Montreal Canadiens goalie Jaroslav Halak is one of four hot rookies expected to play a big role in the team\'s playoff drive. (CP PICTURE ARCHIVE/AP/Mark Humphrey)
The Habs have won four of five games the past two weeks, with rookies Guillaume Latendresse, Jaroslav Halak, Andrei Kostitsyn and Maxim Lapierre playing key roles in the victories.
Latendresse, the 19-year-old winger who cracked the Canadiens roster straight out of junior hockey last September, has five goals in the last six games to give him 16 in a promising rookie campaign.
"I didn't think I'd get five goals, so right now it's really positive," he said. "The young guys are playing good. We're scoring some goals, but the veterans are helping us a lot. They talk to us. It's a mix of everyone playing well."
The six-foot-two winger scored the lone goal in a 1-0 win over the Boston Bruins on Tuesday night, when rookie goaltender Halak got his first shutout in his ninth NHL game.
In a 3-2 win over Toronto on Saturday night, Kostitsyn scored in regulation time and got the shootout winner. He also had three assists in a 5-3 win over the New York Islanders last week.
The speedy Lapierre doesn't score much, but has developed into a strong checking centre, lately on an energetic line with Latendresse and veteran Alex Kovalev.
For coach Guy Carbonneau, it is a vindication of the approach general manager Bob Gainey adopted when he took over the job in 2003 - to rebuild the Canadiens through the draft.
Last season, it was Chris Higgins, Mike Komisarek and Tomas Plekanec who established themselves as regulars.
"Bob had a plan when he got here and he didn't deviate from that even though it didn't always please people," said Carbonneau. "Look at the Buffalo Sabres. They're successful because they developed their players.
"That's the future of the Canadiens."
It was in that vein that Gainey dealt veteran defenceman Craig Rivet to San Jose before the Feb. 27 trading deadline for a first round draft pick and young blue-liner Josh Gorges, even if it may have made this year's playoff drive tougher on his team.
Montreal still has some fine prospects working their way up, including Kostitsyn's brother Sergei, who was third in Ontario Hockey League scoring this season with the London Knights.
They also have blue-chip goaltending prospect Carey Price of Tri-City in the WHL, Mikhail Grabovski, a quick-footed centre with AHL Hamilton, and a handful of others.
Fans were angry when Latendresse was sent back to his junior team, the Drummondville Voltigeurs, after training camp in 2005. The Montreal-area native made the team at his second camp, but has had an up-and-down rookie campaign.
He went on a scoring tear in November while playing on captain Saku Koivu's line, but then went into a prolonged slump. Carbonneau banished him to the pressbox for a game on Feb. 24 with a message to step up his effort.
It looks to have worked.
"Guillaume came up this year and a lot of people said it was just because he's French," said Carbonneau. "But he deserved to be here and he's showing that.
"I think the experience last year when he went back to juniors really helped him. A lot of people didn't like it, but that was the best decision for him and the team. He came up this year better prepared and he wanted to prove something."
Latendresse uses his big body to hit defencemen and battle for pucks along the boards. Carbonneau said the biggest improvement has been in his defensive game.
"He's been a better player not because of his offence, but because of his defence," he said. "I'm not afraid to use him in any situation."
Kostitsyn, drafted 10th overall in 2003, was in his second season in Hamilton when he was called up on Feb. 22, sent back, and recalled on Feb. 27. He has a goal and six assists in eight games since then.
The right-winger has impressive speed and passing skills and at six-foot 205 pounds can handle the physical game.
Lapierre, a second-round choice in 2003, had three goals and an assist in a four-game call-up in December, but has only four more points in 34 games since his recall on Jan. 6.
He is fast and likes to use his six-foot-two 196-pound frame to lay on hits on the forecheck.
Halak, picked 271st overall in 2003, was called up Feb. 18 when starter Cristobal Huet tore a hamstring. He won his first three starts, but lost his next four.
The Canadiens considered sending him back to Hamilton, but David Aebischer played so poorly he got another chance and now has won two straight starts, including his shutout of the Bruins.
Halak is the first Canadiens rookie goalie to win 1-0 since Ken Dryden in 1972. And it was the first 1-0 game in team history in which a rookie goalie got the win and another rookie scored the goal.
"You have to give credit to the coaching staff in Hamilton," said winger Mike Johnson. "They've prepared (the rookies) to play at the NHL level.
"It speaks to their confidence. They're not afraid to come up here and be creative."
Halak will be back in the net when Montreal plays a return match in Boston on Thursday night.