MONTREAL – The Olympic break looks to have done wonders for the Montreal Canadiens.
All of a sudden, they are a team that doesn’t rely solely on the power play for goals, that has four productive lines and three functioning defence pairs.
And they are winning, with five victories in six games since the break.
One more against the visiting Boston Bruins on Saturday night would give them a season-high five-game winning streak.
“We’re playing good hockey now and we have to keep it rolling,” defenceman Josh Gorges said Friday.
The Canadiens lost three of four games heading into the 16-day break for the Vancouver Games and their playoff chances looked dim.
But the 10 out of 12 points they earned since play resumed on March 2 has them in seventh spot in the NHL Eastern Conference, knocking on the door for sixth, although all their closest rivals hold at least one game in hand and the race remains tight.
Most surprising is that their power play, still second best in the 30-team league, has scored on only two of 19 chances in the six games. In a 5-4 shoot-out win over Edmonton on Thursday night, it was 0-for-7, including a 1:18 stretch with a two-man advantage.
It doesn’t help that the two players still out with injuries – team goal-scoring leader Mike Cammalleri and point man Marc-Andre Bergeron – normally play on the first power play unit.
But to the rescue came the team’s third and fourth lines, which had been unproductive for most of the season.
In the first game after the break, a 4-1 win in Boston, three of the four goals came from the checking lines. They’ve chipped in regularly since then.
Coach Jacques Martin said there were three factors in the club’s post-Olympic success – the return from injuries of some key players, settling the defence so there are three useful pairs, and new-found production from the top line of Scott Gomez, Brian Gionta and Benoit Pouliot.
Forwards Pouliot and Andrei Kostitsyn were back from injuries after the break, while others like Gionta and defenceman Ryan O’Byrne returned before the Olympics. The team also picked up veteran centre Dominic Moore ahead of the trade deadline, while veteran winger Mathieu Darche has been up to stay from the minors since Jan. 20.
That gave them a third line of Moore, Travis Moen and Sergei Kostitsyn, with Glen Metropolit between Mathieu Darche and Maxim Lapierre on the fourth trio, both of which have been surprisingly effective.
The second offensive line has team scoring leader Tomas Plekanec with Andrei Kostitsyn and Tom Pyatt, who will return to AHL when Cammalleri comes back, possibly for a game March 20 in Toronto.
Pairing the rangy O’Byrne with top defenceman Andrei Markov allowed Martin to put the dependable Gorges with Hal Gill, while the duo of Roman Hamrlik and Jaroslav Spacek has been together for most of the season.
“We haven’t been matching pairs against lines because we feel our three pairs can play against anyone and that’s also encouraged them to be more involved in the attack – because they don’t have to stay back or play as many minutes,” Martin said.
As for the top line, Gomez has two goals and six assists since the break and is finally looking like the dynamic, playmaking centre the team was seeking when it acquired him from the New York Rangers last summer. Gionta has four goals and two assists, while Pouliot has three goals and three helpers.
The players also feel that, after wholesale personnel moves last summer and a string of injuries during the season, the team and the system first-year coach Martin has brought in are finally starting to jive.
“It took some time for us to jell as a group and find out what makes this team tick,” said Gorges. “We seem to be playing more as a team right now.
“That’s why we’re being more successful. There’s not as much individual play. For whatever reason it took us this long, if we keep it up it will give us a chance to win.”
With Lapierre’s four-game suspension for hitting San Jose’s Scott Nichol into the boards from behind now served, Ben Maxwell was returned to Hamilton.
Martin does not say who his starting goalie will be until game day, but there is a chance that Carey Price will play even though Jaroslav Halak has posted four straight wins. Halak was not strong against Edmonton, while Price is 3-0-0 against the Bruins this season.
Markov, who played nearly 28 minutes against Edmonton, was given the day off practice but is to play against Boston.