MONTREAL – For a time it looked like every goal might be scored by a player who was facing away from the net – such was the level of individual skill on display during another entertaining Saturday evening at the Bell Centre.
Here was the Montreal Canadiens and Toronto Maple Leafs going back and forth, exchanging chances and bringing the fans out of their seats, at least between the brief botched attempts at transforming this into a stifling affair. This is the kind of hockey that occasionally drives coaches crazy while also showing how significantly the special talents can impact a game. This is the Eastern Conference, where the playoff-bound teams can still legitimately dream about the possibility of getting their act together in time for a special spring.
The Habs and Leafs are both living proof of that idea. Despite cramming the highlight reel over 63 minutes 28 seconds of unpredictable action, they provided Michel Therrien and Randy Carlyle with plenty of off-day teaching material as well.
In the end, the game was decided by some undisciplined – and perhaps even a little unlucky – play by the visitors. A borderline interference call on defenceman Tim Gleason opened the door for the electrifying P.K. Subban to tie the game 3-3 midway through the third period before a pair of delay of game calls twice put Toronto short-handed in overtime. The second was given to Leafs goalie Jonathan Bernier, who came out of his crease to steal a chance from Daniel Briere by freezing the puck, and mere moments later Max Pacioretty scored his 29th goal of the season to end the game.
“I haven’t been called for that ever I guess,” Bernier said of his penalty, which appears to have been handed out correctly under NHL Rule 63.2. “I don’t even know what’s the rule – how far you can actually get it and freeze it – but it bounced right in front of me, so that’s why I didn’t want to take a chance to shoot it down the ice.”
This was a game full of chances at both ends of the ice, many more than Bernier would have regularly seen in his past life as a member of the Los Angeles Kings. Out West, they play tough, grinding, patient hockey. Here it’s often about the rush and mistakes and transition and individual effort.
There was Habs sophomore Alex Galchenyuk spinning and firing to open the scoring and Pacioretty making it 2-0 on a backhand spin-a-rama of his own. The Leafs countered with a pair from the red-hot James van Riemsdyk – first with one of his patented tips in front before he later shook off Subban to get a short-handed breakaway, beating Peter Budaj between the legs with a nice deke move. A couple minutes later, Tyler Bozak threaded a spinning backhand pass between three Montreal players in the neutral zone to send linemate Phil Kessel in on a breakaway. His 33rd goal made it look like the Leafs might pull out a big comeback victory.
“(It was) a behind the back pass that went through maybe two skates, a couple of sticks and ends up right on Kessel’s stick for a breakaway,” marvelled Pacioretty. “I’m right there with Kessel but I don’t even see the puck coming until the last second.” So, he was asked, you didn’t expect it? “No, I don’t think that’s something they practice too often,” he said.
Therrien called a timeout at that point and his team responded well. Naturally, it was the unshakeable Subban that tied the score before inadvertently setting up Pacioretty’s overtime winner when his attempted one-timer landed instead on the stick of Andrei Markov, who found the wide open winger in the high slot. When all was said and done, Subban went bounding across the ice with a mile-wide smile to celebrate with teammates. What fun.
At least that is how it looked from high up in the press box or for those in the stands. Internally, there must have been a more mixed opinion, especially given the slew of turnovers and ill-advised passes that accompanied the memorable moments.
“We were down 2-0 and came back from it, we found ways to create offence and I thought that we had the majority of the puck time probably from the second period on,” said Carlyle. “So there were a lot of positives in the game. It’s disappointing that we lost and disappointing that the calls that went against us are ones that are somewhat unusual.”
That is the give-and-take of the free-flowing style of play. It is unpredictable. And with both teams gearing up for the stretch drive, the focus will be on making improvements in the defensive end without losing all of the offensive flair in the process. For teams built like these ones it is no easy task.
Imagine for a brief second that you are Habs GM Marc Bergevin or Maple Leafs counterpart Dave Nonis right now. You’ve just seen the good and bad of your roster once again and will no doubt be presented with some interesting choices to make before Wednesday’s trade deadline. Those will include some tough calls.
It’s enough to make you happy you just have to watch the games.