MONTREAL - The Montreal Canadiens looked to be in trouble when starting goaltender Carey Price went down with an ankle injury in late December.
His backup, Jaroslav Halak, had either been spotty or had suffered from a lack of goal support from his teammates in his rare starts, and seemed at times even to have taken a step backward from two promising seasons of part-time work, first behind Cristobal Huet and then behind Price.
But the Slovak goalie who was picked 271st overall in the 2003 draft has looked sharper as his eight-game run of starts goes on, and his timely saves were key to the Canadiens 3-2 victory over the Nashville Predators on Thursday night.
"We've been playing great hockey and scoring a lot of goals," Halak said after his 23-save performance. "And even when we give up goals, we seem to get one more than the other team.
"I knew that when Carey went out, I had to step up. It didn't work out the first few games, but then we got on a roll."
Red-hot Andrei Kostitsyn scored in a fourth straight game while Guillaume Latendresse and Andrei Markov, with the game-winner early in the third period, also scored for Montreal (26-11-6). The Canadiens were was coming off a 3-1 loss in Boston, but are now 10-2-1 in their last 13 games.
J.P. Dumont, with his first goal in 17 games since Dec. 8, and Vernon Fiddler scored for the Predators (20-21-3), who ended a three-game road trip that included a loss in Chicago and a 2-0 win in Toronto on Saturday night.
Nashville was missing top defenceman Shea Weber, who took a shot on the foot against the Maple Leafs, and centre Jason Arnott, who missed a third game with an upper body injury, while Montreal was also without a handful of regulars.
It was not the most entertaining game for the sellout crowd of 21,273 at the Bell Centre, as the Predators checked and the Canadiens, after a strong first period, played in fits and starts.
"We try to keep it tight and grind it out, but it didn't work out for us," said Dumont. "They got a few bounces and it cost us the game."
And when Nashville got its chances, Halak was there for the saves, particularly in the second period when they outshot Montreal 10-2.
"Every game he's playing with more confidence," defenceman Mike Komisarek said of Halak, who is now 10-7-1 for the season, with a 6-2-0 record in his current run of starts. The 10 wins matches his career high set in 2006-07 when he was 10-6-0. "He's not a big guy, but every shot is sticking to him.
"They had some good chances and he ate them up."
"I know it was a tough situation for Jaro because we decided to give more games to Carey this year, but he has a lot of character," said coach Guy Carbonneau. "He had a stretch when he struggled, but now he's hitting his stride."
An uneventful first period ended with a goal as Latendresse took a pass from Josh Gorges on a rush and beat Pekka Rinne with a low, screened shot to the near post at 19:26. It was the first goal allowed to a Northeast Division club in three games this season by Rinne, who had blanked Buffalo and Toronto.
Dumont got credit for the tying goal 6:35 into the second frame as he deflected Kevin Klein's point shot past Halak.
Montreal had only two shots in the second period and didn't get its first until the 8:46 mark, but Kostitsyn made it count as he took a diagonal pass from Markov to Rinne's right and scored to the far post. Kostitsyn has six goals and four assists in his last six games.
Markov's weak shot from the left point hit a body and went in off Radek Bonk's skate 1:05 into the third, but Fiddler got it back at 6:23 when he knocked down Ville Koistinen's point shot and backhanded it over Halak.
"They tried to take the fans out of it and put us to sleep, but we just wanted a good effort," said Komisarek. "It was key for us to come back with a win after the game in Boston."
Defenceman Alexander Sulzer, the first German-born player to skate for Nashville, made his NHL debut.
Notes - Nashville is 7-3-1 against the Eastern Conference this season. The Preds expect to have Weber and Arnott back Saturday at home against Atlanta. . . The Canadiens play Saturday night in Ottawa to start a run of five straight road games broken up by the all-star game in Montreal on Jan. 25. . The Canadiens recalled winger Gregory Stewart from AHL Hamilton in case Kovalev was unable to play because of a flu that caused him to miss practice on Wednesday, but the Russian veteran was in the lineup, although he looked to have little energy.