Well, here we are post-deadline and we’ve got a couple of new faces, a little more confidence, and our future in our own hands. As we head down the stretch we have to start looking at who we’ll face in The Show (assuming no locker room brawl or injury glut) and wondering how we might match up with them. However, before we get there, we’ve got games to win, teams to beat, and rivals to thumb our noses at (particularly since they didn’t expect us to be anything other than glorified Ovechkin chasers). Here, then, is a look at what we’ve got and where our holes might be.
There’s no questioning our solidity between the pipes. With Theo we have one of the leagues premiere puck-stoppers and, if he’s on his game, a player who can win all on his lonesome. Looking back two years, that was proven quite emphatically when Theo beat the Bruins almost single-handedly. Garon backing him up is a pleasure for the coaching staff, particularly after his performance against the Desert Dogs who peppered him with so much rubber, Goodyear is looking to give him a testing contract for Formula 1.
No, we’re not, in all likelihood, going to get knocked out of The Dance because our goaltending fails to deliver. If there’s one aspect of the Habs game that virtually everyone in hockey agrees upon, it’s that we’ve got Big Pads.
Up front, it’s all about options. What I indicate here may or may not come to pass, the point is just that we can play with a multitude of players with abilities.
To start, we collected two new players, Alexei Kovalev and Jim Dowd. Now, in his first match, Kovalev managed to tweak a wing after only five shifts, but fortunately it was a minor thing and he should be back very shortly. What he did do, in the interim, is imbue Dowd with all his powers of scoring and offensive prowess. The feisty centre has been a terror on the ice, as was expected, but he’s also added an unexpected flair around the net thus far. And while I love to see that, I’m hoping he sends back all those powers to Kovalev who will probably put them to even better use.
This leaves us with two very solid scoring lines, including so much offensive talent that we can actually start looking at the mid-90’s without as much wistfulness. On a first line centred by the underrated Koivu we find Zednik and probably Kovalev. Zednik has recently awoken from a slumber and is tickling the twine more than two young kids in the back seat of a beaten up old Chevy. Koivu, if you discount his first five games which served as his training camp, is practically on a point-a-game pace and has been serving up pucks with regularity.
Add Kovalev to that line and you get all the laziness of the Ranger Country Club – hopefully only for the first period. After that he’ll probably figure out that you have to work in Montreal or you get booed – and Breezer will certainly have plenty to say about that should Kovalev become the target of the boo-birds beery call. When Kovalev’s on his game, he brings a puck handling ability never before seen in Montreal (feel free to argue this point, but I’m doubting you can change my mind). His ability with the puck makes both Koivu and Ribeiro look more like Juha Lind and Johan Witehall, and not only is that a scary thought, but the mere typing of those names has me on pure oxygen.
The second line is centred by the ultra-crafty Ribeiro, will have Calder candidate Ryder on one side and, for the moment anyhow, Blast Dagenais on the other. It’s a young line, and one that lacks in experience, but sometimes that’s a good thing, because they’re not caught up in the hoopla as much and can just go out and perform. If the man we call Ribs can adjust his game enough to be effective in playoff hockey, he could be deadly. He’s got some dangle moves which can leave a defender feeling like an ostrich and wishing for the obscurity of sand. Ryder has become an integral ingredient in the Habs lineup, and he’s developed a chemistry with Ribs which has led to opponent embarrassment on more than a few occasions.
The wildcard is Dagenais. He’s not the best skater, and I put that mildly. In fact, he skates not unlike someone from the Sudan out on the ice for the first time ever. However, he clicks with Ribs and has slowly worked his game from just a shot, to a shot and some play within the system. The question is how long he can keep it up, and whether or not he can up his game come the playoffs. If he can, that line is gravy since Dagenais has a shot not dissimilar to Brett Hull in that it’s laser quick and the release is lightening fast.
If, however, he cannot hack it anymore, there are a few options to look at including Yanic Perreault and Jan Bulis. Both have good talent and Yanic the Great can certainly score. Bulis is one of the hardest workers and will win pucks for Ribs to feed Ryder with, and he does have some ability at popping them home as well.
The third and fourth lines are somewhat of a question mark at this point. With the arrival of Dowd, the slow failing of Juneau’s legs, and Niklas Sundstrom eventually coming back from injury, as well as both Perreault and Bulis thrown in the mix, both these lines could change continually as we move forward.
Recently, there’s been a Dowd-Ward-Begin line, and if you like to see bodies fly and energy spent, this is the line for you. Noticeable around arenas after their line play are the workers, shaking their heads at the thought of all the repairs that’ll have to go into the rink walls come game’s end. Dowd, the right-handed centre that Commander Gainey was looking for, fits right in as a character and energy guy. The fact he can play solid defence is also particularly enticing.
