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Gainey's magic trick -- finding a red-hot top line

by Dan Rosen
Bob Gainey isn't only one of the greatest power forwards to ever play the game. The Montreal Canadiens' GM and interim coach apparently moonlights as a magician, too.

And Gainey has really pulled a rabbit out of a hat this time.

In practice the day before the Canadiens hosted the Atlanta Thrashers on March 24, Gainey formed a new top line based totally on experience in hopes of finding lightning in a bottle for the sliding Habs. He touched Saku Koivu, Alex Tanguay and Alex Kovalev with his magic wand and, voila, chemistry was born. The Canadiens' top trio has been arguably the hottest line in hockey ever since.

"Sometimes you can't really explain why things happen," Koivu said. "We got some success in the first game, right from the get go, and we got some confidence. Right now we're moving well and I think that's the key. We're not stationary. We're trying to get in open space and we're finding the net right now."

The Koivu-Tanguay-Kovalev line, which is also together on the power play, has produced 12 goals, 16 assists and 46 shots on goal in the last five games. Coincidentally, the Canadiens are 4-0-1, on their way up the standings instead of trickling down.

They enter the weekend seventh in the East with 90 points.

"We played one time in Carolina earlier in the year and it didn't go particularly well," Tanguay told "It's a good feeling now. The points are coming for us."

Asked why the line is working now when it didn't earlier this season, Tanguay looked befuddled.

"It's hockey, you know," he said with a laugh. "You're good the one year and you're bad the other year. You're good one game and you're bad the other game. Right now it's a team effort. (Maxim) Lapierre's line and (Tomas Plekanec's) line have done a great job of giving us a couple of power plays and our line, we're able to capitalize on them. It's a total team effort."

The way this top line is clicking reminds Tanguay what it was like when he played with Joe Sakic and Milan Hejduk in Colorado in 2001, or more recently when he played with Jarome Iginla and Daymond Langkow in Calgary.

"Every time we went on the ice, we felt like we could score two or three times as a line," Tanguay said. "That's the feeling we are getting right now. I don't think we have a Sakic or Forsberg here, but we're good enough to make plays and we've been playing pretty good."

Koivu said Gainey talked to them before he put the line together and stressed that if they were going to be successful, the key was playing well without the puck and supporting each other when they were able to get it back.

Well, their puck retrieval has been excellent and they've been keeping it in the zone for long stretches of time, which has in turn cut down the amount of shots the Canadiens were giving up.

"We can move the puck around and we can cycle the puck well," Koivu said. "We are trying to keep two guys close to the puck and then the third guy can stay high and kind of spread things around a bit. It's not getting too crowded in there.

"If you have three guys all over the ice, you're not going to create much, so we're trying to get the support there as quick as possible and we're quick. When you look at Tanguay in the corners, he gets a lot of loose pucks and rebounds. When that happens, you can maintain pressure. You're hoping the defensemen are going to be tired and that's when you get into open ice and the scoring chances."

Gainey said it looks like they're playing in sync right now and they are "waiting for someone to move into a hole."

"With Tanguay, his ability to make plays and find open guys makes us dangerous," Koivu said. "It doesn't matter who is getting the puck or going to the corners, we're able to feel where the other ones are and move the puck around well. Obviously the chemistry is there and it helps when you get some goals, some results. It's fun right now."

Their chemistry has given Montreal's anemic power play new life, too.

The Canadiens have 10 power-play goals in their last 30 chances, nine of which have come with the same five-man unit on the ice - Tanguay, Koivu, Kovalev, Andrei Markov and Mathieu Schneider.

"To beat the (penalty killers) the passing has to be good and it has been," Gainey said. "We have been taking our shots. We're using our different tools. We're getting our shots from the blue line, plays down low and goals off the rush. They're really functioning on all cylinders."

Gainey also stressed Koivu's faceoff percentage. He's won 60.2 percent of his 108 draws (63-45) over the last five games, including a handful on the power play.

"On the power play, you get the opportunity to begin in the opponent's end zone," Gainey said, "and then you can have the puck and your right in prime real estate, where you want to be."

A quick look at the standings shows the Canadiens are, at least in realistic terms right now, where they want to be. They obviously would have preferred not to have put themselves in such a precarious position, but it appears Gainey's magic touch might be enough to pull them out of the woods.

"We all realize there are not many games left and we need to make the playoffs," Kovalev said, "so we started doing the things we're capable of and everything started working out."

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