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ON HOCKEY

To Bruins, Ribeiro's act was a real flop

MONTREAL -- Whatever ails Mike Ribeiro, who used Easter Sunday for his own miraculous resurrection, the Canadiens yesterday weren't about to provide much detail.

Ribeiro wasn't spotted at the Bell Centre before, during, or after the Habs' noon workout, which could have meant he was: 1. resting; 2. receiving off-site physical therapy for his aching whatchamacallit or whodingy; 3. attending acting classes.

Of the three, it's hard to say which the 24-year-old center needed the least.

"He missed today," said coach Claude Julien, "not because I gave him the day off -- but because he has an upper-body injury."

The coach's tone was defensive, edging toward defiant. It didn't appear that he was crossing his fingers while standing at the podium.

In the final minute of play Sunday night, Ribeiro collapsed some 20 feet in front of the Boston bench after a glancing hit by Bruins winger Mike Knuble. As collisions go, it wasn't much, certainly nothing similar to the smack Steve Begin dropped on Michael Nylander midway through the third period two nights earlier.

Flat on his back, a writhing Ribeiro flailed his legs as if he'd been run over as a bystander at the Montreal Grand Prix. Action continued for a few seconds before play was whistled dead by referees Kerry Fraser and Kevin Pollock with 33.7 seconds to go in the 3-2 game. After a brief on-ice consultation with a member of the Habs training staff, Ribeiro was quickly on his feet. In the mere seconds leading up to his finally stepping back onto the Montreal bench, Ribeiro even had time, and enough control over his pain, to gesture toward the Bruins bench with both gloved hands, imploring the Bostonians to bring it on.

One moment he was roadkill Ribeiro. The next moment, he was a latter-day John Wensink. For the record, Julien's spin was that Ribeiro's "bring it on" gesture was simply his way of responding to taunting from the Boston bench.

"They were yelling and he yelled back," said Julien. "You see him chirping, but they initiated it."

Later, the edgy Julien added, "How can we all stand here and say he was faking it?"

All in all, it smelled fishier than a haddock that's been dead for three days. Especially when Habs forward Pierre Dagenais, one of Ribeiro's pals, summed up the injury as Ribeiro simply having the wind knocked out of him.

"He's fine this morning," added Dagenais. Not so fine, however, to show his face at the workplace.

Across the way in the Boston dressing room, where the Bruins still own the 2-1 advantage in the best-of-seven series that continues tonight, the incident was characterized as an act.

Veteran defenseman Dan McGillis remained mild-mannered but outspoken on the subject. By his eye, Ribeiro was faking, bringing a measure of dishonor to the game.

"Something like that is always bad for the game," said McGillis, sounding equal parts embarrassed and angered by Ribeiro's histrionics. "It gets put on TV, and you get to see it after -- it's just not something you want to see. It's just not something you want to do as a player. But that's just me -- maybe he's different."

According to McGillis, he and his teammates initially thought Ribeiro was hurt, that he might have taken a stick to the throat. Then they felt duped by his recovery.

"I think that's an embarrassment to the game of hockey," said McGillis. "That's crying wolf right there. God forbid the time comes that he is hurt."

Bruins veteran Brian Rolston made note, too, how Ribeiro initially appeared to be in severe pain, then quickly shifted to taunting mode.

"I just think when I started -- and I don't want to sound like I'm some old guy here -- guys were embarrassed to dive, and now you see more and more of that, too," he said. "We may have been taunting him, I don't know. I wasn't paying much attention. It's really not a big deal to us."

Knuble's view was more in the McGillis camp, although he initially said he had "a hard time calling a guy out" the way McGillis did.

"But yeah, it is [dishonorable]," said Knuble. "When you develop a reputation like that, hey, you're not just mocking or embarrassing us, you're also embarrassing the referees. And I'll bet some of his teammates are embarrassed as well. I mean, you start to flop around like that . . . hey, the next time you deserve a call, or you're hurt, you aren't going to get any sympathy from the referees, that's for sure. It's the boy who cried wolf, I guess."

Hockey remains a game of codes. Many of them govern fighting, which was a hot-button issue in early March when Todd Bertuzzi broke the code and viciously assaulted Steve Moore, leaving the Avalanche forward with a broken neck -- and the game with a black eye.

Ribeiro's antics don't approach Bertuzzi's, because the only one really damaged here is Ribeiro. He'll have his own reputation to patch up now, beginning tonight. With his one pratfall, he flipped the team logo from CH to HC -- High Comedy. The bet here is that many of his proud Habs forefathers didn't like the joke.

Almost 10 years ago, Alexei Kovalev similarly hurt himself when, as a member of the Rangers, he dropped to the ice with a phantom injury during a playoff game against the Nordiques.

Veteran referee Andy vanHellemond disallowed a Nordiques goal on the play, and was later open to ridicule when it became obvious that he never blew his whistle to stop play. From that day on, Kovalev, who scored twice Sunday night for the Canadiens, has worked in front of refs who keep one eyebrow raised whenever he's on the ice.

"Our game, a lot of it, is based on honor," said the 31-year-old Knuble. "When I was coming up, if you did something like that, heck, you'd be embarrassed to come back to your own room. But maybe some guys figure they have to do what they have to do. I don't know, now I'm reaching, I guess."

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