News for Monday, December 31st (French):

In La Presse, Marc Antoine Godin reports positively on last night's loss to the Rangers. The team played well, he says, and the point earned at the end of a successful road trip was a worthwhile achievement, given the circumstances (Koivu's illness, playing shorthanded, third game in four nights, etc.). He does observe that the Habs didn't have a great third period, "literally bottled in their own zone for the whole twenty minutes". Well, they weren't literally bottled, or in their zone for the whole period, but it sure felt that way. Many fans get quite irritated with the way the Habs seem to stop forechecking and go into a defensive shell when they have a lead, even only a one-goal lead with an entire period left to play, as was the case last night. The feeling among fans is that the Canadiens should stay on the attack, on the "they can't score against us if we have the puck" theory. I'm on the fence. Carbo's system is sound in theory, but it breaks down when the other teams get desperate and the Habs fail to capitalize on turnovers. It actually works more often than it doesn't, as the Habs winning record shows, but it's very frustrating when it doesn't. Last night, the Habs had a number of chances to put the game away and didn't. The Rangers got a cheap one - should have been disallowed for goalie interference by Sean Avery - for the equalizer.

Godin also speaks with Mark Streit, the versatile winger/defenseman, about his season thus far. He notes that players being used as both forwards and defensemen isn't actually all that uncommon in the NHL, and provides several interesting examples, going back to Sergei Fedorov being used as a defenseman by Scotty Bowman with the Red Wings in the late 90s. I can also recall Bowman using Paul Coffey as a forward, except that move wasn't complimentary, and it pissed Coffey off.

Perhaps the most complete account of last night's game in English or French comes from Martin Leclerc of Journal de Montreal. He calls the second period - in which Montreal scored two goals and held New York to just one shot - their best of the season. He pins the loss on the Habs' difficulties on face-offs last night (they won just 33% of the draws) and attributes the face-off problems on Koivu's absence: Carbo notes that Koivu is always the Canadiens' most reliable centre in that regard. Leclerc also uses a curious adjective - "pilonnee" - that I've never seen before. As he uses it to describe the Habs' defensemen in the first period, I'm going to guess that it means "pylon-esque", and I bet I'm right.

Yvon Pedneault has a good article based on his dialogue with Guy Carbonneau on the relative merits of using three lines primarily vs. four lines, as Carbo obviously prefers.

News for Monday, December 31st (English): Jack Todd packs it in, Huet under-appreciated, Carbo satisfied, Corey Locke can't win, Avery sucks.

In the Gazette, Jack Todd offers up his final MMQB column, making New Year's Eve a little less happy. I've always enjoyed reading his stuff, and even used to spend a precious Toonie back in my university days to buy an imported Gazette so I could read him over my Monday morning coffee in the SUB. He's leaving the Gazette to concentrate on writing fiction, and maybe he's getting a head start in his last column by suggesting that the Habs have a chance to land Alex Ovechkin as an RFA this summer. Seriously, is there any price the Capitals wouldn't match? NO!!!!. Todd also takes a moment to ask Montreal fans why they've never properly appreciated Cristobal Huet, despite his consistent excellence. He wonders if it's because Huet is, like the Conehead family, from France, or because he's viewed as a transition goalie, from Theo to Price. I think the reason Huet has never gotten his due from fans is that he emerged at a relatively advanced age from minor-league obscurity, while Habs fans only have eyes for the next over-hyped hot-prospect goalie. They want Dryden. They want Roy. They wanted Thibault, then Theo, now Price. It's as though otherwise discerning Montreal fans won't believe a goalie is good unless a bunch of magazines and talking heads tell them he is. Anyway, good luck Jack Todd!

Elsewhere in the Gazette, Pat Hickey finds coach Guy Carbonneau "more than satisfied" with the Habs' performance in a losing effort last night in New York. Carbo says it was one of the team's "best games this season", especially given that the Habs were missing key player Saku Koivu, and had to play short-handed after Corey Locke's gear didn't make it to MSG on time. Hickey quotes Huet as knowing "where [Shanahan] was going to go" on his overtime winner, but the shot was perfect and Huet admits, "I just couldn't stop it". Huet did allow a softie earlier in the game, but now stands at 3-0-3 in his last six starts, and atop the NHL stats in save percentage. The Habs will be relying on him to stay hot and stay healthy, as they continue to scratch and claw for points over the balance of the season.

Poor Corey Locke. An OHL star who wasn't drafted until the fourth round because of his size. An AHL star who has never gotten a sniff of the NHL, because of his size. And after waiting three years for a chance to play with the Habs, he misses the opportunity ... because the airline lost his luggage! Hoping to avoid a second consecutive flu epidemic on the team, coach Carbo has Saku Koivu in quarantine, and Locke was going to have a chance to fill in. It could have been the break he's been waiting for, but it turned into another tough break for guy. Here's a new airline slogan idea: "Air Canada: Crushing Dreams Since 1956".

If you've got the stomach, check out this New York Daily News article on the game and all the credit it gives to Sean Avery for the Rangers' win. Avery, it crows, "backed slightly into the goalie's pad on the follow-through, wobbling him slightly as Drury flipped home the rebound". Yeah, that Avery, he's some player. It's bad enough the tying goal was the result of that clown's goaltender interference, but since when do sports journalists congratulate players for crappy plays like that?. Thanks for reminding us how bad the officiating in the NHL is, NY Daily News!

Here's a piece on the waiving yesterday of Sergei Samsonsov by the Chicago Blackhawks: the Globe and Mail's Erik Duhatschek thinks Samsonov's career might be over. Well, actually, this event marks only the end of his playing days in the NHL; as any Montreal fan can tell you, his playing career ended at some point the summer before last. We certainly didn't see him play much hockey last year.


News for Sunday, December 30th: Things Go Right, Fighting is Stupid, Ryder, Samsonov Waived, & "The Kostitsyn" Effect

Pat Hickey talks to the Habs to see what's been going right for them of late, and Chris Higgins says it's about taking a break, both from hockey-mad Montreal, and from hockey itself. With a lengthy road-trip sandwiching the Christmas hiatus, the Habs haven't had to deal with the pressures of being the Canadiens in Montreal, a situation in which Higgins says you get "consumed". And being away from the rink, he adds, "reminds you how lucky you are to be playing". Geez, you'd think the paychecks and the girls would be a pretty fair reminder, wouldn't you? Without saying it directly, I think what Higgins is singing is the old "it's hard to play in Montreal" song.

Fighting is Stupid, Example 5,125,341: Ryan O'Byrne will miss six weeks with a broken thumb sustained in a pointless fight near the end of a 5-1 game. O'Byrne was playing 14:00 a game and starting to look very comfortable in the NHL. He brought much needed size to the Habs blueline and laid out a couple of powerful hits in the same game. Now, because hockey is the only sport bush-league enough to tolerate fighting, we will see Patrice Brisebois in a Habs uniform before we see O'Byrne in one again. That makes me want to punch something ... but I'm an adult who can control his own anger. Is hockey really that much tougher than rugby or football? Really?

At the Carolina News & Observer, Luke DeCock has the most realistic-looking list of players most likely soon to be traded ... and yes, Michael Ryder's name is on it. Any goals he has over the rest of the year have nothing to do with it: he's a UFA at the end of the year, he won't come back to Montreal unless the Habs substantially overbid for him, and no single player is worth the kind of money Ryder is likely to receive, assuming he finds his scoring touch again. If he'd been a free agent before this year, he probably could have gotten six million dollars per from any number of desperate GMs. His value is down after disappearing for the better part of the year, but he'll still get five million, and that's just too much.

In a move that will surprise no Canadiens fan, Sergei Samsonov has been waived by the Chicago Blackhawks. After trading Mike Ribeiro for basically nothing, his signing is the worst move Bob Gainey has made as Habs GM. What on earth ever happened to this guy? It's absolutely mystifying. After a promising beginning, his career sputtered and has finally, I think, crashed. Will he play again in the NHL? Not likely.

In La Presse, Marc Antoine Godin atrributes the Habs recent success to the "Kostitsyn Effect". He notes that in the 8 games since Sergie was recalled from Hamilton, the Habs have gone 5-2-1, and have averaged 3.5 goals per game, up from the 2.8 they were scoring before. While the younger Kostitysn has a respectable 5 points in his first 8 NHL games, he is obviously not directly responsible for the improved offense. As Godin notes, it's the way his presence allows Carbonneau to set his lines that is really making the difference, enabling the Habs to ice three effective offensive lines for the first time this season. Lacking any true superstars, it was Carbo's intention in training camp to have a three-line attack, but the struggles of Michael Ryder and Bryan Smolinksi meant that it never really happened. Now, with Sergei on the top line, Saku Koivu has come to life, with 2 goals and nine points in the 8 games he's played. Also profiting is new first-line winger Guillaume Latendresse who, with four goals since joining Koivu and Kostitsyn, suddenly looks like the power forward the Habs have needed since 1979. With the opposition being forced to check two lines, the dependable Plecanek, Kovalev, A. Kostitsyn line has had a little extra room to breathe, and has upped its own production: Andrei Kostitsyn has scored a point per game since his brother joined him in Montreal. Finally, the newly formed third line features two of the team's best players - Chris Higgins and Michael Ryder. Ryder's been in a funk, yes, but with a goal the other night, he may be breaking out of it, and if he does, the Habs three-line attack could become very potent indeed.


News for Saturday, December 29th

Pat Hickey reports on the Habs' 5-1 win over the Panthers last night. He credits Chris Higgins for doing what no-one else has been able to do for the last six weeks: get Michael Ryder on the scoresheet. Ryder finished off a tic-tac-toe play after a quick, cross-crease pass from Higgins in the first period. Hickey also gets Jacques Martin to explain what he was thinking when he started Vokoun, pulled him, put him back in, then pulled him again: "I took him out to shake things," he said. It didn't work.

