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.
Mike Komisarek has a vivid memory.
He can recall, in a game on Dec. 1, 2007, at the Bell Centre, how the Canadiens blew a pair of three-goal leads en-route to a 5-4 shootout loss to the Nashville Predators. It was something that was on his mind as the Canadiens took a 2-1 lead into the third period of last night’s game against these same Predators, in this same building.
And sure enough, after building a 3-1 lead on a goal by Andrei Markov at 1:05 of the third period, the Predators pulled within one at 3-2 on a goal by Vernon Fiddler some five minutes later, throwing a major-league scare into a Habs’ team that finally prevailed, 3-2.
“They always seem to have forwards flying out of the zone, guys driving to the net with speed,” said Komisarek when this one was over.
“That game was still fresh in my mind. That was a perfect example of them not giving up. We talked about it in the second, that they wouldn’t let up.”
And they didn’t.
Only some outstanding work by Jaroslav Halak enabled the Canadiens to earn two points against a hurting Nashville team that is struggling to play .500 hockey.
Guillaume Latendresse opened the scoring for the Habs with his 6th in his last 14 games, at 19:26 of the first period; a snap shot that eluded Pekka Rinne in the Nashville goal.
JP Dumont tied it 6:35 into the second before the red-hot Andrei Kostitsyn scored his his 9th in10 games: another shot from the faceoff circle just two minutes after the goal by Dumont. The goal by Kostitsyn came on only Montreal’s second shot on goal in that period. Those would be the only two shots they would get on Rinne in the middle frame, on a night when the Canadiens were held to 20 S.O.G., compared to 25 for the Preds.
The Habs couldn’t hit the broad side of a barn all night long, and nowhere were those frustrations more evident than in the final 90 seconds of the contest. With Rinne on the bench for an extra attacker, and the Canadiens facing a yawning cage, Alex Kovalev, Tomas Plekanec, Robert Lang and Andrei Markov all failed to find the net, despite glorious opportunities.
But in the end, Markov, Andrei K. and Latendresse did, when it counted.
The goal by Markov, his 7th of the season, gives him 33 points as he continues to challenge for the point-scoring lead on this team.
The goal by Latendresse was his 8th of the season. And his steady production of late leaves Habs fans with hope that the enigmatic forward, who drifted badly for a good two-month stretch after starting the season in such promising fashion, might actually hit the 20-goal mark after back-to-back 16-goal seasons.
Then there’s the rejuventated Andrei Kostitsyn. With 15 goals on the season, there’s no reason to believe that A.K. 46 can’t hit the 30-goal mark when all is said and done; after connecting on 26 last season.
And then there’s the steady veteran Robert Lang, who assisted on the goals by Kostitsyn and Markov. General Manager Bob Gainey had said that it remains to be seen if Lang can keep up the rather prolific point-scoring pace he set in the first half of the season, adding that other players need to step up and contribute the way Lang has. But in the meantime, Lang has clearly found a home on a line with the Kostitsyn brothers on team that, despite a long list of injured players, continues to pile up the points; two of them coming the ugly way last night.
At precisely the mid-way point of the 2008-2009 NHL season, it’s time to announce the first-half winners of the first-annual “Hefties’, the awards that go to the Montreal Canadiens’ Most Valuable Player, and the teams’ Unsung Hero.
Those w0rthy of consideration for the team’s MVP award include goalie Carey Price, who, despite the occasional soft goal and suspect glove hand, has provedto be worthy of his number 1 status with this club. Yes, the Canadiens have managed to win without him, as Price continues to nurse a lower-body injury. But I’m hear to tell you that this is not so much as a result of any spectacular play by backup Jaroslav Halak, but rather the sudden explosion of offence on the part of his team mates, as whitnessed by the 23 goals the Canadiens have scored during their current four-game winning streak.
There was much gnashing of teeth on the part of many Canadiens fans when the Habs traded Christobal Huet last season; leaving the team’s goaltending in the promising but unproven hands of Price and Halak, with veteran Marc Denis trying to resurrect his career down on the farm in Hamilton. As much as Huet was admired and respected by his team mates and hockey fans in this season, GM Bob Gainey was right when he sent Huet packing, effectively anointing Price as the team’s starting goaltender at the same time.
Price has not disappointed.
Andrei Markov would have to be considered worthy of MVP status, as well, through the first 41 games of the season. Not only he been a pillar of strength along the blue line, but his offensive contributions can not be overlooked, with six goals and 25 assists for 31 points: just one back of co-leaders Alex Kovalev and Robert Lang.
Lang? Another worthy candidate. He’s been a model of offensive consistancy this season on a team that, up until recently, has been victimized by a number of extended scoring slumps.
Worthy candidates all. But my choice as MVP through the first half of the season has to be defenceman Josh Gorges. The team’s outstanding player? Maybe not, overall, at least. But the team’s most VALUABLE player? Absolutely. This young man has skyrocketed up the depth chart as a result of his ongoing consistant play along the blueline. He has shown a maturity beyond his years that has made the deal that brought Gorges and a draft pick (hello Max Pachioretty) to Montreal for defenceman Craig Rivet an absolute steal for Gainey and the Habs.
