Patrice Brisebois is healthy and ready to return to action ... but he won't. Not yet, at least. Pat Hickey quotes Guy Carbonneau: "He's ready, but he's only had one full practice with the team and I think we'll wait," which translates to, "The team is playing great and I don't feel like getting lynched by fans for playing Brisebois instead of Gorges." The return of Steve Begin and Brian Smolinski is also on the horizon, an event that will be an especial hurdle for Carbo: does he let the veterans continue to sit, or does he sit out the rookies who've replaced them, Maxim Lapierre and Sergei Kostitsyn? If there's any debate, it's purely a question of locker-room dynamics: Lapierre and especially Kostitsyn have won those jobs by any objective measure.
The Sports Network - not to be confused with TSN, I think - has a good game set-up here. The Lightning come into tonight's match on a five-game losing streak, and remain the NHL's worst road team. They are also officially the worst team in the Eastern Conference, after dropping their last game against Toronto, a 4-3 shoot-out defeat. Of course, if you're a bad road team, a visit to Montreal might be just what the doctor ordered. Dominant on the road, the Canadiens have floundered at home all year, a trend they'd better reverse if they want to make the playoffs. Tampa's last road win came - yes - in Montreal on Dec. 11th in a shoot-out, another area in which the Habs fail to excel. The surest bet in the world? That the Habs will lose in a shoot-out on home ice in a game in which they trailed after the first or second periods.
This CP article notes that the Habs are eager to turn the page on 2007 and have resolved to play better at home. Coach Carbo observes some positive signs: the Canadiens had their first successful Christmas road trip since 1998, going 3-1-2 on a long trip that featured an unusual amount of travel. Another point from the article: Vincent Lecavalier is the NHL's leading scorer, but if the Bolts don't pick things up he could become the first player to win that honour while playing on a last-place team since Chicago's Max Bentley in 1947.
It's official: Sergei Samsonov has been sent to the minors. Read the sad story here.
TSN runs this excellent story on the resurgence of winger Alex Kovalev. As the article says, "No Canadien has worked and produced as consistently" as Kovalev, a statement that manages to be both true and unbelievable. If the NHL has a comeback player of the year award, the article says, Kovalev would win it, and I agree. In a surreal moment the other night, Habs fans watched on TV as Alex Kovalev took the ice - wearing the "C", in the absence of the ailing Saku Koivu. As Carbo observes, "he deserved it". Habs fans are ecstatic over the production of Alex Kovalev this year, and he must be feeling the love. Some fans have joked that Kovalev must not realize his contract isn't up until next season, but the truth is that the winger was disappointed in his own season, which culminated in his failure to be invited to join the Russian team for the World Championships (you can bet they'd invite him this year, if they get the chance). He had a meeting with Carbo and Gainey at the end of the year, to clear the air and establish expectations, and he followed through by showing up in great shape and putting forth a consistently excellent effort up to this point. He's a treat to watch.
The St. Petersburg Times out of Tampa takes a dire tone in addressing the situation of the Lightning: "If Tampa Bay is to make the playoffs for the fifth straight season, forwards Vinny Lecavalier, Marty St. Louis, Brad Richards and Vinny Prospal must carry their stars on their sleeves", it intones, noting that the Bolts' scoring stars have largely disappeared during the team's current five-game winless skid. Judging by this article, look for Tampa Bay to go back to basics, dump the puck, crash the net, and try for an "ugly goal". They've been guilty lately of trying to get too fancy with the puck, apparently.
Many excellent articles in La Presse, si tu es bilingue. If not, I'll give you the gist here. Francois Gagnon notes the return of Saku Koivu after missing a game with the flu; he'll again skate with Latendresse and Sergei Kostitsyn. Gagnon also touches on the healthy scratch of Patrice Brisebois, just returned from the DL, and for the first time I can recall, a La Presse writer agrees with the decision to play an English player (Gorges) over a Quebecois (Brisebois). Now that's news!
Gagnon also finds Chris Higgins in an optimistic mood: the young winger wants nothing less than the Stanley Cup, and thinks the Habs can compete for it. Higgins cites the team's 4th place standing in the East, it's balanced three-line attack, #1 power-play, solid defencemen, and top-notch goaltending as reasons for his confidence, and when he puts it like that, you sure do feel like jumping on the bandwagon. Of course, watch the game tonight for a few minutes, and we'll most likely be cured, won't we? Before the Habs challenge for anyone's cup, much less Lord Stanley's, they'll want to address their poor home record, lousy penalty kill, inability to come back from any kind of a deficit, and tendency to blow leads.
Richard Labbe has this take on the Habs terrible home play. He looks at the two most popular theories on the Habs struggles at the Bell Centre - pressure from fans and the media - and finds them wanting. Worth a read. Though Labbe says he doesn't believe that Montreal fans or media are any harder to deal with than those in Toronto or New York, I think he's being disingenuous. Fans and reporters don't follow Rangers to the grocery. And Toronto is a city that is practically designed for anonymity: there's no downtown! The truth is, the fans and media in Montreal more passionate and more vocal than any other hockey fans, and it does make a difference.
La Presse also offers a thought for poor Corey Locke, who had waited three years to make his NHL debut, and was bitterly disappointed in New York when his hockey gear was lost by the airline. He didn't play and has since been sent back to Hamilton of the AHL. Hopefully he gets his chance soon.
Back after the game for some instant analysis. Go Habs!