Sunday, November 29, 2009

Vladislav Tretiak and his shadow

Let me tell you, I felt mighty small standing next to Vladislav Tretiak after Saturday night's game, gabbing for about 15 minutes with one of the most influential players of all time.

I didn't want to post this stuff earlier because I hadn't written my story on Tretiak's thoughts on the upcoming Olympics yet. But now that I have, I thought I'd throw in some of the stuff he said that I couldn't get into my story.

First off, Tretiak was obviously not here to "scout" Alexander Ovechkin. His main purpose was to see Semyon Varlamov in action and also to check up on Andrei Markov. The two had dinner prior to the game and Tretiak said the main point he wanted to get across was that if Markov had any doubts about his status on Russia's Olympic team, he shouldn't.

"It’s very important that he play in the Olympic Games, because we like Markov very much," Tretiak said. "For me it was very important to support him."

Tretiak went on to say that support, when you are coming back from injury, can sometimes speed up the healing process. Let's hope he's right, and if so, why wasn't he here sooner?

There is no doubt in my mind that Markov wants to play in the Olympics, and his target for an early January return has to be linked to that in some small, tiny way. If Markov were to return in early February, as was originally estimated, he would only have a couple of weeks to shake off the rust before going to play in the fastest, most intense hockey tournament we know of. With six weeks of game action under his belt, that transition would be a lot smoother.

I'm not doubting Markov when he says he wants to be back so he can help (rescue?) the Canadiens, I'm sure that's his top priority. But somewhere in the deeper recesses of his mind, the thought of Olympic preparedness has to be lingering.

How do Habs fans feel about that? Is it good to send your best player off to the Olympics even if he's missed three months to injury? Can that benefit the Canadiens in some way? I guess if Russia wins the gold medal and Markov comes back to the team ready to taste that victory again, then maybe. But other than that, Markov playing in Vancouver will be a big risk with little potential reward for the Habs.

I'm not suggesting they should forbid him, even if they could, I'm just saying that two weeks off might help his shredded ankle heal just a bit stronger. But to even ask Markov to beg off on the Olympics would not be right, because if the NHL is going to participate it has to be all in. And as long as Carey Price doesn't somehow miraculously make Team Canada and actually get into a game against the Russians, then Markov should be fine, no?

Get out and vote!

Hi all, just a quick note this Sunday that I have been included in some sort of popularity contest among bloggers by the web site They are asking readers to vote for their nine favourite Habs blogs.

As of this writing, I am sitting in a tie for second place with a whopping six votes, three back of the all-encompassing All Habs , and tied with and The H Does Not Stand For Habs.

Should you feel so inclined, you can vote here, and it will also give those of you who don't follow some of the other excellent Habs bloggers out there a chance to discover them. I highly suggest you do.

That's it for today, but I'm working on a piece for CP on Vladislav Tretiak, who I had a chance to interview after Saturday night's game. The Russian Olympic GM had a lot of interesting things to say about the Games, the relationship between the NHL and the KHL, as well as Montreal's own Andrei Markov.

He had supper with Markov before Saturday's game, just to make sure he knew that the Russian team was relying on him to play. That's quite a message, but it's made even more serious when it comes from a Hall of Famer, a living legend in your home country, a man who still looms larger than life.

No pressure, though.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

As good as a win

The Canadiens probably don't think so, considering how close they came to pulling out what would have been a tremendous win over a far superior team, but I still say what happened Saturday night is as good as a win.

Down 2-0 after 20 minutes, with the same old injury-depleted lineup, the Habs could have packed it in tonight and enjoyed watching the dazzling Alexander Ovechkin do his thing. But instead, they put together what has to be the team's best defensive performance of the season against the NHL's second-highest scoring team.

The Habs allowed only 11 shots through two periods, and five of them came from Ovechkin. It was inevitable that the Caps offence would wake up, but they needed overtime in order to get to 23 shots, their lowest total of the season.

"I wasn’t too hopeful until the last three minutes when we started to put a little bit of a push on," said Caps coach Bruce Boudreau, by far my favourite NHL coach to talk to. "They played a really, really good defensive game. They didn’t allow any second shots, they were standing up and getting in our face the whole time. It was a tough game."

Ovechkin, by the end of a tour de force performance, had a goal and an assist, eight shots on goal and18 shot attempts (eight blocked, two missed). The rest of the Capitals were limited 15 shots on goal and 39 attempts. That, my friends, is an air-tight defensive game.

With the news that Andrei Markov is hoping for an early-January return from injury, and guys like Scott Gomez, Brian Gionta, and Hal Gill sure to come back before then, it is not outside the realm of possibility that the Habs will put together a pretty impressive run in the New Year.

Until then, as I've been saying all along, the Habs need to hang around the .500 mark, which is exactly what they're doing. Since Oct. 17, when they were 2-5-0, the Habs have remained within two games of .500 in either direction, and that was good enough to have them placed within two points of a playoff spot, and within four points of fifth in the conference.

That is a gap that can be easily overcome, especially as Team Clinic starts making its way back. And the theory that the injuries would allow other players to grow appears to be holding true for some. Max Pacioretty got an assist tonight and now has six points in six games. But more than that, he's showing extreme confidence with the puck and making creative - and dangerous - plays in the offensive end. As things stand now, he's playing as a second line winger. But just imagine when his line with Metropolit and Moen becomes the third line. That's a pretty dangerous group to have in a third line role.

The Habs power play converted on half of their four chances in the game, with Travis Moen tipping in what should have been the game-winner in the third, but ultimately allowed the Habs to salvage a point. The 2-for-4 night snapped a three-game shutout streak for the power play, and a stretch where it connected only once in 12 tries.

Marc-Andre Bergeron is showing his value here, especially when it comes to getting shots at the net. I'm pretty amazed at how rarely his shots get blocked, which is a valuable skill. In his own end he's starting to get a little better as he gets back in game shape, even though Ovechkin made him look like he belonged in Pee-Wee in the second period. I had assumed when he was signed that Bergeron would be a stop-gap measure until Markov returned, but I'm starting to wonder whether or not he'll keep his spot in the lineup, because having him as a one-timer triggerman with Markov feeding him seems pretty tantalizing to me.

Finally, Carey Price was outstanding once again, and his save on Jay Beagle in the second will surely be played and re-played for days. I'm sure some people would have liked for him to smother the shot instead of giving Fehr a rebound for the tying goal, but an Ovechkin one-timer is not exactly the easiest shot in the world to handle.

Price's timing was good, because Canadian Olympic GM Steve Yzerman was at the game to watch Caps defenceman Mike Green, who's on the bubble for Vancouver. I'm not suggesting that Price is in the running for one of the three goalie spots on Team Canada, but watching him Saturday night, I would have to think it got Yzerman at least thinking about it.

