MONTREAL – Two old friends will be wearing the captain’s “C” when the Montreal Canadiens visit the Buffalo Sabres in the NHL season opener for both clubs on Friday night at the HSBC Arena.
Saku Koivu, who equals Hall of Famer Jean Beliveau (1961-71) by being the Canadiens captain for a 10th straight season, faces former Canadiens defenceman Craig Rivet, who was elected captain of the Sabres this week by his teammates.
“I’m really happy for him,” Koivu said Thursday. “I spoke to him briefly and he’s a bit surprised.”
“But he’s the type of person who gets along with everybody and has respect throughout the league, so I’m surprised and at the same time not surprised that the players voted for him. It makes it special, like it was for me, that it was the players who voted for him.”
Rivet and Koivu broke into the NHL together in the mid-1990s, but the veteran defenceman was dealt to San Jose in 2007 (for defenceman Josh Gorges and a first-rounder who turned out to be bright prospect Max Pacioretty). The Sharks sent him to Buffalo this summer.
Now Rivet is part of a quick Sabres team that tends to be underrated by the pundits year after year while the Canadiens start the season as a popular pick to finish first in the Eastern Conference for a second straight year and to make it to the Stanley Cup final.
It is a season of big expectations for the Canadiens, who would love to pick up a 25th Stanley Cup in their 100th anniversary season.
“We’re in a great position, it’s a great opportunity, but despite the expectations, it’s something we have to take in stride,” said defenceman Mike Komisarek. “No one is sitting on those expectations.
“We realize what we’re capable of but we know it’s not going to be easy. Guys are ready to pay the price.”
The Canadiens boosted their chances by picking up veteran forwards Alex Tanguay, Robert Lang and Georges Laraque in the off-season, but go into the opener missing three players to minor injuries.
Laraque and winger Christopher Higgins have groin injuries, while defenceman Francis Bouillon has an unspecified problem with a leg.
Coach Guy Carbonneau said all three won’t play in Buffalo and “probably” won’t play Saturday night in Toronto or Monday night in Philadelphia. But all three should be back for Montreal’s home opener Oct. 15 against Boston.
“It’s a lot easier knowing they won’t be out for months, just days,” said Carbonneau.
It is a fourth season in a row that Montreal begins a season with three games on the road, but they have yet to lose in regulation time in any of those games; earning six, five and five points respectively from the three-game sets.
Carbonneau welcomes the trip a little more this year because of the hype that has been building in the city since their surprising 2007-08 season.
“I’d like to start at home sometimes, but with all that’s being said about the team lately, even if it’s my job to keep the players’ feet on the ground, it’s difficult,” he said. “They read the papers, watch TV, run into people on the street.
“I think that starting on the road, away from those distractions, maybe will help us get off to a good start and come back next week well prepared.”
Carbonneau mocked the hype, saying “a lot has been said about how we’re supposed to finish first and, from what I understand, we’re going to the Stanley Cup, so maybe I don’t have to get ready for 82 games. It’ll be a lot easier on me to just go (directly) to June.”
The injuries caused some line juggling.
The top line of Tomas Plekanec between Alex Kovalev and Andrei Kostitsyn is intact, while the second line with Koivu and Tanguay now has Guillaume Latendresse in Higgins’ spot on left wing.
Lang’s line with Sergei Kostitsyn has grinder Tom Kostopoulos in the spot usually held by Latendresse. The fourth line has Maxim Lapierre with Steve Begin and Mathieu Dandenault. Kyle Chipchura will sit out the opener.
For Kostopoulos, it’s a rare chance to skate with some nifty playmakers.
“It’s fun to get them the puck and try to get to open space,” said the Mississauga, Ont., native, who scored seven goals last season. “They’re both so smart and creative and can do so many things on the ice.
“I’ve got to stop myself from watching them.”
With Bouillon out, veteran Patrice Brisebois moves into the defence with Komisarek, Andrei Markov, Roman Hamrlik, Gorges and Ryan O’Byrne.
“Depth is a big word for this team,” added Kostopoulos.
Carey Price will start in goal in Buffalo, while backup Jaroslav Halak is to start in Toronto.