Precipitous plunge of the Habs' power play and more notes
The Canadiens' once-potent power play has fallen from first in 2007-08 to 29th
Habs still trying to replace departed point men Sheldon Souray and Mark Streit
Mike Komisarek has paid a painful price for taking on Milan Lucic of the Bruins
There are some fascinating numbers swirling around the NHL -- 82.8 (the value of the Canadian dollar in U.S. cents, a dip that is hurting the six bulwark Canadian franchises), 24 (the number of goals that Buffalo's resurrected Thomas Vanek has scored) and .938 (Boston goalie Tim Thomas' other-worldly save percentage) -- but the most perplexing of any of them is 29. That's the Montreal Canadiens' power play ranking prior to their 3-2 loss on Tuesday in Carolina.
Now some teams must be among the NHL's bottom feeders in any statistical category. (Only in Garrison Keillor's Lake Wobegon are all the children above average.) But Montreal's status with the man advantage is shocking considering that the Canadiens ranked first in power play efficiency the past two seasons.
In 2006-07, Sheldon Souray was blasting pucks from the point, absolutely undressing goalies. Of his 26 goals, 19 came on the power play -- a record for an NHL defenseman. But general manager Bob Gainey let Souray, also a minus 28 that season, walk to the Edmonton Oilers for a five-year, $27 million deal. No problem. The following season, Montreal bumped defenseman/forward Mark Streit, who had been on the second power-play unit, up to replace Souray. He didn't have Souray's industrial-strength shot -- few do -- but he had a quality shot and was a slicker passer than Souray. The result was 90 Montreal power play goals, split evenly between home and road.
Gainey probably could have negotiated a multi-year deal worth an average of $2.5 million if he had moved on Streit early in the season. But Streit, whom the Canadiens often played on the wing because they didn't trust him even on the third pair, moved into a higher-rent neighborhood with a 62-point season, which included seven power play goals. Streit, who wanted more five-on-five time strictly on defense, signed with the New York Islanders for five years at $20.5 million. Although he's now a minus seven on a scuffling team, Streit has seven goals and is on another 60-point season pace. He is also playing mega-minutes, about the 25 per game that are worthy of a No. 1 defenseman.
This season, faced with replacing another power play catalyst, the Canadiens slid Andrei Markov from the left point to the right, the trigger spot. And ... splat.
Montreal's power play, with two goals in 37 chances over the past nine games, has been in a funk since the first weeks of the season, lacking the sharp cross-seam passes that Markov used to make to Alex Kovalev on the right half boards. But it most tellingly lacks the big blasts from the point.
Neither Markov nor veteran Patrice Brisebois has been the weapon the Canadiens have sought. Because penalty killers don't have as much respect for the Habs' point shots, they have been sagging in their box, putting extra emphasis on defending the ever-dangerous but thoroughly snake-bitten Kovalev. He is seeing more bodies and sticks in the shooting lanes than he ever has, which forces him to try to pick the far corner.
The result: Kovalev had not scored in 19 games, since Nov. 1, until getting a short-handed goal against the Hurricanes. On Montreal's lone power play -- Carolina had 11 -- Kovalev started on the point, a position he played regularly in Pittsburgh.
After an 0-for-8 dud in a one-goal home loss to Washington last Saturday, coach Guy Carbonneau said the Canadiens are being outworked when they have the man advantage. Perhaps. Hard work always has been viewed as a panacea in hockey. But there is a structural problem with the power play that rival teams like Boston, with big points shooters like Zdeno Chara and Dennis Wideman, don't face. A breakout night, one of those three-for-five explosions, might alleviate some of the problems. And maybe the law of averages will simply take over on a power play that features gifted offensive players like Alex Tanguay, Robert Lang and Kovalev.
But right now, it looks like the law of averages has been repealed.
A costly blow
For the surging Bruins, the signal moment of the season might have occurred Nov. 13 when Milan Lucic rocked Montreal defenseman Mike Komisarek in some late-game fisticuffs during a 6-1 thumping at the new Garden in Boston. Lucic, who now plays on the No. 1 line with Marc Savard and Phil Kessel, had been so effective in roiling Komisarek during the first-round playoff series between these old rivals last spring that the Canadiens signed free-agent fighter Georges Laraque to a hefty three-year, $4.5 million contract to make sure their big defenseman wasn't wasting five minutes in the penalty box.
But Lucic had crawled so deep into Komisarek's cerebellum that even with the November game out of hand, the defenseman felt obliged to fight. The result was a shoulder injury that has kept him out of the lineup for more than a month. (He is expected to return Thursday against Philadelphia.) He hurt it not in throwing punches but falling to the ice, and knew instantly that something was amiss but did not go to the training room. Instead, he spent the final five minutes on the bench.
"In the Garden and in that situation," Komisarek said, "I didn't want to give them the satisfaction of going off for treatment."
Komisarek was embarrassed he hurt himself and his team -- Josh Gorges has had to join Markov on the top defense pair -- but says he would do it again.
"This is always going to be a game of emotions, and I absolutely hate losing," he said. "The timing was bad, but I thought it had to be done. (Lucic and I), we're going to be going at each other for a long time."
Esposito off the shelf
After being cut the past three years, Angelo Esposito finally made Team Canada for the world junior hockey championship that starts Dec. 26 in Ottawa. A fourth rejection would have broken a dubious-achievement tie with Dan Cleary, who was cut three times in the late 1990s, including once on a team coached by Mike Babcock, who later would make him a key role player on the 2008 Stanley Cup-winning Detroit Red Wings.
Esposito, who plays for the Montreal Juniors, made the Canadian team because of his shootout skill, some chemistry he showed with star John Tavares in an intrasquad game, and a willingness to do it all -- something he apparently didn't exhibit in his pre-draft interviews. When one team asked about his involvement with his family's grocery business in Montreal, Esposito said he wasn't interested because he was too involved with hockey. The team then backed off Esposito because it thought his attitude showed a lack of commitment to a group concept.
Esposito, who entered the 2007 draft year as a possible No. 1 overall selection, drifted to Pittsburgh with the 20th pick. The Penguins moved him to Atlanta in the Marian Hossa trade deadline deal last February.