MONTREAL – Heading into a weekend with back-to-back home games against the Ottawa Senators and New York Rangers, two of the hottest teams in the NHL, it was not a stretch to think the Montreal Canadiens' already-dim playoff hopes could have been totally extinguished by Sunday night.
Instead, it appears the tough competition was exactly what the Canadiens needed.
Montreal earned three out of four points on the weekend after Max Pacioretty's two-goal performance Sunday helped the Canadiens to an unlikely 4-1 win against the League's top team.
Coach Randy Cunneyworth has struggled to get his players to adhere to his new system, one based on aggression on the forecheck after years of Jacques Martin's more passive approach. Facing some stiff competition this weekend helped get the message across.
"We were rewarded for playing the way we expected our guys to play. We played our system," Cunneyworth said after running his record to 4-8-1. "I think when you play better teams, or the best teams, you're a little wary about how you're going to come out. You know that if you don't play the way you're supposed to you can be embarrassed by these good teams. I think that's what gets us back in order."
Pacioretty's line with David Desharnais and Erik Cole combined for nine points and Peter Budaj made 29 saves in just his sixth start of the season.
"I was trying to prepare myself to play to the best of my abilities and help the team to win a game," said Budaj, whose last start was Dec. 21 in Chicago. "We got a big win tonight against a great team, and that's always satisfying. But when you look at the (standings), we've got a long way to go. So we've got to build on this."
Pacioretty finished with three goals in Montreal's back-to-back weekend set that could have doomed the Canadiens' season, including the game-tying goal in the final minute Saturday to send the game against the Senators to overtime and earn his team a valuable point in a 3-2 shootout loss.
"You look back on it and you wish you could have gotten the two points last night, but you've just got to look forward now and build off how we played tonight," Pacioretty said. "We had everyone rolling, everyone was on board with the same game plan and that's why we had success."
Mike Blunden and Desharnais scored the other Montreal goals as the Canadiens reached the four-goal mark for the 12th time this season, with two of those games coming against the usually stingy Rangers.
While the Canadiens played well, this city does funny things to the Rangers.
The game was only the fifth time the Rangers have ever played in Montreal on a Sunday, but they would probably want to avoid the city any day of the week after losing for a sixth straight time at the Bell Centre.
Rangers goalie Henrik Lundqvist entered the game with a pedestrian stat line in the Bell Centre -- a 4-4-2 record, a 3.86 GAA and .877 save percentage in 11 career starts in Montreal. Lundqvist made 25 saves on 29 shots in this one, giving up four goals in a game for the first time since Oct. 29 against the Senators – a span of 23 starts.
But coach John Tortorella was not looking at his All-Star goaltender when trying to figure out what cost the Rangers on this night. Before the game Tortorella said his team's performance in a 3-0 win in Toronto a night earlier was the best defensive effort of the season.
This, on the other hand, was not.
"We had no structure defensively; that was our biggest problem," Tortorella said. "After a slow start in the first I thought we got back into it, we started getting a little physical and we crawled back into it that way. But as good as were last night defensively, we were that bad tonight."
The Canadiens welcomed newly acquired Rene Bourque into the lineup. He quickly made an impression by being sprung on a partial breakaway on his first shift, but he was unable to fully control the puck and only managed a weak backhander on Lundqvist. Bourque then nailed Carl Hagelin with a big hit on his next shift, one where he came very close to hitting the hunched-over Rangers forward in the head.
It was also Bourque's first game coming off a five-game suspension -- and all things considered, he was pretty pleased with a night where he played 20:59, got three shots on goal and was credited with four hits.
"I just wanted go out there and bang some bodies, get my feet moving and shoot some pucks," Bourque said. "I thought I did alright."
The loss was the second in three games for the Rangers (28-11-4), which is twice as many losses as they had in their previous 11 games when they went 10-1-0.
John Mitchell scored for the Rangers and Marian Gaborik picked up his 300th career assist on the play, but otherwise New York did not make Budaj work extremely hard in his second win in a Canadiens uniform.
"We weren't able to build momentum," center Brad Richards said. "We would make one mistake and it would be in our net because of some of the uncharacteristic breakdowns we had."
The Canadiens (17-20-8) snapped a three-game winless slide and kept pace with the eighth-place Pittsburgh Penguins – 6-3 winners at Tampa Bay – to remain eight points out of the final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference.
Montreal lost forwards Travis Moen and Tomas Plekanec to injuries, but Cunneyworth said neither is serious and both should be available for the Canadiens' next game Wednesday night against the Washington Capitals.
The Canadiens got off to a quick start when Desharnais set up Cole for a chance in front, but the bounce hopped to Pacioretty in the slot and he buried it at 2:39 of the opening period.
Mitchell tied it with his third of the season at 12:49 on a great feed by Derek Stepan from behind the net. Lars Eller failed to cover Mitchell on the play, and he was subsequently benched for the entire second period, even though Cunneyworth dressed just 11 forwards for a seventh straight game.
When Moen was lost in the second period and with Eller benched, Cunneyworth had just nine forwards at his disposal. The Canadiens still pumped three goals behind Lundqvist to take control of the game.
Pacioretty got his second of the night and 15th of the season at 3:54 when Cole's wrister from the slot banked in off of him.
"We felt like we've been playing pretty decently together," Pacioretty said. "Overall as a team we don't think we've been getting the bounces lately. It's easy to make excuses but we felt pretty good out there playing together, and tonight we got the good bounces."
Blunden scored on a great shift by former Ranger Scott Gomez, playing his second game after missing 21 with a groin injury. Gomez spun off Michael Del Zotto on the side boards to free himself and set up Blunden with two straight one-timers from the slot; Blunden converted the second one for his second goal of the season at 7:11.
Finally, Pacioretty made an excellent blind pass to a streaking Desharnais on the back door for his seventh of the season at 12:18 of the second to make it 4-1.