Even when the Canadiens missed the playoffs last spring, Les Habitants could still take pride in their power play; Montreal's 22.8-percent success rate was the NHL's best, and the unit was seemingly set for the future.
Then, in July, defenseman Sheldon Souray and his 48 power-play points bolted to Edmonton, meaning Montreal's power would suffer an outage, right?
Without Souray's 100-mph howitzer, the Habs simply became more efficient on the man advantage (their 23.9-percent success rate is second in the league to Philly's) thanks in part to veteran Alexei Kovalev.
"You have to fear Kovalev coming off the wall," says Atlanta penalty-killing specialist Eric Perrin. "He's the shiftiest guy in the league. He's got moves, and the puck sticks on his blade."
Not to mention Kovalev also has 12 power-play goals, No. 2 in the league.
But the Russian right wing isn't the only Hab to worry about. Center Tomas Plekanec, left winger Andrei Kostitsyn and defensemen Mark Streit and Andrei Markov round out Montreal's highly skilled, all-European top unit. All five can carry the puck and shoot.
"That makes us tough to defend," says Streit, who has filled in admirably for Souray at the point.
Having two old-school penalty killers calling the shots doesn't hurt, either; Habs coach Guy Carbonneau and assistant Doug Jarvis have a total of four Selkes and 2,282 NHL games. For them, breaking down an opponent's penalty-killing unit is gateau. Aggressive down low? Work the puck from the blue line. Aggressive up top? Lots of cycling down low.
The goal? Create movement in the other team's kill, which leads to gaps in spacing, unpredictability and opportunities. As a result, goals can come from the point, from the corners, from the half-wall.
"We set the structure, then let individual abilities and talents take over," says Jarvis. "We leave it up to their reads and skill to exploit whatever kind of PK we're facing."
Kovalev could be Montreal's first 40-goal scorer since Vincent Damphousse in 1993-94, and Markov is sixth among defensemen in scoring. Throw in some stingy work by Cristobal Huet (2.33 goals-against average, .922 save percentage) between the pipes and a roster that has been healthy all season, and the Canadiens look like they could be dangerous this spring.
When it's time to kill or be killed.
-- Lindsay Berra
Still hungry to fill the void left by the 2006 Todd Bertuzzi trade, Vancouver started this season looking to center Ryan Kesler for power-forward numbers. It made sense. The 23-year-old native of Livonia, Mich., has the size (6-foot-2, 205 pounds) and game (he scored 30 goals with Manitoba in 2004-05) for the role.
Problem is, you don't become that kind of a force overnight. Even Bertuzzi needed six seasons to crack the 20-goal mark. After scoring just three goals in his first 20 games, Kesler felt the heat of the team's expectations. "There was a lot of pressure on him to
put points on the board," says linemate Matt Cooke.
Enter coach Alain Vigneault. He moved Kesler back to his customary checking line, and the results were immediate. Kesler now has 12 goals, plus he's used his relentless speed on the forecheck to become a shutdown center.
Just ask Sidney Crosby, who was pointless in the Pens' only game against Vancouver. Or Anaheim's Ryan Getzlaf, who's been held to one point in three matchups this season. That's production by subtraction.
"Being on the defensive line, you're playing against other teams' top lines," says Kesler. "You get offensive opportunities."
He also makes the most of his opportunities on the draw (54.9 percent, eighth in the league). That kind of puck control will be a factor down the stretch in the vise-tight Northwest, where three points separate the top four teams.
Kesler's two-way play has created some Selke buzz for the fourth-year pivot. Linemate Alex Burrows thinks it's deserved: "Speed, grit, competing hard -- those three things combined make him a great candidate."
It's a powerful argument.
-- Stephanie Bagley
On The Hrink
• If there's any additional pressure that comes with signing a monster 13-year, $124M deal, Capitals winger Alexander Ovechkin is handling it just fine. In seven games since finalizing his contract on Jan. 10, No. 8 has notched seven goals and six assists while playing to a plus-5 rating. He's money.
• If you're a GM and want to host a special night for a venerable player, don't schedule it when the Red Wings come to town. The league's top team has been a rude guest, outscoring hosts by a whopping 85-52.
• Preds rookie defenseman Ville Koistinen has been a pleasant surprise. In 34 games, the 25-year-old Finn has 12 points and a plus-11 rating while logging nearly 17 minutes of ice time per game. The surprise? He was an undrafted free agent in 2006.
• Sharks captain Patrick Marleau may need a change of scenery. Through 49 games, the pivot has scored just 25 points; in the 12 games before the All-Star break, he was a dismal minus-13. He hasn't been the same since being publicly criticized by coach Ron Wilson during the Sharks' semifinal loss to the Wings last May.
• Through 51 games this season, the Rangers rank third in shots (31.8 per game), but last in goals (2.35). That screams too many perimeter shots and not enough Sean Avery in front of the net. In the 25 games that Avery has missed because of injuries, the Blueshirts are 9-13-3.
• Can anyone explain why Jackets stopper Pascal Leclaire wasn't selected as one of three Western goalies for the All-Star Game, especially after the Canucks' Roberto Luongo opted out for personal reasons? In 35 games, Leclaire has stood among the league leaders in goals-against average (2.00), save percentage (.928) and shutouts (eight). His sensational play explains why Columbus is still in the hunt for its first-ever playoff berth. He deserved the love.
-- E.J. Hradek
The Number -- 2
• When the Islanders scored three short-handed goals on Jan. 22 against Carolina, it must have stung. The Hurricanes have managed just two short-handers all season, while allowing a league-high 10. Following the 6-3 loss, veteran pivot Ray Whitney, who was on the ice for all three Islanders tallies, discussed Carolina's playoff hopes: "Our power play can't be minus-2, that's for sure." Talk about being a man down.