Friday, May 30, 2014

Merci, les gars


    Canadiens fans are routinely accused of living in the past, but long gone are the days when attending a Stanley Cup parade was considered a Montreal birthright.  Fans old enough to remember the Canadiens' last two championships will also recall that those teams benefitted enormously from the prohibitive Cup favourites of the day - Edmonton in 1986 and Pittsburgh in '93 - being upset by other teams.  The Canadiens cleared their own path to the Eastern Conference final in 2014 by eliminating the Boston Bruins, who were the consensus best team in the NHL heading into the post-season.  That's what we'll remember most about these playoffs, just as the 2010 run to the Stanley Cup semifinals is remembered more for beating the Penguins and Capitals than it is for losing to the Flyers.
     Forty years ago, when the Canadiens routinely competed for the Stanley Cup in a 16 team league watered down by expansion, there was no consolation in anything less than a championship.  For the sake of their own sanity, no team's fans can adopt an all or nothing mindset in a 30 team salary cap era.
     Just two years removed from finishing last in their conference, the Canadiens gave us a playoff thrill ride.  With a solid core of youth that includes not one but TWO franchise players and a general manager who's become a quick study in assembling a legitimate contender, the Canadiens have turned a corner and should only get better in the foreseeable future.  That might or might not translate into a Stanley Cup, but they're in the competitive mix, and that's the most any modern day fan can realistically ask for.

Thursday, May 29, 2014

Here's your hat, what's your hurry?


    There's been a Bob Cole gushfest on social media for the past few days, as the venerable Hockey Night in Canada announcer winds down a career that seemingly began around the time Wellington was chasing Napoleon off the battlefield at Waterloo.  Most of the Twitter praise being heaped on Cole is from media members two generations his junior, for whom Cole's voice represents a deep and meaningful connection to their childhood, when hockey leaves its most indelible impression.  They brook no criticism of Cole because to discredit him would be to invalidate their own youth.  He's a legend, he's an icon, and he's the best - not because he's he best, but because he represents their best memories.
     I appreciate the power of that emotional bond.  My generation feels the same way about Danny Gallivan. I also recognize that Cole has a booming baritone voice and that his enthusiasm is genuine 100 percent of the time.  My longstanding problem with Bob Cole is that he too often can't find the words to describe what he's watching.  Think about that: a broadcaster who struggles to articulate.  That's what leads to cringeworthy moments like "everything is happening", "Oh baby for sure" and my personal favourite, "Here's Daoust; he can be dangerous", an epic moment 30-plus years ago when Cole apparently mistook journeyman forward Dan Daoust for Dangerous Dan McGrew - the turn-of-the-century gold prospector who died in a hail of bullets whilst dueling for the affections of a saloon trollop, as per Robert W. Service.  (Cole's call of the gunfight would have been "WHAT IS GOING ON IN THE YUKON?!", while Gallivan would have described a scene of "pistols drawn in rapier-like fashion" and McGrew "careening gutshot over a poker table" before "being attended to rather gingerly by the lady that's know as Lou."  Danny Gallivan was never at a loss for words.  He was a master wordsmith who excelled at theater of the mind in a visual medium, and left theater of the absurd to lesser professionals.)
     I don't begrudge Bob Cole his long and successful career, because I was never one of the promising younger play-by-play announcers held back by his refusal to exit the stage in a timely and dignified fashion.  I don't dispute that he's a legend and an icon.  He's earned that status on the basis of longevity alone.
     But the best?  Sorry.  Not even close.

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Methinks they doth celebrate too much


     Is it just me, or was the Russian victory celebration at the World Hockey Championships in Minsk, Belarus, a little bit over the top?  Judging from the unbridled joy exhibited by Alex Ovechkin and his teammates, you'd have thought they just won the world championship - which they did, but let's give it some context.
     The tournament was taking place at a time when most of the best players in the world were chasing hockey's ultimate prize - the Stanley Cup.  It also followed hard on the heels of the host Russians flaming out at the Olympic Games in Sochi, where they failed to medal amid enormous pressure and high expectations. Under those circumstances, the boisterous reaction from Russian players as well as fans and media lacked the appropriate amount of humility that should come with winning international hockey's version of Miss Congeniality.
     I don't begrudge them their celebration, but when you're that over the moon about being the best of the rest, it says something about your resolve to be the best of the best.

