MONTREAL - On yet another heart-stopping night at the Bell Centre, the Canadiens continued their dramatic ways when Steve Begin tied the game with only 8.1 seconds left in regulation, setting the stage for Michael Ryder's overtime winner in a 5-4 victory over the Panthers on Tuesday night.
Despite having led 2-0 and 3-1, the Canadiens (9-3-1) still found themselves down 4-3 with less than a minute to play in the third period. With his team already playing with the man advantage, Claude Julien pulled Jose Theodore for an extra attacker whose identity was a surprise to no one among the packed house of 21,273 on hand.
"We needed someone to just plant himself in front of the net in case a rebound popped out and the way Begin has been playing, it was an easy decision to send him out there as the sixth attacker," said Julien. "When guy a has the hot hand the way Steve does right now, as a coach sometimes it's just best to go with it."
True to form, Begin went on to do exactly as he was asked by corralling a Craig Rivet rebound before lifting a backhand past Roberto Luongo to force overtime with only 8.1 seconds left.
"I just did what Claude asked me do," admitted a typically humble Begin. "When you're out there in that situation with great players like Saku Koivu and Alex Kovalev you just keep your stick on the ice and wait for a rebound. I don't ask any questions, I just do what I'm told."
Even the overtime hero couldn't help but talk about Begin, who also scored the winner less than 24 hours ago in Montreal's 4-1 win over the Rangers.
"The fans were right there with us tonight and they really gave us that extra boost of energy to get it done," said Ryder after picking up his league-leading third game-winner of the season including two overtime goals. "Saku made a heck of a play to get that pass out to me in front and I just let it go. But Begin came up big for us again tonight. If he doesn't score that goal then there wouldn't have even been overtime."
Late-game heroics have almost been a nightly occurrence for the Canadiens so far this season with Tuesday night's come-from-behind victory marking the sixth time in the club's nine wins that Montreal has waited until the final five minutes of the game or overtime to score the game-winner. Tight contests have also been the norm with seven of the Canadiens nine wins so far this year coming by a one-goal margin.
One player who was not surprised by Tuesday night's see-saw battle between the Canadiens and Panthers was Jose Theodore who just shrugged, as if to say 'Welcome to the new NHL.'
"You look around the league and you see it every night," said Theodore, who stopped 26-of-30 shots for his eighth win of the season. "No lead is safe anymore. Whether you're up 3-0 or down 3-1 it's never over until it's over. Power-plays can get you back in a game in a hurry and every save becomes that much more important. Anything can happen now and we saw that here tonight."
Richard Zednik continued his career-long taming of the Panthers by scoring his second goal of the season on a pretty three-way passing play with linemates Koivu, and Kovalev. Zednik now has four points in four games since his return from a groin injury. With 13 goals in 31 games against Florida over his nine-year career, the 29-year-old winger has piled up more goals against the Panthers than any other team.
Koivu, who helped set up both the game-tying and game winning goal, had three assists as he moved past Kovalev for the team lead with 15 points in 12 games so far.
With just one goal among them in the 12 first games of 2005-06, the Canadiens' blueline erupted for two goals on Tuesday. Defensemen Craig Rivet and Francis Bouillon each scored their first goals of the campaign on power-play blasts from the point. Rivet's goal was his first since scoring the overtime winner in Boston on Feb. 26, 2004. Bouillon on the other hand seems to enjoy facing the Panthers, with his last goal also coming at the expense of Luongo back on March 11, 2004.
Luongo had a busy night as he turned away 33-of-38 Montreal shots, including a hectic opening period that saw his Panthers get outshot 13-4, with Florida (6-5-2) not recording their first shot until the nine minute mark. Florida goal scorers included Martin Gelinas, Nathan Horton and Stephen Weiss who potted a pair of power-play markers.
After playing their third game in four nights, the Canadiens, who again find themselves atop the Eastern Conference, will get a well deserved breather before beginning a home-and-home series on Friday night in Buffalo before hosting the Sabres Saturday at the Bell Centre.
NOTES: Radek Bonk missed his second straight game after injuring his groin at practice on Monday morning in New York. D Mark Streit was left out of the lineup for the third straight game... The Canadiens were 4-for-10 with the man adavantage, while the Panthers went 2-for-9 on the power-play... Tuesday night's showdown with the Panthers drew a capacity crowd of 21,273, the Canadiens' 25th consecutive regular season sellout at the Bell Centre dating back to 2003-04...
Manny Almela is a writer for canadiens.com