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Red-hot 'Canes back in playoffs

by Brian Hunter
The Carolina Hurricanes are playing their best hockey since winning the Stanley Cup three seasons ago. And in less than two weeks, they'll play their first postseason game since winning Game 7 against Edmonton to claim the most storied trophy in all of sports.

Anton Babchuk scored 1:11 into overtime Saturday night to beat the Pittsburgh Penguins 3-2 and extend the Hurricanes' franchise-record win streak at RBC Center to 11 straight games. Carolina has won eight in a row overall, its longest run since the 2005-06 Cup-winning campaign.

"I'm excited to know that we're going to have that chance" to return to the playoffs, said goaltender Cam Ward, who tied a club record with his 38th victory. "This is where the work just begins. We've worked extremely hard to get ourselves in this position, and I'm excited for everybody, but we need to bear down in these last three games. I can't express that enough."

Babchuk notched his 14th goal of the season and his third winner in a span of eight games when he took a Tim Gleason feed behind the right circle and unloaded a shot that beat Penguins goalie Marc-Andre Fleury.

"I just tried to shoot through the Pittsburgh (defenseman's) stick ... and through the guys in front of the net," Babchuk said. "And it just went in."

Eric Staal and Chad LaRose scored in regulation and Ward made 33 saves for the Hurricanes, who tied Philadelphia with 95 points but remained fifth in the Eastern Conference because the Flyers still have a game in hand.

Tyler Kennedy and Jordan Staal had the goals for the Penguins, who came away with at least a point for the 16th time in 17 games. Pittsburgh holds sixth with 93 points, one ahead of Montreal for seventh and four up on the New York Rangers for eighth.

"We're playing well, and it's not fun to lose, but I think if we realize we play that way every game, we're going to see some more pucks go in," captain Sidney Crosby said. "We're going to be tough to beat."

Jordan Staal answered his older brother's earlier goal and forced overtime for the Penguins by scoring 3:34 into the third period, marking the first time the brothers had goals in the same game.

Evgeni Malkin could have put Pittsburgh in front after being awarded a penalty shot with 8:17 remaining, but Ward made a pad save on his wrist shot. Crosby was also denied by Ward on a breakaway and saw his points streak snapped at 12 games.

"The thought process is, not thinking at all," Ward said. "I find that's when I get in trouble - when I'm trying to guess where the guy's going to shoot. You look at those two breakaways, it was just a read-and-react kind of situation."

Kennedy, who drew the primary assist on Staal's goal, gave the Penguins a 1-0 lead 5:49 into the first by outworking the Hurricanes for a puck in the corner, skating in front and lifting a shot over Ward.

Eric Staal tied the score with 6:35 left in the first, converting an Erik Cole pass from behind the net with a snap shot past Fleury, and LaRose put the Hurricanes ahead 2-1 when he scored 57 seconds into the middle period.

It appeared momentarily that the Penguins tied the game midway through the second when a puck deflected off Crosby and past Ward, but a tripping call on Chris Kunitz just beforehand negated the goal.

"There are going to be calls that go against you," Penguins interim coach Dan Bylsma said. "There are going to be goals that go against you. You're going to get behind in games. But when you can stay in the game plan and play a certain way and stick to it, you give your team a chance to get back in games."

Senators 4, Flyers 3 | Video

Philadelphia rallied from a two-goal deficit to temporarily take the lead but wound up with only one point after Ottawa's Mike Fisher scored in the fifth round of a shootout, meaning the Flyers will have to wait to clinch a playoff berth.

After the Senators grabbed a 2-0 lead early in the second period, Darroll Powe connected on a penalty shot to spark a comeback that took the wind out of the Scotiabank Place crowd's sails. Mike Richards tied the game on a power-play goal and Simon Gagne put the Flyers ahead 28 seconds into the third.

But Jason Spezza evened the score at 3:47 and, after the remainder of the third and the five-minute overtime failed to produce another goal, the game went to a shootout.

Daniel Briere scored on the Flyers' first attempt -- it was initially ruled no-goal, but video review confirmed the puck crossed the goal line before Alex Auld swept it back out with his pads -- but Daniel Alfredsson answered on the Senators' second attempt against Antero Niittymaki, setting up Fisher's winner.

"It's always nice to score like that," Fisher said. "We didn't quit. We got behind and (Jason) Spezza got a nice one to get back in it and that's a pretty good team. I thought for the most part we battled pretty hard."

