Canadiens unaccustomed to view from the top during playoff stretch drive

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MONTREAL - It wasn't so long ago that battling for first place was routine for the Montreal Canadiens.

But sitting near the top of the NHL's Eastern Conference, as they are heading into the home stretch of the regular season, is an unfamiliar view for the current edition of the 24-time Stanley Cup championship club, which has had to fight tooth and nail just to try to secure a playoff spot every season since its last Cup victory in '93.

"Yeah, it's different, but we're still battling upwards," winger Christopher Higgins said Tuesday as the Canadiens prepared to face the New Jersey Devils. "We're in a race for first with three other teams and we still have that goal in mind if getting first place.

"It's sort of the same thing, but a little different when you know we have a playoff spot, for now at least, although nothing's for certain."

Montreal can move atop the Eastern Conference with a win over New Jersey.

But there are five teams in the thick of the race for first - New Jersey, Montreal, Pittsburgh, Ottawa and the New York Rangers, with Boston and Philadelphia not that far behind.

But barring a major meltdown, which is not out of the question with a rookie-laden lineup, the end-of-season anxiety over making the playoffs should not be as severe this time, especially with eight of its final 12 games to be played at home. Playing .500 hockey down the stretch would give them 97 points, which should easily be enough.

Last season, the Canadiens missed the postseason with a season-ending loss in Toronto. The two previous seasons they clawed their way in.

"When I see that little asterisk beside our name (indicating a playoff spot clinched) I'll be happy, not before," said coach Guy Carbonneau. "Everyone in our conference is still battling for a playoff spot.

"It will be hard to go from first to eighth or ninth or 10th, but the chance is still there, so we want to be sharp. And if we do make the playoffs, we want to be on a high, not a low."

The Canadiens' schedule includes three more games against Ottawa, who give them all sorts of trouble, and two against Boston, against whom they are 6-0 this season. The rest are against clubs fighting for their playoff lives, who may be the most dangerous opponents of all.

Add to that the pressure that may set in on a team with two rookie goalies - Carey Price and Jaroslav Halak - as well as at least six skaters in either their first or second year who play regularly.

Carbonneau is not worried.

"If you look at the last couple of months, we just got better with the pressure," he said. "We're still a young team that's learning to play and win the battles.

"We saw that last week on the road trip against Anaheim and San Jose, who have a lot of experience. I don't think we reacted the right way. We were not as patient as we should have been, but I think every game we play we get better."

The Canadiens won two and lost two on a four-game western swing last week, marked by a letdown in their defensive game that saw them surrender an average of 38 shots per game. Goaltending and their league-best power play allowed them to claim four of a possible eight points.

"We lacked a bit of that intensity to win," said Higgins. "Some of our battles along the boards weren't were they should have been.

"But we were playing some pretty good hockey and were due for a little letdown. We don't want it go down to where it was when we were giving up 35 shots game, but we've got games left to get that intensity back and be ready for the postseason."

Some wonder if the Canadiens would be better off trying to pick a spot to finish to avoid facing teams that give them fits, like New Jersey, Ottawa or the Rangers, in the first round. Higgins said that is easier said than done.

"Everyone looks at the standings to see who they'd rather play against, but you get in trouble thinking like that - trying to place your team where you think you'll play the team you have the best chance against," he said. "You just try to grab the highest spot you can.

"First is our objective and whoever comes in eighth, we'll be ready for them."



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