But not everything can be positive when you lose, and the Canadiens lack of discipline came back to bite them again.

Paul Mara's high-sticking penalty on Brooks Laich with 15.5 ticks left in regulation hurt, even though the Habs PK hadn't allowed so much as a shot on goal on the Caps first three power plays. But it's almost predictable that taking a penalty so late in a game will come with some form of punishment. So when Tomas Plekanec lost the faceoff (he went 7-14 on the night) and the Caps systematically ran their set play to get Ovechkin a one-timer from the left point, leaving Eric Fehr to notch his second of the game on the rebound with 12 seconds left, it was hardly a surprise.

But the situation with the Canadiens inability to draw penalties and their penchant for taking them at horrible times is starting to become a pretty dangerous trend. Tonight's game snapped a streak of 15 straight dating back to Oct. 24 where the Habs had fewer power plays than their opponents. It's no coincidence that tonight's game was also probably the Canadiens hardest skating game in weeks, if not all season.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

And what did you expect?

I don't know about you, but I got tired just watching the Habs try to stay with the Pens in Pittsburgh tonight. If all the injuries weren't enough, with Andrei Kostitsyn the latest to go down, the team had to deal with playing a back-to-back against a team who was home resting and waiting.

It was a mission impossible situation, so losing 3-1, to me, is almost like a victory.

I liked a few things, starting with Sergei Kostitsyn's game after he looked to be a game time decision with an ankle sprain, He got a lot more ice time than a night earlier, nearly double in fact, and he made the most of it. I thought Glen Metropolit was extremely effective as well, and Paul Mara and Josh Gorges continue quietly piling up minutes without making glaring errors. Under the circumstances, that's worth mentioning.

Carey Price showed he is human, and also why goalies generally shouldn't play on consecutive nights, especially when there's travel involved. But I understand Jacques Martin's reasoning, that if Price could extend his magic one more game, they might actually win. Price actually played pretty well, but he still should have had two of the three goals he allowed. I would start him again Saturday night, when hopefully Scott Gomez, Jaroslav Spacek and Benoit Pouliot will be in the lineup.

If anything, that would at least give some relief to poor Guy Boucher in Hamilton, who is having his whole team poached by the mother ship.

But anyway, I didn't want to focus so much on tonight's game as I did yesterday's jam-packed day in Habs land, more specifically Bob Gainey's 20-minute podium session with the media. It's so rare that we get to hear Gainey say anything about anything, it generally takes me some time to properly digest it.

Now that I have, the Guillaume Latendresse trade proves beyond a shadow of a doubt how much pull Martin really has in the organization. Let us backtrack a little bit to the last time the GM and his head coach may have had a difference of opinion (actually, I'm sure there were several in between, but this was the last public one). That would be the decision to keep Price in Montreal his rookie year rather than send him down to Hamilton.

That was purely Gainey's call, and he overruled his coach who would have preferred seeing Price start full time in Hamilton rather than get spot duty in Montreal. Price stayed, and then to drive the point home Gainey traded away Cristobal Huet at the deadline.

Now, I'm not sure how exactly Gainey felt about Latendresse, and I'm sure he wasn't exactly enthralled with his attitude or performance. But I think one of the secondary purposes of this trade was to show his prized coach that he had his back. That if he wanted to play Latendresse five minutes a game, Gainey would not only support him, but he would act in consequence.

Following Latendresse's sour grapes cry-baby act on his way out of town, blaming everyone but himself for this tragic turn of events, Martin was asked to defend his treatment of the Golden Boy. While Martin said at least four times that he liked Latendresse, he also pointed out that this was no rookie, and that he failed to do the two things Martin asked of him: to win puck battles on the wall and to drive the net.

Having a fourth-liner who can't kill penalties just wasn't a tenable situation, and Gainey got someone else who - if he can't crack the top six - is essentially useless. But let's see what Benoit Pouliot can do before we prosecute him, because he wasn't picked fourth overall for nothing (just like Patrik Stefan wasn't picked first overall for nothing, but I digress).

A major highlight that sticks out for me from Gainey's little chat was his answer to a question regarding trading away another young Quebec native. He deftly pointed out that Latendresse was very popular and that he was not only from this province, but from this city, before quickly noting that the player coming in also French and that he "hopes you give him a chance to establish himself here."

That comment was addressed not to fans, but to the reporters sitting in the room, some of whom were still steaming that the folk hero they helped build had been traded by the Anglo from Peterborough standing at the podium. Because the media fervour about Latendresse has to share some of the responsibility for his ultimate failure. That helped build expectations that were always way too high for a player that had his limits.

I should say that I actually like Guillaume Latendresse, despite my repeated Golden Boy references. I wrote about him when he was a 14-year-old in Midget playing with his brother for College Charles-Lemoyne in his native Ste-Catherine, and when he made the NHL, he became the first athlete I ever wrote about as a kid to make it big. And frankly, I thought he dealt with the media free-for-all that surrounded his ascension to the league with extreme grace, all things considered.

But on the ice, he is a maddening player. It was almost as if he wanted to prove that the same style that worked for him in Midget and Junior would work for him in the NHL, and that's simply not the case. I wish him well in Minnesota, but if he wants to know the success there, he better get used to the idea that he's not the flashy player he thinks he is.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Character, character, character

Listen folks, I've had an epic day dealing with the hometown GM explaining how he could trade away a local icon, the return of an enfant terrible, an enforcer's mea culpa on his brutal explanation for what was clearly a dirty hit, and a great hockey game to finish it off.

I'm tired, and I will go into all sorts of details about what I heard and witnessed tomorrow, when my head is on a little straighter.

All I will say about Tuesday's 5-3 win over Columbus is that it was a perfect example of how injuries and adversity can make a team stronger. That makes it 3-0-1 in the past four when it would have been perfectly reasonable for anyone to expect this team to go 1-3-0.

This team is finding reserves of character somewhere, and it's pretty darn impressive.

The best way to sum it up, in my opinion, came from Maxim Lapierre, of all people. The guy just saw his buddy shipped out of town largely because of the coach, and who does he credit for this recent upswing? The coach.

"I think we've seen the impact of our system over the past few games," Lapierre said. "Even with all the guys we're missing, the system doesn't change."

Anyhow, a lot more to come tomorrow, but in the meantime you can read what I wrote about Bob Gainey and Georges Laraque here, and what I wrote about Tuesday night's game here.

Monday, November 23, 2009

A scout's ego

A trade like the one that saw the Golden Boy shipped off for Benoit Pouliot always gets me wondering about what exactly a team's scout says to his GM to convince him on a player.

