Smaller Europeans getting the job done for Canadiens in playoffs

MONTREAL – The knock on the Montreal Canadiens before the playoffs was that they were too small and too European to do well in the rough and tumble of post-season hockey.

It seems that someone forgot to tell that to wingers Andrei and Sergei Kostitsyn, or their stocky centre Tomas Plekanec.

The brothers combined for seven goals and Plekanec had one through the Canadiens’ first eight playoff games.

Plekanec said heart matters more than size or nationality.

“Especially in the NHL now,” he said. “It’s a little different in the playoffs because the referees are calling games a little differently.

“But I think it’s (a matter of) the individual, who is able to go through it and who is not.”

Neither Plekanec, who is Czech, nor the Kostitsyns, who are from Belarus, seems bothered by the heavy hitting and stickwork in the playoffs. Sergei Kostitsyn appears to love it, and dishes out as many hits as he receives.

In Montreal’s seven game win over Boston in the first round, Sergei Kostitsyn even threw his five-foot-11 body into Zdeno Chara, although the Bruins giant defenceman didn’t budge.

In the opening game of the Eastern Conference semifinals against Philadelphia, Sergei’s days on Earth looked to be over when Flyers defenceman Derian Hatcher slammed him into the end boards with the hardest hit of the game. But the little winger got right up and back into the play.

“You’re always surprised, but he’s proved since he’s been here that he has a little edge to his game,” said coach Guy Carbonneau. “And I’m sure that if he had a chance he would have gone back and hit Hatcher.

“That’s the way he plays. It’s fun.”

Andrei Kostitsyn, drafted 10th overall in 2003, joined the Canadiens’ farm club in Hamilton in 2004 after playing for Red Army in Moscow. Sergei, a seventh rounder in 2005, played two seasons of junior with the London Knights, where his linemates last season were top prospects Patrick Kane and Sam Gagner.

Sergei started the season with Hamilton, but was called up on Dec. 13 and never looked back. The 20-year-old rookie had nine goals and 18 assists in 52 regular season games, but is close to a point per game in the playoffs.

He seems to have picked up the spirit of tough North American hockey playing in London. He even got into a couple of fights, although dropping the gloves with Ottawa’s six-foot-three defenceman Wade Redden was a mistake.

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Carbonneau is impressed with both brothers.

“They’re not afraid to go into the corners to get pucks and that’s what you need,” Carbonneau said. “At playoff time especially, there isn’t a lot of room, so you have to create your own room.

“We knew Boston was going to come hard at us and we responded really well physically. And I know that with Philly it will increase as it goes on. I think everyone’s ready for that.”

The Kostitsyns rarely played together this season, but for Game 7 of the Boston series, Carbonneau moved Alex Kovalev onto a line with Saku Koivu, a smaller European whose grit is never questioned, and Christopher Higgins.

That put the Kostitsyns together with Plekanec. The result was a 5-0 win in which Andrei scored twice and Sergei once.

Andrei Kostitsyn had two more in the series-opening 4-3 win over Philadelphia on Thursday night.

But one result of having the Kostitsyns together is that Plekanec sometimes doesn’t see much of the puck.

“Those guys try to find each other,” Plekanec said. “They pass to each other.

“I don’t mind as long as they score goals and everything works out well for the team.”

When it was suggested he should get the name Kostitsyn stitched onto his jersey, Plekanec laughed and said “that may be good. Maybe they see their name on my back and pass it to me a little more.”

One veteran who has battled the notion that smaller Europeans can’t cut it in the NHL is Flyers winger Sami Kapanen.

“I had to live with it and a lot of Europeans had to when they came into the league in years past,” Kapanen said. “You were tested and you had to prove yourself.

“You had to work to earn the respect of the coaches and your teammates so they give you opportunities to play. Especially with the old rules, it was so much more demanding. Looking back now, I wonder how some of them survived with all the hooking and holding. It’s easier now with more flow in the game.”