Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Happy Hour in FLA

That has to be how the Canadiens feel as they fly home to bring in the New Year with family and friends.

Playing their third game in four nights Tuesday, the Habs often looked like they were simply out of gas, which was more than understandable after the big effort displayed in Miami one night earlier in a 5-2 victory.

But that one solid effort still allowed the Canadiens to leave the Sunshine State with two wins, as the Lightning couldn't take advantage of their opponents' obvious fatigue and let the Habs hang around long enough to squeak out a 2-1 shootout win.

That's now five wins in six games for these Habs, all of them without the services of Saku Koivu and Christopher Higgins, and for the first time this season it looks like this group might very well live up to the high expectations that were heaped on them prior to the season.

What was impossible to foresee when those lofty goals were being set over the summer was that it would be the birth of a new energy line that would prove to be the catalyst.

This stretch of five wins in six games coincides with Guy Carbonneau's decision to place Maxim Lapierre, Guillaume Latendresse and Tom Kostopoulos together on a line in a 5-2 thumping of the Philadelphia Flyers.

Lapierre has three goals and two assists, Latendresse has two goals and two assists while Kostopoulos has two assists in those six games. But more important than the numbers, which are quite impressive, is the residual impact the line has had on their teammates by consistently going out, shift after shift, and maintaining pressure in the offensive zone. Those shifts create momentum, they inspire teammates, they demoralize opponents.

Kostopoulos didn't get on the scoresheet Tuesday, but both Carbonneau and Latendresse pointed to his fight with Tampa's giant Evgeny Artyukhin - who knocked Alex Tanguay out of action for the foreseeable future with a left shoulder injury on a legal hit - for giving the Canadiens energy and purpose in the game.

"He was stuck with a monster on the other side, but I know that changed the game," Latendresse told reporters. "It showed the team he was ready to play and we jumped on board with him."

Carbonneau's decision to pick Lapierre and Latendresse for the shootout Tuesday night speaks volumes to how he feels about the impact the Quebec natives had not only on this game, but on the team in general over the past couple of weeks.

"Those two played excellent and allowed us to get back in the game," Carbonneau said. "Sometimes you need to give players like that a chance to show what they can do. Once again, Maxim found a way."

It was around this time last year that Carbonneau's decision to play Alex Kovalev with Tomas Plekanec and Andrei Kostitsyn sparked an incredible second half for the Canadiens. Though Lapierre, Latendresse and Kostopoulos likely won't impact the season in quite the same way, it could turn out to be nearly as significant.

The Habs are in the midst of the toughest stretch in their schedule, one where they play 18 of 26 games away from the Bell Centre. Having a reliable energy line is a valuable resource for Carbonneau on the road.

But having one that's playing like an elite checking line is a major asset, one that might very well send the Canadiens on their way to another great second half.

Saturday, December 27, 2008

A game seen from different angles

Are you a glass half full or half empty type?

I like to think I'm more of a half full guy, so in the wake of Montreal's 3-2 win in Pittsburgh on Saturday night I prefer to focus on why the Habs came out winners.

But that would make for a pretty short post, because the reason is very simple.

Carey Price's third period Saturday night was easily the greatest performance by a player in a Canadiens uniform this season. Not only did he make 17 saves, but many were of the highlight reel variety, and he was the principle reason the Canadiens didn't get burned by the three power plays they handed the Penguins in the third (oops, that's right, this is supposed to stay positive).

The "Mellon Arena Media" in charge of picking the three stars must have missed the third period, because Price's name is nowhere to be found. Tough to figure that one out.

There's been some talk that while the Habs have had good goaltending this season, they haven't had a goalie steal a game for them. Well, that's now been taken care of because Price robbed the Pens, plain and simple.

"I liked our effort tonight and thought we deserved better," Penguins coach Michel Therrien told reporters afterwards. "There are going to be nights when the result is not on your side. Tonight was one of those nights. Carey Price was outstanding and stole the game."

The other obvious positive coming out of Saturday night was not only Andrei Kostitsyn's first career hat trick, but the fact his first two goals came off great feeds from Tomas Plekanec. I'm not saying Plekanec had the game of his life, but he created things and that will only help his confidence, which was frankly on life support before the Christmas break. Plus, he was pretty solid in the faceoff circle, winning 13 of 23, though he lost a big one in his own zone near the end of the game.

That three-goal outing should ensure that Guy Carbonneau will keep last year's top line together through the holiday swing in Florida. At least that's what a sensible person would believe, but you never know what can happen if the Habs lay an egg in Miami on Monday night.

Last but not least was the Habs penalty-killing, which was outstanding even though Price had to bail them out a few times in the third. But when you hold a power play featuring Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin off the scoresheet in five opportunities, you've not only done job, you've done it pretty freakin' well.

OK, I can't help myself. There were too many negative things seen Saturday night not to mention them at all, so I'm going to put on my glass half empty hat.

I already alluded to the three penalties in the third period, but the Canadiens had absolutely no offensive zone presence throughout the final 20 minutes of the game. Even Kostitsyn's winner came from just inside the blueline on a 1-on-2 break, and the only other chances the Canadiens mustered were a long shot by Andrei's little brother that forced Marc-André Fleury into a nice glove save and a shorthanded breakaway by Maxim Lapierre.

How many times have you heard a Habs player or Carbonneau talk about the need to play a full 60 minutes this year? It seems like someone says it after every game, even after wins. Montreal played a pretty solid first 40 minutes Saturday night, but they simply weren't there in the third, so that same cliché would apply to this game as well.

Also, as good as the Plekanec line was, I thought the Robert Lang, Alex Tanguay and Matt D'Agostini line were just as bad. There was only one of their shifts that comes to mind as being dangerous, and if I'm not mistaken it didn't even result in a shot on goal. Lang and Tanguay in particular looked pretty disinterested, but I guess that's to be expected from some guys on the team after such a long layoff.

I think the most telling stat of the game was the fact the Habs were only able to draw one penalty. You can chalk some of that up to disciplined play by the Penguins, but when the Habs are all playing at top speed they force people to take penalties against them to slow them down. The fact the Penguins didn't need to resort to that Saturday night says a lot.

But, at the end of the day, the Habs have two more points in the bank and escaped a major league trap game with a win, warts and all. Now a major challenge faces them in Florida, as the Canadiens have to prove they can dominate the league's weak teams.

But if Price plays the way he did Saturday night, the Habs won't need dominance to come out of the Sunshine State with two wins. It's entirely possible they might only need two goals.

Friday, December 26, 2008

'Tis the season

The Canadiens handed out a couple of boxing day gifts Friday by calling up Max Pacioretty and Kyle Chipchura from Hamilton as reinforcements for Saturday night's tilt against the struggling Penguins.

Chipchura is no surprise because he's the one who should have been called up instead of Ben Maxwell when Saku Koivu went down with his foot/ankle/leg injury, except he too was injured at the time. But I was pretty stunned to hear about Pacioretty.

It would appear at the outset that Pacioretty is merely an insurance policy in case Andrei Kostitsyn can't go Saturday, even though he practiced Friday with Tomas Plekanec and Alex Kovalev.

But it's a pretty big vote of confidence for the young kid who only has three goals in 26 AHL games (though he does have 17 assists).

As for Chipchura, he's a far better fit as a fourth line centre than Maxwell and is obviously way more NHL ready, both mentally and physically. He's been playing very well in Hamilton as the Bulldogs captain, putting up solid numbers with nine goals and 11 assists in 23 games while displaying the same responsible defensive game that will eventually be his calling card in the big league.

It's funny to think back to training camp and how Guy Carbonneau made it clear that none of the rookies, and even Chipchura, had little chance of making the club because all his forward slots were filled. Now, on the active roster, there's Matt D'Agostini, Maxwell, Pacioretty and Chipchura. Things are obviously not going as planned when it comes to injuries, but this is what it means to have organizational depth.

So, let's assume Andrei Kostitsyn will be ready to go Saturday, then the lines based on what they were at practice Friday will look like this:

A. Kostitsyn - Plekanec - Kovalev
D'Agostini - Lang - Tanguay
Latendresse - Lapierre - Kostopoulos
Begin - Chipchura - S. Kostitsyn

Replacing Maxwell with Chipchura should make that fourth line a whole lot better, but I'm wondering what will happen when Koivu is ready to play, perhaps down in Florida?

I would love to see Carbonneau give the Plekanec line at least five games together without interruption. If they stink, then let them stink for a little while to see if they can play themselves out of it. If after five games they can't figure it out, then just drop the line altogether for the rest of the season.

I realize Carbonneau is not a poster child for patience, but with what these three accomplished together last season, I feel they deserve a prolonged shot at finding that chemistry again. Andrei Kostitsyn rarely says much of anything to reporters, but I found it very telling when he said after his three-point game against the Thrashers at the beginning of this month that nobody knows who anyone will be playing with on any given day.

