TORONTO — The Canadiens are heading home with a pulse — and their fans will be there waiting.
Nick Suzuki scored 59 seconds into overtime as Montreal survived a blown 3-0 lead to defeat the Toronto Maple Leafs 4-3 on Thursday and force Game 6 of this Original Six first-round playoff matchup.
Cole Caufield intercepted an errant Alex Galchenyuk pass in Montreal’s zone and moved in on a 2-on-0 with Suzuki, who made a pass to Caufield after crossing into Toronto’s zone before getting the puck back from his rookie teammate to beat a helpless Jack Campbell blocker side.
Joel Armia, with two, and Jesperi Kotkaniemi had the other goals for Montreal, which still trails Toronto 3-2 in the series. Carey Price made 32 saves.
Jake Muzzin, with two, and Zach Hyman replied for the Leafs, while Campbell stopped 26 shots.
Due to a loosening of COVID-19 restrictions, the Quebec government will allow 2,500 fans into the Bell Centre for Saturday’s Game 6 — the first Canadian NHL crowd in Canada since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic in March 2020.
The Leafs missed an opportunity to win a playoff series for the first time since 2004, but still have two more cracks at advancing.
The Winnipeg Jets await the winner of Toronto-Montreal following their surprise sweep of Connor McDavid’s Edmonton Oilers in the North Division’s other first-round series.
The Leafs came close to opening the scoring early on Thursday when bruising forward Wayne Simmonds rang a shot off the crossbar on Price from in tight, but it would be the visitors striking first moments later.
After veteran winger Corey Perry forced an offensive zone turnover by plastering Leafs rookie defenceman Rasmus Sandin into the boards with a clean hit, Armia picked up the loose puck and wired his first goal of the series — and just Montreal’s fifth overall — past Campbell glove at 5:13.
With their backs against the wall, the inspired Canadiens kept coming, and Armia buried his second at 8:18 on a scramble with Campbell swimming in his crease. Perry picked up an assist on the sequence, which started with Armia knocking down William Nylander’s clearing attempt, for the 100th playoff point of his career.
The Leafs had good chances of their own in the period, but Price was there each time, including a terrific denial of Nylander, who had scored in all four games coming into Thursday, on a 2-on-1.
Montreal won Game 1 of the series 2-1 on the back of Price’s 35-save performance on a night where Leafs captain John Tavares was stretchered off the ice in the first period following a scary collision before being outscored 11-2 in losing the next three to fall behind Toronto 3-1.
The Canadiens made it 3-0 at 4:52 of the second when Kotkaniemi pressured the shaky Sandin behind the Leafs’ net on a good forecheck. The puck popped in front, and the Montreal centre eventually poked it under Campbell and in for his first goal since Game 1.
The Toronto goaltender made a nice stop on Tyler Toffoli — Montreal’s 28-goal man still looking for his first in the post-season — midway through the period on a break to keep his team within two.
The top seed in the division during the NHL’s pandemic-truncated campaign, 18 points clear of their opponent in the standings, the Leafs showed some life 1:40 later when Mitch Marner threw a puck in front from behind the goal line that Hyman slid home.
The grinding Toronto winger then got a breakaway 30 seconds into the third, but Price was there to shut the door.
The Leafs got to within one just after their only power play ended when Muzzin blasted a point shot through a screen at 6:52.
Toronto got even with 8:06 left in regulation when Muzzin drove the net and tipped Galchenyuk’s shot through Price’s legs.
Tavares (knee, concussion), who was in attendance for Game 5, took the ice for about 20 minutes prior to Toronto’s morning skate as he continues his recovery. Leafs forward Nick Foligno (lower-body injury) missed a third consecutive game, while Sandin returned to the lineup for Travis Dermott after being healthy scratched Tuesday in the second of a back-to-back.
The Canadiens made one change to their lineup, with defenceman Erik Gustafsson coming in for Brett Kulak.
Follow @JClipperton_CP on Twitter
Joshua Clipperton, The Canadian Press