MONTREAL – The Montreal Canadiens rode the line of Alex Kovalev, Tomas Plekanec and Andrei Kostitsyn to the top of the Eastern Conference standings last season.
Kovalev hopes Tuesday night’s game is the first step toward re-establishing some of that same magic. Kostitsyn completed a pretty passing play from Kovalev and Plekanec to score the insurance marker in the trio’s first game together in over a month as the Canadiens downed the struggling Pittsburgh Penguins 4-2.
“We always say one game doesn’t mean anything, but I thought we made a big step forward as a line and as a team,” Kovalev said. “We’re coming back slowly, but hopefully it won’t just be one game. Hopefully it will be the rest of the games for the rest of the season.
Kovalev was under the microscope after he was benched by coach Guy Carbonneau for all but three shifts in the third period of Sunday’s 3-1 loss to the Boston Bruins, but he received nearly 19 minutes of ice time Tuesday and led the team with six shots on goal while the line combined for 12 of Montreal’s 35 shots.
“(Kovalev) did what we asked of him and I thought he played well,” Carbonneau said. “I thought that line was pretty good tonight, they played against (Sidney) Crosby and (Evgeni) Malkin right until the third period when they separated them. They did a good job.”
Christopher Higgins, Maxim Lapierre scored and Roman Hamrlik had a goal and an assist for the Canadiens (29-16-6), who won for the second time in three games following a season-high four-game losing streak.
Rookie Luca Caputi scored on his first career NHL shift and Malkin added another for the Penguins (24-23-5), who have one win in their last five contests and remain in 10th place in the Eastern Conference standings.
“We got beat by high speed, some of our guys looked really slow tonight,” Penguins coach Michel Therrien said. “We need more desperation from a lot of players, some players were a no-show. It’s that simple.”
Higgins scored shorthanded in the second period to give Montreal nine goals playing down a man this season, tied for second in the league with the New York Islanders.
Carey Price made 23 saves for the Canadiens while his Penguins counterpart Marc-Andre Fleury stopped 31 shots at the other end.
With the score tied 1-1 in the second, Montreal took control with two goals to enter the third period with a 3-1 lead.
Higgins got it started on the penalty kill when he pounced on a Kristopher Letang turnover at the Montreal blue-line to go in alone on Fleury, beating him with a snapshot high on the glove side for his seventh of the year at 11:05.
Rookie Max Pacioretty then won a battle for a puck behind the net with Alex Goligoski and fed Lapierre in front for his 10th of the year at 15:07.
The Penguins power play entered the game with the worst road percentage in the league at 12.2 per cent, but it got Pittsburgh to within a goal in the third.
Malkin came off the boards and let go of a wrist shot from the circle that dribbled through Price’s pads for his 22nd of the season at 10:33 of the final frame to make it 3-2 Habs.
But Kostitsyn scored his 18th of the year at 15:45 to ice it, completing a nice play that rekindled good memories for Carbonneau to make it 4-2 Canadiens.
“That’s more what we saw last year, guys skating with the puck going wide and always somebody around the net,” Carbonneau said. “That’s exactly what they did.”
Caputi, a 20 year-old Toronto native, didn’t take long to get his NHL career off to a good start and give the Penguins a brief lead. Moments after jumping on the ice for his first career shift Caputi found himself on a 2-on-1 break. He kept the puck and tried a backhand, but Price couldn’t control the rebound and Caputi eventually shovelled it home at 2:30 of the first.
The Canadiens tied it 1-1 just over two minutes later when Fleury lost the puck behind the net to Sergei Kostitsyn, who fed it to Hamrlik in front for his third of the year and first in 47 games at 4:31.
Notes: Malkin scored in a third straight game and extended his points streak to five games. …The Canadiens latest additions to the injured list were out of action as winger Guillaume Latendresse (upper body) and D Patrice Brisebois (lower body) didn’t dress. They join wingers Georges Laraque and Alex Tanguay, C Robert Lang and D Mathieu Dandenault on the injured list. …carbonneau said recent call-up Alex Henry would be sent back to the Hamilton Bulldogs on Tuesday night as Laraque and Dandenault are expected to be cleared for action in Friday night’s game in Buffalo. …Penguins forward Tyler Kennedy sat out his one-game suspension for coming off the bench to fight Toronto Maple Leafs defenceman Luke Schenn on Saturday, while defencemen Philippe Boucher and Hal Gill were healthy scratches. …The Penguins have some interesting consistency this season. Before Tuesday’s game, the Pens had a 12-11-2 record at home and a 12-11-3 record on the road. Also, they posted identical 5-8-1 records in both December and January.