At 3:35 of the first period, a long shift by lines on both teams ended with a skirmish between Brandon Prust and David Clarkson. Prust didn't want anything to do with the fight at that point, hoping, rather, to get back to the bench and catch his breath. Clarkson was relentless in his effort to spark his team and Prust eventually gave in and obliged. With both players completely gassed, few punches were thrown and those that were had little force behind them.
In hindsight, that was a perfect analogy for how the rest of the game would play out.
Image credit: HockeyStats.ca
Montreal looked to have little interest in the game against a terrible team in the Maple Leafs; an issue that has plagued them for some time, most recently with losses to the Arizona Coyotes, Buffalo Sabres, and Edmonton Oilers in the last two weeks. The Canadiens have a rather remarkable ability to play to the level of their competition, and that has bitten them in recent games.
Daniel Winnik scored the game's opening goal just over 11 minutes into the first period to once again force the Habs to play from behind. A determined effort on a powerplay quickly tied things back up just a few seconds later with Brendan Gallagher tapping a loose puck in from his office in front of the opposing goal.
Montreal was jolted out of their cruise control late in the first period when an injury altered the flow of proceedings. Another attempt by Clarkson to boost his team went awry when he caught Sergei Gonchar with a hit in the numbers, sending the veteran rearguard into the end boards and out of the game. Nathan Beaulieu instigated a fight with Clarkson after the hit, earning himself a total sentence of 17 minutes that, when coupled with the game-ending injury to Gonchar, would see Montreal down to just four defencemen for nearly a period's worth of time.
Not wanting to burden the rarely-used Mike Weaver with increased minutes (Weaver's total ice-time: 17:44), the defensive load was placed on Andrei Markov and P.K. Subban, both of whom played over 30 minutes on the night.
Subban's ice time was highlighted by two lengthy shifts in the second period, each spanning a complete powerplay opportunity for the Canadiens, including a three-minute man advantage from the Clarkson hit at the end of the first period.
All told, Subban finished the game with a regular season career-high 35 minutes 21 seconds played, which is also the highest of the 2014-15 season. And, despite Hockey Night in Canada commentary to the contrary, he played very effectively with the increased load, finishing with a 60% Corsi-for percentage (+30, -20) while being thrust into a defensively-shifted role.
Subban's second-highest regular season minutes total was achieved just two games prior when he played almost 32 minutes versus the Philadelphia Flyers on February 10. These recent totals are a good indication that the team is in need of another second-pairing defenceman to reduce the strain on the top two.
At the opposite end of the ice time spectrum was Michaël Bournival, whose game-high 89% Corsi-for percentage (+8, -1) wasn't enough to garner more than 5:21 of time on the ice. Christian Thomas, coming off his first career goal performance on Thursday, saw more use with about nine-and-a-half minutes of playing time.
Jacob de la Rose appears to be gaining Michel Therrien's confidence in his short NHL career, playing just shy of 15 minutes; more than he has played in any of his previous five games and ranking seventh in last night's game in time on ice among Canadiens forwards. To put that total into perspective, in 82 regular season games Bournival has played at least 15 minutes only six times.
De la Rose and his linemates also had 65% of shot attempts go their way (+8, -7) in his five-on-five time. He is quickly establishing himself as a capable NHLer who could be an excellent wingman for Lars Eller — provided Eller is still a member of the team come March 3rd.
Once all the regulation minutes had been played — most of them at an All-Star Game pace — and a more exciting five minutes of overtime had gone by with no winning goal, the game went to a shootout (it was the kind of game that deserved to have its outcome decided via shootout...).
Alex Galchenyuk got it started with one of the few skilled plays of the entire night: a great deke that incapacitated Jonathan Bernier, leaving the top of the net open.
He followed up his goal with a subtle Paciorettian twirl-and-sheathe as well.
Going next with a 1-0 lead, David Desharnais beat a failed Jonathan Bernier poke check to put the Canadiens up 2-0. Potential trade acquisition Mike Santorelli kept his team alive with a goal on the Leafs' next shot, but James van Riemsdyk shot wide on Carey Price and missed the net on Toronto's third and final attempt.
An overtime loss to the last-place Edmonton Oilers on Thursday and last night's shootout win over a Toronto Maple Leafs team that isn't much better have allowed Montreal to fall up the steps to the top of the Atlantic Division once again. Monday night the Canadiens will play one of the teams chasing them down for that title when they travel to Detroit to take on Mike Babcock's Red Wings.