Surprising Habs confound experts

LANCE HORNBY, SUN MEDIA

, Last Updated: 7:31 AM ET

MONTREAL -- The Maple Leafs aren't the neighbourhood's only Original Six team that thinks the hockey world is passing them by.

The Canadiens' failure to make the playoffs last year, the loss of defenceman Sheldon Souray to the Edmonton Oilers via free agency and the inability to land any big fish did not convince many pundits that a return to glory was imminent.

It has been almost 15 years since Montreal most recently won the Stanley Cup, its longest drought.

Yet, they are one of the surprises of the young season, generating 3.4 goals a game after last night's 3-2 loss to the Leafs, confounding the experts with a league-best power play (a 31% success rate prior to the game), and losing only three times in regulation.

They even waded through their first tempest-in-a-teapot language issue, deciding captain Saku Koivu should give his game-night video intro of the team in French.

"Everyone reads the paper," coach Guy Carbonneau said of most pre-season predictions lumping the Habs with the Leafs as playoff wannabes. "We know we have a good team, but to keep improving, we have to beat better teams."

Since the Leafs went back into the Eastern Conference in 1998 and opened the Air Canada Centre with an overtime win over Montreal, they've held an edge in the series and every game seems like a close shave, with four shootouts, one overtime and a one-goal decision in the past nine meetings.

A 6-5 Toronto win on April 7 last season eliminated Montreal from the playoffs, though the Leafs followed suit the next day. Fittingly, the two wrap up this season with consecutive Saturday night games in each other's barns.

"It seems they're always a terrific battle," Michael Ryder said. "But we learned a lot from the way last season ended."

Winger Tom Kostopoulos, a Mississauga native, has seen both sides of the rivalry.

"I grew up a huge Leafs fan, but my friends are half and half now," Kostopoulos said. "It's a special feeling to look across at that Leafs' crest."

Meanwhile, Leafs winger Simon Gamache, from Thetford Mines, near Quebec City, had not made an NHL stop here since becoming a pro hockey journeyman after 389 points in three years as a junior with Val d'Or.

"Let's not kid ourselves, I was a Nordiques fan," Gamache said. "I left here when I was 20 (in 2001) and I miss it here, but that's the business."


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