TORONTO - Thanks to a big night from Saku Koivu, including a little overtime magic, the Canadiens capped their grueling road trip with a 4-3 come-from-behind victory over the Maple Leafs Saturday night at the Air Canada Centre in Toronto.
The Canadiens (23-20-6) picked up their second win in the last three games of their six-game road swing to move into a tie with Toronto and Atlanta for the eighth and final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference. The Maple Leafs (24-22-4) lost their eighth straight marking their longest slide since dropping eight in a row under Pat Burns almost a decade ago.
After seeing the Leafs take a 2-1 lead into the third period, the Canadiens fought back for the victory despite Toronto's 15-1-1 mark heading into tonight when leading after 40 minutes.
Having already beaten Mikael Tellqvist to tie the game midway through the third period, Koivu saved the day only 1:04 into overtime with his 14th goal of the season. The Canadiens captain also set-up Alex Kovalev for Montreal's first goal of the night, in what was arguably Koivu's strongest performance of the season.
With Alexander Khavanov in the penalty box after hauling down Kovalev early in overtime, Koivu pounced on his own rebound and squeezed the puck through Tellqvist's pads for his second overtime winner of the season. Koivu had previously sealed the deal in a 4-3 OT win over the Panthers on Nov. 15 at the Bell Centre on a night he also potted a pair and added an assist.
"The way things have gone for us, yeah, it was a bigger game than just one of 82 games on the schedule," said Koivu after his third three-point night of the season. "Every time you play against Toronto the atmosphere is different, the attention is different. So for sure these two points mean a lot to us."
On heels of Jan Bulis showing a little more spring in his step following a little heart-to-heart with GM/head coach Bob Gainey earlier this week, it was Kovalev's turn to respond to a Gainey pep-talk. Kovalev, who had a one-on-one chat with Gainey on Friday, got Montreal on the board with his 11th goal of the season before setting up Koivu's overtime winner.
"Everybody showed up tonight," said Kovalev. "This was a long road trip and we wanted to finish it the right way.
"We're fighting for the eighth spot in the playoffs and that's what we did tonight, we fought. We knew how important this game was."
Bulis, meanwhile, continued his torrid January stretch by scoring his 13th of the season and helping set-up Kovalev goal. The Czech forward now has a team-high seven goals and 17 points in 12 games this month.
In his return to the lineup after seeing backup Cristobal Huet make back-to-back starts, Jose Theodore made 21 saves to lead the Canadiens to only their fifth win in Toronto since the Leafs moved to the Air Centre in February of 1999. The 29-year-old also worked his way into some elite company during the second period of the game as he surpassed the 20,000 minute mark to become only the sixth Canadiens goalie in team history to do so. He joins Hall of Famers Jacques Plante, Ken Dryden, Bill Durnan and George Hainsworth and Hall of Famer to-be Patrick Roy on the illustrious list.
"I had a feeling about Jose," admitted Gainey. "A couple of weeks ago Jose came in and played really well in back-to-back wins for us. And we got bombed out West in a couple of games and he happened to be in net but it wasn't entirely his fault.
"But he needed a little time to regroup. I thought Saturday night against the Leafs, and a team that's right beside us in the standings, that's the time you want to get your top player on the ice."
Given the nod by Pat Quinn ahead of a struggling Ed Belfour, Tellqvist stopped 16-of-20 shots in his 12th start of the season.
The Canadiens and Leafs needed overtime to settle things for already the third time in five meetings this season, with Montreal coming out on top after losing OT heartbreakers on Nov. 12 and Nov. 26. All five games have been decided by a single goal with the Canadiens improving to 7-6 in overtime games this season, while the Leafs fell to 7-4.
Scoring goals for the Leafs were Khavanov, Ken Klee, and Darcy Tucker, who opened the scoring during a Toronto 5-on-3 advantage in the first period. The Canadiens were 1-for-5 with the man advantage while the Leafs were 1-for-4.
The Canadiens will finally return home from their 10-day, six-game road trip for a date with the Carolina Hurricanes on Tuesday at the Bell Centre.
NOTES: RW Raitis Ivanans, who was called up from Hamilton earlier this week, was in the lineup for the first time since fracturing his orbital bone against the Senators on Oct. 11... D Mark Streit and RW Richard Zednik were both healthy scratches... Rookie Chris Higgins picked up an assist after playing in Zednik's spot alongside Saku Koivu and Alex Kovalev on the Canadiens top line... Former Canadien Darcy Tucker was back in the Leafs lineup after missing six games with a rib injury...
Manny Almela is a writer for canadiens.com. CP contributed to this report.