MONTREAL – One by one did they file off the ice at the Bell Centre as Max Pacioretty and the Montreal Canadiens celebrated victory just steps away from the since-vacated crease of Jonathan Bernier.
The good saw the Maple Leafs pick up at least a point for the 14th time in the past 16 games (11-2-3), the bad saw opportunity to draw even with a division rival foiled on yet another blown third period lead. Rather than depart the grand old city of Montreal with a share of second place in the Atlantic division, Toronto heads home three points back of their Original-Six rival with an eye on what went well and what might've been.
"We're disappointed to not get the other one," said Dion Phaneuf of the point lost in overtime. "But we did a lot of good things."
The effort was vastly improved from a post-Olympic dud in Long Island two nights earlier, one that saw them dribble away a pair of third period leads before falling in the extra frame to a struggling Islanders squad.
It didn't start well.
Montreal scored twice on this night before the Leafs had even managed a shot on goal in what was a sluggish opening frame for both teams. But from there, the visitors gradually wrestled some control of the hockey game, scoring three unanswered, all from the scorching duo of James van Riemsdyk and Phil Kessel.
Kessel broke a 2-2 tie with his 33rd of the year – the second of two in a span of just over two minutes – dancing around Pacioretty just outside the Montreal blue-line before beating Peter Budaj with a laser far-side.
"We came back from it," said head coach Randy Carlyle of the early deficit. "We found ways to create offence and I thought we had a majority of the puck time probably from the second period on so there were a lot of positives in the game."
Just as they failed to do against the Islanders, the Leafs could not hold a third period lead, this one of increased importance opposite a foe just steps ahead in the playoff race.
Tim Gleason took the first of three consecutive (and certainly contested) Toronto penalties, whistled for interference on Brian Gionta along the wall in the defensive zone. The maneuver (one that drew ire from Carlyle) proved costly as P.K. Subban fired a one-time blast short-side beyond Bernier, evening the score at three.
"We had a one-goal lead and we took three straight penalties," said Carlyle afterward. "Now we can challenge the validity of the penalties one way or another, but we took three straight penalties."
The last of which was just as unlikely as the two that preceded it.
Racing out of his crease to protect a puck that was up for grabs, Bernier was dealt a delay of game offence, the second of two such penalties for the Leafs in overtime.
After wiping out the first to Kessel, the Toronto penalty kill could not ultimately hold the fort, surrendering a second power-play goal to the Canadiens. Subban loaded up in this instance for another one-time blast, only his stick shattered, the puck squirting to Andrei Markov and eventually Pacioretty in the slot for the overtime winner.
It was the summation of a brief, two-game road trip that could have and (probably should have considering the circumstance) yielded a full four points, valuable points lost in an ever-tightening playoff race. And so while they could point to the good of the evening, there was certainly an undercurrent of what was actually lost and that was an opportunity to catch the Habs.
"We turned the tide of the hockey game in our favour for the majority of it and we're going to take the positives out of it and move on," said Carlyle. "We're .500 on the road (trip) which in this situation isn't great – we'd like to have won both hockey games in our minds, but this is the way it goes."
1. Dynamic Duo
They sizzled before the Olympics, during the Olympics and now after the Olympics.
Kessel, who had a goal and an assist for the third straight game, continues to boil at a heat he's never before attained in the NHL. The 26-year-old now has 13 goals and 31 points in the past 17 games and 17 points in the past nine games alone.
"I've said it for quite a few years now that I've played with him, I think he's one of the top players in the National Hockey League," said Phaneuf. "He's proving it year and year again that he's extremely skilled (and) he can put the puck in the net with the best of the goal-scorers in the NHL. I think that he's having a tremendous year and he's a huge part of our team and why we've had success."
Tied for the Olympic lead in scoring and now with 69 points this season, Kessel is alone in second place to Sidney Crosby in the scoring race. He is four goals from matching a soon-to-be broken career-high of 37.
James van Riemsdyk meanwhile continues to fly himself. The 24-year-old, who matched a career-high with three assists in Long Island and finished third in Olympic scoring, scored twice against Montreal. His first of the night and second shorthanded marker this season was a thing of beauty.
Racing past Subban on a failed Markov feed, he burst in alone on Budaj, tucking a nifty backhand through the five-hole. "At first I wasn't even sure if I was going to even go for it, but I realized that they looked pretty tired and just kind of took off and went from there," he said.
Totaling 52 points on the year, van Riemsdyk is up to 24th in the scoring race.
2. Officiating Concerns
Carlyle didn't hide his displeasure with the officials after the Pacioretty goal, barking at them as he left the ice in defeat. What stuck most in his craw was the call on Gleason which preceded Subban's game-tying goal. The 31-year-old Gleason stepped in the way of Gionta just ahead of the puck and was hauled off for it. "I was under the impression that if it was one one-thousand you could take the player's body if the player tries to make a play on it," Carlyle said.
