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Maple Leafs' hot line toasts Canadiens

by John Kreiser
The Montreal Canadiens' centennial season was supposed to be a celebration. Unless the Habs pick up their play quickly, it will go down as a nightmare.

The Canadiens are in a free fall, and their struggles continued Saturday when the arch-rival Toronto Maple Leafs came to the Bell Centre and routed Montreal 5-2. The line of Alexei Ponikarovsky, Nikolai Kulemin and ex-Canadien Mikhail Grabovski did most of the damage, piling up 11 points to hand the Habs their fifth consecutive loss.

Maxim Lapierre scored twice for Montreal, which is now 1-3-2 since general manager Bob Gainey stepped in behind the bench after firing coach Guy Carbonneau. The losing streak is Montreal's longest since 2006-07.

Gainey said he would have chats with "certain players" on Sunday to try to get the team going.

"The NHL is a lot about momentum and we don't have it now, or we have it, but it's going in the wrong direction," he said. "We've allowed it to go against us. Until it's stopped, until we have more players playing better for a bigger chunk of a 60-minute game, we'll continue to have problems."

The only good news for the Canadiens was that Florida blew a late lead and lost to Columbus, keeping the Panthers one point behind them for the final playoff spot in the East.

"I think our next goal should be to win a game in 60 minutes," Gainey said. "We haven't won a 60-minute game in a long time and really our goal is to win a game where we play and we win the game and we deserve to win the game, not just based on a couple of power-play goals or on incredible goaltending but a team game where we get everybody participating in a way that we would resemble more what our competition looked like tonight."

The Leafs, who've won six of their last eight, put this one away early. Kulemin, who became a father on Friday, scored 7:51 into the game. Grabovski, dealt by the Canadiens to the Leafs last June, made it 2-0 just 23 seconds later.

Toronto coach Ron Wilson called it "easily the best game Kulemin has played for us. Maybe having a son the other night made him realize he has responsibilities."

Ponikarovsky, who assisted on both first-period goals, scored twice in a six-minute span to put Toronto up by four 9:09 into the second period.



With 21 goals, Ponikarovsky has tied his career high set in 2005-06 and 2006-07.

"I don't consider myself hot," he said. "I'm just trying to play my game and see what happens.

"We had a lot of jump. We tried to play a simple game, support each other on the boards and use speed out wide, and put pucks at the net."

Lapierre scored twice late in the second period, but Jason Blake's power-play goal early in the third choked off any Montreal comeback hopes.

Toronto is 11th in the Eastern Conference with 73 points, eight behind eighth-place Montreal, and is likely to miss the playoffs for a fourth straight season. But the Leafs are closing strong -- unlike their rivals, who risk missing the playoff unless they can right the ship quickly.

"I'm clearly frustrated, we're all frustrated," Lapierre said. "We had a clear opportunity to show we have character and we wanted to be in the playoffs. But we didn't play the game we wanted. It's not going to come from anyone else outside this room. We have to work hard, we have to get those points."

Blue Jackets 3, Panthers 1 | Video

Florida goaltender Tomas Vokoun ran out of magic a few minutes too early. He was less than three minutes away from a shutout that would have moved the Panthers into eighth place in the East before Raffi Torres tied the game at 17:14 and then scored again at 18:27, giving Columbus a stunning win at BankAtlantic Center.

Rostislav Olesz knocked in a rebound 15:31 into the game to put Florida ahead, and the Panthers made the lead stand up until Torres scored.

"I don't think at any point we thought the game was over," Torres said. "On the bench, we kept saying, 'It's going to come, it's going to come, it's going to come.'"

Torres beat Vokoun with a wrist shot to put Columbus ahead. Antoine Vermette added an empty-netter for the Blue Jackets, who are trying to make the playoffs for the first time since entering the NHL in 2000 -- the same year the Panthers last made the postseason.

"This is huge right now," Torres said. "It shows a lot about our team. We just kind of stick with it. We're learning now how to win games."

The Panthers are going the other way. They've dropped five of six and wasted another chance to move into the top eight.

"I really thought we did a lot of things well tonight, other than win," Panthers coach Pete DeBoer said. "I don't have an answer. We're not putting up any white flags, there's a lot of hockey left."

The Panthers end a five-game homestand Monday against Carolina.

"All losses sting," DeBoer said. "Obviously, the way we lost makes it sting a little more. But at the end of the day, a loss is a loss. We just have to keep moving forward."

Hurricanes 4, Capitals 1 | Video

The 'Canes got a huge performance from their defense, which not only limited Alex Ovechkin & Co. to one goal but scored three times in the third period to keep Carolina in sixth place in the East.

