MONTREAL — Mark them down as the eight minutes most responsible for extending the Montreal Canadiens season.
There was still a feeling of chaotic uncertainty, of frenzied excitement, when the third period started Tuesday and the Canadiens went about restoring some order to Game 5 of the Eastern Conference final. That was no small feat with Montreal facing elimination and holding a one-goal lead that looked to be about as secure as an infant trying to climb a ladder.
Michel Therrien delivered a straightforward message in the dressing room after a wild second period that included six goals — the last of which had seen Rene Bourque put his team back ahead 5-4 after it had blown a 4-1 lead. The Canadiens head coach told his players that they tied the frame, 3-3, and insisted that they forget about how it happened.
Something must have clicked.
The New York Rangers would not even manage a shot on Dustin Tokarski until 7:59 and by then Bourque had already completed his hat trick with an important insurance goal on a breakaway. It was a pivotal point in the game. Had New York pressured, had it created some uncertainty, it might have secured a trip to the Stanley Cup Final right here and now.
Instead, the Rangers managed just three shot attempts — two blocked, the other a missed backhand — as Montreal fell into more of a defensive shell and started controlling possession.
“We didn’t panic,” Canadiens forward Alex Galchenyuk said after a 7-4 victory. “It’s hockey, it’s playoffs, it’s really emotional games and anything can happen, but we stayed in our system. We executed the gameplan and we got the win.”
The start of each period helped tell the story on an extremely strange night. The Rangers registered their first shot at 5:52, 9:48 and 7:59 in the three frames as Montreal managed to impose its will coming out of the dressing room. That was the kind of desperation you would expect with the Habs needing a victory to keep this playoff run going.
Tokarski acknowledged that it was unusual to wait so long before facing rubber in each period, but quickly added: “I’m definitely not going to complain about not getting shots.”
It was only the other day where defenceman P.K. Subban was comparing him to Edmonton Oilers legend Grant Fuhr because of his ability to allow a string of goals before slamming the door when it matters most. Lo and behold, Tokarski needed to be sharp after those early Zen minutes of the third period, especially during a 3-on-5 penalty kill that lasted 34 seconds.
He turned away a Ryan McDonagh one-timer and squared up on Rick Nash from in tight. There was also a marvellous stop a little later on Chris Kreider, who finished this game with a goal and three assists.
The gauntlet was then thrown down by Bourque, who suggested that his inexperienced teammate was going pound-for-pound with Henrik Lundqvist. That was a pointed comment on a night where the King was forced to do the skate of shame to the New York dressing room after being pulled.
“Everybody talks about how he’s a great goalie,” Bourque said of Lundqvist. “Has he been better than Ticker this series? I don’t think so.”
Consider that a little more fuel for the fire in a series where Montreal has repeatedly taken verbal shots at its opponent. It wouldn’t be surprising to hear one or two more before Game 6 goes at Madison Square Garden on Thursday night. That’s simply how this group rolls.
Their ability to stay in the moment and regain composure during Tuesday’s game should not be overlooked either. After building a 4-1 lead and chasing Lundqvist for Cam Talbot, the Canadiens appeared to be in the clear. Then Nash banked a shot in off the skate of Josh Gorges and the Rangers found two more goals in the next 4:24 to challenge that notion.
However, the Montreal players didn’t appear to be rattled, which is why Therrien didn’t hesitate before sending his next group of skaters straight out. Bourque put them ahead for good less than a minute later.
“The reason I didn’t call timeout is because I felt our attitude on the bench was good,” said Therrien. “Our team was comfortable to play that type of game.”
They were even more at ease once the third period got underway. The intermission served as a chance to collect their thoughts. According to Max Pacioretty, one of the main mantras the players repeated to each other on the bench was to keep looking only at the next shift.
With so much on the line, this was not the time to let the mind start wandering.
“We got back to our game,” said Pacioretty. “We’re a really frustrating group to play against when we use our speed. The biggest difference in our game when we make the right decisions with the puck in the neutral zone.”
Now we truly have a series. An element of unpredictability has been introduced with the Canadiens feeling confident and the New York players searching for answers.
“(We were) still in a good spot going into the third (period); just can’t explain it,” said Rangers forward Brad Richards. “It’s one of those games.”
One of those games where the Habs refused to fold. And so they play on.