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|First-year coach, Guy Carbonneau, is hoping to help the Canadiens -- the team he led to the 1986 Stanley Cup Championship -- find the winning formula.|
Detroit has three Cups in the past decade but before that suffered through a 42-year Cup slump.Boston, finally, hasn't won in 35 years, and before winning twice in the early 1970s went 29 years between championship seasons. So nobody, it's fair to say, feels bad just yet for the Canadiens. If another 30 years go by, well, then we'll see about sympathy. But here's what's interesting. This season has been such a trying experience for the Canadiens, with such a wide variety of on-ice and off-ice problems, that, lo and behold, this franchise just doesn't feel that special any more. Combined with the long wait since the last Cup, it seems ordinary, really. More just like any number of other teams in the rapidly changing culture of a league in which teams like Carolina, Tampa Bay, Dallas and Colorado -- teams that weren't even in existence when Patrick Roy led the Habs to the '86 Cup -- have made it to the mountaintop. Which makes you really wonder; in a world in which the Notre Dames fall prey to the Winthrops, are there really any special teams any more? The Canadiens still do have a wildly partisan following, mind you, and the 21,000-plus that pack the Bell Centre regularly produce the NHL's most nerve-jangling, exciting atmosphere. That makes them wonderfully loyal, for if there was a year that would make even a true bleu, blanc et rouge supporter look away, this might be it: • The goaltending, historically a team strength, is a dog's breakfast. The No. 1 job has fallen by default to Slovak rookie Jaroslav Halak, mostly because last year's hero, Cristobal Huet of France, is sidelined after hamstring surgery and Swiss national David Aebischer has been wholly unreliable. • The rookie coach, Guy Carbonneau, has been under fire for his handling of a variety of problems. His status as a former heart-and-soul member of the hockey club, a captain, no less, hasn't bought him much wiggle room. • Winger Sergei Samsonov, the only significant free-agent move the Habs made last summer, has been unproductive and unhappy. He's now nailed to a press box seat, with Carbonneau more inclined to use defensemen Mathieu Dandenault and Mark Streit up front than release Samsonov from purgatory. Of late, Samsonov has voiced his displeasure, saying he regretted signing with the club in the first place. Still, he has another year left on his deal at $3.5 million per, and unless the team wants to eat that salary or is able to trade the sulking Russian, this is a marriage that may be dragged through the mud for a while yet. • Then there's veteran forward Alexei Kovalev. Several weeks ago, remarks he allegedly made to a Russian newspaper ripping Carbonneau made their way into a francophone daily, forcing Kovalev to claim, naturally, that he'd been misquoted. Carbonneau didn't really seem to believe him, but decided he had bigger fish to fry and gave the veteran a pass. Then, 10 days ago Kovalev awoke to find he suddenly had a mysterious case of vertigo that he worried might force him to retire. A week later, however, he was back in the lineup for a Saturday night win over Toronto. • Defenseman Sheldon Souray, arguably the team's best player this season, is an unrestricted free agent in July and is expected to leave Montreal, probably headed for the West Coast. Souray has said all the right things, but insiders say he's had it with the day-to-day scrutiny of playing for the Canadiens. Combined with the Samsonov mess, the Habs' traditional struggle to lure free agents may be about to take a turn for the worse.
|Sheldon Souray has put up solid numbers for the Canadiens, but becomes an unrestricted free agent after the season.|
Then again, it's a testament, perhaps, to the durability of Les Habitants that they are still in the playoff hunt at all.And still capable of being better than some of their Original Six rivals. Halak out-goaltended Leafs veteran Andrew Raycroft Saturday to lead the Canadiens to a shootout victory in which he stoned three of four Toronto shooters. Then, on Tuesday, he made 30 saves to shut out the Bruins 1-0, and once more grainy memories of past Montreal goaltending heroes were exhumed to see if Halak, who played in the ECHL last year, might be the newest such surprise. Ken Dryden, of course, was the most notable when he jumped into the Canadiens lineup late in the 1970-71 season, stunned the Bruins in the first round and ultimately led Montreal to another Cup. At one game over .500 in his brief NHL career, Halak doesn't have all the earmarks of a modern-day Dryden. But until Huet comes back, he may be the best shot the Habs have. Latendresse, meanwhile, scored the only goal against the Bruins, and he and other fellow youngsters like Mike Ryder, Chris Higgins, Mike Komisarek and Andrei Kostitsyn have been the best Habs of late. So there's a future brewing in Montreal. But a present? The temptation is to say no chance. Then again, surprise Cups in '71, '86 and '93 should always lead one to ponder the legendary magic of the Canadiens -- if it still exists -- before writing them off. Damien Cox, a columnist for The Toronto Star, is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. He is the author of "Brodeur: Beyond The Crease" and "'67: The Maple Leafs, Their Sensational Victory, and the End of an Empire."