Let me take you back to the off-season, at a time when it became clear that Mats Sundin didn’t want to have anything to do with the Montreal Canadiens, and before GM Bob Gainey went out acquired Plan B, in Robert Lang.
Once it became pretty clear that Sundin had very little interest in Montreal’s overtures, Gainey was asked who he felt could step in and help fill the void at centre.
His answer: Kyle Chipchura.
However, that was until Gainey went out and signed Lang as a free agent, effectively squeezing Chipchura out of the Plan B picture. Unfortunately for Lang, his season came to an end at 8:33 of the third period in the game against the Boston Bruins on Feb. 1st, after the 38-year old suffered an Achilles tendon injury. At the time, Lang was leading the team with 18 goals and had distinguished himself rather nicely as a big, productive, if somewhat slow-flooted, force at front.
That was until 8:33 of the third period against the Boston Bruins on Feb. 1.
Exit Robert Lang. Re-enter Kyle Chipchura, the original Plan B, called up today from the Hamilton Bulldogs, and expected to join the team in Denver in time for tonight’s game against the Avalanche.
Chipchura, a 1st-round 2004 draft pick, has had a number of cups of coffee with the Canadiens this season, most recently as a call-up in December when veterans like Saku Koivu and Chris Higgins were dropping like flies. He spent eight games with the big team before being sent back down to Hamilton; eclipsed on the prospects depth-chart by the likes of fellow-Bulldogs Max Pacioretty and Matt D’Agostini, who are still with the big team.
Chipchura returns to the Habs after scoring 13 goals and adding 13 assists in 33 games with the Bulldogs this season, good for a plus-18 rating. Obviously this time, he’s hoping to stick. His best opportunity to make a full-time impression came last season, when he spent most of the first half of the campaign with the Canadiens, before being sent back down to the American Hockey League: the clock ticking on his long-term prospects as a bona-fide big-league talent, within this organization.
Now he’s back.
Chipchura will never be confused with Robert Lang. He’ll never be nearly the offensive talent that Lang has been throughout his career. But Chipchura has the potential to be a solid, two-way contributor at the N.H.L. level. Although it’s unfortunate that this latest opportunity comes at the expense of Robert Lang’s season-ending injury, it’s an opportunity, nonetheless.
One door closes, another one opens.
Personally, I’m rooting for the personable young man from Westlock, Alberta, who would love nothing more than to celebrate his 23rd birthday, just six days from now, on Feb. 19, as a member of the Montreal Canadiens.
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.
School’s out for the term, and members of the Montreal Canadiens are enjoying the Christmas break until they return to class Dec. 27 in Pittsburgh against the Penguins. Report cards have been issued for all students. Some have excelled, others need to show more effort. Here are their grades:
Andrei Markov. Andrei has been a very consistent student this term. He is worthy of his current all-star voting status and the fact that he is among the top point-scorers among his classmates is a bonus. A worthy contributor on the power play. A-
Alex Kovalev. Alex closed out the term by exhibiting a renewed interest in contributing to the success of the class after going through a long restless and unproductive stretch. Because of an A-plus season last year, much is expected of Alex this year, and he has struggled to live up to those expectations. But there is reason to believe that his new-found enthusiasm will successfully carry him through to the end of the current school year. C
Alex Tanguay. As one of the new kids in class, Alex adapted to his new surroundings very well, showing a particular interest in playing with fellow classmate Saku Koivu. However, Alex’s productivity has dropped of late and he’s struggling to regain the scoring touch he exhibited through the first month of the school year. Alex is going to have to work harder if he is to enjoy the kind of success he had early in the term. C+
Robert Lang. Another new student this year, Robert has fit right in with his new classmates. An outgoing and engaging student, Robert quietly does his job on the ice without much fanfare. Although the Canadiens were initially pursuing another out-of-town student named Mats, Robert has been more than a capable addition to this team. A-
Saku Koivu. Saku was the most consistent performer in his class, right up until the time a lower-body injury forced him out of action two weeks ago. A tireless worker, the Canadiens miss his leadership and grit. A-
Tomas Plekanec. Tomas is a wonderful student and a terrific young man. However, despite his best efforts, Tomas’s contributions to the success of the class have been lacking. His coach is again giving him a chance to play with the students he had so much success with last season, Alex K. and Andrei K. A more consistent, grittier effort is needed from Tomas. C-
Sergei Kostitsyn. Sergei joined the group in the second half of last term and was a welcome addition to the class. This term, however, he seemed to sulk and was unproductive until recently, having exhibited a renewed enthusiasm lately. He needs to maintain a positive attitude this upcoming term. C
Andrei Kostitsyn. Sergei’s big brother Andrei seemed to flourish when little brother joined the class last year. This term, however, Andrei hasn’t shown the same drive and determination that led many to believe that he could be at the head of the class this year. Andrei needs to work harder and get his nose dirtier. C-
Guillaume Latendresse. Like a number of his class mates, Guillaume began the term in impressive fashion. However, he seemed to lose interest for long stretches as the term went on. Again, like a number of his class mates, he’s shown a renewed interest in his studies and has been making a more consistent contribution. He needs to keep it up. C.