Joni Pitkanen scored 4:42 into the final period, just after the 'Canes killed off a hooking penalty to Rod Brind'Amour, to break a 1-1 tie. Pitkanen took a pass from Eric Staal as he skated in front of the crease and flipped in a backhander.

Anton Babchuk made it 3-1 with 6:17 left, scoring on a rebound of his own blocked shot, and Joe Corvo hit the empty net.

"Our defense has had a huge impact on how we play," Carolina coach Paul Maurice said. "You are seeing some offensive creativity. I don’t know that we drew it up to have those defensemen standing in front of their net, but that’s what they saw and that’s what they read. Part of that is how our forwards are playing, that we always have somebody cycle out and take their position at the blue line. It has allowed our defense to be more aggressive."

Carolina extended its home winning streak to eight games, the Hurricanes' longest home streak since their Stanley Cup championship season in 2005-06. Carolina beat the Southeast Division-leading Capitals for the third time this season and now has 85 points with eight games remaining -- five of them at home.

"The fans have created a tremendous atmosphere here and we've been able to rally behind them," said goalie Cam Ward, who made 31 saves.

Brind'Amour put Carolina ahead 3:53 into the second period. Mike Green tied it with 33 seconds left in the period when he collected a lively rebound in the center of the right circle and beat Ward.

"You've got to play those guys tough," Corvo said. "You've got to get under their skin. We took a lot of their weapons away."

Washington coach Bruce Boudreau said his team's effort was not the same in the third period.

"We were really good in the first and then we started to turn the puck over in the second and third," Boudreau said. "We made a couple of mistakes."

Coyotes 5, Canucks 1 | Video

The offensively challenged Coyotes had their biggest scoring night in a month, putting four pucks past Roberto Luongo and another into an empty net for one of the season's flukiest goals in coasting past visiting Vancouver, whose hopes of catching Calgary for the Northwest Division lead took a hit.

With his team ahead 3-0, Phoenix rookie Viktor Tikhonov hauled down Sami Salo, triggering a delayed penalty and sending Luongo to the bench for an extra attacker. But before the whistle blew, Vancouver defenseman Shane O'Brien lost control of the puck. He and Tikhonov swatted at it near the Vancouver blue line, and the puck rolled slowly backwards into the vacated net, just ahead of O'Brien's frantic dive.

"It's probably the strangest goal I'm ever going to get," the grandson of Soviet hockey legend Viktor Tikhonov said. "I didn't even take a shot." (Watch Tikonov's goal)

Asked what he thought his grandfather would say, the younger Tikhonov replied, "He'd probably just laugh about it. I don't think he ever saw anything like it."

There were smiles all around for the Coyotes, who took a 1-0 lead on Daniel Winnik's first-period goal, then blew the game open in the second on goals by Shane Doan and Ed Jovanovski before Tikhonov's tally. Matthew Lombardi added a third-period goal, and Ilya Bryzgalov made 35 saves.

"It was a first for me," Vancouver coach Alain Vigneault said. "I've never been on a team as a player or a coach where when you pull your goaltender for an extra player on the power play and you end up putting the puck in your own net."

It was the largest margin of victory this season for the Coyotes, who were fifth in the West at the All-Star break but have fallen to 14th mostly because they can't put the puck in the net.

"This game is all about goals," Jovanovski said, "and we haven't had enough scoring."

Despite their struggles, the Coyotes have beaten Boston, San Jose and Vancouver this month and lost in overtime at Detroit.

"The young guys seem to rise up to challenges," Doan said. "As a team, we need to find the mental toughness to win every night."

There weren't many smiles in the other locker room. The Canucks got off to the wrong kind of start on a six-game trip that figures to make or break their hopes of catching Calgary -- they stayed fourth in the West, three points behind the Flames. Vancouver took 36 shots but looked a step slow most of the night, especially after the Coyotes took a big lead.

"At the end of the day, this was a missed opportunity for us," Vigneault said. "It was there and everybody knew about it, but our game wasn't good enough. Give Phoenix a lot of credit." 

Alex Burrows spoiled Bryzgalov's shutout by banging in a hard rebound off the backboards with 1:45 remaining for his 24th of the season and ninth in 10 games.

"Our execution wasn't what it needed to be," Vigneault said after his team's fourth consecutive loss away from G.M. Place. "We haven't won on the road in a while. Obviously, we’re going to have to play better."

Sharks 5, Stars 2 | Video

The Sharks continue to exact revenge from the Stars for last spring's playoff elimination. Joe Pavelski had a goal and two assists as San Jose beat Dallas for the fifth time in six meetings this season, keeping the Stars from gaining ground in the Western Conference playoff race.

The Stars are in a three-way tie for 10th place in the West, three points behind Nashville with 10 games remaining. They lost all three games this week on a western trip.

