Forwards have Canadiens going backwards

Al Strachan

, Last Updated: 4:59 AM ET

MONTREAL -- All it takes is three decades of dealing with Bob Gainey and you learn a bit -- just a little bit -- about cracking that facade of his.

Gainey is inscrutable. His expression gives away very little, and his comments reveal only what he wants you to know.

But it's sort of like understanding the differences between identical twins. The longer you know them, the easier it becomes to tell them apart.

And those who know Gainey know that after Game 4 of the Eastern Conference quarter-final against the Carolina Hurricanes on Friday, despite the measured tones, he was angry.

Gainey is not a man who believes in excuses. As far as he is concerned, you accept whatever hand fate decides to deal and you cope with it.

So when his top two lines went into hibernation without Saku Koivu and the Hurricanes beat his Canadiens 3-2 to tie the series, he was much less than amused.

The top line, allegedly led by Alex Kovalev, had no shots at all. On the second line, only one player, Michael Ryder, managed to put a puck on the net.

"We'll have to improve for the next game," Gainey said in his impeccable French. "Our forwards weren't able to keep possession of the puck and had problems getting into their zone."

You can be assured that this sentiment will be expressed to the forwards in question -- if it hasn't been already. Gainey is known for being brutally honest with his players, but unlike the Tampa Bay Lightning's John Tortorella, he does it behind closed doors. And he doesn't talk about it afterward.

But right now, forwards are letting down the Canadiens. Cristobal Huet's goaltending has varied between very good and excellent. The defencemen are doing all that can be reasonably expected of them.

But the forwards simply are not contributing enough.

It's a vicious cycle. When the forwards don't score, the opponents feel more confident about their goaltending.

And feeling more confident, they don't mind taking the odd opportunity to apply a little extra pressure in the hope of blocking the attack before it gets started.

And if the attack has trouble getting started, it's less effective, which starts the whole cycle again.

So if the Canadiens are to get back on top in this series, it is imperative that the forwards, especially the enigmatic Kovalev, start to fight through checks, start to create some offence where none seems possible.

In the earlier games, the Hurricanes had little confidence in goalie Martin Gerber -- and with good reason. So they backed in to protect him and Kovalev had room to roam.

But since Cam Ward replaced Gerber, and the Hurricanes know they can count on him to make up for any mistake they might make, they're on Kovalev like airport security on a nail clipper and he can't get going.

"It starts with Kovalev," Carolina defenceman Aaron Ward said in explaining his team's rebound. "We're doing a better job.

"We're not doing a great job. We're doing a better job of limiting his time. He's such a creative player. We're doing all we can to make that rink small for him."

Tonight in Carolina, Gainey will be looking for an attitude change from his forwards. "We'll be looking for ways," he said, "to penetrate the defences of the Hurricanes and get some of our players participating in the results on the Carolina side of the ice."

"We're in a two-out-of-three series," he added. "We know the enemy. We know what they're like and we know how they can play."

It's hard not to hear that line and think of the famous comment from Pogo regarding Washington bureaucrats. "We know the enemy and he is us."


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