Saturday, January 31, 2009

That monkey was getting pretty heavy

Forgetting for a moment, if that's possible, how monstrous it would have been for the Canadiens to lose to the Los Angeles Kings on home ice Saturday afternoon, I found it interesting to hear coach Guy Carbonneau talk about the impact scoring the equalizing goal might have on Christopher Higgins.

Before going into the coach's comments, let's say that Higgins was extremely relieved standing half dressed at his stall addressing the media after the game. He says he was more relieved for the team than himself, but let's be honest, the guy needed a big goal. And perhaps none were bigger than this, as a five-game losing streak going into a contest with the mighty Boston Bruins on Super Bowl Sunday would not have been an appetizing thought.

So to score a hard-working goal that allowed his team to avoid a five-game streak could not have been better for Higgins, who hadn't scored since Nov. 26, a span of eight games without a goal.

But when Carbonnneau was asked what it could mean to Higgins to score such an important goal, instead of talking about how it might take some of the pressure off, the coach heaped on a little more.

"We’ve been talking about it since before Christmas that we have a number of players whose production has dropped compared to last season," Carbonneau said. "If we want to stay near the lead pack, if we want to have success between now and the end of the season and in the playoffs, those players are going to have to produce. Maybe a goal like that will get Chris going again."

It was a strange reaction to a perfectly natural question, one that could just as easily apply to Tomas Plekanec scoring as well, and I kind of read it to mean that as nice as Saturday's win was, the coach is taking a wait-and-see approach to the weekend.

Beating the L.A. Kings is one thing, no matter how well they're playing right now, but if the Canadiens are able to beat the Boston Bruins on Sunday it will show that the team has turned a corner. In fact, just competing in that game will likely serve the same purpose.

Except that if the Canadiens play the way they did on Saturday, the Bruins will run them out of their own building.

Down a goal in the third, the Habs only had two shots on goal nearly 15 minutes in when they were handed a power play after a bone-headed cross-checking penalty to Kyle Calder. The best chance on that power play belonged to the Kings, as Carey Price kept his team in the game by stopping Alexander Frolov on a breakaway with just under four minutes to play.

Again, when asked about the save after the game, Carbonneau was reserved in his comments and very reluctant to heap praise on his young goalie. He acknowledged the save was important, but the focus of his answer was that the team will need good goaltending until the end of the season to have success.

Overall, I found the Canadiens were often sloppy in their own end, with two goals coming off giveaways in their own end, though Josh Gorges can't really be blamed for his because he had no business being on the ice in the first place.

The monster elbow he took from repeat offender Denis Gauthier was a vicious blow, one that needs to result in a significant suspension, but I wouldn't be surprised if it was only two games because that's how the NHL handles discipline.

Six games for noticing how everyone likes your "sloppy seconds," two games for trying to remove someone's head from his neck.

Makes sense to me.

UPDATE: For those who didn't see the Gauthier elbow, here it is:

What does a letter mean?

Just sitting on press row at the Bell Centre and the lineup sheets were just handed out, confirming something that crossed my mind during the steamrolling in Florida.

With all the potential assistant captains and Saku Koivu now back in the lineup, it is Mike Komisarek that's still wearing the "A" on his shoulder. It's the "A" that was on his buddy Christopher Higgins' shoulder ever since last season, and the fact it was removed from there has happened with little fanfare.

So what exactly does this mean?

First of all, it shows Komisarek how important the team thinks he is to its success. He's a guy who's very well liked in the room, and seemingly by the coaches judging by his presence behind the bench while he was injured.

That kind of sentiment could go a long way toward Komisarek accepting a bit of a hometown discount when it comes time to negotiate a new contract after the season is over (or, if Bob Gainey shows some wisdom here, long before that).

But what does it mean to Higgins? A guy who is already somewhat prone to spasms of insecurity, I can't imagine he took this news very well. It's also going to likely cause more than a few sleepless nights between now and March 4, as he is likely to be included in any and all rumoured deals that Gainey is supposedly trying to swing.

If I were Higgins, having that "A" on my sweater would provide some sort of security, a sense that the team feels I am a part of the core moving forward. If he never had the "A" to begin with, not having it now probably wouldn't mean that much. But to have it taken away is a whole other matter altogether.

The puck's about to be dropped, so it's time to see whether or not this weekend will define the Canadiens season, either in a positive or negative way.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Is it time to panic yet?

Um, yeah, I would say so. In fact, I would bet more than a dollar that we're going to see some panicky roster moves from Guy Carbonneau this Saturday at the Bell Centre after his team got embarrassed 5-1 in South Florida on Thursday night.

Well, actually, the Habs were embarrassed all over the Sunshine State this week, losing by a combined score of 10-4 to the lowly Lightning and the surging Panthers.

A 5-1 score is usually a pretty good indication of how the game went, but not in this case, I'm afraid, because the Habs were far worse than that.

A few moments that stick out in my mind that showed things just aren't right with this team right now:

Saku Koivu has an open net yet gets stopped by a sliding Keith Ballard who bails out Tomas Vokoun...Mike Komisarek goes to erase someone in his own end with a big hit and misses completely, arriving a half second late and taking himself completely out of the play, just like he did when he was a rookie...Alex Kovalev picking up a puck at his blue line with nothing but open ice in front of him and behind him, yet being caught from behind by a Panthers backchecker before he even hit the offensive zone...Richard Zednik waltzing around both Josh Gorges and Carey Price to score a highlight reel goal...

I could go on for ever, but the list of positives on the Canadiens side would take all of two seconds to type out: the game is over. That's the only thing they can take from this game and this whole road trip they finished up with four straight losses, two of them to the Thrashers and Lightning.

Price has given up 14 goals in three starts since returning from injury, and though his teammates didn't help him at all Thursday night, he wasn't all that sharp either. And when Carbonneau starts throwing his goalie under the bus, it means something is not right in Dodge.

"Abandoned? Yes and no," Carbonneau said when asked whether he thought the Habs hung his goalie out to dry in the third period, when odd-man rushes and breakaways were the norm for the quicker, more energetic Panthers. "When you're not playing well you sometimes need a goalie to stand on his head, to win you a game. We can’t blame him for every loss, but we talked to him about this. We’re not going to win when we’re giving up four or five goals a game."

Fine, that's a fair point. But how do you explain the lack of purpose from the skaters, the sense that teams from two different leagues were playing on the same ice surface? Carbonneau chalked it up to a willingness to empty the tank on every shift when you're playing desperate hockey, which the Canadiens clearly aren't doing right now.

So now, for probably the first time in his head coaching career, Guy Carbonneau is faced with some extremely tough decisions with very dire consequences. He hinted prior to Thursday's game that a veteran would be the next to sit. Everyone, myself included, assumed that meant Tomas Plekanec, but he actually responded to the threat Thursday by centring Montreal's best line between Sergei Kostitsyn and Steve Bégin.

So who sits? Robert Lang because he still can't win an important faceoff to save his life, yet is the team's leading goal scorer? Kovalev, because he's completely dogged it the past four games, except in the all-star game? Andrei Kostitsyn, who hasn't been a threat since his goal streak ended? Can you really sit Saku Koivu and Chris Higgins so soon after they came back from injuries?

Who will be made an example of? Carbonneau better choose wisely, because he doesn't want to trigger a revolt the way he did when he benched Craig Rivet a couple of years back, yet he wants the player to be enough of a name to get the team's attention.

This is a huge weekend for this team, and continuing the same disinterested play the Habs have shown in their past five periods of hockey could very easily lead to two more losses, which would make the streak six games.

At that point, what was a given only last week that the Habs will make the playoffs will quickly start creeping toward the realm of doubt. And once that doubt enters the Bell Centre, it can snowball.

This team needs to cut that potential avalanche off at the pass and get a win Saturday afternoon. Anything less could lead to a disaster.

An innovative evaluation tool

My colleague Robert Laflamme had an interesting story yesterday about Tomas Plekanec and why exactly he's been so average this season, to put it kindly.

Laflamme reports that Guy Carbonneau had a little chat with his underachieving centreman after Wednesday's lively morning practice session, which, by the way, was set for 9 a.m. so the team could enjoy some of the Florida sun in the afternoon. Isn't that what the all-star break is for? But I digress.

Carbonneau's evaluation of Plekanec's play so far this season is a case of someone stating the obvious, but it needs to be heard from the coach because they don't always see certain things as being quite as obvious as the rest of us. So when Carbonneau says Plekanec needs to get away from the "periphery" and go play in traffic a little more, it carries some weight.

Plekanec's response that he doesn't need the coach to tell him he's stunk, that he puts a lot of pressure on himself, is a sincere one. A lot of athletes say stuff like that, but it's not really true. In Plekanec's case, based on my dealings with him, I think a comment like that is 100 per cent real because he truly is very tough on himself and is always reluctant when praise is being heaped on him (though he hasn't really had to deal with that of late).

So you take that character trait - or flaw, depending on how you look at it - you add to that to his comment that his problems this season have more to do with his head than any injury, and you get a burning question.

Is it your contract status that's bugging you Tomas?

I heard a bunch of people talking about this on the radio yesterday, that the abundance of impending free agents on the team is having an impact on their play, most notably Plekanec and Christopher Higgins.

Personally, I'm convinced that Bob Gainey and his brain trust set the team up for this season because of the player's association had the option of opening up the collective bargaining agreement at the end of the year, an option they officially declined last Friday. Is it a coincidence that Alex Kovalev and Saku Koivu were signed to deals set to expire at the same time? Could be, but I don't think so. Same goes for Steve Bégin, Mathieu Dandenault, Francis Bouillon and all the other supporting cast types set to become free agents this summer, and I don't think Alex Tanguay or Robert Lang would be here if they had another year left on their deals.

