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Sean Gordon

Habs enjoying upswing Add to ...

There is a newfound jauntiness to the Montreal Canadiens these days, the byproduct of a win streak that has solidified playoff hopes that six weeks ago seemed as dim as the winter twilight.

If the town goes as its hockey team does, these are happy times in Montreal, where life is so sunny terrasse season has opened early.

Injured winger Michael Cammalleri was at a recent charity dinner with teammate Scott Gomez and experienced the good vibes first-hand.

"Scotty was joking with someone saying 'a month and a half ago you guys would all be yelling at us' … [but]it's all smiles now," Cammalleri said. "It has the same effect on us as it does the public, when we win games, everything seems to be good in life."

The Habs' leading goal scorer practised with his teammates for the first time in nearly two months yesterday, but like fellow injury victim Marc-André Bergeron is not expected to return to action until next week.

After topping perennial powerhouse New Jersey on Thursday, the Toronto Maple Leafs will try to mow down another thatch of high NHL grass tonight in the form of the streaking Canadiens.

The fifth meeting of the season between two of the league's oldest rivals comes at a pivotal time for the visiting Habs, who have won six in a row for the first time since the 2005-06 season and will play five times in the next eight days.

The Canadiens sit seventh in the Eastern Conference, just one point behind the Ottawa Senators and the fifth-place Philadelphia Flyers, who have a game in hand.

Montreal hopes to catch up to the division-leading Buffalo Sabres, who have two games in hand and sit four points ahead. The teams will play each other twice in the waning weeks of the regular season.

"It'll be tough to get home ice [for the first round] but you want to get as high as you can and make sure you're playing good hockey going into the playoffs," winger Brian Gionta said.

And though they have been playing well, in their 7-1 sequence since the Olympics, there has also been some luck involved.

Take the Canadiens' performance last week against another NHL laggard, a narrow 5-4 shootout victory the Edmonton Oilers that Montreal coach Jacques Martin called one of his team's softest games of the season.

This is a team mindful of the pitfalls of playing against a team that is free of the shackles of playoff pressure, and expect a stiff test tonight from the conference cellar-dwellers..

"The start will be important, our starts have been a crucial part of our success lately," observed centre Dominic Moore, a Toronto native and former Leaf who will have his first experience of the Habs-Leafs rivalry in a bleu-blanc-rouge sweater.

Moore and linemates Sergei Kostitsyn and Travis Moen have been key contributors in the Montreal attack of late, as has defenceman Andrei Markov - who should be probably swaddled in bubble wrap upon entering the Toronto city limit.

The stylish Russian defenceman suffered a knee injury two weeks before the end of last season at the Air Canada Centre, and sheared a foot tendon in an innocuous-seeming collision with goalie Carey Price in the first game in the arena this season.

If the Canadiens are in a groove, so are their opponents, who have gone 6-2-1 since clearing out several veterans in a deadline-day makeover.

Toronto has won five of its past six games and has played Montreal tough all year long. Though the Canadiens have won three of four meetings, all those were one-goal games that were settled either in overtime or a shootout.

Only a handful of Leafs took to the ice yesterday for an optional practice.

The recent emergence of the Leafs' youth contingent, which is powering Toronto's annual March surge, prompted goaltender Jean-Sébastien Giguère, who is expected to back up Jonas Gustavsson tonight, to draw some comparisons.

"There's a very youthful vibe, guys are enthusiastic when they come to the rink … look at Pittsburgh and Washington and … Chicago, they started where we are right now and it didn't take long for them to be hard to beat," Giguère told Leafs TV.

 

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