MONTREAL - A six-game winning streak had the Montreal Canadiens practically assured of a playoff spot. Getting only one win in six games since has put the post-season back in doubt.
Cam Ward kept the Hurricanes in it long enough to allow Eric Staal to score the winner in the third period as Carolina hampered the Canadiens' playoff chances with a 2-1 victory Wednesday at the Bell Centre.
The Canadiens (37-32-8) dropped to eighth in the Eastern Conference, only two points ahead of the ninth-place Atlanta Thrashers, while they were sixth as recently as Saturday night.
Montreal doesn't play again until Friday night in Philadelphia.
"We all understand the urgency," said Canadiens goalie Carey Price, who saw his record drop to 13-20-5 despite a strong 25-save performance. "There's five games left now. Our next game against Philadelphia is obviously a very big game. We just have to forget this one and get ready for that next game, individually and as a team we have to put all our energy and focus into that game."
Brandon Sutter scored for a second straight game for the Hurricanes (33-35-9), who improved to 19-8-2 since Jan 21.
"It was a nice win," Staal said. "We didn't play very well in the first period. But when you have an all-star goalie like Cam Ward he'll give you a chance, and he provided that for us."
Marc-Andre Bergeron replied on a power play for the Canadiens.
The Canadiens are tied at 82 points with Philadelphia and Boston, but both the Flyers and Bruins now hold a game in hand.
"You can't think about it, it's done," Canadiens winger Mike Cammalleri. "We have five remaining and we have to win the games. Nothing else matters. Every game is like a Stanley Cup game now."
Carolina continued its dominance in Montreal, improving to 11-0-2 in their last 13 games at the Bell Centre including playoffs.
Ward, who returned from a back injury that cost him 19 games with a 26-save win on Monday, stopped 34 shots to improve to 10-3-2 in his career against the Canadiens. He was at his best in the first, stopping 11 of 12 shots, including several quality scoring chances.
"We were trying a whole new thing, to see if we could win a game without actually taking a stride in the first," Hurricanes coach Paul Maurice said. "It was a short experiment, it wasn't going particularly well."
Ward also made a game-saving pad stop on Brian Gionta with only 10 seconds to play in regulation.
It was yet another hard-luck loss for Canadiens Price, who has seen his teammates score only 11 goals in his last six losses.
Price was especially good in the third period, when Carolina outshot Montreal 17-10 but only managed to get one past him.
"I kind of stopped looking for reasons," Price said of his run of bad luck. "I found what I need to do to play well, and that's all I can do. If I'm not going to get rewarded for it, then so be it."
After being outplayed for much of the first 40 minutes, Carolina turned it on in the third, helped greatly by a boarding penalty to Cammalleri at the 38-second mark.
Moments after the penalty expired, Erik Cole spun and shot one from the slot. Price made a skate save, but Staal was all alone on the doorstep to score his 24th of the year at 2:55 of the third.
The Canadiens thoroughly dominated the first period, outshooting Carolina 12-2, but only came out of it with a 1-0 lead.
"We had so many scoring chances but we didn't score," said Tomas Plekanec. "It should have been 2-0 or 3-0, and the game would have been completely different. After that we started pushing it, and it doesn't happen when you're pushing and pressing things."
Montreal had a two-man advantage for 40 seconds and just as the first penalty to former Canadien Tom Kostopoulos came to an end, Scott Gomez found Bergeron for a one-timer at 8:04 of the first. It was Bergeron's 11th of the season and his seventh on the power play.
Canadiens winger Sergei Kostitsyn came away limping after taking a hit later in the period and did not return to the game with what the team called a lower body injury.
Carolina tied things up early in the second on a great play by Sutter. He skated into the Canadiens zone, walked around Roman Hamrlik and as he was getting tripped by Hamrlik flipped a shot on Price. Hamrlik slid into the crease and knocked the puck in just before knocking the net off.
The goal was originally waved off, but it was reversed on a video review to give Sutter his 20th of the year.
"That's a bit frustrating," Price said. "There's nothing you can do about it. It's just Lady Luck frowning at you. But it's more sour when something like that happens as opposed to a normal goal."
Notes: Canadian gold medal moguls skier Alexandre Bilodeau, silver medal mogul skier Jennifer Heil and freestyle ski coach Dominick Gauthier were presented to the Bell Centre crowd prior to the singing of the Canadian national anthem. They received a rousing standing ovation from the sellout crowd of 21,273...Glen Metropolit (shoulder) was out for Montreal while forwards Tom Pyatt and Ben Maxwell were scratched...Winger Tuomo Ruutu (shoulder), defenceman Tim Gleason (foot) and defenceman Alexandre Picard (upper body) were out for Carolina...Referee Kerry Fraser worked his final game in Montreal as he completes a career-ending tour of the Original Six cities. He will work the final game of his 27-year career on April 11 in New York...In the obscure stat category, with Sutter's 20th goal of the season he has a chance to become the first player since Toronto's Sergei Berezin in 1999-00 to score 20 goals and have only two penalty minutes in a season. Sutter must play penalty-free hockey the rest of the way to achieve the feat...