Canadiens' playoff hopes take hit

STEVE BUFFERY, SUN MEDIA

, Last Updated: 10:22 AM ET

MONTREAL -- The fans at the Bell Centre set the tone for last night's game by booing Toronto centre, and former Hab, Mikhail Grabovski every time he touched the puck.

By the second period, with the shockingly listless Canadiens trailing the Maple Leafs 4-0, the home team supporters discovered a more suitable target for their wrath -- the guys wearing the blue, white and red. And the boos were well deserved.

For a team fighting for its playoff lives, the Canadiens were, well, mostly lifeless against the Leafs, a club basically playing for pride at this point of the season.

Of course, the fact that it was Grabovski's line that was responsible for putting a stranglehold on the Canadiens failed to lighten the mood inside the Bell Centre.

Grabovski, who has repeatedly expressed his disdain for his former team, and vice versa, picked up a goal and three assists in the Leafs' 5-2 victory, while his linemate Alexei Ponikarovsky contributed two goals and two assists and his other winger, rookie Nikolai Kulemin, who become a first-time father on Friday, had a goal and two assists.

"They were just a going concern all night," Leafs coach Ron Wilson of the line, which speaks Russian to each other on the ice and on the bench.

"Grabbo was skating and winning puck battles. It was easily the best game Kulemin's played for us, by a country-mile. Maybe when he saw that little son the other day he realized, 'My whole's life's changed. Now I have responsibilities."

The Leafs fired 37 shots at Montreal starter Jaroslav Halak, playing in place of Carey Price, who has fallen from grace in La Belle Province with his inconsistent play this season. Toronto starter Martin Gerber turned aside 26 shots for the win.

The loss was Montreal's fifth in a row and the Habs sit only one point ahead of the Florida Panthers for the final playoff spot in the Eastern Division. Making matters worse, Montreal has only won once since GM Bob Gainey replaced coach Guy Carbonneau with himself six games ago.

Kulemin, whose wife gave birth to a boy named Alexei, buried his goal into the open net after a nice pass from Ponikarovsky on a two-on-one. Needless to say, Kulemin kept the puck as a souvenir.

"I was really excited when my son was born and I wanted to play a good game for him and score a goal," Kulemin said, using Ponikarovsky as his interpreter.

That line struck again on the same shift when Grabovski batted in a bouncing puck from a bad angle that beat Montreal goaltender Halak between the legs -- two goals on Toronto's first five shots

That line connected again early in the second when Ponikarovsky picked up a goal, his third point of the night, when he beat Halak through the legs from the slot and then he scored again on the power play, smacking in a rebound off a Kulemin shot.

A couple of defensive gaffs resulted in Montreal scoring two goals before the second period ended, both by centre Maxim Lapierre.

The Leafs were put on the their heels after Lapierre's second goal and the momentum clearly was going Montreal's way when Jason Blake took a delay of game penalty for flipping the puck over the boards. On the ensuing power play, Montreal captain Saku Koivu deflected a Alex Kovalev pass off the goal post. The Leafs were lucky to survive the second only up by two.

But the home side's momentum evaporated early in the third when Blake beat Halak high on the glove side with Guillaume Latendresse in the box for high-sticking.

And the boos rained down once more.

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REPLAY

NO GOAL

Nikolai Kulemin appeared to score the game's first goal early in the first period, but after a lengthy video review, it was deemed no goal.

HI FELLAS

The first period ended with a ruckus in front of the Toronto bench. Montreal forward Maxim Lapierre actually ended up in the Leafs bench.

CAREER HIGH

Alexei Ponikarovsky's two goals give him 21 on the season, tying his career high which he accomplished twice, in the 2005-06 campaign and the season after that.

STEVE.BUFFERY@SUNMEDIA.CA


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