Saturday, February 28, 2009

Mea Culpa on Komisarek

Well, I'm not standing down on how I feel he's been playing of late, but Mike Komisarek didn't wind up on the third pairing in Saturday's 3-2 win over the Sharks.

In fact, he played nearly 10 minutes in the third period alongside Josh Gorges, while Roman Hamrlik played only five minutes in the third with Patrice Brisebois on his right.

Guy Carbonneau effectively skirted the question after the game, saying that Doug Jarvis wanted to spread the ice time a little more evenly.

Hamrlik, to be fair, was hurt in the Philadelphia game and didn't play the final five or six minutes or the overtime, though he says he's fine. The fact is he likely isn't, along with a bunchof his colleagues on defence like Gorges and possibly Komisarek.

Just further proof the Canadiens need to address the lack of depth on defence by Wednesday's deadline.

Clouding judgment?

It's pretty hard to be negative after the Habs swept three games this week from very hot Canucks and Flyers teams before topping it off with a victory over the top team in the league in the Sharks, but I'm wondering if these three victories have clouded the judgment of Bob Gainey and his managment team looking toward Wednesday's trade deadline.

Because it's clear, at least to me and I would imagine a lot of you, that the Canadiens defence corps is not one that will take this team far into the playoffs.

Mike Komisarek was dropped onto a pairing with Josh Gorges halfway through this skin-of-your teeth 3-2 victory, making him the team's fifth defenceman. Frankly, the way he's been playing of late, he's only that high on the depth chart by default. Same goes for his old partner Roman Hamrlik, and Patrice Brisebois should not playing nearly as many minutes as he is right now.

If it weren;t for another brilliant performance by Jaroslav Halak, this game would have been a blowout by the Sharks after it looked like Montreal would run away with it with a 3-0 first intermission lead.

Part of the reason why the Sharks came back in the game and thoroughly dominated the final 40 minutes is Guy Carbonneau's insistence on sitting on leads with that dreadful 1-2-2 trap system, the NHL equivalent of a prevent defence. But another major reason is the Habs defence simply has trouble handling the puck and dealing with anyone who comes after them with speed.

Don't get me wrong, beating the Sharks was a huge step for this team, but it shouldn't cloud the fact that there are serious issues that remain and they need to be addressed by Wednesday.

Not much scout interest

In the Canadiens final game before the trade deadline, there is a relatively small group of scouts accredited for Saturday's game against the Sharks.

The Toronto Maple Leafs have two scouts expected to attend tonight's game, while the Pittsburgh Penguins director of pro scouting is here. Edmonton Oilers assistant GM Kevin Pendergrast is also here, but he's originally from Verdun and often attends games at the Bell Centre.

Otherwise not a big crowd on scouts row, as opposed to the standing room only gathering at Montreal's last home game against the Canucks, which leads me to believe a lot of them were here to see Vancouver.

Also of interest is the fact that Habs assistant GM/director of pro scouting Pierre Gauthier is at the game, and not out scouting elsewhere. A possible explanation is that since Gauthier lives in Philadelphia he just hitched a ride here on the team's charter last night, but I still find it somewhat curious considering what time of year it is.

Friday, February 27, 2009

Mission accomplished

Facing a week where the Habs were going up against two of the hottest teams in the league and the one with the best record in the NHL, I figured winning two out of three would be a huge

Well, the Habs took care of that with a game to spare by beating the Flyers 4-3 in overtime Friday, and they did it in pretty extraordinary fashion.

As Guy Carbonneau mentioned after the game, falling behind 2-0 early in the game playing in the Philadelphia Flyers barn might have forced the Habs to fold as recently as two weeks ago. But Friday night, in a four-point game, the Canadiens did the opposite.

They fought back.

With the rejuvenated Alex Kovalev and Tomas Plekanec leading the way offensively, and Jaroslav Halak further entrenching himself into the No. 1 role in goal, the Canadiens managed to win a game even though they didn't play their best.

But they played well enough to win, and at this point that's what matters.

For those keeping score at home, that's five straight games with at least a goal for Plekanec since returning from his suspension, and it's a seven-game point streak overall. For Kovalev, his goal and two assists give him seven points in three games since his little vacation, and that move by Bob Gainey is looking more and more brilliant with every game.

Which brings me to the real significance of this little three-game win streak the Habs have put together here, which is that it improves Gainey's bargaining power leading to Wednesday's trade deadline by a country mile.

When Gainey traded for Schneider the team was in free fall, getting embarrassed night after night. Even though Thrashers GM Don Waddell said he felt pressure to get a deal done because Gainey would have looked elsewhere, does anyone doubt that Gainey had to give a little more than he wanted to in that deal because he was a desperate man?

Now, if the Canadiens can manage to beat the San Jose Sharks on Saturday night at the Bell Centre, not only will they have pulled off an unlikely feat by sweeping the week's games, they will be giving their general manager the ability to play a little possum on deadline day and maybe swing a deal that makes sense for the team without giving away the farm.

Because despite the three straight wins there are still some holes to be filled on the Habs. On defence, even though Schneider's addition has been a revelation, Patrice Brisebois is starting to make more and more mistakes with the puck, Mike Komisarek is continuing the trend of taking bad penalties and making poor decisions, and Roman Hamrlik was a minus-3 Friday night.

With Alex Tanguay on the verge of a return, Guillaume Latendresse about two weeks away and the addition of Glen Metropolit who I thought had a pretty good debut considering the circumstances, I think Gainey can leave his forwards the way they are and focus his attention on grabbing another defenceman.

Is it possible that Panthers GM Jacques Martin was in Philly tonight to watch the Canadiens and not the Flyers? Could Gainey convince the Ducks to send Chris Pronger to town? Or maybe it could be Jordan Leopold, the defenceman I've believed Gainey should grab all year? Who knows?

But one thing I do know is that the last two games, even though they were both wins against tough opponents, have shown me that the Canadiens defence is a problem area, one that would be exploited to no end in a seven-game series when an opposing coach can adjust his game plan to attack certain players who are prone to mistakes.

The Canadiens right now have three such players in their bottom four on defence, and that ratio is far too high going into the playoffs. But at least, with the way his team is playing, every other GM in the NHL may be a little less convinced that they can take Gainey to the cleaners right now.

Gainey gets his righty

The Canadiens picked up Glen Metropolit off waivers Friday from the Philadelphia Flyers, and my initial reaction was that Steve Bégin can also play centre, so is Metropolit that big of an upgrade on Bégin?

But then I checked out Metropolit's bio and noted that he is what Gainey covets, and in a sense what was lost when Robert Lang went down - a right-handed centre.

He's won 50.2 per cent of his faceoffs this year to go with 14 points in 55 games, and he is more of a true centre than Bégin, so in that sense perhaps the Habs have improved by making this swap because otherwise Metropolit brings a lot of the same intangibles to the table as the guy he's replacing.

He's gritty, defensively responsible and probably has a bit more of a scoring tough than Bégin.

However, when Gainey says this, I have to wonder what he's thinking:

"I indicated yesterday that one of the needs we had identified for our team was to acquire a centreman to add depth in the middle and complete our group of centremen...Glen is a seasoned veteran who played very well against us in last year's playoffs against the Bruins."

When he said that, I had assumed Gainey was referring to finding someone to replace Lang, and while Metropolit does that in the sense of adding a right-handed centre, he does not fit the bill when it comes to producing offence.

I'm wondering if Metropolit is in fact the centre Gainey was referring to, or if he has another trick up his sleeve in terms of adding a scorer in the middle.

In any event, if Metropolit suits up tonight in Philly he should be an upgrade on Kyle Chipchura, so I guess the Canadiens have improved. But is this all the improvement we can expect to see?

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Nice guys finish last

While the "nice guy" label certainly applies to Steve Bégin, he actually didn't finish last today. He finished first, getting traded to a team in the Dallas Stars that will use and appreciate him.

No, the "nice guy" I'm referring to here is Bob Gainey, because he did Bégin a favour by trading him away for what amounts to nothing. Bégin needed to prove he could still play despite years of attacking his job with a complete and utter disregard for his own personal safety. A style that is needed on every team, but ultimately has an expiration date.

Guy Carbonneau evidently felt that date was past due. I hope it isn't, because Bégin has always been a pleasure to deal with, a guy who's sincerely happy to be an NHL player without an ounce of pretension on his often battered and bruised body. I wish him nothing but success in Dallas, and if he gets on the ice he should deliver what Dave Tippett expects of him.

It's very honourable of Gainey to have given Bégin this opportunity, because he clearly wasn't going to get it here, especially with Carbonneau making comparisons between Bégin and the end of his own playing career just the other day.

But even then, wouldn't it benefit the Habs to have Bégin around, just in case? What would happen if Maxim Lapierre gets a nasty injury in Philadelphia on Friday night? This trade would look pretty short-sighted, which it really is. I understand Bégin was getting frustrated with his lack of playing time and that he's a likeable guy who didn't want to rock the boat by complaining about his situation.

But just because he's nice doesn't mean his career should be a bigger priority than the depth of the team, should it?

Meanwhile, someone who didn't mind rocking the boat by complaining, Georges Laraque, appears to have gotten his wish and should be in the lineup Friday night. If I were Carbonneau, I would have left him in Montreal.

When Sergei Samsonov said a couple of years back that if he knew how little he'd play in Montreal he never would have signed here, Carbonneau essentially promised that Samsonov wouldn't play another game in a Canadiens sweater. Laraque does the exact same thing, and he gets thrown into the lineup? While Bégin gets traded?

What message does that send to the young guys on the team? That if you complain to the media you'll get your way. I really don't care what Carbonneau said about Laraque's comments today, about how they were poorly timed and showed disrespect to the team and his teammates. If Carbonneau really wanted to send a message to Laraque and the rest of the team, he would have left Laraque at home.

And Bégin would have been in the lineup in Philly.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Is this guy for real?

So, Georges Laraque is starting to get frustrated about his role on the team. Is anyone surprised?

