Canadiens send strong message
Alex Kovalev, who led Montreal with 35 goals last season, has been a laggard
The Canadiens effectively double-teamed only Russians in their punishment
It will take a lot to restore the era of good feeling in the Habs' 100th season
Montreal Canadiens general manager Bob Gainey fired a shot across the bow of his listless hockey team Tuesday, announcing that Alex Kovalev was being given at least a two-game sabbatical from the lineup and that Sergei Kostistyn was being demoted to the minor-league affiliate in Hamilton.
The first thing these wingers have in common has been their substandard play.
Kovalev, who led Montreal with 35 goals last season, has been a laggard this year. Beyond the indifferent offensive numbers, Kovalev, the All-Star game MVP and an alternate captain who has worn the "C" in Saku Koivu's absence, has been sleepwalking. His efforts in a theft of a win last Friday in Colorado and in a white-flag loss in Vancouver last Sunday were minimal, which led to Gainey's decision that will keep Kovalev (minus-5 in his past five matches) out of games Wednesday in Washington and Thursday in Pittsburgh. The 21-year-old Kostitsyn, who was recalled in the middle of last season, has been a passenger most of this year, compiling eight goals and 23 points in 52 games despite possessing even more natural ability than his older brother Andrei, another Canadiens forward.
The second thing they have in common is, if you haven't guessed, the Russian language.
When a general manager and a coach (Guy Carbonneau) have the moxie to sit their best player -- and nominally Kovalev, 35, is still that -- it causes shock waves that reverberate throughout the dressing room. This is often a good thing. The message is generally clear: if we are willing to call out our top guy for underperforming, we are willing to do it to anybody.
But there can be another interpretation. Although several players have been egregious since the All-Star break, the Canadiens effectively double-teamed only Russians. (OK, a Russian, the captain of the 2006 Olympic team, and a Byelorussian.) If you missed that subliminal message, rest assured that the other Russian speakers on the team, Andrei, who is extraordinarily close to his brother Sergei, and star defenseman Andrei Markov, who has flatlined after a strong first half, didn't. Now compound the facts of the benching and the demotion with the timing. The Canadiens are in Washington, the team with the largest collection of marquee Russians in the NHL. Kovalev and Sergei Kostitsyn are being deprived, or have deprived themselves, of the chance to play against Capitals star Alex Ovechkin, Alexander Semin, the venerable Sergei Fedorov and Viktor Kozlov. Under these particular circumstances, an embarrassment can turn into humiliation.
Surely Gainey has another move in him prior to the March 4 trade deadline. On Monday, he sent draft picks to Atlanta for defenseman Mathieu Schneider in an effort to give a dormant power play a nudge. On Tuesday, he decided that life isn't all borscht and caviar. But it will take more than Kovalev's eventual return to the lineup -- maybe Saturday against Ottawa -- to restore the era of good feeling in this 100th season, a celebration that has turned sour in the past three weeks.