Sunday, March 2, 2008

Les Habitants edge Devils to take over East lead

All season long, the Canadiens have been proving critics like myself wrong. That didn't change one iota last night where they used a Andrei Kostistyn power play tally with 5:43 left to get past the Devils 2-1 up in Montreal, taking over first in the Eastern Conference.

The difference was the lethal No.1 ranked Habs' power play which connected twice in six opportunities while the Devs took a collar for a second consecutive night to drop their third straight. After picking up points in nine straight, they're 0-2-1 in their last three and haven't been finding the back of the net with any regularity. Something which top netminder Marty Brodeur eluded to afterwards:

“They didn’t give us much, we barely had three or four really good scoring
chances on [Carey] Price. We’re just having problems scoring goals and creating
chances of late, and it was the same thing tonight."

It was also the second game in a row his team permitted two power play goals against. Something which can't become a common occurrence if the Devs are to come out on top down the stretch.

Rookie goalie Carey Price outdueled Brodeur in net finishing with 31 saves. The well spoken 35 year-old Montreal native turned aside 23 of 25 but just didn't get much support in dropping to 34-14-5 for his brilliant career against the hometown Les Habitants.

The Devs outshot the Habs 13-8 in the opening stanza but the contest remained scoreless until Montreal double threat Mark Streit got to a loose puck in front steering one home on the backhand past Brodeur for his 12th 6:11 into the second. Montreal captain Saku Koivu and leading scorer Alex Kovalev notched assists.

But New Jersey drew even 7:26 later thanks to resurgent sniper Brian Gionta, who got to a loose rebound in front and stuffed one into an open side for his 18th (5th in last 10). Defensemen Mike Mottau and Colin White added helpers.

Then it would be the goalies who stood tall to keep the contest knotted. First, a sprawling Price robbed Patrik Elias on a one-timer which was labeled. Then Brodeur kicked out the right pad to deny Kovalev's 35-foot right wing wrister late in the second. He also thwarted checking center Maxim Lapierre's pointblank rebound early in the final stanza. Another big glove save from in close kept the Habs off the board with less than eight minutes left.

However, the Canadiens would finally go back in front thanks to some nice passing down low. During a five-on-four man-advantage which Chris Higgins just kept on-side, Tomas Plekanec was setup in front but missed. A hustling Andrei Kostistyn got to the loose puck behind the net and beat Brodeur with a wraparound for the deciding tally. It was his 20th of the season.

The Devils did generate a couple of chances in the final five minutes but Price stood tall denying Jamie Langenbrunner's rebound try from in close. He also got a glove on a Karel Rachunek blast to preserve the win- pushing the no longer surprising Canadiens a point ahead of both NJ and Ottawa (5-4 winners over the Pens) for tops in the conference.

"It is a pleasant surprise for us and for a lot of people,” a pleased Koivu pointed out afterwards.
“There were some question marks for this team because of the young players
coming from the minors, but those guys have done an excellent job coming in here
and wanting a big role, not being happy just to be in the lineup.”

The loss was another opportunity lost by the Devils to increase their division lead with the Pens losing despite three more points from NHL scoring leader Evgeni Malkin.

With the Flyers going into Long Island and posting a 4-1 win thanks in large part to a crushing shorthanded goal by Jeff Carter, suddenly the Atlanta is extremely tight. Seven total points separates the first place Devs from fourth place Philly which makes today's early 12:30 matinee at the Rangers even larger. Especially with both teams making up their extra game.

Essentially, the winner will pick up a couple of points and get even closer to the idle Devs. Meanwhile, the second place Pens could pull ahead with a home win over the Thrashers.

Both the Rangers and Flyers are aiming for their fourth straight wins. So it should be quite a battle at the Garden in what's an NBC game.

As for the Islanders, they really hurt themselves by falling to the Flyers because a regulation win would've put them in a three-way tie with Philly and Buffalo for the eighth spot. Instead, they're four behind the suddenly resurgent Flyers and trail the Sabres by a couple of points which makes the upcoming home-and-home against the rival Rangers huge. It could possibly make or break their season.

There's a lot more puck today. So I should be around to update everything accordingly.

Enjoy the games along with what's a fun and unpredictable playoff race.

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