Habs need only tinker

AL STRACHAN -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 8:35 AM ET

MONTREAL -- There is no better way to discover the nature of a team than to expose it to the playoffs.

Sometimes, when that exposure is over, fans of the team are left wondering, "What on earth happened here? How could we have thought that this team could win?"

For further elucidation of that concept, look in your National Hockey League reference books under Clarke, Robert E.

But then there's the other side of the coin. That's the team that leaves fans thinking, "You know what? This is a pretty good group. A little more development and a little more maturity, and we could have a serious chance here."

The Montreal Canadiens fall into the latter category.

They bowed out against the Carolina Hurricanes in six games in an Eastern Conference quarter-final and their warts were uncovered for all to see.

But at the same time, it became clear that this is a team headed in the right direction, a team that combines a strong nucleus of young talent with determination and desire.

That's a good formula. It's not a winning formula. Not yet. But at least you don't have to look at this team after its playoff loss and say: "Let's blow it up and start over."

Today, in places such as Philadelphia and Detroit, there are plenty of fans who are looking at their teams and expressing that precise sentiment very forcefully.

It is important, however, that the Montreal organization does not allow itself to be lulled into security because the team came close, even though Saku Koivu's eye injury in Game 3 forced him out of the rest of the series.

But with general manager/coach Bob Gainey at the helm, that's not likely to happen.

While others were basking in the comfort of having lost four one-goal games, Gainey was shooting down that premise.

"One-goal games are easy to hide behind," he said. "But a one-goal game is two goals away from winning. And two goals is a lot in the NHL."

Until goalie Cristobal Huet showed up on the scene and started performing his miracles, the Canadiens gave little solace to their fans. They were out of a playoff spot and Gainey had been forced to take over the coaching duties himself.

But that four-month stint behind the bench will work wonders. You never can capture the essence of a player from a corporate box as you can from the bench, and Gainey knows now, as he never did before, what he needs to do with this team.

TALK TO KOVALEV

He'll talk to Alex Kovalev before their festering dispute, based largely on a misunderstanding, gets out of hand. Gainey said in the middle of the series that he felt Kovalev could play better. True.

Kovalev said after the series that he was being blamed for the loss. Not true.

Gainey also needs to find a sucker to take Radek Bonk off his hands. Bonk was a disaster for most of the year, had a brief spurt, but then, when asked to step in to replace Koivu, reverted to disaster status.

On Tuesday, when the Hurricanes capitalized on Montreal's mistake of not getting the puck deep on a line change, it was Bonk who made the mistake.

Not far behind on the must-unload list is Mike Ribeiro.

But young forwards such as Michael Ryder, Chris Higgins, Alexander Perezhogin, Tomas Plekanec and Garth Murray appear to have long and fruitful NHL careers ahead of them.

The goaltending appears to be solid and the defence, with a solid addition or two, will be fully capable of doing what needs to be done to be successful.

In the case of the Canadiens, the playoff experience made the course of action clear.

It's a matter of tinkering and upgrading, not a matter of total rebuilding.


Videos

Photos