The Palm Beach Post covers the game from the Florida side. The article notes that about half of the crowd cheered for the Habs against the home team, and it sounded like it was the louder half. "We didn't give them any reason to cheer us," Jacques Martin reasons. He blames lack of effort for the loss, calling out Jozef Stumpel and Branislav Mezei specifically. He lets goalie Tomas Vokoun - beaten on his first three shots against - off the hook, saying that the Panthers never gave him a chance: "the goalie is not there to cover for [your mistakes]". Vokoun also is unhappy with the effort in front of him: "This isn't figure skating," he complains, and indeed, those little skating skirts the ladies wear provide better coverage than the Panthers provided last night. The Panthers gooned it up when it got out of hand, but Martin doesn't really comment: "At least it shows he cares," he said of Bryan Allen's triple-roughing tantrum. Well, I think it was pretty bush-league, Jacques.

For your private schadenfreude I pass along without comment this Globe and Mail piece on the crapness of the Leafs. Okay, a few comments: Dave Shoalts bemoans the fact that the Leafs - just four points behind Montreal as of yesterday, six now - blew a chance over the past couple of weeks to climb in the standings. He think they should've won a couple more with their improved defense. Hey, cry us a river, Dave.

In La Presse, Robert Laflamme discusses the improvement of two local favourites: Guillaume Latendresse and Maxim Lapierre. Before, he notes, all anyone said about the young forward was how slow he was. Now, with 11 goals in just 34 games, no-one's complaining anymore. Guillaume is especially pleased with the fact that 10 of his goals have been scored at even strength, and as Laflamme notes, Latendresse's contributions are a big reason why the Habs are +1 overall at 5-on-5.

Also in La Presse: tired of Carbo's incessant line-juggling? Well, fret no more. According to Robert Laflamme, Carbo "believes he has found the right combinations at last." With 2 wins and 10 goals in the last two games, you can understand his satisfaction. Of course, the cynics out there might suggest that Carbo's faith in his current lines will last about as long as the first bad shift one of them takes, and they'd probably be right.

Finally La Presse reports that Ryan O'Byrne is out indefinitely after hurting himself in one of his fights last night. Now there's some bad news, as O'Byrne was starting to play some good, physical hockey for the Habs.


Canadiens 5 at Panthers 1: Game Review

The Habs won a weird one, massively outshot but dominant on the scoresheet, where it counts. How weird was it? Facing a Panthers team that had won 5 of 6, that has made a meal of the Habs since coming into the league, that soundly whipped them the last time they played, and that has one of the hottest goalies in the NHL, the Habs scored on their first 3 shots and chased Tomas Vokoun not once, but twice in the same night. Meanwhile, Cristobal Huet made over 40 saves, while managing to look strangely unharassed for most of the evening.

In their last two games - on consecutive nights in the Sunshine State - the Habs have scored 10 goals, with 20 different players collecting points, while allowing just 3 against. They've done it while rolling four balanced lines and playing Carbo's perimeter defense to perfection. They've also, however, been extremely fortunate in facing goalies who, in the words of HIO blogger Mike Boone, have looked like they are "on acid".

This was a very good match for Chris Higgins, who broke out with a 1 goal, 2 assist game. Both assists were absolute beauties, one a gift to a no-doubt grateful Michael Ryder (his monkey's gone to heaven), the other a superb cross-ice feed to a sneaky Mark Streit. Higgins looked like a superstar on this night.

Cristobal Huet was superb. Despite handling more rubber than a Nascar pit-monkey over 60 minutes, he never looked rattled. Don't let the score fool you: there were lots of opportunities - on the power-play, especially - for the Panthers to get back in this one, but Huet never gave them a chance. Price may be the man down the road, but Huet is the man of the moment: very fortunate for Price to be playing with another strong goalie at this point in his career.

A few concerns: the power-play, despite a late goal, is drying up. And the Habs lead-protection strategy remains a heart-attack, as they circle the wagons and let the opposition send wave after wave of attack at them. Finally, while the Habs remain basically a sure thing when they are leading after one, you can't help but wonder why they can't come back from even a one goal deficit with 40 minutes left in the game. And why can't they do this sort of thing at home??? On the road, the Habs are 2nd only to Ottawa, while they have won just 6 out of 17 at home. But perhaps it's poor form to criticize after such a pleasing result ... get the very enjoyable stats here.

One more game - against the Rangers - on the road, then back to Montreal, which hopefully will be a more hospitable place for the home team in 2008.

News for Friday, December 28th: Habs win, Lightning suck, Carbo is a genius, Huet is number one, Mike Boone is funny, Four Habs Fans like pole dancers

CBC.ca says "Habs Romp Over Lazy Lightning", and you can imagine that John Tortorella couldn't object to the charge, which is as blunt as its use of alliteration. The article gives Montreal credit for notching the two points, but the emphasis is on the Lightning's terrible showing: "It's one of the worst stretches that I can remember since I've been here," Tortorella says. The article erroneously accuses Kyle Chipchura of "again" being a healthy scratch, when in fact he was a surprise scratch for the first time in a long while.

The AP carries a similar story brimming with ominous Lightning stats: they've lost 8 out of 10 and have scored 2 or fewer goals in 10 of their last 11 games. The story credits the Habs with snapping a two game losing streak and mentions Alex Kovalev's 16th of the season (he had only 18 all last year), though noting it was a lucky goal (off a Tampa defender's foot).

Pat Hickey's Gazette/Canwest story says Carbo's latest line-juggling results have him "looking like a genius". Well, it's true that the lines worked: playing between Chris Higgins and Michael Ryder, Maxim Lapierre scored his first of the season. Reunited with Saku Koivu - and alongside Sergei Kostitsyn - Guillaume Latendresse picked up his 10th. And Hickey points out that the one line Carbo left alone provided two goals, from Kovalev and Andre Kostitsyn. But while I agree with Hickey that the lines looked good - I especially liked Latendresse going to the net on the Koivu line - I would caution that just about any lines would have looked good against the Lightning team that showed up last night.

Elliot Olshansky discusses the game for CSTV in New York: he got tickets to the match at the last minute and was surprised at how pro-Montreal the crowd was. He talks with Ryan O'Byrne and gets his views.

All Headline News notes that the Habs have "broken free from Boston" in the standings at 18-13-6, good for 3rd in the East in overall points, though 4th in the actual seedings. The Lightning, on the other hand, find themselves in a last-place tie with the Washington Capitals. The Habs hold on the 4th spot is obviously quite tenuous: they are only 3 points up on Florida, which currently stands at 9th, out of the playoffs. For that matter, the Habs are only 9 points out of last overall. Just 10 points separate the worst team in the East, the Capitals, from the second best, the New Jersey Devils. Don't you love parity? What's that? No, you don't? Me neither.

The Tampa Bay Tribune's Erik Erlendsson has a nice doom-and-gloom piece on the Lightning. It has very little to do with the Habs, but it is fun to read about the Habs being "powerful" and "overmatching" their opponents.

Look out for the Florida Panthers
: the South Florida Sun-Sentinel notes that they got a confidence booster last night, defeating the Thrashers to pull within three points of the Habs. Nathan Horton scored two, and Tomas Vokoun stopped 38 shots. The Panthers always play the Habs tough, as we know, so expect them to look a lot better than a 9th place team tonight.

Pat Hickey, in the Gazette, says that Cristobal Huet will be the number one man for the foreseeable future: his consistency, Hickey says, gives him the edge in Carbo's books. I agree wholeheartedly, and have all season long. I still think a year in the AHL would have been better for Price, who is clearly doing a lot of OJT in the pros. The only problem for Huet is the large contingent of Habs fans who completely abandon hope whenever he allows a goal. Many Montreal fans are quite prepared to give up on a goalie if he doesn't win a cup in his first year with the team, as Dryden and Roy did, and obviously, it is not a realistic approach.

Finally, in the Blogosphere, Lions in Winter has another good game review, noting that the Habs best players were their best players last night. At HIO, Mike Boone has a hilarious and thoughtful review of last night and preview of tonight: he's always funny. Four Habs Fans haven't updated their site since their gloomy preview (Habs Look to get Reamed) of the Lightning game, but they do feature a sexy pole-dancing picture, if that's your sort of thing.

Check back later for a look at what the French Press are saying about the Habs.


Montreal 5 at Tampa Bay 2 - Game Review

The up-and-down Habs are up once more. It was a convincing win, but not perhaps the dominant performance the final score suggests. A struggling and disinterested-looking Lightning team played right into the Canadiens hands, giving up a series of odd-man rushes, and for once the Habs were able to capitalize. Both of the Tampa goals were of the cheesy, garbage-picking variety, and both were the direct result of defensive breakdowns.

On such breakdown was the work of Michael Ryder, who left Vaclav Prospal open after unwisely deciding to help Roman Hamrlik hit another Tampa forward. Ryder somehow went -2 on the night and did little offensively to help his cause, so look for him to be watching tomorrow night's game against the Panthers. More tough luck for a player who is truly jinxed this year.

It was a very good night for Saku Koivu, who earned two assists in just under 13:00 minutes of ice-time. The captain seems to have broken out of a bit of slump, but Carbo is being careful not to overwork the veteran. He rested for most of the third in anticipation of tomorrow night's game.

