MONTREAL – Chris Higgins and Carey Price gave an early indication that their general manager’s faith in them was not misplaced.
Just hours after surviving the NHL trade deadline, Higgins had two goals and an assist as the Montreal Canadiens exploded for four goals in less than seven minutes in the third period en route to a 5-1 win over the Atlanta Thrashers on Tuesday.
“We realize that this is our team now, so we may as well come together and get really tight,” said Higgins, who had his first two-goal game of the season and his first multi-point game since Jan. 3. “The organization has trust in us and faith in us to do the job this year, and now it’s time to make that happen.”
Price, the newly anointed number one goalie in Montreal after Cristobal Huet was traded before the deadline earlier Tuesday, made 26 saves and had the sellout Bell Centre crowd of 21,273 chanting his name by the third period.
“I definitely wasn’t expecting this to happen this year,” Price said. “There was a little bit more (pressure), but I figured better now than ever. I think I’m as ready for it now as I’ll ever be.”
Maxim Lapierre, Andrei Markov and Sergei Kostitsyn also scored while Saku Koivu had two assists for the Canadiens (34-21-9), who moved to within one point of the Northeast division leading Ottawa Senators and snapped a two-game losing streak.
Habs head coach Guy Carbonneau said the rumours swirling about Montreal being in the running to land Atlanta sniper Marian Hossa at the deadline were wearing on certain players, but that GM Bob Gainey’s decision not to pull the trigger on a deal for him is a good boost of confidence for his team.
“Basically, it was going to take three players to get him,” Carbonneau said. “So Bob made a statement by saying, ‘Yes, we could have gotten a good player, but I like our team better with you guys in the lineup.’ I think the team got the message.”
In the other dressing room, Atlanta GM and head coach Don Waddell got his first taste of life without Hossa, but the true measure of the deal won’t be felt until the newly acquired Colby Armstrong and Erik Christensen join the team.
“Now I tell them to just put it all behind them,” Waddell said. “Tomorrow’s a fresh start. We have two new players who will join our team and obviously they’ll play on the top three lines. We’ll have a good skate and then try to set up some lines.”
Ilya Kovalchuk scored his 41st of the season for the Thrashers (29-31-4), who lost their fourth straight and fell nine points behind Southeast division leading Carolina.
However, Waddell dismissed the notion that he threw in the towel by trading Hossa.
“We weren’t packing away our season,” he said. “If we were, we’d have traded all our (unrestricted free agents). There’s no quit on this team, we’ll play until the end.”
Kari Lehtonen stopped 17 of 18 shots through two periods, but allowed four goals on 15 shots in the third.
The victory is made more important to the Canadiens in that it was their first without a goal from the line of Tomas Plekanec, Alex Kovalev and Andrei Kostitsyn since Jan. 24.
“We talked before the game about how this team has been successful this season, and it’s about the team, not about one or two players,” said Koivu, who has eight points in his last seven games. “You’re not going to go far in the playoffs with three or four guys, you need all four lines to contribute. We wanted to get back to that team game.”
Montreal called up Mikhail Grabovski from the AHL’s Hamilton Bulldogs earlier Tuesday and he was immediately inserted into the lineup, while goalie Jaroslav Halak backed up Price after also being called up from Hamilton to replace the traded Huet.
With the game tied 1-1 early in the third period Higgins opened the floodgates with a power play goal at 2:10, converting a Michael Ryder feed for his 20th of the year. Higgins added another less than three minutes later when Markov’s turnaround shot from the slot dribbled past Lehtonen into the crease for an easy tap-in goal at 4:56.
Higgins set up Markov up with another power-play goal at 8:17, sliding a pass through the slot for a re-direction into a wide open net.
Sergei Kostitsyn completed the scoring when he beat Lehtonen with a wrister to the short side on a 2-on-1 break at 9:04 to make it 5-1 Montreal.
The Canadiens took a 1-0 lead at 12:47 of the first when Lapierre pounced on a loose puck near the net, but Kovalchuk tied it 1-1 on the power play at 2:04 of the second when he used Mike Komisarek as a screen to beat Price.
Notes: Wingers Tom Kostopoulos, Mathieu Dandenault, C Bryan Smolinski and D Patrice Brisebois were healthy scratches for the Canadiens. … Thrashers C Bryan Little, winger Colin Stuart and D Joel Kwiatkowski were all in the lineup after being called up from the AHL’s Chicago Wolves to replace the departed Hossa and Pascal Dupuis. … It was the first time in four meetings between the two teams the game did not go to a shootout. … The Canadiens improved to 7-3 on the season in games following two straight losses. … Higgins has now scored at least 20 goals in each of his three full seasons with the Habs.