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Things are going good in Montreal right now. The team is winning, the coach has stopped balding, the youngsters are producing, and the captain is playing incredible hockey. There's only one problem: we're behind Boston and Toronto. Currently sitting one point back of the Bruins, and with six points separating the CH from the Leafs, Claude Julien's boys will be looking to narrow both gaps tonight when they host the eighth place New York Rangers at home in Montreal (7:00, SRC, RDS, CJAD-800).
Of course, we all know that Mathieu Garon could more than hold his own, and perhaps shine, against the Rangers' high-powered, cementhead army of skill, but Habs fans, you may breathe a little bit easier now. After practicing with the team this morning in Montreal, Jose Theodore was feeling just fine after a bout with the flu kept him out of the team's practice a day earlier, and had some wondering whether or not the Canadiens sparkling puckstopper would be able enough to play
But, honestly, was there ever any doubt the No Way Jose wouldn't be playing? When you're as hot as he is right now, there's no chance that a little cough is going to hold you back. Just how hot is Jose Theodore? Well, the stats aren't much different from the last time we told you them, but Jose's numbers are climbing through a Dagenais-sized roof. Having allowed just one puck to pass through him in his past two starts, while stopping over 98 percent of the shots directed towards him, Theodore's goals against average sits at 2.01, while the save percentage this season currently hits the board at .929.
But it's not just the goaltending that's making serious noise within the team, as it seems every player is contributing something towards the club's success. Even the oft-invisible Panic Perreault continues to win draws and dominate the facoff circle, as a few key faceoff wins down the stretch in the last victory over Atlanta would indicate. The defensive game and his effort are still, as they always are, suspect, but #94 is still somewhat effective, that is, until Steve Begin returns.
New regulars such as Michael Ryder and Mike Ribeiro, who both find themselves amongst the team leaders in scoring, have been dynamite, and Ribeiro seems to have woken his good friend; sleeping giant, turned dangerous sniper, the 6'5 Pierre Dagenais. Jason Ward turned in an excellent effort in Atlanta too, and despite his offensive woes tore up the Thrashers, displaying great effort, incredible awareness and execution on the penalty kill, and a hard checking, hard skating style of play. Despite his efforts, 'Wardo' will most likely find himself back on a line with Perreault and Darren Langdon, as Andreas Dackell returns from injury. Chad Kilger will be the man in the pressbox, making room for the Swedish forward.
While Ward may be more effective in that third line position (and he played well with Joe Juneau, too), Dackell has done nothing but good and for no reason should he lose his spot. For all Ward's positive energy, you could argue he's floundered just as many glorious oppurtunities as Dackell has so far this season. Ward will be looking, perhaps, for a little bit of revenge on his New York opponents. Tonight marks the 6'3, 200 pound winger's first game against the Rangers since taking a Vlad Malakhov slapshot for a broken ankle back in a November 1st loss.
Andrei Markov, suffering mentally from an illness to his father, and physically through his hip and foot, is still sidelined with the foot infection. Steve Begin, who is now skating, is also at least two weeks away from playing, targetting an early-mid February return. Pesky centreman Benoit Gratton remains sidelined indefinitely with a concussion.
For the Rangers, leftwinger Dan Lacouture is likely to be sidelined due to a concussion. The Habs defence may not have to worry about doing much work to shutdown Petr Nedved tonight. The streaky forward, has gone pointless in his past four; although he has enjoyed strong success against the Habs, with 39 points in 41 career games. Right winger Alex Kovalev, who has never enjoyed real success when playing Montreal, is on a bit of a roll with points in his past three games, as well as 17 shots on goal. Montreal native Joel Bouchard returns home tonight to play his eleventh career against les Canadiens. The 29-year-old blueliner has 6 points and is a +5 in 15 games in 2003-04. Former Hab Martin Rucinsky is enjoying a very strong season, number-wise, posting 30 points in 44 games and rounding up an almost unbelievable +19 ranking.
By the way, tonight is also Vintage Night at the Bell Centre. The two teams will be draped in their throwback jerseys. Unfortunately for Mark Messier, throwing on the oldtime jersey doesn't mean he'll be getting any hair back on his head.
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