Laraque told reporters Wednesday he expects to be traded by the March 4 deadline because apparently Guy Carbonneau doesn't like tough guys, and with his $1.5 million salary he's an expensive commodity to have sitting in the press box.

I personally feel Laraque hasn't delivered the goods this season when he was healthy, but that's actually pretty irrelevant in this case. Because whether he's doing a great job as an enforcer or he's just collecting a paycheck, the fact is you don't want any distractions coming from your tough guy.

An enforcer's role in the room is often the opposite, that of a glue guy who jokes around and keeps the guys loose. It is not a guy who starts complaining to reporters about sitting out of the lineup, that he's never been a healthy scratch this often in his career, that he never would have signed in Montreal if he knew this was how it was going to be, that he's "frustrated."

Those aren't the words of a glue guy, those are the words of someone putting himself ahead of the team.

Mathieu Dandenault during last year's playoffs was burning up inside that Carbonneau refused to dress him, believing his playoff experience could help a team that was clearly wilting under the pressure. But he never spoke up to reporters about it, denying interview request after interview request, until finally he cracked and gave one interview just before the Canadiens were eliminated by the Flyers. And I saw that interview as a last gasp attempt to get into a game, an attempt that ultimately failed.

What Laraque said Wednesday will not sit well in the coach's office or in the GM's, and it's entirely possible Laraque will get his wish as a result.

But what I find the most stunning aspect of the comments is that Laraque was asked point blank several times by reporters in training camp whether he could accept a less prominent role on the team, one where he would spend several nights watching games from up high in the press box instead of down below on the bench.

Over and over again, Laraque responded he was prepared to do whatever Carbonneau asked of him, that he just wanted to help the team, that he was so happy to be back playing in his hometown. Essentially, he said all the right things, drawn right from the players media relations guidebook.

But deep down, he must have known at the time that he wouldn't accept a situation like this, and more importantly he must have known that when he signed his contract. So either he was lied to during those negotiations and the Habs plan all along was to use him sparingly, or he's been a giant let down and this is Carbonneau's way of showing it.

Either way, Laraque would have been better served going to Carbonneau in private and talking to him about it man to man, rather than airing his dirty laundry to reporters.

It's entirely possible he's played his final game in a Canadiens uniform, and if indeed that's the way management wants to go, that decision was likely made no earlier than Wednesday.

And it was a decision made easy by Georges Laraque.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Grab that bull, Jaro

Guy Carbonneau refused to flat out admit that Jaroslav Halak stole his team a win Tuesday night, and in a way he's right.

The Habs did kill off a two minute 5-on-3 disadvantage in the first and turned that into an advantage of their own when Tomas Plekanec came out of the box and scored on a breakaway created by a great hustle play from Saku Koivu (a play that Canucks coach Alain Vigneault was a clear trip by the Habs captain, but that's what you call point of view).

Montreal also capitalized on a five-minute major given to Alex Burrows, a penalty that probably shouldn't have been so severe, but the Canadiens took advantage of the opportunity regardless.

However, the real motivation for Carbonneau refusing to say his goalie stole one for him in that 3-0 shutout of the Canucks, in my eyes, is that the coach knows the psyche of his team is not completely out of the woods yet. All that talk of the team being fragile still lingers, and frankly the Habs were thoroughly outplayed by the Canucks in practically every area of the game.

If Carbonneau were to admit that Halak stole the game, it would also be an admission that his 18 skaters stunk out the joint.

But that's kind of the truth, and I'm pretty sure Carbonneau knows it.

Still, the Habs won their second straight game for the first time in over a month by riding a hot goalie, and that's a positive thing. Not only the two straight wins, but the fact they have a hot goalie. And Carbonneau hopes he stays that way for quite some time.

"That's the reaction you want," Carbonneau said when asked if he thought Halak's 34-save effort was triggered by the coach's win-and-you-play policy. "I think he's been waiting for an occasiuon like this. It might be tough for Carey, but hopefully (Halak) can grab the bull by the horns and win us five or six or seven in a row."

Why don't we start with three first, huh Guy? Because playing the way they did Tuesday night, I'm not sure the Habs will leave Philadelphia with a win Friday night.

I was covering the Canucks side of the story, and their coach Alain Vigneault had no trouble at all giving Halak all the credit for the Habs win.

"Obviously the difference in this game was their goaltender played an outstanding game," said the former Habs coach and defending coach of the year. "I think they might have had three chances 5-on-5 in the whole game, and they had a couple on the power play. They didn’t generate much, we generated quite a few but we weren’t able to score.

"Our goaltender’s done that many times to other teams. Tonight, we had it done to us."

Indeed, that goaltender he's referring to is Roberto Luongo, who almost unintentionally took a pretty major dig at the way the habs played in this game.

"It was really an uneventful night for me" he said. "I was pretty bored."


Halak steals the show once again

Carey Price couldn't have enjoyed that.

Yes, his team got a much-needed win over the hottest team in the league, and Price would never admit that listening to the Bell Centre crowd chanting "Halak, Halak" from his seat on the bench was painful.

But it had to be.

It had to be tough watching the entire sellout crowd of 21,273 stand to their feet to give Jaroslav Halak a standing ovation as he skated to the bench for a TV timeout late in the third period. It's impossible to imagine what Price is thinking as he watches Halak taking over what was once his by divine right.

Halak stood tall in this 3-0 win over the Vancouver Canucks, and at times he was the only one wearing red who was playing at all.

The Canadiens did kill off a two-minute 5-on-3, and capped it off with Tomas Plekanec scoring his sixth goal in six games on a breakaway coming out of the box.

But otherwise, they were lethargic for the most part, benefitting from a goal on a five-minute power play and weathering the storm from then on.

Thanks to a man named Halak.

It's that time of year

Let me preface what I'm about to say with this: It could be meaningless.

Nonetheless, there's an inordinate amount of pro scouts accredited for Tuesday night's Habs game against the Canucks.

Scouts from Vancouver, St. Louis, the Islanders, Philadelphia, Atlanta, Florida, Columbus, Los Angeles, Colorado, Washington, San Jose, Ottawa, Detroit and Dallas are all expected to take in the game. For comparison's sake, there's usually about five or six scouts at every game, so having 14 accreditations is unusual.

Some of them can be explained, such as San Jose and Philadelphia seeing as they are the Habs next two opponents, and obviously Vancouver since as they're playing tonight.

But with two potential trade deadline buyers facing off here, seeing scouts from potential sellers like St. Louis, Atlanta, the Islanders, Los Angeles, Colorado, Ottawa and maybe even Columbus is definitely interesting.

But then again, it could mean absoultely nothing. Take it for what it's worth.

The biggest game of the year?

Maybe not, but tonight's tilt against the Vancouver Canucks is a vital one on so many levels.

First and foremost is the Habs ability to build on that 5-3 beatdown of the Sens on Saturday night, which would be rendered pretty meaningless if that effort isn't matched or surpassed against the Canucks. This is a very big week for the team, with three games against tough opponents, then four days off leading up to the March 4 trade deadline. Bob Gainey and his staff only have three more games to identify problem areas that need to be addressed on the trade market, and the team can ensure they won't see friends leaving two by winning two out of three on the week.

So is the power play really this good, or have the last three games been a blip on an otherwise horrendous radar this season? Can the Habs cut down on those 47 shots on goal by the Sens, though 22 of those came in the third period when the game was essentially out of reach? And can the Habs win consecutive games for the first time since Jan. 15 and 17?

Those aren't the only questions seeking an answer tonight, as a lot of individuals will be under the microscope.

Jaroslav Halak is being given an opportunity to keep Carey Price on the bench by getting another start. He's had trouble stringing good starts together this season, though I would say he's been pretty solid in his last three despite giving up four goals in Vancouver on Feb 15. He was pulled in that game, but it wasn't an indictment of his play as much as it was the team's, and Guy Carbonneau had little hope of getting back in the game so he gave Price some time in front of his home fans.

Carbonneau appears to be taking a win-and-you're-in approach here, but I hope Halak gets a bit longer of a leash here. Even if he loses here I think he deserves another shot to start in Philadelphia, especially considering that building is not a place Price holds very dear to his heart.

Alex Kovalev will also have something to prove tonight, that his masterful performance against the Senators wasn't just a case of him feeding off the positive energy from the crowd, but was indeed a sign that his time away from the team was beneficial and he's ready to take his place as the offensive leader of the team. The final quarter of the season begins tonight, and if Kovalev can get 28 points over the final 22 games he'll still wind up with a 70-point season. Believe it or not, that would represent the fourth-highest total of his career, so his season is still very much salvageable.

That process of salvation begins tonight, as Kovalev probably won't benefit from the same degree of support he had Saturday afternoon and he needs to show he's ready to bring it every night from here on in, especially considering he has a new contract to play for.

A little further off the radar has been the resurgence of Tomas Plekanec since his two-game suspension, a little break forced upon him by the league rather than Gainey. He has four goals in three games since returning, and though his success is very much dependant on Kovalev's, he also needs to continue to show that the first three-quarters of the season was an anomaly.

Finally, I need to see a solid game from Saku Koivu tonight to be convinced he's in full form. With one assist in his last three games and only four points in his last eight, Koivu's not producing at a normal level. The Canadiens need not only Koivu, but also his line to be dangerous. Alex Tanguay won't be in uniform tonight, which is too bad because he could have provided that spark to get Koivu going.

UPDATE: Marc-Antoine Godin is reporting that Tanguay will not be allowed to play this weekend either and will be re-evaluated by team doctors next Tuesday. That's a big blow considering the daunting nature of this weekend's games in Philadelphia and home to San Jose.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Cube out at least month

One defenceman comes in, and another walks out.

Guy Carbonnneau announced after Saturday's 5-3 win over the horrendous Ottawa Senators that Francis Bouillon has a torn groin and will be out at least two to four weeks, if not longer.

