Kovalev has flu, Samsonov banished to pressbox as Habs face Isles

Alex Kovalev has the flu, while Sergei Samsonov looks to have taken up residence in the pressbox as the Canadiens prepare to face the New York Islanders on Tuesday night.

The surging Islanders hold seventh place in the NHL Eastern Conference and are one of the teams 11th-place Montreal may have to catch for a playoff spot in its final 12 regular-season games.

“It’s the biggest game of the season for us,” defenceman Mike Komisarek said Monday. “Put everything from the last two months behind us – this is as big as it gets.”

The Canadiens ended a four-game losing streak with a 4-3 win in St. Louis on Saturday night in which they blew a 3-0 lead only to be saved by a late goal from Kovalev, his first in nine games since Feb. 6.

A sub-plot to Tuesday’s match was how Bell Centre fans would greet Kovalev after he was quoted in a Russian magazine last week saying, among other things, that coach Guy Carbonneau doesn’t like Russian players and that francophone players had split the team into cliques. Kovalev has denied making those statements.

Now Kovalev may not be able to play because of a flu that has felled a few players in the past month, including Samsonov, Chris Higgins and Mike Johnson.

Samsonov was scratched from the lineup in St. Louis after he was minus-3 on only nine shifts of a 6-2 loss in Atlanta last Thursday. He’ll be in the pressbox again on Tuesday night.

Samsonov, a former 29-goal scorer who has nine goals in 63 games this season and has been scratched six times, told reporters on the weekend he may have made a mistake in signing a $US7.05-million, two-year contract as a free agent last summer.

Now, one wonders if he’ll ever play for Montreal again.

“I don’t want to start a war with him and he doesn’t want to start a war with us,” Carbonneau said. “I’m not going to deal with this every day.

“There are other things I want to concentrate on. I have 24 (other) guys who are happy to be here.”

Eight of the 12 remaining games are against teams Montreal is battling for a playoff spot. They play in Pittsburgh on Friday night and face another team on the bubble on Saturday when the Toronto Maple Leafs visit the Bell Centre.

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The Islanders are flying.

Since ending a six-game losing streak on Jan. 9, they are 15-5-7. Picking up former Edmonton captain Ryan Smyth at the trading deadline only made them stronger, as did the return from injury last week of centre Alexei Yashin.

New York responded to the 25-game suspension handed to tough guy Chris Simon by beating Washington 5-2 on Saturday.

The Canadiens are sinking.

They were threatening to take the conference lead three months ago, but are 13-22-1 since Dec. 23. They are back at home after playing seven of their last eight games on the road (3-5-0).

Montreal’s chief concern is in goal, where David Aebischer looks to be the go-to guy again after rookie Jaroslav Halak had to be pulled in Atlanta while going down to his fourth straight loss.

Newcomer Michael Leighton backed up as Aebischer had a decent game in St. Louis following an 8-5 blowout loss in Buffalo.

“You always have highs and lows, but what’s important is being able to bounce back,” said Aebischer. “There’s not many games left and each one could be decisive.

“When I decided when I was young to be a goalie I knew it would be like this. There’s always pressure.”

No. 1 goalie Cristobal Huet began skating on his own in recent days but is expected to miss the rest of the regular season after hamstring surgery.

Carbonneau mixed up his lines in St. Louis in a bid to squeeze some offence out of his attackers and it worked, so the same mix was on the ice Monday. Grinders now skate with scorers and playmakers.

“We tried in the last couple of months to find combinations that matched and it wasn’t working,” said Carbonneau. “We decided to go back to basics – just working hard.

“We put guys who work with guys who have skill to force the skill guys to work. We got the result we were looking for and, until the end of the season, that’s the mentality we need.”

Johnson, who left the game in St. Louis after crashing face-first into the net, is fine and will play on Tuesday.