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Canadiens good health leaves veterans watching from pressbox

MONTREAL - For Tom Kostopoulos, the toughest part of his first season as a Montreal Canadien has been having to sit out games as a healthy scratch.

It wasn't what the former Los Angeles King expected when he signed a two-year contract as an unrestricted free agent with Montreal last summer.

But he found himself on a team that has stayed shockingly healthy this season, with only 82 man-games lost to injury thus far, one of the lowest totals in the National Hockey League.

With 23 players on the roster - 24 since the roster limit was lifted on Feb. 26 - that means some have to sit, and Kostopoulos has found himself among a group of that includes fellow veterans like Mathieu Dandenault, Michael Ryder, Bryan Smolinski, Steve Begin and Patrice Brisebois who have done time in the pressbox this season.

The fourth line checking winger was in the lineup for a sixth game in a row on Tuesday night against the St. Louis Blues after having been scratched for five straight games and a total of 14 this season.

"It's very difficult," Kostopoulos said. "All the players here are good, so we have good players sitting out.

"It's tough for each guy. I went through it and so did a lot of guys. But the guys who have gone through it have done a good job of staying positive and not being a distraction. And when we get back in, we're all doing the job."

Kostopoulos looked like the world was going to end when he was first left out of the lineup on Dec. 1. The Mississauga, Ont., native had won the Unsung Hero Award and was voted most inspirational player on the Kings last season.

But he kept quiet, worked on his game and was back on the ice two games later.

That's how coach Guy Carbonneau likes it.

"All they can do is support the players that are on the ice," said Carbonneau. "There's no good thing about being upset or going to the papers and saying the coach is this or I'm better than that guy.

"This is not the time of the year for that."

There have been only two minor sparks of protest from players left out of the Montreal lineup.

Dandenault told reporters he would need to discuss his hockey future with his agent and family after he was first scratched on Jan. 8, but retracted his statements the following day, saying he did not want to be a distraction to his teammates.

And rookie Mikhail Grabovski briefly left the team to talk to his agent in Los Angeles when he was scratched during a Western road trip last week, but apologized to the team and is now back on the ice. Carbonneau said that case was closed.

"We've been so lucky this year because we haven't had any injuries," said Carbonneau. "I know it's hard on them.

"It's not easy to sit down, especially for veterans like Dandenault and Brisebois and a guy like Steve Begin. But the fact is we have four extra guys. They're part of this team and they will be until we're finished. They'll have their chances and they just have to be ready when it happens."

The team leader in DND (did not dress) going into Tuesday night's game was Brisebois at 24 times, while defenceman Josh Gorges was scratched 20 times before Dec. 13, but hasn't missed a game since. Other DND leaders were Dandenault (16), Kostopoulos (14), Ryder (10) and Begin (6).

Begin has been listed as a scratch the last two games, but is in fact getting himself back into shape after missing eight games with a groin injury. A popular checker and "energy" player, Begin is expected back in the lineup soon to get ready for the playoffs.

Good health is a big reason Montreal is in the hunt for top spot in the Eastern Conference. The injuries they've had have mostly been to third or fourth line forwards or third-pair defencemen.

Five key players - Alex Kovalev, Andrei Markov, Mike Komisarek, Christopher Higgins and power play point man Mark Streit - have not missed a game this season. Two others, centres Tomas Plekanec and Saku Koivu, have missed one each, both with the flu.

Defenceman Roman Hamrlik missed five games in February with a virus and the Canadiens had their longest losing streak of the season - three games - without him.

Kostopoulos has worked on his skating to try to avoid being scratched in future. For the past month, he's been wearing weights on his skates in practice to improve his speed.

"I find that when I take them off, I feel a lot quicker," he said. "I've felt really good on the ice the last few games.

"I'm trying to get that extra step."

Now slow-moving winger Guillaume Latendresse, a healthy scratch three times this season, is trying the same method.

"That's good," said kostopoulos. "It worked for me.

"Guillaume's a dangerous offensive player and if he can gain a half step in his skating he'll he that much more dangerous."

Note - Carbonneau celebrated his 48th birthday on Tuesday. "Every time we win, it feels like my birthday," he said.


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