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Canadiens look to spread scoring around against struggling Leafs

MONTREAL - Rookie Carey Price will be in goal and some lines will be juggled when the rising Montreal Canadiens play host to the struggling Toronto Maple Leafs on Thursday night ( 7 p.m. ET).

The 20-year-old Price, who is 3-0 against the Leafs this season, will make his first start since he was recalled this week from Hamilton of the AHL.

He will face a Toronto side swamped in trade rumours and coming off an 8-0 shellacking at home at the hands of the Florida Panthers. He expects the Leafs to come out skating hard.

"Whenever you get stomped, obviously you're going to want to come back the next game and try to redeem yourself, so we expect a really hard-working team," Price said Wednesday after practice at the Bell Centre. "It's nice to get right back into it.

"I've been playing a lot lately (in the AHL), so it's good to keep rolling. It's nice that they have the confidence to throw me in there right away."

After a 4-3 win at home Tuesday night against injury-wracked Ottawa, the Canadiens (29-16-9) are just one point behind the Eastern Conference-leading Senators. Montreal is 12-3-3 since Dec. 27.

The Leafs (21-25-9) are 14th in the conference and are 6-11-1 since that date.

But the NHL's oldest rivals tend to play close games whenever they meet, regardless of where they sit in the standings.

"You know they're going to be ready," said Montreal captain Saku Koivu. "You know it hasn't been a fun day for them (Wednesday).

"Every time, it doesn't matter how the team is doing, it's a good battle when you face Toronto. They've had some problems before and then they come to this building or we go to theirs and they have a good game, so we can't take them lightly."

Montreal is 3-1-1 against Toronto this season, but one win was in overtime and another was in a shootout.

Koivu was benched for most of the third period against Ottawa after taking a hooking penalty in the offensive zone for a second straight game and had a season-low 11:47 of ice time. He has only two goals and four assists in his last 12 games.

On Wednesday, he was skating with a pair of 20-year-old linemates - Guillaume Latendresse and Sergei Kostitsyn. One regular linemate, Chris Higgins, was bumped to the fourth unit with Maxim Lapierre and Mathieu Dandenault, while the other, Michael Ryder, will likely be a healthy scratch for a third straight game.

Higgins has only one goal in his last 14 games and three in his last 23.

The Canadiens' winning run has been carried mostly by the power play - best in the league with a 25.4 per cent success rate - and the red-hot top line of Tomas Plekanec, Alex Kovalev and Andrei Kostitsyn, who accounted for all the scoring against the Senators.

"It's a long season," Koivu said of his benching. "It's not the first time it happened to me or a lot of other players.

"Maybe it was the penalty I took in the third period, I don't know. These are things you try to forget and try to concentrate on the future. It was a big win for us against a team that gave us problems in the past."

It is not his first stint with Latendresse, a physical left winger who has 14 goals this season, and Sergei Kostitsyn, a slick passer and playmaker who is also well schooled in the defensive side of the game.

"I played with them before for six or seven games and I enjoyed it," added Koivu. "They're excited and they want to prove they should get more ice time."

Higgins is at a loss to explain how his touch around the net has suddenly evaporated. With 34 points, including 16 goals, he is only four points shy of the 38 he got in each of his first two full NHL seasons, but the 24-year-old expects much more of himself.

"I'm struggling everywhere, not just around the net," he said. "Defence, offence and all around the ice.

"It's mostly a confidence thing. Once I get that back, I'll be playing the right way. Thank god the team is winning because I would be a lot harder on myself if we were coming in after games and the coach was screaming at us and I knew I wasn't doing the job."

Coach Guy Carbonneau said the only way out of it is for Higgins to keep his spirits up and work a little harder on the ice.

"He's not going to score every shift, so he can't get discouraged," said Carbonneau. "We're in an unbelievable situation now.

"Everyone should be coming back to the bench smiling and enjoying it. You have to think about your next shift and not your last shift or a week ago."

Defenceman Roman Hamrlik remained at home with a flu and will likely miss a second straight game. His spot has been taken by veteran Patrice Brisebois.

Defenceman Francis Bouillon was given a day off to rest a sore foot after blocking a shot against Ottawa, but is expected to play.

Rookie defenceman Ryan O'Byrne skated with his teammates for the first time since he broke his right thumb on Dec. 28 against Florida. He had the cast off on the weekend and is awaiting clearance from a team doctor to resume playing.

Carbonneau said O'Byrne may be sent to Hamilton for conditioning.

"It's my first day and it's a step in the right direction," said O'Byrne, a 23-year-old from Victoria. "The strength isn't there yet, but it doesn't feel bad."


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