Archive for May, 2015

May 4, 2015

Not So Elementary, My Dear Watson – Round 2, Game 2, Canadiens-Lightning

by Jacob Saltiel
Paget_holmes

Artist rendering of Watson (at left) discussing the finer points of misconduct with Prust (at right). Credit to Sidney Paget

After that horrorshow of deserved, undeserved, and missed calls, the Canadiens are down 0-2 heading to Tampa, needing to win four out of five games to advance to the next round. Can they do it?

Narratives Against Numbers

This year’s story about the Canadiens is that they’re a bad team with an MVP goaltender. As some reporters would have it, most Canadiens skaters simply pivot in place as their opponents fly by them on their way to the net. While this was broadly speaking true in the regular season where the Canadiens were bottom third in the entire NHL in shots and shots allowed, the Canadiens are second overall in the playoffs in shots for, with 38.7 a game, and thirteenth in the playoffs in shots allowed, with 32.1  per game. Aside from that series-clinching victory against Ottawa, the Canadiens have launched a rubber tide against opposing goaltenders with little luck. Before the refereeing odyssey began last night with Prust’s double-minor for… something*, it looked like the Habs, for the second game in a row, were going to carve up Tampa’s defence. As a team, the Canadiens’ are scoring on less than 5% of their shots since the playoffs started, which is extremely low, even for a small sample size. If that evens out, you can see a lot of crooked numbers on the scoreboard for however much longer this series against Tampa continues. Bizarrely, the focus before game 2 was all about how Alex Galchenyuk needs to score, but players like Pacioretty, Subban, Gallagher, and Plekanec are also due for some red lights.

Despite also giving up a lot of shots against, this strategy should work for the Habs, since Price should be better than just about any goalie opposite. That it didn’t work last night had more to do with 8 powerplays being gifted to Tampa Bay and their clockwork PP execution than any slippage in Price’s game. The bad news for games 3, 4, and beyond is that the Lightning haven’t played well at even strength so far, having won game 1 on a play that should have been called back and game 2 on the back of a rash of powerplays. If the Lightning return to their regular season form, this series could get uglier for the Canadiens, who probably deserved to win game 1, while game 2 was a bit of an adventure in the NHL’s refereeing sliding scale.

Add it all up, and you should ignore any writer who tells you that the Canadiens are a defensive team that simply bunkers down around their goalie. Since they playoffs started, they’ve played wide-open hockey, often dominating the shotclocks. It’s a good question to ask if the Canadiens would be better off playing counter-punch hockey, but that hasn’t been their game this April and May.

Anger Mis-Management

The real source of concern for Canadiens fans after games 1, and 2, shouldn’t be Tampa Bay’s series lead, but the post-game comments by Canadiens players and Therrien suggesting they’re badly sidetracked by the referees. It’s true that linesmen missing a routine off-sides call indirectly led to game 1’s OT winner. It’s also true that game 2 is characterized by eight powerplays for the Lightning against three for the Canadiens. Game 2’s calls against the Habs fall into three categories: a) Good calls. b) Bad calls. c) NHL-Zone “Game Management”.

The first category is simple enough. The latter two require some distinction. A bad call is simply a miss by the referee. These are forgivable enough since the game happens at high-speed and so on. No problem there. NHL-Zone “Game Management” refers to penalties called to even up play or to penalties that are rarely called in the regular season or other playoff games that somehow crop up at crucial times. In round 1, the referees didn’t call much in the way of roughing penalties, allowing all kinds of nonsense after the whistles against Ottawa.

Similarly, smashing players in the crease after whistles is generally tolerated, since pretty much every team in the league does this. This is why it’s bizarre that Subban got that penalty for cross-checking Callahan at the end of the first period last night. It’s not that cross-checking isn’t a penalty, but that referees generally stick to separating players in front of the crease rather than calling anything in either direction. On the heels of Prust’s back-talk penalty- another mystery given that the replays on TVA showed Prust not engaging Watson- it looks downright suspicious. The Canadiens got two “even-up” penalties at the beginning of the 2nd to make up for the 1st period’s RefShow**, and did nothing with it. The problem of this runs deeper for the Canadiens than Game 2.

Like in Ottawa two playoffs ago, the Canadiens are letting hockey’s metaphysics bother them. Whether or not Prust is right about Watson taunting him, he shouldn’t be throwing elbow pads at the Lightning, and he definitely shouldn’t be spouting off directly to the media about an NHL ref. Therrien, too, spent his post-game 1 press conference complaining about the uncalled off-side preceding Kucherov’s overtime goal***, which is also an unnecessary distraction. The Canadiens are having a hard enough time playing the Lightning, flaming the referees after every game certainly isn’t going to help them get calls later in the series. One wonders if now would be a good time for Bergevin to make it clear that any talk about the referees should be strictly between him and the league office, rather than between players, coaches, and reporters’ microphones.

Getting to Game 6

Given that the Lightning just swept two games in Montreal, there’s not reason the Canadiens can’t return the favour if they play like they did in Game 1 and most of the Game 2’s 1st period. Aside from whatever Ref Show nonsense might arise, the Canadiens need to do their best to stay out of the box. Eric Engels tweeted that Watson won’t be involved in this series anymore, presumably since he’s been re-assigned to ask Benedict Cumberbatch stupid questions. Having the unfairly-hated David Desharnais back should help even out that scoring percentage a bit. Prust is almost certainly getting fined for that cheeky / spiteful elbow pad toss, with a possibility of a suspension for his post-game comments. Carey Price is also unlikely to get lit up two games in a row. Going back a week or so to Game 6 in Ottawa, Price showed why he’s possibly the league’s best player. The Lightning are a great offensive team, but 8 goals on a little less than 60 shots just isn’t going to continue. If the Canadiens stick to their gameplan, they’ll be back in Montreal for Game 5 tied at deuces.

***

*Jousting with Coburn wasn’t the original penalty that Watson called, but it’s unclear what preceded that that earned Prust his trip to the penalty box and ensuing misconduct penalty.

** Keith Law, a baseball commentator, describes unjustifiable umpire interference as “The Ump Show”. It’s a perfect slogan to describe what happens when officials impose themselves on a game with chaotic effects that drive fans, coaches, and players insane. Additionally, this article about Stephane Auger’s pseudo-retirement includes a following comment by a former ref about player-referee interaction: “He said he often warned players in subtle ways they could expect at least one marginal penalty call. But the idea was to correct bad behaviour, such as diving or the verbal abuse of the officials, rather than personal revenge.” Telling players to expect marginal calls is a bit different than saying “I’m calling the rulebook tonight”.

*** Kucherov’s first OT goal was justifiably called back, so anyone, like, for example, Pierre LeBrun, who claims that the uncalled somehow evens up the no-goal call, is just wrong.

UPDATE 1:
– There will be no David Desharnais to improve the team in Tampa, since the Canadiens announced that he will not be travelling with the team. Amuse yourself by wondering how many people who blame the Canadiens for sucking with him in the lineup will blame him for the team losing without him.

– Kerry Fraser unwittingly identified what’s wrong with NHL referees in this article by pointing out that they’re only human will pick on players who criticize their colleagues. No one denies a referee’s humanity by pointing out that they shouldn’t hold grudges against specific players. Referees’ only responsibility is to applying the games’ rules, not showing Brandon Prust who’s boss. It’s true that referees can’t respond publicly to comments, but then it’s also true that no one ever finds out how or if they are disciplined for poor performances like last night’s game.
UPDATE 2:
According to Renaud Lavoie’s twitter account, Brandon Prust can’t be suspended for his actions last night based on the collective bargaining agreement between the league and the player’s union.