Habs hanging tough

TORONTO SUN STAFF

, Last Updated: 9:26 AM ET

Just when Guy Carbonneau likely thought he had seen and heard it all, now this.

Meeting with the press for the first time since the all-star break yesterday, the first-year Montreal Canadiens head coach was greeted with a question concerning reports that the Habs were one of four teams pursuing banged-up Philadelphia Flyers superstar Peter Forsberg.

"(Personnel) is not my department," a composed Carbonneau said.

Never a dull moment around the Bell Centre, is there?

Before the Forsberg rumours, the buzz around Montreal centred on the recent benchings of underachieving forward Sergei Samsonov and defenceman Craig Rivet. Although there appears to be no deal in the imminent future, Samsonov has been telling Russian reporters that he'll soon be out of Montreal.

NO CORPORATE SPIN

Just another episode in the soap opera that has been the 2006-07 Montreal Canadiens.

When Carbonneau earlier this week suggested he was pleased that his team entered the all-star break in fourth place in the Eastern Conference standings with 59 points, he wasn't just offering up the usual corporate spin.

It would, after all, have been easy for these Habs to skid down the slippery slope of adversity this season, given the number of plot twists that have been keenly gobbled up by the local Montreal tabloids.

Whether it be the shocking death of the general manager's daughter, the one-time uncertainty of captain Saku Koivu's future, a nasty flu bug that felled almost half the team, or the disappointing performances of highly paid Russians Samsonov and Alexei Kovalev, the most keenly watched drama in la belle province these past few months easily has been "As The Habs Turn."

Carbonneau's coaching, stellar special teams and outstanding performances from Koivu, defenceman Sheldon Souray and goalie Cristobal Huet have kept Montreal competitive heading into tomorrow night's game against the Maple Leafs at the Air Canada Centre.

But the loyal Habs fans still aren't sold.

A survey running in today's edition of Le Journal lists about 76% of respondents saying they do not believe this team, as it stands, can win the Stanley Cup.

Little wonder, given the number of distractions this team has been forced to endure.

KOIVU'S COURAGE

There are times that Koivu still can't locate the puck at his feet.

His peripheral vision to the left is limited, at best.

Those things might never change.

But for a guy who came to training camp wondering if his career might be over, he once again has proved to be the heart and soul of the Canadiens.

Having been struck in the left eye by a stick during Game 3 of the Habs' first-round playoff series against Carolina last spring, Koivu rejoined his teammates in September with more questions than answers.

But the man known as Captain Courageous in Montreal for his battle with cancer several years ago has been the team leader in every sense of the word.

"In my opinion, this has been his best year since he's been here," former Habs great Jean Beliveau said in a phone interview this week.

RUSSIAN ROULETTE

So much talent.So much inconsistency.

That, in a nutshell, has been the story of the seasons -- and, perhaps, careers -- of Russian forwards Kovalev and Samsonov (left).

Koivu is the only Hab slated to earn more than Kovalev ($4.5 million US) and Samsonov ($3.525 million US) this season. Yet the second- and third-highest paid players on the team have combined for just 19 goals.

The fact that the Habs have been able to enjoy such success thus far while carrying these cash cows has not escaped Beliveau's attention.

"Kovalev is, well, Kovalev," Beliveau said. "I don't know if he had the same problems in New York and Pittsburgh, but on too many nights you just don't see him. When he does play, he's a beautiful player who skates well and shoots great, but ..."

The Canadiens signed Samsonov after falling short in their attempts to land free agent centre Jason Arnott.

Oops.

THE FLU CREW

They win as a team; they lose as a team.

And, apparently, they get sick as a team.

During a game in Washington on Jan. 4, a vicious bug spread through the roster. An ensuing practice eventually was cancelled because there were too many sick players to take the ice.

Bars of soap were removed from the showers and water bottles were not shared, all tactics used to keep the virus from spreading further.

Nevertheless, the flu took its toll. The Habs lost back-to-back weekend home games, 4-3 to the New York Rangers and 3-0 to the New Jersey Devils.

HURTIN' HIGGINS

Montreal's huge push out of the starting gates was led by winger Christopher Higgins, who was en route to a career year on the team's first line with Koivu and Michael Ryder when disaster struck.

With eight goals and five assists through the first 13 contests, Higgins was averaging a point-per-game when he suffered an ankle injury that sidelined him for six weeks.

Since returning from the ailment, he has struggled, registering just nine points in 18 games. Perhaps being reunited with Ryder and Koivu will be the boost he needs to get back on track.

GAINEY TRAGEDY

Still nursing a heavy heart, general manager Bob Gainey remains tight-lipped about the tragic loss of his daughter Laura and has been, for the most part, elusive to the Montreal media.

All the while, assistant GM Pierre Gauthier has been vital in helping to run the team.

The mourning period understandably continues for Gainey who, according to some observers, has lost significant weight since Laura's drowning in the Atlantic Ocean waters.

Back on Dec. 8, Laura Gainey was washed off the deck of the Nova Scotia-based Picton Castle by a large wave. The tall ship was 765 kilometres off Cape Cod en route from Lunenburg, N.S.

A memorial for Laura Gainey was held last month in Peterborough.

UNEVEN STRENGTH

Were it not for the fine work of their special teams, the Canadiens already would be toast this season.

While playing at even strength, the Canadiens are a dismal minus-22, having scored 70 goals and allowing 92 in five-on-five play.

But a power play that ranks second in the league and a penalty kill that is No. 3 in the NHL has saved the Habs bacon.

GOOD HAB-ITS

Some key reasons why the Canadiens have performed so well, despite the distractions:

- Cristobal Huet: Goalie a deserving all-star and arguably the team MVP, along with Sheldon Souray. Habs are 29th in the league in average shots allowed at 33.76, so he's had to be good.

- Sheldon Souray: Both the blue-liner and the team denied rumours he asked for a trade to a western club prior to the season in order to see more of his daughter. Good thing. Where would the Habs be without his 16 goals?

- Andrei Markov: Defenceman's 32 points are making him the better known of the Markov brothers.

- Saku Koivu: His vision will never be perfect, but he has still found a way to be the team's leading scorer.

- Guillaume Latendresse: Rookie's 23 points in past 34 games has Habs fans chanting "Guy"again.

- Assistant coach Doug Jarvis: Guided power play to No. 2 ranking in league.

- Assistant coach Kirk Muller: His penalty killers have 12 short-handed goals.


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