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NHL Report: March 6, 2008

<p>No Canadian franchise has won a Stanley Cup since 1993, and I’ll go out on a limb here and predict it may not happen this year, either.</p>




No Canadian franchise has won a Stanley Cup since 1993, and I’ll go out on a limb here and predict it may not happen this year, either.





The Toronto Maple Leafs and Edmonton Oilers aren’t going anywhere, we don’t think.





The Ottawa Senators, who seemed at the season’s outset to be Canada’s best bet in the NHL, are slumping woefully and have plummeted from first in the standings to fifth by losing four of five games heading into Thursday night and showing no signs of improvement under Bryan Murray, who rehired himself as coach recently.





The Vancouver Canucks, despite employing one of the top goaltenders in the NHL in Roberto Luongo, can’t score enough and went into Thursday night on a four-game losing streak.





And the Calgary Flames aren’t bad, but not good enough.





And so Canada’s top hope?





The Montreal Canadiens, who entered Thursday night 14 games above .500 and have become recognized as genuine contenders throughout the NHL.





This is a team blessed with great speed and first-rate defence.





Hard to believe they’re this efficient, eh?





At the beginning of the season, Canadiens captain Saku Koivu suggested in public that his team didn’t have the prerequisites to contend. He heard little argument, too, largely because defenceman Sheldon Souray jumped to the Oilers as a free agent and the team was devoid of established talent.





But Alexei Kovalev came alive and, combined with Andrei Markov, has triggered a high-scoring power play that has dominated opponents.





Markov, Mike Komisarek and Roman Hamrlik have been as strong a trio on defence as there is in the NHL.





And Carey Price has been dependable in net since general manager Bob Gainey played his hunch on the 20-year-old rookie and dealt goaltender Cristobal Huet to the Washington Capitals just before the trade deadline late last month.





But most of the Canadiens believe coach Guy Carbonneau is most responsible for the way the team has exceeded expectations.





“Carbo won as a player in Montreal and he knows what it takes to get to the playoffs,” Komisarek told NHL.com. “He has really stressed the defensive side of the game, making sure we're taking pride in playing well defensively, blocking shots, getting in lanes, playing together.





"This is his second year as head coach and it’s taken us this long to finally get into our heads what he wants us to do. Our forwards are tracking back and making it uncomfortable for other teams' forwards, taking away time and space and making sure they're not getting odd-man rushes.





"What I've been told by people who live in Montreal is that Carbo was a fierce competitor who took a lot of pride in his game and hated losing. That's the vibe we get from him. It's rubbed off on us. We see his intensity behind the bench and in the locker room."





Carbonneau knew his players were in unfamiliar territory last month after tying the Sens for the Northeast Division lead and so he urged them to appreciate their progress but not get overly excited since more than five weeks remain until the playoffs.





"If we win, we try to enjoy it a little bit and then regroup the next day to get ready for the next game," Carbonneau said. "If we lose, same thing, try to forget about it as quickly as possible and get back on track the next day. It's exciting to be competing for first place. We go back to last summer, when we decided to change a few things about our style. We put in a lot of work to prepare our team for training camp and the start of the season. I felt good about what we had and what we added during the off-season. Nobody expected us to be here in first place so we’re all enjoying it a little bit.”





Imagine how much they’d enjoy it if – dare I say it? – the Canadiens made it to the Stanley Cup.





Oh, and that last Canadian team to win the Cup in 1993?





Yep, the Canadiens. And Carbonneau played for that team.







• One of the reasons the Canucks are fighting for their playoff lives is that the Sedin twins, Daniel and Henrik, haven’t been able to score goals.





Entering Thursday night, Daniel was goalless in 10 games. Henrik, six games.





They’re feeling the pressures of being scrutinized.





“If this happens in November, nobody is going to notice, but right now every game is so big and it's a different thing,” Daniel said. "These questions always come up and we're used to them. We've been here for a long time now and we were probably more frustrated the first few years.”





I’ll tell you who’s really frustrated: Canucks general manager Dave Nonis. He tried desperately to come up with a sniper before the NHL’s trade deadline. Instead, he came up empty-handed. And the dearth of scoring might just keep the Canucks out of the post-season.







•Don’t look now but the Capitals’ Alexander Ovechkin is on pace to score 70 goals.





He’s part of a dying breed, you know. There just aren’t many snipers in the NHL any more.





Bet you can’t name five legitimate snipers.







Bruce Boudreau is 24-14-7 since taking over as the Caps’ coach but will that be good enough for coach-of-the-year honours?





Or will Carbonneau get the nod?





Or maybe Ted Nolan if the New York Islanders make the playoffs?







•In serious jeopardy of losing their jobs as coaches are the Florida Panthers’ Jacques Martin, the Los Angeles Kings’ Marc Crawford and the Maple Leafs’ Paul Maurice,





And, maybe, the Phoenix Coyotes’ Wayne Gretzky.




marty.york@metronews.ca

 
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