(SportsNetwork.com) - The surging Montreal Canadiens will take aim at their seventh win in eight tries when they begin a four-game road trip with Thursday's clash against the Detroit Red Wings.
The Canadiens have won three straight and six of their past seven games, pushing them two points ahead of Tampa Bay for second place in the Atlantic Division. However, the Lightning, who host the New York Islanders on Thursday, do hold two games in hand over the Habs.
Detroit, meanwhile, enters Thursday as one of four teams tied for the last two playoff berths in the Eastern Conference.
With 80 points, the Red Wings are seven in back of Tampa Bay for last of the Atlantic Division's three automatic playoff berths, meaning they'll likely need to claim one of the East's two wild cards to qualify for a 23rd straight postseason.
Columbus, Detroit, Toronto and Washington each have 80 points, but the Red Wings are the only team of that group in action on Thursday. The Blue Jackets and Red Wings have 10 games remaining in their regular-season schedules, while the Capitals and Maple Leafs have nine and eight games left, respectively.
Detroit, which will try to halt a two-game slide on Thursday, hasn't missed the playoffs since 1990.
The Red Wings had a three-game winning streak snapped with Sunday's overtime loss against visiting Minnesota and then fell 4-2 in an important road clash with Columbus on Tuesday.
Cam Atkinson scored the winning goal for the Blue Jackets in the third period of Tuesday's game, but the decisive tally did not come without controversy.
Columbus grabbed a 3-2 lead at 6:58 of the third period. The team skated the other way on a 2-on-1 and Matt Calvert let fly with a shot from the right wing that Red Wings goaltender Jimmy Howard stopped before Atkinson knocked in the rebound. However, the net was dislodged by Atkinson before the puck crossed the line, but Brendan Smith had pushed Atkinson into the net and the refs ruled it a good goal.
"They knocked the net off and they still score," a frustrated Howard said. "I guess it's something to remember in the back of our minds, you knock the net off it, just throw (the puck) in there. It should count."
Ryan Johansen sealed the win for Columbus with an empty-net goal in the closing seconds.
Gustav Nyquist had both goals for the Red Wings, while Howard made 24 stops on 27 shots.
Beginning with Thursday's test, Detroit is playing four of its next five games on home ice. The Red Wings are only 15-11-10 as the host this season, but the club had won four straight in the Motor City before losing Sunday's game against the Wild.
Montreal picked up its third straight win in Tuesday's home meeting against the lowly Buffalo Sabres. Max Pacioretty broke a scoreless deadlock with 9:07 to play and Carey Price posted a 24-save shutout to lift the Canadiens to the 2-0 win over the basement-dwelling Sabres.
Danny Briere added an insurance marker with Montreal on the power play at 16:54 of the third, while Price stood tall down the stretch to help kill off a late Canadiens penalty and secure his fifth shutout of the season and 24th of his career.
"The goal is to make the playoffs," Briere remarked. "We're in control of our destiny and trying to rack up as many points as we can."
The Canadiens won despite playing without forwards Travis Moen and Dale Weise, who were injured on the same shift in Monday's 2-1 shootout win in Boston. Both players are questionable for Thursday's game.
Detroit is 2-0 against the Habs so far in 2013-14 and the clubs will meet once more in the regular season when Montreal hosts the Red Wings on April 5. The Red Wings have won four of five and six of eight overall in the series and have come out on top in the last two encounters at Joe Louis Arena.
Montreal is opening a four-game road trip on Thursday and boasts a solid 20-14-2 record as the visiting club this season.