Thursday, April 28, 2011

Bitter rivals add to storied playoff legacy

It goes into the record books as one-and-done, but anecdotal history will be kinder than cold fact to the Canadiens, who gave a better account of themselves than anyone could have reasonably expected before bowing out in the first round of the 2011 NHL playoffs.
Like every other game in the series, last night's sudden death thriller in Boston could have gone either way, and came within inches of being a Montreal success story when the puck trickled just wide past a down-and-out Tim Thomas moments before Nathan Horton broke the Canadiens' hearts at 5:43 of overtime.
That it got to that stage is a tremendous testament to the competitive resolve of both teams. The Bruins defied their own playoff history by coming all the way back after losing the first two games at home, while the Canadiens staved off elimination in Game 6 Tuesday before rallying from deficits of 2-0 and 3-2 to force overtime in Game 7.
Even if it didn't produce the same positive result for the Habs, the series was at least as entertaining as last spring's first and second round wins over Washington and Pittsburgh, and twice as emotionally-draining because of the nature of the Boston-Montreal rivalry. Despite the outcome, there was a palpable sense of accomplishment in the Canadiens' post-game comments, which doesn't suggest they're not disappointed as much as it says they have nothing to be ashamed of after giving as good as they got against a superior opponent for seven games and then some.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Monday morning musings on a Tuesday

Amid the suddenly cold comfort of the oft-quoted 87 percent success rate among playoff teams that take 2-0 series leads and Boston's failure to ever win a series in which the Bruins lost the first two games, there's been a more sinister statistic lurking: the Canadiens have lost the last two playoff series in which they won the first two games - five years ago against Carolina and in 1996 versus the Rangers. That doesn't mean any more or less than any other historical footnote, but it's still out there...As much as the Canadiens are out of wiggle room against Boston, their mindset is rock solid compared to the panic-stricken Vancouver Canucks, who've blown a 3-0 series lead against Chicago ahead of Game 7 tomorrow night. As top seed in the West and the pre-playoff pick of most experts and oddsmakers to win it all, the Canucks are on the verge of writing the most agonizing chapter in a long history of squandered post-season promise...Joe Thornton might be a hero in San Jose for scoring the overtime goal that put the Sharks into the second round, but he's let his country down by not upholding his longstanding tradition of tanking in the playoffs so he can represent Canada at the world championships...Phoenix goaltender Ilya Bryzgalov's vow to leave the team and go home to Russia if the Coyotes move to Winnipeg is drastic but not preposterous. Moving from Phoenix to Winnipeg is like moving from...well, Phoenix to Winnipeg. As a native Russian, it's understandable that Bryzgalov would prefer the real deal to Stalingrad on the Assiniboine.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Habs rest on their laurels, pay the price

If moral victories counted for anything, the Canadiens would be leading their playoff series with Boston two-and-a-half games to one, but all the rationalization in the world doesn't mask the fundamental reality that the Habs let the Bruins off the mat last night.
Coach Jacques Martin says he felt at the morning practice that his players weren't ready for Game 3, and his sense of impending disaster proved unhappily accurate when the Canadiens joined 21,273 other spectators in watching the Bruins jump out to a 3-0 lead. Montreal dominated the second half of the game to the point where the Bruins needed a heroic third period performance from goaltender Tim Thomas and an empty net goal in the dying seconds to short-circuit a furious Canadiens comeback bid.
The refusal to fold in the face of a three goal deficit is being touted as a momentum-builder for the Habs for Game 4 Thursday, but that's a pretty weak song-and-dance for taking their foot off the pedal after winning the first two games on the road, and with an opportunity to all but bury the Bruins in Game 3.
If the Canadiens weren't ready last night, as their coach suggests, that's not his fault. At this time of the year, circumstances alone should provide the required motivation. The Habs allowed themselves to get as giddy as the rest of the city over a series that was only half-won, and they paid for it. Whether they learned from it will only become apparent Thursday night.

Monday, April 11, 2011

McIlroy's meltdown (and other Monday morning musings)

There may have been more dramatic fourth rounds at the Masters, but seldom - if ever - has there been a finish as unpredictable as yesterday's wild scramble at Augusta. No fewer than half a dozen golfers had a legitimate shot at the championship on the last few holes before South Africa's Charl Schwartzel put it away by closing with with four straight birdies...There's a couple of advantages to ill-fated third round leader Rory McIlroy being 21 years old. He's young enough that he can recover from yesterday's epic collapse, and old enough that he can drink himself into a blackout in the meantime...I've heard more than a sufficient number of Dick Enberg's corny Masters essays over the years that I get the history, majesty, glory, ethos, pathos, glucose and fructose or it all, but it's enough already with the chirping birds and piano mood music in and out of the commercial breaks. It's a golf tournament, not an episode of Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood...I don't know what RDS or the CBC have in mind as theme music for the Canadiens and Bruins Thursday, but I think we can pretty much rule out Elton John's Can You Feel the Love Tonight...Whether or not you agree with his politics, you've got to admire Bloc Quebecois leader Gilles Duceppe's political savvy in suggesting the French-language leaders' debate be rescheduled so it doesn't conflict with the Habs playoff opener. There's a guy who knows what really matters to the electorate.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Hammer gets his due

If ever there was an unsung hero who didn't fit the mold, it's Roman Hamrlik, who was named yesterday as winner of the Jacques Beauchamp trophy, awarded annually to the Canadiens player deemed to have made the most significant contribution to the team without winning any particular honor.
As a former number one overall draft choice making 5.5 million dollars a year, Hamrlik represents a radical departure from past Beauchamp trophy recipients, like bottom six grinders Maxim Lapierre and Steve Begin and undrafted free agents Josh Gorges and Francis Bouillon. It was long-term injuries to fellow defencemen Gorges, Andrei Markov and Jaroslav Spacek that thrust Hamrlik into a much more prominent role than he's played in the past, and he's responded by providing yeoman's service in every aspect of the game and as a leader by example.
Short of the Canadiens training and medical staff, no one contributed more with less fanfare during this injury-plagued season, and despite not fitting the traditional profile of the improbable sentimental favorite, Hamrlik was a no-brainer for an award that in its own way is at least as gratifying as the heavier duty hardware they hand out to the glamour boys.