TORONTO – The swagger is back. And so are the Montreal Canadiens.
It was just two weeks ago that the team’s season seemed in peril as it was booed off the Bell Centre ice following a lopsided loss to the Toronto Maple Leafs. The Habs were lingering just inside the Eastern Conference playoff picture and nothing was going right.
That’s when coach Bob Gainey decided to put forwards Alex Kovalev, Saku Koivu and Alex Tanguay on a line together and the team hasn’t lost in regulation since.
Kovalev has been the hottest of them all. He had a goal and three assists during a 6-2 victory over the Maple Leafs on Saturday to give him 15 points over the past six games.
“Well I’m probably playing as good as I have been all year,” said Kovalev. “Like I’ve said many times, sometimes you try to do too much on your own instead of using your partners. Right now I kind of know more about the players that I’m playing with.”
Suddenly, the enigmatic Russian has turned around what appeared to be a lost season. He says there was nothing about the bad loss to Toronto two weeks ago that prompted the team’s recent 5-0-1 run.
Instead, Kovalev thinks the turnaround came from within.
“You’ve got to believe in this team,” he said. “That’s the only way you can make the changes.”
At this time of year, no further explanations are really necessary. Wins are the only thing that count in April.
With just four games remaining in the regular season, Montreal is now five points clear of ninth-place Florida. Instead of looking behind them in the standings, the Habs now have the luxury to focus on who they might be able to move up and catch.
“We’re trying to grab as many points as we can and move up the standings,” said forward Chris Higgins. “The confidence in the room is back – that’s pretty obvious to tell.
“I think we’ve got four games left here and if we continue to play the way we’ve been playing the last couple games, then we’ll have the right mindset for the playoffs.”
The only potential reason for concern at the moment might be some mounting injury troubles. Defenceman Mathieu Schneider left Saturday’s game with an upper-body injury in the first period and leading scorer Andrei Markov was knocked out by a Mikhail Grabovski hit with seven minutes to play.
Both would represent major losses for the team. Gainey didn’t provide much of an update about the condition of either player after the game.
“I don’t really have any idea how it will unfold,” he said. “But I’m hoping that they’ll be available to us to play on Monday (against Ottawa).”
The outcome on Saturday was never really in doubt.
Higgins, Tanguay, Guillaume Latendresse, Maxim Lapierre and Josh Gorges also had goals for Montreal (41-27-10). Halak made 34 saves in earning his 18th victory of the season.
John Mitchell and Boyd Devereaux replied for the Maple Leafs (32-34-13), who allowed 14 goals during a pair of losses over the weekend.
“We just weren’t good tonight,” said forward Matt Stajan.
That assessment basically mirrored the one provided by coach Ron Wilson. He really only seemed happy with the play of Grabovski and questioned why the Belarusian was penalized for the hit that injured Markov in the third period.
“Grabo can play for me any time when he plays like that, that hard,” said Wilson. “I wish we had some more guys who showed as much heart and courage as Grabo does every single night no matter how he gets cut, hit, down and out, he comes right back. You can’t stop him.”
It was Kovalev who couldn’t be stopped on this night.
The flashy winger is already sporting some playoff stubble and appears to have found his groove at the perfect time. There are only a handful of players in the game who could let go the kind of wrist shot he beat Martin Gerber with to open the scoring at 6:11 of the first period.
Two of his three assists came on power-play goals as the Habs finished the night 3-for-5 with the man advantage.
“He’s been really good recently,” Gainey said of Kovalev. “You could see tonight he was dominant. Like any of those really strong players, once they get the sense that their game is together and the situation is provided, they go for it.
“He played a monster game tonight for us.”
Notes: Gerber stopped Latendresse on a penalty shot in the second period … Halak was backed up by AHL callup Marc Denis as No. 1 man Carey Price sat out with the flu … Gainey made Andrei Kostitsyn a healthy scratch for the second time this season … Lee Stempniak sat out for Toronto … Leafs forward Brad May played the 999th game of his NHL career … Montreal is 29-1-2 when leading after two periods … Harrison earned his first point of the season with an assist on Mitchell’s goal … Toronto is 4-7-1 in the second half of back-to-back games this season … Announced attendance was 19,516.