UNIONDALE, N.Y. -- The Montreal Canadiens
remain confident that they are still very much alive in the race to the 2012 Stanley Cup Playoffs.
With Carey Price
defending their net, it's easy to see why they feel that way.
Price made 31 saves, Max Pacioretty
had his first NHL hat trick and Scott Gomez
ended his year-long scoring drought as the Canadiens beat the New York Islanders
4-2 at Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum on Thursday night.
"He shut the door there early for us," Pacioretty said of his goalie. "Whenever you see him making great saves like that, you want to step up for him."
With the win, Montreal (22-24-9) is nine points behind the Maple Leafs for the eighth and final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference. The Canadiens visit Toronto on Saturday night.
However, the Habs did move one point ahead of New York (22-23-8), which missed an opportunity to move above the .500 mark as it failed to complete a late rally. Matt Moulson
and Mark Streit
scored with less than three minutes left in regulation, but it wasn't enough. The Isles trail the Leafs by 10 points, though they have two games in hand. Toronto dropped into eighth place with a 4-3 loss at Philadelphia.
Before Moulson batted home a power-play goal with 2:41 remaining, the Isles' hadn't found the back of the net since Frans Nielsen
scored with 2:43 remaining in the first period of Saturday's 4-3 shootout loss to Buffalo -- a span of 170:02.
"Obviously in the second period on the power play, we could have scored three or four goals and we didn't," Streit said. "It was just a disappointing effort on our part."
Streit made it close when he stepped into the slot and blasted a slapper past Price just 48 seconds after Moulson's tally, but the Isles couldn't get a clean shot in the final 1:53 and Pacioretty's shot was ruled to have crossed the goal line an instant before the final buzzer -- completing his hat trick.
It made the night even more special for Pacioretty, a Connecticut native who had family and friends in the crowd.
"My first pro empty-net goal," Pacioretty joked. "I'd like to thank Cunney (Montreal coach Randy Cunneyworth) for putting me out there. I wasn't (looking at the clock), but my teammates helped me because as soon as I handled it, they were all yelling at me from the bench. I had to shoot it pretty hard and I almost missed.
"It's probably the best feeling in the world. It comes with a win, so that makes it even sweeter. Still, at the end of the day, we're on the outside looking in (for the playoffs), but we'll take three (wins) in a row and we'll build off that. Hopefully we can keep this going."
Pacioretty gave the Canadiens a 1-0 lead just 1:23 into the game. Pacioretty, who had 14 goals in just 37 games in 2010-11, took a pass from Erik Cole
during an odd-man rush and fired a wrister from the right circle past Evgeni Nabokov
for his 20th goal of the season.
Pacioretty's tally also signaled another slow start for New York, which has allowed a goal on the first shot against a whopping 10 times in 53 games this season.
"It's really frustrating, obviously," Isles winger PA Parenteau
said. "We gave up a goal on the first shot again. That means we weren't ready. I think it was the 10th time this year we did that so it hurts us. It takes a lot of momentum away from us and it's tough when it happens, but we're going to move on and think about the weekend."
Montreal doubled its lead at 9:30 of the second period on Pacioretty's second goal of the night. With the teams at even strength, Pacioretty took a pass from David Desharnais
and one-timed it from the slot past Nabokov to make it 2-0.
Price, meanwhile, was sensational throughout the second period. The Habs' goaltender made several tremendous saves during an early power play, then preserved Montreal's 2-0 lead later in the period when he slid across his crease to rob Nino Niederreiter
's redirection of a feed from Jay Pandolfo
Price, who earned his 20th win of the season, made 14 saves in the middle period.
"You knew it was going to be a night where you had to get second and third opportunities on this guy," Isles coach Jack Capuano said of Price. "He made some key saves, especially on the power play in the second period. We had some chances."
Gomez ended a 12-month drought at 9:50 of the third period via the power play to give the Habs a 3-0 lead. With John Tavares
serving an interference penalty, Gomez collected Raphael Diaz
's rebound and quickly slapped it from the right dot past Nabokov for his first goal since Feb. 5, 2011.
"It's good because we won," Gomez said. "Hey, it's nice to score. It's been a long time. The most important thing is we got the two points. Before, we'd probably find a way to give these points up. We'll take these two points. We've just got to keep it going. The guys in here definitely believe. Our backs are against the wall, but we're going to try and make it interesting."
The Islanders will attempt to get back on track Saturday afternoon, when they'll host the Los Angeles Kings. The Canadiens -- winners of three straight -- are in Toronto on Saturday night.
"It's convincing the players to play the right way," Cunneyworth said of his team's recent turnaround. "I think that's what we're doing."
Follow Brian Compton on Twitter: @BComptonNHL