The Montreal Canadiens are hoping an unfamiliar opponent - and a new goaltender - will be enough to snap their longest losing streak of the season.
The Canadiens try to avoid their seventh straight loss when they visit the Columbus Blue Jackets on Sunday in their first meeting since 2003.
Since getting off to a 21-8-5 start, Montreal (29-25-6) has gone just 8-17-1 and has dropped out of the Eastern Conference playoff picture. The Canadiens have 64 points and trail Northeast Division rival Toronto by two for the final berth.
Montreal has been outscored 22-10 during its six-game skid, including a 5-3 loss to Carolina on Saturday.
"It's not easy right now," said Montreal captain Saku Koivu, who's failed to score in 11 straight games and has just one in his last 23. "It's frustrating and believe me we're trying to figure out the ways to turn things around and get those two points because that's what we're looking for."
Despite his struggles, Koivu is second on the team with 45 points and tied with Michael Ryder for second with 16 goals.
After Radek Bonk tied the game at 2 in the second period, but Montreal allowed three unanswered goals en route to the defeat. Montreal will need an improved defensive effort to end its dismal stretch, and will have to do so without starting goaltender Cristobal Huet. The All-Star, injured in Wednesday's loss to New Jersey, will undergo surgery on his left hamstring Sunday and will be sidelined indefinitely.
When asked if he expects to be back before the end of the season, Huet said: "I don't know, we'll see."
Backup David Aebischer made 27 saves Saturday, but Canadiens coach Guy Carbonneau said rookie Jaroslav Halak will make his first NHL appearance after being recalled from Hamilton of the AHL on Friday.
The 21-year-old Slovakian went 16-11-0 with an AHL-best 2.00 goals-against average and six shutouts in 28 games for the Bulldogs. He also played in the AHL All-Star game last month in Toronto.
He may get the chance to face another rookie in Fredrik Norrena, who made 29 saves Friday for this third shutout of the season in Columbus 3-0 win over San Jose.
It was just the second win in seven games for the Blue Jackets (23-30-5), who are last in the Central Division with 51 points.
"You could just see that the level of focus that we had (Friday) was just there, it was awesome," said Norrena, who is 5-1-0 with a 1.90 GAA over his last seven starts. "You could especially see it in the box play, guys helping in front of the net and getting clears."
Fredrik Modin, Gilbert Brule and Sergei Fedorov each had a goal and an assist for the Blue Jackets, who were outshot 29-19.
In five meetings all-time between Montreal and Columbus, each squad has recorded two wins and they settled for 1-1 in their most recent meeting on Nov. 11, 2003. Ryder scored for Montreal and Rick Nash answered for Columbus.
The Blue Jackets will try to go 3-3-0 as they take the ice for the final contest of a franchise-high six-game homestand. They've only hosted the Canadiens once, losing 3-1 on Nov. 12, 2001.
- Associated Press