MONTREAL - The Canadiens made it clear that they wanted no part of having the Maple Leafs breathing down their necks any longer with a resounding 5-1 victory over Toronto Thursday night at the Bell Centre.
The Canadiens (33-27-9) stay one point back of the Thrashers for the No. 8 spot with 75 points, while still holding a game in hand over Atlanta. The Leafs (32-31-6) are now five points back of the Canadiens and six back of the Thrashers, as Toronto remains on the outside looking in at No. 10.
With a potential playoff berth hanging in the balance, the Canadiens came flying out of the gate with a pair of goals only 12 seconds apart, less than five minutes into the opening period. Chris Higgins struck first with his 14th of season by converting a nifty set-up from Saku Koivu at the 4:35 mark, while Mathieu Dandenault cashed in a feed from Radek Bonk at 4:47.
The Canadiens kept pouring it on with Sheldon Souray making it 3-0 midway through the first period by blasting a point-shot past Mikael Tellqvist for his 10th of the year. Alex Kovalev then capped off Montreal's most explosive opening period of the season with a power-play marker late in the first period and added an assist to extend his point streak to eight-games (2-7-9). Rounding out the scoring for the Canadiens was Alexander Perezhogin, who notched his ninth of the season.
"We talked about how important it was to get off to a strong start tonight and that's exactly what we did," said Higgins. "As for my goal, you all saw what happened, Saku made a fantastic play and after that, I think any one of you guys could've put that one in."
Koivu was pleased with his team's 60-minute effort but warned against underestimating the Leafs in light of their looming rematch Saturday night at the Bell Centre.
"I don't think it's possible to ever play a perfect game, but we grabbed the momentum early and never let it go," said Koivu. "I'm sure they aren't too pleased with the start they had tonight and I expect the Leafs to come out strong on Saturday."
Making his third straight start, Cristobal Huet stopped 33-of-34 shots for his 13th win of the season. Tellqvist turned aside 25-of-30 shots but had a rough start allowing four goals on only 11 shots in the first period. Jeff O'Neill scored the Leafs' only goal on the night.
According to Kovalev, the Canadiens must find a way to bottle the fire they came out with against their archrivals.
"We've got to hate everybody, every team out there not just the Maple Leafs," admitted Kovalev, who must have been all smiles watching teammate Garth Murray go toe-to-toe with Ben Ondrus with under a minute to play in the third. "If you hate every team out there, you should end up higher in the standings. You've got to be like that against every team and play with that kind of effort."
With the Canadiens winning round one, the two teams will do it all over again Saturday night at the Bell Centre due to a rare scheduling quirk that will see Toronto play their second of back-to-back games in Montreal.
Notes: Thursday night's showdown with the Maple Leafs drew a capacity crowd of 21,273, marking the Canadiens' 32nd consecutive sellout of the season and 55th straight overall packed house dating back to 2003-04... Niklas Sundstrom, Aaron Downey and Jan Bulis were not in the lineup, while Francis Bouillon missed his third straight game due to an ankle injury suffered Saturday against the Penguins... The Canadiens' power-play went 2-for-7, while Toronto was 1-for-6... Mike Ribeiro extended his point streak six games (1-5-6)...
Manny Almela is a writer for canadiens.com