”Who are those guys?”
The recurring line from the classic Western Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid seems pretty appropriate when looking at the Eastern Conference playoff race these days, as a band of players wearing red, white and blue has caught fire and are giving the Ottawa Senators a race for top billing in the Northeast Division and has shouldered its way into the densely packed teams looking to capture one of the eight available seeds in the East.
The Canadiens, who meet the New York Rangers on Sunday on the NHL on NBC, CBC and RDS (2 p.m. ET) have been a sight to behold in recent weeks, going 7-2-2 to move into the thick of things.
“I think the goal is to finish as high as you can in the standings,” said forward Christopher Higgins, who had scored 16 goals and 16 assists in 51 games. “Before, we were talking about separating ourselves from the pack below, but now that we’ve been playing better, it’s about catching who’s in front of us.”
“Instead of looking behind us, we’re looking at the teams ahead, to see what we can do to catch Ottawa in our division and hopefully grab the first spot” - Canadiens captain Saku Koivu
A resurgent Alexei Kovalev has enjoyed a strong season for the Habs thus far. He has 22 goals and 24 assists and is plus-11 after 51 games. Tomas Plekanec also has been strong with 16 goals and 301 assists in 51 games.
“Instead of looking behind us, we’re looking at the teams ahead, to see what we can do to catch Ottawa in our division and hopefully grab the first spot,” Canadiens captain Saku Koivu told reporters. “It’s a big challenge for us, but we’d rather look at it that way.”
“I think we’re better prepared for the end of the schedule this year,” coach Guy Carbonneau told the Canadiens’ web site. “Our goal is still to make the playoffs. But with the way we’re playing now, we’re within reach of Ottawa with a game in hand and we play them five more times. That gives us a new objective.”
If there is one fault the Canadiens would like to correct, it is their record at the Bell Centre. Montreal is a sizzling 17-7-4 on the road, but a more pedestrian 10-8-5 at home.
“The obvious one is playing better at home,” Higgins said. “If we can put that together, then I think the sky’s the limit for this team.”
Teams looking to make a deep run into the Stanley Cup Playoffs aren’t going anywhere without strong goaltending and Montreal has gotten just that from Cristobal Huet. In 31 appearances, Huet is 18-8-6 with a 2.34 goals-against average and .919 save percentage that has him in the top five NHL goalies.
”I’ve enjoyed playing this many games in a row,” said Huet, who has appeared in 10-straight games. “It allows a goalie to correct certain things along the way.”