Sunday, November 30, 2008

What an audition

The Canadiens front office brass were all there Sunday night as the Hamilton Bulldogs got a rare opportunity to make an impression on the ones they all hope to one day count as their future employers.

Perhaps no one on the Bulldogs roster fills a need with the parent club better than Swiss-born defenceman Yannick Weber, and did he ever take advantage of the opportunity presented to him.

Weber's two goals Sunday night in a 5-3 loss to the Binghamton Senators each came on the power play, and they both came on shots from the back end.

The first was on a two-man advantage, and his one-timer on a feed from team captain Kyle Chipchura was a rocket from the right point that Baby Sens goalie Brian Elliott barely saw, let alone having any chance of stopping it.

Note those words: "one timer" and "right point." How many goals have the Habs scored from that spot this season? Not many, if any.

His second goal came when Brock Trotter fanned on a Ryan White feed, but the puck just sat there for Weber drifting into the zone. He quickly let go of a snap shot that Elliott had no chance to stop because he had already committed to Trotter's potential chance.

Weber was pretty composed after the game while facing questions about his future in Montreal and his performance in front of not only GM Bob Gainey, but assistant GM Pierre Gauthier, Bulldogs GM Julien Brisebois and scouting director Trevor Timmins.

"I know they're watching, but it doesn't really change much as far as my game," Weber said. "I'm lucky that at this time, in this building, I got two goals."

The timing was indeed good, as it was for fellow training camp poster boy Max Pacioretty, who scored a beauty of a goal late in the third to cut the Bulldogs deficit to 4-3. He picked up a puck in the neutral zone, crossed the blue line and turned Baby Sens defenceman Neil Peutric inside out before flipping a backhand past Elliott.

Pacioretty had a rough start in Hamilton with only an assist in his first seven games, but in the 15 games since he has three goals and 10 assists.

"After being sent down you have to prove to yourself and to everyone else that you belong up there (in the NHL)," Pacioretty said. "I think I lost sight of that."

Playing in front of 14,446 at the Bell Centre was a special treat for Pacioretty and his teammates, and it brought the rookie who just turned 20 on Nov. 20 back to those moments of glory he had in training camp.

"I thought I remembered what it was like," Pacioretty said. "But it's the most unbelievable feeling in the world playing in this building."

While those two had a good night, I was also impressed with centres Ben Maxwell and Ryan White.

Maxwell was centring a line with Pacioretty and AHL veteran Mike Glumac, and he's been manning the left point opposite Weber on the Bulldogs power play.

He says he's played that spot since he was in bantam hockey, and judging by how he was able to move the puck Sunday he appears very comfortable there.

I asked him after the game if he'd been following the Canadiens struggles with the man advantage this season, most notably on the blue line.

"That's a pretty tough power play to crack," was Maxwell's first response.

Maybe it was at the beginning of the season, but not right now as Guy Carbonneau appears willing to try just about anything to get the power play going.

White, meanwhile, showed more Sunday than he did in all of training camp. He made smart passes, played a physical game and was used in all situations centring Trotter and Yanick Lehoux.

On the discouraging side of things is the continued slide of Marc Denis. He started the season on a tear, allowing as many as three goals only four times in his first 11 starts. But since then, he's allowed that many in six of seven starts, with a save percentage of .879 over that span.

"The goalie usually goes as the team goes," Denis said, a sentiment that was echoed by Bulldogs coach Don Lever, who says the guys in front of him haven't been very strong of late.

To be fair, Denis had absolutely no chance on three of the five goals he gave up Sunday night, so maybe he has been better than his numbers indicate.

When Denis was single-handedly winning games for the Bulldogs earlier this season, it appeared as though his troubles with the Tampa Bay Lightning were a thing of the past and he could step in as a backup to Carey Price if Gainey saw fit to trade Halak for some help on the blue line.

Denis doesn't have to clear waivers to come back from Hamilton, and Halak could be an attractive piece of a package the Habs could put together to fill that hole in the No. 4 defenceman's spot.

But regardless of how much support he hasn't been receiving from his teammates, a guy with a save percentage south of .900 for any significant period of time in the AHL is not quite ready for the big time, so maybe Denis isn't all the way back to form just yet.

Another d-man on the block?

The Ottawa Sun's Bruce Garrioch reports today that Hurricanes defenceman Joe Corvo could be available in a salary-slashing move for Carolina GM Jim Rutherford.

I'm not a huge fan of reporting on rumours, especially ones that don't even cite anonymous sources, let alone an actual person with a name. But if Corvo is indeed available he may be worth a look for Habs GM Bob Gainey, assuming of course he's not also in salary-slashing mode in an attempt to squeeze Mats Sundin under the cap.

Corvo has another year left on his contract at $2.75 million per, but his cap hit is a shade lower at $2.625 million. The Habs have a bit under $2 million in available space right now, and sending an impending free agent like Mathieu Dandenault along with a pick or prospect back to Carolina in the deal would take care of that.

Is Corvo worth the trouble? Not sure, but he had 48 points in 74 games last season, including 21 points in 23 games after being traded to Carolina from Ottawa in February.

And one more thing: he's a right-handed shot.

He would appear to me to be the ideal solution to the fourth defenceman problem on the Habs, and would instantly make the top-six quite formidable when Mike Komisarek returns because Josh Gorges would slide back down to the third pairing with Francis Bouillon while continuing his role as an elite penalty-killer.

Again, I'm not sure if Corvo is in fact available, but it could be worth a little fact-checking phone-call from Gainey.

Saturday, November 29, 2008

One Kostitsyn rising, one falling

Sergei Kostitsyn really doesn't have a great sense of timing.

While Matt D'Agostini was playing his first NHL game of the season, freshly called up from Hamilton, the younger Kostitsyn brother had two real bonehead moments during Saturday's 3-2 Habs win over the Buffalo Sabres.

I don't think I need to tell any of you that Sergei is one of the only players on the team that can be sent to Hamilton without clearing waivers, and he did nothing to prevent that from one day happening with his three penalties in Saturday's game.

One of the penalties wasn't so bad, it came as a result of working hard in a battle for the puck and he wound up tripping his man in the process. No coach in his right mind would reprimand a young player for that kind of infraction.

But his offensive zone slash in the first - which led to the game's opening goal for Buffalo, one of two deficits the Habs would erase on the night - and his offensive zone slash in the third were beyond selfish. They were stupid.

Guy Carbonneau, Kirk Muller and Doug Jarvis were not only hard-working players, they were all intelligent players who understood game situations. Sergei Kostitsyn seemingly doesn't, and Saturday night's transgressions were not isolated incidents. The kid has been taking dumb retaliation penalties all year, and getting benched for the rest of the final period Saturday after serving his third minor of the night, it wouldn't surprise me in the least to see him in the press box Tuesday night.

The fact D'Agostini is now in the picture and, while he didn't set the world on fire, had a pretty good game Saturday puts the younger Kostitsyn in a precarious position.

But his older brother appeared to solidify his standing in the coach's good books with his performance Saturday, and it's in all likelihood because he was playing on a line with Sergei. If only Sergei could stay out of the penalty box, imagine what these two could accomplish.

I'll admit that often times they are too focused on finding each other on the ice, and that sometimes that results in a stupid pass. But Andrei's play becomes so much more aggressive, so much more involved, just so much more everything when he plays with his brother.

Ironically enough, Saturday may also have been the night that Guy Carbonneau found his trigger man on the right point of the power play, with Andrei getting an audition there in place of Sergei. It's a wonderful idea because Andrei probably has the best shot on the team, and he's not shy to let it go.

I'd be interested to see how he did under the increased pressure of a conventional 5-on-4 power play, rather than the two-minute 5-on-3 of his audition, but he's worth a try in that spot.

Finally, the Habs have something to build on with a tough, double comeback victory. But that's what they must do now, build on it. With the lowly Atlanta Thrashers coming in Tuesday night, it's very possible the Habs will play down to their level, much like they believed they'd have an easy go of it against the injury-depleted Capitals Friday night.

With a seven-game homestand in front of them, the Habs have a good opportunity to establish their first long string of consistent, high-energy, intelligent hockey. Should they grab that opportunity, they could possibly ride it right into the spring.

If they waste it, this roller coaster ride could very well continue all season.

Friday, November 28, 2008

Mr D'Agostini sits in Washington

If the lines from the morning skate, as reported by La Presse's François Gagnon, are maintained tonight then Matt D'Agostini will not be dressed against the Washington Capitals.

Gagnon reports the lines will be as follows:

A. Kostitsyn – Plekanec – Kovalev
Latendresse – Lang – S. Kostitsyn
Bégin – Lapierre – Dandenault

Markov – Gorges
Hamrlik – O’Byrne
Bouillon – Brisebois

Halak in nets

I have trouble understanding why D'Agostini would not be given a shot on Koivu's right side. Kostopoulos actually played pretty well there against Detroit, but he is not blessed with great hands, nor is Christopher Higgins. D'Agostini appears to be a guy cut from the same mold as Michael Ryder - has a quick, heavy shot but playing without the puck is not his specialty. A spot on the same line as Higgins - who excels without the puck - seems like a natural fit, and getting his feet wet in the low-pressure environment of Washington seemed like a perfect opportunity to see what D'Agostini can offer.

