Tag Archive | Chris Higgins

CRUNCH TIME LOOMING FOR HABS’ BRASS


With no less than 17 forwards on the ice at practice today (18, if you count Mathieu Dandenault), it’s clear that decision-making time is looming for both head coach Guy Carbonneau and General Manager Bob Gainey, on a number of levels.

The numbers swelled today at the team’s facility in Brossard as a result of the return of Saku Koivu and Chris Higgins to full practice mode.  Koivu, who is coming off an ankle injury, had been practicing with the team for some time.  However, he was off skates recently after suffering a setback.  Today The Captain was back in fine form and could be less than 24 hours away from a return to action.

Unlikely, but still, a possibility.

It’s a similar story for Higgins, who has missed six weeks with a shoulder injury.  But, unlike Koivu, Higgins had been limited to a few turns on the ice on his own, for the last week or so.  Today was his first full workout with his team mates since going down with his injury Dec. 9 vs. Calgary.  (Koivu was hurt just two days later against Tampa.)

Higgins says, any time you practice with your team mates, you feel like you’re ready to play.  But the reality is, he’s far from being a sure bet to return to action either tomorrow in Atlanta or Wed. in New Jersey.  A more likely scenario would see Higgins, and perhaps Koivu, returning to the lineup, post all-star break.

Crunch time for Guy Carbonneau.  And Bob Gainey.

Although Georges Laraque skated on his own today, and Dandenault took to the ice very briefly with his team mates before calling it a day, it’s Koivu and Higgins that Carbonneau will have to make room for, in the short term.  And that means players who have helped contribute to this incredible injury-riddled run of 11-2-1 over the last month will soon be making their way back to the AHL, and the Hamilton Bulldogs.

As much as Habs’ fans have become smitten with the exploits of Matt D’Agostini, Max Pacioretty, and, to a lesser extent, Kyle Chipchura and Gregory Stewart, when Koivu, Higgins and, down the road, Alex Tanguay are ready to return to action, they will indeed return to action.

Then, once players like Laraque and Dandenault are healthy enough to play, Carbonneau will again feel the pinch as he tries to squeeze 14 players into 12 starting forward positions, although you’d have to think Dandenault will again return to the blue line, when his time comes.

Unless, say, Bob Gainey makes a trade or two in the coming weeks, leading up to the Mar. 4 trade deadline.

Like I said, crunch time.

If nothing else, the injuries to a growing number of the team’s veterans, have given both Carbonneau and Gainey an opportunity to see what some of the organization’s most promising prospects can do at the NHL level.  Clearly they must be pleased with what they see.  Perhaps to the point that the coach and GM feel that one or more of these youngsters might be ready to step into a full-time role with the big team.  Which could make one or more veterans available as trade bait should, let’s just say, hypothetically speaking, a Vincent Lecavalier, or a Jay Bouwmeester, becomes available.

Hypothecially speaking, of course.

This situation is also playing into Gainey’s longer-term plans as the GM looks to decide which of his 11 potential unrestricted free agents he’s going to make pitches to, and which of his 11 potential UFA’s he’s going to say “goodbye” to.

Are any of the above-mentioned prospects ready to step in and fill the void that would be created with the departure of any number of the team’s potential UFA’s? Gainey and Carbonneau are certainly closer to knowing the answer to that question now, than they were a few short weeks ago.

Lots to to chew on, with the NHL trading deadline just 44 days away.

MASS CALL-UP FROM HAMILTON


Upper body, lower body.

Upper body, lower body.

Unfortunately, it’s been an all-too-familiar refrain for the Montreal Canadiens of late. And the latest member of the Habs to be singing that painful tune is Alex Tanguay who is out with an upper body injury after going down early in Tuesday’s win over Tampa: specifically, a dislocated left shoulder that will keep him out of action for at least six weeks.

Six weeks.

Tanguay joins line mates Saku Koivu and Chris Higgins on the shelf, and the news on Tanguay comes after the Canadiens sent forward Ben Maxwell (not surprisingly) and defenceman Ryan O’Byrne (he needs to play somewhere) down to Hamilton. Which, if you do the math, leaves the Canadiens will a number of holes in their roster. Especially with further word today that goalie Carey Price is again being bothered by a lower-body discomfort that kept him out of action recently, and will keep him out of tomorrow’s game in New Jersey against the Devils.

