Thursday, January 31, 2008

Badger's Coach Describes McDonagh As A Komisarek Clone

Robert L Note: I read this article authored by La Presse's Mathias Brunet when it was posted at Habs World two days ago. Even with the Habs great win last night, I could not get McDonagh out of my head today. I just had to share it so here is the transcription for all the non francophone speaking readers. Sounds like the kid has a ton of promise.

The Canadiens first choice in the 2007 Entry Draft, defeneseman Ryan McDonagh, is said to be a Mike Komisarek clone, of sorts.

It's a stunning statement to make given that Komisarek is right handed and McDonagh left handed and presently 30 pounds lighter.

Since the statement comes from someone who ought to know, University of Wisconsin Badgers coach Mike Eaves, a man who followed Komisarek's progress throughout the American National Junior ranks, it must be taken seriously.

"I'm often asked if he compares to Ryan Suter (Nashville Predators first rounder in 2003), but I'd actually say that he reminds me more of a player you know well in Montreal, Mike Komisarek", eaves admitted during a phone interview with La Presse.

McDonagh isn't the type of player who rushes rink length with the puck. He's not a typical offensive defenseman. But the way in which he defends in his own end, his positioning, his dedication, his strength, his first pass from his zone and especially his ability to throw out a punishing bodycheck all remind me of Komisarek. I know that Komisarek is more imposing physically, but McDonagh, at 205 pounds, is already mature physically and you'd be surprised how solid he is on his skates. He loves to hit, you're going to see."

Eaves, a former NHL forward with the North Stars and Flames wasn't born yesterday. He's led the American National Junior team to it's one and only gold medal in 2004. Two years later he won the NCAA Championship with Wisconsin. Since he accepted the head coaching job with the Badgers in 2002, nine of his players have made it to the NHL, including Suter, Joe Pavelski, Jack Skille, Rene Bourque and Tom Gilbert - all rising stars.

Even though he is still only 18, McDonagh is a rock on defense for the Badgers. He has amassed 12 points, including five goals, in 26 games, with a plus 8 ranking, which is third best on the team and just behind defensive partner Jamie McBain, a second round pick of the Carolina Hurricanes two seasons ago.

"Ryan has been good, in fact very good for us since the start of the year", says the coach. "the difference in calibre between high school and the collegiate ranks is enormous, but he has been able to make the adjustment while correcting his mistakes thanks to his great mobility. It's not often that we give a large amount of responsabilities to rookies, especially defenseman, but Ryan is very mature for his age and we do not hesitate to employ him on both the power play and the penalty kill, and he is among our top four defenseman. We never worry when he is on the ice, even against the oppositions best players."

Mike Eaves found himself in an uncomfortable position when McDonagh wasn't chosen for the U.S. World Junior team this past Christmas. The U.S. team's head coach John Hynes was Eaves assistant when he started his career in Wisconsin in 2002, and also when Eaves coached the World Juniors in 2004.

"I was a bit surprised they chose not to take McDonagh since they scouted him so closely before deciding, but I never discussed him with Hynes", Eaves said.

"I understand what position he was in, having occupied it myself. He had his own ideas and he felt the defenseman he chose could respond to the task. It would have been a great experience for Ryan, but I loved his reaction when he learned he didn't make it. He looked me right in the eyes and said that the disappointment would only make him a better player and that he would show them why he should have been there. Since then he's played even better. I find he's even more confident with the puck now. He'll be there next year, no doubt about it."

Unless, of course, he joins the Canadiens before then, as Suter did after only one year of NCAA play.

"I'd like to keep him here another year, obviously, but I'm not aware of the Canadiens intentions. We do know that their scouts are watching him closely and that they speak regularly with Mark Osiecki, who coaches our defensemen. Physically, he's ready for the pro's, but here he can develop at his own pace. The little errors he'll make won't have the big consequences attached as it would in the NHL. In Suter's case, he came and discussed it with me, saying that he just could not turn down such a sum of money. In hindsight, an extra year with us would have helped him. The canadiens will make the right decision in the best interest of those concerned."

Here is a piece that the Montreal Gazette ran on McDonagh back on July 12, 2007, and the Hockey Future feature interview with him before being drated by the Canadiens that ran on June 3, 2007. Don't miss Matt Godbout's Habs World Interview with McDonagh.

