of the game, most notably as referees. My Toronto friends think I'm ridiculous when I tell them I believe there is a bias out there, but the stats don't lie. A fast team like the Habs should not be penalized significantly more often than the sluggish Maple Leafs or Flyers.

I was listening to CJAD a while back and someone called in to suggest that the NHL implement a call review similar to the one the NFL uses, where coaches could request a review of one call per game with the cost of a penalty being imposed if the coach's opinion is overruled. While this may not help with the penalty-calling problem, it certainly would give the Canadiens hope when they are robbed of goals, as they were, quite blatantly I might add, twice last week in Washington and at home against the New York Rangers. Overall, it's shameful that the NHL would treat some of its most loyal and passionate fans the way it does.

Thursday, December 14, 2006

Congratulations, Saku Koivu

For the longest time, I have been frustratingly indecisive about which player deserved the honour of having their number stitched on the back of my white Vintage Canadiens jersey. At one point, it was José Theodore's #60 that was going to win the contest. We all know how he lost his spot in this race. Then, I thought about Alex Kovalev, but the distinction should be bestowed upon a player who shows up for all games, not just the odd one here and there. Michael Ryder? Too streaky. Sheldon Souray? Those defensive lapses are killer, and who knows if he'll be a member of Les Canadiens next September. Andrei Markov? Solid defenseman, but he lacks the charisma. Cristobal Huet? I'm not a bandwagon-jumper. How about Chris Higgins or Mike Komisarek, you say? They would definitely be great choices, but they need to establish that they are indeed career Habs before they get to be worn on my back. Thanks a lot, Pierre Turgeon.

It turns out that I've had the answer glaring at me in the face this whole time. After all, these players are all good NHL hockey players. It's no wonder the Canadiens are near the top of the Eastern Conference standings, and that they've been there all season long. But what is it about this team that makes it great, that makes it special? The answer, of course, is Saku Koivu.

Loyal readers of this blog might remember that I have been critical of the Habs' captain before. Last year, I didn't feel like he was pulling his weight when the Canadiens were running on empty. I never felt like he was the standout player Canadiens captains are all expected to be.

That all changed last year, when Koivu got carelessly eliminated from the playoffs by a free-flying Justin Williams high stick. Before the incident, the Habs were flying high, on pace to upset the Hurricanes and tear apart any other team in the Eastern conference that would dare stand in their way. But as soon as the blade of Williams' stick penetrated the skin right above Koivu's eye, the team collapsed. Sometimes, you just don't know what you've got until it's gone.

Fast-forward to September of this year, when the hockey "experts" were still doubting whether Koivu would be able to rough it out in the NHL. No one, not even Bob Gainey or Guy Carbonneau, knew what to expect. But Koivu, the team's fifth-longest-serving captain - putting him in the jaw-dropping company of Bob Gainey, Jean Béliveau, Maurice Richard, and Toe Blake - has roared out of the gates this year to lead his team in scoring. He beat back cancer, and donated a PET/CT scanner to the city. He beat back this devastating eye injury. He has beaten back countless injuries to become one of the best playmakers and leaders the team has ever known.

And tonight, when the captain was marking the occasion of his 600th NHL game - all with Montreal - he scored two goals to help his team overcome a lazy effort. Last Saturday, in a game I was lucky enough to attend, Koivu again single-handedly won it for his team in spite of lacklustre play, scoring two goals and adding one in the shoot-out for a 4-3 decision over the Maple Leafs. To borrow a line from Chris Martin of Coldplay fame, Koivu simply ignited my bones in their seats, far away from Koivu's in the Bell Centre's nosebleeds.

I may have doubted the guy, but those days are no more. I can still remember when Koivu first joined the team; I was but a toddler mimicking the reports that Koivu was projected to be a star in this league to my friends. And while he may not have the stats or the Stanley Cups to back it up, we all know that Saku Koivu is one of the true Canadiens greats, the stuff legends are made of. Congratulations on #600, Saku, and look out for me in my Habs jersey around town. There will be a familiar number 11 sewn on its back very soon.