Canadiens play desperate to widen gap in Atlantic Division

The Canadiens beat the Senators 4-1 to sweep a home-and-home series and officially take control of the Atlantic division lead.

MONTREAL — There was Carey Price, shuffling his knees at Mach speed to exhibit the type of desperation that wins a game like the one the Montreal Canadiens and Ottawa Senators were matched up for on Sunday.

As the Canadiens goaltender set himself into the butterfly position before seemingly pushing himself beyond the boundaries of flexibility to kick out the toe of his right skate to stop a shot from Senators forward Kyle Turris, it made it that much more obvious what was different between both teams on this night.

The Canadiens, who had taken a 4-3 decision over Ottawa on Saturday, gave it everything they had in Sunday’s 4-1 win. Their opponents fell considerably short of the mark.

“They 100 per cent deserved the game,” said Senators coach Guy Boucher.

It was clear right from the start, with the Canadiens opening the scoring 28 seconds in on Tomas Plekanec’s first goal in 20 games.

It became that much clearer when Price stretched to his limit to make the save on Turris with just over three minutes remaining in the second period, while his team clung to a 2-1 lead despite owning a 28-18 advantage in shots and a decisive edge in play.

“That’s what he does,” said Brendan Gallagher, who also led Montreal in the desperation department for Sunday’s game.

The feisty 5-foot-10 forward, who always plays with a boulder-sized chip on his shoulder, notched an assist, four shots, a roughing penalty, and—in the absence of this stat being officially kept—presumptively led the game in hits taken.

Gallagher made his sacrifices, and his teammates made theirs as well.

There was Canadiens defenceman Shea Weber, who played a team-leading 25:09 in the second half of an intense back-to-back and registered an assist and four blocked shots. There was speedy fourth-liner Torrey Mitchell going against his nature to fight Chris Kelly in order to send the message to the Senators that the late-game rough stuff wasn’t going to be tolerated.

And then there was Paul Byron.

Gallagher’s linemate—a man who’s fought for everything he’s ever been given in hockey—pressed and pressed until he scored his 20th goal of the season to give Montreal a 3-1 lead.

It was a milestone that seemed unlikely—if not impossible—for this player to reach after he was claimed off of waivers by the Canadiens from the Calgary Flames at the beginning of last season.

Even Byron had his doubts.

“I remember being in the American League and trying to get $20,000 more out of my contract, and the GM pretty much told me to take it or leave it,” Byron said in reference to the turning point of his career—which came in the summer of 2014. “Being pretty close to signing a deal in Switzerland (Geneve-Servette), I kinda took the contract at the last second to stick it out and play in the American League.

“[Coach Troy Ward] convinced me to stay. He told me he was going to play me a ton. He said, ‘don’t necessarily worry about what Calgary thinks, there’s 29 other teams watching you every single night. If you don’t get a chance there, don’t think there’s other teams not watching. I think you’re too young to go over there. I think you’ll be making a mistake.’

“Then I was on the verge of signing a KHL deal with Moscow to go play with [Alexander] Radulov when the [Russian ruble] collapsed. It’s amazing how quick everything could’ve changed and made this impossible.”

But Byron’s success is a perfect example of what happens when you push through adversity.

There was nothing easy about the challenge this weekend’s set of games presented both teams. They were games to be played between bitter rivals; games with considerable implication on the Eastern Conference standings; games that could reveal how either team would approach a playoff-type of situation, which would serve as a critical test with less than a dozen games remaining in the regular season.

“We did the right things that we had to do, and because of that we were able to win,” said Canadiens coach Claude Julien. “I hope that we continue that way…we can be even better.”

The Senators had better be before these teams meet again next Saturday.

They started Sunday night with the chance to pull even with Montreal atop the Atlantic Division but now find themselves four points back. Their four-point margin over the Boston Bruins could be reduced to two points before the teams lock horns for a game on Tuesday, and Thursday’s game against the defending Stanley Cup champion Pittsburgh Penguins will require the desperation they failed to display against Montreal.

All the games from this point forward require it.