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Montreal Canadiens defenseman Roman Hamrlik (L) hits Florida Panthers left wing David Booth during the second period of their NHL hockey game in Montreal February 2, 2011. REUTERS/Shaun Best (SHAUN BEST)
Montreal Canadiens defenseman Roman Hamrlik (L) hits Florida Panthers left wing David Booth during the second period of their NHL hockey game in Montreal February 2, 2011. REUTERS/Shaun Best (SHAUN BEST)

Canadiens rally past Panthers Add to ...

Time off is its own reward, but in the grind that is an NHL season, how you rest is just as important as the amount you get.

Take the Montreal Canadiens, who have clearly understood how to manage their leisure time.

The Habs made it two 3-2 wins in as many nights on Wednesday, clambering further away from the Eastern Conference playoff cutoff and past the idle New York Rangers into sixth place.

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Montreal now sits just one point adrift of the Washington Capitals, who they vanquished in their first game back from the five-day All-Star break. They are also two points behind traditional foe Boston for third place in the conference, though the Bruins have a game in hand.

More impressive, however, is the way in which they're winning. A team that seemed doomed whenever it staked its opponents to a lead earlier this season, have reinvented themselves as comeback artists.

The Habs are 4-1-1 in the last six games they've trailed after one period (after opening the season 0-11-0 in the same circumstances). They are also 7-2-2 since Dec. 31 when giving up the first goal.

Last year's edition showed its resilience in the playoffs, this year's team is clearly bent on giving itself some breathing room by ramping up the gutsy quotient earlier in the season.

But if Tuesday night's comeback was a thrilling affair, Wednesday night's, from an 0-1 deficit against the 11th-placed Florida Panthers was more of a war of attrition.

The Panthers aren't about providing an aesthetic experience, they press, they mash, they harry.

"It wasn't that exciting a game, I guess, it's chippy hockey against them . . . you just can't get frustrated," said Habs centre Tomas Plekanec.

There were causes for frustration: Florida's clog-it-up style, another 0-fer on the power-play, but Montreal stuck with it.

Seeing as it was the second of a trio of back-to-back games the Canadiens play this month, back-up goalie Alex Auld took charge of the Montreal net.

It was an altogether more successful outing than his last home start - from which he was chased after the Habs blew a 4-0 lead against the Calgary Flames.

The 30-year-old journeyman had a few moments of adventure, but made like a wall at key moments against one of his numerous former teams.

The pick of the lot was a third period pad save on Florida's Cory Stillman after an egregious turnover by Habs defenceman Yannick Weber in the Montreal end.

Given the fiasco against the Flames, the performance should reassure Montreal coach Jacques Martin Also on the good news of the ledger from Martin's standpoint: Brian Gionta scored his third goal in two games, having scored a pair The diminutive captain has been drinking greedily at the fountain of goals that is Plekanec in the two games Martin has paired them.

"I'm just trying to do my job . . . and make it as easy as I can on (the wingers)," Plekanec said, modestly.

It's to wonder why he doesn't cycle goal-shy forwards Travis Moen and Tom Pyatt through the Plekanec program.

The third member of that line, Max Pacioretty, is in imminent danger of blossoming into a bona fide first-line NHL forward: he assisted on Tomas Plekanec's winner as well as Gionta's and did coach-pleasing things like going to the net with abandon and chasing down a puck to nullify icing.

He also logged six shots.

"He had a real strong game," said Martin, who took the trouble of singling out the 22-year-old for praise in his post-game news conference.

Defenceman P.K. Subban's game is also evidently growing.

He set up the tying goal on an astute rush, contributed an assist on the insurance marker and was otherwise a menace at both ends of the ice - at one point he dangled past a couple of defenders to create a scoring chance in territory generally occupied by wingers, at another he narrowly missed a hip check that would have put Florida's Radek Dvorak into cloud cuckoo land.

"That led to a two-on-one, I'm just happy they didn't score," a rueful Subban said.

It was perhaps his only truly glaring miscue in the game - Subban and partner Hal Gill have become the go-to pair against opponents' top lines, and the youngster is thriving.

He attributes it to a conversation he had with his father Karl a couple of weeks ago.

"He just said go out there and play. But don't play to be the difference maker, don't try to win the game for your team by yourself, just play," said Subban, later adding "basically the team needs me to be solid defensively, that's all."

That advice - which Subban acknowledges was also dispensed in one form or another by Martin, assistant coach Kirk Muller and his former junior coach - is paying off.

The flashy 21-year-old defenceman also played large penalty-killing minutes and came within a centimeter or two of scoring a power-play goal, lashing a slapper against the post behind Tomas Vokoun in the second.

The former Habs prospect (he played one game in red-white-and-blue in 1996-97) is a tough nut to crack, and showed why he will surely be a coveted player when the trade deadline rolls around.

He repelled 37 of the 41 shots he faced this night.

Florida took the lead at 7:30 of the first period on a broken play when winger Steve Bernier kept the puck in the Montreal zone and it found its way to Rotislav Olesz in front of the net, who slid it under sliding Montreal winger Benoit Pouliot to Scott Timmins.

The rookie call-up whacked the puck past Auld first time for his maiden NHL goal.

That goal was largely against the run of play, Montreal having dominated both possession and scoring chances.

But the goal seemed to sap the home side's energy, the Panthers - who almost always seem to find a way to win at the Bell Centre - carried the play.

In the second period, Subban took matters in hand, taking a feed at the point and cutting toward the net while holding off an opponent. His quick shot was picked out of mid-air and deflected behind Vokoun by Jeff Halpern at the 4:50 mark.

From then, the teams traded chances - including a wild sequence late in the second where Auld was frantically trying to grab the puck as it bounced around his crease, only for Scott Gomez to find the handle and set sail for the Florida net, where he really should have scored after a nice give-and-go with Pacioretty.

In the third, Montreal demonstrated once again why it is one of the best teams in the league on home ice, taking control of the game in the third.

When Plekanec's shot bounced up off Vokoun and into the net at the 5:46 mark, there was a feeling of inevitability.

Sure enough, after a brief Florida fightback, Pacioretty grabbed the puck on the left side, streaked to the Panther net and tried to jam a backhand past a sprawling Vokoun, who could do no more than set the puck up for the opportunistic Gionta, who banked it home for his 18th of the year and fourth goal in his last five games.

Panthers centre Stephen Weiss made the last few minutes interesting by scoring seven seconds after a power-play expired - Auld parried a shot directly on to his stick.

In the end, Auld had the last laugh, winning for the fourth time in six starts and likely earning himself another game this weekend, when the Habs play back-to-back games against the Rangers and resurgent New Jersey Devils.

Follow on Twitter: @MrSeanGordon

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