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Canadiens beat Leafs in playoff tune-up

by John Kreiser

Chris Higgins netted a pair of goals and the Canadiens completed their best season since 1991-92 with a 3-1 win over the Maple Leafs.
WATCH: The Habs wrap up their year with a win
It’s been a dream season for the Montreal Canadiens — so far. Now comes the real work.
The Canadiens capped off their best season since 1991-92 with a flourish, polishing off the Toronto Maple Leafs 3-1 to finish with 104 points. If Pittsburgh doesn’t win its season finale on Sunday at Philadelphia, Montreal will be the No. 1 seed in the East when the playoffs start Wednesday.
''I think it's been a dream year,'' said coach Guy Carbonneau, whose team completed the regular season with a 47-25-10 record.
Finishing first in the conference for the first time since 1988-89 would be nice, but in a city where Stanley Cup championships were the norm for years, it’s not that big a deal.
''Obviously it would be great, but they don't really hang conference titles in this rink, they raise Stanley Cup banners,'' Canadiens goalie Carey Price said. ''It would be kind of nice to get it — but everybody knows what the ultimate prize is.''
Chris Higgins scored twice and Mark Streit had a goal and an assist to support Price’s 26-save performance. The rookie goaltender finished his first season with a 24-12-3 record and three shutouts in 41 games.
''It seems like I'm climbing the hill pretty fast, so hopefully I can keep climbing,'' said the 20-year-old goalie, who was chosen fifth overall by Montreal in the 2005 Draft.
Regardless of where they finish, the Canadiens will play Boston in the opening round of the playoffs. Montreal swept the Bruins in their eight-game season series and is 23-7 in their 30 playoff meetings.
"But it's zeroes across the board now," Higgins noted.
While the Canadiens prepare for the playoffs, the Maple Leafs are heading home early for the third straight spring. It’s the first time in 80 years Toronto has missed the playoffs for three consecutive seasons. The Leafs finished last in the Northeast Division and 12th in the East with 83 points.
"When you're in the playoff hunt, the season doesn't seem long enough," said Toronto coach Paul Maurice. "You want it to go on forever. When you're not playing for anything, I can't tell you how long it is."
Streit opened the scoring at the 9-minute mark of the second period when his soft wrist shot from the blue line got between Andrew Raycroft's blocker and his right pad. Higgins made it 2-0 at 14:03 when his shot from the right side went in off the tip of Raycroft's glove.
Mark Bell cut the deficit in half when he beat Price with a quick shot from the slot at 18:02. But Higgins got his second of the game and career-best 27th of the season when he beat Raycroft with a quick shot during a power play 7:29 into the third on a fine setup by Bryan Smolinski. It was Montreal’s League-leading 262nd goal, one more than Ottawa.
At least one Canadien will be watching Pittsburgh’s game against Philadelphia to see where his team winds up.
"I'll watch it for sure," Higgins said. "Hopefully Philly are at their best and we get first place, but even if Pittsburgh wins, we're still happy with our season."
Sabres 3, Bruins 0 | Video
It was too little, too late for the Sabres, who got three goals from Thomas Vanek and a shutout by Jocelyn Thibault in their first game after being eliminated from the playoff race on Thursday.
''We spent two days talking about making sure we came to play,'' Buffalo coach Lindy Ruff said.

''That's really not any consolation, winning the game. But winning the game is a positive.”
Boston had only 17 shots on goal one night after clinching its first playoff berth since 2003-04 with a 2-1 victory at Ottawa. The Bruins will play Montreal in the opening round — perhaps not the best matchup for Boston, because the Canadiens swept them in the eight-game season series and have won 23 of their 30 playoff matchups.
"We have to play somebody," coach Claude Julien said. "To me it didn't matter who we were going to play ... I don't think we were ever going to play a bad team. So there's no issues there for me."

Boston’s loss also ensured that the New Jersey Devils and New York Rangers will meet in the opening round.
Vanek scored his 34th and 35th goals in the second period. Derek Roy assisted on the first, giving him at least one point in the last 12 games, the longest current streak in the NHL. Vanek got the hat trick on an unselfish play by Roy, who could have scored easily into an empty net. But he passed to Vanek, skating a few feet to his left, for his 36th goal with 43 seconds left in the game.
''I never look at goals being a successful season,'' said Vanek, who had 43 goals in 2006-07.

