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Canadiens coming together at right time

by Dan Rosen
UNIONDALE, N.Y. -- Throughout the Montreal Canadiens' centennial season, there have been distractions galore -- not the least of which is the ongoing celebration of the  franchise's remarkable history.

Famous alumni have been visible throughout the city, especially at the Bell Centre. The Habs have worn six uniforms, each from a different era. Newspaper articles, television shows and talk radio have been abuzz about the glory years. Oh, and let's not forget the rumors that the franchise is for sale or the speculation on who will be the team's next coach.

But none of that matters right now.

The famous crest on their sweaters might suggest otherwise, but when you strip this season down to its bare bones, the Canadiens, at least right now, are no different than the Rangers or Panthers, the Ducks, Predators, Blues, Wild or Oilers: With five games to play in the regular season, they are in a fight to extend their historic season, and it appears as if the Habs have embraced the challenge.

Montreal moved up into seventh place in the Eastern Conference with Thursday's 5-1 win here over the young New York Islanders, coupled with the Rangers' 4-2 loss in Carolina. It's the Habs' fourth win in their last five games.

"We would like to be in a different situation where we are fighting for home-ice advantage, but our situation is critical," Habs forward Alex Tanguay told "We know exactly what task we have ahead of us."

Their 4-0-1 record since March 24 suggests that perhaps the Canadiens have turned the proverbial corner and are peaking at the right time with General Manager Bob Gainey behind the bench serving as coach after firing Guy Carbonneau on March 9.

"Some teams seem to peak early and play better hockey than others," All-Star defenseman Mike Komisarek told, "but I think our time is now."

The Canadiens haven't gotten to this point by accident.

They were derailed by some key injuries earlier this season, most notably to Tanguay, captain Saku Koivu and Christopher Higgins, but their power play was still ineffective and their penalty kill was average. As recently as two weeks ago, they were spending far too much time in their own zone, so they were allowing too many shots against and not getting enough themselves.

Goalies Carey Price and Jaroslav Halak weren't helping the cause either.

"We couldn't grab the momentum," Komisarek said.

They definitely have lately.

The Canadiens, who are mostly healthy save for long-term injuries to Robert Lang and Francis Bouillon, have been better in all areas in wins against Atlanta, Tampa Bay, Chicago and the Islanders as well as a shootout loss at home against Buffalo.

They have scored 10 power-play goals in 30 chances while killing off 16 of 18 opposition advantages. The 12-advantage difference has been a huge part of their success, too.

"The shots are coming from all over the place and the passes are coming from all over the place and the other teams don't know what to expect," Alex Kovalev said. "It might come from one guy and then it will come from the other guy. We're moving the puck well and we're trying to hit those seams."

Montreal has outshot its opponents 160-140 in the last five games. Price stopped 104 of 113 in the first four games and Halak turned aside 26 of 27 Thursday night while Price sat out with the flu.

"It's what we needed," Gainey said of the recent stretch. "We didn't have much if we didn't have those results. Our chances for a playoff spot would be really diminished, so it's good that it's there and we feel it could be a mark that we have stopped sliding and stabilized."

The reason for the turnaround is, at least in Gainey's eyes, pretty simple.

"I think it's specific individuals playing a little bit better," he said, mentioning Higgins and the goalies as examples. Gainey also believes the shots for and against are "a team indicator that we're playing a little stronger in most areas."

Tanguay, Koivu and the much-maligned Kovalev have led the way. Gainey put them together as a line one day prior to their game against Atlanta on March 24 -- and since then, they've combined for 12 goals, 16 assists and 46 shots on goal.

That's 43 percent of the Canadiens' scoring and 29 percent of their shots on goal over the span. They were on the ice for the first four goals Thursday night and combined for six points.

"We had to make it work," said Tanguay, who has 9 points and 12 shots in the last five games. "Our biggest thing has been our puck retrieval. Once we don't have the puck, we find ways to get on the forecheck and get the puck back quickly. With the skill level we have, we should be able to make some plays."

"They look like they are playing with each other," Gainey added. "They look like they're in sync and are functioning in a way to help each other be better."

The coaching change didn't pay immediate dividends, which only led to more speculation and criticism of the Habs.

Because Gainey's approach is different than Carbonneau's, it took time to adjust -- and that's one reason why the Canadiens lost five of their first six games (1-3-2). They managed only four of a possible 12 points with the GM behind the bench.
"We have dealt with a lot of challenges and adversity, there is no doubt about that.  But we're still standing, still in a playoff position. We didn't crumble and we're still fighting to extend our season. That is our No. 1 objective." -- Mike Komisarek

They've picked up nine of 10 since.

"When you don't win, confidence goes away, the stick feels a little heavier, the legs feel a little heavier," Tanguay said. "Right now it's the other way around. We got a couple of bounces, started winning games and the confidence is building. We are confident in our ability to win games, like we were at the start of the year."

According to Komisarek, that speaks volumes about the character in the Habs' legendary dressing room, the character that has been tested time and again in this historic season.

"We have dealt with a lot of challenges and adversity, there is no doubt about that," Komisarek said. "But we're still standing, still in a playoff position. We didn't crumble and we're still fighting to extend our season. That is our No. 1 objective."

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