Monday, March 31, 2008


Well, we knew it had to happen sometime. I've always believed everything in hockey balances out. A team that dominates an entire game and should beat Atlanta, loses in a shootout. Months later, that same team plays a lacklustre game in Buffalo and comes back to score two late goals and win in OT. The team that blows a 3-0 lead to the Rangers comes back next game and makes a miracle comeback from a 5-0 deficit against those same Rangers. A lousy penalty call that leads to a goal against is forgiven by a PP goal on an equally questionable call. Karma. So, is anyone really surprised that the Canadiens' lucky star when it comes to injuries has fallen? Deep down, we knew it was coming. Things were too smooth...too cushy. Guy Carbonneau was too defensive about explaining how his team deserved to be healthy because they worked hard to be that way. We knew it couldn't last. So did Carbonneau. So did the players...those most superstitious of athletes.

Now, here we are facing the Senators for the division title without the team's two most punishing defensemen in Mike Komisarek and Francis Bouillon. PP quarterback Mark Streit is limping and probably only playing because the team can't afford to play Mathieu Dandenault on defence while Patrice Brisebois is already in the lineup. The defence in that case would be softer than a flock of fluffy chicks. And, most rattling to team morale, Captain K is gone for the season, and possibly (likely?) for at least part of the playoffs. It's a blow to the confidence at a time when confidence is everything.

If the regular season is a crucible that fires and hardens a bunch of hockey players into a team that can compete for the Stanley Cup, fate has just turned up the heat on the Canadiens. This is the last in a series of tests the team must pass before it knows it has what it takes to win. So far, this group has proven they can survive the loss of important players like Sheldon Souray and still keep their top-ranked PP. They've proven they can score goals...lots of them. They've shown third and fourth-year players can raise their games and become team leaders. They've learned how to take a lead, and how to hold one...and how to come back when they're down. They've solved the inconsistency problem they had last year. Now they have to learn how to deal with adversity, and how to patch holes with players in roles they don't normally fill.

If they can do it...pull off three convincing efforts, even if they don't result in wins...I'll believe they have the mental fibre to go deep into the playoffs. I think Koivu's loss will be keenly felt, not only because he pushes his game higher when it really counts, but because of what he represents to the team and its morale.

But this team has to realize Koivu won't be there forever. In fact, he likely won't be there in three to five years' time, as most of the players Bob Gainey has assembled to fight for future Cups are just coming into their own. Someone else is going to have to do for the team what Koivu does now. Other players will have to step up their games when it really counts. Others will have to be the emotional touchstones for their teammates. If Alex Kovalev, Tomas Plekanec, Chris Higgins and Mike Komisarek are going to be champions in Montreal, they are going to have to earn it. They have three games left to come to terms with what they must do, and decide if they're willing and able to do it. I believe they can. Now we have to see if they believe it.

As they say, hard work pays off. It's karma.

Saturday, March 29, 2008

Nothing to fear but fear itself

I don't know how many of you are like me, but I've been afraid of opposing teams for a long time now. For years, we could never look at a schedule and say, "Oh yeah...Habs'll take that one for sure." At least half the teams in the league have been better than the Canadiens, and even the lower teams seemed to raise their games when it came to playing Montreal. A team might be the worst in the league, but oh no! They've got a French goalie who gets fired up to play at the Bell Centre and shuts out the Habs.

Then there are the teams that have owned the Canadiens, those you'd just groan at when you'd see their names on the schedule. The New Jersey Brodeurs? Guaranteed loss. Florida at Christmas? Guaranteed loss.

The hard part for many of us now is getting over the fear.'s not easy. We're all sitting here now, with our team first in the east and likely to win the division for the first time in forever, the highest scoring team in the league for the first time since Lafleur still had his own hair, and we're worried to death over who the Habs will get in the first round. Boston would be great, we say, because we KNOW the Habs can beat them. Philly would be beatable too. But we're frightened Washington might squeak into eighth and bring the vengeance of Ovechkin and the spectre of Huet down on the Canadiens' collective heads. Some of us are actually hoping the team doesn't win the conference, but ends up second, because we're afraid of stiff competition in round one of the playoffs.

What we need to realize is, the Habs are a good team. A really good team. Maybe it's because we see all the prospects still in various stages of development, or because the team has so much untapped potential in its youth, that we're afraid to believe that what we're seeing isn't one big, season-long fluke. They can't be this good already, we think. Can they?

I think so. And I think they're going to be even better in the next couple of years. But right now, they have great special teams, strong goaltending, speed, team chemistry, good coaching, decent D and the ability to score many, many goals. The Montreal Canadiens are a good team again. They're good enough to beat any team in a seven-game series, even a good young squad with Alex Ovechkin on board.

For the first time in a very long time, we've learned never to give up on this team. They don't quit and they want to win. It's time for us to stop being afraid and start believing.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

x - Montreal Canadiens*

Now that the Canadiens have earned their "x" for clinching a playoff spot, AND proudly wear the asterik as Northeast Division leaders in the NHL standings, we fans can stop worrying about if there'll be hockey in April. Instead, our attention can now be focussed on important things like potential dance partners and signs and omens.

Because, let's face it, when it comes to portents and Fate, hockey fans are more superstitious than the ancient Druids. Who among us doesn't believe in the hockey gods and their capricious giving and taking of lucky bounces? Who'll say "shutout" before the final whistle without feeling at least a little nervous? Who hasn't had, at some point in our hockey-fan careers, a ritual...wearing a certain jersey, sitting in a certain place, following a certain routine...we believe (really believe!) will influence the outcome of a game? And that's just for the regular season.

The playoffs, of course, have given birth to hockey's greatest legends, for the good (Patrick Roy) and the bad (Steve Smith.) And just as the intensity of the hockey ratchets up several notches, so does the enormity of the superstition. Playoff myths take on legendary status of their own, and the Canadiens this year are in a position to challenge many of them.

Myth number one: No team with a European captain has won a Cup. While true, this has taken on overtones of doom to the point at which people are starting to believe no team with a European captain will ever win the Cup. I think no team with a European captain has won a Cup because until recently, there weren't many European captains at all. And the teams on which they played mostly haven't been good enough. Ottawa and Alfredsson got to the finals last year, but the Sens roll-over in Anaheim wasn't the captain's fault. Some would contend Ottawa wouldn't even have beaten Pittsburgh in the first round if Alfredsson hadn't played an aggressive and dominant series. This year, Detroit, with Lidstrom as captain, will give it a good run. And with any luck, so will Saku Koivu and the Habs. It's only a matter of time before this myth is destroyed...but until then, get ready to listen to other teams' broadcasters cling to it as proof positive their squads will beat Montreal.