In the case of Latendresse, Wild scout Blair Mackasey has watched him play at least 50 times since being hired, seeing as he's a regular presence at the Bell Centre for Habs games. He's watched, like all of us have, how Latendresse has refused to play the role he's been given this year. How he's avoided the front of the net almost out of contempt for coach Jacques Martin, like he's telling him on every shift that there's more to his game than simply serving as a big body.

But that means Mackasey was also watching when Latendresse filled a valuable role last season as a third-line "energy" guy who dished out massive hits on the forecheck and chipped in offensively.

Meanwhile, in the Montreal scouting department, Pouliot was a well-known commodity. He was scouted extensively by the Habs leading up to the 2005 draft, and the braintrust here was convinced he could be the big, skilled centre the team lacked. And he was a Francophone to boot. I'd have to imagine Trevor Timmins caught a lot of his games with the Sudbury Wolves, and he has to believe the potential he saw can still come to the surface.

Basically, each scout had to convince their respective organizations that they had the system and the coaching staff to make these players realize their potential. If I were Mackasey, I would tell Wild GM Chuck Fletcher that Latendresse, when he was paired with Saku Koivu in the past, performed pretty well because he has soft hands around the net and a decent shot, even though his release is not lightning-quick. If he's paired with talented players on a consistent basis, he could score some goals for you.

If I were Timmins, on the other hand, I would tell Bob Gainey that there's no point weighing 230 pounds if you don't use it to its full potential by taking up valuable real estate in front of the net and, most importantly, staying there. If we're going to have a perimeter type of guy, might as well be someone with comparable size and who can skate.

Basically, someone like this:

That game was not even two weeks ago, and if Pouliot can do that on a consistent basis here once he return from this wrist injury, he should fit in just fine.

But that's the rub, Pouliot's ability to show consistent intensity levels, which is essentially what Martin appears to now be coaxing out of Andrei Kostitsyn. Latendresse's issue is not his intensity, necessarily, but his ability to recognize his own strengths rather than continuing to believe he's a player he's not. And the scouts on both sides of this trade have to believe they're seeing something the other team isn't.

If those are indeed the problems with the two players, I would have to believe the Wild have the upper hand in turning Latendresse around, because intensity is difficult to teach, but proper positioning isn't. And I don't think even his biggest detractors would ever accuse Latendresse of not working hard on the ice.

With Pouliot, here is a take from Michael Russo of the Minneapolis Star-Tribune:

Pouliot was aggravating to watch at times because there was so much untapped talent. He scored 18 points in 65 career games, and motivation and processing the game seemed to be the problem. Former GM Doug Risebrough often bemoaned Pouliot's "professionalism."

A lack of "professionalism" can essentially be translated to an unwillingness to do what's necessary off the ice in order to have success on it. Pouliot has one DUI conviction on his rap sheet from three years ago, which is either a sign of a 19-year-old doing something stupid or of a more deep-rooted lack of discipline. Luckily for the Canadiens, discipline is something Jacques Martin does quite well.

And he will need to, because with Latendresse leaving town and Pouliot unable to play right away, that meant the recall of Sergei Kostitsyn from Hamilton. Martin will have to show a little more patience with the precocious younger brother than he did in training camp, but Kostitsyn better come here ready to listen to the coach every now and then as well.

Oddly enough, if Sergei suddenly explodes upon his arrival here, that alone would make the trade worth it for the Habs. Anything Pouliot would do at that point would be gravy, and there is the potential for that to be hell of a gravy.

Just imagine for a second if the status of the players in this deal were reversed, if the Habs had just traded a fourth overall draft pick for a player taken 41 picks later in the same draft. The Habs would be absolutely raked over the coals. So, don't they deserve a little credit for being on the other end of this deal? Because while Latendresse might still blossom into a very useful player in Minnesota, I highly doubt he'll ever be a star a la John LeClair.

Pouliot, on the other hand, just might. That's a lot of potential reward for little risk.

A trade of untapped potential

Or is it non-existent potential?

We'll see, but the pressure will be on the coaching staffs of the Montreal Canadiens and Minnesota Wild to prove they can get the best out of the young prospect they each acquired Monday when The Golden Boy was shipped out of town in exchange for Benoit Pouliot.

Guillaume Latendresse does have a certain amount of potential, but I'm not sure just how high that ceiling is. I really have no idea what to make of Pouliot, other than the fact I believe he was on the Habs radar in the 2005 draft until Minnesota took him at No. 4. The Habs grabbed Carey Price one pick later, and Latendresse 41 picks later.

Personally, I like the trade, simply because I think the situation had become intolerable for The Golden Boy here. From the very start, he was expected to be this city's next locally produced star, and it wasn't something he was necessarily ever going to accomplish. The organization did him no favours by keeping with the club instead of sending him to junior, but I think that only hurt him on the mental side of the game. Physically, he was too strong for junior and wasn't learning anymore, but he was unable to live up to the lofty expectations heaped on him very early.

He told Marc-Antoine Godin of La Presse that he's "relieved" to be traded, which I think says it all.

Sergei Kostitsyn was also called up from Hamilton today, as Pouliot is currently injured with a jammed wrist, according to the Minnesota Star-Tribune's Michael Russo.

I'll have more on this later on.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Take the points and run

Raise your hands if you thought the decimated Montreal Canadiens would come out of a back-to-back with the mighty Washington Capitals and Detroit Red Wings with three out of a possible four points.

If you saw this coming, or had some misguided hope that it would happen, then your faith in your team is truly unflappable. What the Habs pulled off this weekend, winning in regulation 3-2 in Washington on Friday and forcing a shootout with the Red Wings tonight, was nothing less than remarkable.

Missing two thirds of their top line, not to mention the absentees on the blue line, Montreal found a way to remain a .500 hockey team, which under the circumstances is a minor miracle. Yes, I know a lot of teams have been stung by injuries this season, with the Red Wings at or near the top of the list, but a healthy Canadiens team is not exactly a powerhouse.

So when a bubble playoff team suffers this many injuries to this many key players and is still able to keep its head above water, I would have to say they deserve a pat on the back. And Mike Cammalleri thinks the exact same thing.

“There was a definite sense of desperation in our room, a sense of must-win and a whatever-it-takes attitude," said Cammalleri, who led a third period comeback with two goals to force overtime. "That’s a positive thing to see from this group. It was a character weekend for us with the lineup we have.”

Cammalleri played the first two periods with Glen Metropolit and Travis Moen, and the line performed pretty well. But in the the third period Jacques Martin decided to load up one line again and put Cammalleri with team MVP Tomas Plekanec and the resurgent Andrei Kostitsyn. Nine seconds later, Cammalleri scored to make it a 2-1 game.

