UNIONDALE, N.Y. (AP) — The Montreal Canadiens have had few reasons to celebrate this season as they have been mired near the basement of the Eastern Conference.
Scott Gomez, who hadn’t scored in more than a year, has had even fewer moments to savor. The team and the star forward both had a night to enjoy.
Max Pacioretty’s first NHL hat trick and Gomez’s first goal since last Feb. 5 lifted the Canadiens past the New York Islanders 4-2 on Thursday night, the third straight win for Montreal. Carey Price made 31 saves for the Canadiens and won for the fifth time in seven games.
“I wasn’t feeling sorry for myself, I’ve just kept working,” said the 32-year-old Gomez, acquired by Montreal with his sizable contract in an oft-criticized trade with the New York Rangers in June 2009. “It’s certainly good to get a win, and of course it’s great to finally score.”
Gomez had seven assists in 24 games this season before Thursday, and seven goals in 80 games last season. He is in the fifth year of a seven-year, $51.5 million contract he signed with the Rangers in 2007.
“It was a big goal for us, proved to be the game-winner,” Canadiens coach Randy Cunneyworth said. “We worked hard and the effort paid off. We have to get it going and keep it going.”
Pacioretty scored in all three periods as the Canadiens (22-24-9) moved one point ahead of the Islanders (22-23-8) in the tightly packed non-playoff section of the Eastern Conference.
Montreal’s 53 points have the Canadiens in 11th place, nine points behind Toronto and the postseason cutoff. The Canadiens and Maple Leafs will meet Saturday night in Toronto.
The Islanders scored twice in the last three minutes, but couldn’t get even.
“Price made key saves at key times,” Islanders coach Jack Capuano said.
The 24-year-old Price, who has also struggled this season, improved to 20-19-8.
“I’m happy for the team, obviously for Pac with three goals and Gomer for getting that gorilla off his back,” Price said. “And it sure is nice to string a few wins together.”
Pacioretty scored his 20th goal of the season at 1:23 of the first on a wrist shot from the top of the right circle, beating goalie Evgeni Nabokov, who was coming off a 45-save shutout of Philadelphia on Tuesday. Erik Cole had the assist.
A first-round draft pick by the Canadiens in 2007, Pacioretty made it 2-0 at 9:30 of the second. He completed his hat trick with an empty-net goal with 1 second left in the game. He leads the Canadiens with 22 goals.
Gomez tallied 9:50 into the third period with assists to defensemen Rafael Diaz and Chris Campoli.
Matt Moulson made it 3-1 with 2:41 remaining on a power play, with an assist from John Tavares, who earned the 100th helper of his NHL career.
Islanders captain and defenseman Mark Streit made it 3-2 just 48 seconds later, but New York couldn’t muster the tying goal after pulling Nabokov for an extra skater.
The Islanders are 6-2-2 in their last 10 and 11-6-2 in the past 19. Nabokov had won seven of nine outings, allowing one goal or fewer in six of those decisions.
“It was frustrating at the start,” Streit said. “We had a hard time getting back. There was not enough on our part.”
The game was the third of four meetings between the teams. The Islanders won 4-3 at home on Nov. 17, and the Canadiens earned a 5-3 victory on Dec. 13 in Montreal.
It was the first time that Montreal has won three straight games since a season-best, four-game spurt from Oct. 26-Nov. 4. The Canadiens had home wins earlier this week over Winnipeg and Pittsburgh.
The pressure to win in Montreal reached new heights this week as the Catholic church placed ads in newspapers asking fans to pray to help the team reach the playoffs. The Canadiens haven’t won the Stanley Cup since 1993, an eternity for the franchise with an NHL-record 23 Cup titles. They also won one Cup championship while part of the National Hockey Association.
“Montreal is a beautiful place, we just have to keep winning,” Gomez said. “That’s the bottom line.”
NOTES: The Canadiens are two wins away from 3,200 in franchise history, including the NHL and NHA years. … The Islanders have scored 9,998 goals in their history, dating to 1972. … Last season, the Islanders were 15-12-6 after the All-Star break. They are 3-1-1 this season since the break.
(Copyright 2012 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)