Monday, December 31, 2007

All O, No D

Carbo's latest tinkerings with line combinations have at once taken advantage of the Habs' strengths, while laid bare their most glaring weakness. The lines go something like this:


There are so many oddities about these lines:
  1. Michael Ryder is playing again, after a few games as a healthy scratch. Ryder's situation deserves a post unto itself, so more on that later.
  2. The fourth line has no real center and two defensemen on the wings.
  3. All lefties on the "first" two lines, and only two on the "last" two.
  4. Three scoring lines, and one energy line.
As odd as these combinations are, they are a small bit of genius given the Habs' dearth of anyone resembling a defensive forward. Carbo split up the three catalysts for the Habs' offense: Higgins, Koivu and Kovalev. With each driving their respective lines, other coaches can't figure out against whom to send their better units. Carbo also sends all lines on the forecheck constantly, except in the third period when they fall back into a trap-like defensive shell with a four or five goal lead.

And that is exactly when this bold plan's soft underbelly is exposed. None of these guys are bona fide shut down forwards. The plan's success in the early going is based on keeping the puck in the offensive zone, and creating pressure with a constant forecheck. With the game safely in hand after two periods, Carbo figures he can just play defense, and ride out the last 20 minutes. But while these lines excel at being the aggressor, they aren't so good at playing D. The result, over the three games these lines have been in effect? Outscoring the opposition 10-2 in the first two periods vs being outscored 5-3 in the last (including OT).

So why not just play the third period just like the first two? Carbo would appear to be trying to run up the score, a big no-no esp given the Habs' lack of an enforcer. So Carbo has to hope that the big early game leads will continue, and that his team (and esp his goalies) can hold on in the third.

Granted, the last game against the Rangers is a little atypical, and maybe one could argue that shouldn't be counted against this plan. After all, the Habs could only dress 19 players -- Corey Locke had an equipment bag snafu at Toronto's Pearson airport. The baggage guys there must be Leafs fans. But his absence didn't hurt as much as the guy he was supposed to replace: Saku Koivu, out with the flu. (Deja vu. Haven't the Habs' medical staff heard of flu shots?) .

Koivu is the Habs' best faceoff guy, for three years running now. The Rangers ruthlessly exposed the Habs' weakness in the faceoff circle, winning 68% of the draws. The most costly, of course, was Drury's win late in the third to tie the game. Lapierre's return has helped, but with Plekanec consistently losing more than he wins, the Habs desperately need someone to center that fourth line with a better faceoff percentage, esp take some defensive zone draws.

In the first two games (against the Lightning and Panthers) Carbo turned to Kostopolous, a winger who has lost about two draws for every win over the last three seasons. That's a pretty damning lack of confidence in Chipchura, who was a healthy scratch in both games.

But against the Rangers, without Koivu, Carbo had no choice but to play Chipchura. He was woefully not up to the job. His line was on the ice the for the first two goals, all ending up at -2. Of course it didn't help that Tom Renney recognized the mismatch and sent Straka-Gomez-Jagr out each time. On the first goal, Renney even caught Carbo with Chipchura's line as well as the third defensive unit, Bouillon and Gorges. Might as well have given them the goal and not bother with the formalities.

But there's not a whole lot Carbo can do about his fourth line, even when his guys are healthy. Bob needs to get him some help, esp to center that fourth line. And that is the subject of my next post.

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