Considering all these eternally long GUARANTEED contracts being thrown around these days, with Henrik Zetterberg of the normally prudent Detroit Red Wings being the latest one, the flexibility Gainey has given himself this summer has to be the envy of his peers.

But aside from flexibility, I'm wondering if there was something else behind that decision, somewhat of a test for his players to see how they deal with a different kind of pressure? Does Gainey really want to throw big money at a player who can't handle the "pressure" of playing for a contract? Because if he can't handle that pressure, how will he handle the Stanley Cup final?

The two impending free agents who have done themselves the biggest favours thus far are Mike Komisarek and Guillaume Latendresse. Komisarek's steady play this season essentially guarantees he'll cash in huge this summer, and Gainey probably wishes he would have locked the bruising defenceman into a long-term deal two years ago. Latendresse won't get a massive raise if only because he's a restricted free agent, but he's definitely played his way into the team's plans for the future.

Plekanec and Higgins have easily hurt themselves the most with their performances this season, though Higgins has the mitigating factor of injuries. Still, his play when healthy has been unspectacular, while Plekanec has reverted back to his "little girl" (his words, not mine) ways of last year's playoffs.

Plekanec seems to have avoided being banished to the press box for tonight's game against the Panthers as it's Ryan O'Byrne and Max Pacioretty who won't dress, but if Plekanec doesn't pick it up in a hurry he'll probably be the next on the list.

I say that if Higgins, Plekanec and all the others who are supposedly withering under the pressure of lacking job security aren't up to the task, then they're not likely to be someone Gainey is interested in having on his team.

Then again, the contracts could also have absolutely nothing to do with anything, and Gainey may not have even noticed that 16 contracts come off the books at the same time this summer.


Wednesday, January 28, 2009

A disturbing trend

First off, sorry I've been off the job so long. All-Star weekend was more work that I had bargained for and I just didn't have time to get to the blog, at least not as much as I would have liked. Anyhow, I won't bore with more details about the all-star game, other than to say how interesting it was to work an event where practically all the NHL's media were in one place. The Habs dressing room never felt so small.

My story coming out of the all-star game was about whether or not winning the MVP could propel Alex Kovalev to rebound in the second half of the season, but the main story of the weekend was obviously the Vincent Lecavalier love-in with the Montreal fans.

So the script could not have been better written than to have the Habs in Tampa Bay for the first game out of the break, and after a first period in which Montreal outshot the Lightning 20-7, you can't help but wonder whether or not Lecavalier kind of wished he was in the visiting dressing room.

But the Habs only came out of that period with a 2-1 lead, partly because of the brilliance of Mike Smith in the Lightning goal, and partly because of a lack of opportunism on the part of the Habs. Having a 5-on-3 power play for over a minute and coming up empty was far more costly than it appeared at the time, and that old adage of how killing a big penalty switches the momentum certainly applied there.

Both the Canadiens and the Lightning were different teams in the second period, and though Tampa Bay benefited from a few fortuitous bounces, the fact remains they took advantage of an opportunity to get back in the game, scoring the next four goals and ultimately coming away with a 5-3 win.

Prior to the break, when the Habs laid down in losses in Atlanta and New Jersey, it was easy to chalk that up to players anticipating the all-star break and lacking a bit of focus. But that same excuse can't apply here, and it's becoming relatively critical that Guy Carbonneau and his staff fix what isn't working.

That would be a recurring problem of playing games one period at a time, with the energy level bouncing up and down like a super ball. I'm not a coach and I have no idea what goes on in an NHL dressing room between periods, but there has to be something Carbonneau and his assistants can do to make sure their team maintains the same level of play through the intermission, isn't there?

Watching Tuesday night's game, I couldn't help but think back to the 3-1 loss to the Boston Bruins on Jan. 13, when Montreal was all over them in the first and fired 17 shots at Tim Thomas, yet went into the first intermission in a scoreless tie. There was a lot of encouraging signs in that first period, yet somehow you knew the Bruins were going to win because they had weathered the storm, one the Habs would have almost no chance of maintaining.

The same thing applied against the Lightning on Tuesday night, when the Habs should have come out of the first with at least a two-goal lead. And, come to think of it, didn't the same thing happen to this team in last year's playoff ouster to the Flyers, when the Habs consistently out-chanced Philly yet couldn't finish their opportunities?

That may be a bit of stretch, but the inability to put together a full 60 minutes of hockey is something that has plagued the Canadiens for much of the season, yet they've been able to get by on superior talent. The Habs record is far from being a disaster at 27-14-6, except that when they face the East's top teams (Bruins, Capitals, Devils, Rangers and Flyers) the Habs have a pretty pedestrian record of 6-6-2.

Before going off the deep end here, let's make it clear that there are more positives than negatives surrounding the Canadiens this season. But Thursday night's game against the Panthers now becomes extremely crucial in avoiding the team's first four-game losing streak in two seasons. That game will not be easy as the Panthers are surging right now, with only one regulation loss in their last 10 games.

You have to figure that Bob Gainey and company are busy evaluating the team with the trade deadline about six weeks away, and a serious lack of guts has to be disconcerting to a man who built a Hall of Fame career largely on that.

But if there is another trend the Habs have shown this season it is their capacity to come up with their best games whenever they are left for dead. Their ability to continue that trend Thursday night will likely go a long way to determining what kind of stretch run we can expect from this team.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

All-Star update

Just waiting for the skills competition to get started here at the Bell Centre so I thought I'd give you all an idea of what I've been up to over the past couple of pretty hectic days.

Friday was media availability day, which means every player on both teams had to sit at a booth and wait for pesky reporters to come talk to them. I was assigned to write a story on the All-Star goalies, which you can read here, but I was most interested by a conversation I had with Jay Bouwmeester.

Bouwmeester is really not a very chatty guy, so I figured a fay where had to sit and wait for people to ask him questions would be like torture to him. Still, I was determined to try to get some nugget of information out of him as to whether or not he's going to sign a contract extension with Florida before the March 4 trade deadline.

Bouwmeester wouldn't give anything away regarding his new contract, despite my needling him, but that was to be expected. He did, however, provide a few hints regarding where he might finish his career, and it would surprise me if it was in Montreal.

He spoke quite glowingly about the Panthers recent performance, saying this is the most fun he's had playing hockey since starting his career.

"We feel down there that we're a pretty good hockey team, we just fly under the radar a little bit," Bouwmeester said. "But that's not necessarily a bad thing."

I kind of jumped on that theme, because if he wants to fly under the radar that means he likely won't be signing with any team in Canada should he hit the free agent market this summer. He did admit he liked his anonymity living in Miami, and while he wouldn't come right out and say that he would never play in a major hockey market, he definitely gave that impression.

Of course, he would have no say of where he would play if the Panthers were to trade him at the deadline, though I'd be surprised if they did if they remain in contention for a playoff spot. As disastrous as it would be to lose Bouwmeester for nothing, the Panthers are a franchise that desperately needs a playoff appearance,and they could always try to sign Bouwmeester after the season.

But if indeed he is available, he would be the perfect piece for the Canadiens, though the rental would likely be extremely costly.

This morning I covered the Eastern and Western Conference practices and was stunned to see 20,000 fans in the stands. I wrote a story about how the Habs last two power play quarterbacks, Sheldon Souray and Mark Streit, were both making their returns to our city as All-Stars after the Habs essentially deemed them expendable. You can read my story here.

I tried my hardest to get one of them to say something to the effect that they love to see how the Habs power play has been garbage most of the season, or that their appearance here gives them a chance to shove their success down the Habs throat, but obviously neither of them would bite.

Here, however, is one funny moment from Souray's session with the media Friday (for which he was about a half hour late, by the way, strolling in with a coffee in hand, which adds some meaning to this quote):

"Edmonton’s a lot like Montreal, without the food and a lot of the, uh, um, uh, the nightlife, the watering holes," Souray said.

Further to that, Mike Komisarek was talking to reporters Saturday morning about his chances in the hardest shot competition, which he just finished doing, beating Mark Streit by 0.2 mph. Souray said that Komisarek may actually try to block one of the shots during the competition. When told of Souray's comments, Komisarek shot back.

"I don't think Shelly's well-rested goiung into this," he said. "His eyes are a little fuzzy this morning."

So that's it for now, the breakaway elimination shootout is about to start and I'm going to check it out. I'll file from the actual "game" on Sunday.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Let the competition commence

The Canadiens announced this afternoon that Kyle Chipchura and Gregory Stewart have been sent back down to the Hamilton Bulldogs, and unless this was a cap-related move it means we can expect to see Christopher Higgins in uniform when the Habs come back from the All-Star break.

That brings the Canadiens roster down to 21, or two below the limit, meaning that even when (or is it if?) Georges Laraque comes back there will still be some breathing room as far as roster room goes. However, once Laraque returns it will mean two healthy bodies in the stands every night.

From the looks of it right now, it would appear that both Max Pacioretty and Matt D'Agostini should be safe. Guy Carbonneau showed in last night 5-2 loss in New Jersey what he thinks of Pacioretty when he got him away from two coasting veterans and played him with Saku Koivu and D'Agostini.

To me, that appears to be a line that might work, with Pacioretty filling the role Higgins used to as Koivu's grinder and puck retriever, while Matt D'Agostini can play the role once filled by Michael Ryder as the right-handed trigger man. Koivu, Higgins and Ryder had some good stretches together, so it might be worth a shot to see if this younger version could work as well.

That would leave Higgins to play alongside Tomas Plekanec and Alex Kovalev, and he might add something valuable to those two, both of whom I expect to leave this week's lethargy behind and put together a solid second half.

