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19 Montreal Canadiens

The sorry economic state of Canada's NHL teams is exemplified by
the bottom line of its most hallowed franchise, Montreal. They
made a meager $2 million profit last year despite playing in a
sold-out 21,273-seat arena with 130 luxury suites leased to the
max. If that's the best the Canadiens can do, no team in the
land of the 66-cent dollar (a.k.a. the Northern peso) is safe.

Montreal general manager Rejean Houle was ordered to hold
salaries down, which has forced him to shed some higher-priced
veterans and rush young defensemen Brad Brown and Brett Clark
into regular roles this year. The cost-cutting has also
precipitated contract squabbles with wingers Martin Rucinsky and
Brian Savage and defenseman Vladimir Malakhov, none of whom had
reported to camp as of Sunday.

Despite having a sub-.500 record at Molson Centre last season,
Montreal did ease into the playoffs, upsetting Pittsburgh before
suffering a spectacular goalie meltdown while being swept by
Buffalo. The Canadiens used three netminders in four games,
which isn't exactly how you draw it up on the chalkboard.
First-string goalie Andy Moog has retired, leaving the position
to Jocelyn Thibault and Jose Theodore. Thibault had a
respectable 2.47 goals-against average last season, but his
second straight playoff disaster--he gave up four goals on just
13 shots in Game 3 against the Sabres--battered his confidence.
Theodore filled in admirably last spring but has appeared in
just 22 regular-season and playoff games, and nobody thinks he's
ready to be a frontline goalie.

The Canadiens should have two gifted scoring lines once their
holdouts report. Still, they lack toughness and a quality
checking line to neutralize big conference rivals like
Philadelphia, and they could use a power-play quarterback.

Montreal shouldn't cry in its Molson Golden--it could make the
playoffs for the 48th time in 50 years--but it won't be sipping
any beer out of an engraved silver cup this year.


COLOR PHOTO: B. BENNETT/B. BENNETT STUDIOS Can Thibault be Montreal's saving grace? [Jocelyn Thibault in game]



Montreal finished fourth in the Northeast Division for the
second consecutive year in 1997-98. The last Canadiens to end up
as low as fourth two seasons in a row were the 1941-42 and
1942-43 teams.


--The fate of Montreal's season may rest on the shoulders of
young goaltenders Jocelyn Thibault, 23, and Jose Theodore, 22.
Neither has shown he can carry a team.

--The Canadiens, who finished 14th in the league in face-offs,
must improve in that crucial area.