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‘Crankshaft’ keeps Habs’ defensive gears grinding

Montreal Canadiens defenceman Douglas Murray (6) is escorted off the ice after a fight against the Buffalo Sabres during the third period at First Niagara Center.


Nicknames are applied with the world's most stubborn adhesive, and in a roomful of Bourquies and Bournies and Pricers, this one has the dual benefit of being highly original and fitting.

Crankshafts are lumpy and rugged, they play a central role in any engine, generally in greasy and heated conditions (they also move fast, which is where this analogy falls down, but bear with us).

Montreal Canadiens defenceman Douglas Murray – a.k.a. "Crankshaft" – lived up to his handle on Saturday, stifling the Toronto Maple Leafs power play – he played nearly four minutes short-handed, the Habs have yet to give up a power-play goal this season when he's on the ice – and blocking a vicious Nazem Kadri slapper with his team under duress late in the first period of what would become a 4-2 Habs win.

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"I can't emphasize enough how good of a goaltender he is," joked goalie Carey Price. "He always seems to be perfectly square, he's got really good angles. And he's got a big set of balls."

At 33, the concrete-footed Murray no longer plays every night, but the 6-foot-3, 240-pounder is the spiritual heir of another giant-sized player with an inspired moniker – Hal "Skillsy" Gill, a fellow penalty-kill specialist and dressing room cut-up.

His play also typifies that of the Habs over the past three weeks: When called upon, all he does is his job.

Since snapping a four-game losing streak (and a 3-6-1 stretch overall) on Nov. 10, the Canadiens are 7-1-2 and have not given up more than two goals in any game.

Only the conference-leading Boston Bruins are more hermetic defensively.

The allegedly tiny Habs aren't supposed to be this good at grinding, but they've become surprisingly adept at winning battles along the boards and behind the net.

There was Daniel Brière on Saturday, winning battles behind the net against the bigger Dion Phaneuf, and Brian Gionta going up against two Leafs and emerging with the puck to eventually set up Tomas Plekanec for a goal.

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"We're not a big team, but one of our strengths is speed, I said before playing here … [the Canadiens] are tough in the sense of you have no space out there, there's always someone on you. There was a lapse there at the beginning of November where we weren't doing that as well," Brière said. "Lately we've been back, hard on the forecheck … it's about wanting it more than the other guy, it's about being there first, it's finding a way of getting it done. You have to be smarter when you're not the biggest guy."

Heady times, then, for a Canadiens team that was expected to have to scrap for a playoff spot after finishing a surprise second in the Eastern Conference in the lockout-shortened 2012-13 season.

This is a team that still has its flaws – the only Canadien among the top 40 scorers is a defenceman, P.K. Subban – but they are papered over by a strong possession game (over the past three weeks, the Habs have dominated in advanced statistical measures such as Fenwick and Corsi) and a brilliant goaltender.

Much of the attention over the past couple of weeks has been lavished on Max Pacioretty – who has seven goals in his past six games – and the defensive pairing of Subban and Andrei Markov, who are arguably the league's best blueline duo.

But Price has not only cemented his status as an elite NHL goaltender, he is playing like a man who wants to start for Team Canada at the Olympics.

The B.C. native trails only the L.A. Kings' Ben Scrivens in save percentage among regular NHL starters (Price's is .937, Scrivens is at .944 in seven fewer games) and he is stopping a whopping 94.6 per cent of the shots he faces at even strength (second-best among starters).

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It helps the Habs are a defence-first team, but with Montreal wobbling after allowing a pair of Leafs goals in 22 seconds, their goaltender once again stepped to the fore, thwarting Tyler Bozak, James Van Riemsdyk and Phil Kessel on third-period chances(Price also finished with an assist, which is one more point than Kessel scored).

Not that the 26-year-old is in any hurry to claim credit. In fact, he pointedly refuses to.

"I'm going to keep emphasizing that: we're playing excellent hockey in front of me. We're putting out 100-per-cent effort every night. There's no quit. That's been the key to our success," he said.

With a third of the schedule behind them, the Habs have 33 points, a pace that should carry them comfortably to the playoffs.

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