MONTREAL – The Montreal Canadiens signed Jeff Halpern in the off-season for his defensive skills, but the veteran centre has also been an offensive spark in the early going.
Halpern scored the game-winner and added an assist Wednesday as the Canadiens skated to their third straight victory, 5-3 over the New York Islanders.
Halpern has three goals and two assists in his first nine games for Montreal (6-2-1), which is a lot considering he had only nine goals and eight helpers in 71 games last season with Tampa Bay and Los Angeles.
“It’s been most enjoyable to see how our team came together this week,” said the 34-year-old Halpern. “We’re starting to create, and Plek’s line is leading the charge.”
That would be centre Tomas Plekanec, who along with linemate Andrei Kostitsyn, also had a goal and an assist. Those two, plus winger Michael Cammalleri, have a combined 13 points in the last three games, including four goals and two assists for Kostitsyn.
Mathieu Darche and Travis Moen also scored for Montreal, which will face these same Islanders on Friday in Uniondale, N.Y.
James Wisniewski had a goal and two assists and John Tavares and Doug Weight also scored for New York (4-3-2), which wrapped up a four-game road trip. The Islanders were coming off a loss at Florida on Saturday.
Halpern’s goal was a strange one as he broke down the left side and saw his backhand pass barely cross the goal-line after hitting defenceman Mark Eaton’s knee 6:56 into the third period.
“I don’t think any of my three goals reached the back of the net,” said Halpern, who was more impressed with the game’s opening goal at 13:19 of the first period on which he earned his assist.
It started with a bit of artistry at the blue-line from rookie defenceman P.K. Subban, who had the crowd of 21,273 in a roar as he twice spun away from checkers and then slipped the puck to Halpern, whose shot was redirected past goalie Dwayne Roloson by Darche.
“It was a great play,” Halpern said. “He was controlling the puck and he had his head up. He has vision and the way the game is played now, you need that.”
The Islanders have some hot players of their own, starting with Wisniewski, who has two goals and nine assists in the seven games he has played (he missed two with a suspension), including at least one point in each game.
Tavares, the first overall draft pick of 2009, has six goals and eight points in five games since returning from a mild concussion suffered in the New York’s season-opener against Dallas.
Furthermore, the Islanders’ power play scored in a sixth game in a row for the first time since 2007.
That mattered little to Wisniewski, who said the Islanders didn’t skate nearly hard enough to match the Canadiens, who outshot them 35-21.
“I didn’t think of (points)—my job is to help us get two points,” he said.
Montreal forward Benoit Pouliot was awarded a penalty shot in the third period when he was chopped down by Radek Martinek on a breakaway, but the shot was stopped by Dwayne Roloson.
Habs goaltender Carey Price was sharp early when he stopped a shot and the rebound from Tavares in alone in the opening minutes.
Montreal took a 2-0 lead as Darche and Moen each scored their first goals of the season.
After Darche’s goal, Subban was off for roughing when Plekanec tipped the puck past Weight at the point and fed Moen for a goal off a 2-on-1 at 17:54.
Wisniewski got one back during the same power play when his point shot got through traffic beat Price at 19:16.
Montreal regained its two-goal lead as Kostitsyn slipped a pass to Plekanec, who scored on a high shot 7:33 into the second.
The Islanders again drew within a goal 13 seconds into the third when Tavares deflected a Wisniewski point shot on the power play.
After Halpern scored, New York closed the gap again when Wisniewski’s point shot was tipped in by Weight at 12:56.
Moen shoved Wisniewski head-first into the boards in the second frame but escaped with only a minor penalty for boarding. When Moen got out of the penalty box, Zenon Konopka was waiting for a fight but did not get an instigator call.
“I didn’t think I hit him that hard,” said Moen. “I’ve played with Wis and I don’t want to see a guy go into the boards like that. I’ve played with Zee (Konopka) too. He was just sticking up for a teammate.”
There had been bad blood between the two clubs when they met in a pre-season game in Quebec City, although few from the Islanders NHL roster played in that game. Cammalleri ended up suspended for the opening regular season game after a nasty slash on Isles rookie Nino Niederreiter.
This time, Niederreiter got into a jawing match with Subban in the first period, but otherwise there were no incidents. The Swiss centre, drafted fifth overall in June, played his ninth NHL game. One more and it will count as a year toward his future eligibility for free agency, so the team must decide whether to keep him or sent him back to junior hockey.
Coach Scott Gordon said that decision has not yet been made.
Notes: Josh Bailey returned to the Isles’ lineup after missing two games with a hip flexor injury. … Michael Grabner, Bruno Gervais and Trent Hunter sat out. … Montreal made no lineup changes, so Dustin Boyd and Ryan O’Byrne didn’t dress.