They knew the lowly New York Islanders were returning home from a disappointing five-game trip and they knew that goals would be at a premium.
The Canadiens made the most of the slimmest of margins and escaped with a 1-0 victory on Saturday night. Max Pacioretty scored 1:51 into the extra period, and Carey Price stopped all 21 shots that came his way in his 21st NHL shutout.
Montreal snapped a two-game skid in which the club netted only one goal and gave up a total of eight in losses to Los Angeles and Philadelphia.
"We were absolutely more intense," Canadiens coach Michel Therrien said. "We wanted to be physical. We wanted to play a hard-nosed game. This is something we didn't do the last two games, and guys responded well."
Pacioretty took a short feed in front from David Desharnais after a New York turnover and shoved a shot past Evgeni Nabokov for his 12th goal.
"I was the recipient of a great pass," Pacioretty said. "It felt great to convert it. We've been fortunate lately, and this was another example."
The 38-year-old Nabokov stopped 24 shots and was the hard-luck loser as he came back after missing 11 games because of a groin injury sustained against Detroit on Nov. 16, the last time New York won at home.
"The guys did a hell of a job in the D zone, around the net," Nabokov said.
It was Price's second shutout this season for the Canadiens, 10-2-1 in their last 13.
"That was a really good hard-fought win," Price said. "We played a really solid game from start to finish. We knew it would be low scoring game, and we're playing really well, patiently waiting for our chance.
"The effort was there all night."
Montreal spoiled the NHL debut of prized Islanders prospect Ryan Strome, the No. 5 pick in the 2011 NHL draft.
Strome had two shots in just under 15 minutes of ice time.
"I felt good out there," the 20-year-old forward said. "Glad to get my feet under me. I felt like we were working hard all game."
New York (9-19-6) returned from a 1-4 trip and lost for the 12th time in 13 games (1-9-3). The Islanders are 0-16-4 when they score fewer than three goals.
However, they appeared to get a jolt in the third period when Lars Eller levelled New York captain John Tavares as he carried the puck behind his net and back out the right side. Tavares didn't seem to see Eller charge at him, but he wasn't injured.
"It was mostly my shoulder. I didn't think it was too bad a hit," Tavares said.
Eller was given a minor penalty for illegal contact to the head, but the Islanders' anemic power play did nothing with the advantage. Therrien questioned why a penalty was even called.
"Of course," he said when asked if the hit was clean. "I was surprised that we were down."
The teams played a fairly even first period, with Montreal holding an 11-9 edge in shots, but the Islanders came closer to breaking the scoreless deadlock. Tavares had the best chance when his shot slipped between Price's pads, slid through the crease and struck the right post with 6:45 left.
The second period provided little more action than the opening frame, and the teams headed into the final period of regulation still deadlocked.
Both teams received their first two power plays of the game, yet did little with them. Montreal entered with the NHL's best power play on the road, connecting 13 times in 48 advantages (27.1 per cent) in 14 games, and the top penalty-killing unit away from home, turning aside 39 of 42 short-handed situations (92.9 per cent).
Danny Briere nearly got the Canadiens on the board 6:05 into the second, but he was snuffed on his jam attempts at the left post by Nabokov. The Islanders held a 7-6 shots advantage in the period, closing the overall gap to 17-6 through 40 minutes.
There was playful banter within the somewhat sparse crowd of 14,408. Many fans in red Canadiens gear made themselves heard throughout the game with chants of "Let's Go Habs" that were quickly met with boos from the Islanders faithful.
NOTES: The Islanders held a pregame moment of silence in memory of those killed last year in a shooting rampage at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut. ... Canadiens enforcer George Parros didn't return after a punch from Eric Boulton knocked him to his knees during a first-period fight. Parros didn't dress in 13 of the previous 16 games. Therrien said after the game that Parros was OK. ... Tavares and Thomas Vanek had three-game point streaks snapped.