Stempniak | Finger | Nieuwendyk | Gainey | Higgins
With starting goaltender Carey Price out, Jaroslav Halak stepped in and continued the Montreal Canadiens' surge with a strong effort against a woeful Eastern Conference foe.
Trying keep the Canadiens' drive for a second straight playoff berth moving, Halak will likely be in net again Saturday night against the Toronto Maple Leafs in Saturday night's game at the Air Canada Centre.
Price helped Montreal rebound from a season high five-game skid by allowing nine goals during a 3-0-1 stretch, but he came down with the flu before Thursday night's game at the New York Islanders. Making his first start since a 5-2 home loss to Toronto on March 21, Halak stopped 26 shots in a 5-1 victory that pushed the Canadiens into seventh in the East.
Montreal (40-27-10) has a tenuous grip on that spot - one point ahead of the eighth-place New York Rangers and three in front of Florida with a game in hand on both teams.
"We're not looking at where we're at in the standings. We're just looking at winning games," Canadiens forward Alex Tanguay said. "Points are crucial, and it's going to be no different for us Saturday in Toronto."
Montreal has split its two visits to Toronto this season, winning 6-1 on Oct. 11 behind 24 saves from Halak but falling 6-3 on Nov. 8 with Price in net.
Aiding Halak on Thursday, the Canadiens scored three power-play goals against the Islanders. They are 10-for-30 with the man advantage over the last five games, equaling their power-play goal total from the previous 13 contests.
"We feel good," said Tanguay, who has five goals and nine assists in his last 11 games. "We've played better, and hopefully, we can keep on improving. We are a team that felt at the start had a lot of potential. We maybe underachieved but even though we're 77 games into it, the season is still young, and we can still make some good things happen."
Saku Koivu opened Thursday's scoring on the man advantage and Alexei Kovalev had a season-high three assists to extend their respective point streaks to five games. Left wing Andrei Kostitsyn, though, likely will miss Saturday's game after suffering a cut over his eye.
Out of playoff contention for the fourth straight season to extend their Stanley Cup drought to 42 years, the Maple Leafs (32-33-13) have given up 22 goals while dropping three of their last four games. Toronto, which owns the league's worst defense with 266 goals allowed, matched its season high in that department Friday night in an 8-5 loss at Philadelphia.
The Maple Leafs scored all five of their goals in a 15:34 span that began late in the second period, but otherwise failed to impress coach Ron Wilson.
"We had some guys who basically mailed it in tonight and didn't want to compete," Wilson said. "We knew that they would come hard."
Trying to avoid finishing last in the Northeast Division in consecutive seasons, Toronto leads Ottawa by one point.