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Who will follow Gainey behind Habs' bench?

by John McGourty
All 24 Montreal Canadiens teams that won the Stanley Cup produced a future Canadiens coach. Guy Carbonneau, a hero of the 1986 and 1993 Canadiens' Stanley Cup winners, was the latest former Canadiens champion to man the bench.

But Carbonneau was replaced Monday by General Manager Bob Gainey, who won five Stanley Cups while wearing the Canadiens' sweater.

Canadiens' Stanley Cup winners Mario Tremblay, Jacques Laperriere, Jacques Lemaire, Boom Boom Geoffrion, Toe Blake, Pit Lepine, Jack Laviolette, Newsy Lalonde and Leo Dandurand also hoisted the Stanley Cup for Montreal and later took over behind the bench.

Why is that important? Because the Montreal Canadiens embody NHL tradition. They have won the most Stanley Cups (24, 23 since the 1917 inception of the NHL). There are 42 Montreal players in the Hockey Hall of Fame.

As a result, Montreal fans focus on hockey 24/7, so it was frustrating to watch the team stumble through a desultory season with an inept power play after leading the Eastern Conference in the regular season last year when they had the best power play. The frustration then became intolerable to the fan base. The Canadiens in Montreal are, in the words of the late Canadian writer Mordecai Richler, "a spiritual necessity."

Gainey is unlikely to coach the team again next season. So, who will he name to replace himself?

If he goes with Canadiens' tradition and names as coach a player who won the Stanley Cup while playing for the Canadiens, he has only to look to the man next to him, assistant coach Kirk Muller, the Habs' second-leading playoff scorer en route to the 1993 Stanley Cup. Muller and Denis Savard, who gained NHL coaching experience with the Chicago Blackhawks, were alternate captains of the Canadiens in 1993.

There were many who thought if there was one coach out there who had the knowledge, experience and teaching skills to improve such a situation, it was Carbonneau, a defensive specialist who was a keen student of the game and one of Gainey's most trusted allies. Carbonneau tried everything: individual attention, line changes, benched unproductive stars, sent disappointments to the minors, focused practices, public criticism and finally, a bag skate, the frequently self-inflicted last wound of endangered coaches.

Little to nothing worked, although the power play got better after Gainey re-acquired defenseman Mathieu Schneider, another member of the 1993 championship squad.

And so, Gainey moved behind the bench again, as he did during the 2005-06 season when he fired Claude Julien, who now coaches the Bruins, who the Canadiens are trailing by 16 points in the Northeast.

The Canadiens are only 9-7-2 against Northeast Division opponents after going 20-11-1 last season. They have lost twice on Hockey Night In Canada to the Toronto Maple Leafs and have two more CBC Saturday soirees scheduled against their ancient rivals.

Injuries have been a factor this season, no doubt. Alex Tanguay, acquired in a draft-day trade, has played only 37 games after missing two months with a shoulder injury and has only 11 goals and 29 points. He was the expected first-line left-winger. Chris Higgins, the expected second-line left winger, has played only 42 games because of a shoulder injury and has only 9 goals and 17 points. Center Robert Lang, the summer's top free-agent signing, suffered a severed Achilles' tendon in the 50th game and is out for the season after leading the team in scoring. He had 18 goals and 39 points. Plus, captain Saku Koivu missed 16 games with a foot injury.

On defense, Mike Komisarek missed 16 games after injuring his right arm in a fight with Boston's Milan Lucic. Francis Bouillon has been limited to 54 games by assorted leg and groin problems. Swingman Mathieu Dandenault missed 27 games with a broken arm.

Goalie Carey Price has missed 12 games due to leg and groin problems.

Now it is up to Gainey to get production from this crew that he has assembled. It would appear Gainey's biggest challenge is to make his team a team, rather than 20 individuals.

Ottawa heat wave -- You could have chilled your beer on the Senators who had been "cold" for most of this season, but things have taken a dramatic turn for the team that had won its previous three games, two against Northeast rivals Buffalo and Toronto, going into Wednesday's game against the Boston Bruins at TD Banknorth Garden.

The only player with a cold mark is backup goalie Alex Auld. Those falling into the “hot” category include captain Daniel Alfredsson and linemates Dany Heatley and Jason Spezza, Nick Foligno, Mike Fisher, Chris Kelly, Ryan Shannon, defensemen Anton Volchenkov and Chris Campoli and goalie Brian Elliott.

Campoli has 2 goals and 5 assists and is plus-3 since coming aboard Feb. 21 in a trade with the New York Islanders. He looks very comfortable and happy in his new job.

