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Habs spending time watching video of games

Montreal Canadiens' Benoit Pouliot celebrates with Jaroslav Spacek (6) and Lars Eller, right, after Pouliot scored during the second period of an NHL hockey game against the New Jersey Devils, Thursday, Dec. 2, 2010, in Newark, N.J. The Canadiens won 5-1.

Bill Kostroun

The computer is set up for those self-critical souls who are unafraid of being confronted by video evidence of their shortcomings.

It sits in a room at the Montreal Canadiens' training complex, humming at the ready.

"We can go watch games the next day with our shifts highlighted, it emphasizes those fine details that you don't maybe see when you're in the middle of the game," said Habs defenceman Josh Gorges. "As we keep going, we keep fine tuning the little things, any good team knows that's the key to success."

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If the Canadiens can preoccupy themselves with minutiae and nuance, it's because they've rolled through the first third of the season, exceeding expectations at every turn.

And while the video might occasionally make for gruesome viewing for some players - such as promising rookie defenceman P.K. Subban, who has been a healthy scratch for two games - others could be forgiven for playing their recent performances in a loop.

Subban's fellow 21-year-old rookie Lars Eller, for example.

The Danish centre, acquired this past summer in the trade involving the rock-star-popular Jaroslav Halak, has four points in his past six games, and has looked a force playing with 24-year-old sniper Benoît Pouliot and 34-year-old veteran Mathieu Darche.

Eller spent some time in the press box in early November, and began to assert himself shortly after returning.

"You want to play every game, and I think ever since then, my game started going the right direction," he said. "It's decision-making, and anticipation, both with and without the puck, just getting used to the pace of the game ... the more complete you are, the more ice time you're going to get."

Pouliot compares his young linemate's recent play - "he's not scared of anyone, goes to the corners, moves the puck well" - to that of top-line pivot Tomas Plekanec, who has quietly become one of the NHL's elite two-way centres.

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That Eller has flashed his offensive touch of late - coach Jacques Martin said the turning point was likely his first goal as a Hab against the Los Angeles Kings last month - has altered the Montreal alignment subtly, but meaningfully.

Having four centres who can credibly be called two-way threats (this is more true at the moment of Eller than say, Scott Gomez, although the latter is showing signs of life as well) makes the Habs more difficult to defend - as they showed against the San Jose Sharks on Saturday.

It helps that the Canadiens have allowed the second-fewest number of goals in the NHL this season and own the league's top penalty-killing unit.

That might explain how they've been able amass a 13-5-2 record this season without standout defenceman Andrei Markov, who will miss the rest of the year with a knee injury, and can afford to temporarily leave Subban on the sidelines.

Clearly, Martin hopes Subban will react in the way Eller did, although he will have to displace fellow youngster Yannick Weber, who has played in the Habs' past two wins.

"Competition is a great motivator," Martin said.

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Their weekend victory over the Sharks - Montreal is one of only five Eastern Conference teams with a winning record against the West - means the Habs have won back-to-back games for the first time in nearly three weeks.

They'll be looking to run that string to three against the scuffling Ottawa Senators at the Bell Centre on Tuesday.

Ottawa has won only three of its past 10 games, but one of those came against the New York Rangers on Sunday, and the Sens always provide stout opposition in Montreal.

When the teams last met on Nov. 6, Brian Elliott backstopped Ottawa to a 3-2 victory. Since then, Ottawa has limped along to a 5-8-1 record - it now finds itself 10 points behind division-leading Montreal.

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About the Author
National Correspondent

Sean Gordon joined the Globe's Quebec bureau in 2008 and covers the Canadiens, Alouettes and Impact, as well as Quebec's contingent of Olympic athletes. More

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