“With the lineup the way it is now we’re doing a little bit of scratching and clawing to try and create things," he said. "We quite evidently have some injuries and things are going to change from time to time. I was with two good players who can create some offence.”

The Habs were playing well Saturday off the opening faceoff and were clearly the better team early on. But then Georges Laraque struck with a shift that will go down in history as possibly one of the stupidest of all time. First, he recklessly swings his stick and catches Darren Helm flush in the face. Then, with the delayed penalty still not called on the very same shift, he clearly sticks his knee out and takes out Niklas Kronwall with a dirty knee on knee.

Laraque, however, either didn't see the replay before speaking to reporters or just thinks we're all complete and utter idiots.

“Obviously there’s no intent there," Laraque said. "It was an accident and it was more of a trip than anything. I didn’t open my knee or anything.”

When asked if he feared a suspension considering his reputation as an enforcer, Laraque took it up another notch.

“There were four refs on the ice and they didn’t call anything," Laraque said. "If they called a match penalty it would be different. There was no intent, there was no reason why I would try to go and hurt him. It was a pure accident, that’s why they called it tripping, so I’m not worried at all.”

I think Laraque will get suspended, as well he should, and it will be a case of addition by subtraction for the Habs because I fail to see what he offers the team anymore.

Honesty time now, because as resilient as the Habs were this weekend, the whole thing can be pinned on Carey Price stopping 64 of 68 shots over two games while his teammates managed only 40 shots in the two games combined. That makes it five straight games where Price has allowed two goals, and he is 4-2-1 with a .941 save percentage and 1.94 goals against average over his last seven outings.

Does this mean the shaky Price we had known since last year's All-Star game is a thing of the past?

“I wouldn’t go that far, it’s still early," Martin said. "You’ve got to keep getting better. He’s playing in a groove, he’s playing well, and we like that. But he’s got to keep working at getting better."

Then, perhaps realizing how negative he was being in the face of some tremendous performances, Martin added, “But I like his determination and passion to win.”

Someone else who is clearly coming out of his extended hibernation is Andrei Kostitsyn, who is throwing his body around and showing a lot of good things in the offensive end game after game. His two assists Saturday gave him four points over a three-game point streak, falling just one point shy of matching his production from the first 20 games combined.

Again, Martin was careful not to heap too much praise too soon.

“He’s getting more ice time and having some success, so that’s encouraging," Martin said. "We just need to keep that going. He’s a powerful winger, he’s big, strong, he can hit and he does a lot of good things. It’s just a matter of playing the game at the intensity level you need to be effective.”

Meanwhile, the team MVP I mentioned earlier has hit another plane. Plekanec played 25:07 tonight, including 5:36 on the penalty kill while also being charged with centring the team's only hope of scoring and also taking 31 out of 61 faceoffs in the game. That's a lot of responsibility to heap on one guy, but Martin says he does it for a reason, and in this instance he wasn't the least bit hesitant to compliment the guy who's consistently been his best player.

“Tomas has had a great start for us," Martin said. “He’s played with different people and he never says anything, he just plays his game and plays it the way it should be played at both ends of the ice. He does a great job penalty killing, on the power play and at 5-on-5.”

Finally, the defence was outstanding the past two games. On this night, Ryan O'Byrne, Jaroslav Spacek and Roman Hamrlik combined to block 13 shots, while the pairing of Paul Mara and Josh Gorges got the most minutes and did a great job keeping the front of Price's net clean.

Still, as great as the defence was, it was under attack all night as the Red Wings attempted a whopping 84 shots compared to only 43 for the Habs, which means the puck was in the Montreal end most of the game.

Grabbing a point under conditions like that is sheer robbery, but perhaps also a sign that this team may be coming together in the face of adversity.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Gomez is not the fall guy

By that I don't mean Scott Gomez is not to blame for his lack of production so far this season, I'm just saying that the fall season doesn't appear to be his favourite time of year.

Jacques Martin said after practice in Brossard today that the Habs need to get more out of Gomez, and though he said it doesn't necessarily have to come in the form of goals and assists, putting some points on the board definitely wouldn't hurt.

But while this four-game pointless streak is somewhat disconcerting for the team's highest-paid player and top-line centre, I was wondering if having dead periods like this was a regular occurrence for Gomez over his career.

What I found was pretty particular, because in each of the previous five seasons Gomez has hit a bit of a rough patch sometime in October or November, but otherwise he's been a pretty remarkably consistent player. This is the 11th time in nine and a quarter seasons that Gomez has had a pointless streak as long as four games, and it's his first in two years. Of those 11 streaks, eight of them have come in and around this time of year.

Here's the evidence:

2008-09 - Manages only one goal and two assists over a 10-game span from Oct 30-Nov 30, but he never went more than three games without a point.
2007-08 - Had a 5-game pointless streak from Oct 20-29, the last time he's gone as many as four games without a point
2006-07 - Had a goal and an assist over seven games from Oct 21-Nov 25
2005-06 - This was his career year of 33 goals and 51 assists, but he still had a 5-game pointless streak from Oct 29-Nov 8, and a 4-game streak from Nov 30-Dec 7
2003-04 - Went six games without a point from Nov 21-Dec 6
2002-03 - This year, Gomez's lull came a little later than usual as he had two 4-game pointless streaks sandwiched around a one-goal game, from Dec 14-21 and Dec 27-Jan 1
2001-02 - Had a career regular season high 7-game pointless streak from Nov 17-30, and that followed a 5-game string from Oct 17-27. This was the worst statistical season of his career with 48 points in 76 games.
2000-01 - Had a 5-game streak from Oct 14-25 and a 4-game swing from Nov 4-11. Went a career-worst eight games without a point in that year's playoffs.
1999-2000 - His rookie year was probably his most consistent as he never went more than three games without a point. Not only did he have no autumn slump this year, he got a point in 14 of 15 games between Oct 27 and Dec 1.

While none of this makes Gomez's lack of production of late any easier to digest for the average fan, I would have to imagine it is somewhat comforting to know that this has happened before and it did not necessarily mean Gomez had a horrible year. In fact, it's happened in three of the four years Gomez hit the 70-point mark.

The question is, when will Gomez come out of it? It had better be pretty soon, because without Brian Gionta the Canadiens scoring woes show no signs of ending in the near future. Gomez was on a line with Mike Cammalleri and Travis Moen at practice today, while Tomas Plekanec was playing with Andrei Kostitsyn and Max Pacioretty.

I still feel Martin should try playing Gomez with Kostitsyn and give Plekanec a shot at playing an entire game with Cammalleri on his wing. Kostitsyn has only played a shade over 36 minutes this season with Gomez, and it might be time to give this combination more of a look, especially now that Gomez's natural born winger is on the shelf.

