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All-star MVP Alex Kovalev's next task is Canadiens playoff run

MONTREAL - The last time Montreal hosted the NHL all-star game back in 1993, the Canadiens rode the wave to their 24th Stanley Cup title.

They haven't added to their record total since.

So take notice, Alex Kovalev. You were the man of the hour Sunday night with an all-star MVP performance, but the adulation will be gone by spring if hockey's most storied franchise fizzles in the playoffs.

"There is so much history here," said Kovalev, the Canadiens forward who captained the East All-Stars to a 12-11 shootout victory over the West on his home ice. "History is this club, and you want to be a part of it. That's why it's important to me."

The Canadiens are certainly Cup contenders heading into the second half of the franchise's 100th season. After losing in the second round of the playoffs last year, despite having the top seed in the Eastern Conference, the Canadiens are primed to make another run.

Montreal entered the all-star break in second place in the Northeast Division, 13 points behind the Boston Bruins, who are tied with San Jose for the overall NHL lead at 73 points. If the Canadiens don't catch Boston, the best they can hope for is the No. 4 seed - behind the conference's three division champions.

The Bruins reached the playoffs a year ago for the first time since 2004 and put a scare into the top-seeded Canadiens until losing Game 7. Boston hasn't advanced to the second round since 1999.

"It's important to just keep the focus on a small scale and just try to get better every game more than it is to look at the big picture of finishing first overall," Bruins goalie Tim Thomas said. "It's still early in the season, relatively - just past the halfway point. I think you make mistakes if you start looking too far forward."

Thomas and goaltending partner Manny Fernandez haven't made many mistakes this season. With all-star forward Marc Savard leading the way with 56 points and rookie Blake Wheeler adding a jolt to the offence, the Bruins are even exceeding some of their own projections.

"I knew we were a team that was getting better," Thomas said. "By game seven or eight of the year I realized, 'Hey, this team is even better than I thought.' So I haven't been surprised since maybe the first 10 games, but if you had asked me before the season, I don't think anybody expected us to do this well."

The all-star game is the symbolic halfway point in the season, but most teams have played around 47 of the 82 games on the schedule. The trade deadline is just more than five weeks away, and the regular season will be done in about 2 1/2 months.

New Jersey has surged in recent weeks despite missing Vezina Trophy-winning goalie Martin Brodeur, a usual workhorse who has played only 10 games this season due to a biceps injury.

Brodeur has begun skating again and seems to be primed for a return in March. Once he gets his game legs under him, Brodeur might be able to take advantage of his time off and be strong for a long playoff run.

Instead of just treading water and hoping to be close to a playoff spot by the time Brodeur returns, the Devils have streaked past the New York Rangers and Philadelphia Flyers to lead the tight Atlantic Division by one point. However, they are just two points ahead of third place and 11 in front of fourth-place Pittsburgh, the struggling defending Eastern Conference champion.

"We've played really well the last month or so. It's nice to see your name at the top of the standings," said all-star forward Zach Parise, who leads the Devils with 28 goals. "Rightfully so, Marty gets all the credit - and he should. He's been unbelievable for the organization, so it was almost as if we had to show that we had a good team, too.

"We had to prove some people wrong that didn't think we would make it without Marty. We knew in the dressing room that we had a good squad and that we were capable of being where we are right now."

Another up-and-coming team is the Southeast Division-leading Washington Capitals, led by reigning NHL MVP Alex Ovechkin - the league leader with 31 goals.

A late run last season erased a terrible start and earned the Capitals a division title on the final weekend. After enduring a disappointing seven-game, first-round loss to Philadelphia, the Capitals appear to be growing up quickly and primed to make a splash in the post-season.

"Our goal is to go to the playoffs and be first in the playoffs," Ovechkin said. "We want to win everything and be first in our division and in our conference. It's very important to us right now.

"Last year we were in 10th place at the all-star break and we made a big run. It's a good sign for our club."

Out West, the San Jose Sharks have been the class of the conference, but we have seen that before. Might this finally be the year the Sharks take their regular-season success and turn it into a long run in the post-season?

San Jose has lost in the second round three straight years. The Sharks hope their fortunes will change under first-year coach Todd McLellan, an assistant with the Stanley Cup champion Detroit Red Wings last year.

The Sharks are tied with the Bruins in points, and lead Detroit by five points in the race for the No. 1 seed in the West. Defenceman Dan Boyle knows the importance of having home-ice advantage, riding it to the 2004 Stanley Cup title with Tampa Bay.

"We had Game 7 at home in the semifinals and finals," said Boyle, in his first season with San Jose. "I think we need to, if we can, finish first. It definitely is an advantage."

The Red Wings stirred up some controversy during the break when their two all-stars, defenceman Nicklas Lidstrom and forward Pavel Datsyuk, declined invitations to all-star weekend and stayed home to nurse injuries. They are expected to miss Tuesday's game at Columbus as a result, a move that could cost them a key two points.

The main upstart team in the West are the young and fun Chicago Blackhawks, who have been reborn largely because of the emergence of 20-year-old all-star forwards Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane.

Chicago, which has been in the playoffs only once since 1997, trails Detroit by 10 points in the Central Division, but should be able to secure a place in the post-season.

"We need to keep full steam ahead and really give ourselves a chance to not have to play from behind at the end of the season," Toews said. "We've got a lot of room for improvement. We've got a long way to go, so there is no way but up. We have to keep getting better."


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