TORONTO (CP) - Pavel Kubina is a favourite target of radio callers because of his US$5-million paycheque and inconsistent play.
Games like Saturday night will go a long way to silence his critics. Kubina had two goals and an assist and played a sound defensive game in leading the Toronto Maple Leafs to a 4-1 win over the rival Montreal Canadiens.
"There's always a lot of pressure," said Kubina. "And somehow you have to control that pressure. I don't mind that pressure. I think it's good for me and it pushes me."
Kubina's scored his third and fourth, bookending goals from Jeff O'Neill and captain Mats Sundin, as the Leafs (23-21-6) saw the kind of hockey they expected from their Czech blue-liner when the signed him to a $20-million, four-year deal last July.
With Tomas Kaberle and Bryan McCabe on the first power-play unit, it hasn't been easy for Kubina to get points.
"He hasn't got a lot of power-play opportunities so we know the numbers aren't going to be what he's to," said Leafs head Paul Maurice. "But it's the other parts of his game that we're hopeful will continue to get better, as they have. He's a big part of this team playing a better defensive game."
Maurice feels Kubina has some of his best hockey in recent games.
"It kind of goes hand in hand," added Maurice. "When a guy who wants points and needs them starts putting pucks in the net, he's relaxes defensively. He's now getting his numbers and not forcing other parts of his game. Next thing you know he's playing well at both ends of the rink. It seems to coming easier to him now."
Kubina and his teammates played a tight defensive game in front of goalie Andrew Raycroft, limiting the Canadiens' scoring chances.
"We played a great defensive game, even offensively we played well," said Kubina. "We had a lot of chances 5-on-5. I thought the special teams, especially the power play, was unbelievable. We deserved the victory, we dominated them for the whole game pretty much."
Tomas Plekanec had the lone goal for the Canadiens (27-18-5), who fell to fifth in the Eastern Conference after Ottawa's afternoon win over Boston pushed the Senators one point ahead of the Habs. The two clubs play Monday at Montreal.
Montreal's fourth-ranked penalty killing unit didn't look terribly impressive on this night as the Leafs went 3-for-4 with the man advantage. The Habs went 1-for-7 on the power play.
"We took some penalties you can't take against that team," said Canadiens captain Saku Koivu. "We had a few chances on our power play, but obviously we didn't score enough. That was the difference."
On Saturday the Leafs were first on the puck and simply outworked and outskated the Canadiens, who looked flat in their first game after the all-star break.
"We just didn't have enough emotion in the room, even before we started the game," said Montreal defenceman Sheldon Souray. "All the things we wanted to do, we didn't do any of them. Really, I think it's just a lack of commitment and desire."
It's the kind of desperate hockey the Leafs will have to play as they try to stay in the playoff hunt in the second half. Montreal was one of nine teams ahead of Toronto in the Eastern Conference standings when play began Saturday and the win cut the gap between the two clubs to seven points. A Leafs loss would have made it 11 points.
"(The Leafs are) in the same position we were last year," said Canadiens head coach Guy Carbonneau. "They're chasing the (teams) that are ahead of them, and they only have 30-some games to do it. They worked, and we just didn't match their effort tonight."
The Canadiens seem to bring out the best in the Leafs, who improved to 3-0-2 on the season against their Original Six foes and have played some of their finest hockey of the season in those games.
"There just fun games to play in," said Sundin. "The atmosphere for those games, both here and in Montreal, is tremendous and we seem to feed of that. But we need to play like that against other teams as well."
Toronto outshot Montreal 29-28 before 19,508 at Air Canada Centre, many of them wearing Montreal jerseys.
The killer was Sundin's 19th goal of the season with 2:42 to go in the second period, giving Toronto a 3-1 lead, a power-play blast from the top of the faceoff circle that beat Cristobal Huet top corner on the stick side and took the wind out of Montreal's sails.
Kubina opened the scoring 13:29 into the second period with a slap shot from the point that beat a screened Huet inside the left post. O'Neill's goal 1:19 later needed a video review when it appeared Matt Stajan touched it with a high stick but it stood.
Plekanec gave the Habs hope when his wrist shot form the faceoff dot on a Montreal power play beat Raycroft top corner on the stick side 6:06 into the second period.
Kubina, who also had an assist, made it his first two-goal game as a Leaf with a powerful shot from the point 3:29 into the third period, a goal that put the game out of reach.
Notes: The Leafs begin a five-game road trip Tuesday night at Carolina with other stops in New York (Rangers), Ottawa, St. Louis and Nashville before returning home to host Sidney Crosby and the Penguins on Feb 10 ... Toronto remains without winger Darcy Tucker (foot, 1-2 weeks), forward Kyle Wellwood (hernia, seven weeks), centre Michael Peca (leg, indefinite) and defencemen Andy Wozniewski (shoulder, week to week) and Ian White (shoulder, day to day). White should be back Tuesday night.