The Montreal Canadiens are home to Phoenix tonight at the Bell Centre. While Phoenix has risen in the overall standings to 16th place, the Habs have fallen to 15th position. While the Coyotes started slowly [5-9-1] to improve to their current 16-12-2 record, the Habs by contrast were off to a fast start at the end of October [8-3-1], to fall to their current 15-8-5 record. To say the least, it’s obvious which team is improving and which one is slumping.
A big part of the Phoenix resurgence is due to their top scorer, Ladislav Nagy, who is smoking hot recently with 9 goals and 13 assists in his last 13 games. When Nagy was asked to explain his recent play, he said “right now I shoot it and everything’s going in. I should probably keep shooting.” Another big reason for the team’s improved play comes from netminder Curtis Joseph, who has revitalized his career this season: 14 wins, 7 loss, 2 shutouts, 2.15 GAA, .929 save percentage. Nagy’s line mates, centre Mike Comrie [10 goals, 14 assists] and Mike Johnson [10 goals, 10 assists] along with defenseman Paul Mara [5 goals, 15 assists] are big contributors for Phoenix this season.
The Canadiens are coming off a lack luster 5-3 loss to Anaheim last Saturday, after a 6 day rest. The Mighty Ducks win was the first two points they’ve earned in Montreal in over 7 years! Comments from the Habs opponents after the game, as well as their tenacious start to the game, showed how well prepared the Ducks were for that match. Starting goalie JS Giguere knew that a long layoff would be difficult for the Habs, since they were through the same thing two weeks ago. Attacking the opposition fast and hard during the first 10 minutes was the key to setting the tone to the game, and it worked well.
The team’s recent loss was summarized succinctly by head coach Claude Julien. “We can look at the lay-off, the rustiness, some things we practised not happening, but it all boils down to one thing – competing. We didn’t compete. We lost one-on-one battles, we didn’t win races to the puck. That was the biggest thing – we have to compete harder.” Some pundits have commented about the lack of speed by the current Habs players. Many player were visibly quicker each game, while lately there has been a lack of foot movement by many of the players. It’s difficult to pinpoint the problem to the player’s efforts, the creeping of interference due to the reduction of penalty calls by the referees, or an adjustment to the old ‘Trap’ style of defensive play. Whatever the cause, the Habs offense has been lacking and the player injuries cannot be used as a crutch any more.
There’s been talk of a possible return to the lineup for Saku Koivu and Alexei Kovalev soon, but the team physicians and trainers are going to be cautious and not allow them to dress for tonight’s game. Kovalev’s return is expected for either Thursday or Saturday’s game. He told the press yesterday after practice that he felt he was at 75-80% towards game shape. Koivu groin injury appears to have improved, but he is now ailing from a stomach flu and did not practice yesterday. He will be evaluated again today, but remains doubtful for tonight’s game.
Pierre Dagenais – Mike Ribeiro – Michael Ryder
Jan Bulis – Tomas Plekanec – Richard Zednik
Chris Higgins – Steve Begin – Niklas Sundstrom
Garth Murray – Alexander Perezhogin – Other Forward
Sheldon Souray – Mathieu Dandenault
Andrei Markov – Craig Rivet
Mike Komisarek – Francis Bouillon
Injuries & Scratches: Yann Danis [G, healthy], Alexei Kovalev [RW, knee surgery, Injured Reserve List, possible return in December], Saku Koivu [groin, indefinitely-Injured Reserve List], Radek Bonk [groin, indefinitely]
Ladislav Nagy – Mike Comrie – Mike Johnson
Dave Scatchard – Petr Nedved – Shane Doan
Mike Leclerc- Mike Ricci – Boyd Devereaux
Geoff Sanderson – Jamie Lundmark – Oleg Saprykin
Derek Morris – Denis Gauthier
Sean O’Donnell – Matt Jones
Keith Ballard – Zbynek Michalek
Injuries & Scratches: Paul Mara [D, flu, day to day], Tyson Nash [strained abdominal muscle, indefinitely – Injured Reserve List]
Starting Goalies: Montreal, Jose Theodore; Phoenix, Curtis Joseph
Habs Notes: Kovalev’s teammates were nervous playing with him in yesterday’s practice. Alexei admitted he felt no pain in the knee…. Ribeiro’s line has contributed 7 of the Habs 8 goals over the past 3 games. He mentioned that other teams’ checkers have focussed on his line recently, but that will improve once Koivu’s line is healthy again….After yesterday’s practice, the Habs stayed at the rink to entertain over a hundred disadvantaged children as part of the team’s Club des petits dejeuners du Quebec program. This participation is one of several opportunities that the players take part in with various social groups and charities in the Montreal area.
Phoenix Notes: There’s been grapevine talk that Curtis Joseph’s fine play may earn him an invitation to the Canadian Olympic team.Shane Doan’s name has also been mentioned for the Canadian Olympic team. Other possible candidates are Paul Mara & Keith Ballard [USA], Zbynek Michalek [Czech Republic], Oleg Sapyrkin [Russia], Ladislav Nagy [Slovakia]…Mike Ricci played the part of Elmer Lach in the recent Maurice RIchard movie. Lach, another Canadiens legend, was Richard linemate….Sapyrkin suffered a sprained knee recently and he is unlikely to play in tonight’s game. If he is unable to play then look for forward Fredrik Sjostrom to take his place.