Habs Panel : Week 3

So the word is out! The Habs Panel continues to fire on all cylinders as we continue to draw a great crowd to The Checking Line. So for that, we thank you - the readers - for continuing to show up for not only the written portion of the Panel, but for the Live portion as well.

But one quick note before we get started this week. Everyone here at TCL, and those across Habs Nation want to give our sincere congratulations to panelist Kyle Roussel. He and his wife are proud new parents of their daughter - born on December 4th! That's right - the 101st Birthday of the Habs!

So this week we look at the apparent discrepancy between the TSN Panels playoff prediction and the Habs current position, pause for thought over the toughest month of the season thus far, and question how the pairing of Hamrlik and Spacek will step up in the absence of Markov.

Let's see what our guest panelists Yves Arsenault of Yves on Habs, and Kyle Roussel from Cowhide and Rubber, have to say.

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At the beginning of the season, TSN predicted the Habs to finish in 9th place and out of the playoffs, one of the biggest discretions in the standings so far. With the Canadiens sitting pretty at the top of the Northeast division and heading into a tough month of December, where do you stand on this "discretion"?

Kyle Roussel of Cowhide and Rubber responds:
To be honest, I wasn't horribly offended by the prediction. While the difference between playoffs and golf course can come down to a measly point "earned" in an overtime loss, we Habs fans also saw how that measly point can lead to 6 extra weeks of heart-pounding hockey. It would be too simplistic to chalk up TSN's prediction to the "Toronto Sports Network" giving the Habs no respect. The truth is, the Canadiens finished 8th last year, and barely. With so many teams below them getting better (Atlanta, Tampa, even Toronto, who had 0 wins in October last year), there was, and is the case to be made that the Habs could have finished a point or two lower this season, and potentially out of the playoffs. It's NOT that crazy an idea, as much as Habs fans can't stand the thought, or stomach the perceived slight.

Yves Arsenault of Yves on Habs responds:
Well honestly, I'm not really surprised. If we go back a few years... the Habs were largely seen as an 8th seed or missing the playoffs all together by many analysts. That year, they went on to finish first in the East. The next year.... they were predicted as favorites... and barely squeezed in.
Last season with the signings many analysts had them pegged as missing the post season or barely squeezing in.... which they did. But something that really wasn't talked about much in those comments were the amount of injuries that the team had suffered.
Going into this year I'm not sure that those who predicted the Habs 9th took into consideration that the team on the ice may be more reminiscent of the team of the playoffs as opposed to the regular season.

Iain Carnegie of Bleed Bleu, Blanc, Rouge responds:
Maybe I'm one of the few out there that felt the Habs playoff run last season was not a fluke. After the incredible post season that the team had, showing some incredible depth, I had the feeling that the TSN panelists were overlooking Montreal, placing them firmly in the shadow of two teams that they dominated in their run to the Eastern Conference Finals.
There is no doubt that they barely made their way into the playoffs, but one has to consider the incredible amount of injuries they sustained AND the fact that it was very key players who were injured.
With a mostly healthy team thus far, and without the top players firing on all cylinders yet, Montreal looks poised to sit well above ninth place. I for one have no problem considering them full on playoff contenders.

George Prax responds:
There are a lot of things to consider when it comes to this question. Where were the Habs last year? Where could they be heading forward? What if they suffered a couple more key injuries, or are unlucky enough to go on an extended cold streak, something that hasn't happened yet? We all know what this team is capable of when healthy and on their game, we saw it in the playoffs last season. But I can't help but feel that the Canadiens are playing somewhat over their heads so far this season. They've had some pretty bad performances, even in wins, and outside of a few players there have been many who haven't exactly been consistent. So when faced with this questions, I feel like I do when I hear "OLE" chants at the Bell Centre with 10 minutes to go. There's still lots of hockey to be played, and anything can happen. Once the Canadiens play their month of December, with 10 road games, including a huge Christmas road trip, and I would rather wait and see what happens before scoffing at the good people over at TSN. Boston is nipping at their heels, a couple of losses in a row and the Habs could very well be in the position that TSN predicted before the season started. All I can say right now is that I'm glad they're putting points in the bank when the schedule and competition might be a tad easier on them.

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December will bring us 10 road games and only 5 games at the Bell Centre, thanks to the now annual Christmas road trip. Barring injuries and unforeseen events, what do you expect from the Canadiens in one of the toughest portions of their season? What do you predict their record to be heading into 2011?

Kyle Roussel responds:
December has always been like a minefield full of banana peels to the Habs, and this year may be no different. But they are playing better fundamental hockey than they were at this point last season; they no longer live and die with the power play, 5-on-5 play has improved dramatically and of course Carey Price has been otherworldly. I think they'll come out of the month with something resembling a .500 record, and emerge with a total tally for the season of somewhere between 45-49 points. As long as they can manage 14 points during the month (whether through victories, or freebie points for failure), avoid key injuries, and navigate the landmines and banana peels, the Canadiens should be well on their way to securing a playoff spot and proving TSN's prediction wrong.

