MONTREAL – The Montreal Canadiens have generally relied on two areas of their game for wins this season – stellar goaltending and special teams.
On Saturday afternoon against the defending Stanley Cup champions, the Habs didn’t need either.
Brian Gionta scored twice and Tomas Plekanec had a goal and two assists as the Canadiens extended their win streak to three games Saturday afternoon with a 5-3 victory over the Pittsburgh Penguins.
Mathieu Darche and Scott Gomez also scored for the injury-riddled Canadiens (28-25-6), who only needed 18 saves from Jaroslav Halak to get the victory.
Halak was coming off back-to-back 45-save victories over the Vancouver Canucks and Boston Bruins, but faced a season-low 21 shots Saturday.
“(Halak) made some huge saves for us right after they scored that late goal, they had another chance that could have made it a one-goal game,” Gionta said. “So I don’t know if we didn’t rely on him, but I thought it was a better defensive effort. We didn’t give up too many chances. Especially against a talented team like that, that’s what we needed.”
Pascal Dupuis, Bill Guerin and Evgeni Malkin scored for the Penguins (35-22-1), who had to hurry out of Montreal to get to snow-covered Washington for a game at noon Sunday.
“Montreal’s a tough place to play with a tough crowd,” Penguins coach Dan Bylsma said. “We didn’t have our game at an execution level, we didn’t have our brains into how we needed to play and that was evident.”
The Penguins were flying from Montreal to Newark and then taking a bus to Washington, which would normally take about four hours, but could be a much longer trip with more than 60 centimetres of snow covering the U.S. capital.
Penguins goalie Marc-Andre Fleury was pulled in the third period after allowing four goals on 28 shots.
With Marc-Andre Bergeron and Benoit Pouliot the latest Habs to go down to injury, one third of the Canadiens 18 skaters Saturday began the season in the American Hockey League.
Brock Trotter – the AHL’s fourth-leading scorer before Saturday’s games with 53 points in 49 games – made his NHL debut for the Canadiens. The 23-year-old native of Brandon, Man., played with fellow undrafted free agent David Desharnais and Ryan White, also a Brandon native.
The line was very effective for the Canadiens, drawing two penalties in the second period and playing with a lot of energy.
“All year in Hamilton we’ve been used to creating offence,” Trotter said. “It’s the same ice sheet here, so we just tried to do what we’re good at. We didn’t end up getting one tonight, but I think we created some momentum for the team.”
The Canadiens jumped out to a very early lead on a controversial play. Fleury went behind his net to play the puck when Darche ran into him and knocked him down. The puck went right to Plekanec, who put it in the empty net for his 15th of the season at 0:29 of the first.
“I didn’t like seeing our goalie on his tail for the goal,” Bylsma said after a long pause when asked if he felt there should have been a penalty called.
Dupuis got that one right back for the Penguins, burying a rebound off a Jordan Staal breakaway for his 13th of the year at 1:02.
The Canadiens uncharacteristically spent much of the first 40 minutes in the Pittsburgh end, outshooting the Penguins 23-16 through two periods.
“We were getting up ice better, our forecheck was better,” Gionta said. “We weren’t sitting back waiting for them to come to us. If you sit back with those guys they’re going to pick you apart. I thought we did a good job of initiating the tempo of the game.”
That aggressive play was rewarded when Gionta was sprung on a breakaway by Roman Hamrlik and the speedy winger scored on a nifty backhand over a sprawled Fleury at 9:38 of the second.
Brooks Orpik took an interference penalty on White just 31 seconds later, and Gomez made it 3-1 Habs with his eighth of the year on the ensuing power play at 10:21.
Halak then allowed the Penguins back into it when he let Guerin’s harmless wrist shot from the slot get past him at 13:57. Guerin’s 17th of the year came on Pittsburgh’s third shot of the period.
Moments after Trotter nearly got his first NHL goal, slipping a puck through Fleury’s legs only to have it hit the post, Darche scored his second of the year on a long slapshot at 7:15 of the third to put Montreal ahead 4-2 and chase Fleury from the net.
Gionta made it 5-2 Habs at 10:47 of the third when he scored from his knees off a Travis Moen rebound for his 16th of the year.
Malkin cut the deficit to 5-3 at 16:44, jumping out of the penalty box to go in alone on Halak and beat him with a shot to the glove side for his 20th of the season.
Canadiens coach Jacques Martin said that while the call-ups from the AHL had a surprisingly good game for Montreal, it was veterans like Gionta that ultimately made the difference.
“The kids played well, but in the end when you look at the scoresheet the guys who got the production are the guys you count on daily,” he said. “Our top two lines responded well. They played against some top players and outplayed them.”
Notes: Bergeron (lower body) and Pouliot (upper body) were both placed on injured reserve by the Canadiens and will not be eligible to play before Friday night’s game in Philadelphia…Penguins D Jay McKee returned to the lineup after missing one game with an undisclosed injury…canadiens winger Matt D’Agostini was a healthy scratch…The Canadiens’ season-low for shots against is 15, set Dec. 7 against Phildelphia. The 21 shots allowed to Pittsburgh was their lowest total since Dec. 17, when they allowed the same number to the Minnesota Wild…For the Penguins, their 21 shots matched a season-low from a game Nov 27…Fleury has allowed four goals in back-to-back starts.