MONTREAL — With the game on the line in the shootout in Tampa Tuesday night, All-World sniper Steven Stamkos walked in on Carey Price, looking for all the world like a frightened contest winner getting a between-periods shot at an NHL goalie.
Price, who had time to read the fine print in his contract while he waited, gobbled up the pathetic Stamkos shot that finally ensued, like a barfly crunching hors d’oeuvres between beers.
Stamkos’s generosity allowed the Canadiens to get away with their second third-period collapse in three games and to escape with a rather shaky “W” after blowing a three-goal lead.
The two points in Tampa bought Michel Therrien a little time to right the ship, putting an end to a three-game losing streak and maintaining the Canadiens’ hold on a playoff spot with a very winnable game against the struggling Panthers looming on Thursday.
The Canadiens will get a much stiffer test back at the Bell Centre Saturday when they face a Philadelphia team that has given the Habs problems since Bobby Clarke had long hair and a gap in his teeth. In the wake of that debacle against the Leafs, the question that has to be asked is whether the team Marc Bergevin has put together has the size and toughness to prevail against the bully boys in Philly, Boston and (could it be?) Toronto.
It certainly didn’t look that way against the Leafs. The Canadiens were beaten in every facet of the game, from goaltending to speed — but faced with all that pugnacity and truculence, the best they could do was to send Josh Gorges and Brendan Gallagher out to attempt fisticuffs against professional thugs. As much as we admire their courage, if Gorges and Gallagher have to do your fighting, you’re in trouble.
(Yes, Brandon Prust fought. Brandon Prust always fights. But, with Ryan White out of the lineup, where were Colby Armstrong and Travis Moen?)
Moen and Armstrong were far better against Tampa. Moen scored and Armstrong very nearly scored a short-handed goal after a fine play at his own blue line — but they showed up against Tampa, where they weren’t really needed. If Therrien needs a GPS to find them against Philly, the Habs are in trouble.
You might have thought that with Brendan Shanahan’s much-ballyhooed attempt to curb some of the dirty work, size and toughness were no longer so much in demand. But the early indications from the NHL are that the league is retrenching rapidly, a process that started when Gary Bettman cut the legs out from under Shanahan by slashing the Raffi Torres suspension.
In the past week, the Maple Leafs alone have been involved in three incidents that should have resulted in suspensions: the Mikhail Grabovski bite, Colton Orr’s attempt to turn Tomas Plekanec into a speed bump on the highway of life — and the play against Philadelphia when all-namer Korbinian Holzer drove Tye McGinn face-first into the dasher board.
The net result? Grabovski walked, while Orr and Holzer weren’t even called in for a friendly chat. The message? It’s open season out there boys, sharpen your sticks.
When I said a couple of weeks ago that the Canadiens could finish ahead of Boston in the standings, the prediction was based on several factors: Price was off to an outstanding start, Andrei Markov and Brian Gionta were healthy and the resurgence of Rene Bourque gave the Habs something they haven’t had in a couple of decades: three big, strong forwards with a scoring touch. (The other two are — or were — Erik Cole and Max Pacioretty.)
Without reading too much into a one-game disaster, it would appear that the Canadiens are still not big enough or tough enough to prevail in the Eastern Conference.
One of the oddities of the league is how certain organizations can face the same endemic problems for decades without finding a solution. The Canadiens have been too small since John LeClair was traded away and Mario Tremblay put the Smurf Line together in Hartford, with Saku Koivu between Oleg Petrov and Valeri Bure. The Flyers have spent two decades trying to find a fix for a big, lumbering defence and porous goaltending. Neither team has found a real solution.
When the Canadiens made their remarkable playoff run in 2010, they did so thanks to 1) Jaro Halak; 2) industrial-strength shot-blocking from Josh Gorges, Hal Gill and Jaroslav Spacek; and 3) Michael Cammalleri’s timely scoring.
That served them well against the skill teams from Washington and Pittsburgh, but when the Habs had to get down and dirty against the Flyers, they were swept aside like so many pesky gnats.
Anyone trying to chart a course to the Stanley Cup final will note that the conference is dotted with big, menacing lineups: the Bruins, the Flyers, the Leafs, the Rangers. (The New Jersey Devils, it should be noted, always manage to get it done with overall team toughness, without needing to resort to the garbage that now rules in Boston, Philadelphia and Toronto.)
I would agree with Ken Campbell, who wrote in The Hockey News this week that Don Cherry’s contention that the fighters have turned the Leafs around is simply not true. Campbell traced the number of fights the Leafs have engaged in during their years of futility to reach an irrefutable conclusion: there is no connection between the number of fights and success on the ice.
Team toughness, Campbell argues, is another matter. It would seem the Leafs have it now, the antics of Orr & Co. aside. It’s a bit too early to say this Toronto team is for real, but given that they’re playing very well without Joffrey Lupul, it would seem they have finally attained the level of truculence Brian Burke sought from the beginning.
I would make an exception to Campbell’s rule for the kind of fighter who really scares people. It could be a talented player whose dominance is such that he rarely needs to fight (think Larry Robinson or Zdeno Chara) or a genuine heavyweight champ, along the lines of Bob Probert or Pierre Bouchard.
Assuming there’s no young John Ferguson or Chris Nilan out there searching for employment, Brad Staubitz would look good in bleu-blanc-rouge, but that train has left the station. Sports editor Stu Cowan suggested that Therrien call up Zack Stortini from Hamilton the next time they play the Leafs, in order to fill the need for a legit tough guy.
Whatever, it’s clear that the mess Bob Gainey and Pierre Gauthier left behind isn’t going to be swept away with a couple of talented rookies and a tweak or two. This is going to be a long-term task and the most critical factor is that Bergevin has to be given the time to do the job.
For the short term, now that it’s clear that the NHL has no intention of policing the game the way it did last season, the Canadiens are going to have to take matters in hand — or get run out of the rink.
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