Monday, May 26, 2014

Ouch


There's an old hockey mantra that says goaltending and special teams win playoff games - not goaltending OR special teams; goaltending AND special teams.  The Canadiens only got one of the two against the Rangers last night, and that was the difference between coming home for Game 5 of the Eastern Conference final tied 2-2 or trailing 3-1.  Dustin Tokarski did his part and never should have been exposed to being beaten by Martin St. Louis in overtime.  The Canadiens were a measly 1 for 8 on the power play, including a squandered opportunity early in OT.  The Rangers, meanwhile, scored the all important first goal shorthanded and put on a penalty killing clinic, save for PK Subban's one-timer from the point on Montreal's seventh power play of the night.  That it was Subban's first point against the Rangers and the Canadiens only power play goal in 17 chances in the series is at least as relevant to the Habs' predicament as the injury to Carey Price.

Marc Bergevin's nomination for NHL General Manager of the Year is well-deserved and a testament to Bergevin's attention to detail.  His two highest-profile moves - Daniel Briere and Thomas Vanek - are something of a wash.  Briere has been a difference maker in the playoffs after a forgettable regular season, while Vanek helped power the Habs down the stretch before disappearing in the post-season.  The best of Bergevin's work lies in the acquisitions of Dale Weise, Mike Weaver and Dustin Tokarski, who were spare parts on their former teams but have become key contributors in the Canadiens' drive to the Eastern Conference Final.  As role players, they're not going to win you a Stanley Cup, but you can't win one without players like them, and Bergevin went out and found them, at minimal cost.

If nothing else, Vanek's vanishing act has effectively rendered moot any serious debate over whether the Canadiens should try to keep the pending unrestricted free agent.  I'm loathe to pile on to Vanek because we don't know for certain whether he's playing healthy or hurt, but either way, Bergevin has been relieved of the burden of having to even consider overbidding for Vanek on the open market.

If your cheese shoppe is out of Rancourt , as in Rene, ask for Amirante, as in John, as in the national anthem singer at Madison Square Garden.  He's not quite as cheesy as Rancourt, but O Canada with a Brooklyn accent is one of da most ridiculous tings I've ever hoid.

Friday, May 23, 2014

Habs get lucky


    The Canadiens were looking for a little luck in Game 3 of the NHL Eastern Conference final.  They got good fortune by the boatload.
    On a night when they moved like they were wearing cast iron skates and carrying 50 pound bags of sand in their pants, the Habs got back in the series - thanks exclusively to goaltender Dustin Tokarski, who bailed out his teammates in what might have been their worst effort of the post-season.  The Canadiens were gawd-awful out of the gate, and only improved marginally during the course of the game.  They were slower and softer than the Rangers all night, losing virtually every foot race and puck battle.  Their defensive zone coverage and transition game looked like a Chinese fire drill, while the Rangers consistently cleared their own zone with almost comical ease.
    Don Cherry might have been on to something when he said the Montreal tank was empty after a physically and emotionally draining series with Boston.  Whether Cherry was on to something or just on something, the Canadiens had no business winning that game, and if that's the best they can bring in compete level and execution, last night will go down as a token win in a lopsided series.

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Bitter reality


It was easy to get caught up in the false bravado and wishful thinking when the Canadiens announced Dustin Tokarski as their starting goaltender for Game 2 of the NHL Eastern Conference final.  After all, Tokarski had championship credentials at the Memorial Cup, world junior and American League levels, Alex Galchenyuk was returning to the Montreal lineup and the Canadiens would be galvanized by the injury of Carey Price.  But losing your best player at the most important position on the ice is virtually insurmountable - moreso when the guy at the other end of the rink is at the top his craft, which Henrik Lundqvist is right now.  In an otherwise evenly-matched series, it's as unrealistic to expect Tokarski or Peter Budaj to outduel Lundqvist as it was for Tampa to ask Anders Lindback to get the better of Price in the absence of injured Vezina Trophy finalist Ben Bishop.

Now that the Bruins are out of the playoffs, CBC is going to have to find a new "Canada's team".  My guess is they'll go with Chicago, because Joel Quenneville and Chris Versteeg both used to play for the Leafs and Bryan Bickell comes from Bowmanville, which is practically Toronto, given southern Ontario's urban sprawl.

