10/08/2014 10:06 EDT | Updated 12/08/2014 05:59 EST

Plekanec scores late as Canadiens beat Maple Leafs in season opener

TORONTO - From P.K. Subban's passionate fist pump and through a series of fluky bounces, the Montreal Canadiens showed in their regular-season opener the kind of poise that helped them reach the Eastern Conference final.

Tomas Plekanec responded to a late goal by Morgan Rielly with one of his own 96 seconds later as the Canadiens beat the Toronto Maple Leafs 4-3 in a back-and-forth affair Wednesday night at Air Canada Centre.

"These things happen, and it's how you respond to it," Subban said. "It happened to us a few times last year and I thought we responded well. We're a resilient group in here. It doesn't surprise me that we came right back."

It was a perfect shot by Subban that gave the Habs the lead 8:41 into the third period when a tired first line for the Leafs, consisting of James van Riemsdyk, Tyler Bozak and Phil Kessel, left the 2013 Norris Trophy-winning defenceman alone at the top of the face-off circles.

Then the NHL curtain-raising game between the two long-standing rivals got weird. Rielly threw the puck in front, and it managed to carom in past Montreal goaltender Carey Price to tie things up with 2 minutes 19 seconds left.

Plekanec, who scored earlier on a breakaway and was arguably the best player on the ice for either team, responded by banking a pass attempt off Leafs rookie defenceman Stuart Percy and in with 43 seconds remaining.

"It was two bad bounces back-to-back, so karma, I guess," said Price, who finished with 24 saves on 27 shots. "It was up-and-down, pretty emotional at the end. But absolutely happy to get that win."

The win snapped a streak of four straight losses to the Leafs on opening night for the Habs.

"It's even better to win these games when you play the right way, and I thought we did a lot of things well," Subban said. "Still some areas we have to clean up, but I thought executing some new things in our game plan, I thought we did that very, very well today."

Montreal coach Michel Therrien praised his players for skating better after the Leafs took the play to them in the first. Toronto had the game's first five shots, but Max Pacioretty scored on the Habs' first shot 4:42 in, which stunned an already subdued crowd of 19,375.

"The first shot they got went in the net," Leafs coach Randy Carlyle said. "It kind of took a little bit of wind out of our sails."

Winger Brandon Kozun, the biggest surprise of the Leafs camp, took the shot that Nazem Kadri tipped past Price for the tying goal. Kozun not only got his first point on his fourth shift in his NHL debut but his energy was noticeable on the second line.

"I though there were times out there where we played really well," Kozun said. "The first period I thought we had something going, parts of the third, but I think there was a bunch in the second period where the team in general couldn't sustain anything."

Percy, who was also making his NHL debut and earned a positive review from Carlyle despite being in the wrong place on Montreal's game-winner, made the pass that set up Tyler Bozak's power-play goal late in the first period.

Plekanec tied it back up for the Habs 4:34 into the second after a picture-perfect outlet pass by Alexei Emelin found the veteran centre behind the Toronto defence. One of four alternate captains along with Andrei Markov, Subban and Pacioretty, Plekanec was downright dominant.

"He's playing with two good offensive players in (Alex) Galchenyuk and (Brendan) Gallagher, and he scored two big goals for us," Therrien said. "Pleky was really good."

It was more than just Plekanec that got the Habs off to a strong start. The second line of Pacioretty, David Desharnais and P.A. Parenteau flashed some early chemistry and contributed.

"We had everybody involved today," Subban said. "Our forwards definitely should feel confident right now with the way they're putting the puck in the net."

The Habs have no time to let the win sink in, as they travel to Washington to play Alex Ovechkin and the Capitals on Thursday night. After making it to the East final last spring, Subban and Price understand there's a long way to go this season before they can even think about the playoffs.

"I don't think in this room we're going to set any goals further than the next game," Price said. "That really simplifies things. You don't start overcomplicating things. If you just keep your mindset on preparing for that next game, it simplifies everything and really makes it easier."

The Leafs have some more time to ponder things before hosting Sidney Crosby and the Pittsburgh Penguins on Saturday night. Some mistakes of youth hurt them when the Habs tilted the ice in the opener.

"In the first period we did a good job of making them dump pucks, keeping them slowed down in the neutral zone, which gives us more time moving the puck out of our zone," captain Dion Phaneuf said. "When we stopped moving our feet, that's when we got into trouble."

Montreal was there to capitalize.

“They came really hard at us and we were not skating really well," Therrien said. "A lot of credit goes to the Leafs for the way they performed in the first period. I thought in the second period, our transition was much better, we started to skate and we started to play our game."

Notes — Bernier finished with 28 saves on 32 shots against. ... Winger Jiri Sekac made his NHL debut for the Canadiens. ... The crowd gave Walter Gretzky a nice ovation when he was shown on the video boards on his 76th birthday. ... The first three Leafs players honoured on Legends Row — Darryl Sittler, Johnny Bower and Teeder Kennedy (represented by son Mark) — dropped the pucks for the ceremonial faceoff.


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