Andrei Kostitsyn, Alex Kovalev, Andrei Markov, Maxim Lapierre, and Guillaume Latendresse scored the Montreal goals. Lapierre got it started, electing to shoot on a 2-on1 with Higgins and making no mistake. Next was Latendresse, picking up the garbage on a goal-mouth flurry by the Habs for his 10th of the season; his critics are getting quieter all the time, lately. Kovalev got lucky on his goal, but it was well-deserved, the high-point of a very strong overall game by the suddenly dependable Habs leader. Also getting his 10th of the year was Andrei Markov - who played fantastic all night - off a power-play blast (sweet pass from Streit after Koivu set the play smartly), and almost immediately after that, Andrei K roofed a Plecanek pass to make it 5-0.

Cristobal Huet was unable to hang on to the shut-out, but he played a very steady, very solid game, making 28 saves and doing a great job preventing rebounds. He continued his heart-stopping puck-handling experiments, but did no damage with them tonight.

I am told that Vincent Lecavalier did play in this game, but I don't believe it. There's better visual evidence for the existence of Sasquatch than for Lecavalier's presence on the ice tonight. Also MIA was Martin St. Louis, whose name was not mentioned once. Then again, the game was being called by Bob Cole, and it is possible that he thinks Martin St. Louis is pronounced "Sun-deen", which is something I did hear him say a few times tonight, for no ascertainable reason. Speaking of Bob Cole, he appears to believe that there is someone on the Habs with the last name "Maxim". Obviously, he means M. Lapierre, but it wouldn't kill him to get something as simple as the players' names right, would it? I mean, he probably knows the middle name of Doug Gilmour's mother. I have a dream ... of a day when my tax dollars do not directly subsidize the ridiculously unprofessional way the CBC/HNIC cabal shoves that fan-club masquerading as a sports-broadcast down our nation's collective throat.

A good win at a good time. Now on to Florida, where you can expect the Habs to have a tough time with a team that has, mysteriously, dominated them ever since it came into existence.

News for Thursday, December 27th: Habs vs. Lightning, the return of Ryder, weekly player ratings, and the Bulldogs go for three in a row

Pat Hickey's Gazette/AP story covers the Habs as they prepare for tonight's game against the Lightning in Tampa Bay. Fans might not be expecting much from les Boys tonight, given (a) their recent history in Florida, (b) their recent history over Christmas road trips, and (c) their recent history period, which has them on a two game losing skid. But Habs Francis Bouillon and Mike Komisarek sound optimistic ... must be all that sunshine. Hickey hints that Michael Ryder may be back in the line-up tonight, and indeed look for Carbo to make a couple of changes, which he generally does after any loss. Or win. Or overtime loss. Or win. Or period.

Hickey has another report, this one on the Lightning, who are struggling, going 3-6-1 over the last ten games. Their offence, especially, has sputtered, with just 22 goals over the same period of time. Even worse, Hickey notes, while the Lightning's top four scorers have been responsible for 16 of those goals, they are also a combined -36 while doing so. Just about anyone would agree that the stat is a little misleading: until the arrival of Kari Ramo a couple of games ago - look for him to give the Habs trouble tonight - the Lightning goaltending has been terrible.

In La Presse, Francois Gagnon has his weekly ratings for the Habs. On defence, he puts Markov and Komisarek at #1 and #2, praising Markov for rediscovering his excellent all-around game, and Komisarek for reliable, hard-nosed defence. Francis Bouillon gets an honourable mention for acting as the team's "enforcer". Alex Kovalev, Chris Higgins, Mark Streit, and Guillaume Latendresse get high marks for their play in the last four games. Kovalev has provided consistent offense, as has Chris Higgins, though Gagnon notes that Higgins's remarkable lack of finish left him only an assist to show for all his hard work. Gagnon wishes he would show a little more patience in shooting situations: good shooters, he says, get it away quickly, but calmly ("On lui souhaite un peu plus de détende dans les situations de tir. Les bons marqueurs dégainent rapidement, mais le geste est rarement nerveux."). Latendresse is particularly impressive to Gagnon, with nine goals on the year despite his third/fourth line status. Gagnon wants him to be a permanent fixture on the power-play, planted in the slot to screen the goalie and "ramasser les vidanges", which I think means something like "pick up the garbage". Gagnon is disappointed in Saku Koivu, and Tomas Plecanek, who didn't have good weeks. As for the goalies, Gagnon notes that they have the most difficult assignments: the Canadiens, he says, rarely win if their goalie isn't one of the three stars. He rates Huet's week as very good (apart from the shoot-out!), but says expectations for Price need to be scaled back, as his poor performance last week shows: Price must "walk before he can run".

La Presse also carries a story titled "Canadiens Face Vulnerable Lightning" ("Le Canadien affrontera un Lightning vulnérable") showing that someone at CP (it's a wire story) is feeling optimistic. It is similar to the Pat Hickey article highlighting the Lightning's recent troubles. While it's true that lately the Lightning have had problems, it must be remembered that beating the Habs evidently isn't one of them. Please, please, please no shoot-out tonight! Elsewhere in La Presse, Maxim Lapierre talks about the Habs Christmas vacation.

Check out le Journal de Montreal for this Pierre Durocher piece on the game tonight. He's looking for a rebound from a "poor team effort" against Dallas. With three points out of six so far on the road this trip, he notes that there is still a chance to make this a successful leg of the Habs season. And he says that the Habs have "favourable circumstances" on their side against the Lightning, echoing Gagnon and Hickey, and again stimulating my terrible memories of Brad Richards making Huet look stupid in the shoot-out. These are the Habs! "Favourable circumstances" would be, like, if the other team's equipment got lost and they had to use roller skates and lacrosse sticks.

The Hamilton Bulldogs have struggled this season, but recently completed a successful trip to Manitoba, on which the Dogs picked up 3 of a possible 4 points, winning Friday and losing in overtime Saturday against the Manitoba Moose. Corey Locke, Duncan Milroy, and Matt d'Agostini will continue to be a three-man army when the Dogs return to the ice tonight, at home against the same Moose team.


News for Wednesday, December 26th: Habs in Florida, the continuing Subban Story, Mats Naslund, Jacques Lemaire, and Ryder trade stuff.

After a whole two days off for Christmas, the Habs were back on the ice today, getting ready for tomorrow's game against the Lightning. Pat Hickey talks to several Canadiens about how they spent their "holidays". A few spent the big day in Florida, rather than getting mixed up in a whirlwind of holiday travel - good call. Interesting fact to learn in this piece: Russians open their presents on New Year's Day.

Wow, another profile on prospect PK Subban, this one in the Globe and Mail. There was another in the Star just three days ago. Subban gets more press than most of the guys who actually play for the Habs, which speaks to his charisma, I guess. I was really hoping to watch him earlier today in the WJHC, but unfortunately, he was the 7th D.

Ian MacDonald talks with former Habs standout Mats Naslund in this where-are-they-now piece. Mats has stayed involved in hockey, managing Team Sweden at Worlds and the Olympics, and also served as a Euro scout for the Habs under former GM Rejean Houle. Considering Houle's drafting record, I'm not sure I'd bring that up if I were Mats. Naslund speaks nostalgically of being the last Hab to top 100 points (110 in 1985/1986), reminding us that at least one person is proud of the fact that the Habs haven't been able to break a hundred in twenty years. It's always nice to read about what our old favourites are up to, especially a guy like Naslund, one of their few ever really good Euros, and an important member of a Cup winning team.

The Minneapolis Post Bulletin has a piece on Wild coach Jacques Lemaire, obviously a familiar name to Habs fans, and - among many other interesting details - it points out that Lemaire has managed to coach well over a thousand NHL games without ever being fired. Now there's an impressive stat. Lemaire has himself resigned from two other coaching jobs, one with the Devils (after a club record 107 point season) and one, of course, with the Canadiens. He has certainly earned his job security: his Devils were perennial contenders who won a Stanley Cup under him in 1995, and his Wild teams have always been competitive. There are many Habs fans out there who dream aloud about the Habs one day hiring Lemaire to coach again in Montreal, but forget it: Lemaire is on the record as having no patience with the media-circus that surrounds the Habs, and you can bet that hasn't changed.

On Fox, analyst Spector has his trade-watch candidates for each team posted, and it's no surprise to find he considers Michael Ryder to be Grade A trade bait. It is, however, interesting to read that he believes the Habs have no intention of parting with goalie Cristobal Huet: before the season, the emergence of Carey Price had the entire city practically packing the guy's bags. The Habs, however, would indeed be wise to retain the veteran's services, Price or no Price. Back to Ryder for a second: this is obviously a trade that will come back to bite the Habs on the ass. We've seen it before. Ryder has the potential to score fifty with the right kind of support, and when he does, you can bet at least 10 of them will be against the Habs.

And finally, the aforementioned rookie phenom Carey Price is named one of the Sporting News' best six young players in this brief look at hockey's future.


News for Tuesday, December 25th

Christmas has come, but the news doesn't stop, somehow. I'll take a break from lacing up my son's new skates (it's his first real pair, and he likes to put them on, take them off, put them on, repeat) to post a few links:

Fox News - hey, they're always reliable, right? Just ask my dad - has a Spector blog that puts a lump of coal into the stocking of hope that the Ovechkin-to-Montreal rumours have been to many Habs fans. In short, he says the rumours are nothing more than the metastasized echoes of the wishful thinking of members of the Montreal press. Their persistence, he adds, is the result of hockey-snobbery, which continues to view with distaste the fact that a player as superb (and marketable) as Alex Ovechkin toils nightly to thousands of empty seats in a lousy hockey market. But the reality is, the owner and management of the team have no intention of trading him, and Ovechkin's impending RFA status isn't going to change anything. Well, I think I speak for all Hab fans when I say, that sucks. Merry Christmas to you too, Spector.