That kind of uncertainty might be effective sometimes, but I don't think it's working with these three guys. Maybe if Carbonneau went to them and said that they have five games, starting in Pittsburgh, to find some offence, then they wouldn't feel as though they have to score six goals every shift just to make sure the line stayed together.

The Canadiens are likely to go as far as this line takes them, so why not give them an honest chance to produce like everyone knows they can?

Sunday, December 21, 2008

All things considered...

...that was a pretty good result, because the cards were definitely stacked against the Canadiens on Sunday night.

First and foremost is the fact the Hurricanes own the Habs, and it's getting a bit ridiculous. Here's the rundown of the 16 regular season games these two teams have played since the lockout: Carolina is 12-2-2, 7-0-1 at the Bell Centre.

Like I said, ridiculous.

Another factor favouring the 'Canes on Sunday was what happened on Saturday. Both teams played, but Caroline became the latest team to have their asses handed to them by the Boston Bruins, while the Habs had an emotionally draining win over the Buffalo Sabres. In terms of motivation and jump, that's like a perfect storm for Carolina, and it showed in that first period as Montreal barely touched the puck.

But I've saved the best for last, and that's the officiating. I hate writing about referees, because I find they are a very lame excuse for any result and when they are bad, they are usually equally bad for both teams. The last time these two clubs played, most Habs fans thought the refereeing was atrocious as Carolina wound up with 11 power plays and the Habs only had one. But I had seen far worse officiating than I saw in that game, and what happened Sunday night was yet another example.

It appears that three of the four zebras were emergency replacements because of the snowstorm, but I don't think that's an excuse for work that was this shoddy.

The Canadiens had two goals that actually went in the net denied because of extremely quick whistles. One you can understand, but two?

Guy Carbonneau said afterwards that the quick whistles were the only problems he had with the officials, but they just looked uninterested in the game in the third period. Credit the Hurricanes for taking notice, because suddenly they started hooking and tugging everything in a red sweater.

So, to get a point under these circumstances was very good for the Habs, and that wasn't the only positive I found in this game.

I was really on Robert Lang's case earlier this season for his penchant for losing big faceoffs, particularly on the power play and penalty kill, but he had a dominant weekend in that area. After winning 11 of 15 on Sunday night, Lang won 26 out of 36 faceoffs in the weekend's two games, and a lot of those were on special teams. It should be noted he wasn't matched up against Rod Brind'Amour very often Sunday (that honour was bestowed on to Tomas Plekanec, who lost six of 15 against the league's best).

Winning faceoffs is a vital component of Lang's effectiveness, not only because that was the main reason he was brought in, but also because he doesn't play that well without the puck. If he loses a faceoff, he's forced to check, and that's not his strength.

His line with Alex Tanguay and Matt D'Agostini appears to be gelling a little bit and they had another good effort Sunday.

Another major league positive is the emergence of Maxim Lapierre's line with Guillaume Latendresse and Tom Kostopoulos. For a second straight game, they were the only trio who were ready from the opening faceoff. While their teammates slept through the first period of both games, these guys were crashing and banging, creating chances and pinning the opposition in their end. That line had nine hits Saturday night, and Latendresse alone was credited with eight on Sunday to go with three shots on goal.

For the Golden Boy, it was a second straight game with 16 minutes of ice time, and his coach says he can expect that to continue if he keeps showing that kind of work ethic on the ice.

"Every time he’s on the ice he moves his feet, he gets involved physically, he goes to the net and stays around the net," Carbonneau said. "Every game he plays well and plays with that passion, I’ll have more confidence in him and he’ll get more ice time"

We can only hope they keep it up, and if they happen to have a bad period the line isn't broken up. The Canadiens need an energy line like this, if only to soften up the opposing defenders to make life easier for the other lines. And Latendresse looks like a new player since being paired with Lapierre, who also appears to make any line he's playing on very effective with his speed, forechecking and incredibly improved faceoff skills.

So the Canadiens end this odyssey of 10 of 11 games at home with a 6-2-2 record at the Bell Centre, including five out of the last six points available before the Christmas break. They are 18-9-6 for 43 points after 34 games, which puts them on pace for about 104 points this season.

And the crazy thing is the Habs haven't even hit their stride, which is what Carbonneau would like to see when they come back from some relaxing with the family over the holidays.

"We have to come back with an attitude that will allow us to be the team we were last year," Carbonneau said.

And on that note, I too will take a few days off from the blog, but I'll be back before the Pittsburgh game on Saturday, when we can expect to see Andrei Kostitsyn and maybe even Saku Koivu back in the lineup. If that happens, then Ben Maxwell will obviously be sent down, but who else sits and what kind of line combinations can we expect? Let's hear some suggestions.
Happy holidays everyone!

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Now that took some mettle

Not to take anything away from Thursday night's big 5-2 win over the Flyers, but what the Habs showed at the Bell Centre on Saturday night was - to me, at least - a lot more telling.

Erasing three one-goal deficits, scoring twice on the power play (again), and having Alex Kovalev show some real fortitude by going from goat to hero in the space of a few minutes was not only impressive, it was the type of game the Canadiens habitually won last year.

And that makes me believe that maybe this team turned a corner Saturday night.

Of course it's still only December, and who knows what will happen in these holiday season games that generally eat the Habs alive, but I saw lots of reasons to feel encouraged by the Habs performance.

First and foremost was Kovalev, who not only had the OT winner but almost single-handedly created the game-tying goal by Sergei Kostitsyn with just under five minutes to play in regulation. This, after he had been whistled for two bad penalties in the game, both of which resulted in Sabres goals.

"Sometimes it’s frustrating to take a penalty like that, especially since both times he went to the box Buffalo took advantage to score," Guy Carbonneau said. "I knew he felt bad and that he wanted to come back and show his teammates that he wanted to be there."

Kovalev credits his recent surge to not trying to score a highlight reel goal every timre he's on the ice. He said coming into this season he was feeling physically strong and thought that meant he could do more on the ice, but that he's found of late that playing within himself and doing a little less is actually more productive.

But he also said the frustration of not scoring was making him a little too fine, and that he just needed to fire more pucks.

"Lately I’ve been more aggressive towards the net, instead of looking for the pass or looking for the perfect play," he said. "Because sometimes it’s definitely tough when you’re not scoring as much and you kind of look for that perfect play because you almost want to score into an empty net. But sometimes you just have to let it go, get in a comfortable spot and let it go."

That's what he did in overtime Saturday night, wiring a wrister off the post and in for his eighth of the year - a goal he seemingly scored once every two games last season.

That power play goal was the Habs second of the game, and it was the second straight time Montreal connected twice with the man advantage. The Canadiens four power play goals in two games matches the power play's production from the 11 games before.

It was Sergei Kostitsyn scoring from the point that gave the Canadiens their other power play goal, and Carbonneau says the former doghouse resident has made a big difference by deciding to shoot instead of always looking to pass.

“If you don’t shoot you don’t create anything, you don’t get these options," Carbonneau said. "Having Sergei there, we knew he could pass the puck but since he started shooting he creates more everywhere. It opens options for everybody.”

Kovalev had eight shots on goal while Sergei had seven, so the two of them accounted for nearly a third of the Canadiens total of 46.

But that's a stat for the skill guys, and while Steve Bégin's statline is decidedly different, it's just as impressive. Bégin was credited with dishing out seven hits and, somehow, only was marked down for one blocked shot. On one shift early in the third he went on a rampage on the forecheck, earning the chants of "Bégin, Bégin" from the crowd. Then later in the period when the Sabres had the Habs pinned in their end, Bégin was a one-man wrecking crew, crunching Jaro Spacek alone three times in the exact same spot and blocking or altering point shots left and right.

“It’s something we’ve been lacking," Carbonneau said. "When we’ve had some games where we had trouble getting into the game, we would be looking for that spark from a player or a line or two lines that could create that energy with a check, a shot, hitting the goalie, whatever. I think over the last few games that’s what Steve’s been bringing us."

Bégin is one of the most accomodating guys on the team when it comes to the media, and he held court with reporters hanging on his every word for at least 15 minutes Saturday night, which is an eternity for a locker room media scrum. It wsould be easy to say that efforts like the one he had Saturday night come from being in a contract year, but Bégin has played this way his entire career, and he's proving his value to the team after being a healthy scratch in nine of the team's first 14 games.

Finally, just a note on Mike Komisarek, who didn't play after taking an apparent spear to the privates from Jochen Hecht midway through the third period. Carbonneau afterwards said he didn't notice what happened with Komisarek on the play, and that he didn't even notice that Komisarek didn't play a shift after that.

"I really didn't notice because I was too into the game," Carbonneau said before letting out a little grin when he saw our stunned reactions to his comment.

How an NHL head coach doesn't notice when a top-pair defenceman doesn't play the final eight minutes of regulation or any of the overtime is beyond me, and quite frankly I'm having a tough time believing Carbonneau on this one.