The odd man out in this scenario is unfortunately Steve Bégin, who doesn't really deserve it but, as Carbonneau said himself, life isn't always fair. The only way I can see him getting in the lineup would be on the Maxim Lapierre line, which is slowly becoming Carbonneau's go-to unit. Whenever the team needs a jolt of energy, or needs to change the momentum of the game, Carbonneau taps Lapierre on the shoulder. So how or why would Carbonneau break up this group to make room for Bégin?

Things will start to get tricky when Alex Tanguay gets back from injury, but that's not for a little while yet. Logic would dictate that one of Pacioretty or D'Agostini would get bumped at that point, but a lot of things can happen between now and Tanguay's return.

Until then, it will be a heavy dose of internal competition.

An opportunity lost

Last year on almost the exact same date, Jan. 24 to be precise, in the final game prior to the All-Star break the Habs walked into New Jersey and were down 3-1 heading into the third period.

Nobody in their right mind believed the Habs would be able to come back, especially since they had lost their last eight straight in the Garden State.

But third period goals from Bryan Smolinski, Saku Koivu and Chris Higgins led the Canadiens to their most unprobable win in recent memory, all against Martin Brodeur. For a lot of people, myself included, that win proved to me that the Canadiens surprising record at that stage of the season was not a mirage. This team was indeed for real.

Fast forward 362 days to Wednesday night's game in New Jersey, and the Habs found themselves in the exact same position. Heading into the third down 3-1, the Canadiens had a chance to prove something, just like they did a year earlier. They didn't necessarily need to win the game, but they needed to show they cared enough to put up a fight, and that simply didn't happen as the Habs eventually succumbed by a 5-2 score.

When Guy Carbonneau said some players were already on vacation, and that he felt it throughout the mini road trip, it was pretty clear who he meant. I've been pretty easy on Alex Kovalev this year because, despite his drop in production, I don't feel he's played much worse than last year. But in the last two games he completely dogged it. Not something that's very becoming of the Eastern Conference All-Star captain.

Consider for a moment that Kovalev (1:04) and Tomas Plekanec (1:16) combined for less time on the power play than their regular linemate and rookie Max Pacioretty (2:40), who Carbonneau took off their line in the third and played with the returning Saku Koivu and fellow rookie Matt D'Agostini. You can only assume that was a quarantine type of move by the coach, to make sure the chronic laziness of his linemates didn't spread to the energized rookie winger.

All that being said, all is not lost, of course. Maybe Kovalev and Plekanec were out of gas and legitimately need the break, maybe the Devils were just that much better than the Canadiens, or maybe it's just one more loss.

But if it's not just that, if it's a sign of a more general malaise considering it's lasted two games now, then Carbonneau and friends have a problem on their hands.

I'm guessing it's not that big of a deal, but I'm also pretty positive it will hamper Carbonneau's ability to enjoy the All-Star festivities this weekend. Do you think he'll ask Eastern Conference head coach Claude Julien to bench Kovalev if he dogs it Sunday night as well?

Speaking of All-Star weekend, I will be covering it for The Canadian Press so I'll be posting stuff here throughout. Also, I'm going to start writing weekly posts on the Habs for a new site that's just getting started, you can check it out at

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Oh captain my captain

Habs captain Saku Koivu will return tonight in New Jersey following a 17-game absence due to a high ankle sprain.

It will be Koivu's first action since injuring the ankle on a faceoff in a Dec. 11 loss to the Tampa Bay Lightning. Though Guy Carbonneau says he will be easing Koivu back by playing him on the fourth line with Matt D'Agostini and one of Steve Bégin or Gregory Stewart, I would take that comment with a grain of salt.

Carbonneau is rarely able to resist the temptation to tinker with his lines when things aren't going well, but he hasn't done that over the past several weeks because things have been going extremely well, and he simply didn't have the bodies to shift around here and there. But with Koivu back, Tomas Plekanec may feel incited to up his level of both effort and aggressiveness because he will likely be on a short leash.

There was also news Wednesday that Carey Price will be competing in the YoungStars Game this weekend. Playing 20 minutes in the All-Star Game is one thing, but Carbonneau clearly expressed his wish that Price avoid the skills competition and here he is playing in this 3-on-3 offensive exhibition where he will likely be called on to test his wonky ankle on several occasions.

Columbus rookie sensation Steve Mason has bowed out to rest his back, even though he's playing for the Blue Jackets this week, while Nicklas Backstrom of the Washington Capitals has also elected not to play for the sophmore team even though he says himself that he's not even injured. Price, meanwhile, is the number one goalie on a contending team, one who admits he still has pain in his ankle, yet he'll be playing twice in a 24-hour span, albeit for short stints each time.

I'm sure Carbonneau and the rest of the Canadiens brass will watch this weekend's events holding their breath.

I won't be posting a blog hit after tonight's game because my radio show, Hump Night, will be on the air from 11 p.m. to midnight on the Team 990. You can listen to it live here, and check back Thursday for my thoughts on the game.

Also, I've finally succumbed and joined Twitter nation by adding a page for The Daily Hab-it, which you can follow here.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Back to the Future

The old Montreal Canadiens came back for a visit Tuesday night.

The ones from earlier this season, the ones who would say over and over that they needed to play 60 minutes, that they couldn't take teams lightly, that they needed a stronger start to the game.

The Canadiens Tuesday night waltzed into Atlanta expecting to walk out with two points almost by divine right, and by the time they realized that wouldn't happen, it was too late.

The game reminded me a lot of when the Habs went to Long Island on Nov. 1, ell behind 4-1 after sleepwalking through the first two periods, and pulled out a 5-4 with a wild third period from Tomas Plekanec, Alex Kovalev and Andrei Kostitsyn.

This time, down only 3-2, the Habs tried the same thing by besieging the net of Thrashers goalie Kari Lehtonen, except they came up empty and got what they deserved for allowing a team like Atlanta to hold a lead.

Now, a lot of people are going to be heaping on Jaroslav Halak, including head coach Guy Carbonneau who wasn't shy to note that he "needed a goalie in the first period that could make some saves."

Halak definitely allowed two soft goals and added to a reputation of playing one bad game for every three solid ones. But Carbonneau was also quick to point out that Halak alone was not to blame and that he "didn't have a lot soldiers" in this game.

Something Carbonneau has said after nearly every loss this season truly applied Tuesday night, that if you don't work, you don't win. An idea of where he believed his team's work ethic was at Tuesday can be seen in the ice time doled out to his forwards. The leader in that category? Maxim Lapierre at 17:27.

That, ultimately, speaks far louder than anything Carbonneau could have told reporters after the game.

But, if there is a bright side to be taken from this game, at least the power play connected again, Carey Price was given a bit of action before being thrown to the wolves in New Jersey Wednesday night, and Carbonneau also has a perfect excuse to dress one of Saku Koivu or Christopher Higgins or both for that game.

A blowout victory in Atlanta would have made it tough to justify switching anything up at The Rock. But now Carbonneau can not only start the project of smoothly bringing his captain and assistant captain back, but if he chose to do so he could send a little warning shot to someone like Tomas Plekanec by sitting him out a game.

I seriously doubt that will happen, but it seems to me that tactic has worked wonders for other players in turning their games around this season. Just look at Lapierre, Guillaume Latendresse, Sergei Kostitsyn, Mathieu Dandenault and Steve Begin. Each of them benefited from some time in the press box and returned with some extra fire, which is something Plekanec has lacked for long stretches this season, including Tuesday night in Atlanta. Maybe a healthy scratch is what he needs to snap out of his funk.

Monday, January 19, 2009

How costly is a cruddy power play?

I've been assuming for most of this season that the Habs power play has likely cost them a few wins. But it dawned on me that with a 27-11-6 record, just how many more wins would a properly functioning power play actually get them? More importantly, how do you figure something like that out?

I don't think you really can, but I thought I'd try anyway.

I started by looking at last season and checking how many games the Canadiens had without a power play goal. There were only 25 out of 82, and the Habs record in those games was 8-14-3. This season the Canadiens have already had 21 out of 44 games where they failed to click on the power play, yet their record in those contests is a healthy 12-6-3.

So what does that prove? Not a whole lot.

But let's say the Canadiens had a decent power play this season, would their record be a whole lot better than it is now? Well, if you consider a power play that scores one in five times to be pretty good, then I'm not so sure. In order for the Montreal power play to be at 20 per cent this season, they would have needed to score only nine more goals than the 33 they have in 210 chances so far.

Of the Habs nine losses this season when they failed to score a power play goal, three were in overtime or the shootout and another three were by a single goal. It could be argued that in those six games the power play's ineptitude cost the Canadiens one or two points, even though that argument would be somewhat faulty because there's nothing guaranteeing that those extra power play goals would come when they were needed most.

In any case, the discussion is kind of silly because there's little doubt the Habs would be a better team with a better record if the power play was at least above average, let alone the best in the league. But I found it interesting to see to what extent the Habs relied on the power play for wins last year, and to what extent they don't this season.

Considering the Habs mighty power play dropped from 24.1 per cent in the regular season to 14.6 per cent in last year's playoffs, that is an encouraging sign.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

How to incorporate the injured players?

Earlier in the season, when the Habs were healthy, I was nitpicking about the way the Canadiens were winning games. But now, with an entire scoring line on the shelf along with their number one goalie, to see anything other than the two points for a road game would be completely unfair.

Yes, no one wants to give up two-goal leads twice in the third period, especially not against one of the lowest-scoring teams in the league, and especially not against a division rival.

But the Habs won Saturday night, and right now that's all that matters. With two games left before the all-star break, the Canadiens have the fourth-best points percentage in the NHL and the power play is slowly climbing up the rankings, reaching 23rd at 15.7 per cent after Saturday's 1-for-5 performance.