Myth number two: An inexperienced and unproven team won't win when it's faced with the intensity of the playoffs. I agree with the idea that a team has to lose before it can win, and I believe that the experience players gain by facing adversity can temper them into winners. But the mistake a lot of critics will make when they look at the Habs' chances this spring is that they haven't already learned that lesson. Guys like Chris Higgins, Tomas Plekanec and Mike Komisarek have been to the playoffs and learned against Carolina two years ago what it feels like to get eliminated in the first round. They learned another hard lesson last year when they missed the playoffs by two points. The core of this team has been through the fire of failure already and will have taken important lessons away from that. They're ready and hungry to win. And just as important a factor: the "inexperienced" rookies on the team, like Carey Price, Ryan O'Byrne and Maxim Lapierre have already learned about becoming champions. No one should underestimate the culture of winning they developed by taking the Calder Cup last year. They know the demands of a four-round, best-of-seven playoff better than most. They understand the mental and physical sacrifices it takes to win a playoff like that. They're ready. So are Alex Kovalev who's won a Cup before and Roman Hamrlik who's been to the finals.

Myth number three: A team can't expect to go far with a 20-year-old rookie in net. The easy counter to that one is to recite the names Ken Dryden, Patrick Roy, Cam Ward. But interestingly, a lot of critics and even fans, think that very argument means it would be even tougher for a rookie to do that again. Sort of like believing lightning doesn't strike twice...or, in this case, multiple times. Especially when you consider how many times a kid has bailed out the Habs in particular. The only way to view that one is to understand that Price is a different person with just as much of a chance to make his mark as anyone else, regardless of who came before him. And, as mentioned, Price is a winner. He knows what he has to do, and he has the tools to do it, irregardless of age or NHL experience. But, once again, be prepared for a lot of pre-playoff hockey coverage to focus on the fact that Price has never played an NHL post-season game. We're going to be really sick of that until the first week of the playoffs has passed.

Myth number four: Every once in a while, the Montreal Canadiens come out of nowhere and rise up in the playoffs to become a team of destiny. Okay...that one's true. And I hope this is one of the years the stars align, the bounces go the right way and the team plays over their collective heads. The magic this franchise can create when it starts rolling in the playoffs is very real although often inexplicable. It's enough to overcome a European captain, a rookie goalie and an inexperienced team. It can rile the crowd into a seventh-man frenzy every night and it can get into the heads of opposing teams worse than any superstition they might have previously held. It's enough to push the team the last mile toward that coveted silver bowl, even when it seems they're overmatched or have nothing left to give.

I think this could be a year for destroying old myths and building new ones. As long as someone reminds Saku Koivu not to touch the Prince of Wales trophy if the Canadiens win the conference. Because everyone knows that's a jinx.

Monday, March 24, 2008

Roy to the rafters?

When the debate about whether Patrick Roy should have his number retired arises, as it has once again since his son Jonathan's attack of another player, I get a picture in my head. It's of a 20-year-old, skinny, sweaty kid...still beardless...holding the Stanley Cup over his head, his cap of floppy hair and his red sweater soaked through as he screams his triumph. The look on his face is almost savage, but his eyes are filled with stars. Shortly after that picture was taken, he accepted the 1986 Conn Smythe trophy as the playoffs' most valuable player.

There are other pictures, but that one is the most dominant, and, as far as I'm concerned, it's the one that decides the debate.

Of course, the idea of one player winning a Stanley Cup by himself is a myth. Hockey is a team game and a team wins or loses together. But it is certainly a fact that a single player can elevate his game with such passion that he carries the rest of his team to a higher level with him. Roy was that player. When he said he wouldn't allow another goal, everyone from the stick boy to the opposing coach knew it was true. It was because of his passion and confidence that the Canadiens elevated their game to a high enough level to win two Cups in 1986 and 1993.

Those two wins gave new generations of Canadiens' fans a kind of link with the team's great past. Through the tinted looking glass of victory, they could glimpse what their fathers and grandfathers meant when they talked about the glory days and the greatness of the team. Through the play of Patrick Roy, they got a feeling for what it must have been like to cheer for the great French Canadian players of the past, and the ones who became legends even while they played. Those wins kept the team from becoming ordinary in the eyes of young fans...a sad fate for the greatest franchise in hockey history.

To get a clear answer of what Patrick Roy meant to the franchise, one must simply picture the team without him. Maybe Doug Soetaert would have held the fort in overtime of game three against the Rangers in 1986 and the Canadiens would have won that Cup anyway. But if they hadn't, and if Roy hadn't been there for those ten consecutive overtime wins in 1993, the once-proud Canadiens would now be facing their centennial celebrations without a championship in thirty years.

The team owes Patrick Roy for carrying the torch in the darkest of times for the franchise. It owes him for being the French Canadian hero so many fans needed, and which so many local players are still unwilling to be. It owes him for bringing flair and drama to a team that needs flair and drama to lift itself above the ordinary. The team must pay the debt it owes by retiring his number.
To deny him the honour because of the way he left the team is both revisionist and unfair. So is the claim that he "quit on the team." You can say Patrick Roy was controversial. That he was passionate. That he was pigheaded. Even thoughtless and impatient. But one thing you can't say with validity is that he was a quitter.

The night of December 2, 1995 was a long time brewing. Coach Mario Tremblay and Roy didn't see eye to eye. They didn't from the first time Roy was called up to the big team in the winter of 1985 and then-player Tremblay told him to go back to junior with the other animals where he belonged. After Tremblay retired and went into talk radio, he often used the forum to publicly criticize Roy. And when he became coach of the Canadiens, the relationship between the two became a battle of wills. So, when Roy allowed nine goals against the Detroit Red Wings, the battle finally came to a head. For Roy, recognized as the greatest goalie in the game, to have to stand there while shot after shot passed him, was the ultimate humiliation. Tremblay knew that. That's why he kept Roy in there. He wanted to show him up and deflate the mighty ego a bit. Roy's mercurial reaction was more than Tremblay bargained for, however. When the goaltender effectively handed in his resignation to the team president, it was a brash act by a brash, headstrong competitor.

When tempers cooled, Roy came out and apologized two days later. The door was open for the team to smooth thing over and keep their franchise goalie. The fact that management chose to back Tremblay over Roy says that Roy was long meant to be part of Ronald Corey's general "housecleaning." So if history records Roy having quit on the team, the story must be corrected to show the team actually quit on him.

