MONTREAL – The way P.K. Subban's rookie season has gone, it couldn't be any more appropriate that he be the center of controversy, but ultimately the reason why the Montreal Canadiens are going to the playoffs for a fourth straight season.
Subban drew a disputed penalty on Jonathan Toews then blasted home the overtime winner on the ensuing power play to propel the Canadiens to a 2-1 victory against the Chicago Blackhawks on Tuesday, triggering a wild celebration and in one sequence encapsulating a season full of criticism and praise for the first-year defenseman.
"People are always going to criticize what I do, and everybody gets criticized, but for me it's just what the team needs me to do," Subban said. "But the more people talk, the better I play. You can talk about that. If you want to talk about the celebration, go ahead. I'll just keep playing and doing whatever the team needs me to do."
Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville was irate on the bench after the call on Toews, strongly suggesting his belief that Subban dove on the play even though replays suggested a stick hit his skate.
After the game, Quenneville was no more willing to accept the call than he was in the heat of the battle.
"It was a tough ending for sure," Quennevile said. "I 100 percent disagreed with that call at the end. He wasn't calling it, and Jonathan didn't touch his feet."
Shortly thereafter, Andrei Kostitsyn corralled a puck at the side boards and fed it across to Subban in the left circle, where he one-timed a rocket high to the far corner for the rookie's 14th of the season.
He immediately skated back toward his end, dragging his glove across the ice surface at centre ice on his way to greet the real hero of the game – Canadiens goaltender Carey Price – who set a franchise record with his 71st appearance of the season and made 42 saves to grab his 37th win.
Price and Subban met near the Canadiens blue line and jumped in the air to bump each other, sending Subban sprawling to the ice.
"We just looked at each other, skated really hard at each other, and we were both just really excited and I buried him," Price said, quite pleased with himself.
But Subban didn't appear to care about the high profile spill, as the rest of his Canadiens teammates quickly joined the celebration before heading back to centre ice to salute the fans, deliriously cheering a playoff berth many in the city feared wouldn't come.
And unlike last season, when the Canadiens got a similar ovation after an overtime loss in the 82nd game clinched a playoff berth that would ultimately end in the Eastern Conference Finals, the team has two games left to do some fine tuning before entering the post-season.
"We've got a few things to work on, and right now is obviously the perfect opportunity to do that," Price said. "We've got some time to iron things out and really get ourselves prepared for the next stage."
The game was an absolute goaltending showdown between Price and Montreal-area native Corey Crawford, making his first start in his hometown and shining with 33 saves of his own.
Patrick Kane got the lone goal for the suddenly goal-starved Blackhawks (42-28-9), who've scored four goals in their past four games, including being shut out twice.
The point will be valuable to Chicago's own playoff hopes as the Dallas Stars climbed to within two points of the eighth-place Blackhawks with a 3-0 win against Columbus. Should the Stars manage to tie the Blackhawks in both points and non-shootout wins, Dallas would hold the second tiebreaker with a 3-1-0 record against Chicago this season.
And that valuable point was earned on the back of Crawford, who withstood an early Canadiens charge long enough to allow Chicago to strike back and take over the momentum in the game.
"We've come to expect it from him, he's been awesome all year," Kane said. "He's really playing at the top of his game right now and it's good to see, right before we get to the playoffs."
However, the point may also have been a costly one as Troy Brouwer skated off the ice with his right arm drooping noticeably after falling awkwardly to the ice in the third period. Quenneville, already missing Patrick Sharp and Dave Bolland, provided no update after the game other than to say it was an upper-body injury.
Michael Cammalleri had a goal and an assist while Kostitsyn had two assists for the Canadiens (43-30-7), who cannot be caught by the ninth-place Carolina Hurricanes because they hold the first tie-breaker of non-shootout wins.
Cammalleri, who scored a League-leading 13 goals in last year's playoffs, appears to be rounding into form after a difficult season. His goal was his second in three games, but he was a threat all night and it may have been the game where he had the most scoring chances all season.
"The last three or four games I've started to feel a lot better," Cammalleri said. "It's been a challenge this year for a lot of reasons, but I've been feeling better of late."
The first two periods of the game were played in two acts.
The opening 27 minutes clearly belonged to the Canadiens as the played consistently in the offensive end, out-chancing the Blackhawks at least 2-to-1 but failing to get a lead thanks to the brilliance of Crawford.
That changed at the 6:55 mark of the second when Kostitsyn found Cammalleri all alone in high slot, and his shot banked off Brent Seabrook and in for his 18th of the season.
Viktor Stalberg took a holding penalty 25 seconds later and with the Bell Centre fans anticipating a playoff berth inching closer, momentum was definitely in the Canadiens favor.
But Kostitsyn was called for tripping in the offensive zone 22 seconds into the power play, and that's where the game's second act began.
The Blackhawks buzzed around the Canadiens net for the entirety of the 4-on-4 and the short power play that ensued.
Just 23 seconds after that power play expired, Kane made a ridiculous move around Mathieu Darche at the Canadiens blue line and beat Price with a perfect shot to the top corner from between the circles for his 27th of the season and the 300th point of his career in his 314th game.
"I thought after we scored we pretty much took over the game, especially the last half of the second period, we had so many chances," Kane said. "It would have been good to score a goal there and get that 2-1 lead going into the third."
Balance came back to the game in the third, with both teams playing like their playoff lives were on the line. Midway through Tomas Kopecky was called for goalie interference on Price, leading to a golden opportunity for Cammalleri all alone in front, only to be foiled by a great Crawford glove save.
But the rest of regulation time was a Price clinic as he made a great post-to-post stop on a Ryan Johnson shorthanded chance then stopped seven shots on a Blackhawks power play off another offensive zone penalty by Kostitsyn.