Diagnosing the Problem

Two games, two consecutive shutouts, and with their latest 3-0 lost at the Wachovia Center last night, little to no hope left for the Montreal Canadiens, in their quest to defeat the Philadelphia Flyers and make it to the Stanley Cup Finals for the first time in two decades.

Most people will tell you that anything past that first round series win against the Capitals was gravy for the Canadiens, and in all honesty, they'd be right. I thought so myself, especially going into this series against the Flyers. But truth be told, the way they're losing, while being so close to a berth in the Stanley Cup Finals, so close to, as so many have put it, destiny, or fate, if you will (because according to Eklund, there's a difference), it just really sucks seeing the team that you cheer for lay a big fat goose egg.

Of course, the same people telling you that anything at this point is gravy will tell you not to lose hope. Both teams playing in the Eastern Conference Finals are proof of that. But the Philadelphia Flyers are not the Washington Capitals. They're not the Pittsburgh Penguins and they're not the Boston Bruins. They don't let leads slip away from them, they take them away from you and kick you in the face while you're down.

The Flyers deserve all the credit in the world for what they've done so far in this series. In game 1, it was total domination. Game 2 was much tighter, but every adjustment Jacques Martin and the Canadiens made was met with an equal adjustment from Peter Laviolette, who continues to prove that he should have never been fired from the Carolina Hurricanes, and continues to show everyone why he has a Stanley Cup ring wrapped around his finger.

And while equal amounts of the credit deserve to go to Michael Leighton, to Chris Pronger, to the Flyers well-balanced offense and to everyone else in that organization who, love 'em or hate 'em, has built a winning team, my mind keeps coming back to the single match-up that, in my opinion, has been the catalyst in the series this far.

Peter Laviolette vs. Jacques Martin.

Last June, many praised Bob Gainey for finally listening to the fans and finally acquiring a coach with experience. And when Martin came into this organization, despite any successes or failures in his past, most fans, myself included, were willing to give him a chance. But when the injuries started piling on, as well as the losses, a lot of people started wondering if this man was right for the organization going forward. Martin was unable to adapt to the hand he was dealt, unable to stray away from his favored game plan and unable to help the Habs win games.

When the Canadiens backed their way into the playoffs thanks to lackadaisical play and what appeared to be disinterest from both the players and the coach, many, again, wondered if Jacques Martin had what it took to bring playoff success to this organization.

For a short while, he proved us all wrong. His coaching technique, mixed with several amazing performances from the players, won the Canadiens the series against the Penguins. Similar play and similar technique and strategy won them the series against the Penguins. And he definitely deserved some credit for what he helped the Canadiens accomplish.

But now, with game 1 and 2 of the series against the Flyers in the books, Martin has not been able to adapt. While they are out-shooting the Flyers and upping the pressure offensively, the Canadiens are essentially being beaten at their own game, and watching some of the decisions Martin made going into last night's game, you can't help but assume that he may be flustered, he may be panicked.

While I'm not a coach, and I can only analyze things from an outsider's perspective, one has to wonder whether this is solely the case of the Canadiens being beaten by a more complete team, or a case of their inability to adapt.

(And, hey, if you don't trust my opinion, i provided a five-point game plan before yesterday's game. The Canadiens didn't accomplish a single one of those objectives, and they were shut out.)

In any case...

While many thought that the Canadiens' second round series against the Penguins would require a different style of hockey than the one that won them their quarterfinal match-up, Martin and his troupes beat the defending Stanley Cup Champions playing nearly exactly the same way as they did against the Capitals. Sit back, pick your spots and make sure to bury any small amount of chances you get. Get in the passing lanes, shut down the superstars and let the goaltender do the rest.

That's obviously not the way to go against the Flyers. The passing and shooting lanes that the Canadiens so skillfully defended in the first two rounds, they're being breached. Jaroslav Halak is getting little to no support from his team, as many of the goals he's let in have been screened. And while the Canadiens have been out-shooting the Flyers and getting their chances, you have to wonder how many of those chances were high quality. Add in all the set faceoff plays that the Flyers are making, as well as the uselessness of the Canadiens special teams, and if you ask me, that's a lot of coaching errors.

As we said yesterday, and as we've been saying since Friday, this is a different monster than anything the Canadiens have seen in these playoffs. And so far in 2 games, Jacques Martin has not been able to adjust his game past the weird love child of a style that's somewhere between a trap and one played by skillful offensive teams.

I think by now most of you know what I'm getting at. And I don't think it's rash, I don't think it's unfair and I don't it's a knee-jerk reaction.

Yes, Jacques Martin has bought himself another start to the season, at the very least. Yes, he was a big part of the Canadiens success in these playoffs. But anyone who's watched a single hockey game in their lives can see that Martin is unable to adapt from the game plan he's attached to his own hip, and he's unwilling to bend away from any of his coaching philosophies.

The big news out of the Canadiens camp before yesterday's game was that Sergei Kostitsyn would draw back into the line-up after sitting since game 5 of the first round, presumably to boost the team's offense. It's been well-documented that Kostitsyn has been in Martin's doghouse since literally the beginning of the season. So, why bring him back now? To send a message to Benoit Pouliot, who's expected to score goals with 4 or 5 minutes of ice time? Is the same thing expected of Sergei, who played 4:57 in the entire game, including only a single shift in the 3rd, when they could have used his offense the most?

What about Martin's love affair with Marc-Andre Bergeron? Bergeron played 18:26 last night, finishing the game with 3 shots and a -1, and played the same amount of shifts in each period. Meanwhile, Ryan O'Byrne, who MIGHT be able to match some of the physicality, is sitting in the pressbox so Martin can play Bergeron.

When you really look at it, from player personnel decisions to unbending strategies to his weird grudges and love affairs, Martin might be the most frustration coach this organization has ever seen.

And meanwhile, the two coaches who have been considered the real stars of this organization this season could very well walk away from the organization this summer, because Jacques Martin was weaseled his way into another season behind the bench.

Kirk Muller has been the motivator, he's been there with the players and he's been the star behind the bench all season. That's been well-documented and accepted from most fans.

Guy Boucher has been the developer and star in Hamilton, potentially on his way to a Calder Cup in the AHL in his first year as coach.

And because Jacques Martin told Hal Gill to block shots and Halak to stop pucks, we're going to lose them both in the off-season.

Again, this may seem rash, it may seem unfair, based on what the Canadiens have done in the first two rounds this year, but regardless of that success, I think that it's pretty clear that if the Canadiens are going to be any better in the future than they are now, Jacques Martin is not the right person for the job.

This complaint will obviously fall on deaf ears, and knowing my luck, now that I've written an angry blog the Canadiens are likely to come out and light up Leighton and the Flyers, but in my humble opinion, this is a fair criticism and a subject that needs to be discussed. Is keeping Jacques Martin worth the potential losses

Nevertheless, there is still plenty of hockey to be played, and as most of us keep saying and keep hoping, anything can happen. Will one goal on Leighton finally open the floodgates for the Canadiens? Will one bad Pronger or Carcillo penalty switch the moment for the Canadiens? It's entirely possible. Unfortunately, it's unlikely.

Here's to hoping that the Bell Centre crowd will provide a boost to the Canadiens and lead them to victory tomorrow night at the Bell Centre, and that Jacques Martin will prove us wrong yet again.

Back tomorrow,

Prax
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