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Carriere sees game from different vantage point

The expertise of Larry Carriere was in personnel. No problem there. He spent years making a good living by evaluating talent and breaking down teams. What he needed after he accepted an offer to become an assistant coach with the Canadiens was some advice from someone who had far more experience.

Who did he call? Why the head coach at Buffalo State College, of course.

Carriere's son, Nick Carriere, has been running the Division III program for the past seven years and spent three other years as an assistant. It gave him 10 years more experience than his father had. Larry Carriere was an assistant general manager for the Habs, but he had never coached when he joined interim Randy Cunneyworth behind the bench.

"Now, we have two coaches in the family," Larry Carriere said. "He was pretty pumped up about it. I talk to Nick all the time. I've heard all of his coaching strategies and everything. We talk on a daily basis. He's extremely helpful in putting some things out there and giving me some advice on my new coaching job here."

"I'm not in a position too often that I have more experience than my dad," Nick Carriere said. "He's done a lot of different things. I've always had the opportunity to learn from him, so it was really funny. I think I told him off a couple of times before I actually realized that he was being serious."

Carriere wasn't confusing the State University of New York Athletic Conference with the National Hockey League, but certain things apply to coaching on all levels. The goal is getting the most out of their players and helping them improve whether they're freshmen paying $3,000 per semester or veterans collecting $6 million a year.

The difference, obviously, is in the stakes.

"He's a personable guy when he speaks to people, especially young people," Nick said of his father. "Coming from the areas of his experience, evaluating players and knowing the entire league and all the nuances about players and teams, how they operate and compete, what makes certain guys go, that's the stuff we talked about."

Larry Carriere is looking to put his experience to good use in Montreal, where he, and hockey, were born. He still calls Montreal home even though he has lived in Western New York for most of his adult life. The Canadiens are the most storied franchise in the NHL with their 23 Stanley Cup titles and rich history.

The Habs haven't won the Cup since 1993, their longest drought in history. With fans losing their patience with a team struggling through another season, GM Pierre Gauthier fired Jacques Martin and replaced him with Cunneyworth on an interim basis. Carriere, who turns 60 next month, was summoned from the front office to help behind the bench.

It's an entirely different view.

"I knew the speed of the game was really fast," he said. "It's fast no matter if you're up top [in the press box] or behind the bench. Things are happening quickly, and that's why you need players that can really process the game quickly and understand certain situations come up fast. That's what the practices are all about."

Carriere was taken by the Sabres in the second round of the 1972 draft and retired in 1980. He turned to scouting, gained respect across the league and eventually became assistant GM in Buffalo. He left in 2004, when the scouting department was downsized, and took a job with Washington. Montreal hired him before last season.

The Canadiens were hoping he could bring a different perspective to coaching given his knowledge of players and teams. He has worked with coaches for years. Plus, he had a good relationship with Cunneyworth from their days in Buffalo and Rochester. The decision to add Carriere to the coaching staff surprised some, but it was an easy call for him.

"You put all that together, and it didn't take me long," he said. "Plus, it's going home to Montreal. I was working with the team, and we were spending a lot of time there, anyway. I still have a home in Buffalo as well. In making the decision, I considered those things. I thought it would be good for the team and good for myself."

Cunneyworth has been in a difficult position since taking the job and will be replaced barring a major turnaround, in part because French-speaking fans who make up the majority wanted a bilingual head coach. Cunneyworth speaks English and is taking a crash course in French, but it's not likely going to be enough.

Carriere speaks both languages, but he had not spoken to the media until the Habs were in Florida for two games last week. His and Cunneyworth's future in coaching will sort itself out along with their relationship with the fan base. Both would improve drastically if the Habs worked their way back into contention.

"At the end of the day, we have one objective," he said. "It's about pulling together and winning hockey games. There's a lot of things said. Some are important, some less important. It's such a big job that you really have to stay focused. Being from Montreal, I know it well. We need to get some wins going. Then, everybody is happy."