''I've just got to be more consistent.''
Thibault played in place of Ryan Miller, who had started the Sabres’ previous 34 games. He earned his second shutout of the season but was rarely tested by the Bruins.
"I call it a hiccup," Boston defenseman Aaron Ward said of his team’s effort. "Man for man, we wanted to win this game and get two points, but unfortunately we didn't come with our best. We have been a solid group, and we'll bring that to game one and prepare to play seven games."
Ducks 4, Kings 3 | Video

The Anaheim Ducks tuned up for their first round playoff series against the Stars by defeating the Los Angeles Kings, 4-3 Saturday at the Staples Center.

With nothing on the line except local bragging rights, the Ducks tuned up for their playoff series against Dallas by beating their Southern California rivals at the Staples Center. Teemu Selanne scored twice for the Ducks, including the game-winner with 13:32 left in regulation.
Selanne beat Kings goalie Dan Cloutier with a wrist shot from the left circle to break a 3-3 tie. Joe DiPenta and Ryan Getzlaf also scored and Jean-Sebastien Giguere stopped 28 shots for the Ducks, who won six of eight against the Kings this season and finish their season at home against Phoenix on Sunday.
Two months after he returned from a brief period in which he contemplated retirement, Selanne, who will turn 38 in July, showed he is moving into playoff form. His two-goal effort gives him 12 goals in 25 games since getting back in the lineup on Feb. 5.
''My goal has been getting better every day and to build the momentum into the playoffs,'' Selanne said. ''I think right now we have to finish strong.''

Dustin Brown, Brian Willsie and Patrick O'Sullivan scored for the Kings, who were playing their final game of the season. The Kings tied Tampa Bay for the fewest points in the NHL with 71, though the Lightning finished last overall because the Kings had one more victory.

Brown opened the scoring 12:24 into the game before the teams combined to score five times in a 5:16 span overlapping the first and second periods. DiPenta had his first of the season at 19:10 and Selanne scored eight seconds later to put the Ducks ahead — and tie the team record for fastest two goals.

“That was probably pretty symbolic of the way we played this year," Kings coach Marc Crawford said. "We made a couple of turnovers that ended up costing us. If you look at the game as a whole it was fairly even. We probably had the better chances — but we gave up the big chance."

Willsie tied the game by knocking the rebound of Tom Preissing’s shot past Jean-Sebastien Giguere 2:21 into the second. Getzlaf responded with a breakaway goal 65 seconds later and O'Sullivan tied the game with his 22nd goal just a minute after Getzlaf scored.

While Selanne and the Ducks head to the playoffs, Scott Thornton appears to be headed for retirement. Thornton, a 17-year NHL veteran who has played in Los Angeles the last two seasons, quietly confirmed what his teammates already knew — that after 941 career games, he will probably retire.

''I've tried to prepare for it. I still love to play, but I think it's time,'' Thornton said as he fought back tears.

Blues 3, Blue Jackets 0 | Video

Keith Tkachuk will have one more game this season to try for his 500th NHL goal. Tkachuk got Nos. 498 and 499 as the Blues blanked Columbus in their home finale, and will get another chance against the Blue Jackets in Columbus on Sunday.

Brad Boyes had his 42nd of the season as the Blues beat the Blue Jackets in St. Louis for the fourth time in as many games this season. Manny Legace stopped 25 shots for his fifth shutout of the season.

Boyes and Tkachuk scored first-period power-play goals for the Blues, who’ve struggled all season with the man advantage. Tkachuk added his 26th of the season and the 499th of his career 1:30 into the third period, finishing off Paul Kariya’s feed on a 2-on-1 break.

Tkachuk's best bid for goal No. 500 came with 8:21 left, but his slap shot from the top of the left circle was handled by Pascal Leclaire. He had another chance with 3:04 remaining, but a pass from Boyes was smothered by Leclaire.

''It would have been nice to get it in front of the home crowd,'' Tkachuk said. ''I want to win. It's a number. I'm blessed to be in the NHL, to play in the NHL for a long time. I'm even more blessed to play with great players over the years. That's the reason why I'm at the number I'm at.''

Blues coach Andy Murray gave Tkachuk lots of ice time in the final period in an effort to help him get No. 500.

''Andy played me a lot there in the third,'' Tkachuk said. ''I think it's the most he's played me all year. It was nice. It was almost a little embarrassing, everyone trying to feed me all the time.''
The Blue Jackets fell to 1-4-1 in their last six games.

''I thought we played really good,'' said Columbus coach Ken Hitchcock, who was behind the bench for his 900th NHL game. ''We played really hard. We had a lot of scoring chances. We were outcompeted on their first two power plays. We didn't get clears and they went in our net.