For those who have lost count, that's an 11-2-1 record in their last 14 games, and to get an idea of how the Canadiens are consistently doing just enough to win consider that those 11 wins and three losses have resulted in a goal differential of only plus-13, with seven one-goal/shootout wins over that span.

I'm bring up all this useless information that most of you likely know for a reason, and that's the upcoming return of injured players to the Canadiens lineup. I think questions need to be asked about the makeup of Carbonneau's team and how it will change with a healthy squad, or at least a healthier one.

In Ottawa, fourth-liners Matt D'Agostini and Steve Bégin appeared to get a real boost from the addition of Gregory Stewart, and I thought that group played a great game. Over the course of the Habs current run injuries have forced Carbonneau to go with a more conventional makeup of two scoring lines and two energy/checking lines, and I don't think anyone can argue the formula's been very effective.

But this was not the plan this season, as Carbonneau was going to use his depth at forward to create three scoring lines. Except that only caused Carbonneau more headaches than anything else as he was constantly shuffling his lines in an attempt to find a good mix of forwards. Since the establishment of the Maxim Lapierre line, which, by the way, coincides with this 11-2-1 run the team is on, Carbonneau's lines have solidified and the players appear to be getting more comfortable with each other.

When Saku Koivu, Christopher Higgins and maybe Georges Laraque return, probably just after this weekend's all-star break, Carbonneau will be going back to his original formula. So what does he do? Does he play Koivu with Higgins and D'Agostini, keeping the other three lines intact but depriving himself of Bégin's penalty-killing and forechecking? Or does he replace Max Pacioretty on Alex Kovalev's line with Higgins, playing Koivu with two rookies? Maybe he could try playing Koivu with Kovalev again? With three scoring lines and the Lapierre line set in stone, where does Laraque fit in if indeed he's needed?

In any case, you get my point that there are a ton of questions to be asked when the injury situation starts to sort itself out. Most coaches have a pretty simple philosophy that you don't mess with a winning formula, but how on earth could Carbonneau not play Koivu? Higgins could probably be told to wait and make sure that shoulder is perfectly healed, but Koivu is too valuable to the team to do the same.

The one thing that has become a bit clearer is the question of who will be sent back to the minors when the injured forwards return.

Kyle Chipchura has done absolutely nothing to prove his value to the team, and it's incredible to think that as recently as September there was some question as to whether he should be filling Lapierre's role. The two are not even in the same category of player anymore, and I'm starting to wonder if Chipchura will ever flourish in Montreal. He may need a change of environment on a team with less talent up front to find his game, but it's pretty obvious to me he should be sent back down when Koivu returns.

As soon as Laraque is back it will likely mean the end of the line for Gregory Stewart, though for my money Stewart brings a lot more to the table than Laraque and is probably a more valuable player.

So the question remains as to who between Pacioretty and D'Agostini goes when Higgins comes back. Right now, Pacioretty appears to be improving with every game he plays while D'Agostini has clearly come back to earth after his scorching start, despite last night's goal. But what needs to be kept in mind is that Pacioretty played his eighth game Saturday, and while he's been very impressive, so was D'Agostini after eight games. This is a battle that will continue until Higgins returns, and Pacioretty has to be considered as the one in the driver's seat simply because he's playing with better players and getting some power play time. But it will be up to him to maintain that level of play until Higgins returns.

Friday, January 16, 2009

Are rumours really a distraction?

I'm starting to wonder if Bob Gainey thinks so, because from the looks of it he may in fact believe that they are an effective motivational tool.

Gainey's had several opportunities over the past week to flat-out deny the rumours of a potential deal to land Vincent Lecavalier from the Tampa Bay Lightning, yet chose not to do so. Considering how Gainey jumped at his first chance to put out the fire created by the Marian Gobrik trade talks early in the season, his non-denial speaks volumes.

Bolts GM Brian Lawton attempted to douse the flames by claiming, again, that he is not "shopping" Lecavalier, which only means he's not actively calling other teams about his star player. Lawton also mentioned he won't be trading Lecavalier "anytime soon," which couldn't really be more vague because soon could mean in the next few days, or even the next few hours.

The longer this thing drags out - and it appears that it will right up until the March 4 trade deadline - the more names are going to surface as potential trade chips. First it was Christopher Higgins, Tomas Plekanec and Josh Gorges, and now The Score is apparently reporting that the Lightning have asked for Andrei Markov to be included in a package for Lecavalier. I wouldn't be surprised if, in the coming weeks, reports citing the names of Andrei Kostitsyn, Carey Price, and Mike Komisarek emerge as well.

Of course, if indeed the Lightning are asking for Markov, it would be a starting point for something that makes some semblance of sense for Lawton. But if Markov's inclusion is a deal-breaker, then obviously the deal needs to be broken because he's simply too valuable to the Canadiens, probably more so than Lecavalier would be.

Just the fact he's being discussed may not only prove to be distracting to Markov, but also to all the players his departure would affect. Komisarek, Roman Hamrlik, Gorges, anyone who plays on the power play, they would all see their roles change greatly if Markov were to leave town.

Gainey said on Monday, in explaining why he doesn't comment on trade rumours, that by not addressing them he is shielding his players, that they won't hear about them if he doesn't talk about them. Which, of course, is ludicrous. Gainey told The Gazette's Dave Stubbs in a story published today that he had to sit down with a player that was the subject of trade talk this season to reassure him, a player we can only assume is Higgins since he's a part of every rumoured trade Gainey is involved in.

If Gainey really wanted to shield his players from this kind of constant speculation over the next six weeks or so, he should either just come out and say he's not discussing a trade with the Lightning or, if he is, lay down a final offer and get this over with. Then at least his players would have some peace of mind, at least until the Jay Bouwmeester rumours start flying.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

A model of consistency

Habs coach Guy Carbonneau said it often earlier in the season that he would love to see his team be more consistent, especially when it came to its effort level.

But when injuries start to mount and raw rookies have to be integrated into the lineup, a team's consistency is often the first casualty. Strangely enough, the opposite has been true of the Canadiens this season, and that's what has Carbonneau the most pleased about his team's progress despite a long list of key injuries.

"I'm not surprised with how certain players have responded, but I am surprised by the consistency we've shown over the last month, month and a half," Carbonneau said following his team's 3-2 yawner of a win over the Nashville Predators at the Bell Centre Thursday night. "You say everyone is replaceable in the short-term, but long-term that becomes tougher. Yet we continue to do the things necessary to win."

Carbonneau's not joking. When Christopher Higgins went down in a 4-1 win over Calgary at the Bell Centre on Dec. 9, the Habs had a 15-6-5 record. Saku Koivu went down a game later, and Alex Tanguay would follow on Dec. 30. The Higgins injury triggered a three-game slide but since then the Habs have a record of 10-2-1, a run that began with the return of Mike Komisarek to the lineup on Dec. 18.

Komisarek once again played an excellent game Thursday in a contest where it was difficult to find the highlights, logging a game-high 25:52 of ice time, blocking six shots and dishing out four hits. Prior to getting hurt, Komisarek wasn't playing his best hockey and I think he would have been the first to say that. But since his return he's been everything the Canadiens have needed and more.

"I hate to say this, but it's about finding a way to win," Komisarek said afterwards.

He admitted the game felt weird even to the players, and that the Habs two-shot second period was the height of tear-inducing boredom.

"That second period reminded of the start of a game when two teams are trying to feel each other out," he said. "We had a good start to the game with good flow and guys supporting each other, but any time you get only two shots you're not going to have much success."

Tom Kostopoulos had a pretty succinct analysis of the lethargy both teams seemed to fall prey to in the game.

"They were changing their lines every 20 seconds, every whistle, just to slow the game down," he said. "We had trouble getting going. It was a strange game."

But it was a win, one that came on the backs of goals by the streaking Andreis; Kostitsyn and Markov. Kostitsyn now has nine goals and five assists in 10 games since Dec. 27, which is significant for him because last year he scored 19 of his 26 goals as of the very same date. He had seven goals prior to Dec. 27 last year, and he had six as of that date this year. But his recent stretch suggests he might be able to improve on last year's torrid second half he put together.

As for Markov, his goal and assist Thursday gives him two goals and five assists over a five-game point streak. It's no surprise that his streak coincides with the Habs own season-high streak of five games with a power play goal.

"We're working hard on the power play, trying to move the puck well and shoot more," Markov said. "That's what we've been doing the last few games and it's been working, so we have to keep doing it."

What would greatly help the power play would be to win a few more faceoffs, which is probably a bigger factor in the Habs struggles this year than the departure of Mark Streit.

Montreal was 1-for-5 in the faceoff circle on the power play Thursday, and the one draw they won came in their own end. Robert Lang has consistently been Carbonneau's go-to guy for that first faceoff in the offensive end, and Lang has just as consistently lost a great majority of those draws.

This is where the team misses Saku Koivu the most, because even though his faceoff percentage isn't ridiculously high, he somehow manages to win most of the important faceoffs he takes. The quicker he can come back to provide a solution to this problem the better the Habs power play will become, which is good news considering it's been clicking at 30.7 per cent over the last five games.

Hockey at its mind-numbingly finest

Thursday night's Habs tilt with the Predators at the phone booth was likely one of the least exciting games I've seen in quite some time. Not too sure what it was like on TV, but I haven't heard the Bell Centre this quiet since the dark days of the Houle era.

Regardless of the lack of entertainment value (easy for me to say when I haven't had to take out a second mortgage to buy a ticket), the Canadiens once again found a way to win, and that's all that really matters.

Two very encouraging trends continued when the Habs finally managed their first of only two shots in the second period at the 8:46 mark: Andrei Kostitsyn nabbed himself another goal and the Canadiens power play found the net for a fifth straight game.