While I'm a bit perplexed with Guy Carbonneau's decision on this, starting Jaroslav Halak in nets doesn't seem to me to be such a ridiculous idea. There are some who would say playing him against Atlanta on Tuesday makes far more sense, but Halak had to play one of these back-to-back games, and why not get him in there while the Habs are playing well defensively, and on the road? Carbo would never admit this, but he does his best to make sure his No. 1 guy is tending goal at the Bell Centre for those demanding fans.

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Mr. D'Agostini Goes to Washington

Well, I guess that means Alex Tanguay is a no-go for Friday night's game. This becomes a nice opportunity for Matt D'Agostini to show he can get it done at the NHL level, but I hope he's given more than this one game as an audition. I'm not sure what the cap implications would be, but I don't see why the Habs don't keep him up with them until Mike Komisarek comes off injured reserve. At worst, he provides a little push to guys like Sergei Kostitsyn and Guillaume Latendresse and others, at best he blossoms and earns a permanent spot on one of the top three lines. With the way this team is scoring goals right now, it's worth a shot.

Here's the press release, received at 7:25 p.m.:


MONTREAL (November 27, 2008) – The Montreal Canadiens announced tonight that forward Matt D’Agostini has been recalled from the Hamilton Bulldogs of the American Hockey League. He will join the team on Friday morning, and will attend the club’s practice at Verizon Center in Washington.

D’Agostini, 22, leads the Bulldogs in scoring, and ranks 3rd in the AHL with 25 points in 20 games (14 goals, 11 assists). He leads the club in goals (14), powerplay goals (5) and shots on goal (64). He also served 16 penalty minutes.

D’Agostini (6’00, 200 pounds), a right winger from Sault-Ste-Marie, Ontario was selected in the sixth round by the Canadiens, 190th overall in the 2005 NHL Entry Draft. He played his first NHL game with the Canadiens during the 2007-08 season.

Avoiding rock bottom

First of all, sorry I didn't get to this last night, but I had a new radio show that made its debut on The Team 990 and I was pretty beat when I got home. The show's called "Hump Night" and I co-host it with professor/musician/comedian/professional eater Dave McGimpsey. We basically give our twisted spin to the sports world and try to be funny without really trying, if you know what I mean. Anyhow, Wednesday nights at 11 p.m. on AM 990, if you want to check it out.

On to Wednesday night's game, and there were tons of things to feel good about if you're the Canadiens. To walk into Detroit and bottle up a high-powered attack like they did is more than commendable, it was downright out of character for a team that hasn't respected a game plan in weeks. Last night, the Canadiens knew what they wanted to do, and they did it for 60 minutes.

Alex Kovalev, in my eyes, had his best game since that comeback on Long Island. He only wound up with one assist on the scoresheet, but he had a team-high five shots on goal and was the guy that did the dirty work on Maxim Lapierre's bank shot goal to open the scoring. Kovalev was involved physically, had a few dangerous moments on the attack and looked genuinely interested in playing. When he's interested, he's one of the top five forwards in the game. When he's not...

Also encouraging was Tomas Plekanec's power play goal, not necessarily because it came with the man advantage, but because it was the first time in a long time we've seen a goal that resembled the ones scored nearly every game by someone on the top line last year. Ty Conklin's neck must have been sore trying to follow that puck, and it served as further proof that Andrei Markov can play hockey like grandmasters play chess - always three or four moves ahead.

I would say Carey Price's play in nets was encouraging, but that would suggest he's done something of late to warrant being discouraged, which simply isn't the case. Ever since Guy Carbonneau called out his goalies a little while back, Price has been without reproach. It was the same thing last night.

But you can't have good without bad, and aside from Alex Tanguay leaving the game with a "sore neck" after getting annihilated by Brad Stuart with a clean hit, there's one thing I have a problem with from last night. When you see how well this team can play when they stick to a game plan and work hard as a team, it really makes it frustrating to watch the same group of men put up stinkers like they did in Boston, Carolina and against the Islanders at home Monday.

This is the second time this season the vultures were circling above the Canadiens heads, ready to proclaim they had hit rock bottom, and the team came out with an effort that will keep their fans satisfied until the next slump hits. That is not the measure of a consistent team, which was the identity of the Habs last season and a big part of the reason they had so much success. They never reeled off six or seven-game win streaks, but they never lost three in a row either.

After the 4-0 win over Ottawa, Carbonneau mentioned how it was an important win because of what people were saying about their team. Last night, Carbonneau spoke about how he told his team beforehand that this was one of four or five games all season that can indicate what kind of year is in store. The only reason neither is a ridiculous exaggeration is because of the context the two games were played in, with the Canadiens playing poorly and feeling the heat from fans and media.

The key test now is to see how the Habs show up in Washington tomorrow night against a rejuvenated Alex Ovechkin. The Capitals have yet to lose in regulation on home ice this season, so maybe Carbonneau would do well to add this one to his four or five games that can define a season because it would show the Canadiens are able to play to their full potential in back-to-back games, against tough competition to boot.

Marc-Antoine Godin of La Presse makes a great comparison between last night's game and the third period comeback in New Jersey last year, and it's entirely possible that win could have a similar effect on the Habs of this year.

But the first indication of that will come Friday night because so far, despite all those wins early in the season, the Canadiens haven't proven they can take success from one game into the next. That's something any team with realistic aspirations for the Stanley Cup must have first and foremost.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Now, on to other matters

In my haste to defend Ryan O'Byrne and cut off a hate campaign at the pass, I failed to mention what would have been by far the biggest news coming out of Monday night's game were it not for No. 3's brain fart.

After the game, when asked about Josh Gorges getting a goal during a rare shift on the power play, Guy Carbonneau had this to say:

“We’re going to try a lot more experiments because since the beginning of the season we’ve been leaving the 10 players who are supposed to make the power play work, but it’s not working. If we have to put the fourth line on the ice to change things up, that’s where we’re at right now.”

Hmmm...I guess going 3-for-38 over your last eight games will make you say some pretty crazy things.

Can you imagine a power play of Gorges, Francis Bouillon (who was his partner when he scored last night), Maxim Lapierre, Steve Begin and Georges Laraque? If that ever happens, I want a permanent camera shot of Alex Kovalev and Saku Koivu stewing on the bench.

Of course, that will never happen, but Carbo's point was clear: he's not happy with the players on the power play right now.

Those 10 guys he's referring to, of course, are Koivu, Kovalev, Christopher Higgins, Robert Lang, Sergei Kostitsyn, Andrei Kostitsyn, Tomas Plekanec, Alex Tanguay, Andrei Markov and either Patrcie Brisebois or, if he's not dressed, Roman Hamrlik.

I have no problem with Carbo calling his players out, but I think there's been some coaching problems with the power play.

My biggest problem with it, and I've said it before, is that Markov and Kovalev are often on the same side of the ice, if they're on the ice together at all. Last night, the few times they were opposite each other, Markov was on the right point and Kovalev on the left half boards, where he can't let go of a one-timer.

Mark Streit was a big weapon last year at the right point, but a big reason why he was often open to shoot was that the top two guys of the PK box were so worried about that cross-ice pass from Markov to Kovalev. Their priority was to take that away, and if Streit beat them then so be it.

If the Canadiens don't have that Markov-Kovalev threat, they become a very easy team to defend. The Habs have had a major weapon each of the past two years that other teams had to not only think about, they had to draw up entire game plans on how to stop it.

Two years ago it was Sheldon Souray on the right point, and eventually teams began to overplay him, which created openings in the slot and for passes through the box. Last year it was the Markov-Kovalev diagonal feed, and it could be the same again this year, except those two guys aren't in the same spots they were last year.

Another reason I believe the power play is sputtering is the use of a forward on the point. The Canadiens in the past have always had two guys on the blue line that, for the most part, stayed there. Every now and then a defenceman would cut to the net for a backdoor pass, but by and large their role was to man the points and remain there as an outlet option if one of the forwards got in trouble in a battle for the puck.

This year, whenever Tanguay or Sergei are on the point, which is all the time, they invariably wind up drifting down to the hashmarks, if not lower. That leaves one defenceman to cover the entire blue line, which is not only a defensive risk, it also eliminates one of those outlet options.

I would love to see Carbonneau or Doug Jarvis scrap the idea of having a forward at the point and go back to using four defencemen. Markov-Gorges and Hamrlik-Brisebois work for me until Komisarek returns, and when he does, I say you throw him out there with Markov.

That not only assures having two guys on the point when you need them, it would also keep the defence pairings together for when the teams get back to 5-on-5.

Speaking of 5-on-5, it is dramatically improved so far compared to last year, almost to the same degree the power play is worse than last year. The Habs are plus-6 in 5-on-5 play through 20 games, which nearly matches their plus-8 through 82 games last year.

I think we can agree the Canadiens would be a tougher playoff opponent if they didn't need to wait for a power play to score a goal. Of course, in last year's playoffs they couldn't score even strength or on the power play, which may have simply extended itself into this season, but you get my point.