Roman Hamrlik. Roman is in his second year with this class and has been a welcome addition. He’s not as flashy as the student he initially replaced along the blue line, Sheldon, but he contributes in his own quiet and efficient fashion. Very steady along the blue line. B
Christopher Higgins. This has been a difficult term for Christopher, who began the season with a lower-body injury and is now sidelined with an upper body injury. However, when he was healthy, Christopher struggled to find himself and was unable to contribute to his class’s production. A bright young man with the potential to be a class leader, Christopher will need to play a bigger role in class when he returns. D
Steve Begin. Steve was clearly not the teacher’s pet when the term started. However, he has been given the chance to become more involved in class and has been very productive. He has not only exhibited his trademark grit, but Steve has also contributed offensively. B
Matt D’Agostini. Young Matt is a newcomer to class, having recently graduated from Hamilton. Matt has shown a maturity beyond his years and has provided class with a much-needed spark and offensive lift. Matt is sure to finish the term in Montreal. A
Maxime Lapierre. Maxime has brought a more focused determination to class in recent games and has played well with fellow students Tom K. and Steve B. He’s always been a hard worker, but now those efforts are proving to be more productive. B-
Patrice Brisebois. Much has been expected of Patrice this season as a result of injuries, and Patrice’s contribution, particularly on the power play, have not gone unnoticed. However, Patrice still struggles in his own end and is prone to mistakes. C.
Tom Kostopoulos. Tom has been a terrific addition to class and has raised his level of play this term. Tom shows great character in the locker room and on the ice and has exhibited the occasional scoring touch, which has been a nice surprise. B+
Josh Gorges. Josh has emerged as number 2 among his defensive class mates and shows a maturity beyond his years. He’s not the biggest kid in the class, but shows a big heart out there. Wants to contribute more offensively, but should stick to his “stay-at-home” style. A-.
Francis Bouillon. Francis has been an effective contributor to this class for a number of years, and we saw more of the same from him this term. Not the biggest kid in the class, Francis plays big, uses his body well, and makes a terrific first pass out of his zone. An engaging, personable young man. B-
Ryan O’Byrne. Ryan has struggled since graduating from Hamilton, although the teacher has shown faith in the young man. Ryan has taken a step back in his progress since joining the group last season. D.
Mathieu Dandenault. Mathieu has been a patient student this season; waiting for his turn to join his fellow students on the ice. He was given that opportunity recently, to rejoin his defensive mates, but suffered an upper-body injury shortly thereafter. He will be missed by the class. C+
Mike Komisarek. Mike brings size, grit, leadership, and terrific puck-blocking abilities to the class, but showed some inconsistencies before suffering an upper-body injury earlier in the term. He’s back now, and has made a solid contribution since his return. We need to see more of that from Mike in the coming term. B-
Georges Laraque. Georges is well-liked by all. He brings a huge presence to class and has recently shown that he can contribute offensively, as well. Isn’t quite the schoolyard bully that many thought, and hoped, he would be. C.
