MONTREAL - The Canadiens' bench was instantly deflated when Max Pacioretty went down injured.
Montreal lost both the game and its top scorer when the league-best Anaheim Ducks held on for a 2-1 victory after an animated third period at Bell Centre on Thursday.
With the Canadiens down 1-0, Pacioretty left the game four minutes into the final frame after taking a late hit into the boards by Anaheim's Clayton Stoner. Pacioretty, who never saw Stoner coming, spent several seconds on his knees on the ice before being helped to the dressing room by the Canadiens training staff. There was no penalty called on the play.
"You know he's a leader because it felt like we had just lost the game when we lost him. That was a weird feeling," said David Desharnais, who added he thought Stoner deserved a five-minute boarding penalty.
"I saw the replay. I didn't see it live. For sure it's a penalty. Maybe more. We'll let the league decide."
Pacioretty had just made a pass out of the defensive zone when Stoner knocked him head first into the corner boards. He did not have his back to Stoner, but his body turned awkwardly as he fell into the glass.
Pacioretty sustained an upper-body injury on the play and was taken straight to the hospital for what coach Michel Therrien called "precautionary reasons." There is no indication how many games, if any, the left-winger will miss.
Stoner thought the check was clean and undeserving of a penalty.
"Their team wasn't happy about it," he said. "I didn't mean to hurt him, but the game is fast, and sometimes guys go into the boards wrong. I hope he's all right. I didn't have any intentions to hurt him."
Brandon Prust and Stoner dropped the gloves a few minutes after the hit, with the Habs winger sending the Anaheim defenceman to the ice.
Despite losing the fulcrum of their offense — Pacioretty leads the team with 13 goals and 25 points — Montreal responded with a goal less than two minutes later.
With Patrick Maroon in the penalty box for interference, Desharnais fired a one-timer past goaltender Frederik Andersen at 5:27 of the third after a clever cross-ice pass from Andrei Markov.
Montreal's celebrations, however, were short lived. At 8:33 of the third, with P.K. Subban just stepping out of the penalty box, Beleskey scored the winner by beating Carey Price top corner for his team-leading 15th goal of the year.
The Ducks have now won eight of their last nine games. The Habs, meanwhile, had their three-game winning streak snapped.
"We didn't generate much offence, but we were in the game," said Desharnais. "It wasn't the most exciting game, but we have to get at least one point from a game like that. It's not like it was 4-0. We were still in the game."
Prior to puck drop, the Canadiens honoured former captain Saku Koivu, who retired from professional hockey in September after 13 seasons with the Habs and another five with the Ducks. After a video montage of tributes from fans, former teammates and trainers, an emotional Koivu thanked the city he called home for most of his career.
"I feel honoured and privileged to have served nine years as captain of the Montreal Canadiens," Koivu told the Bell Centre crowd. "Montreal truly is the most exciting place to play hockey. I'm truly humbled, and this night means so much to me and to my family. I will always be a Hab at heart."
Markov, Price, Pacioretty and Tomas Plekanec presented Koivu with a commemorative painting as part of the pre-game ceremony.
When the puck finally dropped, Anaheim quickly showed the Habs faithful why the team from Southern California is at the top of the NHL standings.
The Ducks (22-7-5) ran rings around the Canadiens from the get-go, at a time hemming Montreal's fourth line in its own zone for nearly three minutes. Montreal countered with desperation icings, and Therrien was even forced to take a timeout very early in the game. Shots were 7-1 in favour of Anaheim at that point.
Price could do little to stop the Ducks' eighth shot, as Lindholm rifled a puck through two bodies and into the back of the net at 8:16 of the first. Recently-traded Hab Rene Bourque screened Price on the shot.
The Canadiens (20-11-2), the league's worst first-period team, failed to score in the opening 20 minutes for the 23rd time this season.
Montreal's most threatening line was its first, with Alex Galchenyuk and Brendan Gallagher giving Andersen the most trouble. Glachenyuk, coming off his first career hat trick on Tuesday, missed a wide open net to Andersen's left in the first period, while Gallagher forced Anaheim's goaltender to make back-to-back sprawling saves late in the second.
"We played a pretty good game, except for the start," said Markov. "We started playing better and better. We always knew it was going to be a tough game, a big challenge for us. It was a tight game."
Added Therrien: "We worked hard tonight. I liked our work ethic, and I liked our passion. We were on the puck, and we had good scoring chances."
Sergei Gonchar came close to again tying the score in the game's final minute with Montreal's net empty, but the veteran blue-liner instead found the outside of the post.
Notes: Forward Sven Andrighetto was sent down to the American Hockey League's Hamilton Bulldogs on Wednesday. The 21-year-old amassed three points in four games with Montreal this season. … Corey Perry missed the game with a knee injury sustained on Dec. 5. … Lars Eller was not in the lineup (upper-body injury) despite taking part in the pre-game skate.