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.

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