Meanwhile, the 20-game mark is also one that's fun for projections because they're so easy on the arithmetic side of things. I think it's safe to say a lot of people will be disappointed if all these guys maintain their pace, which would look like this:

Kovalev - 20g-40a-60pts
Plekanec - 16g-28a-44pts
A. Kostitsyn - 12g-16a-28pts
Higgins - 20g-20a-40pts
Latendresse - 8g-24a-32pts

To me, there are only three forwards who are delivering the goods at or above expectations right now, Koivu, Tanguay and Lang. The first two are on pace for 68 pts each, while Lang is on pace for 56, which is exactly what is being asked of him.

Sergei Kostitsyn, with three goals and six assists while logging major PP minutes, is doing pretty well in my books, but I think the expectations for him were a bit inflated considering he hasn't even played a full NHL season yet. The one number he really needs to work on is the PIM column, which at 22 in 20 games is way too high.

Finally, I have a question for all of you: Considering Carbonneau's comments Monday night that we can expect personnel changes on the power play, what five-man unit would you like to see him try out?

Monday, November 24, 2008

This place can get nasty

Early in the third period of Monday's shootout loss to the Islanders Ryan O'Byrne was called for an interference penalty when he tackled a guy in front of his net. The Isles didn't score, but as O'Byrne skated toward the penalty box and the Bell Centre crowd booed, I noted to my press box neighbour how I felt bad for the guy.

He's not perfect, far from it, and he's a long way from becoming a legit top-four NHL defenceman. But O'Byrne is learning, and he's been getting a rough ride in the media for the past little while.

What I said to my neighbour was that the fans and the media were a lot more tolerant of Mike Komisarek when he was making a lot of the same mistakes O'Byrne is making now, but that was largely because the Canadiens weren't particularly good back then. When the fans expect to win, there is no room for error for anyone.

But the ultimate error was still to come, and if O'Byrne thought he was getting a rough ride before he hasn't seen anything yet.

His own goal Monday night is the first of its kind I've ever seen, and for it to happen when it did, to O'Byrne of all people, is a downright cruel joke on the part of whoever's in charge of fate and karma.

O'Byrne didn't ask to be put into this position where he has to get better probably a little faster than he's ready for, where he has to play more minutes to compensate for the loss of Mike Komisarek, where he has to become the scapegoat for everything that's wrong with the Canadiens.

But that's the position he's in, and he hasn't been nearly as bad as a lot of people have made him out to be, but because of that he's subject to scrutiny.

And that can be a nasty ride.

"It always sucks (C'est toujours plate)," Canadiens head coach Guy Carbonneau said of the "O'Byrne, O'Byrne" chants that came raining down from the upper reaches of the Bell Centre after the game. "It's the best place to win, but the people are hard. People pay good money to come to the games, and they don’t only want to see the team, they want to see us win. Not once in a while, all the time.

"It's too bad because we’ve been giving them some good hockey for the past couple of seasons, and it’s hard to win in this league. It’s not like in the 60s, 70s, 80s or 90s, it’s a lot tougher to win at home than it was back in the day. People will have to get used to that."

As th Habs filed off the bench and the chants were picking up steam, I couldn't help but notice Josh Gorges shoot a cold stare up into the stands. Gorges is a team guy through and through, and it looked as though he wanted to run up into the stands and shut some of the fans up himself.

After the game in the dressing room he'd calmed down and said all the right things, but I would have loved to ask him my question as he was coming off the bench, because his answer surely would have been more colourful than this:

"I know how it feels, I’ve put the puck into my net before. It's never intentional, it's a bad break, and nobody feels more sick to his stomach about it than Ryan does. I just thought to chant his name was tough because I know how he feels and he'd give anything to take it back. It's tough because in a situation like that you want to support a player and not have him feel down. But at the same time I know it’s disappointing for a lot of fans."

Luckily for O'Byrne, finding someone to give him advice on how to deal with this won't be difficult because if there is one guy in the world who knows of what Carbo speaks, it's his teammate Patrice Brisebois.

Brisebois might have had his worst game of the season Monday night, but he didn't hear it from the fans at all, probably because they're afraid of another Bob Gainey tongue-lashing.

The rough night began early in the first when Brisebois hit Steve Tambellini and bounced right off him, clutching is right shoulder as he slowly made his way to the bench. The only problem was that the puck was in the Habs end, and as Brisebois skated towards the bench the Isles maintained the pressure.

The way he was skating, I figured he would be out for a while, and I even had time to think that maybe we would get to see a Yannick Weber audition to replace him (I know he needs work on his defence, but look at who he would be replacing). Luckily for the Canadiens the Islanders didn't score during that mini power play, but Brisebois didn't miss a shift because of the "injury," so it couldn't have been that bad.

The rest of the night went much the same way for Brisebois, and it's not really his fault because he's playing more minutes and more often than he's supposed to because of he injury to Komisarek. But it's funny how O'Byrne is slowly taking on the Brisebois role while Brisebois is on the team, often playing the same way he did when he was the target of the Bell Centre faithful.

Please don't take this as an appeal to start booing Brisebois again, because it's actually an appeal to stop booing O'Byrne. Fans may have to start accepting the fact that O'Byrne is the team's fourth defenceman, and booing him is certainly not going to help a guy who already has self-confidence problems.

Think of how O'Byrne's first two years have gone, with his first highlighted by a purse-snatching episode in Tampa Bay, and now this.

If he ever becomes another Komisarek, and Carbonneau says he may even wind up better (though I don't think he really believes that), then these two incidents will become quirky anecdotes, footnotes on his way to becoming a premier shutdown defenceman.

But having lived through this with Brisebois before, we also know what it can do to a player when he becomes the whipping boy of the Montreal faithful. There's no way O'Byrne will ever fulfill his potential if that happens, and those quirky anecdotes will become the reasons his career fizzled out before it ever got started.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

A question of focus

I understand the Canadiens are going to play the Bruins and Milan Lucic three more times this season, and I know watching a 20-year-old kid run roughshod all over your team and knock out a top-pair defenceman for at least six weeks stings.

But still, shouldn't Guy Carbonneau's focus be elsewhere, other than making sure Georges Laraque is on the ice shadowing and harassing Lucic? Is the most important thing not winning the game, and if you can get retribution on Lucic in the process it's a bonus?

I felt the Habs were ready to play this game and showed a lot of jump in the first, but lost some of that momentum when they came out of the period in a scoreless draw. But it's hard to score when you have your enforcer playing on your top line running around after a 20-year-old kid begging him to fight.

"I tried everything," Laraque said of the constant dialogue he had with Lucic.

I thought the drama the whole Laraque and Lucic subplot brought to the game was very entertaining, but it wasn't necessarily constructive for a team with a fragile psyche right now who needed a win to erase that 6-1 embarrassment in Boston on Nov 13.

But Carbonneau was still pretty pleased with his little sideshow.

"I think it had an effect on Lucic, I don’t think he was as involved as he was in Boston," Carbo said after the game. "There's more games to come, we'll see how he keeps playing. But he was a lot quieter tonight than he was in Boston."

Really? How exactly is one quiet when he scores a goal and forces you to completely alter your lines and game plan just to get him off his game? To me, that's not quiet. That's pretty darn loud.
Bruins coach Claude Julien was miffed after the game, and he expressed it in a typically deadpan Julien way.

"I betcha Milan never thought he was that good that he'd have a shadow on him," Julien said, clearly annoyed. "I don't know if it's ever happened in his career but it's pretty simple. We've got a good hockey player, he's 20 years old, a first line player, it's as simple as that. Do you think we're going to send him against probably the toughest guy in the league? I know Georges Laraque was doing that because he was told to. Georges is not that type of guy. He respects the young kids, he knows what it's all about. There was no way it was going to happen. (Shawn) Thornton was there, ready for Georges, that never happened either. My tough guy was ready for their tough guy and it's as simple as that. I told him not to fight so if you guys are wondering, it was me."

Well, that sums it up quite nicely, I think, except he forgot to add that he won the game, and the hex the Habs had on the Bruins appears to be slowly shifting the other way.

The Canadiens face the Isles on Monday night and then have games in Detroit and Washington, two tough ones where the team's - and the coach's - focus had better be on winning the game and scoring goals.

With nine goals in their last six games now, you would think having that as a focus wouldn't be a problem.

PR at its best

Yes, PR stands for Patrick Roy, but it also stands for Public Relations, and that's the one aspect of Roy's departure from Montreal that he was able to finally put to rest tonight at his jersey retirement ceremony.

He said many nice things during his speech, which, by the way, was written by a PR firm and given a final edit by his father and autobiographer Michel Roy, but the one that resonated with me the most was when he said this

"I will always remember the day I left too quickly, without saying goodbye the way I would have liked."

Roy has often said, and he said it again tonight in his press conference, that he turned the page on Dec. 2, 1995 a long time ago. But it was the way he left it with the fans - fans who cheered him in mockery that night 13 years ago, but who adored him otherwise - that left Roy with enormous regret.