Nick Foligno and Chris Kelly had the other goals for Ottawa and Auld finished with 31 saves.

Niittymaki stopped 34 shots for Philadelphia, which still holds the fourth seed because it has four regular-season games remaining and Carolina only has three. The teams are tied in the standings with 95 points.

"The good thing about the position that we're in is we don't really have to scoreboard-watch as long as we take advantage of the games that we have in hand," Richards said. "Tonight would have been nice to get two points, but we still have a couple of games left to get home-ice advantage."

Foligno had the only goal of the first period, getting the Senators started at 10:42 when he scored on a two-man advantage. Kelly extended their lead on a breakaway 2:26 into the second.

Powe shifted the momentum 32 seconds later when he slipped a backhand under Auld's pads on a penalty shot awarded after he was hauled down on a breakaway.

"That's kind of been my go-to move since I can remember," Powe said. "I just try to get speed and beat the goalie to the post and I managed to do that today. You don't get many opportunities to do that so I just kind of had fun and enjoyed it."

Jarkko Ruutu's interference call led to the tying goal by Richards as the Flyers needed just three seconds to convert on the power play. Briere won a faceoff and Richards beat Auld with 9:14 left in the second.

Philadelphia went ahead for the first time on Gagne's 33rd of the season before Ottawa responded on Spezza's 31st.

Devils 3, Sabres 2
| Video

David Clarkson, Zach Parise and Jamie Langenbrunner scored in the first 40 minutes for New Jersey to chase goaltender Ryan Miller and put a severe crimp in Buffalo's postseason plans.

The Sabres did their best to come back in the third, peppering Martin Brodeur with 23 shots and cashing in twice on goals by Jochen Hecht and Clarke MacArthur to whip the HSBC Arena crowd into a frenzy, but they failed to gain ground on the eighth-place Rangers and stayed four points out with just four games remaining.

Brodeur finished with 35 saves as New Jersey won its second in as many nights to tie Washington with 102 points. The Capitals retained the No. 2 seed by virtue of having a game in hand.

"It was definitely a great atmosphere in the building, especially in the third when they scored that first goal," Brodeur said. "I think the fans were into it, their team was into it. We played a little bit on our heels for our liking, but we still pulled it off. These types of efforts are important. I think this is what playoff hockey is all about, coming down to the wire like in these games, and desperation, and we were able to handle it."

The Sabres had one final opportunity after Colin White cleared the puck over the glass with 35 seconds remaining for a delay of game penalty, but with their net empty and a 6-on-4 advantage they couldn't work another puck past Brodeur to force overtime and gain at least a point.

"We need some help," Derek Roy said, summing up the Sabres' fading hopes. "It's frustrating."

Buffalo certainly didn't get the start it was looking for coming home one night after a thrilling overtime win in Washington. Clarkson floated a shot from the top of the right circle through a crowd and past Miller at 2:28 of the first and Parise deflected Paul Martin's drive at 5:38 for a power-play goal, seven seconds after a high-sticking call on Roy.

"We got off to a tough start," Miller said. "Guys wanted to go out and get a feel like this was just another game. And, bang, we're down 2-0."

Langenbrunner gave the Devils a three-goal cushion 7:04 into the second by using his body to take the puck from defenseman Andrej Sekera to the left of the Sabres net, then pounding away in front along with Bobby Holik. The captain eventually jammed it in for his 28th of the season.

Miller, who made 19 saves, was replaced by Mikael Tellqvist to begin the third. Tellqvist stopped all six shots he faced and the Sabres got on the board at 6:03 on Hecht's 11th goal. MacArthur made it 3-2 with 3:42 remaining.

Brodeur, who came on in relief Friday after Kevin Weekes left with a lower-body injury, won his 555th game and first start following an 0-5-1 skid.
"The last few weeks have been tough for us," Langenbrunner said. "But last night, we were able to scratch out a win. And tonight, the first two periods were the best we've played in a while."

Canadiens 6, Maple Leafs 2 | Video

Montreal continues to pick up its play heading into the final week, as Alex Kovalev contributed a goal and three assists and Jaroslav Halak stopped 34 shots in front of a Hockey Night In Canada crowd at Air Canada Centre to lift the Habs to a 5-0-1 mark in their last six games.

