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Canadiens bid for repeat division title

by John McGourty
All hail the Montreal Canadiens, the Northeast Division and Eastern Conference regular-season champions with a 47-25-10 record and 104 points! Only the Stanley Cup champion Detroit Red Wings had more points (115) in the regular season.

But then, Montreal struggled in the Stanley Cup Playoffs. The Canadiens dispatched the Boston Bruins in seven games in the first round, but the Bruins won three of four games in the middle of the series. The Canadiens were then eliminated in the Eastern semifinals by the Philadelphia Flyers, dropping four straight after winning Game 1.

The Canadiens were the best in the Northeast Division against divisional rivals, 20-11-1; against the Southeast, 10-4-6; and against the Atlantic, 14-5-1. They led the NHL with 262 goals, in part because they played in the most wide-open division. Ottawa was second in the NHL, one goal behind Montreal, and Buffalo was fourth with 255 goals. Toronto was 13th with 231 goals and Boston was 25th with 212. Toronto (4th), Ottawa (7th) and Buffalo (9th) were all in the top 10 in goals allowed while Boston and Montreal tied for 18th with 222 goals allowed.

The Canadiens appear to be even stronger this season. Their major departures include scrappy center Bryan Smolinski; swingman Mark Streit, their third-leading scorer; and right winger Michael Ryder, who had fallen out of favor with coach Guy Carbonneau. Veteran defenseman Patrice Brisebois was not signed after two injury-filled seasons.

General Manager Bob Gainey traded his first pick (No. 25) this year and a second-round pick in 2009 to the Calgary Flames at June's draft for left winger Alex Tanguay, a major scoring threat. The Canadiens also acquired veteran goaltender Marc Denis, right winger Georges Laraque and defensemen Alex Henry, Shawn Belle, Greg Pateryn and Chad Anderson.

Veteran center Robert Lang was signed in September. Lang, 37, adds size and scoring and will likely center the second or third line.



Category Rank (Conference)
2007-08 Points 104
(1st east/3rd NHL)
Change from 2006-07 +14
Home Points 50
(5th eAst/11th NHL)
Away Points 54
(1ST East/2ND NHL)
Between Cristobal Huet and his successor, Carey Price, the Canadiens received excellent goaltending last season. Only four teams allowed more shots than the Canadiens' 31.6 per game, but they were only 13th in goals allowed (2.63). However, things were reversed in the playoffs when the Canadiens surrendered the third-fewest shots per game, 28.4, but were 10th of 16 teams in allowing 2.92 goals per game.

The shots-against average would have been worse if Mike Komisarek hadn't led the NHL with 277 blocked shots and Roman Hamrlik finished fourth with 187.

There is some concern that Price tailed off in the playoffs. The Canadiens finished the regular season 8-1-1, but struggled against Boston and Philadelphia, two teams that finished below them in the standings. Some thought Price might have tired while playing in 52 games, but it may have been the pressure of playoff hockey. It wasn't a poor performance, just a slight slip from a very high level.

It was an amazing 12 months for Price, who was named the Canadian Major Junior Goaltender of the Year with the Tri-City Americans. He was then signed by the Canadiens and guided their American Hockey League affiliate, the Hamilton Bulldogs, to the Calder Cup, winning the playoff MVP trophy. He then went 24-12-3 with the Habs and was named the goaltender on the NHL All-Rookie team. Price finished seventh with a .920 save percentage and 19th with a 2.56 goals-against average.

Price, who turns 21 on Aug. 16, fills the net at 6-foot-3 and 212 pounds. He is also very solid technically.

Jaroslav Halak, 23, gives the Canadiens one of the youngest goalie pairings in recent memory. He has been called up in February in each of the past two seasons and fashioned a 12-7-1 record in 22 games. He had a 2.11 GAA last season and a .934 save percentage. Halak is smaller than Price at 5-foot-10 and 180 pounds.

Halak is a Slovakian and played Canadian major juniors and in the ECHL before compiling a 38-25-4 record in 69 AHL games with a 2.10 GAA and .930 save percentage. He has given every indication he is ready for full-time work in the NHL.

Marc Denis, 31, was signed to play in Hamilton and as insurance if Price or Halak struggles. Denis was the QMJHL goaltender of the year in 1997 and a first-round NHL draft pick. He did well as Patrick Roy's backup in parts of two seasons with Colorado before he played five losing seasons with the Columbus Blue Jackets followed by two seasons of decline in Tampa Bay.

Denis's confidence has taken many blows over the years, but he is committed to restoring his good reputation. Perhaps the consistency of the Canadiens' organization will work to his benefit.


Few teams have a better defense, headed by the solid Andrei Markov, who led the team with nearly 25 minutes of ice time per game. Markov was the second-leading defenseman in scoring, behind Streit, with 16 goals and 58 points. Among NHL defensemen, Markov ranked fourth in goals, seventh in assists and sixth in scoring. He was also plus-1 and had 10 power-play goals. Markov will play on the first power-play unit. He was successful on 11 percent of his shots, third-best among full-time NHL defensemen.

