Thursday, March 31, 2011

Price hits the skids

There's nothing to suggest that it's anything other than coincidence, but Carey Price's game has taken a sharp turn for the worse since around the time a groundswell begin to build promoting the Canadiens goaltender as a finalist for the Hart Trophy as the NHL's Most Valuable Player.
Last night's 6-2 setback in Carolina was Price's fifth loss in his last six starts and marked the third time in less than two weeks that he failed to finish a game. On two of those occasions - last night and two Fridays ago against the Rangers - Price was playing for the second time in as many nights, which appears to say something about coach Jacques Martin's confidence - or lack thereof - in Alex Auld. Back-to-back games traditionally represent an ideal circumstance for giving your starting goaltender a night off and your backup some work, but Auld hasn't exactly been a model of consistency despite fairly decent numbers overall.
Price's overall numbers are still top 10 if not top 5 in the major statistical categories for goaltenders, but a bloated 3.86 goals against average and equally unsightly .884 save percentage during the aforementioned six game slide have gone a long way towards relegating him from frontrunner status to marginal candidate for MVP or Vezina Trophy consideration. Of greater concern to the Canadiens and their fans is that with the playoffs only two weeks away, Price's heavy workload might be catching up to him at the worst possible time.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Was that really necessary?

As pre-fight hype goes, it doesn't get any more ill-conceived or poorly-executed than yesterday's Jean Pascal-Bernard Hopkins news conference circus act promoting their May 21st WBC light heavyweight championship rematch at the Bell Center. The two fighters got into a shoving match and Hopkins even threw a punch after Pascal challenged his opponent to take a blood test to prove that he's not on performance-enhancing drugs.
Let's give the promotors the benefit of the doubt and assume they didn't put Pascal up to it, because they've already got an event that's able to sell itself on its own merits, with Pascal and Hopkins ready to pick up where they left off in a dramatic and controversial fight last December in Quebec City, where Pascal retained the title by a disputed majority draw. In challenging Hopkins to get tested for drugs, Pascal offered nothing in the way of proof that the 46 year old fighter's ripped physique is the result of anything other than long hours of hard work in the gym, and even passed the buck to the faceless multitudes, saying it's the fans who want Hopkins to take the test. Pascal claims he's defending the integrity of his home province after Hopkins called Quebec City a "village" and its residents "little people," but linking name calling to drug testing is a tenuous leap of logic.
Not only was it cheap theatrics unbecoming of a champion, but in the absence of evidence or even any hint of a drug scandal in the Hopkins camp, Pascal came away from yesterday's spectacle looking exactly like what Hopkins described him as - a scared punk preparing his excuses for losing in advance.

Friday, March 25, 2011

Two words: P-U

That's not the way it was supposed to happen.
The Canadiens were beaten at their own game last night: outskated, outfinessed and taking bad penalties instead of drawing them. They were badly exposed on a night when Carey Price was ordinary - not that this was in any way Price's fault, but the superhuman skills that put Price in the thick of the Hart and Vezina Trophy discussions were not on display last night, while Tim Thomas was perfect at the Boston end of the rink on the rare occasions when the Canadiens generated anything remotely resembling a quality scoring chance. It's the second time in his last three starts that Price has failed to finish the game, raising legitimate questions about that wonky knee that chased him from practice earlier this week, and whether his heavy workload is starting to take a toll at the worst possible time.
It's been clear from the get-go that the Canadiens are only going to go as far as Price carries them. Still, that doesn't excuse the rest of the team from showing up. It was only one game, but in what was by far the biggest game of the regular season, the Canadiens laid an egg.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Matt's goose Cooked

So, the torch-bearing mobs finally got their pound of flesh. The NHL has suspended Pittsburgh's Matt Cooke for the last 10 games of the regular season and the first round of the playoffs, which is about what the righteous masses were demanding for Zdeno Chara after his hit on Max Pacioretty two weeks ago.
The Cooke case is more cut and dried on several levels. Unlike Chara, Cooke is a repeat offender, was clearly targeting his opponent's head and couldn't find a character witness if he was equipped with a search warrant and a pack of trained bloodhounds. His own coach and general manager even threw Cooke under the bus and then took turns driving it back and forth over the body a few times for good measure.
In and of itself, ten games and a playoff series for Matt Cooke isn't going to resolve the NHL's head shot dilemma. If it takes as many incidents as Cooke has been involved in for the league to lower the boom, players are still going to be inclined to take liberties. But the league has at least sent a messsage and set a precedent, which is exactly what its most ardent critics have been demanding in lieu of life at hard labor in a Siberian prison camp for Zdeno Chara.

Monday, March 14, 2011

RIP Rick Martin and other Monday morning musings

Don Cherry comes off as a half-crazed old crank as often as not, but he made one of the most relevant and revealing contributions to the player safety debate during Saturday's edition of Coach's Corner on Hockey Night in Canada. Cherry showed a montage of 18 instances of players being slammed into the stanchion between benches - not to exonerate Zdeno Chara for his hit on Max Pacioretty, but to demonstrate that it wasn't an isolated incident, and that flawed arena design was as much to blame as anything for the severity of Pacioretty's injury. Cherry did what a lot more people need to do: he identified a problem and proposed a solution...You think the Canadiens have had it tough with injuries to key players? Pittsburgh's been without Sidney Crosby for 29 straight games and Evgeny Malkin for 22 of the last 23, and the Penguins are still fourth in the East and within striking distance of conference-leading Philadelphia...If you're not old enough to remember former Buffalo Sabre Rick Martin, who died over the weekend, think Rick Nash - soft hands, big shot and a nose for the net, and one of the best natural goal scorers of his era. Somebody needs to explain to me how guys like Clark Gillies and Larry Murphy are Hall of Fame-worthy but Rick Martin isn't...Good conscience precludes me from picking sides in the NFL labor dispute. How do you sympathize with either of two parties who can't agree on how to split nine billion dollars? It's not like they're getting divorced and emotion is preventing one or both sides from seeing reason. It's business. Get it done.