Since scoring a hat trick in Pittsburgh on Dec. 27 in his first game after a two-game absence with a suspected knee injury, Kostitsyn has been on fire. The Habs 3-2 victory was Kostitsyn's fourth straight game with a goal and sixth straight with a point, and he has six goals and four assists over the span of his point streak.

Kostitsyn took off around the same time last year, scoring 19 of his 26 goals after Dec. 27, a span of 45 games. Not coincidentally, he has really started to produce since being paired with his brother Sergei, which is probably something that should have happened right from the start of the season.

The power play, meanwhile, is on its longest streak of the season with goals in five straight contests, with the previous high being three games. It's no coincidence that the Habs goal came as a result of a quick entry into the offensive zone after Robert Lang lost yet another power play faceoff. In the Canadiens first two power play opportunities, it took them a minute simply to get set up in the zone after losing the initial faceoff. On this one, it took only 20 seconds, and Kostitsyn scored shortly thereafter.

It's not rocket science.

Heading down to grab quotes, check back later.

Loose Lips Lecavalier

If indeed Vincent Lecavalier is on his way to Montreal, he's going to have to learn how to avoid talking to reporters.

For a guy who is "loyal" to the Lightning, Lecavalier sure isn't being shy when it comes to talking about the possibility of coming to play in our fair city. Of course, Lecavalier has never had anything but good things to say about Montreal, but he's always said those things with the qualifier that Tampa was home, it was somewhere he had laid down roots, it was a place where he felt comfortable.

Lecavalier's charitable work in the Tampa area makes those words ring true. You don't establish a foundation that donated $3 million toward the construction of a pediatric cancer and blood disorders wing of the All Children’s Hospital in downtown St. Petersburg if you don't enjoy living in the area. And you definitely don't sign an 11-year contract to stay in Tampa if the Florida sunshine gives you a rash.

But considering the swirling rumours surrounding a possible trade to the Habs, why would Lecavalier feel the need to ask a reporter - one that is revered and respected by many, reviled by others, but a simple reporter all the same - questions about the Canadiens, or what day-to-day life is like for a hockey player in Montreal? He grew up here, his family lives here, he comes back here every summer, what else is there to know?

The Lightning doesn't need this, the Canadiens certainly don't need this, and I can assure you that if Lecavalier were indeed a member of the team right now there's no way he'd be giving interviews like this in the middle of a firestorm.

In my mind, there's only one reason Lecavalier felt comfortable enough to speak so candidly about a Montreal trade, and that's because he knows something is up. Not necessarily that he's going to be traded to the Habs, but it appears Lecavalier is resigned to the fact that he's going to be traded somewhere. And if he's going to be traded, it sounds like he wouldn't mind playing for the Habs.

So how do these things resonate in the Habs room? How does Tomas Plekanec concentrate on continuing a stretch of solid games tonight against the Predators when he's wondering whether it will be his last in a Habs uniform? Will the trade rumours be in the back of Josh Gorges' mind tonight? Is Christopher Higgins sleeping at night?

If they're worried, then they probably shouldn't be simply because if their names are out there, it probably means they won't be included in any potential deal. But seeing as they are the ones who've been reported on, comments like the ones Lecavalier made in La Presse only make it that much tougher to deal with the rumours.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Mistakes prove costly

The question is, whose mistake are we talking about?

When Andrei Kostitsyn was whistled for nudging Aaron Ward from behind in the second period of Wednesday night's 3-1 loss in Boston, I thought it was a borderline call to begin with. Then the venerable Chris Lee decided the play warranted a major penalty, probably because Ward was laid out on the ice. Lee didn't know at the time that Ward wouldn't return to the game, so the decision to give Kostitsyn a major penalty was based on what Lee saw unfold during the play.

That's where I have trouble understanding Lee's decision-making process, as is often the case with him. Anyone who reads this site regularly enough knows my policy on complaining about officiating, that it's rarely the main reason why a team won or lost, and the same is true here. But when it's the same referee making iffy calls over and over again, I feel some questions need to be asked.

Anyhow, as I alluded to, the Canadiens did not lose the game when Kostitsyn was called for that major boarding penalty and Patrice Brisebois was given a chintzy hooking call moments later. (CORRECTION: It was Roman Hamrlik that was called for cross-checking, which was totally warranted. The chintzy Brisebois hook was earlier and led to Boston's first goal. My bad.)

No, the Habs lost the game in the first period when they completely dominated the Bruins, yet entered the first intermission in a scoreless tie.

The Habs absolutely had to get at least a goal in those 20 minutes to force the Bruins to change their game plan a little in the second, but Tim Thomas held the fort. It's become clear that whatever mental block he had with the Habs last season was erased by his performance in last year's playoffs, and he was the difference-maker in the Bruins win.

Otherwise, I think the Habs showed a few encouraging signs because, all in all, they outplayed the Bruins everywhere but the scoreboard. The Maxim Lapierre line continued to do its job, with Guillaume Latendresse firing six pucks on net. Mike Komisarek was credited with 11 hits in his first game in Boston since Milan Lucic ripped his shoulder apart while administering a major beat down on him. If you think the stats keepers in Boston were simply being generous, consider that no other play in the game was credited with more than three hits on the night. And the power play scored for a fourth straight game, which can officially be called a streak and augurs well for the second half of the season.

But most importantly in my eyes was the play of Tomas Plekanec, especially in that first period. When he dipsy-doed around Matt Hunwick about nine minutes into the game, Plekanec showed the kind of jump and gutsiness he showed nearly every game last season. It was one of those plays I was referring to in my mid-term report card, one that makes you sit up and take notice. If that performance can lead to a little streak for Plekanec, the Canadiens will be extremely difficult to beat.

Of course, that's assuming Plekanec is still wearing a Canadiens uniform in March.

Monday, January 12, 2009

Here we go again

Last year it was Marian Hossa, last summer it was Mats Sundin, and now the bombshell of all bombshells is about to dominate the Montreal airwaves until the March 3 trade deadline.

Before everyone goes all goofy reading TSN's Bob MacKenzie's blog today about the possibility of Vincent Lecavalier coming to the Habs in short order, I think everyone needs to take a deep breath and think about what this would take and what it would mean to this year's team.

If the Canadiens were in a position to only think about the long-term, or even to only think about next season, then trading for Lecavalier would be a no-brainer, one that should be made at nearly any cost.

But I'm not convinced that a trade like this would help this year's team make the Stanley Cup final, or win it for that matter.

The names being bandied about right now, in my opinion, are ridiculous. I know the Tampa Bay Lightning is an insane asylum right now, but would they be that monumentally stupid to trade their franchise player for only two NHL-ready players, none of them stars? Tomas Plekanec and Christopher Higgins are nice players, and P.K. Subban looks like he might turn into something special, but Lightning GM Brian Lawton woould have to be hopped up on some great stuff to agree to a deal like that.

Lecavalier is not an unrestricted free agent at the end of the year. On the contrary, he has an 11-year, $86 million extension that kicks in on July 1, along with a no-movement clause, that will take him to age 40. His cap hit on the new deal is actually quite reasonable at about $7.8 million per season, which is what makes him so much more valuable in trade talks.

If Marian Hossa was worth two promising, young players, a hot prospect and a first-round pick at last year's deadline, wouldn't Lecavalier be able to fetch far more than that?

If I'm Lawton, the discussion begins with Carey Price, and once he sees that won't get him anywhere it moves on to a package including Andrei Kostitsyn, Max Pacioretty, Higgins or Plekanec and Ryan McDonagh/Subban, along with a slew of draft picks, at least two of them first-rounders. Would Bob Gainey be willing to give up that much for a player that perfectly fits the profile of what his team needs - a big, scoring centre who also happens to be a francophone?

I'm not sure he would, and power to him for at least acknowledging Monday during his state of the union address that the team's number one need is in fact another defenceman. His non-denial of the Lecavalier talks is not surprising, since I have no doubt Gainey has had a conversation or two with Lawton regarding Lecavalier's availability and what it would take to get him here.

If indeed it takes two underachieving players on the verge of restricted free agency along with some prospects and picks, then by all means Mr. Gainey, pull the trigger and do it fast. But I refuse to believe that's all it would take, and as we saw last season in Gainey's dance with the Thrashers over Hossa, he's not willing to bet the farm on one player.

The way his team is playing so far this season, why would he?

Mid-term report card

Well, it's not really a report card because I feel it's not fair to give out grades to players, since that is something that should be done by someone who has some semblance of an idea of what it's like to be on the ice in an NHL game.

Instead, I've decided to put the Canadiens into three groups of players - those who have exceeded expectations, those who have delivered what was expected of them, and those who have underachieved.

Top of the class

Josh Gorges: A beneficiary of the extra ice time liberated by the injury to Mike Komisarek, Gorges has proven to be a steadying force on defence, and recently shown to be useful in power play situations as well as his usual spot on the penalty kill. He blocks shots, backs down from no one and never looks out of position on the ice.

Maxim Lapierre: It took some time, but Lapierre is blossoming into his role as a top flight agitator and is even showing some offensive flair for the first time in his young career. When the team is fully healthy, Lapierre is the fourth line centre and I challenge anyone to find a better one in the NHL. He's also become the team's most efficient man on faceoffs at 54.4 per cent, which was a major problem for him when he began his career.

Mike Komisarek: A lot was expected of Komisarek, but the team's record with him in the lineup shows that he's met and exceeded everyone's goals. I think a lot is being made of the team's 7-6-3 record with him out of the lineup, simply because if Andrei Markov or Roman Hamrlik were to miss any significant amount of time I feel the Canadiens would suffer just as much. But that doesn't mean Komisarek is not a vital cog in the Habs defence, and he's the only d-man who changes the way opponents attack because forwards have no interest going into a corner with him.