I've been pretty hard on Bouillon of late because I feel his game has slipped since early January, but his loss is still a difficult one for the Canadiens to swallow just because he plays a physical game.

The Habs defence is not particularly tough, but without Bouillon it becomes downright soft. Replacing Bouillon with Patrice Brisebois against the Senators is one thing, but against the Canucks Tuesday, in Philadelphia on Friday and hosting San Jose on Saturday, that simply won't cut it.

The Habs could bring back Ryan O'Byrne, but what I would do is move Mathieu Dandenault back to the blue line. Having said that, I would be stunned to see it happen because Carbonneau appears to be convinced that Dandenault simply can;t play defence anymore, which I have trouble understanding.

I thought he did pretty well the few games he played back there this season, and his skating ability is pretty valuable. I'm not saying Dandenault should be logging 20 minutes in a top-four role, but as a sixth defenceman I think he can get the job done.

Plus, moving Dandenault back frees up a spot for either Steve Begin or Georges Laraque to fill on the fourth line. As unimpressed as I've been with Laraque as an enforcer thus far, I think he'll be needed this week against three tough teams.

A turning point?

Not sure if it will be for the team, only because the Ottawa Senators are just that bad, but it very well might be for Alex Kovalev.

I don't want to make too much out of one game, but Kovalev showed some real jump in the first half of Saturday afternoon's romp over the Sens, and seemed to lose interest when the score got a bit out of hand even though he had some flashes of energy on the penalty kill.

Besides, he already had a goal and two assists at that point, his first three-point effort since getting two goals and two assists on Nov. 1 in Long Island, a span of 48 games. And he had the Bell Centre sellout of 21,273 eating out of his hands as early as the pre-game skate with chants of support.

Bob Gainey noted the other day that if Kovalev even approaches the player he was last year, it will be as if the team made a big trade. If indeed that happens, then his two-game forced rest will officially become Gainey's most brilliant move since he was hired six years ago.

Almost more important than Kovalev's performance was that of the Montreal power play, which went 3-for-4 and is now 7-for-12 in the three games since the arrival of Mathieu Schneider. He got another goal on a point blast, and in the only power play where Montreal didn't score I noticed something that I think is very telling about Schneider's impact.

At one point the puck got to Andrei Markov and Mike Fisher, playing the top of the box for the Sens, immediately rushed out to cover Schneider. That move opens up a world of possibilities for Markov, either a pass into the high slot or that bread-and-butter diagonal pass to the right circle that simply hasn't been available all year because the guy playing he Fisher role has stayed home.

That threat of a heavy point shot is clearly what's been missing for the Habs power play, and having it may in fact allow Kovalev to thrive. His set up on Tomas Plekanec's fifth goal in his last five games came from the high slot and went right through the box, a play that may not have been available if the Sens weren't so concerned about Schneider on the right point.

The Canadiens absolutely had to grab these two points because it's a very tough road between now and the trade deadline, with Vancouver here Tuesday, then at Philadelphia on Friday, and back home for San Jose next Saturday. They then have a four-day break until the March 4 deadline, which may very be a jittery week for some of the Habs if they don't win two of three between now and then.

Friday, February 20, 2009

Of blood tests, confidants and spin control

I was not in Brossard for practice Friday, so it's tough for me to sift through all the material provided so graciously by Habs Inside/Out and make a proper judgment of what happened on what was probably the biggest media day of the Bob Gainey regime.

But based on what I heard, two things stood out.

First was Alex Kovalev saying that he took some blood tests and that they found something, though he wouldn't say what. To me, what they found is of vital importance, because if he's not fit to play and hasn't been for some time, then what was he doing on the ice? Why didn't he tell anyone? Could anything be so selfish?

He admitted he's not the most open guy on earth, but that doesn't absolve you of your professional responsibility to tell your team that you have a physical problem, especially if it's causing you to play like a lazy bum most nights.

The other thing that caught my ear was Gainey admitting, and Kovalev later confirming, that he is the only person Kovalev actually feels comfortable talking to. Is that normal, that a player doesn't feel like he can walk into his coach's office and tell him what's on his mind? Is that healthy? Do other players feel this way?

I'm not going to talk about the whole Kostitsyn issue and their mob buddy, because frankly I feel it's stupid. But what I found even stupider was the Canadiens not allowing the players involved to address the media army today and get it over with. Do they think it will just go away if the players don't address it?

The team did the same kind of thing with Carey Price last year when they felt the water was getting a little too hot for him to handle, even though he had no problem whatsoever answering questions. Ultimately, in my mind, it did Price more harm than good.

By restricting access to the players today, the Canadiens spin machine was doing the exact same thing. And even though they thought differently, it was a huge disservice to Andrei Kostitsyn and Roman Hamrlik because I'm sure they were dying to tell their side of the story, and now they'll have this thing hanging over their heads while they're playing the Ottawa Senators Saturday afternoon.

Somehow, I don't think having that on their minds will help their games much. Do you?

Much ado about nothing

Wow, did things ever get crazy Thursday night, and I'm not talking about the Habs-Penguins game.

Many of my colleagues in the media were dispatched to the airport to await the Canadiens flight home that brought an end to a 1-4-1 road trip to forget. They were there to see whether or not the police would be taking certain members of the team away in handcuffs.

Juicy stuff, to say the least.

Except the truth of the matter was far from being that serious, and it was only because of a masterful marketing job by certain reporters at La Presse that the entire city was paralyzed with panic for several hours over what would happen to their beloved Tricolore when the report surfaced Friday morning.

In the end, it was a question of two young players showing some poor judgment by hanging out with a guy they shouldn't have, and the Kostitsyns' apparent affiliation with this man is as much an indictment of their naïveté as it is their agent Don Meehan's mild negligence in this matter. If indeed the report is true and this man was handling some of the K brothers' finances, then the agent needs to step in and look out for his young clients. But that's a pretty minor consequence of this story in the grand scheme of things.

Really, this has no impact on the hockey team as such other than Friday's practice will be a madhouse, what with this story and Alex Kovalev returning to the team on the same day. A perfect media storm, if you will.

It is not, as some suggested Thursday, anything that will shake Quebec to the core and break the hearts of anyone who loves the Canadiens.

Kostitsyns, Hamrlik linked to organized crime

La Presse is reporting in its Friday edition that the Kostitsyn brothers and Roman Hamrlik are being linked to an alleged mobster who was picked up in a recent police sweep in the Montreal area.

RDS has summed up the story on its website, but notes that no arrests were made at the airport when the Canadiens plane arrived from Pittsburgh. The rumour mill had been churning at full speed over the past few hours about what this possible bombshell might be, but the lack of arrests being made tonight may mean it's not as serious as it's being made out to be.

For those who don't read French, the report states that Andrei and Sergei Kostitsyn apparently have a link to one Pasquale Mangiola, who was arrested during the police sweep and charged with drug trafficking. He's suspected of serving as an intermiedary between several organized crime groups.

Police recorded phone conversations Mangiola had and several of those were with the Kostitsyns. According to La Presse, Mangiola would facilitate nights out for the brothers, set them up with girls and arrange for high priced cars. Hamrlik also has links with Mangiola, according to La Presse, as he was seen with him and the Kostitsyns in some Montreal bars.

La Presse asked Andrei Kostitsyn about Mangiola after the game in Pittsburgh and he confirmed he knew the man, but that he didn't know anything about him.

I'll be interested to see how the Habs handle this story and the media crush that will descend on practice Friday in Brossard. I'd be stunned to see Kostitsyn and Hamrlik made available to the media, and the Habs will likely try to trumpet the Alex Kovalev situation to steer attention away from this.

If it ever escalates to some sort of criminal involvement for these guys, then this might wind up being a disaster for the Canadiens. Otherwise, without having read the full La Presse story, I don't really know what to think.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Moral victories don't count in the standings

Guy Carbonneau was once again satisfied with his team's effort Thursday night, but it was just another loss for the Habs, and this time they couldn't even make it to overtime while dropping a 5-4 contest in Pittsburgh.

Coming off a pretty gutsy game in Washington the night before, the Habs once again showed glimpses of a good team. But glimpses aren't good enough as the stretch drive continues.

"It's disappointing," Carbonneau told reporters after the game. "Those were probably the six best periods we’ve played in a long time, but we only came away with a point. It’s worrisome, but we’re going to keep pushing the positives."

One of the major positives for Carbonnneau to push would be the play of Tomas Plekanec and Andrei Kostitsyn on a line with Max Pacioretty. The first two weren't able to find that same magic they had with Alex Kovalev from last season, but the last two games playing with the rookie has made them Monreal's best line.

Is it a coincidence that Plekanec is playing so well after that forced two-game break by the NHL, as opposed to a forced two-game break from Bob Gainey. The Habs can only hope the time off has the same effect on Kovalev as it's had on Plekanec. Two goals and an assist to go with his goal Wednesday night makes for a pretty nice two-game stretch, and perhaps it means Plekanec has woken up from his season-long slumber. Maybe, just maybe, Carbonneau should have sit this guy out a long time ago.

As for Kostitsyn, it seems like he's just starting on another one of his streaks, which is looking like it's going to be his M.O. Seven or eight games on, five or six games off. Sound like any influential Russian wingers you know? When Kostitsyn is on he can be electrifying, and his setup on Plekanec's first goal was pretty magical. Hopefully for the Habs, Kostitsyn can maintain this level of play longer than a week or two.

Aside from that, however, not a whole lot went right for the Habs.

Mathieu Schneider came thumping back to earth with a minus-4 rating, though he scored a goal on a rifle from the point on a two-man advantage in the second. I guess playing 27-plus minutes in one game then playing again the next night is not a recipe for success for a guy with 39-year-old legs? I don't know, I'm just saying.

Saku Koivu was another one who looked like he had no legs for this one, because they certainly weren't moving as he watched Evgeni Malkin skate by him into the slot and score while Koivu was desperately tripping him only 0:29 into the third period of a tie hockey game. That goal was a killer, and Koivu really had no excuse for such a lazy play since he was just coming out of the intermission. His line with Christopher Higgins and Matt D'Agostini was Montreal's best in Washington, but they were the team's worst in this game, with each component finishing a minus-3.

