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Habs, Panthers looking to climb higher in Vail

Tim Sweeny

Aside from the obvious difference in flight patterns they’ll use to get to Vail, when the Montreal Canadiens and Florida Panthers hit town in September they’ll also be coming from different places competitively.The Canadiens are coming off a stirring playoff run to the Eastern Conference semifinals that saw them bounce the top-seeded Boston Bruins in six games before falling to the eventual Stanley Cup finalist Carolina Hurricanes in six.The Panthers have struggled over the last couple of seasons, but finished 16-29-8-3 in the 56 games after Mike Keenan took over as head coach Dec. 3. They’ll be looking to take a big step forward this winter with help from the wealth of young talent they’ve been developing.The one thing the two teams have in common is the rash of injuries each dealt with last season. The heart and soul of the Canadiens playoff run was 27-year-old Saku Koivu, who made an inspiring comeback from non-Hodgkin’s intra-abdominal lymphoma on April 9. Koivu, veteran Doug Gilmour and Donald Audette, who also came back from an injury, all notched 10 points in the team’s 12 playoff games.The backbone of the team was netminder Jose Theodore, who won the Vezina Trophy (NHL’s top goaltender) and the Hart Trophy (league MVP). At press time, however, the restricted free agent was unsigned, leaving his presence in Vail in doubt. Last season Theodore notched a number of personal highs, including wins (30) and games played (67). Yannic Perreault led the team in goals (27) and points (56) during the regular season.”People can expect to see a number of familiar faces,” Montreal spokesman Donald Beauchamp says. “This is a very experienced team with a number of good young players fighting for positions. It should be an extremely lively camp.”The Canadiens will work out each morning and should be done by about 1p.m. Beauchamp says the players will be also taking part in off-ice training with strength and conditioning coordinator Scott Livingston.What else can you expect from a Montreal Canadiens visit? Media and more media.”When the Montreal Canadiens start a training camp,” Beauchamp says, “it gets a strong following.”In south Florida the Panthers are looking to Keenan, who has taken four teams to the Stanley Cup Finals, to lead the young talent upward. Panthers spokesman Randy Sieminski says the organization is expecting a very competitive camp thanks to a solid crop of young, talented players who know that opportunities exist for ice time. The coaching staff figures 18 forwards have a legitimate chance to make up the final 12 offensive roster spots, while 12 defensemen will compete for the eight or so blue line spots. Needless to say, competition should be fierce.The Panthers feel they have one of the best young goaltenders in the league in the 6-foot-3, 200-pound Roberto Luongo, who’s just 22 years old. But it’s his defensive help that could draw most of the attention. The new kid on the block is 6-4, 202-pound defenseman Jay Bouwmeester. The number three overall pick in the 2002 draft, Bouwmeester turns just 19 this month and was Medicine Hat’s Player of the Year in the WHL last season with 50 assists.&quotWe’ve got a lot of young guys,&quot Sieminski says. &quotMike (Keenan) says it’s going to be one of the most competitive camps he’s been in. The last couple of years we’ve been a bit down and we’re looking to make a big jump this year. There will definitely be some spirited workouts.&quotWinger Kristian Huselius, another youngster at 23, was one of three finalists for the Calder Trophy (Rookie of the Year) last season, potting 23 goals and adding 22 assists while playing in 79 games. Niklas Hagman, 22, contributed 28 points as a rookie and was the NHL Rookie of the Month in March. Veteran forward Valeri Bure, who missed the club’s last 14 games due to injury, and center Viktor Kozlov, a Russian Olympian returning from an abdominal injury, both come to Vail looking to return to form. Former Avalanche defenseman Sandis Ozolinsh (38 assists last season) adds veteran presence.The Panthers are planning to hold on-ice workouts in the morning and also have 4 p.m. scrimmages.


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