ONE EVENING in late January at Magnan, a brasserie in a working-class section of Montreal, a table of English-speaking men in their 50s, hands on beer glasses and eyes on giant TV screens, burst into song as the final horn sounded in a 4--3 Canadiens victory. The comeback against the Devils, fueled by three third-period goals, was worth celebrating—Montreal had not won in New Jersey in almost six years—but it was less shocking than hearing these men with thinning hair and expanding waistlines warbling the team's old, if insipid, victory song in a throaty French: Halte l√†, halte l√†, halte l√†, les Canadiens sont l√†. This translates, loosely, as "Look out, look out, look out, the Canadiens are there."
The Canadiens, a bridge over a city's linguistic divide, are indeed there. After beating the Devils 2--1 last Saturday, Montreal was alone atop the Eastern Conference, the first time the team has led the conference after the All-Star break since 1993. There is a growing sense in Montreal, based on the Canadiens' play during a 19-8-3 run since late December, that this surprising team is capable of making a playoff noise far sweeter than the cacophony in Magnan, maybe of even returning the Stanley Cup to its rightful home. (Although Montreal has not held a Cup parade since 1993, the city still considers the trophy to be on loan in years when another team wins it.) Coach Guy Carbonneau, captain of the last of the Canadiens' 24 champions, is wary of the unbridled enthusiasm—"People see a little light at the end of the tunnel and they think, Wow, it's the [midday] sun," Carbonneau mused recently—yet he's feeling it too. Asked last week if Montreal was, in fact, a Cup contender, he replied without hesitation, "Yes."
If this team doesn't quite measure up to its storied progenitors, the Canadiens' No. 1--ranked power play, team speed and history-making determination—they rallied from a 5--0 deficit for the first time in the franchise's 99 years to beat the New York Rangers 6--5 in a shootout on Feb. 19—make them nothing like the imposters that had been selling out the Bell Centre, the NHL's largest arena, out of civic habit. The power play, connecting at 25.3%, and the Lazarus-like revival of the magical winger Alex Kovalev, who had 25 points in his past 19 games, would appear to be the most critical components for a team universally dismissed in October as having little hope of making the playoffs, but the most overlooked reason for the turnaround might be the toughest player to overlook—defenseman Mike Komisarek. He is 6'4", 240 pounds before breakfast, which makes him the NHL's biggest intangible. The 26-year-old, who grew up ... and up ... and up ... on Long Island, in New York, leads the NHL in blocked shots and is second in hits (box, below). The numbers are noteworthy—he wears his statistics in the pastel yellow under his eyes and the purple welts on his torso—but Komisarek has given Montreal something better measured by orthopedists than stat crunchers: a spine.
ON A team of Lilliputians, he is Gulliver. Not that the Canadiens were too small to have gone on the rides at Disney World before Komisarek evolved into a first-pair defenseman alongside All-Star Andrei Markov this season; sometimes they just played that way. For years Montreal had a reputation of being soft in a sport that will always be rooted in intimidation no matter how the NHL tries to sanitize it. While the Canadiens did have some take-care-of-business blueliners in recent years—Sheldon Souray and Craig Rivet, among them—they lacked anyone as imposing or bristling with fury as a fully formed Komisarek. As winger Chris Higgins says, "The way he's playing this year makes our team meaner."
The Big Intangible personifies the end of the Ice Capades era for a franchise that has won three playoff series in 15 years. Not that these are the Flaying Frenchmen. "We're not a style of team that provokes a lot of things"—Montreal, in the bottom third in fighting majors since 2001--02, currently ranks 23rd—"but every time you have a big player who plays big, it's obviously a boost for the other guys," Carbonneau says. "We don't have a Georges Laraque or a Donald Brashear [enforcers for the Pittsburgh Penguins and the Washington Capitals, respectively]. No one who says, 'You touch this guy, you're dead.' But we do have a guy who's dangerous because of his edge, a guy who's big and tough and plays important minutes."
Komisarek has four goals and 13 assists and is a +7 while averaging 21:35 of ice time per game, healthy totals for a defenseman not used on the power play and usually assigned to shadow the opponent's top scorer. The Canadiens sic him on Toronto's Mats Sundin one night, Tampa Bay's Vincent Lecavalier the next. On Super Bowl Sunday he turned Jaromir Jagr into his personal pi√±ata, banging the Rangers' winger at every opportunity. Komisarek's battles with Washington's Alexander Ovechkin have been seismic if not always successful. Ovechkin drilled Komisarek last month on the first shift at the Bell Centre—"That got me more fired up, more involved," Komisarek says—then Komisarek and Markov helped snap Ovechkin's point streak at seven games. Komisarek's white whale did break loose for four goals and an assist two nights later in Washington when Carbonneau didn't have the last change and couldn't always match his top defensive pair against the Capitals' No. 1 line. "He is a great player," Ovechkin says. "I am pretty sure he will be one of the best players in the league."
