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Montreal Canadiens defenceman P.K. Subban (76) carries the puck as Toronto Maple Leafs defenceman Tim Gleason (8) is interfered with at Air Canada Centre. (USA Today Sports)
Montreal Canadiens defenceman P.K. Subban (76) carries the puck as Toronto Maple Leafs defenceman Tim Gleason (8) is interfered with at Air Canada Centre. (USA Today Sports)

Mirtle: Subban’s taunts backfire as Leafs beat Habs Add to ...

Credit PK Subban with reigniting one of the oldest rivalries in hockey.

The only problem was his team was on the wrong end of his latest run-in with a division rival.

After riling up the Ottawa Senators (and Don Cherry) with his jersey pulling goal celebration after an overtime win earlier in the week, the Montreal Canadiens defenceman drew the ire of the Toronto Maple Leafs on Saturday night for taunting their bench after the Habs tying goal in the first period.

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In response, Leafs winger James van Riemsdyk then openly mocked Subban’s celebration after he scored the winning goal with five minutes left in the game.

The two players then continued to battle on the ice over the final minutes, with some pushing and shoving going uncalled as the officials watched on.

Speaking from his locker after what turned into a wildly entertaining, back-and-forth 5-3 win by the Leafs, the typically understated van Riemsdyk made it clear he felt Subban brought the whole thing on his team.

“We weren’t too thrilled after their first goal,” van Riemsdyk explained. “Their player was chirping our bench. I don’t know. If they want to play that game, we can play it, too.

“I’m usually not one to engage in stuff like that, but I was a little bit fired up. It just kind of happened… I don’t want to get too much into [what exactly was said]. But he was saying some stuff to our bench. It’s hockey so… obviously there were some emotions that were fired up there.”  

Subban declined to speak with the media afterwards, but the reality was this was a heated contest even before his words perked up the Toronto bench.

Playing in their 50th game of what’s been a trying season, the Leafs had one of their better nights of the year, especially off the opening faceoff, as they took the play to the Canadiens and hemmed them in the defensive zone. The pressure paid off almost immediately when Nazem Kadri pulled off a highlight reel deke through the legs of defenceman Alexei Emelin and fed teammate Cody Franson for the game’s first goal five minutes in.

That got the Air Canada Centre crowd – which had heavy representation from Canadiens fans – to its feet and kicked off what was probably the most entertaining game Toronto has played in since last year’s playoffs.

“That’s the best start this hockey club’s had since… I don’t know if we’ve had a better one this year,” Leafs coach Randy Carlyle said afterwards.

“It was a statement game for this team,” Kadri said. “We came out there and we worked from beginning to end.”

Kadri’s name has been bandied about in trade rumours the last few weeks, and he responded on Friday after practice by telling the media that he doesn’t want to be moved and this is his home.

He then went out and played one of his best games of the season, with two eye-opening assists (on the Leafs first and third goals) and a big hit on Andrei Markov in what turned into 20 minutes of ice time overall.

“We want consistency and we need Nazzy to continue to step up,” Carlyle said, crediting Kadri’s revamped line with Joffrey Lupul and Nikolai Kulemin for part of their strong showing.

Despite being outplayed through the first 15 minutes, before and after Kadri’s goal, the Habs responded late in the first with a power play marker from Brendan Gallagher – the goal that led to Subban’s comments to the Leafs bench.

Toronto then jumped out to a 3-1 lead in the second on goals by Phil Kessel and Mason Raymond, starting a seesaw battle that turned the other way late in the middle frame.

As the Leafs began to sit back, Montreal capitalized twice relatively quickly, beginning when defenceman Cody Franson whiffed on a clearing attempt and Brian Gionta put it back into the Leafs goal with 11 seconds left in the period. Then, as the Canadians started to take over in the third, David Desharnais tipped in a Subban point shot to tie the game with 11 minutes to play and the momentum appeared to be swinging their way.

But that merely set up van Riemsdyk’s late heroics, with centre Tyler Bozak doing the winning goal’s dirty work by collecting a loose puck and hitting the big winger in front with a nifty saucer pass.

Lupul closed out the scoring with an empty-netter with four seconds to play.

“We had some breakdowns,” Canadiens coach Michel Therrien lamented after the game. “Usually we’re more solid. We gave them some goals – there’s three goals we gave them and they’re not even supposed to be scoring chances. We’re going to have to pay a lot of attention to that.”

“It wasn’t a bad effort,” Gionta added. “We competed pretty good, but a couple mistakes led to their goals… It’s heartbreaking for sure.”

The win gave Toronto its first four-game winning streak of the season and the edge in the season series at two games to one, but it was the constant lead changes and budding animosity between the two teams that made Saturday’s contest so much more compelling.

The Leafs and Canadiens had one high profile run-in last February that ended with Toronto winning 6-0 and involved its tough guys fighting smaller Habs players, but the anger over that one lopsided game appeared to dissipate over their next five meetings.

They have two more matchups after the Olympic break this season and may even meet in the first round of the playoffs under the NHL’s new division-clash-heavy postseason format.

Players on both teams remarked how great the atmosphere had been in the building.

“It was a hard fought game,” said van Riemsdyk, who now has three goals in three games on Canadiens netminder Carey Price this season. “It was a fun game for us to play in.”

“When you play a team that you’re trying to reach in the standings, it makes it even more important,” added Leafs netminder Jonathan Bernier, who made 30 saves in the win. “You could feel there’s a big rivalry between these two teams. That was a good [celebration] move I guess by JVR.”

Carlyle, meanwhile, is hopeful that the win is a sign his team has turned a corner after losing four in a row and 11 of 16 prior to this latest win streak.

But even he could appreciate the battle that had taken place between the two long-time rivals.

“If you don’t get shivers and chills for a Toronto-Montreal game on a Saturday night on Hockey Night in Canada then I don’t think you understand the true meaning of the game here in Canada,” he said.  

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