MONTREAL – At the beginning of the season, Montreal Canadiens coach Michel Therrien said that every year there is a team considered the NHL's biggest surprise, and he wanted his club to be that team.
Entering the home stretch of the 2012-13 season sitting in first place in the Northeast Division and having taken three of four from the arch rival Boston Bruins after Saturday's 2-1 win, it would be pretty safe to say that Therrien's goal has been realized.
"I trust those guys a lot," Therrien said of his players. "We've got some good young players and they're well surrounded with great leadership. This is one of the reasons we have good chemistry on this hockey team…But am I surprised? Not really. There's still another level we're looking for, we still need to be better at certain things.
"To me, it's normal to want to get better, and they want to get better as a team."
Alex Galchenyuk and Michael Ryder scored, Carey Price made 26 saves and P.K. Subban added another two assists for the Canadiens (25-8-5), who opened up a three-point lead on the Bruins (24-9-4) atop the Northeast Division with their fifth win in six games.
It's a far cry from where this team was a year ago Sunday, when Montreal closed its 2011-12 season with a 4-1 win in Toronto, but still remained in last place in the Eastern Conference.
"It's the pride in this room that made us want to show that last season was not who we are," Canadiens center Lars Eller said. "And we're showing that."
Daniel Paille scored Boston's lone goal and Tuukka Rask made 27 saves for the Bruins, who saw their three-game winning streak come to an end. It was Boston's fifth regulation time loss in 11 games, surpassing the four regulation losses the Bruins had in their first 26 games of the season.
But the most frustrating thing for the Bruins was having a 6-on-4 power play for 56.4 seconds at the end of the third period when Eller took a holding penalty in the offensive zone and not getting a shot on goal, or even attempting one for that matter.
"I thought we were better as the game went on, but not enough," Bruins coach Claude Julien said. "And that 6-on-4 power play, not getting a shot was something that was really frustrating for me. We have to get better in that situation."
Julien was forced to juggle his lines midway through the first period after Montreal took a 1-0 lead against the trio of Tyler Seguin, Brad Marchand and the newly acquired Jaromir Jagr, with Seguin playing center in place of the injured Patrice Bergeron, perhaps the best defensive forward in the NHL.
Julien replaced Seguin at center with Rich Peverley to have a better defensive player in that spot, while Jagr played the rest of the game with Daniel Paille and Gregory Campbell, who usually make up two-thirds of Boston's fourth line.
"You know this is a big game, they're a good team that is really good in the offensive zone, and I don't think Tyler was ready for that," Julien said. "So I had to put a centerman with experience and put [Seguin] back on the wing. I think [Jagr] had a good night with Campbell and Paille so we kind of stabilized these three lines. But one line tonight didn't give us much and the other two were pretty good.
"To win these kinds of games, especially with the injuries we have, we need everybody to step up here and we didn't have enough of that tonight."
The Canadiens lost physical defenseman Alexei Emelin at 10:54 of the first period when he attempted to lay a big hit on Milan Lucic near center ice and took the worst of it, falling awkwardly and suffering what appeared to be an injury to his left leg, likely the knee.
"We all know he's a big hitter and he's really strong on his skates," Lucic said. "When you've got two guys like that going at each other with a lot of speed, sometimes things like that are going to happen."
The goal by Ryder was his sixth in his last six games and his 10th in his past 12 games. He has 10 goals and eight assists in the 18 games he's played since being acquired from the Dallas Stars on Feb. 26. Subban's two assists gave him a goal and nine assists in six games, and gave him 32 points in 32 games this season to increase his lead on Ryan Suter of the Minnesota Wild as the NHL's top scoring defenseman to four points.
Galchenyuk opened the scoring for Montreal on his first shift of the game at 6:49 of the first – the 26th time in 38 games this season the Canadiens have scored the game's first goal.
"I had a lot of energy," Galchenyuk joked when asked about his extended time on the bench to start the game. "I was pretty fresh going out for my first shift."
With Rask scrambling to get back in position following a flurry around the Bruins net, Galchenyuk got the puck below the goal line and attempted to bank it in off the Boston netminder. The wound up in the crease on the other side of Rask, and defenseman Matt Bartkowski wound up kicking it into his own net.
It was Galchenyuk's second goal in as many games, giving the No. 3 pick at the 2012 NHL Draft the first goal streak of his young career.
Montreal continued to control the play for much of the first, but it was an ill-advised Lucic cross-checking penalty in the final minute of the period that wound up costing the Bruins when Ryder tipped home a Subban point shot at 0:57 of the second period to make it 2-0 Montreal.
The Bruins were being largely outplayed until they finally got on the board at 7:10 of the second when Paille beat David Desharnais on an offensive zone draw and Johnny Boychuk took a shot from the point that hit Paille and beat Carey Price to make it 2-1.
From that point onward the Bruins were a different team, controlling the play and spending entire shifts in the Canadiens' zone as Montreal attempted to manage with five defensemen.
But the Bruins squandered that great opportunity to tie the game late, allowing the Canadiens to hold them off and claim the season series between the bitter rivals, marking the first time in four games between the two that the team leading after two periods went on to win the game.
The Canadiens have 10 games remaining while the Bruins have 11, but building on their division lead may have made Montreal believe that finishing first in the Northeast became a lot more realistic Saturday night.
"Yeah, I guess you can look at that way," Eller said. "There are still 10 games to go, and either way if you want to go to the Stanley Cup Final you have to be good enough to beat every team. But obviously you want to finish with as good a record as you can and feel good going in, and this one felt really good."