MONTREAL – The Montreal Canadiens don’t care that they got into the NHL playoffs by the back door, as long as they’re in.
Dion Phaneuf scored 2:06 into overtime to give the rival Toronto Maple Leafs a 4-3 victory in the final game of the regular season for both clubs on Saturday night, but the point earned for the OT loss was enough to put the Canadiens into the post-season for a third straight year.
“Who cares?” Montreal winger Mike Cammalleri said in an upbeat Montreal dressing room after the game. “Now we’re getting ready for the playoffs.
“Now it begins.”
The Canadiens (39-33-10) needed only one point to gain a playoff spot. They will finish seventh or eighth in the Eastern Conference depending on the outcome of a game Sunday between Philadelphia and the New York Rangers. If the Flyers win, Montreal will be eighth and will face Washington, against whom they are 2-1-1 this season. If New York wins, the Canadiens will be seventh.
Their 88 points is the lowest by a team to make the playoffs since teams returned from the 2004-05 lockout.
Andrei Markov had a goal and two assists, Brian Gionta got his 28th to lead the Canadiens in goal-scoring and Marc-Andre Bergeron also had one for Montreal, which controlled most of the play and outshot Toronto 37-28, but were thwarted by fine play of Leafs goaltender Jean-Sebastien Giguere.
Christian Hanson scored his first two goals of the season, to give him three for his career, and Viktor Stalberg had one for Toronto (30-38-14), which finished last in the Eastern Conference. Hanson, who assisted on Phaneuf’s winner, got his only other goal on April 7, 2009 against New Jersey.
It was not a stellar game for Montreal starter Jaroslav Halak, who lost a third game in a row for the first time this season. Already, the debate as started among Montral fans as to whether Carey Price, who played only one of the team’s final seven games, should start in the playoffs
And there is concern over momentum. The Canadiens wasted chances to clinch a playoff spot with losses in Long Island and Carolina this week and then got it with the overtime defeat to the Leafs.
“That’s a good question,” added Camalleri. “We haven’t been a league-leader all year.
“If we did a panel of you guys (reporters) now, no one would pick us to win a Stanley Cup, but we know that when we play a good game, we can beat anyone. And you never go in thinking you can’t win.”
Gionta said the slate is wiped clean once the regular season ends, and noted that Montreal has played some of the top teams tough this season.
“You get in and you go from there,” he said. “Now we have four or five days off to get ready.
“I like our chances if we play consistent and play hard.”
Hanson’s second of the game shorthanded 3:32 into the third period made it a 3-3 tie and set off competing chants for the rest of the game from rival fans among the Bell Centre crowd of 21,273 as Montreal pressed for the game-winner.
He broke in on the left side and beat Halak with a backhander to force overtime, but it wasn’t enough for Toronto to give their rivals more anxious moments.
“We were taking about how we wanted to end it before overtime and make them wait until (Sunday) to see if they get in the playoffs or not,” said Hanson. “That didn’t happen, but we had a lot of pride on the line and we were going to win.”
Montreal scored first as Benoit Pouliot collected the rebound off his own shot behind the net and fed Markov, whose pass across the crease went in off Leaf Mikael Grabovski’s skate at 6:14.
Toronto got it right back at 9:12, as Halak came out to play Grabovski’s dump-in and was beaten to the puck by Hanson, who shot into the gaping net.
The Canadiens struggling power play awoke with Gionta’s goal only 12 seconds into a man advantage at 16:17 when he converted a feed from Scott Gomez.
The Leafs did not get a lot of sustained pressure in the Montreal zone, but were opportunistic as Tyler Bozak won a race for the puck behind the net and fed unmarked Stalberg for a shot inside the post 11:55 into the second frame. It was Stalberg’s fourth goal in the last six games.
Montreal went ahead again at 18:23 when Gomez won a faceoff and passed back to Markov, who slid the puck to Bergeron for a one-time blast that beat Giguere.
Halak made 24 saves for the Canadiens while Giguere stopped 34-of-37 shots for the Leafs.
Montreal coach Jacques Martin benched Andrei Kostitsyn for most of the third period and defenceman Ryan O’Byrne, who struggled in a 5-2 loss in Carolina on Thursday, played only three shifts as Bergeron put in 24:22 of ice time, second only to Markov’s 25:01.
Notes: Dan Marouelli was referee for the last regular season game of his 25-year career. All four on-ice officials wore Marouelli’s No. 6 on their jerseys to mark the occasion. Marouelli and Kerry Fraser, as well as linesmen Mark Pare and Lyle Seitz, will not return next season. . . Sergei Kostitsyn was a healthy scratch and Mathieu Darche got back in the lineup for the Canadiens. . . Tim Brent, called up Friday night from the AHL Toronto Marlies, got to play for the Leafs and Jamie Lundmark sat out along with Jeff Finger, Brayden Irwin and Rickard Wallin.