Tom Kostopoulos: He's not supposed to be called upon to drop the gloves, but with Georges Laraque on the physically unable to perform list he's had to. He may not win all, or any, of his fights, but his willingness to do it knowing full well he'll lose perfectly demonstrates to what lengths Kostopoulos will go to help his team win.

Patrice Brisebois: He's not spectacular and he still makes the odd mental error, but he was expected to have spot duty as the team's seventh defenceman. Instead, he's played in 37 of the team's 41 games, including the last 27 in a row. He can play on the second power play unit, he's averaging 16 minutes per game and he's a plus-6. No one expected that.

Robert Lang: A big, right-handed centre to pivot the third line, win key faceoffs and chip in offensively. Other than the faceoffs, Lang has delivered far more than that this season. No one expected him to lead the team in scoring, or to play 17 minutes a game with significant time in all situations. He's been a very pleasant surprise, and a perfect example of how playing with young players can rejuvenate a veteran's career.

Guillaume Latendresse: His numbers are not outstanding, but that's not why he's in this category. He's here because he seems to have changed his approach to the game and has finally come to realize that for him to be successful he needs to use his size to his advantage. If he keeps it up, the numbers will come.

Saku Koivu: His injury has unfortunately derailed what looked like a another solid season for the captain. With 22 points in 28 games, he's tied with Lang and Alex Kovalev for the team lead in points per game, and he's won over 54 per cent of his faceoffs as well. His return will solidify a team that is playing very well right now, and could serve as the catalyst to a huge second half surge.

Mathieu Dandenault: For a guy who wasn't expected to be around when the season started, Dandenault proved to be a very valuable player before breaking his arm. Even that play, where he stayed on the ice and tried to defend his net, says a lot about his approach to the season. I'm not sure if he'll be a factor when he comes back, but what he did in the 20 games he did play definitely exceeded expectations.

The rookies: This was supposed to be a team that had no room for rookies, but Matt D'Agostini, Max Pacioretty, Ben Maxwell, Kyle Chipchura and even Yannick Weber have filled in for injured players quite admirably. It remains to be seen which one or two out of this group finishes the year in Montreal, but for now they've done the job as a group.

Even strength play: The Canadiens Achilles Heel last season was its play 5-on-5. But this year they are third in the league in team plus/minus rankings with a plus-24, whereas last year they were 10th in the same category with a plus-11. Just as an aside, three of the top five teams in this category last year made the conference finals, with the Stanley Cup champion Red Wings finishing first with a plus-49.

Guy Carbonneau and his staff: Despite all the screaming about a failed power play and all the injuries to key players, Carbonneau has once again found a way to put his team in position to contend for the Eastern Conference crown. It would have been tough for him to put together a coaching performance equal to last year's surprising success, but he's actually improved on it.

The middle ground

Alex Kovalev: I feel his level of play hasn't dipped much from last year's resurrection, it's just the production that's in decline. But even there, he's tied for the team lead in points, so it's not as if he's completely fallen off the map scoring-wise. I think if he keeps playing the way he has, the numbers will eventually start to pile up and I wouldn't be surprised to see him finish the year with about 70 points.

Andrei Markov: It says a lot about what kind of player Markov is that he's in this category. He's simply a victim of expected excellence, because rare are the nights where he's not the team's most important player. He assures a strong breakout and allows the team's forwards to cheat a little and leave the zone early, because he can make that long pass on the tape. His vision with the puck and his ability to hold the blue line in the offensive end are at an elite level, perhaps unmatched among the league's defencemen.

Andrei Kostitsyn: Looking at his season as a whole, his slow start means he finds himself here. But his last eight games since returning from a two-game stint on the shelf with an injury have been outstanding, with seven goals and five assists. There's no reason to believe he can't maintain some semblance of that pace, and that would be way above anyone's expectations.

Carey Price: This is probably the most unfair of my groupings, but it's only because the success of the team depends largely on Price's health, and it's been a bit spotty as of late. He missed his eighth game of the season to injury Saturday night, and who knows if this won't be a recurring issue. But when healthy, Price has delivered the goods. Now we get to see if last year's playoff disappointment was a one-off blip on the radar for a guy with a history of shining when the stakes are highest.

Steve Bégin: You always know what you will get with Bégin, and that's an all out effort with little to no regard for his own personal safety. I find it incredible he doesn't get injured more than he does, but he has essentially peaked as a player and been leapfrogged by Lapierre and Kostopoulos as the team's top energy guys.

Roman Hamrlik: Solid play, nothing more, nothing less. That has been and continues to be Hamrlik's M.O., and he makes the team's second pairing extremely reliable. The beauty of it is that last year, Hamrlik's level of play increased as the games became more important, so the best is likely yet to come in his case.

Sergei Kostitsyn: He may be failing to live up to some people's expectations in Montreal, but that's only because those expectations were completely out of whack and unreasonable. He played junior hockey only two years ago and had less than half a season in the minors to adapt to the pro game. I don't know what more he could have done this year as a 21-year-old without a full year of NHL experience.

Francis Bouillon: He's a steady, no frills sixth defenceman, and that's exactly what the team wants him to be. He's filled his role this season, even though I thought he went through a bit of a mistake-prone stretch in December.

Penalty killing: The Habs finished last year killing 82.5 per cent of their penalties, and they're at 82.6 per cent this year. The big difference is they've already matched last season's total of eight shorthanded goals.

The class clowns

The power play: The relative success of the last three games notwithstanding, this has obviously been the most disappointing aspect of the Habs season so far. I refuse to believe the power play won't improve because there's just too much talent to continue sputtering along the way it has. But so far, it's been a huge bust.

Georges Laraque: Carbonneau brought this on himself. When he was asked on numerous occasions last year whether the team needs an enforcer, he always answered that not every team can have a Georges Laraque. So Bob Gainey went out and did just that, got him the real Georges Laraque. Sidney Crosby, when the Habs were in Pittsburgh recently, wondered where Laraque was, and then sarcastically said, "The groin again?" Of course, a groin pull is the one injury where an MRI will show nothing, and you have to go on the player's word to figure out if he's healthy or not, so you can take Crosby's comment for what it's worth. Laraque was acquired to keep the peace during the stretch run and, if needed, in the playoffs. So, assuming his "groin injury" is better by then, his final evaluation will be more telling than the mid-term one. But so far, he hasn't had any impact whatsoever on how teams play the Habs.

Tomas Plekanec: His production of late is an encouraging sign, but I still don't feel he's nearly as dangerous a player as he was last season. He would regularly do things last year that made you sit up and take notice, that created a buzz in the Bell Centre, but those moments have been very few this year. I am tempted to believe last year's regular season performance was a bit over his head and that he's now settling into the role he's perfect for: an excellent third line centre.

Alex Tanguay: His numbers say different, but I don't feel Tanguay has delivered on what was expected of him, which was to be a difference-maker in games. Before his injury I found he took shifts off on a regular basis, and he did nothing to help the power play from the point. It may have been unfair to call on him to replace Mark Streit on the right point, but that was his mandate, and he didn't fulfill it. He needs to be a more dynamic, more electrifying player when he gets back sometime in March, but regardless of whether he is or isn't, I feel he's playing his only season in Montreal.

Christopher Higgins: I'm wondering what's going through Higgins' mind as he watches the team succeed without him in the lineup. The team is 13-4-2 this season without him and 12-8-4 with him. That's not an entirely fair comparison because there are a lot of other factors involved in those records - most importantly Komisarek's absence in 14 of those games - but it does tell a story about his value to the team. Higgins is a player that often wears his insecurity like a fluorescent t-shirt. That usually translates into him trying too hard to help the team, which tends to have the opposite effect. If he stays within himself and simply plays his game when he gets back from his shoulder injury, the results should improve. If not, Higgins could find himself being a spare part pretty quickly.

Jaroslav Halak: Halak makes no bones about the fact he's not entirely pleased to be not only the team's backup goalie, but one who will see little action when Price is healthy. Except when he had the chance to carry the team in Price's latest absence, Halak didn't seize the opportunity. It's hard for a backup to stay sharp and immediately go from spectator to the spotlight, but Halak needs to be better if he ever hopes to attract interest from a team in need of a young starting goaltender.

Friday, January 9, 2009

It's going to start getting crowded

With the return of Habs captain Saku Koivu to practice Friday, the expected return of Carey Price some time next week (perhaps?) and Christopher Higgins by the end of this month, the Canadiens are going to have to make some decisions regarding the Hamilton bunch currently skating with the big club.

There were five of them in uniform for that 6-2 thumping of the Maple Leafs on Thursday night, or one quarter of the lineup, and you can't help but get the feeling that they are a part of some mini-reality show right now to try and impress Guy Carbonneau and the coaching staff.

So who would be the first sent down when Koivu makes his return? Right now, I have no idea, and that's why I'm sitting here typing this blog instead of sitting in Carbonneau's office.

Matt D'Agostini was clearly riding an adrenaline rush when he was first called up because he's now gone seven games without scoring, and he's lacking a lot of the jam that made him so effective in scoring four goals in his first five games following his call-up. He's not going to the net with the same purpose as before, and to me that was his best quality in those five games. His breakaway against the Leafs was actually a pretty heads-up play by D'Agostini because he was supposed to go to the bench for a change but saw that he was in behind the defence, so he stayed out there a bit longer. Unfortunately, he had too much time to think about how long he'd gone without a goal and I feel that might have led to him shooting wide.

D'Agostini has to be feeling pressure from Max Pacioretty, who now has three points in four games, but he too will have to prove he can play like this on a consistent basis after the initial rush of making the NHL starts to wear off. The one thing that's impressed me the most with him is how he makes very smart decisions with the puck, particularly when it comes to finding open men on the ice with his passing, a skill I didn't know he had.

