This time, there were no miracles in Montreal. Only disappointment.
Two nights after the Canadiens overcame a 5-0 deficit to beat the New York Rangers in a shootout, they rallied again after Pittsburgh took leads of 2-0 and 3-1. But after grabbing a 4-3 lead in the third period, the Canadiens couldn’t hold off Evgeni Malkin, who scored the tying goal midway through the period and set up Sergei Gonchar’s game-winner 36 seconds later to give the Penguins a 5-4 victory.
"We got behind but we stuck to our game plan and it worked," Gonchar said after Pittsburgh’s third consecutive victory.
Thursday night’s win moved the Penguins back into a first-place tie with New Jersey in the Atlantic Division — while costing the Canadiens a chance to take the lead in the Northeast Division and the Eastern Conference. Ottawa’s shootout loss earned the Senators a point; they have 76, one more than Montreal, New Jersey and Pittsburgh at the top of the East.
Pittsburgh is now 9-4-2 since Sidney Crosby went down with a high ankle sprain last month.
"We're a little surprised," forward Ryan Malone said of the Pens’ success without their captain. "We've had a lot of injuries and a lot of players called up from (AHL) Wilkes-Barre, but it shows the depth on our team.
"When Sid returns, it'll be a big boost for us."
Much of that success is due to the brilliance of Malkin, who has 12 goals and 30 points since Crosby went down — including 24 points in the Pens’ last 10 games.
“I'm not surprised," Gonchar said of Malkin. "He's getting the ice time and he's playing up to his potential."
The sellout crowd at the Bell Centre might have had flashbacks of Tuesday night’s game when the Canadiens spotted the visitors a two-goal lead in the first period. Ryan Whitney fired Malkin’s drop pass past Cristobal Huet at 6:46, and Jarkko Ruutu scored on a breakaway at 18:47 after Andrei Markov’s turnover.
This time, the Canadiens didn’t let the deficit grow. Saku Koivu made it 2-1 at 3:27 of the second period, but Malone’s rebound goal on a power play at 6:59 restored the Pens’ two-goal margin.
Then it was all Montreal. Christopher Higgins got a power-play goal at 18:07, redirecting Alex Kovalev’s pass behind Dany Sabourin.
Michael Ryder tied the score 21 seconds into the third period when he came around from behind the net and slid a shot that went in off Sabourin's skate for his fourth goal in three games. With the sellout crowd roaring, Montreal took its first lead when defenseman Roman Hamrlik joined a rush, took Koivu’s pass and beat Sabourin with a wrist shot from the left circle on a power play at 3:25.
But the Canadiens couldn’t slow down Malkin. The second-year star sneaked behind the Montreal defense, took a pass from Whitney and scored the tying goal on a breakaway at 10:22. After Kovalev took a penalty, Malkin got his second assist of the night and League-high 82nd point of the season when he fed Gonchar for a point shot that beat Huet at 10:58.
It was Gonchar's 600th NHL point and gave him an eighth straight 50-point season, the most among active defensemen.
“Not bad, eh?" Gonchar said with a smile. "When you've been in the league for a while, it happens, I guess.
"I played with really good players in Washington and here, and I stayed healthy, which is probably the biggest thing."
Montreal coach Guy Carbonneau was upset with his team’s defensive errors in its own end and spotty goaltending from Huet.
"We said our goaltending has to be excellent for the rest of the season," he said. "Now we've given up five goals in each of the last two games."
He also said his team has been getting too many pats on the back for being near the top of the conference.
"We win three in a row and people think the Stanley Cup parade is on," Carbonneau said. "If they're going to play here, they better get used to that.
"I tell them: if we win, you enjoy it and then you forget about it and get back to work. In Montreal, that's what you have to do."
Material from wire services was used in this report.