On a completely unrelated note, my wife was watching an improv show on TVA called Dieu Merci! tonight and as I glanced at the TV I could have sworn I recognized a guy dressed as a biker dude in one of the sketches. Sure enough it was the Golden Boy, Guillaume Latendresse, and I must say he wasn't horrible. You can check his highlights from the episode here, and be sure to click on the “Défi de groupe” link at the bottom of the page. At about the 1:45 mark, the Golden Boy locks lips with Quebec actor and TV/Radio host Patrice L'Écuyer.

I have no idea how he will avoid getting razzed about that one in the Habs room. The best way may be to score a goal or two.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Is it bad karma?

Are the hockey gods upset that Bob Gainey decided to take the quick-fix free agent route to re-shape his team in the off-season? Are they punishing Habs fans for stuffing the ballot boxes to get Mike Komisarek voted into what will likely be the only All-Star Game of his career? Is there some sort of other bad karma at play here?

How else can anyone explain the Habs injury situation right now? With Wednesday's announcement that Brian Gionta is gone for undetermined period with a broken left foot, it appears the Canadiens are being subject to an inordinate amount of bad luck this season, and the likely return of Ryan O'Byrne and Georges Laraque on Friday will do little to soften the blow of losing a top line winger and team leader.

Injuries to key players are supposed to build character on teams, and losing one like Andrei Markov in Game 1 of the season should have taken up the character-building quota for this season and next. But with O'Byrne going out the very next day, and eventually Gill and now Gionta, this is starting to get a little ridiculous.

In light of this, it's a minor miracle Roman Hamrlik wasn't seriously hurt in the waning moments of overtime in the 3-2 shootout win over Carolina on Tuesday. But, then again, just because Hamrlik was at practice today doesn't mean he wasn't hurt, considering Gionta had been playing since Nov. 2 with a broken foot and Gill played a similarly long time with the same ailment.

Mais bon. What's done is done, and the Canadiens now have to look forward, forward to back-to-back games against the powerhouse Washington Capitals and Detroit Red Wings. How, pray tell, does this team as it's currently constituted expect to compete with two legitimate contenders like that?

Simple. Goaltending. Ride that goalie as far as he will take you, and if Carey Price is able to continue the form he has shown in his last five games the Canadiens in fact do have a chance to win one of the two games this weekend, which would have to be considered a wild success under the circumstances.

Not exactly a high percentage formula for success, but I see little else that can happen in the next two days that will not make Price the most determining factor between a win and a loss. Will the power play suddenly revive itself to gain the offensive zone consistently, let alone actually score a goal? Will Scott Gomez start to display some of his dazzling puck skills and speed? Will Andrei Kostitsyn hit a hot streak? Will Glen Metropolit, as valiant a player as he is, be a suitable replacement for Gionta? Will the defence be able to start an effective breakout, not over the course of an entire game, but just one breakout, one time?

Any one of those things might actually happen during Friday's contest in Washington, but the fact is that practically every single one of those things - plus several others - has to happen at the same time for the Canadiens to start showing a sign of life. Barring that extremely unlikely scenario from playing itself out, the Habs will have to fall back on Price. Which is what they've been doing for the last two games that Gionta has missed already.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Guess who's back?

No, it's not me, and I must apologize for my extended hiatus from the blog.

But the man who looks to be back in control of things is Carey Price, who backed up his team record-tying 53-save performance of Saturday night by stopping 30 of 32 shots and all six shooters in the shootout in Tuesday's much-needed 3-2 Habs win over the hapless Carolina Hurricanes.

The two Carolina goals left little chance for Price, who saved his best for last with seven saves in overtime and another six in the skills competition. His save on Erik Cole with about 20 ticks left in overtime was particularly dazzling, and Price was a visibly relieved man afterwards that he grabbed a victory after being robbed of one in Music City.

“It feels good to get a win," Price said. "We did it again in overtime or a shootout, but I’ll take it. We work really hard preparing for games, and it’s finally starting to get rewarding a little bit.”

Price admitted that during his month-long, six-start losing streak - over which he allowed 26 goals in 19 periods of action - he started to have some doubts whether his technique was ever going to start working.

“Oh definitely, when I was going through a hard streak I didn’t know what to do," Price said. "When you’re going through a tough patch it’s really tough, especially when you’re putting in the work and you don’t know what’s wrong. I had a feeling like I had to change something but I didn’t, I just stuck to it.”

He also had a good chat with his dad, whom he said "brought things down to reality."

Over his last five starts, Price has allowed only 10 goals on 171 shots, good for a save percentage of .942 and a goals against average of 1.94. That's more like the franchise goalie everyone expected Price to be, even though five starts is nowhere near enough of a sample size to say he is completely out of the woods.

Still, it's a giant leap in the right direction.

“It’s been a work in progress," Price said. "I’ve been putting the same work in for the last month and I’m finally starting to see results now.”

As encouraging as Price's work has been, his teammates are still showing little sign of life. The Habs were 2:46 away from losing to a Hurricanes team missing Eric Staal, Joni Pitkanen, Cam Ward and Scott Walker, one that snapped a 14-game winless slide Sunday with a 5-4 shootout win where it blew a 4-1 lead midway through the game.

The first 58 minutes was a real cure for insomnia, with broken plays, sloppy passing and neutral zone muck-ups being the most common characteristics. Even Andrei Kostitsyn's tying goal at 17:14 of the third couldn't be considered a real scoring chance, though he deserves credit for sticking with the play and making something out of nothing.

Just imagine, if you will, what would have happened had Kostitsyn not been able to pull that goal out of a hat. The Habs would have lost to the worst team in the NHL one game after hanging their goalie out to dry in Nashville. I asked Jacques Martin afterwards what effect a loss would have had on his team's psyche, which was a question meant to emphasize just how important the win actually was.

I don't think he took it the way I meant it.

"I don't waste any time dealing with what-ifs," Martin said, with an assist to CTV's Brian Wilde for the "what-ifs" part because the coach was looking for the right word. "If I stopped to think about that, I wouldn't sleep. I stay in reality. We won the game."

Yes, coach, that's correct. You won the game. Woohoo. But the fact remains that your team has produced a grand total of eight goals in six games, and the only reason you've managed to win three of them has been the play of your goalie. As impressive as Price has been, it's unreasonable to expect him to maintain this level of play for ever. Same goes for Jaroslav Halak.

At some point, coach, your team will have to start scoring goals.

"I don't want to go back on this, but we're missing our best defenceman and one of our top forwards, that's part of it," Martin said, when questioned a second time by the same reporter as to why his team can't score goals. "But you have to find a way to win hockey games."

Tomas Plekanec, who extended his team scoring lead with two assists to give him 19 points in 21 games, has a better theory than his coach, though the injuries to Andrei Markov and Brian Gionta are factors that can't be ignored.