The Senators are 13 points out of an Eastern Conference playoff  berth, so the spoiler role may be the only thing left this season. They have seven games remaining against Northeast Division opponents. Thirteen of their last 17 games are against teams bidding for an Eastern playoff spot. Only seven of those games will be at Scotiabank Place.

That gives the Senators 10 opportunities to frustrate hungry teams in their building. They have three games left against the Northeast-leading Bruins, two in Boston.

Stay at home defenseman -- Toronto Maple Leafs rookie Phil Oreskovic gives new meaning to the term "stay-at-home defenseman."

Oreskovic, 22, is the Maple Leafs’ second pick, No. 82, in the 2005 Entry Draft. He is 6-foot-4 and 217 pounds and gives the Maple Leafs an amazing eight right-handed shots from the blue line.

Oreskovic grew up in suburban North York and played 3 1/2 seasons for the nearby Brampton Battalion of the OHL before being traded late in his fourth season to the Owen Sound Attack. He also played briefly for the Columbia (Ga.) Inferno in the ECHL. Oreskovic played most of the past two seasons with the AHL Toronto Marlies, before his promotion on March 8.

Oreskovic had 1 goal and 8 assists in 59 Marlies' games this season. He uses his big body effectively and deals out punishing hits. He was voted by OHL coaches as the hardest-hitting player in the league in 2006 and the best defensive defenseman. He needs to improve his skating, stickhandling and passing but he's here because of his physicality and has time to improve his ancillary skills.

Other than his short stops in Owen Sound and Columbia, Oreskovic has always stayed at home, literally, with his parents, Joe and Colleen. 

"Home-cooked meals, the works," Oreskovic told the Toronto Sun's Steve Buffery. "I hear all the guys chuckling in the background. But hey, I've got no complaints. I'm sure if they could, they would too (live at home)."

Oreskovic promised to bring in some of his mom's chicken parm and veal. That ought to work. It's hard to laugh at someone with a mouthful of chicken parm.

Orekovic's opportunity comes at the expense of Mike Van Ryn, who was injured in a collision with Edmonton's Marc-Andre Pouliot on Saturday and is lost for the season. Van Ryn was acquired Sept. 2 from the Florida Panthers for defenseman Bryan McCabe. He missed 38 games with two concussions and a knee injury and now is gone with a torn MCL in his left knee.

The Maple Leafs were 14-7-6 with Van Ryn in the lineup and 12-20-7 without him.

Finding new ways to lose
-- The slumping Boston Bruins have lost two straight, five of their last six and 11 of 15 but their 2-0 loss to the Columbus Blue Jackets might be the first time you've heard this excuse: Boston goalie Tim Thomas collided behind his net with Blue Jackets' forward Jiri Novotny, breaking the chin strap on his mask.

When the equipment managers couldn't fashion a quick replacement, Thomas used a mask belonging to backup Manny Fernandez, whom he described as having "a big head." Thomas said he lost Raffi Torres' scoring shot at 6:50 of the third period in the bars of Fernandez's mask. Columbus then added an empty-net goal in their home victory.

Meanwhile, Columbus goalie Steve Mason recorded his ninth shutout this season, an NHL rookie record.

Around the Northeast
-- Former Bruins center Larry Regan, 78, who led the team to two Stanley Cup Final defeats against the Montreal Canadiens in 1957 and 1958, died Monday in Ottawa, where he started his professional career in 1947 as a member of the Ottawa Senators of the Quebec Senior Hockey League. Regan was the 1957 Calder Memorial Trophy winner as rookie of the year. He was 27 then and wouldn't be eligible today under rules adopted after Russian star Sergei Makarov won in 1990 at age 32. Regan was the first general manager of the Los Angeles Kings and guided them to the Stanley Cup Playoffs in their first two seasons. ... Goalie Mikael Tellqvist made his Buffalo Sabres' debut Tuesday in the 5-2 loss at Philadelphia after starter Patrick Lalime gave up three goals in seven minutes early in the third period. Tellqvist, 29, previously played for Toronto and Phoenix and is 43-40-2 in 108 NHL games, with a 3.04 goals-against average and .896 save percentage. ... New York Islanders defenseman Brendan Witt played Tuesday against the Maple Leafs, his first game after serving a five-game suspension for elbowing Toronto's Nik Hagman in the head on Feb. 26. Hagman hasn't played since the injury. ... Jason Spezza broke Daniel Alfredsson's franchise record by scoring 12 seconds into last Thursday's game against the Sabres, a 4-2 victory. Alfredsson scored 13 seconds into a 5-4 overtime loss to Toronto on Feb. 5, 2004. ... Ottawa defenseman Jason Smith played his 1,000th NHL game on Feb. 17 against Colorado.

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