MONTREAL – The Montreal Canadiens feel they’re nowhere near as sharp as they could be, yet they continue piling up wins.
Saku Koivu scored the lone goal in the shootout as the Canadiens finally solved the Carolina Hurricanes at home with a 3-2 win Tuesday. Alex Tanguay scored on a penalty shot and Alex Kovalev also scored in regulation for the Canadiens (6-1-1), while Anton Babchuk and Matt Cullen replied for the Hurricanes (4-2-2).
Kovalev says the team is still hesitating too much and hasn’t found the free-flowing style that helped the Canadiens finish first in the Eastern Conference standings last season.
He says the fact the team is winning is a testament to the personnel on board.
“That tells you we have a lot of skill,” Kovalev said. “With all the hesitation and the way we’re playing we still find a way to win the games.
“It’s not going to be easy to win every game like that, so we have to find a way to play the game we finished with last season. We have to take the hesitation out of our game and be confident with what we’re doing on the ice.”
It was Carolina’s first loss, in regulation or otherwise, in 10 games in Montreal since the 2004-05 NHL lockout.
The shootout loss still gave Carolina a point, but it wasn’t much solace to Hurricanes coach Peter Laviolette.
“I’m in favour of the shootout, but it leaves you with a pit in your stomach, like you did something wrong,” he said. “It’s quiet in there, it’s like we buried a dead cat. But it’s a point.”
Carey Price made 33 saves in regulation and overtime while also stopping Cullen, Eric Staal and Ray Whitney in the shootout to secure the win for Montreal.
Cam Ward made 23 saves in the loss, the first of his career in Montreal after running up a 7-0-0 record in his first seven starts at the Bell Centre, playoffs included.
“We’ve been very successful in this building, but at least we still got a point,” said Ward, whose career save percentage at the Bell Centre dropped to .949. “No question it’s fun playing here with all the atmosphere the fans bring, it just would have been nice to be on the winning side.”
The game was choppy with a lot of turnovers in the neutral zone, and Kovalev said the ice at the Bell Centre hasn’t been at its usual quality lately.
“It was kind of a slow game, it had a strange pace to it,” he said. “For the first 40 minutes it was like a soccer game, the puck was just in the neutral zone and nothing was happening.”
The Canadiens iced a healthy lineup for the first time this season as winger Andrei Kostitsyn returned after missing two games recovering from having his bell rung on a heavy hit by Phoenix Coyotes defenceman Kurt Sauer on Oct. 18.
Still, Montreal coach Guy Carbonneau conceded his team has not hit its top gear and said the pre-season expectations and strange schedule to date may have played a role. Montreal already had a four-day break last week, and will have another five-day break between road games next week.
“It’s a new experience for us,” Carbonneau said. “We talked about this all summer how everybody put us at the top as the team to beat, and when you have that you know that everybody’s going to be gearing for you. We’re doing a lot of good things, but we’ve only played eight games.”
Carolina opened the scoring on the power play when Babchuk got his first of the year on a floater from the point that got past a screened Price at 11:04 of the first.
Montreal tied it at 15:56 when Kovalev created a turnover at the Carolina blue-line and went in on a 3-on-1, then used his linemates as a decoy and roofed one over Ward.
“I was surprised the goalie went down,” Kovalev said. “I didn’t even have to shoot it that hard because he was cheating so much.”
The Canadiens were on a 5-on-3 power play late in the first when Carolina defenceman Dennis Seidenberg was called for closing his hand on the puck in the crease, giving Tanguay a penalty shot he buried for his team-leading sixth of the year at 19:49 to make it 2-1 Montreal.
After a scoreless second period, Cullen tied it up 2-2 40 seconds into the third when he beat Markov to a soft rebound allowed by Price and dribbled one in.
“It was a shot that popped out of my glove,” Price said. “I thought it would get chopped away, but it wound up getting chopped toward the net instead.” The Hurricanes had a great opportunity to win it in regulation when Price took a delay of game penalty for flipping the puck out of play with 2:01 to play, but Montreal held them to a single shot at the buzzer.
But the Canadiens also failed to cash in on a power play chance in overtime when Staal was sent off for tripping, with Ward making five saves to force the shootout.
Notes: The injury-riddled Hurricanes were without C Brendan Sutter (concussion) and D Joni Pitkanen (knee), who were both injured in Carolina’s 4-3 win over the New York Islanders on Saturday. Sutter and Pitkanen both returned to Raleigh from Long Island for further treatment. They were already missing D Frantisek Kaberle (fractured leg), RW Scott Walker (hand) and Justin Williams (Achilles tendon)The Canadiens scratched D Patrice Brisebois and wingers Steve Begin and Georges LaraqueFormer Canadiens coaches Scotty Bowman and the late Toe Blake and Dick Irvin Sr. were honoured Tuesday prior to the game for their induction to the Canadiens Builders Row