"It's do or we're done now for us," forward Steve Ott said. "It's tough, but we have a lot of pride. It's been a tough year, a roller coaster for us, injury-wise, but we are not going to give up."

The Sharks won their third in a row at the Shark Tank, where they are a League-best 29-3-4. They closed within a point of Detroit for first place in the Western Conference and the overall standings.

"It was a big game for us today," Pavelski said. "We had good time in the offensive zone in that (second) period and created a lot of chances."

The game turned on a pair of two-goal bursts by the Sharks.

After Dallas' Loui Eriksson scored his 33rd of the season at 7:30 of the opening period, Joe Thornton tied it with a power-play goal at 13:05, and Devin Setoguchi put San Jose ahead to stay 29 seconds later.

"We were very good early, but had to chase the game after those two quick goals," Dallas coach Dave Tippett said. "We could never regain the momentum, and that's the way things are going for us."

The Sharks hit the Stars with another quick burst late in the second period. Pavelski snapped a quick shot past Marty Turco at 14:17 after the puck bounced right back to him following a faceoff, and Milan Michalek's shot deflected into the net off Dallas center Brad Richards at 14:36.

"We're building on what's transpired over the last week," said coach Todd McLellan, whose Sharks have won four of five after a four-game winless streak. "We slept a little bit early. The first 10 minutes, we weren't the better team, but once we got ourselves into it and woke up a little bit, we were doing a lot of the things that we needed to do."

Stephane Robidas scored at 5:17 of the third for Dallas, but Patrick Marleau hit the empty net for the Sharks at the 19-minute mark.

Dallas also took another injury hit. Richards, who returned after missing 15 games with a broken right wrist, broke his left hand in the third period and is out indefinitely. "That's not good news," Tippett said. "You just have to get back at it and find a way to get points."

The Sharks didn't escape unscathed, either. Defenseman Rob Blake left midway through the second period without explanation, and center Marcel Goc didn't return after what appeared to be a serious leg injury in the third.

Senators 5, Islanders 2 | Video

Ottawa's probably-too-little, too-late surge continued as the Senators used a four-goal period to breeze past the Islanders for their seventh consecutive victory at Scotiabank Place.

Ottawa improved to 31-30-10, the first time the Senators have had more wins than regulation losses since Nov. 6.

"We're like a different team," Fisher said. "We're playing with more energy and having more fun playing as a team and that's the way we should have been playing all year. We've been competing in all areas of the ice, been getting good goaltending and getting more goals."

The Sens are nine points behind eighth-place Montreal with 11 games remaining.

"It's nice to do it now instead of not at all, I guess," said Ottawa captain Daniel Alfredsson, who had three assists. "We don't always play great but we've been sticking out and finding a way. We're making more of our chances."

After a scoreless first period, Ottawa blew the game open in the second. Chris Neil scored 28 seconds into the period, then Filip Kuba, Mike Fisher and Dany Heatley all beat Yann Danis in a 4:29 span to put the game out of reach.

The only good news for the 30th-place Islanders was that first-round pick Josh Bailey had his first two-goal game in the NHL, sandwiching a pair of tallies in the third period around a power-play goal by Ottawa's Nick Foligno.

"If you have a good night it makes it a lot sweeter if it's a W." Bailey said. "As far as myself, it was only a good third period. My first two periods were off big-time, and I think that goes along with the rest of the team, too. They played well and we have to give credit where credit is deserved."

Thrashers 4, Lightning 3 (SO) | Video

Shootout ace Slava Kozlov performed his specialty, getting the only goal of the breakaway competition to give the Thrashers a victory at Tampa Bay -- their seventh win in nine games.

Kozlov came in from the right side, cut to the middle and zipped a wrist shot past Karri Ramo for his 23rd career shootout goal, the most since the NHL instituted the tiebreaker for the 2005-06 season.

"He doesn't do the same thing all the time," coach John Anderson said of Kozlov. "He sees holes and he's able to shoot the puck to the holes."

Johan Hedberg stopped all three Tampa Bay shooters, getting Martin St. Louis to fire into his pads on the Bolts' final attempt, giving Atlanta a 6-1 record in shootouts. The Lightning is 3-10, the most losses in the League.

Kozlov and Todd White scored in the first period to give the Thrashers a 2-0 lead. After Steven Stamkos scored twice in 82 seconds early in the second to tie the game -- giving last June's No. 1 Draft pick 8 goals in his last 12 games, Atlanta captain Ilya Kovalchuk put the Thrashers back in front with a power-play goal at 12:52 but Vaclav Prospal's goal with the man advantage at 15:36 forced overtime.

"We're not getting balanced scoring right now, so that's kind of tough on the team," Tampa Bay interim coach Rick Tocchet said. "You have to rely on basically one line all the time."

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


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