Is the Habs' best good enough?

AL STRACHAN -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 12:38 PM ET


 Tonight, the Montreal Canadiens need to do what got them defeated in Game 3.

 It sounds odd. And indeed it is. But that's what they were all saying yesterday as they find themselves trailing the Tampa Bay Lightning 3-0 in the Eastern Conference semi-final.

 They used different words but, essentially, the message was the same as the one delivered by goaltender Jose Theodore: "If we play like we did (Tuesday), we'll be in a good position."

 Theodore is right. The catch is that if the Bolts play like they did, they'll be in an even better position, partly because their goaltender, Nikolai Khabibulin, has outplayed Theodore.

 "I can't stand here and say Jose has been outstanding, and standing on his head," Canadiens coach Claude Julien said yesterday. "He has been good, but we know that when Jose is on his game not much is going to get by him."

 Canadiens forward Alex Kovalev expressed the same sentiment a little more directly. "If you score three goals against the hottest goaltender in the playoffs," he said, "you should win."

 But before anyone gets too carried away, let's remember that it was not Theodore who failed to clear a puck as the clock wound down in the third period, thereby enabling Vincent Lecavalier to score with 16.3 seconds left and send the game into overtime. It was Niklas Sundstrom.

 And it was not Theodore who totally ignored all defensive responsibilities, thereby allowing Cory Stillman two breakaways on the same power play, the second being converted into a goal. There were five other culprits on that one.

 The plain truth is that the Canadiens played a mostly superb game. But every so often, they'd have a breakdown and negate all the hard work that had preceded it.

 In both official languages, Julien repeatedly stressed that he could not be angry at his team and that he didn't want to single out individuals for their mistakes. "Perfection doesn't exist," he said. "We need more of what we did. Does it mean if we do, we'll be successful, or will they be able to withstand it again? Who knows? You're not expecting your team to come up with miracles."

 He will, however, be expecting his team to come up with another strong physical game. It's not a matter of trying to intimidate the Lightning; that's not going to happen. It's a matter of knocking the Tampa players out of position, and keeping them away from the free-flowing game that represents their choice of styles.

 KEY BATTLES

 It's also a matter of winning those key battles along the boards and you're not going to do that by waving your stick in their general direction.

 Also, the Canadiens must once again maintain their positional discipline. They were rarely under pressure on Tuesday (only seven Tampa Bay scoring chances) because they broke out of their zone with ease.

 The silky smooth Bell Centre ice, a godsend after that plowed field that passes for an ice surface in Tampa, plays right into the Canadiens' hands. Their short, pinpoint passes stay flat and are easily received, which allows the breakout to progress as planned.

 But most of all, the Canadiens must maintain their resolve. They must follow the lead of captain Saku Koivu who, when offered some solace yesterday, refused to accept it. "If you lose 4-0 in the playoffs," he said, "I don't consider it a good season."

 Realistically, though, Montreal's chances are slim. Koivu pointed out that if the Canadiens win tonight, they're down 3-1, which is where they were in the last series.

 And if they don't?

 "If we don't, we're on vacation and you guys have to find something else to do."


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