VANCOUVER – Canadian hockey fans might have seen Saturday night’s game between Montreal and Vancouver as a measuring stick for two Olympic goaltending hopefuls.
Carey Price didn’t, but he still came out on top against one of his rivals for the No. 1 job at the Sochi Games.
The Anahim Lake, B.C., native was stellar in making 39 saves in his home province and Lars Eller got credit for a bizarre short-handed winner as the Canadiens defeated the Canucks 4-1.
Price wasn’t about to feed into any hype about his performance against Roberto Luongo, who won gold for Canada at the 2010 Olympics and finished the night with 34 saves.
“It’s our team against their team, doesn’t matter who is playing net for them,” said Price. “Everybody is trying to twist this another way.
“All it was is two hockey teams playing against each other.”
Still, Price left his mark on the game through two periods as Montreal led 2-1 despite giving up 31 shots and numerous scoring chances.
“Wow,” said Eller of his goaltender. “It’s probably the best hockey I’ve seen him play, and that says a lot. He kept us in the game. I don’t know how.
“Halfway through, two periods through, he was the single reason that we were even this game. Unbelievable performance.”
Max Pacioretty, Tomas Plekanec and Josh Gorges also scored for Montreal (3-2-0), while Raphael Diaz added two assists. Henrik Sedin had the only goal for Vancouver (3-3-0).
“Carey Price is having a good start with the team. Tonight he was outstanding,” said Canadiens head coach Michel Therrien. “Certainly it was extra motivation to come here and play in front of his family and friends. I’m really happy for him that he was able to play that way. He was in the zone.”
The winner came on a strange sequence in the second period with the Canadiens killing a penalty. Canucks defencemen Dan Hamhuis and Jason Garrison got tangled up behind the Vancouver net on a breakout, with the puck caroming into the crease and off both of Luongo’s skates before dribbling over the line at 16:12.
“I didn’t see it. I didn’t see it,” a frustrated Luongo told reporters. “They didn’t show it on the Jumbotron, I didn’t see it. You guys tell me what happened.”
Asked if he’d ever given up a more bizarre game winner, Luongo shot back: “I didn’t give that up, so I can’t tell you.”
Added Hamhuis: “I was picking up the puck and it just clipped oFf (Garrison’s) skate and ended up in (Luongo’s) feet and in the net. It’s a tough break.”
Eller, who wasn’t even in the Canucks zone at the time of the goal, was the last Canadiens player to touch the puck for a Montreal team that didn’t score a short-handed at all last season or through the first four games of 2013-2014.
Apart from that bizarre play, the story for a lot of the game was Price and Luongo, with the pair matching each other save for save at times.
Down 2-1 after the Eller goal late in the second period, Luongo held the Canucks in it early in the third, including a stick save on a Pacioretty penalty shot attempt after the Canadiens forward was hooked down by Vancouver defenceman Kevin Bieksa.
But the Canadiens extended their lead at 6:46 on the power play. P.K. Subban just held the puck in at the line and it eventually found its way to fellow Montreal defenceman Andrei Markov down low, who fed a wide open Plekanec.
Canucks head coach John Tortorella has been preaching a shoot-from-anywhere mentality, but his team failed to test Price until Bieska’s effort from outside the Montreal blue-line with nearly 11 minutes gone in the period.
“We didn’t play a good third period,” said Tortorella, who team was outshot 18-9 in the final 20 minutes. “Whether it was a result of (the Eller goal), I don’t know. Up until that point, I thought we played a really good hockey game.
“We talked about that wasn’t going to beat us, but we certainly didn’t play a good third period.”
Gorges then made it 4-1 with a shot through traffic that Luongo didn’t see, much to the delight of the large contingent of Canadiens fans in attendance at Rogers Arena.
The final buzzer sounded with those same supporters serenading their team with the well-known “Ole, Ole, Ole” song.
Leading 1-0 after the first, Price made a number of stops on a Vancouver power play six minutes into the second period.
“(Price) made some saves where I think a lot of people in the building thought it was going to be goals,” said Henrik Sedin. “We can’t get too down, we played good enough to win, but we weren’t able to finish off.”
The Canucks kept up the pressure and were rewarded a bit later on when the Canadiens couldn’t get the puck out of their zone. Daniel Sedin picked up a rebound at the side of the net and fed a blind behind-the-back pass to Henrik Sedin, who scored his first of the season—and 799th point of his career—at 13:12 to tie the score.
But it all went south for Canucks, who start a season-long seven-game road trip on Tuesday in Philadelphia against the Flyers, exactly three minutes later with Eller’s winner.
“I didn’t get a chance to see it when I was behind the bench,” said Therrien. “Between periods I went to check it out, and that was … we got lucky.
“There’s nothing wrong (with being) lucky at times.”
Pacioretty drew a hooking penalty on Canucks defenceman Chris Tanev early in the first period before making Vancouver pay on the man advantage. The Habs forward took a pass in the slot and fired a shot through Luongo’s pads that just dribbled across the line.
The goal was the first surrendered by the Canucks’ penalty killing unit this season after starting a perfect 18 for 18 through five games.
Price was unbeatable the rest of the opening 20 minutes, with a big rebound stop on Garrison on a Canucks’ power play midway through the period. He then made a desperation save on Daniel Sedin with five minutes to go, which brought chants of “Carey, Carey” from Canadiens fans.
“Seems like (Price) was the only guy who showed up early in the game so it’s nice to reward him with a win like that,” said Pacioretty. “We wish we could have got him a shutout for how well he played.”
Notes: The Canadiens were without captain Brain Gionta because of what the team called “family reasons.” … Canucks defenceman Alexander Edler served the first game of a three-game suspension for his hit to the head of San Jose Sharks forward Tomas Hertl on Thursday night. … Canucks forward Zack Kassian returned to the lineup after serving his eight-game suspension for breaking the jaw of Edmonton Oilers forward Sam Gagner with a high stick in the pre-season. … Vancouver’s seven-game road trip also includes games against the Buffalo Sabres, Pittsburgh Penguins, Columbus Blue Jackets, New York Islanders, New Jersey Devils and St. Louis Blues. The Canucks’ next home game is Oct. 28 against the Washington Capitals. … Montreal’s next game is Tuesday in Winnipeg against the Jets before returning to the Bell Centre for a five-game homestand.