White Knuckles

I was sitting at my keyboard yesterday, typing away, when I noticed a strange, circular bruise on the back of my hand, just at the base of my index finger.  Hmmm…I thought…I don’t remember bumping that.  Then I saw the same bruise, in the same spot on my other hand too.  I spent a good few minutes trying to figure out what the heck would cause such an odd manifestation when it hit me:  It was the Habs.

During the last few minutes of the Blues game Sunday night, with the Canadiens down a goal and looking to go into a full-blown slump, I clenched my hands together so hard…in hope or frustration I’m not sure; probably a combination of both…I bruised myself.  Yes, so far this year, the Habs are hurting me.  Literally. 

I confess, I’m guilty of Great Expectationitis.  And if last season’s first place was the best of times, this year…well, you get my drift.  I thought last year that the team was a model of consistency and, even after its ignominous playoff exit, needed just a little experience and an addition or two to really contend.  Then, when Bob Gainey introduced Alex Tanguay, Robert Lang and Georges Laraque to the fold, I started to get really excited.  Those guys seemed to address all the needs the team had: the impact forward, the steady third-line centre with size and a right-handed shot and the policeman to protect all that talent.  Sure, they weren’t Mats Sundin, but they weren’t Bates Battaglia either.

So how did we get to be sixteen games into the season and find ourselves looking at a SO win over the Blues as a great relief instead of a mild disappointment?  How have all these new needs: another top defenceman, a PP point man and a gritty winger with skills, emerged?  It feels like Gainey plugged the old holes in the dam, only to see the water start seeping in through others.  And, like the metaphorical dam, if water is coming in, the holes are not the problem.  There has to be an underlying fault that’s causing the holes in the first place.

This is what baffles me about the Canadiens:  The underlying problem is often identified as being variously "grit," "size," "toughness" and "’nads."  We see them lose the puck on the boards consistently, allow opponents to screen and interfere with the goalie and watch helplessly as the other team’s forwards cycle the puck in the Habs’ end at will.  That results in opposition chances, high numbers of shots against and lame penalties taken by Montreal players who use sticks instead of bodies.  Yet, the Canadiens are not a small team.  They actually stack up pretty well against most opponents in the average height and weight categories.  That’s why it’s kind of shocking that other teams seem to know so much better how to use the assets of height and weight to their advantage than the Habs.

This all means the Canadiens are painful to watch this year.  But they *can* play a grittier game.  Saku Koivu and Tomas Plekanec are small, but not shy.  The Kostitsyn brothers both have an aggressive streak.  Tom the Bomb, Steve Begin and Georges Laraque aren’t nervous about getting into the corners and mucking it up.  On defence, Josh Gorges, Roman Hamrlik, Mike Komisarek and Francis Bouillon all have the ability to play with some jam.  Admittedly, big guys like Alex Kovaelv, Ryan O’Byrne, Robert Lang and Guillaume Latendresse could use their bodies better to push the opposition around and protect the puck.  But it seems as though, this year, even the guys who habitually play a tougher game are easing off in that department. 

As a result, the goalies are getting run, the loose pucks are going to the other team and the opponent’s cycle carries on unimpeded.  Worse, hardworking teams who *do* use their bodies better, like the leafs and Bruins, end up owning the Habs.  They prove you don’t have to have all the talent in the world if you use what you do have effectively.  The lack of physical aggression on Montreal’s part results in the permeter play and lack of confidence we’re watching in almost every game.  Meanwhile, tortured Habs’ fans end up displaying weird black-and-blue hockey stigmata as our dreams of league domination dissipate in cold-morning reality.

Fans are blaming Carbo and his staff for this, and lauding guys like Ron Wilson and Claude Julien for pumping their teams up so well.  That’s bull.  Carbo coached these same players to complete domination of Julien’s Bruins last season.  These players stood up for themselves and their teammates when they needed to last year.  They won the grinding Jersey games as well as the blowouts.  But this is something the players must find within themselves.  A coach can talk, and he can show them video, but in the end, the players have to determine they’ll bring all they can to the ice.

I’m taking hope that realization is hitting the team now that a few games’ worth of ownership by their enemies has made them disgruntled.  They played a better game against Philly than they did against Boston.  The Blues game was slightly better again.  The Canadiens, if they play a strong game tonight, should be able to beat Carolina and build their way out of their slump.  They managed it last November, when similar problems dogged them to seven losses in fourteen games.  But it’ll only happen if they put their chins to their chests and push.

When they do, I’ll say the hand-clenching was worth the bruises. 

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