UNIONDALE - While the rest of the NHL debated whether or not to give their returning Olympians a well-deserved breather, Saku Koivu was busy leading the Canadiens to a 5-3 win over the Islanders Tuesday night on Long Island.
Having now picked up at least a point in the standings for a sixth consecutive game, the Canadiens (27-22-8) widened their lead over the Maple Leafs to three points for the eighth and final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference. The Islanders (25-28-4) dropped their third straight on home-ice and find themselves now eight points back of Montreal.
Fresh off a silver medal-winning performance that saw the Finnish captain top all Olympic scorers with 11 points, Koivu picked up three assists to lead the Canadiens to victory in the first game of a crucial six-game road trip.
The Canadiens' captain began his night's work by setting up Craig Rivet's fifth goal of the season with less than five minutes remaining in the second period. Rivet's power play marker also established a new career high for the 31-year-old blueliner with 26 points.
Koivu was at it again only moments later when he set the table for Chris Higgins, who beat Garth Snow up high in what proved to be the beginning of the end for the Islanders starter on this night. Snow was replaced by Rick DiPietro to start the third after allowing three goals on 13 shots.
Higgins, who hails from nearby Smithtown, NY, struck again in the third period for the first two-goal night of his NHL career, sending his numerous friends and family in attendance home happy. With his second goal of the night coming with the Canadiens down a man, the 22-year-old rookie now leads the team with three shorthanded goals. No stranger to being comfortable on his home turf, Higgins also notched his first NHL goal against the Rangers at Madison Square Garden on Oct. 6.
Koivu capped off his three-point night by assisting on Michael Ryder's 24th goal of the season, to regain sole possession of the Canadiens scoring lead with 42 points. Fellow Olympian Alex Kovalev earned two assists, bringing his point total to 41.
In his seventh consecutive start, Cristobal Huet again looked solid in turning aside 32-of-35 shots to allow the Canadiens to record their first win on Long Island since January 2, 2001, when Jose Theodore scored into an empty net. Only Mark Parrish and Miroslav Satan were able to beat Huet, with Satan notching his team-leading 25th and 26th goals of the season in a losing cause for the Islanders.
Special teams played a key role for the Canadiens who not only went 3-for-9 with the man advantage, but also held the Islanders power-play to 1-for-6, including a crucial kill of a 5-on-3 advantage that lasted 1:34 in the opening period.
Rookie Alexander Perezhogin got the Canadiens on the board at the 11:48 mark of the first period on the power-play with his seventh goal of the season. The goal was Perezoghin's first in 15 games dating back to Dec. 10.
Playing in his 400th NHL game, Sheldon Souray picked up three assists while logging a game-high 24:35 of ice-time. The 29-year-old Alberta native now has two goals and nine assists in the 14 games since Bob Gainey took over behind the bench.
The Canadiens' road trip continues Thursday, when the team heads south to face the Panthers in Florida.
NOTES - Niklas Sundstrom, Mark Streit and Garth Murray, who has recovered from his shoulder injury, were not dressed against the Islanders...The Canadiens are now 14-1-1 when they score at least two power-play goals in a game...With a 0-20-2 record when trailing after 40 minutes, the Islanders are one of only five teams who have not rallied for a victory when on the short end of the score heading into the third period...The Canadiens improved to 18-6-4 when scoring first while the Islanders fell to 7-20-3 after surrendering the first goal... Higgins' shorthanded tally was the Canadiens' ninth of the season, surpassing the combined total of the two seasons prior to the lockout...Ryder's third period goal was his 100th NHL point...
Manny Almela is a writer for canadiens.com