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Thursday, February 3, 2011
Never-say-die Habs show mental toughness

By Pierre LeBrun

What is it with this Montreal Canadiens team that just won't go down when it appears it's on the ropes?

A 2-8-0 stretch from Dec. 10-30 gave the appearances of an injury-riddled Habs club heading into non-playoff territory. But just like that comes a 9-2-3 sequence, starting New Year's Eve, that had the Canadiens very much alive and, well, one point out of fifth place in the Eastern Conference as of Wednesday morning.

"Right around Christmas time was a tough stretch for us," Habs captain Brian Gionta told ESPN.com Thursday. "A lot of games on the road, a lot of games in a short amount of time. That kind of stuff wears on you. But I think we found the consistency that we had earlier on in the year which had made us successful."

Carey Price
Carey Price and P.K. Subban celebrate after Montreal rallied from a two-goal deficit and beat the Capitals in a shootout.
They also found the kind of resiliency that was borne out of last spring's stunning playoff upsets of Washington and Pittsburgh. The Canadiens don't overwhelm you on paper, but they've got a mental toughness about them that's really been apparent again over the last month.

"Definitely as of late," Gionta said.

As our colleague Pat Hickey pointed out in the Montreal Gazette on Thursday, the Canadiens have given up the first goal in 11 of the past 14 games and yet have gone 7-2-2 in that stretch. This week, the Habs went down 2-0 in Washington and 1-0 to visiting Florida but came back to win both games.

"At the beginning of the year, we were kind of searching for that," said Gionta. "When we got down a goal or two we got away from our game plan. As of late, we've done a good job even though we get scored on or if things aren't going our way, sticking to our game plan and knowing that it'll pay off at the end of it."

That resilience has come in the wake of losing top-four blueliner Josh Gorges, which was piling on after losing star blueliner Andrei Markov. Both are likely gone for the season. Sniper Mike Cammalleri is also out. But the Canadiens have soldiered on with rookie blueliner P.K. Subban really stepping up in particular.

"Injuries are part of it," said Gionta. "We have enough depth, guys can fill certain roles and some guys have stepped up."

Gionta, who scored his team-leading 19th goal in Wednesday's 3-2 win over the Panthers, has recently been playing on a line with Tomas Plekanec (still vastly underrated around the NHL) and young winger Max Pacioretty. The line has clicked for four goals in the last two games.

"Plekanec is a great, all-around player and he adds a lot to our team," said Gionta. "When he's going, it's a [big] part of our team. With him, he does a great job all over the ice supporting the puck and he's an easy player to play with."

As per the usual Super Bowl weekend tradition, the Canadiens play a pair of weekend matinee games, Saturday against the Rangers (who began Wednesday one point behind Montreal) and Sunday against the Devils.

"It's a big weekend for us. Two tough teams," said Gionta. "Even the Devils on Sunday, they've been playing extremely well of late. Both games are important."

The Canadiens were two points back of Boston for the Northeast Division lead before the Bruins tackled the visiting Stars on Thursday night. That division title is very much the goal.

"For sure, you definitely would like to have home-ice advantage and winning the division is a bonus," said Gionta, a native of Rochester, N.Y. "You want to put yourself in the best position that you can going into the playoffs and continue to play good hockey down the stretch."