MONTREAL – It didn’t go unnoticed by coach Guy Carbonneau that his second-best line centred by captain Saku Koivu didn’t get a shot on goal in a 3-0 loss at home to the Ottawa Senators.
So when the Montreal Canadiens showed up for practice on Friday, Koivu’s line with Christopher Higgins and Sergei Kostitsyn was split up, with Mikhail Grabovski the new centre for Higgins and Kostitsyn, and Koivu playing between Guillaume Latendresse and Michael Ryder.
“When you play a team like Ottawa and your second line doesn’t have a shot, that’s a bit disturbing,” said Carbonneau. “It’s not more offence – we’ve had enough (goals) this year – but we want better balance.”
He will also give goaltender Carey Price a rest when the Canadiens host the New York Islanders on Saturday night. Jaroslav Halak will make only his second start since he was recalled from Hamilton of the AHL on Feb. 26, the day veteran Cristobal Huet was traded to Washington.
One can only guess which of the new combinations should be called the second line and which one the third. It’s easier to name the Grabovski unit the fast line and the Koivu trio the slow line. The top line of Tomas Plekanec, Alex Kovalev and Andrei Kostitsyn remains intact.
Koivu has played well of late, with three goals in his last five games, but Higgins is without a goal in eight games and Carbonneau wants his quick left-winger back on track.
“Chris has to realize he has to be a straight back-and-forth player, playing hard along the boards and going to the net,” Carbonneau said. “He’s scored 21 goals and probably 16 of them were from within five feet of the net.
“Sometimes, he tries to use skill too much. When you play against top teams, you can’t just play east-west. I look at (Ottawa’s) Daniel Alfredsson. He’s got more skill than 95 per cent of the players on the ice, but when he had no chance, he dumped the puck in and forechecked. That’s what we want Chris to do.”
Now the 24-year-old Higgins finds himself the veteran on a line with a pair of quick-footed rookies.
“I don’t care who I play with,” said Higgins. “They’re very skilled and they can skate, so I’ll just get them the puck.
“They can beat guys one-on-one so it should be interesting to play with them.”
Latendresse has had his best moments in his brief stints with Koivu, including a spell with Koivu and Ryder last season. Latendresse has 15 goals, one fewer than he scored as a rookie last season.
“I have to crash hard to the net and play physical and things will be good,” the six-foot-two winger said. “I’ve had ups and downs this season, but I’ve always been working hard and I think the coach sees that.”
Ryder is coming off consecutive 30-goal seasons, but has only 13 this season and will be hard pressed to reach 20 with only 10 games left to play.
The top line is also looking to right itself. With Plekanec playing through a flu, all three skaters are without a point in their last two games. Kovalev has not gone more than three games without a point all season.
And Montreal’s league-best power play hasn’t scored in three games (0-for-9).
Halak will be looking to keep his Bell Centre winning streak alive. The Slovak goaltender was 10-6-0 during a late-season call-up last season, including a perfect 7-0 in home games with a 1.84 goals-against average and .935 save percentage.
He has made only one start this season – a 5-2 win in Los Angeles on March 8.
“I’ll try to keep it going,” the 22-year-old said. “I’m really happy they gave me the chance to start at home.”
Since the Huet trade, Price has taken over the No. 1 job and Halak has been the backup. Given their youth, that’s an arrangement that could last for many years.
“It’s been like that so far, so I think it will be like that for the rest of the year,” said Halak. “But we’ll see what happens.
“I’ll try to do my best and hopefully we’ll win.”
A fourth line will be made up from among Bryan Smolinski, Maxim Lapierre, Mark Streit, Tom Kostopoulos and Mathieu Dandenault. Winger Steve Begin, who has missed eight games with a groin injury, skated on his own but won’t play.
The Islanders, meanwhile, are well out of a playoff position and are in desperate need of wins for any chance to grab the eighth and final playoff spot in the East.
Montreal’s loss to Ottawa tightened the pack at the top of the conference, with first-place New Jersey only one point ahead of the Senators, Canadiens and the Pittsburgh Penguins.