NEW YORK – The surging Montreal Canadiens can stop looking at the teams behind them and focus on the clubs they are chasing down in the Eastern Conference playoff race.
Sergei Kostitsyn snapped a third-period tie with a deflected goal and the Canadiens stretched their winning streak to six with a 3-1 victory over the New York Rangers on Tuesday night in the 600th meeting between the Original Six rivals.
Montreal moved one point ahead of the Philadelphia Flyers into sixth place in the East and trail No. 5 Ottawa by one. The Canadiens have played two more games than the Flyers and one more than Ottawa.
“We have to just take care of what is in here,” forward Scott Gomez said. “We’ve still got a lot of games left. The last thing that we’re worried about is these teams. We’re worried about what we’re doing.”
Kostitsyn nudged the puck in front and was rewarded when it caromed in off the skate of Rangers forward Artem Anisimov at 5:59. Frustrated goalie Henrik Lundqvist bent over backward and stared at the ceiling in disgust.
Canadiens defenceman Hal Gill came to Gomez’s defence in the closing seconds after Rangers agitator Sean Avery slashed Gomez in the leg. Avery received a major penalty and was ejected. He also had to deal with physical punishment from the six-foot-seven Gill, who jumped in.
“He seems to do that a lot, so it gets frustrating,” Gill said. “You’re trying to play the game and there is a sideshow at times. We want to stick together as much as we can. He’s a treat.”
Montreal’s winning streak is its longest since an eight-game spurt in 2006. The Canadiens built their playoff cushion over the ninth-place Rangers to seven points. New York dropped three points behind Boston and the post-season cutoff.
“What is fun about it is we’ve been finding different ways to win,” Gill said.
Glen Metropolit staked the Canadiens to a 1-0 lead in the first with a power-play goal. Avery made it 1-1 in the second for New York, outshot 35-20.
“We didn’t put the effort we needed to, unfortunately,” Rangers forward Ryan Callahan said. “We need to look ahead and not behind us.”
Jaroslav Halak has been in goal for each victory in the Canadiens’ streak. Tomas Plekanec’s empty-net, short-handed goal with 35.5 seconds left sealed the win.
Lundqvist was tested heavily after needing to make only 17 saves in a 3-1 win over Philadelphia on Sunday. The Rangers will face St. Louis at home Thursday and then play eight of their final 11 on the road.
“We definitely don’t want this to be the end of the year,” Lundqvist said. “If we want to keep playing, we have to raise our level and play our best hockey.”
Avery tied it 2:02 into the second on New York’s first shot of the period and seventh of the game. Avery got credit for the goal when defenceman Matt Gilroy’s shot from the right point hit him while Avery was being knocked to the ice by Gill.
It was Avery’s 11th goal and third in two games since he was benched for the Rangers’ win at Atlanta on Friday. Avery scored twice Sunday in his return to the lineup.
Montreal used its NHL-best road power play to take a 1-0 lead. While Brandon Prust was off for holding, former Rangers centre Gomez cleanly won a faceoff against Chris Drury and got the puck to Andrei Markov in the slot. Markov’s drive clipped Metropolit and caromed past the surprised Lundqvist at 3:34 for his 16th this season – 10th on the power play.
The Canadiens finished the pedestrian first period with a 9-6 shots advantage. The game played out much differently than the teams’ previous two meetings: a 6-0 Canadiens win in Montreal on Jan. 23, and New York’s 6-2 home victory six days earlier.
Despite getting even, the Rangers recorded only five shots on Halak in the middle frame. Montreal posted 18, but couldn’t get a puck past Lundqvist.
The Rangers went 0-for-5 on the power play and generated only three shots during those advantages. They had a 6-on-4 skating edge when Plekanec scored the empty-netter.
New York scored a total of three power-play goals in its previous two games.
“What we did well against Philly was the opposite end of the spectrum,” Rangers coach John Tortorella said. “We’re going to move on. We need to come back and beat St. Louis.”
NOTES: Montreal is 318-185-94-3 against the Rangers, including a 122-122-54-2 mark in 300 games at New York. … The Rangers are 37-19-10 against Original Six teams the 2005-06 season.