The Canadian Press ranks the Habs 12th in their weekly ranking. Appended is a Christmas wish for each team: Montreal's is for Michael Ryder to "start finding the back of the net again". Amen. The other wishes are entertaining enough for a quick read.

At Sportsnet.ca, Pierre Lebrun has a nice read on Mike Ribeiro's revenge on the Habs the other day ... as if you want to think about that again, I know, but still a good piece. Lebrun notes that Ribeiro is on pace for 94 points (won't happen), but agrees with many (myself included) that things wouldn't have gone the same way for him in Montreal. Lebrun cites "distractions" in Montreal as evidence in support of his belief. I think I know what he means, I've been "distracted" a few times in Montreal myself. Lebrun quotes Ribeiro on the reason for his transformation: "Maturity comes into play", and that when he was in Montreal he was "thinking less about training than I am now".

The Canadian Press looks at the situation of all six Canadian NHL teams at the Christmas break. At 17-13-6, the Habs are one of four Canadian teams on the good side of the playoff line. Of course, the CP would hardly be journalists if they didn't point out that the Habs were in the exact same position at this time last year, as no fan needs to be reminded. CP kindly advises the Habs to avoid a similar "meltdown", which doesn't quite qualify as sage advice.

Okay, here's a hilarious life-imitates-art story from the Globe and Mail. Over in Kandahar, Canadian Forces have built an ice-less hockey rink, right next to the famous Tim Horton's outlet, the only one outside North America. Their league is so active, the owners of Sportchek decided to help out the troops by donating a pile of hockey gear - a really nice gesture. A photo op was scheduled for the shipment arrival, and a member of the Van Doos (famous Quebec regiment) was all set to pose in the new Montreal Canadiens sweater he'd requested. But when he pulled the sweater out of the package ... well, if you don't know what he found, then you haven't read Roch Carrier's classic short story, and you should! This article is a must read.

Well, that would seem to be about it. I have to go lace my kid's skates again. Merry Christmas to all.


News for Monday, December, 24th

TSN carries the CP story that runs in many papers today, focusing on the close, personal connections between Dallas and Montreal, which have helped develop an unlikely cross-conference rivalry between the two teams. First of all, the teams' respective owners, George Gillet and Tom Hicks, are close friends and business partners. Furthermore, all three current Montreal bench coaches - Guy Carbonneau, Kirk Muller, and Doug Jarvis - spent a significant amount of time with Dallas after their Montreal playing days. Doug Jarvis was an assistant coach there for 14 years, while Kirk Muller won his second Cup with the Stars, playing alongside Guy Carbonneau, whose daughter is married to team captain Brendan Morrow. Bob Gainey, Habs GM, filled the same role with Dallas in days gone by, and still has close connections in the city. More recently, Gainey helped out his Texas hockey pals by trading them Mike Ribeiro - for Janne Niinimaa, ouch - who has blossomed like the proverbial yellow rose into a star: his 19 goals and 39 points have him heading for a career year. Niinimaa is also having a good season. In Europe. That's an unusual amount of history for teams from different parts of the continent to share.

In the Gazette (and on AP), Pat Hickey takes the "Revenge of Ribeiro" angle, quoting the one-time Hab as saying "I had this game circled (on the calendar) for a long time". Well, it will be a Merry Christmas for him, after picking up three points against the team that drafted him, lost patience with him, gave up on him, and traded him for a bag of pucks. It will be a less Merry Christmas for coach Carbo, who will be spending the holidays being mocked at son-in-law Brendan Morrow's house. Carbo wasn't happy with what he saw, particularly Ribeiro's goal, on which, as he notes, "we just gave it away." It's nice of him to use the collective pronoun there, since only one guy actually gave the puck away, but since Carbo doesn't name names, neither will I. But he's tall, European, and his name in English means "he who licks hammers".

For a different perspective, see the Fort Worth Star Telegram, whose Tracey Myers gives us the view from Texas, which is that Mike Ribeiro was looking to send a message to the Habs, and did (he put a little too much postage on it for my liking). Myers notes that "it wasn't a bad night for anyone in black", and that the Stars "controlled the tempo throughout". She quotes Turco as saying that Ribeiro "had the puck on a string" all night, and says the Canadiens sealed their own fate by failing to score on five power plays. All true. She also has a stat that isn't mentioned elsewhere: in his last 8 games, Mike Ribeiro has 15 points. Ouch.

For La Presse, Francois Gagnon talks about the game with Mathieu Dandeneault, who says Ribeiro's big night was "écrit dans le ciel" (written in the stars). Dandeneault praises Ribeiro , calling him "very intelligent" and a "very good player", but he says the Habs are to blame for the loss: "On a fait l’erreur de lui donner de l’espace et du temps. C’est sûr qu’il allait en profiter" ("We made the mistake of giving them too much space and time. They were certain to take advantage"). Gagnon also quotes a disgusted Guy Carbonneau, who says essentially that he can accept a loss if the team works hard and plays well, but that last night the Habs gave nothing ("Je peux accepter la défaite. Je peux vivre avec tant qu’on se défonce sur la patinoire. Et ce soir, on n’a rien donné. Rien!"). When it was suggested that the Habs were tired, playing their third game in four nights, Carbo admitted fatigue was a factor, but that a team always needs to give everything it has left, and that last night, "we didn't do that" ("On ne l’a pas fait ce soir ").

Also in La Presse, Rejean Tremblay has a blustery column that touches a few bases. He quotes Yvon Lambert at length on the Canadiens' lack of size, which in the opinion of both, it seems, is the biggest problem the Habs have. Lambert feels sorriest for Saku Koivu, "the poor guy", who is forced to do battle every night with guys a half-foot taller and 50 pounds heavier, and is criticized for not being able to do more against them. This angers Lambert. At some point, he says, it's only natural that Koivu has nothing left to give ("Le pauvre gars mesure cinq pieds et dix pouces et il passe les soirées à affronter des gars de six pieds et trois pouces, quand c’est pas plus. C’est normal qu’à un moment donné, il ne soit plus capable d’en donner plus"). I'm with Yvon about Koivu, who is as heart-and-soul as they come, but I think Koivu would be better off with a winger who can finish his plays than he would be with some extra bulk. And in generas, I feel the Habs clearly want less for size than for scoring. I'd gladly take a Daniel Briere or Marc Savard over a Dustin Penner or a Scott Hartnell right about now.

Tremblay has some kind words for Guy Carbonneau, who he says is "infinitely more solid in his decisions" ("Carbo est infiniment plus solide dans ses décisions"). Tremblay says he's making a difference this season, that the Habs record this year is not deceptive, as last year's was. Tremblay gives Carbo the gears a bit for benching Guillaume Latendresse, whom he points out has two more even-strength goals than the "great" Alex Kovalev, and more than any other Hab except for Tomas Plecanek, all while playing on the third or fourth line. Well, it's a fair point, but we know that Tremblay wouldn't be defending Latendresse if his name were Jones. Latendresse has been inconsistent: when he's working, he's effective, and when he's not, he's a liability. Carbo is trying to keep him on track, and letting him know that his spot in the line-up is not guaranteed is not at all a bad thing.

Tremblay (it's a long column!) blasts Bob Gainey for ever trading Mike Ribeiro (he's not a Frenchman, Rejean!), whom he says had "du talent et du chien." Okay, to me that says Ribeiro had the talent and the dog, but I can't figure out what his dog has to do with it. I assume it's an idiom of some sort, and I apologize for being at a loss with the translation, but Rejean's French is rather challenging at times. Anyway, he eye-rollingly suggests that Bob must have traded Mike for wearing his hat gangsta-style ("portait sa casquette avec la palette sur le côté"), and says it's infuriating that Gainey gave such a gift to the Dallas Stars. Fair enough, but I'm with those who say that Ribeiro was a lousy fit in Montreal.

Finally (!) Tremblay says some nice things about Jack Todd, whom he says is leaving the Gazette this January. What?! Say it ain't so, Jack!

See here for a nice piece on Habs prospect PK Subban, he now of the Canadian World Junior team. A great read, don't miss it.

In the blogosphere: Mike Boone feels our pain at HIO, pointing out that Roman Hamrlik went -4, and that Carey Price wasn't exactly Price-o-licious last night. Lions in Winter does a bang-up job of finding positives in last night's game (Markov has snapped out of his funk, Sergei Kostitsyn showed that his junior numbers weren't all linemate-related, the play of Chipchura and Streit, etc). Hey, who says Habs fans are always negative? Eyes on the Prize has a fun Christmas Wish List for the Habs; I liked it so much I might post my own later. And I think Four Habs Fans have coined a brilliant/depressing term for what happened to the Habs last night when they say that the Habs got "Leclaired in Dallas".

Hoping for better things on Thursday.

Dallas 4 - Montreal 1: Game Review

During the first intermission last night on RDS, Kirk Muller was being questioned about the Habs "terrible performance", to which he objected, "Well, I wouldn't use the word 'terrible'". Hmm. I wonder what word he was using after the game was finished? Well, if he wouldn't call it "terrible", anyone doing last-minute Christmas shopping for Captain Kirk should be advised that he could probably use a new dictionary ... and perhaps a thesaurus.

Anyway, I was feeling for Kirk - and Guy, and Doug - during last night's execrable, vomitous, noxious, abhorrent, wretched, vile, atrocious performance. Muller is my favourite Hab ever, a guy who always played his hardest, hated losing, and embodied effort. Kirk had 2nd-line skills, which he parlayed into 1st-line stats and a distinguished career, the high-point of which has to be his leading the Habs to the 1993 Stanley Cup. Why can't we see some of that drive and will from the present-day team? I'm not saying the current Habs don't always try, just that they don't always aim, work, aspire, attempt, compete, contest, labor, or struggle.

