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.