"I just said 'how do you call that in a 3-2 game' and I figured I really didn't even hit him, I just kind of one-armed (him)," said Gleason of his conversation with the officials afterward, not having seen the replay himself.
Further concerns were raised when Kessel was called for delay of game in the final moments of regulation. He attempted to ring a puck off the glass – and did in the minds of his teammates – but was called for the penalty anyway. "Maybe you'd like to see that video review for that because you can't get that wrong at that time of the game," said van Riemsdyk. "It's definitely a tough one. Couple other ones that were a little debatable."
The last in dispute saw Bernier jump out of his crease in overtime, snatching hold of a loose puck from Daniel Briere and freezing play. "I haven't been called for that ever I guess," said the 25-year-old. "I don't even know what's the rule, how far you can actually get it and freeze it."
The rule in this case is clear (63.2). "If the goalkeeper races out of his crease in an attempt to beat the attacking player to the puck and instead of playing the puck jumps on the puck causing a stoppage of play, this shall be a minor penalty for delay of game."
3. Slight Dip
Jonathan Bernier entered the Olympic break on a roll, winning five of his last six starts while stopping 105 of the final 109 shots he faced. But in two starts post-Olympics he has looked rather ordinary, yielding five goals to the Islanders on Thursday (without much help) and four more to his hometown Canadiens on Saturday.
"I thought it was actually a tough game for me," he said of a rare night with fewer than 30 shots against, Montreal mustering just 29. "They had a lot of bodies in front of me. They were hitting me quite a bit. It was a tough game. And that's one thing that when you're away from the game that's the hard part for a goalie is to find that seam and find that puck through traffic."
Never in his NHL career has Bernier played as much as he has this season for the Leafs, starting his 40th game on Saturday. His performance as the no. 1 down the stretch under such strain will certainly be worth monitoring and key for a club that has relied on great goaltending from the Laval, Quebec native on many a nights.
4. Bolland's Mountain Climb
Dave Bolland missed his 47th game Saturday because of a once-severed and now healing tendon in his left ankle. The four-month recovery process has been taxing on the 27-year-old, who is close to a return, but not quite there yet.
"It's sort of a slow mountain climb for me this whole rehab," said Bolland. "It's been painful and slow and grueling. I'm ready to get back on the ice as soon as possible."
Bolland is listed as day-to-day and according to head coach, Randy Carlyle, is at the stage where he, the player, will decide when exactly he is ready to return. For the Mimico native, who played in 15 games for the Leafs in October, it's about being up to speed with the fundamentals, areas such as being strong in the corners and fully able to handle defensive responsibilities at full speed.
"I don't want to be a liability out there when transition comes around and I'm the one that's last getting back and I can't back-check because of my ankle," he said. "I want to be sure that when I'm out there I'm going at a 100 per cent and I'm ready to play."
He doesn't appear to be at that point yet, even suffering a setback in practice earlier in the week.
"That's just the way these injuries heal," Carlyle said. "It's a severe injury to a vital part in his body, specifically a tendon in his foot. When you put a skate on it, there's a lot more complications than just you and I walking around. He's putting skates on and putting a lot of pressure in that area.
"Basically it's up to him. He's got to be the guy that tells us he's ready to go."
5. Holland's Lace-Bite
It was the final game of January and Peter Holland played 11 minutes in a 6-3 win over Florida. He was in pain the whole night, but didn't think much of it. "I went to sleep and woke up in the morning and could hardly put any weight on it," Holland said of his foot.
The 23-year-old had suffered from lace bite before (which causes pain from skates being too tight) but nothing quite like this.
"It was just released as lace-bite but it ended up getting pretty badly infected," said Holland, recalled by the Leafs for Saturday's game against the Canadiens. "I was in the hospital for four or five days with an IV in my arm trying to look after it. It was pretty painful for a while there. I was on crutches (and) in a walking boot and couldn't put too much weight on it."
Holland missed four games with the injury before being assigned to the Toronto Marlies for two games. He played just under 12 minutes against Montreal, centering a line with Mason Raymond and Nik Kulemin.
31 – Points for Phil Kessel in the past 17 games.
14-14 – Goal differential between the Leafs and Canadiens this season.
30:34 – Ice-time for Dion Phaneuf on Saturday, a season-high.
13-6-3 – Toronto record versus the Atlantic division.
11-2-3 – Record the past 16 games.
11 – Goals in the past 17 games for James van Riemsdyk, who has a career-high of 26 so far this season.
Special Teams Capsule
Season: 21.4% (4th)
Season: 77.5% (28th)
Quote of the Night
"We've had lots of those lessons. The teacher's tired sometimes of bringing the same lesson."
-Randy Carlyle, speaking of his team's performance in Long Island ahead of the game in Montreal.
The Leafs return home to host the Blue Jackets on Monday night.