And it was that regret he was able to put to rest during that ceremony.

"At least they know I didn't want to leave that way," Roy said afterwards. "Now they know I wanted to come back. Now they know I would have wanted to play my entire career with the Montreal Canadiens."

As one of those fans who felt so hurt when he left, and by the way it happened, it is indeed comforting to know that.

Friday, November 21, 2008

Any retired defencemen kicking around?

The loss of Mike Komisarek for at least a month, if not more, is a real devastating blow to the Canadiens, especially since the schedule is about to get pretty tough.

If this little three-game road trip has taught us anything about the Canadiens, it's that they can ill-afford to lose a top-three defenceman for any extended period of time.

Komisarek wasn't playing the way he's capable of so far this season, but his impact was still significant. His presence against the other team's top line made opposing wingers think twice before digging for a puck in the corner, and he also made Andrei Markov a much better defenceman.

I'm not really sure why, but Markov plays much better with Komisarek by his side. That is not a knock on Josh Gorges, because he's filled in far better than anyone could have expected, perhaps including Markov. In Ottawa the other night, Markov appeared willing to take risks again, something he wasn't willing to do in the first few games following Komisarek's injury.

Maybe it was that Markov didn't trust Gorges enough to take those risks before, but when Markov plays it safe he's a far less effective defenceman because I feel he's the best player in the league when it comes to keeping pucks in at the offensive blue line. When he does that in situations where most defencemen would retreat, he gives the Habs some very valuable extra time in the offensive end. For a team that's had trouble of late getting set up in that area, that skill is invaluable.

So, what awaits the Komisarek-less Habs in the next four to five weeks? How about games at Detroit, Washington, Carolina, Pittsburgh, plus home games against Boston, Buffalo (twice), the Rangers, New Jersey, Calgary, Washington again and Philadelphia? That's 12 tough opponents in the Habs next 16 games, a stretch I already thought would be a telling part of the schedule, and that was before Komisarek went down.

I'm wondering if this might be a bit of a blessing in disguise for the Habs, because barring a trade for Jay Bouwmeester, Montreal will need Ryan O'Byrne to blossom into a No. 4 defenceman over the next five months to have any hopes of a playoff run. Well, what better way to see what they've got than to live with O'Byrne's numerous mistakes during Komisarek's absence and give him major minutes?

I know a lot of people are mortified by the way he's playing, but if he can improve by playing 20 minutes a game over the next month and gain some confidence with the puck (his biggest weakness), then the Canadiens will be a much better team for it and far better positioned to hit the playoffs.

Guy Carboneau appeared to give a sense that would be the plan when he tried to pump O'Byrne up today to reporters, and I think he's right that O'Byrne is showing improvement. It's just that when the team is having trouble scoring goals and breaking out of its own end, O'Byrne's main weakness becomes that much more glaring.

But I tink the Habs need to suck it up and live with it for now, because the more time O'Byrne spends on the ice, the less he'll panic with that puck. Kind of like another big defenceman who used to make a mistake with the puck every time he touched it, and that guy wearing No.8 turned out pretty good.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Sundin again? Really?

Don't you sometimes wish there were still ties?

That would have been the fairest outcome for Thursday's Habs shootout win in Ottawa, because it was very difficult to tell if the game was being played between two good yet desperate clubs, or two clubs who simply aren't very good right now.

A win of any kind is an encouraging sign for the Habs, but that win should not put anyone's concerns to rest about what's been going wrong with them of late because if there's one team that's been worse than the Canadiens this month, it's the Senators.

Both teams have been dogging it for weeks, they go all out in a first period that was great fun to watch, sit back in a second period that was like watching water boil, and ultimately end regulation tied. I'm not sure how anyone, not Guy Carbonneau, not Craig Hartsburg, not anyone, can draw much of anything from that.

One thing I did like was the way Sergei Kostitsyn responded to the little talking to Carbonneau gave him at the game day skate and his demotion to the fourth line, though that didn't last that long as he was right back with his brother and Robert Lang when Montreal needed a goal in the third. And what do you know? Sergei's digging in the corner led to Andrei Markov's equalizer late in regulation.

Another bright spot was Steve Begin, who played his role to perfection finishing hits, and even landing a knockout punch on Cody Bass when they dropped the gloves. That's god news for Steve, not so good for Maxim Lapierre.

Carey Price, once again, was also Montreal's best player, despite the softie he gave up to Nick Foligno for the go-ahead goal.

But what really has my attention is the news, reported by not only RDS, but also Sportsnet and ESPN, that Bob Gainey was in Los Angeles on Wednesday to meet with Mats Sundin. Call me crazy, but I don't think Gainey jumps on a plane and flies all the way to California while his team is in crisis-management mode simply to engage in small talk.

If this development comes to fruition, who gets shipped out to clear the cap space Sundin would need? Right now, there's any number of underachieving forwards to choose from, but few of them provide enough cap relief on their own. The only ones making $4 million bucks a year are Saku Koivu, Alex Kovalev, Alex Tanguay and Robert Lang, and of those four the one that Sundin would replace would obviously be Lang, who was originally a replacement for Sundin.

I don't know how Gainey could convince anyone to take on Lang's salary right now, unless he decided to package Jaroslav Halak with him in exchange for prospects or draft picks or both.

Just so you know, I asked Gainey's assistant and Hamilton Bulldogs GM Julien Brisebois the other night what the waiver status is on Marc Denis, and it appears he would not have to go through re-call waivers to be brought back to Montreal because he makes less than $100,000 playing in the AHL. And Denis continues to rip up down there.

Again, just so you know.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Let the witch hunt begin

With Guy Carbonneau's comments Tuesday night about some players perhaps feeling too comfortable because they have more experience now and can't be sent to the minors, members of the media covering the Canadiens in Ottawa felt the coach must have been talking about Sergei Kostitsyn, so they asked him about it.

Let me see if I get this straight: Carbonneau talks about players who can't be sent to the minors because they would have to clear waivers, and people take that to mean he was really talking about one of only two players on the team who don't need to clear waivers to be sent to Hamilton?

Does that make any sense to you?

While I agree that Sergei Kostitsyn has not been anywhere near the same player he was last year, is it not the least bit possible that Carbonneau was referring to Guillaume Latendresse when he said that because he does need to clear waivers to be sent to Hamilton? Just like Maxim Lapierre? Or even Christopher Higgins?

To me, that was a shot at Latendresse, who was given a huge endorsement by Carbonneau in training camp as being a lock for a spot among the team's top nine forwards and, before the season is even two months old, finds himself back on the fourth line.

I hate writing this because Latendresse is such a polarizing figure among Habs fans. Some believe he can do no wrong because he's a big, local kid, while others believe he can't do anything right and the only reason he's even on the team is that he's a big, local kid. But facts are facts, and Latendresse is clearly playing on the fourth line right now, while Lapierre has been a healthy scratch two games in a row.

But honestly, the Habs problems right now do not lie with Latendresse, or Lapierre, or Sergei Kostitsyn. They lie way further up the Canadiens food chain and Carbonneau mentioned as much speaking to reporters Wednesday in Ottawa, though he didn't go so far as to say the problem lies with him, which may in fact be the case.

"We’re at a stage right now where the players need to stop looking elsewhere," he said. "They need to stop looking at another player and saying that if he's not giving everything, then I won't either. I’d love to have a leader who can get on the ice and say, 'I'm going to work, follow me.' That's what we need right now. We need a guy who's willing to say, 'I'm going to play a good game tonight. Follow me, and we'll be all right.'"

That's not a message to fourth line players, or second-year guys from Belarus, or young veterans like Higgins and Tomas Plekanec. That's a challenge to the captain Saku Koivu and his current linemates Alex Kovalev and Alex Tanguay. It's as simple as that.

If Carbonneau keeps those guys together on the same line in Ottawa, and it appears based on the lines at practice Wednesday that he will, then we'll see if that message got through or if Carbonneau is on the verge of losing his room.

OK, that may be a bit drastic, but when the coach says something like that, it's with clear targets in mind. And, as far as I can see, there are no clearer targets than Saku and the Trebeks (pretty catchy line name, no? All I need is for them to score a goal now and then, and I'll start printing t-shirts).

The one advantage Carbonneau has for getting his message across, and he acknowledged it Wednesday, is that the next two games are against the hated Senators and the reviled Boston Bruins.

"The one good thing I can see is that we have a pretty good rivalry with the next two teams we're about to face," he said. "If we can't get up mentally or physically for these two games, then we have a bigger problem than I thought."

And how.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Can you have too much depth?

Because if you can, then that's what the Canadiens seem to have right now. And if it were up to Guy Carbonneau, he would gladly send some of that depth out of town.

After watching his team build a 1-0 lead after two periods in Carolina that it didn't deserve, Carbonneau had reason to believe that perhaps the Canadiens would wake up in the third and put the game away.

Instead, the exact opposite happened.

"The game was decided in the first three shifts of the third," Carbonneau told reporters.

Those three shifts were played by Carbonneau's top three lines, and he says their unwillingness to get the puck deep and simply put pucks on net to keep the pressure on the Hurricanes is what ultimately switched the momentum in Carolina's favour and led to Tuesday night's 2-1 loss.

