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Canadian Press
1/19/2007 5:54:43 PM

MONTREAL (CP) - The mood was loose and easy Friday when the Montreal Canadiens took to the ice for practice. At least until defenceman Janne Niinimaa got nailed in the face by an errant puck.

A dazed Niinimaa was helped off the ice and taken to hospital for stitches and a check-up.

That is how things have been for Canadiens in the last three weeks: just when they think they're back on their feet, they're knocked down and left wondering what hit them.

And coming off a much-needed 4-1 victory in Atlanta, they hope it doesn't happen again when the Northeast Division-leading Buffalo Sabres come to town on Saturday night.

"When you get a week off, it's always nicer and easier to relax when you're not carrying (a slump) on your shoulders," coach Guy Carbonneau said.

The victory over the Thrashers on Thursday night ended a three-game losing streak in which they were outscored 14-3. It was only their fifth win in 14 games since Dec. 23.

But so well did Montreal start the season - they did not lose consecutive games until Dec. 29 and Dec.30 - that they remain where they were when the slump started - in fourth place in the Eastern Conference, although their rivals have closed in on them.

And they beat the Thrashers using the same strengths they relied on in the first half of the season - Cristobal Huet's goaltending and excellent special teams.

Even Sergei Samsonov, who hadn't scored in 18 games since Dec. 12, got his seventh goal of the season, while Alexei Kovalev had one of his best games of the season with his 12th goal and nine shots on net.

"It's nice to score a goal if you haven't scored in a while," said Samsonov. "The most important thing is that we played a good game and beat a pretty good team on the road.

"We played like we did earlier in the season. Everyone enjoyed themselves again and that's a good feeling."

The slump is the first bump in what had been a smooth first season as a head coach for Carbonneau. The former Canadiens captain showed he can be tough when his team doesn't perform.

For a 4-0 loss to Vancouver at home on Tuesday night, he made the bold move of scratching healthy veterans Samsonov and defenceman Craig Rivet, the Canadiens' longest-serving player.

Both were back in the lineup in Atlanta.

Rivet, who stormed out of the Bell Centre when informed he wouldn't play, was somewhat calmer Friday.

"I still don't understand it and I still don't agree with it, but that's in the past and the focus now is to win games," said the 32-year-old native of North Bay, Ont. "Our focus is to play good hockey, which we started (Thursday) night.

"Things happen you don't like, but you have to stay positive," he added. "It's behind me. We can't do anything about it."

Rivet has been the subject of trade rumours of late, including one sending him to Chicago for the struggling Adrian Aucoin.

Blackhawks GM Dale Tallon flatly denied that, however, on Friday.

"We haven't talked to Montreal," Tallon told The Canadian Press. "This all started because I was at the Montreal-Vancouver game this week en route to the Top Prospects Game (in Quebec City). It's amazing how rumours start."

The moves by Carbonneau seemed to work as the Canadiens skated hard against Atlanta, although they were outshot 45-33 and leaned heavily on Huet's goaltending.

"You make changes because you want to provoke a reaction," said Carbonneau. "I'm paid to make these decisions.

"I'm not scared to make them. Guys weren't happy, but here, it's always going to be about the team and not the individual."

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