Grinders doing the job for Montreal Canadiens after strong finish to season

MONTREAL – It was a sad year on the scoresheet for Bryan Smolinski, Tom Kostopoulos and Steve Begin, but the Montreal Canadiens checking line is starting to hit its stride.

The so-called fourth line came together near the end of the regular season and became a valuable unit as the Canadiens clinched first place in the NHL Eastern Conference.

And they chipped in two goals along with strong defensive play in the opening game of the playoffs against Boston.

“To say we’ll score every night – no, it’s not going to happen, but we’ll try,” Smolinski said this week.

The 36-year-old Smolinski and 29-year-old Kostopoulos were signed as free agents last summer by Montreal, along with defenceman Roman Hamrlik.

But while Hamrlik made an impact right away with his steady play at the blue-line, it took most of the season for Smolinski and Kostopoulos to demonstrate their value to doubting Canadiens fans.

Smolinski, who signed a one-year deal with Montreal, missed 14 games with an injury in mid-season and was rested in another four games. The Toledo, Ohio, native ended the season with eight goals and 25 points, a career low for the former 60-point man.

Kostopoulos, who signed for two seasons, had 22 points in each of his three full NHL seasons, but fell to 13 in 67 games this time around.

Begin was out twice with injuries and managed three goals and eight points, his lowest since he had only four in 50 games with Calgary in 2002-03.

It is not that they filled the net when Begin returned from injury with two weeks left in the season, but contributing a goal every other game is more than enough from a trio whose main duty is stopping the opposing team’s best forwards and, in Begin’s case in particular, wearing down defencemen with hits.

Their two-goal outburst in Game 1 against Boston – through Smolinski and Kostopoulos – was a bonus.

Smolinski said he developed a chemistry with Kostopoulos just before Begin returned while the Canadiens were on a late-season road trip to the West Coast. The veteran Begin stepped in and added extra grit to the mix.

“He’s been playing so great the last month and half and he’s such a smart player, he could have chemistry almost with anyone,” Kostopoulos said of Smolinski. “It’s fun playing with him.

“If I was a better scorer, he’d have had a lot more points going down the stretch.”

Smolinski is on his eighth NHL club, starting with Boston in 1992-93. He split last season between Chicago and Vancouver.

Kostopoulos began his career with Pittsburgh in 2001-02 and moved to Los Angeles after the 2004-05 lockout season. He was named the Kings’ Unsung Hero and Most Inspirational Player last season, but was left to test the free agent market last summer.

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When he signed, Canadiens general manager Bob Gainey described Kostopoulos as someone who plays better in big games, which only became apparent in important matches down the stretch and into the playoffs.

“I liked it (in Los Angeles) and I liked all my teammates there,” said Kostopoulos. “It just came to the point where they were going to let me be unrestricted and Montreal stepped up.

“That’s one of those franchises where, if you ever get a chance, you can’t say no. It’s a once-in-a-lifetime chance, so I was happy to come here.”

Coach Guy Carbonneau said that when Kostopoulos signed, he called Pittsburgh coach Michel Therrien, who had coached him with the Penguins farm team in Wilkes-Barre, for his appraisal.

“He said he’s not the most talented, but he’ll give you everything he has and he hasn’t disappointed me or anyone in this room,” said Carbonneau. “But he has a certain style and you have to find the right guys to go with it.

“Because of injuries, we weren’t able to put that line together a lot this year, but in the last month, they did a really good job. Now they know each other, they feed off each other and they’re a big part of our success.”

Without an enforcer on the team, the job fell to Kostopoulos early on to come to the defence of teammates when trouble started on the ice. He did it willingly even though he is hardly a heavyweight at six-foot-one 200 pounds.

He also nearly got himself in deep trouble when he intervened verbally with police when teammate Ryan O’Byrne was arrested for allegedly stealing a woman’s purse after the team’s rookie initiation dinner in Tampa on Feb. 11.

Charges of resisting arrest without violence against Kostopoulos were dropped after he sent a letter of apology to police.

He was a healthy scratch for nine of the next 12 games, but has played the last 15 in a row.

It all seems far behind him now. And his popularity keeps climbing. He was even guest of honour at the city’s annual Greek Independence Day parade.

Doing media interviews in the French he learned in immersion courses while growing up in Mississauga, Ont., doesn’t hurt, either.

“It’s been an up and down year,” he said. “It’s tough when you’re sitting out, not playing, but one of the keys is that everyone who sat out this year had such a great attitude and was ready to jump in the lineup when called upon.

“When I got my chance, I just gave it my all. Our line is clicking together now and hopefully we can keep it going.”