So.

Today the Canadiens called up Max Pacioretty, Kyle Chipchura, goalie Marc Denis, AND defenceman Yannick Weber, which will please legions of Habs’ fans, to no end, on a number of fronts.

We’ve come to know what to expect from Chipchura on an NHL level. Chipchura was with this team for much of the first half of last season before being down to the Bulldogs. He’s not a speed burner, but he brings a solid two-way effort to the rink at centre, although his lack of skills at the face-off circle did him in last season. This season he showed very little in training camp and during the pre-season, which is why he has spent the year in Hamilton. He likely would have been tabbed for a recall when Maxwell was called up,  but  Chipchura was  nursing a groin injury at the time.

Denis is up only as a short-term backup to Jaroslav Halak. Price is not expected to be on the sidelines for long.

Which brings us back to two of Montreal’s most intriguing prospects: Pacioretty and Weber.

Both performed splendidly in pre-season, with Pacioretty clearly knocking on the door to an NHL career after moving from the U.S. university ranks to a career as a pro. And Weber, doing his best to make Habs fans forget about Mark Streit, has progressed nicely in Hamilton after a junior career with the Kitchener Rangers of the Ontario Hockey League.

Pacioretty started slowly in Hamilton, but has been playing his best hockey as a member of the Bulldogs of late, as witnessed by his performance in Hamilton’s 4-0 win over the Toronto Marlies Tuesday night. Pacioretty scored his 5th of the season in that one, in what was his strongest showing as a member of the Bulldogs. Chipchura, who has also been playing splendid hockey of late, notched his 10th of the season in that one.

We know what Weber brings to the rink. He’s a smooth-skating defenceman with a terrific shot. But his defensive skills remain suspect. But with O’Bryne now in Hamilton, a move that had to be made in order to give the struggling blue-liner regular playing time, Weber will get his chance to impress the Montreal brass. His last chance to impress Montreal brass, in Montreal, came at the Bell Centre Nov. 30, which he scored a pair of goals in a game against the Binghamton Senators. He will no doubt see action, at least on the power play, during this call-up.

Of immediate concern, however, is the fact that the Canadiens have not been able to escape the injury bug this season, which was not the case last season, when they were a consistantly healthy bunch. Because with the giddiness that comes with the team’s recent winning ways, and lofty expectations when it comes to players like Chipchura, Pachioretty and Weber, comes the harsh reality that with a steady stream of Habs making their way to sick bay throughout this season,  the Montreal Canadiens are quickly turning into the Hamilton Bulldogs.

HAPPY NEW YEAR? MAYBE NOT FOR TANGUAY


It’s not every day that your number one line is sitting in the press box.

But that could indeed be the case when the Canadiens return to action Friday in New Jersey after closing out the 2008 calendar year with three victories in four nights; win number three coming last night in Tampa thanks to a 2-1 shootout decision over the Bolts.

The fact that the Lightning have jerseys with the gawd-awful nickname BOLTS plastered on the front is a conversation for another day.

By the time this one was over, Alex Tanguay had shaved, showered and was making his way to the team bus with his left arm in a sling.  Three shifts into his game, Tanguay was taken into the boards, hard, by Evgeny Artyukhin and gingerly made his way to the locker room,  never to be seen again.  His night over, after just 1:43 of ice time.  The injury forced Guy Carbonneau to shorten his bench on a night when the Canadiens were clearly somewhat wobbly-legged as a result of three games in four nights.

However, both goaltender Carey Price and forward Guillaume Latendresse gave the Canadiens a chance to come away with at least one point against the BOLTS.  Price slammed the door after surrendering a first-period goal to Vinnie Prospal.  After the two teams skated through a scoreless second period, the recently rejuvenated Latendresse notched his fifth of the season when he poked a backhander past Mike Smith through a pile of bodies, just :46 into period number three.

Truth be told, the Canadiens were the better team over the final 25 minutes of this hockey game.  Robert Lang had a chance to win it in regulation on a breakaway at the 14-minute mark of the third, but failed to convert.  And with five seconds showing on the clock, Andrei Kostitsyn rattled one off the post. Then, in O.T., Maxim Lapierre was robbed by Smith, with the BOLTS’ goaltender down and out in his crease: nothing but air for Lapierre to shoot at.

