NEW YORK -- The Montreal Canadiens on Tuesday night continued their push toward a postseason berth while the New York Rangers wasted a golden opportunity to move up the Eastern Conference ladder.
Sergei Kostitsyn's fluky third-period goal proved to be the winner as the Canadiens edged the Rangers 3-1 at Madison Square Garden to earn their sixth straight victory.
Kostitsyn's sixth of the season at 5:59 of the third period was more lucky than good. He tried centering the puck into the crease for teammate Travis Moen, but the pass banked off Rangers forward Artem Anisimov and into the net for the winner.
It was the type of goal the Canadiens needed to beat Rangers goaltender Henrik Lundqvist, who was fantastic while stopping 32 of 34 shots.
Tomas Plekanec's empty-netter with the Canadiens facing a 6-on-4 attack in the closing seconds put the game away.
The Canadiens moved into sole possession of sixth place in the Eastern Conference with 78 points, one behind the fifth-place Ottawa Senators, who lost to the Toronto Maple Leafs on Tuesday night.
"I think what's important for our team right now is to really focus one game at a time," said coach Jacques Martin, whose Canadiens are off until they visit the Leafs on Saturday. "You know, going down the stretch some of the tougher games to play are when teams are eliminated and they play loose. We'll enjoy tonight's win, have a chance to have a couple good practices, and focus ourselves for Saturday night's game."
Defense was the name of the game Tuesday for the Canadiens, who held the Rangers to just 20 shots. The workload was the lightest of the season for Jaroslav Halak, who was only beaten by a Matt Gilroy shot that deflected off Sean Avery for his third goal in two nights.
The win improved the Canadiens to 7-1-0 since the Olympic break and 11-4-0 without leading goal scorer Mike Cammalleri, who has been out since Jan. 30 with a sprained right knee.
"We're playing well right now. We're putting things together," said Canadiens defenseman Hal Gill. "Tonight's a good example of finding a way to win. We had pressure on them and we couldn't get the goals, but we stuck with it and found a way, and that's what it takes."
A power-play goal by Glen Metropolit at 3:34 of the first period put the Habs ahead 1-0, but Avery's goal evened things in the opening minutes of the second period.
For the second game in a row, Avery was the Rangers' best player. But the overall performance of the team was a far cry from the solid effort that resulted in a 3-1 win against the Philadelphia Flyers on Sunday.
The Rangers had six giveaways and rarely had possession of the puck. They spent most of the game chasing the Canadiens and allowing a continuous assault on Lundqvist, who did everything in his power to bail out his team in a losing effort.
"We were sloppy through the neutral zone," said Rangers captain Chris Drury, who had the secondary assist on Avery's second-period goal. "They trapped us all night and we didn't get the pucks through."
"They are good in the neutral zone and we knew that coming in," said Ryan Callahan, who was in agreement with Drury. "That was one of our main things, getting pucks deep, and I don't think we were too good at that tonight and it caused some turnovers."
The loss was doubly painful for the Rangers because the eighth-place Boston Bruins picked up two points with a win in Carolina. The outcomes leave New York three points back of the Bruins, who have one game in hand, for the East's final playoff spot.
After the Rangers host the St. Louis Blues on Thursday, it's a make-or-break stretch of seven of eight games on the road.
"We have to approach every game like it is the last," Lundqvist said. "Just put a lot of energy into every game, focus and get ready for war."
"Right now, we need to look ahead and not look behind us and get ready for St. Louis," Callahan said.
Perhaps it's time the Rangers do look behind them, because the New York Islanders, thought by many to be out of the playoff mix, are now just four points behind their Empire State rivals following a 5-2 win in Vancouver on Tuesday.