MONTREAL – The last time the Carolina Hurricanes visited Montreal on Nov. 16, an utterly disgusted Eric Staal stood at his locker and marveled at just how badly his team had played in a 4-0 loss that ultimately wound up costing Paul Maurice his coaching job.
"We didn't show up, we didn't play, we got what we deserved," Staal said that night after the Hurricanes dropped their record to 6-10-3.
Faced with a less drastic but similarly devastating loss Monday night, Staal made sure his disposition in the Hurricanes' dressing room was much sunnier this time around.
The Hurricanes erased a second intermission deficit for the first time in 17 tries this season after Staal scored the tying goal shorthanded, set up Jamie McBain's game-winner on the power play and then scored the empty-netter to put an end to the Montreal Canadiens four-game winning streak with a 5-3 victory at Bell Centre on Monday night.
"We were in a tough slide there last time and there were some interesting things going on with our team. Our compete and our battle level just wasn't there the last time here, and it showed with the score," Staal said after his three-point night gave him 24 points in his last 19 games. "We've turned that around and guys are really playing for each other a lot more, being a little more competitive and staying with the game. It's a lot more fun playing that way, we showed some resilience in the third period and it feels better now."
The big difference between then and now? The former Canadiens Stanley Cup-winning captain who had spent the past five seasons as a Canadiens assistant coach and who is now running the bench in Carolina – Kirk Muller.
"Any time there's a tough start, there are a lot of negatives that go along with it," Staal said. "Then there's a change, and it's just a refresh button. I think that's what everyone kind of hit, and from there we continued to work and started to build inner confidence. That goes a long way."
Muller was hired by Hurricanes GM Jim Rutherford 12 days after that 4-0 loss in Montreal, one Rutherford later admitted sealed the fate of Maurice in his mind.
Monday was Muller's first time back in Montreal as a head coach after he decided to leave largely because he didn't see the possibility of rising up to that rank with the Canadiens.
He couldn't have asked for a much better effort from his last-place club that is still clinging to the hope of climbing back into the playoff picture – or at least it's playing that way with a 7-2-4 record over the last 13 games.
"I was really excited that our players could come in here and show how hard they're working and how well they're playing," Muller said, brushing aside all attention thrown his way. "Our top guys stepped up. Staal's been playing like this for a while, but no one's really caught on. I'm just happy he had his best game of the year here tonight."
Former Canadien Jaroslav Spacek and Jiri Tlusty also scored for the Hurricanes (21-25-11), who have not lost in regulation in five straight (3-0-2).
It was also the first game between the teams since the Dec. 19 trade that sent Spacek to Carolina for Tomas Kaberle, and Kaberle had his own impact with an assist but also by allowing Staal to walk around him en route to scoring shorthanded at 3:15 of the third to tie the game 3-3.
Cam Ward made 30 saves in the Hurricanes net while Carey Price matched that total for the Canadiens.
"He's our rock back there," Staal said of his goalie. "He's a battler, he loves to play in this building and he loves to beat the Montreal Canadiens."
Indeed, Ward's career record improved to 13-7-3 against the Canadiens, and he withstood a furious charge late in the third period as Montreal tried in vain to tie it back up.
Tomas Plekanec, Erik Cole and David Desharnais scored for the Canadiens (23-25-9), who were unable to extend their winning streak to a season-high five games and failed to make up ground in their desperate hunt for a playoff spot.
Montreal remains seven points back of the eighth-place Toronto Maple Leafs, who now hold a game in hand.
"We should have had this one, we had to win this one," said center Lars Eller. "We could have been five points out of a playoff spot right now. That's why it's so disappointing right now. It's just not good enough. I won't say we're out of it because technically we can still make it, but we're making it hard on ourselves by losing a game that has to be won."
It becomes even more difficult for the Canadiens as their next game Wednesday night is against the arch rival and division-leading Boston Bruins.
"Every game becomes more and more important as we go along," Canadiens coach Randy Cunneyworth said. "That was our most important game of the year, right there."
The much-maligned Canadiens power play struck twice in a game for the first time since Nov. 19 – a span of 37 games – to help turn a 2-0 deficit into a 3-2 lead in the second period.
Plekanec scored on a 2-on-1 break at 11:53 of the second before Cole and Desharnais scored power play goals 1:56 apart to send the Canadiens into the second intermission with a one-goal lead, a situation the Hurricanes had not overcome all season.
The win was perhaps a costly one for the Hurricanes as impending unrestricted free agent and potential trade chip Tuomo Ruutu left the game early in the first period with an upper-body injury.
Just after Jiri Tlusty scored to give the Hurricanes a 1-0 lead at 3:09 of the first, Ruutu took what looked to be a rather innocuous hit from Plekanec and went to the bench. The Hurricanes announced shortly afterwards that Ruutu was done for the night.
"I haven't had a chance to catch him, but he's been playing good hockey and he's a guy we need," Muller said, providing no further update on the injury.
Ruutu is scheduled to become an unrestricted free agent July 1, though Rutherford is exploring the possibility of re-signing him before the Feb. 27 trade deadline.
The Hurricanes had jumped out to their 2-0 lead on Tlusty's tip of a Bryan Allen point shot at 3:09 of the first and Spacek's power-play goal at 9:41 of the second, one that had the 38-year-old defensemen jumping into the glass in celebration.
"I'm not like Mike Cammalleri, who scores often. I don't," a glowing Spacek said afterwards. "I have to celebrate a little bit, especially here. I'm so happy about that."
And he has a head coach and a captain who feel the same way.