"I think we've got to do a better job of going to the net and battling hard around the net," he said. "When we're doing that we're fine. Sometimes you also need a little bit of luck, but I think we can do this kind of thing a little better and we can score some more goals like that."

The lack of "this kind of thing" was blatantly evident without Gionta in the lineup, who scores most of his goals "like that." And what was made even more evident by Gionta's absence was the lack of effectiveness being shown by Scott Gomez, who is now pointless in four straight games. Could it be that Gomez is only good when he plays with Gionta? Is that a good player to be building your team around? Is Gomez even a good player?

While I'm being all negative and everything, I'll leave you with this. I'm not sure if the TV cameras picked this up, but I definitely saw Roman Hamrlik hobbling off the ice in overtime, and the look on his face was one of sheer pain. I have no idea if the injury is severe or not, but the way things have been going around here, would it surprise anyone to find out he'll be missing the next game, if not more?

If that's the case, if Hamrlik is out for any extended period, then you can simply pack it in for this season. Without Hamrlik, I doubt this team would even have four wins at this point, and if he's lost then whatever's not working for the Canadiens right now will only get worse, I'm sad to say.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

When stats lie

If someone hadn't watched Tuesday night's Bell Centre "contest" between the Calgary Flames and the Habs, there are a number of misleading stats that could lead you to believe this 1-0 loss was actually a close game.

First there was the score, and the fact Montreal actually outshot Calgary 20-19 at even strength, or that the Habs were credited with 26 hits to the Flames 21, or that Habs coach Jacques Martin counted nine scoring chances per side.

Yes, all those things point to a close game, but this game was between two teams playing in different leagues. One team has three defencemen who could all be considered all-stars, another has only four NHL-calibre defencemen. That alone shows to what extent the Flames are far and away a better team than the Habs.

Give Montreal credit, they hung around in this game and would have tied it if Scott Gomez were able to get the handle on a puck after deftly beating Miikka Kiprusoff on a clean breakaway in the second. But ultimately, it was a case of the Flames being too good and the Habs, yet again, not being anywhere near dangerous enough in the offensive zone.

“What’s effort? How do you define effort? I can define effort to be a lot of different things," Mike Cammalleri said, when told by a reporter after the game that this loss could not be blamed on a lack of effort. "Are we working hard? Do we want to win? Yes. But at the same time we need to make more of an effort - if you want to use that word - to challenge teams, to make it harder on their defence. I think we need to make more tape to tape passes, we need to have more puck possession, we need to challenge them with more of a threat offensively. It’s hard to play against a team that comes at you like that, and right now we’re making it easier on them.”

Cammalleri appeared like he was getting fed up with responding to losing questions, largely because his team has lost five of the last seven games, scoring only 15 goals and going 2-for-21 over that span.

Jacques Martin, in a desperate attempt to balance out his attack, stuck with keeping Cammalleri with Tomas Plekanec and Maxim Lapierre for as long as he could. When Calgary scored late in the first, a colleague next to me in the press box asked how long it would take before Cammalleri would be back with Gomez and Brian Gionta. I figured sometime in the second period, but Martin waited until midway through the third before putting his top three offensively creative players on one line.

The saddest part of that? The Habs might have won had he done it sooner. But if Andrei Kostitsyn were able to consistently produce chances, and if Guillaume Latendresse could show he had the willingness to go to some dirty areas to help that line out, maybe Martin wouldn't feel the need to take Cammalleri off the top unit.

“It’s something that we have to keep working at, and hopefully somebody will seize the opportunity,” Martin said. “There’s some chemistry between Gomez and Gionta and Cammalleri’s played most of the time with them. We’ve tried different situations trying to find a solution that will give us more depth as far as scoring.”

I've written it before, and I'll do it again, perhaps it's time to see if Gomez can have chemistry with someone else and give Plekanec a chance to play with Cammalleri and Gionta.

On the bright side in this game was the play of the defence, which had a physical challenge presented to them and answered the bell to the best of their ability. Jay Leach played 17 minutes and, as was his stated goal Tuesday morning, he wasn't a factor. That's a good thing. Marc-Andre Bergeron saw loads of even strength ice time, and in spite of himself wasn;t a factor either.

But ultimately, Jaroslav Halak was outstanding, stopping 30 shots and giving his team a chance to win. Perhaps now he knows how Carey Price feels, who in his best games doesn't get the offensive support to win. I would have to imagine Halak earned himself another start in Phoenix on Thursday night.

Finally, Halak also addressed the whole Twitter-based controversy of Saturday night started by his agent, Allan Walsh, who tweeted about Carey Price's horrid won-loss record, setting off a firestorm that began on Twitter and made its way all the way to Hockey Night in Canada and TSN.

“He wrote something he shouldn’t have,” Halak said of all the stupidness. “It’s got nothing to do with me.”

Amen to that, Jaro.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Patience has run out

It doesn't look good for Guillaume Latendresse and Maxim Lapierre as both were benched for the third period of the Habs 3-1 loss to the Tampa Bay Lightning on Saturday night.

They were on the ice at the end of the second period when Tampa scored a deflating insurance goal after the Habs had consistently pressed for the tying goal for the second half of the middle frame.

Jacques Martin didn't mince words afterwards on the decision to bench the pair, taking several backhanded jabs at the pair who have done nothing but disappoint all season.

"I just thought that when I shortened my bench we had to win some battles and get some production," Martin said. "I went with people who were willing to go to war."

When asked about the play of Ryan White, who joined Andrei Kostitsyn and Tomas Plekanec on the second line in only his second NHL game and did a hell of a job, Martin again took an opportunity to take a not-so-veiled shot at the players he benched in his favour.

"I thought Ryan gave us a pretty good game," Martin said. "With Plekanec going up against the Lecavalier line and with Malone on the left side, I wanted someone with size and strength."

The forward with the most size and strength on the team is Latendresse, and he was lined up directly opposite Malone, who was actually playing right wing.

It will be interesting to see what the fallout from this will be, but no one will be able to say Latendresse hasn't had his opportunities this season. He's played on the power play and gotten time as a top-six forward, yet hasn't performed like one. On one shift Saturday night there was a scramble with a puck loose in front of the Lightning goal. Plekanec was in there digging, as was Lapierre, and the player furthest from the net was Latendresse. In two periods of play he was credited with one hit, the third straight game he's had a single significant bodycheck.

On the bright side, there's White, who wanted to hide it but couldn't contain his excitement at playing such a significant role in the game. There was one shift in the second period where he won the puck on the forecheck, then lost it, almost created another turnover in the offensive zone, got back defensively to cover for a pinching defenceman, dug the puck out of his corner and was the lead man in on the dump and chase. In one shift, White showed more energy and will than Latendresse did the entire game.

