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Kovalev's hot streak has Canadiens on fire

by John Kreiser
Six games ago, the Montreal Canadiens put Alex Kovalev together with Alex Tanguay and Saku Koivu. They quickly became the NHL's hottest line, powering the Canadiens to a 5-0-1 run has them solidly in seventh place in the East. But no one has been hotter than Kovalev, who's finally found the form that made him one of the NHL's most dangerous players in 2007-08.

Kovalev has 15 points in the six games since GM/coach Bob Gainey put him together with Tanguay and Koivu. The 36-year-old was especially lethal last week, scoring 2 goals and adding 7 assists -- meaning that he was involved in nine of Montreal's 15 goals as the Canadiens went 3-0-0 and won all three games by three goals or more.

Kovalev has 7 goals and 8 points for 15 points in the six games since being teamed with his new linemates. It's quite a turnaround for a player who was given a two-game break in February by Gainey to get his game together.

Five up -- Five players who've been producing:

David Backes -- If the St. Louis Blues miss the playoffs, it won’t be because of Backes' failures. The third-year forward personally won a big game at Detroit last Thursday by scoring four goals, including the game-winner, in a 5-4 victory. He added a goal and an assist in Saturday's overtime loss at Dallas and has gone from 13 goals last season to 31 with a week remaining.

Tim Thomas -- The Boston Bruins decided not to see how much their All-Star goaltender might cost them this summer, instead signing him to a four-year contract extension last Friday. Thomas has won his last four starts, including a 1-0 shutout of the Rangers Saturday, and leads the NHL in goals-against average (2.07) and save percentage (.933).

Bobby Ryan -- If there were an award for offensive rookie of the year, Ryan would win in a runaway. He has three two-goal performances in Anaheim's last five games and leads all first-year players with 31 goals -- the most by a rookie in Ducks' history.

Nikolai Khabibulin -- "The Bulin Wall" was almost impenetrable last week. Khabibulin won all three of his starts and allowed just two goals, helping the Chicago Blackhawks lock up their first playoff berth in seven years. He capped his week with a 1-0 overtime shutout of Columbus on Sunday.

Alex Ovechkin -- Ovechkin isn't giving up the Art Ross Trophy without a fight. Though he didn't score a goal Sunday, he did have two assists, giving him 106 points for the season, two behind scoring leader Evgeni Malkin of Pittsburgh  -- and 17 during an eight-game points streak that has helped carry the Washington Capitals into second place in the East.

Five down -- Five players who've struggled:

Petr Sykora -- Pittsburgh's hot streak too place without a lot of help from Sykora, who's gone cold even as many of his teammates got hot. The 32-year-old hasn’t had a point in the Penguins' last eight games and has only one goal in the last 14.

Dustin Brown -- Brown, the L.A. Kings' captain, has also gone cold. He hasn't had a point in his team's last eight games while going minus-6 in that span.

Jeff Halpern -- It's been a tough season for Halpern and the Tampa Bay Lightning, and it's not ending well for either of them. The Bolts are trying to avoid finishing last overall, and Halpern hasn't had a point in 10 games despite averaging 16 minute of ice time.

Tom Poti -- It's hard to believe that a defenseman averaging more than 20 minutes a game on a team with stars like Alex Ovechkin and Mike Green has no points in 14 games (plus a 15th in which he played only seven seconds), but in Poti's case, it's true. He hasn't had a point since Feb. 28 and is minus-4 since then.

Martin Gerber -- Gerber had about as tough a weekend as any goalie in recent memory. He allowed 11 goals in 109 minutes in Toronto's 8-5 and 6-2 losses -- while facing only 59 shots, giving him a .797 save percentage.

Injuries, news and notes 

Out -- Columbus forward Kristian Huselius didn't play Sunday after sustaining what the team is calling an upper body injury after he hit his head on the ice on Saturday in Nashville. Defenseman Rostislav Klesla sat out the Jackets' last four games with an injured oblique muscle. … Dallas goaltender Marty Turco sat out Saturday's game with an upper body injury. He might not play again this season. … Colorado, already ravaged by injuries, lost forward Ryan Smyth with a right broken hand that will sideline him for the rest of the season. … The Islanders, who've already lost more than 500 man-games to injury, saw All-Star defenseman Mark Streit and top goal-scorer Kyle Okposo go down with groin injuries last week. Both are questionable for this week. The Isles also lost forward Andy Hilbert on Thursday with a rib injury. … Devils goaltender Kevin Weekes will miss at least two weeks after spraining his left knee in Friday's game, forcing Martin Brodeur to make a rare relief appearance. … Rangers forward Nik Antropov left Saturday's game at Boston with a left knee injury. … Boston defenseman Andrew Ference left the game against the Rangers in the second period with an undisclosed injury -- the same problem that kept another defenseman, Aaron Ward, from dressing for the game. … Chicago forward Patrick Sharp hasn't played since leaving Friday's game with a knee injury. The Hawks' second-leading goal scorer isn't expected to play Tuesday at Nashville. Forward Troy Brouwer has missed four games after sustaining a knee injury last Sunday. … Buffalo defenseman Patrick Kaleta left Saturday's game with a possible concussion. … Tampa Bay forward Ryan Craig didn't play Saturday after sustaining an upper-body injury in Friday's 5-4 overtime loss to New Jersey. … Calgary was without defensemen Adrian Aucoin (lower body) and Robyn Regehr (lower body) for Friday's game at Minnesota after being injured Thursday. … Atlanta defenseman Anssi Salmela sat out the Thrashers' last two games with a head injury.

