DETROIT -- The Detroit Red Wings fought back from a slow start Thursday at Joe Louis Arena, but it wasn't enough to overcome the composure of the Montreal Canadiens.
Montreal left town with a 5-4 victory, its fourth straight, although the Red Wings refused to make it an easy night for the Atlantic Division's second-place team.
In order to win, the Canadiens needed goals in the third period by Max Pacioretty and Thomas Vanek to counter two quick goals by Detroit's Tomas Tatar that tied it 3-3 and one by Johan Franzen with 8:24 left in regulation that made it close.
"It doesn't matter if you win 1-0 or 10-9 at this point," said Canadiens goalie Carey Price, who made 26 saves. "It all adds up the same. [The Red Wings] threw everything they had at us. They play well together even through the injuries they've had all season. They still find a way to bring it every night. Every point's huge at this point in the season."
Montreal (42-26-7) moved to 91 points and stayed two points ahead of the Tampa Bay Lightning in the Atlantic Division. The Lightning, who beat the New York Islanders 3-2 in a shootout Thursday, have two games in hand on the Canadiens.
Detroit's situation is foggier.
The loss didn't knock the Red Wings (33-26-14) out of the Eastern Conference's second wild-card spot for the Stanley Cup Playoffs, but it did cost them a chance to gain ground on the idle Washington Capitals and Toronto Maple Leafs. All three teams have 80 points; the Red Wings own tiebreakers on the other two.
Detroit fell behind 2-0 on two goals by Montreal center Tomas Plekanec in the first period and spent the rest of the game trying to dig out of the hole.
After falling behind by two goals twice in the first two periods, Detroit played the third with the desperation of a team on the verge of missing the postseason for the first time in 23 seasons. Asked why it didn't look that way off the opening puck drop, coach Mike Babcock had no answer.
"That's a real good question. That's two games in a row that we got behind and it's unacceptable," Babcock said. "As a coach, [Wednesday], I shouldn't have ... we've played so much hockey that I gave them an optional [practice] and not many guys went onto the ice. [It] looked like we couldn't skate at the start of the game. You can bet it won't be an optional [Friday]."
Tatar's early heroics in the third seemed to give the Red Wings a jolt, but Montreal's top line made sure it didn't become a gut-wrenching meltdown for the visitors.
Pacioretty scored his 33rd goal 21 seconds after Tatar's tying goal, and Vanek got what proved to be the winner at 11:15. It was his 26th goal of the season and fifth in 11 games with the Canadiens since coming from the New York Islanders at the NHL Trade Deadline on March 5.
Since his arrival, Vanek's line -- which includes David Desharnais and Pacioretty -- is steadily gaining confidence. Along with a second line featuring Plekanec, Brendan Gallagher and Alex Galchenyuk, the Canadiens now have two top units loaded with scoring options.
Detroit learned that the hard way. All five Montreal goals came off the sticks of top-six forwards. In addition to the goals by Plekanec, Pacioretty and Vanek, the Canadiens got a goal and an assist from Desharnais.
"Desharnais, Pacioretty and Vanek were true leaders the way that they played," Montreal coach Michel Therrien said. "They played both sides of the ice and they were hungry. They were doing the right things and they got rewarded."
Montreal charged out to the 2-0 lead on Plekanec's 19th and 20th goals of the season. P.K. Subban set up both shots with nice passes in the offensive zone and Plekanec did the rest.
Falling behind might not be as a big deal to the Red Wings under normal circumstances, but they've struggled to create offense during an injury-plagued season. Their two most prolific scorers, Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg, are watching games on TV instead of playing -- and the results are starting to show.
Detroit had scored more than three goals in two of its previous 10 games, and most of that production came from Gustav Nyquist, who had a six-game goal streak snapped. Babcock continues to search for additional scoring, but he knows there's not enough on most nights to overcome multiple-goal deficits.
"I didn't think we played well enough," he said. "That's the bottom line. Everyone talks about our injuries and kids; this had nothing to do with that. This had to do with just not getting the job done, and not enough focus. It was a huge game for us, and we didn't get it looked after."
They almost did thanks to a strong effort in the third, when things really got interesting.
The goalies got a workout in the final 20 minutes, when five combined goals were scored. In the end, it was the Canadiens who withstood the pressure best.
"They didn't take a minute off tonight," Pacioretty said of the Red Wings. "They played a strong game and we're fortunate enough to come out with the win. We want to play a defense-first game. We don't want to give up four goals. But being able to put in five against a team like that helps our offensive confidence."