Tuesday, April 25, 2006

The Greatest Game Ever Played

Montreal 6, Carolina 5 (20T)

Wow. What a wild one that one was.

Yesterday, the Montreal Canadiens and Carolina Hurricanes played what was probably the finest hockey game in a while- and the finest I’ve ever seen- in Game 2 of their Eastern Conference Quarterfinal Series. In a game that featured more drama and cliffhangers than a Hollywood blockbuster, the Canadiens overcame a blown three-goal deficit to win 6-5 on Michael Ryder’s double-overtime goal, taking a 2-0 series lead over a Hurricanes team that is quickly unravelling.

“We stuck with the same plan, we kept believing,” Canadiens centre Mike Ribeiro told ESPN. “It was a great game to watch, I’m sure, for everyone.”

He probably couldn’t have said it better. After the Canadiens staked out a 3-0 lead in the first period off some erratic play by Carolina starting goaltender Martin Gerber, the Hurricanes found their “on” switch in the second period. Gerber- who allowed three goals on 13 shots- was pulled from the game in favour of former first-round draft pick Cam Ward, but it was the previously dormant Carolina forwards who put Carolina back in the game. 1:42 into the second with the Hurricanes buzzing around the net of Canadiens goaltender Cristobal Huet, Matt Cullen’s centering pass got a lucky bounce of Huet’s misplaced stick to cut the Montreal lead to 3-1. After that goal, the Hurricanes were virtually unstoppable; continually buzzing along the ice with the Canadiens repeatedly in footraces they had no chance of winning. It comes as no surprise that with the increasing pressure- and a span of 3:05 worth of Montreal penalties- that Carolina’s Rod Brind’amour found the back of the net halfway through the second period to cut the deficit to 3-2. Brind’amour’s goal was similar to Cullen’s goal in that it was on the doorstep, being a redirected centering pass past a helpless Huet, who now looked extremely vulnerable down low. It was a fabulous display of hockey, with the Hurricanes displaying the run-and-gun form that brought them to within a point of the top-ranked Ottawa Senators in the Eastern Conference.

The Hurricanes sustained their form in the third period, scoring 33 seconds in the third period off yet another redirected centering pass, this time off the stick of Ray Whitney. 42 seconds later Brind’amour again found the back of the net with a nifty wraparound that handcuffed Huet that catapulted Carolina to its first lead of the game and of the series. The Hurricanes’ goals- coming only after 1:15 of the third period- both also came on the powerplay, with Montreal’s Alexander Perezhoghin and Francois Bouillion both in the box from two late second-period penalties, causing the CBC’s Don Cherry after the third to criticize the Habs, telling them “they should be ashamed of themselves” for taking the penalties and essentially handing the game to the Hurricanes. While I think the Habs didn’t help their situation here with their penalties, they literally had no answer for the continued Carolina pressure. The Hurricanes just seemed to race up the ice unopposed with the Canadiens continually in a hopeless pursuit, and when the ’Canes were on their game- as they were in the second and early in the third- their passing game was in a deadly synchronicity. This is what allowed them to exploit Huet’s weakness in covering the bottom of the net, because each of those centering passes were dead on to the stick of a hungry Carolina player.

However, time would not be on the Hurricanes’ side. They still had 18:45 of the third to kill, and as the third wore on, it became apparent that the Hurricanes’ footrace wouldn’t hold up for long. The Canadiens- having realized that their penalty trouble gave Carolina the room to operate- realized that with five players on the ice they might be able to set up an impregnable wall that could stop the Carolina rushes before they got dangerous. They played a poise and composure that CBC play-by-play announcer Jim Hughson noted was just like their coach, Bob Gainey, which contrasted with the frantic pace the Hurricanes were by now desperate to keep up. The Canadiens’ poise and patience wore on the Hurricanes, as well as Carolina’s refusal to dump the puck into the Montreal zone, as Carolina’s roaring attack was stopped time and time again at the Montreal blueline like barbarians trying to scale the Great Wall of China. The Canadiens would later turn their defence into offence, springing loose Alexei Kovalev and Richard Zednik who scored 36 seconds apart halfway through the third to hand Montreal back the lead at 5-4. Both goals came off bad angles near the goal line over Ward’s left shoulder, “goal scorer’s goals” as TSN’s Jay Onrait called them. Suddenly, a game in which Carolina looked in control suddenly became a topsy-turvy mess, with a Canadiens team that wasn’t supposed to be winning somehow in the lead.

