MONTREAL — What was billed as one of the most-anticipated games of the season lived up to expectations.
Toronto has won four in a row and remains second in the Atlantic with 71 points. Montreal is third with 69 points.
"It was a tight hockey game for the most part," said Tavares, who scored the winner 2:17 into overtime. "It was fast and the game was played at a very high level. You could see the competitiveness and everyone fighting for every inch out there.
"It was obviously my first time Maple Leafs versus the Canadiens here at the Bell Centre. So much history between the two teams, foundational franchises in the NHL. Fun to be a part of it, especially on a Saturday."
It was the first meeting between Toronto (34-17-3) and Montreal (31-18-7) since the season opener, which the Leafs won 3-2 in overtime.
With both teams riding three-game winning streaks, the newest chapter in one of hockey’s biggest rivalries did not disappoint.
"Probably as close to a playoff atmosphere without being in the playoffs," said Canadiens captain Shea Weber. "It was energizing and exciting. Fun to play in."
Added Leafs goalie Frederik Andersen, who made 35 saves: "Over the last few days it was quite a build-up. Obviously, it’s cool to be a part of this type of rivalry. The game was very exciting, especially getting the extra point."
Tavares scored the winner with a backhand glove-side on Carey Price after taking a slick pass from Mitch Marner that crossed up Jeff Petry and Phillip Danault. The goal came shortly after the Maple Leafs successfully killed off a Canadiens power play to start the extra frame.
"We had an opportunity in overtime to win in," said Price, who made 28 saves in his first loss since Jan. 10. "I have to make a save in that third period (on William Nylander) to close it out beforehand.
"It was a good opportunity to get ahead of them."
Down 3-2 in the third period, Nylander beat Price with a wrist shot from the face-off dot while using Weber as a screen. That goal came 71 seconds after Brendan Gallagher gave Montreal the lead with Auston Matthews in the penalty box for delay of game.
Montreal finished 1 for 5 with the man advantage.
The teams combined for three goals in 4:42 to start the game.
Andrew Shaw made his return to the lineup after missing 15 games with a neck injury and wasted no time getting on the scoreboard. Shaw netted his 12th of the season 51 seconds into the game when he deflected Petry’s wrist shot past Andersen.
Montreal managed to contain some of Toronto’s most explosive forwards like Tavares and Matthews in the first period as it was the Leafs’ fourth line that made the difference.
Zach Hyman stole the puck from Weber behind the net before finding Andreas Johnsson with a perfect backhanded cross-crease pass at 2:20 of the first. Johnsson has now scored in three straight games.
Nikita Zaitsev gave Toronto a 2-1 lead at 4:42 with a wrist shot from the point on a pass along the boards from Par Lindholm. Price was screened by Frederik Gauthier and never saw the puck.
Leafs coach Mike Babcock had high praise for his fourth line.
"They were physical, they played right, they were competitive, they put the puck in, they got on the cycle," said Babcock. "They scored and set up another one. They did a real good job, every shift they played."
Montreal made it 2-2 when Tomas Tatar surprised Andersen glove-side with a seemingly harmless, floating shot at 1:13 of the second period after carrying the puck from deep in his own zone.
Notes: Earlier Saturday, the Canadiens acquired forward Dale Weise and defenceman Christian Folin from the Philadelphia Flyers in exchange for forward Byron Froese and defenceman David Schlemko.