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.
Well, at least they weren’t embarrassed.
The Montreal Canadiens came up with a better performance but still came up on the short end of a 2-1 decision to the Philadelphia Flyers Saturday night at the Bell Centre. This was a more determined effort by a Canadiens‘ club that was shellacked 6-1 in Boston 48 hours earlier. However, after disposing of the Flyers 5-3 in Philadelphia Oct. 13 in Montreal’s third game of the season, this one resembled the kind of hockey we saw from both clubs when they tangled in round two of the playoffs last season: solid goaltending on the part of Martin Biron, (who continues to look like a Vezina Trophy winner when the plays the Habs) and the inability of Canadiens‘ forwards to capitalize on their scoring opportunities.
With defenceman Mike Komisarek in sick bay as a result of an upper-body injury suffered in a fight with Milan Lucic of the Bruins Thursday night, the Flyers came out storming and came “this close” to scoring early, and often, when Glen Metropolit was left all alone in front of Jaroslav Halak two minutes into the game, and Scottie Upshall was allowed to barge in on the Montreal netminder just seconds later. However, the Canadiens got their sea legs after being outshot 5-0 through the opening five minutes, and finished the period with some wind in their sails, but failed to beat Biron; Robert Lang with perhaps the best scoring chance at the 12:00 mark of that opening period.
The Flyers lived up to their name and came out Flying in the second period, Upshall beating Halak with a tip-in at 5:30 of the middle frame, as Francis Boullion was unable to tie up the speedy and pesky right winger. The line of Saku Koivu-Alex Tanguay-Chris Higgins did generate some traffic in front of Biron in that period, but failed to beat the Flyer netminder; Tanguay coming close 10:00 in. Then, at 15:36 of the period, Ryan O’Byrne was caught with his back to the play, which enabled Jeff Carter to move in and beat Halak to make it 2-0 Philadelphia; the Flyers outshooting the Habs 18-7 in the period, which was indicative of the play.
Head coach Guy Carbonneau went back to the drawing board, mixing up his lines in the third period in an effort to squeeze some production out of a lineup that has produced a grand total of two goals in its last two games. Chris Higgins found himself playing with Alex Kovalev and Tomas Plekanec. That left Andrei Kostitsyn on a line with brother Sergei and Robert Lang; with Guillaume Latendresse shifting over to play with Saku Koivu and Alex Tanguay.
It’s the Tanguay-Koivu-Latendresse trio that struck paydirt midway through the third period, with Tanguay netting his 8th of the season. Latendresse appeared to show a little more interest out there on the ice when playing with Tanguay and Koivu, with Koivu, again, being the most effective forward for Montreal.
Jeff Carter handed the Canadiens a gift at 16:49 of the the third period when he was called for hooking. But the sputtering Habs’ power play sputtered yet again, finishing the night 0-for-4. The Canadiens did pull Halak for an extra attacker in the final minute, to no avail.
There was precious little for the Bell Centre faithful to get excited about on this night, save for for Georges Laraque’s pummelling of Josh Gratton three minutes into the hockey game.
You certainly can’t fault Halak for this loss: the young goaltender kept his team in the game and gave the Canadiens a chance to win. However, the Habs again got zero production from the Kovalev-Plekanec-A.Kostitsyn line, lots of scoring opportunities, but a big goose egg, while playing with the man advantage, and yet more sketchy play in front of their goaltender.
A better performance, yes. However, a failed opportunity to grab two points, at home, against a team struggling to play .500 hockey, and a Flyer team without the injured Daniel Briere.
Guy Carbonneau’s quest to find out what’s ailing his hockey team, that has lost four of its last five, continues Sunday night in St. Louis, as the Canadiens open a three-game road trip, with stops in Carolina and Ottawa.
Midway through this hockey game, it looked like a rummage sale out there: head coach Guy Carbonneau sifting and sorting through his bench in an effort to find a line combination or two worth throwing out onto the ice.
