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'Canes beat Habs 5-2 to prevent playoff clinching

by John Kreiser

The Montreal Canadiens still can't lock up their playoff berth.

Two nights after squandering a chance on Long Island, the Canadiens came up short again in Carolina, as Eric Staal scored three times and set up two other goals to lead the Hurricanes to a 5-2 victory on Thursday night.

Chad LaRose scored Carolina's other two goals and added a pair of assists for a four-point night as the improved Hurricanes continued their strong last-season play.

Staal, in particular, is closing with a flourish.

"Any time you can score three goals in a game, it's pretty cool. And it's not easy," Staal said. "You've got to have the right things happen for you. You've got to have the right guys playing with you, making great plays. That was the case tonight."

LaRose and Staal -- who have combined for 16 points in two games -- scored 3 1/2 minutes apart in the second period, then scored 1 1/2 minutes apart in the third to seal the Hurricanes' second straight win.

Carolina will miss the playoffs because of its 3-12-5 start, but the 'Canes are 20-8-3 in their last 31 games and have made life miserable for a lot of contenders down the stretch.

"We gave ourselves a chance ... to make the playoffs, and it was too big a hole," Staal said. "That's what makes it more frustrating now, is we do have a good group of players here that compete every night. Obviously, it was just a little bit too high of a hill to climb."

The Canadiens got goals by Brian Gionta and Marc-Andre Bergeron, but never led. Instead of having a chance to lock up the No. 6 seed, they face the possibility of having to get a point in their season finale against Toronto on Saturday just to avoid missing the playoffs.

"We didn't execute the game plan, we cheated, we gave way too many chances, we didn't play a good defensive game," Canadiens coach Jacques Martin said. "We just didn't play a good team game."

The Canadiens fell to seventh place in the East with 87 points -- they're even with Boston, but the Bruins have played one fewer game. Philadelphia is next with 86 points and the New York Rangers have 84 -- those teams end the season with a home-and-home series that begins Friday night in New York.

Bergeron got the Canadiens within 3-2 at 3:03 into the third period with a blast from the blue line, 21 seconds after Staal's second goal had given the 'Canes a two-goal lead. LaRose made it 4-2 by tapping in Staal's rebound with 2:38 left, and Staal polished off his club-record 10th career hat trick with an empty-netter with 1:15 left. He entered tied with Hall of Famer Ron Francis in the Hurricanes-Hartford Whalers' record book.

"It was a good night, and it ended right -- hats on the ice," LaRose said.

Jaroslav Halak made 28 saves but lost for the second time in three nights after back-to-back shutouts on Friday and Saturday put the Canadiens on the brink of clinching a playoff berth. Cam Ward stopped 30 shots, 15 in the third period.

Staal and LaRose, who combined for seven points in Tuesday night's win at Tampa Bay, got rolling in the second period. LaRose took a pass from Staal, popped the puck off Halak's pads, and Staal swooped in to backhand the rebound into the net at 1:24.LaRose made it 2-0 at 4:51 when he knocked a backhander past Halak as he was being dragged down.

"I didn't like our start. I didn't think we played well in the beginning of the game, became a little bit too passive, I thought," left wing Michael Cammalleri said. "Then we tried to pour it on, but too little, too late, and we weren't able to find goals."

Material from wire services and team media was used in this report

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