– In spite of a brutal month of February in which they won just three of their last 10 games, the Montreal Canadiens
still have their sights set ahead of them in the Eastern Conference standings.
The Carolina Hurricanes, on the other hand, would be best served keeping an eye on who's coming at them from behind.
Andrei Kostitsyn scored the winning goal with 3:53 to play in regulation as the Canadiens beat the Hurricanes 4-3 Saturday night, giving themselves some more wiggle room in the playoff hunt and making Carolina's life a lot more complicated.
Lars Eller, Michael Cammalleri and Tomas Plekanec also scored for the sixth-place Canadiens (33-23-7), who increased their lead over the ninth-place Buffalo Sabres to eight points while keeping pace with the fifth-place Washington Capitals to remain three points back.
"I think we have a quiet confidence about us," Cammalleri said. "When we look at that board, we look at the two teams ahead of us and think we've got a chance to catch these guys, instead of looking behind us. If anything, we're hoping we can catch some teams and not the other way around, not slide in like we did last year.
Jussi Jokinen and Tuomo Ruutu scored and Cory Stillman got his first goal in the second game of his return to the Hurricanes (29-25-9), who lost ground to both the Sabres and the 10th-place Toronto Maple Leafs in their bid to hang on to the last playoff spot in the conference.
Both the Sabres and Maple Leafs lost in shootouts Saturday night, meaning Buffalo is now two points behind Carolina with two games in hand. Toronto is five points back with one game in hand.
The most frustrating part about it for Hurricanes coach Paul Maurice is that this game turned on an offensive zone penalty by rookie sensation Jeff Skinner, opening the door for Kostitsyn's power-play winner. It was the only penalty the Hurricanes took the whole night.
"It's disappointing," Maurice said. "We've had three games in the last three weeks where we didn't take any penalties. That hurts. We've got to play smart in their building. We got one late and it cost us."
Both teams were missing their best players. Carolina captain and leading scorer Eric Staal missed his first game of the season with an upper-body injury sustained Friday night and Canadiens goalie Carey Price sat on the bench as a backup because of the flu.
That gave the net to Alex Auld, who got starts in two straight games for the first time this season. He didn't make it out of the first period in his last start, allowing three goals on nine shots in a 5-4 loss to the Maple Leafs on Thursday.
Auld was decidedly better this time, stopping the last 11 shots he faced to finish with 28 saves.
"It's nice to be able to get right back in there after a game like that," Auld said. "It's obviously rare for me to get back-to-back games. It's good to get back and get some sort of redemption."
At the other end of the ice, Cam Ward was starting his 22nd straight game and his second in 24 hours in two cities. In light of that he acquitted himself quite well, making 23 saves and giving his team a chance to win until Kostitsyn got the winner late by tipping home a Roman Hamrlik wrist shot for his 15th of the season.
It gave Kostitsyn four points in the three games he has played with Eller, after going pointless for nine straight games prior to that playing on a line centered by Scott Gomez.
"Since the game in Vancouver (three games ago) he's been giving us some good hockey," Canadiens coach Jacques Martin said. "But it's also his line, he works well with Eller and (Travis) Moen."
Despite playing one night after a 4-1 home win against the Pittsburgh Penguins, it was the Hurricanes that came out of the gates hard and it paid off early when a dogged forecheck by Jiri Tlusty produced an Auld turnover that quickly wound up in the net off the stick of Jokinen at 7:25.
But the Canadiens grabbed the lead before the end of the first by scoring two quick goals, one by Cammalleri on a hard snap shot to the far top corner at 13:48 and another by Eller off a great forecheck by Andrei Kostitsyn at 16:53.
The Hurricanes tied the game twice in the second period with goals by Ruutu and Stillman sandwiched around Plekanec's 20th goal of the season, marking the fifth straight year he has reached that benchmark, to send both teams into the third period tied 3-3.
Plekanec became the first Canadiens player since Stephane Richer in 1991 to score 20 goals in a fifth straight season, a historic footnote he learned about after the game.
"I'm happy about it, it's a nice thing," Plekanec said. "But I don't look at that. I've had some good linemates the past few years who made it easier for me, but my role is to play a two-way game. If I get 20 goals, that's nice too."