Of course, just how time was against the Hurricanes, so too was it against the Canadiens. With Peter Laviolette pulling Ward for the extra attacker unusually early at 18:06 of the third, Carolina’s Cory Stillman connected on a one-timer from just inside the left face-off circle to knot the score at 5. Just before Stillman’s goal, the CBC’s Harry Neale commented that Laviolette “had to take a chance to get a chance”, and Laviolette’s gamble paid off. The Hurricanes were re-energized heading to overtime, looking to run-and-gun Montreal into submission.

It very nearly worked. The Hurricanes came out flying to start the overtime period, racking up a 7-1 shot advantage halfway through the period. Their best chance of the period came when Craig Adams almost jammed the puck around Huet’s left pad, but Huet- learning from his mistakes against Brind’amour and Whitney- got his skate on the puck in time, prevent Adams from converting a goal he knew from his reaction afterwards he should have had. However, the Hurricanes stunted their momentum with two penalties before the ten-minute mark of the overtime period, and the one shot Montreal did have was very nearly the one that ended the game. This shot came on the Canadiens’ second power play of the overtime period eight minutes with Michael Ribeiro almost jamming the puck past the skate of Ward, who quickly smothered the puck to prevent a second chance.

If there was a turning point in the hockey game- besides Ryder’s overtime winner and the 3-0 Montreal first period lead- it would have been Carolina’s inability to wrap up the game following Tomas Plekanec’s interference call on Cullen. The Hurricanes’ power play, which had been phenomenal all game, suddenly couldn’t get any shots past Huet, with barely any coming from in close. They spent a good chunk of the power play setting up the shot instead of taking it, with the Hurricanes displaying none of the confidence that allowed them to storm to the lead to start the third. Predictably, the Canadiens killed off the penalty, and with it, any chance of a Carolina victory.

The death knell came in the second overtime period. The Hurricanes, for their part, generated some chances but most were tentative and easily stopped by Huet. The Canadiens- who probably had more energy since they didn’t play at full speed like the Hurricanes did- waited for their chances, and on a rush two minutes into the second overtime period, Saku Koivu, Christopher Higgins and Ryder set up a triangle that arched from behind the net to Ryder that ended the game. The tic-tac-toe passing play was extremely quick and caught me (and probably Ward) off-guard, sending the Hurricanes into a hole and the Canadiens ready to fill it up.

Looking at the game, it was easy to see why the Hurricanes lost. Montreal displayed in Game 1 that it had the horses to run with the Hurricanes’ gunners and the ability to shut them down, and showed in Game 2 that if they needed to run with the Hurricanes they could. They also showed patience and composure, refusing to give up when momentum clearly swung Carolina’s way, playing a smart positional game that allowed them to contain the Hurricanes and ensure that if things did get wild, they wouldn’t get away. The Hurricanes, by contrast, refused to come up with any counter to Montreal’s wall, insisting on ramming into defenders when the Canadiens wouldn’t give an inch. The Hurricanes made it easy for them to be coached against, since all the Canadiens needed to do was set themselves up at the blueline and they would be able to stop the Carolina rushes, since Carolina wouldn’t dump the puck in behind them. They had to rely on power plays to generate chances because that opened up the ice for their attack, and while the Hurricanes were able to hit their groove in spurts, they played without any of the confidence and poise the Canadiens had. They seemed like a racecar driver who always has his foot on the pedal, unable or unwilling to let their foot off even if it means hitting a wall.

This isn’t to say that the Canadiens didn’t win the game deservedly- they did. Many teams would have folded under the pressure of the Hurricanes, but the Canadiens didn’t relent, choosing to wait until the Hurricanes gave them the chance to respond. The result was a splendid victory that puts a stranglehold on the series, which now shifts back to Montreal. The Canadiens played like a Stanley Cup winner, and, dare I say it, they may have just proven themselves capable of taking the silverware home in June, a relief for long-suffering Canadiens fans who have now had to endure their longest drought without the Cup. In the process, they played in one of the NHL’s finest games in a while- if not ever- with the fact that Montreal was in it being a worthy honour for a team as rich in history as the Canadiens. Carolina and Montreal represented the clash of the old (Canadiens) and the new (Hurricanes), with both putting on a show that won’t be repeated for a while. In the process, Montreal showed why they’re the winningest team in NHL history playing with a championship-level poise that left Carolina in the dust. In the meantime, Carolina have shown themselves as mere pretenders, being a team that may look like a winner but, when faced against a real winner, they wilt like a weed, and they only have themselves to blame.


