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Habs hoping they've righted ship

by Brian Hunter
A few thoughts as we watch March Madness continue on the ice:

Back from the brink -- Just when the Montreal Canadiens appeared on the verge of slipping out of the top eight in the Eastern Conference, they've responded with two key victories in a row.

Their captain came through Thursday night, as Saku Koivu's goal 1:45 into overtime helped the Habs recover from blowing a two-goal lead in the third and beat the Tampa Bay Lightning 3-2 at Bell Centre.

The win kept Montreal two points ahead of Florida for eighth place and improved the team's record to 3-3-2 since general manager Bob Gainey also took on the coaching duties after firing Guy Carbonneau.

"It was just a big point for us and at this point you've got to have the emotions to get it done, and when it happens, when a team wins in overtime, it's pretty big," Koivu said after scoring off his own rebound during a scramble.

Alex Kovalev and Guillaume Latendresse scored in regulation for the Canadiens, but they let the Lightning back into the game on David Koci's first NHL goal and another by low-scoring defenseman Lucas Krajicek.

"Preferably, we would have kept the lead," Gainey said. "We created the lead and would have kept it, but I liked the way we played the game and we need the points -- I suppose that is the most important, we need the points -- but if not equally, almost as important is that we played a much more stable, much more consistent and reliable minute by minute throughout the game."

Switch pays off -- Right on the tail of the Canadiens are the Florida Panthers, who had lost three in a row but claimed a crucial two points with a 4-2 win against the Philadelphia Flyers at Wachovia Center.

Panthers coach Peter DeBoer had been riding Tomas Vokoun in net for almost a month, but after Vokoun couldn't hold a two-goal lead in the third against Buffalo on Wednesday, backup Craig Anderson got his first start since March 1 against Washington.

Anderson responded with a 40-save effort, making Brett McLean's go-ahead goal in the third period stand. David Booth added an empty-netter and Florida stayed just two points behind Montreal for the final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference.



"I had an idea last night, but it got finalized (Thursday) morning," Anderson said. "I just came in for a couple of shots this morning, got myself ready and I think the guys did a terrific job in front of me. It was a solid defensive effort."

Anderson started a stretch of games in late November and early December when Vokoun was struggling, but the incumbent regained his job and held it through the bulk of the season. DeBoer hadn't been happy with his play recently, though, and didn't hold back on his criticism.

"The other guy hadn't been getting it done for us," DeBoer said of Vokoun. "We had been in this position earlier in the year and made a change. The team responded and Craig responded."

Opportunity missed -- While the New York Rangers aren't fighting for their playoff lives on a day-to-day basis in the same way as Florida or Montreal, they don't have anything guaranteed.

So although Thursday night's 5-4 shootout loss to the Atlanta Thrashers at Philips Arena wouldn't exactly be described as devastating, the Rangers missed out on a point that could come back to haunt them later, even if it's only in determining playoff positioning.

The Blueshirts held a 4-1 lead late in the second period, but an Ilya Kovalchuk goal with 20.6 seconds remaining jump-started the Thrashers. They tied it in the third on scores by Colby Armstrong and Todd White, then White connected in the sixth round of the shootout to end a breakaway duel between Johan Hedberg and Steve Valiquette.

"To hang in there and hang in there and hang around and not quit in the third … we haven't got a lot to play for, but I think we owe our fans and even ourselves a solid effort, no matter what happens," Atlanta coach John Anderson said. "And that's what happened. We went out and played as hard as we could and got a couple of goals."

With 87 points, the Rangers continue to hold down seventh, two ahead of the eighth-place Canadiens and four up on the ninth-place Panthers. The manner in which they let this one slip away against the Thrashers did raise a troubling question, however.

"Where is our killer instinct when we're playing someone lower in the standings?" asked Valiquette, who stopped shootout shots by Bryan Little, Slava Kozlov, Kovalchuk, Eric Perrin and Rich Peverley before White flipped the puck past his glove.

The beat goes on -- Another day, another shutout for rookie goaltending sensation Steve Mason. But wait -- this wasn't just any whitewashing by the Columbus Blue Jackets' star in net.

By blanking the Calgary Flames 5-0 at Nationwide Arena, the Calder Trophy candidate recorded his 10th shutout of the season. Not only is that tops in the League, it's the highest total by a first-year player since Tony Esposito in 1969-70, when he set the all-time rookie record with 15 for Chicago.

Mason was less concerned with personal history and more interested in the team history that will be made if the Blue Jackets can secure the franchise's first-ever playoff berth. There's currently a good chance they would face the Flames in the opening round, so making a statement was important.