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Without a hitch

Blues coach Ken Hitchcock has learned a few things with age and experience, such as staying away from the rink when his anger lingers following a loss. Last week, he arrived for practice an hour later than planned because he was cooling off in the parking lot after a loss to Detroit.

Years ago, particularly when he was in Dallas, he was known for a fiery temper that helped the Stars win the Stanley Cup but eventually wore down players. His approach led to him getting fired in Philadelphia and Columbus, but St. Louis had a 15-4-4 record going into the weekend after he took over Nov. 6.

"The players used to laugh [in Dallas]," Hitchcock said. "In Game 70, we'd lose our 11th game and they're saying 'Hitch' is having a conniption. You just change. You just learn. Am I ratcheting up the temperature here? No. I was brought in here to teach people what it takes to win. That's my job. It's not about yelling and screaming. It's more matter of fact. To me, it's all about the next day. The next day is the 'Learning Channel.' "

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Spezza has a cannon

Jason Spezza provided evidence supporting the Senators' argument that he should get more pucks on net. The playmaking center, tied for 29th among forwards with 112 shots on goal going into the weekend, throughout his career has been inclined to pass first and ask questions later.

Spezza, who had 13 goals and 38 points in the first 35 games, last week confirmed that he had the hardest shot on the team when he fired a 103.8 mph slapper during their skills competition. He's expected to compete in the event during NHL All Star Weekend, which will be in Ottawa next month.

"I knew that I could shoot the puck hard," Spezza said. "I work a lot on my shot, but I didn't know how hard it would be."

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Zajac's comeback trail

Devils center Travis Zajac's patience is being tested while he comes back from offseason surgery to repair a torn Achilles. It could be a while before he rediscovers the form that made him the 20-goal, 60-point player he was earlier in his career.

Zajac had two points through his first six games this season and was averaging about 17 1/2 minutes. Coach Pete DeBoer threw him on the first line with Zach Parise and Ilya Kovalchuk against Carolina before bumping him down. Parise had similar problems last year after blowing out his knee, but he's nearing the top of his game.

"You want to come back and think it's going to come easy," Zajac said. "You want to score goals and have everything go well, but it's been a long layoff. As much as I want that, I knew it was going to take some time. I'm still not where I want to be, at the top of my game, but at least I feel like I'm improving every day."

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Quotable

Flames coach Brent Sutter, after getting plunked in the head with a puck off the stick of Rene Bourque: "I just did the baseline test and failed badly. But if they'd checked me before, I would have failed then, too."

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Around the boards

*Winnipeg is finally getting some production from 6-foot-5 winger Blake Wheeler, who was virtually absent for the first 18 games. Wheeler had scored all five of his goals and 20 of his 27 points in a recent 19-game stretch. He's playing with Evander Kane, who needed one goal to match his career high of 19, set last season.

*The Wild summoned heavyweight Matt Kassian from Houston for a game against the Oilers because they've grown tired of watching their players get pushed around. Kassian (6-5, 247) happily obliged when Darcy Hordichuk challenged him, earning an unanimous decision and later winning a rematch. "It's a little bit of a rush for me, every time," Kassian said.

*Columbus had an 8-5-2 record when leading after two periods and had blown eight straight leads in that situation before beating Dallas, which explains the Blue Jackets' lousy record. The seven losses when winning after 40 minutes was the most in the NHL. "It's the ghost that keeps following us," forward R.J. Umberger said.

*By the way, look for the Jackets to be busy before the trade deadline. GM Scott Howson acknowledged as much last week in what amounted to an indictment of his own performance. "We're just not good enough as a team," Howson said.

*Ales Hemsky's days appear to be numbered in Edmonton. The right winger had missed 108 of 200 games going into the weekend and hasn't justified his $4.1 million salary when healthy. He had just three goals and 11 points in 23 games this season. His contract expires after the season. Florida could provide a better fit.

*Red Wings goalie Jimmy Howard on playing in the United Center in Chicago: "It's an absolute blast. From the beginning of the national anthem, all the way through, the crowd is going nuts. I thoroughly enjoy playing there."

email: bgleason@buffnews.com