TORONTO — James van Riemsdyk tugged at the Toronto Maple Leafs logo on his chest, mimicking the celebration P.K. Subban made after an overtime goal two nights earlier.
That wasn’t a coincidence.
Van Riemsdyk was on edge after some taunting from the Montreal Canadiens defenceman but waited until after scoring the game-winning goal Saturday night before letting that emotion show through. It was tension that was building throughout a 5-3 Leafs victory that was a showcase for the rivalry.
“I’m usually not one to engage in stuff like that, but I was a little bit fired up,” van Riemsdyk said. “It just kind of happened.”
Those are the things that happen when the juices are flowing and emotions are heightened as they were for this game between the Leafs and Habs. Of the 19,667 fans in attendance, more than a few were cheering for Montreal, and it made for a much more raucous atmosphere than usual at Air Canada Centre.
“If you don’t get shivers and chills on Toronto-Montreal on a Saturday night on ‘Hockey Night in Canada,’ either in Montreal or Toronto, then I don’t think you understand the true meaning of the game here in Canada,” Leafs coach Randy Carlyle said after his team’s season-high fourth consecutive victory.
With the teams trading chances back and forth, it was an excellent example of what the NHL is supposed to offer. And even though eight total goals were scored, neither the Leafs’ Jonathan Bernier (30 saves on 33 shots), nor possible Canadian Olympic starter Carey Price of the Habs (25 saves on 29 shots) could be faulted.
Instead, this was a case of two offences getting the job done. Before van Riemsdyk scored the game-winner at 14:27 of the third, Cody Franson, Phil Kessel and Mason Raymond also scored for the Leafs (25-20-5), while Brendan Gallagher, Brian Gionta and David Desharnais scored for the Habs (27-17-5).
“We’re a team that was pushing the pace and we were skating well,” Montreal coach Michel Therrien said. “Individual mistakes cost games. That’s where it’s disappointing. We give goals. They’re not even supposed to be scoring chances.”
But scoring chances were readily available. Toronto centre Nazem Kadri had two of the game’s best passes, setting up Franson for the Leafs’ first goal and then Raymond for his on the power play.
It was a breakout night for Kadri, who has been the subject of criticism and trade rumours lately.
“I wanted to come out and have a big game,” Kadri said. “Obviously the magnitude of this game was huge. For us to chase that top spot in the division is still a realistic goal for us.”
The Leafs’ victory moved them to within four points of the third-place Habs. They still trail the Atlantic Division-leading Boston Bruins by seven points and have played three more games.
But when the focus was on one game against rival Montreal, the Leafs brought close to their A-game. Carlyle called their start by far the best of the season, while Gionta wasn’t thrilled with how he and his teammates responded.
“The first 10 minutes we were fairly slow getting going, but after that I thought we did a good job of forcing the play and getting some good chances,” Montreal’s captain said. “It’s definitely a tough one to lose.”
It would’ve been a tough one for the Leafs to lose after their strong start and considering the emotional investment.
“That was a statement game for this team,” Kadri said. “It’s the Montreal Canadiens. They’re one of the better teams in the conference and obviously they’re ahead of us in the division, as well. The rivalry speaks for itself. We wanted to come out here, home ice, and give these fans something to cheer about.”
Montreal fans had something to cheer about early thanks to stellar goaltending from Price, who kept the Habs in the game despite being out-shot by a wide margin. Chants of “Carey” became jeering ones later on when Leafs fans got on him, loud enough that the goalie at the other end could hear them.
“The crowd was pretty amazing tonight,” Bernier said. “It felt like a playoff game.”
No Leafs players were alive the last time the Leafs and Habs met in the playoffs — 1979. Only Montreal’s Gionta, Andrei Markov, Daniel Briere and Francis Boullion had been born by then.
But a lack of recent playoff history didn’t seem to hurt Saturday night, thanks in part to Subban skating by the bench after Gallagher’s goal and giving the Leafs some motivation.
“He was saying some stuff to our bench and we weren’t thrilled about that,” van Riemsdyk said. “It’s hockey. He’s got to do what he’s got to do — he’s a great player, it’s fun to play against players like that. Obviously there’s some emotions that were flying around out there.”
Subban did not speak to reporters after the loss.
He was a central topic of conversation in hockey circles since his celebration of an overtime goal against the Ottawa Senators on Thursday night brought some criticism. Subban flashed the crest on his jersey a few times before going down the tunnel.
Don Cherry said on “Hockey Night in Canada” that “all (Subban) does is pump up the other team.”
“He has to stop that stuff,” Cherry said. “It’s absolutely ridiculous.”
Van Riemsdyk wouldn’t even go that far, choosing instead to show Subban up after scoring his 19th goal of the season.
“If they wanted to play that game, then we’ll play it, too,” van Riemsdyk said.
Van Riemsdyk insisted popping his jersey wasn’t a pre-meditated act. Instead, it was the release of a build-up of emotions that went beyond just redirecting Tyler Bozak’s pass past Price.
Asked earlier in the day about goal celebrations, van Riemsdyk said that he preferred an understated approach. His teammates didn’t mind when he veered from that just once.
“Obviously you get excited when you score,” Kadri said. “That’s on JvR — he likes scoring goals, so more power to him.”
NOTES — Joonas Nattinen made his NHL debut for Montreal and played 1:45, all in the first period. Nattinen replaced Rene Bourque, who was a healthy scratch. … Toronto called up Troy Bodie from its AHL affiliate to replace the injured David Clarkson.