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Habs Look For More Room

by Staff Writer / Toronto Maple Leafs

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March 24, 2006

MONTREAL (CP) -- The Montreal Canadiens bought themselves breathing room by beating Toronto in the first of a two-game set and will be looking for a sweep when they play host to the Maple Leafs again Saturday night (CBC, 7 p.m. EST).

The Leafs will look to slow down Alexi Kovalev.
(Getty Images/NHLI)

The Canadiens' surprisingly easy 5-1 victory over Toronto on Thursday night left them one point behind the Atlanta Thrashers for the eighth and final NHL Eastern Conference playoff spot and created a five-point gap with the 10th-place Leafs.

Coach Bob Gainey said his team can now concentrate on catching the teams ahead of them - Atlanta and seventh-place New Jersey - instead of looking over their shoulders at Toronto.

"If Toronto wants a playoff spot, they have to move past us before they can see it,'' Gainey said Friday. "So we were able to enlarge the space between their team and ours, which gives us more of a right or an ability to look ahead.

"We want to get past the team that's No. 8, so we don't have as much concern about the number of points Toronto has and we can focus on the team ahead of us.''

The Canadiens, who are playing five games in only seven days this week, took a breather Friday as only four players attended an optional practice at the Verdun Auditorium.

The Canadiens split a pair of games in Washington and Long Island on Monday and Tuesday. After Saturday's game against Toronto, they fly to Pittsburgh for a game Sunday night.

Gainey said he expects the Leafs to make adjustments and come back stronger in Game 2 of a mini-series that has taken on a playoff atmosphere, with hundreds of Toronto fans in town for the two games.

"What I felt in the bowl of the arena and on the streets was very similar to times I can remember playing in games (in the 1970s and 1980s),'' said Gainey. "Certain times of the season seem to float these games to the surface.

"There can be great games all year long, but for different reasons, games come to the surface and draw more attention to them for the players and the fans. These two games are a good example of that. It smelled a lot like old Boston-Montreal games, or Quebec-Montreal games.''

The Leafs put themselves in a huge hole as Montreal jumped on turnovers in the neutral zone and spotty defensive zone coverage to take a 4-0 first-period lead.

It was the perfect tonic for a team that had been struggling to score of late.

Alex Kovalev stretched his points streak to eight games, but scored only his first goal in seven matches. Chris Higgins ended a seven-game goal drought, while Michael Ryder and Alexander Perezhogin showed signs that their slumps are over by each notching his second in the last three games.

Captain Saku Koivu went a 20th game without a goal, but made a nifty play to set up Higgins' goal.

The Canadiens went with seven defencemen and 11 forwards on Thursday because they weren't sure that Andrei Markov, who missed four of the five previous matches with back spasms, would finish the game. Craig Rivet has also been playing with a sore hip.

Both looked to have got through it without any further damage, with Markov given 19:02 of ice time, about five minutes less than usual.

Gainey said Markov, his top defenceman, felt good Friday morning and he hopes to remain in the lineup, but he hasn't decided whether to go with seven defencemen again.

A question mark is winger Jan Bulis, who was a healthy scratch for the first time this season.

Gainey didn't give a reason for the move, but Bulis had taken three penalties in a 3-1 loss on Long Island on Tuesday night.

Tough guy Aaron Downey, who had a flu on Thursday, is ready to play but it remains uncertain if he will be in the line-up.

In the final minute on Thursday, Toronto's Ben Ondrus dropped the gloves with Garth Murray, but Gainey said it "seemed like an isolated situation'' rather than an indication that the Leafs would play a rougher game on Saturday.

Cristobal Huet, who made 33 saves, will be back in goal.

The Canadiens are missing defenceman Francis Bouillon, who injured an ankle when he fell feet-first into the boards last Saturday against Pittsburgh. Nothing was broken and no ligaments were torn, but Bouillon is not sure when he'll return.

"It feels better, but it's going slowly,'' said Bouillon. "I can skate, but I have no strength in the ankle.''

Notes: The game will be the eighth and final meeting of the season between the NHL's two oldest clubs. Toronto holds a 4-3 edge in games.. . Downey, whose family owns a farm in Shelburne, Ont., brought in 10-pound bags of potatoes for his teammates on Friday.

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