MONTREAL - In a possible first-round playoff preview, the Canadiens were downed 5-1 by the league-leading Carolina Hurricanes Thursday night at the Bell Centre.
The Canadiens (31-25-9) lost their second straight but continue to cling to the eighth and final playoff spot in the East with a one-point lead over the ninth-place Thrashers. Montreal still holds a game in hand over Atlanta. The Hurricanes (45-15-6) reclaimed top spot in the overall standings thanks to their NHL-leading 96 points.
“We’re in eighth place for a reason,” admitted Canadiens coach Bob Gainey. “Our goal is to improve every night and work our way up the standings.
"It was a shame for our goalie, but Carolina proved why they are the top team in our conference. Our goalie did what we needed him to do for us tonight. He made some big saves for us to keep the score 2-0.”
In his Canadiens debut since being acquired by Montreal from Colorado last Wednesday in exchange for Jose Theodore, David Aebischer kicked aside 36-of-41 shots, including a number of huge stops to keep the Canadiens in the game close until the midway point of the third period.
“I wasn’t nervous, which surprised me,” admitted Aebischer, who earned the game's third star despite not having seen action since his final game with the Avalanche last Tuesday against St. Louis. “I was actually pretty comfortable right from the start. The atmosphere was amazing tonight, the crowd great.”
In a match-up of the NHL’s only two Swiss-born netminders, Martin Gerber beat out his fellow countryman after stopping 28-of-29 shots for his 32nd win of the season. Aebischer and Gerber had recently held the fort for Team Switzerland at the Olympics in Turin, where the upstart Swiss shocked both the heavily-favored Canadians and the Czechs.
The Canadiens' only goal of the night came courtesy of Mathieu Dandenault, who cut the Hurricanes lead to 2-1 when he one-timed a nice feed from Mike Ribeiro early in the third period for his second of the season. No one in the building was more relieved to see him hammer a puck past Gerber than Dandenault, whose first goal with the Canadiens was anything but memorable. In a 4-1 victory over the Senators back on Jan. 7, he was credited with a goal only after being bowled over in crease and then grazed by a Jan Bulis shot as Dandenault crashed into the net.
The Hurricanes were led by Justin Williams, who was in on all but one of Carolina’s goals with two goals and two assists. Ray Whitney also notched a pair, while Eric Staal rounded out the scoring with his 40th of the season.
The Canadiens will welcome Sidney Crosby and the Pittsburgh Penguins to the Bell Centre Saturday night.
NOTES: The national anthem was preceded by a moment of silence in honor of both legendary NHL referee Red Storey who passed away Wednesday at age 88 and former Canadiens forward Jonathan Delisle who died in tragic car accident Thursday at age 28. Selected in the fourth round, 86th overall by Montreal at the 1995 draft, Delisle played one game with the Canadiens during the 1997-98 season following a successful junior career with the Hull Olympiques, where he won a Memorial Cup in 1997… Thursday night’s showdown with the Hurricanes drew a capacity crowd of 21,273, marking the Canadiens’ 30th consecutive sellout of the season and 53rd straight overall packed house dating back to 2003-04… After not dressing for the past three games, LW Garth Murray returned to lineup replacing RW Niklas Sundstrom, who joined RW Aaron Downey, D Todd Simpson as healthy scratches… D Andrei Markov missed his second straight game after leaving in the second period of Saturday’s game against the Rangers with back spasms… Thursday night marked the 10th anniversary of the first game ever played at the Bell/Molson Centre back on March 16, 1996. The Canadiens doubled-up the Rangers 4-2 that night. The Canadiens are now 168-142-46-12 all-time in their current home.
Manny Almela is a writer for canadiens.com