Carey Price. Carey has performed well this term, keeping his class mates in many a hockey game while others around him struggled. He was missed when he recently came down with the flue and a lower-body injury. He is back in class and will be counted upon heavily in the second term. His glove hand is known to desert him at times. Prone to the occasional bad goal. B+
Jaroslav Halak. Jaroslav recently had a chance to step in for Carey Price for an extended period and came up with a hot-and-cold performance. Won’t get a lot of playing time with his class mates in the second term, but needs to be more consistent when he gets the opportunity. C-
Overall class grade: A stronger class effort of late has this group approaching a B- grade. However, for this term they’ve been issued a C+.
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?
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.
Georges Laraque was sporting a grin that stretched from ear to ear when he was asked by reporters following last night’s 6-2 win over the New York Rangers how it felt to be the centre of attention as a result of his stick, and not his fists.
“If you look at my stats, it’s not, like, a miracle that I got a couple of points,” said number 17 after picking up two assists against the Broadway Blue Shirts.
“It’s just that this year has been a year of frustration. Nothing seems to be working, I was hurt all the time. But now we’re finally getting a fourth line that is contributing. Eventually you knew it was going to click.”
The fourth line of Laraque-Steve Begin-Maxim Lapierre is indeed clicking. Begin scored his fourth of the season, and his fourth in six games, midway through the first period after taking a perfect dangle pass from Lapierre, with Laraque also picking up an assist on the play. The goal came after Andrei Kostitsyn put a backhander past Henrik Lundqvist while number 46 was falling to the ice, for his sixth of the season, and third in his last three games.
With the Canadiens leading 3-0 after the opening period, their best period of the season, Lapierre made it 4-0 early in the second when he pounced on a loose puck in the crease (extra points to Maxim for going to the net) to notch his fourth of the season, and third in his last six games. Laraque also picked up an assist on the play, as did Begin. Big Georges was so excited on the play that he literally almost jumped on Lapierre’s lap in celebration of the goal.
A nice change of pace for Laraque, who hasn’t had much to celebrate this season, his first as a member of the Canadiens.
“It was a big relief, especially with the way things have been, now finally finding the right combination on our line. It’s the frustration of being hurt , being in and out of the lineup. Now things are going well. I’m really happy about that.”
A chronic groin injury, and the occasional trip to the press box as a healthy scratch, had limited Laraque’s playing time this season to 12 games, going into last night’s contest: Montreal’s 25th of the campaign. No one expected Laraque to lead this team in scoring when the Canadiens picked him up as a free agent during the off-season. But he was expected, as the NHL’s most feared heavyweight, to provide a punishing, physical presence on the ice. And drop the gloves, when necessary.
Truth is, Laraque hasn’t done much of that. Oh sure, he has spent plenty of time jawing at opponents (hello Milan Lucic) in an effort to get them to put up their dukes. But Canadiens’ fans have been frustrated by his measured approach to bashing heads. They just want to see him get busy. Well, last night he got busy, all right, on the score sheet.
As for Maxim Lapierre, he finished with a Gordie Howe Hat Trick: one goal, one assist, and one fight, as he went toe to toe with Peter Prucha midway through the second period. Clearly Lapierre didn’t like the view from the press box when he was made a healthy scratch for three straight games in mid-November.
The other goal scorers last night were Alex Tanguay, Robert Lang and Matt D’Agostini. It was Tanguay’s first goal in eight games, and he looked to the heavens with arms stretched out, as if to say “FINALLY”, after beating Lundqvist for his 9th of the season.
The goal by Lang was his eighth, a re-direct from a rejuvenated Andrei Markov, :49 into the third period. It was another example of Lang, once again, quietly going about his business.
And the goal by D’Agostini came as he caught Lundqvist flat-footed with a shot from well out that beat the Rangers’ net minder in the final minute of play. D’Agostini is making it more and more difficult for the Canadiens to send this young man back to Hamilton, thanks to his work on a line with Saku Koivu and Tom Kostopoulos. D’Agostini’s performance will also make it harder for designated sitters Sergei Kostitsyn and Guillaume Latendresse to work their way back into the lineup. Because, as we all know, head coach Guy Carbonneau tends to keep a pat hand when his team is winning.
And right now, his team is winning.
In the minutes following last night’s 5-4 nail-biter over the Atlanta Thrashers, Saku Koivu was left shaking his head.
He wasn’t the only one.