He missed.

However, Lapierre didn’t miss in the shootout.  After Alex Kovalev opened the round of shots with a goal, Lapierre beat Smith to give Montreal a 2-1 advantage, setting the stage for Lecavalier vs. Price.  And Price won that battle, giving the Canadiens another two points and a 2-1 victory.

While Price celebrated in the crease with a pose that looked like a cross between an archer and Hulk Hogan, Alex Tanguay didn’t look like a man who was going to do much celebrating as he made his way to the team bus, grim faced, sporting that sling on his left arm.  Tanguay has struggled of late after opening the season in explosive fashion playing on a line with Latendresse, and then Chris Higgins, along with Saku Koivu.  The goals were coming in bunches for the former Calgary Flame.  Not any more. Just exactly how long Tanguay is lost to this club remains to be seen.  But, for now, at least, he joins his former linemates Koivu (lower body) and Higgins (upper body) in sick bay.  And perhaps in the press box for Friday’s game in New Jersey, pending the results of an MRI.

In the meantime, the question is:  who will the Canadiens call up from Hamilton if Tanguay remains out of action? The two obvious candidates would be Kyle Chipchura and Max Pacioretty.  Interesting to see that both of those two young men are playing their best hockey of the season down on the farm, as whitnessed by their performance in last night’s 4-0 win over the Toronto Marlies at Copps Colliseum in Hamilton.  Chipchura notched his 10th of the season while  Pacioretty, who is finally beginning to feel comfortable with his move from the university ranks to the American Hockey League,  scored his fifth in his best performance of the season.

My suggestion?  If the Canadiens need to make a personel move as a result of the injury to Tanguay, they should call up both Chipchura and Pacioretty, and send Ben Maxwell back down to Hamilton.  Maxwell is clearly not ready for prime time.  Chipchura would replace Maxwell at centre, and Pacioretty would replace Tanguay at wing. IF Tanguay needs to be replaced at wing.

We’ll know more after Tanguay’s New Years’ date with an MRI machine.

MORE QUESTIONS THAN ANSWERS AS HABS FALL IN RALEIGH


With game 31 of the regular season in the books, a 3-2 loss to the Carolina Hurricaines in one of the strangest hockey games you’ll ever see, I’m left pondering the question:

Where are these guys?

Where is the Tomas Plekanec who emerged as a truly splended centreman last season on a line with Andrei Kostitsyn and Alex Kovalev? The Tomas Plekanec who took the bull by the horns last season and proved he could step up and play with a world-class (?) talent like Alex Kovalev while pivoting Montreal’s most effective line in 2008-2009.  You’ll recall that, the previous year, which proved to be a breakout season for Plekanec, the native of Kladno, Czech Republic didn’t get going until after the coach REMOVED him from a line with Kovalev.

And where is Andrei Kostitsyn?  Where is the gritty, feisty and supremely talented hockey player who tore it up in the second half of last season to finish with 26 goals.  Yes, he got his bell rung by Kurt Sauer of the Phoenix Coyotes early in the season, but that was 26 games ago.  Since then, we’ve seen only flashes of his former self. Case in point: one goal in three straight games against Buffalo, Atlanta and the Rangers.  Since then: 0-for-6.

Where is little brother Sergei? Where is the guy who, after being called up from the Hamilton Bulldogs 30 games into last season, exhibited a scrappy, productive and tenacious approach to this game that literally lit a fire under Andrei.  Where is the Sergei Kostitsyn who, through the pre-season and into the first handful of games of the regular season, was arguably the best forward on this club?

Where is Guillaume Latendresse?  Oh.  There he is.  On last night’s scoresheet, with a goal off a penalty shot.  His third goal of the season to break an o-for-9 drought.  Three goals.  Was it too much to expect Guillaume Latendresse, after back-to-back 16-goal seasons, to put himself on a pace to finish with, perhaps, 20 goals this season? At this rate, he’ll be hard pressed to score 10.  Here’s another guy who started the season looking so solid, while playing on a line with Saku Koivu and Alex Tanguay.  Until he mysteriously vanished.  To the press box, until the recent rash of injuries.

