The Montreal Canadiens were as good as their word on Wednesday night.
A day earlier, they played down any thoughts they were out for revenge against the Toronto Maple Leafs, who beat them both times in their first two meetings of the NHL season, the second one a 6-0 laugher in Montreal that ended with Canadiens winger Max Pacioretty accusing Leaf centre and former Hab Mikhail Grabovski of biting him during a melee.
All we want are the two points; that is the best revenge, said the Canadiens, who went on a 6-0-2 run after that embarrassment to rise to the top of the Eastern Conference.
The Leafs, on the other hand, or at least their head coach, were willing to stoke the fires and play on the emotions of the NHL’s oldest rivalry. Randy Carlyle had bruiser Colton Orr on the right wing for the opening faceoff and he wound up with more ice time than No. 1 centre Tyler Bozak.
But the Canadiens kept their emotions in check, even after Leaf winger Mike Brown knocked defenceman Josh Gorges into the boards from behind, which landed them a five-minute power play. They also managed to avoid frustration as the Leafs hung in there despite being badly outshot (28-12) to keep the score tied after two periods.
The Leafs used a combination of good luck, some great saves by goaltender Ben Scrivens and opportunism, pouncing on the few scoring chances they were allowed.
The visitors’ patience was finally rewarded in the third period with a couple of goals and the Canadiens stayed on top of the Eastern Conference with a 5-2 win.
“There were some scrums out there but the guys kept their cool,” Canadiens winger Max Pacioretty said. “We knew to stay away from that stuff they were trying to suck us into. The coaches made sure of that and it paid off.”
Pacioretty could have surrendered to emotion early in the second period when the Canadiens had that five-minute power play. He had the puck land in front of him with a wide open net and somehow managed to flip the bouncing puck over the crossbar. “I’ve never had that happen to me since I was five years old,” he said.
Maybe so, but with six seconds left in that power play, karma struck for Pacioretty. Scrivens stopped a P.K. Subban shot from the point but directed the rebound right at Pacioretty’s knee pad and the puck bounced into the net before either one of them could move.
“Yeah, that’s what all the guys said: I deserved that one off the pads,” Pacioretty said.
The Canadiens also thought they deserved it when Brendan Gallagher and Pacioretty, with his second of the game, scored to ice the game in the third period.
They may have lost some physical battles, as the Leafs finished with a 40-27 edge in hits but there was no question about which team’s offence was better.
On the skating side of the equation, the Canadiens were better, too. The Leafs’ top line of Bozak, Phil Kessel and James van Riemsdyk was barely noticeable, which might explain why Orr had 14 minutes and 55 seconds of ice time compared to Bozak’s 14:13. The Habs simply didn’t let them have the puck.
“The way we play best defensively is to play down in their end,” Pacioretty said. “We grind teams down that way.”
Gorges said keeping their emotions in check “was huge” for the Canadiens.
“You’ve got to play with emotion,” he said. “But you have to teeter on that line between emotion and intensity. We did a good job of staying out of that stuff [the scrums between whistles] and getting the two points.”
The credit for that, Gorges said, goes to head coach Michel Therrien, who is making a run for coach-of-the-year in his second go-round with the Canadiens. He instilled a new attitude in the team, the defenceman said.
“I always say, ‘Your mind controls so much of what you do out there,’ ” Gorges said. “Last year, we played not to lose. This year, it’s let’s go, let’s play to win.”