Yves Arsenault responds:
Honestly, I suck at predictions.... at least I think I do! ;-)
I predict they'll more then likely keep on the same pace. In January, barring injuries.... I think they'll still be up in the top 3-4 teams.
However, one thing I will note, is that Carey Price's play will continue to be key. And he's got my complete confidence.

Iain Carnegie responds:
This will be a typical "proving ground" month for the Canadiens. Although not every match in the month of December proves to be against hardened teams, the travel schedule is rough. Not to mention the fact that a few of the games are definitely against teams that we typically have a hard time facing off against (Ottawa, Toronto, Tampa). Fortunately, la Flanelle have a great ability to rise to the occasion against teams like Philly, Carolina, and Washington (whom they also meet) and I see them as a stronger group this year.
I'm not expecting a breakout month, but I do think they have what it takes to come away from the month a game over .500 (8-7) and maintaining a spot in the Conference top 3.

George Prax responds:
It's only to be expected that the Canadiens will eventually suffer a bit of a slump. It happens to nearly every team, and I fear that December might be that time of the year for the Canadiens. Ten road games, a big sequence away from home over Christmas and New Year's, it's only natural to imagine that the Canadiens might come away with more losses than wins. Still, I'm going to try and be somewhat optimistic and say that the Canadiens will win 6 six, lose another 6 in regular, and get three "loser points" to round out the 15 games. They've been lucky enough to get 2 wins in three games so far, but next week brings the Sens, Wings and Leafs in a road back-to-back, and Boston and Philly in a back-to-back situation at home after that, so it will be interesting to see if the Habs can prove me wrong and get on a bit of win streak here before the big road trip stars.

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What do you think of the performance of Jaro Spacek and Roman Hamrlik, as they are once again asked to step up in the absence of Andrei Markov? How will they fair as the schedule toughens? Will they be able to hold on to their prominent roles on defense, or will they begin to taper off?

Kyle Roussel responds:
Hockey in Montreal isn't the same without a whipping boy or two. Spacek started off the year looking like he was ready to apply for social security. Hamrlik wasn't far behind, even if he was inserted in to the lineup without the benefit of a training camp. After some face time with the Coach, they seem to have stabilized and resemble their former selves, even if they're now slower versions of those once strong players. I think they're both savvy enough veterans to pace themselves with a fair degree of reliability, efficiency and effectiveness over an 82 game schedule. What's left in their tanks for the playoffs, however, is a different story. As valiantly as they battled last year, especially Spacek with his bout of vertigo, they were simply over-matched and out of gas by the time they had helped knock out the Penguins.

Yves Arsenault responds:
Spacek is the one I'm most concerned with. I think Hamrlik has played some pretty good hockey. In this last game vs the Sharks, great hustle on a bad break and his second effort pretty much setup the Cammalleri goal. I think Roman is having great year so far. As I write this he's got 14 pts and is +7.
Spacek still has flashes of being a decent defenseman. I'm not sure how consistent he will be.
Luckily, I think Yannick Weber could possibly sneak in for some games and possibly relieve some of that pressure... basically taking up some of those minutes.
I believe both Spacek and Hamrlik have value just in the fact they are veterans.

Iain Carnegie responds:
Had I been asked this question a month ago, I think the answer would have been drastically different. As a matter of fact, if I go back to the Panel from a month ago - I was ready to place Spacek on the first train to Hamilton.
But it seems that the pairing of the two defensemen together, along with a chat from Jacques Martin has turned Spacek around. Add Hamrlik's solid play, and proper watchfulness of their ice time, and the issues of October and early November seem to have dissipated somewhat.
There is a lot of concerned talk around the loss of Markov for the remainder of the season, but I can't say that I'm one that banters that way. The core defense squad is already picking up the pace, and with the likes of Weber being able to fill in, our defense will do just fine.

George Prax responds:
I have to admit I've been somewhat impressed with Spaceman and Hammer so far this season, especially lately. Spacek had a rough start and even had his career questioned by another blog a few weeks ago, and Hamrlik started the season in the injured list, but with Markov back on the shelf, both have really stepped up to replace him, especially defensively, become the top shutdown duo for the Canadiens. Hamrlik has also been contributing offensively in a way I never thought he could at his age. The problem is, as the schedule gets tougher and the games start being played closer together, the two 35+ year olds are going to start getting tired and their play will begin to taper off. If they can limit their minutes to 20-22 minutes and ensure they don't play much more, their roles with the Canadiens will continue to be positive ones. But Subban, Gorges, and which ever player between Weber and Picard keeps the number six spot are going to have to insulate them well and be able to carry a large part of the load as well, because I don't think they're going to get any better than this.

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And there you have it! Thoughts and opinion that you may or may not agree with. The only way we know is if you voice your opinion in the comment section below. And we'd LOVE to know what you think.

Don't forget to join us this Wednesday as well as we discuss the Panel's answers just prior to the Habs/Sens Live Blog. Meanwhile, if you have any question suggestions or comments for the panel, share them in our forums!

Once Again ... Thanks for joining us!

Comments

George Prax's picture

I know I seemed a little overly negative in this one but I just feel the need to be a little cynical heading into December. It will be a tough month. But I am happy they're picking up points early. Great fun doing this as always, thanks to Kyle and Yves and of course Iain and I'm looking forward to the liveblog!