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Youngsters power Canadiens past Islanders

New York Islanders' goalie Al Montoya stops a shot by Montreal Canadien Erik Cole during the first period in Montreal.

Christinne Muschi/Reuters/Christinne Muschi/Reuters

The irrationally exuberant point of view is that the Montreal Canadiens, who have at least one point from their last six games, are beginning to round into form.

The terminally pessimistic riposte: yeah, but their closest rivals have games in hand, they've blown comfortable leads in three of their last four, and the man who saved them from certain defeat on Tuesday was Al Montoya, who doesn't even play for Montreal.

No matter, the Habs emerged 5-3 winners from a scruffy contest with the New York Islanders and are tied on points for eighth in the Eastern Conference.

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"We found a way to win," deadpanned goaltender Carey Price, "usually we find a way to lose."

That much is certainly true. On seven other occasions this year the Habs have blown late leads and had to settle for an overtime or shootout point.

And against the NHL's other shootout and OT kings - the Islanders and Habs have conspired to lose more overtime games and shootouts than any other NHL teams - it took several acts of magnanimity from Montoya, who was weak on three of the four goals he gave up, not to push this one into extras.

It also required a savvy pass from centre Lars Eller to fourth-line pivot Petteri Nokelainen for the Habs to get their noses ahead after squandering a 3-1 lead (Montoya waved at Nokelainen's long slap shot), and a fluttering empty-netter from Hal Gill that only barely trickled over the goal line in the dying seconds.

Price, who turned in several solid saves in the late going, admitted afterward that the Habs' propensity for frittering away leads has had a snowball effect.

"It's something that weighs on your mind after a while. Players'll tell you different, but they're lying," he said. "When you come into a third period you always think about a little bit, but it's been a recurring thing and it can't happen like that."

The Canadiens also won at home for just the fifth time in 16 starts, and given they play twice more at the Bell Centre this week (Thursday against Philly, Saturday against New Jersey), it was a welcome relief.

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"It hasn't been hard enough lately for the opposition teams, hopefully we can build on this," said Eller.

Stopping the streaking Flyers may be a tall order, but if the Habs can snap out of the inconsistency that's hit them all year, a fillable one.

More crucial is the Devils game - after their overtime defeat of Florida late Tuesday, New Jersey is level on points with Montreal for eighth spot in the East, but they have a game in hand, and the 11th-placed Washington Capitals have played two fewer than Montreal but are only two points back.

But over the last 10 days the Canadiens, after an injury-marred opening to the season and a couple of long-ish losing streaks, have fulfilled the minimum requirement in their plan to secure a playoff spot.

That is: gaining at least six out of every 10 possible points between now and the end of the season.

And the optimists will see plenty of reason to think more points will soon be on offer.

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It's tempting, in assessing the Canadiens, to focus on the marquee performers, the big-ticket guys, the goaltender, the newly-acquired puck mover on the blue line.

But another storyline is also emerging for the followers of the bleu-blanc-rouge.

Games are generally remembered for eye-popping goals or saves that defy credulity, but Tuesday's 5-3 triumph over the New York Islanders may be remembered for more subtle plays.

Like miniscule centre David Desharnais holding off hulking defenceman Milan Jurcina, dancing around the Islander end on a second-period four-on-four, and making as deft a pass as you'll see on the Erik Cole power-play marker that gave Montreal a 3-1 lead early in the third period.

Pointless in his last four games, Desharnais also got a helper on a Hal Gill empty-netter that sealed a 5-3 win.

Desharnais is the increasingly assured pilot of the Habs' de facto top line with Erik Cole and Max Pacioretty, and habitually faces the opposition's top unit.

"It's pretty sweet, and it just gives you the taste for more," Desharnais said before the game.

He didn't become a full-time NHLer until age 24 and was a week into his call-up from the American Hockey League at this time last year.

"No one can say he hasn't established himself as an NHL player. His line is the most dangerous one every night, and it goes through him," said winger Mathieu Darche, who played with Desharnais with the Hamilton Bulldogs for parts of two seasons (Darche also scored for Montreal on Tuesday, his first in 24 games). "I'm so happy for him . . . I knew he was good enough, he just needed his chance."

The Habs would of course blow their 3-1 lead, as is their wont, as Josh Bailey and John Tavares brought a game Islanders' squad back with third-period tallies.

But it didn't matter because the night's other standout performer, Eller, set up the winner.

That was Eller's notable contribution to the scoresheet, but his best moment was a mad second-period deke that carried him through two defenders and was saved from being a goal by Montoya's right toe.

"In some games you get it going, in others you don't have it really. It's a great atmosphere at home and it makes you want to do something extra," said Eller, who said his growing confidence is making him bolder with the puck.

A lot of credit for Tuesday's win must also go to Price, who stoned Pierre-Alexandre Parenteau late, the Habs are now level on points with Ottawa for the eighth and final playoff spot. It was a second straight win, the Habs haven't lost a game in regulation in the month of December.

Earlier this week, Montreal defenceman P.K. Subban indicated that he planned to loose a barrage of trash-talk text messages to Tavares, his childhood pal.

But it was Tavares and his line who had the upper hand in the early going, when Subban went into the corner under pressure from Matt Moulson - another Toronto-area native who has trained with both Subban and Tavares - he made a catastrophic error.

His backhanded clearing attempt went straight to Parenteau, and the winger slipped a pass to Moulson, who had beat Subban out of the corner, and calmly slid the puck past a helpless Price.

It didn't take long for Montreal to respond, Andrei Kostitsyn gathered a puck in neutral ice, banked it off the boards, and chased it down as teammate Chris Campoli, in his first game back since missing 28 with an injury, attracted a defender.

Kostitsyn's finish appeared to surprise Montoya, who wasn't set, new acquisition Tomas Kaberle earned his third assist in two games as a Hab on the play.

And then came a rare moment of karmic justice; three days after having a goal taken away by Cole's goal-line tap-in in New Jersey, the long-suffering Darche finally potted a shot for the first time since October.

That it was also an outrageous flub by Montoya was clearly immaterial to the 35-year-old journeyman's evident joy and relief as he celebrated the goal.

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About the Author
National Correspondent

Sean Gordon joined the Globe's Quebec bureau in 2008 and covers the Canadiens, Alouettes and Impact, as well as Quebec's contingent of Olympic athletes. More

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