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Montreal Canadiens put emphasis on offensive attack going into season opener

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MONTREAL - The Montreal Canadiens go into the 2007-08 NHL campaign looking for something that was too rare last season - even-strength goals.

And with three attacking lines this season instead of two, the Habs hope to have more scoring punch when they face the Hurricanes in Carolina in their regular season opener on Wednesday night.

"We want to create turnovers and be harder to play against," coach Guy Carbonneau said Tuesday. "If we can have three lines that are a little more offensive, that will be good."

The team's last practice before leaving for Carolina was a little disjointed as goaltender Cristobal Huet, who is expected to start in the opener, missed the session to be with his wife, who was in hospital with an undisclosed illness.

Huet was back in time to catch the team bus to the airport, however, and said only that he was fine to play.

It made for a busy practice for rookie goalie Carey Price, who will dress for his first real NHL game in Raleigh but is not slated to play.

"It was tough - like two practices in one," the 20-year-old said.

Price was among three rookies to crack the Montreal lineup out of camp this season along with checking centre Kyle Chipchura and the smooth-skating Mikhail Grabovski.

Keeping Grabovski was the boldest move, as it signalled a wish for more offence by creating three lines that can score.

The 23-year-old blended well in camp with fellow Belarus product Andrei Kostitsyn and veteran Alex Kovalev, who found no chemistry at all last season with fellow Russian Sergei Samsonov, since traded to Chicago.

The top line of Saku Koivu with wingers Chris Higgins and Michael Ryder remains intact while another line has playmaker Tomas Plekanec between Guillaume Latendresse and newcomer Bryan Smolinski.

The checking trio has Chipchura with veterans Steve Begin and Tom Kostopoulos.

The Canadiens hope to fix a nasty statistic from last season - minus-28 as a team, tied for seventh worst in the league for even strength or short-handed goals allowed as opposed to those they scored.

"We talked about what we can do to improve the team this summer," said Carbonneau. "We gave up too many goals, we didn't score five-on-five and we took too many penalties.

"It's not just one thing. We worked on these things in the pre-season and they seemed to work and now we just have to carry it into the season."

Most of Montreal's offence came on the power play, where they led the league with a 22.8 success rate. But it may be tougher to score with the man advantage this season since point man Sheldon Souray left for Edmonton as a free agent. Souray scored 19 power-play goals last season, a record for an NHL defenceman.

That means more scoring will be needed at even strength.

Higgins, who takes over as an alternate captain from Souray, said a more aggressive approach is needed to produce more goals.

"We changed some things up this year, so hopefully we'll use our speed a bit more," the 24-year-old said. "We got away from that last year.

"We've got to get pucks by their defencemen. We've got a lot of guys that can, once they stretch their legs, cause a lot of havoc and cause turnovers.

"I wouldn't call it a change in philosophy. It's just a more aggressive style. Last year I think we were on our heels too much and it caused a lot of problems because we were a little hesitant to jump into the play or pinch. We'll play a more simple, but a more aggressive game."

On defence, Andrei Markov and Mike Komisarek are back as the top duo, with a new second pair in free-agent signings Roman Hamrlik and Patrice Brisebois, who was the target of Bell Centre boobirds before he left for Colorado two seasons ago.

The third pair has Francis Bouillon with Mark Streit, who spent most of last season playing forward. Josh Gorges and Mathieu Dandenault are to sit out.

The Hurricanes are expected to be stronger this season. They missed the playoffs in 2006-07, fading in the season after winning the Stanley Cup.

After snatching the plucky Matt Cullen back from the New York Rangers this summer, the club led by Rod Brind'Amour and Eric Staal should be an Eastern Conference force again.

A year ago, they began the season 0-4 and never recovered.

"They still have a pretty talented squad and they'll be hungry after last year," said Higgins. "It'll be a fun way to start the season."

After Carolina, the Canadiens play in Toronto on Saturday night and in Pittsburgh next Wednesday. Their home opener is Oct. 13 against Carolina.

Notes - Price has been wearing a plain white mask while awaiting a new design. He has been given no word on when he will make his first start. . . . Hamrlik's first game as a Canadien will also be his 1,000th in the NHL.

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