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The Christmas break seemingly can’t come soon enough for the Montreal Canadiens, as they continue to drop in the standings, and are only a few points away from being out of a playoff spot.  Meanwhile in Hamilton, the team earned a couple of points this week and are still miles away from a playoff spot.  League-wide, a coach gets canned, one team’s begging for a new arena, and internal tensions in the NHLPA continue, even with the good news the NHL let out this week.  All the while, Team Canada continues its preparations for the upcoming WHJC’s and Olympics.  All this and more in the recap.

Canadiens Recap:

The week started off better than the last (how could it not), as Montreal took it to Phoenix by a score of 5-2, in a game that could have been much more lopsided.  After that, it was off to a mini 2-game Western road trip, which saw the Habs get an early 3-1 lead against Edmonton, only to see it shrivel away, falling 5-3.  Saturday night saw a better all-round effort, but similar results, as the final score read Minnesota 4, Montreal 3 in overtime.  On a happier note, Saku Koivu returned to the lineup after missing 5 games for a myriad of reasons.

The Good:
Michael Ryder – 4 goals in the last 4 games, counting for 28.6% of the teams’ goals in that span.

The Bad: Michael Ryder – has taken late penalties in the last 2 games (delay of game and hooking).  The powerplays that resulted from those penalties led to Edmonton and Minnesota’s game winning goals.

The Ugly:  In a tribute to the old fashioned ‘ugly’ goals, the last 3 Canadiens home games have seen 1 Habs goal been reviewed for more than 4 minutes.  On a happier side, in all 3, the goal was counted.

The Curious:  In Saturday’s contest, the Habs were down to 10 forwards less than halfway through the first as Steve Begin (ejection) and Tomas Plekanec (injury) were forced out of action.  One would think then that the likes of youngsters Garth Murray and Alexander Perezhogin would see more ice time.  In the case of the former, Murray did, playing almost as many minutes in that game as he did the previous 4, but the same could not be said for Perezhogin.  He actually played less than normal, seeing a total of 4:42, including just 5 seconds of PP time, and did not see action after the 2nd period.  How this accelerates Perezhogin’s development and helps his confidence is beyond me.

Bulldogs Recap:

Like the Habs this week, the week started off well for Hamilton, winning their first game in Philadelphia on Friday night by a count of 3-1.  From there, it started going downhill, as they followed up the W with a 4-0 loss to the Hershey Bears.  Sunday was another day, another game, another loss.  3 road games in 3 days did the Bulldogs in, as they couldn’t muster up enough vs the Marlies, dropping by a count of 4-2.

The Good:
Yann Danis – finally there appears to be some stability in goal; he has a 5-4-1 record with a 2.57 GAA.

The Bad:  Something tells me this will be a weekly comment, offence.  5 goals in 3 games does not equal wins.

The Ugly:  Adding to the offence issue, taking Andre Benoit and the now-departed Ron Hainsey aside, the remainder of the defence corps has scored a whopping 3 goals on the season.  It is a miracle that this PP is not the worst in the league.

The Curious:  Here’s an oddball stat for you, only one player has a higher point-per-game average than his PIMS-per-game-average.  That would be Corey Locke, who averages 0.78 PPG compared to 0.69 PIMS per game.

Who’s Hot, Who’s Not:

The weekly summary of teams on the rise, and those falling faster than the chances of St. Louis having a stable goalie situation by year’s end.

Rank Team Comments
1 Buffalo Sabres
Who saw this one coming?  Marty Biron has a 13-game winning streak, hardly anyone wanted the guy at the start of the year.
2 San Jose Sharks
Thornton continues to pay dividends; if Nabokov could play a little more consistently, look out.
3 Calgary Flames
Only lost once in regulation the last 10 games, recently ended Ray Emery’s unbeaten streak as well.  If they get a playmaking centre for Iginla, this team will take off.
28 Boston Bruins
Thornton deal did the expected – made the team worse, not better.  Now shopping Murray, Samsonov, Zhamnov, Raycroft around, the firesale is soon about to begin.
29 St. Louis Blues
Tkachuk’s hurt again, so is Sanford, the one consistent goalie they’ve had this season.  Could a return to prominence for Lalime be coming?  Not a chance.
30 Pittsburgh Penguins
New coach, same results, this team can’t buy a win.  Things will get worse before they get better.

