Friday, April 4, 2008

To sit or not to sit

I love this year's edition of Alex Kovalev. The temptation to compare him to some kind of machine is almost irresistible when trying to describe his play. But how do you combine the power of a locomotive, the manouverability of a fighter jet and the brains of Deep Blue? He is, without doubt, the single most consistent reason the Habs are where they are at this moment...playoff position and division title safely wrapped up and conference title within reach.

So, I was understandably a little worried when the team announced Kovalev missed practice this week because he's fighting a flu. Yet, in the warmup before the Buffalo game last night, there he was, swooping around his half of the ice like a caged tiger. When he stopped to do a pregame interview with RDS, I was a little dismayed to hear him say he was offered a game off, but declined because he'd miss playing too much.

Don't get me wrong. I love watching Kovalev. I think if Koivu had to miss games, the team was very, very lucky AK27 was ready to pick up the reins of leadership in his stead. I want to see Kovalev pad his stats and make the season as memorable on a personal level as possible. But with the spectre of Komisarek, Koivu, Bouillon and Ryder sitting out last night with injuries, and Streit likely playing hurt, I became really afraid some bitter player is going to hurt Kovalev just because he's out there.

In watching the highlights (or lowlights, depending on your point of view) of the Toronto/Ottawa game from last night, I saw an already less-than-100-percent Daniel Alfredsson get crushed by Mark Bell. The debate is raging now about whether the hit was legal. But if it was or not means little to the Sens who will likely be missing their captain...the player who singlehandedly dragged them through the early playoffs last year...for this year's first round. They also lost Mike Fisher, which will hurt any chance they might have of a repeat appearance in the Cup finals as well.

Now, the Sens had no choice about playing those guys, even against potentially vindictive non-playoff teams with nothing to lose like the Leafs. Ottawa's fighting the ignominous proposition of being finalists one year and out the next. They need their ailing captain on the ice, just to keep their postseason hopes alive at all. Last night, they paid a big price for that.

The Canadiens have the luxury of being able to rest their tired warriors now that their playoff position is secure. And they should do it. Not just to get the key guys a little more rest, but to protect them from aggressive loser teams who want to make statements or win moral victories by beating on Montreal's best players. Accidents can happen in any game...sure. But there's no point in exposing important players to intentional head-hunting. I'm not saying the leafs will definitely do that...but there's a lot of bitterness and anger in that group right now, which won't be calmed by getting taunted in the Bell Centre and watching a hated rival cruise to a high playoff spot.

I know Kovalev wants to play. He likes being captain and he wants to put up as many points as he can. Plekanec wants one more goal to give him thirty on the year. Price always wants to play every game...especially when every win helps his chances of a Calder Trophy nomination. Markov and Higgins likely want to finish the year having played all 82 games. Everyone wants to be Conference champs and wants to ice the best team possible to achieve that. And there's something to the point Kovalev made this week that a team should end the season the same way it wants to begin the playoffs. But those reasons for playing the most important players on the team in this pretty meaningless game against the leafs tomorrow pale beside the thought of Kovalev or Markov going down with a concussion. Or Plekanec breaking a leg because some leaf decides to take a cheap shot at him.

At least in the playoffs, tough and dangerous as they can be, the other team has something to lose too. Playoff competitors (except for Chris Pronger) usually think twice about cheapshotting an opponent because retribution by the wronged player's teammates could hurt his own team. The leafs have nothing to lose, and a collective belly full of bile and spite to vent on the Habs.

So, for one night only, I'd put the Kovalev Show on hold...and his valuable co-stars along with him. And if I were Guy Carbonneau, I wouldn't ask them their preferences. I'd just do it.

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