"Playing with guys like that is a whole lot of fun, and that made my night a whole lot easier," White said afterwards. "I just want to go out there and get pucks to those two, work hard, get to the front of the net and hopefully we could get some opportunities.

"I didn't even know I was going out there, they just kind of threw me out there for the start of the second," he continued. "I kind of just ran with it. But I know what I have to do, and that's to work hard to help these guys out."

I don't want to pick on one guy, because Lapierre has not been delivering what was expected of him this season either, but with the tools Latendresse has it's a shame he doesn't use them to their top potential. Yes, he's slow, but he has everything else in his toolbox to become a player in this league, much like Ryan Malone is for the Lightning. Except, maybe, the heart. This will show us what he is truly made of.

So that loss drops the Habs record to 8-9-0 through 17 games, basically a third of the way through Andrei Markov's expected absence. Though I've been clear that I think under the circumstances this is a very respectable record, Mike Cammalleri obviously doesn't think so. As well he shouldn't.

"I like this team a whole lot more than our record shows right now," Cammalleri said. "But let's be honest, we're almost at the 20-game mark here, the season's not fresh anymore and we have to start thinking about positioning."

That positioning has the Habs in 10th place after Saturday night's games with 16 points, in the middle of a pack of five teams separated by a single point. If they can hang tough in that positioning for a few more months and weather this storm of injuries, the Habs should be well placed to go on a post-Olympic break surge toward the playoffs. But the key will be to maintain that position, which will be more and more difficult as players like Roman Hamrlik and Jaroslav Spacek continue to log way more minutes than their bodies can handle.

Cammalleri said the way to do that is to get more consistency not only from game to to game, but from period to period.

"You can't play a perfect 60 minutes," he said. "But I'd like the gap between the good and the bad not to be so great as it was tonight between the first and the third."

Friday, November 6, 2009

Running out of chances Part Deux

So just when you thought maybe Carey Price wasn't what he was made out to be, he comes up with a 42-save gem to steal a win in Boston.

Now, maybe it's time for Guillaume Latendresse to do the same thing.

Watching him circle around the net with the puck over and over again Thursday night in Beantown got me thinking whether or not the Golden Boy will ever understand what he needs to do to establish himself as an effective player in this league. Instead of circling the net, why isn't he bulldozing his way to the front of it? Or better yet, why is he even carrying the puck to begin with? That's not the strength of his game, and frankly, I'm starting to wonder what exactly that strength is.

It's supposed to be his physical play, yet for a second game in a row Latendresse was credited with only one hit the entire game. That's nowhere near good enough, not when he gets 20 shifts in a game. His strength is supposed to be his hands in tight quarters around the net. Except he's never there, and his 24 shots on goal through 16 games shows that even when he is, he's not really effective at getting his hands on pucks. Also, I don't think I've ever seen anyone who is worse at tipping pucks in front of the net. More often than not, he winds up blocking the shot rather than re-directing it past the goalie.

Perhaps it's time for Jacques Martin to put him on the fourth line like he did with Andrei Kostitsyn, because ever since he did that, AK46 appears to be finding his game. He's getting physically involved, creating turnovers, getting (a few) more shots on goal and generally making himself a lot more noticeable on the ice.

Latendresse has had a few games playing with Tomas Plekanec and Max Lapierre on what is supposed to be the Habs second line, but I wouldn't be surprised to see Latendresse demoted the next game. He was on that line at practice today, but Brian Gionta got another therapy day, which meant Kostitsyn took his spot on the top line. But if Gionta dresses Saturday night against Tampa, you would have to imagine Kostitsyn would drop down a spot to play with Plekanec.

While the natural selection for a demotion would be Lapierre, I think he's starting to find his game a little, no doubt inspired by his hatred of the Bruins that had him at his agitating best Thursday night. When you think about it, that quality is pretty well suited to the gentler natures of Plekanec and Kostitsyn. That would leave Latendresse to drop down and play with Tom Pyatt and Ryan White, which might make for a pretty decent combo if Latendresse decides it's time to play as physically as he did last year, when he averaged 2.5 hits per game. This year, that number is down to 1.9 per game.

Speaking of Pyatt and White, I was pretty impressed with their games Thursday night, which is bad news for Gregory Stewart and Kyle Chipchura because I think Martin was impressed as well. I'd be shocked if both of them weren't back in the lineup on Saturday.

I thought Mathieu Carle was also much better in his second game, making a number of smart decisions and sound defensive plays. I don't know if today's waiver claim of Jay Leach means Carle should be worried about his spot in the lineup, but I hope not. Because if the Habs are going to dress a mistake-prone defenceman, I'd rather they do so with a 22-year-old prospect than a 30-year-old minor-league journeyman.

While the question of who will be starting in goal is a constant one with the Canadiens, I don't think there is much debate as to who will be front and centre Saturday night. If it's not Price, I'd be stunned. Which means you should probably expect to see Jaroslav Halak.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Running out of chances

Carey Price has been confirmed as tonight's starter in goal for the Habs, and obviously I applaud the move because I feel he gave his team a chance to win Tuesday night despite allowing five goals.

Having said that, Price is going to have to start performing like he did in the first two games of the season pretty soon, because his performance since then has been very mediocre, and that's being kind. In fact, if you take those first two games out, Price's numbers are downright hideous: 0-6-0 record, 4.25 GAA and .851 SP.

Price simply has to perform facing a Boston Bruins team missing its top two centres now that David Krejci has been felled by the swine flu, a team that hasn't scored in two games, one with an anemic power play that has produced only two goals in its last 39 attempts. On top of that, this is a team that made Price look like a misguided fool in last year's playoffs, and he should motivated for this one like no other game. If Price is average once again, or worse, then we may have to start asking some serious questions about what he can offer the Habs this season, and maybe even beyond that despite his young age.

Gregory Stewart and Kyle Chipchura will be asked to watch from the press box to make room for Ryan White and Tom Pyatt. If this move actually has some impact on the game I'll be shocked, because I don't see either of them playing more than 10 minutes tonight.

What bears watching more than that is how Mathieu Carle and Marc-Andre Bergeron are used, because one of the two will have to start logging some significant even strength minutes at some point if Jacqeus Martin wants his regular defencemen to survive this stretch awaiting the return of Ryan O'Byrne and Hal Gill.

Who would have thought in July that the loss of those two guys would be such a huge deal? But with Andrei Markov on the shelf, it's a significant loss.

But remember this, and I will do my best to remind you all from time to time, if the Habs win tonight they'll be back at .500 with an 8-8-0 record. And that is all you could ask of a team missing by far its best player.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

The cavalry's coming!

