MONTREAL – When Sheldon Souray signed with Edmonton last summer, it was thought he would take the Montreal Canadiens’ league-best power play success rate with him.Not so.Ten games into the season, Montreal is still on top, leading the NHL with goals on 30.4 per cent of their man advantage chances despite the loss of their top point man, who had 19 power-play goals last season.”I was never worried about the power play,” said winger Chris Higgins, a member of the first unit, said Monday. “I don’t think anyone in the locker-room was.”
That was a story created at the beginning of the year just because of how many goals (Souray) scored, but I knew we were going to be just as effective without him. Four out of five guys are still on the power play and then you replace Sheldon with Mark Streit, who has a little less of a shot but is a better passer.”The Canadiens take a three-game winning streak and their red-hot power play into a meeting Tuesday night against the struggling Atlanta Thrashers, who are second-worst in penalty killing at 71.0 per cent.Rookie Carey Price, coming off a 4-3 win Saturday in Pittsburgh in which he stopped all eight Penguin attempts in a shootout, will get his first regular-season start in goal at the Bell Centre. He is 2-1-0 this season.”I kind of pulled it out in the shootout because I feel I had an average game,” said Price. “I played here before in exhibition, but it doesn’t matter.
The atmosphere’s still the same.”Montreal missed the playoffs last season despite leading the NHL with a 22.8 per cent scoring rate on the power play.Most of that was built on feeding Souray at the point for rocket shots that helped him reach career highs in goals (26) and points (64).But the unrestricted free agent jumped at a good offer from the Oilers, prompting a rethink of the power play in Montreal.Streit, who played on the second unit last season, moved into Souray’s spot. He has a hard, accurate shot, but nothing like Souray’s blasts.Instead, he and fellow point man Andrei Markov move the puck more on a power play that shoots from all angles.”It’s very important that we move the puck fast and we’re not too stagnant – just don’t do the same thing all the time,” said Streit, who has two power-play goals this season. “Give it different looks and see what the opponent gives you and take advantage of that.”I don’t want to compare myself with Sheldon Souray. He’s a different player.
He had an exceptional year last year. He has a cannon. I have a pretty good shot as well, but I just do my thing out there.” Another wrinkle is that coach Guy Carbonneau keeps his two top lines together for the two power-play units. The first has Saku Koivu with Higgins and Michael Ryder, the second has Tomas Plekanec with Alex Kovalev and, lately, Guillaume Latendresse.Before, Koivu, Higgins and Kovalev were the first unit.The Plekanec line had four power-play goals and the Koivu unit had one in a 7-4 win in Carolina on Friday night, while the Koivu line was on for another by Markov in Pittsburgh.”The two units challenge each other,” said Streit. “It’s competition between them and it’s great.”And when you have two units, they have different plays and it’s tougher to defend.”Higgins is all for it.”It builds chemistry not only on the power play, but 5-on-5 as well,” he said. “I think that’s the way to go for the rest of the regular season. I strongly support staying with the lines.”On the down side is Montreal’s penalty killing, which is sixth worst in the 30-team league at 78.7 per cent. They were 13th last season.With 14 points after 10 games, the 6-2-2 Canadiens are only one point ahead of where they were at the same point last season (5-2-3), but they have looked better.A year ago, they leaned heavily on their goaltenders and squeaked out early wins against teams that didn’t make the playoffs. This season, they have yet to trail after the first period and have beaten talent-laden Carolina and Pittsburgh twice each.”In some games last year, we were little lucky to win, especially at the end of games,” said Carbonneau. “I like how we’re playing now.”We’re playing with confidence.”They also boosted their defence by signing Roman Hamrlik in the summer. He’s plus-3 and is a steadying influence on the blue-line. Souray was minus-28 last season.The Canadiens begin a four-game homestand. Cristobal Huet is expected back in the net for a game Thursday night against Philadelphia.The 3-8-0 Thrashers have won three of five games since general manager Don Waddell replaced the fired Bob Hartley behind the bench. It will be their fifth game of a seven-game road trip.