Friday, March 11, 2011

The shameless scramble to score PR points off Pacioretty

While an overwhelming majority of Montreal Canadiens fans are allowing emotion and bias to drive their reaction to the Zdeno Chara-Max Pacioretty incident, at least their hearts are in the right place. They want justice - or their perception of justice - after the NHL declined to suspend Chara for checking Pacioretty headfirst into a glass partition at the Bell Center. There are other forces at work with more self-serving agendas.
Air Canada's letter to the NHL threatening to withdraw sponsorship makes it abundantly clear that the airline is more interested in protecting its precious corporate brand than it is in protecting players, which must make Pacioretty feel all warm and fuzzy. Canadiens owner Geoff Molson jumped on the bandwagon yesterday, pandering to the team's fan base by saying he shares their frustration, disappointment and shock and that he's willing to take a leadership role in improving player safety. That's all well and good, but where was Molson when players on other teams were taking career-threatening head shots? The most suspect development yesterday was the Montreal police force announcing it was opening a criminal investigation into the Chara hit, fewer than 24 hours after police lectured Canadiens fans about abusing 9-1-1 lines reserved for reporting real crimes and emergencies - an about-face that smacks of opportunism further up the law enforcement and political food chains.
Transparent corporate self-interest and cheap political posturing bring nothing of value to an already overheated debate. If anything, they diminish and demean what they claim to represent.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Oh, and by the way, the Canadiens won

So, it's like I was saying after the Bruins handed the Canadiens their lunch last month in Boston: the Canadiens don't have to be tougher to beat the Bruins - they only have to be better. Tuesday night, they were both, starting with Ryan White, who won a unanimous first period decision over Johnny Boychuk after Boychuk took a run at P.K. Subban. But mostly, it was about being better - better 5 on 5, better on the power play and killing penalties, and better between the pipes, where Carey Price was Ken Dryden to Tukka Rask's Gilles Gilbert, and Patrick Roy to Rask's Reggie Lemelin.
Price didn't have to steal this one, though. He was just another cog in a well-oiled machine. The Canadiens controlled the game from start to subdued finish, when 21 thousand plus left the building thinking less about the outcome than they were about Max Pacioretty's immediate and long-term prognosis. Zdeno Chara's hit on Pacioretty aside - if it's possible to set a hot-button issue of that magnitude aside, even for a moment - the Canadiens' convincing 4-1 win over Boston validated general manager Pierre Gauthier's cautious approach at the trade deadline, when self-proclaimed experts with nothing at stake except water cooler and tavern table bragging rights demanded that Gauthier to go out and acquire more grit, just as they clamored for him to trade Price and keep Jaroslav Halak last summer.
Oh, yeah, the first star in the Canadiens most important and gratifying win of the season? Lars Eller. He's the guy Gauthier got for Halak.

Monday, March 7, 2011

Bob Cole blows and other Monday morning musings

History has taught us never to take anything involving Andrei Kostityn to the bank, but there's reason for cautious optimism after Kostitsyn ran his consecutive games point streak to six with a first period assist in the Canadiens' 4-2 win over the Lightning in Tampa Saturday. As an added bonus, the pairing of Kostitsyn with rookie Lars Eller has been an elixir of sorts for Eller, who's showing more of the poise and polish that made him a first round draft choice in 2007. It'll be interesting to see how coach Jacques Martin reacts - or overreacts - if the Kostitsyn-Eller combination goes sour for even a game or two, given that Martin changes his lines more often than most coaches change their underwear...After 40 plus years as a sports fan, the playing of the national anthem or anthems rarely even registers with me anymore, but I really liked the job Tommy Hunter and Grady from Sanford and Son did before the Canadiens game in Tampa. Ask your parents. Or your grandparents...If Victor Hedman is supposed to be the second coming of Niklas Lidtsrom, he's behind schedule. The highly-touted Tampa Bay defenceman was virtually invisible Saturday, which is a pretty neat trick when you're 6-6 and 230. In fact, Hedman's only memorable moment in his first two NHL seasons was delivering the coup de grace that put Crosby out of commission long-term. Mind you, Carey Price was delayed in playing up to his potential, and he's certainly been worth the wait...Hockey Night in Canada windbag Bob Cole was at his blowhard worst Saturday, delivering this head-shaker - among others - after Dwayne Roloson robbed Brian Gionta with the Habs leading 2-0: "Maybe that'll get the Lightning fired up, pardon the pun." Uh, that's not a pun, Bob, or if it is, it's a bad one. You might have wanted to go with "get the Lightning charged up" or "put a jolt into the Lightning" or "I'd like to take this opportunity to announce my long overdue retirement."