The last four or five years it's been unusual to see a hard-hitting defenseman," Philadelphia Flyers assistant coach Terry Murray says. "[In 1982, when Hall of Fame defenseman] Scott Stevens came along, there were other players in the league like him who played hard and gritty and nasty. Now, you see, who? [Calgary's Dion] Phaneuf and Komisarek. Their primary purpose is to stop the cycle, stop a player one-on-one. That's not commonplace today."
Komisarek was always big. So are the giant teddy bears on carnival midways. The son of Polish immigrants—Roman, who arrived in America with the clothes on his back and who still works in an auto body shop, and Kathy—Komisarek was a plush toy in his first few years on the ice. He didn't start skating until age 10. When Komisarek was 15 and playing junior hockey, Gerry Hart, the former NHL defenseman who owned the rink near Komisarek's home and who had become his mentor, explained the facts of hockey life at a postgame dinner at Friendly's. "I told him he was playing like a baby," Hart says. "I told Mike and his mother that he needed to be a little mean, hang a licking on someone. And he might have to fight." Upon hearing Hart's counsel, Kathy burst into tears, saying she hadn't raised her son to be a bully or to lord his size over other children.
"The next day I get a call from [Komisarek's junior coach, Gary Dineen], asking, 'What did you say to him?'" Hart recalls. "'He's hitting guys in practice. I had to tell him to back off.'" Komisarek hasn't backed off since. During his two years at the University of Michigan, walkons hopeful of playing for the Wolverines would have to run the Komisarek gantlet. He remembers unloading on the newcomers, helmets and sticks flying as in a cartoon brawl. Says Michigan coach Red Berenson, "I'd have to say, 'Mike, take it easy on your teammates. The enemy comes this weekend.'"
MONTREAL DRAFTED Komisarek with the seventh pick of the 2001 draft, high for a late bloomer. His penchant for taking himself out of the play to mete out big hits and other forms of hockey justice slowed his progress, but Komisarek still seemed to have top-pair potential until the start of the postlockout season, '05--06. Kathy had been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in January '05, and after Saturday-night home games that fall Komisarek would catch a sunrise flight to New York and spend the day with her, then return to Montreal that night. "I think Mike felt more guilt than anything else," says Higgins, a close friend who played with Komisarek as a boy on Long Island. "She was real sick, and there he was, playing hockey."
After Kathy's death in November 2005, general manager Bob Gainey thought that the stay-at-home defenseman should actually stay at home, take time on Long Island to clear his mind. But a telephone call to Hart convinced the G.M. otherwise. "He told me that Mike didn't need to be insulated in that way," Gainey says. After firing coach Claude Julien and temporarily going behind the bench himself in January '06, Gainey started giving Komisarek more responsibility. Carbonneau gradually eased him into a larger role last season. Now, with Rivet (traded to San Jose) and Souray (signed with Edmonton) gone, the training wheels have come off.
Paired with the exquisite Markov, Komisarek, who has had five fights this season, became at once the on-ice bad mood that Montreal had sorely lacked. He is a fan favorite. When he drew back-to-back minor penalties against the Rangers late in the second period in the midst of the wild comeback, 21,273 Canadiens partisans littered the ice with giveaway posters. (Think of it as Stanley Cup ticker tape waiting to be shredded.) "The thing that upsets him most is hockey laziness," says Higgins, who shares Komisarek's yoga and workout regimen during summers on Long Island. "He came from a family that worked its ass off to get where they did, and he doesn't want anyone here to take it for granted."
Montreal used to take Stanley Cups for granted, but after more than a decade of fans genuflecting in the direction of the CH out of habit but not belief, they have found their voice. Halte l√†, halte l√†, halte l√†. For a man who has made the biggest team in hockey history big again, this is a hit song.
As a measure of defensive effectiveness—and courage—SI has devised a simple but telling stat: the Toughness Quotient (TQ), which combines a player's hits and blocked shots. Through March 1, no one was close to Mike Komisarek.
DAVE SANDFORD/NHLI/GETTY IMAGES (PRICE)