But when the dust had settled, and the last puck had bounced in off a Montreal body, the Canadiens were back in the Eastern Conference final against the New York Rangers.
Alex Galchenyuk's goal 72 seconds into overtime Thursday gave Montreal a 3-2 win on hostile ground, helping the Canadiens get one foot out of their playoff hole.
Montreal trails New York two games to one with Game 4 set for Sunday back at Madison Square Garden.
Young goalie Dustin Tokarski made 35 saves to keep Montreal in the game, bouncing back from a 3-1 loss in his playoff debut in Game 2 in place of the injured Carey Price.
"Dustin Tokarski was phenomenal tonight. He's a battler, and most important thing, he's a winner," said Canadiens head coach Michel Therrien.
"Without Tokarski's performance, probably the result would have been different," he added.
Tokarski has a glittering resume outside of the NHL, having won the Calder Cup, the Memorial Cup, world junior championship and even minor hockey's Telus Cup.
The native of Humboldt, Sask. was as composed after the game as he was during it, pressed up against a wall and standing on a box while surrounded by a phalanx of media.
He was unfazed by the attention, despite having just a dozen NHL games under his belt.
"Fun, awesome," he said when asked what his life has been like since taking over the Montreal goal. "I got a few Twitter followers so that was kind of cool."
His count was 10,000-plus as of Thursday night.
The game was no masterpiece. The officials missed some blatant thuggery and New York's Daniel Carcillo may have jostled his way to a suspension after an altercation with a linesman.
Tokarski's play wasn't always pretty either but it was effective. He gave up rebounds but the Montreal defence cleaned them up. He clearly grew in confidence as the game wore on, keeping his team in it.
"It's been the story all year for us. We find ways (to win), we never quit. Even when people are doubting us," said Montreal forward Daniel Briere, whose late third period goal was cancelled out by an even later one by Chris Kreider that forced the OT.
"We dig deep and somehow find a way to come back. It's happened many many times this year. And once again ... We kept telling ourselves we owe Tokarski a win for the way he kept us in, we have to somehow find a way to go get it."
In overtime, Henrik Lundqvist made the initial save off Tomas Plekanec but the puck bounced in off the upper torso of an onrushing Galchenyuk.
It was a frantic finale to a game that saw three goals in the final four minutes 14 seconds of play.
Briere's goal with 3:02 remaining had looked to be the Montreal winner. But with Lundqvist on the New York bench, Kreider tipped in a Dan Girardi shot from an extremely tight angle with 29 seconds left to force overtime. The puck needed help to go in, defecting off the right skate of Canadiens defenceman Alexei Emelin on the way in.
Briere's go-ahead goal was equally fortuitous. Lundqvist made a fine stop on a Thomas Vanek shot from in-close. But the puck went to Briere who tucked it back around the post and off the trailing leg of Ryan McDonagh.
Tokarski came up big for the Canadiens, keeping the visitors in a game where New York held the upper hand for long periods. Given the ramifications of a third straight Montreal loss, it was a tremendously timely performance.
"It's a big win for him. It's a big win for us," said Montreal defenceman P.K. Subban.
"This is a huge confidence-booster for our team," he added,
Andrei Markov also scored for Montreal, which was outshot 36-33 during regulation time.
Carl Hagelin opened the scoring for New York, which had won its five previous playoff games.
Emotions ran high from the opening puck drop and former Ranger Brandon Prust applied a match to the fuse just three minutes in when he laid out New York forward Derek Stepan with an elbow/shoulder to the head at the New York blue-line. The officials, watching the play develop ahead, apparently did not see the blow which left Stepan face down on the ice and sent him briefly to the locker-room.
"They missed it," said Rangers coach Alain Vigneault.
The unpenalized Prust hit led to some frontier justice with Prust and Derek Dorsett fighting after Carcillo took a run at the feisty Hab at 5:51. Carcillo had to be held back as the fight went on, prompting a game misconduct for jostling linesman Scott Driscoll.
The league looks poorly on such behaviour and Carcillo could face a lengthy suspension.
"Well, he can't do that, obviously, what he did there, but we'll let the league handle that," Vigneault said. "I believe if a penalty would have been called on Prust, that probably wouldn't have happened, but there's nothing we can do about it."
The amped-up crowd starting chanting "These refs suck" and enjoyed what they undoubtedly saw as karma when a Rangers shot nicked one of the referees on the ensuing power play.
New York came out fast and led 1-0 after a dominant 20 minutes. But the Canadiens pushed back in the second to tie it up.
"For the most part I thought we played a good game. We had some real good looks," said Vigneault. "We had opportunities to take the lead in the game and we didn't. Give credit to (Montreal), their team played hard, their goaltender played well."
Montreal had little right to be on even terms going into the third. But thanks to Tokarski the Canadiens were, setting the stage for a tense finale.
"We weathered the storm," said Therrien. "I felt our team played with more confidence as the game went on."
Dale Weise was almost the hero for the Canadiens with five minute remaining, when an errant clearance went right to him in front of Lundqvist. But the Swedish star goalie stopped his blast from point-blank range.
Tokarski stopped 27 of 30 shots in Game 2 — his 11th NHL game and first playoff outing. And he was busy from the get-go Thursday, keeping the Habs in it with a string of saves.
There was less action at the other end although Lundqvist's 25-shot night was challenging at times.
Coming into Game 3, Lundqvist had saved 162 of 168 shots during the Rangers' five-game playoff win streak. And he stopped 60 of the 63 shots he faced in the first two games in Montreal, won 7-2 and 3-1 by the Rangers.
Therrien shuffled his lines, moving winger Brian Gionta up to the second line, Weise to the third and dropping the mercurial Vanek to the fourth. Vanek came into the game with no points, one shot, two penalty minutes and a minus-3 in the first two games of the series.
The Rangers outshot Montreal 14-4 in the first period, firing pucks from all angles and using their speed to good effect. The Canadiens were lucky not to be down by more when the dust settled, with Tokarski getting the job done one way or another.
New York's early onslaught came despite winning just seven of 22 faceoffs in the period.
The home breakthrough came on the Rangers' 12th shot, courtesy of a two-on-one after a Subban shot hit Hagelin and created a two-on-one.
Hagelin and Martin St. Louis advanced on defenceman Josh Gorges with Hagelin delaying his pass until the last moment before feeding St. Louis for a one-timer. A sliding Georges, who was virtually on top of Tokarski, somehow stopped the puck but it bounced into the air and Hagelin knocked it in from mid-air at 15:18.
Montreal struck back at 3:20 of the second period after a seeing-eye pass across the New York zone from Max Pacioretty found Markov creeping in from the point and the defenceman beat Lundqvist with a low shot.
Tokarski made big saves before and after the scoring play to keep the Habs in it. He stopped St. Louis on the doorstep, somehow getting his pad and glove up to stop the Ranger sniper.
The shots were 13-9 in favour of New York in the period.
NOTES — Sting, Michael J. Fox, Susan Sarandon and Catherine Keener were among the celebrities in the crowd ... The game came one year to the day that Rangers coach Alain Vigneault was fired by the Vancouver Canucks.
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