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January 17, 2019
Montreal's Main Man
by Michael Menser Dell, Editor-in-Chief
When Bob Gainey hired Guy Carbonneau as head coach of the Montreal Canadiens before the 2006 season, it seemed a lock the Habs would become the best defensive team in hockey. After all, Gainey is arguably the greatest defensive forward in history, collecting four Selke Trophies and five Stanley Cups during his 16-year career with the Canadiens. Carbonneau played 12 years in Montreal, winning three Selkes and two Stanley Cups.
Together, Gainey and Carbonneau should be able to craft a team capable of stopping Matthew McConaughey from scoring. Didn't happen. The Candiens gave up 256 goals last season, ranking them 19th in the league. Their minus-11 goal differential caused them to miss the playoffs by a scant two points. Lessons were learned.
"I don't consider myself a veteran in coaching," said Carbonneau. "But I think the year that I spent last year has really helped me this year how to react, how to act. I'm thinking more and I'm acting more as a coach now than as a player. Sometimes I'm thinking of when I was a player I used to do this, I used to do that. There is some truth to that. It doesn't really work in the long-term, so I'm acting more as a coach now than I used to.
"I understand more the impact of my decisions, so not that I'm trying to make those decisions, but I know how to prepare it a little bit before, maybe.
"Now, obviously, behind the bench, quick decisions behind the bench, bench management. How to use the players. I understand now like last year, everybody that I used was kind of new for me. Like how they would act, how they would react. Power-play wise. Penalty-wise at the end of the game. Up one, down one. Now I have a better idea what I can use in those situations."
The experience has definitely paid off. Carbonneau has guided the Habs to first place in the Prince of Wales Conference with an impressive 43-24-10 record. Montreal's goal differential stands at a conference-best plus-34, and their goals-against average is 2.77, down from 3.12 a year ago. Their 96 points are one more than the Pittsburgh Penguins, and they're five up on Ottawa in the Northeast. At worst, they're looking at a second seed in the playoffs.
The dramatic turnaround began in training camp. While the core of the team had returned, several new players were added to the mix, including the likes of Bryan Smolinski, Tom Kostopoulos, and Roman Hamrlik. Carbonneau made a concerted effort to build team chemistry, making sure everyone was on board as quickly as possible.
As a result, Montreal started the season 7-2-2. The good times soon faded into mediocrity, though, with the club going 10-10-2 over its next 22 contests. Something had to give.
"I really think that the biggest step for us was the trip at Christmas," said Carbonneau, referring to a six-game trip through Washington, Atlanta, Dallas, Tampa Bay, Florida, and New York. "Not because of the opponents that we had, but just because of what happened last year. I thought last year our team was really playing strong hockey. We were doing really well, and then the trip that we had starting just before Christmastime didn't go the way we wanted.
"Then from there it was really kind of a struggle right up until about three weeks from the end of the season where we couldn't catch our breath, couldn't catch anything. I thought this year we had the same start, kind of similar to last year. We've had also a huge trip during that holiday time. I think everybody was kind of nervous about that trip. Then once we came out of it doing really well, I thought that was a big thing."
Montreal went 3-1-2 on the trip, emerging with eight of a possible 12 points. It served as a springboard to an 8-2-2 January, allowing the Habs to catch Ottawa and declare themselves legit Cup contenders.
Alexei Kovalev leads Montreal in scoring with 33 goals and 76 points. At 35, the enigmatic Russian winger has enjoyed a career renaissance, becoming a consistent force at both ends of the ice. Kovalev hasn't gone more than two straight games without a point all season, and his plus-17 is the best mark on the team.
Last year, Kovalev struggled though a knee injury to collect a paltry 18 goals and 47 points in 73 games. He was also a dreadful minus-19. The fickle Montreal fans were quick to turn on him. Over the summer, Russian newspapers quoted Kovalev as criticizing the organization, all but paving his way out of town. He quickly quelled the controversy, asserting his commitment to the team and the city. His performance speaks for itself.
"I thought Kovy last year had an okay season, maybe not to his standards or to our standards," said Carbonneau. "I think that. . . kind of got him thinking this summer, especially when Russia didn't ask him to play in the world championship. I think he reevaluated where he stands, what he needs to do. I can't say that he had a different attitude or better attitude, but I think he came in with an attitude that, I'm going to prove to the people that I'm better than that."
Kovalev used the off-season to refocus his game. In short, he recognized his weaknesses and corrected them. He studied tapes from earlier in his career, when he was having more fun and producing more offense. He was determined to carry the same attitude into the new season. Scoring seven goals in the first 12 games certainly didn't hurt matters, and he's never looked back.
In Montreal's 4-2 win over Boston on March 20, Kovalev busted out two highlight-reel goals, stickhandling his way through the entire team to embarrass the Bears. It was vintage Kovalev. Montreal fans will be hoping to see similar magic come playoff time.
Carbonneau, for one, could definitely use the help. As a player, he was no stranger to the pressures of the postseason, but this will be his first go as a head coach.
"It's definitely going to be different," admitted Carbonneau. "I think the preparation for me, when I was a player, I prepare myself for a long series. I learned you're allowed to lose the first game, but you're not allowed to lose the last. I think I go into it with the same thing as a coach.
"There are adjustments that will need to be done game-to-game and day-to-day. I think I've been lucky. Everybody's talking about me. But I've been lucky to have a great staff of guys like Doug Jarvis that have that experience. Kirk Muller that brings that enthusiasm. And Roland (Melanson) has been here a long time. We talk a lot. We prepare ourselves the same way every day. When something works, we want to keep it and work on it. If something doesn't work, we're not afraid to change it."
Perhaps the only person facing more pressure than Carbonneau this postseason will be rookie Carey Price. The 20-year-old netminder was thrust into the starting role when the team elected to move Cristobal Huet at the deadline.
"I think everybody was kind of surprised when Cristobal was traded," said Carbonneau. "But, I think Bob had thought about that a long time and knew what kind of player we had in Carey, and also what kind of player we had in Jaro. I think the bulk of the conversation was just to make him realize that he didn't have to be Superman. What brought him here was being Carey Price, and all he needed to do was just to keep playing like Carey Price. I understand that he's only 20 years old. I didn't want to put more pressure on him than he had already. I don't expect him to shut down the opposition every game. For him, now, he's being No. 1, he has to act like one, that's all."
The kid has responded like a champ. Since the Huet trade, Price is 8-3-0 with a 2.44 goals-against average and a .928 save percentage. He's allowed two or fewer goals in seven of the 11 starts.
"As the year went, I think he gained a lot more confidence in what he can accomplish," said Carbonneau. "I think there is no doubt in anybody's mind that he had the talent to be a really good goalie at maybe the start, but there are steps that he has to go through.
"Obviously, the first game was huge for him. After that, putting a few games together. I think there was a big surprise, probably, or a shock when Bob decided to trade Cristobal. But I felt like he's -- not that he's been a different man, but he's like the devil probably was gone. He didn't have to fight against anybody anymore. He knew that he was going to be the man that would go back in the net. He didn't have to be Superman. He just had to be Carey Price."
And Carbonneau just has to be Guy Carbonneau. Although, to be honest, a cape wouldn't hurt.
And Kovy's second goal against Boston. He's smarter than the average Bear.