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W's taking the heat off Cunneyworth

Throughout the hockey world, even in Quebec, there's really only one language. It has two letters, W and L.

The language, of course, is wins and losses. If a coach wins, he's good. If he loses, he's not.

Montreal's Randy Cunneyworth is finally winning. The NHL's most famous unilingual Anglophone has led the Canadiens to points in five of their last six games, a run he hopes to continue tonight when the Buffalo Sabres visit. It has, at least temporarily, quieted the calls for his head that began the moment he was hired as interim coach Dec. 17.

"[It's settled down] for the time being," Montreal defenseman Josh Gorges said Monday. "Winning will keep it that way. That's the only recipe to keep things quiet and keep things positive is to win. We know that as players, and they know that as coaches. We've got to go out there and win some games."

Cunneyworth, who played for the Sabres and coached their minor-leaguers in Rochester, worked 12 years to get a job as NHL head coach. Immediately after getting it, folks from all over French-speaking Quebec wanted him gone.

The province's culture minister labeled his hiring "unfortunate." Groups threatened to boycott Molson because the beer company and hockey team are owned by the same family. French media lambasted him. Team owner Geoff Molson released a statement just days after the hiring that said "the ability for the head coach to express himself in both French and English will be a very important factor in the selection of the permanent head coach."

Six weeks later, buoyed in part by a 5-3-2 run that followed his 1-6 start, Cunneyworth and his staff are more settled into their positions.

"Settling in is relative to wins and losses," Cunneyworth said in the Habs' practice facility. "I think we can feel as good as how many wins we have and how we're doing and how things are going for our team. You're never totally comfortable, so I think it's all about performing each and every day and getting the most out of each and everybody on the team.

"We're coming together as a group, so I think that's really what our focus is on."

Larry Carriere, the former Sabres player and executive, stepped in as Cunneyworth's assistant on Day One. He's impressed with how his longtime friend handled the brouhaha.

"He has the ability to focus on the job, and we have one job. It's to win," Carriere said. "He's a true competitor. He cares a lot about the game. He's very passionate about the game. He cares about the players. That's a huge thing in working with the players and not only do they play the system but that they're pretty passionate themselves about winning."

Cunneyworth, who guided the Amerks from 2000 to 2008, has long been known as a players' coach. That was partially evident Monday as he led the drills and assistant Randy Ladouceur did the yelling. Cunneyworth seems to have a better rapport with the players than the man he replaced, Jacques Martin, who has long viewed as standoffish.

"He's been doing a great job," Gorges said of Cunneyworth. "For him to step in midseason in a new environment and a lot of pressure and a lot of heat, he's been great. He gets his message across. He demands a lot from us as players, and as players we respect him knowing what he's done in his career as a player himself. The excitement and the attitude that he brings to practice and games, I think he does a great job.

"He looks at us as one team that's coaches and players. It's not a division between us. It's one group all trying to get the same thing accomplished. He's done a great job of portraying that to us."

Montreal forward Max Pacioretty played for Cunneyworth in Hamilton last season, when the coach led the Canadiens' minor-league squad to a 44-27-9 record and a spot in the conference finals.

"To me he's the same coach," Pacioretty said. "He had a lot of success down there for a reason, and he's having the same success lately here because the guys all respect him and know he's had a lot of success at different levels. We're all buying in now, and I think it's starting to show in our play."

Said Cunneyworth: "There's a good feeling right now. You can't rest on your laurels in any way. It's got to be reproduced every night."

email: jvogl@buffnews.com