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Montreal Canadiens goalie Jaroslav Halak (41) makes a save on Vancouver Canucks Alex Burrows (14) during third period NHL hockey action in Montreal, February 2, 2010. REUTERS/Christinne Muschi


If there is a quantifiable distance between brilliance and good fortune, perhaps Montreal Canadiens goaltender Jaroslav Halak is the man to explore it.

In a performance that ranged from the occasionally spastic to the sublime, Halak confounded the Vancouver Canucks at nearly every turn, despite the furtive backward glances, the desperation lunges, the and the metallic clang of at least one puck hitting the goalpost.History won't remember how he made the saves, just that he chalked up 45 of them in a 3-2 victory that saw his team thoroughly dominated for all but a few minutes of spirited back-and-forth action in the second period.

All in all, it was a performance that will prompt headlines demanding that Halak be handed the No. 1 starting job forthwith.

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It may be that Halak has gained an insurmountable edge in the battle for the Canadiens' crease, but there are ominous signs in this performance for coach Jacques Martin.

This is a game the Habs had little or no business winning.

Had Henrik Sedin not been thwarted by Halak's right pad on a bang-bang sequence of shots in the opening minute of the first,

Or if Kyle Wellwood had done something other than shoot directly into Halak's chest when left completely alone in front of the Montreal net.

Or if Ryan Kesler's ferocious drive on the shift after the Habs' opening goal - a pretty Sergei Kostitsyn effort that resulted from Benoit Pouliot's clever industry - gone into the net past a befuddled Halak rather than clanging off the post.

Or if the Canucks had succeeded in cashing in on half a dozen other gilt-edged chances.

The common denominator is, of course, Halak, whose dogged play held his team in.

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"You have to be lucky to stop some shots . . . that's why we won," the Slovak goaltender said.

Halak has now faced 76 shots in his last two starts, and though he likes to be busy, he could do without that heavy a workload.

"They were shooting from everywhere, I tried to hold on to the puck whenever I could, but I didn't have the chance," he said. "You have to stay calm, if you start get too aggressive that's when you get out of position."

Vancouver coach Alain Vigneault analyzed the defeat thusly: "the difference is we weren't able to bury our Grade A scoring chances . . . the best player on the ice tonight was their goaltender."

That they were able to open the post-Mike Cammalleri era with a win makes it all the more remarkable - the Habs' top goal scorer will miss the next six weeks with a knee injury.

Their top offensive line on the season shorn of both its wings because of injury, a call-up inserted onto what had been the hottest unit of the past 15 games, another minor-leaguer in the defence corps.

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But Canadiens' forward Mathieu Darche, a 33-year-old journeyman who would notch his fourth point in seven games with the club last night, predicted it on Monday, taking the counterintuitive view to the 26-goal man's absence.

Darche said the absence of a player of Cammalleri's skill would force the others on the team to play a simpler game.

And that's exactly what they did.

"The idea is to keep the puck in their end as much as possible and wear down their defence. It's not rocket science, nobody likes to get hit all night long," Darche said.

If there is pride to be taken from winning ugly, the Habs can be a very proud team indeed.

There's no better example than the winning goal, where Montreal centre Tomas Plekanec golfed his 14th of the season up and over Vancouver goalie Roberto Luongo midway through the third period; the Canucks were outshooting the home side 36-24 at the time.

"I think I hit it three or four times before it finally went over him . . . it was big," Plekanec said.

This night was one to forget for Luongo, who is now 9-9-5 against his hometown team. The Canadian Olympian fought the puck all night, and unlike Halak seemed unable to come up with miracles when they were needed.

The Canucks were able to make it interesting thanks to Darche's double-minor for high-sticking in the third - "I was anxious for (the game) to end after that one" - but weren't able to get the puck past Halak, who on several occasions looked behind him of had pucks bounce off him as he was looking elsewhere.

And on the occasions where the Canucks thought they had the opening to tie the game, Halak invariably pulled off a magnificent save.

A trio of penalties in the third - a diving call against Ryan Kesler that negated what would have been a Vancouver power-play, a high-sticking penalty to Mikael Samuelsson, and an ill-timed goalie interference penalty to Alex Burrows - simply added to the misery for the visitors.

The Canadiens are the worst five-on-five team in the Eastern Conference, and early on it showed.

It would take five minutes for the home side to notch their first shot, the Canucks' top line of the Sedin twins and Alex Burrows created all manner of havoc in the opening minute, and Halak was forced to make two saves in quick succession on Henrik Sedin after crossing up his defencemen with a poor pass.

Moments later, Canadiens' winger Sergei Kostitsyn, who had only one assist to show for his last 18 NHL games, conjured up a bit of dazzle at the other end, benefiting from Benoit Pouliot's clever steal of the puck (Pouliot had two assists on the night) to cut inside Ryan Kesler and beat Lungo from the slot for just his second of the season.

It was the Canadiens' second shot of the game, and the first time they had scored an even strength goal in 223:12 - the last coming 10 days ago against the New York Rangers.

Maxim Lapierre, on a feed from Darche, later scored Montreals second.

The Canucks scored both their goals on the power-play - Samuelsson's first period point shot bounced weakly off Halak's glove and into the net, then Kesler banged in a third-period rebound.

When it was all done, the Canadiens had scored three even-strength goals for the first time in 10 days, but the euphoria of the win can't mask the fact they will need to be better if they hope to win against Boston and Pittsburgh this week - and against Washington, Boston and Philadelphia next week - if they hope to keep in touch with the playoff pack.

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