Finally, Carey Price had a rough game in my opinion. He only gave up two bad goals out of the five that got past him, but both of them came at crucial moments. The first was the opening goal of the game, when Price gave up a juicy rebound on a pretty harmless shot before swatting the puck right on to Petr Sykora's stick. The other one was the last goal of the game, a bullet by Sergei Gonchar that Price still should have had, and would have had were he completely on top of his game. Instead, it turned out to be the winning goal.

The loss, however, is probably pretty good news for Kovalev, because if he does indeed practice with the team on Friday I don't see any way Carbonneau could keep him out of the lineup for Saturday's game. No matter how much better the team played in Kovalev's absence, Carbonneau is bang on that they weren't rewarded in the standings as a result.

In order to get more than just moral victories, Carbonneau will need all his best players at his disposal, and right now that includes Kovalev.

Carbonneau's welcome is vital

According to various reports out Thursday, Alex Kovalev's walk through Old Montreal with Bob Gainey has resulted in him preparing to re-join the team for practice on Friday.

I must say I'm pretty stunned because I never thought Kovalev would be willing to swallow his pride like this and come back to the team. If that's in fact the case, then power to you Alex, you're a bigger man than I thought.

But the humility that Kovalev is showing by accepting to change his ways and buy into Guy Carbonneau's system must now be reciprocated by someone who is almost as proud, if not more so.

Carbonneau has to put Kovalev into situations for him to succeed, and maybe give him a bit of a longer leash when it comes to some of his more bothersome tendencies. I'm not saying Carbonneau has been unfair with Kovalev this season, because in fact it's been the exact opposite.

But now that this episode has happened, Carbonneau needs to go out of his way to welcome Kovalev back and explain to him how intricately the team's success is tied to his, that when he creates a lazy turnover or takes a stupid penalty the whole team suffers, probably in more ways than Kovalev understands.

Finally, Carbonneau has to come right out and say what he loves saying to reporters, that for his team to win his best players need to be his best players. And you, Alex, are my best player, so I need you to act like it.

Doing that will not be easy for Carbonneau, who readily admits his communications skills are not his strength. Most of the player-relations duties on this team are handled by Kirk Muller, who serves as the good cop to Carbonneau's bad cop.

But Kovalev needs to hear this from the top guy, and if he's willing to put his ego aside to come back to the team, Carbonneau should be willing to do the same.

Cole for Kovalev, would you do it?

I would say yes in a heartbeat.

TSN's Darren Dreger is reporting that the Edmonton Oilers would have interest in trading for Alex Kovalev, and that former Habs-killer Erik Cole could be part of a package they would send to Montreal. Can you say no-brainer?

The salary figures are practically a wash with Kovalev making only $500,000 more than Cole this season, and both wingers are slated for unrestricted free ageny in July with little chance of their repsective teams re-signing them. Furthermore, they both bring skill sets that are sorely lacking on either club - Kovalev brings front-line talent and game-changing skill, while Cole brings grit, jam and a propensity for driving the net.

If this is an actual possibility and not just some made-for-TV make-believe, then Bob Gainey should get on the phone with his Oilers counterpart Steve Tambellini right away and get this deal done. Forget the package, just go Kovalev for Cole straight up, and you could wind up with a win-win, an honest to goodness hockey trade where both teams benefit.

How refreshing would that be?

The most valuable point of the season

That shootout loss in Washington on Wednesday night had to be bitterly disappointing to Habs coach Guy Carbonneau, no matter how encouraged he says he was, but it remains the biggest point in the standings the Canadiens have earned this season.

Far bigger than the two points they got in Colorado last week on the back of Jaroslav Halak, because the entire team earned this point.

For the first time since before the all-star break, since the beginning of this horrid stretch of stench the Canadiens have embarked on, there were more positives than negatives in the 4-3 shootout loss to Alexander Ovechkin's boys.

Let's start in goal, where moments after the opening faceoff Carey Price showed he was ready to play and that he wasn't hungover when he robbed Ovechkin with a tremendous glove save. Take that Jean Perron!

The stop was significant for so many reasons: it was early in the game and prevented the Caps from taking a lead against his fragile team; it came off the most dangerous shooter in the game; and it was made by a glove hand that has definitely been identified as Price's major weakness.

Obviously, Price wasn't perfect because he allowed three goals, but I would venture that none of the three were his fault in the least and that if it weren't for him, the Habs may have been out of the game by the midway point of the second.

On the blue line, Mathieu Schneider had an incredible Habs re-debut, logging 27-plus minutes, moving the puck efficiently and playing sound defensively. His presence had an immediate impact on the power play as it exploded for three goals, with his new defence partner Andrei Markov grabbing three assists. So much for monitoring Schneider's ice time, but when he's playing as well as he did Wednesday night, it's hard to keep him on the bench.

Up front, I could have sworn I saw Andrei Kostitsyn skate at full speed rushing down the right wing at one point, and it dawned on me how fast he really is. It had just been so long that we'd seen him hit fifth gear that I forgot. His goal and assist were entirely deserved because he put in the effort to get them. As did Tomas Plekanec, Christopher Higgins, Matt D'Agostini and others.

But there weren't only positives to come out of this game, obviously, because there has to be some low points when you lose. Leading the way for me was the play of Mike Komisarek and Roman Hamrlik, but mainly Komisarek.

It was his errant pass that led to Ovechkin's other-wordly goal that tied the game 1-1 in the first, and he appeared to be fighting the puck all night and making poor decisions in general. Maybe it was adjusting to a new role and a new partner, but these are trends we've been seeing with him for the past month and a half, and which were clearly evident in the first month or so of the season. He needs to find his game, and in a hurry. Meanwhile, Hamrlik's 360 spin-o-rama on that give-and-go goal by Nicklas Backstrom in the first would have made Baryshnikov proud, but it looked a bit ridiculous on the penalty kill.

I think we can also say without a shadow of a doubt that Georges Laraque is officially useless as an enforcer. He had an ideal opportunity to lay down the law last night when Donald Brashear hammered Francis Bouillon with a clean hit. Laraque often says he only expects heavyweights to dance with him, and Brashear definitely qualifies. But it instead of engaging him in a fight, Laraque takes an interference penalty. Yes, it was a chintzy call, but Laraque had to know he's going to be watched like a hawk in that situation. To have him in the lineup at the expense of Steve Begin right now is ridiculous.

Finally, my only other negative from the game is that it took the banishment of Alex Kovalev to produce an effort like this. I refuse to believe that Kovalev's mere presence on the ice made all of his teammates infinitely worse hockey players. Yes, he was being lazy and maybe that rubbed off on some of his teammates, especially the younger ones. But would it have been too much to ask for someone on the team to stand up and say enough is enough before Bob Gainey was forced into making this decision?

Listening to the TSN pundits last night, they seem to believe Kovalev will return to the team. That's possible, I suppose, but I still don't think he'll be able to get past this. He is a proud man, as Gainey said, and this was a serious blow to that ego. Maybe that's what he needed, to be knocked down a notch so he can buy back into Carbonneau's system, but I'll believe that when I see it.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

A master of carefully chosen words

That's Bob Gainey for you, always measured and always aware of what he is saying.

When asked about the possibilities for trading Alex Kovalev on Tuesday, Gainey said that no one had called him about the mercurial Artiste. Of course, that doesn't mean he hasn't been calling people, which it appears he has.

La Presse reports today that Gainey has been working the phones in an attempt to unload Kovalev for two weeks, based on information from three agents that chose to remain anonymous, for obvious reasons.

The sad fact here is that Kovalev is practically worthless on the trade market because Gainey's bargaining power has been rendered nil by this forced "rest."

Another interesting take on Tuesday's drama in Brossard comes from the CBC's Elliotte Friedman, who writes that he believes Kovalev will in fact come back to the Canadiens after this "rest" period.

I personally don't feel it's impossible we'll see Kovalev wearing the CH again, but it is pretty unlikely, especially in light of the La Presse report this morning.

Carey Price takes the net tonight, perhaps with some added incentive to shove a win down the throat of Jean Perron, though when he says he doesn't care what Perron says you have to take him at his word. Really, who does care what Perron says anymore?

I'll be interested to see how Mathieu Schneider does alongside Andrei Markov, and also how Guy Carbonneau will use Mike Komisarek and Roman Hamrlik. The latter pairing, if in fact it remains intact for tonight's game, will likely see a lot of action against Alex Ovechkin. Funnily enough, Markov usually plays pretty well againt Ovechkin, his close buddy.

But removing the defensive responsibilities from Markov may in fact free him up to focus on moving the puck and getting the offence going, which is a big need right now. And for those ocncerned about having two offensive d-men on the same pairing, consider that Schneider played at least 20 minutes in 16 of his last 21 games and was a plus-7 in his final 12 games with Atlanta while notching a goal with five assists over the same span.

Markov definitely can't say the same.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Halak left quite an impression in Denver

For what it's worth, veteran Avalanche beat writer Adrian Dater is reporting that Jaroslav Halak may be on his way to Denver, something that Dater first reported months ago and which was probably fuelled by Halak's 46-save masterpiece in Colorado last week.

I'm not sure what the Avalanche have to offer the Habs in return now that Mathieu Schneider is in town. The names being mentioned as on their way out of Denver are Jordan Leopold (who may have been Bob Gainey's Plan B if Schneider didn't work out), Ruslan Salei and Brett Clark. I'm not sure any of those players would interest Gainey now.

Ian Lapperriere would be a welcome addition to the Canadiens, seeing as Georges Laraque doesn't really like fighting, but that would not be nearly enough compensation for Halak. Perhaps Laperriere and one of the aforementioned defencemen?

Also of interest is Don Waddell's take on the Schneider trade. He says Gainey convinced him that a move was going to be made either Monday or Tuesday, and that if Waddell didn't pounce he felt he would have missed the boat. He also mentions how he tried to pry away some of the Canadiens prospects, but Gainey would have none of it.

