Habs' youngsters playing key role

LANCE HORNBY -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 10:33 AM ET

Saku Koivu and the Montreal Canadiens weren't impressed with their first look at the National Hockey League schedule.

"We were a little bit afraid, three road games against three tough teams," said the Habs captain, who was named first star after last night's 5-4 win over the Maple Leafs. "We knew it could go either way. But when you win three to start, sure you can build some things around that."

The Canadiens victory sent them winging home in first place in the Northeast Division. By their own account, they've been lucky at times and have a lot to improve on, yet they just decked three Original Six foes (Leafs, Boston Bruins and New York Rangers).

"Later in the year, because of the Olympics, the schedule will be worse," said Mike Ribeiro, who had the game-winner last night. "We have (16) games in March. We really need to adjust ourselves and take the breaks in the schedule. It will be the same for every team, so there are no excuses."

The Canadiens' young players once more had a hand in the win, Alex Perezhogin scoring the opening goal, with Steve Begin, Mark Streit and Chris Higgins also getting points.

"This was a very good time for the young guys on our team to have some bonding and get to know the other players better," Koivu said.

Montreal (3-0) won despite a shaky night from goalie Jose Theodore.

"We knew early in the season we would make some mistakes and we've had our share the first three games," Theodore said. "But tonight we showed some character. Usually when your goalie lets in some soft ones, you lose."

Despite just 2:51 of ice time, it was a glorious night for winger Raitis Ivanans. The game culminated an eight-year climb through every rung of the minors.

He had plenty of people to thank; the Bell family in Aurora who billeted the big Latvian as a 17-year-old when he played junior hockey in Milton. The cast of Friends, the TV show he credits with improving his English. Doug Gilmour for being a Saturday night role model with the Leafs on Hockey Night. And the Habs for signing him as a free agent in July 2004.

But the 6-foot-4, 263-pound winger should give himself a pat on the back for hanging in.

His amazing minor-hockey log spans every league on the continent, with stops in Flint, Macon, Tulsa, New Haven, Hershey, Toledo, Baton Rouge, Rockford, Milwaukee, the Hamilton Bulldogs of the AHL last year and now, the Habs.

"I always dreamed to play in this city and now it's so weird to be here," Ivanans said. "I looked at other guys I knew who were in the NHL and thought if they can be here, there has to be a way for me."


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