We'll have to wait until Sunday night to see if Komisarek is in uniform to find out if indeed he was injured on the play, though he did remain on the bench until the end of the game. Also Sunday, Carbonneau said he will see how Carey Price is feeling, and that it's possible he'll play against the Hurricanes.

I'm officially the last reporter at the Bell Centre as the hardest working man on the press corps, François Gagnon of La Presse, just walked off the press box. That means I've been here way too long, and it's time to call it a night.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Good for Sundin

I'm going to be brief on this, but I think that Mats Sundin did the Canadiens a serious favour by not deciding to come to Montreal.

I'm not talking about last June, or even last August. I'm talking about right now, after the Christmas break, when the team - for better or for worse - is starting to take shape.

While he surely would have helped with the Habs horrid power play and their equally poor faceoff percentage, the arrival of not only Sundin's salary but also his larger-than-life presence would have been a major shake-up in the dressing room. His salary surely would have meant someone was leaving, and who knows what impact his personality would have had in the room.

Guy Carbonneau was pretty clear about his feelings on the matter Friday, saying he didn't think Sundin's drawn out melodrama was fair to the players who were rumoured to be leaving to make room for him under the cap.

Having said that, I believe Carbonneau and Bob Gainey are breathing a huge sigh of relief that Sundin is not heading to Broadway, where he was probably needed most. That team with Sundin, Scott Gomez and Chris Drury down the middle would have become a very difficult out in the playoffs, but that's something the Canadiens won't have to worry about with Sundin out west.

Personally, I'm with a lot of other people on this one that Sundin was a bit of a hypocrite with all his noble talk at the deadline last year about loyalty to the Leafs and not wanting to be a rental player because it cheapens the journey made within a team from training camp onward. I guess that journey is made a little less cheap when you're getting paid $1 million a month.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

This was not the test

Everyone was playing up Thursday night's game against the Flyers as a big test for the Habs, and those people will be very pleased with the 5-2 win.

What's not to be pleased with?

The power play scored two goals and the penalty killing unit was only called upon twice, the streaking Flyers who have been slaughtering everything in their path looked meek, Mike Komisarek looked like he was unleashing a month's worth of rage in one game, Guillaume Latendresse was kidnapped and replaced by some guy wearing his jersey who hits people and drives the net with purpose, and Jaroslav Halak stood tall when the Habs had a bit of a baisse de regime after going up 4-1.

All in all, a very impressive performance, and the only negative is that Andrei Kostitsyn was injured and couldn't finish the contest because he was looking good along with Alex Kovalev and Tomas Plekanec in the reunification of their line.

But in my eyes, this was not the test for the Habs. We've all seen this act before when the Canadiens go into what everyone assumes is an impossible situation - they've almost always found a way.

"It's not very difficult for a coach to prepare for the Flyers," Guy Carbonneau said. "They know they're going to have a tough game, so the players prepare themselves."

In the last 11 games alone, they prepared themselves in Detroit and at home to the Rangers, Flames and now the Flyers. In fact, over those 11 games the Habs have played one of the league's top 10 teams seven times, and came out of it with a very respectable 4-2-1 record.

But it's that 2-2-0 record against the other teams - the ones not among the league's elite, the ones struggling to burrow themselves into one of the last playoff spots - that has me wondering what's going to happen this weekend against Buffalo and Carolina.

Let's face it, this great game will be completely forgotten if the Habs play a couple of stinkers this weekend, and their fans will be hitting the egg nog a little harder over the holiday as a result. The way the Habs simply didn't show up against Tampa, forgot the NHL rules in Carolina and nearly allowed the Atlanta Thrashers to come all the way back from a 3-0 deficit, you have to wonder what the Canadiens will do this weekend against two teams that give them trouble, yet aren't necessarily among the NHL's elite?

Because the Habs haven't established a whole lot of trends this season, but one thing they've made clear is that when they feel challenged, they play. Just like they did Thursday.

Komisarek's re-entry into the lineup appeared to give the whole team an immediate lift, and I feel it allowed Andrei Markov the comfort level to play his game the way he knows how. Komisarek blocked six shots, I think three of them were on a single play, and he generally stabilized matters in his own end. Having Josh Gorges play with Roman Hamrlik instead of mistake-prone Patrice Brisebois or Ryan O'Byrne gave the Habs another pair of reliable defencemen, and Brisebois was a lot better because he only played 15 minutes, and O'Byrne was a lot better because he was in the press box. So Komisarek's return really had a massive impact on the entire defence.

Then there was Latendresse, who was almost a one-man show at times Thursday night. I was happy to see him get that goal in garbage time, because it was a just reward for a guy who finally used his size to his advantage, not only along the boards but going to the net and getting his hands dirty.

"That's what the coaches asked of me, and that's basically why I was taken out of the lineup," Latendresse said. "The coaching staff wants the young guys to push the veterans and that will make the whole team better."

That's essentially what Carbonneau said as well, noting that Latendresse has been very effective the last two games because he's worked hard on the ice.

"That's how we want him to play," he said, "we're not asking for any more than that."

It should be noted that the guys Latendresse played with made it a little easier for him to focus on scoring. Having Maxim Lapierre and Tom Kostopoulos, two strong skaters, alongside him meant Latendresse and his lack of speed wasn't exposed nearly as much.

"They're both crazy (malade) out there, you look up and they're already on the puck," Latendresse said. "We created a lot of chances and if we were more opportunistic we could have had a couple of goals tonight."

Finally, Matt D'Agostini scored another goal, his fifth in nine games, and it could be argued it was the biggest goal of the game because it gave the team a huge confidence boost after a three-game slide, especially when you consider Montreal ran its record to 12-2-3 when scoring first. D'Agostini was all over the place early in the game, creating chances with his speed, hands and an uncanny knack for being in the right spot at the right time.

"He's been amazing from the start," Carbonneau said when asked if it's time D'Agostini should go apartment-hunting in Montreal yet. "I think he's ready for the NHL, and he's making his point right now. It may take him another week, it may take him another month. But he's proving he belongs in this league right now."

Carbonneau said the whole apartment question is not for him to answer, so I would be stunned if D'Agostini doesn't get a little visit from Bob Gainey telling him to start laying down some roots in the city.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Back to where it all began

There are two revivals expected to go down Thursday night at the Bell Centre.

The first is the revival of last year's top unit, as Alex Kovalev skated with Tomas Plekanec and Andrei Kostitsyn at practice Wednesday, and coach Guy Carbonneau essentially said the fortunes of his club ride on whether or not they can find the chemistry they had last year.

"The pressure is now on them to become what they were last year," Carbonneau told reporters after practice. "Our team is going nowhere if our best players aren’t our best players. Those were three important players last year, and they have to become important again."

That really couldn't be more true, because a lot of the lofty predictions made about the Canadiens were not only predicated on that line matching last year's performance, but actually exceeding it because Kostitsyn and Plekanec should be better with an extra year of experience under their belts. As for Kovalev, he's playing for a contract and that was believed to be enough to push him to at least match his production last season, if not push it to greater heights.

Having this line click is really at the heart of everything Carbonneau wanted to do this year because it would have so many positive side effects. It would allow Robert Lang and Alex Tanguay - who skated Wednesday with Matt D'Agostini - to play the secondary scoring role, which is what they were brought in to do. Lang was definitely not expected to lead the team in goals, which is where he sits right now. And it would also bring the power play back into the realm of respectability, which is the biggest reason why the Canadiens are not battling for the best record in the conference right now.

The second revival set for the Bell Centre stage Thursday night is the Canadiens top-six defence, as Mike Komisarek appears set to make his return a little earlier than expected. He still needs clearance from the doctor Thursday, but it sounds as though that will be a formality and he'll be ready to go.

Having him take his rightful place alongside Andrei Markov will slide Josh Gorges down a slot to play the right side with Roman Hamrlik, and Carbonneau says that despite how well Gorges has been playing, we can expect more form him in this role because he will now be more comfortable playing within himself rather than trying to do too much to compensate for Komisarek's absence.

"I think that with Mike back, Josh will be able to play at his best," Carbonneau said, without taking anything away from how he's played in the 16 games Komisarek missed.

If Gorges can take his game up another level, then perhaps that No. 4 defenceman isn't as vital as I and many other people think.

The Habs will be trying to avoid their first four-game losing streak in nearly two years against one of the hotter teams in the league, the hated Philadelphia Flyers, winners of five straight and sporting a 12-1-2 mark in their last 15 games.

The way the Canadiens have shown up for games against teams that appeared to have them over-matched this season, and with the return of Komisarek and last year's top line, I expect the Habs to have a big game Thursday against Philly and snap this losing skid.

Finally, I was happy to hear Carbonneau refuse to take the bait and attack the referees who officiated the debacle in Raleigh on Tuesday night. Though he obviously wasn't happy with their work, he preferred to put the blame on his own guys.

"We’ve been trying to be more disciplined, and last night we weren’t," he said.

