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Montreal Canadiens' Brian Gionta skates up ice in the first period of an NHL hockey game against the Columbus Blue Jackets in Columbus, Ohio, Tuesday, Nov. 2, 2010. Gionta is only the second US-born player to be captain of the Canadiens. (Paul Vernon)
Montreal Canadiens' Brian Gionta skates up ice in the first period of an NHL hockey game against the Columbus Blue Jackets in Columbus, Ohio, Tuesday, Nov. 2, 2010. Gionta is only the second US-born player to be captain of the Canadiens. (Paul Vernon)

Habs have no plans to rest on their laurels Add to ...

You'd think that securing a playoff berth would be an occasion to have a minor celebration, or to at least savour for an hour or two.

"Nah, no way. It's nice to be in the playoffs, for sure, but we haven't done anything yet," Montreal Canadiens captain Brian Gionta said with a dismissive wave when asked if he'd taken a moment to enjoy crossing the playoff finish line.

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As Vince Lombardi used to say about reaching the end zone: act like you've been there before.

And the Canadiens have been here, in each of the last four seasons ("We should expect to be in the playoffs," Gionta said).

Unlike the last two, which required a frantic last-ditch scramble, they can take a more relaxed approach in their final two games - Thursday in Ottawa and Saturday in Toronto.

It's an opportunity for the Canadiens to rest some key players - back-up goaltender Alex Auld will start against the Senators - but the team is also keen to show that its last two wins weren't outliers and that it is ready for the playoffs.

Which isn't to say the Habs are willing to play it safe in hopes of avoiding late-season injuries.

"You can't think that way. If it happens, it happens, but we still have two important games to play here. We want to be playing good heading into the playoffs," Gionta said.

Centre Tomas Plekanec, who on Tuesday played perhaps his best game of the six he has played since returning from a lower body injury, said, "We have to finish strong. … You always want to win, it doesn't matter what you're playing for. Especially now, you want to feel good about the team."

And if the Habs have the luxury of sitting Carey Price, who has made a franchise-record 71 appearances so far this season, they can also get some much-needed rest for over-taxed veterans like Roman Hamrlik or Hal Gill, one of whom should be given the night off to allow Jaroslav Spacek to make his return from a knee injury that's caused him to miss 11 games.

One player who will certainly be in the lineup for the last two tilts is defenceman P.K. Subban, who drew to within one goal of the Habs' rookie record for rearguards with his overtime winner on Tuesday.

Not that the garrulous rookie - whose defensive play on Chicago Blackhawks captain Jonathan Toews Tuesday night led to the decisive overtime penalty - will admit to thinking about eclipsing the mark set by Guy Lapointe, one of the franchise' all-time greats.

"I'm just happy that we're in the playoffs," said Subban, who is sixth among NHL defencemen in goals and leads all rookie blue-liners.

After a bumpy patch that saw them lose four of five - three of them by shutout - in late March, the Habs are showing signs of rounding into form.

"We realize we need to be better and consistently better to do well in the playoffs, it hasn't been good enough the way we've played," said winger Michael Cammalleri, who scored on Tuesday and appears to be getting back on track after a season that's been short of his best "for a bunch of reasons," including injury.

Winger Andrei Kostitsyn has three points in four games, and much-maligned centre Scott Gomez, he of the massive contract and comparatively puny production, has considerably raised the level of his play in consecutive wins against New Jersey and Chicago.

"You don't want to go in [to the playoffs]half-assed, you want to be playing your best," Gomez said after Tuesday's 2-1 clincher against Chicago. "Let's face it, it's been one of those years, you look at our numbers, but hey, we're in … and the chances are there, me and Brian [Gionta]from Day 1 since we've played together, that's how we've always judged ourselves. And hey, the playoffs are a different story."

 

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