MONTREAL – The Montreal Canadiens have established a rotation of forwards who will lead their team to victory, and Wednesday night it was Lars Eller's turn up at the plate.
Eller scored the opening goal in regulation and the winner in the shootout as the Montreal Canadiens extended their winning streak to four games with a 4-3 victory against the Ottawa Senators at Bell Centre on Wednesday.
The previous couple of games it was the line centered by Tomas Plekanec that led the Canadiens' attack, and on other nights it's been the line of David Desharnais that has caused the opposition the most problems.
But on this night, it was Eller and his rookie linemates Alex Galchenyuk and Gabriel Dumont that gave the Senators fits, combining to register 12 of the Canadiens' 45 shots on goal -- with seven coming from Eller alone.
"The beauty of this team is that we have so many lines that can go in and make the difference. Some line always seems to be hot and pots in three or four. It's been like that for a lot of the season," Eller said after being named the game's first star, a deserving honor. "Last year, we pretty much had one line that scored for us. That makes a huge difference."
Eller's goal gave him 15 points in 25 games played, more than halfway toward his total of 28 points in 79 games last season. The key piece acquired in the trade that sent goaltender Jaroslav Halak to the St. Louis Blues in the summer of 2010, Eller has shown a level of consistency that was absent in his first two seasons in Montreal.
"I think it's just the confidence in myself and my own game," Eller said. "I'm taking the opportunity and making things happen instead of waiting for them to happen. I'm more physically involved, and when I do that [coach] Mike [Therrien] plays me more. Then you just want more and you want more."
Therrien benched Eller for two games after the opening game of the season because of a lack of intensity, but that has clearly not been a problem over the past month or so.
"Lars Eller was phenomenal tonight," Therrien said.
P.K. Subban had a goal and an assist and Brendan Gallagher also scored for the Canadiens (18-5-4), who took back sole possession of first place in the Eastern Conference by moving two points ahead of the Pittsburgh Penguins with the win.
Mika Zibanejad, Daniel Alfredsson and Patrick Wiercoch scored in regulation for the Senators (13-8-6), who have just one win in seven games but have still picked up six points over that span by losing three times in the shootout and once in overtime, allowing them to remain in the thick of the playoff picture in the Eastern Conference.
It was the seventh time in their last 12 games the Senators were tied at the end of regulation, and it was the 10th straight time they were involved in a one-goal game.
"We battled hard. A lot of our games in which we had points it hasn't been pretty, but we just seem to find a way and that shows character," said Alfredsson, who now has two goals and an assists in his last four games after going pointless in his five previous contests. "That's one thing we know, we're not going to give up. You know it's going to be tough every night and we're going to keep fighting until the final whistle."
Continuing that trend by erasing a two-goal deficit in a hostile building against the top team in the East took a lot of the sting out of losing the shootout for the Senators.
"We'd obviously like to get some wins out of these overtime and shootout losses, but again, with the bunch of guys that we have in here, I like that we're sticking around in these games," said defenseman Marc Methot. "We're not getting blown out of the building, even on the road we're keeping the games pretty tight and that's a huge positive that we can take out of these games. Even if we are getting a couple of losses here. But I think a lot of us are pretty happy."
After Alex Galchenyuk scored on Montreal's first attempt in the shootout, fellow rookie Jakob Silfverberg tied it as Ottawa's second shooter. Eller was the Canadiens' third and final shooter, and he beat Robin Lehner upstairs when the Senators' goalie attempted a poke check and missed.
Kyle Turris was Ottawa's final shooter, and his attempt was stopped by Carey Price to seal the win for the Canadiens. One game after Kaspars Daugavins became the talk of the NHL for his creative shootout attempt against Boston on Monday, coach Paul MacLean was asked why he didn't go back to that well once again.
"Oh, he was next for sure," MacLean said. "He said he had something special again, we were disappointed we didn't get to see it."
Subban's goal and assist came on Montreal's two power-play goals scored in the game, meaning he has had a hand in each of the last nine goals the Canadiens have scored with the man advantage. His second period goal was also Subban's seventh of the season, giving him the NHL lead in goals by a defenseman.
"There's no denying his talent level, it's unmatched for a lot of players," Subban's defense partner Josh Gorges said. "When you hone it all in, it's a scary combination."
The goals by Zibanejad and Alfredsson were their sixth of the season, allowing both of them to finally tie their fellow Swede Erik Karlsson for the team lead in goals exactly one month after the reigning Norris Trophy-winning defenseman played his last game and had his Achilles tendon lacerated.
The Canadiens opened the scoring for the 20th time in their 27 games this season at 7:02 of the first off some excellent work by rookie forward Gabriel Dumont, who earned his first NHL point on the play. Working behind the net, Dumont quickly spun along the boards with the puck to shed Daugavins and attempted to stuff the puck in. Lehner made the save, but a hard-charging Eller pounced on the rebound and buried it for his fourth of the season.
The Senators tied it at 10:26 on the power play when Chris Neil won a puck battle along the wall to allow Silfverberg to retrieve it. The Swedish rookie immediately fired it into the slot to his countryman Zibanejad, who beat Price to the blocker side for his sixth of the season and third in his past five games.
Montreal took the lead back on the power play at 6:40 of the second when Subban fed Max Pacioretty for a shot from the bottom of the faceoff circle that was tipped in front by Gallagher as he fended off two Senators defenders for his eighth goal of the season, moving him into sole possession of second place in the NHL for goals by a rookie.
A Subban blast from the point on another power play beat a screened Lehner at 17:11 of the second period to make it 3-1 Canadiens, but the two-goal margin was very short-lived.
With the Senators on a power play and the clock winding down on the period, Alfredsson walked out from the corner and wired a wrist shot just under the crossbar and off the net camera with less than two seconds to play in the second. The referees initially waved the goal off, but video review clearly showed the shot bouncing out off the camera.
Wiercoch tied it 3-3 for Ottawa early in the third when he entered the zone, cut to the middle against Andrei Markov and took a quick wrist shot that beat Price between the legs for his third of the season at 1:50.
The Canadiens had two excellent opportunities to take the lead midway through the third when Chris Phillips and Wiercoch took penalties less than three minutes apart at 9:17 and 12:06, but Lehner stood tall for the Senators to keep the game tied, with perhaps his best stop coming on a deflection in tight by Michael Ryder during the second power play.
Lehner also managed to get an arm on a Galchenyuk laser beam wrist shot to deflect it off the crossbar with about 1:20 to play in regulation.