BOSTON - The Montreal Canadiens came up just short in their playoff opener against the Boston Bruins, but felt they sent an important message to anyone who didn't believe they could keep up with their favoured first-round opponent.
Boston captain Zdeno Chara's power-play goal midway through the third period was the game-winner as the top-seeded Bruins overcame a feisty effort from the arch-rival Canadiens to win Game 1 of their Eastern Conference quarter-final series 4-2 on Thursday.
Montreal lost five of six regular season meetings with the Bruins and finished 23 points back in the standings. But were still tied in the series opener with less than nine minutes left in regulation without injured defenceman Andrei Markov, arguably their best player.
"Anyone who thought we had no chance, I think we opened their eyes tonight," said winger Alex Tanguay, who assisted on the Habs' first goal. "This game could have finished 6-1 or 4-2 the way it did, I think if you look at our team and look at their team, there's no doubt we can compete with them."
Phil Kessel scored twice and David Krejci also scored for the Bruins, while Tim Thomas was solid in nets with 26 saves.
"It was a close, physical game, a tight-checking game," Chara said. "We got the lead, they fought back, but we got some power play opportunities and we took advantage of it."
Christopher Higgins and Alex Kovalev scored for the Canadiens, who got 35 saves from Carey Price in a losing effort.
"I think our guys are really proud of our effort," Price said. "Our team played really well, we skated with them all night. It was a bit of a confidence boost knowing that we can skate with these guys."
In a repeat of last year's first round series between the storied rivals, the Canadiens and Bruins lived up to the history between the two clubs with a riveting game full of big hits and momentum swings.
The Canadiens have a 24-7 edge in their playoff encounters with the Bruins, including last year's seven-game victory, but they are heavy underdogs this year.
The sellout TD Banknorth Garden crowd of 17,565 was a sea of black and gold with very few Canadiens fans in attendance. It was in stark contrast to last year's series when legions of Quebecers made the five-hour drive to Boston for Games 3 and 4 to taunt the Bruins in their own building.
In a surprise move, Canadiens head coach and general manager Bob Gainey split up his top line of Saku Koivu between Tanguay and Kovalev. He moved enforcer Georges Laraque on to Koivu's wing with Kovalev, while Tanguay moved on to a line with Glen Metropolit and Higgins.
"I thought Georges played well, he didn't make errors with the puck, got a couple of shots on net and provided the Bruins with the challenge of moving his size around in the crease area," Gainey said. "If his presence there pays off with some offensive results, it would be a real bonus for our team."
The move paid quick dividends as Tanguay set up Higgins for the Canadiens first goal, while Laraque had a few confrontations with Chara who was often matched up against Kovalev.
"It's going to be a long series and Chara plays a lot of big minutes, so if you get a big body on him and finish your checks on him, the wear and tear will be an asset," said Laraque, who logged a season-high 13:12 of ice time. "That's what I try to do every shift, just make it harder and harder on him."
With the score tied 2-2 midway through the third period, Canadiens defenceman Josh Gorges was sent to the penalty box for cross-checking P.J. Axelsson in front of the Montreal net with the puck in the neutral zone.
"The last penalty was out in the open," Gainey said. "It was very difficult for the referee to look the other way and not see that as a penalty."
The Bruins converted 19 seconds into the ensuing power play, with Chara wiring a Savard feed past Price's stick side at 11:15 of the third.
"He's got a big shot and he used it," Price said. "That's a pretty good thing to have on their side, to have a guy that big who shoots that hard."
Kessel iced the win with an empty-net goal at 19:46 of the third, triggering some post-whistle scrums as both teams began to get ready for Game 2 Saturday night.
Just like the Canadiens did to them in Game 1 of last year's playoff series, the Bruins jumped out to a 2-0 lead in the first period with goals 90 seconds apart.
Boston opened the scoring at 13:11 when Price had a puck knocked free during a scrum by Krejci and Kessel was there to jump on it and put it in an empty net. It was Kessel's fourth straight game with a goal after scoring in the final three regular season contests.
"There was one that squeaked away from (Price) early in the game, and I'm sure he wishes he'd been a little more vigilant with that one," Gainey said. "But I thought he was solid, both goalies didn't give anything away."
The Bruins made it 2-0 at 14:41 after Milan Lucic beat Josh Gorges to a dump in and fed former Hab Michael Ryder, who found Krejci alone in front for a backhand goal.
The Canadiens got to within a goal before the period was over when Tanguay was stoned by Thomas on a chance in front, but corralled the rebound and fed it to Higgins for a one-timer at 16:19.
The Canadiens came out for the second period aggressive and spent more time in the Bruins zone. It finally paid off at 17:37 of the period, when Koivu bounced a pass over to Kovalev and he unleashed a rocket of a one-timer over Thomas' left shoulder to make it 2-2 and briefly quiet the Boston faithful.
Notes: Defenceman Shane Hnidy and winger Byron Bitz were healthy scratches for the BruinsWinger Sergei Kostitsyn and defencemen Ryan O'Byrne and Yannick Weber sat out for the Habs, while Markov missed his fifth game with a suspected knee injury … The Bruins' Blake Wheeler and Matt Hunwick and the Canadiens' Matt D'Agostini all made their playoff debuts.