A furious third-period comeback by the Thrashers, coupled with a 59-second collapse by the Canadiens, left the sell-out crowd of 21,273 at the Bell Centre reeling. However, the Habs managed to pull this one out of the fire in the final minutes, to post their first back-to-back wins in more than a month.
That’s right. Prior to last night, the Canadiens hadn’t taken two in a row since they beat Minnesota 2-1 on Oct. 30, and the New York Islanders, 5-4, two nights later, on Nov. 1.
Nov. 1. The last time Alex Kovalev put the puck in the net. More on him in a moment.
First, let’s take you back to last night’s opening 20 minutes against an Atlanta team that was four games below .500 going into the contest. Habs fans are all too painfully aware that there have been no “gimme’s” for this Canadiens’ team that has struggled against lesser clubs like the Islanders and the Blues. So, it was with a sense of satisfaction and relief that they watched Montreal come out of the gate wheeling and dealing.
Matt D’Agostini opened the scoring at 16:21 of the opening frame with his first NHL goal in only his second game since being called up from Hamilton. D’Agostini, a deceptively quick skater, was there to poke a rebound past Johan Hedberg after Andrei Kostitsyn (more on him later) swung around the net and tried to jam one in. The play was set up by Captain Koivu, who, game in and game out, continues to be Montreal’s most consistent forward.
Tomas Plekanec made it 2-0 at 14:22 when he picked up a loose puck at the Atlanta blue line and wired one from the face-off circle past Hedberg to make it 2-0 Montreal.
Andrei Markov made it 3-0 at 19:04 of the second when he jumped on a fat, juicy rebound with Andrei Kostitsyn making life miserable for Hedberg in front of the crease. A power play goal, no less.
So far, so good. Right?
Not so fast.
Stay with me folks, as we take you through 59 seconds of hockey, early in the third period:
6:28 Former Hab Ron Hainsey drills one from the point past Carey Price. 3-1 Montreal.
7:20 Hainsey again, as the puck trickles by Price in front of a crowded Montreal net. 3-2 Montreal.
7:27. On the ensuing faceoff, Ilya Kovalchuk, Marty Reasoner and Chris Thorburn stretch out the Habs “D”, as well as Price, with Thorburn burying it to tie the game. 3-3. Three Atlanta goals in a 59-second span.
Back to The Captain in the Canadiens’ locker room at the conclusion of this one.
“I really don’t know what happened, and it happened quickly.”
“Quickly” isn’t the word for it.
However, the Canadiens weren’t done. Then again, neither were the Thrashers. Andrei Kostitsyn put Montreal back in front 4-3 with a terrific burst of speed along the boards before he cut in front of Hedberg to connect for his fifth of the season. Robert Lang made it 5-3 with an empty-netter at 18:45, his 7th of the campaign. However, Jason Williams made this one way too close for comfort when he banged one in with 20 seconds remaining in regulation time. After throwing a major-league scare into the Habs, that’s as close as the pesky Thrashers would get.
Two points on back-to-back wins. Guy Carbonneau will take ‘em, that’s for sure, especially with the kind of November his club had.
Once again, The Coach went back to the drawing boad for his line combinations, which included the unique pairing of Koivu and Kostitsyn, alongside D’Agostini. The three combined for six points, with Kostitsyn leading the way with three, while his little brother, Sergei, watched this one from the press box as a healthy scratch. Guillaume Latendresse and Ryan O’Byrne were the other designated sitters.
The other forward lines featured:
Carbo’s moves worked all the way around, with both Kostitsyn and Plekanec clearly emerging from the funk they’d been in for much of the start of the season.
Which brings us back to Alex Kovalev. It looked like he had one. In the third period. Into an open net. However, the goal was credited to Lang. Still, Kovalev picked up two assists for his efforts and finished a plus 2 on the night in 19:50 of spirited ice time; exhibiting some of the fire and passion that Coach Carbo says has been absent from his game this season.
The goals, however, aren’t coming, for number 27. He’s gone 14 straight without putting the puck in the net. Kovalev recalls when he went 18 straight without scoring as a member of the Rangers. In the 19th game that season, he scored a hat trick against the Penguins. Kovalev is confident that, when the goals come, they’ll come in bunches.
We’ll hold him to that.