"You're grounded"

Is that not essentially what Bob Gainey did Tuesday when he asked Alex Kovalev to go home and "rest" rather than join the team for this two-game trip to Washington and Pittsburgh?

Gainey spoke about how this stretch has been a physically and mentally demanding one, and also how much of a burden Kovalev was carrying around with him because of how poorly he's played this season and the impact that play has had on the team.

But really, this is not about rest. This is about Kovalev's consistently erratic play finally pushing Gainey over the edge.

"He's proud, he's a strong athlete," Gainey said of Kovalev's reaction when he heard the news. "He doesn't want to leave his team, he doesn't want to not be with the team when he feels they need him most. He was not in direct agreement with me, but at the same time I think he felt that he could trust me enough that my decision, my suggestion, my request, could be positive for him and positive for the team."

Gainey said Kovalev's situation will be re-evaluated at the end of the week, but I would be stunned to see him wear a Canadiens uniform again. How could he come back to the team now, especially considering that pride Gainey spoke about? And if he did come back, could we have any reasonable expectation that he'll actually play better?

Of course not.

But if he did - and that is an "if" the size of Texas - then this whole episode will turn out to be perhaps the most brilliant personality management of all time. Guy Carbonneau obviously couldn't get through to Kovalev, so now Gainey has handled the situation and put his stamp on this season in a far greater way than he did by acquiring Mathieu Schneider (how'd you like your first day on the job, by the way?).

"The team doesn't need Alex the way he's playing now," Gainey told reporters in French.

Later, speaking in English, he added, "He's the kind of player who's judged by his production. He's judged on how many goals he scores, how many points he scores. That's the bottom line for a player like him. How he gets there is the place where the confusion is. To score goals and to help other players to score goals you have to do a lot of different things."

That, to me, sounds like a player whose days are finished. If the team turns it around from here on in then Gainey is painted as a genius, but if they tank even further than they already have it will be on his shoulders. Furthermore, if Kovalev does in fact come back to the team and starts to rip it up, then Gainey's brilliance will go down in Habs lore.

It was a gutsy, decisive move, and for that reason alone I like it.

Perhaps this will open the eyes of someone like Andrei Kostitsyn, who will now be called on to fulfill his potential immediately and on a nightly basis, not just in fits and spurts as has been his habit this season. If they can do this to Kovalev, they can do it to Kostitsyn. At least that's what you have to hope he thinks.

Same goes for Tomas Plekanec, Christopher Higgins, the entire defence, and even Saku Koivu, because all of them can be playing better and should be playing better.

But in reality, the Habs without Kovalev playing at his best are not a contending team. Not even close. There are a lot of good offensive players on the team, but Kovalev is the closest thing to a great one, at least in terms of talent, and Gainey himself mentioned Kovalev's heightened performance in playoff situations.

So this now turns into probably the most intriguing week in recent Canadiens history. How does the team respond to this? What will they do with Kovalev? If he's traded, will he be given away as a rental? Can the Canadiens afford not to replace his talent up front? Who would take on a head case like this, and more importantly who would give up a roster player for him right now?

In my opinion, I have to believe Kovalev's trade value has never been lower, so if Gainey does decide to part ways with him there would likely be little more than a draft pick coming back. Will the Canadiens be a better team without him? Is addition by subtraction really the answer?

I'm not sure, but Gainey's entire tenure as general manager here could hinge on those very questions, because he's clearly put his neck on the line at a pivotal point in the season.

And for that he has to be applauded.

Got grit?

The Habs just sent Sergei Kostitsyn down to the Hamilton Bulldogs and called up Gregory Stewart to replace him.

I like the move because if little Kostitsyn isn't scoring or creating things, then he's pretty well useless, and seeing as he's one of the few players who can go down without having to clear waivers then he may as well be on his way.

There are a few benefits to this move, the biggest one being to reinforce the message sent with the Schneider trade that this situation is quickly getting urgent. The other major message is that the team wants players who work hard and laziness won't be tolerated.

Stewart has looked good every chance he's had (I know, it's only been four games) and he brings a grittiness that is clearly lacking on this team.

My only doubt here is that I don't know how Kostitsyn will react to this move, if he'll see it as a wake up call and find his game in Hamilton or if he'll simply go down there and pout.

Also, what effect, if any, will this have on Andrei Kostitsyn, though the way he's been playing of late he can't get much worse. Maybe not having his brother around will take him out of his comfort zone enough to light a fire under him.

Don't you wish the NHL did the math for you?

One thing that has really annoyed me since the lockout is that the NHL doesn't provide updated salary cap information for each of its teams. It's further evidence that the league sometimes is not interested in generating fan interest, because trades these days are all about the cap, and fans are always left wondering just how much space their team has left heading into the deadline.
After Bob Gainey's comments Monday that he still had some salary cap room, but not enough to add a $5 million player, I started to wonder how much he actually had.

But the Canadiens case is complicated by all the injuries they've had this season. I just finished reading the section of the Collective Bargaining Agreement that deals with Long Term Injuries (LTI), and other than a headache, I didn't come away with much (If you want to give it a shot, the full CBA document is available at the NHLPA website, the section dealing with LTIs starts on page 226. Happy reading).

Anyhow, what I've been able to understand is that in order for a player to be eligible for long-term injury relief they need to be unfit to play for a period of 24 days AND 10 games, which would apply to Saku Koivu (40 days), Alex Tanguay (47 days and counting), Christopher Higgins (40 days, not counting his groin injury to start the year), Georges Laraque (37 days, at least), Mike Komisarek (30 days), and eventually Robert Lang (66 days if he misses the rest of the regular season).

The rule for LTI relief, again, as I understand it, is that the team can exceed the salary cap by the amount of the injured player's salary (minus the amount of cap space available) in order to add a replacement. But if the injured player returns, the team has to get back under the cap. An important thing to understand here is that a team's salary cap figure is calculated based on the number of days a player is on the roster, and at the end of the season the total amount of salary paid out by the team can't exceed $56.7 million.

A team also has to apply to get LTI relief, which may not have been the case with all the players listed above. I believe, with the addition of Lang to the IR on Monday, that only Tanguay and Lang will be qualifying for LTI relief.

According to, the Canadiens have just over $358,000 in cap space today, including the $1.7 million due to Mathieu Schneider for the rest of the year and just over $1.5 million in LTI relief, which, as far as I can tell, is largely related to Tanguay.

By the end of the year, Lang will have been out 66 days, which works out to about another $1.4 million in salary cap relief.

So, in very rough terms, I figure the Habs should have somewhere around $1.7 million in cap space once deadline day rolls around March 4.

While Gainey said Monday that acquiring a $5 million player will be impossible, that doesn't necessarily mean he couldn't add a significant piece with that kind of space available. In fact, if indeed the Habs have $1.7 million in space on March 4, that would be enough to add a player with an $8 million contract because there would only be about $1.5 million left to pay as of March 4.

But with injuries and call-ups, the Habs would likely need a little wiggle room, so let's say they can't look for anyone making $4 million a year. Who does that leave?

Well, it's a little too early to say, simply because so many teams out west still have playoff aspirations. But someone making $4 million this year who has won 52.6 per cent of his faceoffs and is on a team likely to miss the playoffs is Keith Tkachuk. I never thought I would say this, but he appears to be the ideal guy for Gainey to target.

The big issue with Tkachuk is that he has a no-trade clause, and I'm not sure he would want to come to Montreal. Since playing for the Winnipeg Jets and Phoenix Coyotes, Tkachuk has spent the last nine years of his career playing in St-Louis aside from a quick cup of coffee in Atlanta two years ago. Though the pressure in Winnipeg was likely enormous early in his career, Tkachuk hasn't experienced anything like it since and who knows if he wants to?

If he does, that could be a window of opportunity for Gainey to make a pitch, but the Blues would first have to give up aspirations of a playoff berth. And it appears that Blues president John Davidson isn't all that interested in stockpiling prospects or picks, so grabbing Tkachuk may cost an NHL-ready player like Ryan O'Byrne, or maybe Tomas Plekanec.

Would you do it?

More importantly, anyone have a good remedy for a headache?

UPDATE: Thanks to Topham over at Lions in Winter for pointing out that you can't bank LTI relief (see his comment). This essentially makes my $1.7 million figure invalid as the real number is probably considerably lower than that. It just reinforces my point that the NHL should be providing this kind of information for fans and media so everyone knows what they're talking about.

Monday, February 16, 2009

No chance for another pricey player: Gainey

Just a quick hit after listening to Bob Gainey's conference call with the media this afternoon, and the most revealing part of what he had to say was regarding the team's cap room.

Gainey admitted that he didn't "have the same flexibility I had yesterday, but we till have some space today."

That space, however, couldn't be used to land any impact type player, as Gainey later added, "I think you can wipe out the idea of adding another $5 million player, or a $6 million player. We just don't have that kind of space available."

That's assuming, of course, that there would be no salary going the other way, but my quick impression from listening to Gainey this afternoon was that he is nowhere near considering going into seller mode even if his team tanks between now and March 4.

He spoke of the return of Alex Tanguay from injury pretty soon (probably the end of this month) as being an important acquisition for his team, which is struggling to score and keep pucks out of its own net, which is never a good combination.

But Gainey also put the pressure on the coaching staff to get the power play going again because he feels he's added the missing piece of the puzzle.

"He still understands the mechanics of that five-man unit that plays when the other team has a man in the penalty box," he said, adding Schneider can play both point positions on the power play and his shot and passing abilities remain elite, even if his legs aren't. "We haven't had results from players who've played that position so far this year."

Gainey gets the ball rolling

Without losing anything from either his roster or stable of prospects, Bob Gainey has added Mathieu Schneider from the Atlanta Thrashers.

