Division locked up, Canadiens now eye first in Eastern Conference

MONTREAL – There are two games left in the NHL regular season and first place is within reach, so Montreal Canadiens coach Guy Carbonneau asks: Why not go for it?

That’s why Carbonneau has no intention of resting banged-up veterans like Roman Hamrlik or Michael Ryder or starting anyone other than No. 1 goalie Carey Price when the Canadiens play host to the Buffalo Sabres on Thursday night.

“I think we have a shot at it,” Carbonneau said Wednesday. “I think everyone in the room wants to give it a shot.

“I’m not going to play two lines and four defencemen the rest of the year. We won in Ottawa (on Tuesday) and not a lot of people thought we could beat them with the injuries we had. We have two games left against teams we’re able to beat, so I don’t see why we shouldn’t try.”

A 3-0 victory over the reeling Senators clinched Montreal’s first division title since 1991-92 and guaranteed a top-two finish in the conference, which brings home-ice advantage for at least the first two rounds of playoffs.

Now they want to take it one step further and secure their first conference title since 1988-89.

After the Buffalo game, the Canadiens end the regular season Saturday at home against the Toronto Maple Leafs.

“Even though we put ourselves in a good position, there’s still a lot of competitiveness in the players,” said defenceman Josh Gorges. “We have a chance to win the Eastern Conference and that’s big for the players and the organization.

“It’s not the be all and end all, but it’s something that would be great if we could accomplish it.”

Hamrlik and Ryder were given a day off practice for off-ice therapy, while star winger Alex Kovalev and rookie centre Mikhail Grabovski, who was not in the lineup in Ottawa, each stayed home with the flu.

Carbonneau expects all four to be available for the Buffalo game.

That leaves captain Saku Koivu (foot) and defencemen Mike Komisarek (hip) and Francis Bouillon (foot) still out with injuries.

The Canadiens have been largely injury-free for most of the season, but the recent spate has seen some players make the most of the extra ice time they’ve received, including Gorges, who played more than 23 minutes in Ottawa.

Mathieu Dandenault, who was left out of the lineup 10 games in row, has scored a goal in each of the two games he’s been played since he was put back in.

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And despite missing Komisarek, their shut-down defenceman, the penalty-killing units have blanked opponents on the last 20 chances. After spending most of the season in the bottom third of penalty-killing teams, they are now back in the middle at 16th in the league with an 82.4 per cent kill rate.

That goes with a league-best power play that scores on 24.3 per cent of chances.

Gorges said the penalty-killing success has come from being more aggressive.

“Earlier on we were letting teams set up and giving them time to make plays,” he said. “Lately, if there’s a loose puck, we’re not sitting back.

“We’re forcing them to make tough plays instead of giving them time.”

Like his teammates, Gorges didn’t want to join the speculation over what team the Canadiens may meet in the first round, although the possibilities are intriguing.

Montreal went 8-0 against Boston this season, for instance, while if Washington squeaks in, it might put the Canadiens up against their former No.1 goalie Cristobal Huet, who was traded to the Capitals at the NHL deadline on Feb. 26. Price is 10-3 since the trade, but Huet has also been hot.

And there’s still a chance they will face Ottawa, a team that ran them over repeatedly earlier this season but which they have beaten convincingly twice in a row since then.

“It really helped that we were able to win against them at home (on March 24),” said Gorges. “It helped with the mental aspect.

“We went in there not fearing them, but knowing that if we played our game, we could win. We didn’t think, like we did before, about who we were up against or what they would do to us. We just played our game.”

Komisarek skated Wednesday with the Concordia University varsity team while his teammates practised at the Denis Savard Arena a 15-minute hop from the Bell Centre. Komisarek said he is testing his injury a little more each day and there have been no setbacks. He hopes to be ready for the start of the playoffs.

Bouillon and Koivu did not skate and neither is expected back before the playoffs.