MONTREAL - Just when it looked like the Canadiens would cruise to a rare landslide victory, it still took a winning goal from Saku Koivu with only four seconds left in overtime to seal a 4-3 victory over the Panthers on Tuesday night at the Bell Centre.
Despite heading into the third period with a comfortable 3-0 lead, the Canadiens saw the Panthers claw all the way back to force overtime. The win improved Montreal's record to 13-3-3 for an Eastern Conference leading 29 points, while Florida (6-9-4) suffered its ninth consecutive loss.
In his first game of the season without Alex Kovalev by his side, Koivu sent his ailing linemate the best get-well wish he could, scoring three points and leading Montreal to yet another heart-stopping win. Koivu, who now leads the Canadiens with 23 points in 19 games so far this season, saved his best for last as he anticipated a Sheldon Souray high-arching lob all the way from the Canadiens own end and turned what can only be described as a three-line pass into a partial breakaway. Then, with Florida defenseman Mike Van Ryn all over him like a cheap suit, Koivu still managed to muscle a backhand past Roberto Luongo in the dying moments of overtime.
"To tell you the truth, I never saw it go in," said Koivu of his second goal of the night that hand-delivered the Canadiens their league-leading 11th one-goal win of the season. "I think it hit Luongo on the shoulder and it went in. I really thought we were on our way with that 3-0 lead but we just couldn't get that crucial fourth goal to put them away. That's all we're missing now. Teams like Detroit and Ottawa just keep on coming and never let up when they get ahead."
Claude Julien was as impressed with Koivu on Tuesday as he was unimpressed by the way his squad squandered their third period cushion.
"We can thank our captain for this one tonight," admitted Julien. "Seeing Saku come through for us the way he did shows you what kind of a leader this guy is. He deserves most of the credit tonight.
"But we really had the chance to put a team away early for a change and we simply didn't continue the kind of effort and attention to detail we showed in the first two periods," added Julien whose mood quickly changed once the topic was shifted away from his captain's big night. "Sooner or later we're going to have to play a full 60-minute game if we want to be successful."
Who could blame Julien for wanting to see more of the team that took the Panthers by the throat in the opening period and out-blasted their guests by a 16-5 margin on their way to a season-high 46 shots. Montreal is now 10-2-2 when outshooting the opposition this season.
After being sent down to Hamilton for a little extra work that saw him pick-up three straight wins with the Bulldogs last week, Yann Danis got the nod and made his first career Bell Centre start. The rookie netminder could have used some light reading material in an opening period that was completely dominated by Montreal, but he was much busier the rest of the way in kicking aside 27-of-30 shots.
Steve Begin, who broke the Panthers' hearts exactly two weeks ago by tying their first meeting of the season with 8.1 seconds remaining to force overtime, notched his seventh of the campaign on a 2-on-1 break with Niklas Sundstrom. After 19 games this season, Begin now finds himself only three goals shy of his career high of 10 goals set back in 2003-04.
Richard Zednik also had a big night with a goal and an assist, bringing his total to nine points in 11 games on the year. The speedy Slovak opened the scoring on the power-play thanks to a nifty behind-the-back pass from rookie Tomas Plekanec.
Scoring goals on the night for Florida were Olli Jokinen, Stephen Weiss and rookie Gregory Campbell, who notched his first NHL goal.
With the game having ended within seconds of going to a shootout, Julien was later asked to tip his hand as to his list of potential shooters but he wouldn't bite.
"No, you will all find out the next time we actually go to a shootout," promised Julien. "One thing I can tell you is that we were missing a guy tonight who definitely would have been on my list."
Julien wasn't the only one with Kovalev on the brain on Tuesday.
"I spoke to Kovy this morning," said Koivu who didn't have to look very far for his motivation on this night. " He called me after his surgery and said it went well and that he can't wait to be back."
If tonight's performance is any indication of what Koivu has in store during Kovalev's recovery from knee surgery, the rest of the NHL may also want to see Kovalev come back soon as possible.
Next up for the Canadiens is a trip to New Jersey to take on Martin Brodeur and the Devils on Friday, before returning to Montreal for a date with rookie phenom Alexander Ovechkin and the Capitals on Saturday at the Bell Centre.
NOTES: Tuesday night's match-up with Panthers drew a capacity crowd of 21,273, marking the Canadiens' 11th consecutive sellout of the season and 34th straight overall packed house dating back to 2003-04... The Canadiens went 1-for-4 with the man advantage while the Panthers were 1-for-3... D Mathieu Dandenault had a pair of assists in his first two-point night as a Canadien... C Jan Bulis missed his fourth game with an injured left shoulder. C Radek Bonk found himself back on the shelf after recently returning from a nagging leg injury... D Sheldon Souray returned to the lineup after missing Saturday's contest against the Maple Leafs with a bruised foot... D Craig Rivet continued to be force with a team-high eight shots on the night... C Steve Begin threw a game-high six hits... Rookie C Maxim Lapierre, who was called up from Hamilton on Monday, was minus-1 and registered a hit in his first NHL game...
Manny Almela is a writer for canadiens.com