Habs edged by Thrashers in shootout
In notching his 15th goal of the season, Jan Bulis reached the 30-point mark for the fourth time in his career.
MONTREAL - The Canadiens closed out the pre-Olympic portion of their schedule with a 2-1 shootout loss to the Thrashers Saturday night at the Bell Centre.
The point picked up by the Canadiens (26-22-8) was a pivotal one as it allowed Montreal to leapfrog the Maple Leafs and take over sole possession of the eighth and final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference with 60 points. The two points were also huge for the Thrashers (26-26-6) who continue to nip at the heels of both the Canadiens and Leafs with now 58 points on the season.
The Canadiens would have been hard-pressed to leave the Bell Centre with that crucial point were it not for another solid performance from Cristobal Huet. Making his sixth straight start, the 30-year-old netminder kicked aside 22-of-23 shots through regulation and overtime, including a handful of miraculous saves. Marian Hossa tried to slip one past Huet any way he could, but the All-Star winger was stoned twice in overtime and again in the shootout.
Tonight's shootout was only made possible by an impossible save made by Huet with the edge of his left pad on Hossa with only seven seconds remaining in the extra frame.
"To be honest it was the kind of save you make when you're just fooling around with the guys in practice," admitted Huet. "It's the kind of thing you try when you have no other options. Let's just say it's the sort of save a goalie hopes to not have to make too often."
Although the Montreal bench and the Bell Centre erupted after Huet's late overtime stop on Hossa, Canadiens coach Bob Gainey has seemingly grown accustomed to seeing Huet pull a rabbit from his hat.
"I'm past the stage of being surprised by what Cristobal can do," admitted Gainey. "Over the past several weeks he has certainly been the backbone of our improved play. Cristobal was brought in to be our back-up, but his play of late is sending the message that he is ready to take the next step and become a No. 1 goalie."
Newly re-signed Canadiens captain Saku Koivu was still shaking his head after the game about a few of the stops made by Huet.
"Seeing Huey come up with those kinds of big saves really gives us a boost and it's just too bad we couldn't pull this one out in the shootout," said Koivu. "He's really been keeping us in there and giving us a chance to win every night."
Atlanta's Brad Larsen opened the scoring only 3:40 into the game when he beat Huet with a backhand from the slot for the only goal of the first period. The Canadiens came out flying to start the second period, as Jan Bulis and Richard Zednik broke in on a 2-on-1 less than three minutes in with Bulis cashing in a nifty backhand feed from Zednik for his 15th goal of the season. Bulis now trails only Michael Ryder who leads the team with 23 goals.
Tonight marked Gainey's first shootout experience as a head coach, and he went with Alex Kovalev, Alexander Perezhogin and Ryder. Kovalev turned Kari Lehtonen inside out before lifting his backhand too high and over the net. Perezhogin barreled in only to see Lehtonen kick out his right pad, while Ryder's attempt was also stuffed by Lehtonen.
Lehtonen stopped 26-of-27 shots including all three shots he faced in the shootout.
Huet, meanwhile, frustrated Ilya Kovalchuk and Hossa before being fooled by Slava Kozlov to end the shootout.
The Canadiens will now get to enjoy a two-week break during the Olympics, while the work has only just begun for Saku Koivu (Finland), Alex Kovalev (Russia), Andrei Markov (Russia), Richard Zednik (Slovakia), Jan Bulis (Czech Republic) and Mark Streit (Switzerland), who will immediately report to Turin for their Olympic duties.
Following the Olympic break, the Canadiens will head out on a six-game road trip, beginning with a visit to the Islanders on Feb. 28.
NOTES : Saturday night's matchup with the Thrashers drew a capacity crowd of 21,273, marking the Canadiens' 27th consecutive sellout of the season and 50th straight overall packed house dating back to 2003-04...RW Niklas Sundstrom and D Mark Streit were not in the lineup... Tonight marked the second time the Thrashers and Canadiens have resorted to a shootout to settle a game this season, with the Canadiens having already notched a 3-2 shootout victory over Atlanta back on Nov. 22 at the Bell Centre. Jose Theodore stoned Kovalchuk, Hossa and Peter Bondra that night, while Pierre Dagenais notched the Canadiens only goal to clinch the win... The Thrashers are now 0-for-20 on the power-play over their two visits to the Bell Centre this season...
|ATL||Marian Hossa||No goal|
|MTL||Alex Kovalev||No goal|
|ATL||Ilya Kovalchuck||No goal|
|MTL||Alexander Perezhogin||No goal|
|MTL||Michael Ryder||No goal|
Atlanta wins the shootout 1-0.
Manny Almela is a writer for canadiens.com