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Beware the Habs

Montreal is showing the signs of a serious sleeper

Posted: Monday September 25, 2006 2:01PM; Updated: Tuesday September 26, 2006 5:18PM
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Netminder Cristobal Huet and center Mike Ribeiro are hometown favorites who will play central roles in Montreal's success.
Netminder Cristobal Huet and center Mike Ribeiro are hometown favorites who will play central roles in Montreal's success.
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Some teams have made multiple moves in hopes of getting better, while others -- such as the Calgary Flames (Alex Tanguay) and the Anaheim Ducks (Chris Pronger) -- used a dramatic, select acquisition to address a particular need and put them in position to contend. Yet the surprise teams of a season ago made only subtle changes and largely drew their strength from the improvement of young players. So if you are looking for this season's version of the Buffalo Sabres or the Carolina Hurricanes -- both of which started fast and proved the merit of their makeup during the course of the regular season and the playoffs  -- consider the Montreal Canadiens.

The Habs made modest moves by signing free agents Sergei Samsonov and Mike Johnson. Maybe more telling is that they shed three regular forwards from last season's roster: Richard Zednik, Niklas Sundstrom and Jan Bulis. That means GM Bob Gainey is counting on his top three of Samsonov, captain Saku Koivu and Alexei Kovalev as well as quantifiable improvement from several young forwards. And his faith is valid. Gainey saw strong second halves last season from five core youngsters up front. Michael Ryder hit the 30-goal plateau and centerman Mike Ribeiro (51 points) shook off a woeful start and produced later in the season. Both are in position to build upon those second-half results. The key, however, will be the growth of last season's rookies: Alexander Perezhogin, Tomas Plekanec and Chris Higgins.

All three youngsters took on more responsibility as things unfolded, with Higgins scoring 23 goals and Perezhogin (+5, 19 points) and Plekanec (+4, 29) exhibiting offensive upside. If Higgins and Perezhogin fully mature, they will deliver on some recent drafting and development. Both were first-round picks who spent time in the AHL.

This blueprint is quite similar to the one the Sabres used to build their forward lines. They didn't have a game-breaker per se, counting instead on two fully-vested power-play units and three-line scoring depth at even strength. Buffalo's top scorer, Maxim Afinogenov, had 73 points. Forty-two players in the NHL scored more, but Buffalo ranked fifth offensively by relying on smallish, fleet-footed forwards and spreading the production around: 12 Sabres had 30 or more points, many of them in their first or second season with the big club.

Gainey would welcome the same type of production, especially at even strength. Overall, the Habs ranked 20th in offense despite having the fifth-most efficient power play. This underscores the Canadiens' need for improved even-strength production from the young group up front. The backline led by power play quarterback Andrei Markov is mostly veterans with good mobility and passing skills. Plus, Markov, Sheldon Souray and Francis Bouillon are looking toward free agency at the end of the season. That is just the kind of personal motivation that can make a telltale difference in a team's fortunes.

In goal and behind the bench, Gainey has to look to the 'Canes for parallels. Guy Carbonneau is a head coach for the first time. Last season, Peter Laviolette was in his first full season behind the bench in Raleigh. His energy and approach paid off immediately and culminated in the ultimate reward: the Stanley Cup. As a former Canadiens captain known for his raw, real emotions, Carbonneau has the pedigree to command respect in the Habs' locker room and to keep his team motivated.

Of course, Carbonneau's task will be easier if goaltender Cristobal Huet channels Martin Gerber's regular-season success with the Hurricanes. Huet put in a fine late run of his own that was instrumental in getting the Habs to the playoffs, and it afforded Gainey the chance to send native son Jose Theodore to Colorado for David Aebischer -- himself a viable starting option in stretches.

There may be a lot of ifs surrounding Carbonneau's Canadiens, but without them they'd be a sure thing, not a surprise-team candidate. But as last season's Sabres and Hurricanes proved, unexpected excellence has a certain look to it. These Canadiens have a lot of those same traits.