I have been asked by a local weekly to come up with something based on my hometowns sharing of affection, split three ways between the Maple Leafs, Senators and Canadiens.
Not trying to show my sometimes obvious Habs hand, I came up with this as an intro article. Do I get the job? Have I maintained journalistic restraint? Balancing fact with opinion is always tricky business. From your perspective, how did I do? Here's the piece, written without thought to tonight's S.O. loss to the Sens, which I will soon tackled, barring a sobriety challenged Saturday night!
Hockey's Best Three Way Rivalry
Ask any three hockey fans in Cornwall who their prefered NHL team is and you are likely to field three different responses. The Toronto Maple Leafs and Montreal Canadiens have a longstanding tradition of supporters in town whereas the Ottawa Senators have sewn roots here in the last decade as they have come close to being Stanley Cup contenders. A bevy of former local players have lined up for both the Habs and Leafs. Doug Gilmour, Mathieu Schneider, Dan Daoust, and more recently, Chad Kilger have all enjoyed time with both teams.
All three NHL clubs are currently being viewed under distinctly different miscroscopes as the leagues last collective bargaining agreement has tended to level the playing fields somewhat. Ottawa, who has been a perenial but failed contender of late, is trying to mold a gritty post season squad while dealing with important losses to the teams overall makeup from the last season. The Maple Leafs, after missing the playoffs for the first time in six years, have quickly retooled and spent large, hoping the scenario does not repeat. The Canadiens are on a slow upward curve, patiently improving the team by pieces, while young talent grows into prime time roles.
Should the three make the post season and meet in different rounds it would surely ignite local passions and transform itself into an even more intense rivalry. It could very likely happen this season.
While many experts (myself included) called on the Leafs to once again miss the spring classic, it appears that the Buds may surprise the predictors. Buyoed by a fresh coaching system courtesy a new bench boss Paul Maurice, the Leafs have played desperate hockey from the get go so far, highlighted by a 6-0 thrashing of the Senators in just their second game that sent the Ottawa club into a short tailspin. Free agent goaltender Andrew Raycroft, without being spectacular, has gotten the job done in goal. Veterans Mats Sundin, Darcy Tucker, and Tomas Kaberle have been the leaders they were expected to be while a crop of youngsters fill in the depth chart and an injury depleted defensive corps. Kilger is off to his best ever start. I have always maintained that if Chad were given regular linemates and an assured role on a team he would prosper as he did in his first half season with the Canadiens.
Maurice has an intense, puck pursuit coaching style that ought to bring out the best in the Leafs more marginal talents. Gone, is the country club atmosphere players enjoyed under former boss Pat Quinn. The Maple Leafs now become a lunch bucket crew whose work ethic will be their calling card. Expect ups and downs as the year progresses. What the Leafs will have to weary of, due to thinning talent on D and the lack of third and fourth line depth, are injuries and overuse of star players. If they can reap contributions from the supporting cast and remain clear of the infirmary, the Leafs will eak their way into the playoffs in the seasons final weeks.
The Senators, as is becoming custom, may fall victim to their own high expectations. Having lost a fair chunk of talent to the demands of the salary cap, the Sens have been forced to retool at discount prices. After losing defensive pilar Zdeno Chara, offensive star Martin Havlat, and a useful role player in Bryan Smolinsky, the Sens are counting on improved play by their core players to get them over the hump. Having passed on the Dominik Hasek experiment, Ottawa are throwing their goaltending hopes at Martin Gerber, who has so far looked more like the goalie who failed against the Habs in last seasons playoffs more than the stopper who led the Carolina Hurricanes to a first place finish in the Southeast division last season. Projected backup Ray Emery may find himself once again thrown into the starting role as Sens net savior. The Sens off season aquisitions have so far failed to breed confidence among the veterans. Alexei Kaigorodov has squeaked his way onto the team on reputation alone while his play has disappointed. Defensemen Joe Corvo (injured) and Tom Preissing will be hard pressed to fill Chara's size 16's, while forward Dean McAmmond is a speedy and versatile addition upfront.
A major stumbling block in the Sens progression, is a shift in attitude regarding team defensive play. As a team with an obvious offensive thrust, the Sens challenge revolves around their play away from the puck. Against tighter checking teams, the Sens simply get picked apart due to a perceived lack of intensity in close games. Coach Bryan Murray does not appear to have the resume, the wherewithall, or the experience in lifting teams over this hurdle. The Sens markee line of Spezza - Heatley - Alfredsson will tear apart teams of a lower order, but when the top line is spread out for depth concerns, it exposes the Sens more glaring weaknesses. Coach Murray will be swimming with sharks, his moves questionned daily, if the team continues to hover near the .500 mark come December.
In Montreal, off season tinkering and a coaching change have many fans expecting a higher finish than last seasons 7th placing. The Canadiens should be up to the challange as the teams youngsters are gaining experience. After a good opening week it is becoming appparent new coach Guy Carbonneau is having a profound effect on the team. Carbonneau was always seen as an ideal coach one day, as far far back as when he was winning three Selke Trophies in his playing days. He will be given more leaway in the Montreal press, always an issue in La Belle Province, compared to his predecessors, as was GM Bob Gainey. The Canadiens will ride two solid goaltenders in Cristobal Huet and David Aebischer, until one emerges as a starter. The Habs have a rising star and future leader in left winger Chris Higgins, and the upside on younsters Tomas Plekanec, Alexander Perezhogin and Mike Komisarek is beginning to pay dividends.
During the offseason, Montreal added wingers Sergei Samsonov (Boston) and Mike Johnson (Phoenix) to the mix, and so far the results have been interesting. Samsonov adds another second line threat to go with the enigmatic Alex Kovalev, and if the skilled line manages to control the play more often than it turns the puck over, they will be remaining intact longer than most suspect. Johnson has so far teamed up well on the third trio with Perezhogin and center Radek Bonk, a formerly overrated first line pivot in Ottawa who now becomes an underrated thirid line checking center in Montreal. The addition of Bonk last season came under much criticism, as he played injured through the teams first 50 games. So far this season, the Habs penalty killing unit has doused all but one of their opponants first 30 powerplay chances, and much of the credit for this is due to Bonk and his positioning play similar to a Carbonneau game. Should the veterans continue to lead and the youth grow on schedule, the upper rankings of the Eastern conferance may not be out of reach for the Canadiens.