MONTREAL – Montreal Canadiens coach Michel Therrien hasn't had much to complain about this season, but one area he felt his team needed to improve was on the penalty kill.
Like just about everything else their coach has asked them to do, the Canadiens have responded to that request.
The Carolina Hurricanes were shut out on five power play opportunities and dropped the third of three meetings this season with the Canadiens by a 4-1 score at Bell Centre on Monday.
"We approached the group of guys that are on the penalty kill about 10 days ago," Therrien said. "That was an aspect of our game that we were not pleased with. We had good meetings, the players know their responsibilities and right now they're doing a good job."
The Canadiens played six games over those 10 days, and their penalty killers were successful on 17 of 19 opportunities, a rate of 89.5 percent. Also over that span, the Canadiens picked up center Jeff Halpern off waivers from the New York Rangers and right wing Brandon Prust came back from a separated shoulder, and the two have greatly helped improve that area of Montreal's game.
"It's something we've tried to put more focus on the last couple of weeks, is taking more pride in our penalty kill," said defenseman Josh Gorges. "It's something that will be big the rest of the season and come playoff time it can win or lose you games, so we're trying to be a little more aggressive, be a little harder to try and get our numbers up a little bit more."
Max Pacioretty scored twice and Andrei Markov and Halpern also scored for the Canadiens (23-7-5), who won their third straight to open a three-point gap between themselves and the Boston Bruins atop the Northeast Division.
"Our line was struggling to put one in, but I thought we were buzzing and he was putting us out there a lot," Pacioretty said. "Whenever the coach shows confidence in you, you want to reward him."
The coach was very impressed with what he saw.
"They were a tough line to contain tonight," Therrien said. "That's two games in a row where we could see their intensity, they were quick on pucks, they made good plays, they were really responsible defensively. It's a good sign."
Carey Price made 18 saves for Montreal in his 300th career game.
"Carey made some key saves," Therrien said. "We only allowed 19 shots, but there were some quality scoring chances. Carey was really good again tonight."
The Hurricanes (16-16-2) got the game's first goal from Jordan Staal and a second straight strong performance from goaltender Justin Peters, but it wasn't enough to prevent the team's eighth loss in nine games.
"We haven't consistently found our game," Staal said. "Tonight, we had some spurts. It's just not a consistent game that we're playing. It's a few mistakes, and they capitalize on them."
Peters stopped 25 shots one game after a 34-save performance in a 3-1 win in Winnipeg on Saturday.
The loss was made all the more painful by the victories of the New York Rangers and New York Islanders, as the eighth- and ninth-place teams in the East moved three points ahead of Carolina in the fight for the final playoff spot in the conference. The Rangers did beat the Winnipeg Jets in regulation; however, Carolina remains four points behind the Southeast Division leaders.
"We're still in the hunt and we're still there," Staal said. "If we quickly find our game and get on a roll here, we can do some damage."
The game could have had a different outcome were it not for an anemic Carolina power play that had just two shots on goal on five chances, and which has connected just once in its last 17 opportunities over four games.
"It's a difference-maker this time of year," Eric Staal said. "They scored and we didn't. It's got to be better."
The Canadiens' power play did indeed score once on three chances. It has now converted at least once in five of Montreal's last six games and is 6-for-20 over that span, a success rate of 30 percent.
Staal opened the scoring at 3:38 of the first on a Carolina 3-on-2 rush for his ninth of the season, but the Canadiens tied it when Markov scored a power-play goal on a blast from the point at 15:03 of the first.
Montreal defenseman P.K. Subban earned an assist on the Markov goal, giving him a goal and six assists in his last three games.
Halpern scored his first goal since Feb. 25, 2012 at 1:46 of the second period on a wrist shot from the slot, with defenseman Nathan Beaulieu earning his first career NHL point with an assist.
Pacioretty got an insurance goal for Montreal at 10:58 of the third when he drove hard to the net and put in his own rebound for his first goal in six games and his second in the last 13 to make it 3-1 Montreal.
"That third goal took the wind out of our sails," Jordan Staal said. "It's tough to get two goals quick against a team like that."
Pacioretty added an empty-netter with 29.4 seconds to play for his 11th of the season.
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