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Maple Leafs put dent in Canadiens' playoff hopes

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The Canadian Press
3/22/2009 2:11:09 AM
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MONTREAL - Nikolai Kulemin got just the gift he wanted for his newborn son Alexei - a goal and a big victory over the Canadiens in Montreal.

Kulemin had a goal and two assists while linemates Alexei Ponikarovsky and Mikhail Grabovski had four points each as the Toronto Maple Leafs played playoff spoiler with a 5-2 victory over the slumping Canadiens on Saturday night.

"I was really excited (Friday) when my son was born and I just wanted to play a good game and score goals, and that's what we did," said Kulemin, using Ponikarovsky as his translator. "Basically, I try to do that every night.

"Some nights it's not there, but I try my best."

Ponikarovsky scored twice and Grabovski and Jason Blake had the other goals for Toronto (30-30-13), which has won four of its last six games but remains eight points out of playoff position in the NHL's Eastern Conference.

Maxim Lapierre scored twice for Montreal (36-27-9), which is now 1-3-2 since general manager Bob Gainey stepped in behind the bench after firing coach Guy Carbonneau. The Canadiens have lost five in a row for the first time since the 2006-07 season.

In this one, they went to pieces after the Kulemin line spotted the Leafs an early 2-0 lead. Gainey said he would have chats with "certain players" on Sunday to try to get the team going.

"The NHL is a lot about momentum and we don't have it now, or we have it, but it's going in the wrong direction," said Gainey. "We've allowed it to go against us.

"Until it's stopped, until we have more players playing better for a bigger chunk of a 60-minute game, we'll continue to have problems."

The Canadiens remained in the eighth and final playoff spot because Florida, which is one point behind, lost 3-1 to Columbus after wasting a late 1-0 lead.

Ponikarovsky also had two assists for his second four-point game in his last four contests. He has nine points over that span. Grabovski had a goal and three assists for his first four-point game. The Belarusian has four goals and four assists in his last four games.

With 21 goals, Ponikarovsky has tied his career high set in 2005-06 and 2006-07.

"I don't consider myself hot," he said. "I'm just trying to play my game and see what happens.

"We had a lot of jump. We tried to play a simple game, support each other on the boards and use speed out wide, and put pucks at the net."

It was a satisfying night for Grabovski, who was traded by Montreal to the Leafs for a draft pick last summer.

And coach Ron Wilson called it "easily the best game Kulemin has played for us. Maybe having a son the other night made him realize he has responsibilities.

"They talk a lot of Russian on the bench. There's no miscommunication. Ponikarovsky does a great job of backing up what I say when he talks to that line."

Kulemin missed Toronto's last game while his wife had the baby. When asked at the Leafs' pre-game skate if he would score a goal for the newborn, he answered "a couple."

Then he nearly did it in the first period.

He had Toronto's first shot on a rush, and Jaroslav Halak nearly put the rebound into his own net with the stick. Video replay was inconclusive and the goal was waived off.

But at 7:51, Grabovski was battling with Ryan O'Byrne at the Montreal blue-line when Ponikarovsky picked up the loose puck and fed Kulemin for a shot into an open side.

Only 23 seconds later on the same shift, Grabovski's tightly angled shot from the left wing went off O'Byrne's stick and fooled Halak for a 2-0 lead on only five shots.

The onslaught continued in the second as Ponikarovsky's weak wrist shot got through Halak at 3:09 and Ponikarovsky shovelled in Kulemin's rebound on a power play at 9:09.

Then Gainey shuffled his lines and it produced a pair of goals, as Lapierre redirected a Chris Higgins pass into the top corner at 12:50 and then converted a feed from Alex Tanguay at 15:22 to bring the crowd back in the game.

But only 4:21 into the third period, Guillaume Latendresse was sent off for high-sticking and Grabovski fed Blake for a high shot from the left circle to score his 25th of the season.

That got the crowd of 21,273 booing again and chanting "Car-bo, Car-bo" for the fired coach for the rest of the game.

The list of those Gainey talks to could be long. Tomas Plekanec, Andrei Kostitsyn and Alex Kovalev were all minus-2. Captain Saku Koivu had a quiet night, although he won 71 per cent of his faceoffs. Halak was weak on two goals.

But Lapierre was plus-2 with seven shots on goal.

The trend of one-sided games between the old rivals continued. Earlier this season, the Leafs had wins of 6-3 and 5-2 against Montreal, while the Canadiens beat Toronto 6-1 and 6-2.

Notes: The Canadiens wore their jerseys from 1915-16, the deep red one with CA (Club Athletique Canadien) instead of CH on the front. It was never worn against the Leafs, but Montreal was 5-1 in it against their predecessors, the Toronto Blueshirts. . . Gainey toyed with sitting out Mike Komisarek and Andrei Kostitsyn, but both were in the lineup. Scratched were Matt D'Agostini, Greg Stewart, Mathieu Danadenault and Patrice Brisebois . . . Leafs defenceman Tomas Kaberle will have to wait a little longer before returning after X-rays showed his injured right hand needs more time to heal.

Jaroslav Halak (Photo: The Canadian Press)

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(Photo: The Canadian Press)
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