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Habs starting to find their way during playoff push

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 this franchise's remarkable history.

Famous alumni have been visible throughout the city and 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. Not to mention 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 six games to play in the regular season, starting tonight at Nassau Coliseum against the young New York Islanders, the Canadiens are in a fight to extend their historic season.

Montreal entered Thursday's game eighth in the East, one point ahead of Florida and one behind the Rangers.

"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 Thursday morning. "We know exactly what task we have ahead of us."

Judging by recent results, the Canadiens have embraced this huge challenge.

With three wins in their last four games, it's possible that they have turned the proverbial corner and maybe, just maybe, are peaking at the right time with General Manager Bob Gainey behind the bench serving as coach after firing Guy Carbonneau on March 9.

"It's all about peaking and coming together at the right time," All-Star defenseman Mike Komisarek told "Some teams seem to peak early and play better hockey than others, 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 Saku Koivu, Alex Tanguay 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.

It was quite the opposite in the four games before Thursday's game here on Long Island.

The Canadiens, who are mostly healthy save injuries to Robert Lang and Francis Bouillon, were better in all areas in wins against Atlanta, Tampa Bay and Chicago as well as a shootout loss at home against Buffalo. They scored seven power-play goals in 22 chances while killing off 14 of 16. They had 122 shots on goal while yielding 113. Price stopped 104 of them, but he was supposed to sit out Thursday's game with the flu.

"Well, it's what we needed," Gainey said. "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, but each game gives us a little more information."

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 Alex Kovalev have led the way. The trio was put together by Gainey only one day prior to their game against Atlanta on March 24 and combined for 10 goals, 12 assists and 35 shots on goal in the next four games.

That's 63 percent of the Canadiens' scoring and 29 percent of their shots on goal over the span.

"We had to make it work," said Tanguay, who had 8 points and 9 shots in those four 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."

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

Since Gainey's approach is different from Carbonneau's, it took time to adjust, which is a 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.

"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."
"When you don't win, confidence goes away, the stick feels a little heavier, the legs feel a little heavier. 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." -- Alex Tanguay
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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