New York Islanders\' Joel Rechlicz (40) takes a punch from Montreal Canadiens\' Georges Laraque, top, during a fight in the second period of an NHL hockey game Thursday, April 2, 2009, in Uniondale, N.Y. THE ASSOCIATED PRESS/Paul J. Bereswill
UNIONDALE, N.Y. - Just like that, the Montreal Canadiens can feel good about their place in the standings instead of worrying about who is closing in behind them.
Saku Koivu scored the first of Montreal's three power-play goals, and Alex Kovalev had three assists as the Canadiens opened a season-ending road stretch with a 5-1 victory over the New York Islanders on Thursday night.
The Canadiens (40-27-10), who vaulted over the New York Rangers into seventh place in the Eastern Conference, scored two goals in each of the first two periods and cruised to a critical win over the last-place team in the NHL.
Montreal has a one-point lead over the Rangers with five games left, one more than New York - which lost 4-2 at Carolina on Thursday. The Canadiens are three points ahead of ninth-place Florida and just two behind Pittsburgh and Philadelphia.
"It's fun to have your destiny in your own hands," forward Alex Tanguay said. "We knew that no matter what the Rangers were doing tonight, we knew we had one game in hand on them. And if we just won our games, we were going to move up."
Mathieu Schneider and fellow defenceman Andrei Markov also scored power-play goals - set up by Kovalev - and Tanguay and defenceman Mike Komisarek added even-strength markers for the Canadiens, playing four of their final six on the road as they push for the playoffs.
"We're not looking at where we're at in the standings, we're just looking at winning games," Tanguay said. "Points are crucial and it's going to be no different for us Saturday in Toronto."
The line of Tanguay-Koivu-Kovalev has scored 27 points in the five games it has been together and 12 of Montreal's past 21 goals.
"We had success in the first game and kept going," Koivu said. "The whole team is playing a whole lot better right now."
Jaroslav Halak, subbing for No. 1 goalie Carey Price (flu), made 26 saves for his 17th win. Montreal recorded 38 shots on Yann Danis and improved to 5-3-3 under coach Bob Gainey. The Canadiens are 4-0-1 in their last five.
Montreal was 35-24-7 when Gainey, also the club's general manager, fired coach Guy Carbonneau and stepped behind the bench.
"We feel good," Tanguay said. "We've played better, and hopefully we can keep on improving. We are a team that felt at the start had a lot of potential. We maybe underachieved but even though we're 77 games into it, the season is still young and we can still make some good things happen."
Jeff Tambellini made it 4-1 in the second period for the injury-plagued Islanders, who were missing injured leading scorers Mark Streit (groin) and Kyle Okposo (groin) and played in front of a home crowd that largely supported the visiting Canadiens.
The Islanders are on a 2-6-1 skid after winning five of seven (5-1-1). New York has allowed 29 goals in the past seven games.
"We've been playing pretty good, and this was a disappointing effort for our team," veteran Islanders forward Doug Weight said.
The chants of "Go Habs Go!" and "Ole! Ole! Ole! Ole!" filled Nassau Coliseum even before Koivu staked the Canadiens to a 1-0 lead with 6:57 left in the first, 34 seconds into rookie Sean Bentivoglio's holding penalty. Kovalev found Koivu with a pass in front for the captain's 16th goal.
Schneider, a former Islanders player, made it 2-0 with 1:29 left in the period when he ripped a shot from the centre of the blue-line - off a pass from Kovalev - that appeared to hit the stick of Islanders defenceman Radek Martinek before beating Danis. That came seven seconds into Tim Jackman's cross-checking penalty.
The goal increased the cheers from the large pockets of red-clad fans throughout the arena.
Tanguay pushed the advantage to three goals 1:11 into the second with his 15th goal, and Markov made it 4-0 at 3:12 when he sneaked in toward the left post and finished a fine passing play started by Koivu and Kovalev. Markov needed only 30 seconds of Jackman's slashing penalty to score.
"I'm upset about the penalties," coach Scott Gordon said after the Islanders gave Montreal eight power plays. "If you're going to take a penalty, it's to save a goal. I don't think there were too many saved goals tonight."
Tambellini beat Halak at 9:05 to cut the Islanders' deficit to three goals, but Long Island native Komisarek made it 5-1 just 44 seconds into the third period with his second of the season.
"It's a lot of fun heading into the third with a three-goal lead and being up 4-0 at one point," Tanguay said.
Tom Kostopoulos had a chance to widen the lead, but he was stopped on a penalty shot by Danis with 15:56 left.
Notes: Montreal recalled G Marc Denis from Hamilton (AHL) to serve as Halak's backup. ... Kovalev has recorded multipoint games four times in five games (6 goals, 5 assists). ... Rookies C Trevor Smith and LW Bentivoglio were recalled by New York from Bridgeport (AHL). Bentivoglio became the 13th Islanders player to make his NHL debut this season and the 16th rookie to play. ... Islanders C Andy Hilbert was knocked out of the game with a rib injury. ... New York has lost 542 man-games to injury.