There's only so many times Carbonneau can say his players aren't working before people have to ask why. Why is a group of guys largely unchanged from last season suddenly so unwilling to put in the hard work necessary to get results? How can a line with Saku Koivu, Alex Kovalev and Alex Tanguay combine for three shots on goal, with all of them coming from Kovalev? Why is a power play that was so dominant for two years straight suddenly such garbage, despite the goal scored in Carolina?

Carbonneau said after the game that maybe it's time for someone to get up in the room and take the team by the hand to the promised land, which to me sounds like the words of a desperate coach who has run out of of answers.

The only answer I can find thus far is that Carbonneau is having trouble adjusting to life with so much talent on his roster, with so many skill players who aren't necessarily all that adept at the grunt work that wins you hockey games.

Last year Carbonneau had a guy who he felt wasn't doing enough, and that guy was Michael Ryder. So what did he do? He sent Ryder to the press box, he relegated him to fourth line duty when he did play, and he essentially cut him out of the team.

This year, however, Carbonneau hasn't yet played that card, but it appears it's not too far on the horizon.

When asked Tuesday night why it is that last year after a bad game his team was always able to come back with a solid, 60-minute effort, whereas this year they can't, Carbonneau was very clear.

"Maybe it's because players have more experience and they don't have that danger of being sent to the press box or to the minors," he said.

Asked if that danger still exists this year, Carbonneau mentioned that if the league's rules didn't prevent him from doing so, then that danger would definitely exist.

What he meant, of course, is that there is practically no one, aside from Ryan O'Byrne and Sergei Kostitsyn, who can be sent to Hamilton without first clearing waivers. But there is no league rule stopping Carbonneau from making someone significant a healthy scratch, and maybe that's what he needs to do.

I have no idea who that healthy scratch should be, but that's why Carbonneau is the coach, and I'm not.

Thank God for that.

Is bad hockey a cause for Gastro?

Sorry for the short vacation here folks, but I was struck with a heavy-duty case of gastroenteritis on Sunday evening.

Coincidentally, or maybe not so, it hit me right around the time Guy Carbonneau was telling reporters in St. Louis just how well his Montreal Canadiens played Sunday. I wasn't in St. Louis, but is it possible the coach's reaction to the game forced the onset of this bug?

Probably not, but you get my drift.

I understand the concept of positive reinforcement, I understand that you sometimes need to re-adjust expectations, and I understand the Canadiens were playing an early game in a different time zone a day after playing in Montreal. But, regardless of all those factors, the game the Habs played in St. Louis on Sunday night was far from encouraging.

How does 0-for-10 on the power play become encouraging, or the fact that five of those power plays were wiped out after the Canadiens took penalties? (As an aside, how on earth is Chris Lee still an NHL referee? But I digress...)

How does a shootout win eeked out at the last minute against one of the worst teams in the NHL become encouraging?

The line changes made by Carbonneau on Sunday, which will be given another audition tonight in Raleigh, showed that the head coach is willing to try new things. If there was anything encouraging about that game in St. Louis, that would be it.

Putting Alex Kovalev on a line with Saku Koivu has long been suggested in desperate times by people in the media and fans on the airwaves, but Carbonneau has been reluctant because in the past, the two haven't shown the greatest chemistry playing together.

But the fact remains that a line of Kovalev, Koivu and Alex Tanguay puts the team's three most accomplished forwards on one line, and I believe it's worth a shot to see if they click and become the Canadiens version of Alfredsson, Heatley and Spezza. OK, bad example, but you see where I'm going with that.

The line juggling also puts the Kostitsyn brothers together with Robert Lang, and I thought that line was pretty effective Sunday night. At least we have Carbonneau finally acknowledging that maybe, just maybe, the Kostitsyns enjoy playing with each other.

That left Tomas Plekanec on a line with Christopher Higgins and a rotation of Tom Kostopoulos and Guillaume Latendresse, which brings me to my next point today.

Paul Stastny just signed a five-year contract extension worth $33 million, thus avoiding restricted free agency. That's also where new linemates Mr. Higgins and Mr. Plekanec are headed on July 1.

I find putting a value on these two guys to be increasignly difficult, especially with some of the deals being handed out to young players now. Anze Kopitar is locked up for seven years at $6.8 million per, and now Stastny signs for five years at $6.6 per.

So what does that have to do with Higgins and Plekanec? Not a whole lot, as far as I'm concerned, because we're dealing with an entirely different class of player in Kopitar and Stastny. The only way it does impact their situation is that players in that service bracket are getting big time commitments from their own teams to stick around.

I think the best comparables among recently signed players remain Patrick Sharp of the Chicago Blackhawks and Pierre-Marc Bouchard of the Minnesota Wild. Bouchard has played over 100 more NHL games than either Higgins or Plekanec, but that's only because he made the jump straight from junior. Sharp, meanwhile, has played about 50 more games than the Habs duo, but he's been around much longer and bounced around the Flyers system before finally landing a job in Chicago.

Bouchard, based on three straight solid seasons, signed a five-year deal worth $20.4 million while Sharp, based on one outstanding year and not a whole lot else, signed for four years and $15.6 million.

In both cases, that's a cap hit hovering around $4 million per year, and if Bob Gainey has to shell out that kind of dough to keep both Higgins and Plekanec I have trouble seeing how he'll also sign unrestricted free agents Mike Komisarek, Koivu, Kovalev and Tanguay who, collectively, would cost more than $20 million.

That doesn't even take into account Carey Price's next contract after the 2009-10 season, which will assuredly be in the range of those signed by Stastny and Kopitar, if not higher, and that's money Gainey will have to keep handy.

Doesn't all this make Andrei Kostitsyn's three-year deal at $3.25 million a year look like the bargain of the century?

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Prozac anyone?

The Montreal Canadiens, from the head coach right on down, have their heads spinning right now trying to figure out what on earth has happened.

How did a team expected to challenge for the Stanley Cup become such a shell of its former self? One that has no confidence, cohesion, or co-anything right now, and is questioning every little thing they do on the ice?

It's not as if this has happened overnight, and if Saturday night's 2-1 loss to the Flyers had come after three wins in a row, it would have been easy to be pleased with the effort because aside from the second period, the Habs played pretty decent. Not great, but decent.

Except that second period was horrendous, and it's become a recurring theme this season that the Canadiens take at least one, if not two periods off per game. Earlier in the year they were able to get away with it, as they did in Philadelphia in the third game of the season.

But no longer.

"It’s been a problem from early in the season," said Habs captain Saku Koivu, one of the only players to give it everything on every shift in this game. "We won some games, but it was only a couple of times that we really played 60 minutes. I mean more the defensive effort and playing without big mistakes in our own zone. Our skills haven’t gone anywhere so we have to believe we can create some offence. But right now we really have to forget that part and concentrate on team defence and making sure the puck gets out of our zone."

It's a simple concept really, one that everyone in the Habs room knows because they've heard it repeated to death over this stretch of four losses in five games, and here it is: you can't score when the puck is in your end.

The Canadiens repeatedly get caught trying to make a pass that is too cute coming out of the zone. A few of those invariably become turnovers that, even if they don't wind up in your own net, force you to play without the puck for a while longer.

Here's how Josh Gorges sums it up:

"When you don’t get the puck out and you lose a battle, you spend an extra 30 seconds in your zone. By the time you get it out, you don’t even have enough energy to go in on the offence. You just dump it in and change and they get the puck back. So we’re killing ourselves and not using our assets by not winning the battles down low in our end."

Pretty basic stuff, no? But for some reason, these guys aren't getting it, and head coach Guy Carbonneau is starting to get worried. And more importantly, he's getting very annoyed.

"I think we’re relying too much on what we did last year, both as a team and as individual players," he said. "We did some nice things last year, but last year is last year. When you start a new season you don’t start with 20 goals or 13 assists or 40 assists, you start at zero. You have to work for those points, and right now we have guys who think they’re working, but they’re not working."

Just after saying that, though, Carbonneau referred to how his team had to find the "tempo from last year," and earlier he referre tohow his team has proven it can bounce back from tough stretches.

So maybe his players aren't the only ones guilty of using last season's tremendous record as a launching point.

Friday, November 14, 2008

Would you like a side of adversity with that?

So, it appears Mike Komisarek did indeed injure his right hand in that fight against Milan Lucic, and the Canadiens are hoping it's not broken. In spite of how I think Komisarek has played so far this season, any extended absence by him would put a major strain on the Habs defence.

Of course, Saturday's visitors to the Bell Centre know a thing or two about having a strained defence. The struggling Philadelphia Flyers have a d-corps that's pasted together with masking tape, to the point where they're playing a kid who should be in junior nearly 19 minutes a night and took on the mistake-waiting-to-happen Andrew Alberts from the Bruins to give him 15 minutes a game. Not a very rosy situation, to say the least.

Komisarek's loss would mean Patrice Brisebois gets back in the lineup after a two-game absence, which is usually when he plays his best hockey. But someone is going to have to move up and play next to Andrei Markov on the Canadiens top pairing, and if I were Guy Carbonneau (which I am so happy I'm not), I would choose Josh Gorges.