Someone has to call an announcer staff meeting at Hockey Night in Canada and decide once and for all whether it's Nathan Bull-you, Boo-lee-oo, Bowl-you or Cat Ballou.

If you miss Rene Rancourt, try the Howard Johnson's cocktail lounge in Framingham.  You probably should get there early if you want to hear "Volare" or "Feelings" without a pronounced tequila slur.

With the spring and summer wedding season upon us, here's a tip from the newly published Milan Lucic Book of Social Etiquette: when going through the reception line at a wedding, don't tell the mother of the bride "I'm going to fucking kill you next year."  The same applies when receiving communion from your priest or being introduced to the Queen.

Thursday, May 15, 2014

"L" is for Lucic...and loser


    So, let me get this straight: in Milan Lucic's world, he threatens Dale Weise in the handshake line after the Canadiens eliminate the Bruins, and Weise is the baby.  I suppose that shouldn't surprise anyone, coming from the same guy who speared Alexei Emelin in the nuts from behind and then called Emelin a chicken.
     Lucic is only the most obnoxious example of how the Bruins are constitutionally incapable of taking the high road when it comes to the Canadiens.  If there was a single Bruin who gave Montreal any credit for a hard-fought series win in the immediate aftermath of Game 7, he was a lonely voice in the wilderness.  Little wonder that the theme in the Montreal dressing room was about respect.
     Unfortunately, the fine whine is not just a Bruins thing - it's a Boston thing.  Collectively, the media who cover the Bruins are the worst homers in the NHL, if not in all of pro sports.  Even broadcaster and blogger Jimmy Murphy, who's as close as it gets to a measured voice in the Boston hockey media, tweeted last night that Canadiens fans who were celebrating the Game 7 victory inside the TD Garden would be well-advised to stay there for safety purposes.  It's a pathetic commentary on the Boston mindset when out-of-town fans need a security escort.
     Play the Montreal riot card if you want to, but at least when Montrealers lose their marbles, they're too busy trashing their own town to threaten opposing fans with bodily harm.  In Lucic-think, that probably makes them cowards.

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Poke this


     Can we give it a rest already with the "don't poke the bear" mantra?  While I don't condone it, Andrei Markov giving Zdeno Chara the Milan Lucic-stick-in-the-pills treatment towards the end of last night's game at the Bell Center was the Bruins getting a taste of their own medicine, and the subsequent dust-up with the Chara-Lucic-Jarome Iginla goon squad smacked of frustration on the Bruins' part more than it came across as intimidation.
     Despite Boston's vaunted bigness and badness, the Canadiens have set the physical tone for most of the series.  If that's not poking the bear, I don't know what is, and it's an approach that's served Montreal well - if forcing a seventh and deciding game against a strongly favoured opponent is any measure of success.  
     The bear doesn't require poking to understand the stakes and circumstances.  He's now the prey rather than the predator.  Being cornered doesn't make them any less dangerous, but in this series, the time has long since passed for the Bruins to play the intimidation card to any effect.  

Monday, May 12, 2014

Oh, grow up (and other Monday musings)

Shawn Thornton spraying PK Subban with a water bottle during play in Game 5 of the Canadiens-Bruins playoff series wouldn't be appropriate in a pick-up game, let alone at the highest level of professional hockey.  If the referees had caught it, they could have hit Boston with a bench minor for unsportsmanlike conduct and that would have been the end of it.   Under the circumstances, it behooved the NHL to at the very least fine Thornton for conduct unbecoming, and they did so to the tune of 2800 dollars and change, which was the maximum allowable fine based on Thornton's 1.1 million dollar salary.  It's a slap on the wrist, but better that than doing nothing at all and sending the message that it's okay for a fourth line plug to openly mock and abuse one of the game's elite players and star attractions.  The Henrik Lundqvist-Sidney Crosby water bottle incident last night was no less unprofessional, but because it occurred after the whistle, it's unlikely Lundqvist will be fined.

Leave it to social media to make a thing out of Canadiens captain Brian Gionta not shaking Ginette Reno's hand before Game 4 at the Bell Center.  What in the pre-internet world would have been a soon-forgotten awkward social moment blew up on Twitter and became the reason Gionta was thwarted on at least two glorious scoring opportunities in a 1-0 overtime loss.  So now we have the dreaded Ginette Reno snub to go with the dreaded two goal lead, thanks to the immediate and massive propagation of one misguided idea.  There are many good things about the proliferation of media in the Internet age.  I just can't think of what they are.

