MONTREAL - Saku Koivu caused quite a stir prior to the season when he suggested that his Montreal Canadiens may be good enough to make the playoffs, but they are not considered favourites to win the Stanley Cup.
No one would be happier than Koivu if he were forced to eat his words this spring.
Andrei Kostitsyn's power-play goal late in the third period was the winner as the surprising Montreal Canadiens moved into first place in the Eastern Conference with a 2-1 win Saturday over the New Jersey Devils.
"It is a pleasant surprise for us and for a lot of people," Koivu said, acknowledging his pre-training camp comments with a laugh. "There were some question marks for this team because of the young players coming from the minors, but those guys have done an excellent job coming in here and wanting a big role, not being happy just to be in the lineup."
Andrei Kostitsyn and his younger brother Sergei are two of those players Koivu is referring to, and they combined forces to get the winner Saturday with Sergei Kostitsyn grabbing an assist on the winner while their parents watched from the stands.
"I'm sure they're happy," Andrei Kostitsyn said. Mark Streit also scored for the Canadiens (36-21-9), who have won three in a row and seven of their last 10 games.
The Canadiens moved one point ahead of the Devils and the Ottawa Senators atop the Eastern Conference standings with 81 points. Though it may be temporary, this is the first time the Canadiens have been first in the conference after the all-star break since March of 1993, which also happens to be the last time Montreal won the Stanley Cup.
"We played really good hockey in the first half of the season," said Habs coach Guy Carbonneau, who was the captain of that 1993 Canadiens team. "But ever since Christmas, we've been playing really great hockey."
Canadiens 20-year-old rookie netminder Carey Price made 31 stops to win his third straight start and run his record to 15-9-3. Price has allowed only four goals on 92 shots over his three-game streak, a sparkling save percentage of .956.
Asked to describe the pressure of an NHL game with first place in the conference on the line, the cool-headed Price didn't bat an eye.
"I don't really look at it that way," he said. "It's just another regular season game. The real season starts after the 82 games are over. That'll be fun."
Brian Gionta scored for the Devils (37-23-6), who lost their third straight game. It was only New Jersey's third regulation time loss in its last 16 games.
Devils goalie Martin Brodeur made 23 saves and the Montreal native's record dropped to 34-14-5-0 in his career against his hometown team.
"They didn't give us much, we barely had three or four really good scoring chances on Price," Brodeur said.
"We're just having problems scoring goals and creating chances of late, and it was the same thing tonight.
"But it was a better effort from us, just not good enough to play a team that's pretty hot right now in Montreal."
The Canadiens league-leading power play connected for the 17th time in their last 19 games, scoring twice on six opportunities. Montreal has scored 27 goals in 92 chances over those 19 games, a success rate of 29.2 per cent.
With the game tied 1-1 midway through the third and Devils captain Jamie Langenbrunner in the box, Andrei Kostitsyn pounced on a loose puck behind the net and banked a wraparound try in off Brodeur's stick for his 20th goal of the year at 14:17 of the third.
Kostitsyn became the Canadiens fourth 20-goal scorer this season, but he's not satisfied with the milestone.
"I want more," he said.
The Devils had a chance to tie it up when Mike Komisarek took a hooking penalty just 17 seconds later, but Price held the fort for Montreal.
Streit opened the scoring on the power play at 6:11 of the second period. Alex Kovalev collected his NHL-best 40th power-play point when he centred a puck for Koivu in front that was stopped by Brodeur, but Streit batted in the bouncing puck for his 12th of the season.
The Devils came back to tie it while the teams were playing 4-on-4 hockey. Price made the initial save on Mike Mottau's shot, but while he searched for the puck Gionta came and fished it out from next to his blocker and put it in an open net for his 18th of the year at 13:37 of the second.
It was Gionta's fifth goal in his last 10 games since snapping a 13-game goalless drought.
Notes: The Canadiens had the same lineup as in their 6-2 win Friday in Buffalo, meaning D Patrice Brisebois and wingers Tom Kostopoulos, Mathieu Dandenault and Steve Begin (groin) sat outDevils defencemen Vitaly Vishnevski, Andrew Greene and Paul Martin were healthy scratches. D Karel Rachunek was back in the lineup after sitting out the last six games