While this won't single-handedly fix the mess on the Montreal Canadiens right now, it's a step in the right direction. The 39-year-old Schneider cost Gainey Anaheim's second-rounder in 2009 he acquired from Washington last year in exchange for Cristobal Huet as well as his own third-rounder in 2010.

That's actually a pretty steep price for an aging defenceman with only 15 points and a minus-10 rating this year, but that could be the result of playing on a horrible team with little support around him on the blue line. I'm not sure how much more support he'll have in Montreal, but his focus will be to help the power play.

But, more than the draft picks, Schneider will eat up a good chunk of the wiggle room Gainey had in cap space heading toward the trade deadline, because whatever's left of his $5.625 million salary will take up a lot of what was liberated by the injuries to Robert Lang and Alex Tanguay.

My quick judgment on this deal (the e-mail just arrived 11 minutes ago) is that Gainey did well to act quickly and give his team a needed jolt. By doing so he avoided the auction of the deadline, one that may have seen Schneider's price driven even higher, but more importantly he communicated a sense of urgency to his sputtering team.

Funnily enough, I had planned to write something today on whether or not Gainey should be buying high or selling low. In this case, I think he paid an appropriate price for a veteran presence, while still leaving himself enough young assets that he can afford to ship out one or two in order to land that big centre everyone keeps saying the Habs need.

Is Jason Arnott the next target? Just asking...

What now?

A grounding? Being sent to bed without their dinner? What can Guy Carbonneau do to motivate his cast of hangers-on that he hasn't tried already?

Based on how the Habs have played, their 4-2 loss in Vancouver should have been their sixth straight, because they really had no business leaving Denver with two points Friday night. Any positive feelings that could have come out of that win, though there should have been none, were erased by yet another loss.

Mind you, the Habs did show some improvement Sunday night, but giving up at least five odd-man rushes (I lost count after a while) is no way to win games. Three of those odd-man rushes wound up in the Canadiens net, but the real back-breaker was the horrendous line change that allowed the Canucks to go ahead 3-1 with under a minute to play in the second period.

Up until that point, the Canadiens were competing, they had to have felt they actually had a chance to win. But, yet again, an untimely error led to a very timely goal for the opposition.

Carbonneau noted after the game how other teams also make mistakes, but his team's brain farts always wind up in their own net. Why is that, exactly? Maybe it's because not every mistake in fact ends up being a goal, but when you pile mistake on to mistake on to mistake, it only seems that way.

But even though the defence has been awful this month, the guys up front have to take their fair share of blame. That's the fifth straight loss where the Canadiens scored only two goals, and the inability to maintain any semblance of pressure in the offenive end means most of the action is taking place near your net. That's a recipe for disaster.

The one positive in the game is the Canadiens didn't allow the Canucks to blow them out after going ahead 2-0 on goals 48 seconds apart in the first. Yes, at this point, that's a positive. The fact Montreal actually managed to stay in the game and pull to within one shows that maybe, just maybe, this fragility that's taken hold of this team may be starting to wane.

But elite teams don't have to grab at straws like that to find something good to say about themselves, and it's become incredibly clear the Habs aren't elite. In fact, they're barely a playoff team, and the only reason they're still fifth in the conference is because the Rangers, Panthers and Sabres also lost Sunday night.

Had all three of them won the Canadiens would have woken up Monday morning in eighth place, which is starting to look more and more like where they belong.

Friday, February 13, 2009

Halak a great masking agent

Yes, even a victory beaten black and blue with an ugly stick is worth two points in the standings, two points that were desperately needed for the Habs on Friday night to avoid falling into eighth place in the Eastern Conference.

Beleaguered head coach Guy Carbonneau has been asking for a lot of things out of his team over the past few weeks, and he got one of them in that 4-2 win in the Rocky Mountain air of Denver: he got a goalie to steal his team a win.

Jaroslav Halak was brilliant, plain and simple, a standard which neither he nor Carey Price have been able to attain since December. A 46-save virtuoso performance was the only thing that prevented the Habs from being blown out of the water yet again, and for that the quiet guy from Bratislava deserves all the credit in the world.

But I wonder how his teammates will be able to look him, or each other, in the face and actually celebrate this victory? How can they possibly feel good about themselves?

I suppose they can, because they didn't lose a fifth game in a row, or an eighth in a row on the road, and when you're that deep into a funk no one really cares how you end it. At least not that night.

The team will wake up Saturday morning in Vancouver, I would hope, to a video session called "How not to protect a lead," and I think Carbonneau needs to be sitting in the front row for that one. Because if he actually instructed his team to sit on a two-goal lead with 40 minutes to play by simply sagging off the Avalanche and giving your own blue line away like it was Cristobal Huet, then Carbonneau deserves the lion's share of the blame for the barrage that was sent Halak's way.

A quick look at the numbers over the last 40 minutes show the Avalanche outshot Montreal 35-9, and the worst part of that is it wasn't even that close. Colorado spent nearly the entire second and third period in the Montreal end, and by the third period the Habs couldn't do much else other than to ice the puck.

To get an idea of the zone dominance of the Avalanche, consider there were 36 faceoffs in the Montreal end during the game, and not many of those were in the first period. There were only 12 draws in the Avalanche zone, and two of those came off penalties. That is striking.

If they play like that Sunday night in Vancouver, it won't end nearly as well as it did against a very weak Avalanche team.

But the Habs haven't won in a while, so maybe the positive points are worth a bit of attention. They had a hell of a first period, aggressively fighting for pucks and maintaining pressure in the offensive end. The new Maxim Lapierre line looked good in my eyes, as did Mathieu Dandenault who was once again probably Montreal's best forward.

Then there was Halak, who made a statement that he's going to make it difficult for Carbonneau to give Price the net back. But Halak has had great games in the past, his problem is he can never string together a few in a row, so we'll see how he does Sunday night.

Finally, the power play scored and didn't allow a shorthanded goal, which is practically like scoring two power play goals with the way opposing teams have been scoring shorthanded of late.

But that's about it on the positive side. Other than the score, I can't see anything else to build off from the victory, except maybe Carbonneau will see that his team needs to be aggressive to be successful. As soon as they're standing around and waiting for the other team to come to them, they start standing around in every aspect of the game.

No one wins standing around, unless they happen to be playing in front of a goalie who is up to the challenge.

Trial and lots of errors continue

Just caught a peek at the lines for tonight's game in Denver via Habs Inside/Out and my bewilderment continues.

Guy Carbonneau has to know that phone lines back home are jammed up at sports radio stations with talk of his job being on the line on this trip. I personally feel that talk is knee-jerk, reactionary drivel, but Carbonneau's not making it easy for me to defend that point of view.

Ryan O'Byrne is out of the lineup against the Avalanche while Francis Bouillon somehow maintains his spot on the third defence pairing. Not only that, but Carbonneau took Sergei Kostitsyn off the line with Andrei and Christopher Higgins to replace him with Mathieu Dandenault.

First off, O'Byrne really doesn't deserve this, because to be honest I felt he was the better half of his pairing with Roman Hamrlik in Edmonton on Wednesday. I simply can't believe that Carbonneau or anyone on his staff is blind to the way Bouillon has been playing for the past month. It's not as if he's suddenly become a bad defenceman, because I love the guy. But he's playing as if he's constantly exhausted, kind of the way I feel these days, but I don't have to worry about clearing Ryan Smyth from the front of the net tonight.

As far as the lines go, I think the problems the Habs have right now go beyond lines. So I guess I agree with Réjean Tremblay on that front (and no, there are no pigs flying outside). If Carbonneau wants to play Dandenault with Higgins and Andrei, go ahead, even though I figured reuniting the brothers right now might get them out of this deep, dark funk they're both in. If he wants to play Saku Koivu with Alex Kovalev and throw Tom Kostopoulos out there with them, fine, go ahead. It doesn't matter.

Because what this team needs tonight is a jolt of pride, some effort to go with their talent, and if professional athletes need a rah-rah coach to get that out of them, then they are professionals in name only.

The importance of scoring first tonight is obviously monstrous, but I almost want to see the Avalanche open the scoring. Not only open the scoring, but open it on a stinker from 40 feet out that Jaroslav Halak should have stopped. Why? Because I want to see this team to finally show some stones and react, to get angry and play, to forget everything that's happened and will themselves to a victory.

The team's fragile? Fine, be fragile if you want to be, but then kiss this season goodbye, and kiss this team as you know it goodbye as well. I want to see someone on this team grab his teammates by the scruff of the neck and lead them out of this quicksand.

Unfortunately, the one guy who can do that is Alex Kovalev, and I'm not sure he cares enough to bother right now.

But don't worry everyone, because Kyle Chipchura is on his way to Denver. All hail the saviour.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Should the NHL be coaching the Habs?

The NHL did something Thursday that Guy Carbonneau probably should have done a while ago, and that's sit Tomas Plekanec.

I understand why Carbonneau was reluctant to do it, because Plekanec generally works as hard as anyone on the team. But in a results-driven world, Plekanec wasn't getting results and a game in the press box in, say, December or January might have done him some good. Now he'll be forced to watch the next two games after the NHL suspended him for his dirty slew foot on Denis Grebeshkov in the beat down by the Oilers on Wednesday night.

The suspension was more than deserved, and probably could have been a little longer because that was a very dangerous play. But the irony of the situation is that it might be just what the doctor ordered for Plekanec, who needs to turn things around in a hurry.

Meanwhile, Carbonneau did the expected thing and announced that Jaroslav Halak will be in goal against the Avalanche in Denver on Friday night, and I think we're going to start to see a "win and you're in" approach from Carbonneau for the next little while.

Of course, that approach requires a win first.

Carbonneau also switched his lines at practice Thursday, and it was a needed shuffle because the combinations he used in Edmonton had to have left his players heads scratching.

The Koivu-Kovalev experiment is worth a try at this point because, well, Carbonneau's tried just about every other combination imaginable except for this one. I also like having Christopher Higgins play between the Kostitsyn brothers because that line should fly, in theory at least.

