Updated at 10:34 p.m. with all audio
Carey Price keeps a close eye on a flying puck.
Christinne Muschi, Reuters
After spending the day holding their breath awaiting the blockbuster trade that never came, Canadiens fans are getting used to the look of the team that now will bear down on the stretch run to the playoffs.
And a 5-1 Bell Centre victory tonight over the Atlanta Thrashers was not a bad way at all to start.
First star Christopher Higgins scored two goals and added an assist and goaltender Carey Price, the second star of the night, made 26 saves to earn the win, the Canadiens exploding for four third-period goals to win going away.
It was fitting that tonight’s game against the Thrashers, supposedly the Canadiens’ trading-deadline dance partner, began the Habs’ 19-game sprint to the postseason.
With Price, Montreal’s newly anointed No. 1 goalie, in the Montreal net, and a new backup goaler and a flashy forward up this afternoon from Hamilton – respectively Jaroslav Halak and Mikhail Grabovski – the Canadiens had their way with the Thrashers to snap a two-game losing streak in wrapping up a four-game homestand.
Montreal outshot their visitors 33-27.
Canadiens forward Maxim Lapierre, rumoured to be part of a package that was offered to/demanded by Atlanta earlier in the day for their coveted star Marian Hossa, put Montreal on the scoreboard with his fifth of the season at 10:18 of the first period. Foiled first by Thrashers goalie Kari Lehtonen at the side of the net, Lapierre dug the puck out and scored on a nice second-effort backhand.
Price was very steady in goal, making 11 saves to the nine made by Lehtonen through the first 20 minutes.
Thrashers’ Ilya Kovalchuk tied the game at 1-1 on the power play at 2:04 of the second, for all intents and purposes a 5-on-3 with Andrei Markov in the penalty box and defender Steve Bégin having lost his stick. Kovalchuk whipped home his 41st of the season from just inside the faceoff circle, using Canadiens defenceman Mike Komisarek to partially screen Price.
The Thrashers outshot Montreal 10-8 in the second to hold a 21-18 lead through two.
The Canadiens jumped back into the lead on the power play at 2:10 of the third period, Higgins scoring his 20th of the season on a beautiful cross-crease pass from still-here Michael Ryder, who’d been set up by captain Saku Koivu. It was the 200th NHL point registered by Ryder, who’d been the centre of virtually every Habs trade rumour the past month.
Higgins added his 21st – Koivu did a nice bit of stickhandling, which led to an attempted shot by Markov that finally Higgins corralled and shovelled in from just in front of Lehtonen.
Higgins then engineered a perfect cross-ice pass to Markov, who pinched in for his 13th of the season at 8:17, once again on the power play.
Sergei Kostitsyn closed out the scoring when he bagged his seventh on a bullet wrist shot at 9:04, fed from the Canadiens zone by Guillaume Latendresse.
The Canadiens improved their season record to 34-21-9, while the Thrashers dropped to 29-31-4. It was the first of four games between the teams this year that didn’t go to a shootout, Atlanta having won two of those.
The Habs are in Buffalo on Friday to take on the Sabres before returning home Saturday to host the New Jersey Devils.