NEW YORK – Alex Galchenyuk and Lars Eller sat side-by-side in the visiting locker room at Madison Square Garden following the Montreal Canadiens' 3-1 victory against the New York Rangers on Tuesday night, smiling and laughing about the team's fifth straight win.
The 19-year-old Galchenyuk broke a streak of 13 games without a goal by finishing a pass – that may have been intended for Eller – from Brandon Prust early in the third period to put the Canadiens ahead for good.
Winning is the bottom line, but it didn't prevent Eller, who has just one goal in his last 14 games, from giving it to Galchenyuk for stepping in front of a pass that was headed right onto his stick.
"He just told me that I might've," said an almost apologetic Galchenyuk. "I wasn't paying attention. I thought it was going to me."
The Canadiens were playing their second game in two nights and looked every bit like a team that had expended all of its energy Monday night in Montreal. Through 20 minutes of scoreless, whistle-filled hockey, the Canadiens had just three shots on goal; the Rangers had five.
Rangers coach John Tortorella called it, "one of the worst hockey games I've been involved in. Both teams. But they were better than we were."
The Rangers grabbed a 1-0 lead midway through the second period when defenseman Anton Stralman scored his second goal of the season. The goal came during a delayed penalty in which the Canadiens simply stopped skating, allowing Stralman to get to the doorstep for the easy goal.
It appeared that could be enough, as the Canadiens were still struggling to generate offense. That all changed after a controversial call late in the second period that went against the Rangers.
Canadiens forward Erik Cole chipped the puck into the Rangers zone, but failed to gain the red line before doing so. Rangers defenseman Michael Del Zotto raced back to touch the puck for what he believed would be an icing, but it was waived off before he slapped the puck away.
The Rangers never regained possession in their zone, and it led to Max Pacioretty slamming a one-timer from the slot past goaltender Henrik Lundqvist to draw the Canadiens even with 1:15 left in the period on just their ninth shot of the game.
For Canadiens coach Michel Therrien, he was happy with how the game progressed after a first period that lacked any true offensive chances for either team.
"You've got to give credit to the Rangers," Therrien said. "We only had three shots, and they only had five. We knew that we had to have a good effort, a good defensive effort to have a tight game. The more the game was tight, I liked our chances to win this hockey game."
Prust spent two-plus seasons with the Rangers before signing with the Canadiens in July as a free agent. It was an emotional return for Prust, who had never played in MSG as a visitor with any team. He made his presence felt all night, playing a season-high 16:26 and helping set up the winner.
With the Rangers on a power play in the final three minutes looking to tie the game, Prust was on the ice killing the penalty. He had four hits and a blocked shot on the night, and his tireless work led to Raphael Diaz's empty-net goal with 1:06 remaining that sealed it.
"The emotions were kind of high at the beginning, but as the game went on it turns into just a regular game," Prust said. "Today was more about getting two points. We played a game last night so we were pretty exhausted. I think if I got into a fight tonight, I would've lasted 10 seconds."
Prust said there wasn't much in the way of chirping from his ex-teammates, but Marian Gaborik had something to say after Prust iced the puck late in the third period. Prust said he told Gaborik he wasn't too worried with him on the ice.
Canadiens goaltender Carey Price put forth a workmanlike effort, making 24 saves to improve to 9-3-0. The victory pushed the Canadiens into first place in the Eastern Conference, something to which Price reacted with nothing but indifference.
"Cool," Price said to the news with a shrug. "We can't rely on that because that can change in a heartbeat."
The Rangers, meanwhile, dropped from the top 8 in the Eastern Conference and now sit at 8-6-1, trailing the Tampa Bay Lightning based on the regulation/overtime wins tiebreaker. They were without forward Rick Nash, who missed the game with an undisclosed injury. Nash was a game-time decision against the Washington Capitals on Sunday, but looked like he was at 100 percent in that contest.
Whatever is ailing Nash, it was enough to keep him out of the lineup against the Canadiens. His presence was clearly missed as the Canadiens clogged the neutral zone and made it nearly impossible for the Rangers to generate any speed through the neutral zone.
"They play extremely boring, but they're a smart team and they didn't give up much," said Lundqvist, who made only 15 saves. "They were just waiting for mistakes and we didn't make that many. They're a quick team and I thought we played a pretty good game. We just didn't cup with the big plays in the end."