MONTREAL – Chris Higgins is hoping his inevitable breakout year has come.
After a slow start, the 24-year-old has five goals in his last eight games for the Montreal Canadiens and is playing some of the best hockey in his three NHL seasons.
“I feel strong, the line’s working really well and I’m getting a lot of shots on the net, so that’s always going to translate into goals,” Higgins said Wednesday as the Canadiens prepared to embark on a stretch of four straight road games. “Saku (Koivu) is passing the puck really well and the line’s really working. Once we get (Michael) Ryder going, hopefully it will result in more goals.”
The Canadiens begin their trip against the Bruins on Thursday night before heading to Ottawa for an afternoon game on Saturday. They will return home for a break before playing in Toronto on Tuesday and Buffalo on Nov. 16.
Rookie Carey Price will get his fifth start in goal in Boston, while defenceman Francis Bouillon is expected to return from a shoulder injury and forward Guillaume Latendresse is likely to sit out with an unspecified hip or back injury.
With Higgins’ combination of speed, skill and willingness to battle for pucks, the only question now is how much of an impact player he will become.
He had 23 goals as a rookie in 2005-06 and 22 last season, despite missing 21 games either sick or injured. The No. 40 was suggested and the six-foot-200-pound Higgins nodded.
“I definitely think I’m capable of reaching 40 goals,” he said. “That’s a good marker for me.
“Playing the minutes I play and with the guys I’m with, I think I have enough skill so I could score 40. It’s a long season and it’ll take a lot of work and a couple of lucky bounces, but I think I have the talent to put up those kinds of numbers.”
He had eight goals in the first 13 games last season before spraining his ankle in a Nov. 7 encounter with the Edmonton Oilers. He missed 18 games with the injury, and was slow to reach full speed when he returned.
Healthy again, the native of Smithtown, N.Y., is back to being one of Montreal’s most consistently effective forwards. His name is not on the all-star ballot, but his play suggests the time is not far off when it will be.
“It’s only my third year and I don’t think I’ve had the year I think I’m capable of having,” he said. “I think I was on the right track last year, but then I got that injury.
“If the line keeps playing the way it is, I’ll probably get more recognized, but that’s not what I’m really worried about.”
It helps to play alongside Koivu, a heady playmaker who leads the team with 14 points in as many games. Higgins’ speed gives the captain the option of stretch passes that keep defences on high alert.
“He’s an elite passer, so I just have to get open and he’ll find me,” added Higgins. “Sometimes you don’t know why the chemistry is there,” said Koivu. “In his case, it’s his work ethic and quickness.
“We’re not the biggest guys, so we try to keep it simple for the first 10 or 15 seconds (of a shift) and then get the rebounds or the second pucks in the corners and get the cycle going.”
Higgins was drafted 14th overall by Montreal in 2002, a year after his freind and fellow Long Island native Mike Komisarek was taken seventh overall.
Together, they are the heart of a young group of players whose continuing development has much to do with the team’s 8-3-3 start.
Of course, they had the exact same record after 14 games last season, when the club went into a swoon in late December and ended up missing the playoffs.
Koivu feels the team is better this season than a year ago, when they leaned heavily on their goaltenders and pulled out some improbable wins early in the season.
This season, they have not yet trailed in a game after the first period.
“We’re more compact,” he said. “We’re tougher to play against 5-on-5.
“We’d like to score more at even strength, but we’re getting more chances than last year, without playing bad defensively or taking risks. We’re skating and moving well.”
The Canadiens pounded the Bruins 6-1 in their previous meeting this season in Montreal on Oct. 22 with Cristobal Huet in goal.
Huet is coming off a 29-save shutout of the Buffalo Sabres on Tuesday night, but coach Guy Carbonneau opted to go back to Price, who spent the last three games on the bench. The layoff didn’t bother the 20-year-old.
“It’s my first year and it seems everything happens really quick,” said Price. “In between games seems really short to me because it’s something new.
“The schedule’s going to be pretty busy now, so I imagine I’ll get a few games in, although it’s up to the coach to decide.”
With Latendresse likely sidelined, Mikhail Grabovsky returns to the lineup after a three-game hiatus on a trio with Bryan Smolinski and Mathieu Dandenault.
Note: Winger Garth Murray, who has played only one game this season, was placed on waivers. If he clears, he will be sent to AHL Hamilton. Murray has been recovering from an ankle injury. There are no immediate plans to call up another player, but Carbonneau said the move gives the team “options,” which suggests Murray may not be back soon. Maxim Lapierre, who played 46 games in Montreal last season, and rookie Sergei Kostitsyn are knocking at the door.