Habs love affair is on, again

AL STRACHAN -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 12:26 PM ET

 As the clock wound down on Thursday night, ticking away whatever Stanley Cup aspirations the Montreal Canadiens may have held, the corporate clients fled for the Bell Centre exits.

 That's what lawyers and their ilk do. Their time is far too valuable to spend it on enthusiasm or encouragement. Or other people.

  But the rest of the crowd, many of them surprisingly young considering the ticket prices, stayed behind, cheering wildly and applauding their heroes, even though they had just been swept out of the playoffs.

 It would appear that hockey is popular again in Montreal and that failing hands have thrown the torch to a new generation of fans.

 CLUB IS EVERYWHERE

 It's not that hockey disappeared from the radar screen in Montreal. Far from it. But there was certainly a serious concern over declining interest. The team was generally mediocre, and even those who had never known anything but hockey as the one defining sport in their lives professed an inability to retain their enthusiasm.

 There was even talk, albeit short-lived, that the Canadiens would be unable to find an owner and would leave town.

 But now, the love affair is on again. The famous Club de Hockey Canadien logo is everywhere, and the fans are just as rabid as they are in Toronto, Vancouver and the other Canadian cities where the sport is always first and foremost.

 In Montreal, however, the fans tend to be a little more fickle. Torontonians will support any bumbling group of incompetents, as the Harold Ballard years made clear, but the Canadiens have to be more than that. They have to at least give the appearance that they might win, and to that end, there is still considerable work to be done.

 When you watch the Canadiens for 11 consecutive post-season games, you can't help but wonder how this ragged bunch -- without Alexei Kovalev until the trading deadline -- ever managed to make the playoffs.

 The fact that they did so with relative ease is a testament to the work of coach Claude Julien. He took over an unfocused group and instilled a highly disciplined system that allows the Canadiens to avoid long sieges in their own end, while maximizing their creativity once they go to the attack.

 But that said, he doesn't have a lot to work with, and it therefore falls to general manager Bob Gainey to shore up the roster.

 The goaltending is fine. Jose Theodore and Mathieu Garon may be the best tandem in the league, and if you're going to be strong in only one area, that's the area to select.

 But nowhere else is there any great repository of talent. Saku Koivu is a heart-and-soul player but his size and his knee operations have reduced his effectiveness. Kovalev is a free agent. Michael Ryder had a great rookie season, but scored once in the playoffs. Richard Zednik is useful, but certainly not an elite player.

 Mike Ribeiro? Not worth the trouble. He's a selfish player who overstays his shifts, often at Koivu's expense, and is always the last player out of the zone. His theatrics spur the opponents, and his goals are rarely his own creation.

 The other forwards -- the likes of Joe Juneau, Pierre Dagenais, Niklas Sundstrom, Andreas Dackell, Steve Begin and so on -- are badly in need of an upgrade.

 The same can be said of the defence. When Sheldon Souray is your best defenceman, you're in trouble on the blue line. Souray is a genuine National Hockey League defenceman and a good one at that, but he can't be your best defenceman if you hope to win the Stanley Cup.

 The Canadiens are on the rise. They're a well coached, well managed group with a decent nucleus. But don't be misled by their upset over the Boston Bruins.

 They finished seventh in a 15-team conference. They're a middle-of-the-pack team with a long way to go.


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