Yes, the answer to the Canadiens funk lies in today's recall of centres Tom Pyatt and Ryan White from Hamilton. Wrong.

This will do nothing to help cure the Canadiens of what ails them, other than to send a message to the regular group of forwards that they need to improve their backchecking to help the team's heavily depleted defence corps. Because if there's one thing the two guys who were called up are known for, it is that.

Martin did not mince words after Tuesday night's loss to the Kovalchukless Atlanta Thrashers that the Habs defensive breakdowns in fact started in the neutral zone, when forwards were allowed to cross the Montreal blueline with far too much ease and speed. That puts the defence on its heels, and the result is what we saw.

I'm not too sure who will sit out in Boston on Thursday to make room for one or both of Pyatt and White (even though Brian Gionta missed practice today, I'd be shocked if he missed the game), but someone I would like to see on the ice at TD Banknorth Garden is Carey Price. This guy is owed something from someone this season, because while I wouldn't argue he's been spectacular (that would be ludicrous), he hasn't been nearly as bad as his 3.64 GAA and.883 save percentage would suggest.

In half of Price's starts this season the Habs have been a defensive trainwreck, and if there's any team in the NHL that should be a welcome sight for this defence right now, it's the Boston Bruins with no goals in their last two and only three goals over their last four. As bad as your Habs have been of late, the Bruins have been far worse all season.

“Before beating Atlanta we had lost five games in a row, but in the three games before that win we limited the other team’s shots, we gave up fewer chances to score, but we had sequences that prevented us from getting a win," Martin said of a stretch where Halak saw most of the action. "You can't control the result of game, but you can control how you play. Same thing with Carey, he can only control the way he plays, continue working to improve and eventually a win will come."

Jaroslav Halak has had the benefit of a lot of cream puff starts this season, and while the last one should have been one for Price, his teammates didn't make it so. If I'm Martin, I come back with him for a whole slew of reasons, to give him a chance to erase the bad taste in his mouth from last year's playoffs and to prove to him that he wasn't to blame for the loss to Atlanta being tops among them.

While the Habs were sweating over their defensive ineptitude at practice today, CKAC was revealing that Bob Gainey had a little chat recently with his former teammate Chris Chelios, who will be 48 in January. Watching Marc-Andre Bergeron attempt to play defence the other night would lead you to believe that Chelios could not be anywhere near that bad, especially when you consider he has five points in as many games and is a plus-7 with the Chicago Wolves of the AHL so far this season.

But there remains another potentially available defenceman playing in Chicago these days, one promising, young power play quarterback who is being grossly overpaid considering the minutes he's getting, and if I were Gainey my focus would remain squarely fixed here. Cam Barker played only 12:28 in his last game, that 3-2 win over the Habs in Chicago where he notched a goal and an assist. He hasn't played 15 minutes since Game 4 of the season nearly a month ago.

The more he watches his own defence play, the more I would imagine Gainey would be willing to live with whatever Barker deficiency leads the 'Hawks to play him so little in even strength and penalty killing situations.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

"They are who we thought they were"

No, I'm not referring to the famous rant by former Arizona Cardinals head coach Dennis Green to describe the Atlanta Thrashers, who waltzed into the Bell Centre Tuesday night without their best player and came away with a 5-4 win. I'm using that delicious quote in reference to your Montreal Canadiens.

A lot of you may be upset with how poorly the Habs played in this loss, how they left their goalie Carey Price to his own devices (again), how they couldn't put together two passes for much of the night, how basic defensive assignments were blown and led to easy goals. That's your right, because as fans you should expect your team give a top effort every night both physically and mentally. That game was one long brain fart for the Habs.

But I'm looking at a bigger picture here, and 15 games into the season the Habs are 7-8-0, one game below .500. Why is that significant? Because it more or less represents the quarter-pole of Montreal's own little mini-season, the one the Canadiens are playing without Andrei Markov on board. Without their own best player, their own version of Ilya Kovalchuk.

With all the changes made to this team and with the very few minutes that team has actually had its best player this season, I think it's easy to forget just how important Markov is to Montreal's chances for success. We've seen it in the past, and we're seeing it now.

For the Canadiens to be sitting with seven wins after 15 games is nothing to be proud of, but it is easily explained, at least. Using injuries as an excuse is the lamest of the lame, but this is not just any injury. How far would the Capitals go without Alex Ovechkin for four months? You might laugh at the comparison, but it's not so laughable because it's clear Markov is the most irreplaceable part the Canadiens have.

So, while we wait for his return, we will have to tolerate horrendous efforts like the one Tuesday night. If it weren't for the Thrashers gift-wrapping two goals for the Canadiens it would have looked a lot worse than it did.

Jacques Martin and Perry Pearn were forced to overtax their defence due to the absence of Hal Gill, whose sudden leg injury that looks like it will cost him weeks may show the fans that have begun booing him at the Bell Centre what his value to the team actually is. Because like it or not, in Markov's absence, Gill is a top-four defenceman on this team, and the Habs could not afford to lose anyone else on the blueline right now.

Among the forwards, the usually effective Glen Metropolit line was pretty quiet against Atlanta, meaning the only unit that actually worked was once again the top line of Scott Gomez, Mike Cammalleri and Brian Gionta, combining for three goals on 12 shots. The second unit centred by Tomas Plekanec had its moments, but I feel Maxim Lapierre is not nearly as effective as a winger as he was last year at centre. Guillaume Latendresse had a decent up front, generating a handful of chances, but he finished the game with one hit. One. That can't happen for him on any night, because even if the puck isn't going in, laying the body is something he can and should generate every single game.

I don't blame Martin for keeping the stacked top line together simply becayse it's the only thing working on a consistent basis, but if I might make a suggestion, I would split up Gomez from his wingers and give them to Plekanec. I feel the guy deserves it because he's been Montreal's best centre in terms of consistency and effort. How else do you explain him being tied for the team lead in scoring despite having a revolving door of ineffective wingers playing around him? Don't any of you wonder what he might do with Gionta and Cammalleri playing alongside him? I do. Then I would flank Gomez with Latendresse and Andrei Kostitsyn, who responded to the challenge thrown at him by Martin by showing more of the "intensity and determination" the coach is looking for from him, as evidenced by his four hits on the night. Keep the Metro line intact and throw Lapierre back at centre on the fourth line by moving Kyle Chipchura to the wing.

This is a combination that hasn't really gotten a shot all season and I still feel like the top two lines represent scoring threats under this scenario, assuming Kostitsyn and Latendresse bring it on a regular basis. I also feel Gomez would be a beneficial partner for the youngsters because of his playmaking abilities.

Just a suggestion. What do you think?

Plus, in case any of you don't know what I'm talking about with the headline, here's the reference: