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Young Canadiens surged to top

by Dan Rosen

After not making the playoffs in 2006-07, the Montreal Canadiens were able to clinch the Eastern Conference this season and make it to the second round. Watch Flyers-Canadiens highlight video
If you find someone who tells you he or she picked the Montreal Canadiens to finish first in the Eastern Conference this season, then you can probably go ahead and call that person a liar.

No way. No how. Not a chance.

That was the general feeling many pundits had about the Habs’ playoff chances heading into this season. The Canadiens stumbled to 10th in the conference in 2006-07 and weren’t supposed to be good enough to climb into the top eight this season.

Oh, did they defy all of those critics. Did they ever!

The Canadiens closed the regular season by winning 12 of their final 17 games (12-4-1) to win the Northeast Division and capture the top seed in the Eastern Conference with 104 points, two more than the Pittsburgh Penguins.

Montreal was bounced out of the playoffs in the second round by the Philadelphia Flyers, but the regular season produced enough positives that the expectations for this young team will undoubtedly be raised for 2008-09.

“We’re a young team and we’re only going to be better after all we’ve experienced this year,” 21-year-old right winger Guillaume Latendresse told “Teams who get this right the first time around are pretty rare. With the amazing group we have here, good things are going to happen for us, beginning in September.”

Montreal was four games above .500 with 15 points before Nov. 1. By the All-Star break the Canadiens had 26 wins, including 17 on the road, the last one coming in New Jersey after they trailed 3-1 entering the third period.

On Feb. 19, they set a franchise record by coming back from a 5-0 deficit against the New York Rangers to win the game, 6-5, in a shootout. Michael Ryder, Alex Kovalev and Mark Streit brought the game to overtime. Saku Koivu won it in the shootout.

“A game like this,” Kovalev said, “we just had to keep playing and you never know what will happen.”

A week later, Montreal GM Bob Gainey made a trade that both sparked the Canadiens’ hot finish and turned their future fortunes into a present commodity. He sent goalie Cristobal Huet to Washington, giving 20-year-old rookie Carey Price room to take over the No. 1 job.

Price closed the season on a seven-game winning streak and was 12-3 after the trade. He led all rookies with 24 wins and three shutouts and was twice named one of the NHL’s Three Stars of the Week. He was the Rookie of the Month in March.

Although Price stumbled a bit in the playoffs, and was even replaced for a game by Jaroslav Halak, he showed enough in his rookie season to prove the Canadiens should have little to worry about in goal for a long time.

“He didn’t have to be Superman,” said Montreal coach Guy Carbonneau, who was a finalist for the Jack Adams Award as NHL Coach of the Year. “He just had to be Carey Price.”

The Canadiens wouldn’t have been within striking distance of the playoffs this season had it not been for the play of Kovalev, who was trade bait after a sub-par 2006-07 season when he had only 47 points and a minus-19 rating in 73 games.

The Russian star responded by having his best season since 2000-01 with 35 goals and 49 assists while playing in all 82 games. He kept it up in the playoffs with a team-high 11 points in 12 games.

“When you have that free time in the summer to re-focus, there are a lot of things that go through your mind and you tend to work a little harder and work out a little different,” Carbonneau said during the season. “Talking with Kovy, he looked at tapes of when he was a younger guy and what he used to do and how much he loved the game. Put that aside, it’s important to have that start to show that you did this (in the summer), and it’s working.”

“We’re a young team and we’re only going to be better after all we’ve experienced this year. Teams who get this right the first time around are pretty rare. With the amazing group we have here, good things are going to happen for us, beginning in September.” - Guillaume Latendresse
Other 30-something veterans such as Koivu, Roman Hamrlik and Bryan Smolinski also had big regular seasons for Montreal, but it was the younger generation that gave Habs Nation a regular season to remember.

Andrei Markov, who is 29, took over for Sheldon Souray and became the leader of the defense and a power-play quarterback. Tomas Plekanec, 25, centered the top line and had 69 points.

Streit, a Swiss defenseman who is 30 but only three seasons into his NHL career, had 62 points from the blue line.

Andrei Kostitsyn, a winger opposite Kovalev on the top line, had 53 points and a plus-15 rating. His younger brother, Sergei, a 21-year-old rookie, had nine goals, 18 assists and a plus-9 rating in 52 games after his call-up from Hamilton in December.

Christopher Higgins, 25, had the best of his three NHL seasons with 52 points. Mike Komisarek, 26, showed why he is one of the best stay-at-home defenseman in the game now, and the League’s premier shot blocker.

“Many people wondered why I chose to re-sign here two years ago,” Koivu told “I did it hoping to live a season like this one. With all of our young guys having one more year under their belts, things may not get any easier for us, but we will only get better.”

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