MONTREAL - Thanks to yet another shutout by Cristobal Huet, the Canadiens continued their playoff march with a 2-0 victory over the Islanders Tuesday night at the Bell Centre.
The Canadiens (36-27-9) picked up their fourth straight victory to now find themselves in a three-way logjam along with the Devils and Lightning for the No. 6 spot in the Eastern Conference with 81 points. Montreal also extended its lead over the ninth place Thrashers to five points, with Atlanta now holding a game in hand over the Canadiens. The Islanders' (33-33-5) fading playoff hopes may have taken their final blow, with New York now 10 points back of the Canadiens, Devils and Lightning with only 11 games remaining.
Following a well-deserved night off in Pittsburgh Sunday night, Huet was impenetrable against the Islanders, kicking aside all 36 shots he faced for his sixth shutout of the season.
"I certainly didn't expect this from Cristobal at the start of the season," admitted Canadiens coach Bob Gainey. "At one point I thought he was simply overachieving because we really didn't know all that much about him. But his recent performances have proven exactly what he's capable of."
Huet improved his record 15-8-4 on the season as his goals against average has now dipped to 2.13, second behind only injured Dominik Hasek who still leads the way at 2.09. Huet also began the night with a league-leading .928 save percentage.
"He's just on fire right now," said Saku Koivu. "He's playing with so much confidence out there. I'm no goalie coach or anything, but he just seems to keep things simple. His patience is making all the difference, since he's able to wait that extra second do that opponents make the first move. He's outplaying all of them right now."
Koivu did his part by setting up equally red-hot linemate Chris Higgins for the rookie's 17th of the year at the 7:40 mark of the first period. Higgins' goal was the only one of 35 shots that Rick Di Pietro was unable to stop. Radek Bonk put the game away by scoring into an empty net with only one second remaining, for his sixth goal of the season and fourth goal in three games.
"Things are really clicking for us ," said Higgins, who now has four goals and six points over his last four games. "It was great to see it go in, but I never thought it would have stood up. The way Huey's going right now, I shouldn't be so surprised.
"He's just been incredible for us. What else can you say really?" added Higgins. "Huey is seeing the puck so well it's like he's stopping a beach ball out there."
Huet's value to the Canadiens' playoff cause was reaffirmed with just over five minutes to play in the first period when Mike Komisarek took exception to an Eric Godard brush-by with Huet in the Canadiens' crease.
"Things move so fast out there, but when I saw Huey fall awkwardly, that was it, I had seen enough," said Komisarek, who pounced on Godard on his way to earning a total of 27:00 minutes in penalties and being ejected from the game. "I was just sticking up for a teammate and I did what anyone else would've done."
The man Komisarek was protecting was his usual calm and collected self when swarmed by the media after pulling the latest rabbit from his hat. When asked if his meteoric rise this season is starting to feel like a fairy tale, Huet just smiled.
"Maybe for you guys it's a fairy tale," shrugged Huet. "I'm just trying to get my team into the playoffs."
The next chapter will be written Thursday night when the Canadiens welcome the Capitals to the Bell Centre.
NOTES : Tuesday night's showdown with the Islanders drew a capacity crowd of 21,273, marking the Canadiens' 34th consecutive sellout of the season and 57th straight overall packed house dating back to 2003-04...Bob Gainey opted to go with seven defensemen against the Islanders, leaving Niklas Sundstrom, Jan Bulis and Aaron Downey as healthy scratches. Francis Bouillon meanwhile sat out his sixth straight contest with a left ankle injury... Just over 10 years after the Bell Centre opened its doors, Higgins scored the 1000th regular season goal scored by the Canadiens in their latest home. Vincent Damphousse was the author of the first ever Canadiens at the Molson/Bell Centre when he scored in a 4-2 win over the Rangers on opening night back on March 16, 1996.
Manny Almela is a writer for canadiens.com