By the end of the night, nothing worked. Certainly not his players, as the Canadiens followed up their solid 4-0 win over Ottawa Tuesday night with another mind-numbing loss, this one a 6-1 setback, to the hometown Boston Bruins.
When it was over, The Coach questioned his team’s heart, work ethic, and mental toughness, which is becoming somewhat familiar territory for Carbonneau, who watched his club put in a similar non-performance against the Toronto Maple Leafs Saturday night. On Tuesday, the Habs answered the bell at the Bell with their best effort of the season against Ottawa. Tonight, they were up to their old tricks again.
The question now, is: which team will show up Saturday night when the Philadelphia Flyers are in town?
It’s a question that Guy Carbonneau must grapple with over the next 48 hours. Does the answer lie in exploding the lines, as he did midway through tonight’s game, after the Bruins had taken a 4-0 lead on Carey Price?
Mere moments after Marco Sturm’s second goal of the night, at 3:44 of the middle frame, Alex Kovalev found himself playing with Maxim Lapierre and Mathieu Dandenault. Later in that period, Kovalev lined up with Lapierre and Guillaume Latendresse.
Then in the third period we saw a sign of things to come, when The Coach went with a chemistry experiment that we’ve all been waiting for: Kovalev with his old line mate in Pittsburgh, Robert Lang, on a line with Latendresse. You can take that one to the bank as The Coach searches for solutions heading into Saturday’s game against the Flyers.
Guy Carbonneau is a patient man, up to a point. He is usually loathe to juggle his lines because of the disruptive trickle-down effect it has on the rest of the forward units. But clearly, he has little choice. The Kovalev-Plekanec-A.Kostitsyn unit isn’t working; neither is the Lang-Latendresse-S. Kostitsyn line. Might as well mix them up, and keep your number one trio of Koivu-Tanguay-Higgins intact.
For the record, Saku Koivu, who blew a tire on the play that led to Boston’s second goal of the game, by Stephane Yelle at 17:00 of the opening period, scored the lone goal for Montreal and was the Habs’ best player on the ice, which isn’t saying much on a night like this.
Now on to other matters, like the ongoing series of brain cramps this team is suffering from when it comes to taking care of the defensive aspect of this game of hockey. What were Mike Komisarek and Mathieu Dandenault thinking when they played patty-cake with the puck and allowed Shawn Thornton to sweep in on Price and tuck a little backhander past the Montreal netminder just 2:31 into this one?
That’s another question The Coach is going to have to grapple with.
Here’s another one while we’re at it: does he go back with Carey Price Saturday against the Flyers? After this one at TD Banknorth Garden was over, Carbonneau admitted that he considered pulling Price on a number of occasions, during the course of tonight’s hockey game. But he didn’t. Do you give Price a chance to get back on his horse against Philadelphia, or do you look down your bench and point a finger at Jaroslav Halak?
So many questions, so little time.
Let the record show that, three games into the regular season, Sergei Kostitsyn has been the best forward on the ice for the Montreal Canadiens.
This 21-year old from Novopolotsk, Russia, is beginning to show a maturity beyond his years, as witnessed by the completely unselfish play he made when he dished the puck to Robert Lang after picking up a big, fat, Martin Biron rebound, with Lang converting on the play. The goal gave the Habs a 4-2 lead at the 13:40 mark of the third period in a game which saw the Canadiens beat the Flyers 5-2 at the Wachovia Center in Philadelphia.
The decision to call up Sergie K. from the Hamilton Bulldogs some 20 games into the Canadiens‘ 2007-2008 season has paid multiple dividends. First, it provided Sergie with an opportunity to prove that he was no flash in the pan at training camp last year. As one of the final cuts, it was clear that the Canadiens‘ had themselves a talent on their hands after making him the 200th pick (!) overall 2005 NHL entry draft. He certainly piled up the numbers in junior with the OHL London Knights (40 goals, 91 assists in 59 games in 2006-2007). However, as Corey Locke will tell you (63 goals, 88 assists in 66 games with the 2002-2003 OHL Ottawa 67s), success in the juniors is no guarantee of success at the big-league level. However, Sergie has excelled since being given the opportunity to display his talents at the NHL level.