Hamrlik was a great free-agent signing a year ago, giving the Canadiens 23:08 minutes per game, five goals and 21 assists while going plus-7. He's strong and rugged and has a hard shot.

Komisarek gives the Canadiens great size at 6-foot-4 and 242 pounds. He made his fifth NHL season his best with 4 goals and 13 assists to go along with a plus-9 rating. Komisarek ranked third with Montreal, playing 21:09 per game. Stocky Francis Bouillon, 5-foot-8 and 201 pounds, was plus-9 in 74 games while contributing two goals and six assists. He had 17:21 of average ice time. Josh Gorges had 9 assists and was even in 16:20 of ice time.

Komisarek, Hamrlik and Bouillon are the defensive stalwarts. Komisarek led the Canadiens with 266 hits, while Bouillon was second with 168 and Hamrlik was third with 138. Markov, Bouillon and Gorges all blocked over 100 shots.

Patrice Brisebois, a member of the 1993 Canadiens' Stanley Cup championship team, returns for his 18th NHL season and adds depth and point production.


After finishing out of the playoffs the previous season and struggling to qualify two years ago, Carbonneau let the Canadiens play firewagon hockey last season. The conference-leading results show that it was a successful regular-season strategy, but the team faltered in the tighter-checking Stanley Cup Playoffs.

Carbonneau was a defense-first player and coached that strategy in Dallas, so the Canadiens’ style last season was uncharacteristic, but it showed the coach's flexibility and willingness to let his players play the way that best suited their talents. Watch for a change to tighter defense this season.

Over the past three seasons, most NHL teams have adopted a defensive style that permits perimeter shots while clogging the area in front of their nets. The Canadiens’ speed, along with their passing and shooting skills, make them among the teams best suited to succeed against such a style. They eschew the perimeter shot in favor of the perimeter pass to the man cutting to the front of the net. Captain Saku Koivu is one of the League's best in converting such opportunities.

Tanguay is likely to play on a line centered by Tomas Plekanec with Alex Kovalev on the right wing. Tanguay averaged 80 points a season until he slipped to 18 goals and 58 points, with a plus-11, while playing a more defensive style for Mike Keenan. That teaching won't hurt him long-term, but Tanguay was looking to play more offense and Montreal will suit him. Kovalev, a certain Hockey Hall of Famer when his playing days are over, led the Canadiens with 35 goals, 49 assists and 84 points. He's big, strong and skilled, and he has a rocket of a shot. Kovalev led the Canadiens with a plus-18 rating.

Lang adds an interesting dimension. He's a solid 216 pounds and will likely center the second or third line. However, Lang said he is hoping to rekindle the success he enjoyed in Pittsburgh with Kovalev.

Plekanec was their second-leading scorer with 29 goals, 40 assists and 69 points, and was tied for second with a plus-15. Andrei Kostitsyn played 34 games in parts of two seasons before breaking out for 26 goals and 27 assists for 53 points, third-best on the Canadiens, and a plus-15 rating. Brother Sergei Kostitsyn came up in December and had nine goals and 18 assists in 52 games with a plus-9. Koivu slipped to 16 goals and 40 assists with a minus-4 rating.

Chris Higgins led the Canadiens with 241 shots and had 27 goals and 25 assists in 82 games. Higgins plays a smart, solid two-way game and is well-suited to third-line duty, although he can play on the top two lines. Centers Kyle Chipchura, Maxim Lapierre and Steve Begin are low-scoring defensive centers. Begin and Lapierre can also play on the wings, giving Carbonneau more versatility. Georges Laraque was acquired to protect his teammates and gives the Canadiens a heavy hitter on the right wing.

Tom Kostopoulos has never been much of a scorer in his four NHL seasons, but he has good size and does strong work along the boards. Mathieu Dandenault, who can also play defense, is bigger, scores more and has more speed than Kostopoulos. Guillaume Latendresse is 6-foot-2 and 230 pounds. He dishes out big hits but is not an agile skater. He had 16 goals and 11 assists in 73 games last year, a near duplicate of his rookie season the previous year.

Matt D'Agostini is expected to battle for a job at right wing after an excellent second season in Hamilton. Max Pacioretty, the CCHA rookie of the year at Michigan last year, signed a contract this summer and will bid for a job at left wing.

Three reasons for optimism

* The Canadiens have plenty of depth up front and the ability to strike early and often as Tanguay joins the likes of Kovalev, Koivu, Plekanec, Higgins and the Kostitsyn brothers.

* A shot-blocking defense led by Komisarek and Hamrlik should ably assist take plenty of heat off the Habs goalies.

* Despite the dip in the postseason, Price is one of the most impressive young goalies to come along in some time. He has enjoyed success at the junior and AHL levels, so there is no reason to doubt he will find his mark in the NHL.

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