In an incredibly exciting see-saw battle at the Air Canada Centre tonight, the Montreal Canadiens pulled out a stellar victory against the Toronto Maple Leafs by the score of 5-4. With just over three minutes remaining in the game, Mike Ribeiro tucked in a perfect pass from Andrei Markov to lift Montreal to its third consecutive victory to start the season and send the club home to Montreal for its home opener against the Senators on Tuesday.
It didn’t start out in a particularly thrilling manner as the first period crawled by with few shots and fewer opportunities to score. Fans would probably be forgiven for falling asleep and missing the rest of the game, however they would have missed some of the best action seen in years.
This was not a night for the goaltenders, however, as both Jose Theodore and Ed Belfour made a few major gaffes. Theo in particular looked ragged, letting in the four goals on only twenty shots. And while Belfour didn’t make quite a meal out of his night, he looked at times like his age was limiting his movements.
For the Canadiens, there were two significant lineup changes Raitis Ivanans replaced Pierre Dagenais and Mark Streit took the place of Mike Komisarek. With Ivanans slotting in on the fourth line, Chris Higgins was given the opportunity to skate on the second with Ribeiro and Michael Ryder – and it seemed to be the wake-up call the two needed as they finally played a solid game of hockey. Ryder, in particular, looked back to his old self, hustling every play.
The first goal of the game came on the power play near the midway point as Alex Perezhogin, with his second goal in two games, slipped one through the pads in something of a goalmouth scramble.
Three minutes later it was Alexander Steen beating Theodore on a terrible linechange by the Canadiens and an even worse giveaway by Ryder. While controlling the puck in the neutral zone, four players made their way to the bench in anticipation of Ryder shooting the puck into the Toronto zone. Instead his attempted pass was intercepted and the resulting two-on-one tied the game. Theo was out to lunch on the play as he went for the pass and was beaten by a shot he should have easily stopped.
Mere moments later, Tie Domi fired a weak wrist shot at Theodore and the latter waved at the puck, catching a piece, but failing to stop it from landing in the back of the net.
Montreal regained the initiative, however, when Niklas Sundstrom scored on a nice feed from Radek Bonk just over a minute later. Bonk had done a good job collecting a bad pass from Sundstrom in his skates before returning the puck. Belfour was lying on his back before the shot arrived.
Mark Streit registered his first point on a night of very solid play as the puck was moved around on a power play late in the period. Eventually Alex Kovalev spotted Sheldon Souray cross-ice, and Souray’s rifle cleanly beat Belfour.
There were a few anxious moments nearer the end of the period when Theodore left his net to play the puck; the aspect of his game easily in the need of the most work. He only barely struddled to get back as the puck teased the Leafs in the Montreal crease for a few seconds.
The Leafs tied the game early in the third when Theo hugely overshot and left a gaping side of the net for Matt Stajan to tuck the puck home.
With less than ten minutes left Toronto actually took the lead again through Nik Antropov. It was another scrum in the crease and while Theo couldn’t seem to get his glove on the puck, Craig Rivet was too busy playing that puck rather than attempting to take his man out.
All turned rosy again, though, as Steve Begin popped in a rebound on a dazzling play by Saku Koivu. The Habs captain left one Leaf defender looking for his shorts and then buzzed behind the net and around the other side before turning and firing a shot that Belfour managed to a piece of. Begin was mucking in the middle of things and his second effort lifted the Canadiens back into a tie.
Very soon after, it was Markov, who once again had an absolutely stellar night, firing a one-time pass cross-ice from the side boards tape-to-tape for an easy goal for Ribeiro.
To emphasize just how well he’d been playing, Markov made a last minute dive to block an effort and save the game for the Habs. The Russian showed again that last year in the Russian League was no fluke. He was stellar defensively, particularly against Eric Lindros, the Leafs best attacker, and he dominated his own end.
Perhaps better news on this night was the fact that the Canadiens played a much better game than the first two. With the very noticeable exception of Theodore, the entire team seemed to play fairly good hockey, and the score probably should have been closer to 4-1, rather than the shootout it became.
The Canadiens can now look forward to their first game back at the Bell Centre having swept their opening road trip. Before the three game set, Koivu had explained that winning two out of three would have made everyone happy, therefore the six points will be an unexpected, yet very pleasant surprise.