Canadiens-Hurricanes Preview

The Montreal Canadiens were two minutes away from clinching a
playoff spot in their latest game, but they blew a late regulation
lead before falling in a shootout.

Now it’ll take another point to lock up their postseason berth
in their road finale Thursday night against the Carolina
Hurricanes, but by closing with consecutive wins the Canadiens will
guarantee themselves the Eastern Conference’s sixth seed.

Montreal (39-32-9) shut out a pair of East contenders over the
weekend, winning in Philadelphia and at home against Buffalo, but
couldn’t get two points Tuesday against a club that won’t be around
for the postseason.

The Canadiens led the New York Islanders 3-2 late in regulation,
but Frans Nielsen tied the score with 2:01 left before scoring the
shootout winner. After the 4-3 loss, Montreal still needs one more
point to clinch a playoff spot.

“I thought the second period we played pretty good, and the
third period we sat back too much,” said Brian Gionta, who’s tied
with Michael Cammalleri for the team lead in goals with 26. “It
would have been nice to win, but it is what it is right now. We put
ourselves in this situation. We just have to focus on the last two
games.”

While the point the Canadiens need would guarantee they’ll
finish higher than the ninth-place Rangers, wins Thursday and in
Saturday’s regular-season finale against Toronto would give
Montreal the sixth seed and a likely first-round meeting with
Northeast Division rival Buffalo.

Beating Carolina (34-36-10), however, won’t be easy. The
Hurricanes are 6-3-2 in their last 11 games, including two wins
over Washington and one in Pittsburgh.

They’ve also won in Montreal, a 2-1 victory on March 31 as Cam
Ward made 34 saves in just his second start after missing 19 games
with a back injury.

It was Carolina’s offense that was the star in its latest game.
Rod Brind’Amour, Eric Staal and rookie Drayson Bowman all scored
two goals apiece in an 8-5 win Tuesday at Tampa Bay.

“It was an unusual game,” Hurricanes coach Paul Maurice said.
“I’m pleased we were able to execute when there’s not the normal
emotion that an NHL game brings when two teams that have been
recently eliminated face each other.”

Carey Price was in goal for Montreal against Carolina last week,
but Jaroslav Halak – 1-1-1 with a 2.15 goals-against average in his
career against the Hurricanes – figures to get the start
Thursday.

Halak is 5-2-2 with a 1.53 GAA and two shutouts in his last nine
games.

He’ll certainly want to keep tabs on Staal, who has four goals
and two assists in his last four games against the Canadiens, but
Halak also needs to pay attention to Brandon Sutter. The
second-year forward has goals in all three games versus Montreal
this season.

Carolina has generally been a tough matchup for the Canadiens in
recent years. The Hurricanes are 13-3-3 in the series since the
start of the 2005-06 season.

Montreal has won two of three meetings this season, however,
largely thanks to Tomas Plekanec. The center of the Canadiens’ top
line has five assists in those two victories, and the team is
29-10-7 when Plekanec records at least one point.