Montreal - Oct. 6, 2011 - Are you ready for some hockey?
The 2011-12 edition of the Montreal Canadiens are bigger and should be better. But are they any tougher? If we could roll the tape back and start again, would Carey Price really just hold on to Tim Thomas and not throw a punch, even though Thomas threw one? Or would Price actually be the first Hab to level Brad Marchand behind the net after Marchand hit James Wisniewski on an icing call, instead of captain Brian Gionta who threw himself at Marchand - and missed? And if the Habs knew what would take place a month later at the Bell Centre would they not have beefed up to protect their highly skilled players?
That Max Pacioretty, Montreal's best forward at the time, was knocked out of the season by Zdeno Chara, was bad enough. That Chara then went on to raise the Stanley Cup was beyond the proverbial rubbing of salt in the wound ("I couldn't watch the Final", Pacioretty told us), especially after the NHL power structure made a mockery of itself in the aftermath of the "hockey play that went bad".
Call it hockey life lessons. Maybe the NHL actually learned something by the level of anger exhibited by Montreal fans and businesses, joined later by Mike Gillis in Vancouver. Colin Campbell, apparently beloved by much of the media in this country (why? why?), even though his blatant conflict of interest as chief disciplinarian cheapened the most important aspect of a pro sports league - integrity (Not to mention those childish e-mails uncovered by blogger Paul Kukla), was finally replaced by a much needed younger former player. While Campbell came to represent confusion and, at times, incoherence at the highest level of the league, Brendan Shanahan offers some real hope and a much needed fresh face. The NHL, it seems, learned a lesson. But did the Canadiens?
I like the Canadiens. I really do. But I remain unconvinced that a Pierre Gauthier/Jacques Martin tandem know their way to the Promised Land. I'm not sure they understand, let alone even remotely believe, that to possess a mean streak on the ice, is, over 82 games and another 30 or so in the post season, a valuable attribute. Oh, it might result in a few more penalties called (just more practice time for the all - important PK unit) but it might also save precious man games lost to injury.
I saw the future last Saturday in Quebec City and it was ugly. Ryan Malone skated around Le Colisee looking for trouble all night. He should not have been in the position of delivering a head shot to Chris Campoli (Shanahan's first whiff) late in the game. When he did, Josh Gorges, to his credit jumped in. And the Canadiens promptly lost one third of their defensemen for the rest of the game.
I honestly don't know what (who) the answer is at this point, because there is no point in thinking that Gauthier/Martin want a player around who can inject a degree of unease into an opponent. (While I'm at it let me try to explain my view of intimidation. There are some skilled players, not many, but some who can be intimidated. But the vast majority of NHL players are courageous and will do battle with any opponent anywhere on the ice in any rink. That's not the point. But when there are players who make a habit of hitting late, bringing up an elbow or a stick or worse or who are constantly chirping in an effort to start an altercation, it can often result in the opposing player not being at their normal relaxed state. Thus, a pass to the blade of the stick gets mis-handled, a wide open net is missed, a foot race to a loose puck is lost and a pass to what appears to be an open teammate goes instead directly to an opposing player. These are all mistakes made in split seconds not because a player is afraid he'll have to fight somebody (not a bad weapon either) but because he's got something else to think about, especially if he isn't as mentally strong (Benoit Pouliot) as most of his fellow NHLers. That's all. It's not about goon vs goon. It's about creating as much time and space for skilled players to be at their best.)
Last season I thought the Canadiens could go deep into the playoffs if they had been able to secure home ice advantage in the first round. Prior to the "Boston Massacre" the Bruins and Habs were neck and neck for first place in the Northeast. You know what happened.
Here's hoping PK Subban, Erik Cole, Thomas Plekanic and especially Carey Price get all the protection they need from NHL referees this season. Because unless Chris Nilan or Lyle Odelein show up to play, it won't be coming from upstairs.
Eastern Conference Predictions (why? why?):
Pittsburgh - A team on a mission. Does Matt Cooke last the season?
Washington - Learned how to play D last year, depth in goal this season; out of excuses.
Buffalo - 1970 cousins Sabres vs Canucks in Stanley Cup Final?
Boston - Brad Marchand walks into a bar...
Montreal - Vaults from 8th to 5th following key trade deadline acquisition (see below).
NY Rangers - 24/7 Not big enough for both Tortorella and Avery.
Tampa Bay - Do Lightning call Marty Turco when Dwayne Roloson's groin heads to Mexico?
Philadelphia - In the immortal words of Butch Cassidy "Who are these guys??"
New Jersey - Maybe Martin Brodeur can start stopping pucks again.
Carolina - Frankly, I don't give a damn
Winnipeg - The Queen returns on Opening Night. With Ron MacLean.
Florida - Jose Theodore keeping crease warm for Jacob Markstrom
Toronto - Ron Wilson, already on twitter, soon joins Doug MacLean on Sportsnet hockey (Leaf) coverage
NY Islanders - Build a new rink already or move to Quebec City
Ottawa The Daniel Alfredsson retirement tour ends in...Montreal