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Canadiens take NHL-leading power play to key match in Buffalo

In the last five games (4-0-1), the Canadiens have scored nine of their 20 goals with a man advantage, including a 4-for-7 effort in a 6-3 win over Pittsburgh on Saturday night. That spurt put the Montreal power play into first place in the 30-team NHL with a 23.1 per cent success rate for the season.

"The explanation is that we have a lot of talent on the power play and we have a lot of different looks," point man Sheldon Souray said Monday. "We've got guys who can shoot the puck and guys who can make great plays.

"And we're getting more used to each other. We've played together for about a year now."

The Canadiens are also second best in the league to Edmonton in penalty killing, with an 89.0 per cent kill rate.

Special teams play and Cristobal Huet's solid goaltending have helped the Canadiens to the second-best record in the Eastern Conference at 19-8-5, seven points behind the conference-leading Buffalo Sabres.

The Canadiens hope to cut the gap with their Northeast Division rivals to five points when they play in Buffalo on Tuesday night.

Souray's thundering shot has been a menace to opposing goalies on the power play this season. Ten of his 12 goals have come with the extra man.

When opponents key on taking away his shot, he slips the puck to the left point, where Andrei Markov can shoot, carry the puck in or dish off a pass.

Up front, Saku Koivu and Alex Kovalev bring star-quality skills, while winger Michael Ryder's forte is shooting.

"Our forwards have also made more commitment to stand in front of goalies," said Souray. "When they're going in there, you want them to be rewarded by putting good shots on net and making it tough for the goalie.

"And if they try to take the shot away, it opens up other guys. The last game, Markov made some great plays because he had more time to do it. That's what it's about - five guys working together and freeing up space for each other."

Kovalev said the unit has learned to take its time to set up, check to see who is open and then attack.

"Sometimes we were shooting for no purpose," he said. "The difference now is we're moving the puck more and making the right decisions."

Kovalev likes to set up by the boards on the right side, even with the faceoff dot, much like his former Pittsburgh teammate Mario Lemieux used to do, only on the opposite side of the ice.

It gives him the option of feeding Souray or Markov on the points, sliding a pass into the slot or moving in himself to shoot.

The veteran winger said he has picked up a lot from stars he has played with over the years, including Wayne Gretzky, who liked to set up behind the net, and Mark Messier.

"I've always played that way - to try to open up space for myself by the boards, if they give me that," he said.

It seems odd, but the assistant coaches who run Montreal's special teams were in the opposite roles in their playing days.

Doug Jarvis, a champion penalty killer in the 1970s, runs the power play, while Kirk Muller, Montreal's first-line centre in the early 1990s, works with the penalty killing units.

"Who knows better how a power play works than a penalty killer?" said head coach Guy Carbonneau. "And Kirk is the other way."

Carbonneau has much to smile about these days.

Chris Higgins, who missed 18 games with a sprained left ankle, returned on Saturday and by the end of the game was back in his spot on the top line with Koivu and Ryder.

Rookie Guillaume Latendresse was moved to the fourth line with centre Maxim Lapierre, who has two goals and an assist in three games since he was called up from AHL Hamilton, and converted defenceman Mark Streit.

It gives Carbonneau a fourth line that can check and score.

Of late, that has put enforcer Aaron Downey and checking forward Garth Murray out of the lineup and raised questions over who will have to go when veteran Steve Begin returns from his back injury.

"It's going to be hard," said Carbonneau. "One guy's going to have to come off our list.

"We'll make the decision when that time comes."

For now, he's more concerned with gaining ground on Buffalo, which started the season with a 10-game winning streak and slowed only a tad since then. They are coming off a 3-1 loss to their nemesis Ottawa, which has handed the Sabres three of their six losses this season.

"At the start of the year, Buffalo looked unbeatable," said Carbonneau, whose team beat the Sabres 2-1 in overtime on their last trip to Buffalo on Nov. 24. "But if we get to within five points, we don't know how they'll react.

"Maybe their players will find the pressure is heavy. That's what we want to do - put pressure on them and see how they react."



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