Carbonneau mentioned Francis Bouillon's name as a guy who needs to step up in the absence of Komisarek, but I don't think he'd be the guy to slide in on the right side next to Markov. Gorges, surprisingly, is only playing about a minute less than Komisarek per game this year already, and he plays the right side while providing the same sound defensive presence Komisarek does, or is at least supposed to.

The possible absence of Sergei Kostitsyn from the lineup would also mean the return of Steve Bégin after four games off. If that's actually what happens I'm afraid to think what this guy might do out there, because it would be the equivalent of releasing a caged Tasmanian Devil. If I were the Flyers defencemen, I'd be pretty aware if Bégin's on the ice when going back in their end to retrieve a puck.

Kostitsyn not playing would also eliminate any possibility of Carbonneau teaming him up with his brother and Tomas Plekanec on Saturday, which I was kind of hoping would happen not only for those three guys, but also so Alex Kovalev could try his hand with Robert Lang and Guillaume Latendresse. Until proven otherwise, I will remain convinced that pairing the brothers together is the best way to use them and would lead to an explosion for Andrei.

Of course, that wasn't Carbonneau's reasoning for breaking up last year's top line in the third period of a blowout in Boston.

"I was just trying to find a spark, trying to change something," he said. "Obviously there are some players who need to play better, their consistency hasn't been there from the start of the year. You can always say that you can bench him or put him in the stands, but they were successful in the past and they just need to get back to working."

Jaroslav Halak gets the nod in goal and needs to grab this opportunity to get a little more work in. A victory Saturday night would probably lead to another start in St. Louis on Sunday, and that in turn would lead to a fired up Carey Price who suddenly sees his job in jeopardy ever so slightly. I have a feeling that might do him some good.

Finally, Carbonneau got a little irked at the re-kindled stench of humiliation today at practice and tried to call the media to order, noting that the season has not even reached the quarter pole yet and his team is still looking pretty good in the standings. Of course, that's not the point and he knows it, because playing one stinker of a road game against a division rival can be written off, but playing two in a row is quite another matter.

And apparently, he hasn't noticed the San Jose Sharks.

"There isn't a single team burning up the league right now, and as far as I know we're still one of the top teams in the NHL," Carbonneau said. "We've only played 14 games and there are some teams that have played four or five more games than we have. If we can turn this around and win those games, if we're not first in the NHL we'll be pretty close. So is it time to panic? No. Is it worrisome? Yes."

And then, he came up with what I have been waiting to hear from Carbonneau for the past week, and I can only hope he sent the same kind of message to his players.

"What we did last year was fun, but now it's over," he said. "It's a new season, and teams are far more ready for us. We saw it (Thursday), and it's up to us to answer the right way and stop getting frustrated because our opponent hits us, or our opponent scores a goal in the first period or the referee gives us a penalty. It's always the danger when you have some success. The other team is also paid to win, we're not alone on the ice. We have to realize that."

That realization better start Saturday night, or this could get ugly in a hurry.

Is Leopold available?

The Ottawa Sun's Bruce Garrioch reports today that, according to "sources," the Colorado Avalanche may be willing to part with impending UFA defenceman Jordan Leopold, and that he may be heading to the Senators. Garrioch notes the Avalanche had three scouts at Thursday night's Senators loss to the New York Islanders.

What I can tell you is that Avalanche assistant GM Michel Goulet was at the Canadiens 4-0 win over the Sens on Tuesday as well, so there may be something brewing there, though Goulet is often at Canadiens games when he visits home.

If indeed this is going down right now, I would implore Bob Gainey to make a phone call because he can fill Colorado's needs far better than Ottawa can. All Bryan Murray can offer to solve the Avs goaltending problem is an overpriced, stop-gap measure in Martin Gerber, whereas Gainey has a bargain-basement potential number one to offer in Jaroslav Halak.

With the lack of quality defencemen available on the trade market, Leopold is probably overvalued right now, but that's the nature of supply and demand. I would think the Canadiens are a far more attractive trade partner for the Avalanche than the Sens precisely because of that, seeing as the Canadiens also have something that the Avalanche need, whereas the Sens don't.

That being said, I wouldn't hold my breath waiting on Gainey to pull off a deal despite the worrisome play of his team of late. As Carbonneau said on Wednesday, relating to the constant trade speculation that seems to follow Christopher Higgins around, "You guys know Bob Gainey. I think he's made one trade in the two years I've been here, so..."

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Who is that masked man wearing No. 8?

I've held back on writing this post for a while now to give him a chance to find his game, but the Habs have now played 14 games and Mike Komisarek is nowhere near the same player who struck fear into opposing forwards last season.

Yeah, he's blocking shots, he's hitting guys, and that's great. But there's a certain lack of confidence that appears every now and again in his game, and in tonight's 6-1 loss in Boston, those came at very inopportune moments.

On Boston's first goal of the night by noted sniper Shawn Thornton, Komisarek inexplicably hesitated to play a puck coming toward him in the Montreal zone, deferring to Mathieu Dandenault who was facing his own net. That puck was Komisarek's to play, and his indecision on the play directly led to the goal.

Now that's just one example, and it doesn't explain why the Habs were just as flat - in fact far more so - than they were in Toronto on Saturday night. But plays just like that one have been popping up more and more from Komisarek, and that's got to be of some concern.

Guy Carbonneau was asked after the game if the reason Komisarek didn't return to the ice after suffering a beat down at the hands of last year's playoff nemesis Milan Lucic was because of a hand injury he may have suffered in the fight. Carbonneau kind of brushed the question aside, saying they didn't know yet, but then went on to talk about emotion and work and wanting to win.

I don't know about anyone else, but the only reason I can see Carbonneau giving that kind of an answer to a question regarding the reason a particular player was nailed to the bench, I don't think his hand or either of his upper or lower body were a problem. Komisarek's problem was between the ears, and I think it may have been a message Carbonneau was sending him by sitting him in the third.

I could be wrong, Komisarek may have hurt himself in that fight because at one point he simply stopped throwing punches and fell rather easily, which is really not his style. But before that fight he wasn't playing his best game, and it was just a continuation of a trend that's been building all season, one that happens to be a contract year for the unrestricted free agent who, as of right now, is playing himself out of a lot of money.

Of course, the team as a whole was horrendous Thursday, with turnover after turnover in their own end and a bizarre inability to complete a pass. Not one, or so it seemed.

Then there was Carey Price, who was just as bad as his teammates in front of him. But you know what? I and a lot of other people at the Bell Centre on Tuesday night didn't give him enough credit for that 4-0 shutout of the Sens, so I feel he should be absolved of a good portion of the blame for this 6-1 blowout. No goalie can be ready for so many turnovers, so many mental lapses. Price could have been way better, but he wasn't about to steal this game for the Habs.

Still, Carbonneau felt inclined to leave him in there for all six goals.

"He's still a young player, but you can't play 82 games for 15 years, if he plays 15 years, and not have goals scored on you," Carbonneau said. "Obviously there's a lot frustration some times, but he'll have to learn, just like the rest of the players."

Here's hoping that Carbonneau feels inclined to use the forward line combinations he finished the game with against the Flyers at home Saturday. They obviously didn't do a whole lot Thursday, but they deserve at least a full game like that to see if they work. I'm convinced they would, with the biggest beneficiary being Andrei Kostitsyn who becomes the go-to guy on that line with his brother and Tomas Plekanec.

Another thing I'd like to see changed is the order of the power play units. The emergence of Saku Koivu's line as the top unit with Robert Lang and Andrei Markov has taken, most of the time, Markov away from Alex Kovalev. That combination is what made the power play go last year, and I feel they should be starting every power play together until it's clear it's not going to work.

But Thursday night, absolutely nothing worked for the Habs, and I was expecting far more from a game featuring the two best teams 5-on-5 in the league so far, a stat that would lead you to believe this would be a hotly contested affair.

In order for that to happen, however, both teams have to compete.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Some backwards thinking in Colin Campbell's office

Let me see if I have this straight: NHL disciplinarian Colin Campbell was certain that Tom Kostopoulos did not administer a hit that Mike Van Ryn didn't know was coming, but because Van Ryn was injured, Kostopoulos got three games.

Jarkko Ruutu clearly laid out an unsuspecting Maxim Lapierre with an elbow to the head, but Lapierre wasn't injured, so Ruutu gets two games?

Does that make sense to you?

I had no problem with slapping Kostopoulos with three games, and in fact I was thinking he deserved five, but there was clearly no intent on his part to hurt Van Ryn, it was just an unfortunate outcome of his hit. But that outcome still had to be punished.

Ruutu claims that he wasn't trying to hurt Lapierre at all, calling the play an "accident." No, Jarkko, an accident is when you rear end someone while checking your blind spot (as I did recently), or when you cut yourself shaving.

An accident is not this:

That, my Finnish friend, is a pre-meditated attempt to injure, and a failed one, I might add. The fact he failed should have no impact on how long he's suspended, but in Campbell's eyes it clearly does.