Going to work the day after an immediate family member dies unexpectedly might not be everyone's idea of appropriate, but grieving is a deeply personal process, and everyone who matters in his life had Rangers winger Martin St. Louis' back when he decided to play in Game 5 against Pittsburgh following the sudden death of his mother.  The way his teammates closed ranks around St. Louis and that Penguins captain Sidney Crosby sought him out before the game to offer his personal condolences spoke volumes about the bond in the hockey fraternity, and suggested that if he was supposed to be with family, St. Louis wasn't in the wrong place.

Thank you, St. Louis Rams, for selecting Michael Sam in the last round of the 2014 NFL draft, because the hysteria would have been insufferable.  The Rams now face a media circus at training camp, as the same people who insist Sam's sexuality shouldn't matter continue to make it the central issue.  We get it.  He's gay. Let's move past that and see if he's a professional-calibre football player.

Thursday, May 8, 2014

There's (almost) no crying in sports

   
    Tom Hanks's "There's no crying in baseball" speech in the movie A League of Their Own should be required viewing for all professional athletes.  In fact, there should be an addendum that there's no crying in any sports at any pro level.  I don't care if you strike out with the bases loaded in the 9th, fumble on the one yard line in the last minute or give up the winning goal in overtime - suck it up, buttercup.  The privilege and rewards that come with earning a living as a professional athlete preclude any legitimate grounds for sobbing like a jilted schoolgirl. 
    That said, NBA MVP Kevin Durant's emotional speech at this week's awards ceremony was one of the most uplifting things I've seen in half a century of watching sports.  Durant's tribute to his mother, who was there for the ceremony, had nothing to do with sports and everything to do with his appreciation for a woman who protected and nurtured him in dire social and economic circumstances.  Durant laid out a story that serves as a lesson for those of us living a more privileged life than he ever knew growing up.  If a single mother in poverty can lift her children out of seeming hopelessness, imagine the opportunities we can create for our children with the same parental commitment and greater material resources.  
    The emotion that Kevin Durant wore on his sleeve was not a cornball display of crocodile tears over something that doesn't matter in the big picture.  It was an honest expression of a son's love and gratitude for his mother.  There's nothing maudlin about that, so Durant gets a pass on the no crying rule.  The rest of you - get a hold of yourselves and stop your blubbering. Don't make me come over there. 

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Bruins forget who they are

     The Boston Bruins have been so focused on not letting the Canadiens get them off their game that they've done it to themselves.  By their own standards, there's been nothing nasty about the Bruins three games into their second round playoff series with the Habs, who did most of the bullying in last night's 4-2 win at the Bell Center.
     While there's much to be said for discipline, composure and staying out of the penalty box, the Bruins are a team that thrives on intimidation and retribution, and those two trademark elements of their identity have been conspicuously absent.  Boston is never so effective against Montreal as they are when the Bruins are beating up the Canadiens rather than just trying to beat them on the scoreboard.  From Stan Jonathan destroying Pierre Bouchard to Milan Lucic wiping the floor with Mike Komisarek to Zdeno Chara breaking Max Pacioretty's neck, the Bruins have historically used thuggery and goon tactics to their own psychological advantage.  It's what makes them the Big, Bad Bruins.  To this point in the series, they haven't played big, and they've only been bad to the extent that they haven't been good enough.
     Reclaiming their roughhouse identity could be the Bruins' ace in the hole, and it's a card they'd do well to play while they're still at the table.