I truly believe that D'Agostini and Pacioretty are in a fight to see who stays and who goes, if not when Koivu comes back then definitely when Higgins does.

The more I think about it, the more I feel Yannick Weber had a great debut for the Habs. But I would want to see him in a game where there is some degree of pressure involved before being able to fully evaluate his play. I thought he brought a new element to the power play, didn't really make any glaring mistakes and looked pretty level-headed for a guy playing his first NHL game against the Leafs in Montreal. But Weber's going to have a tough time sticking around beyond Koivu's return because in order for him to do so, I think he'll have to bump one of D'Agostini or Pacioretty off the roster, and I'm not sure the Canadiens would do that.

As for Kyle Chipchura, he comes exactly as advertised, and he's also a player I don't think the Canadiens would mind keeping around so he can sit in the press box and spell guys from time to time. In the case of the first three, they need to play, whether it's in Montreal ot Hamilton. The fact Steve Bégin was scratched against the Leafs with an apparent "cold" plays in Chipchura's favour, I would think (does anyone believe for a second that Bégin would sit out with a cold?).

Finally, Marc Denis will not make it past the return of Carey Price, but that's obvious.

It's also possible no one will be sent down when Koivu returns because I don't think Alex Tanguay has been placed on injured reserve as of yet, simply because his name appears among the scratches on game nights. So doing that could extend the audition process by a few weeks until Higgins is ready. At that point, I think it will come down to how effective Weber is playing the point on the power play, because if he is then it will likely be one of D'Agostini or Pacioretty headed to the minors.

Grabovski the street fighter

Sorry folks, but I waited about a half hour after the game for his highness Mikhail Grabovski to come out and talk about his brewing feud with Sergei Kostitsyn, but it was worth it.

I'm pretty beat, so here's what I wrote for the Canadian Press tonight:

MONTREAL _ The long and storied rivalry between the Montreal Canadiens and Toronto Maple Leafs has added another chapter.

Fellow Belarussians Mikhail Grabovski of the Leafs and Sergei Kostitsyn of the Canadiens tried for a second game in a row to get at each others throats near the end of Montreal’s 6-2 win at the Bell Centre on Thursday night.

Grabovski said he expects to be suspended for shoving linesman Scott Cherrey while trying to get at Kostitsyn, who was also fighting off officials to try and engage in a fight.

But Grabovski added that he wouldn’t mind challenging Kostitsyn where there are no officials in sight.

“I think he is not Belarussian now, he is French because I never fight with Belarussian guys,” Grabovski said. “I don’t know why he wants to fight with me. If he wants to fight, we’ll go in the street and every minute of every day I’ll wait for him and we’ll fight.”

Grabovski, who was born in Potsdam in the former East Germany but raised in Belarus, wouldn’t get into details of why there is such bad blood between he and Kostitsyn. But the Canadiens winger explained the reasons for the feud.

“He talks too much in the Russian papers about me and my brother,” Kostitsyn said of his elder brother and teammate Andrei.

But Grabovski noted he only has a problem with the younger of the two brothers.

“He’s not smart, because the older Kostitsyn, Andrei, he never fights with me and he never will fight because he plays hockey, he plays the game,” he said. “I think it’s stupid.”

The last time the Canadiens and Leafs met at the Air Canada Centre on Nov. 8, a game where Grabovski had a goal and an assist and also got away with a butt end on Habs goalie Carey Price, the younger Kostitsyn charged at him and drew a 10-minute misconduct at 17:01 of the third period in a 6-3 Toronto blowout.

The two tried to get after each other again Thursday at 18:07 of the third, with the officials preventing a fight, but Kostitsyn predicted the feud will resume the next time the teams meet at the Bell Centre.

Grabovski was not a favourite of Habs coach Guy Carbonneau while he played in Montreal and when asked about him, the coach shrugged and said, “I didn’t have much to say about him when he was here and I don’t have any more to say about him now.”

Grabovski didn’t appear to show much regret for the incident with Kostitsyn, but he did admit he lost his head when he waved his arms and gestured to the sellout crowd of 21,273 at the Bell Centre who were booing him all night.

“It was emotion,” Grabovski said. “Maybe I didn’t need to do this. It was just five seconds in my head.”

Thursday, January 8, 2009

Montreal's big free agent acquisition

Who needs Mats Sundin when the Habs found their biggest off-season acquisition right in their own backyard?

That would be the new and improved Maxim Lapierre, who is carving himself out quite the niche as one of the league's elite pests.

The Toronto Maple Leafs were so thrown off their game by Lapierre's jawing, they were more concerned with running him than getting back in the game. The result? A 6-1 drubbing at the Bell Centre while the Leafs tried to turn the second period into a slugfest, largely triggered by Lapierre's agitating ways.

In a way, he's taken the place of Darcy Tucker in this rivalry, and I'm sure as elated Montreal fans are to be watching Lapierre induce this degree of hatred from the Leafs, he is reviled in Toronto, just like Tucker was here.

Lapierre's emergence this year could have the equivalent effect of last year's coming out party for Tomas Plekanec and Andrei Kostitsyn, because he's also bringing Guillaume Latendresse along for the ride.

Now if only the Canadiens could find an enforcer so Tom Kostopoulos wouldn't feel obligated to get his head bashed in whenever things get a little out of hand, like he did with Jamal Mayers Thursday night. That way the Lapierre line could stay intact without losing an integral piece for five minutes at a time while Kostopoulos ices his noggin in the penalty box.

What's that? The Canadiens do have an enforcer? What's his name again?

The blowout also gave Yannick Weber a perfect opportunity to get his feet wet, and I'd say he did a pretty good job, even earning a few even strength shifts on defence late in the game. The power play made an adjustment to accomodate his right-handed shot on the right point, with Alex Kovalev trying to tee up one-timers for him from the right half boards.

Though he didn't produce much it would be an interesting twist to throw at the league's penalty kill coaches because it's something they're not used to seeing from the Habs, and I'd really like to see Weber in a game where his nerves aren't eating him up inside.

Finally, that's two solid outings in two nights for Jaroslav Halak, which is encouraging, but only really proves he needs to work on his consistency.

Latendresse's price just went up

Jordan Staal avoided restricted free agency Thursday by signing a four-year deal worth $16 million, providing yet another idea of what the Canadiens RFAs in waiting may cost to retain.

Though I've been focusing on Tomas Plekanec and Christopher Higgins, the recent play of Guillaume Latendresse makes him a player in this conversation as well. If he has a big second half as his line continues to improve, Latendresse's price tag could climb higher than the assumed $1 million a year he was probably worth before the season.

On the other side of the coin, both Plekanec and Higgins have done nothing to increase their value so far this year.

Staal is 20 years old and playing his third season. After a 29-goal rookie year he suffered a sophomore slump last year and dropped to 12. So far this season, he has 11 goals and 10 assists in 41 games.

Those numbers are nothing to scream about, but the Penguins are obviously paying for potential in his case, which may be the position Bob Gainey finds himself in when it comes to Latendresse.

Latendresse is also in his third season, he's one year older than Staal and this may be surprising to some of you, but Latendresse's career numbers are not that far off Staal's. In 204 career games, Staal has 52 goals and 39 assists for 91 points. In 185 career games, Latendresse has 38 goals and 33 assists for 71 points. That comes out to 0.45 points per game for Staal and 0.38 for Latendresse, which over an 82-game season is a difference of about six points.

I'm not saying Latendresse is worth $4 million per year, far from it. But as he appears to be finding his game, his value is far higher than $1 million per year, and you can be sure this Staal signing will come up in negotiations between Gainey and agent Pat Brisson.

As clear as it's become that at least one, if not two, of Alex Tanguay, Robert Lang, Saku Koivu and Alex Kovalev will not be back next year, I think it's becoming equally clear that one of Higgins, Plekanec and Latendresse will also be playing elsewhere in 2009-10.

With Mike Komisarek to sign this year and Carey Price to sign after next season, some difficult choices will need to be made, especially in light of the near certainty that the 2010-11 salary cap will decrease in a significant way.

Which brings up the matter of perhaps trading one of Plekanec, Higgins or Latendresse by the deadline, seeing as their youth makes them more marketable than any of the impending UFAs.

I don't think the Canadiens would entertain the idea of dealing Latendresse, especially not when he looks to be emerging from the growing pains that defined the first two years of his career.

Though everyone believes Higgins is a hot commodity around the league, I have to believe that right now Plekanec is the one that could get the better return in a trade, and I would also think he's the one the team would rather trade of the two. Whether it's warranted or not, Higgins has been identified as a core player by the Canadiens, a fact made clear when he was given a letter on his jersey prior to last season.

Plekanec, on the other hand, may be looked at as a beneficiary of circumstance, and his consistent absence from the scoresheet this season is helping that belief. I personally feel Plekanec is not a great top-six centre, but he is an elite third-line guy who can kill penalties and pitch in 40-50 points a season.

There has to be a market out there for someone like Plekanec, who might in fact wind up becoming a legitimate top-six forward under different circumstances. If he and a pick or prospect would be enough to bring in a quarterback for the power play, which is a dire need in these parts, then Gainey should pull the trigger. Because, in any case, it looks like there's one good, young player who will be leaving Montreal at the end of the season, so why not try to turn him into a needed asset?

UPDATE: Was that a power play quarterback you wanted? Tomas Kaberle told the Toronto Sun today he would not necessarily say no if asked to waive his no-trade clause. He's signed for two more years at a modest $4.25 million per season.

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Whenever you think they're down...

...they keep proving everyone wrong.

