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.

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