BOSTON – Manny Fernandez stopped 24 shots and the Eastern Conference-leading Boston Bruins won their fourth straight game, beating the Tampa Bay Lightning 3-1 on Tuesday night.

Blake Wheeler and Chuck Kobasew scored – becoming Boston’s seventh and eighth 20-goal scorers this season. Zdeno Chara matched his career high with his 17th goal and added an assist.

Mike McKenna made 36 saves for the Lightning, who have lost seven of eight.

Steven Stamkos whacked a rebound over Fernandez with 7:53 left – his 20th goal – to spoil the Boston backup’s shutout bid. Vincent Lecavalier hit the post on a power play with four minutes left, and that was Tampa Bay’s best chance at a comeback.

The Bruins lead the Washington Capitals by nine points and the New Jersey Devils by 10 in the race the best record in the East. Boston could clinch home-ice advantage through the conference finals as early as Thursday night if both Washington and New Jersey lose on Wednesday.

Fernandez had lost five straight before eking out a 7-5 victory over Toronto on Saturday. But this time he shut down the 14th-place Lightning for his second win since Jan. 8.

Wheeler backhanded a shot past McKenna with 5:57 left in the first period to give Boston a 1-0 lead, then the Bruins got a pair of power-play goals just as the penalized Lightning players were settling into the box.

Patrice Bergeron fed a perfect cross-ice pass to Chara, who one-timed it as he was coming in from the right circle to make it 2-0 just 25 seconds into Evgeny Artyukhin’s high-sticking minor. Kobasew made it 3-0 later in the second when he redirected Chara’s shot from the point – losing his stick in the process – 19 seconds into Richard Petiot’s hooking penalty.

Notes: Former Boston College and NFL quarterback Doug Flutie was in the crowd as the Bruins dedicated the game to autism awareness. Flutie’s son, Doug Jr., is autistic. … Bruins LW Shawn Thornton was a late scratch with an undisclosed injury – his first missed game of the season. … Bruins RW Phil Kessel missed his third straight game with an undisclosed injury. … Bruins C David Krejci had two assists, giving him nine points in six games. … The Lightning have allowed a power-play goal in seven of eight games. … Tampa Bay has not scored a power-play goal in five games.

Jackets 2, Predators 1

COLUMBUS, Ohio – Raffi Torres scored early in the third period and Steve Mason made the go-ahead goal stand up as the Columbus Blue Jackets beat the Nashville Predators 2-1 Tuesday night in a key Western Conference showdown.

Michael Peca and Torres came in on a 2-on-1 against defenseman Shea Weber, and Peca’s shot resulted in a short rebound. Torres jammed the puck past goalie Pekka Rinne with a backhander at 4:05 for his fourth goal in six games.

Columbus is 11-0 when Torres has a goal.

R.J. Umberger also scored for the Blue Jackets, who are sixth in the West with 86 points, four ahead of Nashville and five in front of eighth-place St. Louis.

Cal O’Reilly gave the Predators a lead midway through the first period.

Mason had 21 saves and Rinne had 31 in a matchup of two premier rookies.

Each team has five games left, with Nashville hosting the Blue Jackets on Saturday night.

Nashville had few scoring chances in the first period – but cashed in on one.

At 8:28, Joel Ward carried the puck up the right wing on a 2-on-2 and placed a perfect tape-to-tape backdoor lead pass to O’Reilly for his second of the season.

Rinne was swarmed for most of the period as the Blue Jackets outshot the Predators 17-6.

Panthers 5, Senators 2

SUNRISE, Fla. – Richard Zednik and Bryan McCabe scored power-play goals late in the second period and lifted the Florida Panthers to a 5-2 win over the Ottawa Senators on Tuesday night.

Nathan Horton and Stephen Weiss also scored for Florida, which won its third straight game. Michael Frolik added an empty-net goal with 1:32 left.

Chris Kelly and Chris Campoli both netted goals for Ottawa.

Craig Anderson, making his third straight start for Florida in place of Tomas Vokoun, stopped 30 shots.

The Panthers appeared to be fading from the Eastern Conference playoff picture earlier this month during a 1-4-3 skid. After a 5-3 loss to Buffalo on March 25, Florida coach Pete DeBoer replaced Vokoun with Anderson, who helped lead the Panthers to a 4-2 win in Philadelphia on Thursday and a 6-3 victory at Dallas on Saturday.

