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Avia S-199 in Israeli Air Force Service

Habs talk

Going into this season, expectations for the Montreal Canadiens peaked at being a borderline playoff team. As recently as 24 hours ago, coming off a win over the depleted Ottawa Senators that put the team a point out of first place in the NHL’s Eastern Conference, this city went a little nuts. Last night’s loss to the Maple Leafs may have bumped some fans off the bandwagon.

What’s fascinated me this year is the way the Habs have been winning. The team’s strength over the last few year – heck, over the last few decades – has been its team defence. The team advanced as far as it has on its ability to prevent goals. But not this year.

Look at the stats. The Habs stand second in the conference in goals but only in the middle of the pack in goals allowed. Why?

When Cristobal Huet first came to the team, I thought he was astounding – the most technically perfect goalie I’ve ever seen. He wasn’t necessarily fast like Dominik “Crazy Legs” Hasek and he didn’t play big in the net like Roberto Luongo, but he was always square to the shot and was the softest goalie I’ve ever seen, meaning that he never gave up a rebound. The puck would hit him and drop dead. The rebounds that came off his pads and stick were always directed into the corners. He was a human goalie clinic.

While Huet is still a good goalie, he’s no longer so technically perfect. He’s not as square as he used to be and he’s giving up more rebounds. This wouldn’t have happened two years ago.

That goal brings up another weakness of the team. With the departure of Sheldon Souray and the addition of Roman Hamrlik, the team’s defence was supposed to improve, and maybe it has, but the defencemen sometimes wander. Too often, the Habs leave opposing players uncovered in front of their net. Although he’s improved, Mike Komisarek was particularly bad at that earlier in the year. He would become fixated on a puck carrier at the point and start to drift that way, abandoning the man he should have had in front of the net.

Watch the first two Leaf goals from last night, and check out Latendresse (84) and Bouillon (51) on the first goal and Gorges (26) on the second. I hope they had nice views, because all they were doing was looking. Go watch that Ottawa goal again and follow Brisebois (71), as well.

Let’s talk offense, the unexpected strength of the team. You don’t hear much about this team’s goal-scoring ability and fans and pundits insist that the team needs a 40-goal scorer. But the team lags only the Senators and the Red Wings in goals scored. It goes unnoticed and unappreciated because nobody on the Habs ranks among the league’s top goal-scorers or point-getters. Tops on the team is Alex Kovalev, who lands 15th in goals in the league and 21st in points.

The Canadiens’ offense is spread across several lines. One or the other will slump now and then, but every line can put the puck in the net. The Habs have two 20-goal scorers, barely. Ottawa has three, almost four, and the team leader has 32. The Red Wings have three with the team leader at 33. The Flyers, with nearly as many goals as the Habs, have three over 20.

But look at the number of double-digit goal scorers: the Habs have seven, the Sens only five, the Wings eight, and the Flyers six. The Canadiens spread the goals around.

That doesn’t mean that the team doesn’t have a top line for it most certainly does. While Coach Carbonneau plays pick-up sticks with most of the forwards, one line on the team has become untouchable in its success: the Kovalev-Plekanec-A. Kostitsyn line. Some folks think this line may be the most dangerous line in the NHL, but those people haven’t watched much Senators or Red Wings hockey this year. The trio is a treat to watch, however, and has spent this week producing four highlight-reel goals (I’ll include last night’s short-handed goal).

Back in the ’70s and earlier, when you had a great line, they’d get a name. That practice has fallen by the wayside, but this line has been together long enough and is successful enough to deserve one. I haven’t heard any suggestions, so I’m going to take a crack at it. Kovalev is Russian, Plekanec is Czech, and the Kostitsyns are from Belarus. They were born into Communism behind the Iron Curtain and they wear red uniforms. I dub them the Warsaw Pact. Remember, when it catches on, you heard it here first. (And, Naila, it is your mission to make sure it catches on….)

By the way, Team 990, nothing but nothing makes me change my radio station quicker than those decrepit Habtalk episodes. You better be making buckets of cash off them.

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