TORONTO — Having lost three of four and trailing their rivals by a goal through 40 minutes Saturday, the Canadiens were staring down an uncomfortable week filled with no games and lots of questions.
A third period they may well look back on as a turning point in the NHL's pandemic-shortened season completely flipped that script.
Brendan Gallagher scored with 3:07 left in regulation and Carey Price was stellar early before finishing with 21 saves as Montreal battled back to defeat the Toronto Maple Leafs 2-1.
The Canadiens were on their heels from the drop of the puck and could have been down at least a couple after the first, but Price was there — as he has been so many times in his career — to shut the door and give his team time to sort itself out.
"Find a way," Gallagher, who also had an assist, said of the message in the second intermission. "Our goaltender gave us the biggest opportunity to go out there and win that hockey game. We were able to come out and outplay them for 20 minutes.
"That's kind of what this league is. You've got to take advantage of those opportunities when you get them. We've been on the other side where you outplay teams and let them hang around."
Tyler Toffoli had the other goal for Montreal (9-4-2), which snapped a 1-3-0 run and cut Toronto's lead atop the North Division to three points instead of watching the Leafs build a seven-point cushion.
"We just gutted it out," Canadiens captain Shea Weber said. "Everyone stepped up."
Montreal began this 56-game campaign 7-1-2, but entered Saturday having lost three of its last four in regulation — all at home — including Wednesday's 4-2 loss to Toronto and a 3-0 setback at the hands of the Edmonton Oilers the following night.
The Canadiens don't play again until next Saturday when they host the Leafs, who have games Monday, Wednesday and Thursday back at Scotiabank Arena against the three-win Ottawa Senators.
"It's been a little frustrating the last few games," Weber added. "We started skating and started playing. We've got time off here, but we've got to build off of that third and continue it into next week when we play Toronto again."
Tomas Tatar, who led his team with 61 points in 68 games in 2019-20, was a surprise healthy scratch for a Montreal club looking for a spark.
Mitch Marner replied for Toronto (11-3-1), which got 23 saves from Frederik Andersen. Auston Matthews picked up an assist to extend his point streak to 11 contests for the Leafs, who lost in regulation for the first time since Jan. 20.
"We didn't make good on the chances that we earned in the first," Toronto head coach Sheldon Keefe said. "We had more than enough offence there in the first to blow this game wide open and didn't capitalize.
"Then our game was a mess from there."
The Canadiens, who also fell 5-4 to the Leafs in overtime on opening night, scored 44 goals during that hot start — including 28 over five games against the Vancouver Canucks — but have found the back of the net just six times since.
They got just enough offence on this night.
Gallagher scored the winner late in the third when he knocked down Jeff Petry's point shot and then banged home his sixth of the season for his team's first lead inside an empty Scotiabank Arena because of COVID-19 protocols.
Toronto didn't muster much the rest of the way, and will now turn its attention to next week's three-game set with Ottawa.
"They just kept competing hard," Leafs captain John Tavares said. "They were physical. We just weren't able to be as in sync as we'd like to be and find that other level to our game. We got off to a good start, had some good opportunities, had good offensive zone time.
"We knew they were going to come out (in the third) and play hard. We just didn't find another level."
Down 1-0 after 40 minutes in a game where there wasn't much room, Toffoli tied things when he took a pass from Phillip Danault, who was partially responsible for Marner's opener, and buried his team-leading 10th at 6:11 of the third with Toronto's fourth line on the ice.
Andersen then had to be sharp later in the period on a Jesperi Kotkaniemi chance at the side of the net as Montreal continued to carry the play before Gallagher pushed Montreal in front.
After seeing his eight-game point streak come to an end Wednesday, Marner returned to the scoresheet 3:36 into the first when Matthews stripped Danault behind Price's net and fed his linemate to bury the winger's seventh upstairs — and the first of his career against the Canadiens.
Marner and Matthews had a couple more chances to increase Toronto's lead, but Price was there at every turn. Alexander Kerfoot then hit the post off a feed from William Nylander, who subsequently forced a blocker save out of the Canadiens netminder from the slot.
"The first period, we chopped up that puck pretty good," Montreal head coach Claude Julien said. "We were fighting it the whole period. It really felt like we were on our heels.
"We were a little tentative, so we made a couple of adjustments after the first period. It seemed like in the second period we slowly started to see our team pick up the pace of the game. In the third period, I thought we played more the way we need to play."
Toffoli forced a good stop out of Andersen early in the second before Toronto's goalie stoned the Canadiens sniper on another opportunity as the visitors started to find their footing.
"The second period was better than the first, the third period was better than the second," Gallagher said of Montreal's performance. "We felt fortunate that we were only down one.
"That's kind of what gives you life."
Notes: Marner has now scored against all 30 NHL opponents in his career. ... The Leafs honoured legendary Toronto Star columnist Frank Orr, who died Saturday at age 84, with a video tribute during a first-period TV timeout. ... Montreal and Toronto play seven more times this season.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Feb. 13, 2021.
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Joshua Clipperton, The Canadian Press