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(The Gazette – Pat Hickey) Saku Koivu’s absence from this road trip is an indication the Canadiens captain will be on the shelf for a while longer.

While Darren Langdon and Chad Kilger accompanied the Canadiens to Philadelphia, Koivu stayed home and has been told to give his right knee a rest.

Koivu has been pencilled into the Canadiens lineup on at least two occasions this season, but his good friend Mark Recchi said yesterday that Koivu was in no shape to play.

“He started skating too soon,” said Recchi, who has some experience with knee injuries. “You have to give that injury at least three weeks before you try to skate. You have to build up the knee first.”

Words of praise: Count Philadelphia Flyers coach Ken Hitchcock among those who are impressed by the Canadiens’ changes in the front office and behind the bench.

Canadiens general manager Bob Gainey once fired Hitchcock in Dallas – and then bailed out himself – but the two are still friends.

“I’m not surprised he came back and I wasn’t surprised when he took a break,” said Hitchcock, who replaced Gainey as the Stars’ head coach in 1996. “He had been involved with the NHL since he was 20 and I think he was burned out.

“But he’ll do a good job in Mon-

treal. He likes to build things. I enjoyed working with him. He’s the kind of guy that when you’re doing well, he can be really tough on you, but when things are going bad, he’s very patient and understanding.”

Hitchcock doesn’t know Canadiens coach Claude Julien, but “I know Bob likes him a lot and you can see where he’s done a good job with his team. There’s a semblance of a five-man unit that wasn’t there before. He

has his team working together and when you play as a unit, size isn’t as important.”

Chouinard is alive and well and playing in Philly: Éric Chouinard’s career appeared to be at a dead end last fall when the Canadiens failed to find room and exiled him to the Utah Grizzlies of the AHL. But Choui-nard’s play in Salt Lake City proved to be his ticket to the NHL.

“They played a couple of games here and we thought he had some potential,” Hitchcock said.

The Flyers traded a second-round draft choice for Chouinard, who was a first-round pick in 1999. He had four goals and four assists in 28 games last season and has scored twice in six games this season.

“He’s like a lot of junior players who are big scorers,” Hitchcock said. “They don’t realize all the other things they have to do to play in the NHL. Éric was fortunate to have (Bob) Bassen and Don Hay as his coaches last year in Utah and they helped him. He still has things to learn, but we’re building him up. He’s playing about 10 minutes a game, but we’re working him up to the point he can play 12, 14 minutes and see action on the power play. With the injuries we have, we’re playing three lines a lot, but as Éric gets better, we’ll be able to run four lines.

Hit of the night: Canadiens defenceman Stéphane Quintal inadvertently decked referee Terry Gregson midway through the opening period. Gregson, who appeared to have a shoulder or upper-arm injury, finished the period, but didn’t come out for the second, leaving Dennis LaRue to work the game alone.

Attendance on the decline: The announced attendance for last night’s game was 18,631, but it appeared there were at least 1,000 fans who jumped the gun on Halloween and came dressed up as empty seats.

Sellout crowds used to be a given in Philadelphia, but the average attendance has been on the decline in each of the past five years and so has the number of sold-out games. In the 1998-99 season, the Flyers had sellouts for 37 of their 41 home games in the 19,600-seat Wachovia Centre. There were only 14 sellouts last season.