But the line I'm most excited to see is Maxim Lapierre between rookies Max Pacioretty and Matt D'Agostini, probably Carbonneau's three best forwards of late, which isn't saying much but it's something. Pacioretty's combination of playmaking and jam should mesh well with Higgins' hustle and D'Agostini's sniper qualities. I also believe this will be Pacioretty's best chance to show he can be more effective that Guillaume Latendresse because he'll be playing in his spot.

But the most important change for Friday night's game will be on defence, and I hope Carbonneau and Doug Jarvis can see how badly some of their guys are playing back there right now. Really, none of the defencemen are playing well, so this is a case of sitting the ones that are playing the worst, and in my eyes that's Francis Bouillon and Roman Hamrlik. I'm not sure if Carbonneau would dare sit Hamrlik, and it probably wouldn't be a good idea because he'll be needed down the stretch, but I feel he deserves it. However, Carbonneau remembers what happened when he sat Craig Rivet way back when, and that may be a warning not to sit Hamrlik.

If it were up to me, I'd go with Andrei Markov, Mike Komisarek, Hamrlik, Ryan O'Byrne, Patrice Brisebois and Mathieu Dandenault, except I'd split the top defence pairing because they're simply not playing up to snuff.

The performance of the defence is a major reason why the goaltending has been so bad, which is a major reason why this team's confidence is so fragile, so Carbonneau should focus on this group for Friday night's game and make sure they have a clear directive and stick to it. Anyone who deviates from the plan should be benched, without exception.

At least that's what I'd do, but I'm no hockey coach.

Thank God for that.

Lambert's take on your Montreal Canadiens

I had the extreme pleasure of meeting former Habs power forward extraordinaire Yvon Lambert on Wednesday at a promotional event, and we got to talking about what is up with his Montreal Canadiens.

As far as Lambert was concerned, the Habs problems start in goal, and that was before Carey Price allowed seven goals on 27 shots in Edmonton later that night.

Lambert believed the skaters were letting Price and Jaroslav Halak down, and that since the goalie tandem is so young they need to get picked up a little by their teammates. I think we saw a perfect case of that in Edmonton, because up until the point Ryan O'Byrne took a slashing penalty at 4:30 of the first to cover up a mistake made by Roman Hamrlik, I thought the Habs were playing a pretty good game.

There was energy, guys were skating hard and and putting pressure on the Oilers, and it appeared that everyone was resolved to end this slump and start anew in Edmonton. But as soon as the Oilers scored that goal, it was a different team wearing white. They were a de-moralized bunch that suddenly became tentative, playing with the fear of God that the Oilers would score the next goal.

Inevitably, that's what happened, and it snowballed from there. Though Price was quite horrendous, his teammates were no better.

Getting back to Lambert, who I met at a news conference to promote the World Outdoor Hockey Championships to be held in Magog from Feb 20-22 (shameless plug for my buddy Jeremiah Gordon, who's organizing the event and has poured me more than my fair share of pints at Hurleys. If you're in the area, go check it out, games are being played on Lake Memphremagog). Sorry, where was I? Oh yeah, Lambert.

He readily admitted that he doesn't have much experience in matters like these, because the Canadiens teams he played on in the 70's didn't have too many losing streaks.

"If we lost one game, we had a meeting," he said with a laugh.

But he also added that the players meeting held in Calgary was a good sign, and that with each loss the players need to hold other meetings, be it at the rink or at a bar after practice, because there is no trade that's going to bail this team out of the current situation.

I'm thinking that today may be a good time to take Lambert's advice, because he's bang on when he says there is no saviour coming.

"Bob Gainey and Guy Carbonneau know that if you make a trade it's not going to solve the problem," he said. "The problem is the 23 guys on the team."

So there you go. That's the problem. You're welcome.

Is this what rock bottom looks like?

Well, the Habs had better hope so, because what happened Wednesday night in Edmonton was about as ugly as it gets.

Teams lose 7-2 games, but they are often isolated incidents, even for the worst of teams. But to lose 7-2 after dropping a 6-2 stinker two nights earlier, and after holding a dramatic 32-minute players meeting following that game, and after having a day away from hockey to clear your heads at bowling alley, that's a whole other matter altogether.

"I thought the last game was bottom of the barrel," Christopher Higgins said following yet another public embarrassment, "but I guess the barrel was deeper than we thought."

That, in a nutshell, says it all about this Canadiens team right now. It's not necessarily that the barrel is so deep, it's that the Habs keep making it deeper than it needs to be, almost as though they are purposefully trying to dig themselves into more of a hole.

I'm not sure what the next move is here, seeing as all the cliché responses have been used up on this trip already. Carbonneau sounds like a man that is out of answers, but one thing we can be sure of is that he's not about to lose his job. At least I don't think that's something Bob Gainey would even consider right now.

So what to do when you dress eight defencemen but still give up seven goals? When you're franchise goalie looks about as solid as a snowman in May? When your highly vaunted skilled forwards look like they would have trouble scoring in a novice game? What do you do?

If you're Carbonneau, you start passing the buck, to a certain extent.

"Obviously I'm really disappointed with some of the efforts that we've had," he said. "I'll sit with Bob and try to discuss those and try to find a solution. But you know better than I do it's hard to make trades, you need two teams to do that and you don't turn a corner that quickly."

The funny thing about that answer is that no one asked Carbonneau about making trades, he came up with that all on his own. And when the coach starts waiting for trades, that's when the team is in trouble.

This team, clearly, has reached that point.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Desperate times call for crazy measures?

Well, as promised, Guy Carbonneau inserted Patrice Brisebois and Mathieu Dandenault into the lineup for tonight's game against the Edmonton Oilers.

That was to be expected, as Carbonneau pointed out, when the team was playing so poorly. Except that instead of two defencemen getting the axe tonight, it's Steve Bégin and Sergei Kostitsyn who will sit out while Dandenault and Josh Gorges play up front.

Here are the lines for tonight's game courtesy of Habs Inside/Out.

Pretty wild, wacky stuff, huh?

I really don't know where to start, other than to say it's clear that Carbonneau wants to send a message that the team's defence has been sub par, which is obviously the case. But dressing eight defencemen? Having Gorges play up front and leaving a struggling Francis Bouillon in the lineup? Has the man gone completely batty?

First of all, pairing Bouillon with Ryan O'Byrne is no way to welcome Carey Price back to the net, especially when his confidence is an early goal away from being shattered. Though O'Byrne has been better since his re-call from Hamilton, he's still not what you would call a rock on defence. And Bouillon, like Gorges, is playing like a guy who could use a rest. Though that wasn't an option while Brisebois and Dandenault were out of the lineup, it definitely is now.

I don't really know what Maxim Lapierre has done to deserve having Georges Laraque and Gorges as linemates, but with the way Lapierre's been playing this season, watch for Gorges to get a hat trick tonight.

Finally, the one move I kind of agree with is moving Christopher Higgins to centre, though I wouldn't have necessarily tried it tonight. If Bob Gainey is unable to land a centre to replace Robert Lang, then Higgins is an option to play the middle, something he did throughout college and in last year's playoffs while Saku Koivu was out of action. He wasn't particularly effective in that role in the playoffs, but he was far from being a disaster.

If Higgins is going to be a Plan B to replace Lang, then you need to find out if he can handle the job sooner rather than later. I'm just not sure it needed to happen this soon.

I guess we'll see tonight.

I won't be posing after the game tonight because I'll be doing my radio show, Hump Night, on the Team 990. You can listen live as of 11 p.m. at Enjoy the game everyone.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

"Maybe we're not as good as everyone thought we were"


That's not something you usually hear coming from the mouth of the head coach. Not in training camp, not halfway through the season, and definitely not in February.

I understand what Guy Carbonneau was saying, that expectations were high for his team and they're not living up to them. That the city was amped up by the centennial and last season's surprising results. That maybe what happened last year in the regular season was a bit of a mirage and this team is closer to what we saw in the playoffs.

But you know what? I think Carbonneau should have altered that statement made to reporters in Edmonton Tuesday after the team went out bowling instead of practising on the ice. Instead of "everyone thought we were," Carbonneau could have added, "including us."

One thing I've gotten pretty sick of hearing out of Carbonneau and his players this season is talk of last year, as in "We just need to get back to what we were doing last year" or "The offence and power play will come around because of what happened last year" or, well, you get the idea.

Carbonneau's mantra from day one of training camp should have been that no one is allowed to talk or think about what the team did last year. That this was a new season and a new team, one that had to almost start from scratch even though many of the same players were back. A lot of the talk early in the season was about managing expectations, those of the fans and the city, and those they had for themselves. A great way to do that would have been to focus on this year, forget the "success" of last season and approach the year with a chip on your shoulder.

That's what led to last year's success, that belief they were being disrespected by the hockey world when most pundits predicted they would miss the playoffs. They took that disrespect and used it to fuel a phenomenal regular season.

But the playoffs ended too quickly, and in a pretty embarrassing fashion, so you would think it would be easy to focus on that instead of the supposed success of the regular season, which doesn't count for a whole hell of a lot.

This is a team that still has something to prove because its performance in the playoffs provided a glimpse of the fragility we're seeing now. The Flyers did nothing spectacular to oust the Habs from the playoffs last year, they simply took advantage of a struggling goaltender while getting bailed out by a hot one in their own net.

But the Habs should have used that embarrassment as this year's rallying cry. Instead, almost since the first day of training camp, we've heard references to last year used almost exclusively in a positive sense. Of course, finishing with the best record in the East is a positive, but the major reason they got there is that the Habs, to a man, wanted to shove their success down the throats of those who didn't believe they could do it.

Lacking those negative voices this season, with the great majority of experts picking them to win the conference, the Habs could have manufactured that motivation themselves. How? Anytime anyone asked them about last season, simply talk about the playoffs, how they lost in five games in the second round, and how they plan to go much farther this year. That would have kept the Habs in the mindset that it's them against the world, a formula that worked so well last...

Ah, I caught myself, just like the Habs should have been doing all year.