The second dividend? The fact that Sergei’s appearance in Montreal has meant a direct kick-start to brother Andrei’s career. There is a definite connection between Sergie‘s arrival in Montreal and the improved play of Andrei, who finished last season with 26 goals and 27 assists. Andrei, who opened the scoring 79 seconds in last night, along with Tomas Plekanec and Alex Kovalev, are still looking to find their sea legs in the early going this season. They’ve had their moments, but not enough for what was, by far and away, this team’s best line last season.
However, they’ll get there.
Let it also be noted that the acquisition of Lang in the off-season is paying instant dividends; with Lang’s second goal of the season last night. Lang and Sergie have found instant chemistry on a line with Tom Kostopoulos. However, as much as I love Tom K., (he was, after all, one of the team’s best forwards in the playoffs last season), it remains to be seen whether or not he’s the right fit to complete that triumvirate. The dynamics of Coach Guy Carbonneau’s lineup will change, perhaps in a significant way, when Chris Higgins is healthy enough to suit up for the first time this season, which could come as early as Saturday night vs. Phoenix.
But in the meantime, the Habs return home after playing three games in four nights, collecting five of a possible six points: numbers that add up as the Canadiens prepare to entertain the Boston Bruins tomorrow night.
Newcomer Alex Tanguay realizes he’s not going to have a performance like this every night. He’s he’s just trying to come in and help his team.
And help his team he did.
Tanguay exploded out of the starting blocks last night, picking up a goal and three assists in his second career game as a member of the Montreal Canadiens, on a night when the Habs blasted the Toronto Maple Leafs 6-1 at the Air Canada Centre.
“I’m just coming in and trying to help the team. This is my second game….I’m trying to get to know the other guys I’m playing with, but it’s been fun.”
Fun for Tanguay, fun for his linemates, fun for the rest of the Canadiens, not so much fun for the Leafs. Not when you count Mikhail Grabovski among your best players.
Tanguay and his linesmates, team captain Saku Koivu and Guillaume Latendresse, were all over the ice and all over the scoresheet last night. Koivu had three assists, while Latendresse had a goal and two assists. Latendresse certainly made a strong early case as to why he deserves to play on the same line with a couple of crafty veterans like Koivu and Tanguay.
Despite the offensive exploits of that line, the real scoring hero was Sergei Kostitsyn, who collected two goals and one assist, and had a number of glorious opportunities to pick up the hat trick. Kostitsyn has grabbed the early spotlight from big brother Andrei with an explosive start to the young season (he was one of the few bright spots in a listless opening-night 2-1 shootout loss in Buffalo.) And while Sergei shines, Andrei and the rest of his linemates, Alex Kovalev and Tomas Plekanec, are still looking for their sea legs, although Plekanec did pick up an assist on a goal by Kovalev, the second goal of the game on Vesa Tokala, who gave way to Curtis Joseph after 40 minutes.
By that time, the Canadiens had built up a 6-1 lead, thanks to a four-goal explosion in the second period that featured three power-play goals. In fact, it was 6-1 Montreal with this one barely 30 minutes old.
“We had a better effort,” said head coach Guy Carbonneau when this one was over. “Timing was a lot better. Our power play kept getting chances, and they went in tonight.”
Now, as Alex Tanguay will tell you, one game does not a season make. But Habs fans can not help but drool over the prospects of following a Canadiens team this Centennial season that has the potential to beat any given team on any given night with three evenly balanced scoring lines. Mind you, last night’s win came over an American Hockey League club disguised as the Toronto Maple Leafs. Tomorrow night’s game in Philadelphia against the Flyers promises to be a much tougher assignment.