TORONTO – With the Montreal Canadiens trying to chase down an unlikely playoff berth, Carey Price wasn’t in need of any extra motivation.
The goaltender stopped all 32 shots he faced Saturday as the Habs hammered the Toronto Maple Leafs 5-0 on a night the home team honoured long-time captain Mats Sundin. The Montreal players all came out to watch the banner-raising ceremony, but it didn’t do anything to alter their focus.
“Tonight was a big night for Sundin and I was really honoured to be a part of that,” said Price. “But I didn’t want to win it any more or any less just because it was a retirement party.”
Price’s fourth shutout of the season couldn’t have come at a much better time. It gave Montreal its fourth straight victory and moved the team to within seven points of the Maple Leafs for the final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference.
The goaltender received a bit of luck from two shots off the post in the third period, but he looked calm and in control all night long.
“I actually said to someone on the bench `He looks so calm out there right now I don’t think they’re going to score a goal,”‘ said Habs forward Max Pacioretty. “Good thing I didn’t jinx him. It’s definitely motivating when he’s playing like that because you want to win it for him and you want to give him the shutout.”
Pacioretty, Erik Cole, Rene Bourque, Lars Eller and Mathieu Darche scored goals for Montreal (23-24-9) while David Desharnais added two assists.
The Maple Leafs saw their record drop to 28-22-6 with their most embarrassing loss since getting beaten 7-0 by Boston on Nov. 5.
“Carey Price made all the stops and we didn’t get very many, so it made for a difficult night,” said Toronto coach Ron Wilson.
There was more emotion than usual on an evening that started with Sundin’s No. 13 banner being raised to the rafters at Air Canada Centre. During a thoughtful speech, Sundin urged fans to embrace their young team because of how difficult it can be to play hockey in Toronto.
Less than two hours later, the Leafs were being booed off the ice after 40 minutes.
Montreal seized control during a second period that saw it score four times on seven shots against James Reimer. Cole started the barrage at 5:01 with a weak shot through the goalie’s legs—a moment that ended up being a turning point in the game.
“The first goal was probably a stoppable shot,” said Wilson. “(It put us) down to a team that wants to play everybody back and rob you of your speed and the kind of game you want to play. That first goal was critical and we talked about that. It wasn’t a good goal to give up and bad things happen after that.”
The Habs kept on coming with Bourque making it 2-0 less than two minutes on a one-timer before Pacioretty squeaked a shot past Reimer at 15:54 on the power play. It was the first goal the Leafs had surrendered while a man down in 18 games.
For good measure, Eller extended the advantage to 4-0 at 18:54 after skating right around Leafs captain Dion Phaneuf and beating Reimer, prompting a loud series of boos from the sellout crowd.
It wasn’t that long ago Montreal was being treated in a similar fashion, but the players believe they’ve turned a corner since the all-star break.
“We’re just playing like a team,” said Habs defenceman P.K. Subban. “I think that we’re all on the same page, we’re supporting each other through thick and thin. We have to continue to do that if we’re going to be successful as a team.
“The moment that we start pointing fingers at each other or getting away from the gameplan it’s not going to work.”
Wilson sent Jonas Gustavsson out for the third period, no doubt reviving the goaltending debate in the process. The Monster fared only marginally better than his counterpart, getting beaten by Darche on a breakaway just 1:29 into the period, and barely being tested afterwards.
In fact, Montreal managed just three shots in the final 20 minutes. That was the only part of the team’s game.
“If we’re going to go further and we’re going to make the playoffs, we’ve got to bare down for 60 minutes,” said Pacioretty. “It’s great to get the win but there’s a lot of learning still to do.”
It was just one week ago the Leafs registered an impressive 5-0 victory in Ottawa and looked poised to make a climb up the standings. But after beating Edmonton on Monday, they dropped a game in Winnipeg on Tuesday and Philadelphia on Thursday and now face a tough three-game swing through western Canada.
Montreal dug a big hole early in the season but is doing its best to keep slim playoff hopes alive. The Habs return home to face Carolina and Boston next week and need to keep winning.
“No matter who we’re playing we have to play this kind of hockey,” said interim coach Randy Cunneyworth. “We were rewarded for playing the right way.”
Notes: It was the 16th shutout of Price’s NHL career … The Leafs had US$7.5 million in salary in the press box with Colby Armstrong and Mike Komisarek scratched. Both players are alternate captains for the team … Kessel and Mikhail Grabovski each wore an “A” in their absence … Travis Moen, Ryan White and Yannick Weber sat out for Montreal … Los Angeles Lakers star Kobe Bryant was among the announced crowd of 19,685.