Where is he?

Where is Alex Tanguay?  So dominant through the opening dozen games of the season, Tanguay has virtually disappeared over the last dozen, with but one goal to his credit during that stretch.

And Chris Higgins? Don’t get me wrong.  I really feel for the guy after he suffered a shoulder injury 3:33 into the game against Calgary one week ago; just more of that dark cloud that has hung over him since the start of the season.  However, the reality is, up until that point, Chris Higgins’ season consisted of little more than a three-goal performance against the Ottawa Senators on Nov. 11.

Where are these guys?

When head coach Guy Carbonneau puts the line of Steve Begin, Tom Kostopoulos and Maxim Lapierre on the ice to start last night’s game in Carolina, he’s not doing it to “make a statement.”  He’s doing it because, on too many nights, Begin, Kostopoulos and Lapierre have been Montreal’s BEST line.  When Carbonneau puts Begin, Kostopoulos and Lapierre on the ice as a power play unit, as he has done in recent games, he’s not doing it to “make a statement.” He’s doing it because Begin, Kostopoulos and Lapierre DESERVE IT.

Which brings me to Alex Kovalev.  You would think that with all the soul searching and gnashing of teeth that accompanied Kovalev’s 19-game goal-scoring drought,  the biggest Canadiens’ statistic that would have emerged from last night’s 3-2 loss to the ‘Caines would have been the goal by Kovalev, which came at the 3:57 mark of the second period.  The goal coming while the Canadiens were playing shorthanded, with Kovalev floating a bit of a knuckleball past Cam Ward after Robert Lang had won the draw deep in Carolina territory.

Nope. The key Canadiens’ statistic that emerged from last night’s loss to Carolina featured a string of 11 straight penalties called against Montreal (although a penalty would have been called on the ‘Caines on the play that led to the Latendresse penalty shot.)  It was simply amazing to see this parade of Canadiens to the penalty box during the first 40 minutes of hockey.  Some of the calls were warranted, others were not.  Regardless, the Canadiens failed to adjust to the fact that the officials were clearly going to call everything on this particular night.  And as a result, the Canadiens essentially played 20 of the first 40 minutes of this game, shorthanded.  The Hurricanes responded with three power play goals.

Game, set and match.

Up next: the Philadelphia Flyers in town tomorrow night.  We’ll wait and see who shows up.

COSTLY WIN OVER CALGARY


The final stats on Chris Higgins and Mathieu Dandenault were lost in the shuffle of last night’s impressive 4-1 win by the Canadiens over the Calgary Flames at the Bell Centre.

Higgins:  3:33 of ice time.

Dandenault: 9:16 of ice time.

Both players left early after taking significant hits along the boards which left them both with “upper body injuries.”  We know the extent of Dandeanault’s injury:  a broken arm.  Dandeanult had surgery today and is out indefinitely.  Higgins came away with a shoulder injury.  His condition will be assessed following an MRI today.

Needless to say, this is a bad break (no pun intended) for both players.  Dandenault had been playing solid hockey along the blue line ever since Ryan O’Byrne took a seat in the press box fives games ago.  Dandenault had been patiently biding his time as a sometime-member of the fourth line, and Coach Guy Carbonneau finally gave the veteran a chance to return the blue line after he’d seen enough of O’Byrne.

And now this.  A fractured arm.

Hello Ryan O’Byrne.

As for Higgins, this young man seems to have played much of his career here in Montreal under a dark cloud.  From high ankle sprains to a nagging groin injury, Higgins has battled his fair share of adversity: not to mention the countless trade rumors that have been linked to his name.  This season did not start well for Higgins, who spent the first six games on the shelf with a groin injury.  And except for a three-goal performance against the Ottawa Senators almost one month ago to the day, the New York native hasn’t had much to write home about in terms of his performance this season:  five goals and four assists for nine points in 20 games.

And now this.  A shoulder injury, which is likely to keep him out of action for an extended period of time.

Hello Guillaume Latendresse.

Well, not so fast, actually.

