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Northeast: Gorges solidifies Canadiens' defense

by John McGourty
The Montreal Canadiens were on their way to a fourth-place finish in the Northeast Divison and out of the Stanley Cup Playoffs on Feb. 25, 2007, when they traded veteran defenseman and team leader Craig Rivet, and a fifth-round 2008 draft pick to the San Jose Sharks to get the Sharks' first-round draft pick that summer. They also got an undrafted defenseman who had 1 goal and 9 assists in 96 NHL games over two seasons, Josh Gorges.

Rivet played well for the Sharks that season and the next, helping San Jose to the Western Conference Semifinal each year before being traded last summer to the Buffalo Sabres with a 2010 seventh-round pick for second-round picks the next two years.

All eyes were on the Canadiens when they used that 22nd pick to select Max Pacioretty, the highly touted American left winger who was coming off a USHL Rookie of the Year season with the Sioux City Musketeers. Pacioretty went to Michigan for a year, where he was named CCHA Rookie of the Year and named to the CCHA All-Rookie Team. He had 5 goals and 17 assists in 35 AHL games with the Hamilton Bulldogs this season and is now up with the Canadiens.

Even if Pacioretty doesn't meet expectations, the deal is a winner for the Canadiens because of the strong play of Gorges. A defensive defenseman, Gorges has paired well this season with Roman Hamrlik. He moved up to the first pairing with Andrei Markov last month when Mike Komisarek got hurt and did well. He has 1 goal, a power-play tally against the New York Islanders in November, and 6 assists in 38 games.

But Gorges' most important statistic is his team-leading plus-16 rating. He ranks third, behind Markov and Hamrlik, with an average of 20:48 minutes per game. Hamrlik leads the Habs with 90 blocked shots, Gorges is next with 88. He's third on the defense with 16 takeaways. He led the team in plus-minus as well as blocked shots in both November and December.

"He's a young player who has been playing very well for us and he stepped in and played with me when Mike Komisarek got hurt," Markov said. "He did a very good job. Normally, he plays with Roman Hamrlik and they are very effective together."

If you're not familiar with Gorges, or you're not convinced he's a good NHL player, you're fueling his engine because Gorges has been fighting against other people's low expectations for years. He wasn't drafted into juniors and wasn't drafted out of juniors, despite leading his hometown Kelowna Rockets to the 2004 Memorial Cup.

Gorges was preparing for Wednesday's 6-3 win against the New York Rangers and told that "nobody puts more pressure on me than I do." He was asked if it was that drive that led him to a Memorial Cup, the captaincy of the Rockets, the AHL rookie of the year, the 2005 Sharks' Player of the Year, and a silver medal in the 2004 World Juniors. He reacted as if he'd never thought of it that way.

"Hmmm, yeah. I guess so," Gorges said. "Over time, you gain a lot of experience, playing in different situations. I played in big games in the Memorial Cup and in the World Juniors. A lot of people are watching and there are a lot of expectations from a lot of people.

"I learned at an early age that you can't please everyone. There will be a lot of people doubting you. There're a lot of people saying you can't do it and a lot of people saying you better do it.

"I'm proud of myself because I'm playing as hard as I can every night. Whatever happens, happens. But I can look at myself in the mirror and say I gave it everything I had."
-- Josh Gorges

"You can't control that. All you can do is go out and give it your best, play your game. I'm proud of myself because I'm playing as hard as I can every night. Whatever happens, happens. But I can look at myself in the mirror and say I gave it everything I had. If you can do that, you're going to be happy with yourself and the people around you, and the people watching you, are going to be happy too."

Outside looking in, sometimes -- The Boston Bruins used their first-round draft pick, No. 22, in 2005 to select Kitchener Rangers defenseman Matt Lashoff, a former member of the U.S. national team. Lashoff has developed well in three seasons with the Providence Bruins, getting double-digit-game recalls to the Bruins in all three seasons.

He's good enough to be a top-six defenseman with the majority of NHL clubs, but his first-place team has acquired five veteran defenders in the past three years, Zdeno Chara, Dennis Wideman, Andrew Ference, Aaron Ward and Shane Hnidy and draft picks Mark Stuart and Matt Hunwick have developed well in the Bruins' system.

Lashoff has played 18 games for Providence this season and 11 for Boston. He was called up Dec. 1 and has sat out a number of games and played in others. It's frustrating for a young player who is trying to gain a regular job in the NHL. He's aware that a job could open in Boston next season, or even this season if there is a run of injuries. He also knows he could be traded if the team is looking to get stronger at another position.

"Yeah, it's definitely frustrating because you always want to play," Lashoff said. "No doubt about it. When guys got hurt up here, I just tried to take the opportunity and run with it. But the team is doing great and it's an amazing thing to be around that. I learn a lot from the situation and I learn a lot from how guys carry themselves and how to go about winning.

"I'm trying to learn from all of it. Obviously, it's really tough to not be playing. I'm not going to hide that but I'm not going to get too down about it, either. At the end of the day, I'm confident that things are going to work out and I'm confident in my abilities. I'm happy to be around a team that's doing so well and if I have the opportunity to help out then I will."

Quotable -- "They had all five guys back. It looked like a Mighty Ducks movie or something." -- Bruins center Marc Savard described the Sabres' third-period strategy Saturday in their 4-2 win against the Bruins in Boston.

News and notes -- T
he Bruins have been outshot in four of their last six games and have lost two in a row for the first time this season. ... Petteri Nokelainen played in his first game Tuesday, against the Minnesota Wild, since injuring his right shoulder Dec. 12 against Atlanta. Also, Aaron Ward played his first game Saturday since Dec. 1 and suffered a thigh bruise. He didn't play against Minnesota ... In his first trade, Toronto GM Brian Burke acquired Brad May on Wednesday from his old team, the Anaheim Ducks, for a sixth-round draft pick. Burke had May in his lineup in Vancouver and in Anaheim, when they won the 2007 Stanley Cup. May will add toughness and leadership, but he'll also add a well-timed sense of humor that can be helpful when a team is stressed ... Matt Stajan, who suffered an eye injury Dec. 27 in a warm-up drill, will return Thursday against Montreal. ... Matt Ellis, who had 2 goals in the victory vs. the Bruins, scored 15 seconds into the first period against Ottawa. It was Buffalo’s fastest first goal since Vladimir Tsyplakov scored 10 seconds into the Nov. 25, 2000, game at Montreal. Geoff Sanderson set the record for fastest home goal, 11 seconds, against Florida on Oct. 16, 1998. ... Toni Lydman sat out Tuesday with the flu, the first time he's missed a game since March 2007. ... Toronto rookie defenseman Luke Schenn played his first game since Dec. 6 in the 4-2 loss Tuesday to Florida. That game was also the return to Toronto of former Maple Leafs defenseman Bryan McCabe. To help McCabe prepare for the game, his teammates booed him in practice throughout the prior week. 
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