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Habs Higgins says playing hungry the key to proving doubters wrong

"I know a lot of people have us down and out and not making the playoffs, but it comes from within, from chemistry, and hopefully the young guys will find that early and ride it the rest of the year," Higgins said Thursday as the Canadiens reported for training camp at the Bell Centre.

"Youthful energy is going to be a big part of the team."

Higgins even found a theme for the Canadiens season - hunger.

"The main word for this year is hunger," he said. "Guys have to want it.

"And if you play hungry, more often than not you're going to win games. That's the sentiment we have to have in the locker-room every night."

With power-play weapon Sheldon Souray gone as a free agent to Edmonton and no major off-season signings on attack (they struck out on Daniel Briere and Ryan Smyth), the Canadiens will need their young guns to produce.

The 24-year-old Higgins, 25-year-old centre Tomas Plekanec, 22-year-old winger Andrei Kostitsyn and 20-year-old Guillaume Latendresse will all be looked to for more goals, while Mike Komisarek, 25, will take a larger role on the defence.

There are also jobs open for rookies, with goalteding phenom Carey Price, six-foot-five defenceman Ryan O'Byrne and forwards Kyle Chipchura and Matt d'Agostini among the favourites to stick with the NHL club.

The 62 players who will begin three days of practice and intrasquad games Friday at the suburban Sportplexe 4-Glaces Pierrefonds had medical and conditioning tests on Thursday.

That is, all except newly re-acquired defenceman Patrice Brisebois, who will be out of action a week with a strained groin suffered during workouts two weeks ago.

New faces on the team include veteran defenceman Roman Hamrlik and Jamie Rivers, veteran centre Bryan Smolinski and checking forward Tom Kostopoulos.

Gone are Souray, defenceman Janne Niinimaa, checkers Radek Bonk and Mike Johnson, backup goalie David Aebischer and unhappy winger Sergei Samsonov. Also, young forward Alexander Perezhogin signed with a Russian club.

Souray's departure and the loss of Craig Rivet in a trade to San Jose late last season has also left a leadership void.

"There's a good opportunity for younger players to fill those roles," said captain Saku Koivu, who is coming off a career-high 75-point season. "I don't see a problem with that.

"It happens on every team - guys retire or go somewhere else and that's when younger guys have to do the job. The thing we have to do better is to be more consistent and win games on nights when we're not playing our best. I think we added players that will help us do that."

Last season, the Canadiens started strong, then nosedived after a flu bug swept through the dressing room in December.

They rallied late and had a chance to grab the eighth and final Eastern Conference playoff spot in their last regular season game, but blew a two-goal lead and lost 6-5 in Toronto.

After the loss, Higgins questioned the chemistry on a team that had been wedged apart by Samsonov's requests for a trade, Alex Kovalev's criticism of coach Guy Carbonneau and some teammates in a Russian radio interview, and the benching followed by the trade of the popular Rivet.

"I thought we had a good team and that if we made it to the playoffs, we could do some damage, especially against Buffalo," said Higgins. "They were the one team I was looking forward to playing, but it didn't work out.

"We had that weird last game. That drove home why we didn't make the playoffs - how we lost that last game. We were up 5-3 and it went pretty sour, pretty quickly after that."

The team will be split into two squads for a run of six pre-season games in seven days next week, then cut to 26 or 27 for the final two exhibition matches.

The pressing needs are to rebuild the Souray-less powerplay and find a way to score more goals at even strength, where they were minus-29 last season.

The defence is anchored by the Komisarek-Andrei Markov duo. Hamrlik's defence partner must be identified. Brisebois' also. Francis Bouillon and Mathieu Dandenault will be pressed by youngers, while the versatile Mark Streit will likely see more action at forward.

Rivers, O'Byrne, Josh Gorges, Jean-Philippe Cote and newcomer Pavel Valentenko will be battling for jobs.

But the big question in camp is whether Price can bump Cristobal Huet from the No. 1 goaltender's job and stay with the NHL team. If not, the 20-year-old who backstopped Canada to gold at the world junior championships and Hamilton to a Calder Cup last season will return to the AHL.

Last year's top line of Koivu, Higgins and Michael Ryder should endure, but who plays on the next line with Kovalev? Perhaps Plekanec and Latendresse, but the gifted Kostitsyn could be ready for a breakout year.

Smolinski will likely centre the third line and Kostopoulos is a natural linemate, while Steve Begin will battle to keep his spot after a subpar 2006-07 campaign. Maxim Lapierre and Garth Murray are back, and there are openings for youngsters.

Chipchura, d'Agostini, centre Mikhail Grabovski, winger Duncan Milroy are in the mix. And who knows, Kostitsyn's younger brother Sergei and junior-aged Ben Maxwell could cause surprises.



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