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Niemi stellar in goal as Habs notch win

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MONTREAL—Even with Carey Price out with a concussion, the Montreal Canadiens are getting stellar goaltending.

Veteran back-up Antti Niemi made 27 saves, including three on short-handed breakaways in the first period, to lift Montreal to a 3-1 victory over the N.Y. Islanders last night.

That followed AHL call-up Charie Lindgren's 33-save effort in a 1-0 shootout loss to Philadelphia on Monday.

“I felt overall really good in practice and games for the last little while now, and I'll try to keep it going,” said Niemi, who is 4-1-1 in his last six starts.

Price, a Vezina and Hart trophy winner and 2014 Olympic gold-medallist, has been out since taking a shot on the mask during a 3-2 overtime loss in Philadelphia on Feb. 20.

Niemi and Lindgren have gone 2-0-2 in his absence, allowing only six goals between them.

Jonathan Drouin and Nikita Scherbak scored in the second period while Paul Byron scored in the first for the Canadiens (24-29-10), who are 2-0-3 in their last five outings.

Mathew Barzal scored his 18th of the season for the sinking Islanders (29-28-7), who are winless in their last four games and 4-8-2 in their last 14.

Shots were 28-26 in New York's favour, with Niemi out-duelling former Canadien Jaroslav Halak.

“I need to be better for the guys right now," Halak admitted. ”We need every point.

"That second goal shouldn't go in.

“We had some chances on our side, we just didn't hit the net or they blocked shots,” he added.

“We need to find a way. It starts with me.”

It's been an interesting season for Niemi, once a solid starter who backstopped Chicago to a Stanley Cup in 2010 and then played five seasons for San Jose and two more for Dallas.

He began this season in Pittsburgh, where he went 0-3 with a miserable 7.49 GAA. Then he moved to Florida, where he lost two more with a 5.11 GAA.

When Price's back-up, Al Montoya, suffered a concussion in November, the Canadiens claimed Niemi off waivers.

Reunited with his former goalie coach from Chicago, Stephane Waite, the Finn looks to have rediscovered his game.

So much so that Montoya was traded to Edmonton on Jan. 4 when he returned from his injury.

“It was tough early in the season but it's been great, playing better now and getting a couple of wins,” said Niemi.

“I feel really good being here right now and playing better.”

Canadies' head coach Claude Julien said Price will not accompany the team to New York for a rematch with the Islanders on Friday night, but may join them at some point on their six-game road trip.

In the meantime, Niemi and Lindgren both are making a strong case to take the back-up job next season, when Price begins his eight-year, $84-million (U.S.) contract extension.

“It'll make the decision tougher at the end of the year,” Julien conceded.

Niemi allowed the game's first goal at the 3:50 mark when Barzal blew past rookie defenceman Noah Juulsen and went in alone to score on a deke to the backhand.

But when Brendon Davidson went off for slashing at 7:23, he faced three more breakaways from the Islanders' penalty-killers, including two from Casey Cizikas, and stopped them all.

“They scored on a breakaway earlier so I just wanted to be able to get those,” said Niemi.

"It's different when they come from all the way at the other end, so I had more time to come out and match their speed.

“We were losing 1-0," he noted. "It got me right into the game, for sure.”

Elsewhere in the NHL, Colorado beat Calgary 5-2, the N.Y. Rangers topped Vancouver 6-5 (OT), Buffalo edged Tampa Bay 2-1 (OT), and St. Louis nipped Detroit 2-1.

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