Eight Playoff Truisms

Not a nightmare exactly, but the Montreal Canadiens eliminating Alexander Ovechkin and then Sidney Crosby in consecutive rounds of the Stanley Cup Playoffs is not at all what the NHL wigs wanted. They’re desperate for the two faces of their league to develop a Magic-vs.-Bird-style playoff rivalry and make the NHL something American teenagers want to buy. Now without names to sell, the playoffs will probably draw fewer viewers than Fox Afternoon Baseball. But what NHL votaries know is that these playoffs are hashing out wonderfully not in spite of Montreal but because of them.

The Canadiens are hockey’s version of the New York Yankees, if the Yankees had been founded prior to Major League Baseball as an ethnic sideshow. French-Canadian hockey players were once thought inferior to Anglos, so in 1909 the best French-Canadians were brought together as the Montreal Canadiens, the francophone lark and rival to the Montreal Wanderers. The team disproved the eugenicists and won 24 Stanley Cups in the intervening century. Their de facto monopoly on Quebecois talent is no morethe current roster includes 15 Canadians (four of whom are Quebecers), four Americans, a Slovak, a Russian, three Czechs, and two Belorussian brothersbut their front office retains its je ne sais quoi, and star players learn French (if they don’t know it already) out of respect for the fans.

And what fans! Some say irrational, entitled, and chauvinistic; others passionate and discerning. Twenty-two thousand of them filled the Centre Bell to watch Game Seven against the Penguins on a giant TVand then rioted when the Canadiens won. Just like they did when the Canadiens last won the Cup in 1993, or when Maurice Richard got suspended, or when they eliminated Boston in the first round in 2008.

The point being that it’s hard and sort of icky for hockey fans outside of Montreal to root for the Canadiens (or Habs, short for “les habitants”). But this playoff season the Habs have earned hockey fans’ begrudged respect by embodying the truisms that make the Stanley Cup Playoffs the greatest tournament in the world. The 2010 Montreal Canadiens are playoff hockey incarnate.

Truism #1: The regular season is moot

Basically, the NHL’s 82-game regular season is a sham. It’s too long by 30 games, which are played just to make owners money. It’s a seven-month lottery to determine playoff seeding, and even the seeding doesn’t really matter. Montreal was statistically the worst team coming into the playoffs, yet they beat Washington, the best regular-season team, in seven games, and then they beat Pittsburgh, the defending Stanley Cup champions, in seven games.

Truism #2: Because the game is different in the playoffs

The Washington Capitals were an offensive juggernaut built for success in the regular season. They scored 46 more goals than any other team. They had Ovechkin, MVP candidate and the most dynamic forward in the world. They had defenseman Mike Green, Norris Trophy candidate, who led an immensely skilled if positionally unmoored defense corps. They had the unfortunately Anglicized but deadly accurate Alex Semin (formerly Aleksandr Syomin). They didn’t have guys like Travis Moen or Dominic Moore, bottom-sixers who forechecked with abandon, took adzes into corners, and chased down Capitals in the neutral zone like tear-stained little brothers. Late in Game Seven Moore and linemate Maxim Lapierre chased an innocuous chip-in into Washington’s zone; Lapierre thumped the puck loose from Green, and Moore troweled it home, the series clincher. In Montreal’s four wins against them Washington scored only five goals.

Truism #3: Where superstars will not carry you

Alexander Ovechkin scored five goals and five assists in seven games, but the Canadiens managed to make him look bad doing it. He extracted points from the Habs as easy as dentists do broken teeth. Every time he had the puck he tried to do it himself, flying down the left wing, cutting back to the middle of the ice, and ripping wristers that were blocked before they got to the net.