The coach clearly isn’t committed to inserting Latendresse back into the lineup for tomorrow night’s game at the Bell Centre against the Tampa Bay Lightening.  Georges Laraque is always an option for the coach, which doesn’t do Latendresse much good.  After starting the season a house-afire on a line with Saku Koivu and Alex Tanguay, Latendresse has been a healthy scratch the last three games.  His numbers so far: two goals, six assists for eight points in 20 games.  Of concern is the fact that he has shown very little of the feistiness and determination he exhibited earlier this season while playing with Koivu and Tanguay.  Clearly, he is not yet out of The Coach’s doghouse.

Sergie Kostitsyn, however, is.  He earned another shot at some ice time last night against the Flames, and contributed a workman-like effort over his 13:26 of ice time.  He saw some action on the power play, some action on the penalty kill, and simply came to play.  Which is more than you can say for some of his recent efforts that resulted in a seat in the press box for the three games leading up to the contest against the Flames.

In the meantime, Alex Kovalev and Robert Lang finally showed of the same magic they weaved as members of the Pittsburgh Penguins oh those many years ago.  Lang scored his ninth and tenth goals of the season, with Kovalev assisting on both markers.  Lang also picked up an assist on the goal by Andrei Markov.  The third on the Lang-Kovalev three-some was Alex Tanguay, who put in a fine showing against his former Flames’ teammates. Honorable mention to Jaroslav Halak, who drew a rare start and performed splendidly.

And then there’s Matt D’Agostini, who scored his fourth goal in four games: in his fifth game as a member of the Canadiens since being called up from Hamilton.  This one was his prettiest yet: a goal-scorers goal, as he blocked a shot along the Montreal blue line; outraced two Calgary defenders for a bouncing puck, and controlled the disc long enough to backhand it past Mikka Kiprusoff.  It was one for the highlight reel.

Welcome to Montreal, Matt.

WAITING FOR KOVALEV


There it is. Right there.

Alex Kovalev’s name on the scoresheet. It’s right there on the Game Summary for last night’s match at the Bell Centre between the Montreal Canadiens and the New Jersey Devils.

Unfortunately for Kovalev and the Canadiens, number 27′s name doesn’t show up on the scoring summary. It shows up in the penalty summary: two minutes for tripping at 19:32 of the third period.

This game was tied at one when Kovalev was sent to the sin bin. Matt D’Agostini, with his parents in the stands after making the trip from Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario, opened the scoring for the Habs at 15:35 of the first period, when he banged the puck past Scott Clemmensen, who couldn’t hold on to the hot potato in his crease. The goal was D’Agostini’s third since being recalled from the Hamilton Bulldogs.

Believe me, folks, this kid isn’t going anywhere, soon. He has combined with Saku Koivu and Andrei Kostitsyn to form Montreal’s most effective trio since joining the team. Finally, the Canadiens have a number one line that is clicking on all cylinders. They also have a very effective fourth line, in Maxim Lapierre, Steve Begin and Georges Laraque. It’s lines two and three that are proving to be the problem for head coach Guy Carbonneau; most notably, the Kovalev line.

More on that in a moment.

The Devils tied this one at 4:05 of the second period when Jamie Langenbrunner managed to squeeze one between the pads of Carey Price: a blast from the edge of the face off circle that found its way past the Montreal netminder.

There was no scoring in the third period, which would suggest that this one was a pretty evenly-played hockey game heading into overtime. Right?

Wrong.

The Canadiens again opened with a flourish, delivering more of the crisp play we saw from them in the win against the New York Rangers two nights earlier. In the second period, the Canadiens simply stopped skating, and carried that over into the third period. The shots on goal are indicative of how this game transpired: 13-7 Montreal in the first; 11-9 NJ in the second; and 11-4 NJ in the third. Truth be told, the Canadiens can thank Price for their single point.

Still, the Habs had a chance to win this one. That is, until Alex Kovalev took that tripping penalty with :28 remaining in regulation play. Thirty-one seconds into O.T., the splendid Zach Parise put this one out of reach with his 15th of the season.

Game, set and match.

Kovalev? Let’s look past the lazy penalty that resulted in the Canadiens starting, and finishing, this overtime session short-handed. What has to be a bigger concern to The Coach is the fact that Kovalev has now gone 16 games without a goal. Chances? He had his opportunities last night with three shots on goal. And yes, Scott Clemmensen was good. He’s no Martin Brodeur, but on this night, he didn’t have to be.