For those who don't read the comments...'ve been missing out. Here's one from a loyal reader (and one of my best friends, BTW) that I thought was too insightful not to have on the main blog:

Sliver24 said...
Watching the game last night, before the wheels fell off, I was thinking to myself that I couldn't help but be jealous of the team that Flames fans have to root for. I don't watch that many Flames games but they strike me as a group of guys that will do anything for each other and for the team.

I commented to my wife that the Flames are almost like an NHL version of a Team Canada World Juniors team.I was reminded of my thought while I read today's entry so I looked up their roster ( I was absolutely blown away by what I saw.

Take a look at the flags and you see a team made up almost entirely of Canadians. There are four Americans on the team, however one of those is Andre Roy who was born in New York but raised in the Montreal area. The team has a single European player on its regular roster - goalie Mikka Kiprusoff.

Let’s do the math here. On a 22 player roster that's 18 Canadians, three Americans and a Finn. I’ve always believed that having a lot of Europeans on a hockey team is a bad thing. Before you get carried away with your PC madness, let me qualify that statement.

I think we all can agree that hockey is unique, at least in major North American sports, in the sense that a team is much more than simply the sum of its parts. In football, basketball and especially baseball you can “buy” a championship-contending team by simply getting an all-star-calibre player to fill each position. Every attempt to do so in hockey has failed miserably (see Rangers, New York and Maple Leafs, Toronto – pre-lockout).

So how does one foster the intangible qualities required to make a hockey team successful? Properly answering that question would take more time and space than I’m willing to put into it, but let me say this. Starting with a group of guys that largely have the same cultural background and social values is going to help a lot.

Although it’s undoubtedly over-generalizing, I’d split the vast majority of NHL players into three broad categories: North Americans, Eastern Europeans and Scandinavians. Each of these hockey “regions” is associated with a certain traditional style of play. The North American style is simple, hardnosed, fast paced hockey. Russians are known for their flashy, offensively creative game. Scandinavians have traditionally played a technically sound and often innovative style.

Calgary has a style. It is one that was consciously chosen by the GM. That GM hired a coach that believes in using the same style. The GM also evaluated the players he inherited, kept the ones that fit into his system and ditched the ones that didn’t work out (i.e. Alex Tanguay).

Does that mean Calgary can’t ever have any Europeans? Of course not. But it would have to be the right European. Saku, as an example, would fit right in. In fact he’d probably score 100 points playing with Jarome Iginla. How long do you think Alex Kovalev, on the other hand, would last on the Flames? This despite the fact that he and Keenan have a Cup-winning history together? In all likelihood we’d never have the chance to find out because Sutter would see that despite his indisputable talent, Kovy just wouldn’t fit in so he wouldn’t pick him up regardless of the cost (in players or dollars).

The problem with the Habs, as I see it, is that they don’t have a definable identity this season. Last season they played an overall Eastern European style, playing a relatively wide-open game, scoring jaw-dropping goals and relying on special teams to make a difference. In the offseason they added some size and toughness, which I thought at the time was a good thing. On top of that since the beginning of the season two young North Americans from the minors have become an important part of their top-nine forwards. Finally, they’ve placed more focus on defensive play, as can be demonstrated by their 0FC defensive strategy. But do any of those changes really compliment the style that was successful for them?

Furthermore, last season’s Habs were a dark horse team that wasn’t expected to be successful. This season they were picked by many pundits to finish first in the East and make a run for the cup. Of the three geographical styles I described above, the Eastern European style is without a doubt the worst suited to deal with the kind of pushback you’ll get from NHL teams that are coming into games ready to play an “elite” opponent.

So, what is the Style of the 100th Anniversary Montreal Canadiens? What is their identity? I don’t know. What’s worse, I don’t think anyone on the team knows either.

At this point I say they go run & gun and hope for the best.

The only argument against what Sliver is saying, and it's a big one, is the Detroit Red Wings. However, the makeup of the Red Wings is largely from his "Scandinavian" group of styles, so it does jive with his argument that it's a good idea to build a team where the majority of players share the same cultural history.

Food for thought, and interesting ones at that. I've always wondered what the Habs social scene is like on the road, because I somehow don't see Andrei Kostitsyn and Tom Kostopoulos hanging out much.

Fragile is as fragile does

Steve Bégin's words after the Habs were embarrassed by the Leafs at home Saturday night, calling his team fragile, could not have been very well received by his teamates - even though all of them had to know it was true.

Still, it's generally not something you should say to reporters, but Montreal's effort in Calgary Monday night looked almost as though the team was trying to show Bégin just how fragile they can be.

"You want fragile? We'll show you fragile," or something like that.

A lot of things went right early on for the Habs in a game where they would be excused for feeling pretty tired. A third game in four nights, a tough skate thrown in for good measure and a flight across two time zones is not a recipe for winning. Yet the Habs scored the first goal for the first time in four games and entered the first intermission with a 2-1 lead. Essentially a perfect start for a team that desperately needed one.

The Canadiens killing a lengthy 5-on-3 in the second should have given the team a firther boost of momentum, but when they gave up a shorthanded goal to Hudson native Matthew Lombardi and then another goal to Dion Phaneuf 32 seconds later, the wheels came off and there was little doubt at that point what the final result would be. It was just a matter of how many more goals the Flames would score.

So to recap, that's now two wins in 10 games with only 23 goals for and 41 against over that span. Ugly.

A 30-minute players meeting following the game was the latest attempt to bring the team out of its torpor, and hopefully one of the items on the agenda was that players shouldn't be waiting for help from outside.

The way they're playing right now is putting GM Bob Gainey in a position of serious weakness as he works the phones trying to land a centre or a top-four defenceman or both. No GM in his right mind would look at the way the Habs are reeling and not ask for the moon in any potential deal for a veteran.

"Hi Garth, I'd be interested in adding Doug Weight, what would I need to do to get him?"

"Well Bob, how about giving me Christopher Higgins, P.K. Subban and Tomas Plekanec? That was what you were willing to give up for Vincent Lecavalier but I feel it's fair value for Weight."


OK, that might be a bit of an exaggeration, but I seriously doubt Gainey will be able to swing a deal with the team playing the way it is.

Having said that, I don't think it would be particularly fair to have expected the Canadiens to walk into Calgary and pull out a win Monday night, despite the fact the Flames were on a four-game slide of their own. Even without Sunday's surprise practice, it was a tall order to fly out west a day after completing a back-to-back set and still expect to have some legs.

The Canadiens appeared to be riding some adrenaline off the desperation of their situation in the first, but the schedule caught up to them in the second. Now, however, they have a day off to get used to the time change and find their legs in Edmonton.

They'd better, because there will be no excuses of exhaustion available for a poor performance against the Oilers, and the Habs are running out of clichéd ways to right the ship, like punitive practices and closed-door players meetings.

They keep saying they will get out of this together, but that process needs to start Wednesday night.

Saturday, February 7, 2009

Blaming the goalie is too easy...

...especially when he plays like that.

Listen, it's very clear that Carey Price is not the same goalie, and his little crying episode with the media after Saturday night's 5-2 loss to the Leafs showed that maybe he's not quite as cool and calm as everyone has made him out to be.

He has insecurities like everyone else does.

But how did Price's style completely change to one where he's often on his knees before a shot is even taken, or that he rarely leaves the blue ice to challenge shooters? He's now given up five goals three times in seven starts since returning from injury, and most of them haven't been very pretty.

The Habs chances of doing anything in the post-season rest heavily on Price's shoulders, and that burden is clearly starting to weight on him, so maybe it might be time for the team to take some of that responsibility away from him.

How? By scoring some goals. By playing with the lead. By maintaining pressure in the other end of the ice. By acting and playing like a team that had the most potent offence in the league last year.

I wasn't at this game so it's hard for me to really judge body language off of television, but Guy Carbonneau looked to me like a man who has run out of answers in his post-game press conference Saturday. When he's upset with the team, he usually spells it out by using very clear, targeted thoughts, and he's never shy to share them with the media.

Saturday, when asked what he didn't like about his team, he shrugged his shoulders and asked "Where do you want me to start?"

The question was in fact meant to get him to comment on Price's play, which is when Carbonneau chose to instead indict the whole team. And with reason.

"Right now we're struggling on every front," he said. "We have a tough time scoring goals and every time we make a mistake it's in our net. That's not a good combination."

Indeed, the Canadiens looked Saturday as if they were a beaten team when they were only trailing 2-1 and were not only very much in the game, but actually well positioned to win it. But the fire simply wasn't there from beginning to end, and there are a lot of passengers right now who are, as Steve Bégin told RDS after the game, "watching the parade go by."

One of those is Francis Bouillon, who simply isn't physical enough to be effective these days and he's also watching a lot of pucks fly by Price and in the net. Over his last 10 games he's a whopping minus-12 after posting a minus-3 against the Leafs. He needs to sit one out, and if I were Carbonneau I would slide Dandenault into that spot.

Another one is Andrei Kostitsyn, who I think hasn't played a single spirited game since the all-star break. The Canadiens need him to become a dangerous player, a sniper who can change momentum in a game by single-handedly manufacturing goals. A lot of people are going to start piling on to Alex Kovalev, but to me it's Kostitsyn that's been the biggest disappointment over this tough stretch of seven losses in nine games.

I can go on and on like this, but it really serves little purpose because the real question is not who on the Habs isn't playing well, but rather how does Carbonneau get them to play better? He can't bench half the team, and he can't play Saku Koivu for 60 minutes, and he can't strap on the pads himself and go in nets (though I'm sure he would have loved to have been able to use Jaroslav Halak on Saturday).

His first move was to call a Sunday morning practice on the same day they leave for a 6-game road trip. The Habs often get Sunday off, and I'm pretty sure this is the first time this season Carbonneau's done this.

It had better work, because while everyone's going to be talking about how helpful it will be for the team to get out on the road to maybe do some bonding, the exact opposite may happen if the trip starts with a loss or two.