Canadiens put away Blackhawks
The Montreal Canadiens didn't receive any favours from their divisional rivals, but they still managed to keep a loose grip on the eighth and final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference on Tuesday night.
Led by goaltender Carey Price and forward Alex Kovalev, the Canadiens scored an impressive 4-1 home win against the Chicago Blackhawks at the Bell Centre.
The Canadiens (39-27-10) hold the final playoff spot in the East with 88 points, but remain only one point ahead of the Florida Panthers, who dumped Ottawa 5-2 on Tuesday night.
Montreal has a game in hand and one more win over the Panthers, which is the first tie-breaking criterion should the teams finish the regular season with the same number of points.
The victory also officially eliminated the Toronto Maple Leafs and Senators from playoff contention.
Kovalev and defenceman Andrei Markov powered the Montreal offence with a goal and an assist apiece.
Guillaume Latendresse and Mathieu Schneider added the other goals for Montreal.
Patrick Sharp netted Chicago's only tally.
Gainey praises Price
Price, who sported an ugly 2-10-1 mark in early March, won his third game in his last four starts. The netminder, 21, was the main reason why the Canadiens were able to kill off all six Chicago power plays.
Montreal coach Bob Gainey said Price played "his best compete game in a long time."
"Any time you have a goaltender who gives off an aura of confidence and who is making the strong saves and cleaning up his area, it's part of what makes up a good team game. It allows the other players to relax."
Former Canadiens goalie Cristobal Huet returned to the Bell Centre and made 29 saves. Huet was dealt during last year's trade deadline to the Washington Capitals before signing a lucrative free-agent contract with the Blackhawks in the off-season.
"I gave him a hug out of my window," Price said of his first meeting with Huet since the trade. "We had a green light coming, so we couldn't talk too much.
"But it was a sad day for me when he got traded. It was almost like having an older brother. He was a guy I looked up to for advice. He was everything I wanted out of a partner."
The Blackhawks (40-24-11) have dropped two straight games after winning three in a row.
The Canadiens got off to a great start with a goal only 25 seconds into the first period following a careless turnover by Chicago defenceman Duncan Keith.
Expecting to hear a whistle for an icing call, Keith flipped the puck back toward the Blackhawk net and right Kovalev, who converted his 100th goal as a Canadien by beating Huet to the far side.
The much-maligned Kovalev has now scored six goals in his last 10 periods. Kovalev has flourished since Gainey put in on a line with captain Saku Koivu and Alex Tanguay during the team's last four games.
Despite giving up the early goal, the former Montreal goaltender was brilliant with 13 first-period saves, including a breakaway stop on Tanguay.
Price takes over
Price took over in the second period, making several keep saves early to allow the Canadiens time to recover and take a 2-0 lead at 6:12.
After a second potential icing was waved off, Huet stopped Latendresse's rebound attempt, but the puck managed to bounce over the Chicago netminder and across the goal-line.
"He's a good goalie and he's going to have a great career," Huet said of Price. "When you talk about being a mentor, I don't know. But he had a good game tonight."
The Canadiens took a commanding 3-0 lead 9:40 later on the power play. Markov jumped in on the play before firing a rebound into the open side of the Chicago net.
Sharp spoiled Price's shutout bid with a goal at 12:18 of the third, but Schneider iced the contest with Montreal's second power-play goal just over four minutes later.
The news was not all good for Montreal, which lost winger Sergei Kostitsyn and defenceman Roman Hamrlik in the game.
Kostitsyn was injured when he was checked into the boards by Chicago defenceman Aaron Johnson in the first period. Hamrlik left in the second after he collided with Blackhawks winger Ben Eager and linesman Pierre Champoux.
Hamrlik fell hard along the boards into Champoux, and then was hit on the helmet by Eager. Hamrlik was called for interference on the play.
"There are body checks in a game," Gainey said. "It's chasing your tail trying to nail down which [one] is and which isn't a penalty. I don't want to comment."
The team would only say that Kostitsyn and Hamrlik suffered upper body injuries.
With files from the Canadian Press