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Canadiens Emptying Doubters Bandwagon With Solid Team Effort

Call it a roll the Habs are on! The Canadiens are emptying the doubters bandwagon one game at a time.

The Canadiens, on a three game winning streak, have started off the second half in style. After beating the Devils in an inspiring comeback win last Thursday, the boys made sure to remain focused as the Capitals were also one of the hotter teams in the league.

Beating Washington often means shutting down Alex Ovechkin, and the duo of Andrei Markov and Mike Komisarek, with the help of a crew of red, white, and blue hardhats managed the trick. With Washington behind by three goals, Capitals coach Bruce Boudreau attempted to double shift Ovechkin starting in the second period to little avail.

Ovechkin was doubtlessly on a mission tonight, as he always is when playing against his buddy Markov, but was derailed at every opportunity. Still managing 4 shots on goal, Ovechkin was tireless but shutdown. He had four blocked shots and fired another three wide, and you could tell the Habs were getting under his skin.

Josh Gorges, who played his best game as a Hab tonight, was also a thorn in Ovie's side.

It was simply a beautiful game to watch - hockey as it should be played.

It was like a European breed of firewagon hockey!

For the Canadiens, their Alex, as in Kovalev, was equally enflammed. Kovalev was an artist with the puck tonight, creating the types of scoring opportunities the likes of have rarely been seen in Montreal since the heyday of Guy Lafleur.

(Oddly, it was Boudreau who kneed Lafleur, while with Hartford in 1980, forever robbing the Flower of that split second quickness that made him so dominant.)

The Canadiens, as a whole, did just about everything you can ask of a team in winning.

They were relentless in their puck pursuit all game. They skated hard and hit everything in sight. They backchecked with a zealot's passion. They charged the opposing goal like rabid dogs.

Montreal were impressive in every step of their execution in this one.

Although they surrendered 35 shots on goal, they hit for a total of 40. The Caps had some great chances to score once the game opened up, but a good 25 of their chances were of the perimeter variety.

Cristobal Huet was a story by himself in this one. Rarely this season have I seen him so in command of his lateral movements, his rebound control, and his poise in traffic. While his defenseman enabled him good vision, Huet was absolutely sparkling on three occasions, and had the Capitals shooters shaking their heads.

While the line of Kovalev, Plekanec and A. Kostitsyn have had better games statistically, they were just unchained against Washington. All game long, their freewheeling passing plays augered the Capitals defense into chipped ice.

All four lines were triggers offensively. Both Steve Begin and Guillaume Latendresse outraced Caps defenders to nullify offsides. Begin's sprint led to Koivu's goal, and it pretty well sealed the game early on.

Another story in this one was the continued progression of Sergei Kostitsyn. It's funny, but the more we see of this kid, the more we realize how well rounded his game is. At 6', 190 lbs, he's not afraid to get his face wrinkled. There might be a touch of Dale Hunter in his game, as he spares no one his exhuberance in battles. Hunter was his coach with the London Knights, and it looks as though the younger Kostitsyn has learned his game in part.

After hip checking a Bruins player last Tuesday and getting into a scruff, Kostitsyn recklessly hit a Caps forward laterally, causing what looked to be an unintentional knee on knee hit. Called for tripping on the play, he pounced out of the box to speed into the mix of a Tomas Plekanec breakaway to score the Habs second goal. That he made it a 2 on 0 rush while the Canadiens were still on the penalty kill took savvy and guts. He doesn't choose his targets either it seems. What he doing throwing a shoulder into Donald Brashear deep in the Canadiens end later in the game, I do not know. But I sure liked it.

Sergei was drafted two years and 189 positions behind his older brother Andrei, who is quickly becoming a star player. Andrei played 180 AHL games before becoming an NHL regular. It's taken Sergei all of 22 games to reach the NHL.

Often when I watch the exploits of Ovechkin, Kovalchuk, Crosby, and Lecavalier, I get envious that they are not in Habs jersey.

Watching the Kostitsyn's, and their crew play like they did tonight, makes me a whole lot less jealous.

I'm often cautious in my analysis of this years team, mostly due to the scars from last season remaining fresh throughout this year. I've been careful, remembering that, like 2007, anything can happen to upset a season. I ws thinking that if it can happen to last season's seemingly good team, then it can occur again.

