Habs take strong goaltending, tight defence into first meeting with Bruins

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BROSSARD, Que. - Whenever the Montreal Canadiens visit the Boston Bruins, defenceman Josh Gorges gets excited.

"I love going to Boston because you know it's not going to be an easy night," Gorges said Wednesday. "You're prepared for it.

"You know you're going to get hit, beat up, that they're going to come out hard, the fans are going to be screaming at you. It's a playoff-type atmosphere even though it's only 15 or 16 games into the season."

The Canadiens face their Northeast Division rival for the first time this season on Thursday night in what is expected, as most Boston-Montreal games are, to be a tight, physical and low-scoring battle.

The Bruins, buoyed by the return to form of veteran goalie Tim Thomas, are second only to the St. Louis Blues in goals allowed per game. The Canadiens, coming off a 35-stop performance by Carey Price in a 2-0 win over Vancouver on Tuesday night, are the NHL's fifth-stingiest team.

Montreal is the NHL's only team not to have allowed more than three goals in regulation time in a game this season. They were beaten 4-3 by Tampa Bay in overtime in their third game.

Montreal will have the advantage of getting into Boston while the Bruins are playing in Pittsburgh on Wednesday night. Thomas was tabbed to start in Pittsburgh and it was not known whether he or backup Tuukka Rask would face the Canadiens.

Thomas lost the starting job to Rask last season, but won it back this season with three shutouts and a 1.01 goals-against average in his first eight starts.

Price was bumped from his starting job midway through the 2009-10 campaign by Jaroslav Halak and, when the Canadiens traded the Slovak to St. Louis in the summer, there was widespread doubt about Montreal's goaltending.

But the 23-year-old Price has gone 8-5-1 in 14 starts with a solid 2.19 goals-against average, two shutouts and .922 save percentage. Halak has done even better with the Blues, starting 8-1-1 with a 1.46 GAA, but hand-wringing over the trade in Montreal has abated.

"The doubts all came from people outside this room," said Gorges. "No one in here wrote him off.

"And now he's really playing. It's fun to see him play at that high level."

It has helped to have the team playing strong defensive hockey in front of Price, especially with some of the team's top offensive players, including Michael Cammalleri, Brian Gionta and Scott Gomez, in scoring droughts.

"It's a couple of factors—people knowing the system, having a lot of returning players," said coach Jacques Martin. "And having a good defence helps your goals against, having guys who get the puck out of the zone.

"Carey learned a lot last year. It was a difficult year for him because he didn't have the success that was expected, but he matured a lot."

Price did not have a lot of work in the first two periods against Vancouver, but had to be sharp on two short-handed chances by the Canucks in the second period. He excelled in the third frame with 20 saves.

"We've given up a lot of odd-man rushes and he's stood tall for us, so I don't know if we've given up less chances this season," said Gorges. "We've given up more chances than we'd like to."

The Canadiens have shuffled two defence pairs since top rearguard Andrei Markov returned from injury five games ago and so far, they've worked out well.

The Czech pair of Roman Hamrlik and Jaroslav Spacek who helped to hold Vancouver's top line to only two shots on goal remains intact, but Gorges has been paired with Markov while veteran Hal Gill is now with rookie P.K. Subban, matching the team's slowest and fastest defencemen.

With Markov on ice for major minutes each game, Subban's ice time has dropped below 20 minutes per game of late, but he is not complaining.

"Hal's a reliable guy back there, he's always talking to me and it makes the game easier," said Subban, who has six assists and is plus-4 this season. "We compliment each other well.

"I have a lot of guys I can learn from here with a lot of experience and it's my job to soak it all in."

With Hamrlik's power play goal against the Canucks, the Canadiens found themselves ahead of New Jersey and out of last place in the 30-team league with the man advantage, although still with a weak 7.8 per cent success rate.

Martin said that placing Dustin Boyd on waivers this week was only to see if other teams had interest in him. Boyd went unclaimed and remains with the team as its 13th forward.



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