MONTREAL – Losing to runaway NHL Eastern Conference leader Boston was not what bothered Montreal Canadiens coach Guy Carbonneau. It was the way his team lost.
All three Boston goals came on giveaways, and veteran winger Alex Kovalev was benched for most of the third period, as the Bruins downed the Canadiens 3-1 on Sunday afternoon to become the league’s first team to reach the 80-point mark.
Montreal also lost its goal-scoring leader, centre Robert Lang, likely for a long time as he had a tendon in his left heel sliced by a skate after a harmless looking hit into the boards on Stephane Yelle 8:33 into the third period.
And then winger Guillaume Latendresse left at 17:28 with what appeared to be a shoulder injury after he slid hard into the boards while checking Chuck Kobesaw.
This was not the party Montreal anticipated as it wore its bizarre uniforms from the 1912-13 season, featuring red, white and blue horizontal stripes, as part of the club’s 100th anniversary celebrations.
“We lost 3-1 to the best team in the conference, but on all three goals, we had control of the puck,” said Carbonneau. “You can do that against some teams, but not against them.”
Dennis Wideman scored with less than one second left in the first period, Shawn Thornton got the game-winner in the second and Marc Savard added an empty-net goal with 57 seconds remaining for Boston (37-8-6), which leads the conference by 13 points.
Lang had the only goal for slumping Montreal (28-16-6), which has one win in its last six games and now trails Boston by 18 points in the Northeast Division.
It was the 18th of the season for 38-year-old Lang, a pleasant surprise for Montreal since he was acquired in a pre-season trade with Chicago after the team failed to sign free agent Mats Sundin.
“He got caught by a skate and it cut a tendon in the back of his foot,” said Carbonneau. “It doesn’t look good.”
That makes it more important that Kovalev step up, but after taking two penalties in the middle period and then playing listlessly, the veteran right-winger saw only three shifts in the third frame before being benched for good.
“We’re trying to get out of a situation that is not easy and until we get 20 guys playing, it’ll be tough,” the coach added.
There has been much debate of late over whether Kovalev’s play falls off when captain Saku Koivu is in the lineup. Koivu returned Jan. 21 after missing 17 games with an ankle injury and Kovalev has not been at his best since then, except for one day when he was named MVP of the all-star game in Montreal last week.
“I hope that’s not the truth or we’re in trouble because I’m not taking the C off Saku – that’s the bottom line,” said Carbonneau, who plans to speak to Kovalev. “If anyone needs a letter to perform on the ice, I have trouble with that. That’s not professional at all.
“Alex is not a rookie. Right now, he’s struggling, but we need him (if we’re going to) go far.”
There was hard hitting early between the Original Six clubs who Boston goalie Tim Thomas said form the best rivalry in hockey.
The game was only 1:06 old when big defenceman Alex Henry, called up Saturday morning from AHL Hamilton, dropped the gloves with Thornton.
Lang opened the scoring on a power play at 18:18 when he moved in off the left boards and beat Thomas with a high shot.
A poor clearing attempt allowed Boston to tie it with less than one second left in the period as Wideman’s screened shot from near the blue-line eluded Carey Price.
Montreal was hemmed in its own zone by the Bruins’ fourth line when Francis Bouillon lost his stick and rookie Byron Bitz fed Thornton in front for a goal 8:02 into the second frame.
“All mine are all pretty,” Thornton said with a smile. “Actually, I don’t now where it went.”
Savard scored in a fourth straight game when he got the empty-netter with 57 seconds left to play.
The Bruins have beaten Montreal in four of five meetings this season, but it was only Boston’s second win in its last 15 games in Montreal since October, 2006. Last season, Montreal was 8-0 against the Bruins.
“All the work we’ve done in about 10 different areas is paying off,” Thomas said of the Bruins’ dominant season.
Montreal rookie Matt D’Agostini also went down after a hard check from Zdeno Chara, but left the ice on his own steam.
Both teams played Saturday, with Boston winning 1-0 over the New York Rangers behind a Tukka Rask shutout and Montreal pulling off a last-minute 4-3 win at home over Los Angeles to end a four-game losing streak.
The Canadiens have played afternoon games on Super Bowl weekend for the last 20 years. They are 22-14-4 in those games.
Notes – The Canadiens called up six-foot-six Henry to replace Josh Gorges, who had his bell rung by a flying elbow from Los Angeles King Denis Gauthier on Saturday. Gorges missed his first game of the season. … Veteran Patrice Brisebois also sat out in favour of Ryan O’Byrne and Steve Begin sat out while Sergei Kostitsyn returned to the lineup. . . Lang was named Montreal’s player of the month for January. . . Petteri Nokelainen, Matt Hunwick and Manny Fernandez didn’t dress for Boston.