MONTREAL -- Back on French Canadian home ice, the Montreal Canadiens found themselves speaking the language of ... the Philadelphia Flyers: bang the body, fight for space, get some production from unsung heroes and make life tough for the opposing goalie. In essence, play like you mean it.
With a solid bounce-back game that may have changed the tenor of the Eastern Conference Finals, the Canadiens got themselves back into the series with a well-earned 5-1 win at the Bell Centre Thursday night. Call it what you will. Flyers captain Mike Richards described it as "an ass-kicking."
This was not a score inflated by bad bounces and soft goals, either. These were the Canadiens who bounced both Washington and Pittsburgh, two certain Stanley Cup contenders, rather than the team that at times approached the opposing net in Philadelphia as though it was littered with land mines. Montreal still trails the series, 2-1, but now the Flyers are the ones who need to make adjustments and the Canadiens, renewed with confidence, merely need to hit the rewind and replay buttons for Game 4 on Saturday afternoon.
"We played with the kind of desperation we should have had in their building," said Canadiens forward Brian Gionta. "We were better with our backs against the wall."
After a pair of shutouts in the first two games on home ice, Flyers goalie Michael Leighton was finally solved, his goalless streak of 172:05 disappearing just seven minutes into a game in which his team was outshot, 38-26.
For starters, Montreal's Tomas Plekanec won a puck in the offensive corner, something he rarely did at the Wachovia Center. Away from the puck, Montreal's Mike Cammalleri gave flyers defenseman Matt Carle a nudge with a crosscheck in order to buy himself some space in the offensive slot. After Leighton stopped an initial point shot, Cammalleri was free to pop home the rebound from in front of the crease. "Good poise by the point men and good battles in front of me by linemates," said Cammalleri. "The puck just bounced out to me."
Later in the period, Flyers' defensive stalwart Chris Pronger committed a rare giveaway in his own zone when the puck appeared to slide off his stick as he was trying to make an outlet pass to James van Riemsdyk. Montreal's Dominic Moore pounced on the loose puck and fired a wrist shot from his off-wing. The initial shot hit off the stick of Habs' forward Maxim Lapierre and tapped the post to Leighton's glove side. Tom Pyatt then knocked the rebound into the net with a combination of his hands and stick, just before he slid his skates into the net. After reviewing the play, officials allowed Montreal's second goal, a key contribution from the grinders, to stand. "[The puck] hit some snow," Pronger later explained about the turnover. "I got the puck, looked up tried to put Riemer on his way. That happens, but I didn't do a good job of recovering and taking away the slot after that."
The Habs increased the lead to 3-0 at 11:33 of the second on a rare weak effort from Leighton and another example of strong offensive net presence that was sorely lacking in the first two games. Moore sent a shot from the high slot through a two-man screen, as Lapierre did a good job of keeping Scott Hartnell occupied in front of the net.
Though he lost his shutout streak, Leighton still showed moments of strong work in a losing cause with the Habs finally going to the net. Late in the second period, he made a superb poke check against Plekanec, who was all alone in front of the Philadelphia crease with nary a Flyer nearby. It was typical of the buzz and jump the Canadiens showed from the opening whistle. "I think speed and quickness is something we have and we have to use," said Montreal coach Jacques Martin. "I thought we did and we did a better job of getting to the net tonight."
By contrast, Montreal goalie Jaroslav Halak was having a much easier night. He made some good stops early, including one on van Riemsdyk's direction-changing tip in the opening minutes, but as happened with Leighton at home, his defensemen made sure he face few challenging rebounds. In particular, Roman Hamrlik (+4) and P.K. Subban (+3) were much stronger and more secure on the puck. Hamrlik also added a pair of assists and Subban chipped in with three.
In the opening minutes of the final period, Hamrlik sent a high, looping pass from center ice that landed flat, just inside the Flyers' blue line. Carle, the Philadelphia defenseman closest to the pass, took himself straight out of the play by leaping up for and whiffing at the puck rather than backing up to go chase it. Gionta then caught up to the puck and found himself alone with Leighton. After fake to his backhand put the goaltender on his stomach, Gionta then switched to his forehand and slid the puck into an open corner to make it 4-0.
The Flyers' Simon Gagne and the Habs' Marc-Andre Bergeron traded goals in the third period to complete the scoring. Only at the end of the game did the Flyers show a whiff of Broad Street attitude. In the final two minutes, Richards pounced on Montreal's Jaroslav Spacek and Hartnell picked a fight with Hamrlik away from the main scrum.
After riding a six-game post-season win streak into a tough opposing building, the Flyers know they were spanked for the first time in a while. It's no surprise, given the pluck the Canadiens have shown in getting this far in the playoffs. The last few minutes, so the Flyers hope, was a sign of a meaner, more determined team that will recover on Saturday.
"Honestly, they wanted the game more than we did," said Gagne. "If you work hard, you get those shooting lanes. It's a product of good effort."