TORONTO - Avoiding injuries was an important factor in Montreal's surprising ascent this season but players on the Canadiens are suddenly dropping on the eve of the NHL playoffs.
A 4-2 loss to the eliminated Toronto Maple Leafs on Saturday night mattered little compared to the concern the Canadiens had after losing captain Saku Koivu and offensive defenceman Mark Streit to foot injuries. The two players were injured during Friday's 4-3 overtime win in Buffalo but played the entire game - Koivu and Streit both assisting on the overtime winner by Chris Higgins.
They joined key blue-liner Mike Komisarek (hip) on the sidelines and suddenly Montreal's empty medical ward has company. There are rumblings Koivu's injury could be the most serious of the three although the team says it won't know for sure until doctors examine him Sunday or Monday in Montreal.
"Saku is a special player and he's our leader, we'll miss him for sure," Canadiens winger Chris Higgins said after Saturday's game. "Hopefully he's not out for long. But one of our advantages on this team is that we have depth. Guys step in and contribute."
That depth will be tested now. Rookie centre Mikhail Grabovski, for example, will get a chance with Koivu out.
"We have fresh young legs on this team," said veteran star winger Alex Kovalev. "They have an opportunity now."
Grabovski played Saturday but like the rest of his teammates did little, as the Habs sleep-walked their way to a deserved loss.
"We were looking for an easy game but it wasn't easy," said Higgins.
The Habs were also sloppy Friday night in Buffalo but escaped with a late-game comeback and head coach Guy Carbonneau doesn't like what he's seeing.
"I knew we would have a bit of a letdown after clinching a playoff spot but I didn't think it would last this long," said Carbonneau. "We have three games left. We have to regroup and end the regular season on a good note."
He also hopes to escape his final three regular-season games without losing another body. Streit, an important part of Montreal's' top-notch power play, has a career-high 58 points (12-46) in 78 games this season while Koivu has 56 points (16-40) in 77 games.
Winger Guillaume Latendresse is also day-to-day with a neck injury while defenceman Francois Bouillon left Saturday's game briefly after blocking a shot. Carbonneau did not yet know about his condition.
Tom Kostopoulos and Mathieu Dandenault scored Saturday for the Canadiens, who failed to put more distance between them and the second-place Pittsburgh Penguins in the Eastern Conference title race. The Habs remained one point ahead with the Pens hosting the New York Rangers on Sunday afternoon.
The carefree Leafs, meanwhile, are playing out the string after being eliminated Thursday night. Rookies Anton Stralman and Jiri Tlusty scored two goals apiece to lead the Leafs to victory Saturday. Nik Antropov also had three assists.
A third straight season without playoff hockey seems to be taking its toll on the locals. There were hundreds of empty seats at Air Canada Centre despite an announced paying crowd of 19,584.
This wasn't your classic Habs-Tor encounter. There was very little energy and intensity. A yawner. The Leafs, it seems, managed to put the Canadiens to sleep.
Higgins had a chance to open the scoring early in the second period but was foiled on a penalty shot by Leafs goalie Vesa Tosaka.
Stralman got the game's first goal after a scoreless first period, his wrist shot from the point at 7:25 of the middle period beating a screened Jaroslav Halak top corner on the stick side, the backup getting a start as prized rookie Carey Price got a rest.
Dandenault tied it 58 seconds later, Maxim Lapierre's shot banking off the veteran and in behind Toskala. The Leafs' No. 1 got his 30th consecutive start despite speculation backup Andrew Raycroft might finally see the ice. Look for Raycroft to possibly start Tuesday against the Sabres.
Stralman put Toronto back ahead 2-1, his wrist shot from the top of the faceoff circle at 9:33 beating a yet-again screened Halak.
Tlusty, who also had an assist, added a pair of goals at 3:17 and 15:16 in third period to cement the meaningless victory. Kostopoulos scored with 16 seconds remaining.
Toronto has three games remaining on their season - Tuesday at home to Buffalo, Thursday at home to Ottawa and next Saturday the finale at Montreal.