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Habs nipped by Lightning

by Staff Writer / Montréal Canadiens
Playoff race tightens as Canadiens fall back into No. 8 spot, one point back of Tampa Bay

Mike Ribeiro provided the Canadiens' offense when he scored with less than three minutes left in regulation.

MONTREAL - The crowded playoff picture got even more congested after a late rally by the Canadiens wasn't quite enough in a 2-1 loss to the Tampa Bay Lightning Monday night at the Bell Centre.

Winners of two-straight, the Canadiens (31-24-9) lost in regulation for just the second time in their last 13 games to fall back into the eighth and final playoff in the Eastern Conference. With 71 points, Montreal is now one point back of the Lightning (34-27-4) for the No. 7 spot, but still hold a three point edge over ninth-place Atlanta with one game in hand.

In search of a little breathing room in the standings, the Canadiens ran into something that had eluded the Lightning of late-a  hot goaltender. On the heels of Tampa Bay allowing 50 goals over their last nine games, Sean Burke stopped 31-of-32 shots he faced for his first victory since Feb. 6.

"Their goalie made some big saves for them tonight," said Sheldon Souray, who fired a team-high four shots at Burke. "Not only that, but these guys are among the best shot-blocking teams in league so a lot of our shots didn't even make it through to Burke."

While the 39-year-old Burke deserves full marks for his 31-save effort, his teammates ended up one shy of that number by blocking 30 Canadiens shots of their own.

"They got in the way of a lot of our shots making it difficult to find any openings," said Bob Gainey after seeing his team outshoot the Lightning by a 32-24 margin. "This was the type of intense battle we expected with so much being on the line and we never let up. There was a definite playoff atmosphere out there tonight."

The one shot that did manage to squeeze through needed a little help along the way. With the Canadiens on the power-play and under three minutes remaining in the third, a rising Francis Bouillon point shot bounced wildly off the glass and then back over the net before being swatted out of mid-air by Mike Ribeiro.  Also picking up an assist on Ribeiro's 14th of the season was Alex Kovalev, who was playing in his 900th NHL game.

Making his 14th straight start, Christobal Huet stopped 22-of-24 shots, with Vincent Lecavalier and Martin St. Louis doing the damage for Tampa Bay. Lecavalier's 28th goal of the season not only broke the ice just over the midway mark of the second period, it also halted Huet's latest shutout streak at 163:11. Huet's previous string of 173:17 from Feb. 4-7 was the longest such streak by a Canadiens goalie in 16 years, shattering Patrick Roy's benchmark of 168:47 set between Feb. 1-7, 1990.

Looking for only their second season sweep of the Lightning since Tampa Bay joined the NHL in 1992-93, the Canadiens were unable to put the broom to the defending Stanley Cup champions, finishing up with a 3-1 mark on the season. Montreal's only mastery of the Lightning dates back to when Alain Vigneault's squad went a perfect 4-0 in 1997-98.

The Canadiens will enjoy a two-day breather before their homestand continues Thursday night when the Eastern Conference-leading Carolina Hurricanes come to town.

NOTES: Not in the Canadiens' lineup were: RW Aaron Downey, LW Garth Murray, newcomer D Todd Simpson, and D Andrei Markov who left in the second period of Saturday's game against the Rangers with back spasms. The Canadiens are now 3-8-1 without Markov on the season...  After being a healthy scratch for 15 games, D Mark Streit logged 16:12 of ice-time in his first action Jan. 26 in Ottawa... Monday night's showdown with the Lightning drew a capacity crowd of 21,273, marking the Canadiens' 29th consecutive sellout of the season and 52nd straight overall packed house dating back to 2003-04... The reigning NHL defensive player of the week, Huet came close to making it back-to-back honors thanks in large part to his consecutive shutout wins over the Bruins and Rangers, but had to settle for runner-up honors behind Rick Di Pietro of the Islanders, who went 3-0 with a 0.95 goals against average on the week.

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