TORONTO — When Montreal Canadiens goaltender Carey Price looks at the Toronto Maple Leafs, he sees a big, physically strong team.
“They’re in your face,” Price said. “They’re a playoff team.”
The Leafs may be built for playoff hockey, but getting there could be a challenge down the stretch, especially after losing 4-3 to the Canadiens on Saturday night at Air Canada Centre.
Montreal moved five points up on Toronto in the Atlantic Division standings and in the process made it far less likely that this thrilling, back-and-forth affair could be a first-round playoff preview.
“I think that’s what everybody would want to see, and I’m sure it’s going to happen sooner or later,” said Habs forward Rene Bourque, who had a goal and an assist and was not yet born the last time these teams met in the playoffs back in 1979.
As the Habs won for the fourth time in five games, the Leafs (36-28-8) dropped their fourth in a row as part of a troubling late-season swoon in the absence of injured goalie Jonathan Bernier. Toronto still occupies the first wild-card spot in the Eastern Conference but leads Detroit by just one point and Columbus by two and has played two more games that the Red Wings and Blue Jackets.
The Leafs could fall out of playoff position by the end of Sunday.
James Reimer, who allowed four goals on 37 shots, including a short-side game-winner by Tomas Plekanec, said he and his teammates have a “healthy sense of urgency” with 10 games remaining.
“I think we know we played well tonight and I think we made some mistakes but I think they made some mistakes too,” Reimer said. “Really, it was kind of one bad bounce that decided the game. I think we can hold our heads high on this one and go into tomorrow (at the New Jersey Devils) feeling good about ourselves.”
The Habs are feeling good about themselves after winning a track meet of a hockey game that featured three goals in the first period — by Montreal’s Max Pacioretty, Bourque and captain Brian Gionta and Toronto’s Joffrey Lupul and Tyler Bozak.
Montreal coach Michel Therrien liked the way his team dictated the play early. But it was bouncing back in the third period after Nazem Kadri tied the score for the Leafs that impressed Price, who finished with 33 saves.
“That was definitely a test of character,” Price said. “When a team scores in the third period to tie it up when they’re at home, you’re on the road, they grab a lot of momentum. … Being able to grab the lead and then hold it with a good team effort like that is, I think, rewarding.”
The Habs’ reward if these winning ways keep up is either second or third place in the Atlantic Division, crucial spots that would mean avoiding Monday’s opponent, the Boston Bruins, or the Pittsburgh Penguins in the first round.
Now five points back of Montreal and six behind the Tampa Bay Lightning, who won in Toronto on Wednesday night, the Leafs will need an uphill climb to avoid a wild-card spot and a tough matchup. But now there’s some legitimate concern, given recent woes, that a playoff spot altogether might be in danger.
This loss, which winger Mason Raymond said “stings” and captain Dion Phanuef called “disappointing,” didn’t help that cause.
“You have to turn the page,” Phaneuf said. “There’s no looking back on today, tomorrow. Tomorrow’s a new day, we’ve got to pull ourselves out of it. It’s this group that’s going to get us out of this bind. We’ve been close, but close isn’t good enough right now. We know that we’re going to get out of it, we’ve just got to find a way.”
The Leafs and Habs (29-26-7) were close because this was such a back-and-forth game with plenty of chances at either end. The turning point came 9:14 into the third when Toronto winger James van Riemsdyk was called for goaltender interference when he steam-rolled Price.
Habs defenceman Andrei Markov appeared to make contact with van Riemsdyk before he hit Price, but the goalie went to the ice and believed he was interfered with.
“It’s contact to my head, so I thought it was a penalty, personally,” Price said.
Leafs coach Randy Carlyle, who conceded he didn’t see a replay of the incident, was more worried about the impact of the penalty. Plekanec scored just as van Riemsdyk was being released from the box at 11:14, sneaking a shot in the tiny space between Reimer and the right post.
“We clawed back into the hockey game and then we take a penalty early in the third and they score,” Carlyle said. “It was the difference in the hockey game, and the margin of error now in these games is so close that one bounce or one mis-play or one unfortunate mistake cost us points.”
Mistakes — be it turnovers by Phil Kessel, David Clarkson and Kadri or soft goals allowed by Reimer — hurt the Leafs dearly. Another slow start wasn’t ideal, either.
“Obviously we were behind the 8-ball a little bit early on giving up two goals,” Raymond said of allowing two goals in the game’s first seven minutes. “I like the way we battled back, but turnovers killed us a bit and that’s tough.”
The Habs benefited because they pounced on so many mistakes the Leafs committed. In front of an early-spring crowd of 19,789 that’s hungry for playoff hockey, Montreal executed like a team ready for that next step.
“Both teams need those points. We were ready to play,” Therrien said. “At this time of the year, you need to be in a playoff mindset. And our mindset’s like that.”
NOTES — Montreal’s streak of consecutive penalties killed was snapped at 25 on Kadri’s power-play goal at 2:49 of the third. The last time the Habs surrendered a goal on the power play was March 6 at the Phoenix Coyotes. … Leafs centre Dave Bolland played just 9 minutes 1 second in his return to the lineup. Bolland missed the previous 56 games after suffering a severed tendon in the back of his ankle Nov. 2. … Habs forward Lars Eller suffered a lower-body injury, Therrien said, and did not play in the third period. Michael Bournival was called up, and he will meet the team in Boston. …. Bernier, who has now missed four straight games with a groin injury, will miss his fifth in a row Sunday when the Leafs visit the Devils. Carlyle said the 25-year-old will not make the trip.