Other criticisms of his off-ice behaviour; of his temper, his hotheadedness, his sometime rudeness, as reasons for why he shouldn't be honoured with a number retirement shouldn't even be considered. The biggest hurdle facing Roy is his proximity to us in historical examination. His warts and blemishes are still as visible as his heroics. But who among the names in the rafters is perfect (with the possible exception of Jean Beliveau?) Should Doug Harvey have been denied the honour because he drank? Or Jacques Plante because he often refused to play games due to hypochondrial illness? Or Guy Lafleur because he sulked into retirement and slammed the team in print afterwards? Of course not. The honour is reserved for those who performed on the ice and who played a special role in creating the legend of the franchise or keeping it alive. Roy fits those criteria. It's unfortunate that enough time hasn't passed to allow his flaws to be softened and blurred by his legend.

But, make no mistake, a legend he is. The numbers are there. The records and the anecdotes are there. The burning determination that lifted an average team to the Stanley Cup twice is certainly there. It's time to welcome the prodigal legend back into the fold, and exorcise the bitterness of the past in the process.
The team's centennial year is a perfect time to both celebrate the past and put it to rest. The Canadiens are known and respected for their class. If they mean to eventually retire Roy's number, there's no better time than during a year of celebrating the last hundred. Roy played a big part in preserving the pride and tradition of the team in the latter twenty of those years. It would be wrong to make him wait until his family can't be there to see the honour, or until he dies on the day the number is finally retired.

No one has worn the number 33 since 1995. No one should wear it again. The team needs to make that official, and it needs to do it before the lack of action becomes an insult against one of the greatest to ever play the game. The Canadiens are bigger and better than that.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

In defence of pacifism

Back in October, when the Canadiens were supposed to be gearing up for an inauspicious slide to thirteenth place in the conference, fans everywhere were slamming management for not upgrading the team's "muscle" or "toughness." Guy Carbonneau came out at that time and said he didn't want to carry a guy who would play five minutes a game, with his only role being to pummel opposing players then warm the penalty box seat for five. Carbonneau had the laughable notion of rolling four lines of players capable of contributing ten minutes or more to a team game. His idea of "team toughness" is one no one believed could work. Watching Tom Kostopoulos try to fight and get knocked around every time underscored the fans' concerns.

But a couple of funny things have happend in the five months since the Habs were pegged to finish out of the playoffs. The team has been the healthiest in the least partially because the ice time is shared almost evenly among all the skaters. Also, when someone roughs up a Hab, there's no enforcer to defend him, so the whole team has taken responsibility to defend one another. That's built a sense of cameraderie on a young team that's defied all the critics and sits first in their division.

Last week I noticed another phenomenon of interest. When the Habs went to Anaheim, George Parros was noticably absent from the Ducks lineup. In Phoenix, the game before, Daniel Carcillo didn't play either. It looks like the opposition has been sitting out their goons in favour of icing more skill when they play Montreal. It makes sense really. If the Habs don't have a goon, there's no one with whom the other goon can match up. And it would be a rare coach who would send an enforcer out after a guy like Tomas Plekanec. Not only would it be shameful and break every known "code" in hockey, but it would likely end up in a quick suspension for the tough guy in question too.

Speaking of which, Colin Campbell has been busy doing just that. On March 12, he suspended Buffalo's Andrew Peters for confronting the Rangers' Colton Orr on the bench, the Stars' Steve Ott for hitting Colorado's Jordan Leopold in the head, and Chicago's James Wisniewski for a cross-check on Detroit's Mikael Samuelsson. A day later, the Pens' Georges Laraque got three games for elbowing Buffalo's Nathan Paetsch in the head. And two days after that, the now infamous Chris Pronger eight-game suspension for stomping on Ryan Kessler. Of the bunch, Peters, Orr, Ott, Wisniewski and Laraque play the goon role for their respective teams, while Pronger is considered to be more a talented bully. But the league is making a statement in punishing these guys. It's saying it doesn't like the role they play, and it will take action if their aggression goes beyond a clean fight. That statement will hopefully limit the ability of tough guys to intimidate in dirty ways that are meant to damage opponents. A coach can say it doesn't matter if a guy who plays only five minutes is booted from a game or sits in the penalty box. But at least a suspension removes the option of using that kind of weapon in the next game...or three...or eight.

So, looking at the goonless Habs, sitting on top of the Northeast division with a healthy, young, talented team, it seems Carbonneau's made a good case for his crazy "team toughness" theory. Fans will still worry when they see a team like Pittsburgh with their Laraque, or the Rangers with their Hollweg lining up on the other side. But I have faith that the Habs won't be intimidated by guys like that. They've proven they can play their game, even without a goon to protect their speedy, skilled players. And their game turns out to be pretty good.

Now, if only they can find away to counter an aggressive forecheck...THAT'S the kind of toughness they really need.

Monday, March 17, 2008

Carpe Diem

In most occupations, if a man made millions of dollars by the time he was thirty, he'd be a roaring success. There'd be articles written about him and he'd be the guest speaker at entrepreneurial gatherings all over the place. Not in hockey.

In hockey, a man who's making a million dollars at thirty is little more than a scrub or journeyman, facing the last few years of his productive working life. If he hasn't begun to decline in skill, he soon will. It's a sobering thought. And we, as fans, are conditioned to look at players that way. Twenty? You're an up-and-comer. Twenty-five? Young veteran. Thirty? Wily leader. Thirty-five? Holding on for one final payday...and that's if you're good. In fifteen years or less, the dream you've worked toward since you were a small boy has been fulfilled, lived and... it's over.

So, while we fans can talk about five-year rebuilding plans and sitting tight through lockouts, for the players, the clock is ticking. They have a limited number of chances to win in their careers, and every year wasted is one precious chance lost. Today's youth and promise means little if you don't capitalize on it. No one knows this better than the guy whose years in the NHL number in the teens. Look at Alex Kovalev. At thirty-five, he's having one of his best career seasons, playing hard in every game and putting up numbers he didn't as a younger man. For all his talk of playing until he's fifty, he knows he's got only a few years...five or so at the most...left as a pro hockey player. For him, the future is now, the end is in sight, and it's win now or never.

If you look at the roster of the 1979 Canadiens, just coming off their fourth straight Stanley Cup championship, you'll see they're still shockingly young. Guy Lafleur and Steve Shutt...26 years old. Bob Gainey and Doug Risebrough, 25. Yvan Cournoyer, the veteran captain, forced out with back problems at 34, and Ken Dryden retired at 31. Many of them won their first Cup when they were 21 and 22 years old.

