Canadiens find way to win in nervous tilt with Maple Leafs

Lars Eller scored in the fifth round of the shootout to get the Canadiens a 3-2 win over the Maple Leafs.

TORONTO – When last season veered off the rails for the Toronto Maple Leafs, one of the things that stood out to Joffrey Lupul was how often his team found a way to lose.

“When we couldn’t win a game, there would be nights we’d actually come out and play great and something would happen,” he said Saturday. “They’d score a goal with 10 seconds left or a puck would get shot around the boards and bounce in our net somehow. You feel like everything’s going wrong.”

The present-day Montreal Canadiens can identify. They didn’t arrive here on a 4-16-1 stretch because they’ve been getting soundly outplayed for seven straight weeks.

And so as Saturday’s game progressed and the Habs were clearly the superior team, there had to be a few seeds of doubt planted when the score remained 2-2. Especially after Brendan Gallagher fired a puck through James Reimer’s glove in the third period, only to see it limbo across the goal-line and stay out.

“I was right there and I celebrated because I didn’t think there was any way it would come back the other way,” said captain Max Pacioretty.

Then came a nervy 3-on-3 overtime period and Peter Holland scoring on Toronto’s first shootout attempt. Not good. Then Brian Flynn appeared to even things up before video replay showed the puck halting right on the red-line.

Are you kidding me?

It all came down to a must-make shootout attempt for Pacioretty, and he had to quiet the frustration and anxiety that has accumulated in the back of his mind these last two months.

“I went from being probably the most nervous person in Ontario to turning off my brain and ‘lets go do this,”’ said Pacioretty. “Jumping over the boards I kind of felt like ‘I have to do this.”’

He beat Reimer, teammate Mike Condon made a couple saves and Lars Eller finished things off. Sweet relief, a 3-2 Montreal victory.

“The last month and a half we’ve just been on the wrong side of the tiny little differences deciding the outcomes of games,” said Eller. “I think tonight was a long time coming for us.”

Even though the Habs and Leafs are forever bound by the past, in the present they share a mutual understanding of the hysteria that tends to accompany their struggles. It’s a byproduct of large fanbases, a big media presence and a spotlight that never gets turned off.

The only other city capable of having the noise blare so loudly is probably Vancouver.

Last year’s Leafs could have penned a manual on crisis management since they couldn’t go more than a week or so without one. This season it has been Montreal where there is an unending number of fires to put out – something general manager Marc Bergevin attempted to do Thursday by meeting reporters and shouldering the blame for everything that has gone wrong.

He also addressed his players, who took advantage of a rare break in the schedule to do some soul-searching. That undoubtedly helped on a night where they registered the first 11 shots, controlled play and very nearly lost.

“I think after having a couple days off and really hanging out and talking with the boys, we made sure that no matter happens we stick together,” said Pacioretty.

“Facing adversity is not a bad thing,” said coach Michel Therrien. “That’s the way I see it. … With the right attitude when you’re facing adversity you become stronger.”

The most pertinent question is whether the Canadiens have ended their freefall, but the only answer that means anything will play out on the ice. Until they prove they can win consistently without Hart Trophy winner Carey Price – out at least three more weeks, but likely longer – there will be lingering doubts.

This has been a trying season, a disappointing season. A season where Montreal started 9-0-0 and had some talking about Stanley Cup aspirations.

Lupul has played on teams that have gone crashing through the attic and noted that in a hockey-mad city it’s always accompanied by a slew of off-ice stories. He’s been aware of the drama playing out in Montreal. “I’d like to say I feel bad, but it’s the Habs. So I don’t.”

But he added an important caveat.

“Their situation is different than ours of last year because they played so well at the start of the year that they can get away with this,” said Lupul. “That’s for sure the positive for them. Last year when it happened to us we were so far out of it, and we traded a bunch of our guys and it was a really bad situation.

“For them there’s still that light at the end of the tunnel.”

And it grew a little bit brighter on Saturday night.