MONTREAL - For a second consecutive weekend, the Canadiens and Maple Leafs proved their Original Six rivalry is alive and well, with Toronto avenging their last week's home loss to Montreal with a 3-2 win Saturday night at the Bell Centre.
In what could have been an infomercial for what the NHL is hoping to generate with its new divisional rivalry-based schedule, the Canadiens and Maple Leafs battled tooth and nail in their second of eight confrontations of 2005-06.
With the loss, the Canadiens remain winless at home and now fall to 4-2 on the season, while the Maple Leafs picked up their third straight win and improved their record to 3-2-2. Montreal was looking for their first 5-1 start since 1982-83 when the Canadiens began the season with a 7-1-2 mark.
The Canadiens took it to the Leafs early in the first period with the second of three huge hits from Mike Komisarek sparking what would prove to be a costly retaliation penalty from Clarke Wilm. On the ensuing power-play, Alexander Perezhogin pressured Ed Belfour into coughing up the puck behind the Leafs' goal before setting up Alex Kovalev, who only had to redirect the puck into the wide-open net for his first goal of the season to put Montreal up 1-0.
Toronto responded with less than five minutes left in the period on a power-play marker by Jason Allison, before going up 2-1 on a goal by Eric Lindros at the 7:42 mark of the second period.
Trailing 2-1 to start the third, the Canadiens came out flying in the final frame, out-shooting the Leafs 14-5 with the visitors not registering their first shot until the 11:45 mark of the period.
A coach's hunch by Claude Julien paid off just over five minutes into the third period as Julien's makeshift line of Mike Ribeiro, Michael Ryder and Tomas Plekanec teamed up to tie the game 2-2. Ryder sent the puck in deep to Ribeiro who set-up Plekanec for a one-timer that the Czech rookie blew past Belfour for his first NHL goal.
"That line has had trouble producing scoring chances so far this year and tonight was no different," said Julien referring to the Ribeiro, Ryder and Pierre Dagenais trio. "Putting Plekanec alongside Ribeiro and Ryder seemed to give them a spark and they scored a big goal for us.
"They looked good tonight for the short time they played together," the coach noted, choosing not to specify whether the new line could be a sign of things to come. "Plekanec brings a lot of energy, speed and skill to any line we put him on. But we'll see what happens from this point on."
With the momentum clearly favoring the home team in the third period, the Leafs still managed to capitalize on the Canadiens inability to clear their zone with Lindros corralling a long rebound before firing the puck between Jose Theodore's pads for the game-winner for his second goal of the night and team-leading fifth of the season.
Theodore made his return to action on Saturday night after getting a well-deserved breather on Thursday in Atlanta and stopped 18-of-21 shots. In his second start in as many nights, Belfour turned away 29-of-31 Canadiens shots that came his way, including a number of huge stops late in the game.
Montreal went 1-for-7 on the power-play, which didn't sit well with Julien, while the Leafs connected on 2-of-4 opportunities with the man advantage.
"We have to get more traffic in front of the net," said Julien. "Those second and third chance opportunities won't come unless we start getting our sticks on some rebounds. But Belfour didn't make our job easy tonight."
Plekanec became the third Canadiens rookie to notch his first NHL goal this season, after Alexander Perezhogin and Chris Higgins.
"Sure it's great to finally get that first one," admitted Plekanec. "But it would feel a whole lot better if we would have won. I was getting more and more impatient, but now it's over with and I don't have to worry about whether my first goal would ever come."
The Canadiens were once again missing top-line winger Richard Zednik, who sat out his fifth consecutive game due to an injured groin. Montreal's top scorer in each of the last two seasons, Zednik is expected to start skating this week. The Leafs were without captain Mats Sundin who is expected to miss at least a few more weeks with a damaged orbital bone suffered early in Toronto's season-opening loss to the Senators.
Having now split their first two showdowns with Toronto, the Canadiens and Maple Leafs will next meet on Nov. 12, as Montreal looks to claim its first season series with over the Leafs since the 1998-99 season, when the Canadiens went 3-2.
The Canadiens will continue their four-game home stand Tuesday night against the Bruins before hosting the Islanders next Saturday, followed by a visit from the Flyers on Oct. 25.
NOTES: Saturday night's game drew a capacity crowd of 21,273 marking the Canadiens' 20th consecutive regular season sellout dating back to 2003-04... Komisarek's physical presence on Saturday night even drew the attention of Leafs' enforcer Tie Domi who was looking for a dancing partner late in the first period, but Komisarek politely declined the invitation... Looking on from the pressbox were D Mark Streit, LW Raitis Ivanans (eye) and Zednik (groin)...Prior to the game, the Canadiens announced that the club would be retiring three jerseys in 2005-06 including Bernard Geoffrion (No. 5), as well as Dickie Moore (No. 12) and Yvan Cournoyer (No. 12)...The team will pay tribute to Moore and Cournoyer in a pre-game ceremony on Saturday, November 12, against the Toronto Maple Leafs, while Geoffrion's big night will take place on Saturday March 11, prior to the game between the Canadiens and the Rangers...The pre-game introduction of Geoffrion, Moore and Cournoyer brought the crowd to its feet, another in the long list of standing ovations of their brilliant careers...The Canadiens also honored their seven previously retired jerseys on Saturday night, including No. 1 Jacques Plante, No. 2 Doug Harvey, No. 4 Jean Beliveau, No. 7 Howie Morenz, No. 9 Maurice Richard, No. 10 Guy Lafleur and No. 16 Henri Richard with a pre-game video montage.
Manny Almela is a writer for canadiens.com