Last Week:  1-New York R., 2-Dallas, 3-San Jose, 28-Washington, 29-Pittsburgh, 30-St. Louis

Around the rinks:

With contributions from Normand Szcyrek.

Cap on the rise?

With the “happy” announcement that revenues didn’t drop as much as people thought it would, Commissioner Gary Bettman announced this week that the salary cap for next season will most likely be higher than the $39 mil of this season.  This could be critical in the ability for Montreal to re-sign impending UFA Saku Koivu.

Unrest in PA…again:

First, it was the Saskin hiring that got a lot of people upset, now, another issue has arose.  Recently, 1 player agent has called out the PA for another violation of the constitution.  This time, it’s dealing with the financial statements from external product licensing.  The union is supposed to produce annual statements prepared by outside chartered accountants, and be available upon request by any union member at any time.  Jeremy Roenick, one of the complainants, also alleges that revenues from product licensing is not being re-distributed to the players, and that this has been the case for 6-7 years.  Further accusations claim that the PA is spending the money without the direction of the players and executives.  This charge will now be brought in front of the NLRB in the coming weeks.

New home for Mario and Co?

Earlier this week, Penguins player-owner Mario Lemieux bluntly stated that it is unlikely that the team will remain in Pittsburgh after its’ lease of the Mellon Arena expires after 2007.  Speculation has now started as to where the team could possibly re-locate to.  In Canada, the likes of Winnipeg, Quebec City, and the home of the Habs farm team, Hamilton, have popped up, while Kansas City, Seattle, Oklahoma, Houston, and Las Vegas have been mentioned as possible locations in the USA.  To note here, if Pittsburgh winds up moving to a more western locale, the Detroit Red Wings have already been promised that they will move into the Eastern Conference.

Quick Hits:

Speaking of Lemieux, more heart problems have come up, leaving his immediate future playing-wise in jeopardy…Wayne Gretzky has taken an indefinite leave of absence from coaching to be with his ailing mother.  Contrary to earlier reports, he has not resigned…With Patrik Elias set to return to New Jersey, D Dan McGillis was waived, but don’t expect anyone to eat his $2.2 million salary.

International News & Notes:

A pair of Habs prospects cracked Team Canada for the upcoming World Juniors.  Kyle Chipchura has been named the captain, while Guillaume Latendresse also made the team.  The same could not be said for Carey Price, as he lost the backup battle to Oilers prospect Devan Dubnyk.

Team Canada will name its Men’s Olympic roster this coming Wednesday at 6:00 PM EST.  Eligible to be selected are G Jose Theodore, D Sheldon Souray, and W Michael Ryder, as all were named to the 81-man preliminary roster.

Final Thought:

Pittsburgh GM Craig Patrick really dropped the ball in the hiring of the team’s new coaching staff.  First off, outside of Montreal, very little is known of Michel Therrien, other than the infamous throat-slashing gesture and of course, the hideous yellow jacket, which he appears to have discarded.  That being said, my issue is not with his hiring, it’s the rest of the staff.  Rather than keeping anyone on, the team decided to promote the entire farm team staff.  The problem?  This team was built with several veterans over the offseason, including the likes of Gonchar, LeClair, Recchi, and Palffy.  The belief after the firing of Eddie Olczyk was that the veterans had tuned the coaching staff out.  To fix this, the team hires a whole slew of inexperienced coaches, and somehow expects said veterans to buy into their system.  Not only that, but is it to the future benefit of the franchise to have a ‘green’ staff of Therrien and Co developing future stars like Crosby, Malkin, Whitney, and Fleury?  Or would it have been better to go after a crew who better knows the game at this level, and is someone the players can look up to? 

Note:  The recap will appear next on Saturday, December 24th, instead of the Christmas Day holiday on the 25th.