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Bruins defenceman Dennis Wideman scores late in the first period against the Montreal Canadiens Sunday afternoon at the Bell Centre. ((Graham Hughes/Canadian Press))

No matter how hard they play, the Montreal Canadiens still have no answer for the Eastern Conference-leading Boston Bruins these days.

During the latest installment of this spirited Original Six rivalry, the visiting Bruins smothered Montreal in the third period with solid checking to skate away with a 3-1 victory Sunday afternoon at the Bell Centre.

Dennis Wideman, Shawn Thornton and Marc Savard powered Boston's attack with a goal apiece, and goaltender Tim Thomas turned aside 27 shots.

The victory gives the Bruins (37-8-6) a commanding 18-point lead over the Canadiens (28-16-6) in the NHL's Northeast Division.

Boston has now won four straight contests against Montreal after dropping 12 regular-season games in a row to the Habs.

"We've just gotten better as a team" against Montreal, Thomas told Hockey Night in Canada. "The playoffs last year [against the Canadiens] gave us a lot of confidence."

The Bruins have also registered points their last six games (4-0-2).

"All the work we've done in about 10 different areas is paying off," Thomas said of the Bruins' dominant season.

Robert Lang scored Montreal's only goal before leaving in the third period with a leg injury, while goaltender Carey Price made 21 saves.

"We lost 3-1 to the best team in the conference, but on all three goals, we had control of the puck," Montreal coach Guy Carbonneau said. "You can do that against some teams, but not against them."

Sporting their barbershop jerseys originally worn during the 1912-13 season, the Habs, who have suffered defeats in five of their last six matches, might have lost more than just a game.

Lang, the team's leading scorer, left the game when he fell awkwardly after nailing centre Stephane Yelle into the boards.

"He got caught by a skate and it cut a tendon in the back of his foot," Carbonneau of Lang. "It doesn't look good."

Later in the period, winger Guillaume Latendresse headed to the dressing room with an apparent left shoulder injury. The winger was driven head first into the boards by Boston forward Chuck Kobasew.

Brutal blunder

The Canadiens took a 1-0 lead on the power play with 1:42 remaining in the first period. With Andrei Kostitsyn firmed planted in front Thomas, Lang let a wrist shot go that found the short side.

Lang's goal gave Montreal at least one power-play marker in 11 of its last 12 games.

But a brutal giveaway by Canadiens defence Mike Komisarek with only 0.6 seconds in the first allowed the Bruins to tie the game. Playing the final seconds four-on-four, defenceman Wideman intercepted a careless clearing attempt by Komisarek and fired a drive over Price's right shoulder.

The Bruins used their last-second goal as momentum heading into the second, with the fourth line giving the team a 2-1 lead at 8:02. After consistent pressure in the Montreal end, rookie Byron Bitz fed Thornton for his fifth goal of the season.

"All mine are all pretty," Thornton said with a smile. "Actually, I don't now where it went."

The Canadiens squandered a chance to draw even minutes later, failing to convert on a five-on-three advantage.

Tempers escalated late in the second when Montreal forward Tom Kostopoulos drove Patrice Bergeron into Thomas, causing a skirmish around the Boston net.

The Bruins clamped down in the third, holding Montreal at bay with tight checking throughout the final 20 minutes. The Canadiens did manage to fire 14 shots at the Boston net, but Thomas denied them at every turn.

Savard iced the game following an empty-net goal with 57 seconds left in the game.

Montreal's Alex Kovalev felt Carbonneau's wrath after the winger gave a lacklustre effort on Sunday and played only three shifts in the third.

"We're trying to get out of a situation that is not easy, and until we get 20 guys playing, it'll be tough," Carbonneau added.

Carbonneau said he plans to speak to Kovalev regarding his recent troubles.

"Alex is not a rookie," he said. "Right now, he's struggling, but we need him [if we're going to] go far."

The game also featured the first meeting between Bruins winger Milan Lucic and Komisarek since Nov. 13 in Boston. In that game, Komisarek injured his shoulder during a fight with Lucic, who angered the Canadiens by showboating over the fallen defenceman.

While there was some clear animosity on Sunday, the two never came to blows.

Montreal called up heavyweight defenceman Alex Henry from the team's AHL affiliate in Hamilton to take the place of the injured Josh Gorges. It didn't take long for the rugged blue-liner to make his presence felt as Henry exchanged blows with Thornton just 1:06 into the first period.

With files from the Canadian Press