In his first career start against the Panthers, Ottawa rookie Brian Elliott made 17 saves before he was replaced by Alex Auld in the third period. Elliott earned his first NHL shutout when he made 20 saves in a 3-0 win at Tampa Bay on Sunday.

Although the Senators have been one of the league’s hottest teams of late, they entered Tuesday’s game in danger of being eliminated from playoff contention. They had won 10 of 13, but were in 11th place in the East. Ottawa, a Stanley Cup finalist in 2007, hasn’t missed the playoffs since the 1995-96 season.

Canucks 2, Wild 1

ST. PAUL, Minn. – Henrik Sedin scored with a minute left in overtime and Roberto Luongo stopped 33 shots, leading the Vancouver Canucks over the Minnesota Wild 2-1 on Tuesday night.

Former Wild forward Pavol Demitra scored Vancouver’s regulation goal late in the second period and Marian Gaborik tied it at 5:14 of the third for the Wild.

Daniel Sedin was credited with the assist on his brother’s winner, a slap shot that beat Niklas Backstrom high.

The win was Luongo’s 30th this season, giving him 30-plus wins for four straight seasons. Only four other goalies in the league have such active streaks.

Canadiens 4, Hawks 1

MONTREAL – Alex Kovalev scored for a fourth straight game 25 seconds in and assisted on Andrei Markov’s power-play goal to lead the Montreal Canadiens to a 4-1 win over the Chicago Blackhawks on Tuesday night.

Facing former goaltending partner Cristobal Huet, Carey Price came within 7:42 of recording his first shutout in over four months but allowed Patrick Sharp’s 26th goal. Price made 28 saves as he and the Canadiens improved to 3-0-1 in their last four games.

Guillaume Latendresse and Mathieu Schneider also scored for Montreal, which remained in eighth place in the Eastern Conference with 88 points.

Kovalev scored his 23rd goal when he beat Huet with Montreal’s first shot as the Canadiens took advantage of Duncan Keith’s blind back pass behind his net.

He has scored five times during his streak.

Huet stopped 29 shots in his first start in two weeks. He faced his former team for the first time since he was traded to Washington on Feb. 26, 2008.

Sharp mustered the only offense for Chicago, which lost its second in a row following a 3-0-2 run that included a three-game winning streak.

Canadiens forward Andrei Kostitsyn got 19 minutes in penalties 13:34 into the first for instigating a fight with Aaron Johnson. Kostitsyn had an unsportsmanlike conduct minor tacked on to his instigator, fighting major, and misconduct when he went after Johnson after the Chicago defenseman checked his brother, Sergei, into the boards behind the Blackhawks net.

Sergei Kostitsyn left the game with an upper body injury and didn’t return. Montreal defenseman Roman Hamrlik also sustained an upper body injury in the second period that knocked him out of the game.

Latendresse made it a 2-0 lead with his 13th goal 6:12 into the second period. Latendresse shot his own rebound off Huet and the puck flipped high in the air before sailing behind the Blackhawks goalie into the net.

Price kept his left pad stuck on the right post to deny Dave Bolland’s deke attempt moments later.

Markov scored his 11th goal on a power play 15:52 into the second to increase Montreal’s lead to three.

Sharp made it 3-1 when he spoiled Price’s bid for his first shutout since Nov. 11.

Markov added an assist for his team-leading 62nd point on Schneider’s power-play goal at 16:43.

The Canadiens, who are celebrating their 100th season, were originally scheduled to wear “barber pole” throwback jerseys honoring the 1912-13 team.

Previously worn during a 3-1 loss to Boston on Feb. 1, the sweaters and socks featuring narrow, horizontal bands of red, white and blue were set aside in favor of retro uniforms for the 1915-16 team that more closely resemble Montreal’s current red jerseys.

Notes: Huet, who debuted with Los Angeles, made his second career start against Montreal. Price faced the Blackhawks for the first time. … Canadiens LW Alex Tanguay ended a five-game point streak. Tanguay had three goals and seven assists during the run, including the third five-point game of his career in a 6-3 win over Atlanta one week earlier.

AP-ES-03-31-09 2234EDT

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