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Nabokov, Islanders blank Canadiens

by Arpon Basu

MONTREAL -- The Montreal Canadiens' chances of starting the Stanley Cup Playoffs at home were reduced significantly Thursday.

Ryan Strome and Brock Nelson scored and Evgeni Nabokov made 19 saves to lead the New York Islanders to a 2-0 win against the Canadiens at Bell Centre.

The Canadiens' loss, coupled with the 4-2 win by the Tampa Bay Lightning against the Philadelphia Flyers, cut Montreal's lead on Tampa Bay for second place in the Atlantic Division to one point. The Lightning have 97 points with two games to play and the Canadiens have 98 points with one game remaining; Montreal holds the advantage in regulation and overtime wins, the first tiebreaker.

The Lightning host the Columbus Blue Jackets on Friday and finish the regular season at the Washington Capitals on Sunday. The Canadiens play their final game of the regular season Saturday at home against the New York Rangers, who clinched home-ice advantage in the first round of the playoffs Thursday.

"You want home ice and you want to go into the playoffs feeling good about your game," Canadiens captain Brian Gionta said. "We've got Saturday night to do that."

The Canadiens were playing the back end of a back-to-back after losing 3-2 in overtime on the road against the Chicago Blackhawks on Wednesday, a game Montreal led 2-1 in the final minute of regulation.

"It's no fun losing at this time, but sometimes you're just not good enough," said Canadiens forward Thomas Vanek, who was acquired from the Islanders at the NHL Trade Deadline. "Tonight you've got to give them credit, and at the same time we [stunk]."

Nabokov's victory was the 350th of his career and the shutout was the first by the Islanders franchise in 77 games in Montreal. He gave all the credit for it to his teammates, who gave him a relatively easy night at the office.

"If you look at the teams that are successful, they don't do much in the defensive zone. It's get it in, get it out. Simple plays. That's exactly what we did today," Nabokov said. "Usually goals are scored on momentum. The team has momentum, they get going and score a goal, then you get tired. But we never really put ourselves in that position."

Islanders forward Johan Sundstrom left the game at 10:52 of the second period after going heavily into the boards on a hit by Canadiens defenseman Douglas Murray. Sundstrom was carrying the puck behind the Canadiens' net when he was met at the other side by Murray, who hit him into the boards from behind. Sundstrom remained down for several minutes before being helped off the ice and being taken to a hospital for observation. He was expected to remain overnight, Islanders coach Jack Capuano said.

Murray, who was playing his first game after serving a three-game suspension for an illegal check to the head of Tampa Bay Lightning defenseman Michael Kostka, was given a major penalty for checking from behind and a game misconduct.

"I hope the kid is all right, this is my first concern," Canadiens coach Michel Therrien said. "But we'll let the League evaluate that hit."

The Islanders, missing seven regulars to injury, had 11 rookies dressed for the game, including Sundstrom; if it weren't for Canadiens goaltender Carey Price and his 28 saves, those kids could have blown Montreal out.

"It was a bad performance by our team, it's pretty simple," Therrien said. "Every aspect of our game was not sharp. Five-on-five we were not sharp, special teams were not sharp. The only positive thing I could take was Carey Price was really solid. He gave us a chance to stick in the game."

The Islanders dominated the first half of the opening period, running up a 9-2 advantage in shots on goal by the midpoint of the first but failing to grab a lead.

The Islanders began the second period much the same way they did the first and sustained it for 20 minutes, outshooting Montreal 14-6 and grabbing a 2-0 lead before the second intermission.

"They played last night, so obviously we were a little bit fresher than they are and we've got some young legs in the lineup," Islanders forward Matt Martin said. "I think we tracked [the puck] hard and didn't give them much time in the neutral zone to make plays. They're a transition team and have a lot of talent, but we limited our mistakes and when we did make them we came back hard."

The major penalty to Murray opened the door for the Islanders to open the scoring at 15:05 when Strome's shot went off the post to the right of Price, bounced off the camera inside the net and came out. The Islanders celebrated but the play needed to go to video review before the goal was confirmed.

Nelson made it 2-0 with 19.8 seconds to play in the second when he skated into the Montreal zone and fired a shot from the left circle that beat Price to the top corner on the short side.

The Canadiens did not start the third period any better, needing just over seven minutes to register their first shot on Nabokov, drawing a smattering of mock cheers from the Bell Centre crowd, and finishing with five shots in the period without ever really threatening to score.

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