MONTREAL - Welcome to the new NHL. The Canadiens may have beaten the Leafs 3-2 Saturday night at the Bell Centre, but the penalty box stole the spotlight once again as the growing pains from league's obstruction crackdown continued.
In what has certainly been the trend so far this preseason, the bench in both penalty boxes did not get the chance to get cold. Referees Dave Jackson and Chris Rooney doled out a total of 22 combined penalties on a night when all five goals came with the man-advantage. The game included 22 power-plays while the league average in 2003-04 was only nine.
That proved to be great news for a Montreal power-play that continues to be red-hot as well as a major reason why the team sits at 3-1 so far this preseason. The Canadiens, who came into Saturday night's action with the league's second-best power-play, were 3-for-12 to bring their preseason average to 26.3 percent.
With the rash of penalties called on Saturday, head coach Claude Julien reiterated the growing need to possibly have a third power-play unit in place in time for the regular season.
"We are going to have to do something before we really wear out our top guys with all of the power-plays we're now seeing," said Julien. "If this trend continues and you apply that to an 82-game schedule, that extra unit is really going to come in handy, unless of course the players adapt their game to the new rules and spend less time in the box."
The Canadiens didn't wait long to capitalize on the NHL's revamped rule book by scoring on a two-man advantage less than three minutes into the game. Defenseman Sheldon Souray blasted a point-shot past Ed Belfour with Alex Kovalev and Saku Koivu collecting assists on the play for their first points of the preseason.
With the power-play likely poised to play a major role in 2005-06, Julien did a little homework and decided to play Kovalev at the point on the power-play. The Russian all-star was a mainstay at the point with the man advantage during his time in Pittsburgh, where he put up the highest numbers of his career including a personal-best 95-point campaign in 2000-01.
After the Leafs jumped ahead 2-1 on goals from Tomas Kaberle and Alexei Ponikarovsky, the Canadiens power-play struck again. Richard Zednik gathered his own rebound before firing the puck past Belfour for his first goal of the preseason with Koivu and Radek Bonk picking up the assists.
Then, with less than a minute to go in the second period the suddenly-smoldering Tomas Plekanec fired a shot from the point through traffic to put his team ahead 3-2. The 22-year-old Czech winger now leads the team with three goals to go with five points in three games.
In a sign that the regular season is not far off, Jose Theodore played the entire game and was not terribly busy but looked sharp in turning away 20 of 22 Toronto shots.
That was not the case for 23-year-old Jean-Francois Racine who took over from Ed Belfour at the 10-minute mark of the second period. Racine was given a rude awakening with his two first stops coming on a Plekanec breakaway that he managed to keep out of the net and then a shot from Zednik from point-blank range. Drafted 90th overall at the 2000 draft, Racine also made a terrific glove save on Radek Bonk on his way to stopping 20 of 21 shots.
"I was a huge Canadiens fan growing up and when I heard that I was maybe going to get the chance to play here at the Bell Centre, I could hardly wait," said Racine who hails from nearby St-Hyacinthe. "I had seen a game at the Forum only once when I was just a kid and then one more time at the Molson Centre. And let me tell you it's a whole lot different when you're out on the ice."
Racine certainly has his work cut for him as he tries to earn a spot in a crowded Maple Leafs goaltending picture that includes not only Belfour, but also likely back-ups Mikael Tellqvist and Jean-Sebastien Aubin.
"I try not to think about where I'm going to end up," said Racine, who played in front of friends and family for the first time at the NHL level. "As a kid from Quebec growing up obsessed with Patrick Roy and then to get the chance I got tonight is something I will never forget."
Speaking of fighting for a spot in the lineup, Marcel Hossa rewarded Claude Julien for putting him in the lineup for the fourth straight game by assisting on Plekanec's game-winner. Hossa remains the Canadiens preseason co-leader with six points in four games along with Bonk. Hossa, who like Racine was also drafted in 2000, continues to be among the biggest surprises at this year's training camp, as he attempts to crack the lineup for good after amassing 19 points in 59 career NHL games from 2001-02 to 2003-04.
While the parade to the penalty box drew most of the attention on this night, Julien did once again single-out the strides being made by his promising group of young forwards.
"What more can you say about our young guys so far during the training camp," added Julien. "Hossa looked solid again tonight and Plekanec seems to be getting stronger every game. They know the spots are available and the battle for those positions is far from over. That's the kind of competition you want at a camp and I think we'll be a stronger team in the long run as a result."
The prospects still in camp can rest easy and enjoy the remainder of their weekend with the next round of cuts not being scheduled until Monday. Next up for the Canadiens is a showdown with Boston on Tuesday night at the Bell Centre before leaving for Moncton, N.B. for another date with the Bruins on Wednesday.
NOTES: Claude Julien's lines on Saturday night consisted of: Kovalev-Koivu- Zednik, Sundstrom-Bonk-Hossa, Alexander Perezhogin-Chris Higgins-Plekanec, Raitis Ivanans-Kyle Chipchura-Jonathan Ferland... On the blueline: Souray-Mathieu Dandenault, Ron Hainsey-Mike Komisarek, and Jean-Philippe Cote-Mark Streit... The Canadiens outshot the Leafs by a 38-22 margin... The attendance on the night was a preseason-high 19,608, up from 18,323 versus Tampa Bay on Tuesday... Canadiens fans were already in midseason form. Just ask Eric Lindros, who was greeted by a chorus of boos from the crowd every time he touched the puck... Missing in action for the fourth straight game was RW Michael Ryder who continues to get daily treatments on his injured right ankle. On a positive note, Ryder was seen having a much easier time making his way up the stairs from the press box. That progress aside, the 2004 rookie-of-the-year runner up reiterated that there remains no precise timetable for his return to action...Komisarek made his preseason debut after missing the team's first three games while recovering from the flu... The Canadiens Alumni's annual meeting was held his weekend with such Habs' legends as Elmer Lach, Henri Richard, Jean-Guy Talbot, Yvan Cournoyer, Mark Napier, Dollard St-Laurent, Marcel Bonin, Guy Lapointe and Marc Tardif in attendance... While the most noticeable absentee for the visitors was captain Mats Sundin, the Leafs lineup did include all three of their big-name off-season acquisitions with Eric Lindros, Jeff O'Neill and Jason Allison all suiting up for Toronto. The game was Allison's first appearance of not only the preseason, but his first action in over three years due to a lingering concussion problem... O'Neill left the game midway through the first period and did not return after being struck in the back of the neck by a Kaberle slapshot...