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Bishop stands tall as Sens beat Habs in battle of surprising teams

Nostradamus never saw this coming.

He may have predicted the French Revolution, the atomic bomb, the Kennedy assassinations and a thousand other events, but not this: Feb. 25, 2013, and the Montreal Canadiens standing first in the same Eastern Conference in which they came dead last a year ago.

The last time they were in this position on this date was 1993 – their last Stanley Cup and the last one raised in Canada in 20 years.

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Not only that, but the Habs are being hard-chased by the rebuilding and injury-devastated Ottawa Senators – who beat Montreal 2-1 in a thrilling overtime shootout Monday – and the Stanley-Cup-barren-since-1967 Toronto Maple Leafs.

As Montreal forward Colby Armstrong put it Monday: "It's a weird feeling."

Weird for everyone: The Golden Triangle of Montreal-Ottawa-Toronto mattering again in NHL hockey, rivalries rising, the three teams perhaps pushing each other to excel even more as the regular season races toward its finish.

Admittedly, this is not a normal NHL March. Monday at Scotiabank Place, the Senators played only their 20th game, meeting the storied Canadiens in their 19th. From worst to first seems almost incomprehensible.

"We never knew what was going to happen coming out of the gate," Armstrong admitted.

Nor did the Senators, struck hard by injuries to their three best players and entering the game on a four-game win streak.

To no surprise, the game was perfectly even through two periods, neither side able to score in the first period, swapping goals in the second, and settling matters in the shootout when Peter Regin scored on the ninth shootout shot and Tomas Plekanec could not answer.

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The Habs were, at times, brilliant during regulation, the Flying Frenchmen of yesteryear reincarnated in Russians, Americans, Czechs and, of course, Canadians. Had it not been for the equal brilliance – and goalposts – of Ottawa goaltender Ben Bishop, this game might have been over in the first period. Bishop made 44 saves in total.

Yet, Ottawa was first to score, rookie Dave Dziurzynski blasted a long slapper from the left boards past the outstretched glove of Montreal goaltender Carey Price.

"I was just trying to throw one off the net" for a rebound, Dziurzynski told Sportsnet.

The Canadiens tied the game 1-1 with only four seconds left in the second period, when Andrei Markov scored from the point on a power play.

It was slightly poetic Regin would win it the shootout, as he had cracked a slap shot off Price's crossbar in the dying seconds of overtime.

This curious squashed season is now almost halfway done and – for whatever the reasons – Canada rules the Eastern Conference.

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The Pittsburgh Penguins, Boston Bruins and New Jersey Devils can also stake claims, but the simple fact that Canadian teams are in the mix is more than a bit surprising, given the dire preseason predictions of those experts who consider Nostradamus an amateur tea leaf reader.

A year ago in the East, only Ottawa was able to slip into the postseason, nailing the eighth and final spot in the dying days of a full season.

In the Western Conference, only the Vancouver Canucks, standing first overall, made it to Stanley Cup play – leaving Canada with a piddling two of 16 playoff spots. That could double, or more, this season.

The Canadiens, previously considered a team with a goaltender (Price) and an albatross (Scott Gomez) have a new owner, new general manager, new head coach and new purpose to go with a great deal of speed.

"I've got to credit the coaching staff a lot for getting the most out of everybody," said Max Pacioretty, who came into Monday's game tied for the team lead in scoring with four goals and nine assists.

The Senators, considered lost when top scorer Jason Spezza, Norris Trophy winner Erik Karlsson and goaltender Craig Anderson went down to injury, had won four in a row as they faced Montreal and held the best home record (8-1-2) in the league.

"We changed the water," Ottawa head coach Paul MacLean joked.

The Senators are convinced they can remain in contention, even though Karlsson and Spezza are likely lost for the season. Anderson, the NHL player of the month for January, tested his sprained ankle with a light skate Monday, but is still likely several games away from returning.

"If we can overcome it in the short term," captain Daniel Alfredsson said, "why can't we overcome it in the long term?"

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