Before the start of the season, after a hot training camp, I predicted that Andrei Kostitsyn would score 45 goals this season. That prediction took the shute when head and leg injuries slowed the elder Kostitsyn considerably. So, I'm down to a backup prediction, and with 48 games remaining, Kostitsyn should still easily manage to top last season's 26 goal effort. With the hat trick earned in Saturday's win, he would need to score a goal every third game the rest of the way to accomplish the feat. Barring further injuries, I say he does it.
The Canadiens are counting on Kostitsyn's contribution. He is a dynamic offensive weapon with enough skill, size and ability to keep opponants off balance. Being quick for his size, nifty with the puck, and possessing a wicked shot from the farther reaches, he creates space for his linemates when he is on his game.
The recently reunited trio of Kostitsyn, Alex Kovalev and Tomas Plekanec have not produced the expected sparks this season. There have been few times when all three have been firing on all cylinders. When one of the three is out of sync, the whole line goes invisible.
Three seasons ago, Plekanec was first paired with Kovalev, and the results were mixed. The center his the 20 goal plateau for the first time, while Kovalev augered himself into the ice nightly trying to do too much on his own. The two learned to play together last season, when Kostitsyn was added to the mix, and for the first time in many seasons, it appeared the Canadiens finally had a legitimate first line.
As it goes with many a new successful combinations, there comes a time when the opposition begin to pick apart the elements that make a trio tick. By isolating, and thus eliminating facets of a player's game, what has worked is then broken down and neutralized.
As Kovalev has the tendency to wait out his own options, he is the player most keyed on when he has possesion near the blue line. He'll often attempt a pass to a covered Plekanec rather than place the puck in his center's strong zone, which is at the boards or behind the net.
What occurs most often to kill the line's offensive chances, is that they do not bring the puck deep enough into the offensive zone. Plekanec, being the defensive conscience of the line, tends to hold up in coverage if the play doesn't go deep where he can fight for possession. If both he and Kovalev are neutralized and the puck isn't placed deep, Kostitsyn is rendered an afterthought.
What's important to note about Kostitsyn, is that as a left winger, he is playing off wing to all his natural tendencies. That fact makes him an even more remote play option.
This is why teams love to get their hands on right shooting left wingers and centers. The many possibilities they create - starting with the natural tendency of a smoother pivot away from a check - are subtle, but yet deceptive. Robert Lang, Matt D'Agnostini, and Michael Ryder are examples of righties who have been known to give defenders fits because of this.
Given the way Plekanec and Kovalev tend to play, Kostitsyn must develop the habit of getting into the mix in the middle of the ice. He'll be on the reciving end of better passes in clearer lanes and have more of a middle of the net to shoot at.
Kostitsyn's hat trick tonight was evidence of that. Two goals from the slot assisted by Plekanec behind the net, and a third, on a drive from the right wing, after breaking up a play on his off wing.
On a night where Kovalev was again keyed on and neutralized for the most part, the efforts made by Kostitsyn and Plekanec proved to be the difference.
Photos courtsey of the Gazette / Habs Inside Out and Montreal Canadiens.com.