Halak made 29 saves, including 14 in the third period, and captain Saku Koivu scored twice as the Canadiens defeated the Boston Bruins 2-0 on Tuesday night to hold onto the eighth and final playoff spot in the NHL Eastern Conference.
The Canadiens sit two points behind the Rangers – their next opponent Thursday night in New York – and the Tampa Bay Lighting, and one point ahead of the ninth-place Maple Leafs, who they face Saturday night in the regular season finale in Toronto.
Halak, a 21-year-old Slovak, also picked up his first NHL point – an assist on Koivu’s first goal.
It was his seventh win in the last eight games and his second shutout – both against Boston – in that span. The first came in back-to-back wins of 1-0 and 6-3 over the Bruins March 20 and March 22.
“Everybody played great on defence – I saw all the shots – so it was a team effort,” said Halak, who is 7-0 with a glittering 1.84 goals-against average and a .935 save percentage on home ice since he was called up from AHL Hamilton when Huet was hurt on Feb. 14. “It’s great to get a shutout and a point, but the important thing is the win.”
Huet, who performed much like Halak a year ago when the Canadiens made the playoffs with a late winning run, comes off the injured reserve list after hamstring surgery on Wednesday, but won’t get the start in New York.
“The way Jaroslav is playing now there is no question – he will be in the net on Thursday,” said coach Guy Carbonneau. “After that, we’ll see.
“If we get a chance to put Cristobal in, we will.”
Halak, a ninth-round draft pick in 2003 who played last season in the ECHL, won his first three NHL starts in February, but then lost four in a row and looked to be on his way back to AHL Hamilton. But back-up David Aebischer faltered and Halak was put back in the net.
“He had one game where he gave up five goals and you could see his confidence go down, he looked overwhelmed,” said Carbonneau. “But that’s normal for a 21-year-old.
“I think the break we gave him after that made him stronger. Now, when he’s in tough situations on the ice, or doing things like talking to the media, it’s old for him and he can deal with it better.
“He looks more in control now than when he first got here. Each game he wins, he gets more confident.”
Koivu scored his 21st and 22nd goals of the season, a career high, for the Canadiens, who have won nine of their last 11 games.
Montreal has won nine consecutive home games for the first time since 1981, when they did it in the midst of a 21-game home unbeaten streak.
Now most believe the race will go down to that last game on national TV in Toronto.
“I don’t think any of us has played a bigger game in the regular season than that would be,” Koivu mused. “Especially in Toronto with both teams having a chance to get in.
“I can’t wait to see the atmosphere.”
Koivu’s first goal drew gasps from the crowd as he got between two forwards, split defencemen Zdeno Chara and Andrew Ference and went in alone to beat Hannu Toivonen with a deke to the forehand on a power play 16:46 into the game.
The Canadiens went on a two-man advantage for 1:40 to start the second period, but failed to score as Koivu rang a shot off the post from the edge of the crease.
It was vindication for Koivu, who was benched over defensive concerns for much of the third period of a 4-3 win over Buffalo on Saturday, although he also got the game-winner in that one.
The Canadiens’ 100th consecutive sell-out audience of 21,273 had a long wait in a nervy, must-win game against a 35-39-6 Boston team until Koivu scored again at 14:42 of the third.
The Canadiens captain went around Chara and slid in a backhand shot. He also tied his career high for points with 71, matching his 2002-03 totals.
Toivonen, called up from AHL Providence on Monday for late-season look by Bruins management, was solid in goal, particularly during the two-man advantage, as well as when stopping Tomas Plekanec in alone in the second period.
Boston’s recent call-up Petr Kalus, only the third player ever to score on his first three career NHL shots, was stopped on his fourth shot in the middle period.
Notes – With Toivonen in goal, Boston’s Joey MacDonald didn’t dress along with injured Chuck Kobasew and Jason York. . . Sergei Samsonov, Josh Gorges, Alexander Perezhogin and Garth Murray didn’t dress.