The Canadiens got the better of the Boston Bruins in a dominant 4-1 victory Tuesday night to climb to within three points of the Northeast Division lead, but the victory was marred by the sight of young forward Max Pacioretty leaving the ice on a stretcher after taking a massive hit from Bruins captain Zdeno Chara.
Pacioretty laid motionless on the ice for several minutes before having his head immobilized and being taken off the ice after Chara finished a hit but wound up driving Pacioretty's head into the corner of the glass that separates the two benches.
"Things happen quickly, you make quick decisions out there," said Canadiens rookie Lars Eller, who led the attack with the first two-goal game of his career. "Unfortunately, Chara made a bad one there. I think he knew that the glass was starting there; hopefully he won't do that again. We just hope Max is going to be all right."
The Canadiens announced just after the start of the third period that Pacioretty was conscious and able to move his arms and legs, and was being taken to a hospital for further tests.
When Pacioretty was announced as the game's third star, the Bell Centre crowd -- which had not been given the update on his health -- roared its approval.
Chara said he was just as concerned over Pacioretty's health as everyone else, and that in no way did he intend for that play to end the way it did.
"I knew we were somewhere close to our bench, but obviously that wasn't my intention to push him to the post," Chara said. "It's very unfortunate and in that situation with everything you have to think fast. You're not planning to do that or that's not my style to hurt somebody. I always play hard and play physical but I never try to hurt anybody so I'm hoping he's OK."
The game had a huge buildup after the two teams combined for 14 goals and 182 penalty minutes the last time they met in Boston, with the Bruins winning 8-6. The rollover effect of that wild night appeared to be taken care of 3:11 into the game when Boston defenseman Johnny Boychuk attempted an open ice hit on Canadiens rookie defenseman P.K. Subban and was immediately challenged to a fight by Ryan White, who was given an instigator penalty and a misconduct along with matching fighting majors.
"You don't want to see guys getting run in your own rink," White said. "It's been a long week getting ready for this one and thinking about a lot of things, so it's nice to get that one out of the way. I was really hoping they didn't score on the power play, to tell you the truth. But I hope it changed the game a little bit."
The Canadiens killed off that penalty and got two goals from Eller at 8:21 and 17:37 to go up 2-0 after the first period, marking the fourth straight game they've scored the first two goals.
Montreal's power play doubled that lead in the second period as Brian Gionta and James Wisniewski scored on shots that probably should have been stopped by Bruins goalie Tuukka Rask -- a surprise starter as Claude Julien decided to give him his turn in the rotation and leave Tim Thomas to watch from the visitor's tunnel.
But just as the second period was about to come to a close, Chara laid his hit on Pacioretty and what was a joyous, party atmosphere for the sold-out Bell Centre crowd of 21,273 turned into a grave hush as they watched one of their top young players lay completely motionless on the ice.
Chara was given a five-minute major for interference -- Pacioretty had gotten rid of the puck before the hit -- and a game misconduct with 16 seconds to play in the second.
Pacioretty and Chara have some history this season, as Pacioretty completed a comeback from a 2-0 deficit by scoring the winner in overtime against Boston on Jan. 8. After the goal, Pacioretty went behind the Bruins net to celebrate and gave Chara a shove in the back as he passed him. Chara went back at Pacioretty and a scrum ensued.
Carey Price, who earned his League-leading 32nd win and won his fifth straight start, wasn't buying Chara's story that the injury was a result of unfortunate circumstances.
"It looked like Patch chipped the puck in, took two or three or four strides and got his head pushed into the turnbuckle," said Price, who made 30 stops. "Everybody's aware of what's what out there. I don't care what anybody says, you're aware of your surroundings. It's your job out there to know what's where. But the game does happen fast."
The third period appeared to be played at half speed and lacked the intensity of the opening 40 minutes, both from the players and the crowd.
Everyone's focus was clearly on Pacioretty's health.
"I'll tell you, it wasn't easy," Eller said. "We talked about staying focused and focusing on the right things, but it's tough."
Milan Lucic was able to break up Price's bid for his eighth shutout of the season with a rising shot that went in under the crossbar at 13:21 of the third, further extending the Bruins power forward's career-high total to 29 goals.
Somewhat lost in the drama surrounding Pacioretty's health and Chara's hit was the fact the Canadiens performed at their best in a game where a lot of eyes were fixed on them to see how they would respond to the physical intimidation efforts they faced in Boston.
They came through the test with flying colors, but the players are not ready to pat themselves on the back just yet.
"It's not that monumental, it's one game for us," forward Michael Cammalleri said. "We're working on it here. We want to win a Stanley Cup. Are we ready to win it right now? No. So for us it's not monumental. We appreciate that it's important for our fan base and the community, but at the same time we've got work to do."