Habs are riding high ahead of meeting with former coach Julien

The Canadian Press
The Hockey News

Habs are riding high ahead of meeting with former coach Julien

The Canadian Press

Julien, fired by Montreal midway through the 2005-06 campaign, returns to the Bell Centre as coach of the New Jersey Devils on Saturday night. The Canadiens are off to a 7-2-3 start for 17 points this season under first-year head coach Guy Carbonneau. A year ago under Julien, they were 8-3-1 - also for 17 points - after 12 games.

"Last year, we were down most of the games and we found ways to score in the third period or in overtime," said Montreal captain Saku Koivu. "This year, even though we want to be more consistent for 60 minutes, I think we're more consistent than we were last year.

"And our penalty killing and power play are another reason we're doing well."

Goaltending from Cristobal Huet and David Aebischer and some of the NHL's best special-teams play have carried the Canadiens thus far. They have allowed only six goals while shorthanded this season, but have also scored six times while a man short.

Neither Koivu nor any other Canadien appeared to have any quarrel with Julien, who spent three years with the Habs after replacing Michel Therrien in January 2003.

So while it is a game Julien no doubt would like to win, it is no grudge match for the Canadiens.

"We had no problems with him," added Koivu. "He was fair to us.

"But a coach's job is to deliver points. We started well and then hit that low point in the middle of the season and the coach is the one who paid for that."

Last season, the Canadiens started with a 12-3-1 mark before winning only seven of the next 25 games, dropping from first to 10th place in the NHL Eastern Conference.

That's when general manager Bob Gainey fired Julien and took over head coaching duties. He also brought in Carbonneau to act as assistant until he took over as head coach this season.

Gainey had inherited Julien when he replaced Andre Savard as GM in 2003 and kept him on through the lockout season and into 2005-06. But Carbonneau was likely the coach he wanted all along.

Julien predicted he wouldn't be out of a job long and sure enough, the Devils signed him on June 13, making him the third ex-Montreal coach to take over the Devils after Jacques Lemaire and Pat Burns.

"We weren't playing well and you're not going to change 23 guys," centre Radek Bonk said. "I guess Bob felt we needed a change to perk us up.

"That's a decision a GM has to make. I don't think it was Claude's fault. That's just the way it goes."

The 6-5-1 Devils have had an inconsistent start. They looked to be on track as Martin Brodeur shut out Florida 2-0 and Columbus 1-0 this week, but then they fell 5-2 at home to the New York Islanders on Thursday night.

New Jersey swept all four meetings with Montreal last season, but so did Carolina, whom the Canadiens beat 4-0 in Raleigh, N.C. on Thursday night.

They scored twice shorthanded and once on the power play against the Hurricanes.

The Canadiens have the league's fifth-best power play, with a 21.7 per cent success rate, and the third-best penalty killing at 92.4 per cent.

Many coaches say that if adding the penalty killing and power play percentages together comes to more than 100, they're doing the job. A 105 is considered very good. Montreal's total comes to 114.1, second only to Minnesota's 115.7.

San Jose follows at 112.9, Anaheim is 108.1 and Buffalo sits at 107.2.

New assistant coach Kirk Muller handles the penalty killing and has introduced a somewhat more aggressive approach, with three pairs of forwards taking turns on each kill.

"The fact that we laid the base last year and then had a whole training camp to work on it makes it a lot easier," said Carbonneau. "It's tough for a coach to come in in the middle of the season and change the whole philosophy on penalty killing.

"But you need everyone to buy in. The guys were ready and we had the smart guys to do it."

Defenceman Craig Rivet cautioned that it was "gratifying what we've accomplished so far, but we may have nights where we have two or three goals scored against us. That's just the reality of the game. We'll just try to limit how many."

The downside of their penalty-killing efforts is that the Canadiens are spending a lot of time in the box - 79 short-handed situations in only 12 games, including several five-on-threes. They have been on the power play only 60 times.

"Every game we've given more power plays to the other team than we've had and eventually, that could hurt us," added Rivet. "It's something we'll have to address."

Huet, who got the shutout in Carolina, will start in goal against New Jersey.

Forward Mike Johnson and defenceman Mike Komisarek were given a day off practice Friday, while centre Tomas Plekanec left during the workout with a sore back. Carbonneau said Plekanec will be re-examined on Saturday.


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Habs are riding high ahead of meeting with former coach Julien