MONTREAL – The Columbus Blue Jackets earned themselves a pleasant trip home after a long four-game road trip that took them clear across Canada by beating the Montreal Canadiens 3-2 in a shootout at the Bell Centre on Tuesday night.
The victory gave the Blue Jackets (8-16-3) a split on the trip that took them from Vancouver to Calgary to Edmonton to here, with a little team retreat at the Quebec ski resort Mont Tremblant to help kill the long four-day layoff since their last game.
Jackets coach Scott Arniel is hopeful the trip is a sign of things to come for his last-place club.
"I thought this was a pretty good trip, we did some good things in some tough buildings," Arniel said. "Coming in here to a tough building as well, to get that two (points) is big. We're going home with a split with five games at home against five tough opponents. December has to be a good month for us, we need to make hay. Starting tonight was a good first step."
Curtis Sanford needed to make just 18 saves plus three more in the shootout to defeat the organization that signed his paychecks last season as he dominated with the AHL's Hamilton Bulldogs. It was Sanford's 10th straight start since returning from injury, running his record to a very respectable 5-3-2. It was the sixth time in those 10 starts Sanford has allowed two or fewer goals.
"I'm benefitting from strong team play, I think that's the biggest thing," said Sanford, who didn't play a single game for the Canadiens in his two years in the organization. "The guys have been playing extremely hard in front of me, we're taking away time and space from very talented players and we're doing a good job of clogging up those open areas in the middle of the ice. When you can keep teams on the outside it makes it a lot easier on the goalie, and that's what we’ve been doing."
While Sanford was modest, Arniel was not in his praise of the veteran who has helped right what was a fast-sinking Blue Jackets ship.
"He's a professional who has an opportunity here to take the ball and run with it, and he's doing just that," Arniel said. "You're proud of him for realizing there's something there for him."
Vinny Prospal snapped a seven-game goal drought and R.J. Umberger continued his ridiculous run of success against the Canadiens by scoring at 11:14 of the second period. Dating back to the 2008 playoffs when Umberger still played for the Flyers, he has scored 10 goals in his last nine games against Montreal.
The only scorer in the shootout was Rick Nash, who beat Carey Price with a dazzling display of stickhandling to allow Sanford to seal the win by stopping Brian Gionta on Montreal's final attempt.
The Canadiens (11-11-6) welcomed back leading goal-scorer Max Pacioretty after he served a three-game suspension for a hit to the head of Pittsburgh's Kris Letang, but they showed little life offensively. It took them 7:18 to register their first shot on goal, and it took an even longer 8:20 to register their first shot of the second period.
"The way we played tonight is not the way to win games," Habs coach Jacques Martin said. "There was way too much individual play, way too many turnovers, no support for the puck carrier. We weren't on the same page at all."
Andrei Kostitsyn scored his third goal in four games on a play that represented one of the lone bright spots offensively for the Canadiens. Mike Cammalleri knocked a clearing attempt by former teammate James Wisniewski out of the air at the Columbus blue line and deftly fed Kostitsyn for his eighth of the season with just 1.5 seconds to play in the first period.
"It could have been very discouraging," Columbus center Antoine Vermette said. "But we believed we controlled the majority of the play in the first period and deserved better, so we kept our focus and reacted well."
Montreal generated just 12 shots on goal over the next 40 minutes, but the Canadiens made the 12th one count when Gionta had Wisniewski block a centering pass right onto his stick for an open net goal with just 1:21 to play in regulation to grab a point for the home team.
Over the Canadiens' last four games they have had very poor efforts against the struggling Anaheim Ducks and Blue Jackets, while their play against the stronger San Jose Sharks and L.A. Kings appeared to rise to the level of their opponents.
"We have to find a way to be more consistent no matter who we're facing, a top-ranked team or a low-ranked team," defenseman Josh Gorges said. "We have to come out with the same mentality. Until we learn to do that, we're going to put ourselves in a little bit of trouble."
On the other hand, Columbus could look at the game as a defensive masterpiece -- one they needed against Price, who kept Montreal in the game by allowing two goals or fewer for the 15th time in his 24 starts this season. Still, his record sits at just 10-8-6 because he's now 9-4-2 in those 15 starts.
"He's been solid all year, it's been a non-issue," Cammalleri said. "I call it our favorite non-issue. He's just been consistently good."
Prospal opened the scoring at 2:03 of the first on a generous rebound by Price, who kicked an innocuous shot by Aaron Johnson right into the crease to leave an open net for Prospal to pot his seventh of the season.
After Kostitsyn tied it with his last second goal in the first, Umberger caught the Canadiens completely napping on a faceoff at the Columbus blue line by taking a Nikita Nikitin pass and going around a stationary Yannick Weber to beat Price five-hole for just his fourth of the season at 11:14 of the second.