Proficiency in sports is in large part a function of repetition, practice makes perfect and all that.
Athletes work harder than you might expect at getting the little things right; it’s a losing battle – even the greats don’t do everything exactly correctly – but it must be waged.
So what happens when you add the human element to all of this? Good habits can slide into becoming bad ones.
Which rather circuitously brings us to the Montreal Canadiens.
No team has won more games this season than the Habs, yet the fact they have triumphed in four of their past five is due to good fortune and better goaltending.
The Canadiens have been one of the league’s poorer possession teams through 13 games this season (24th out of 30 teams going into Thursday’s games), which doesn’t generally bode well for long-term success.
They have allowed 38 or more shots in five straight games and have been outshot nine times, but have only been punished in one, the memorable 10-0 shellacking in Columbus.
“Habits carry over, how you finish the last game is usually how you’re going to start the next one. You try to do good things, and we are doing enough to win games, but we can do more, certainly, we all know that,” said winger Brendan Gallagher.
Attention to detail is gospel in the NHL.
Standing a metre or two too far up the ice, or passing a puck a fraction of a second too late, or crossing one’s feet over at the wrong time – to say nothing of the million small tactical decisions that must be made over the course of a season – the margins between success and failure are punishingly thin.
“The more you can learn to anticipate or to keep your stick in this spot rather than that spot, those are little advantages that add up and make a huge difference,” Gallagher said.
You might ask what the Habs aren’t doing that they were earlier in the season.
Coach Michel Therrien framed it this way: they’re playing with speed, but not fast enough.
By which he means breakouts are sluggish, the transition game isn’t crisp, and although players are getting around the ice with their usual velocity, the playmaking, defending and shooting aren’t keeping up.
Forward Phillip Danault said it’s mostly reflected in execution – skating patterns on the forecheck, passes, defensive switches – and in taking too many shortcuts when it comes to backchecking, blocking shots. “When it happens, you don’t realize until it’s too late, and then it takes time to correct … it’s tough to snap out of it, the only way you do is by having a good practice day,” Gallagher said.
The Habs are in a stretch that will see them play five games in nine days (and 12 in 23).
When you consider days off – teams get a minimum four per month – there isn’t a lot of time left for practising.
And unlike earlier in the season, the Habs are in the midst of a string against playoff teams – they will play Detroit, Chicago and Florida between now and next Tuesday.
His team may have sported a league-leading 11-1-1 record heading into Thursday’s home date with the hulking and skilled Los Angeles Kings, none of it meant Therrien was content.
The weighty decision to bench David Desharnais, the little centre who five games ago was playing first-line minutes, was made.
In fairness, Desharnais, who has only four points on the season and none in his past nine games, is not the only player whose form has dropped; Therrien had other candidates to choose from.
In any event, it worked. In the first period, the Habs took it to the Kings, a legendarily tough defensive group and the league’s best possession team, and scored a pair of goals – via Paul Byron and Daniel Carr – while limiting L.A. to only two even-strength shots.
They held onto the puck, they clogged up passing lanes, they passed and moved freely. It may have been their best period of the season.
Danault made it 3-0 on a rebound in the second, and in the third, the Kings made a push but could get no closer than 3-1 before Alex Galchenyuk made it 4-1 with an empty-netter.
Goalie Carey Price chipped in with a couple of ridiculous saves to deny L.A. captain Anze Kopitar.
If Thursday was a test, the Habs passed it. Tougher ones lie ahead.Report Typo/Error