In defense of the Habs - though they probably need a better lawyer than me - they were playing their third game in four nights on the road, and last night's apparent lack of effort was probably mostly a lack of steam. They also faced a very tough opponent in the surging Dallas Stars, led by Mike Ribeiro, whose vengeance was swift and terrible. A goal and two helpers for the former hometown hero, and with Bob Gainey in the audience, you know he was loving every second of it. Let's just be grateful this didn't happen in Montreal!

It's conventional wisdom that a tired team can be forced into penalties, and perhaps that's why the Canadiens spent most of the evening trooping off to the box. I would like to think so, except it seems like they've spent the whole season getting themselves into penalty trouble: they take a lot of unnecessary, cheesy holding and hooking calls, and seem surprised every time they get called. Didn't they get that memo a couple of years ago? Two nights ago, bad penalties cost the Habs a win, and last night, two consecutive, early trips to the bin resulted in two early goals against, and we all knew there was no digging out of that hole. I actually changed the channel at 4-0, and yes, it was partly because my girlfriend was yelling at me because I was watching hockey for the third night out of the last four, while ignoring her on "the night before Christmas Eve," which apparently is now some sort of special occasion, but mainly I stopped watching because when the Habs trail after two periods, a loss is even more of a sure thing than she is. Haha, just kidding, baby.

It was a night to forget for most of the team. Carey Price looked more like the second coming of Jocelyn Thibault than Patrick Roy, going down more often than a (insert joke here). In all seriousness, he has changed his technique since the beginning of the season, hitting his knees much more early and often than he used to. Perhaps this is in response to the five-hole vulnerability he was displaying in October? Probably. And it certainly has helped that problem ... unfortunately, shooters have now zeroed in on the top corners, where he is beatable on either side. On the bright side, you get the feeling from Price that he'll adjust for this difficulty in time; he's a serious student of the game, you can tell, and his devotion to technical precision suggests that he's very serious in practice.

Alex Kovalev showed up to play, and was rewarded with nearly 20 minutes of ice-time (he did take a couple of long shifts) but came away empty-handed. Roman Hamrlik made the blunder of the evening, serving up a juicy one to Mike Ribeiro, who promptly ripped it high, glove-side on Price. Ryan O'Byrne struggled, as did Chris Higgins, whom I would bet must be fighting illness or pain. Actually, it would be fair to say that no-one on the Habs had a great night. The only bright spot was Andrei Markov's ninth goal of the season, assisted - for the first time, but not the last - by both Kostitsyns! Sergei continues to impress.

To accentuate the positive - and we should - the Habs have managed to pick up three out of a possible six points on the road, and are now halfway through the usually disastrous annual Christmas road trip. If they can win two of the next three, they'll be in good shape ... though that won't be easy against Tampa, Florida, and New York.


The Ghost of Christmas Past: Ribeiro Returns

Tonight marks Mike Ribeiro's first game against his former mates, and no doubt the homecoming will make it a special night for him. He speaks with La Presse's Francois Gagnon about the event, and - showing some maturity? - keeps it fairly bland and generic: it's all about the team, my goal is to help us make the playoffs and contend for the cup, etc. I expected something more colourful.

He does take the opportunity to deny that he ever wanted out of Montreal, but admits that by the time he was traded, he had had enough of the scrutiny of the media and the pressure from the fans. But he chalks up most of the turmoil he went through with the Habs to the difficulties of dealing with fame at a young age: "J’étais jeune à Montréal", he shrugs. The move to Dallas has allowed him to live his life and concentrate on his game without distractions: " Il n’y a pas de médias, personne ne me reconnaît à l’épicerie. On a la pression de gagner, mais cette pression vient du vestiaire uniquement. Pas de l’extérieur" (There's no media, nobody stopping me at the grocery. There's pressure to win, but only in the dressing room, not outside).

There is a faint flash of the old Ribeiro when he's asked if he'd enjoy beating the team that traded him. He doesn't fully take the bait, but allows that "Je veux le gagner. Battre Montréal serait vraiment bien. Marquer un but en plus, ce serait encore mieux" (I want to win. Against Montreal it would be really nice. If I can score as well, that would be even better).

I feel like he was dying to say something more, something along the lines of, "Yeah, I'd love to stick it to the team, to Bob, to the fans, and to the whole city," but maybe that's just me. It would be easy to understand if he wanted some payback: as a home-town boy with a scorer's pedigree from the Q, he was saddled with expectations he never managed to live up to. His best season with the Habs, 65 points, wasn't nearly enough for fans desperate for a superstar, and he took plenty of heat from the papers, the radio, the TV, and especially from the stands. If he didn't take that personally and wouldn't like to rub the town's nose in it with a hat-trick, he's a better man than most of us. It's true that he brought some of the criticism on himself with his sometimes slack play, his mouth, and his behaviour downtown, but as he says, he was a younger man then, and made a young man's mistakes. This year, a little older and wiser, he's quietly putting together a career season, and his 18 goals and 36 points are more than any member of the Habs can boast. He's doing a lot to silence the critics who said he couldn't lead a team.

Still though, would the average Habs fan like to have Ribeiro back? Probably only if they could trade Janne Niinimaa, a total failure as a Hab, back for him. The truth is, he's not greatly missed. Nevertheless, his story remains a powerful cautionary tale of the pressures young, talented players face in the city of Montreal, and of the need to protect them from the fickle fans, the ravenous press ... and from themselves. Let's hope it's a lesson management has taken to heart as it nurtures one of the NHL's youngest teams.

News for Sunday, December 23rd

Most of the news deals with the Canadiens' loss in a shoot-out last night against the Atlanta Thrashers. It was the mirror image of Thursday's game, in which they were outplayed but won two points they didn't deserve: last night, the Habs out-shot, out-hit, and out-everythinged the overmatched Thrashers, but let the game get away from them.

Cristobal Huet was weak on the first Thrasher goal, then very solid through the rest of regulation and overtime. Maxim Lapierre took a terrible offensive zone penalty, and the team paid the price as Marian Hossa fed a beautiful cross-crease saucer pass right onto the waiting stick of Eric Perrin. The Canadiens goals - which had to be good on a night when Kari Lehtonen was very hot - came from Alex Kovalev, a hard slapper that powered its way in, and Sergei Kostitsyn, a third-chancer after shots by Komisarek and Koivu were stopped.

If you're looking for the silver lining, find it in the continuing emergence of Sergei Kostitsyn, who has finally revived the top line, the improving team defense, which just may be based on a system after all, and especially in the overall play of the Canadiens, who truly deserved a better fate, for once.

Given the team's poor history, Canadiens fans were probably feeling a little pessimistic going into the shoot-out, and apparently those feelings are shared by Cristobal Huet, who admits as much to the Gazette's Pat Hickey. "I'm not feeling very confident in shootouts," he says, and verily, it shows. Atlanta only needed two shooters to finish off the Habs and Huet, who was frozen by a Hossa laser and then melted into a puddle by Slava Kozlov's slick move. "It all starts with the goaltender and I have to get better," he concludes. Well, it's good of him to take responsibility and all, but the truth is this game should not have come down to a shoot-out. If the Canadiens had any finish at all, it would have been over before the third period.

The same article contains a conversation with Atlanta scorer Eric Perrin, who hails from Laval, Quebec. Is it just me, or do these French guys on other teams not always manage to kill the Habs? If you're wondering how the Habs overlooked Perrin in the draft, they probably didn't scout him around the same time they weren't scouting his college line-mate, Martin St. Louis.

The Globe and Mail runs an AP piece that fills in the game story from the Atlanta side. Unlike the Canadiens, the Thrashers thrive on the shoot-out, last night's victory improving their record to 4-1 in the duel. When asked why they do so well, netminder Lehtonen was at a loss: "I really don't know," he said. Well, I do, and so does Cristobal Huet: the answer is Hossa, Kovalchuk, and Kozlov. Interim coach Don Waddell anticipated - and receieved - a tough match against the Canadiens, who he says play a "very patient game." That's what you call it when it works, I guess. When it doesn't, it goes from patient to fatalistic. The same piece carries quotes from Guy Carbonneau, who agrees both that the Habs played well - Kari Lehtonen "stole the game for them," he says - and that they need to work on their shoot-out ... to a point: "The shootout is something we try to work on," he is quoted as saying, "but it's not something we can spend too much time on." Uh, why not? Too busy trying out new line combinations, I suppose. Finally, on a humorous note, remember that brilliant poke-check Lehtonen threw out on Koivu last night? The one that had us all complaining that the Captain needs a new move? Well, turns out Lehtonen just got lucky:"I thought he was going the other way. I tried to poke the puck and missed. I guess he added another move since I have seen him. It was luck, I guess." Well, you have to be lucky to be good, I guess. Oh, and sorry, Saku! I didn't mean all that stuff I said. You knows I loves you.

More of the same in La Presse, whose writer Fancois Gagnon concurs with his English brethren that "le CH méritait mieux" (Habs deserved better). The Canadiens, he notes, played much better than they did against the Capitals, but at the same time, the Thrashers are a lot better than the Caps. He quotes Guillaume Latendresse as saying the Canadiens aren't hanging their heads leaving Atlanta ("On n’a pas à partir d’ici la tête basse"), and indeed the young forward sounds quite optimistic: "Les quatre trios ont bien joué, nous avons comblé un déficit pour une rare fois cette saison en troisième période et il y a beaucoup plus de positif que de négatif à tirer de cette rencontre" (loosely, "All four lines played well, we came back from a third period deficit, which is rare, and in general there were positives than negatives in this game"). All true, though I would cite the lack of finish and the continuing struggle in the shoot-out as definite concerns: the Habs will make or miss the playoffs by only a few points, after all.