I'm done with that!

This isn't last year's team!

For a little's a pic of the buddies mentioned above. Now....what to make of it?

60 Years Of Canadiens Hockey Cards

No text here, just some cards from 1910 to 1963. Enjoy!

Habs Have Critics Eating Crow

It doesn't yet seem that long ago that the Canadiens, according to the pre-season experts, where headed for 13th place in the east?

Time flies when you're having fun, right?

If you are a frog, then time's fun when you're having flies!*

Along those lines, if you haven't noticed, those same experts and critics are beginning to eat small servings of uncooked crow in light of the Habs outstanding first half of the 2007-08 campaign.

For many who don't follow the Canadiens, there is a resolved sigh that is sounding a heck of lot like a collective "Who knew?"

This weekend, during the All Star break, I found a good half dozen pieces related to the Canadiens being the surprise team of the season so far.

Now I'm not surprised that the Toronto based media are surprised. They are annually too focused on their own soap opera to gaze elsewhere long enough to get the big picture in Montreal. The higher paid NHL analysts are paid so to focus on 30 teams and not one, so they settle for the consensus thinking about the overall feeling about the Canadiens and never delve any deeper. It's like a tradition.

Even Montreal's own media were split down the middle in their gauging of the team this season. Some suggested the Habs had too many question marks to make the post season, while others said there was a glimmer of hope for eighth place. Of course in the Montreal media, if one scribe suggests the sky is blue, a disagreement will sell papers.

The most optimistic previews came from the fans that know the team best. They figured that last year's best moments weren't illusions and that a team with so much going for it at times could not simply suffer a similar fate. Many, including myself, pointed to the flu bug that ravaged the team as being the main culprit in causing a playoff bound team to sink. One small victory, after all, would have been the difference in what would have been perceived as a successful season.

So where did all the pre-season doom and gloom come from?

It was several factors that had the naysayers baying at the moon. There was the question of replacing Sheldon Souray's power play prowess, the question about how Montreal would deal with the disruptive Alex Kovalev, the question of whether Guy Carbonneau would have the players confidence, the lack of a top line pivot, and the suspect goaltending of Cristobal Huet.

What many failed to seize in hindsight, was that these were hardly the main issues in the grand scope of things.

For myself, the key to the season would be the play of the youngsters and the experience they would be gaining. They alone, would hold much of the team's fate in their hands.

I reasoned that the departure of Souray's efficiency on offense would be offset by the exit of his defiencies on defense, and the arrival of a solid Roman Hamrlik. I didn't expect the Habs to maintain the top powerplay, but we now know that Souray was more the finisher than he was the creator of that killer unit.

Kovalev I wanted gone. I was ready to build the plank to push him off it. He remains the main reason for last season's deception and had he just shown up for a few more games everything might have been different. This season has seen a full transformation of spirit in Kovalev. He's gone from the litter box to the penthouse, and turned himself into the leader the team needs.

The off season predictions, again including mine, didn't grasp that Kovalev couldn't sink so low a second season running. It was his inner pride and a few good chats with Bob Gainey that seem to have made the difference.

Guy Carbonneau's situation didn't rattle me at all. He was a rookie coach, supposed to make mistakes and then learn from them. I found everyone to be impatient with him, from the fans themselves to the media hungry for stories with juicy angles. His learning curve combined with the youth movement were positives in my eyes.

I felt the lack of a top line center in theory, would be offset by team depth. My reasoning was that if Saku Koivu was able to bring his usual numbers, and Tomas Plekanec continued to improve as he did in the last year's dreadful second half, the team wouldn't miss that center so few teams give up on.

It was difficult to evaluate Huet harshly, as he never truly had time to recover from his injury before he was thrust into last year's do or die game. It was one game that left a bitter aftertaste. He started well last season, had some road bumps where the whole of the team was on a rocky road, but rarely played behind a poised defense after Christmas. Figuring that he is a solid team citizen and extremely level headed, Huet would dependable even if he didn't quite find the form he had when he stole Jose Theodore's job two season's ago.

Added all up, I felt that if the team improved just slightly and the virus and Kovalev disasters didn't reoccur, then the Canadiens were essentially a team better by a position or two. I tagged them for a fifth to seventh place finish.

