MONTREAL - After exceeding expectations a season ago, the Ottawa Senators have struggled to meet them this season.
Their victory Saturday night might be a major step towards changing that.
The Senators pounced on the Montreal Canadiens early, squandered a 3-1 third-period lead, then won 4-3 in overtime on a power-play goal by Clarke MacArthur at Bell Centre, establishing a season high with their fourth straight win.
"Our team game has grown as we've moved along here in the season and it needs to continue to grow," Senators coach Paul MacLean said. "That's been a big part of our success."
Their fifth win in six games allowed the Senators (19-18-7) to climb above .500 for the first time since Nov. 16, when they were 8-7-4. It gave them six wins in their past seven games against the Canadiens (24-14-5) dating to a five-game victory in the first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs last spring.
Ottawa is two points behind the fourth-place Toronto Maple Leafs in the Atlantic Division standings.
"It's fun to win and we're continuing to get better," said goaltender Craig Anderson, who won his fifth straight start with a 26-save effort. "Winning is a habit and it's hard work, and every day we need to work at it. We can't just come to the rink and expect it to happen."
The Senators haven't needed their captain to embark on this winning streak; Jason Spezza sat out a fourth straight game due to a hip flexor injury. Spezza is expected to play in Ottawa's next game Wednesday against the Colorado Avalanche in Denver.
The game nearly ended poorly for the Senators, with a 3-1 lead after 40 minutes vanishing within the first five minutes of the third period on Canadiens goals by Daniel Briere and Brian Gionta. But the Senators were able to settle down and finish the period strong, with Erik Condra driving the net and forcing Canadiens defenseman P.K. Subban to take a hooking penalty with 18.4 seconds to play in regulation that led to MacArthur's power play winner in overtime.
"They came with a big push in the third and they took it to us a little bit," Anderson said. "But after those two goals we weathered it and were able to push back a little bit, were able to generate some chances and draw a penalty going to the net hard. Our special teams were able to do the job tonight."
Subban was not in agreement that the play warranted the penalty that was called by referee Francois St. Laurent.
"I don't even know if it's a battle for positioning," Subban said. "The goalie's got the puck, I'm just making sure there's no rebound. I'm doing my job. I didn't get my stick up high on him, I just rode him out. Just a simple play, like I do every time. It just so happens with 18 seconds left in the game he felt it was a little too much.
Senators rookie Mark Stone scored his first NHL goal at 13:50 of the first period, beating Canadiens goaltender Carey Price with a quick backhand move on a breakaway off an assist from Matt Kassian, the first of his NHL career. Kassian joked on Twitter after the game that he had to play "Rock, Paper, Scissors" with Stone for the puck.
"It was exciting," Stone said. "Carey Price is one of the best goalies in the League, so I'll always have memories of that."
Briere made a grand re-entrance into the Canadiens lineup.
The summer free-agent acquisition who had been a healthy scratch the two previous games scored two goals and had an assist to help lead the Canadiens' comeback in the third period that allowed them to salvage a point.
"It's a good feeling," Briere said. "I felt like I've been waiting for a big game like that for a long time. It's a good feeling to feel a part of the team, to feel like you're helping out.
Briere began the game on Montreal's fourth line but was moved up to left wing on a line with Gionta and Tomas Plekanec to start the second period, a trio that had played together earlier in the season.
The move paid off in the third, with Plekanec drawing assists on Briere's and Gionta's goals. Briere had gone 10 games without a point and Gionta 13 games without a goal prior to Saturday.
"It went well earlier in the season. We played, I can't remember, exactly, 10-12 games together and had success," Briere said. "That's kind of the mindset I had at the time thinking that good things were going to happen again. I felt like we had a lot of chances. We did score a couple of goals, but we had lots of chances."
Montreal defenseman Douglas Murray, another offseason free agent signing, had two assists for his first points as a Canadien. He had been on the ice for one Montreal goal in 22 games prior to Saturday.
Down 3-1 entering the third period, the Canadiens got going quickly on a nifty goal by Briere at 1:57. With a puck battle going on behind the goal line, Briere set himself up to Anderson's right. Plekanec found him there, and Briere quickly lifted the puck under the crossbar from a sharp angle for his seventh of the season to cut the Senators lead to 3-2.
The revamped line struck again less than three minutes later when Plekanec took a shot from the point that handcuffed Anderson and landed behind him in the crease. Gionta jumped in and shoveled it over the goal line at 4:46 for his sixth of the season.
The Senators pounced on the Canadiens off the opening faceoff, with Colin Greening scoring his fourth of the season 13 seconds into the game, converting a feed out of the corner from Condra.
Briere tied the game at 11:32 with his sixth of the season, taking a feed from Travis Moen and converting his own rebound in front.
The Senators regained their lead when Stone scored at 13:50, and Condra made it 3-1 just 14 seconds later by banking a centering pass off the skate of Montreal defenseman Francis Bouillon and past Price for his fourth of the season.