Kovalev isn’t the only one struggling on his line. Chris Higgins has done very little since netting a hat trick against Ottawa some three weeks ago. Robert Lang, who rounds out that threesome, has been quietly effective, as he has been all season long. But the sparks haven’t exactly been flying between Lang and Kovalev, two former Pittsburgh Penguins who are being given a chance to play together again.

It says here that your best players have to be your best players. And both Kovalev and Higgins have been far from it. Fairly, or unfairly, Kovalev has been the lightening rod for what has been ailing this team offensively this season. Even when Kovalev was getting some points through the first 10 games of the season, we weren’t seeing the Alex Kovalev who lit up this team and this town for 82 games last season.

As for Higgins, he has been given a very long leash by fans in this city. Truth be told, Chris Higgins might never become the first-line player the Canadiens expect him to become. When all is said and done, Chris Higgins might end up being a very good third-line player.

Chris Higgins is a terrific young man, worthy of the “A” he wears on his jersey, and skates miles out there.

Unfortunately for Higgins, and the Canadiens, miles to nowhere, on too many nights.

STATEMENT GAME FOR CANADIENS


It was a statement game for head coach Guy Carbonneau and his Montreal Canadiens.

Carbonneau made his statement even before the Habs took to the ice Wednesday night at the Joe Louis Arena against the Detroit Red Wings, by putting Ryan O’Byrne on the ice for the team’s opening shift.

You remember Ryan O’Byrne, right?

Forty-eight hours earlier, O’Byrne put the puck in his own net late in the game against the New York Islanders at the Bell Centre, which allowed the Islanders to get back in, and eventually win, the contest.

After some good-natured ribbing on the part of Carbo and the rest of the team on the flight to Detroit Tuesday afternoon, The Coach gave his young defenceman a vote of confidence by putting him out there for the opening faceoff. O’Byrne responded with 17:13 of some pretty solid ice time. Yes, he was turned inside out, not once, but twice, by Johan Franzen of the Wings midway through the third period. On the same play, no less. And it resulted in Frazen’s 10th goal of the season. But by that time, the Canadiens had already made THEIR statement, by coming up with their best performance of the season.

From the drop of the puck, the Habs matched the defending Stanley Cup champions stride for stride, outplaying the Red Wings through the opening 20 minutes, despite the fact that they failed to beat Ty Conklin in the Detroit net.

The hard work and perseverance paid off early in the second period when Maxim Lapierre, who clearly didn’t like the view from the press box as a recent healthy scratch, went hard along the boards before dishing the puck out in front of the net. Finally, some good luck for this Habs‘ team as it went off a Red Wing skate and past Conklin for a 1-0 lead.

Some seven minutes later, the Canadiens connected on the power play when Tomas Plekanec, who skated miles in Monday’s loss to the Islanders, converted a lovely tic-tac-toe play to make it 2-0 Montreal at 12:17 of the middle period, the assists to Andrei Markov and Alex Kovalev.

A power play goal, to boot.

Then 80 seconds later, the Canadiens took advantage of a Detroit turnover in Red Wings’ end, with Saku Koivu delivering a lovely backhand pass to Chris Higgins, who backhanded one off a Red Wings’ skate past Conklin to make it 3-0 Montreal. Like Plekanec, Higgins skated miles against the Islanders on Monday night. And, like Plekanec, Higgins was finally rewarded for his efforts with a goal.

The goal by Plekanec was his first in nine games. The goal by Higgins was his first in eight.

Welcome back, gentlemen.

A couple of scary moments last night for the Habs. Just 2:16 into this one, Alex Tanguay is creamed along the boards by Brad Stuart and leaves the game. Then early in the third, defenceman Josh Gorges takes a slapshot off the knee and goes down like a ton of bricks.

The injury to Tanguay forced The Coach into line-juggling mode for the rest of the game. However, when it was over, Carbonneau emerged from the dressing room to say that Tanguay appeared to come away with nothing more than a sore neck and should be okay for Friday night’s contest in Washington.

As for Gorges, he limped off the ice but returned. Good news indeed for both Gorges and the Canadiens, as the young defenceman continues to contribute quality major minutes along the blue line: 22:33 of them last night, in a plus-1 performance.

