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With the season coming to a close in about a week’s time, thoughts will inevitably turn to this edition of the Canadiens and wonder about the leading figure, their MVP of the club for the year 2003/04.  There’s no shortage of candidates on a team that has surprised and impressed in a season where they were supposed to crashed and burned.   In the end, though, one name does stand above the others.


Of course, if you look off the ice, the actual MVP of the team is easily evident.  From the moment he took over the duties as general manager, there has been a shift in the thinking and the attitude of everyone inside the club.  Bob Gainey, without having put a skate blade on the ice, has transformed the Canadiens from a team not supposed to make the playoffs into one that actually loaded up at the trade deadline with every intention of making a splash in the playoffs.


Insisting on someone who’s skated with the team the entire season might leave you just a couple of steps down the corporate ladder in the form of coach Claude Julien.  His system and ability to bring out the best in players could easily have him as the candidate for MVP and at least he’s skated with the team during practice sessions.  He had the guts to do the unpopular moves, including the benching of hometown favourite Mike Ribeiro, but in the end each of his moves seems to have worked out for the best.


Perhaps the biggest surprise on this team, on the ice at least, is rookie of the year candidate Michael Ryder who came from nowhere to be the second leading point getter on the club and one of the hardest working players in hockey.  When you consider that he languished on or near the fourth line for a quarter of the season, his contribution seems that much better. 


His 24 goals and 60 points are astounding and rank him very high in terms of the leading rookie point-getters in recent years, and that production will get him at least a runner-up position in the Calder race.  His work this year was indispensable, and yet there were better.


Sheldon Souray came out of nowhere to have one of the best season’s by a defensemen in Montreal‘s recent history.  Fifteen goals and 35 points in a mere 60 games speak to the volumes he’s produced offensively, but mention nothing of the stellar work he’s done on the blueline.


 After missing the entirety of last year with a wrist injury, he stepped in this season and assumed the number one role and continued improving his game until an unfortunate knee injury took him out.  It’s quite possible that, without that injury, he may very well have been the MVP for this club.  As it is, Hab fans can only be impressed by his showing and hope that it spills over into the playoffs.


Before the season began, Mike Ribeiro was given a one-year contract, basically an ultimatum from the club: perform or we’ll look elsewhere.  Ribeiro outdid himself and astounded viewers with a continually improving season and the lead, thus far, in the scoring race on the club.  Attaining the 20-goal mark has to be a special feeling, and backing that up with another 43 helpers proves his vision on the ice.  The most amazing part of his game, though, is the plus 14 that he now has, second on the club.  In a put-up-or-shut-up year, Ribeiro has put up, and shut up his critics.


The captain of the Canadiens, Saku Koivu, found himself in familiar territory at the beginning of the year when he was run awkwardly into the boards and had to take the first 14 games off as he recovered from another knee injury.  The first five games after he came back were a struggle – basically his training camp a full month and a half after everyone else had started theirs.  After that, he was golden. 


Fourteen goals and 54 points and almost a point-per-game pace until a recent slump proved yet again that the diminutive Finn still had the offensive touch.  More than once his captaincy was put into question, yet interestingly, after an altercation in practice with Ribeiro, the team pulled together and fired off a tremendous string that eventually cemented their playoff picture.  He was, as usual, the heart of the Canadiens and a piece they would struggle significantly without.


And yet, in the end, it comes back to Jose Theodore.  Despite starting the season with some struggles, he pulled himself upright, found his game, and backstopped this team to where it is today.  His stats might not be up there with the best goalies in the game this season, yet when you consider his start, that 2.21 GAA and .922 save percentage suddenly starts to look pretty good. 


While many look at the long string of success and just note the victories, what is forgotten is that, in more than a few of those games, the Habs struggled and were the second best team.  It was only Theodore who shut the door and brought home the points.  With him in the goal, the rest of the team doesn’t have to be at its best to win games, and you can’t say that about anyone else on the club – in fact you can hardly say that about too many people in the game.


While he probably won’t get consideration for the league MVP, and he may not even get consideration for the Vezina because of the struggles at the beginning of the season, he should most certainly get the award as MVP of the Montreal Canadiens.  He is the pillar the team is built around, the reason other teams are scared to meet the Habs in the playoffs, and the reason many of the game’s pundits saw the Habs making the playoffs over perhaps more skilled teams.


In Theodore the Habs trust, may he guide them well into the playoffs.  Indeed, the Canadiens goalie holds the torch very high and the flame continues to grow brighter.