By the time 1986 rolled around, Larry Robinson was a five-time Cup champ at 34. When he looked at that team of kids in their teens and early twenties, he didn't see a lot of untested youth with little expectation of doing well in the playoffs. He saw an opportunity. That team had talent, and just needed a belief in itself, a little luck and a united drive toward a common goal. Seven years removed from the Habs' last glory years, having lived in the wasteland of early playoff elimination, Robinson recognized the truth...that every year a team makes the playoffs it must do its utmost to win, because those chances don't come often. When they do, they can't be wasted. That's the message he gave that team of rookies in 1986, and it's the message they took to heart on their way to winning that Cup.

When Bob Gainey's sweater was retired on Februrary 23, some of those players from 1986 were sitting there watching #23 rise to the roof of the Bell Centre. For David Maley, Mats Naslund, Ryan Walter and Chris Nilan, 1986 was a dream year...a year of destiny. They grabbed the chance they had and made the most of it. There was no thinking about it being a rebuilding year, or being glad just to be in the playoffs. They made up their minds to go all the way, then went out and gave everything they had to make it happen. They were young and promising, thinking '86 was just the beginning of many successful seasons. As it turned out, that was the only Cup they ever won. It was proof that every playoff year is a chance, and could be the one that defines a career.

I hope the message Gainey and Robinson gave those kids in 1986 is one today's team receives too. They need to understand time is passing for them and even though they're kids, this year...any year...might be their only oppportunity to look back on a fleeting career and say they were winners. This year's team is young and healthy. They can score, the powerplay is special and they've got strong goaltending. They have decent defence and a rare team spirit. Most of all...they have a chance. If they go out and do everything they can to win and can honestly say they couldn't have done any better, they...and we...can live with whatever result they get. But if they lose because they didn't give their best, and think they'll do better next year, they might end up looking back at this season and recognize it as the "one that got away."

There are nine games to go before the team is really put to the test. I hope they seize the day.

Saturday, March 15, 2008

Rooting for strangers

This is a weird time of year to be a hockey fan. Up until now, we've pretty much been rooting for our team to win. Period. But now, there's so much jockeying for position and other interests going on, it's tough go stop looking...and cheering...for what goes on outside the Canadiens.

Tonight, for example, obviously I was rooting for the Habs to beat the Isles. Normally, that would be it...Halak gets a shutout, I'm thrilled. But tonight I was also rooting for Boston, Colorado, Buffalo, Tampa, St.Louis and Edmonton. Not all of them for typical reasons.

I wanted Boston to win (yeah..I know) because I want Philly to miss the playoffs. After all the excitement about them stealing Timonen and Hartnell from Nashville last year...and then Briere signing with them while saying he did it because he thought the Flyers were a better team than the Habs? Well, it might be small-minded of me, but I want Briere golfing in April because of that. So, that worked out pretty well tonight, except for Philly getting the loser point.

Then, I had to root for Colorado because we need Jersey to lose. Plus, I still have a soft spot for Theodore. That one...not working out so well.

I had to cheer for Buffalo, because they're the team most likely to eliminate, they're playing the leafs. So, a 6-2 Sabres win was good all around there.

And of course, Tampa needed to win to keep the Rangers six back of the Habs, which they nicely did.

Anaheim and Edmonton normally wouldn't be on my radar at all at this time of year, but this year, despite Kevin Lowe's stupidity in the Dustin Penner situation, I can't bear the thought of Brian Burke possibly getting Steven Stamkos with the Oilers first pick. So, I'm rooting for the Ducks to finish low enough to make their pick good for Edmonton, and Edmonton to win so the Ducks don't get a pick in the top five. It's a fine balance because I traditionally hate Edmonton, but it's worth it if it doesn't add to Burke's store of riches.

Tomorrow while the Habs are off, I'll be rooting for Ottawa to lose to Carolina, and the Flyers, whom I cheered so hard against today, I'll be hoping beat the Penguins tomorrow.

So, this is a really weird time of year for hockey fans. Cheering for enemies and rooting against teams we used to like. But if all's fair in love and war...I think it should be fair in hockey too.

Friday, March 14, 2008


Forget the leafs. The Ottawa Senators are the Habs' worst nightmare. Public enemy number one. The fly in their ointment. The rain on their parade. The kryptonite to their Superman. The team to whom a loss makes a fan's stomach roll and fists clench with futile anger. This season for the Canadiens has been a series of hurdles conquered. Martin Brodeur? Check. New York Rangers? Check. Christmas road trip? Check. The team has managed to vanquish every obstacle that's blocked their path for the last several seasons. All except Ottawa.

There was Martin Gerber last night, shutting out the Habs while looking like he was taking a light practice between courses at a Sunday picnic. Jason Spezza, laughing at the Canadiens while he casually flicked powerplay pucks past Carey Price. Anton Volchenkov, blocking more shots than Gerber. Chris Phillips, tying up Kovalev as though the big man were the captain of the Japanese women's national team. There was the whole bloody Sens team clogging up the neutral zone, trapping and disrupting the speed and smooth passing on which the Canadiens make their living. Frustration is just the most easily available word that comes to mind when describing the latest arse-kicking handed down by Ottawa.

This arse-kicking is particularly sobering because it appeared from the first minute of the game that the Sens were playing playoff hockey. They'd been sitting fifth for a couple of weeks, and decided it was time for them to make a statement and reassert their dominance in the east. They came out skating, hitting, playing strong team defence and taking advantage of their powerplay opportunities. And the Canadiens couldn't handle it.

The worst part is, I don't think they didn't try, or didn't play well. They did try. They tried and were frustrated at every turn. That's scary when every team that makes the playoffs is capable of playing that shut-down style of hockey. Hell, the Habs did it themselves to New Jersey on Tuesday. But the Canadiens don't have an answer when they're on the receiving end. The obvious solution in such situations is to shift toward playing a more physical game...getting guys into the crease for rebounds, taking lots of shots, hitting everything that moves and winning battles on the boards. The Canadiens, though, don't seem to have the ability to play that game. In situations like that, when a team's finesse players are stymied, the grinders and checkers have to step up. The Habs' guys didn't. And I think it's simply because they can't. The team's bottom six forwards aren't good enough to grind a strong team down, and they're not consistent enough as offensive threats to take the heat off the first two lines.

