RALEIGH, N.C. -- The team many predicted in the preseason would struggle to make the playoffs is one win away from the Eastern Conference finals.
Martin Gelinas, Rod Brind'Amour and Ron Francis scored early in each period for Carolina, and Arturs Irbe returned to play brilliantly in net as the Hurricanes beat the Montreal Canadiens 5-1 Sunday to take a 3-2 lead in their best-of-seven series.
Irbe, starting for the first time in five games after being benched in the New Jersey series in favor of Kevin Weekes, was nearly flawless, stopping 30 shots. With 12 minutes left and the home team up by three, the record crowd of 18,853 was once again chanting his name.
Irbe lost what would have been his first career postseason shutout with 5:28 left when Karl Dykhuis scored.
Carolina had won just one playoff series in its history prior to this season, but can close out Montreal with a win Monday night at the Molson Centre, where the Hurricanes rallied from a three-goal deficit to win Game 4.
If necessary, Game 7 would return to the Entertainment and Sports Arena.
Gelinas and Brind'Amour scored early in the first and second periods to put the Canadiens on their heels, then Irbe and the stellar Carolina defense spent the rest of the time frustrating a slumping Montreal offense.
At one point late in the second period, Doug Gilmour slammed his stick into the back of the net in anger after failing to break free from a Glen Wesley check.
Francis tied the franchise record for career playoff points (31) held by Kevin Dineen when he poked in his own rebound on the power play 3:40 into the third to help seal it.
Tommy Westlund, a fourth-line player, added his first playoff goal with 8:42 remaining and Bates Battaglia also scored late. Battaglia, who also had an assist, now has a team-leading 10 points in the playoffs.
The Canadiens were without center Yanic Perreault, the top faceoff man in the NHL during the regular season. He remained in Montreal with a stomach virus.
Montreal enforcer Gino Odjick and Jeff O'Neill had a pushing and shoving match in the pregame warmups, but no punches were thrown as emotions were high before this crucial game.
However, the Canadiens came out flat after blowing a three-goal, third-period lead in Game 4 Thursday night - and made the first crucial mistake.
O'Neill, demoted to the third line, pinned Donald Audette along the side boards in Montreal territory with a check three minutes in. As Audette tried to clear the puck it came right to a wide open Gelinas, who beat Jose Theodore high on the short side for his 14th career playoff goal.
It was just the third first-period goal for Carolina in 11 postseason games, but it got the fired-up crowd more involved as Montreal, outshot 12-5 in the period, failed to generate much offense against Irbe.
Brind'Amour scored his 37th career playoff goal and gave Carolina its first two-goal lead since Game 1 of the New Jersey series when he beat Theodore with a low shot from the slot 2:13 into the second.
Notes: Carolina has won its last three Game 5s dating to last year's New Jersey series. ... Shaun Van Allen, a healthy scratch in three previous playoff games, took Perreault's spot in the lineup. ... Irbe was coming off his longest inactive stretch since not playing in eight straight games from Dec. 8-22. ... Carolina sold 123 standing room only seats at $90 each.
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