MONTREAL, QC. — Marc Bergevin’s first signings as general manager of the Canadiens were made to make the team tougher to play against. Sunday night’s game demonstrated that he didn’t go far enough in extending Travis Moen, signing Colby Armstrong and Brandon Prust. The most successful strategy in today’s NHL may as well be called cynical hockey. That is, playing to hit and hurt opponents between and after the whistles to wear them down over the course of a series. Last year’s Senators – Rangers playoff matchup featured two teams employing similar strategies with violent effects (Carkner’s insertion for the sole purpose of injuring Brian Boyle, who’d gone after Karlsson after every whistle in game 1.)
The Bruins won the Cup playing this way just a couple of years ago, and the Penguins, though Mario Lemieux decries the disrespectful play of others, have been successful while employing guys like Brooks Orpik, Arron Asham, and pre-Ludovico treatment Matt Cooke. Robust play is a part of hockey, but the blueprint is simple; acquire players who are just good enough to deserve a regular shift, but who can also hit to hurt and fight.
Oh yeah! A game happened.
As stated in the preview to this series: “One obvious mismatch between the teams is grit. Chris Neil is going to hurt people. Marc Methot is going to hurt people. Jarred Cowen and Zack Smith are hungry. Brandon Prust, Colby Armstrong, Ryan White, and Jarred Tinordi will need to push back and protect their teammates in this respect, particularly against the predatory Neil.” Since game 1, a full line of Canadiens forwards have been hurt either seriously (Lars Eller) or enough to miss games or effectiveness (Brian Gionta, Max Pacioretty). This mismatch was on full display in game 3, with the big Senators defence denying the Canadiens access to the middle of the rink. Additionally, the same play in which Eller got hurt, namely the outlet pass to the right or the left of centre ice, has been studied and closed off by the Senators. Additionally, the powerplay strategy of passing to the middle before dumping it in, was also largely anticipated by the Senators throughout this game, most obviously when P.K. Subban got decked following a pass from Pacioretty. Why is this still happening? Because Michel Therrien and his coaching staff are having a bad series.
The comments in the media by Therrien since the series started indicate that Paul MacLean is in his head. Therrien never passes up a chance to complain about MacLean being disrespectful or failing to meet the class code of the NHL. Allowing Prust to descend to name-calling after game 1 was also a failure. The Canadiens emphatically lost their composure, and attempted to play a game that they simply are not capable of. If losing all five fights in a linebrawl when all of your gritty players are on the ice isn’t an indication that they have to play clean, tough between the whistles hockey, then it’s unclear what would be. Likely the Habs were irritated at Cory Conacher‘s uncalled crosscheck to Subban’s head, amongst other chippy plays throughout the series, but they aren’t going to scare the Senators with the gloves off. Throwing elbows at miniature players, jumping non-combatants like Kyle Turris, and intentionally firing pucks at players (which, considering how often players are hit by pucks in game, isn’t as much of a big deal as some commentators are making it out to be.*
That the Canadiens are doing these things, combined with Therrien’s visible rage during these games, is typical of his poor coaching job in this series. The Canadiens need to settle down and play hockey rather than retaliate. It’s probably difficult enough to maintain one’s focus in a series as wrathful as this one, but it’s part of the coaches job to keep the players focused, and right now, that isn’t happening. Bergevin would be wise to have a quick chat with the team and the coach about not even mentioning their Senators counterparts for the rest of the series. The losses aren’t solely his fault- key players are hurt and Carey Price has alternated bad and good performances- but the contrast between the calm and collected MacLean and the disgruntled Therrien is worrying.
There will be no supplementary discipline/hearings resulting from MON/OTT last night.
— Elliotte Friedman (@FriedgeHNIC) May 6, 2013
And Eric Gryba returns! Despite the dispiriting game 3 loss, the series is still just 2-1 for the Senators, though it feels longer because of the violence and yesterday’s gong show. With everyone but Eller (and possibly Pacioretty and Gionta, depending on their injury status) available for the game, one hopes that the mutual loathing doesn’t take over game 4, particularly for the Canadiens. They have a series to win, and an old hockey cliche might be what they need.
“Get pucks in deep” is heard so often as to be meaningless, but consult this Ryan White shift from game 2, and you’ll see why it’s shouted from the rooftops and grunted from the gutters:
Jeff Halpern, without an obvious play, does the safe thing and simply rings the puck around the end boards and then skates over to that side of the ice to prevent the breakout pass. Methot, who has to receive this puck, ends up facing the corner with his back to everyone in a red jersey. He has to get rid of the puck for the breakout, but can’t see the play. When Methot pivots to make that pass, Halpern is in the lane and Ryan White is on him. Boom.
Too often in game 1 and game 3, the Canadiens failed to make this simple play and put the Sens’ defence on the ice. The Senators want the Canadiens to carry the puck over the blueline, since that puts the Habs at risk for getting nailed (as seen, about a thousand times this series), but they need to switch this dynamic and make the Sens carry the puck behind their net and suffer the consequences. The point isn’t revenge, or intentional injury, but it’s to wear down the opposition and force them into turnovers that create scoring chances. Off the rush, the Senators defence is all too happy to clog up the middle and smash.
Now Therrien needs to get the Canadiens to adjust to Senators gameplan, who thus far have shown that they know what to expect and how to respond. It’s not about playing the Senators game, it’s about turning the Senators’ game inside out, which is roughly (pun intended) what happened to the Canadiens last night.
*Not that one excuses the other, but the Sens might swallow any comments they have about Gorges in light of what happened in their last trip to the Finals.