That's a refreshing sentiment from a man who spent too much energy his first two years behind the bench berating referees and complaining about them afterwards. Yet another sign that Carbonneau is growing as a coach.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Getting creative with losses

Over the course of this season-high three-game losing streak, the Habs have found three different ways to lose.

Against Tampa last Thursday, the Canadiens simply decided to take the night off.

Against the Capitals on Saturday, the power play was "non-existent" as Montreal couldn't take advantage of five straight Washington penalties, and finished the night 0-for-8.

Finally, in the 3-2 loss Tuesday night in Carolina, the Canadiens lost all sense of discipline, taking stupid penalty after stupid penalty until, by the end of the second period, they had taken 11 in a row.

Think about that a second, 11 penalties in a row. I'm pretty sure I've never seen that before, and if I have, I've never seen it where almost every infraction was so obvious that the referees had no choice but to call it.

I know Guy Carbonneau and the rest of his team are seething at the tandem zebra crew of Fréderick L'Écuyer and Brad Meier, and in a sense they have a right to feel wronged. Because while most of the Canadiens penalties were deserved, I find it hard to believe the Hurricanes did nothing to deserve a trip to the box until 5:33 of the third period.

But that would be taking the focus away from the fact a great majority of those 11 minors in 40 minutes were not only deserved, but blatantly obvious. I just hope Carbonneau, when he watches the tape on the team's charter back to Montreal, can see that his troops were brain dead for much of the night.

Carbonneau said after the game he thought it was one of the better games the Habs had played in a while, but he declined to comment on the 11-1 disparity in power play opportunities when asked.

"It’s amazing to me that, despite the fact they scored three power play goals, we were in the game," Carbonneau said. "I thought we played better than them, we were all over them and they had nothing going unless they were on a power play."

That's great, except the 'Canes were on the power play for 18:10, nearly a full period, and they even had four chances to play 5-on-3. So to say you dominated 5-on-5 when that represented only two thirds of the game is a bit of an empty accomplishment. And when you're consistently taking obvious penalties during those rare even-strength situations, it generally means one team is moving its feet and the other one isn't. That's what the Canadiens did to other teams last year, but the roles were reversed Tuesday night.

The Canadiens cried afterwards that they don't know what is and isn't a penalty anymore, but among the 11 they took, I would say only three were questionable, the Alex Tanguay trip in the first and the two penalties on Guillaume Latendresse in the second.

"One game gets called one way, the next game gets called another way," Alex Kovalev said afterwards. "So you kind of get lost. Today we felt like we couldn’t really touch them."

So if you felt that way, why did you continue doing it? Why tempt fate by giving guys that little tug with the stick? Or that tap on the glove? Shouldn't you adjust after taking four, five, six penalties in a row?

Kovalev snapping his 19-game goal drought, matching the worst of his career, is a positive sign, but once again he had a golden opportunity to tie the game in the dying seconds of regulation and failed to deliver the goods. The chance he had in the slot in the final minute was one he buried with regularity last year, but Cam Ward barely had to move to make the save this time. It was the second game in a row Kovalev blew a chance to tie it late, and those are goals you need from a guy who is supposed to be the team's offensive leader.

But let's try and look on the bright side here, and that side of the story begins with Jaroslav Halak. Once again he played a game he deserved to win, having no chance on any of the goals he allowed except maybe the long slapper by Joe Corvo, and even there he was screened by Eric Staal.

Halak is proving to be more than a capable backup, he's showing that he should be a starting goalie somewhere. Perhaps this little stretch of four games he's played, where's he's allowed nine goals but has stopped 91.7 per cent of the shots he's faced, will entice another GM out there to make a pitch for him and offer up that No.4 defenceman the team needs.

I also felt Tomas Plekanec played one of his better games in a while, and he was rewarded in the third by getting a few shifts with Andrei Kostitsyn and Matt D'Agostini. I would love to see that line used Thursday against the Flyers just to see what it can do and to help Plekanec get his season started.

That's going to be a tough test for the Canadiens on Thursday, and they're going to have to bring everything and leave Tuesday's lack of discipline behind them in North Carolina if they want to avoid their first four-game losing streak since Feb 27 to March 8, 2007.

Monday, December 15, 2008

These Habs will have to figure it out

With the news Monday from TSN that Mats Sundin is apparently going to decide between the New York Rangers and Vancouver Canucks, it's pretty clear that the Montreal Canadiens are going to have to figure this thing out on their own.

Sundin remaining in the picture was the only hope the Habs had of improving the team, because I have trouble envisioning too many trade scenarios out there that would accomplish that.

I'm hearing a lot more fans starting to clamour for a major shake-up of some sort, like trading Alex Kovalev, for instance. But wth the makeup of the team and all the impending free agents right now, there's no reason for another team to take one of those guys off Bob Gainey's hands, at least not in exchange for something of equal immediate value that could be plugged right into the lineup.

Unrestricted free agents generally get traded away for draft picks or prospects, and there are very few instances where that's not the case. One that comes to mind is the Marian Hossa trade last year, where Atlanta was able to pry Colby Armstrong, Erik Christensen and Angelo Esposito out of Pittsburgh. But that situation was unique because Hossa was clearly the most sought-after trade target in the league, and also because he's one of the best players on the planet.

The Canadiens have a lot of good players that could interest teams, but no one with the marketability of a Marian Hossa. So let's say Gainey puts out feelers for what he could get for Kovalev after his slow start to the season. Since Mike Milbury is no longer an NHL GM, I can't see anyone running a team right now that would give up an NHL-ready, impact player in exchange, especially since there would be no guarantee Kovalev will re-sign in the summer.

Same thing goes for Alex Tanguay, Saku Koivu and Robert Lang.

The only potential UFA with any trade value is Mike Komisarek, and I highly doubt Gainey would consider moving him unless the deal presented to him truly blew him away, a deal that would have to include a top-pair defenceman coming back.

Impending restricted free agents like Tomas Plekanec, Christopher Higgins and even Guillaume Latendresse had some pretty decent trade value prior to this season, but that value has gone in the tank as none of those players have done anything this season that would interest a trade partner.

So the Habs and their fans better not be waiting for the cavalry to come in, because it simply isn't.

Well, that's not entirely impossible, but it's very unlikely when it comes to the group of forwards. I still believe Gainey could get a good return for Jaroslav Halak, especially the way he's played the last three games, despite losing two of them. And there is a rich stable of prospects in the system that could be used to entice Jacques Martin to send Jay Bouwmeester to Montreal, but that would go against a deeply-entrenched philosophy Gainey has had from the start to build from within.

Personally, I don't see Gainey doing anything because as dire as some people feel the situation surrounding the team is, I'm not sure he's in desperation mode quite yet.

First of all, the Habs are fifth in the conference with a 16-8-3 record. They've done this with the league's 29th ranked power play and a middle-of-the-pack penalty killing unit, and I can't see the power play being this bad all year. They probably won't lead the league (OK, definitely won't lead the league), but if it were clicking at, say, 15 per cent instead of its current 12.4 per cent, the Habs would have at least a couple more wins and an 18-6-3 record would be nothing to sneeze at.

The second reason is that the Canadiens have survived the loss of Mike Komisarek relatively unscathed, riding a 7-5-3 record in his absence going into Tuesday night's game in Carolina. Going into the year it was generally accepted that the Habs could not afford to lose Komisarek, Andrei Markov or Roman Hamrlik for any extended period of time, but they just did lose one of them and they managed to play better than .500 hockey.

Those two factors tell me that the Canadiens have a lot of improving to do, and there's room to do it. Except that improvement will not come from some external source, but rather from the players and coaches already in place who need to find a way to climb out of this funk they're in.

Saturday, December 13, 2008


That was Guy Carbonneau's answer, his face stern, his voice grave, when asked if he was sending a message by using Maxim Lapierre, Steve Begin and Tom Kostopoulos on the power play in Saturday night's 2-1 loss to the Capitals.

Seemingly, that message didn't get through.

“I don’t think it has anything to do with a message or anything like that,” said Alex Kovalev, who played the point on the power play for the first time this season and didn't really make the world shift. “You get to the point where you have to try different things. They’re all good players, hard-working players, and he decided to try them. Everybody’s got to get a chance.”

I'm sorry, but it was clear to everyone in the building what Carbonneau was trying to do by sending lunch-pail mucker types out on the power play. He was trying to show his regular guys they're not working hard enough, and either Kovalev knows that and doesn't want to admit it, or he's just thick.

I don't think he's a dummy, so I'll give him the benefit of the doubt and say he was standing up for the pluggers, but I'm not sure he and his power play colleagues understood why Carbonneau chose those players in particular.

“You can write whatever you want, right now our power play is non-existent because we get outworked by the opposition,” Carbonneau said.

In case you haven't read it yet, the Habs were 0-for-8 on Saturday and are now 6-for-77 over their last 17 games. That's a whopping 7.8 per cent, and it's gotten to the point the other team thinks it might score when they take a penalty.