News for Saturday, December 22nd

Further reaction to Guillaume Latendresse's two-goal response on Thursday to being benched on Tuesday, as Stephanie Myles talks to the young Habs forward. He says he was well-over his frustration when game time rolled around, and hit the ice with his "head in the right place." Coach Carbonneau wanted him to work without the puck, and head to the net whenever possible, both of which missions were accomplished. Latendresse was on a line with Maxim Lapierre and Mathieu Dandeneault (though one of his goals was a power-play gift from Saku Koivu) and in this article he sounds very pleased with the trio's chemistry - though he must surely be wondering how long his coach, the league's most active and inscrutable line-juggler - will keep it together.

The same article quotes a frustrated Carbo on the extreme scrutiny even his most minor moves receives: "When I was in Dallas, nobody talked about who played and didn't play". Is he serious? Is the former captain of the Canadiens - who was traded to St. Louis after igniting a controversy literally with a flick of his finger - actually surprised at the attention the team gets from the press? When he was in Dallas he must have picked up the habit of "joshin'".

Also in the Gazette, Red Fisher pronounces the Habs' goaltending controversy DOA. Huet, he says, is still the man. As we well know, of course, this controversy is never dead proper, but would more appropriately be considered "undead", soon to arise from a short period of inanimation to once again stalk the living. Fisher's case: Huet has been brilliant for the Habs since stealing the job from Jose Theodore, the Habs would have made the playoffs if not for Huet's injury last year, Price hasn't enough to take the job away, and Huet was great the other night against the Capitals. Mostly true, except for the part about the Habs making the playoffs last year: Jaroslav Halak stepped up very well last year after Huet was hurt, meaning the goaltending wasn't a factor. Actually, Huet's early return, in the final game of the regular season, did the Habs' playoff hopes no good at all: he was a big part of the nightmarish collapse against the Maple Leafs that officially eliminated the team.

The Sporting News previews tonight's game in Atlanta, where the Habs will take on the Thrashers. The Thrashers are on a bit of a roll, with wins in their last two games, including an impressive 3-2 victory over the born-again Ottawa Senators. Number one goalie Kari Lehtonen is 4-2-0 with a 2.87 GAA since returning from an injury, and his presence makes this Atlanta team much better. Of course, their most important player remains Ilya Kovalchuk, who leads the NHL with 28 goals - 4 in his last 3 games - and is the NHL's best bet to become the newest member of the elite 50 in 50 club. New guy Mark Recchi has profited from a change in scenery, picking up 5 points in his first 5 games with Atlanta. The Habs also have played well lately - well, they've won lately - and the big reasons are Alexei Kovalev (7 points in his last 6), Saku Koivu (points in his last 3 games) and the goaltending duo of Carey Price and Cristobal Huet. The not quite un-sung hero of the team remains Mike Komisarek, who plays big minutes in a crucial role.

Like to day-dream about the Habs acquiring a player who could replace Stephane Richer and Mats Naslund as the answer to a Habs trivia question? A player who could challenge for the scoring title, electrify the audience, and lead the team to the Stanley Cup? So does Jack Todd. Read this piece and fantasize away.

Fancois Gagnon focusses on Michael Ryder in this piece from La Presse. A likely scratch again tonight - unless, Gagnon jokes, another member of the team hurt himself getting out of bed today - Ryder is rapidly becoming a press-box regular. Mired in a season-long slump, he remains stuck at just 3 goals and 10 points. Despite his troubles, he says all the right things to Gagnon: he still wants to be part of the team, understands the decision not to play him, and wants to turn things around. Gagnon quotes him as saying that he does not intend to ask for a trade, and that he respects the decision to stick with a different line-up as long as the team is winning. The situation for Ryder is bad and getting worse: he's been replaced by Sergei Kostitsyn on the top line, and Gagnon notes that Kos Jr. has been able to spark his line-mates (<>). On the power-play, Guillaume Latendresse has taken his spot, and has produced. As Gagnon says, Ryder is likely to stay off the ice until someone gets hurt, or quits working.

Elsewhere in La Presse, M. Gagnon gets Alex Kovalev's opinion on who the best players in the NHL are. His answer: Ilya Kovalchuk (whom he compares to Tiger Woods!) and Alex Ovechkin. Kovalev says that Russian players don't get the recognition they deserve until their team actually wins a championship. Gagnon also speaks to Andrei Markov about the possibility of best-pal Alex Ovechkin someday joining the Habs, and actually manages to tick the usually robotic defenseman off: «Pourquoi me poser une question comme celle-là?» Markov says ("Why would you ask me a question like that?"). «Vous savez que ça n'arrivera jamais» ("You know it'll never happen"). Markov also asks the reporter why he thinks Ovechkin would want to sign with a team where he'll lose half of his money in taxes: um, I don't know, Andrei ... because you did?
For still more Ovechkin dreaming, see Marc de Foy's article in le Journal de Montreal, ici.


News for Friday, December 21st

A big win by the Habs over the Washington Capitals is the news of the day. As Mike Boone, of Habs Inside Out, noted, "The Whiners" were "The Winners", as two players who let it be known they were unhappy to be passed over for duty on Tuesday night, Cristobal Huet and Guillaume Latendresse, were the difference makers for the Habs. Huet stopped 35 of 37 shots, coming up huge in his first game since missing seven starts with a groin strain, and Latendresse scored two goals, and now has nine on the season.

The Globe and Mail carries an AP story focussing on how the win will help get Latendresse get back in Coach Carbo's good graces. "Nobody is happy when they're sat out for a game," quoth Gui, and I am sure he is right. Why was he benched, for the fourth time this year? "He has to play without the puck," is Carbo's explanation. Hey, if the guy can score two goals with the puck, why would you want him to play without the puck?

The Sports Network (not, apparently, to be confused with TSN) quotes Huet sounding dismissive of the Capitals generous edge in shots on goal: "We capitalized on our chances. They tried to force everything, throwing the puck at the net all night." Translation: "We got lucky, and I bailed these guys out again."

The Washington Post is not known for its hockey coverage, but they have an article worth reading on the struggles of their long-time starting goalie, Olaf Kolzig. After allowing 5 goals on 21 shots against the Habs, Kolzig is 3-4-1 with a 3.46 GAA and a .856 save percentage so far this season. Kolzig accepts part of the blame for his bad numbers, but also implicates new coach Bruce Boudreau's system: "We're playing a system now where you don't get a lot of comfort shots, a lot of perimeter shots."


News for Thursday, December 20th

The Canadian Press has a great article (no author attributed) on the Canadiens' upcoming Christmas road trip. If you like esoteric, highly-specific statistics (we called them Curry Stats back in my university dorm, after a guy named Curry who liked to tell you how many Stanley Cups had been won by guys who also had sisters who were gold medalists in the Commonwealth Games in odd-numbered years) then this piece is for you. I love discovering new stats I had no idea about, such as this one: the Canadiens have not won a game on December 23rd since 1945, when they defeated the Bruins (you can always count on those Bruins!). The article is full of such ominous numbers. Try these on for size: since 1999, the Canadiens record between December 23rd and December 31st is 3-18-5. They haven't had a successful holiday since 1998 (3-1-0). There is something unnerving about trends such as this, which are as plainly extant as they are inscrutable. Why on earth should the Canadiens have such a persistently bad record over the Christmas season? It's not the distraction, which obviously would apply to both teams in the game. Maybe it's as simple as the fact that the Habs always have a Christmas road trip, an annual event necessitated by the corporate avarice that has the team's owners put Les Boys on the back-burner to make a killing renting out their arena for holiday events. Or ... maybe it's even simpler than that, a result of the fact that the Habs have had a lousy record just about all the time since 1998. Yes, that's probably it.

The same article highlights how the NHL managed to turn itself into the Grinch Who Stole the Habs' Family Christmas. Mr. Gillette and company wanted to lessen the impact of the road trip on the players' Christmas plans by taking the whole team and all their kin to Tampa, to spend Christmas together in the sun. Is that a great idea or what? Unfortunately, the NHL dictates that each team may only pay for one trip for one family member per year. So no dice. Let me take this opportunity - as I will gladly take every such one - to say, "Thanks for nothing, Gary." There's a man who deserves some coal in his stocking.

Also from the CP wire, the NHL has decided not to suspend Saku Koivu for cross-checking Jozef Stumpel in the face at the end of Tuesday's Panthers-Canadiens games. Lucky break for the Habs. Not so much for Stumpy.

News for Wednesday, December 19th

The news focuses on the Habs listless loss to the Panthers last night. It's a little depressing to read, but the tone of the reporting is not nearly as dire as it was a week ago, at the tail-end of a five game losing streak.

The legendary Red Fisher deploys his patented sarcastic/Socratic style, posing sharp questions which he himself answers with pointed wit. He points out that the 3-2 score shouldn't be taken as indicative of the closeness of the contest, and fingers the Panthers speed as the major reason for the loss. Hey, aren't we always hearing about the Canadiens fast players and great team speed? Fisher also points out Florida's advantage in shots (23-12) and giveaways (6-16) between the two teams during the first two periods. Finally, Red wonders aloud if Captain Saku Koivu will be suspended for a blindly-thrown cross-check that caught someone in the face. Answer: most likely.

