It was a time in the game when things could have gone wrong for a fragile Canadiens team.
After three successive defeats and after squandering a two-goal lead against the first-place Toronto Maple Leafs, it was the perfect time for Montreal to become passive and find yet another way to lose.
Instead, 85 seconds after John Taveres tied the score, Josh Anderson scored what proved to be the winner in the Canadiens’ 4-2 victory Monday night at the Bell Centre.
“We knew the position we were in,” said Anderson, traded to the Canadiens last October from Columbus for Max Domi and a third-round draft choice. “They made a good push in the second period. We needed to fight back and push back. We know the strength of our team. We just have to compete. I think we did that.”
Anderson, who subsequently signed a seven-year, US$38.5-million contract two days following his acquisition — eschewing potential free agency this summer in the process — scored his 15th goal this season, hit the post in the third after being set up by Jesperi Kotkaniemi, and played a strong game, registering a team-high four shots.
“We knew it was an important time in the period to push hard,” Anderson said. “If we don’t get one, (at least) come out 2-2 and be ready to go in the third period. The goal gave us momentum.
“We believe in our group. We’ve believed in our group from day one.”
Anderson had been playing with Jonathon Drouin and Eric Staal of late, but Kotkaniemi replaced Staal on the line as interim head coach Dominique Ducharme, looking for any kind of spark, changed all of the formations.
Kotkaniemi, given the unenviable task of trying to replace the injured Brendan Gallagher, moved back to his customary centre spot, while Paul Byron joined Tomas Tatar and Phillip Danault.
The line was dominant, as it had been with Gallagher. Tatar scored twice, including an insurance goal into an empty net. Byron — placed on waivers last week for the third time this season — had two assists, giving him seven points in his last eight games. And Danault, playing against Auston Matthews, limited the NHL’s leading scorer to one goal.
Tatar, Byron and Danault all had plus/minus ratings of plus-2.
“Phil welcomes it,” said goaltender Jake Allen, who won for only the second time in 11 starts, finally backed by some rare offence. “You have to embrace that role, take pride in just limiting their chances and shutting them down. Maybe he doesn’t get the offensive chances because he has to worry so much about playing defence against these top dogs. That’s not his fault.
“To me, that’s one of the hardest jobs in the NHL. Kudos to him. And he does it very well.”
Ducharme also changed his defence pairings, putting Brett Kulak with Shea Weber and teaming Joel Edmundson with Jeff Petry. Edmundson logged nearly 27 minutes of ice time, while Petry was close to 26. Rookie Alexander Romanov, while playing a tad over 16 minutes, also was a physical force, delivering seven hits.
The Canadiens remain a work in progress under Ducharme, but displayed their mettle against one of the NHL’s top clubs, ending the Leafs’ six-game winning streak.
“Character,” Ducharme said. “Our guys are never quitting. They believe in themselves. They know they can do some very good things. The guys were excited to play. They showed confidence and character starting the game.
“We have a … way we want to play,” he added. “When you get away from that core, your game can start slipping. We’ve talked a lot with the players, but that’s something that takes time. As a team, we’re growing through that. We’re getting to know ourselves better — what works and what can have our game slipping a bit.”
It was a critical victory for Montreal, now eight points ahead of Calgary — with two games in hand — for the fourth and final playoff berth in the North Division. The Flames are in Toronto on Tuesday, then meet the Canadiens at the Bell Centre on Wednesday and Friday.
There’s no doubt Montreal remains in the driver’s seat but, with three more games coming in Calgary between April 23-26, things can change.
It was also just the Canadiens’ second win against Toronto in six games, although one of those defeats came in extra time. As things now stand, the teams would meet in the opening-round of the playoffs.
“This is something to build on,” Allen said. “That’s all it is. You can’t get too high on one win.”
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