Kostopoulos makes most of it

CHRIS STEVENSON, SUN MEDIA

, Last Updated: 7:59 AM ET

MONTREAL -- Over the past few years, Tom Kostopoulos' greatest skill has be surviving in the NHL without much.

It truly is a talent for the less-talented.

The 29-year-old has had a mostly unremarkable career which saw him play his junior hockey with the London Knights of the OHL and spend five years in the minors. After signing as a free agent in July, Canadiens fans were likely reminded Kostopoulos was still a member of the Canadiens only when he got in trouble helping out rookie defenceman Ryan O'Byrne outside a Tampa bar in Februrary.

The fans know who he is now. Three goals in the playoffs -- including the winner 48 seconds into overtime in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference semi-final against the Philadelphia Flyers -- have made Kostopoulos an unexpected hero.

It is a remarkable turn for a player whose signing, when noticed at all in July, was greeted harshly.

Kostopolous was signed by Montreal general manager Bob Gainey three days after the Habs had been spurned by Flyers centre Daniel Briere. Briere had choices and rejected the Habs. Kostopoulos, cut loose by the Los Angeles Kings, had few options and jumped at the chance to play in Montreal. Canadiens fans, likely still smarting by Briere's rejection, jumped on the signing with both feet.

Kostopoulos' ship has come in with the Canadiens.

He was a Maple Leafs fan growing up in Mississauga, where his father settled after coming over from Greece as a kid, but he had no reservations about joining the hated Habs.

"When you hear a frachise like Montreal is interested," Kostopoulos said yesterday, "my heart was headed here."

He was being compared yesterday to Paul DiPietro, an unlikely hero of the 1993 Canadiens, the last Stanley Cup winners here. DiPietro scored four goals in 29 games in the regular season and had eight in 17 playoff games (Kostopoulos had seven in 67 regular-season games this year).

"In 1993, I was a diehard Leafs fan. That was the year we thought they were going to do it. Then Wayne Gretzky didn't get called for highsticking in Game 6 (of the conference final) and won Game 7 with a hat trick," remembered Kostopoulos. "It was a crushing time for Leafs fans."

Along with Bryan Smolinksi and Steve Begin, Kostopoulos has helped give the Canadiens the kind of line you need to win in the playoffs. It's capable of establishing a forecheck, gives out hits (Begin leads the playoffs with 41; Kostopoulos is ninth with 26), is defensively responsible and scores.

Carbonneau started the line in overtime Thursday night, a smart move as it turned out, and the Habs became only the fourth team in NHL history to score in the final minute of regulation time and the first minute of overtime.

Kostopoulos also has been important in the dressing room, one of the ring leaders among the so-called Buzzcut Boys, who shaved their heads for the playoffs. It's one of those things that can give a group of players a sense of team.

When the Habs signed Kostopoulos, Carbonneau called former Habs coach Michel Therrien, who had coached Kostopoulos in the minors, to ask what to expect.

"He said: 'You'll like this guy. He won't score you 50 goals, but he'll give you what he has got,' " Carbonneau said.

"You can still play in this league if you don't have a lot of talent but you're willing to work hard. You always want guys with talent and skill, but you can't have 20 of those guys. You need some in between, guys who will go in the corner to get the puck, block a shot or protect a teammate.

"He's on Cloud 9 right now and I don't think he wants to get off."

Not for a while yet.


Videos

Photos