Stepping away from the sour-tasting, humiliating residue of loss for a moment, we can see that practically, losing to Ottawa isn't the end of the world. In fact, most pundits would say the Habs are supposed to lose to the Sens because Ottawa' s the better team. The Canadiens have met and exceeded so many developmental milestones this season it's easy to forget how young they are and how much better they're still going to get. Ottawa's time is now. They won't get any stronger, while the Habs can almost compete already...even with the obvious improvements Bob Gainey still needs to make.

But the promise of future dominance is cold comfort when you're somebody's bitch right now. If nothing else, the Habs treatment at the hands of the Sens this year should teach us not to mock Bruins fans too much. And watching Spezza totally own our team forces us to realize that our dreams of going deep this year, ahead of schedule, might depend on some other team doing Montreal a big favour and upsetting Ottawa. Because if last night's game is any indication, a meeting between those two in the playoffs won't be pretty if you're looking at it through Habs-coloured glasses.

There are two more chances to solve the Senators before the playoffs. The Habs have done so much and come so far this year, it might be asking too much for them to beat a team with vastly more experience at year-end hockey. But if Fate and the hockey gods are really smiling on Montreal, as it seems at time this year they are, they might still find a way to defy the odds and knock down their nemesis.

If not, I wonder if maple syrup might improve the flavour of humble pie?

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Je me souviens

Check out our Habs! They've got a roster filled with rookies, including a 20-year-old goalie who won a Calder Cup last year and has replaced his veteran mentor for the playoffs. He started the season strong with his first NHL win in Pittsburgh, and has had some up-and-down patches since then, but he's coming on strong down the stretch. There's a big, tough American defenceman in his fourth year with the Habs who takes care of business in his own end, hits like a truck and blocks shots like a goalie. There's the slick Slavic defenceman who quarterbacks the PP and can skate his way out of his own end with ease, and the young European having a career season on the scoreboard. There's the team's leading scorer...a Euro stickhandling wizard who's very difficult to stop on the rush. And the young, slick-skating heart-and-soul guy who kills penalties, and pops 20+ goals a year. There's the French kid who irritates the hell out of the opposition, can score a timely goal and wants to win more than anything. And the savvy vets who've ramped up their game in the playoffs before and probably can be counted on to do it again. The GM...a veteran of multiple Cups as a Hab and a young Francophone coach about to head into his first post-season.

Do all those guys sound familiar? Of course they do...they're Price, Komisarek, Markov, Plekanec, Kovalev, Higgins, Lapierre, Koivu, Hamrlik, Gainey and Carbonneau. Right?

Wrong. They're Roy, Ludwig, Svoboda, Dahlin, Naslund, Carbonneau, Lemieux, Gainey, Robinson, Savard and Perron.

The 1985-86 Habs had an awful lot in common with this year's version of the team. Admittedly, the team of 22 years ago had nine rookies in the lineup, including a 20-year-old Roy, and this year's team has only five first-year players, including 20-year-old Price. But '86 featured four second-year players and no third-years, while today's Habs have three second years and three third years. Both teams were/are very young. The average age of the team in '86 was 24.1, it's 27.25. But that's counting veteran scrubs like Brisebois, Dandenault and Smolinski who are all in their thirties and skew the age average.

Neither team was expected to win much. This year's Habs were predicted by just about everyone to finish out of the playoffs. The '86 team struggled through a rookie/veteran divide for a large part of the season and was at risk of missing the playoffs until very late in the season.

Both teams replaced veteran, reliable goaltenders with untested kids who'd had up-and-down regular seasons. Both teams were regarded as playoff question marks because their netminders had no playoff experience, other than winning AHL championships the year before.

Both teams have Guy Carbonneau and Bob Gainey. True...Carbonneau was a kid and Gainey the captain then, while they're now coach and GM respectively. But they influenced the team with their style of play and hockey philosophy both then and now.

Veteran players like Naslund and Robinson had great years to get the team into the playoffs. So are Kovalev and Markov this year.

And both teams give you the same feeling...that sense that spring is near and the planets are aligned. Whether this year's team can keep up with the past they shadow remains to be seen. Can Price duplicate the famous Roy overtime from game 3 against the Rangers in '86? Can someone step it up and provide the timely killer goals Lemieux did back then? Will the Habs prevail in overtime of game seven, like they did against Hartford 22 years ago? We'll be watching and hoping they can.

A lot of people this year are comparing the team to the '93 Cup winners. I don't see the similarities there, really. They were a tough, veteran team with several proven stars that was among the favourites for the playoffs that year. I think that comparison is coming up so often because, sadly, it's the last Cup many of today's fans can remember the team winning. But they compare because they feel something special happening and '93 is the only reference point they have for that feeling. The win twenty-two years ago is in the long-forgotten past for many faithful.

But you know what they say: Those who forget their history are doomed to repeat it.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008


I've been on the record as being opposed to the re-signing of Patrice Brisebois by the Canadiens since the rumour first surfaced last summer. I thought it was a lousy choice by Gainey because I believed Breezer was too soft when he last played in Montreal, and age and injury would have been unlikely to improve the situation. Turns out I was right. He hasn't been outright terrible in every game he's played, but he's good for at least one mistake per night...often of the wretched giveaway variety. He continues to be soft on the boards and when he's not already injured, he tends to not risk potential injury by hitting people.

Smolinski's another Hab who looks like a mistake signing. Not because Smoke is an all-around bad player, but because he doesn't play the role for which he was signed very well. There's no way a guy who's as slow and soft as Smolinski...and as mediocre on faceoffs...should be a playoff team's shut-down centre. When he's placed in that role, he not only fails to contain his man a lot of the time, but he's also not in a position to perform the secondary-scoring role he's played for most of his career. As a result, Smolinski appears fairly useless as a Canadien.

Then, we have Tom Kostopoulos. He tries like hell, but he never won a fight in his life and he's prone to egregious giveaways when he's under pressure in his own zone. He has very little in the way of natural offensive ability.

These guys take a lot of abuse for what they don't do for the Habs. So, I think it's time to take a step back and look at what they do do. They're the Canadiens' scrubs. Every team needs scrubs to help it get through the season. Right now, the Habs have a young, fast, offensively-minded team. But back in October, with a gaping hole in the top-six D and the empty places left by Radek Bonk and Mike Johnson, no one, including Gainey, knew how quickly the team's youth would rise to play roles of importance. So, Brisebois was old and injury-prone, and not too reliable in his own end, but he was cheap and willing and experienced. Smolinski and Kostopoulos weren't ideal third-line shutdown replacements for Bonk and Johnson, but they were team players with experience and a little bit of skill.