Guillaume Latendresse, Alex Tanguay, Christopher Higgins, Maxim Lapierre and Josh Gorges added goals for the Canadiens, who sit in seventh with 92 points, three ahead of the eighth-place Rangers and five up on the outside-looking-in Panthers for ninth.

"We're trying to grab as many points as we can and move up the standings," Higgins said. "The confidence in the room is back -- that's pretty obvious to tell. I think we've got four games left here and if we continue to play the way we've been playing the last couple games, then we'll have the right mind-set for the playoffs."

As Montreal continues to surge toward the finish line, Toronto is struggling mightily. The Leafs were rocked for five goals in the first period of an 8-5 loss at Philadelphia on Friday night and Martin Gerber was lit up for six goals on 29 shots by the Habs.

"We just weren't good tonight," forward Matt Stajan said. John Mitchell and Boyd Devereaux scored in the third period to save some face for the Leafs.

Montreal scored twice in all three periods. Kovalev started the onslaught with a power-play goal at 6:11 of the first, placing a wrist shot perfectly over Gerber's shoulder and below the crossbar.

"I'm probably playing as good as I have been all year," said Kovalev, who has 63 points for the season and 15 in the last six games. "Like I've said many times, sometimes you try to do too much on your own instead of using your partners. Right now I kind of know more about the players that I'm playing with."

Latendresse converted from in close at 8:53 to make it 2-0 and had a chance to add another when he was awarded a penalty shot 6:31 into the second. Gerber stopped him, but Tanguay scored just 58 seconds later off a precision pass by Saku Koivu. Higgins put a wrist shot into the net at 8:59 after Gerber got caught up sparring with Tomas Plekanec in front.

Mitchell ended Halak's shutout bid by scoring 2:11 into the third, but Montreal made it 6-1 on a pair of power-play goals. Lapierre netted the first at 6:38 and Gorges responded at 9:10 before Devereaux gained a minor measure of revenge for Toronto by notching a shorthanded goal with 6:40 remaining.

"I'm excited to know that we're going to have that chance. This is where the work just begins. We've worked extremely hard to get ourselves in this position, and I'm excited for everybody, but we need to bear down in these last three games. I can't express that enough." -- Hurricanes goalie Cam Ward on returning to the playoffs for the first time since 2006
Kovalev assisted on both third-period goals and drew praise from general manager and interim coach Bob Gainey.

"He's been really good recently," Gainey said. "You could see tonight he was dominant. Like any of those really strong players, once they get the sense that their game is together and the situation is provided, they go for it. He played a monster game tonight for us."

Islanders 3, Lightning 1 | Video

New York has turned to its youth down the stretch and picked up a fair share of victories in the process.

Josh Bailey netted a power-play goal and fellow rookie Jesse Joensuu picked up the first two assists of his NHL career in a win over Tampa Bay at Nassau Coliseum.

"I think, knock on wood, if we can stay healthy, that's going to be the key," Bailey said of the Islanders' hopes for next season. "A lot of guys are going to be a year older in the League and that's a big difference. We're going to be getting a lot of guys back, so if we can just stay healthy and keep playing the system I think we'll definitely be able to contend."

Richard Park scored 23 seconds after the opening faceoff and Radek Martinek added a power-play goal as the Islanders snapped a three-game losing streak. Defenseman Bruno Gervais also had a two-assist night.

"It's the whole team -- it's a thing of confidence," Gervais said. "We came a long way. We've been working hard all year and it's coming together right now. We're missing a lot of key players but we're trying to step up and play as hard as we can."

Matt Pettinger scored a power-play goal for the Lightning with 3:22 left in the second period, answering Martinek's score 1:46 earlier. Bailey restored the two-goal lead for the Islanders with his seventh of the season and fourth in his last seven games, taking a beautiful feed from Blake Comeau and beating Mike McKenna at 9:11 of the third.

"It was a play we worked on a lot," Bailey said. "It was a nice goal to get."

Islanders goalie Yann Danis shut the door with a 29-save performance.

"It definitely was a bounce back game for him," coach Scott Gordon said. "He felt pretty good."

McKenna made 18 saves as the Lightning dropped to 0-4-2 over their last six games.

"For me personally, it's the last year of my contract, so it's make-or-break time for me," McKenna said. "We at least show heart and courage out there. We play hard."

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

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