With the Toronto Maple Leafs
’ playoff hopes dashed, perhaps the Montreal Canadiens
were under the impression that Saturday night’s game at the Air Canada Centre would be a walk in the park.
Twenty-four hours after losing captain Saku Koivu and defenseman Mark Streit to injuries in a 4-3 overtime win at Buffalo, Canadiens missed a chance to wrap up their first division title since 1991-92. The Canadiens were sloppy and left Toronto with a disappointing 4-2 loss to the playing-out-the-string Leafs.
''We were looking for an easy game, but it wasn't easy,'' Habs forward Chris Higgins said.
A Montreal victory, combined with Ottawa’s 4-0 loss at Boston, would have wrapped up the Northeast Division title and moved the Canadiens three points ahead of Pittsburgh in the Eastern Conference race. Instead, the Penguins can move back on top in the East by beating the New York Rangers at home Sunday afternoon.
It’s likely the Canadiens were still reeling from the losses of Koivu and Streit when they took the ice in Toronto. Montreal was already playing without defenseman Mike Komisarek, who is out with a hip injury. Koivu’s injury appears to be the most serious, but the Canadiens won’t know for sure until at least Monday.
''Saku is a special player and he's our leader, we'll miss him for sure,'' Higgins said. ''Hopefully he's not out for long. But one of our advantages on this team is that we have depth. Guys step in and contribute.''
Canadiens forward Alexei Kovalev agreed. He believes the injuries provide a chance for younger players to step in and contribute.
''We have fresh young legs on this team,'' Kovalev said. “They have an opportunity now.''
After being officially eliminated from postseason contention on Thursday night, the Leafs got two goals each from rookies Anton Stralman and Jiri Tlusty and three assists from Nik Antropov.
"We said before the game, 'Let's play for each other, let's play for the team,'" Stralman said. "We've got a couple of games left. We just want to finish it the right way."
Stralman started things for the Leafs on Saturday night when he broke a scoreless tie 7:25 into the second period. With the teams at even strength — Toronto went 0-for-7 on the power play — Stralman took a pass from Antropov and let go a shot from the right point that found its way through a crowd and past goalie Jaroslav Halak. It was Stralman’s second goal of the season.
"I was just trying to put the puck past the forward," Stralman said. "Mats (Sundin) was right there in front, and I don't think the goalie even saw it."
The lead was short-lived, however, as Mathieu Dandenault tied things up just 58 seconds later. Dandenault got to the front of the net and was able to redirect Maxim Lapierre’s rebound past Toronto goalie Vesa Toskala to make it 1-1.
But Stralman restored the Leafs’ lead at 9:33 when he came streaking down the right side and fired a shot from the circle past Halak, who was again screened on the play.
Tlusty busted the game open in the third period. He scored his ninth goal of the season at 3:17 before making it a 4-1 game with just 4:44 remaining. Antropov assisted on both goals.
Tom Kostopoulos scored with 16 seconds left. But it was far too late for the Canadiens, who seemed dazed and confused for much of the contest. The Habs will look to bounce back on Tuesday night, when they visit the reeling Ottawa Senators.
''I knew we would have a bit of a letdown after clinching a playoff spot, but I didn't think it would last this long,'' Montreal coach Guy Carbonneau said. ''We have three games left. We have to regroup and end the regular season on a good note.''
Material from wire services and team Web sites was used in this report.