BROSSARD, Que. – It looks like there will be changes when the slumping Montreal Canadiens face the Toronto Maple Leafs on Saturday night.
Coach and general manager Bob Gainey would not confirm any moves, but it looked very much in practice Friday that struggling defenceman Mike Komisarek will sit out, and winger Andrei Kostitsyn may join him in the press box. Neither has been a healthy scratch yet this season.
And it appears that tough guy Georges Laraque will be back after missing seven games with a sore back.
Gainey said final decisions won’t be made until Saturday morning.
“Some of these are messages to players in practice,” he said. “It can just be a message to see their response.”
Komisarek avoided the media after practice and Kostitsyn, who has only two points in his last 12 games, looked glum and spoke of not getting the puck and not getting enough shots on goal.
The Canadiens are in the middle of a stretch of 10 games, including nine at home, in which they hoped to fatten up on points and solidify their playoff position. Instead, they 1-2-2 – all since Gainey replaced the fired Guy Carbonneau behind the bench.
They are now only one point from being out of playoff position, but the race is so tight in the NHL Eastern Conference they are also only three points from fourth place.
“It’s not possible to look at our situation and see that each game is either desperate or an opportunity for a great success, because we’re in with a group of teams,” said Gainey. “We’re the one that’s been losing ground, but it’s normal, but not preferable, to be one of those teams that is moving backward and not ahead.
“So we have a challenge there to retool our attitude.”
It may start on defence where Komisarek, a stalwart on the top pair with Andrei Markov for most of the last two seasons, has been uncharacteristically sloppy in his zone since late January. Some believe he is playing through an injury, although the six-foot-five defenceman, who missed time in the fall with a shoulder problem, insists he’s fine.
“He’s hesitating in his play,” said Gainey. “When he has a chance to be first on the puck along the boards, he doesn’t get there.
“It’s like he’s playing without confidence. We’d like him to get back to the level he’s shown in the last 18 months or longer.”
Some say Kostitsyn hasn’t been the same since his younger brother Sergei was sent to AHL Hamilton on Feb 15, or since a few days later when a report surfaced that the two brothers and to a lesser extent defenceman Roman Hamrlik had hung around with a suspected gang member.
It may have more to due with the fact that his line with Alex Kovalev and Tomas Plekanec, Montreal’s best last season, has not clicked since the start of this season. Kovalev and Kostitsyn in particular do not seem to have the same chemistry of a year ago.
Now it appears that rookie Max Pacioretty will move onto left wing in Kostitsyn’s place.
Laraque goes onto the fourth line with centre Glen Metropolit and winger Greg Stewart.
“I’m going to be playing,” Laraque boldly predicted. “I’m pretty happy to be back in the mix.
“At one point, I thought my career was almost in jeopardy because the last time you saw me, I could hardly walk, my back was so bad. But now I feel pretty good. I feel I could help. I don’t know how much ice time I’ll get, but I know that with my presence, guys will be more focused on hockey and not getting intimidated.”
Team scoring leader Markov’s new defence partner should be Josh Gorges, who did well in that role when Komisarek was injured.
Another pair has the two holdovers from Montreal’s last Stanley Cup side in 1993, Mathieu Schneider and Patrice Brisebois, playing together for the first time since 1994.
“His partner at the time was Lyle Odelein, but we played together on the power play and few other shifts,” said Brisebois. “When we heard the news that we were going to play together, we both had a little laugh.”
The other pairing has Hamrlik with Ryan O’Byrne.
The only thing Gainey would confirm was that Jaroslav Halak would start in goal. Halak came in for Carey Price in the second period of a 5-4 loss in Ottawa on Thursday night and stopped 13 of 14 shots to hold his team in the game that looked like it may turn into a blowout.
Games between the Original Six rivals have been wild affairs this season, with Montreal posting wins of 6-1 and 6-2 and the Leafs answering back with 5-2 and 6-3 victories.
The Leafs are all-but out of the playoffs now, although they are on an 8-4-1 run including wins in two of their last three games. They were beaten 3-1 in Florida on Thursday night.
The Canadiens are playing like a team feeling the heat. There were huge expectations on them after finishing first in the conference last season, and it is their 100th anniversary season, but now they look in danger of missing the playoffs.
“Guys are trying really hard, mentally and physically, to get over the hump,” said forward Chris Higgins. “When you’re not getting the results and you’re trying as hard as I believe the guys are trying, then it is a pretty frustrating feeling.”
“Games are running short,” added Gorges. “There’s not a lot of season left and we can’t sit around and wait any more.
“Playing against Toronto are always big games, something always happens, and there’s some sort of excitement. For us, it’s huge. Whether it’s Toronto or anyone, we need two points and nothing else.”
Laraque sees it differently.
The Canadiens next five games are against Toronto, Atlanta, Tampa Bay, Buffalo and Chicago, all at home, and the opportunity remains to pick up points.
“The mood is good because we’re back at home,” he said. “The schedule looks really good.
“We’re playing Toronto, Atlanta, Tampa. Not that they’re easy, but we know we should win. We’ve lost to Toronto and Atlanta in the past so we’re not going to take them lightly, but we feel good at home. We’re not thinking about how bad things were. We’re looking ahead.”