Daily Hab-it: Morale management
By Arpon Basu
Published Thursday, March 10, 2011 12:58AM EST
Last Updated Saturday, May 19, 2012 3:10AM EDT
If Wednesday proved one thing, it's how much this city cares about its hockey club. And not only that, but the game in general.
The day began with fans and non-fans alike still seething over the events of one night prior when Max Pacioretty had his head viciously driven into a stanchion by Boston's Zdeno Chara, with the anger only rising when the Canadiens announced just after noon that Pacioretty had suffered a broken neck and a severe concussion, then reaching a crescendo in mid-afternoon when the NHL announced Chara would not be disciplined for the act.
The city is beside itself, and it has a right to be because what we witnessed and what Pacioretty suffered through Tuesday night was something that simply should not happen at a hockey game.
I really don't want to get into the intent debate again because I think I made my thoughts on that clear in my post after the game, and they haven't really changed.
But one has to hope is that the non-suspension does not become a distraction for the Canadiens, and that it becomes a useful motivational push instead.
It may be cold to say so, but the Canadiens are in St. Louis preparing to play another game, somewhat relieved with the knowledge that Pacioretty's injuries are not serious when compared to what the alternatives were.
Focus an issue
But I wonder what the residual effect of Wednesday's decision by the league will have on these players.
I, as many of you, can recall a very similar uproar among fans and media when Justin Williams – then of the Carolina Hurricanes – high-sticked Saku Koivu right in the eye in Game 3 of their first round playoff series.
The blow tore the retina in Koivu's left eye and gave him a cataract. His career looked to be in jeopardy.
But the furor in the city centered on how it could be possible that two referees missed the call. For days on end all people were talking about was that blown call, and in the meantime the Canadiens went on to lose the next three games and the series 4-2 after leading 2-0 coming back home to the Bell Centre.
I'm not saying the outrage over the missed penalty was a direct cause of the on-ice meltdown – the loss of Koivu had a big part to play in that – but you had to wonder whether or not some of that negativity filtered into the room and, eventually, onto the ice.
Now here we are in a similar situation, albeit far more grave than debating the lack of a minor penalty, but similar nonetheless.
Road trip should help
It's probably a good thing the Canadiens left Wednesday for a two-game road trip that takes them to St. Louis on Thursday for what has become a downright insignificant showdown with Jaroslav Halak and the Blues, and then a matinee game in Pittsburgh on Saturday. While the players will surely be asked questions about the NHL's decision on Chara at both stops, it won't be nearly as intense as it would have been at home, where Jacques Martin's status update Wednesday on Pacioretty's injury was carried on live television.
The Canadiens – as frigid as it might sound – need to put this incident behind them and focus on their jobs in the coming weeks.
"As an organization we have to get focused and say tomorrow we need the two points," Scott Gomez said after Wednesday morning's practice. "If you talked to Patch he'd want the same thing. You just want the kid to be alright, and starting tomorrow you have to go full speed. You probably have to get that out of your mind as quick as you can."
Indeed, because they need to get to business on trying to fill what will be a gaping void left by the loss of Pacioretty.
Pacioretty leaves enormous shoes to fill
Over his last 20 games Pacioretty had 11 goals and six assists, leading the team in both goals and points over that span. His impact around the net on the power play was even more monumental than that, scoring seven of those 11 goals on the man advantage, which represents 38.9 per cent of the Canadiens total of 18 power play goals in those 20 games.
The task of filling his role at even strength looks as though it will fall on Benoit Pouliot, who was re-united with Gomez and Brian Gionta at Wednesday's skate, the linemates he had such great success with in his first games with the Canadiens last season.
Pouliot has been waiting for a chance like this all season.
In spite of some good stretches playing with Jeff Halpern and more recently with David Desharnais, Pouliot has been unable to play himself into a prominent offensive role on the team. He's played fewer than 10 minutes in six of the last seven games, a period that coincides perfectly with the formation of Lars Eller's new line with Andrei Kostitsyn and Travis Moen.
In spite of that, Pouliot still leads the team in points per 60 minutes of even strength ice time, and he's second only to Gionta in goals per 60 minutes. Combine that with a relatively positive history playing alongside Gomez and Gionta, and perhaps Pouliot will be able to weather the blow of Pacioretty's departure a little bit.
That won't be good news for Desharnais, as he was centering Ryan White and Tom Pyatt at practice and will likely see his ice time drop even more, though his time on the power play should still give him an opportunity to produce. Desharnais leads the team in points per 60 minutes of power play ice time by a very wide margin, and he's even ahead of Pacioretty and leading the team in goals per 60 minutes.
Finally, I wonder if it will be Eller or Pouliot taking Pacioretty's power play minutes.
Nothing works better than winning
But the one thing going through this exercise emphasizes is how crappy it is that this had to happen to Pacioretty just when he had become such an important part of the team at only 22 years old, which leads back to those negative thoughts of anger and resentment over what Chara did and how he wasn't punished for it.
But if I were the Canadiens, I would try to focus on the fact that suspending Chara would not have brought Pacioretty back, that they've won five straight games to pull themselves back into the conversation for the division lead and that they've fought through injuries to their top two defencemen so there's no reason to believe they can't fight through this one as well.
And if you absolutely want to focus on the incident on Pacioretty, think about the young teammate lying in a hospital bed who needs to be cheered up, and how nothing would be more effective in accomplishing that than winning.