We missed our chances. We missed the net — and I thought the third period, we ran out of gas a little bit.''
Thrashers 4, Lightning 1 | Video

The Tampa Bay Lightning assured themselves the best chance at the No. 1 overall draft pick with a 4-1 loss to the Atlanta Thrashers on Saturday.

Tampa Bay assured itself of the best chance at the No. 1 overall draft pick by concluding a disappointing season with a loss at Atlanta. Colby Armstrong’s tie-breaking goal with 4:09 left in regulation and a pair of empty-netters sent the Bolts home with 71 points, matching Los Angeles for the fewest in the NHL, but the Lightning finished last because they have 31 wins to Los Angeles’ 32.
It’s the third time the Lightning finished the NHL's worst record, but the first since 1998-99.
"When we missed the playoffs before, there were no expectations," Tampa Bay forward Martin St. Louis said. "We were young. This year there were expectations. We're better than that. For some reason, we just couldn't put it all together at once."
Armstrong scored on a wraparound past Mike Smith’s glove to put Atlanta ahead to stay. Jim Slater and Bryan Little scored into the empty net to wrap up a disappointing season for the Thrashers, who finished 28th overall.
Bobby Holik's 15th goal, a wrister from the left circle 5:48 into the game, put Atlanta ahead. Mathieu Darche tied it at 3:50 of the second period, redirecting Filip Kuba’s shot from the right circle past Kari Lehtonen for his seventh of the season.
The Thrashers won the Southeast Division title last season, but lost their first six games in 2007-08 and wound up 14th in the East and 28th in the overall standings.
''It's sad. The way we played all year, we should be glad it's over,'' Lehtonen said. ''It's really hard right now.''
Atlanta GM-coach Don Waddell is expected to step down as coach and perhaps turn the job over to top assistant Brad McCrimmon. Waddell likely will return as general manager.
''It was a disappointing season,'' he said. ''It is important to give our young guys ice time to help our future. Kari was solid tonight, and we think we have a bunch of good, young players. I think we'll be in good position to add some youth next year.''
The Lightning played without top scorer Vincent Lecavalier, who sustained a dislocated shoulder and torn labrum Thursday night in Washington and will need surgery that will require 12-15 weeks of rehab.

Flames 7, Canucks 1 | Video

Jarome Iginla reached the 50-goal mark and added two assists to set a career high with 98 points as the Flames closed out their regular season with an easy victory over the listless Canucks in what might have been Trevor Linden’s final NHL game.

Iginla was credited with assists on Dustin Boyd’s goal at 15:12 of the second period and Alex Tanguay at 9:43 of the third before getting No. 50 with a wrist shot from below the hash marks after a perfect pass from Eric Nystrom. He’s the third player this season to reach the 50-goal mark.

“They tried to set me up,” he said of his teammates. “What a play by Nystrom on the pass.”

The victory moved the Flames into sixth place in the West, though Colorado can pass them with a point in its season finale against Minnesota on Sunday. Calgary will play San Jose or Minnesota, but Iginla said it doesn’t matter who the Flames play.

“The teams are so close, we believe we can beat anyone,” he said.

The Canucks, who were eliminated from the playoff race on Thursday, finished the season by losing seven of their last eight games. They showed little spark after Bryon Ritchie’s backhander beat Curtis Joseph at 8:42 of the first period. Kristian Huselius put Calgary in front to stay 23 seconds later by one-timing a pass from Matthew Lombardi past Roberto Luongo. Nystrom made it 3-1 at 16:16, converting a feed from David Moss after he picked off Luongo’s pass around the boards.

“I liked the way we played in the first period,” Canucks coach Alain Vigneault said. “After that, it got pretty hard. It looked like a summer hockey game out there for both teams.”
After setting up Iginla’s 50th, Nystrom added his second of the night and third of the game with 1:42 left in regulation.

“It was a very tough game for the Canucks,” Iginla said. “They played so many emotional games, and then they were out of the playoffs.”

The sellout crowd at GM Place gave its loudest cheers to Linden, who is expected to retire after this season. Linden was also honored by the Flames, who stayed on the ice and lined up, Stanley Cup-style, to shake his hand after the game.

“He’s had an amazing career,” Iginla said of Linden. “I have a lot of respect for him.”
Linden, 37, was the Canucks’ captain from 1991 through 1997 and has played 1,140 of his 1,382 NHL games over 19 seasons with Vancouver. He is tied for 99th on the NHL's all-time point list with 866.
“I really need some time,” he said when asked about retirement. “It’s been a difficult year in a lot of ways, and the end was frustrating.
“The (salute from the) fans were very special. It was much appreciated.”
Material from wire services, team Web sites and broadcast media was used in this report.

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