On his wings you can see (if your eyes move that fast) Begin, whose energy level can be compared to that of a rabbit in heat, but whose actions more resemble the Tasmanian Devil. He’s a whirling dervish on the ice and, when he took Juneau’s place during injury, he filled in more than admirably. Ward is another whose defence is excellent, and he also hits frequently. The problem with Ward is his skating and the fact that only the boards are effective at making him change direction. He’s got to keep his game at a very elevated level or he’s going to find himself watching from the press box.
That leaves us with the aforementioned Juneau, Sundstrom, Bulis and Perreault, as well as Andreas Dackell. That means there’s going to be some talent watching which is a far cry from the days when Johan Witehall patrolled the rink for Les Habitants (perhaps I’m fixated on him). For two solid years, Bulis, Juneau and Dackell created a defensive line that was one of the better ones in hockey, and in fact Bulis’ best position is that of a defensive forward. Dackell, while disliked by many, has some qualities that are coveted by others, including the ability to work the penalty kill and to work the boards extremely effectively.
Sundstrom, on the other hand, has a more offensive quality to his game as well as being extremely good in his own end. His abilities are somewhat under-appreciated, but are also largely unseen, as he doesn’t stray out of the system very often. Perreault has that amazing ability to win all those faceoffs that are crucial to a team winning a game, so putting him to the side is a difficult thing indeed.
I’ll make no predictions now, only leave that information out there to chew on knowing that there will be some tough choices as everyone gets healthy and as the playoffs loom.
And that leaves the Achilles heel of the Canadiens, the defence. If there’s one area where we’re going to have significant troubles down the stretch and into the playoffs, it’s on the blueline where the Big Men and One Little Man patrol. There are those who might question this analysis, to them I say, “Question away, but you buy the beer!”. Sure, we have a wonderful record for goals against, but I believe that it’s more due to the nature of the system implemented rather than the quality of the talent at the back end.
To start, we’ll talk quickly about Markov, who has slowly worked his way to the point now where he actually might be considered a legitimate number one league-wide. His talents are numerous, his veins filled with ice, and his intelligence very high. Bonus round when you consider that this year he not only speaks English, but also that he now has a fellow Russian with whom he can speak in his native tongue. His only shortcoming is his crease-clearing ability, however if paired with a monster, he’s brilliant.
We do have a clear cut number two on this club, though at the moment he’s sitting at home playing with his child and enjoying the company of his wife (particularly good for him, not so for us). Souray came from out of nowhere this season and turned his game into that of a seriously good defender. While he’s not quite as adept as Markov in certain areas of his game, he has that size element that Markov lacks as well as the love of using it. When he comes back just before the playoffs start, it’ll be the first time in years and years that the Habs will have had a really true one-two combination.
After that, things fall off a little, though in the case of one, he’s had a turn-around season and has (with the help of some choice words from the Commander) silenced the boo-birds. Brisebois has taken his game down to the basics and, instead of trying to do everything himself, he’s successfully turned himself into a quality number four defender. There are moments when he plays slightly over his head, but those moments, if too long, generally bring on the mistakes and those now famous cross-ice, behind the back, behind the crease backhand passes. Raise your hand if you’ve seen enough of those in your lifetime. Our precious Breeze-by is all growed up.
Someone who’s turned it around more recently is Craig Rivet. From the worst minus player on the team to a solid plus, he’s gone back to the basics and has found himself on the ice. He’s no more than a number four either, but he’s solid with what he does. You’ll not see flash and dazzle from his play, just steady work in his own zone. No longer is he Traffic Cone 52, and it is with a sense of happiness that I retire this moniker.
Montreal has a Big Little Man, and he’s on the defence. Bouillon is the best hitter of the club, bar none, and he has an offensive flair that’s rarely seen, yet greatly appreciated when put out on display. His problem is that he can get bullied around in the defensive zone – sometimes rather badly – by players who are larger. And when I say he’s little, it’s not that he’s 5’11 or something like that, he’s 5’8. On skates. Elevator skates. He’s a good number six guy, but not someone you want out there when you’re trying to defend a lead.
After that, we get weak, weak, weak. Quintal is a steady performer (he’ll give you the same thing night in and night out) but he is prone to falling apart when attacked with speed. If there was less flash in his game he’d fall into a coma, but that’s just the way we all like it. As long as he plays positionally he minimizes errors, but I’m less and less comfortable with him out there. Komisarek is big, rough around the edges, and has a ways to go before I cease to have heart attacks. The game is just too fast for him at this moment, and until he starts seeing things in slo-mo, he’s going to have troubles.
There you have it, a primer as we move forward to the playoffs. We’re better than we’ve been in years, but we’ve still got our problems, and heart medicine is still a requirement for fans of Les Glorieux. Watch closely over the next handful of games to see how the lines shake out up front, and pray to whatever Hockey gods you can for our defence. Then when you’re done all that, beg the Forum ghosts to watch over and protect Theodore.
Because, as usual, he is our saviour.
A Concerned Fan