TORONTO -- Randy Cunneyworth's hunch paid off.
Cunneyworth had scratched rookie defenseman Raphael Diaz in Pittsburgh on Friday night, but opted to dress him and sit Yannick Weber instead in Toronto. Diaz rewarded his coach by scoring the go-ahead goal early in the third period as the Montreal Canadiens beat the Leafs 3-1 at the Air Canada Centre on Saturday.
Diaz broke a 1-1 tie at 3:29 by capitalizing on a Joffrey Lupul turnover and firing a shot from the half boards through a screen and past Jonas Gustavsson for his third goal.
"I found out that I'd play before the game, the coach said that I would play" said the Swiss rookie, who had gone eight games without a point and six weeks without a goal. "When can score, you always feel good.
Even better for Diaz and the Habs was getting three of a possible four points this weekend.
"We had a successful weekend with three huge points. As a player, you want to play every game but right now it's important that we win the points," Diaz said.
Needless to say, Cunneyworth was pleased with the youngster's reaction to being scratched the night before.
"He's played so well, he has been one of our more steady defenseman for most of the year, he is really gradually become a better player, and a player at this level that can handle almost anything." Cunneyworth said of Diaz who got 17:53 of ice time.
It was also a sour note for Lupul on a day that started well for the Leafs forward. Earlier he was named an assistant captain on Team Chara at the 2012 All-Star Game in Ottawa.
Montreal killed off a tripping penalty to Hal Gill before Lars Eller added an insurance goal at 11:25 by driving behind the Toronto net, fighting off Cody Franson and scoring on a second effort after his initial wraparound did not make it to the net. It was Eller's 10th of the season and his second in two nights.
"I came on the left side and Franson actually had body position on me and first outmuscled me, so I held back a bit and went around him, outsmarted him a little bit," Eller said. "You see a white jersey in front and you just throw it at the net and it bounced right back to me. Those are the ones you need."
Prior to Diaz's goal, there was a lengthy delay as the glass behind Carey Price had to be replaced. Leafs coach Ron Wilson felt his squad got out of sync at that point and never fully recovered.
"It was almost like that delay kind of half put us asleep, I thought we'd started the period pretty well, there had to be a 10-minute delay, it was like the next shift we ended up getting scored on." he said.
"We lost a battle on the boards and the defenseman screened the goalie, he didn't have a chance on the shot. The last one (Eller's goal), we lost a battle behind the net, we let him go and he eventually put it in and we were more worried it seemed about, I think it was Travis Moen pushed Jake Gardiner into the goalie, but that was irrelevant, we stopped playing for a second and they took advantage of it"
Carey Price made 32 saves for the Canadiens (18-21-9), who with their performance on Friday and Saturday night, kept their flickering playoff hopes alive and moved within seven points of eighth-place Washington in the East. The ninth-place Leafs (23-19-5), who got 20 saves from Gustavsson, have dropped four of their last five and are one point out of eighth place.
After more than 18 minutes of scoreless hockey, the teams traded goals 29 seconds apart late in the first period.
The Habs got on the board at 18:26 when Rene Bourque took advantage of a fortuitous bounce to score his first goal since being acquired by Montreal last week. The play was started when the Canadiens entered the Toronto zone with speed, Erik Cole sent a pass to Tomas Plekanec whose shot went above the crossbar and off the glass but bounded back over the net where Bourque was in perfect position to bang in his 14th of the season.
But the Maple Leafs tied it at 18:55 when Matthew Lombardi scored on a breakaway, beating Price on a forehand deke before going high for his fourth of the season. He was sprung on a lovely high arching flip pass by Tyler Bozak from the near boards just over the Leafs blue line. It was Bozak's first point of the new year.
Both teams had excellent chances in the second period. Price came up big early on, keeping his left pad on the goal line as Nazem Kadri tried to drive home a Lupul rebound. When Clarke MacArthur corralled the puck just outside of the crease and tried to outwait Price on his forehand, he waited in vain as Price gave him nothing to shoot at.
In the final three minutes of the period, Price turned away Franson's point shot and then stopped Joey Crabb's low shot on a shorthanded rush.
Gustavsson made big stops on Max Pacioretty and Chris Campoli during a power play late in the period to keep the score even at 1-1 after 40 minutes.
Having the game knotted at one may have been a small victory in itself for the Canadiens -- Montreal was playing its third game in four nights but kept hanging around until breaking through in the third period.
"I felt like we were the better team in the first 10 minutes," Gustavsson said. "I think we had 10 shots before they had one, if we had another goal there, it would be a (different) game."
Maple Leafs great Borje Salming was in attendance and drew a rousing ovation during a TV timeout during which a highlight reel of the pioneering defenseman's career was featured on the video board.
Toronto has a day off before beginning a home-and-home series against Toronto-area native John Tavares and the New York Islanders on Monday. The Canadiens are off until they host Detroit on Wednesday in the final game on the NHL schedule before the All-Star break.