Wednesday, April 09, 2008

Phenom Price Leads Exciting Canadiens

Robert L Note: Jacques Demers, a two-time coach of the year and winner of the 1993 Stanley Cup with the Montreal Canadiens, will be providing USA Today with weekly on-line analysis during the first three playoff rounds and before each game during the Finals.

By Jacques Demers, as told to USA TODAY

The excitement is pretty prevalent in Montreal these days.

It's been 15 years since the Canadiens last won the Stanley Cup. It's been 15 years since they last had a 100-point season. But the belief is that they can make a run at it this postseason.

The excitement all starts in net, with the phenom Carey Price. He has been called the second coming of Patrick Roy and that says it all. Roy won the Stanley Cup in Montreal as a rookie in 1986 and fans have waited 22 years for another young goalie of his caliber. Yes, Jose Theodore won the MVP in 2001-02, but you can see the way Price inspires confidence in his teammates, the way great goalies like Martin Brodeur, Evgeni nabokov and Miikka Kiprusoff do.

He has a different personality from Roy. Patrick was emotional and tense. This kid is tense in his own way, but he's not excitable. He has great composure and a great amount of confidence in his abilities. He's mature. And he has a pedigree. He jumped from junior hockey to the American Hockey League last year and won the title there.

General manager Bob Gainey was criticized for trading Cristobal Huet and handing the No. 1 job to a 20-year-old, but I think he has handled Price well all season.

He sent him to the minors in midseason and that helped Price raise up his game. It was a setback at first because Price had trouble accepting the move and he was terrible for the first week to 10 days in Hamilton. But he's a smart kid. He understood why they sent him down and he started playing better and earned a recall.

Once he was back up, it made sense to trade Huet. It's not like he and Price were enemies, but the competition wasn't healthy for either of them. When Price came back, Gainey and coach Guy Carbonneau felt that they had their No. 1 goalie and would have to go with him. And Price has gone 12-3 since the trade.

Alexei Kovalev is also adding to the excitement in Montreal. He had a 35-goal season, the first since Vincent Damphousse had 38 in 1995-96. He's great on the ice and great in the dressing room. He has helped bring along some of the younger players such as Tomas Plekanec and the two Kostitsyns.

Kovalev's play is a complete turnaround from last year. For some reason, he wasn't involved then. He didn't feel wanted. This year, he has brought a breath of fresh air to this organization. He's positive. He's getting cheered. He received the Molson Cup the other night and the fans gave him a standing ovation.

Some of that turnaround has to do with Carbonneau. Last year as a rookie coach, he was strong technically and managed the bench well. But he had a problem with communication because he was a quiet, low-key guy. He was smart enough to learn, though, that he needed to be a better communicator.

Now, I think that Carbonneau is one of the leading candidates for coach of the year. Many people thought this was a rebuilding year, but the Canadiens had 104 points and the best record in the conference. His success is not surprising to me because he was a great captain when I coached him. He played in the league for 20 years and wasn't the biggest guy or the strongest skater. But he was one of the smartest guys who ever played for me.

He always thought the game through. He had a tremendous understanding of the game. That allowed him to play against Wayne Gretzky or bigger guys like Mario Lemieux or Eric Lindros. He managed his game so well and that's what made him such a strong, all-around defensive player.

I'm sure he's always told his younger players not to get cocky about going 8-0 against their first-round opponents, the Boston Bruins. He knows that cockiness could turn around on you quickly.
Personally, if I were still coaching, I would have preferred to have played to a split with Boston. I think you're going to see a different Bruins team in the playoffs.

They showed they had a lot of pride by having so many injuries and making it to the playoffs and having a heck of a year. They have a great player in Zdeno Chara. Marc Savard is a dangerous player. They'll probably get a boost from Patrice Bergeron's return from a concussion.

Goalie Tim Thomas has had an unbelievable year and yet he has the worst trouble against Montreal. But if he can put that out of his mind and play as he did against the rest of the NHL, it could be a problem for Montreal.

A lot of people are predicting a sweep, but I think it will be a tough series because Boston is fed up by being humiliated and embarrassed by Montreal.

Still, the Canadiens will win this series in six. And they'll be led by their phenomenal rookie in net.

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