This was a game billed as a grudge match, with the Montreal Canadiens looking to atone for an embarrassing 6-0 loss at home and the Toronto Maple Leafs anxious to lay another beating by putting all of their muscle in the lineup.
But, again and again, in the hours leading up to the game, the Canadiens wouldn’t buy into the media angles thrown at them, saying only they wanted two points as their retribution.
Never mind the fighting. Never mind the biting. Never mind the hits.
“I couldn’t have been more mad after that game,” Habs defenceman Josh Gorges said of the blowout two weeks ago at the Bell Centre. “And frustrated. But then you’re better afterwards.
“You always have the choice: Do we rise to the occasion after this? Do we realize what just happened? Or do we sit and sulk and go the opposite way? And I think this group came together after that.”
That has certainly been evident in the standings of late, and it was again on Wednesday night in a lopsided 5-2 Canadiens win over the Leafs in the rematch.
With the victory Montreal improved to 7-0-2 since the Bell Centre beat down, keeping them atop the Eastern Conference, while effectively proving Gorges’s point.
They’ve come together – and they’re a better team than they were even some 18 odd days ago.
While Toronto coach Randy Carlyle built his roster Wednesday for the war some expected, little of the rough stuff ever materialized. The officials tossed tough guy Mike Brown early for a hit from behind and the Leafs other punchers kept their gloves on and holding their sticks all 60 minutes.
(One Canadien, Brandon Prust, actually did drop his gloves – on the prolonged power play no less – but quickly picked them back up after Leafs captain Dion Phaneuf declined the invitation.)
In a game where Prust and Colton Orr curiously had more ice time than James van Riemsdyk – one of the league’s leading goal scorers – the proceedings weren’t ultimately ever about the fights and the fighters.
This one was all about the hockey, and on that front, the Canadiens delivered far more than the Leafs.
Sure, some of that was due to the major penalty, which helped Montreal ring up a 23-5 shot advantage after 30 minutes, but there was also something to be said for the Habs solid defensive play and adept ability to move the puck and generate chances.
“It was pathetic at one point because of the shot total,” Carlyle said.
Not that Toronto didn’t hang in there on the scoreboard.
One of their pugilists even opened the scoring, with Frazer McLaren bounding toward the net and getting a fortuitous bounce for the third goal of his fight-filled career.
Minutes later, Canadiens defencemen Alexei Emelin wired a point shot off a Leafs player and past netminder Ben Scrivens, who fought the puck a little on the night but was generally solid in the face of the barrage.
Then came Brown’s misdeed – with Carlyle shouting for an explanation from the officials – and with seconds remaining in the five minute power play, the Habs’ Max Pacioretty potted the 2-1 marker for his first of two goals in the game.
With the Leafs generating little, that appeared to be the different maker, although youngster Nazem Kadri – questionably saddled with Orr as a linemate yet again – made yet another terrific pass to set up Clarke MacArthur’s fifth of the season and tie the game late in the second.
But with the Habs still way ahead on the shot clock and the Leafs way up on the hit count, it was the shots – as puck possession tends to – that won out.
Late in the third, Gorges put a long, bumpy point shot toward the goal, pesky rookie Brendan Gallagher tipped it in and Montreal added a couple of insurance goals to seal the game.
The Leafs offered a complaint on the winner – that centre Tyler Bozak hadn’t been given time to setup on the faceoff – but that quibble wasn’t the decisive factor in the game.
Missed calls or not, Toronto didn’t deserve to win, and there was no argument from anyone in the dressing room to the contrary.
“We were flat, flat, flat, flat,” Carlyle said afterward, not pointing out a single positive in a brief but frank postgame press conference. “Like we were playing in our boots and they were playing in their skates. We just didn’t get anything going for ourselves.”
Three of the culprits in the loss were the members of Toronto’s top line, as the trio of van Riemsdyk, Bozak and Phil Kessel finished minus-4 and of their own admission didn’t have much impact on the game.
At least in a positive sense.
“They’re playing great hockey,” Bozak said. “Our line in particular had a pretty rough game. We didn’t generate much at all. I mean they’re playing really good. You’ve got to give them credit.”
“We stuck to the game plan and made sure we took care of our end first,” Pacioretty added. “We played a great defensive game.”
That defensive game plan was certainly part of the story, as the Habs showed why they’ve significantly reduced shots against this season, winning a lot of games with that and the predictably strong netminding of Carey Price.
What there wasn’t was a battle royal or fisticuffs. And in the third meeting of very different philosophies designed by two new coaches putting their stamp on two storied rivals, Montreal’s Michel Therrien got on the board.
It’s now Carlyle 2, Therrien 1 – with future dates No. 4 and 5 set for Games 41 and 48 on the schedule, when playoff spots are sure to be on the line and the fighter versus finesse debate can rage again.