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Montreal Canadians' Brian Gionta celebrates his first period goal during NHL hockey action against the Toronto Maple Leafs in Toronto Saturday, March 20, 2010. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darren Calabrese (Darren Calabrese)
Montreal Canadians' Brian Gionta celebrates his first period goal during NHL hockey action against the Toronto Maple Leafs in Toronto Saturday, March 20, 2010. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darren Calabrese (Darren Calabrese)

David Shoalts

Habs continue to gel Add to ...

Jaroslav Halak finished telling a group of reporters his work against the Toronto Maple Leafs was not quite good enough and then paused.

"Anyone else?" the Montreal Canadiens goaltender asked.

Well, wondered one latecomer, even if you did lose a shootout to the Leafs, how has your team managed to dance well into NHL playoff territory after going into the Olympic break barely hanging on to eighth place in the Eastern Conference?

"Teamwork," Halak said.

That, others in the dressing room said, is the case, but Halak should have mentioned himself as the biggest individual reason. Getting some key players healthy has also helped.

With his linemates Brian Gionta and Benoît Pouliot finally rounding into form after injury problems, Canadiens centre Scott Gomez managed to come out of his own long funk. He is still not scoring at a clip that justifies his big contract, although he did have two points against the Leafs on Saturday, but his overall play is keeping the critics quiet.

"Gomez has been clutch," Pouliot, 23, said. "He's been good. Every night, he shows up.

"Even though some nights he doesn't get a point, he's still there. He's vocal in the [dressing]room. The playoffs are coming, he's a leader. He's won Cups. It's good for young guys like me to see how competitive he is."

Canadiens head coach Jacques Martin thinks an improved work ethic has helped Gomez along with the improved play of his linemates.

"He's probably working harder at both ends of the ice," Martin said. "He is using his speed and with the return of Pouliot and Gionta it gives him people who can finish."

The Canadiens expect to get two more important players back tonight when they play the Ottawa Senators at the Bell Centre. Their top goal-scorer, Mike Cammalleri, and defenceman Marc-André Bergeron have missed 16 and 14 games, respectively, with knee injuries.

Before last night's games, the Canadiens were tied with the Senators and the Philadelphia Flyers in points at 79 but were listed seventh because they had the fewest wins of the group. Either way, the Habs are still six points out of ninth place, a far cry from where they were a month ago.

While tonight's game represents a chance to vault over the Senators, at least some of the Canadiens are thinking bigger. They are eyeing Wednesday's opponent, the Buffalo Sabres, who were first in the Northeast Division with 84 points and sat third in the conference before yesterday's games.

"We're trying to reach at least Buffalo," Pouliot said. "They're up there. We have two games against them. We'll try to catch up to them and you never know what can happen. We have 10 games left [in the regular season]and anything can happen."

At this point, the Canadiens are getting production from their top line plus secondary scoring from the third and fourth lines. And there is Halak, who can take a big share of the credit for the six-game winning streak that was broken by the Leafs.

But if the Canadiens want to claim home advantage in the first round of the playoffs by stealing the division lead from the Sabres, they have to get better work out of their power play. It was second overall in the league before last night's games with a 23.4-per-cent success rate but its recent work has not impressed anyone. Against the Leafs, the unit went one-for-six.

If Cammalleri and his 26 goals plus Bergeron and his big shot from the point are able to get into the lineup, that will go a long way toward fixing things.

What Martin would really like to see on the power play, though, are some of his forwards making life difficult for opposing goaltenders.

"We need to be more aggressive as far as attacking the net," Martin said. "We're on the perimeter too much."

One thing Hab watchers will be examining closely in the stretch drive and the playoffs as well is goaltending. Both Halak and Carey Price will be restricted free agents on July 1 and general manager Pierre Gauthier declined to trade one of them at the NHL trade deadline. He said both youngsters will be needed in the playoffs and deflected questions about a trade at the NHL entry draft in June.

While it is still expected that only one goaltender will be kept once both get big raises, management is still officially undecided which one will go. However, Price has not been able to pry any starts away from Halak lately and only a drop in the latter's play will give him a chance to make his case to stay.

Follow on Twitter: @dshoalts

 

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