“When a team is struggling on the power play the way Montreal is, the more power plays they get _ if they don’t score _ the more they struggle," said Caps coach Bruce Boudreau, one of the most candid and pleasant interviews in the league. “I was just worried they would score early and then all of a sudden the confidence takes over and they get two or three and get back in it. Once they were 0-for-4 and then 0-for-5, I figured we had a chance and if we got another penalty against us we might even score a goal because they’re going to really be holding their stick tight. I think it was the best effort our penalty killers gave all year.”

I don't think Boudreau meant that to be insulting to the Canadiens, but something tells me that once Carbonneau reads that, he won't be very impressed.

But then again, he can't really argue with what Boudreau was saying either.

In their first game without Saku Koivu and without Christopher Higgins, Kovalev was wearing the captain's "C" and while, again, he didn't play horribly, he messed the bed when it counted most. His shot off the post with less than four minutes left in regulation has to go in the net. The goalie, Simeon Varlamov making his NHL debut, was completely out of position and Kovalev had tons of net to shoot at.

But he missed.

Alex Tanguay also hit two goal posts and put a pitching wedge over the net just before Kovalev's post. Those are things that happen when teams are tight, but the Habs can't afford to be tight anymore.

“We keep saying that we had chances, but we have to find a way to bury them, and I don’t care how," Carbonneau said. "We can teach defence, but we can’t teach scoring. We can’t keep scoring just one goal and hoping to be successful in this league. We have guys that need to do that for us. Especially now with the injuries, we need our best players to be our best players every night.”

His best players are playing like rookies right now, putting up the effort yet cramming up when they get an opportunity.

You want adversity?

This is adversity.

Guy Carbonneau loved saying during last year's playoffs that his Canadiens had dealt with their share of adversity during the regular season, but in fact the Habs had few obstacles come in their way prior to the playoffs last year.

This, on the other hand, is real adversity, the kind that tells you what your team is made of.

The news Saturday morning was that Carey Price would be out until at least Christmas, according to RDS, and that he not only had the flu, but he had a lower body injury as well. If indeed Price is unable to play until Dec. 27, the Habs would have four games without their No. 1 guy in nets against Carolina twice, Philadelphia and Buffalo. Not a treacherous schedule by any means, but teams that give the Habs trouble.

Saku Koivu will apparently be out for two weeks with his ankle/foot injury, which means he too should miss those four games, plus a game in Pittsburgh on Dec. 27 and possibly one in Florida two nights later. Of course, that's assuming the Canadiens are being completely forthright about the nature of his injury, which may not be the case.

What makes me say that? Well, when Carbonneau says Christopher Higgins will miss at least a week, but he's seen with his left arm in a sling and the Team 990 is reporting he'll be out at least a month, I feel that's a slap in the face to your fan base. If you don't want to reveal the exact location or nature of an injury, that's fine. But at least be honest with how long your players will be out of action, because that's all the fans really need to know.

When Carbonneau made his plea to the media in last year's playoffs to stop calling his players to find out what their injuries were, he was doing so in order to try and level the playing field. Teams in other markets didn't have the same type of voracious media scrutiny he did, and he thought that was unfair.

The media corps complied, but then we learned that Koivu had been skating on his injured foot while Carbonneau was telling the media he hadn't even tried putting on a skate yet. If you want fairness in one direction, it has to be reciprocated. I remember more that one reporter saying that day the gloves were off, and everyone was fair game again.

I mention all this because I want to give Carbonneau the benefit of the doubt and believe him when he says Koivu will be back in two weeks, or Price will be back after Christmas. Mike Komisarek's imminent return appears to be right on schedule, so that gives me reason to believe the timeline on the other two, but Carbonneau's track record in this area is not very strong.

This is a big test for some of the bigger under-achievers on the Habs right now, and it's clear that the Robert Lang, Alex Kovalev and Alex Tanguay line needs to take the lead and produce some offence. The doghouse line of Tomas Plekanec, Guillaume Latendresse and Sergei Kostitsyn need to show they can be reliable players for this team in the New Year, and in the case of the first two, they need to show something for next season as well.

But in this sort of environment, I think the Ben Maxwell, Matt D'Agostini and Andrei Kostitsyn line may come out looking the best tonight because the expectations are so low and there's little pressure to perform. That's normally when guys perform their best.

Meanwhile, a healthy Washington Capitals squad is in Montreal to face a team they beat 3-0 at home with a lineup that was nine regulars short. The only injury the Capitals need to worry about is in goal, where scheduled starter Jose Theodore didn't make the trip and will be replaced by Simeon Varlamov.

Varlamov is making his first NHL appearance and is considered to be the Capitals goalie of the future, but he wasn't exactly ripping it up with Hershey. The Bears are the best team in the AHL, so Varlamov's 10-3-0 record is no surprise, but his 2.34 GAA and .909 save percentage don't put him among the AHL's elite netminders.

Still, if the Caps are able to light up Jaroslav Halak the way they did Alex Auld in Ottawa on Friday night, Varlamov won't need to be all that good to get a win in the NHL either.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Carbo tables no-confidence motion

So it appears Saku Koivu's ankle/foot injury is not that serious and he shouldn’t miss more than a few games. It seems to me that this would be a perfect opportunity to try and get Tomas Plekanec out of this monumental rut he's in and slot him onto the first line.

But Guy Carbonneau said Friday that Hamilton call-up Ben Maxwell will be the one centring Andrei Kostitsyn and Matt D'Agostini when the Habs take on Alexander Ovechkin and the Washington Capitals at the Bell Centre on Saturday, while Plekanec will stay on the doghouse line with Sergei Kostitsyn and Guillaume Latendresse.

I don't really get this one, other than the fact Maxwell has some chemistry with D'Agostini because they played on the same line in Hamilton. The only reasoning I can see Carbonneau using to justify this decision is that he doesn't want to mess up his other lines.

But I don't think the Plekanec line is worthy of such preservation, and it's a waste of an opportunity to give some confidence to a guy who you know can produce under the right circumstances.

This is not a knock on Maxwell, because I'm excited to see what he can do at this level, and he may very well shine on that line Saturday night and win himself some brownie points with the organization in the process. If Carbonneau is willing to throw Maxwell on to what was the top line with Koivu, I would certainly hope he would be willing to use him on the point on the power play in Robert Lang’s spot.

That’s where Maxwell plays in Hamilton, opposite Yannick Weber on the 11th ranked power play in the AHL at 19.9 per cent. Following the Bulldogs game against the Binghamton Senators at the Bell Centre on Nov. 30, Maxwell told me that he’s played the point on the power play since bantam hockey.

That fact alone should be enough to earn him an audition, seeing as he’s here anyway, and when you throw in the fact that Lang is not exactly the ideal man for the job it makes it a bit of a no-brainer, in my opinion.

But no matter how well Maxwell plays in Koivu’s absence, it is nearly impossible that this will be anything but a cameo appearance in the NHL. While D’Agostini has paid his dues in the minors to earn this shot with the parent club, Maxwell has a lot of learning and, most importantly, a lot of growing to do in Hamilton in his first professional season. Hell, the guy barely needs to shave, so more grooming in the minors will do him a world of good.

But it appears that for at least a game, or it might even be just a period with the Carbonneau juggles his lines midstream, Maxwell will be given every opportunity to show that he can one day step in and be a top-six forward for this team.

The problem I have with that is Plekanec has already shown that ability, and he should at least get a legitimate chance to prove last year wasn’t a fluke.

Time to answer the call

The perplexed look on Guy Carbonneau's face in his post-game press conference was a pretty good reflection of how most anyone who watched Thursday's 3-1 Habs loss to the lowly Tampa Bay Lightning must have been feeling.

How on earth can the Habs so thoroughly dominate a team in the Calgary Flames that should have given them loads of trouble, then fall flat on their faces against a team they should have skated right out of the building Thursday night?

The individual problems with the Habs during this game were too numerous to list here, but they all stem from something that has become a clear trend this season, and that's playing down or up to the level of their opposition.

The Canadiens have had some of their worst performances of the season against the worst teams in the league, even though they didn't all result in losses: a 5-4 win in Long Island and a 4-3 shootout loss against those same Islanders at home; a 6-3 loss in Toronto, Guy Carbonneau's most embarrassing game as a coach; a 3-2 shootout win in St. Louis; a 5-4 win at home against the Thrashers after blowing a three-goal third period lead in the span of 59 seconds; and finally Thursday night's complete no-show against the league cellar-dweller.

Yet this same team is able to waltz into Detroit and hand the defending Cup champs a 3-1 loss, completely spank the Rangers 6-2 and dominate the Flames 4-1.

Legitimate elite teams dictate the pace of their games, they don't rely on their opposition to do it for them. This is something that will definitely need to be corrected if the Canadiens have any hope of being a contender this spring, and it needs to be done soon.

However, the guy in the dressing room who can help the most in that area went down to injury Thursday night, and while Tomas Plekanec can't fill the leadership void that would be left by a prolonged absence for Saku Koivu, he can definitely do his part to try and provide a bit more of a spark in the captain's place.