Everyone, including myself, thought Jaroslav Halak stood no chance of walking into Madison Square Garden and stoning the Rangers the way he did. Or that an injury-ravaged Habs team could pull out a road win over a perfectly healthy Rangers squad.

But, as they've proven several times already this season, the Canadiens save their best for their biggest tests, and Wednesday night they played what amounted to a perfect road game.

I'm not ready to give the power play credit for scoring twice, though Andrei Markov's goal showed just how important it is to win those faceoffs.

Finally, Robert Lang now has 15 goals after his hat trick, and he's only six short of his total for all of last season. At this rate, he'd top 30 goals for only the second time in his career, and both those times were when he was playing on the same team - if not the same line - as Alex Kovalev.

I've got to cut it short tonight because I'm off to the Team 990 to do my radio show, Hump Night. It starts at 11 p.m., check it out if you so desire.

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Does a year make a difference?

Of course it does, but only in terms of what everyone expected to happen this season.

Pundits across the land picked the Habs to win the Eastern Conference this year, but those very same people predicted the Canadiens would miss the playoffs altogether last year. So in those contexts, it would appear the Habs exceeded expectations one year and are failing to live up to them the next.

But look at today's standings and those from the same date last year, and you'll see that the Canadiens situation remains largely unchanged, not withstanding what was thought of them in those pre-season predictions.

Prior to Tuesday night's games, the Canadiens were tied for fourth in the Eastern Conference with 50 points in 38 games, the same point total as the Philadelphia Flyers but with one game in hand. The conference and the Northeast Division are runaway affairs, with the Boston Bruins flying high with 62 points in 39 games.

Logic would dictate that the best the Habs could hope for would be a monumental slide by the Bruins, but barring that, fourth in the conference is a realistic goal.

One year ago today, the Canadiens were tied for fourth in the conference with the Pittsburgh Penguins with 48 points in 41 games. Everyone in the East was staring up at the Ottawa Senators (OK, maybe a year does make a difference for some people), who were sitting atop the standings with 58 points in 41 games.

The city of Montreal was euphoric with how their Habs were playing, but even that unbridled enthusiasm was tempered a bit with the belief that there was no way the Senators could conceivably be caught.

Of course, we know now that Armageddon hit the nation's capital and the Habs went on a tremendous second half ride to claim the top seed in the East.

So is there any reason to believe the same thing won't happen this year? Well yes, the main one being that it's not every day you see a team with the talent of the Senators go into complete meltdown mode like that.

But are the Bruins really this good? Not a chance. And are the Habs better than they've shown so far? Absolutely.

Think of how the Canadiens have reached this point of the season this year and last. A year ago, the Habs were completely injury free, they had by far the best power play in the league and they had just found a winning combination up front with Alex Kovalev, Tomas Plekanec and Andrei Kostitsyn verging on an explosion. This year, the Habs are riddled with injuries, have one of the worst power plays in the league and Guy Carbonneau is still tinkering with his lines on a nightly basis.

In a nutshell, last year's team was peaking right around now, while this year's version has come nowhere close to peaking and has tons of room for improvement. Yet, despite that, the Habs are sitting right where they were last year, in a perfect position to pounce.

Now the onus for doing just that falls on the Habs. They've successfully weathered a storm the likes of which they never saw last season, and as the injured players slowly start coming back it will be up to Carbonneau, Kirk Muller and Doug Jarvis to find those winning combinations that propelled the team to such great heights last year.

One of those seems to already be in place as the Maxim Lapierre line shows no signs of relenting, and if I may make a suggestion I'd like to see Saku Koivu placed between the Kostitsyn brothers when he gets back, which is the line I wanted the captain on from the get go. It's practically the only mathematical combination Carbonnneau hasn't tried yet, so why not see if it works?

In any case, Carbonneau and friends need to find something that works pretty soon, because they have an appointment with a second half surge coming up very soon.

Monday, January 5, 2009

Time to see if an old dog can learn new tricks

And that old dog would be Marc Denis, who was acquired precisely for this kind of situation.

To say Jaroslav Halak's confidence is shaken would be generous. To say he couldn't find the puck right now if it hit him between the eyes would probably be a little more accurate.

Denis didn't look incredibly solid the other night when he played the third period against the Devils, and frankly he made a few of those saves in spite of himself because the game looked very quick to someone who hadn't played an NHL contest in over a year.

I'm not sure if a guy who couldn't handle playing goalie for the Tampa Bay Lightning, a team that would probably dress a dog in pads if he could go post-to-post quick enough, will ever be able to make it all the way back to the form that made the Colorado Avalanche believe he could one day become Patrick Roy's successor.

What I am sure of is that Halak doesn't stand a chance of winning in New York on Wednesday unless the Habs are able to pump at least five goals past Henrik Lundqvist, so why not start Denis and see what he's got in the tank?

Sunday, January 4, 2009

Momentum can be fickle

How exactly does momentum work?

I find it amazing how quickly and obviously you can see it swing from one side to other in the midst of a game, but how subtle it can be when looked at in the context of an entire season.

Take the Habs 6-5 shootout win over the Florida Panthers as a perfect example.

The Canadiens had the momentum at the start, but then the Panthers grabbed it after completely shutting down Montreal's first power play of the game, with Florida getting the only shot on goal over those two minutes.

"The first time you get on the ice on a power play you need to be sharp," Guy Carbonneau said afterwards. "We want fewer finesse plays and more passes to the defencemen and shots from the point. The first two minutes we got on the power play, we might have spent 10 or 15 seconds in their end. It’s just a lack of work."

That lack of work - best exemplified in poor puck retrieval on dump-ins that invariably get dumped right back out - gave the Panthers the wings they used to build a 2-0 lead after one period.

But then Maxim Lapierre, Guillaume Latendresse and Tom Kostopoulos started the second period with a great energy shift, and the momentum instantly swung back to the Habs as they scored twice in 28 seconds on the very next shift to erase the two-goal deficit. Montreal rode that wave to another two goals before the period was done, and looked like they might coast to an easy win.

"That Lapierre, Kostopoulos and Latendresse line really got us going," Mike Komisarek said. "They were putting pressure, getting pucks in deep, working hard and making their defencemen pay a price. It’s not easy playing against a line like that when they’re going, so I think the whole team fed off their energy. You don’t see those guys take any shifts off. There’s no better example than them, and they’ve been playing this way for a few weeks."

The Canadiens had another power play in the third period work against them, however, when Alex Kovalev tried to deke out the entire Panthers team and their training staff while entering the offensive zone. That didn't work, and Radek Dvorak wound up with a breakaway the other way to make the game 4-3 and give the Panthers life, a goal that ulimately allowed them to tie the game with 1:38 to play in regulation before falling in a shootout.

So, for those counting at home, one game and five swings in momentum, which were largely caused by lethargic play from the Habs.

"It’s all about momentum swings, and you need to find a way to respond and have a big shift," Komisarek said. "When the other team scores, or if they kill off a power play of ours, we need to go out there and respond and have a good, high-energy shift in their zone. There’s no better line that’s been doing that than Latendresse, Lapierre and Kostopoulos."

It's clear the grind line is leading the way with the Habs right now, and who could have predicted that at the start of the season? The line had 15 shots on goal and Kostopoulos established a new season-high with 17:27 of ice time and tied another with six shots, though three of those came on his goal alone.

Carbonneau even used them on the power play, which shows just how much better they are playing than every other unit right now.

"You want to give the usual guys chances, because you can't forget we had the best power play in the league last year using mainly those players," he said. "But we’re nearly at the midway point of the season and we’ll have to start trying other people."

Another one of Carbonneau's experiments Sunday was taking Andrei Kostitsyn off the "first" line with Alex Kovalev, and put him with his little brother and Robert Lang. The result was two goals, the first coming off a feed from Sergei.

Carbonneau was asked afterwards if the elder Kostitsyn was a better player when taken away from Kovalev, and his answer leads me to believe that we may have een the end of last year's top line.

"I think he shoots it more, and that’s what we want," Carbonneau said. "Sometimes they feel like they have to pass to Alex, maybe, that’s the only thing I can see. But when this guy decides to play, he’s pretty hard to stop. He has one of the hardest shots in the league, and when he decides to take control of a game he can do it. We just have to push him everyday like this."

As well as the Kostitsyn brothers played with Lang, that's how bad of a game Kovalev had with Max Pacioretty and Tomas Plekanec. Of course, these are the types of games you have to accept with Kovalev, games where he simply doesn't feel like thinking. They're frustrating to watch, but they happen, and Sunday's won't be the last one.

But getting back to our momentum theme, I don't think people realize to what extent the Canadiens as a team have a ton of it right now.

Ever since Nov. 29 the Habs are 10-4-2, that's 22 of a possible 32 points, and it was shortly after that date that everyone on the team began dropping like flies. Christopher Higgins and Mathieu Dandenault went down Dec. 9, Saku Koivu was two days later, and Mike Komisarek didn't come back from his injury until Dec. 18. There's no real significant event that coincides with Nov. 29 except for the fact that was the day Ryan O'Byrne essentially used up his Get Out of Jail Free cards and was banished to the press box, and that's also the day Matt D'Agostini played his first game of the season.

But since then, it's been a mish-mash lineup, a persistently horrific power play, more line changes than I can count, and a whole lot of winning. Just think of what this team might do when it's healthy and scoring on the power play, even if it's just one every two games or so?

"Our top line is on the shelf, there are five or six guys that would be part of our club who are out, but despite that we’re playing really well," Carbonneau said. "Tonight was an off night defensively, but we’ve played extremely well over the last month while we’ve had these injuries. It’s a good sign for our club because it gives experience to the young guys, and when these (injured) guys come back – which is hopefully quick – we’ll be a better club."