COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP)—A rookie goalie making his first career NHL start proved to be just what the struggling Montreal Canadiens needed.
“When you see your goalie with that much confidence in his first game it lets you settle down too,” said defenseman Sheldon Souray, who had an assist. “We had to come in here and get a good effort.”
Francis Bouillon also scored for Montreal, which moved into a tie with Toronto for the eighth playoff seed in the Eastern Conference. The Canadiens entered having dropped from fourth place to ninth in the standings behind an 8-17-1 record since Dec. 23.
Halak, who finished with 31 saves, was vying to become the fourth Montreal goalie to get a shutout in his first NHL start until Columbus scored twice in a 3:03 span midway through the third period on goals by Nikolai Zherdev and Gilbert Brule.
“It would have been nice to get the shutout but we got the two points,” the 21-year-old said.
Points have been hard to come by of late for the Blue Jackets. They have lost six of their last eight games and are all but eliminated from playoff contention.
But with Columbus trailing 3-0, Alexander Svitov—who had been stopped by Halak on a breakaway earlier in the third period—skated the length of the ice and dropped the puck to Zherdev, who scored from the slot at 8:05. The goal was Zherdev’s first since Jan. 6 and eighth of the season.
Brule pulled Columbus closer, picking up a rebound off the end boards and snapping a shot past Halak with 8:52 remaining.
“I thought when we went 3-2, we might tie ut up,” Columbus coach Ken Hitchcock said. “We were all around it (the net), but it’s hard mounting comebacks like that.”
“He made key saves when they were needed,” Koivu said of Halak. “They scored two goals but he was still very focused.”
Halak was called up Friday from Hamilton of the AHL where he led the league with a 2.00 goals-against average. He took the roster spot of starter Cristobal Huet who was scheduled to undergo hamstring surgery on Sunday and will be sidelined indefinitely.
“We were looking for a good performance and he gave it to us,” Montreal coach Guy Carbonneau said.
Neither team looked sharp in the first period, but Montreal broke through with three goals in the second period. Columbus didn’t help its cause, giving the league’s second-best power play three chances, not including one carried over from the opening frame.
“Those two power play goals they got in the second period took all the momentum away,” Hitchcock said.
On the man advantage and standing alone next to the left post, Ryder took a point pass from Koivu and found an open net for his 17th of the season and second in 12 games.
Less than a minute after a Columbus penalty expired, Koivu and Ryder connected again, this time on a 2-on-1 rush.
With Ryder carrying the puck down the right wing, Blue Jackets defenseman Anders Eriksson slipped trying to get back in position. Ryder then easily stepped around his partner Rostislav Klesla and slid a pass to Koivu, who beat Leclaire between the legs at 6:02.
“Those plays worked out tonight,” said Koivu, who scored his 17th and first in 12 games. “We got two nice goals, which was a turning point in the second period.”
Bouillon scored with a point shot through heavy traffic just 2:35 later to make it 3-0 with Columbus defensman Bryan Berard in the penalty box for hooking.
The Canadiens were one more loss away from tying their longest slide since the 1939-40 season. … Columbus finished 2-4 on a franchise-long six-game homestand. … The game was the first in four years between the clubs. … Halek is the third Slovakian goalie to play in an NHL game, following in the footsteps of Rastislav Stana and Peter Budaj.