As for the Red Wings, owners of the most effective power play in the NHL, they only had three opportunities to play with the man advantage as a result of a disciplined effort by the Habs. Mind you, the Wings got revved up in the third period, as witnessed by their 16-4 shot advantage over the final 20 minutes. But you never really got a sense that the Canadiens were going to let Detroit get back into this one.

And they didn’t, thanks to the work of goalie Carey Price.

End of statement.

HIGGINS SHINES, O’BRYNE MAKES STATEMENT, HABS REBOUND


It’s easy to see why Christopher Higgins was the most popular guy in the Canadiens’ locker room following last night’s 4-0 victory over the Bell Centre against the Ottawa Senators.

Putting three past the opposing goaltender tends to make you a V.P.P. (Very Popular Player), and Higgins clearly deserved the limelight as a result of a break-out performance that led the Habs to a resounding victory following a humbling loss in Toronto three nights earlier. When this one was over The Coach called it the team’s best 60-minute performance of the season, perhaps all the way back to last season. And it could not have come at a better time as the Canadiens put the brakes on a slippery slope that saw them hit a brick wall in Toronto Saturday night.

The hat trick was Higgins’ first of his NHL career. In fact, he never scored three in a game while he was a member of the American Hockey League’s Hamilton Bulldogs. Higgins figures the last time he came away with a hat trick was while he played college hockey at Yale, from 2001-2003, and seemed to recall it was against his former Montreal teammate, Yann Danis, now a backup with the New York Islanders.

Although the performance by Higgins, which included eight shots on Alex Auld in the Sens’ net, warranted him V.P.P. status, it was the play of Ryan O’Byrne that got my attention.

After playing his way in and out of the lineup through the first dozen games of the season, head coach Guy Carbonneau went with O’Byrne along the blueline last night. And the native of Victoria, BC, responded with his best performance of the season, and one of his best performances as a member of this team.

Far too often this season, O’Bryne has been all “arms and legs” on the ice. Last night, O’Bryne played a controlled game and finally used that 6-5, 234-pound body of his in an effective manner, dishing out six hits on the night, to tie Mike Komisarek in that department. (Maxim Lapierre led the way with eight bodychecks.)

With one assist and a plus two performance in almost 16 minutes of ice time, O’Bryne has earned himself a third straight start tomorrow night in Boston against the Bruins, although that has yet to officially be confirmed by The Coach. The only thing Guy Carbonneau would confirm following today’s morning skate was his goaltender of choice for tomorrow night: Carey Price, who kicked out all 28 shots he faced against the Sens.

O’Byrne, himself, admits he’s going through a sophomore jinx, and his erratic play in the early going has left him in the press box in three of 13 games this season.

“It’s tough,” O’Byrne admitted after today’s skate. “You never know if you’re in the lineup or not. You show up to the rink and you don’t know if you’re playing. It’s a viscous cycle but you try and get out of it. And last night I thought it was a great start.”

He’s right. It was.

It’s a golden opportunity for O’Byrne to step into a regular role with a team that is lacking in depth along the blueline. A player like Patrice Brisebois is going to have an edge over O’Byrne when it comes to The Coach pencilling in is lineup on any given night, mainly because Brisebois gives Carbonneau somewhat of a weapon on the power play with his shot from the point. However, up until now, O’Bryne has been making it too easy for The Coach to go with Brisebois. That may have all changed with O’Byrne’s performance last night.

KOIVU AND HIGGINS REUNITED, FOR NOW


No surprise to see Chris Higgins skating with Saku Koivu and Alex Tanguay as the Canadiens were back on the ice at practice today at the Bell Centre, preparing for their next game Friday night in Columbus against the Blue Jackets.

Higgins was reunited with Koivu in the third period of Saturday night’s game against the New York Islanders, and the move paid instant dividends, as The Captain set up Higgins with the tying goal at 14:06 of the third period.  Alex Kovalev sealed the deal some 73 seconds later, completing a spectacular comeback, resulting in a 5-4 win by the Habs, leaving the team with a perfect four-point record midway through this four-game road trip.

The goal was Higgins’ first of the season, in only his fourth game of the season.  The New York-area native started the campaign on a shelf as a result of a lingering groin injury, which prompted head coach Guy Carbonneau to wonder at one point, while Higgins was on the sidelines, whether the injury had become more of a mental issue with his alternate captain, than a physical one.

