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Habs blanked by Lehtonen, Thrashers

by Brian Hunter
Convincing Montreal coach Guy Carbonneau that the Atlanta Thrashers are one of the worst defensive teams in the NHL might be a hard sell after Friday night.

Bryan Little scored a power-play goal late in the first period and Kari Lehtonen made it stand up, stopping 25 shots for his second shutout of the season as the Thrashers extended the Canadiens' road woes with a 2-0 win at Philips Arena.

Rich Peverley added an empty-net goal with 36 seconds remaining for Atlanta, which is last in the Southeast Division and 29th in the overall standings. Reduced to playing the role of spoilers, the Thrashers prevented the Canadiens from gaining a little separation in the ever-tightening Eastern Conference playoff race.

"We're pretty much out of the playoffs and they are a team that really needs the points," coach John Anderson said. "To go toe to toe with one of the best teams in the league and to come out on top is pretty big for us. It gives us confidence and makes us feel good about our organization."

Only Toronto has given up more goals this season than the 225 allowed by Atlanta. But the Thrashers played a strong defensive game against the Habs -- and when they did give up chances, Lehtonen was there. Two of his best stops came on Tomas Plekanec with 2:32 left in what was still a 1-0 game.

"He was awesome," rookie defenseman Zach Bogosian said. "If he hadn't been on, it could have been a different story."

At the other end, Carey Price made 26 saves in one of his best efforts of late. It wasn't enough to keep him from dropping to 0-6-1 in his last seven starts. Montreal lost its second in a row after winning four straight behind Jaroslav Halak, who is battling the flu.

"With a good performance like this from Carey, unfortunately we can't score goals," Carbonneau said. "It's frustrating for him and us, but I think our effort tonight was better than at Buffalo."

The Canadiens lost 5-1 to the Sabres on Wednesday and missed another chance to draw closer to Philadelphia for the fourth seed and home ice in the first round of the playoffs. Instead, with Buffalo and Carolina both winning Friday, the Habs find themselves in fifth -- but just two points up on ninth.

The two teams played a chippy game that featured a total of 98 penalty minutes, including four misconducts handed out during the second period. It was an interference penalty to Ryan O'Byrne with 3:27 left in the first that led to the tiebreaking goal.

On the ensuing power play, Little scored his 26th of the season off a putback of an Ilya Kovalchuk shot with 2:32 remaining. A cross-checking penalty to Andrei Markov on the play put Atlanta right back on the power play, though they didn't score this time.

"Physical play didn't help us at all," Plekanec said. "We started getting momentum and we would take a penalty."

Anderson said his players responded well to the physical challenges presented them.

"I don't think we were going to back out at any time," he said. "We don't plan on having that many penalties. We've got some pretty tough guys on our team anyway. We're not a soft team."

After managing just 13 shots in the first two periods, the Canadiens put 12 on Lehtonen in the third. They were repeatedly denied the tying goal, however, and Peverley provided insurance in the final minute off a second assist by Kovalchuk. Peverley has 22 points in 22 games since being picked up on waivers from Nashville.

"We weren't shooting as much as we should have," Montreal's Alex Tanguay said. "We didn't take control of the puck."

The Canadiens conclude a three-game road trip in Dallas on Sunday night -- and depending on how things play out Saturday and Sunday afternoon, they could find themselves in a tie for eighth by then.

Carbonneau, though, said he was encouraged that his team "worked for 60 minutes and gained confidence" against Atlanta.

"We keep working like this, we'll be OK," he said.

Material from wire services was used in this report.

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