It's funny, because immediately after the hit Tuesday night, I noted to the guy next to me how Lapierre would have done well to stay down a while and have the trainers come out, maybe even head to the dressing room for a couple of shifts, because then he may have drawn a major penalty. The comment was made jokingly, but the scary thing is it's probably true.

Bob McKenzie on TSN noted that this was a step in the right direction because the league in the past may not have acted on a hit like this precisely because there was no injury and only a minor penalty was called. Now Ruutu is down for his first suspension for a head shot (is that not a total stunner?), and if he does it again the next one will be more severe. At least in theory.

Ruutu's countryman Saku Koivu was asked after today's practice what he thought of the hit, and he didn't mince his words. Seeing as I have no space limitations here, I'm going to give you some raw Koivu here:

"It looked like Max kind of got away from the hit and Jarkko extended his elbow, but that’s something we’re trying to get away from. Things happen really quickly, there’s a fast pace, so you’re going to get some hits that you’re going to regret. But when you’re intentionally trying to hit somebody in the head, that’s something that doesn’t belong in the game."

Q: How do we get rid of these kinds of incidents?

A: "The first thing we need is the respect we have to have toward the other players. I understand there’s emotion involved and sometimes there’s frustration when things aren’t going your way, but trying to injure somebody, that’s not part of the game. It’s tough to draw a line between what’s intentional and an accident, but there are occasions where you can tell that there’s only thing on his mind, and that’s to hurt the player. When that happens, I think you have to be tougher on suspensions and I think that’s the only way to get the players to think more and be more fearful of those things."

Guy Carbonneau, whose membership card for the Jarkko Ruutu fan club seemingly got lost in the mail, was contrite again Wednesday when asked for his assessment of the play, having had a night to mull it over. The fact it was Ruutu who laid the hit and not, say, Mike Fisher, appeared to make the whole thing that much more distasteful to the coach.

"I think it was a deliberate head shot," he said. "We all know what kind of player he is, so I’ll leave it at that."

The other big issue discussed after practice today was Steve Bégin's future on the club. He's only played twice in the past 10 games, and he's starting to feel doubts that he'll ever be able to get back in the lineup, and rightfully so. I think he's going to need someone getting injured to have any hope of playing, and that's not something you want to be wishing for while watching your teammates play from the press box.

Bégin and Carbonneau had a chat prior to Wednesday's practice, but I have trouble understanding what Carbonneau could possibly tell him to make him feel better. What do you say, that you're simply not talented enough to play on this team any more, but be ready in case we need you even though you have little to no hope of playing when everyone's healthy?

Carbonneau laid out the situation quite clearly for us today, and it seems Mathieu Dandenault and Bégin are going to be regulars in the press box quite soon.

"We obviously didn't sign Geroges Laraque to sit in the stands, so that's one less job. A guy like Maxim Lapierre has been playing very well since the start of the season, so that's two fewer jobs. So there are three players fighting for one job."

However, earlier in the season, Carbonneau noted how well Tom Kostopoulos was playing and how hard it would be to take him out of the lineup. So when he gets back from that suspension, I would have to believe Bégin and Dandenault will be doing a lot of spectating.

What I would be worried about if I were Carbonneau is that both Bégin and Dandenault are in their contract years, along with 11 of their teammates. Bégin is normally a team guy to the bone who would never want to rock the boat, but all of a sudden he's complaining to some of my colleagues that he wants to play and he's not happy.

Could that have anything to do with his next contract? You'd be a fool to think otherwise, but this is the danger of creating a situation where over half the team is playing for a big deal. The guys who don't get to play start seeing dollars fly out the window with each passing game, and all of a sudden maintaining team chemistry by keeping quiet becomes a lot less important.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

"It wasn't far from perfect"

That was Guy Carbonneau's assessment of his team's 4-0 win over the Ottawa Senators, and while I believe the Canadiens recent history of laying eggs against this team had something to do with the coach's euphoric mood Tuesday night, he wasn't that far off the mark.

When you consider the mini firestorm that was brewing in this city after the 6-3 embarrassment in Toronto, with call-in shows and the blogosphere alike raging on about how poorly the Habs have been playing of late and how important it was for them to turn around an 8-2-2 season.

If that makes any sense.

The Canadiens were indeed playing poorly and the Leafs game was a joke of an effort, but things had not gone that awry in Habs land. Regardless, Carbonneau acknowledged after the game that the hysteria made it that much more important for his team to come out and make a statement.

"It's definitely the best 60 minutes we've played this year, probably the last couple of years," Carbonneau said. "With everything that was said the last few days and the way we played in Toronto, I think there was probably some nervousness...But this team has always responded to a tough time, and they didn't disappoint me tonight."

Carbonneau also noted how it's a little more difficult to manage a brewing powder keg of discontent when you coach in a city like Montreal.

"If we had come home to Columbus after losing in Toronto like that," he said, "no one would have talked about it for two days straight."

Christopher Higgins dedicated his first career hat trick to his mother Sue, but he might as well have dedicated to the new version of himself.

He was everywhere Tuesday night, creating turnovers on the forecheck and serving as essentially a perfect complement to Saku Koivu and Alex Tanguay, which is exactly what Carbonneau wants from him.

"It was a great game, now I think he needs to remember it and pay like that every night," Carbonneau said. "What gave Saku's line success at the beginning of the season was that Gullaume (Latendresse) worked along the boards and created space for the other two guys. That's what Chris needs to do, and he did it tonight."

I personally was happy to see that Ryan O'Byrne was in the lineup Tuesday because the game would be a good test of what looked to be an increasingly fragile psyche. Every time he found himself on the ice with Jason Spezza and Dany Heatley, I held my breath. But the fact he was put in those situations showed a willingness by the coaching staff to give him a chance, and he grabbed it in this one by playing generally mistake-free hockey and making a head-up play that led to the second goal for Higgins off a wonderful feed from Sergei Kostitsyn.

"We spoke to Ryan after the Toronto game and again a bit yesterday," Carbonneau said. "He proved to us last year that he could play in the NHL...but Ryan was thinking too much about the mistakes he was making. Tonight, he played with passion."

The more passion replaces nerves in his game, the less you'll hear about the Canadiens dire need for a fourth defenceman.

A final note on the game was that the overall defensive improvement by the Habs from Saturday to Tuesday was no coincidence, as it paralleled the return of Roman Hamrlik to the lineup. It is impossible to deny his importance to the team, considering the Habs only three-game losing streak last season came while he was hurt and Montreal is now 2-4-0 in games he's missed over the last two years.

O'Byrne's play on Tuesday is very heavily linked to the guy he spent most of the night playing with.

What a response

Granted, it came against an Ottawa Senators team that is still finding itself, but the Montreal Canadiens response Tuesday night to their 6-3 loss in Toronto was more than emphatic.

The Senators had maybe five legitimate scoring chances in the game, and on every one Carey Price was there to shut the door in posting his first shutout of the season, and his first since April 1 in a 3-0 win over these same Sens.

Christopher Higgins' first career hat trick may be the trigger needed for him to go on a little streak here, and the Habs showed some real character in playing what was likely their best game of the season when they needed it most.

Higgins had nine two-goal games in his career coming into Tuesday, and I was convinced this was going to be his 10th. But when presented with a breakaway from centre ice - ample time to overthink what he was going to do and ultimately blow it - Higgins made no mistake. I'm not so sure he scores that goal last season, when he often thouhgt himself into prolonged slumps.

If this is a sign of a maturing Higgins, one who could possibly pot 30-35 goals, that's good news for the Habs.

Also, in case no one has noticed, that's points in three straight games for Sergei Kostitsyn.

More soon...

Monday, November 10, 2008

A telltale game

Tuesday night's tilt against the Ottawa Senators will go a long way toward determining just what kind of team the Montreal Canadiens are this season.

More specifically, it will tell us if the Habs are really an improved version of last year's squad, or if this is a completely different team that needs to forge its own identity.

Last year's Habs would take the humiliation they suffered Saturday night and channel it into their next game. More often than not, it resulted in a victory, and a convincing one at that.

Will the Canadiens best players be their best players, as Guy Carbonneau said they needed to be following the loss to the Leafs?

The matchup with the Sens is a favourable one for the Canadiens, and you probably couldn't find a better one for the team to bounce back against. The Sens, to be generous, have been erratic all season and are a team in disarray to a far greater extent than the Canadiens. And the players who have been in Montreal a while remember all too well how Daniel Alfredsson, Dany Heatley and Jason Spezza have ripped the Canadiens to shreds over the past few years, so getting up for the game should not be an issue.

Before anyone gets too carried away with all the problems in the Canadiens play of late, they should take a look at the standings. With all their warts they've shown this season, and while playing only one of 12 games to the fullest of their potential, the Canadiens are still 8-2-2, right in the thick of it for the best record in the league. In fact, based on points percentage (as in the precentage of total points available earned by a team), the Habs .750 number is third to only San Jose (.813) and Detroit (.769).

If the debacle in Toronto truly serves as a wakeup call, imagine what this team can accomplish when it finally clicks?

