MONTREAL (CP) - Oft-criticized Alex Kovalev is earning rave reviews when the Montreal Canadiens need him most.
Kovalev scored two goals for a second straight game as the Canadiens got five in the second period to chase Henrik Lunqvist and defeat the New York Rangers 6-4 on Tuesday night. The fifth straight win by the Canadiens (40-31-6) ended the Rangers' five-game winning run.
It moved Montreal into a tie with seventh-place Tampa Bay with 86 points, one point behind the sixth-place Rangers. The Lighting have one more win than Montreal.
Kovalev, who also potted two in a 4-1 win over Washington on Saturday night, accomplished little through the first 70 games of the season, other than missing time with vertigo after a controversy over some alleged criticism of the team in a Russian magazine, which he denied.
He has only 18 goals for the season, but the big winger has been playing with an edge during the playoff drive - going to the net and taking punishment to score goals.
"Alex said it - he likes playing at this time of the year," said coach Guy Carbonneau. "It's his time.
"He's playing hard and he's saying the right things. He's showing he wants to make it to the playoffs and he's helping us do that."
Kovalev did not speak to the media because he was having treatment for a bad gash over an eye, which came from Matt Cullen's stick while he was scoring Montreal's first goal.
Steve Begin, Michael Ryder and Tomas Plekanec, with his 20th of the season, also scored in the second period and Mark Streit got one in the third for Montreal, which has won seven of its last eight games.
Michael Nylander and Paul Mara scored in the first frame and Thomas Pock and Cullen had goals in the third for New York (39-29-9), which suffered only its fifth regulation time loss in 23 matches.
Lundqvist, the first star in the NHL last week, went into the game with a .979 save percentage in his last five starts, but allowed four goals on only seven shots in the opening 9:47 of the middle period before he was pulled in favour of Steve Valiquette, who is filling in for injured back-up Kevin Weekes.
"You don't like to give up four goals in 10 minutes but it will happen," said Lundqvist, pulled for the first time in 23 games since a 5-1 loss to Ottawa on Jan. 11. "We played a good first period but they were all over us in the second.
"There were a lot of broken plays. They found loose pucks and pounded them in."
Kovalev got it started for Montreal when he slammed a shot from in front of the crease on a power play at 2:17.
Begin elected to shoot on a 2-on-1 only 32 seconds later and beat Lundqvist between the pads. Ryder scored on his own rebound at 4:36 and Plekanec finished a rush with Andrei Kostitsyn at 9:47 to end Lundqvist's night.
Kovalev was battling in front on a power play at 14:09 when Saku Koivu's pass went off a skate and off the big Russian for Montreal's fifth goal, tying a season high for goals in a period established in October against Colorado.
The Rangers came back with two goals in the third when Thomas Pock's floater from the point went in off Montreal centre Maxim Lapierre at 6:23 and Marek Malik's point shot deflected off Cullen at 7:38.
But Streit cooled the comeback when his change-up from the slot went in off Valiquette's stick at 13:03. Koivu got his fourth assist of the game on the goal.
"We came out flat in the first period, waiting for things to happen," said Koivu. "But we got back at it in the second.
"We wanted to come back, but five goals?" added Higgins. "We were pretty surprised.
"We were just trying to tie it, but we'll take it. It doesn't change much because the other teams are still around us and we're really not in any better shape, but it was a big win."
The two teams meet again on April 5 in New York in the next-to-last game of the season for both clubs.
"Sooner or later we knew we'd lose a game, but now the question is how we'll react," said Rangers star Jaromir Jagr. "We didn't play a bad game, we just had a bad 10 minutes.
"In the first period, they played like they were afraid to lose, and in the second they had nothing to lose. It was so quick. Five goals. And at home, the crowd got behind them and they just kept coming."
The noise was at playoff level among the 21,273 spectators as the two teams came out hitting, but Montreal took three straight minor penalties and it cost them.
On a two-man advantage, Nylander shot the rebound of Brandan Shanahan's point shot into an open side at 11:55.
With 45 seconds left in the period, Sean Avery hit a goalpost and the puck went to Mara at the point for a wrist shot that went in through a crowd in front of Jaroslav Halak.
The Rangers end a four-game road trip Saturday in Philadelphia. Montreal plays Friday night in Ottawa and Saturday night at home against Buffalo.
Notes - Brad Isbister was scratched for the Rangers. Karel Rachunek, Fedor Tyutin and Marcel Hossa are all out with sprained MCLs. Weekes is day-to-day with a quariceps injury. . . Montreal scratched Sergei Samsonov, Josh Gorges and Garth Murray. Alexander Perezhogin (concussion) and Cristobal Huet (hamstring) are sidelined.