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Canadiens hold key in East playoff race

by Adam Schwartz
The Montreal Canadiens are fifth in the Eastern Conference, but just one point ahead of the Pittsburgh Penguins and Carolina Hurricanes, and two up on the Florida Panthers. All four of those teams will be in action tonight as the race for the playoffs continues.

The Canadiens host the Islanders (7:30 p.m. ET, RDS) in Bob Gainey's second game back behind the bench. Meanwhile, the Panthers are in Buffalo, which is four points out of a playoff spot; the Penguins are in Columbus looking for their eighth straight win; Carolina is in Dallas.

The Blue Jackets and Stars are two of six teams separated by just four points battling for the final three Western Conference postseason slots. Among them, the Predators host the Rangers and the Minnesota is in Colorado. The Predators lead the Wild by one point for eighth in the West.

Other games tonight feature a battle of division leaders in Detroit, as the Red Wings host the Flames; the Senators are in Boston looking for their fifth-straight victory; the Coyotes visit New Jersey; Alex Ovechkin and the Capitals are in Philadelphia; Toronto hosts Tampa Bay; the Sharks look to keep pace with the Wings at the top of the West standings as they skate into St. Louis; and Atlanta is in Edmonton.

Here's what to keep an eye out for:

* Bruins center Phil Kessel, who primarily plays on a line with Milan Lucic and Marc Savard, has 2 goals and 5 points in three games against the Senators this season. Kessel leads Boston with 27 goals, has just 2 goals in his last eight games.

* Florida goalie Tomas Vokoun, who is second in the League with a .926 save percentage, has helped the Panthers earn at least a point in five of his last seven games, going 4-2-1 with two shutouts. Vokoun, who had a 12-13-3 record in 32 games prior to the All-Star break, has a 10-5-1 record since then.

* Devils defenseman Niclas Havelid, who has been paired with Bryce Salvador, was a minus-2 Sunday in his first game with New Jersey, but had his first assist and a plus-1 rating Tuesday in the Devils' 3-2 win against Calgary. Havelid is averaging 20:50 of ice time per game, hasn't played more than 20 minutes in either game he has played with the Devils.

* Washington left wing Alex Ovechkin, who is three shy of his third 50-goal season, has 5 goals and 10 points during his current eight-game point-scoring streak. Ovechkin, who has taken 108 more shots than any other player in the League, has 13 goals and 23 points in 15 career games against the Flyers, including a goal and an assist in their last game.

* Blue Jackets left wing Rick Nash, who is second in the Central Division with 32 goals, has scored 23 even-strength goals. Nash, who is just four points shy of tying his career-high of 69, has 6 goals and 8 points in his last five games, including an unassisted hat trick Saturday in Columbus' 8-2 victory against the Red Wings.

* Detroit center Johan Franzen, who is one of four Red Wings with at least 10 power-play goals, has 13 third-period goals and a team-best 7 game-winning goals. He had 2 assists against the Flames in the teams' last meeting.

* The Canadiens, who won their first game with Bob Gainey coaching Tuesday, are just three points behind the Flyers for fourth place in the Eastern Conference, but have played two more games than Philadelphia. The Habs, who also are just three points away from missing the playoffs, have the worst power play in the Northeast Division at 17.9 percent.

* Nashville defenseman Ryan Suter, who generally is paired with Shea Weber, has a career-best 36 points, five more than his previous NHL high.

* Sharks defenseman Douglas Murray, who is tied for the team lead with 141 hits, is averaging 2:04 of shorthanded ice time per game. Murray, who averaged 17:28 of ice time last season, has seen a modest decrease to 16:31 this season.

* The Stars, who are just one point out of a Western Conference playoff spot, have lost three of their last four games and have allowed 15 goals during that span. Dallas, which has scored just 54 of their 188 goals in the third period, is just 1-21-1 when trailing entering the third period.

* Minnesota center Mikko Koivu, who leads the team in scoring by 17 more points, has 17 of his 43 assists in the second period. Koivu, who had 33 assists and 46 points in his first 46 games this season, has 10 assists and 14 points in 20 games since then.

* Oilers defenseman Tom Gilbert, who is second among American-born defensemen with 38 points, scored a goal in his only career game against the Thrashers. Gilbert, who is averaging 21:44 of ice time per game, played 27:47 Tuesday in Edmonton's 4-3 overtime loss to the Canadiens.

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