We're very lucky that the young players like Sergei Kostitsyn, Maxim Lapierre and Ryan O'Byrne have outstripped the scrubs already. Now we're looking at a better team on a regular night, and the scrubs, for the most part, aren't complaining about sitting out. That's important for team morale. And when we look at nights like the last couple, with Begin hurt and O'Byrne sick, Smolinski and Brisebois and Kostopoulos have been able to step in and fill holes. They're not the best choices to play when everyone's healthy, but they're invaluable when the team needs a replacement with experience and enough ability to avoid hurting the team's chances to win. Most teams can't play twenty kids every night and still be successful. And, as we saw with Grabovski last week, when kids don't get to play, they act It's important to have veteran scrubs who understand and accept their roles as necessary parts of a team.

I don't want to see Brisebois or Smolinski back next year. Or Mathieu Dandenault either, for that matter. But for now, when a scrub is needed to fill in for a regular player, they can do the job for a night or two. They're the patches on the ship, the fingers in the dyke. They're depth, and no team wins much without that. As long as they're used sparingly and out of necessity, they're important. If they're overused, it's not their fault, but that of the coach who puts them in the lineup while better players sit.

So next time Breezer makes a bonehead giveaway or Smolinski stands by and watches Ovechkin blow by him with an overtime winner, when you're done cursing, remember they do have a role to play. Every team needs scrubs.

Monday, March 10, 2008

Go East, young men!

Whew, am I glad that's over! I hate the western road trip. It's so disruptive for the team, with the weird time zones, the switch from winter to summer overnight, the strange competition, bad ice and multiple games crammed into a short time frame. It's just unsettling.

Most people are relieved and happy the Habs have escaped the western trip with four out of eight points. I guess I am too. But I also found it more than a little frustrating. Watching a team we know can skate better, pass better and be much more disciplined, in both shots allowed and penalties taken, play the slow, confused games we saw last week was enough to make you pull your hair out. It reminded me of learning to play the piano as a kid. I'd be great in practice in my livingroom...mastering the tricky key changes and difficult fingering of a piece. But when the recital came, I'd almost always perform worse than I did in practice and then I'd spend the next week wishing I could have had a do-over. If only I could show them how I can really play it, I'd think. That's what I feel about the road trip now. If only the Habs could have a do-over now that they've adjusted to the time change and the weather, and the western competition has been demystified. Last night's game against the Ducks I especially would like to have another shot at. The real Habs, playing the way they really can, would have won that game.

But as it stands, the western road trip has left us with four out of eight points and a whole new list of things to stress about before the playoffs. Team discipline slowly eroded on the trip, culminating with the lousy eight minors they took against the Ducks. The powerplay was less than stellar, with players trying to be too fancy instead of relying on their bread-and-butter crisp passing. The defence looked weak and slow in the first three games. Shots against were outrageously high in all four games. And Mikhail Grabovsky has dummied himself out of a roster spot, despite his strong play against the Ducks.

At a time of year when we just want the team to clinch a playoff spot so some of the regulars can rest, the western road trip has thrown unwanted questions into the mix. It's upset the coaches and worried the players. It's not a great state of mind in which to be before facing the Devils and Senators at home this week.

I hope Carbonneau has a good meeting with the team as they try to shake off the West Effect and get back to business in the east. Because despite all the craziness, there were two good results from the western trip. First, both rookie goalies were able to make a statement about their ability to carry this team in the playoffs. We'll hear a lot less about how Gainey has doomed the Habs by trading Huet now. And second, the western teams...the great unknown opponent...have been weighed, measured, and found to be, really, not that much better than the Habs. If the Canadiens do defy the odds and end up competing against a western team for the Cup, they now know what to expect. And considering the fact that they were at least in every game, and knowing how much better they can play than they showed on this western trip, they have to have some measure of confidence about their ability to beat those teams.

So, if you look at it that way, the western trip, while unsettling and weird, taught the team a couple of things. But I'm still glad it's over.

Sunday, March 9, 2008

Spring is in the air

Okay...well, maybe spring isn't actually visible in the air, but you can see it on this page of the calendar. And when spring is this close, it's time for me to get anxious.

I want a Cup. I really want a Cup. I watched the replay of game five of the '93 Cup final versus the Kings last night, and it all came back. The nail-biting during all the overtimes. The McSorley stick measurement. The funk after the first two Nords games, followed by the high of coming back to beat them. Eric Desjardins' hat trick. St.Patrick's Conn Smythe win. The last, glorious minutes of the last game, knowing the Cup was won. I want it all back again.

But, in remembering that wonderful playoff run, it also comes to mind how much has to go perfectly right if a team is to go all the way. Even if all the pieces are in place...offence, defence, special teams, goaltending, coaching, toughness and chemistry...a team still needs to stay healthy, to get the lucky bounces and NOT get hurt by iffy reffing. That's a very tall order.

So now as spring nears, I get anxious. What if a key player gets hurt? What if there's some kind of internal incident that hurts team chemistry? What if the kids lose a couple and get into a confidence spiral just as they should be peaking? There's so much that could go wrong.

I worry because, when it comes down to it, we want a Cup for the glory of it...but also because a Cup means the longest season possible for our Habs. I'm having so much fun watching them this year I don't want it to end. Last year when it ended it was almost a relief, after the weeks of watching the scoreboard and praying they'd scratch into eighth. But this year's been so great. All those moments: Komisarek robbing McCabe for the OT winner against Toronto. The comeback against Jersey. The BIGGER comeback against the Rangers. The sweater retirements. Price's first shutout. The emergence of Pleks and the resurgence of Kovalev. The power of the power play. Markov scoring a shootout winner. Owning the Bruins. It's all been so much fun.

So, while I look forward to the playoffs, I also worry because the end is inevitably near and the summer awaits. I just hope it's the shortest summer possible, and we get to enjoy our Habs as long as we can.

Let the good times roll!

Friday, March 7, 2008

Turtleneck Power

I'm a Habs fan. That means I love all Habs. Every player who wears that sweater is worthy of esteem, even if the role in which he best helps the team is that of cheerleader (hey, Breezer!) that that's clear, I can confess: I have a favourite. It doesn't sound like a big deal, but it is to me. I've not had a favourite Hab since December, 1995. When my first favourite, my idol, Patrick Roy, was traded to Colorado, I thought I couldn't love an individual player like that again. My fan-heart was broken.

