Canadiens-Hurricanes Preview

The Associated Press

The Montreal Canadiens still have a chance to avoid a dubious distinction the storied franchise has never suffered.

Erik Cole may just help them avoid it.

The former Carolina forward looks to stay hot as he and the Canadiens visit Raleigh for the Hurricanes' home finale Thursday night.

Montreal (30-35-15) has not finished at the bottom of a conference since conferences were introduced in 1974. Its most recent last-place finish in anything bigger than a division came in 1939-40, when the club placed last in the seven-team NHL.

With two games remaining, the Canadiens remain in the Eastern Conference cellar, but they're just two points behind the New York Islanders and three back of Toronto. They host the Maple Leafs in Saturday's season finale.

The Habs have lost six straight on the road, but they snapped a four-game overall skid with Wednesday's 5-2 home victory over Tampa Bay, with Cole getting a pair of second-period goals.

"It was a lot of fun," said linemate Max Pacioretty, who had two goals and an assist of his own. "It's important for us to show our fans that we're not that far from being a contending team."

Cole has scored seven times in his last six games, giving him a career-high 34 goals in his first season with Montreal. He spent at least part of each of his previous nine NHL campaigns with Carolina.

The Hurricanes (32-32-16) are trying to escape the Southeast Division basement. They trail the Lightning by just one point thanks to their 2-1 victory at Ottawa on Tuesday and the Canadiens' win the following night.

Carolina hasn't finished last in the division since 2002-03.

"It's important to finish the season strong even though we're out of the playoffs," Cam Ward said after making 38 saves against the Senators. "Guys are still out there sacrificing and sticking up for one another."

Eric Staal needs one point in the final two games to reach 70 for the seventh straight season. The Carolina captain has elevated his game down the stretch, posting 32 points and a plus-9 in 28 games since the beginning of February following a difficult first half.

Staal has 18 points in his last 11 games against Montreal, including two goals and an assist during a decisive third period in a 5-3 road win in the most recent meeting Feb. 13.

Hurricanes winger Tuomo Ruutu suffered an injury early in that game, causing him to miss nearly a month. On Tuesday, he scored his first goal since returning, ending a 14-game drought.

It's possible Canadiens defenseman Tomas Kaberle may play his first game in Raleigh since a brief, disastrous stint with the Hurricanes. Kaberle has been out with an upper-body injury since March 12, but has said he's trying to return before the end of the season.

Carolina signed Kaberle to a three-year, $12.75 million contract last summer, but traded him to Montreal for Jaroslav Spacek on Dec. 9 after he posted a minus-12 in 29 games.

At the time of the trade, Hurricanes general manager Jim Rutherford told reporters he "should have known better" with regard to signing Kaberle.

The Canadiens fired their GM, Pierre Gauthier, last week.

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