NHL Hockey

Canadiens visit Islanders as playoff race gets heated

The New York Islanders and Montreal Canadiens both improved their precarious positions in the Eastern Conference playoff race with wins in their most recent games.

But the work has just begun for the two teams, who will face off in another pivotal game Thursday night, when New York hosts Montreal at Nassau Coliseum.

The Islanders (40-22-7, 87 points) have been off since Monday, when they beat the visiting Columbus Blue Jackets, 2-0. The Canadiens (37-26-7, 81) last played Tuesday, when they hosted and edged the Detroit Red Wings, 3-1.

The win was the third in four games for the Islanders, though it came on the heels of a dispiriting 5-2 loss to the visiting Philadelphia Flyers last Saturday night.

Beating Columbus seemed even more important on Tuesday, when the Metropolitan Division-leading Washington Capitals fell to the Pittsburgh Penguins, 5-3 and the Blue Jackets beat the Boston Bruins, 7-4. The Penguins' win kept the Islanders within two points of the Capitals, but also vaulted Pittsburgh into third place, two points behind New York.

And the win by the Blue Jackets pulled them into the final wild-card spot and within six points of the Islanders. Columbus has the same number of points as the Canadiens (81) and the same number of games played (70) but has 38 regulation/overtime wins, three more than Montreal.

"It seems like those two points are always worth more than two," Islanders captain and center Anders Lee said Monday tonight. "This was a big one tonight."

Another big one awaits Thursday, when the Canadiens can move past the idle Blue Jackets with a win or overtime loss. Columbus is off until Friday, when it faces the Carolina Hurricanes.

Like the Islanders, who finished 17 points out of a playoff spot last season and then lost captain John Tavares to the Toronto Maple Leafs as a free agent, Montreal entered this season with minimal expectations. The Canadiens, who missed the postseason by a whopping 26 points last year, spent nearly two months on the right side of the playoff bubble before falling into the ninth spot this week.

"It's a good challenge," Canadiens goalie Carey Price said Tuesday, when he made 20 saves and set the franchise record for wins by recording his 315th victory. He broke a mark previously shared with Hall of Famer Jacques Plante.

"We have a chance to prove people wrong," Price said. "We've been doing that since the start of the season. I'm excited for the rest of the year."

Price is likely to start at goalie Thursday for the Canadiens, though his counterpart is undetermined. Islanders top goalie Robin Lehner, who hasn't played since he suffered what was believed to be a head injury during a collision in the crease against the Ottawa Senators on Mar. 5, returned to practice Wednesday. Head coach Barry Trotz said he hadn't talked to team trainers yet but that Lehner could start Thursday if he was given a clean bill of health.

Trotz could also play it safe and go with the hot hand in Thomas Greiss, who earned his fifth shutout by stopping all 31 shots he faced against the Blue Jackets. Greiss, whose previous single-season career high in shutouts was three, is 3-1-0 since Lehner got hurt.

Price is 11-5-4 in 20 career appearances against the Islanders. Greiss is 3-3-1 in seven games against the Canadiens while Lehner is 4-5-4 in 14 contests against Montreal.

--Field Level Media

Updated March 13, 2019

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