Ovechkin would skate upstream and lose the puck, which always found its way to undersized and overlooked Habs Brian Gionta and Mike Cammalleri waiting behind the defense or in the high slot. Neither is a star; both played through college and the American Hockey League to get to the NHL. They’re goal-scoring wingers, but their former teams thought them not worth the money and let them walk at the end of last season. Montreal signed them, and they’ve flourished together. Gionta burns down the weak side on breakouts, isn’t afraid of high-traffic areas, and has shutter-speed release. Cammalleri stalks the slot and the netmouth and has a knack for slipping coverage and letting the puck find him, like a fun-sized Brett Hull. Together they’ve scored 19 goals and 11 assists in the playoffs. When it matters most their shots seem to float away from and around goaltenders, effortlessly.

Truism #4: And really unlikely heroes will emerge

When Montreal signed Hal Gill in the offseason he was considered a 6’7″, 250-pound pylon, a bottom-pairing defenseman with an Entish stride and an uncalibrated shot. His career and pre-lockout clutch’n’grab hockey were supposed to end concurrently.

But things are allowed to get a little gummier in the playoffs, where Gill (who’s got the wingspan to hug a Skylark fender to fender) and the undrafted Josh Gorges blocked 98 Capital and Penguin shots. They were matched against the three best forwards in the world and surrendered only: 5 goals, 5 assists (Ovechkin); 1 goal, 4 assists (Crosby); 1 goal, 3 assists (Evgeni Malkin). Not one of those superstars scored a point in their respective Game Sevens.

Truism #5: There should be an advantage at home, but there isn’t

The record of home teams in the 2010 NHL Playoffs so far is 35-39. In elimination games the home team is 2-10.

In the NHL it’s strategically advantageous to be the home team. The home team gets “last change,” which means that prior to a faceoff the visiting team must put its players on the ice first. The home team can then adjust accordingly.

If a team doesn’t match lines, like Washington and sometimes Pittsburgh, home ice means nothing. If a team matches lines obsessively, like Montreal, then its road game becomes that much more conservative and deliberate. Montreal’s first priority on the road against Washington and Pittsburgh was to get pucks in deep in order to change lines and get the matchups it wanted. So far Montreal is 3-3 at home and 5-3 on the road.

Truism #6: And everyone is playinghurt, injured, dead, it doesn’t matter

Calling a guy a “warrior” for playing playoff hockey while injured is a cliche because it happens a lot. If he can skate without fainting, he’s playing. Teams don’t report injuries in the playoffs for the players’ on-ice safety. Guys are playing with broken fingers, high ankle sprains, fractured feet, wrists and tibiasand we’re told they have either an “upper-body injury” or a “lower-body injury.” It’s only when teams are eliminated that injuries are disclosed.

Remember when Willis Reed tore a muscle in the fifth game of the 1970 NBA Finals, missed a game, and then came back? That happens in almost every single game of the Stanley Cup Playoffs. Bobby Baun had his ankle shattered by a Gordie Howe slapshot in the sixth game of the 1964 Stanley Cup finals. He got it taped, chomped some naproxin, came back for overtime and scored the Cup-winning goal. Steve Yzerman won Cups long after he had ground his knees’ cartilage into dust. Bone scraped bone like mortar and pestle when he skated victory laps.

Hab Jaroslav Spacek is playing with an inner ear infection and vertigo. Hal Gill has been playing with 50 stitches and staples in his left calve. Canadiens’ #1 defenseman Andrei Markov missed most of the season with a torn ankle tendon. He came back for the playoffs and tore an ACL against Pittsburgh. He’s expected back for the Eastern Conference Finals.

Truism #7: Coaching, though, that really does matter

Dan Bylsma and Bruce Boudreau have coached the Penguins and the Capitals, respectively, for only a few seasons. Their teams are wildly talented, and both coaches have had success in allowing their best players to just play, free of any kind of real system.

