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April 20, 1996

NHL

Damphousse emerges as Canadiens' leader

MONTREAL (CP) - He's been their most consistent player all season and now, in the playoffs, Vincent Damphousse is suddenly getting star treatment.

Two goals in both of the Montreal Canadiens' wins in New York to take a 2-0 lead in their best-of-seven Eastern Conference series will do that for a player.

"I've never been too comfortable in that situation," Damphousse admitted Friday. "But I like to perform well.

"When I was in Edmonton on a line with Bernie Nicholls and Joe Murphy, we got a lot of attention. I've been there."

And he's back - scoring the winning goals in both upset victories over the heavily favored Rangers while doing a solid job of checking the obviously ailing New York captain Mark Messier.

Game 3 of the series is set for Sunday afternoon at the Molson Centre.

Since he arrived in Montreal from Edmonton in exchange for Shayne Corson and two other players in August, 1992, Damphousse has been content to leave the spotlight to the likes of Patrick Roy, Kirk Muller or, more recently, Pierre Turgeon.

But Roy and Muller are long gone while Turgeon faded late in the season and has yet to record a point in the playoffs. Damphousse has emerged as the Canadiens top centre and on-ice leader.

"Vinnie's a great athlete," said coach Mario Tremblay. "He likes to win.

"Before a game, he's got that fire in his eyes."

Since he was drafted sixth overall by Toronto in 1986, Damphousse spent most of his 10-year National Hockey League career on the fringe of stardom - a very good player rather than a great one.

The Leafs dealt him to Edmonton in 1991 in a seven-player trade that brought Grant Fuhr to Toronto.

After a fine season with the Oilers, Damphousse had his best season - 97 points - with Montreal in 1992-93, a season capped by his first Stanley Cup title.

It all came undone last season, when he had only 10 goals in 48 games of the lockout-shortened campaign and the Canadiens missed the playoffs for the first time in 25 years.

Damphousse was put on an extensive conditioning program last summer by Canadiens' trainer Gaetan Lefebvre and showed up for camp in his best shape ever.

Then, coach Jacques Demers was fired four games into the season and replaced by Tremblay, who immediately switched Damphousse from left wing to centre and played him against the opposing teams' best pivots.

Damphousse responded with 38 goals, 94 points and a career-high 158 penalty minutes.

"After the year I has last year, I had to do something to get my career back on track," said Damphousse. "I knew I could come back.

"The whole team had a bad year and I was one of them. I took it hard."

Now, he's taking it out on the Rangers.

He scored the tying goal and the overtime winner in Game 1 and got the first and fourth goals in a 5-3 Game 2 victory in New York. He also set up two goals.

A win on Sunday would deal a serious blow to the Rangers. It will be the first playoff game in the new Molson Centre, which the Canadiens opened with a 4-2 victory over New York on March 16.

"If we can win Game 3, we'll be in good position," said Damphousse. "But right now, it's up in the air.

"We know teams can come back from an 0-2 deficit. We did it in in 1993 against Quebec."

The Rangers have won only once in their last 20 visits to Montreal and appear to be reeling as Messier struggles with a rib injury.

They have outshot Montreal in both games but have struggled to score. "We're making mistakes and they're capitalizing on our turnovers," said Rangers forward Pat Verbeek. "We just need to eliminate those mistakes.

"We're giving it our best, but our best has to be better."

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