The fact that Gorges spent much of the first half of last season on the bench as a victim of the numbers game (hello Patrice Brisbois) was criminal. However, he has taken the bull by the horns this season and is developing into a first-class stay-at-home defenceman with a budding offensive touch. One goals and seven assists, combined with a team-leading plus-16, along with his aformentioned tributes, make Gorges my pick as Canadiens’ MVP through the first half of the season.
Unsung hero? Hands down, without a doubt, Tom Kostopoulos. He was arguabley the teams’ best performer in the playoffs last season. And this season, T.K. has done it all for the Canadiens, including score the occasional big goal (he has three on the season.) While heavyweight Georges Laraque cools his jets on the sidelines with a nagging groin injury, it has been left to the likes of Kostopoulos to drop his gloves and stand up for his team mates.
T.K. has taken on opposing players of all shapes and sizes, mostly large and extra large, and has taken his share of lumps. But he never, ever, backs down from a fight. It wasn’t Georges Laraque handed out the punishment when Kurt Sauer of the Phoenix Coyotes levelled Andrei Kostitsyn into the boards early in the season.
It was Tom Kostopoulos.
And although T.K. didn’t hand out much punishment that night against the Coyotes, he made a statement that continues to ring true, some 35 games later.
Other worthy unsung-hero candidates so far? Max Lapierre, Francis Bouillon, and (yes, damn it, I’m going to admit it) Patrice Brisebois. There, I’ve said it. He’s still way too soft of a hockey player, but Brisbois has seen more good nights that most. And, on a team that is still missing a true power play quarterback on the blueline, he at least give the team a respectable shot that from the point.
And so, the Canadiens ride a 9-1-1 stretch into the second half of the season, beginning with Tuesday night’s game against the Bruins in Boston. Imagine. Guy Carbonneau and Claude Julien, who don’t have a lot of love between them, will actually be on the same side of bench in the Jan. 25 all-star game in Montreal; Julien the head coach for the East, with Carbonneau his assistant.
Stranger things have happened. But I can’t think of any off the top of my head.
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+.
One day after “Plan A” announced his signing with the Vancouver Canucks, Bob Gainey’s “Plan B” celebrated a birthday; his first as a member of the Montreal Canadiens.
Plan A was Mats Sundin. You remember Mats Sundin, right? The guy who refused to waive his no-trade clause last March because he just didn’t feel right about leaving the Toronto Maple Leafs and joining another club as a rental player. Very noble of Sundin. Except that, in the end, Mats Sundin ended up leaving the Toronto Maple Leafs, only to join the Canucks as a rental player.
And the Leafs got nothing in return.
You know what: what ever is good for Mats Sundin, is good for Mats Sundin. He didn’t owe the Leafs anything, he didn’t owe the Canadiens anything, and he doesn’t owe the sport of Hockey anything. And Canadiens’ fans should have taken their cue from GM Bob Gainey when Gainey’s exclusive window of negotiating opportunity closed without success. Still, Habs’ fans kept their fingers crossed that Gainey might still be able to land the big Swede when he met with Sundin in Los Angeles several weeks ago.
Well, they can uncross their fingers.
As it turns out, Gainey’s aqusition of Robert Lang as Plan B has turned out to be an astute move. Last night, during Montreal’s convincing 5-2 win over the Philadelphia Flyers at the Bell Centre, Lang picked up his 13th and 14 assists on the season, and now has 24 points, which ties him for the team lead with Alex Kovalev and Andrei Markov. His 10 goals is tops on a club that has struggled to put the puck in the net the entire season. Although Lang admits it’s gratifying to contribute offensively, at the tender age of 38, he’s not about to read anything into the fact that he’s leading the Canadiens in goal scoring.
Lang will feel a whole lot more like celebrating if the Habs can head into the holiday break with a double-header sweep of the Sabres and Hurricanes. Lang and his team mates hit the ice today at their practice facility in Brossard as they prepare for a weekend set at the Bell Centre: tomorrow night against Buffalo and Sunday night against Carolina.
Goaltender Carey Price was on the ice. The netminder is feeling “90 percent” after going down with a lower body injury and a case of the flue. Jaroslav Halak, who beat the Flyers last night, will get the call against the Sabres. Depending how Halak does against Buffalo, and depending on how Price feels tomorrow, it could be either Halak or Price Sunday against the Hurricanes. Then again, it could be Marc Denis against Carolina. Head coach Guy Carbonneau is clearly keeping his options open for Sunday’s game.
