Season Series: This is the fourth of six meetings this season between the two Original Six rivals who will close out their seasons against each other on April 7. Toronto shut out the Habs 2-0 on opening night before topping the Canadiens 5-4 in overtime two weeks later. In their last meeting, Montreal beat the Leafs 3-1 thanks to third-period goals from Raphael Diaz and Lars Eller.
Big Story: Despite back-to-back losses at Winnipeg and Philadelphia, Toronto is still in the thick of the Eastern Conference playoff race while Montreal's hopes of making the postseason are hanging by a thread. The Canadiens have shown some signs of life in winning their last three games and Scott Gomez scored his first goal in more than a year Thursday night, inspiring spirited celebration among his teammates. With two months left in the regular season, this could be a pivotal matchup for both teams.
Canadiens: After losing their first three games following the All-Star break, all against Eastern Conference teams, Montreal's hopes to make the playoffs appeared completely dashed. But three straight wins, also all against Eastern Conference competition, have energized the team and allowed the faintest glimmer of hope that the Canadiens might redeem their difficult season.
Coming off a 3-2 shootout win over the Penguins, Montreal visited the Islanders on Thursday to play a team also looking to catch up with the Eastern Conference playoff pack. The Canadiens got off to a great start when Max Pacioretty's snapshot from the wing eluded Evgeni Nabokov 1:23 into the game. Pacioretty's second of the game and Gomez's long-overdue marker provided what appeared to be a comfortable 3-0 third-period lead.
But as they have done repeatedly this season, the Canadiens let up late in the game, allowing the Islanders to score twice in 48 seconds and get back in the game. But Pacioretty was able to seal his first-career hat trick with an empty-net goal, putting the puck past the goal line a fraction of a second before the final horn sounded.
Maple Leafs: After opening the month of February with back-to-back shutouts courtesy of James Reimer, the Leafs appeared poised for a late-season playoff push with a 6-3 win over Edmonton on Monday. But Toronto entered a stretch in which it will play five of six on the road with losses against the Jets and Flyers, halting some of their second-half momentum.
At the Wells Fargo Center in Philadelphia on Thursday, the Leafs twice came back from one-goal deficits against the Flyers. But two goals just 74 seconds apart created a deficit Toronto could not overcome. Tyler Bozak's goal late in the second period made it a one-goal game, but neither team scored in the third and the Leafs came up 4-3 losers.
Who's Hot: With four goals in his last three games, Pacioretty has paced the Habs offense, while Tomas Plekanec has six points in his last eight games and Chris Campoli has a modest two-game point streak. … The trio of Bozak, Joffrey Lupul, and Phil Kessel has been on fire lately, combining for 10 goals and 22 points in the last four games.
Injury Report: Andrei Markov (knee), Brian Gionta (bicep surgery), Petteri Nokelainen (leg), and Mike Blunden (knee surgery) are all on IR for the Canadiens while Yannick Weber is questionable with a lower-body injury. … The Leafs, meanwhile, are fielding a healthy lineup.
Stat Pack: Toronto's offense has led the way most of the season. The team is currently on pace to score 255 goals this season, which would be their most since the 2006-07 season. The Maple Leafs also boast a plus-10 goal differential. If they maintain that figure, it will be their first season with positive goal differential since 2003-04. In the previous four seasons, the team has combined for a minus-158 differential.
Puck Drop: In 52 games this season, Pacioretty has scored 22 goals, a total that exceeds the 20 goals he had in his first 123 NHL games entering this season.