MONTREAL – The season was a disaster, but the Montreal Canadiens were glad to end it with a victory.
Tomas Plekanec got it started with a rare short-handed goal with his team down two players and enforcer Brad Staubitz got his first goal in 62 games this season as the Canadiens defeated the rival Toronto Maple Leafs 4-1 in the final NHL regular season game for two teams eliminated from post-season play.
Max Pacioretty and Erik Cole also scored for Montreal (31-25-16), which finished last in the Eastern Conference but ended the campaign by taking five of a possible six points over the final three games.
“Going into the summer with confidence and getting everyone on the same page is definitely a good feeling,” said Pacioretty, who produced 33 goals and established himself as a first-line left-winger in a breakout season. “I think everyone played well.”
Dion Phaneuf scored for Toronto (35-37-10), whose promising start to the season was done in by a 7-18-4 record over the last two months.
“It’s been a tough finish for our team,” said Phaneuf, the Leafs captain whose season will continue with the Canadian team at the world championships next month in Finland. “But we’ve got to evaluate over the next couple of days and then move forward.
“We’ve been very open about being very disappointed the way that we finished and we’ve got to move on now.”
The Leafs, who have missed the playoffs seven years in a row, outshot Montreal 31-27.
There was not much to play for but pride and final draft positions for both clubs, but they skated with energy even if the physical side was quieter than usual.
And there was little of the buzz around the city usually found for a Leafs visit, or much of the competing chants from fans in the seats, as both of Canada’s Original Six teams missed the playoffs. There were even dozens of empty seats, although the game was called a sellout.
But it ended with fans singing “Ole Ole” as the home side closed with a win.
And there was a warm ovation as the Canadiens players and coaches went onto the ice together to thank the fans for their support after the game.
It may have been a last act as interim head coach for Randy Cunneyworth, whose future is uncertain as the team is about to replace the fired Pierre Gauthier as general manager.
“For Randy, for (goalie Peter) Budaj, for Staubitz, this game couldn’t have played out better than it did,” said forward Lars Eller.
“The last three games we tried to leave a good impression,” added Budaj. “It’s a disappointing season but we didn’t throw in the towel.
“We worked hard. I’m glad we were able to show the organization and the fans that we appreciate their suport. We got the two points and it’s so much sweeter because it’s against the Leafs. Everybody (Montreal fans) don’t like the Leafs, so.”
A two-man advantage for 61 seconds turned into disaster for Toronto as Plekanec chipped the puck away from Jake Gardiner at the point and skated in alone to score 3:20 into the game.
The Czech centre didn’t get a shot off, but the puck slid under goaltender Ben Scrivens just the same. Toronto did not get a shot on goal during the power play.
It was the second goal scored while two men down in the NHL this season, after Pittsburgh’s Matt Cooke did it against Philadelphia on Feb. 18. And it was the first by a Canadien since March 24, 1983, when Guy Carbonneau scored against the Minnesota North Stars.
Montreal caught the Leafs on a bad line change to get a 3-on-2 break, and Pacioretty opted to shoot and beat Scrivens with a high shot from close range 1:18 into the second frame.
Phaneuf put Toronto on the board 25 seconds into the third when his shot from the left point got through traffic and over Budaj’s glove. That finally prompted “Go Leafs Go” chants from the Toronto fans.
Cole restored the two-goal advantage at 4:07 when he broke in alone on a counterattack and flipped the puck over Scrivens’ glove for his 35th goal of the campaign.
The Leafs pulled Scrivens with three minutes left to play, and Cunneyworth took the pportunity to get Staubitz onto the ice. It worked as he picked a puck out of a scramble in the Montreal crease and fired it the length of the ice into the Toronto net.
Staubitz, acquired in a mid-season trade, was mobbed by his teammates after his first goals in red, white and blue.
“It was nice to get that doughnut off the goals column,” said Staubitz, who is due to become an unrestricted free agent this summer. “I have to thank the coaches.
“They know I played hard and did things for the team and they gave me my chance to get my cookie, which was nice. I found a nice spot here. I enjoy the guys and I hope I can extend my time here.”
The Leafs came into the game 2-0-1 in their last three, but nothing worked in the final game. They went 0-for-5 on the power play and the goaltending woes that plagued them most of the season continued. Centre Tim Connolly was minus-4 for the game.
Now both teams head into an off-season likely to see changes in personnel.
“It’s going to be along summer,” said Budaj. “At least we finish on a winning note.”
The teams split the season series at three wins apiece.
Montreal finished 28th overall and Toronto 26th, so both will have a chance to be drawn for the first overall pick at the draft lottery on Tuesday.
Notes: Injured goalie Carey Price wore a full cowboy outfit with a wide black hat on the ice to collect his Molson Cup player of the year award. Josh Gorges got the Jacques Beauchamp Trophy as the Habs’ unsung hero. Price got a standing ovation . . . Before the game, apologetic-sounding Canadiens read thank you messages to fans acknowledging they had a “difficult” campaign and promising to do better next season. . . Pacioretty confirmed he will play for the U.S. at the world championship.