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Habs try to ignore sale talk and focus on playoff race

The Canadian Press

3/23/2009 5:58:18 PM

BROSSARD, Que. - The Montreal Canadiens like American businessman George Gillett and hope he remains team owner, but at the moment, they're more concerned with making the playoffs.

Amid all the setbacks that have struck the NHL's oldest club in its 100th anniversary season came news on Monday that Gillett has his entire financial empire under review and that any part of it, including the Canadiens, may soon be sold.

"We all want the Gillett family to stay with us - they've done amazing things for our team and the organization - but it's not going to change the way we play," forward Chris Higgins said. "I don't think it will affect us at all."

The Canadiens are up to their necks in alligators, thrashing about as the comfortable gap they built in the first half of the season has been eaten away with haphazard, panicky play.

A 9-16-1 record since Jan. 20 has the team that finished first in the Eastern Conference last season in a battle just to make the playoffs.

That continues Tuesday night when they play host to lowly Atlanta, which on paper should be an easy win. But the Thrashers have beaten Montreal twice in three meetings this season, mostly recently a 2-0 victory in Atlanta on March. 3.

It was Montreal's listless play in that game that convinced general manager Bob Gainey to fire Guy Carbonneau and step behind the bench himself, although the move wasn't made until the Canadiens finished their road trip two days later with a win in Dallas.

The coaching change had no effect on the team's play or results. They are 1-3-2 under Gainey, who continues to juggle his lineup to find a winning combination.

The latest moves were to call up winger Sergei Kostitsyn, who was banished to AHL Hamilton on Feb. 20 for poor play, and to send rookie Max Pacioretty back to the Bulldogs.

Gillett is an active owner, but doesn't meddle in day-to-day hockey decisions.

He attends many games and is quick to do favours for players. Higgins recalls being invited to the family home often when he was in Vail, Colo., two summers ago to have a shoulder operation.

And Mike Komisarek is grateful to Gillett for sending his private jet to bring the defenceman's cancer-stricken mother in for a visit a few years back.

His most recent act of largesse was to contribute toward the building of a lavish new suburban practice facility, said to be the best in the NHL, with two ice sheets, an indoor soccer field and fully equipped gym, lounge and physiotherapy rooms.

The anniversary has let Gillett revel in the popularity of the team he bought at a bargain price of $275 million in 2001, but much has gone sour.

As well as the team's downward spiral in the last two months and the coaching change, there was a report in January that three players had hung out with a suspected drug dealer and gang member, although none is under suspicion of any criminal activity.

And now there's news that the team may be sold.

"It doesn't change the administration," said enforcer Georges Laraque. "Bob's still going to be there. The players are going to be there until the end of the season, so it doesn't matter if the team is for sale or not.

"As long as the team stays in Montreal, whoever owns it doesn't matter."

The first concern is stopping a five-game losing run.

Sergei Kostitsyn has been placed onto a line with his older brother Andrei and centre Tomas Plekanec.

Gainey has put on emphasis on using experienced players and will have a top line of Saku Koivu with Alex Kovalev and Alex Tanguay.

A dedicated checking line of Higgins, Glen Metropolit and Mathieu Dandenault was formed to go up against the Thrashers' top trio of Ilya Kovalchuk, Todd White and Bryan Little.

"We need 20 really good players dressed," said Gainey. "We've gone with a more experienced lineup. These players have been in many positions, including ones like we're in now."

The six-foot-two Pacioretty, a first-round pick in 2007, had some promising moments after he was called up from Hamilton to start the new year. He had three goals and eight assists in 34 games, but wasn't getting much ice time of late.

"Max brought a lot of tangible physical elements - his size, his skating and his power - but there's a lot of textbook work that he still needs to learn," said Gainey. "And the way to learn that is to be in game situations often.

"I think Hamilton is the best place right now. His ice time will probably increase by two or three times. And Hamilton is headed for the playoffs, so there's lots for him to do there that will make him a potentially better player for the Canadiens next year."