MONTREAL - It was a loose, confident group of Montreal Canadiens who took the ice for practice on Wednesday, fresh from a team-record comeback the night before over the New York Rangers.
The Canadiens, picked by most pundits to miss the playoffs for a second year in a row, keep surprising themselves and the rest of the NHL with their consistently strong play. Tuesday night was the most thrilling example yet, after Montreal rallied from a 5-0 deficit to stun the Rangers 6-5 in a shootout.
The win kept them in a tie in points with Eastern Conference-leading Ottawa, though the Senators retain first place with two more wins and a game in hand.
A recurring theme in post-game interviews after the comeback was that last season's Canadiens lacked the confidence - and the will - to stage such a rally.
"We've had everyone on the same page since Day One," coach Guy Carbonneau said. "We've been consistent.
"Our goaltending is solid. Our defence has been strong. And we've been able to score goals, which wasn't the case last year."
The Canadiens were in the middle of the pack in goals scored last season, but their 192 goals is now third in the league behind Ottawa and Detroit.
They take a four-game winning streak - which ties their season high from Oct. 20-27 - into a home game Thursday night against Pittsburgh. The Penguins have been an even bigger surprise with their strong play since star centre Sidney Crosby suffered a high ankle sprain on Jan. 18.
In 14 games without Crosby, the Penguins are 8-4-2. Evgeni Malkin, who played second fiddle to Crosby, has 27 points in that span and now is battling Washington's Alexander Ovechkin for the league scoring lead. Ryan Malone has chipped in eight goals.
The Penguins made clear they would not fold up the tent with Crosby gone by winning the first game after his injury 2-0 in Montreal. Crosby has been skating of late, but did not practice Wednesday. No date has been set for his return.
Carbonneau said the 5-0 lead his team spotted the Rangers is enough to remind his team to keep its feet on the ground, despite the rousing comeback that had the 21,273 Bell centre fans in a frenzy.
Captain Saku Koivu, who scored the game-winner in a shootout, said this season's Canadiens are healthier and a little more experienced than the 2006-07 squad, which blew a lead in its final regular-season game in Toronto last April to miss the playoffs."The consistency has been there a lot more than last year," he said. "When you win, it builds team confidence and that's one thing we were missing last year, in the second half especially.
"But we had some tough injuries last year and this year we haven't. And the younger guys are a year older and more experienced and it seems we handle ourselves a bit better than last year."
With 21 games left to play, nothing is settled in a conference in which the ninth-place team is only nine points behind, but the Canadiens like the view from near the top after years of having to battle to the end to see if they make it to the post-season.
"We're playing good hockey," said winger Chris Higgins. "A lot of our game looks good.
"Our penalty killing could be a little better but a light, fun practice like we had (Wednesday) is good for the direction we're heading in."
Higgins said the team's collapse after a strong first half last season made them more determined not to let it happen again.
"A lot of guys took that to heart, that we don't want that to happen again," he said. "It's pretty embarrassing when that happens, especially playing in this city.
"The fans expect way more than that. Guys realize that they have to battle each night, no matter what the score is."
Rookie Carey Price, who was chased in the first period of his fourth straight start, will cede the net to veteran Cristobal Huet.