Theo's play overshadowed by Kovalev's act

Updated: April 16, 2004, 2:22 AM ET
By Chris Stevenson | Special to ESPN.com

The Montreal Canadiens wheeled their bags out of the Bell Centre on Wednesday en route for Boston, the site of Game 5 of their Eastern Conference quarterfinal and, possibly, the end of the line.

Alexei Kovalev
Alexei Kovalev: 'I've never lost in the first round and I want to keep that record.'
Down 3-1 in a series in which they have been the better team in three of the four games, the emotional baggage the Habs carted to Beantown was difficult to weigh.

The Canadiens must overcome two internal crises if they are to avoid elimination Thursday night. The most pressing issue is the waning confidence in the goaltending of Jose Theodore, the 2002 Hart and Vezina Trophy winner who has been clearly second in this series to outstanding Boston rookie Andrew Raycroft.

Theodore's play has been suspect in a number of critical situations.

Secondly, the Canadiens must deal with any lingering feelings from the unexpected and rather pointed internal criticism of enigmatic forward Alexei Kovalev, who gave up the puck on the winning goal in double overtime after taking a tap on the hand in Game 4.

The Kovalev controversy got most of the attention in the wake of the Game 4 loss after Montreal defenseman Sheldon Souray and head coach Claude Julien accused Kovalev of quitting on the play. Kovalev, who had been the Canadiens' best player in the game with two goals, allowed the puck to go free after dropping his glove and shaking his hand after Boston's Travis Green gave him a whack near the Montreal blue line.

Kovalev then collided with Souray, who was attempting to correct Kovalev's error, and Boston's Glen Murray skated in alone and beat Theodore.

The Canadiens did their best to downplay the controversy but those kinds of comments are rare.

"I don't think he quit," said Canadiens captain Saku Koivu, who expected to address the issue at a team dinner Wednesday night. "It's a normal reaction when you get slashed that hard. He shook his hand for a second and that was enough. Whatever happened, happened. He was the reason (we had our share) of the tie. He was our best player."

Now it remains to be seen which of the Kovalevs the Canadiens will have in the lineup Thursday night: the one who was largely invisible in Games 1 and 2 or the dominating player who was a threat to score almost every time he touched the puck in Games 3 and 4, totalling three goals.

Kovalev said he expected to play Thursday night.

"It's a little bruised," he said, wearing a strip of gauze bandage over the knuckles of his right hand. "The only concern is how it will feel when I grab the stick and take a shot because it's right in the place where you hold the stick.

"We're in a tough situation, but if we win the next game and then come back here (for Game 6 Saturday) you never know what will happen. I've never lost in the first round and I want to keep that record."

The incident at the conclusion of Game 4 and all the talk about it obscures the fact the Canadiens need much better goaltending from Theodore if they are going to prolong this series. They blew a 3-1 lead in Game 4. It is not too much of a stretch to say he has given up at least one questionable goal in each of the games, and those stand as the difference between the 11 goals he has surrendered in this series and the seven allowed by Raycroft.

With Montreal backup Mathieu Garon posting some impressive numbers this year, Julien was asked if he was considering a change. Just the fact that question was asked illustrates the struggles endured by Theodore, the player expected to lead the Canadiens to an upset of the second-seeded Bruins, as he did in the playoffs two years ago.

"There's no question of changing the goalie," said Julien, dropping the responsibility of improving his game squarely in Theodore's lap (a cynic might say the way things are going it would slip through the five-hole). "Jose did a good job for us all year. We know he can do as well as Andrew Raycroft. This would be a good time to show it."

"I am confident in this team," said Koivu. "We can't rely too much on Theo. We know he's going to be there for us ... it has to be more about us than about him."

The Canadiens will be without defenseman Stephane Quintal, who injured his right shoulder when he was spilled into the boards in Game 4. Julien said he is lost for the rest of the series. His place in the lineup will be taken by rookie Mike Komisarek.

Augmenting the challenge facing the Habs is the improvement in the game of Boston forward Joe Thornton. Recovering from a suspected rib injury, Thornton looked much stronger in Game 4, playing a number of dominating shifts.

If the Canadiens want proof there is hope for their situation, they need look no farther than forward Jim Dowd. He was part of the Minnesota Wild last year which twice came back from 3-1 deficits to win series over the Vancouver Canucks and the Colorado Avalanche.

"Definitely the biggest thing in these situations is whether it was a win or a loss, you forget the last game right away," said Dowd. "Boston has to forget they won the game and we have to forget we lost it. We've got to stay up. This is a young, hungry team. We're going to be ready. This brings back a lot of good memories. The Wild was a seventh seed, too. The thing is we know we can do it. It's different if you think you can do it. The biggest difference is between thinking and knowing. We're going to win in Boston and bring it back (to Montreal)."

Chris Stevenson covers the NHL for the Ottawa Sun and is a frequent contributor to ESPN.com.

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