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Gainey, Habs look back at a season of turmoil

by Shawn P. Roarke

"It's been a challenging year. I've had a few challenging years. How I rate them, 1 to 10, I don't know. Maybe I'll leave that to David Letterman."
-- Bob Gainey

BROSSARD, Que. -- This is not the way the Centennial Season was supposed to play out for the Montreal Canadiens.

General Manager Bob Gainey had patiently built this team to make a serious run at a 25th Stanley Cup in a season where the Canadiens knew they would be even more front-and-center than usual in the minds of hockey fans.

Guy Carbonneau, who had coached the team to a 104-point campaign last season, was the latest former to player to be working miracles behind the bench, passing down the winning tradition -- and his hard-earned Stanley Cup experience -- to a new generation of players.

Simply put, Montreal was poised for greatness in 2008-09.

Now, Carbonneau is gone; the victim of a post-All-Star swoon that saw the Canadiens fall from the top of the Eastern Conference standings to one of several clubs clawing for the final invitation to the Stanley Cup Playoffs and a date with the top-seeded Boston Bruins.

Gainey was forced to step out of the front office and take the coaching reins after dismissing Carbonneau, his close friend and former teammate, a man with whom he shared seven seasons as a player.

To say it has been a frustrating three-month span for the Habs -- and for Gainey, their architect -- is an understatement.

"It's been a challenging year," Gainey admitted Tuesday as his team stared down elimination Wednesday night in Game 4 (7 p.m. ET, CBC, RDS) against the Bruins. "I've had a few challenging years. How I rate them, 1 to 10, I don't know. Maybe I'll leave that to David Letterman."

So, what has happened to this team, a club being touted as a legitimate Stanley Cup threat when the League convened on a frozen Montreal for the All-Star Game in late January, but is now one loss away from an embarrassing first-round exit from a tournament that many here believe to be the organization's birthright?

"We've had a lot of challenges this year, but we are not the only team," Gainey said. "Some of those have been injuries, some of them have been player performance and some of them have been self-inflicted."

The injury plague is the most tangible of the reasons for Montreal's funk, for sure.

"We had an accumulation (of injuries) late in the year where we were in a situation where we had our team running pretty well and we were playing and winning some games and then we lost two good players for the final week of the season," Gainey said. "Those kinds of things are difficult to overcome."

Those two players Gainey mentions are defensemen Andrei Markov and Mathieu Schneider. Markov, the team's best player, suffered a lower-body injury April 6 and has yet to return. Montreal has lost all six games Markov has missed. Schneider, imported from Atlanta at the trade deadline to bolster a surprisingly anemic power play, injured his shoulder the same day Markov was hurt. He has played through the injury, but his effectiveness has been compromised. He was scratched from Monday's Game 3.

Other injuries have certainly played a big part in the free fall. Center Robert Lang was lost for the season when he severed his Achilles' tendon on Feb. 1. At the time of his injury, he had 18 goals and 39 points in 50 games. Montreal won just 13 of 32 games after Lang's injury.

Alex Tanguay separated his left shoulder on New Year's Day and missed 28 games. Defenseman Francis Bouillon, meanwhile, missed two months with a groin injury, which he re-aggravated in the first period of his return to action in Game 2 of this Eastern Conference Quarterfinals. He is now done for the series.

Injuries, though, are not solely to blame for the team's current predicament, as Gainey said. There has been controversy, on and off the ice.

On the ice, goalie Carey Price has struggled mightily after being anointed during his rookie campaign as the second coming of Patrick Roy. Now, Price's confidence is clearly shaken by his struggles and he is desperately searching for the form he had last season.

Off the ice, there has been strife, too.

In late February, forwards Sergei and Andrei Kostitsyn were caught up in a police investigation of an alleged drug trafficker. The brothers were not accused of any wrongdoing, but just their association with a reputed mobster was enough to keep the tabloids churning out stories for weeks. Then, in March, reports broke that the team's owner, George Gillett was exploring the option of selling the team.

"It's been quite the whirlwind of things going on," said Matt D'Agostini, a rookie called up from the minors during the season. "You know, 'Carbo' getting fired and we had a tough losing streak when we went out West.

"It's unbelievable; you can tell it's more of a business up here than anything. A lot of that stuff tends to get in the way sometimes. There has been a lot of off-ice activity, but you can't use it as an excuse. We're down 3-0 and it's not because of all that stuff, it's because of the way we're playing."

Team captain Saku Koivu has seen most everything in his 11 seasons with the Habs. But these past few months have surely been as strange as anything he has encountered.

"It's been an interesting and sometimes frustrating year for us," Koivu said during Tuesday's availability. "But we have fought back."

Now, in order save what was once such a promising season, the Canadiens must fight back from an 0-3 deficit in this best-of-7 series, a feat accomplished by only two teams in the history of the Stanley Cup Playoffs. And they will likely have to win four straight games against the best team in the Eastern Conference without the services of Markov, Tanguay, Schneider and Lang.

"It's not easy, but we can't feel sorry for ourselves," Koivu said.

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