OTTAWA – With the playoffs likely too far out of reach, Jason Spezza and the Ottawa Senators continued to play the role of spolier – this time at the expense of Carey Price and the struggling Montreal Canadiens.
Price gave up four goals on 15 shots Thursday and the Canadiens struggled to stay afloat in the Eastern Conference playoff race with a 5-4 loss at the hands of the Senators.
Price got the hook from coach Bob Gainey less than three minutes into second period before a season-high crowd of 20,500 at Scotiabank Place, many of them dressed in the red, blue and white of Montreal.
The fans were treated to an entertaining contest that featured some shaky goaltending moments at both ends of the ice.
“I’m not happy about it, especially at this time of the year, you know. It’s not very much fun,” said Price, who’s lost both of his previous two starts and battled the puck often Thursday against Ottawa. “I’ve got to take responsibility. I can’t be letting goals in. It’s a group effort, but I’ve got to play better.”
Spezza had two of those goals in a first period in which the Senators (30-30-10) overcame an early Montreal lead to take a 3-1 advantage.
He later added an assist to extend his point-scoring streak to eight games, during which he has five goals and eight assists. Ottawa won its third straight contest and halted a six-game losing slide to Montreal (36-26-9), climbing back to the .500 mark for the first time since Dec. 8.
“We played a good game and they played pretty solid, too,” Spezza said. “We had lots of chances, they had lots of chances, it was a bit of an open game, something that we haven’t had lately, so it’s a good game to win.”
Daniel Alfredsson added a goal and an assist for Ottawa and Nick Foligno and Jarkko Ruutu also scored.
Senators goaltender Brian Elliott made 28 saves to record his seventh straight victory, setting a franchise record for most consecutive wins by a rookie netminder, eclipsing a mark he shared with Jani Hurme (2000-01) and Ray Emery (2005-06).
Chris Phillips, Brendan Bell and Filip Kuba each had two assists.
The victory was the third in a row and seventh in eight games for Ottawa. The Senators have won six straight games at home for the first time since a Feb. 8-28, 2007, run.
Their power play went 2-for-2 on the night and their penalty-killing unit held the Canadiens to an 0-for-4 outing, including shutting Montreal down during a crucial 5-on-3 advantage for 33 seconds in the second period after the Habs had battled back to within a goal.
“Our special teams did a good job for us tonight and it’s a team that you can tell doesn’t have the confidence with the puck as they did earlier in the season, so put those two together and you get a win for us,” Alfredsson said.
The Canadiens remain in seventh place in the Eastern Conference standings, tied with the idle Carolina Hurricanes on 81 points with a game in hand and one point back of the sixth-place New York Rangers, who also didn’t play Thursday.
However, with the Florida Panthers beating the Toronto Maple Leafs 3-1, they’re within a point of Montreal and Carolina having played the same number of games as the Canadiens.
“We don’t really have time to be concerned,” Price said. “We’ve got to pull up our socks and get at it. We can’t be sitting around and dwelling on things and we can’t keep feeling sorry for ourselves.”
With a 9-14-3 record since Jan. 20, tied for the fewest points in the Eastern Conference, the Canadiens could have used a victory in their fight to lock down a playoff berth.
They came into Ottawa nursing a three-game winless slide and would have been encouraged after having won all four meetings with the Senators this season and three straight at Scotiabank Place.
But the struggles continued since Bob Gainey replaced Guy Carbonneau behind the bench.
“Our team had been struggling for a while and I think the idea of changing the coach was an attempt to increase our chances the last 16 games of the season. I think you can judge how that goes after the final game,” said Gainey, whose record behind the bench fell to 1-2-2 since he took over from Carbonneau.
“I think in some ways we’re playing a little bit better. We got outplayed in certain parts of the game tonight. The Spezza, (Dany) Heatley, Alfredsson line had a really strong game; we weren’t able to counter that, so our special teams got outplayed. Some areas are coming along, but there’s not enough there tonight to say we could have won or should have won the game.”
Price was replaced by Jaroslav Halak, who stopped 23 of 24 shots the rest of the way.
Guillaume Latendresse had two goals for Montreal, Tom Kostopoulos had a goal and two assists and Alex Tanguay also scored.
Maxim Lapierre added a pair of helpers.
Much to the delight of a pro-Canadiens audience, Montreal opened the scoring when Latendresse banged a rebound past Elliott at the 2:04 mark of the opening period.
The fans barely had time to settle back into their seats before the Senators tied it, however.
With Matt D’Agostini serving a holding-the-stick minor, Foligno slipped a rebound past Price 51 seconds after the Canadiens had taken the lead.
On the next shift, Foligno broke in alone only to be turned away by Price.
Spezza managed to put Ottawa ahead with another power-play marker later in the period after he took a pass from Alfredsson and scored from close range, a goal that Gainey said he’d have liked Price to be stronger on.
Before the period was over, Spezza struck again, this time after a review allowed his deflection of Anton Volchenkov’s high shot to stand.
The action didn’t stop in the second, where Tanguay, who sat out the last game because of the flu, scored 48 seconds into the period to make it 3-2, but Ruutu restored the lead less than two minutes later when he lifted a back-hand shot over Price’s shoulder.
Gainey had seen enough and pulled Price, who also didn’t look sharp in allowing three goals in shootout Tuesday night in a loss to the New York Rangers.
“It just felt like the opportune time to try and get the momentum of the game stopped by changing goalies,” Gainey said. “Halak took the brunt of the momentum when he went in the net. He faced four or five really difficult scoring opportunities and held us there. We did get back in the game.”
One of Halak’s first tests was to stop Christoph Schubert on a clear breakaway. The Canadiens turned the puck around and Latendresse slipped a backhander through Elliott’s pads to cut the lead to one midway through the period.
The Canadiens failed to take advantage of a 33-second 5-on-3 power play and Alfredsson and Hamrlik exchanged goals to make it 5-4.
Notes: Montreal signed forward Olivier Fortier from the QMJHL’s Rimouski Oceanic on Thursday. Centre Tomas Plekanec appeared in his 300th career game for the Canadiens. The Canadiens begin a five-game homestand Saturday night against Toronto. Senators forward Mike Comrie missed his second straight game because of the flu.