It's amazing what one decisive win can do.
But one win does not make a season. And as the 2011-2012 Montreal Canadiens reach the halfway mark tonight against the Tampa Bay Lightning, the Habs sit in 13th place in the Eastern Conference.
Yet many of the Montreal Canadiens media and pundits are now beginning to laud the work of interim Head Coach Randy Cunneyworth as they begin to see his stamp on this team, a stamp that many seem to be onside with. If only Canada Post could get into the action, eh?
Geoff Molson didn't help things with his statement
about Cunneyworth. But there's no doubt the Owner/President will want to
start putting his stamp on the team in the offseason if not before.
Photo: Allen McInnis, The Gazette.
Although he only has 2 wins as Head Coach, Cunneyworth pummels his players over and over with key messages and they seem to be responding:
* Go hard to the net, and good things will happen;
* Forecheck hard;
* Keep working at it, and don't give up;
* Play sound defensively;
* Put pucks at the net, wherever you are.
Let's be honest. For whatever reason -- and only the players and management know why -- this team was not a cohesive group coming into the season. Whither happened between last year and this year is a bit of a mystery but maybe the sum of all parts points to a possible answer:
1) James Wisniewski is not re-signed and our power play suffers for it;
2) Roman Hamrlik is offered a one year deal -- but signs with the Capitals instead;
3) Power forward Erik Cole is signed to a four year deal -- and the signing is panned by critics;
4) Josh Gorges avoids arbitration -- but is only offered a paltry one year deal;
5) Hal Gill and Andrei Kostitsyn are both signed to one year deals, leaving their futures uncertain;
6) Mr. Markov is signed to a three year deal -- but has yet to play a game this season -- and probably WON'T.
The team has a poor pre-season. Newly signed Chris Campoli, brought in to fill the void of Markov, is injured in the first game against the Leafs. Newcomers Raphael Diaz and Alexei Emelin, both highly touted, need time to ramp up to the pace of NHL hockey. Yannick Weber starts slow, finds his groove, but then loses it and is now the odd-man out. Gorges has a terrible start, possibly because his head wasn't in the right place given the non-confidence vote Gauthier gave him over the summer.
That would be enough, wouldn't it? But it doesn't end there.
Scott Gomez, looking to bounce back after the worst year of his career, is twice-injured and when he is in the lineup, is ineffective. Captain Brian Gionta doesn't look quite himself and also starts slow. Tomas Plekanec doesn't look happy. Michael Cammalleri hurts himself early and becomes a whipping boy for his lack of production. He also implies he doesn't like playing with Plekanec. Darling P.K. Subban is afflicted by the sophomore slump -- one of the mysteries of NHL hockey.
Powerforward Erik Cole has been the team's most consistent player. Photo: Dave Sidaway, The Gazette.
The team stumbles out of the gate, can't win at home, can't score on the power play, gives up leads and... trade rumours swirl. Something needs to be done. Fans call for Jacques Martin's firing, namely because his style of play no longer seems to suit this team. A once smiling Erik Cole looks downtrodden, having been left out of the power play and plays a paltry 12-15 minutes a game. Instead of Martin, Gauthier fires Assistant Coach Perry Pearn but after a brief winning streak the team finds itself mired in mediocrity. Even Carey Price begins to look ordinary.
Markov teases Habs fans when he finally practices with the team, only to then undergo another knee surgery. Gauthier signs Tomas Kaberle, another underachiever with a big contract, and that signing is also panned by the media and critics alike. But I like it because it burns diehard Leaf fans :)
Finally, the axe falls onto Jacques Martin's head and he is relieved of his duties as Head Coach, while former player and unilingual Randy Cunneyworth takes the helm and is blasted in the Francophone media. Owner and President Geoff Molson issues a statement and essentially cuts Cunneyworth down, making him a lame duck. All reports indicate Pierre Gauthier is a goner at season's end (and before the draft).
This is, my friends -- a heck of a lot of BAD. So why the sudden optimism???
I'll tell you why. It's because it's been so bad that we're desperate for anything good. Who wouldn't want to see the Habs go on a roll like the New Jersey Devils did last year after Jacques Lemaire took over for that team!? But I have to say, I'm a bit torn, because deep down, I wouldn't mind seeing them get a top-five draft pick in this year's draft.
It hasn't been fun to watch this team. It's one thing to lose, but there is losing the right way and losing the wrong way. And this team has just been brutal on too many nights this year.
But ultimately, the optimism springs from the changes that Coach Cunneyworth has made to this year's team that are now becoming apparent:
1) He reunites Desharnais with Pacioretty and Cole;
2) He reunites Eller with Kostitsyn and Moen -- and Eller scores 4 in a game;
3) He double shifts Erik Cole, by far the team's best and most consistent player, who plays a season-high 27 minutes in this week's game against the Jets;
4) He puts Gill and Kaberle on the ice more sparingly, putting each in a better position to excel;
5) He sits Weber for Emelin, and Emelin continue to emerge as a bruising, hitting defenseman who puts second thoughts into opposing forwards;
6) He actively coaches the team on the bench -- which pundits like Michel Bergeron loves;
7) He uses Tomas Plekanec less, who will only benefit from this down the line and into the playoffs -- if we can make it.
Streaky scorer Cammalleri has shown life of late and Captain Gionta is back tonight, healthy and hungry. Things are looking up. But there have been some positives this year:
1) Max Pacioretty starts strong and though he's now in a bit of a slump, we must remember -- this is only his FIRST FULL SEASON;
2) Erik Cole, after the Martin-induced slow start, is and has been everything we could have asked for game after game. He drives to the net, uses his speed and body and has become a leader in the dressing room;
3) David Desharnais is a terrific player who although small in stature, is big in heart and skill;
4) Andrei Kostitsyn, even if it's a contract year, is one of our most dangerous offensive threats and uses his body more and more and often does the little things right;
5) Lars Eller, though inconsistent at times, shows us why he was a first round pick and that he's going to be a terrific player for this team, if we don't give up on him. And the kid is first class;
Raphy Diaz could be our next Mark Streit.
Photo: Francois Lacasse/Getty Images.
6) Louis Leblanc, though sent back to Hamilton this week, is a great kid with a great head on his shoulders and performs admirably during his stint with the big club. He doesn't look out of place and he's going to be another Plekanec-type, two-way player for this team -- and who doesn't like that?
7) Diaz and Emelin complete their NHL internships and now assert themselves in the areas of the game in which they excel. Diaz puts points up and plays well defensively, while Emelin throws Craig Ludwig-style bodycheck after Craig Ludwig-style bodycheck and we love it. How long has it been since we've heard that crashing sound against the boards of the Bell Centre?? About time, I say;
8) And finally, against all odds, his team's record and the soft support from management -- Randy Cunneyworth acts like a true professional and carries on with his work.
Things are looking up. The Bell Centre crowd did the wave for the first time this season in the last game against the Jets. Took awhile, hope to see it again tonight.
So let's see if the 2011-2012 Montreal Canadiens can go on a second-half roll and eke out a playoff spot. Will they? Who knows with this team? It's a steep climb. I'd rather them tank it and get a high first round pick then come up short by 2 points a la Maple Leafs.
But whatever happens, you know it'll be entertaining. Let's just hope the entertainment comes from the ice and not from the media as has been the case so far this year. Valleri. Vallera.
PS: I read Terry Dimonte is coming home to Montreal radio after four years in Calgary. That's great for Terry and anglo-Montreal. Maybe it's time for me to do the same!?? If you have a job offer, I"m listening...