I reserved my optimism that if everything went right, they could shoot higher. I also crossed my fingers that everything wouldn't go wrong - again!

So far, so good....and now for the crow.

It surely had to be the Canadiens stunning comeback against New Jersey that has made critics stand up and take notice. Hey, it even made fans shake their heads some. With the All Star break acting as a pause for thought, many scribes took to weighing in Les Reborn Glorieux.

The first crow eater I found was the usually sensible Pierre LeBrun of CP. He'd predicted the Canadiens on the outside looking in come April, but still had an appreciation for what Bob Gainey was building. He says:

"Raise your hands all you die-hard hockey fans, those of you who picked the Montreal Canadiens to have the second-best record in the Eastern Conference at the NHL all-star break.

Yeah, thought so. Don't feel bad, yours truly picked them to outright miss the playoffs in my pre-season predictions.

While I liked what I saw from GM Bob Gainey in terms of his young and rebuilding core, I still thought they were another year away from blossoming. I was wrong, like many of you.The 2007-08 edition of the Habs are one of the best surprises of the season.... home ice at the Bell Centre in the first round? Bring the ear plugs.

There is still lots of hockey left, however, and given their second-half collapse of last season, the Canadiens still have lots to prove before we're totally convinced they're for real. But all they can do is continue to pass tests like the one Thursday night, when they rallied for a 4-3 win at New Jersey. The Habs were down 3-1 entering the third period in New Jersey, otherwise known as Death Valley given the Devils' amazing defensive abilities. But Montreal outshot the stunned hosts 20-3 in the third period en route to three unanswered goals and a big-time emotional victory.

Perhaps the most intriguing part of Montreal's success so far this season is that last year's top forward line of Higgins-Koivu-Ryder is not carrying the load offensively. In fact, they've been broken up for most of the season after a tough start before being reunited just before the break. Ryder has downright struggled while Higgins and Koivu have had good stretches mixed with average ones.

Plekanec, quite frankly, is now the best centre in Montreal even if nobody wants to say it. Kostitsyn has been on a point-a-game pace for nearly two months while Kovalev, well, he's been simply awesome."

Pierre Maguire of TSN, still misses the genuine points when talking about Montreal. In between periods of the All Star game, Maguire ranked the Habs as the surprise of the season to him, which should come as no surprise to anyone who gets how little Maguire gets the Habs. In different times he's said that the Canadiens couldn't win with Souray, and wouldn't win without him once he left.

On his TSN blip, which you can hear here, the lippy one suggested that the Canadiens are no longer the Flying Frenchman (welcome to 1998, Pierre!) and that they were now the Eastern Block. How deep!

Maguire suggested that it was the play of players the likes of Plekanec, Markov, Kovalev, and the Kostitsyn brothers that were making things smooth in Montreal. He named the coaching staff without saying anything of substance about them but called the Canadiens "the fastest team in the East".

Maguire says the Habs could catch the Senators!

Former Habs coach Jacques Demers, who placed the team 8th in a pre-season poll, says that he is being asked by fellow journalists across the four corners of American about the Habs resurgace. He was in Atlanta on the weekend, and has this to say:

"I must have given a dozen interviews and they're all inquiring about what's up with Guy Carbonneau's team. People are impressed with the progression the team has made. One thing that has changed our peoples tones. They're no longer mocking the team, they are louding it.

"During the All Stars practice, I spoke with two General Managers and two writers, and in their opinion the Canadiens were the surprise team of the year so far. For them, Guy Carbonneau is the number one candidate for Coach of The Year.

"Now the five dollar question on everybody's lips is: Are the playoffs in the bag? Even though it is only January 27, I'll go on record without hesitation that the Canadiens will be in the springtime dance. For all the reasons mentioned prior, but mainly due to how they beat New Jersey.

The Gazette's Red Fisher was cautiously optimistic when the season began, saying the team was filled with question marks as well. Today, he too, is sensing a turning of the tide.

"There's still (sigh) a lot of hockey to be played, but the biggest surprise of all - and I kid you not - could be your Canadiens being one of only five teams sitting with 60 points or more at this hiccup in the season, the others being the Red Wings, Senators, Dallas and Anaheim. Furthermore, the Stars and Ducks have played four and three more games, respectively.