When Higgins did return to action, he skated on a line with Robert Lang and Sergei Kostitsyn that showed little spark as a unit.  Sergei just doesn’t seem to be the same player he was when he started the season, while Lang has quietly put up three goals and three assists in opening 10 games.  The reality is, S. Kostitsyn and Lang were more effective when Tom Kostopoulos was the third on that trio.

However, when a player of Higgins’ caliber is ready to rejoin the lineup, you make room for him.  As much grit and determination that Kostopoulos has brought to the team, he’s a guy destined for the fourth line, which is where he now finds himself: fighting for elbow room among the other fourth-liners.  However instead of reuniting Higgins with Koivu (the two have played together extensively in recent seasons) The Coach opted to keep the Koivu-Tanguay-Latendresse line intact because, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.

That was four games ago.

Since then, Latendresse, who started the season in fine fashion, is struggling and has but one goal to his credit.  Sure, he delivers the odd big check out there, but so does Tom Kostopoulos.  The Canadiens need more out of Guillaume Latendresse than the occasional big hit.  And if today’s practice is any indication (and I’m willing to bet it is) Latendresse will have to find his game playing with Lang and Sergei K.

 

A MOST IMPROBABLE VICTORY


Let us take you back to the 3:54 mark of the second period, when Alex Kovalev took a bad penalty: a hooking call with the New York Islanders leading the Montreal Canadiens 3-1 at the time.

Kovalev knew it was a bad penalty. Everyone in the Nassau Coliseum knew it was a bad penalty (many of them Canadiens‘ fans who made the trip to The Island). However, when Kovalev emerged from the penalty box, after the Canadiens had successfully killed off the infraction, he did so as a changed man; a man who began to take matters into his own hands; a man who almost singlehandedly took this Canadiens team by the scruff of the neck and led it a most improbable victory.

The Islanders would eventually go ahead 4-1 late in the second, on a goal by Franz Nielsen, after Ryan O’Byrne deserted his netminder, Carey Price, who was left hung out to dry. Nielsen had nothing but time as he buried the puck, and presumably, any hopes the Canadiens might have had of salvaging this one.

Then Alex Kovalev got busy.

After taking a high stick that left him with a cut below his left eye (no penalty called on the play), Kovalev set up Tomas Plekanec who finally had a chance to celebrate his 26th birthday (which came the day before) with his second of the season. Two minutes later, at 9:55 of the third, Plekanec continued the celebration with his second of the night, third of the season, with Kovalev helping to set that one up, as well. Then, five minutes later, Chris Higgins scored his first of the campaign, a perfect pass from behind the net by Saku Koivu (make note of that twosome, for future reference) to tie the game at four. Seventy-three seconds later, Kovalev redirected a perfect feed from Plekanec behind the Islander net at 15:19 for the winning goal.

Game, set and match.

So, after stealing two in Minnesota Thursday night, the Canadiens steal two more in Uniondale, and return home with four of a possible four points in the middle of this four-game road trip. The Habs will taste home cooking for five days before they return to action Friday in Columbus and Saturday in Toronto.

After reuniting Saku Koivu and Chris Higgins during a third period which saw the coach mix up his lines, big-time, look for Guy Carbonneau to keep Higgins on the line with Koivu and Alex Tanguay, for the time being. And look for The Coach to drop Guillaume Latendresse to the third line, to play with Robert Lang and Sergei Kostitsyn.

Carey Price? Yes, he had an off night, after a spectacular showing against the Wild the other night. After bailing out his teammates in Minnesota Thursday night, the Canadiens bailed Price out, last night.

Of more immediate concern is the play of Ryan O’Byrne along the blueline. His brain cramp on the Neilsen goal helped lead to a minus two performance on the night for the young defenceman; a performance which may very well have earned him a ticket to the press-box for Friday’s game in Columbus.

Also of concern, the ongoing listless play of Sergei Kostitsyn, who started the season like a house-afire after a sensational pre-season. Sergei just doesn’t seem like the same player after brother, Andrei, took that massive hit in the game against Anaheim earlier this season. Andrei has since returned and is rounding into form. Sergei, however, isn’t.

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