MONTREAL – Any teams thinking they’ll catch a break when the Montreal Canadiens rest starting goaltender Carey Price could be in for a rude awakening.
Backup Jaroslav Halak made 35 stops and Francis Bouillon scored the third period winner in his first game back from injury as the Canadiens extended their winning streak to five games with a 3-1 victory Monday over the Florida Panthers.
Halak improved his save percentage to .967 on the season while allowing a single goal in both his starts. He’s been a perfect compliment to Price, who has a .939 save percentage and a 3-0-1 record thus far.
The Canadiens (5-0-1) are one of four NHL teams remaining who have yet to lose in regulation, largely because they’ve only allowed 10 goals in six games.
“It was one of his best games (with the Canadiens), and it’s not easy for him because it had been several days since he played,” Habs coach Guy Carbonneau said of Halak. “It’s fun for a coach to have two guys like that who you can send in there against anybody.”
Saku Koivu scored in his third straight game and Tomas Plekanec scored into an empty net for the Canadiens while Andrei Markov extended his points streak to six games with an assist on Koivu’s goal.
Koivu’s goal was also his 600th career point, moving him within 12 points of Mats Naslund for 11th on the franchise list, and first among the club’s Europeans.
“I’ve got to get the Swede,” the Finnish captain said of Naslund with a smile. “When I first got here a long time ago, I’d look at the names on the wall and the Stanley Cups, but I was just trying to make the team. Now, 13 years later, it’s hard to believe I’m getting close to the top 10.”
Keith Ballard scored his first for the Panthers (2-3-0), who lost in regulation for the first time in their last 10 games at the Bell Centre.
Tomas Vokoun made 31 stops for the Panthers but it wasn’t enough as Halak was spectacular in the Montreal net.
The Canadiens, who had practically no injuries of major consequence on their way to finishing first in the Eastern Conference last season, were missing Chris Higgins (groin), Andrei Kostitsyn (head), Georges Laraque (groin) and Steve Begin (flu). Bouillon began his first game of the season on the fourth line but ultimately bounced back to the blue-line, and it’s where he was posted when he scored the winner.
“That’s a little weird, it’s really tough doing both,” Bouillon said. “As you could see, I’m not too comfortable playing forward.”
Despite the injuries and the fact last year’s big guns Alex Kovalev and Plekanec have yet to get it going offensively, the Canadiens find themselves undefeated. That still doesn’t have Carbonneau satisfied.
“I feel good, but if you look at the game tonight there are still a lot of things that we need to work on,” he said. “We still need to work on neutral zone and defensive zone coverage a little bit. We just need to get better. We gave up 36 shots, and I still think that with the club that we have that’s way too much.”
With the Canadiens ahead 1-0, the Panthers began the third by applying serious pressure in the Montreal end and it ultimately paid off. Cory Stillman walked into the Canadiens zone and uncorked a shot from the high slot that Halak stopped, but the rebound went right to Ballard who roofed it for his first in a Panther uniform at 7:20 of the third.
Rostislav Olesz took an interference penalty at 8:06, and even though Montreal didn’t score the power play appeared to shift the momentum in the Canadiens’ favour.
On the first shift after the power play a weak Florida clearing attempt came to the point, where Bouillon one-timed a slap shot that got past a Mathieu Dandenault screen and beat Vokoun to the blocker side at 10:53 of the third.
Canadiens centre Maxim Lapierre took a holding the stick penalty in the offensive zone with 2:17 to play, but Plekanec managed to score the insurance goal into an empty net at 19:38 to ice it.
The first period remained scoreless largely because of Halak, as he made big stops on Olesz and Nathan Horton early while the Canadiens had trouble generating chances at the other end.
“You feel really confident when you know we can put both goalies out there any given night,” Koivu said. “He stole one for us.”
Montreal took the lead the lead at 2:07 of the second period when Markov found himself behind the Panthers defence and whiffed on a shot attempt but then blindly dropped a pass to Koivu, who tucked it inside the far post for his third of the season.
“Half the players in this league couldn’t even imagine making the plays he makes,” Koivu said of Markov, who has nine assists in six games. “It makes the forwards jobs so much easier playing with him. Like on my goal tonight, there’s only a handful of players who can miss a shot and recover in time to find a guy and get him the puck.”
Notes: The Panthers were missing defencemen Bryan McCabe (back) and Bryan Allen (neck). McCabe missed his fourth straight game while Allen sat out a third in a row. … The Canadiens held the first of eight vintage jersey nights Monday, with Montreal dressed in their road whites instead of their usual home reds. The Canadiens wore the white uniforms at home from 1970-71 to 2002-03. … Panthers winger Radek Dvorak played his 900th career game.