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Team Canada's John Tavares (right) and defenceman P K Subban celebrate after winning the gold medal final against Team Sweden at the world junior hockey championship in Ottawa Monday, Jan. 5, 2009.Tom Hanson

If the world is small, the puck universe has to be described as microscopic.

Take this for six degrees of separation: Two kids meet playing minor hockey, only to discover that one of their fathers spent several of his formative years hanging out with the other's uncle and mother in another faraway city.

The former? Montreal Canadiens rookie blueline marvel P.K Subban. The latter? Fast-emerging New York Islanders star and former first-overall draft pick John Tavares.

"For sure, we're pals, but what people don't realize is that our families have known each for a really long time," Subban said. "My dad went to school in Sudbury, and he was best friends with Johnny T's mom's brother, and he knew her well, too."

Subban and Tavares first encountered one another as kids in the Greater Toronto Hockey League, cemented their relationship as Ontario Hockey League prospects (Tavares went on to star in Oshawa and London, Subban in Belleville), and became inseparable on a pair of junior Team Canada squads.

They won back-to-back golds at the world junior championship - at the 2009 event in Ottawa, they could usually be seen before games in a hallway, shooting pucks or balls at each other in their stocking feet.

On Wednesday, the friends will meet for the first time as pros at the Bell Centre.

Might there be a friendly wager on the game?

"Nah. Bragging rights," smiled the 21-year-old Subban, who has four assists in eight games and has become a staple of the Habs defence in his first full NHL season with the best plus-minus among Montreal blueliners.

The game pits two surging teams - the Canadiens may find it tough to replicate their 3-0-1 mark against the Islanders last year (the since-departed Jaroslav Halak started all four games for Montreal).

But the Canadiens were all smiles on team picture day, waking Tuesday to find themselves in first place in the Eastern Conference.

Not that they're reading into it.

"We may be winning, but we're not playing our best," Subban said.

But what the Canadiens are doing is limiting opposition chances and shots - they've allowed more than 30 just twice in eight games, and have given up three or fewer goals in all but one of their outings.

"I think we've only had one game where we gave up more than 12 scoring chances. I think it shows how the team has grown since last year. We're on the same page," said head coach Jacques Martin, who was in an usually ebullient mood, cracking jokes at his daily news conference.

For all the good vibrations, there are still problems with the power-play - and quarterback Andrei Markov won't return until Saturday - and niggling concerns about forwards Scott Gomez and Brian Gionta, who are off to slow starts.

After slotting four players (Tom Pyatt, Travis Moen, Benoît Pouliot and Mathieu Darche) into the line's left wing on Monday, Martin joked that, "We're holding auditions. I guess we'll fill the job at some point." (Gomez added, to a reporter, "You should try out.")

Martin said he doesn't expect the game Wednesday - the teams, which had a violence-marred preseason encounter, will play the return leg Friday - to be a breeze.

"The Islanders deserve their spot in the standings. … They're a young, aggressive team," he said.

And the main weapon in that aggressive attack is Tavares, even though Quebec-born journeyman Pierre-Alexandre Parenteau currently holds the team's scoring lead with eight points.

After missing the Isles' first three games with a concussion, the 20-year-old Tavares scored a hat trick in his last outing against the Florida Panthers, and has five tallies in his past four games.

This past summer marked a departure for Tavares and Subban - it was the first time in years they didn't train together in the off-season, a result of discordant schedules and team commitments.

While the exigencies of professional hockey lengthen the distance between friends, they still remain tight.

"In fact, John sent me a text about having dinner [Tuesday] we haven't seen each other in person in a while so hopefully we can get together," Subban said.