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The lines are drawn

Thornton ready to put a charge into his game

MONTREAL -- On Sunday night, the Canadiens got what they waited weeks for: a standout performance from forward Alexei Kovalev and linemates Richard Zednik and Saku Koivu. Kovalev, the talented but underachieving right wing who was acquired from the Rangers at the trade deadline, potted two goals in Montreal's 3-2 win over the Bruins at the Bell Centre.

Tonight, in Game 4 of the Eastern Conference quarterfinal playoff series, the Bruins are hoping their so-far dormant top line of center Joe Thornton, left wing Mike Knuble, and right wing Glen Murray will get back to form. In the first three games of this series -- two of which have been won by Boston -- that line has combined for just 1 point (a Knuble goal in Game 1).

Thornton, who has been playing with an upper-body injury believed to be ribs, was in a very chipper mood after practice yesterday.

"I felt healthy," he said. "I felt really good. So hopefully I'll come out [tonight] with a good effort. The first two games, I just tried to do things that I normally don't do. [In Game 3] I kind of felt a little bit better so I could go back to the things I'm usually used to doing."

The line, which has been battling the Kovalev line the last two games, looked pretty strong in the third period of Game 3 but had nothing to show for it. Thornton expects that to change.

"Obviously as a line we got some chances," he said. "We need to bury a couple of them. Glen hit the post one time. They're a good line and we just have to stay focused and hopefully we'll play in their end more than they'll play in ours. I have a lot of confidence in our line and myself so hopefully [tonight] will be the game where we explode and help our team win."

Coach Mike Sullivan was quick to defend the way his big line has been playing.

"Obviously, we rely on those guys to carry the load, so to speak, offensively for us," said the coach. "They've done it all year long for us. There's no doubt in my mind they'll continue to do it for us. I've said it before, as a coaching staff, we don't just evaluate our players based on goals and assists and points. We do rely on certain guys to put the puck in the net for us but there are a lot of other things that go on out there that help teams be successful.

"There are some nights when Joe's line hasn't earned a point and has been by far the best line we've had on the ice. Joe's line is a line that plays a lot of minutes and that we rely on. I think if you ask them, they feel as though they can produce and they will produce and we've got some games coming up here where they'll have an opportunity to do that."

Both Knuble and Thornton were minus-2 in Game 3, which didn't sit well with them. Knuble said it didn't feel great knowing he was on for two Montreal goals that were assisted by goaltender Jose Theodore.

"When the goaltender has two assists against your line, you know it's nothing magical," he said. "It's not like they're making five passes. It's the goaltender touching it to his [defense], a wraparound, and a guy going up the ice with it."

Defenseman Hal Gill said he saw a difference in Thornton in Game 3.

"Every day he looks better and he looks sharper," said Gill. "Sometimes it's not a big difference. You feel a little better and you feel more confident and you can go out there and play the way he plays."

Knuble said he could tell Thornton was hampered earlier in the series by his ailment. But he has been able to heal, and it's shown in his play.

"When he's hurt, he can't move around," said Knuble. "He battles through checks and that's when he's effective. He hasn't been able to do that so far in this series, hang onto [the puck] and battle through it and shed the checkers. He's had to try to get rid of it.

"He looks stronger every day. I think as a line we were doing some uncharacteristic things and as a result, our line has had a lack of production. I think we are getting healthy and we can get back to doing things we were. We need to do the things we do well and do them more often.

"We started getting into it the last 30 minutes of the last game. You saw Joe skating with the puck wide and myself going to the net and [Murray] pulling up and Joe passing to Glen and Glen getting a good shot on goal. That's what we need to be doing all the time."

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