Unlike a year ago, when they furiously chased a playoff spot only to be eliminated on the next-to-last day of the regular season, the Montreal Canadiens
can start making postseason plans.
That doesn’t mean they made it easy on the Bell Centre crowd Monday. After opening up a six-goal lead in the second period, the Canadiens watched as the Ottawa Senators stormed back with four unanswered tallies in the third before holding on for a 7-5 win that kept them atop the Eastern Conference.
Montreal became the first East team to clinch a playoff berth while opening up a three-point lead over Pittsburgh for the conference lead after the Penguins lost 4-1 to the Islanders.
“It gives us some time to get ready for the playoffs and obviously we have games still left and we want to finish first,” captain Saku Koivu said. “That’s our goal now, but it’s kind of a derivative from preparation when you know that you’re going to be there than a lot of years before where we played to the last game and still didn’t know if we were going to make it or not.”
While the Senators are closing in on their 11th straight trip to the postseason, the Canadiens will go for just the fourth time in the past nine seasons. They remained alive until their final game last year when archrival Toronto beat them.
“It’s a big credit for all the players here,” defenseman Francis Bouillon said. “It’s a big surprise – nobody was expecting that from the beginning of the season and we worked pretty hard all season long to be there. Tonight was a great victory for us.”
Andrei Kostitsyn scored a pair of first-period goals as the Habs jumped to an early 3-0 lead which grew to 7-1 after Tom Kostopoulos’ shorthanded tally with 46 seconds left in the middle period.
But Dany Heatley sandwiched his 38th and 39th goals of the season around a score by Martin Lapointe, and when Jason Spezza connected on the power play with 1:58 remaining the Senators had climbed within two. Their comeback finally stalled, keeping them fifth in the East.
“We’ve still got some games left,” Spezza said. “If we win five of the next six, then we’ll have some momentum going in. It all depends how you look at it but we know we have to get better, and we know we can’t give up early goals to teams. It’s no time to panic. We just have to get things going a little bit.”
Carey Price made 31 saves for the Canadiens, who also opened up a seven-point lead on the Senators in the Northeast Division. Martin Gerber started for the Senators, but was replaced by Ray Emery to start the second period.
Kostitsyn opened the scoring 1:40 into the game and Montreal extended its lead when Gerber was unable to freeze a couple of pucks in his crease. Chris Higgins poked the first one home at 13:26 and Kostitsyn capitalized on a power play 1:36 before intermission for his second of the game and 25th of the season.
“Goaltending has been solid for us,” said Senators captain Daniel Alfredsson, who picked up three assists. “Marty has been really consistent for a two-week period. I don’t see that as the issue, it’s more the breakdowns we have defensively. When we play well and move the puck, we’re really good, but it’s those easy goals that we give up and come playoff time, those are tough to overcome.”
Emery didn’t fare much better. Antoine Vermette got the Senators on the board midway through the second, making it 3-1, but the Canadiens proceeded to erupt for four goals in a span of 7:45 to seemingly blow the game wide open.
Bouillon notched his second of the year, Andrei Markov and Mikhail Grabvoski scored 42 seconds apart to make it 6-1 and Kostopoulos capped the surge. Nobody knew it at the time, but Grabvoski’s goal turned out to be the game-winner and the Kostopoulos score was an important insurance tally.
“We kind of got a little settled down and too relaxed and they really picked up their game,” Kostopoulos said. “The combination of the two led to a strong third period for them and a weak one for us but we were fortunate that we had a big enough lead to hold onto the game.”
Heatley’s third-period goals gave him a team-leading 39, while Lapointe scored for the third time in 12 games since coming over from Chicago at the trade deadline.
Material from wire services and team media was used in this report.