Then along came Tomas Plekanec. I vaguely recall reading about him when he was drafted in 2001. But at that time, he was just another third-round prospect whose scouting report made it sound like he might one day be a decent third or fourth-line centre. The next time he came onto my radar was when he won the fastest skater competition and was named MVP of the AHL all-star game in 2004-05. Then I started paying attention, and I liked what I saw right away. He was small, but a hard worker. He had speed, but could handle the puck while flying, which isn't that common a skill. He was tough and durable, and completely unassuming. Most importantly...he was smart. He never threw the puck away blindly and his anticipation of the play was really impressive.

But what tipped the scales for me and made him my favourite Hab was the beginning of last season, when he was playing with an uninspired Kovalev and a petulent Samsonov. Despite the obvious failure of his line and the blame he was taking for it, he never took a shift off when many of his teammates did on many nights. And when he was demoted to the fourth line, he humbly accepted Carbonneau's decision without complaint. In a season marked by dressing room rancour, that sealed it for me. Oh, and the turtleneck. You've got to love the turtleneck. His break-out after Christmas last season was the one bright spot for me in a failed season for the team, and he hasn't looked back.

It stuns me now, more than it did at the time, that Carbonneau attempted to start the season with Plekanec on the third line. I think his blossoming ability has as much to do with Kovalev's resurgence as Kovalev has for Plekanec's breakout.

So, now that Plekanec has established himself as my favourite player (oh yeah...and the Habs first line centre), two things have become apparent. First, when he lay writhing on the ice after a slash in the latter stages of the Coyotes game last night, the vision of the team without him appeared in many of our minds' eyes and it wasn't pretty. His presence on the PK, and his chemistry with Kovalev offensively are absolutely vital to the team's continued success. The second thing is his contract. He's going to score close to a point a game this year, and is signed for a 1.6 million cap hit through the end of next season. Comparing his value to others of his age and ability around the league, he's dirt cheap right now, and Gainey would be very wise to lock him up long-term while he can. This isn't the kind of player who will score a big deal and then slack off. And his skills aren't the kind of skills that hit flukey highs on the scoresheet and never reappear. I've heard Gainey has approached Plekanec's agent with the idea of initiating talks on a long-term deal, and I hope this is one rumour that's based on truth.

I don't want to say goodbye to another Habs favourite for a long, long time.

Thursday, March 6, 2008

Death by PK

If Guy Carbonneau and his staff are making a list of things to improve before the playoffs start, I hope it begins and ends with the penalty kill. Because, honestly, the PK is killing the Habs.

Take the last game against the Sharks. Sharks of course won, 6-4. The difference was the two PP goals given up by the Habs, with no goals for in the special teams department. Which proves a great PK will defeat a great PP, and when it comes down to it, the teams with the better PKs will win playoff series. NHL stats today say the Canadiens' PK is ranked 26th in the league, with a less-than-stellar 80.2%. Or, as I'm sure Carbonneau refers to it, fourth last.

Maybe it's an Eastern Conference thing. The Buffalo Sabres are the top PK team in the east, tied for eighth place with Detroit with an 83.8 success rate. Which means more than half the teams in the west are as good or better on the PK than every single team in the east. The tight defensive style most western teams play, including on the PK, is one reason why every pundit out there expects whatever team wins the east to be anihilated in the Stanley Cup finals.

While some of us would like to think the PKs in the east are so mediocre because they have to face the Habs' PP multiple times a year (ha ha!), the fact remains that the Canadiens need to improve that aspect of their game if they expect to make a serious playoff run. So the question becomes, how do they do that?

I think part of the reason they suffer on the penalty kill is that they're not aggressive enough on the puck carrier. We often see them succeed at retrieving and clearing dump-ins, and turning back opposing attempts to penetrate the defensive zone. But once the other team sets up, it seems as though it's only a matter of time before they score. The Canadiens are working the four-man box properly, but they don't press the puck carrier or move out of the box to block passing lanes like they did when things were clicking along last year. It's obviously not a coaching issue, because if I can see this problem, you can be damn sure the coaching staff...defensive icons all...can see it too. So, it comes down to personnel.

There's a guy at the university of New Brunswick who's collected stats on how many goals against various forward and defensive pairings allow per minute of PK time. Those stats show the best penalty killers at forward, and the most-often used, are Plekanec and Kovalev, with a stellar 3.7 goals allowed for every sixty minutes they play shorthanded. Compare that with the "defensive" forwards Begin and Smolinski, who allow 12.7 goals for every sixty minutes they play on the PK. Interestingly, Francis Bouillon is the best defenceman on the penalty kill, on the ice for 5.9 goals against for every sixty shorthanded minutes.

The problem, of course, is that Kovalev and Plekanec can't play entire PKs when they're also playing a regular shift and on the power play. Chris Higgins and Maxim Lapierre show some promise as a PK pair, allowing 4.8 goals against per sixty minutes shorthanded. But they've been used only a third of the amount of time as have Smolinski and Begin.

So, perhaps it's time for Carbonneau and his staff to take a close look at who's on the ice for PP goals against, and try the guys who have the better averages at preventing those goals. Because it's easy to play opponents who can't stop the number one PP in the league, which offsets one of the worst PKs on most nights. But when the Canadiens try to compete with teams who can shut down the PP, that porous penalty kill is going to be the death of them.

Tuesday, March 4, 2008

Living by speed and dying by speed

Well, the Canadiens defence got a taste of what the Habs' offence serves up to opponents every night. Unfortunately, the D looked pretty slow and helpless in the face of the Sharks' speed last night. I didn't see all of the game, but I saw Josh Gorges and Mike Komisarek look like pylons twice apiece...two of the gaffes resulting in goals against. Komisarek, in particular seemed to make bad decisions when forced to speed up his game in response to the pace of the attack. Of course, bad went to worse when Carey Price looked tired and slow on three of the Sharks goals as well.

On the positive side, the team didn't quit and showed a lot of heart to come back and tie three times. The Sharks are a big, strong team but they weren't able to intimidate Plekanec or Grabovski, both of whom looked dangerous on offence. If last night's game was meant to be a test of whether the Canadiens are ready to face the big boys in the post-season, the offence passed. True, the PP went 0-for-7, but there are nights when that happens and the Sharks' PK is one of the very best in the league. Even so, the Habs PP had chances and in a longer series, it's pretty much inevitable that it will produce. So, kudos to the team's show of doggedness and the offense's success. Both factors vindicate Gainey's refusal to mortgage the team for Hossa.