Pat Hickey gives a tip of the hat to the Panthers for being the only NHL team with a winning life-time record against the Canadiens. How they have managed to achieve this is hard to say, given that the Panthers have sucked even harder than the Habs in the years since they came into the league. Luongo, Belfour, and now Tomas Vokoun seem able to stone the Habs at will. Speaking of Vokoun, he took advantage of another opportunity to remind the team that drafted him that they blew it. Vokoun used to play in the AHL in Fredericton, where I attended university, in a tandem with Jose Theodore. He routinely outplayed the over-hyped former "saviour" of the team, as I liked to point out on the alt.canadiens usenet site, even though no-one cared. Well, no matter what he did, there was no chance that anyone but Theodore was getting a shot with the big club, and Vokoun was eventually let go ... though not before being left for dead by coach Mario Tremblay in a first-period barrage by the Philadelphia Flyers. As Hickey notes, the Flyers victimized him for four goals in what turned out to be the only game Vokoun ever played for the Habs. Wow, did that Tremblay have a way with goalies, or what? Anyway, Vokoun was very polite, saying that he remains grateful to the Canadiens for giving him his first chance, but really, if your only memories of playing with the Habs have Mario Tremblay at their centre, how grateful could you really be?

We all make mistakes: that seems to be Carbo's shrugging reaction to the loss last night, as Pat Hickey (again! the man is busy!) reports. The biggest mistakes of the night belonged to Carey Price, who made a beautiful centering pass to the Panther's Brett McLean for the game's second goal, and who absolutely whiffed on a long, slow slapshot by Stephen Weiss that eventually won the game for the Panthers. Interestingly, no one - from the press, to the coach, to the rookie goalie who helped cough this one up - seems to be taking the loss too hard. Hickey quotes Price thus: "We could have played better; I could have played better. Now, we have to go out and get some wins on the road." That's probably the right spirit.

In Journal de Montreal, Marc de Foy also discusses the mystery that is the Panthers supremacy over les Canadiens. He quotes Mike Komisarek as saying something along the lines of, "We might have been overconfident after winning a couple of big games" («On pèche peut-être par excès de confiance après avoir disputé de gros matchs»). I must say that it didn't appear to be a case of too much confidence from my point of view; if it was, then the Canadiens' confidence must be less fragile than we are led to believe, so obviously undeserved any such confidence was. De Foy is also of the opinion that Carey Price was sub-par on this night. For once some concensus between the French and English press.

Also le Journal, Pierre Durocher has a piece on the frustration of Saku Koivu's countryman, Panthers forward Olli Jokinen. While Koivu has grown impatient waiting for a chance to win a Stanley Cup, Jokinen hasn't even seen the playoffs. Perhaps someone should find a way to get these guys together, and kill two birds with the proverbial one stone? Dare to dream.

Marc Antoine Godin of La Presse reports on the game, going to Coach Carbonneau for the straight dope:
«On a joué deux minutes, a avoué Guy Carbonneau après le match. On n'était pas prêts à travailler. On n'a pas voulu frapper, on n'a pas voulu se faire frapper, on n'a pas patiné.» Is it fair to say that the Habs only played two minutes, or that they didn't hit, skate, or work? Yes. It is. He also quotes Chris Higgins as saying that the Habs are a team that must apply pressure, force mistakes, and avoid errors of their own, because they don't have any true snipers.

Also note this La Presse article, which has Guillaume Latendresse sounding a little ticked off at being left out of the line-up against Florida:
«J'étais prêt (à jouer). C'est facile de voir que je suis déçu ... C'est la première fois que je vis ça. Je faisais ce qu'on me demandait de faire, je travaillais fort. C'est la décision de l'entraîneur. Je n'y peux rien» (I was ready to play, it's easy to see I'm disappointed, I've done everything that's been asked of me. It's the coach's decision, there's nothing I can do). Aw, poor Gui! As to why he didn't suit up, Carbo explains that he simply didn't want to mess with success, having won two games with the same line-up: «Tout le monde méritait de rejouer» (Everyone deserved to play again). Fair enough, given the amount of flak Carbo has taken this season for juggling his lines and line-ups from night to night; I was glad to see him stick with a roster for once, personally.

Finally, see Four Habs Fans for a humorous take on the game in an article called, "We Now Return You to our Regularly Scheduled Sucking". Laughter is indeed the best medicine ... no, wait, that's scotch. Scotch is the best medicine. But laughter is a close second.


A Troubled Home Life: Panthers School Habs

Well, anyone who was hoping that the Canadiens had overcome their problems playing at home got an unwelcome reality check last night, as the Florida Panthers continued their mysterious dominance over the Habs in 3-2 victory during which the Habs never threatened, and never really threatened to threaten.

You can make that 27 wins all-time for the Panthers against the Habs, against just 16 losses and four overtime losses. The only team with a winning record against the once-mighty Canadiens made it look easy, outshooting, outhitting, and generally outplaying the home-team, despite a last-minute flurry. The Habs troubles with giveaways - the main cause of their last loss, against the Tampa Bay Lightning - surfaced again, as they coughed up the puck with striking eagerness against a trapping Florida team that is programmed to feed on exactly that sort of mistake.

Indeed, the Panthers put on a clinic of exactly the type of game that Coach Carbo would have his own team play: perimeter defense, protected by a neutral zone trap that morphs into a hard fore-check when the opportunity arises. After such a disappointing loss, perhaps we can at least hope that the Habs were taking notes.

Carey Price leads the list of let-downs tonight. He was weak on two of the goals, one of which he literally teed-up for the Panthers' Brett McLean. The other, a 40-footer by Stephen Weiss, he simply should have stopped. It was an AHL goal, and it turned out to be the game-winner. Over his seven straight starts, Price is 3-3-1, not awful, but not impressive. He made some nice stops in this one, and couldn't be faulted for the first goal, but he also let in some softies and must take the heat for this loss. Look for Huet to return against Washington on Thursday, and hope that he brings his A-game.

On the bright side, how about Andrei Markov with two goals? Captain Koivu drew an assist on one of them, and played ferociously throughout. Michael Ryder showed signs of life, blinking his eye-lids repeatedly, a development that temporarily cheered fans until an Army surgeon dropped by and revealed that Ryder was blinking the message, "Kill me" in Morse code, over and over. The horror ...

Ah well, better things on Thursday, for sure.

News for Tuesday, December 18th

The Florida Panthers are in town. Interesting/unimpressive stat: the Panthers are 26-16-4 all time against the Habs, and are the ONLY team in the NHL to have a winning record against the League's oldest and most storied franchise, the Montreal Canadiens. That, we should all agree, is simply wrong.

Pat Hickey's syndicated article looks into the goaltending situation, which is never more than a step or two away from controversy. Coach Carbo has announced that Carey Price will be the starting goalie tonight - even though ostensible number one Cristobal Huet has apparently completely recovered from his groin strain, and has watched from the bench as Price's back-up for the past two games. Apparently, Huet is not impressed ... which Carbonneau doesn't mind at all: he's glad the veteran's competitive streak remains intact. That's fine for now, but this situation is coming to its crisis rather ahead of schedule. While Price has played well in his last few outings, the question of whether he is ready to assume the number one job is far from settled. His mostly excellent last two outings have each been marred by a soft, late goal. He is beatable in the high corners and does not possess the quickest glove. The potential is there and it is rapidly shaping itself, but it may not be time to hand him the ball yet. Then again, maybe it is. I'm glad I don't have to make the call, I'll say that. It's ironic that Carbo seems to be leaning towards Price, given that he was in favour of sending the big rookie to the AHL at the beginning of the year, and was overruled by Bob Gainey. At least it shows he's not afraid to admit he was wrong.

In the Gazette, Pat Hickey reports on the recent turnaround - two years coming! - of the Canadiens 5-on-5 play. The Habs scored four even-strength goals for the first time since, oh, since about the invention of the internet against the Leafs on Saturday.

In La Presse, Francois Gagnon also touches on the Huet/Price debate, quoting Cristobal Huet, who strikes a philosophical tone: «C'est sûr que je suis déçu, car je veux disputer le plus de matchs possible. Mais en même temps, Carey a très bien fait pendant mon absence et je comprends qu'il ait ainsi forcé la main de l'entraîneur», which boils down to, "I'm disappointed because I want to play, but Carey has played well and forced the coach's hand." Sounds about right. Gagnon also quotes Carbo on the necessity of the Habs not suffering a let-down after an emotional win over the Leafs on Saturday. What, the Habs, suffer a let-down? Naw.

Also in La Presse, and also by Francois Gagnon, is a nice article on the Canadiens youth movement. Eleven players 25 years old or younger, most of them - Price, Higgins, Plecanek, Komisarek, Kostitsyn, Chipchura - filling pivotal roles. As Gagnon says, it is clearly the beginning of a new era in Montreal Canadiens hockey. Well, while the emergence of the young players is obviously a welcome development, and while just about all of the younger guys are doing an admirable job, it is still too soon to buy into the hype that sometimes surrounds the Canadiens youngsters. None, after all, is a gamebreaker (though Price has the potential to become one). None is the pure offensive force the Canadiens so desperately need, and no-one of that description seems to be in the system, either. What the Canadiens have, with their fresh crop of recent draftees, is the basis of a really solid supporting cast. For a star player, it seems they will still have to look without, or continue to live without one.

Lions in Winter breathes a sigh of relief that the rumoured - but undoubtedly phantom - trade with the Sharks (Koivu for Marleau) never went down. I wholeheartedly concur. The article asserts that Marleau would be a 60-70 points scorer for the Habs (quite probable, given his track record) and that Koivu would score 85-100 points for the Sharks (rather less likely, perhaps, given his track record!), but the issue doesn't hinge on points for me. Koivu is a leader, and a life-long Hab who, if he stays with the team, will one day take his place among the team's all-time best. Despite playing in the "dead puck era", he has managed to move into the teams top ten all-time assist leaders, and a few more seasons will see him do the same in the points column. That would be a major accomplishment, given the company he'd be in. Koivu should be a Hab for life.

