Habs at a disadvantage

AL STRACHAN -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 9:00 AM ET

MONTREAL -- Even if you think Huet is one of Donald Duck's nephews, you know that goaltending makes the difference in the playoffs.

But what happens if the goaltending is a sawoff? Then it's the power play that will win or lose games. As long as you accept that, you have no trouble understanding why the Montreal Canadiens, who once held a 2-0 Eastern Conference quarter-final series lead on the Carolina Hurricanes, now trail 3-2.

The most recent example came on Sunday night. The Hurricanes got two power-play goals, which was two more than Montreal, and won 2-1.

For the Canadiens, it was a matter of same symptoms, different disease. Once again, their forwards let them down.

In Game 4, they contributed next to nothing. In Game 5, they made some contributions at even strength, but they screwed up the power play.

Over the course of the season, the Canadiens' power play was one of the best in the league. The secret was hard work and puck possession.

Montreal power plays rarely were pretty. There was banging in the corners. There were scrambles for loose pucks. There were goalmouth scrambles and goals that bounced in off legs. But often, the power play ended with a linesman carrying the puck to centre ice.

Lately, though, the Canadiens aren't winning the battles that they won during the season -- or for that matter, in the early stages of this series.

When they do get into the Carolina zone -- which is not as often as it should be -- they tend to exit it shortly afterward.

"They kept us off balance through most of the game, through three or four power plays," Montreal coach Bob Gainey said. "We're certainly not tight in our team play."

That's a reference to the Canadiens' inability to support each other and maintain possession in the Carolina end.

"The result was that players didn't control the puck in the offensive zone," Gainey said, "so we started spending energy going back and forth, and not on the focus of working around the net.

"Once the focus gets dispersed and the players stay on the ice for a minute or 1:20, then their energy is down and it has a snowballing effect.

"We tried to stop it with some guidance between periods, but we didn't seem to be able to find a way."

But let's face it. Gainey doesn't have a lot of options.

Some coaches have the luxury of sending out a new group of talented players should the first power-play unit be ineffective.

Gainey doesn't have many elite players to choose from, and Saku Koivu's absence makes an already bad situation even worse. This is, after all, a seventh-place team.

By contrast, Carolina has a stack of elite forwards. That's what's making the difference.

Even though Montreal's Andrei Markov is starting to emerge, and Carolina's Bret Hedican is playing the best hockey of his career, neither of these teams has a Norris Trophy candidate.

In fact, Carolina coach Peter Laviolette is so aware of the dearth of offensive firepower from his defencemen that when he had a five-on-three in Game 1, he sent out five forwards. And he had dressed seven defencemen.

The first of those two fateful power-play goals on Sunday was scored from the point by Eric Staal, a forward. The second was scored from the point by Matt Cullen. You guessed it. Another forward.

But Gainey doesn't have that option. Sometimes during the season, he used Koivu on the point, but that was when the other forwards were contributing.

These days, even if Koivu were available, it would be imperative that he help out up front.

But that can be said of all the Montreal forwards.


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