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

This could get ugly


     Let the head games - and, quite possibly, the headhunting - begin.
     With the Canadiens and Bruins tied at a game apiece ahead of tonight's encounter at the Bell Center, the inevitable gamesmanship and ill-will have started creeping into the 34th playoff series between hockey's two most bitter rivals.  Boston defencemen Dougie Hamilton and Torey Krug made an almost insultingly amateurish attempt to unsettle Carey Price after the Bruins' stunning Game 2 comeback by suggesting Price is weak on high shots - comments that Price rightly dismissed as irrelevant.  Price was the best player on either team in the first two games, and was more rattled by temporarily losing his two dogs than he is by anything the Bruins have thrown at him - on the ice or in the media.
     Where the verbal jousting gets interesting is between the coaches.  Michel Therrien openly mocked Claude Julien's complaint that the Bruins put up with a lot of "crap" in Game 2 - a thinly-veiled reference by Julien to Montreal's six power play opportunities versus three for Boston. There was nothing veiled about the response from Therrien, who scoffed that attempting to influence the officials through the media is a longstanding Bruins tradition.
     The sniping is all pretty transparent and to be expected when there's a massive media presence and a three day break between games, but the facade of mutual respect is crumbling.  There is a visceral emnity that defines the relationship between the Canadiens and Bruins, and if that genie is out of the bottle - which it appears to be - Games 3 and 4 at the Bell Center are going to make the first two games in Boston look like...well, a tea party.

Monday, May 5, 2014

Ne paniquez pas (and other Monday musings)


I get it. Blowing a 3-1 third period lead and losing 5-3 is a real kick in the stones, but try to think big picture here.  If you'd known before their second round series with the Bruins started that the Canadiens would come out of Boston with a split, you'd have taken it.  The squandered opportunity to come home with a 2-0 series lead was an almost required reminder that the Bruins are a powerful and explosive opponent, and that dammit, Carey Price is a goaltender, not a magician.  There are human limits to what he's capable of accomplishing, and those limits preclude Price from winning the series by himself.

Benoit Pouliot dominated Sidney Crosby in Game 1 of the Rangers-Penguins series.  I REPEAT: BENOIT POULIOT DOMINATED SIDNEY CROSBY.  And shame on Don Cherry for making excuses for Crosby when Cherry would have ripped a European or francophone player a new one for the same lack of effort.

Hypocrisy aside, I have no problem with Cherry wearing his Bruins tie and cufflinks on Hockey Night in Canada.  In 34 years of Coach's Corner, he's never pretended to be anyone or anything other than who or what he is.  Like him or not, Cherry's honesty and candor are part of his appeal and a big factor in his longevity.

After St. Louis made another disappointing first round exit amid great expectations, I said the Blues were the new Sharks, unless the Sharks blew it against the Kings, which they did, so THEY'RE still the Sharks, and the Blues will have to find their own ill-fated identity.  Being called the Blues is actually a pretty good start.

It was only one series, but the rabid enthusiasm of Raptors fans during their team's seven game run against Brooklyn went a long way towards stamping Toronto as a legitimate basketball market, or at least minimizing the notion of Toronto as the Siberia of the NBA.   The team's "We The North" marketing campaign was so well-received that adapted versions of the slogan are being appropriated by other organizations, including Overeaters Anonymous (We The Girth), the New York Deli Owners Association (We the Borscht) and the Worldwide Star Wars Fan Club (We The Darth).

I'll let myself out.

Thursday, May 1, 2014

Habs vs. Bruins; head vs. heart

 
     It's difficult for Canadiens fans to reconcile what's in their hearts with what they know to be true ahead of tonight's second round Stanley Cup series opener against Boston.
     The Bruins are the best team in the conference - maybe in the league - and anyone who doesn't recognize them as favorites to beat the Habs is being dishonest at best and at worst delusional to the point of requiring outpatient mental health care.  That's not to say that the notion of Montreal beating Boston is crazy.  Bruins fans would be equally disingenuous in saying the Canadiens don't scare the living bejeebus out of them.  The Habs have a special gift for getting inside the Bruins' heads and baiting Boston into resorting to cheap gamesmanship and trotting out the the wheel of excuses.  For reasons that even he can't explain, Bruins goalie Tuuka Rask has historically struggled against the Canadiens, and whether he'll admit it or not, that'll in the back of Rask's mind when the puck drops tonight.  
     Amateur psychology aside, there are practical considerations that work in the Canadiens' favour, not least of which is that they have the consensus best goalie in hockey in Carey Price.  They were also firing on all cylinders in the round one sweep of Tampa, with one significant and potentially decisive exception: the power play, which went just 2 for 13 against the Lightning after finishing the regular season oh for their last 23.  Goaltending and special teams are the difference makers in the playoffs, and the Canadiens need to win the battle on BOTH fronts to beat the Bruins.  It won't be easy against a big, nasty, talented, playoff-seasoned team that knows what it takes to get to the next level.
     My heart says the Habs in seven, but my head says Boston in six.