Just when things were starting to go smoothly for the Montreal Canadiens, along comes another bump in the road.
The Canadiens will try to bounce back from a disappointing loss without two of their top defencemen when they visit the New York Rangers in a key battle for Eastern Conference playoff positions on Tuesday night (7 p.m. ET).
Meanwhile, the Florida Panthers — three points back of seventh-place Montreal and even with the Rangers in the fight for the final post-season spot — visit the Philadelphia Flyers (7 p.m. ET).
Twenty-four hours ago, the Habs were riding high off three consecutive wins that seemed to put them back on track to qualify for the Stanley Cup tournament. Then reports came saying Mathieu Schneider will undergo season-ending shoulder surgery while fellow blue-liner Andrei Markov could miss three weeks with an apparent leg injury.
Weakened by the absence of two of the NHL's more highly regarded offensive defencemen, Montreal went on to blow a third-period lead Monday and lose 3-2 to the visiting Ottawa Senators, squandering an opportunity to leapfrog the Pittsburgh Penguins for sixth place in the East and put more distance between themselves and the eighth-place Rangers.
"We had the game in our control and we let it slip away, but there are three games left," Montreal defenceman Josh Gorges said.
The Habs (41-28-10) head into Madison Square Garden still clinging to a three-point lead over both New York (40-30-9) and ninth-place Florida (39-29-11), which is relegated to the lower position because it has one less win than the Rangers. Both teams have three games remaining.
"Everybody knows where we're at, what the situation is, we don't have to talk about that anymore," said Rangers coach John Tortorella, who is 9-7-2 since replacing the fired Tom Renney. "It's about finding a way to win one hockey game."
Price expected to start
The Markov and Schneider injuries are just the latest trials the Canadiens have been forced to endure in their centennial season — a seemingly cursed campaign in which star forward Alex Kovalev was forced to take a leave of absence, wunderkind goalie Carey Price has struggled to hold onto the starting job, coach Guy Carbonneau was fired, reports surfaced of players partying too much, and several lengthy losing streaks forced the team to fight for its playoff life.
If there's a bright spot heading into Tuesday's action, it's Kovalev. The mercurial winger scored his 25th goal of the season Monday to extend his points streak to seven games.
Also, the Habs have fared well against the Rangers this season, going 2-0-1 against them.
Price, who has missed the last three games with the flu, is expected to start Tuesday. He's 1-0-1 with a 2.41 GAA against the Rangers this season.
The Canadiens are in Boston on Thursday before finishing the season at home against Pittsburgh on Saturday night (CBC, CBCSports.ca, 6:30 p.m. ET).
The Rangers face a home-and-home with Philadelphia, while Florida visits Atlanta and hosts Washington.