War of attrition

Saturday, 01.03.2014 / 10:30 PM canadiens.com

MONTREAL – For the fourth time this year, the Habs did battle against the Leafs. The animosity continued into overtime before a bad break ultimately gave the home team a much-needed win.

Having banked three points out a possible four since the resumption of the NHL season, the Canadiens took to the ice against an old foe on Saturday night. Energized by the occasion, the Habs came out flying, dominating puck possession and not allowing the Maple Leafs to get a single crack at Peter Budaj through 14:38 of play. Before Toronto got its first shot on net, Montreal already had nine shots and two goals.

Alex Galchenyuk opened the scoring midway through the first with a turn-around wrist shot which eluded Jonathan Bernier. For Galchenyuk, it was his first goal since returning from a broken hand which sidelined him for most of the past two months.

“It was a great play by the line,” acknowledged the sophomore forward. “Markov gave me a great pass and Plekanec had a good screen in front of the net. It was a good bounce for me and I’ll take it.”

Skating alongside veterans Tomas Plekanec and Brian Gionta, two of the best defensive forwards in the game today, Galchenyuk had a chance to line up opposite Phil Kessel, one of the NHL’s top goal-scorers in the past four seasons. Providing effective defensive coverage in addition to contributing on the score sheet, Galchenyuk finished the game at plus-one and enjoyed the extra responsibilities.

“I had a lot of fun playing this game, playing against top players [like Phil Kessel] and trying to prevent them from scoring. He’s one of the best in the league, and it was a good challenge for me,” offered the 20 year-old.

A minute and a half later, Josh Gorges fed Max Pacioretty in stride and the left-winger buried a backhander to double the Canadiens’ lead, much to the delight of most but not all of the fans in attendance. Indeed, a sizable minority of ticket holders came into the Bell Centre dressed in blue and white and made their best attempt to drown out the home crowds’ “Go Habs go!” chants.

James Van Riemsdyk gave the visitors something to cheer about with two unanswered goals, including a short-handed tally early in the third frame. Minutes later, Phil Kessel put the Leafs ahead, beating Budaj with an accurate wrist shot while streaking down the right wing. With the crowd deflated and his team struggling, head coach Michel Therrien called a time-out in an effort to rally his troops.

“I felt the players on bench were really down on themselves after the third goal. There was a lot of hockey left to be played, and we were only a goal away. That’s what I told them and the guys reacted really well after that,” affirmed the Habs’ bench boss.

One player who benefited from the pep talk was P.K. Subban, who was on the ice for Van Riemsdyk’s short-handed goal.

“We had a few unfortunate miscues,” the blueliner confessed. “Markov goes off the wall and makes that play 10 times out of 10 right on the tape, it’s just a bad bounce. It kind of bounced right before he passed it. I should’ve backed him up a little bit more. I had some problems catching up JVR. Felt like I was skating on quick sand.”

Instead of wallowing in quick sand, however, Markov and Subban would soon be floating on a cloud. With Montreal on another powerplay with nine minutes remaining in regulation time, the Russian put the puck on a tee for his partner, who one-timed the disc past Jonathan Bernier from the left point. Subban’s 25th career powerplay tally tied the game at three and forced an overtime period.

In the extra frame, Daniel Briere was in all alone on two occasions on Bernier, coming up empty on both tries. However, Briere’s second breakaway forced the Leafs goalie to freeze the puck way outside of his crease, triggering a delay-of-game penalty and sending Montreal on a four-on-three powerplay. During the TV timeout, Subban conferred at length with Pacioretty, David Desharnais and Andrei Markov.

“We drew up a play, but I’ll have to blame P.K. for not sticking to it! The second time around, he was wide open. Unfortunately his stick broke, but the puck ended up in the back of the net anyway.” Said Pacioretty, who scored the game-winning goal with 90 seconds left in overtime. After a mix-up caused their first foray into the Leafs zones to end in a clear, the four-some regrouped and gained the zone once more. Subban attempted a slap shot from the point but saw his stick break in half. The puck rolled softly to Markov, who patiently fed a pass to number 67 before raising his arms in celebration.

“It’s definitely a good feeling to battle hard and come back. We don’t have our best player right now, so it says a lot about the character of this team to get the win tonight,” offered Pacioretty, whose team will fly west on Sunday to take on Los Angeles, Anaheim, Phoenix and San Jose in the same week. “Everyone in the room feels good about their game right now, and we’re looking forward to going on the road and taking on the best teams out west.”

Jack Han is a writer for canadiens.com.

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