Of course, it's possible Koivu won't be out for that long, and he might not even miss a game. But if he was too hurt to come back in Thursday, I would have to believe it must be something relatively serious.

This would be a chance for Plekanec to get his season on track, and he desperately needs to seize it. He only has two goals and an assist in his last 16 games, and if you take out his four-point performance in that comeback win on Long Island, he has only nine points all season while playing significant minutes with good linemates.

If Plekanec is able to find his game while eating up some of the minutes made available by a Koivu injury, then it might actually turn out to be a blessing in disguise because it would make the Habs a far better team in the long run.

But if Plekanec turns out not to be up to the task and Koivu's absence triggers a losing streak, that weird faceoff where he appeared to get hurt Thursday could wind up being the biggest play of the Habs season.

And Plekanec might just find himself playing elsewhere next year.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

The Century Club

Well, this is my 100th post on The Daily Hab-It, and I thought I'd take the opportunity to ask people for some feedback, what they like and don't like, what they'd like to see more of, stuff like that. If you don't like the blog I really want to hear from you, and if you do I'd love it if you told some friends about it.

Looking forward to seeing those comments.

Moving on to tonight's game, I won't be at the Bell Centre because my own team, the Dirty Walruses of the Concordia University Intramural Hockey League, has a game in that coveted 10 p.m. time slot. I don't get the chance to play often enough, so I thought I'd pass on the Lightning tonight and work up a sweat.

If the Lightning would care to send a scout to my game they might find someone who could compete for some minutes on Tampa's top-six defence, because it's really a sorry lot.

As far as the Habs go, when I saw the lines for tonight's game I couldn't help but think of something I wrote about back in September. It was concerning how Bob Gainey might want to proceed with the restricted free agent status of Christopher Higgins and Tomas Plekanec. At the time, I wrote that it might be a good idea to sign Higgins early but that in Plekanec's case it might be a better idea to see if he could repeat last season's breakout performance.

A third of the way through the season, and neither Higgins nor Plekanec are playing their way into lucrative contracts for next season. With Higgins on the shelf for the second time this year, his numbers and overall impact on the game have been pretty disappointing thus far when he's been healthy. Plekanec shows flashes of his former self, but it hasn't resulted in the production expected of him.

Neither player is struggling due to a lack of effort, and in Higgins' case I would say he's even trying too hard. That, to me, should be a big warning sign for Gainey because if there is one thing that has marked Higgins' career so far, it is his inability to forget a poor performance and move on to the next game. One bad game for him often times stretches into three or four because he tries to over-compensate more and more every time out. And when that becomes a full-blown slump, his look of exhausted misery in the dressing room after games and practices tells you all you need to know about how hard he takes it.

Higgins said prior to training camp that was one thing he wanted to work on this season, but he doesn't appear to have solved the problem.

Plekanec is truly a competitive guy and wants to succeed, but his problem so far this season has been the same one he identified in last year's playoffs, when he said he was playing "like a little girl." Of course, that was an exaggeration, but Plekanec often takes outside routes to the net which leaves him out of high-percentage scoring areas. He enters the zone with lots of speed, but then doesn't use that speed to challenge defenders into making a mistake, often letting them off the hook by trying to beat them outside. That might work against the Lightning tonight, but it won't against real, NHL-calibre defencemen.

Plekanec's linemate tonight is also playing for a contract next season, and Guillaume Latendresse has not done himself any favours with his play so far. He's been given every chance to succeed other than a permanent spot on the power play, yet he's squandered every opportunity given to him. Outside of a four-game point streak from Oct. 11-18, the Golden Boy has a goal and an assist this season.

Latendresse said in the pre-season that he drew inspiration watching Tomas Holmstrom and that he felt he "can make a living being around that net." Then again yesterday, Latendresse mentioned how he needed to "go hard to the net and stay there." Well, he hasn't done it on a consistent basis his entire time in Montreal, and he'd better start doing it tonight after a four-game forced rest or else his return to the lineup could be a short one.

There has to be some sense of urgency hitting each of Higgins, Plekanec and Latendresse, because I would imagine all three of them want to stay here next year and with all the unrestricted free agents Gainey has to sign, that might not be in the cards.

A third of the way through the season, one of the three needs to step up and make it impossible for Gainey to say no at the negotiating table in June.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

A headline would be nice

Wow, you spend a few days away from the blog, and suddenly I forget the two most important things a game report should include: a headline and the score.

I'll get the hang of this reporting thing one of these years.

Anyhow, Guy Carbonneau delivered the bad news after the Habs 4-1 win over the Flames on Tuesday that Christopher Higgins would be going for an MRI on whatever it is he hurt (looked to be a shoulder) on Wednesday morning, while Mathieu Dandenault has a broken arm and is gone "for a while."

How many people remember that play when Patrice Brisebois looked like he'd broken his arm and slowly skated all the way to the bench while the New York Islanders went on a free power play for about 30 seconds? Brisebois didn't miss a shift.

Dandenault didn't leave the ice after breaking that arm of his, he stayed and tried to defend the front of the net, taking an extra cross-check for his effort from the guy that broke his arm in the first place, Dustin Boyd. He will likely miss a few months.


Carbonneau says no call ups are imminent from Hamilton to replace Dandenault on defence, and that Ryan O'Byrne will be making his re-entrance into the top-six Thursday night against Tampa.

"That's why we have Ryan O'Byrne," he said. "His chance is there and I'm sure he'll come back and play well."

I was interested to hear Mike Keenan's assessment of things from the Flames perspective, and he hit it right on the head when he credited the Canadiens "trap" for creating chances off counter-attacks. I asked him if, like me, he's surprised to see a team loaded with talented guys like the Habs use the trap, and Keenan said something I hadn't thought of before.

"They have a lot of European hockey players on their hockey team, and that's how European hockey players play," Keenan said. "They play the trap and live off the counter."

OK, so maybe Carbonneau is actually adapting to his players by instituting this no forecheck system, one that apparently suits "European players." Could it be that using a trap system is evidence of Carbonneau's growth as a coach? I don't know, but it's hard to argue with that 5-1-1 record ever since he decided to go with no forecheckers in Detroit.

"The way we're playing defensively right now, I think we can beat anybody," Carbonneau said. "It's easier to sell these things to your players when you have results."

It's also easier to sell it to skeptical bloggers as well, though I'm not completely on board. Yet.

Carbonneau also deserves some credit for not only throwing Alex Tanguay with Robert Lang and Alex Kovalev, a line that combined for seven points, but also recognizing how effective they were early on and sending them over the boards often.

Kovalev played 21:36, most among Habs forwards, while Tanguay was second-highest with 19:36. And Tanguay had trouble hiding his satisfaction with shoving this performance down Keenan's throat after the game.

"Hamrlik and I put enough money on the board that it'll buy a nice dinner," Tanguay said, referring to the tradition of guys putting up some loot as incentive to beat their former team.

Keenan, however, wasn't nearly as chatty about watching his former whipping boy light it up against him. When asked what he thought of Tanguay and Kovalev's line, Keenan responded curtly, "not much," and walked away from reporters.

That reaction says way more on that line's performance, in my opinion, than anything Carbonneau or Tanguay or Lang or Kovalev could say about their own games. If the line starts to click, and Matt D'Agostini and Andrei Kostitsyn continue to shine next to Saku Koivu, that gives Carbonneau two very solid scoring lines to work around.

That third line is the one that could have an opening Thursday night with Higgins seemingly needing at least that long to recover. Sergei Kostitsyn inherited that spot after Higgins went down, and Carbonneau gave him a passing grade for his return after a three-game stint in the doghouse.

"We just want effort," Carbonneau said. "Obviously we're looking for results down the line, but what I want is effort every game. Hopefully the lesson of not playing the last couple of games will pay off for us."

In terms of effort and results, I thought Sergei was pretty below average considering he'd been a healthy scratch for three nights. But I also hate this trap thing the Habs have been using, the same system that has produced a 5-1-1 record in seven games. So what do I know.
Obviously, no one in their right minds wants to see a teammate get injured, let alone two. But when Christopher Higgins and Mathieu Dandenault left the XX-XX win over the Calgary Flames on Tuesday night with apparent shoulder injuries, I couldn't help but wonder what Guillaume Latendresse and Ryan O'Byrne were thinking.

Because let's be honest, the way the Habs played Tuesday night the only way those two guys had any hope of re-entering the lineup was via an injury. Assuming Dandenault can't return in time for Thursday's game against the rock-bottom Tampa Bay Lightning, I don't see how O'Byrne is not dressed, especially when you consider the opposition.

In Latendresse's case, it's not quite as clear. Guy Carbonneau will obviously not be taking Matt D'Agostini out of the lineup anytime soon as he scored another beuaty Tuesday and went to the net with a purpose, which is something Latendresse for whatever reason refuses to do.