Returning -- Washington expects forward Donald Brashear back Tuesday; he's been out since March 10 with a sprained knee. … San Jose forward Thomas Plihal returned Saturday after missing more than three weeks with a lower body injury. … Los Angeles forward Alexander Frolov was back on Saturday after missing two weeks with a lower body injury. … Dallas defensemen Mark Fistric (pectoral muscle) and Trevor Daley (lower body) both returned Saturday after missing a week and a half. … Nashville had captain Jason Arnott back in the lineup Saturday night after he missed 11 games with a concussion. … Rangers defenseman Michal Rozsival returned Saturday after missing nearly two weeks with a sprained knee. … Columbus activated Jason Chimera from the injured list; he was out with a groin injury since Feb. 24. … .Atlanta's Boris Valabik returned Friday; he had been out since March 17 with a dislocated shoulder. …  San Jose forward Marcel Goc came back Thursday after missing 10 days with a knee injury, and defenseman Rob Blake returned the same night after sitting for five games with a lower body injury. … Carolina forward Scott Walker returned Thursday after missing 11 games with concussion symptoms. … Chicago's Matt Walker was back in the Hawks' lineup on Wednesday after missing 12 days with an upper body injury.

Still out -- Tampa Bay captain Vincent Lecavalier had wrist surgery last week. He's expected to be ready for training camp … Colorado captain Joe Sakic took the morning skate before Sunday's game but isn't likely to be able to play. He's missed all but 15 games the season with hand and back injuries and might opt to retire. … Colorado defenseman Adam Foote, who went down with a head injury on March 12, is back on the ice and hopes to play before the end of the season. … Nashville center David Legwand won't play for the rest of the season due to a broken cheekbone. He could return if the Predators make the playoffs. … Chicago defenseman Brent Sopel, out since December following elbow surgery, was at practice on Saturday but is still not nearly ready to play.  … Boston forward Phil Kessel has missed five games with an undisclosed injury. He may be able to play before the end of the regular season. …  San Jose captain Patrick Marleau has missed four games with a lower body injury sustained on March 28. He may or may not make it back before the end of the season. Forward Torrey Mitchell (broken leg in preseason) and Ryane Clowe (knee surgery on March 19) both hope to be ready to play when the playoffs start in mid-April. … Columbus center Derick Brassard, one of the NHL's best rookies until injuring his shoulder on Dec. 18, took part in practice on Thursday for the first time since being hurt. He could be back for the second round of the playoffs if the Jackets get that far. Defenseman Ole-Kristian Tollefsen will miss six weeks -- if the Blue Jackets get that far -- after having arthroscopic knee surgery last week. … Washington goaltender Brent Johnson, who had major hip surgery in early February, took some shots in full gear last week but is still a long way from returning. … Los Angeles defenseman Kyle Quincey had surgery to fix a herniated disc and is done for the season. … Washington forward Boyd Gordon, out since March 19 with a broken finger,  won't play again before the end of the regular season.

The week ahead -- The regular season goes out with a bang: Anaheim is the only team with just two games on the schedule, while a dozen clubs play four times in the last week.

Games to watch

Detroit at Buffalo (April 6) -- Versus will be at the HSBC Arena as the Sabres try to keep their playoff hopes alive by beating the defending Stanley Cup champions.

Calgary at Vancouver (April 7) -- First place in the Northwest Division will be on the line when the Flames come to G.M. Place. The winner has the inside track on third place in the West.

Philadelphia at New York Rangers (April 9) -- The Rangers and Flyers, who've seen a lot of each other over the past few weeks, meet in the opener of a home-and-home series; New York goes to the Wachovia Center on Sunday.

Columbus at St. Louis (April 10) -- St. Louis returns from a five-game trip for its final home game of the season -- and its third meeting with the Blue Jackets in two weeks. Both teams are trying to wrap up unlikely playoff runs.

Detroit at Chicago (April 12) -- NBC will be on hand as these two Central Division rivals meet in Game 1,230 -- the last one on the NHL's regular-season schedule.
Tough week ahead
Buffalo Sabres -- If the Sabres are going to rally and make the playoffs, they'll have earned it. They host Detroit and Boston, with games at Toronto and Carolina in the middle, in a six-day period.

Los Angeles Kings -- The Kings won't make the playoffs, but they could have a say in who does. Los Angeles visits all three Western Canada teams before hosting San Jose for a busy six-day period.

Montreal Canadiens -- The Habs host Ottawa on Monday in their last home game, then have to play the Rangers, Boston and Pittsburgh on the road -- a tough way to make the playoffs.

Easy week ahead

Anaheim Ducks -- The Ducks, one of the NHL's hottest teams, have to spend four days watching their playoff rivals try to get points before games against two non-playoff teams -- Dallas at home and Phoenix on the road.

Atlanta Thrashers
-- Atlanta, which has been one of the NHL's better teams over the last few weeks, ends the season at home with games against Washington, Florida and Tampa Bay.

San Jose Sharks -- The Pacific Division winners get to lick their wounds a little bit this week with home games against Colorado and Phoenix before a visit to Los Angeles -- giving them three tuneups against non-playoff teams to finish the season.

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