UNIONDALE, N.Y. -- The Montreal Canadiens have been almost perfect for six weeks, but they know they have to be better than almost perfect in order to win the Northeast Division or the regular-season Eastern Conference crown.
Brian Gionta scored the tiebreaking goal 48 seconds into the third period, and the Canadiens added two more goals in the next 10 minutes as they pulled away from the New York Islanders for a 5-2 win Thursday night at Nassau Coliseum.
With the victory, the Canadiens (20-5-5) improved to a robust 14-1-4 since Feb. 9. However, they needed the Penguins -- winners of 10 straight -- to take the night off in order to gain on Pittsburgh in the race for the No. 1 overall seed in the Eastern Conference
With 45 points, Montreal is just one point behind Pittsburgh, which puts its winning streak on the line when it visits the Islanders on Friday.
"(Montreal's surge is) good, but it's pretty unbelievable to look at the standings and you're not even in first place after something like that," Canadiens winger Max Pacioretty said.
Things aren't much easier for the Canadiens in the Northeast. The win Thursday kept Montreal two points ahead of the Boston Bruins, who beat the Senators 2-1 in Ottawa.
"There's a lot of good teams out there, and obviously a night like this feels good, but we have a lot of work to do improving our game," Pacioretty said. "(If) we want to be successful, we've got to change a couple things in our game and get better at it. And hopefully we keep doing that."
The Canadiens needed a dominant third period to finally shake the Islanders -- who have accounted for two of Montreal's losses during its hot streak and were seeking a sweep of the season series. Montreal capped its seventh comeback win of the year.
The Islanders handed the Canadiens a regulation loss at the Coliseum on March 5 and New York won in overtime in Montreal on Feb. 21.
David Desharnais set up Gionta's goal by snaring a puck out of the air, placing it on the ice and dishing to Gionta, who managed to put enough of his stick on it to send it past Islanders goalie Kevin Poulin.
P.K. Subban and Brendan Gallagher provided insurance for the Canadiens by scoring goals in a span of 33 seconds midway through the third period.
Michael Ryder and Subban scored power-play goals in the first and second period, respectively, while Canadiens goalie Carey Price made 25 saves.
"That was not an easy game to play," Canadiens coach Michel Therrien said. "We told the guys when we were going into the third period: Let's make sure we're focusing and let's make sure that the execution was going to be there, which is what we did."
The Islanders' third-period woes and inability to finish off opponents, meanwhile, continued. New York's playoff hopes took another damaging blow following its second straight defeat and third straight third-period collapse. The Islanders (13-14-3) are three points behind the eighth-place Carolina Hurricanes and New York Rangers.
The loss Thursday marked the seventh time this season the Islanders have dropped a game in which they held a lead at some point. The Islanders' recent struggles in the third period are even more alarming. They have been outscored 10-1 in the final period of their past three games.
The Islanders gave up three unanswered goals in the third period at Florida on Sunday before winning, 4-3, and they were outscored 4-0 as they blew a two-goal lead in losing to Ottawa 5-3 on Tuesday.
"It's frustrating, it's tough, it's really unacceptable," Islanders winger Matt Martin said. "We need to be better in the third period, especially in games where we've had leads. We were able to pull one out in Florida, but Ottawa socked it to us, and tonight, in a 2-2 game, they come out and score three pretty quick ones.
"We've just got to be able to respond when another team scores. We need to come out in the next shift, and we've just got to find a way to be better."
John Tavares and Lubomir Visnovsky scored for the Islanders, while Poulin made 24 saves in his second start of the year.
There was a playoff atmosphere at the Coliseum -- at least until the Canadiens took their multi-goal lead -- in terms of both the quality of play as well as its intensity. The teams were tied 1-1 after one period, when each had 10 shots on goal, and were tied again 2-2 after two, at which point the Islanders had a narrow 20-19 advantage in shots.
There were also numerous pushing and shoving matches after the whistle. The Islanders faithful, hungry for playoff hockey after a five-season postseason drought, booed lustily after Keith Aucoin drew a two-minute penalty for embellishment early in the third.
The Canadiens took the lead 9:36 into the game when Michael Ryder fired the puck past Poulin from beyond the left faceoff circle.
The Islanders tied it less than three minutes later when Tavares capped a coast-to-coast trip by balancing the puck the last 20 feet or so before he beat Price with a shot from just outside the goalmouth.
The Islanders took the lead following a flurry in front of the Canadiens' net at 6:58 of the second. Matt Moulson took two swipes at poking the puck past Price from the right side of the goalmouth before the puck squirted to Visnovsky, who snuck it into the opening in the center of the net.
Subban tied it at 10:53 with a scorching slap shot from just inside the blue line.
NOTES: Entering Thursday, the Canadiens had lost four points in the standings to the Penguins during Pittsburgh's 10-game winning streak. ... The Canadiens' previous longest shootout-era streak of games with just one regulation loss was a 13-game run (9-1-3) from Oct. 18-Nov. 15, 2005. ... The Islanders have gone unbeaten against the Canadiens in the season series just four times in 40 NHL seasons and were perfect against Montreal just once (3-0-0 in 1983-84). ... The Canadiens scratched defenseman Tomas Kaberle, while the Islanders scratched defenseman Radek Martinek, winger Eric Boulton and defenseman Joe Finley. ... Poulin was making his first start since Feb. 24, when he took the loss as the Islanders fell 4-2 to the Hurricanes.