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MONTREAL (CP) - Give round one to the Montreal Canadiens.

Alex Kovalev led a four-goal first-period outburst with a goal and an assist as the Canadiens defeated Toronto 5-1 Thursday in the first of a two-game series with the Maple Leafs.

The NHL's two oldest rivals will meet again at the Bell Centre on Saturday night, with Montreal now only a slim point out of a playoff spot and Toronto needing the win to stay in the hunt.

Atlanta beat New Jersey 6-5 in overtime to move within a point of the Devils for seventh place in the Eastern Conference, one point ahead of ninth-place Montreal. The Leafs (32-21-6) dropped five points behind Montreal (33-27-9).

"Hopefully we can stay on top of things. The next game is as big as this one."

Chris Higgins, Mathieu Dandenault, Sheldon Souray and Kovalev scored in the opening period and Alexander Perezhogin had the other goal for Montreal, which stopped a three-game home losing streak.

Jeff O'Neill had a power-play goal in the second period for Toronto, which saw its two-game winning streak come to an end.

The Leafs held a team meeting after the game.

"We've had enough closed-door meetings this year," said forward Darcy Tucker. "We don't need another one - the score said it all."

Added captain Mats Sundin: "We all know what has to be done. The big thing is to remember this feeling and make sure it's not there again on Saturday."

The early goals took the large and usually boisterous contingent of Toronto fans in the sellout crowd of 21,273 out of the game as the Canadiens dominated and their fans sang their Na Na Goodbye song through the final minutes.

And the public address system played the French national anthem for Canadiens goaltender Cristobal Huet, a Grenoble native who made 33 saves for the win.

But Koivu expects a tougher match in the finale of the two-game set. "We've seen it so many times that what happens in one game doesn't mean anything in the next," he said. "The situation hasn't changed much for us or anyone else.

"There's a lot of huge points to be won and hopefully we can get two of those on Saturday."

The Leafs announced Thursday morning that No. 1 goaltender Ed Belfour would miss the rest of the season, giving Mikael Tellqvist the top job, but the Swedish 'keeper was victimized for four goals on his first 11 shots in his seventh straight start.

None were all his fault, as the Leafs showed some sloppy defence and penalty killing.

The Leafs had the first good scoring chance as defenceman Luke Richardson went in on a breakaway, but his pass to Darcy Tucker failed to connect.

After a turnover in the neutral zone, Koivu broke down the right side and slipped a pass across the crease for Higgins to bang in at 4:35. Only 12 seconds later, Dandenault was left alone at the doorstep to slam in Radek Bonk's pass.

"We were trying to have some jump early and take them out of the game and that's exactly what happened," said Higgins. "We got a couple of quick goals and kept pressing from there.

"We've had a lot of trouble scoring lately, so to pump in five was a boost and hopefully we can carry that momentum into Saturday night."

Souray drilled a bullet shot in from the point on a power play at 9:51 and Kovalev put a hard wrist shot under the crossbar on another man advantage at 17:56.

The Leafs got on the board 5:53 into the second, when O'Neill misfired one shot then banked one in off Huet from the side of the net.

Perezhogin went around the net and tucked a goal in at 11:05.

Saturday's game will be the eighth and final meeting this season between the teams, with Toronto holding a 4-3 edge thus far.

Dandenault scored only once in his first 64 games as a Canadien this season, but has three in his last five games.

Notes - Tie Domi and Clarke Wilm were both healthy scratches for a second straight game for Toronto, while Andrew Wozniewski also sat out. . . A surprise scratch for Montreal was winger Jan Bulis, while Niklas Sundstrom and Aaron Downey also sat out. Francis Bouillon missed a third game with a left leg injury



I watched the game last night and I must say, that I am extremely disappointed in the Maple Leafs performance. Coming off the heels of a two game skid and beating, arguably, the best team in the NHL today, 3-2 the other night... Only to come back tonight, to face against a team we are chasing for that 8th and final playoff spot and put on the lackluster performance that they did.

Telly let in four goals in under 20 minutes of play. That was the nail in the coffin, but what really killed us, was letting in TWO goals in approximately 12 seconds. That is UNCALLED for from our defensemen AND our goaltender.

Telly was needed to come up huge and he dropped the ball, BIG time. After coming off a shutout and then only letting in two goals, he lets in 4 goals on about 10-11 shots. That's atrocious and uninspired hockey. It makes me sick as a Leafs fan to watch this display put on, while their playoff hopes are dwindling by each game.

The Thrashers are up two points, Canadiens pick up two and the Devils even pick up a point. This season is done for the Maple Leafs most likely, unless they win the next two KEY games.

It's CRUNCH time! I still Beleaf! :cool:

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well good luck to them.. That defense needs to be tighter... It's kinda weak. They need to do something with that. And by all means lets get the offense to scoring a bit more.

They need to get the goalie pumped up.. try to encourage him a little. encouragement goes a long way.

Defense really needs work though.. i just cant stress that enough!
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