However, I think last night's game also underlined a serious problem on defence. The six guys the Habs start with on D are steady and solid most nights, and they even step up to dominate occasionally. But the big flaw the corps has is handling offensive pressure at high speed. Ottawa's exposed that flaw, as have Pittsburgh, Buffalo and Detroit at various times this season. Couple that with the lack of a real shut-down centre to handle the likes of Joe Thornton and Daniel Alfredsson, which piles further pressure on the Habs' defence, and you have a serious issue.

So, while the offence might have passed the playoff readiness test, the defence doesn't. The teams they face in the post-season are going to deconstruct the Canadiens' video and focus on every flaw they find. We can expect aggressive forechecking and fast offence coming at the Montreal defence in waves from those teams that are able to mount that kind of attack. And make no mistake, there are several teams out there capable of that.

I don't know if there's anything Gainey and Carbonneau can do to fix their team's biggest weakness before the playoffs, now that the opportunity of doing so at the trade deadline has passed. They're playing the best six defencemen they have available right now. Perhaps young Pavel Valentenko, who offers speed and aggressiveness along with good defensive positioning, is ready for a call-up. But you have to think if that were the case, he'd be with the big team already. One move the team should probably make is substituting Kyle Chipchura for Smolinski. Chipchura's destiny is to be the Habs' big shut-down guy in the future. He may not be completely ready for that job just yet, but you have to argue he's better at it than Smolinski. And Chipchura is still learning from his mistakes, while Smoke isn't getting any better and is easily destroyed by offensively aggressive opponents.

I think the main thing Carbonneau can do, since he's got to go to battle with the players he's got right now, is step up the speed of practices. It's important for the defence to practice handling slick offence in top gear, and their own teammates have the wheels to provide the perfect practice foil. Of course, the defencemen have their limitations, but rehearsing at a higher speed might help them acclimatize to playoff intensity.

I believe the team can play better...much better...defensively than it did last night. But watching Brian Campbell completely undress Komisarek for one goal and Cheechoo do the same to Josh Gorges for another was discouraging. Because, if we can see the fatal flaw in the team's defence, we can be sure opponents and their video coaches will see it...and expose well. And unless the Canadiens can either score a lot more goals or find a way to adjust to their opponents' speed, it could be a short-lived post-season trip.

Sunday, March 2, 2008

Captain on the rise

I admit, I got a little choked up when the boys beat New Jersey to take first place in the East on Saturday night. It was such a watershed moment after failing in their previous attempts to beat Ottawa for the lead. And to do it against the previously-impossible-to-beat Martin Brodeur made it all the sweeter. As did the fact that it's been so long since the Canadiens looked this good this late in the season.

It was a joy to watch Carey Price record his third consecutive win since he became the number one goalie in Montreal. And the Kostitsyn brothers celebrating Andrei's game winner was heartwarming. But the one I felt best for was Saku Koivu.

CBC interviewed the captain after the game and asked him how it felt to be in first place. His quickly-smothered grin amidst the careful platitudes one mouths in such situations, to avoid incurring the wrath of opponents and the hockey gods, was a little flash of the old Koivu. For just a moment, he was the fast, enthusiastic kid who started out as a first-round pick of the fabled Canadiens. He looked like he did before assuming the burden of captaincy at 24, before fighting for his life and his career through illness and injury, and before the years of futility in Montreal sucked out some of his early enthusiasm.

So often now Koivu looks and sounds tired. The sighs before he answers reporters' questions, the mid-season slow-downs in his production every year recently, the slumping shoulders on the bench are all signs of a guy who's been beaten down by circumstance in his career.

That's why I'm thrilled to see him winning for the first time in the NHL. He's never been in first place at this time of the season, and he's never made the playoffs without clawing into a low seed at the last minute, with the understanding the team would get bounced early. He acts like he's almost afraid to believe it's true...but that grin still sneaks through every once in a while. He deserves to smile. After all this time, he's earned it. And if the team should happen to win the Cup before he finishes his hockey career, I'll be happiest for the captain as he lifts the prize.

I'll probably shed a tear.

Saturday, March 1, 2008

The Big Red Machine

Make no mistake about it...Alex Kovalev is the engine pulling this Habs train to first place in the East. Sure, the defence is massively improved over last year with the addition of Hamrlik, the return to form of Bouillon and the emergence of Gorges and O'Byrne. Other forwards are contributing, with seven forty-point scorers for the first time since the team's last Cup Final appearance. The goaltending has been solid for the most part, and there's a kind of rare cameraderie and got-your-back attitude in the room. Even Guy Carbonneau has improved, with a much more relaxed attitude and smarter coaching decisions.

But Kovalev...he's the glue holding the whole collage together. Today, after his four-point night against Buffalo, he sits at fifteenth place in NHL scoring. He's ahead of the Sedins, Dany Heatley, Scott Gomez and Olli Jokinen. Sidney Crosby too...but we can't count that when you consider Crosby's injury. I don't remember the last time the Habs had a guy ranked that high in league scoring.

Tomas Plekanec is feeding off the perfect cross-ice passes from Kovalev on the powerplay. Speaking of which, the powerplay is still number one in the league while Kovalev leads the league in PP points. The PK has also improved, since Carbonneau decided to make Kovalev a full-time penalty-killer. So now he's setting up shorthanded goals as well.

This season, I've seen Kovalev block shots, hustle back to cover his own zone and unselfishly dish the puck to his much younger linemates when he might have scored himself. His wristshot from the right circle has the accuracy of a night-vision scope. Last night, when the Sabres had scored their second goal and the defence was looking a little harried, Kovalev skated over to Carey Price and had a little chat with him during a stoppage in play. Things settled down after that and the Habs chugged on to a nice win. This is the definition of a guy who does it all, and when you consider where the Canadiens were predicted to finish this year, you have to look at Kovalev as a major reason why they're first in their division instead.

So...the question is: Has Kovalev done enough to become a Hart Trophy candidate? If you look at the definition of the award, which says the winner is the player who is most valuable to his team, you'd have to think he has a chance to get his name on the ballot. Here's a guy who, at 35 years of age, is set to have one of his best offensive seasons, is a solid plus player, is wearing the A for his team and showing why he has it, is dominant on special teams and is making his teammates better players.

I guess the real litmus test is to think about where the team would be without Kovalev. The PP would certainly be less effective. Andrei Kostitsyn and Tomas Plekanec would likely not be sitting on the first line without Kovalev as a winger. The many, many games in which Kovalev has figured as the Habs' offensive force would be either much closer or be lost. The very fear he instills in opposing defenders wouldn't be there, nor the respect for the Habs' attack we're witnessing now.

I think Kovalev should be a Hart candidate. Whether he becomes one might depend on how far uphill that engine can drag the Little Team That Could.