Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Habs Rookie D'Agostini Reflects

By Peter Ruicci, The Sault Star

April 27, 2009

By the end, the sea of enthusiasm with which Matt D'Agostini began the NHL season had been drained to a puddle.

After a blistering start, the Sault Ste. Marie native endured the many questions that follow scoring droughts of 10 and 19 games.

And his Montreal Canadiens' once-promising season ended abruptly, with the Habs losing their first-round playoff series to the Boston Bruins in four straight games.

As an NHL rookie, he learned what it was like to skate in front of an unforgiving audience, in an intense media market, in the most demanding hockey league in the world.

Yet D'Agostini, a six-foot, 200- pound right-winger, can't wait to do it all over again.

"I wouldn't have traded this for anything," the 22-year-old said. "It was like a dream come true, a fun time, a great experience."

It most certainly was in the early days.

After being called up in late November from the American Hockey League's Hamilton Bulldogs, D'Agostini quickly endeared himself to Canadiens fans by netting four goals in his first five games.

He also registered six goals and a pair of assists in just 11 starts.

"It was weird. I was scoring a goal every other game and I thought I'd have a great year," D'Agostini said. "I wasn't used to all of that media attention and it was kind of cool. It was surreal. But then I went through some ups and downs. I slumped a bit, but I guess I knew that pace would be hard to keep up."

Still, he persevered through the droughts and managed to register his only two-goal game of the season on April 9.

That night, in their second-to-last game of the regular season, the Canadiens lost to Boston 5-4 in overtime.

Unfortunately, it became an omen for what was to come in the post-season.

D'Agostini said he "tried to stay as mentally sharp as possible" during the times he was struggling.

He admitted how hard it was to live up to the expectations created by his rocket start.

And scorers always want to score more.

Still, by any measuring stick, 12 goals and 9 assists over 53 games, in a league where scoring is still at a premium, qualifies as a successful rookie season.

"I had some good things going on. It was a pretty good year to get into the mix," he said. "I got comfortable with everything."

A sixth-round pick of the Canadiens in the 2005 NHL Entry Draft, D'Agostini learned one very valuable lesson.

He always knew it was important, but quickly realized self-assurance at the big league level is crucial.

"It's all about playing with confidence," said D'Agostini, who got into one NHL game a year ago and had 14 goals and 11 assists in 20 AHL games at the time of his call-up. "When you're confident, you're not afraid to take risks. When you're not, you're afraid to make plays and you start panicking with the puck."

While injuries -- defence-men Andrei Markov and Mathieu Schneider and forwards Alex Tanguay and Robert Lang were all nicked up -- certainly played a role in the Habs loss to the Bruins, D'Agostini thought he and his teammates were still capable of advancing.

A power-play goal by Boston defenceman Zdeno Chara, snapping a 2-2 tie midway through the first period of Game 1, was the turning point, D'Agostini said.

It led to the Bruins winning the opener, 4-2.

"That was the difference-maker. If we had made it 3-2 and won the opener, it could have been a lot different series," he said. "We had a great squad with game-changers. If we got hot and gained some confidence, we could have turned that series around."

The sweep led to Montreal fans expressing their d i s a p p o i nt - ment over the club's early exit.

They jeered goalie Carey Price and general manager Bob Gainey, who took over as interim head coach after firing Guy Carbonneau.

"They're really passionate and they're the best fans in the world when you're winning," D'Agostini said. "But they expect nothing less."

With his three-year, entry level contract up, D'Agostini is about to become an restricted free agent.

But he wants to remain with the Canadiens and has no reason to think he won't return.

"For sure, I'd love to be back and take on a bigger role next season," D'Agostini said. "I've just been soaking it all in and this is where I want to play."