Carbonneau could opt for Georges Laraque to take Higgins' spot and keep Sergei Kostitsyn on that line with Tomas Plekanec and Tom Kostopoulos, even though the younger Kostitsyn did nothing Tuesday to really deserve that.

Of course, I'm losing sight here of what really mattered Tuesday night, and that was a real shut-down performance against one of the league's hottest teams. Alex Kovalev needed a bounce back game after that horrendous penalty on Saturday, and even though his goal drought extended to 17 games I thought he put on a great performance.

Robert Lang took over the team's goal lead with his ninth and 10th of the year while Alex Tanguay also had a spirited contest against his former team and nemesis Mike Keenan.

As much as I hate it, the Canadiens are now 5-1-1 ever since Carbonneau decided to go with a no-forecheck, muck-up the neutral zone, boring-as-hell trap system. It is indeed creating turnovers and more scoring chances, though I still contend it doesn't use the Canadiens speed to its full potential.

But you can't really argue with success, and that system appears to have gotten the Canadiens out of their funk and on their way towards the top of the standings.

AK27 needs to respond

Sorry for the prolonged absence from the blog, I had a Saturday away from hockey and then some personal matters came up, but I'm back tonight blogging from the Flames game.

I didn't get a chance to see the game against the Devils on Saturday night except for the third period, and one thing I did see was the penalty Alex Kovalev took in the dying seconds of regulation. Unlike a lot of other people in this town, I haven't ripped Kovalev yet for his lack of production because I felt he'd been playing pretty well. But that penalty was inexcusable.

You've got to know game situations, especially a veteran like Kovalev, and he let his own personal frustration take precedence over the team on that play.

That's what makes tonight's game of the utmost importance for #27, because I don't think his teammates are all that pleased with him right now and a big performance tonight could put him back in their good graces.

I'll have a blog up immediately after the game, and another with some post-game reaction later.

It's good to be back folks.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

That missing spark

It's only three games, but it's impossible to ignore the impact Matt D'Agostini's arrival from Hamilton has had on the Canadiens.

D'Agostini was named the game's first star Thursday night with his second goal in as many games and a great assist on Andrei Kostitsyn's sixth of the year that opened the scoring.

But more importantly, putting him on a line with Kostitsyn and Saku Koivu led to Guy Carbonneau creating the three other lines that put a 6-2 beat down on a very lame New York Rangers team. And right now those lines are clicking, perhaps with the exception of Robert Lang, Alex Kovalev and Christopher Higgins. But when that's your worst line, and they still produce a pretty sweet goal, then things are going pretty well.

"When you bring a player up (from the minors), he has to seize that opportunity, and that's what he's doing," Carbonneau said of D'Agostini. "He's playing excellent hockey."

Later, he added, "I was looking for a spark, some energy, and he's given us that."

I can't really imagine what Guillaume Latendresse and especially Sergei Kostitsyn were thinking watching that performance. I say especially Sergei because he's the one who can get sent down to Hamilton without clearing waivers, and if D'Agostini keeps playing like this I don't see how that won't happen when Mike Komisarek trades in his coach's tie for a uniform sometime around Christmas.

"Is it a problem for other people, or for me? Of course," Carbonneau said. "But it's never a problem when you have good players coming in and playing well. It just puts pressure on other people to perform."

Of course, this modest three-game winning streak the Habs have put together can't all be credited to D'Agostini, but his arrival did lead to the current lineup being put in place, and has also made Kostitsyn very dangerous. Their little give and go to open the scoring in the first showed that there's some chemistry developing there.

Tomas Plekanec looks like a new player alongside Alex Tanguay and an extremely effective Tom Kostopoulos, who all of a sudden has soft hands and a scorer's mentality playing with two skilled players. He might have had his best game in a Canadiens uniform Thursday night, and I thought he warranted a mention in the three stars, though you can't really argue with Maxim Lapierre and Steve Begin.

"Alex is someone who has vision, has skills and can finish, and Tomas is the same thing," Carbonneau said. "But someone has to go in the corner and dig out the puck, and get on the boards and get in front of the net with two guys on his back so the other guys can get open. He's done that well."

Meanwhile, the fourth line of Lapierre, Begin and Georges Laraque has played great for the last two games, and I think Carbonneau's decision to sit Begin and Lapierre earlier this year has really lit a fire under them.

On defence, Josh Gorges was a plus-4 Thursday with three blocked shots and he single-handedly snuffed out a few dangerous looking rushes when the game still wasn't a blowout in the second, while his partner Andrei Markov is looking like the guy who started the season on such a tear. Mathieu Dandenault blocked a team-high five shots and was credited with three hits Thursday, though he and Francis Bouillon were the only minus players Thursday at minus-1.

The only complaint defensively I would have is that Patrice Brisebois is looking pretty tired, but I can't see him getting a rest as long as the team keeps winning. Thursday was his 11th straight game and he played nearly 20 minutes, which is definitely not the role he was supposed to fill.

It's easy to forget, and I do it quite often, but Carey Price allowed two or fewer goals for the eighth time in nine starts, and the only reason it's not nine in a row is that his teammates fell asleep for a minute on Tuesday.

Put all that together, and the Habs look like they may have found a way to climb out of that haze and start to build something promising, though they're not there yet. But Thursday was a huge step.

"It was good for the team," Carbonneau said. "We had seen over the past coupe of weeks that we were playing a lot better defensively, but our offence wasn't clicking and I think there was some frustration there. To have a game like tonight where everybody was able to get involved and get that monkey off their back, I think it's a good sign for us."

Over in the other locker room, Rangers goalie Henrik Lundqvist had half his goalie pads off and was staring at the ground. He looked devastated with what had just happened to his team.

"I am so disappointed," he said, in a tone that was more than simply de-moralized. "It's mind-boggling how we can be so good in one game (a 3-2 shootout win over the Penguins at MSG on Wednesday) and then fall completely apart in another. That's why we have a long way to go to be a top team, we're just not consistent enough."

The Rangers came into the Habs game with the most points in the East, though they had played three more games than any other team. But Lundqvist's reaction, including his refusal to talk about a heated discussion he had with Scott Gomez after Tanguay's goal in the first, tells you that the Habs were even more dominant than the score indicated.

It remains to be seen whether that was because the Habs were so good or the Rangers were so bad, but I think it's more the former than the latter.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Kristo and McDonagh make US Junior team

Canadiens prospects Ryan McDonagh and Danny Kristo have been named to the U.S. junior national team.

McDonagh, who was recently named an assistant captain in only his sophomore year playing for the University of Wisconsin Badgers, was a controversial cut from last year's team, so his inclusion this year is no shocker.

But Kristo has to be a bit of surprise considering he's got another year of eligibility remaining, and he's the only the guy on the team who isn't playing either collegiate or major junior hockey. Playing for the Omaha Lancers of the United States Hockey League - the equivalent of Major Junior in Canada - Kristo just signed his letter of intent to play for the Fighting Sioux at the University of North Dakota next season.

Kristo's got six goals and 11 assists in 17 games with Omaha this year, playing in the same league that Max Pacioretty ripped up before playing a single season at Michigan University and then signing his first pro contract. Kristo's point-a-game pace looks pretty nice, but it doesn't tell the whole story because he's been on a tear of late with five goals and six assists in his last eight games.

It's looking like Trevor Timmins and his crew have unearthed another gem from Minnesota, and without the benefit of a first round pick either. Kristo is looking like a steal at 56th overall. Here's what HockeysFuture.com had to say about him prior to the draft.

Remember the good old days...

...when the Canadiens used to forecheck? I do, and it was fun to watch.

I don't profess to know anything about hockey as it's played at the NHL level, and I try to avoid questioning decisions of a tactical nature because, frankly, it's not really my place.

Having said that, I'm just wondering whether this decision by Guy Carbonneau to go with a no forecheck system is utilizing his team's number one asset to its fullest potential.

That asset would be speed, and the Habs have it up and down the roster, probably more than any other team in the East, if not the league. When you have speed like that, am I the only one who feels it's being wasted somewhat by having five guys in the neutral zone?

I kind of understood the move playing against Detroit, because you can have five forecheckers and it wouldn't bother a guy like Nicklas Lidstrom or Brian Rafalski more than an annoying fly would.

But against the Thrashers? Aside from the top pair of Garnet Exelby and Ron Hainsey - who aren't all-stars by any stretch, but are still pretty decent - the Thrashers defence was ripe for the picking last night. It seemed to me that just the slightest bit of pressure from a Canadiens forward would have forced a turnover, or at the very least forced an icing. Guys like Nathan Oystrick and Boris Valabik aren't exactly known for their poise with the puck. In fact, they aren't exactly known, period.

So why give those guys a free pass last night? Why not unleash that forecheck and see what happens? I realize I'm harping on a system that did provide the Habs with a 3-0 lead last night and a 3-1 win in Detroit, but I can't help but feel this is a system teams fall back on when they don't have much talent.