On the other side of the argument, Eyes on the Prize has a translation of Guy Lafleur's column in le Journal de Montreal on Saturday, in which the Habs legend suggests that Saku is burnt out as a Montreal Canadien, shows little interest or emotion, and should be packaged in a trade with Michael Ryder while there is still "meat on the bones". Eyes on the Prize is appalled, and you can understand why, but essentially Guy is not saying anything many of the fans haven't said lately. It's a little tacky and certainly sensational ... but as Carbo would say, that's just Guy being Guy.


News for Monday, December 17th

Jack Todd has a laugh at the expense of fickle Montreal Canadiens fans, who - in their defense - have been put through an up-and-down season that has toyed with their emotions and left their heads spinning. The average Montreal fan doesn't know whether Carbo is an idiot or a genius, whether Saku sucks or rules, or, at this point, whether that bump on his own arm is his ass or his elbow. It's been that confusing: first the Habs shoot out of the gate to as high as 4th overall, then they cut the engines and free-fall to the fringe of the playoff picture. Jack Todd, long my favourite sportswriter for his voice, wit, and frequent allusions to Modernist poets, advises Canadiens fans not to expect their wild ride to end anytime soon.

A nice profile of and interview with Jimmy Bonneau, the would-be Habs policeman, presently waiting in the wings in Hamilton. There are those who are feeling a need for just such a presence on the Habs' bench, especially after comments by Paul Maurice on Saturday. More on that later.

Dave Stubbs talks to Saku Koivu about ending his goal-scoring drought, the team's (still nascent) turnaround, and his new linemate, Sergei Kostitsyn. In short, Saku says it's nice to get the monkey off his back, but that the win is more important than the individual acheivement, and credits the entire team for a stronger effort in recent games. On the subject of Sergei K., Koivu pays big compliments: "'rare vision ... huge potential,'" and - taking a page from recent comments by Jean Beliveau - stresses the importance of Habs' veterans helping the young winger adjust to the NHL. Also of note in the article is Coach Carbo's spirited defense of his captain, which might help defuse recent rumours of a strained relationship between the two.

Unsurprisingly, Jaroslav Halak has been reassigned to Hamilton of the AHL, following the return of Cristobal Huet from injury. Halak played just one period for the Habs, in relief of Carey Price, allowing one goal on six shots in a Dec. 8th game that was already out of reach for Les Boys.

In La Presse, Francois Gagnon quotes Coach Carbo on the team's present - if tenuous - place among the top teams in their conference: "'We must be doing something right'". Gagnon agrees, and notes a major improvement over last season in the Habs' play at even strength. See the article for the complete breakdown, but here's a taste: last year the Habs' skaters finished a combined -170; this year, they are -15 ... not ideal, but a major upgrade. My francais is far from parfait, but Gagnon may also assert that Carey Price has played himself into the number one goaltending spot. Depends on how you translate "a su assumer", but one thing I do know, when you "assumer" you make an ass out of you and mer.

Also in La Presse, Pierre Ladouceur has a thorough evaluation of the week that was for Habs, going line by line and defense-pairing by defense-pairing. Ladouceur comments that the Habs recent skid had folks grumbling that the Canadiens had two third lines and two fourth lines, or even (to Guy Lafleur) four fourth lines; now, he says, after picking up five of a possible six points last week, it might be more fair to speak of two first and two third lines. Ladouceur rates the Koivu-Higgins-Whoever line as the Canadiens best, for its offensive and defensive work this week, with the Plecanek-Kovalev-A. Kostitsyn line close behind. He lauds the defensive work of Streit, Lapierre, and Dandeneault, who effectively shut down the Sundin line on Saturday night. He further appreciates the consistent effort of Tom Kostopoulos and particularly Kyle Chipchura, who has improved his faceoff score to 55%.

Worth a read: Lions in Winter has a game report here, and Eyes on the Prize has one here. Eyes on the Prize notes how family has played a role in the Habs' recent success: Andrei Kostitsyn helping little brother Sergei adjust, and Saku Koivu raising his game on Saturday with his mom and dad in attendance.

For intelligent discussion of all things Habs, you can always count on alt.canadiens, which presently features long-running discussions on Saku Koivu's recent play and possible discontentment, as well as the eerie similarities between this year and last. Alt.canadiens has the best analysis - and especially meta-analysis - of the Habs available, if you ask me. In the links above, find searching philosophical inquiry into the meaning of such commonly used terms as "production", "streaky", and "consistency".


Habs Win at Home!

It was a long time coming, but the Habs halted their home losing skid, and in high style, soundly beating the streaking Maple Leafs 4-1. In a near replay of their 4-1 win over the Flyers, the Canadiens put forth a solid sixty-minute effort, executing their hybrid-trap neatly. Carey Price made thirty saves, and probably should have stopped the one that beat him, a 40 foot wrist shot that didn't look remotely dangerous. For the rest of the night, his solid positioning and good team defence made him basically unbeatable.

Among many positives, captain Saku Koivu broke out of a slump with the game's first two goals, one a fluky bounce-in, the other off a nifty move in front of Toskala. He was strong on face-offs, back-checked briskly, and generally made life hard on Mats Sundin and the rest of the Leafs. It was a display of vintage Koivu that, in truth, we haven't seen enough of lately.

Michael Ryder's struggles continue. He only had one shot on goal - in only a little more than ten minutes of ice-time - and was not noticeable for most of the night. His latest replacement on the top line, Sergei Kostitsyn, again showed great speed and playmaking, and registered his first NHL point, an assist on Koivu's first goal of the game. Can Kostitsyn adapt to the NHL as well as his former OHL line-mates, Patrick Kane and Sam Gagner? Habs fans can only hope so. The only potential problem is that the bulk of Kostitsyn's junior points were assists on goals potted by his linemates, and he doesn't really have a true finisher to play with on the top line. Saku Koivu could tell him a thing or two about what that's like. I wonder if Coach Carbo would contemplate a Kostitsyn-Koivu-Kostitsyn top line, on the theory that hockey-player siblings often seem to possess some sort of playmaking telepathy? It would also reunite the very successful Higgins-Plecanek-Kovalev line from pre-season. The Plecanek line has been fine with Andrei Kostitsyn on the left wing, but he has been the least statistically productive member of it. A banger like Higgins would help create the space Kovalev thrives on. Just thinking out loud ...

The Leafs may have been a little over-confident, after putting together a solid winning streak of late ... albeit against some weak teams whose defence and goaltending are as bad or worse than the Leafs. Or maybe their just getting tired, having played a lot of hockey lately. More likely, they're just reverting to regular form.

Is this bad or good news for the Leafs? Defenseman Bryan McCabe went down with a broken wrist after a harmless looking hit from Andrei Kostitsyn, and will be out at least two months. To hear Paul Maurice after the game, you'd think Kostitsyn had hit McCabe from behind with the Zamboni. It's hard to understand why Maurice is so upset about losing the defenseman who has played a major role in just about every Leafs loss this year, and been the sole cause of at least three of them. It's probably because Maurice thinks McCabe is an all-star, and regularly plays him for thirty minutes-plus ... hmm, did I just say McCabe was responsible for those losses?


News for Friday, December 15th

The Leafs are in town. Read Dave Stubbs's set-up here. The short version: the Leafs have won six of their last seven games, while the Habs have lost six straight at home. Neither Captain Koivu nor Coach Carbo has any idea why Les Boys can't get it done in their own house.

You don't need an article to tell you that the game will be loud, intense, and tight. These teams hate losing to each other, and both are essentially at the beginning of a protracted, 50 game scrap for the final Eastern conference playoff spot. A win by the Leafs would jump them a point over the Habs in the standings, remarkable considering that until about three weeks ago the Leafs were one of the worst teams in the NHL. They thumped Atlanta last night, and are playing with confidence. With any luck, the perennially strong presence of Leaf sweaters at the Bell will make the Canadiens forget they're playing at home.

Fun piece about the legendary Habs-Leafs rivaly here, written by the great Red Fisher. Contains a wonderful anecdote about a war of words between Punch Imlach and Toe Blake.

The Canadian Press reports that Bob Goodenow, former director of the NHLPA, has been hired to "help create" a new professional hockey league - in Europe - that would compete with the NHL for players. How this would work, I don't know, since professional hockey obviously already exists in Europe, but it is nonetheless an interesting idea whose time has come. Canadiens fans remember how the Habs lost Russian winger Alex Perezhogin when a Russian league team outbid the NHL squad for his services, a move that was noted as a first by front offices around the NHL. Would a European league - perhaps with teams in large cities such as Prague, Moscow, or Berlin - be able to compete financially for NHL talent? If so, it could bring about a radical change in North American pro hockey, from the NHL to the ECHL.

A rare mention in the Toronto Sun of the Montreal Canadiens: Mike Zeisberger has a "who's laughing now?" story, which correctly notes that the Canadiens now find themselves in the uncomfortable position the Leafs were in not so long ago, when everyone in Toronto was calling for the heads of John-John Ferguson and Paul Maurice. A little journalistic schadenfreude, for anyone who wants to read it.

Bulldogs coach Don Lever blasts the refereeing in the Dogs' shootout loss to Grand Rapids the other day: "It's probably the worst exhibition of refereeing I've seen," he said. Ref Nygel Pelletier called ten penalties against the Bulldogs in the game, allowing Grand Rapids to score three power-play goals. But the worst was yet to come: in the shoot-out, Grand Rapids' skater Evan McGrath was stopped by Yann Danis in the shootout, but proceeded to shove the puck into the net with his skate. Pelletier allowed the goal, the game winner, and coach Lever had to be restrained from going after him. Unfortunately, if and when Lever makes the jump to the NHL, his mood regarding the officiating is unlikely to improve.