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Habs’ AHL kids strut stuff in Calder Cup Playoffs

by James Murphy || NHL.com

Montreal Canadiens fans longing to see playoff hockey live may want to hop on the Hamilton Bulldogs website right away and order tickets. The Canadiens’ AHL affiliate is on a magical run right now and enters Friday’s Western Conference Final Game 4 with a 3-0 lead on the Chicago Wolves.

While fans will get to enjoy a playoff hockey atmosphere they were deprived of in Montreal, they will also get a glimpse of the organization’s future, which, if this spring is any indication, could be arriving in the fall.

Forwards Maxim Lapierre and Andrei Kostitsyn, as well as goaltender Jaroslav Halak came up from Hamilton this past season and made an impact, but Bulldogs coach Don Lever is convinced that the future is even brighter.

“I could see a number of the kids I have here going into camp and pushing the veterans and even making the team," Lever said. "If they continue to progress, they’ll be called up during the season, but I wouldn’t be surprised if some of them aren’t here at all.”

Lever pointed to the similar development and success of Lapierre, Kostitsyn and Halak.

“You see what they did in their time here and when it was their time, they were called up,” Lever said. “I’m seeing the same thing now with some other players.”

Five players who have demonstrated they are on similar paths, maybe even shorter paths to the NHL, are goaltender Carey Price and forwards Corey Locke, Kyle Chipchura, Duncan Milroy and Mikhail Grabovski. All four had sensational seasons and have continued to play well in the playoffs, while Price has simply come in and performed above the high expectations surrounding him after his sensational performance at the World Junior Championships back in December.

“Here’s a kid who had pretty much zero experience at this level, took over the starting role in the playoffs, and hasn’t looked back,” Lever said of Price who is 10-4 with a 2.24 goals-against average and .928 save percentage.

“Considering that he basically played only junior before the playoffs, you have to be pretty impressed with the job he’s done.”

What’s impressed Lever most about Price has been his calm demeanor on and off the ice.

“I tell you, this kid is one calm, cool cucumber,” Lever said. “His mental toughness immediately earned the respect of his teammates and he’s been a calming presence back there.”

When Price arrived in Hamilton, Lever took a realistic approach and figured this would be the beginning of at least a year of seasoning at the AHL level for the much-heralded netminder. But his performance thus far has him wondering if Price will be back next fall?

“Let’s just say, and this is no knock on them, but if I’m Jaro (Halak) or (Cristobal) Huet, I’d be ready for a real challenge in training camp,” Lever said.

Price has also benefited from the team in front of him, one that has no shortage of firepower. Milroy, who led the team in scoring this season with 58 points, and Corey Locke, who finished second in scoring with 55 points, have continued to shine in the playoffs. Locke leads the team in playoff scoring with 16 points, while Milroy has nine points.

“His work ethic has been really unbelievable in the playoffs and that’s what we’ve noticed most,” Lever said of Locke. “We didn’t see that as much in the regular season, which is common with junior players coming up for their first season. But now that he’s doing all the little things, he’ll be even better.”

Milroy may have led the team in scoring, but his best attribute according to Lever is thataforementioned work ethic and is ability to be a two-way player.

“Duncan may not be scoring as much in the playoffs, but he’s a good defensive player too and he’s been contributing that way,” Lever said.

Lever is confident that Milroy and his linemates, Grabovski and Matt D’Agostini, will breakout soon but is already happy with what they’ve brought so far in the playoffs.

“That line brings a great combination of skill and hard work and we’re just waiting for them to take off,” he said. “Grabovski is such a good passer and D’Agostini… I don’t think enough people know about this kid. He’s been a great all-around player and really stepped up for us.”

Another player that has caught Lever’s eye and could very well be ready to take it to the next level next season is Chipchura, the Canadiens’ first round pick in 2004. Chipchura had 39 points in the regular season and is the second leading scorer on the team during the playoffs with nine.

“He was huge in Game 1 of this series and has made big strides this season,” Lever said. “I really think this kid is coming into his own here. He’s grown a lot on and off the ice.”

On defense, Lever pointed out the play of Ryan O’Byrne.

“This is a big, mobile kid, who when he hits, you feel it and remember it,” he said of the 6-foot-5, 228-pounder.

Following the end of the Canadiens’ season, General Manager Bob Gainey said he was looking forward to watching the team’s AHL prospects play in the Calder Cup playoffs and felt it was a good chance for them to learn how to play under pressure. Well, it appears that Gainey has gotten what he wished for.

Lever also has enjoyed watching these players, but he also looks forward to and believes they will be doing the same thing in the NHL quite possibly in the 2007-08 season.

“Seeing these kids mature and get that competitive edge has been great,” Lever said. “I think everyone in the Montreal organization and the fans have to be excited about the prospects we have here and in the system.”