"We have a pretty good idea that if we're in the playoffs this is a team we could be playing, so we wanted to have a good effort. We definitely came forward with it, that's for sure," Mason said.

He had a lot of help from the top line of Rick Nash, Kristian Huselius and Manny Malhotra. They combined for nine points, with Malhotra netting the game-winning goal while Nash and Huselius each contributed four assists.

"It shows what we have to do to beat a team like that," said Nash, whose four helpers were a career high. "They're obviously a great team. We know they didn't play their best, but I thought we had a great game and we played our best."

Spreading the wealth -- They're not going to be confused for the offensive powerhouse the San Jose Sharks are, but if they continue to get contributions from the entire team then there's a good chance the Nashville Predators will find their way back into the playoffs.

Radek Bonk, Martin Erat and Greg Zanon scored in a 2:38 span of the second period to rally the Predators from a 2-0 deficit and send them to a 3-2 win against the Sharks at the Sommet Center. Nashville jumped one point ahead of Edmonton into eighth in the Western Conference.

"Playing as a team is how we are going to win," Nashville coach Barry Trotz said. "It is not going to be one individual putting us on his back. It's going to be what you saw tonight with all of our guys pulling together with all they have."

San Jose jumped in front on power-play goals by Joe Pavelski and Devin Setoguchi, but couldn't hold the lead one night after Wednesday's hard-fought 6-5 shootout loss in Chicago.

"They were a tired team after a long game in Chicago," Nashville forward Steve Sullivan said. "So we took it to them early and often in the first period, and carried the momentum well into the second period. Even though they had the 2-0 lead, we thought we were the fresher team and if we kept on going after them good things would happen."

Desperation time -- It's down to the point where the Los Angeles Kings have absolutely no margin for error. And after a difficult loss, the Dallas Stars are now in the same position.

Jonathan Quick and Marty Turco both pitched shutouts through 65 minutes of play before the teams entered a shootout. Justin Williams converted in the third round to give the Kings a 1-0 win against the Stars at American Airlines Center.

Jere Lehtinen had scored to start the third round for Dallas, answering an earlier tally by Anze Kopitar of Los Angeles, but the Stars came away with just one point and are now five points out of a playoff spot with eight regular-season games remaining.

"We left a point out there," Turco said. "We had a lot of chances that didn't go our way. Unfortunately, we're just running out of time. We're going to fight until they tell us to go home."

Meanwhile, the Kings won for only the second time in their past eight games (2-5-1), the kind of late-season slump that has all but ended their hopes of playing beyond mid-April. Needing to make up eight points in the final weeks, all they can do is continue with the type of effort they put forth Thursday.

"We can't lose a game," Williams said. "We know we have to win out to have a chance."

No quit in Blues -- As several other teams on the playoff bubble struggle, the St. Louis Blues seem determined to be serious contenders into the season's final weekend. A 4-2 win against the Vancouver Canucks before an electrified sellout crowd at Scottrade Center lifted them into a tie with Edmonton for ninth, one point out of a playoff spot.

David Perron's power-play goal 2:58 into the third period was the deciding tally as the Blues improved to 8-2-1 in their last 11 games. Rookie T.J. Oshie continued to shine in the second half, scoring a goal and assisting on another during a span of less than three minutes in the second period.

"He's fun to watch when he's out there," said Blues goalie Chris Mason, who continued his own personal surge with 21 saves. "I'm glad he's on our side."

Oshie erased a 1-0 lead for the Canucks with a great fake before beating Roberto Luongo at 3:03 and gave the Blues their first lead by setting up a shorthanded goal by David Backes at 5:59.

"This one is up there for me," Oshie said of his 12th goal of the season. "Especially at this time of the year and in this situation. I did that move in college. I just waited (Roberto) Luongo out."

Playing spoiler -- In spite of a rough second half that saw them plummet out of the postseason race, the Phoenix Coyotes are determined to play hard until the finish.

That attitude has pleased coach Wayne Gretzky and it's made the Coyotes a tough team to play against -- the Edmonton Oilers were the latest opponent to find that out when they dropped a 3-2 decision at Arena and fell out of the top eight in the Western Conference in the process.

"How this team is responding is real positive," Gretzky said. "I thought against Vancouver (last weekend) was a good effort, and again tonight was an equally good effort. I'm really happy the way our young guys are progressing."

For the Oilers, it was a dud that came at the wrong time. Coupled with Nashville's win against San Jose, they dropped one point behind the Predators into ninth. And they've got company there, with St. Louis also winning to tie them in the standings.

"We're running out of defeats," coach Craig MacTavish said. "I thought we played well, but had a breakdown in the second period. They get nine shots, score three goals, and that did us. We had an inability to survive that period."

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


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