You don't sit No. 4 by divine right in the Eastern Conference as the Canadiens do - with more points than the No. 2 Flyers and No. 3 Hurricanes.

A lot of good things have to happen, such as Alex Kovalev finding his long-overdue game and Tomas Plekanec only five points short of matching his 47 of a year ago. Andrei Markov is a starter in tomorrow's All-Star Game. Mike Komisarek has become one of the team's leaders. Andrei Kostitsyn is a rising star. So is Christopher Higgins. Cristobal Huet has been getting it done in the nets.

Add this: love him or hate him, the biggest improvement thus far has come from behind the bench. It's been a learning process for Guy Carbonneau, but he's showing every sign of being in control of this team. He's grown with the job in his second season as head coach. He's still pushing his players and, as you'd expect, some of them don't like it, but they now know he's in charge. They realize he's the guy making the decisions, and for that Carbo has their respect.

Le Journal's Marc De Foy writes about the players opening up to the possibility of Montreal finishing first in the East, while counterpart Bertrand Raymond chooses caution in regards to what occured last season.

Raymond, who admits to ''not seeing any way they could finish higher than 11th" in October, now says "I prefer to wait a little longer to say whether they will make the playoffs. It's not that I am not impressed by what I'm seeing, it's just based on what happened last year."

Expect Raymond to get on board sometime around March 30th!

At least he's consistant, and hasn't pulled the shameless about face that TSN has. They were quite sure that the Habs had no chance at all of making the playoffs, but now talk of our Canadiens as one of four Canadien teams with Stanley Cup aspirations.

That's a little ways over the top for this time of the season.

Typically, the piece is credited to TSN Staff. How gutless!

The network does caution the Habs still have certain issues to work on, but not before jumping on the bandwagon of sorts, suggesting almost everything is beautiful in Montreal. Their assessment still seems somewhat distant.

The team still has 33 games left in the season, but sophomore head coach Guy Carbonneau has his squad sitting pretty in fourth place with 60 points.

A big reason for their improvement is the play of their youngsters. Chris Higgins, the Kostitsyn brothers and Maxim Lapierre have made significant contributions on the scoreboard while establishing Montreal as one of the fastest team - if not the fastest team - in the conference.

Another factor to their success is their improved transitional game. With Sheldon Souray's minus 28 gone and the solid shutdown unit of Mike Komisarek, Andrei Markov, and Roman Hamrlik, the Habs have fared much better at moving the puck out of their zone.

While the team's top line at the start of the season was Higgins, Saku Koivu and Michael Ryder, it's the trio of Tomas Plekanec, Andrei Kostitsyn, and Alex Kovalev that has been giving the opposition fits almost every night. Kovalev won't get much consideration for MVP compared to some of the league's other headliners, but some recognition as the most improved player would certainly suffice. Last season, the veteran winger tallied just 47 points, carried disatisfied winger Sergei Samsonov on and off the ice, and reportedly complaining to newspapers back home. This year has been a complete 180 degree turn. Not only is he the team's most explosive and productive player, he's also been a mentor to his younger teammates.

A few housekeeping matters have to be addressed if this team wants any chance of a shot at a 'Drive For 25.' If Ryder (barring a trade near the deadline) is sticking around for the duration of the year, he obviously has to improve on his goal production. The team could also do better at faceoffs (23rd in the NHL) and penalty killing (21st), which is a head scratcher when you consider Carbonneau, Muller, and Jarvis - great two way players - coaching behind the bench.

My thinking still has not changed. I see the Habs anywhere from 5th to 7th, with hopes permitted.

One big thing that has changed is how Montreal has gone about getting their 60 points. Last season, the Canadiens led the NHL in games won coming from behind in the third period. Some call that character.

This season, the Habs have done that all of once. I prefer this type of character.

The Canadiens are getting the lead in games, and holding it. It's much preferable.

Now can they can the Senators for first place in the East?

Of course they could!

Now what are the odds of Ottawa falling down enough, and Montreal rising that high simultaneously.

All I need is a continuation of what progression I've seen so far to keep me happy.

That and a playoff lottery ticket on a team coached by a participant to the 1986 and 1993 surprises!

*(This is not a slur, it's a food chain analogy/pun, folks!)