Monday, April 03, 2006

Hi hi, hi ho, it's off to the playoffs we go! (whistles) Hi ho, hi ho, hi ho hi ho!

Buffalo 3, Toronto 2 (SO)

It’s ugly, but we’ll take it.

The Buffalo Sabres found themselves clinching a playoff berth today after defeating the Toronto Maple Leafs 3-2 in a shootout, snapping a 1-7-1 slide that saw them fall from within a point of catching the Northwest Division-leading Ottawa Senators to their current position, still firmly in fourth and nine points back.

“It was a relief to get that one point and clinch a playoff spot,” Buffalo goaltender Martin Biron told ESPN. “Even though this last stretch was a bad one, the biggest stretch of the year is coming up in three weeks. That's really important.”

The Sabres were the first to get out of the gate, ringing up a 7-2 shot advantage on the Leafs midway through the first and appearing to get two goals by the time the period was half done. Derek Roy scored his 16th goal of the season after redirecting an errant Ales Kotalik shot that had gone off the boards into the net past Toronto goaltender Jean-Sebastein Aubin, but a goal was nullified later in the period after Adam Mair was shoved into Aubin forcing the puck in with him (the referees had ruled they had called the play dead at that point). The missed goal was only one in a series of questionable calls during the game on both sides, from penalties that shouldn’t have been called (Chris Drury’s trip) to ones that should have (Ian White was once tripped with no call, and there was the Darcy Tucker knee-on-knee hit on Jochen Hecht that had Buffalo coach Lindy Ruff infuriated, although the play that started it was haphazard- Mike Grier did hit Tucker first, so it’s not like the Sabres were off the hook).

The first period ended 1-0, as the life the Sabres had was shorn from some erratic and frankly too eager play that Buffalo had been known for all season. Buffalo managed to show a fury of life on the power-play midway through the second- resulting in Maxim Afinogenov’s 20th goal of the season- but let the game start to slip away when Toronto’s John Pohl- a call-up- scored to cut the lead to 2-1. Buffalo’s flopping and flailing ways- continued into the third, where Matt Stajan capitalized on some brutal defensive work to tie the game up at two, giving Toronto a life they shouldn’t have had. The Sabres shouldn’t allow games to be this close when they claim to be a playoff contender, and, if they want to go far in the playoffs, they need find a way to develop the killer instinct. Of course, to their credit, the Leafs were also showing a lack of execution, as they had multiple chances but failed to convert (a common complaint this season about the Maple Leafs). It should also be noted that Biron stood on his head and that will be an asset come playoff time, but Buffalo can’t **only** rely on its goaltender if it wants to succeed.

In overtime, Buffalo outplayed the Leafs but barely, garnering the overtime’s best chance when Daniel Briere stood all alone jamming the puck at the impregnable Aubin. Since overtime solved nothing the teams went to the shootout, where Afinogenov potted the only goal and Biron stood on his head to deny Mats Sundin and Tucker. Alexei Ponikarovsky- not known for his stickhandling- tried to deke out Biron but only met his right pad, with the puck stopped on the goal line (this was reviewed but the decision stood). The result gave Buffalo its first playoff berth since 2001, which is about time.

The game was endemic of both teams’ seasons. Toronto proved time and again it had the talent to be a top-level team but also showed it lacked the execution and the management to get there (there’s no reason why Ponikarovsky- who had never scored in the shootout- should have been picked for the shootout, because he was bound to fail, which he did). Buffalo, meanwhile, was erratic and haphazard, being the kind of team that may not overwhelm anyone but still finds a way to succeed in the end. I’m not yet convinced that my Sabres are Stanley Cup material yet- since they need a game-breaker to stop their over-reliance on goaltending- but, with three weeks to go before the post-season, there’s still time to gel to post-season form. When they do, this’ll be a team that’ll be fun to watch and impossible to stop, as they’ve got enough youthful energy to keep pounding away at teams relentlessly. It’s about time- I’ve been waiting for this moment for far too long.