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Habs get hot at the right time

by Dan Rosen
NEW YORK -- Brian Gionta whittled the Montreal Canadiens' recent run of success down to three very simple factors.

"Consistency, desperation and maybe just good 'ol hard work," Gionta told from Madison Square Garden, where the Habs won their sixth-straight game Tuesday night with a dominating 3-1 victory over the Rangers.

Montreal has had some decent stretches this season, including a pair of four-game winning streaks, but not until recently, Gionta said, has the team strung together a bunch of complete games in a row. Their post-Olympic run has put the Canadiens in a strong postseason position as we come down the stretch.

With Tuesday's win, Montreal moved into sole possession of sixth place in the Eastern Conference with 78 points, one behind the Ottawa Senators, who have a game in hand but lost at home against Toronto Tuesday night. Philadelphia is seventh with 77 points after Tuesday's shootout loss in Nashville, but the Flyers have two games in hand over Montreal.

"We're just starting now to see our team really," said coach Jacques Martin, whose squad outshot the Rangers, 35-20.

There are plenty of reasons why, starting, of course, with the team's overall health. Save for Michael Cammelleri and Marc-Andre Bergeron, who both could return next week from knee injuries, the Canadiens have their full team.

Andrei Kostitsyn is working his way back a knee injury that cost him 20 games and a chance to represent Belarus in the Olympics. Benoit Pouliot has 3 goals and 4 assists since the break after sitting out five games leading up to the Olympics.

Paul Mara is also back from his injury, but he hasn't played since the Olympic break. Martin feels Ryan O'Byrne has improved in all areas.

"He's developed some confidence and brings a physical presence," Martin said of O'Byrne. "I think his play has been consistent, steady."

The Habs' defense as a whole is also a major factor in their success this month.

Martin felt it was the team's greatest area of depth heading into the season, but Andrei Markov was injured in the first game of the season and sat out the next 35. Roman Hamrlik, Jaroslav Spacek, O'Byrne, Mara and Bergeron have all missed time as well.

When Bergeron comes back, Martin said he will be a fourth-line forward instead of a defenseman provided everyone else stays healthy.

"Before the season we felt that the defense would be our strength if we were healthy," Martin said. "We felt we had good depth, but because of injuries, until the Olympic break we weren't able to see that."

Markov is the key, and he's been arguably the NHL's best blue-liner since the Olympic break with 10 points and a plus-8 rating in eight games. He's on a seven-game point streak.

"Before the break we seemed to be matching defensive pairing against top units, but since we have been healthy on the blue line we just kind of role our top six," Martin said. "That's allowed for our defense to be more active on the attack and probably be fresher as well."

Up front, the acquisition of center Dominic Moore has stabilized the Habs bottom six group of forwards and has allowed Martin to use his third and fourth lines more efficiently and effectively.

Moore, who came to Montreal in a trade from Florida on Feb. 11, had 2 assists in Saturday's 3-2 win over Boston and another in Tuesday's win at the Garden. He has 7 points in eight games since the break. He played only two games with the Habs before the Olympics.

"We have been getting more production from our third and fourth lines since the Olympic break," Martin said. "Since the acquisition, plus having some people back, now most of the forwards are less than 20 minutes a game and I've used the fourth line a lot more."

Scott Gomez has also become more of a force than he was earlier in the season because his wingers, Gionta and Pouliot, are healthy. Gomez has 5 goals and 11 assists in his last 14 games, including 2 goals and 7 assists since the Olympic break.

"Gomer is not a finisher, but his line was a checking line (when Gionta and Pouliot were hurt) so we weren't getting production," Martin said. "Pouliot and Gionta are two finishers so that helps his production."

And, of course, we can't forget about the ongoing battle for ice time between goalies Jaroslav Halak and Carey Price.

Halak has been the winning goalie in every game of their current streak and seems to have the No. 1 job now, but that only hinges on his next performance. He has a 2.06 goals-against average and .917 save percentage in his last six games.

Price, who got the first two starts coming out of the Olympics and made a combined 60 saves in a win over Boston and loss at San Jose, is simply biding his time.

"The situation that we have is healthy for both of them," Martin said. "It's competition and it's something they need at this stage of their development. They're not like a (Martin) Brodeur or a (Henrik) Lundqvist, they're still in their developing stage and to have that competitiveness and to have to improve your work ethic and improve your mental skills has been a big part of the two kids growing."

It's all equaled a run of exciting hockey for Les Habitants. They're looking more and more like a safe bet for the playoffs and a scary opponent once they get there.

Nobody could have said that a month ago.

"We realize we can go far," Markov told "Right now it's an exciting time to play the games. Every game is like a playoff game. The whole team is playing well and I think everybody is enjoying the game right now."

Follow Dan Rosen on Twitter at: @drosennhl
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