Habs a cohesive unit

AL STRACHAN -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 10:22 AM ET

When the schedule was released, it looked like the Road Trip From Hell.

The Montreal Canadiens are turning it into the Road Trip to Heaven.

Consider this: Six road games in 10 nights. Up and down the east coast of the United States, with a detour into Toronto.

It's the kind of trip that could kill your playoff hopes and, by extension, your season.

But the Canadiens won the first three -- 5-3 over the New York Islanders, 1-0 over the Florida Panthers and 6-2 over the Tampa Bay Lightning.

Last night, they were in Philadelphia for the fourth game of the trip, losing in a shootout 5-4 but gaining another valuable point. Tonight, they'll be in Toronto for a game that could all but put an end to the Leafs' playoff aspirations.

The two teams were only a point apart after the Olympic break, but since they returned to work, they've been going in opposite directions.

"We were already playing good hockey before the Olympic break," explained Montreal forward Steve Begin. "We were playing with confidence, and it's that confidence that we brought with us on this trip."

Another contributing factor is the togetherness that has blossomed in the Montreal room.

"The ambience is very good," explained goaltender Cristobal Huet.

"All the players were very happy to get back together. The guys who didn't go to the Olympics wanted to take some of the load off the guys who did. We all wanted to show the direction."

Huet certainly has done his share in that regard.

He is known to the Montreal team as "The Cousin," a reference to the fact that he's French, not French-Canadian, and he has been a godsend, having taken over for Jose Theodore, who has had what Queen Elizabeth would refer to as an annus horribilis.

There have been scandals, injuries and mediocre performances, and now Theodore, the darling of Montreal hockey fans not long ago, is all but off the radar screen.

The Leafs have played the Canadiens only once since general manager Bob Gainey took over as coach and, at that point, he was still feeling his way.

Now, however, Gainey is firmly entrenched behind the bench, and this team is considerably different than the one the Leafs faced earlier in the season.

During the first weeks of his tenure, Gainey called in players for one-on-one chats. Sometimes, they were simply the sharing of ideas. In other cases, they bordered on disciplinary hearings. Gainey was not happy with the effort exhibited by some players and he made his point forcefully.

But now, the team has four set lines and three set defence pairings. And they all are contributing.

Just like the Buffalo Sabres, who have credited the concept with much of their success, the Canadiens roll four lines and constantly apply pressure.

To put together his top line, Gainey called upon his experience as coach of the Dallas Stars in the years leading up to their Stanley Cup triumph.

He looked at Chris Higgins and saw another Jere Lehtinen, one of the most under-rated talents in the league.

"He has talent on top of having discipline," said Gainey of Higgins, the Canadiens' hottest scorer at the moment. "He has a good sense of the game. He can play in all the major situations and in that sense, he reminds me of Lehtinen.

"Lehtinen is a European and it took more time for him to acclimatize himself. But players like Lehtinen, we could use 20 on a team."

So at the moment, life is rosy for the Canadiens.

But this is professional sport and pride can quickly lead to a fall, as "The Cousin" reminded his teammates.

"All this remains very fragile," he said. "We must never forget what is needed to win. It's better to remain humble."


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