Jacques Martin is the third-winningest active coach in the NHL. Over the summer the Canadiens offered him their head coaching positionhis dream joband he immediately stepped down as general manager of the Florida Panthers to accept. Everything about Jacques Martin is guarded: he’s a heavy-lidded, fat-cheeked stoic. When things don’t go his way he gets not angry but smug, as if the only thing on his mind is Newton’s third law of motion. In Montreal he’s refused to follow the post-lockout trend toward offensive systems built on loose, aggressive play. His Canadiens play a box-plus-one defensive scheme, which allowed the Capitals and Penguins low-percentage shots from the perimeter and not much else. The Habs doubled-up Ovechkin and Crosby and took away shooting lanes. They clogged the neutral zone and forced the opposition to dump and chase; Washington and Pittsburgh tried to carry the puck and slough off the Habs, and they were stripped of the puck and scored on. When they did try to dump and chase, the Canadiens retreated into a phalanx, their bodies in position and sticks in lanes.

Boudreau and Bylsma could only watch their stars grow frustrated and try too hard. After his Game Seven loss, Boudreau stared at the end of his bench looking gutted and stuffed, his eyes glossy like fresh ice. He didn’t have an answer to Martin.

Truism #8: But not nearly as much as goaltending

Fourteen goaltenders have been awarded the Conn Smythe trophy as playoff MVP, more than any other position except center (15). If a goaltender peaks at the right time, an inferior team can ride him all the way to the Stanley Cup. This is true especially in the modern era and especially with butterfly goalies.

Modern butterfly goalies position themselves so as to take away the bottom two-thirds of the net, forcing the opposition to beat them with difficult high and tight shots. They play the percentages. And if a lesser team collapses around their goalie, taking away prime scoring real estate and allowing only low-percentage shots from the perimeter, it doesn’t matter how many shots they allow. The butterfly goalie will stop them. The answer isn’t throwing more rubber at the butterfly goaliehe’ll just get into a rhythm.

Jaroslav Halak is an average-sized, positionally competent butterfly goaltender. The Canadiens drafted him out of Slovakia in the 9th round of the 2003 NHL Entry Draft. He’s a decent goalie. He has good vision and quickness, he doesn’t commit to shots early, and he’s a sub-par puckhandler. For the first time in his career he played more than half a season this year.

In the playoffs the Canadiens have collapsed around him, limiting quality chances but allowing everything else. They’ve been outshot 516 to 367 through two rounds. Halak has the most wins (8) and the best save percentage (.933) out of all playoff goalies. Superstars Roberto Luongo and Marc-Andre Fleury were sliding out of position and punting buxom rebounds while pucks were melting into a calm and consistent Halak.

Fans in Pittsburgh and Washington have argued for five years over who’s better, Crosby or Ovechkin. In Pittsburgh they say Crosby’s vision, tenacity, bovine stability, and two-way play make him the best player in the world. He’s the only teenager to have ever won a scoring title in a North American major league. He’s won everything, they say: the Rocket Richard trophy, the Art Ross, the Lester B. Pearson Award, the Hart, that bullshitty Mark Messier Leadership Award, the World Juniors, the gold medal, the Stanley Cup. In Washington they say no one can take over a game like Ovechkin, offensively, physically, or emotionally. They think he’s the best pure goal scorer since Mike Bossy. He looks like a fun-loving caveman and he plays with the freneticism of a kid who drank three Mountain Dews before bed. Remember, they say, he’s won two Harts and two Rocket Richards; in 2008 he had the single best goal-scoring season a left winger’s ever had, and it was him who won rookie of the year, not Crosby. Lately Capitals fans have argued that his being the more prolific loser against Montreal proves Ovechkin’s superiority.

In Montreal they’ve never forgotten that goaltending wins championships. They expect their young goalies to batten the hatch and lead them to a Cup. Jacques Plante did it in his second full season. Ken Dryden did it in his first, and won the Conn Smythe, too. So did Patrick Roy. When goalies don’t, they’re run out of town: Cristobal Huet, Jose Theodore (who won a Vezina and a Hart in Montreal), even Patrick Roy two years after he won Montreal a Cup. Halak won the starter’s spot away from Carey “Jesus” Price, Montreal’s former savior drafted four spots after Crosby. For the rest of these playoffs, it’s Halak’s Conn Smythe, and job, to lose.

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