MONTREAL- After 517 days, the Canadiens finally made their much-anticipated return to the Bell Centre ice on Sunday with a hard-fought 3-2 win over the Atlanta Thrashers.
The Canadiens took advantage of a depleted Thrashers lineup that did not include former Senators sniper Marian Hossa, unsigned All-Star Ilya Kovalchuk, or newly-acquired Peter Bondra, who was inked by Atlanta earlier in the day.
Mike Ribeiro opened the scoring on the power-play courtesy of a beautiful give-and-go with Jan Bulis. Montreal's top point-getter of 2003-04 roofed a backhand past former Rangers goalie Mike Dunham at 10:36 of the first period, capping a pretty setup from Bulis and Andre Benoit, the defenseman in camp with an AHL contract.
The Canadiens went up 2-0 on a nifty three-way passing play between Bulis, Kyle Chipchura and Jonathan Ferland, who fanned on his shot from just outside the crease but still managed to guide the puck into the net with Dunham completely out of position.
Montreal added what would prove to be the game-winner a little over five minutes into the final frame, as Marcel Hossa notched a power-play marker with assists from Radek Bonk and second-star Bulis.
The NHL's new crackdown on various infractions was evident from the early going; it was only 41 seconds into the first period when the Thrashers' J.P. Vigier was called for kneeing. That call proved to be only the beginning, as a total of 14 calls were made by referees Stephane Auger and Dan VanMassenhoven in the opening frame alone. When all was said and done, a whopping 32 penalties were called on the night in what continued a league-wide trend so far this preseason. The Canadiens were 2-for-11 with the man advantage while Atlanta was 1-for-13.
With the night's parade to the penalty box a possible sign of things to come in the new NHL, coach Claude Julien warned teams will have no choice but to adjust to the new reality.
"From the players' standpoint, this is not going to happen overnight," he said. "After spending your whole career playing and defending a certain way, eliminating the clutching and grabbing isn't going to be easy for these guys.
"If tonight's game is any indication, one adjustment that we may have to consider is creating a third power-play unit just in case, so that we don't wear down our top guys. But it's only one game so we're not going to jump to any conclusions just yet."
Canadiens fans got a look to the future with the starting goal assignment going to Carey Price, Montreal's top pick and the fifth overall selection from this summer's NHL Entry Draft. The 18-year-old made his first big stop almost halfway through the opening period with an acrobatic stop on an Atlanta 2-on-1 break. Price, who wasn't tested until almost halfway through the opening period, stopped all nine shots he faced before surrendering the goaltending duties to Yann Danis midway through the second period.
"All I wanted was to get that first save over with," said Price, whose first stop came at the 7:38 mark of the first period. "I was like, 'Oh boy, how long am I going to have to wait here.' I started getting a little cold but then the adrenaline took over and I'm just glad to finally get my feet wet."
Known for being a puck-handling goalie in the mold of Martin Brodeur, Price was unfazed by the new goalie entrapment zone behind the net and still managed to thread the needle on several two-line stretch passes that are now legal.
Danis turned away 10 of 12 shots as he continued to do all he can to earn the nod as Jose Theodore's understudy in the absence of injured expected backup Cristobal Huet.
Mathieu Dandenault, playing his first career game with the Canadiens after being brought in as a free agent this summer, fittingly had the puck on his stick as time expired. In a spontaneous move, he decided to pick it up and save it as a souvenir.
"It was nothing I planned to do, really," said the Montreal native, who spent his first nine NHL seasons with the Red Wings. "But I'm glad to have it. I'm going to give to my little nephew Olivier the next time I see him."
Peter Vandermeer also formally introduced himself to Canadiens fans with just over five minutes to play in the first period. Despite the 6-foot, 210-pound Vandermeer giving up over five inches and 25 pounds to 6-foot-5, 235-pound Stephen Baby, the AHL veteran was up to the task of taking on the Atlanta forward. Auditioning for the Montreal enforcer role left vacant by the departure of Darren Langdon, Vandermeer held his own in a tussle that was scored a draw. On the undercard, the Thrashers' Francis Lessard had the unenviable task of taking on Canadiens behemoth Raitis Ivanans in the second period.
Like all pre-season contests league-wide, the game was followed by a shootout. Before a standing, roaring crowd - an impressive reaction given the nature of the exhibition - the Thrashers' Alex Bourret got things and was stopped by Danis. Ribeiro was next, swooping in but sliding the puck just wide of the net. Former Devil Bobby Holik then found Danis' five-hole to put the Thrashers up, 1-0.
Pierre Dagenais elicited roars from the hometown fans with a highlight reel deke that completely fooled Dunham. Atlanta's Vigier was then robbed by Danis' glovehand before Bulis rang one off the post.
It was then on to sudden-death with former Penguin Ramzi Abid being stopped by Danis. The stage was then set for Habs-hopeful Alexander Perezhogin, who had vowed to bounce back from his shootout miss at Friday's intrasquad game. Perezhogin made good on his promise by rifling a wrist-shot past Dunham to send the crowd home even happier.
Ribeiro, who was pleased with the Canadiens' overall effort, admitted he couldn't take credit for his buddy Dagenais' sweet moves.
"That was definitely one of Pierre's moves, not mine," said a smiling Ribeiro. "We got the chance to take part in a lot of shootouts while we played in the McDonald's Caravan last fall. We also worked on shootouts a little bit this summer. The fans loved it and it was a lot of fun for us too, but tonight it wasn't for real. I'm sure we will all be a lot more nervous with points in the standings on the line during the season."
While it may have been all smiles at the Bell Centre on Sunday night, Julien ended his post-game conference by confirming the first cuts would be made first thing Monday morning.
The Canadiens will host Vincent Lecavalier and the Stanley Cup champion Tampa Bay Lightning on Tuesday night at the Bell Centre before heading to Toronto for a date with the Maple Leafs on Thursday.
NOTES: The only Canadiens regular not in the lineup due to injury was F Michael Ryder, who is listed as day-to-day with an ankle injury suffered on Friday after getting tangled up with defenseman Jonathan Aitken. D Mike Komisarek was a late scratch with the flu as Dandenault stepped in at the last minute... The Canadiens outshot the Thrashers 22-21... Numerous power-plays and short-handed situations aside, Riberio spent most of the evening flanked by Dagenais and Perezhogin. Julien's other lines consisted of Bonk-Chris Higgins-Hossa, Bulis-Chipchura-Ferland, and Steve Begin-Ivanans-Vandermeer. On the blue line the pairings were Dandenault-Benoit, Francis Bouillon-Andrew Archer, and Ron Hainsey-Mark Streit... Atlanta's goals were scored by Montreal native Francis Lessard and Jim Slater... Ribeiro and Bulis wore the "A" for Montreal.
Manny Almela is a writer for canadiens.com.