MONTREAL (AP) - It took only 20 minutes for the Montreal Canadiens to take control of the opener of a key two-game set with the rival Toronto Maple Leafs at the Bell Centre.
Alex Kovalev scored his 18th to cap Montreal's four-goal first period as the Canadiens went on to a 5-1 win Thursday night.
"We had a great first period and after that we played a great, simple game," said Montreal goalie Cristobal Huet, who made 33 saves.
Kovalev, who extended his scoring streak to eight games with an assist on Mathieu Dandenault's goal 4:47 in, scored Montreal's second goal in as many power-play opportunities in the opening period to put the Canadiens up 4-0 at 17:56.
"How many goals has he scored this year that you go, 'Uh, what just happened there?"' said defenseman Sheldon Souray, who scored Montreal's first power-play goal midway through the period. "It was a big goal. It gave us a little bit more of a lead and let us kind of relax a little bit and keep pushing."
Rookie Chris Higgins opened the scoring 4:35 in - 12 seconds before Dandenault scored his fourth - and Sheldon Souray scored on a power play at 9:51 as the Canadiens beat Mikael Tellqvist four times on 11 shots in the opening period.
Alexander Perezhogin added a goal in the second for Montreal, which remains ninth in the Eastern Conference, one point behind eighth-place Atlanta for the final playoff spot.
"I wouldn't say desperation was our situation tonight early in the game, it was more I think a really clear and attractive pursuit of the goals that we want, and that's the way we played in the opening 20 minutes," Canadiens coach Bob Gainey said.
The Canadiens have 75 points, one less than the Thrashers, who beat New Jersey 6-5 in overtime to draw within one point of the seventh-place Devils.
Jeff O'Neill scored a power-play goal in the second for Toronto, which is five points behind the Canadiens in 10th place. The Maple Leafs will remain in Montreal to face the Canadiens again on Saturday night.
"We were ready to play, there's no doubt about that," Toronto captain Mats Sundin said. "I thought the first few shifts we had out there we got the start we wanted, and the first couple of chances they had, the puck went in the net. Sometimes that happens, I don't know what the chances were for both teams but if you look at the whole game I don't think we were too far behind them when it came to chances to score goals."
Toronto has gone 17 periods without scoring an even-strength goal since March 14, when Jason Allison scored at 7:39 of the second in a 5-4 win over Boston.
"We're trying to stick together here and do the proper things and do the proper plays and work hard in practice and find ways to win hockey games, but it's awfully frustrating when you lose," Maple Leafs center Darcy Tucker said.
Montreal built a 3-0 lead before the midway point of the first. Higgins scored his 14th goal as he got behind veteran Maple Leafs defenseman Luke Richardson and steered Saku Koivu's crossing pass just inside the left post.
"He makes it easy out there," Higgins said. "I just had to put my stick on the ice and the puck was there."
The sellout crowd of 21,273 was still on its feet - apart from a sizable contingent of Maple Leafs fans - when Dandenault jumped up from the point to put Radek Bonk's centering pass from behind the net past Tellqvist to make it 2-0.
"I was just looking for an opening," Dandenault said. "I knew Bonk was going to make a play at the net and sure enough the puck came loose and I was there to put it in."
Kovalev got his 36th assist on the play, moving ahead of Jan Bulis for the Canadiens' longest points streak of the season.
Montreal also converted its next power play opportunity of the period as Kovalev patiently held the puck on the right side while the crowd buzzed for action before snapping a shot over Tellqvist's left shoulder and into the net off the bottom of the crossbar.
The Canadiens' leading scorer with 54 points, Kovalev has two goals and seven assists over the course of his streak.
Notes: Toronto also played consecutive road games in Ottawa in January. The Maple Leafs lost both games, falling 7-0 to the Senators on Jan. 21 before losing 4-3 in Ottawa two days later. Toronto will host Buffalo for consecutive games on Apr. 1 and 3. ... Huet assisted on Souray's goal for his first point in 81 games in the NHL, all in the regular season. ... Bulis, who was a healthy scratch, had a seven-game points streak from Dec. 31 to Jan. 16.