The Canadiens have tons of talent - underachieving talent for the time being, but talent nonetheless - and I just wonder what would happen if Carbonneau decided to send two forecheckers instead of pulling back the only forechecker he was using before.

The one thing I will say about the zero forecheck strategy is that it essentially eliminates any chance of the opponent entering your zone with speed gathered on neutral ice, which was a big problem earlier in the season. But wouldn't a fast-skating team rather dictate the pace of play and force the other team to try and keep up with them, rather than slowing the game down to the opposition's level?

Again, I've never coached a hockey game in my life, and if you saw me play you would think I have a lot of nerve questioning the hockey IQ of someone like Guy Carbonneau, but that's what I think. And I would venture to guess that a bunch of the guys in his dressing room might think the same thing.

Thursday night against the Rangers, it would appear Carbonneau has decided to stick with the same lineup as Tuesday's win over the Thrashers, and I commend him for that. A lot has been said about the absence of Guillaume Latendresse and Sergei Kostitsyn over the past couple of days, and it would have been easy for Carbonneau to try to stick one or both of them back in the lineup. But he's stuck to his guns and is willing to deal with the media firestorm, something he said today he's growing quite tired of.

I feel for Carbonneau in that part of what he's saying about the media environment here is true, that a lot of energy is wasted talking about day-to-day decisions because of the fact that the Habs are the only show in town. But I would also counter that the media would not be so obsessive about every little detail regarding the team if there was no demand for that kind of information.

That demand comes from the people who, ultimately, pay Carbonneau's and all of his players salaries. While some would say the opinions of fans are shaped by the media - and there is definitely some truth to that - I think most Canadiens fans have enough hockey savvy to form their own opinions. That's the nature of hockey in Montreal, and if there's one guy who should know that, it's Guy Carbonneau.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Lesson learned?

Canadiens head coach Guy Carbonneau tried to sugar coat Tuesday's 5-4 "win" over the Atlanta Thrashers and look at the positives of the game.

That should tell you everything you need to know about the state of his team, because under similar circumstances last year Carbonneau would have blown his lid after watching the Thrashers score three goals in a franchise-record 59 seconds to erase a 3-0 third period deficit.

He wouldn't have cared that Andrei Kostitsyn scored the go-ahead goal at 14:49, completing a three-point night, or that the Habs have now won two in a row and three of four. When given the opportunity, he would have bashed that 59 seconds far worse that simply calling it a "brain cramp."

When I asked if that lapse took away any of the momentum the team may have built in playing so well - albeit against a horrific team - for two periods, Carbonneau didn't bite. I was stunned.

"We did some really good things," Carbonneau answered. "There was a minute there, a minute out of 60. We scored a power play goal, which was good. We scored more than two goals, which is another good thing. For the first 40 minutes I think we only gave them two or three scoring chances. So we did some good things and we just need to keep building on it."

All that is true, and I think Carbonneau was being just a little sarcastic, but if his crew was running on all cylinders he would have ripped them a new one there. Especially considering it was Georges Laraque simply not going on the ice on a line change that led to the first goal for the Thrashers, and Ron Hainsey's point shot came from the exact spot Laraque would have been covering were it not for the fact he was sitting on the bench doing God knows what.

Thankfully, not everyone in the Habs entourage drinks the same Kool-Aid as Carbonneau, and Tomas Plekanec was able to at least acknowledge that sometimes, two points isn't simply two points.

"It's definitely unfortunate what happened in that third period," he said. "If we played solid the way we did in the first two periods for 60 minutes it would definitely be a better feeling for everybody in this room. Everybody's obviously happy about the two points, but the way we got it, it's not pretty."

So the Canadiens are now 2-0 on this seven-game homestand and have won three of their last four, but can anyone really say this team is streaking? That it's playing to its potential? That it's hot? I certainly can't, and I would imagine there aren't too many of the guys wearing red Tuesday night who can either.

The Thrashers dressed guys named Nathan Oystrick, Joseph Crabb and Boris Valabik, they had Ilya Kovalchuk playing on a line with pluggers Marty Reasoner and Chirs Thorburn, they had a goalie who came into the game with a 3.88 GAA and an .880 save percentage. Yet the Canadiens managed to escape by the skin of their teeth with a win.

But, if we must, let's look at the positives, and the number one bright spot was the possible awakening of Andrei Kostitsyn. His goal and two assists gives him five points in two games, nearly matching his seven-point output from his first 20 games.

Kostitsyn mentioned how he's felt more comfortable the past two games, but Carbonneau claimed some credit for this mini-revival.

"I would like to think the reason goes back two games ago when I put him on the fourth line and he didn't play much," Carbonneau said. "The last two games he's playing like the player we want to see every game. He's involved, he's skating, he's getting pucks on net. I think if you ask him which player he wants to be, it's the one we just saw."

Kostitsyn's line with Saku Koivu and Matt D'Agostini was easily the best of the night, but Carbonneau is going to wait an see how long it lasts before falling in love with it.

"Every time we've tried to light a fire under guys it’s worked, but only for a short period of time," Carbonneau said. "The line with Saku, Andrei and Matt D’Agostini played well the whole game, they were involved defensively and offensively. Tomas' line played well and so did Robert's, we just hope it keeps going."

But in order for it to keep going, Carbonneau has to show some patience and give the lines that produce some leeway if they have a bad period or two.

"It’s a surprise for everybody," Kostitsyn said of the constant line shifting. "You come to practice and you don’t know what line you are playing on. Coach puts the lines (out), you can't say I don't want to play with this player."

What will happen now with Sergei Kostitsyn and Guillaume Latendresse? Do they sit out another game? If they come back against the Rangers on Thursday, where will they be slotted? It's questions like these the Habs players must be asking, and Carbonneau says that's just how he likes it.

"(The lines) will stabilize if we keep winning," Carbonneau said. "If they come to the rink and they have to think a little bit more, maybe that's a good thing. You can't get bored."

One thing's for sure, the Habs definitely kept things interesting against a Thrashers team that had no business being in the game. If they pull the same stunt Thursday night, they'll be right back where they started.

Try a little (less) tenderness

Sergei Kostitsyn being relegated to the press box was no big surprise, but Guy Carbonneau likely caused a brain aneurysm or two among the Montreal media today when he announced that Guillaume Latendresse will be joining Sergei for tonight's game with the Atlanta Thrashers.

I've got to admit I like listening to sports talk radio because it gives me a sense of what fans are feeling, and I try to get a good sampling in both French and English. Over the past few weeks I've noticed the same polar opposite opinions regarding Latendresse on each side of our linguistic divide - excuses from the French side and over-the-top trade demands from the English side.

Just last week, I listened to 45 minutes of callers complaining on CKAC that Latendresse isn't being used properly by Carbonneau, that he just needs a chance, that he does other valuable things on the ice despite his poor numbers and, this one's the kicker, that Carbonneau has something against Quebec-born players.

Latendresse has shown some degree of development this season in that he's hitting people again, which is why he made the team out of junior in the first place. That, admittedly, is a valuable commodity on this team.

But Latendresse was expected to do more this year, and Carbonneau said as much in training camp when he proclaimed that he had a job among the top nine forwards and would be counted on to provide offence this season.

In his first seven games Latendresse received at least 14 minutes of ice time six times, and the one time he didn't was his most productive game of the year with a goal and two helpers in a 6-1 win in Toronto. That game launched a four-game point streak for Latendresse as he rode shotgun with Saku Koivu and Alex Tanguay.

But if you wipe that four-game stretch off the books, Latendresse has a goal and an assist this season with a minus-3 rating, and that's simply not good enough. His legion of apologists will say that he hasn't received time on the power play, and therefore isn't getting a fair shot. After all, he only has one fewer point that both Kostitsyn brothers, and they see tons of power play minutes.

I would counter that both of them showed last year they can be effective players on the power play, but Latendresse's continued unwillingness to plant himself in the goalie's kitchen and take abuse is what keeps him from getting those special teams minutes. That's all the more disappointing because Latendresse said earlier this year he wanted to pattern himself after Tomas Holmstrom and become that immovable object in front for the Habs, but his tendency to drift into the high slot waiting for a one-timer instead of just wreaking havoc in front remains unchanged.

This is not to say that Latendresse will not one day become an effective player, because he still might. To those people who would love to see him sent down to Hamilton I can guarantee you one thing - he would never clear waivers because any team would grab a 230-pound, 21-year-old with soft hands in an instant.

The unfortunate part of this decision is that while I think Sergei may get a wakeup call, Latendresse may simply begin further questioning himself. He's already not the most instinctive player on the team, and I'm beginning to wonder if anyone on the coaching staff has told him what exactly they expect from him.

It's a pretty simple formula: continue the strong play along the wall, but add a good dose of net presence to your repertoire. Doing it is not difficult, it's the willingness to do it that's the tough part. Otherwise every team would have a Holmstrom, or a Ryan Smyth, but they don't.

The Canadiens were hoping to have a guy like that this year, but that guy will be sitting in the press box tonight.