Ben Maxwell was also on the ice yesterday. The fact that he was on the ice with the Canadiens, and not as a member of the Hamilton Bulldogs, is good news for Maxwell, who was ticketed back to the American Hockey League when his roster spot dried up with the return of Mike Komisarek to the Montreal lineup last night. Maxwell’s status did an about turn when Andrei Kostitsyn went down after taking a knee-on-knee hit delivered by Scott Hartnell in last night’s game; leaving Kostitsyn on the sidelines today. The injury to Kostitstyn isn’t serious, and Andrei could be ready to return as early as Sunday. Even if Andrei is ready to go against Carolina, league rosters are effectively frozen until Dec. 27. Which means Maxwell isn’t going anywhere.
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.
I’m guessing that Canadiens’ head coach Guy Carbonneau is not going to give his players a day off from the rink upon their arrival in Ottawa.
That’s what Carbonneau did when the Habs arrived in Carolina Sunday night, ahead of tonight’s game against the Hurricaines. In the “good cop, bad cop” world of Guy Carbonneau, the coach decided to play good cop, and reward his players with a day away from the rink, following their 3-2 win in St. Louis.
Some of the players golfed. Others went to the movies. Still others went to the mall. And then they went out and dropped a 2-1 decision to the ‘Caines tonight, before boarding a flight to Ottawa for their next game, Saturday night, against a struggling Sens team that has lost five straight.
The decision by Carbonneau to “reward” his players for the two points they earned in St. Louis was the right one, in my books. It was an ugly win, but it was a win nonetheless. It gave The Coach a chance to pat this fragile team on the back, in an effort to help these players regain the confidence that has mysteriously deserted them.
Another loss, this one to an average Carolina team struggling in the month of November. Yes, there was a power play goal, finally, by Robert Lang, that gave the Canadiens a 1-0 lead early in the second period. Say what you want about Robert Lang being a poor-mans’ Mats Sundin, Lang has six goals to his credit and is giving the Canadiens exactly what they bargained for when they obtained the former Chicago Black Hawk.
However, instead of building on that lead going into the third period, the Canadiens were left flat-footed by a Carolina team that came in waves. Sergei Samsonov decided to score his first of the season, against his former teammates, at 3:06 of the third period, turning defenceman Ryan O’Byrne inside out in the process. Then, with O’Byrne in the penalty box, Ray Whitney scored the winner some three minutes later.
The Canadiens then proceeded to fold their tents, failing to show any of the desperation you’d expect from a team that has now lost five of its last seven games; a team that has scored five regulation goals in its last four games.
This isn’t a Canadiens’ team playing on an ice surface. This is a Canadiens’ team playing on egg shells.
They don’t pay me to “know why”. The guy they pay to “know why” is the guy who rewarded his players with a day off following a win in St. Louis, and was himself rewarded with another uninspired performance by his team against Carolina.
Yup, I’m thinking there won’t be any trips to the mall for the Habs before their game against the Senators.
Remember the Rolaids commercial of years ago, when the manufacturers of that fine antacid asked you: “How do YOU spell relief?”
Well, in the case of Canadiens head coach Guy Carbonneau, you spell relief K-O-V-A-L-E-V.
Specifically, when Alex Kovalev roofed one past Manny Legace to give the Canadiens a much-needed 3-2 victory over the Blues in St. Louis last night. It was the only goal of the shootout, and it came after the Habs forced the issue when Robert Lang pulled out his Louisville Slugger and batted one past Legace at 15:48 of the third period.
Oh yes, Lang was falling to his knees at the time when he scored his fifth of the season.
This win was big. Bigger than the 5-4 come-from-behind victory over the Islanders on Nov. 1, and bigger than the 4-0 win over the Ottawa Senators 10 days later.
Why, you ask?
Because the Canadiens were a desperate hockey team last night.
Because the Canadiens, despite a very respectable 9-4-and-2 record going into last night’s game, have been on a slippery slope since their last road trip through Minnesota, New York, Columbus and Toronto.
Because they had lost four of their last five going into St. Louis.
Because two of their last three losses, to the Leafs and Bruins, were humbling setbacks.
Because this was a fragile team that was threatening to spiral out of control, and still is. But, at the very least, this is now a team with two points under its belt as the Canadiens move on to Carolina for tomorrow night’s game against the Hurricaines.
Believe me, this one was no beauty contest. It was an ugly victory over an injury-depleted St. Louis team that was 1-7-2 in its last 10 games. And there were plenty of ugly aspects associated with it: notably an 0-for-10 performance by the Canadiens on the power play; a power play that is 0-for-20 going back to the Toronto game.
The goal by Kovalev won’t show up on number 27′s C.V. at the end of this season. However, it was a huge goal by the slumbering Russian, who found himself on a unit with Saku Koivu and Alex Tanguay last night, as coach Guy Carbonneau mixed up the lines.
The new line combinations also resulted in a goal by Andrei Kostitsyn, only his second of the season, his first since he got his bell rung by Kurt Sauer in the game against Phoenix Oct. 18th. For Kovalev, Kostitsyn, and the rest of the Canadiens, if nothing else, the victory over St. Louis was something to build on.
The rest, is up to them.
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.
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.