RALEIGH (AP) - Captain Saku Koivu's heavily anticipated return to the lineup was spoiled by the Hurricanes, who held on for a 5-3 win over the Canadiens on New Year's Eve in Carolina.
Rod Brind'Amour scored his second goal with 1:52 left to lead the Hurricanes past the Montreal Canadiens 5-3, giving Carolina its sixth win in seven home games.
Cory Stillman, Erik Cole and Aaron Ward each added a goal and an assist for the Hurricanes, while Martin Gerber made 24 saves.
Andrei Markov, Michael Ryder and Jan Bulis scored for the Canadiens, who finished 1-4 on a five-game trip against Southeast Division opponents.
With the win, Carolina opened an 11-point division lead over defending Stanley Cup champion Tampa Bay - the biggest margin for any division leader.
'Things were bouncing funny out there tonight, it seemed all night,' Laviolette said. 'It was a real good win for us because we had to work for it. We had to keep battling to get the two points, and I think those kinds of wins make you earn your stripes.'
On this night, that meant fighting through a tough third period that included seeing Matt Cullen's go-ahead goal disallowed after officials ruled he kicked the puck while sliding into the crease. Montreal later tied it 3-3 on Markov's goal with 3:24 left after Gerber had stopped Ryder on a penalty shot five seconds earlier.
But Brind'Amour provided a quick answer, taking a pass from Cole on the left side and tapping it by Jose Theodore for the 4-3 lead. Ward closed the game with an empty-net goal with less than a second to play.
Brind'Amour also scored in the first period. He sent the puck toward Theodore on the left side, but it appeared to glance off a Montreal player's stick and got by the goalie at 7:34.
'It was a good way to end (the year),' Brind'Amour said. 'We deserved that game. I thought we played a little better than they did. ... It seemed kind of crazy like it wasn't going to go our way, but (Cole) made a great play to me and I was able to put it away.'
Gerber did his part to preserve the win by stopping Ryder on the penalty shot. Ryder faked right and tried to go left, but Gerber sprawled out on the ice and stopped the puck with his right pad.
He also stopped Mike Ribeiro on a breakaway attempt a few minutes earlier.
'He didn't have to make a ton of great saves tonight,' Brind'Amour said, 'but when he did he was there.'
It was a disappointing way for the Canadiens to close their road trip. They trailed 2-0 after Cole's goal 50 seconds into the second period, but fought back with scores from Ryder and Bulis to tie it heading into the final period.
'Sometimes you wonder if you need it to be a roller coaster-type of game,' Montreal coach Claude Julien said. 'We got ourselves back in the game and somehow found a way to let it slip away.'
Notes: Carolina improved to 2-2 on New Year's Eve at the RBC Center. The Hurricanes had lost the past two, falling to the New York Rangers in 2002 and Anaheim in 2003. ... Stillman assisted on Brind'Amour's second goal, extending his point streak to eight games (three goals, 10 assists). ... Carolina got a scare when Eric Staal was injured after being taken down on a breakaway by Francis Bouillon at 15:48 of the second. Bouillon crashed into Staal's right knee, and the two slid into Theodore into the net. No penalty was called and Staal hobbled to the locker room briefly before returning to the bench late in the second.