Canadiens up to speed

KEN FIDLIN -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 9:48 AM ET

Among the NHL's 30 franchises, there are a lot of happy campers out there enjoying the view of the league's new landscape.

Throughout last summer, general managers fretted and sweated about the kind of team that would thrive in this new, unfettered environment, but few hit the bull's-eye in the way that Montreal's Bob Gainey did.

From a roster that was average at best in the old NHL, Gainey has built a team that suits the game that now is being played to perfection.

With just five losses in their first 22 games, the Habs have exceeded expectations.

Well, okay. Nothing's perfect. But the Habs, who are in town to play the Leafs tonight, have been better than most.

As expected, goaltending has been a critical commodity and in Jose Theodore, the Canadiens have one of the best out there. Like most goalies, he has had to accept that there are going to be more goals scored, especially on the power play.

But Theodore is one of those elite goalies who has the ability to bow his neck and make the "next" save. That's the one that prevents the opposition from taking a 4-3 lead late in the game. Or from winning the game in overtime.

That's what he did on Wednesday, robbing Atlanta's Ilya Kovalchuk on a breakaway in overtime, then backstopped the Habs to a 3-2 win in a shootout.

Of Montreal's 14 wins heading into their game last night in Buffalo, 12 of them have been accomplished by a solitary goal.

Like most of the successful teams this year, the Canadiens have a lineup constructed of speed and skill. The wide-open style suits players like Saku Koivu, Mike Ribeiro, Alexei Kovalev and Michael Ryder.

With Kovalev out for at least another month after knee surgery last week, there is added pressure on the rest of the forwards to make up for his absence.

On defence, Montreal will be a little thin this weekend but that's a familiar tune all over the league. With as much as half the game being played by special teams, either killing a penalty or on the power play, there are teams with defenders routinely recording minutes well into the 30s.

The Habs are no exception. During the Atlanta game, Montreal's top four defencemen -- Francis Bouillon, Matthieu Dandenault, Andrei Markov and Craig Rivet -- played a combined 118 minutes of ice time. That's due, in part, to the fact that Sheldon Souray has been nursing a groin injury that kept him on the sidelines in Buffalo and will do so again tonight. Dandenault has even been doing double-duty, playing on the forward line occasionally.

"We have three very difficult games and we don't want to be in a position where we tire everyone out," coach Claude Julien said. "But sometimes the new NHL doesn't give you any choices. There's not much a coach can do when there's 44 minutes on the power play."

That said, it has been a case of so far, so good for the Canadiens. They've been running just behind the red-hot Senators at the top of the Northeast Division and comfortably ahead of the inconsistent Maple Leafs.

They've even managed to impress one of their legion of legends, Guy Lafleur. Lafleur had been an outspoken critic of the game as it was played before the lockout.

"I really like what I'm seeing," he told the Montreal Gazette. "There are a lot more penalties now, but, hey, they have to call it. There's no more room for players who clutch and grab.

"The atmosphere in the Bell Centre is incredible this year."

As will the atmosphere be in the ACC tonight. This is the fourth meeting of the season between these two ancient rivals, with still four more to come after this. Just another thing to like about the new NHL.


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