Bouncing over to the three-game sentence handed down to Tom Kostopoulos, I think it's a slap on the wrist, but I'm not the least bit surprised. Colin Campbell gave Randy Jones two games last year for knocking Patrice Bergeron out for an entire year, so in that sense I guess this suspension is severe, because the situations on the two hits are very similar.

But just because Campbell gave Jones a cream puff punsihment last year, does that mean Kostopoulos should get the same treatment now? Does "legal" precedent apply in a league where one man is responsible for all disciplinary decisions? Should we not allow for the likely possibility that Campbell made a mistake last year?

I'm just wondering what happens the next time a guy commits the sin, as Mike Van Ryn apparently did here, of deciding to change directions with the puck along the boards. Why is this a factor in the sentence? Is it so unheard of that a player decides to change directions to avoid a hit?

It's high time that players, who often say they should be allowed to police themselves, start looking at videos of situations like these and make the conscious decision that when a guy is vulnerable along the boards, it's a more prudent move to play the puck. That, in my opinion, would be a far more effective way of self-policing than dropping your gloves and pounding a guy into oblivion.

Sunday, November 9, 2008

Kostopoulos needs to take a seat

It appears NHL disciplinarian Colin Campbell will be taking a look at Tom Kostopoulos' hit from behind on Mike Van Ryn in Saturday night's 6-3 Habs loss to the Leafs.

I've seen the hit several times now, and I suggest you do the same before getting angry with what I'm about to say, but I feel Kostopoulos needs to be suspended for this:

I can already hear people saying that Van Ryn shouldn't have put himself in that position, that Kostopoulos had no chance to let up, but frankly I'm getting sick of that argument. Kostopoulos takes Van Ryn's head and drives it into the boards while he was completely vulnerable. It was just like Randy Jones did to Patrice Bergeron last year, and the same asinine excuses blaming Bergeron for the injury were made then as well.

It's high time these kinds of dangerous hits be eliminated from hockey. I have no reason to doubt that Kostopoulos didn't intend to hurt Van Ryn, that he was sincerely "just trying to get the puck," as he said after the game.

But you don't suspend players for intent, you suspend them for actions. And the actions of Kostopoulos, and Jones before him, need to be eliminated.

Now, the question is how long? Jones only got two games, seemingly because it was generally accepted that Bergeron deserved some degree of the blame for his own injury by turning his back on an oncoming defender. Did Van Ryn not do the same thing? Does that make the hit any less dangerous? Is Kostopoulos not the one ultimately responsible for giving Van Ryn a concussion, broken nose and broken finger?

I think five games would be a fair number that will make forecheckers and defencemen think twice before running at a guy along the boards while he's looking for the puck. I understand you're supposed to play the body first, and that should always be a fundamental philosophy of hockey, but there are times when you can choose to play the puck. This was one of those times.

Saturday, November 8, 2008

A beneficial stinker?

Well, this was bound to happen at some point, and the fact it came in Toronto on Hall of Fame weekend in front of a national audience may drive the point home even harder to the Montreal Canadiens.

The Habs have been getting away with playing portions of games all season, and the tone for this game was set in the first when it was clear the Maple Leafs were ready to work.

The Canadiens, quite clearly, weren't.

Guy Carbonneau looked like a ghost talking to reporters after the game, and he wasn't very happy.

"That's the most embarrassing game we've had since I've been the coach," he said.

Strong words considering the team he had his first year behind the bench, but understandable as well. Carbonneau's past teams weren't expected to walk into Toronto and spank the Leafs. They simply weren't that good, so when they lost it was almost as if it was expected.

But this team is good, at least on paper, and they shouldn't let a team as bad - again, at least on paper - as the Leafs do what they did Saturday night in a 6-3 win.

Carbonneau considered his team's commitment to the game "was zero" and that they lost every battle, which is a fair assessment.

"I think they've just learned that if you don't work in this league, you won't win," he said.

This might be a cliché, but when Carbonneau said "our best players need to be our best players," he was talking about specific people, if not one specific person. From the looks of it, I would think he meant Alex Kovalev.

The Artist played 3:17 on the power play Saturday night, which was the most on his line, but still more than two mintes fewer than Saku Koivu. Last year, it wasn't uncommon to see Kovalev play the entire two minutes of a power play, and his line was clearly the top unit.

Now, the top unit is clearly Koivu with Robert Lang, Christopher Higgins, Alex Tanguay and Andrei Markov.

I don't want to be an alarmist, but I'm wondering what Kovalev thinks about his usage with the man advantage, because it wasn't that long ago that he and the coach did not see eye to eye and ice time was a big part of that icy relationship. That was only two seasons ago, and I'm not sure if that's what's in the process of happening here, but it very well might be.

The benefit of this game is that it shows the Habs they can't simply show up and win. There is a process, and it's one they haven't really respected up until now. But when you're winning despite "cutting corners by a lot," as Carbonneau called it, it's hard to break bad habits.

A pair of games like this and the one in Columbus on Friday might be the tonic this team needed for that message to get through.

Mark that down as a win

It may be filed under the shootout loss column in the standings, but the Canadiens should feel pretty good about themselves for escaping Columbus with a point last night. The six-day layoff was evident and Columbus is exactly the type of tight-checking, boring team that usually gives the Canadiens fits.

Just a few points on the game here as I have to rush out to have my winter tires installed (have you done it yet? Dec. 15 is around the corner folks). First off, I'm not sure how much more proof Guy Carbonneau needs that the Kostitsyn brothers should be playing together. Again last night, they get an important late-game shift on the ice together, and they combine forces to score the equalizer. It's as if they share the same brain.

A line of Andrei, Sergei and Tomas Plekanec would be lights out, and a Robert Lang, Alex Kovalev, Guillaume Latendresse combination would be pretty darned good as well. Especially considering all the flak Sergei has been taking for his "slow start" (I'm not sure what people expected out of the guy, but I think he's been fine), this move makes more than good sense to me. Tonight in Toronto represents a perfect opportunity to give it a shot.

Latendresse, by the way, was the least used of Carbonneau's skaters with 9:20 of ice time, again a victim of the Habs handing Columbus eight power plays. Kudos to the penalty killers for keeping the Jackets off the board, and getting two goals from the power play could be a sign that the unit has come to life. Again, running into the Maple Leafs and their 29th-ranked penalty killing tonight could be an excellent cure for whatever's ailing the power play.

Finally, Andrei Markov spent 28:32 on the ice last night in Columbus after playing only 21:54 against the Islanders last Saturday. I see absolutely no reason why Markov should be playing fewer than 28 minutes a night, throw him out there with Hamrlik every now and then if you have to. When you have one of the top five defencemen in the league, you should ride that horse as much as you can.

Friday, November 7, 2008

Is this guy for real?

Working in journalism, the number one skill you need to learn pretty quickly is how to identify an agenda. They come at you from all sides, and often times when a reporter gets an "exclusive" it's actually a well-placed leak that served the purposes of whoever the source was.

Why this lesson in journalism 101? Well, it's because of La Presse's scoop this morning that Research in Motion's Jim Balsillie says that the Montreal Canadiens are on the market.

Of course, La Presse business reporter Sophie Cousineau was not interviewing Balsillie with this in mind. The way the information came out - at least the way Cousineau tells it, and I have no reason to doubt her honesty on this - leads me to believe that Balsillie had a major agenda to push here, especially with the whole bit about how he wanted to be photographed with his BlackBerry with the Habs logo on the screen.

Balsillie's lawyer Rich Rodier can deny this all he wants, but why on earth would Cousineau lie about it? As I was writing this, I heard on RDS that Balsillie has written a letter of apology to Gillett while he continues to deny the La Presse story. If he didn't say what Cousineau says he said, why write the letter?

But the main issue I have with this story - or non-story, as it were - is trying to figure out what agenda could Balsillie possibly be pushing by offering up this information? Is he simply trying to elicit a reaction from the league to show them how serious he is in his bid to buy a team, even if it's the most storied team in the league's history? Or is this simply a guy who enjoys seeing his name in the newspaper, and it's been a while since he was the centre of a story?

The stunt he pulled when he started taking ticket orders for the Hamilton Predators was an obvious media campaign meant to ridicule the league into granting him a team, but I have trouble finding the motivation for this ploy. First of all, George Gillett has absolutely no reason to sell this team because it is a cash cow, and the Bell Centre is even more of an asset for Gillett since it has more paying customers pass through its doors for concerts and sporting events than any other building in North America.

The one thing I could see is that the Canadiens value right now probably has never been higher (pegged at $334 million, according to Forbes magazine), so maybe Gillett would want to sell to make the most of his initial $185 million investment for the Bell Centre and 80.1 per cent of the Habs. But I highly doubt that, and I think Balsillie knows it.

In any case, on behalf of Habs fans, I would implore Gillett not to sell the team to anyone, let alone someone like Balsillie. Gillett's greatest asset over the course of his ownership has been his ability to admit that he knows little about hockey, other than knowing that he enjoys watching it. So he's hired good hockey people and allowed those people to do their jobs, with little to no interference from him.

If Balsillie were in charge, I don't think he'd be able to do the same thing.