Game 77: Habs win ugly to earn playoff berth

Andrei Kostitsyn prepares to shovel in one of his two goals tonight, beating Ottawa goalie Martin Gerber and defenceman Chris Phillips.
John Mahoney, Gazette

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Forty minutes of superb hockey. Twenty minutes of absolute domination by the visitor.

Finally: a 7-5 Canadiens victory over the Ottawa Senators tonight, and a confirmed ticket to the postseason, the Habs the first Eastern Conference team to assure its participation in the playoffs.

With the victory, Montreal moves seven points ahead of the Senators in the Northeast Division. The Habs remain three points ahead of the Pittsburgh Penguins, 4-1 losers tonight to the New York Islanders, in the East; the Penguins hold a game in hand. And Montreal is five points up on New Jersey, the Devils having played two less games.

The Canadiens tonight sought to win just their second game in seven tries against the Senators. It was a walk in the park for two periods, but a stroll into a blizzard for the final 20 minutes. Ottawa scored four unanswered goals in the third, outshooting Montreal 14-2 to rally from a 7-1 deficit.

In six games against the Senators before tonight’s contest, the Canadiens had managed 11 goals. Tonight: three in less than 18 1/2 minutes, in one of the strongest, most focused periods the club has played all season, and that broke the ice for something pretty special – until the teams reported for the third period.

The friendly boards of the Bell Centre helped get the Habs on the scoreboard at just 1:40. Andrei Kostitsyn bagged his 24th of the season on a lively hop off the boards behind Ottawa goalie Martin Gerber, drilling home a puck shot by Tomas Plekanec. It came on the Canadiens’ third shot of the period.

Maxim Lapierre’s excellent work behind Gerber produced Montreal’s second goal, the gritty centreman winning a battle to shovel the puck out to Christopher Higgins. Gerber stopped Higgins’s first shot but couldn’t cover the rebound as Higgins chopped it in for his 23rd goal of the year, coming at 13:26.

The play had begun a moment before the goal when Ottawa’s Wade Redden slipped and fell heavily into the end boards. The defenceman was slow getting up and finally went to the Senators dressing room for examination. He missed the rest of the first period but was back for the start of the second. However, he left for the night after just one more shift, suffering a left leg injury.

Andrei Kostitsyn added his second of the night on the power play at 18:24, banging home the rebound of a Mark Streit slap shot. That was enough for Senators backup goalie Ray Emery to pull on his mask, but Gerber finished the period, beaten three times on Montreal’s 14 shots. Carey Price was perfect on Ottawa’s seven, his toughest being a fine glove grab in the final seconds on a Senators power play with defenceman Andrei Markov serving a hooking minor.

Emery was in the Ottawa goal to start the second period, and Gerber was out of sight the rest of the night, not on the stool in the tunnel to the visitors’ dressing room.

It seemed the Senators would try to disrupt Price’s game, Dany Heatley taking a goaltender interference penalty at 25 seconds of the second, their second infraction of the kind.

Ottawa finally got on the scoreboard at 9:43 when a Price clearing attempt was intercepted at the blue line by Martin Lapointe. The feed to the net was hacked at by Randy Robitaille, and the rebound of that off Price was buried by centre Antoine Vermette.

But Montreal got that back at 11:29 on some resourceful, heads-up work behind the net by Bryan Smolinski, who dug the puck out from beside Emery and got it across to pinching defenceman Francis Bouillon for his second of the season.

A marked lack of Ottawa discipline gave the Canadiens a 5-on-3 for 1:13, and with Christoph Schubert still in the box, Andrei Markov whipped home the rebound of his own shot at 15:04, smartly set up by Alex Kovalev. It marked the Canadiens’ most prolific output against the Senators this season.

And there was more to come.

Make it six? Why not? Mikhail Grabovski was the recipient of a brilliant pass from Sergei Kostitsyn, who charged behind the net and threaded a hard feed out, converted by Grabovski as he fell at 15:46 for his third of the season.

But isn’t seven a lucky number? And why not shorthanded? Rather than ice the puck to kill a few seconds of Tomas Plekanec’s hooking minor, Markov saw Tom Kostopoulos pulling into neutral ice and found him with a pass. Using Lapierre as a decoy, Kostopoulos fired a hard snap shot past Emery to put the Habs up by six. Kostopoulos’s sixth goal of the year came at 19:14.

Then the Senators woke up during the second intermission, big time.

Ottawa got their second at 3:04 of the third period when Heatley stuffed his 38th in Price’s short side on a pass out from captain Daniel Alfredsson. A moment earlier, Steve Bégin had drilled one Emery’s goal post from far out and along the boards.

Ottawa’s third came at 4:33, credited to Lapointe but in fact accidentally kicked in by Canadiens defenceman Roman Hamrlik. You could feel the panic in the arena, and Price made two huge saves in the next five minutes.

The goalie had no chance on Ottawa’s fourth, Heatley left alone to punch home the rebound of Mike Commodore’s shot at 9:23.

The Senators scored their fifth, and fourth of the period, off the stick of Jason Spezza at 18:02 on a power play.

The Canadiens will enjoy the day off before Wednesday’s off-ice workouts. The team plays next in Buffalo on Friday, then in Toronto vs. the Maple Leafs on Saturday.

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