PITTSBURGH — Sidney Crosby doesn't really have an explanation for how he does what he does. He just does it.
So if you're looking for clarity on how the Pittsburgh Penguins star managed to knock a pass from Jake Guentzel out of the air , deflect it forward to the front of his stick before tapping it by one of the best goaltenders on the planet to spark his team to a 5-3 win over Montreal, look elsewhere.
"You try to finish plays out in practice," Crosby said after the 406th goal of his career, one unlike the 405 that came before it. "Sometimes it works out that you can do it in the game and sometimes it doesn't. Fortunately, it did today."
Montreal rallied from a two-goal deficit to take a 3-2 lead 14:24 into the third on Jacob de la Rose's fourth goal of the season. The advantage lasted less than a minute. Guentzel chipped a pass to Crosby and Crosby did the rest.
"Are you surprised, really?" said Price, who finished with 34 saves in his return after missing a month due to a concussion. "It was a great play. I tried to hit it and he got it first, then he batted it back in. That's pretty impressive."
And pretty necessary for the two-time defending Stanley Cup champions, who avoided dropping both games of a back-to-back against also-rans Montreal and the New York Islanders.
"It was a huge goal for us," Pittsburgh coach Mike Sullivan said. "It was an answer to the goal that they got to gain the lead to go in. To go in after two periods with a tie game was really important for us."
Derick Brassard put the Penguins in front to stay by beating Price 2:38 into the third period and Crosby became the third active player with 700 career assists when he set up Guentzel for an insurance goal with less than 2 minutes to play.
"It was a weird second period but I think after the second we knew it was a big two points for us," said Guentzel, who had a goal and two assists. "We needed to come out in the third and I think we did that tonight."
Evgeni Malkin and Patric Hornqvist also scored for the Penguins, who drew within two points of idle first-place Washington in the Metropolitan Division. Casey DeSmith finished with 27 saves and happened to have a pretty good view of Crosby treating the puck like a yo-yo.
"That was one of the cooler things I'll see," DeSmith said. "It was perfect timing, too, right at the end of the second, get it right back, I think that was a huge goal."
Jonathan Drouin, Nikita Scherbak and Jacob de la Rose scored for the Canadiens but Montreal lost for the ninth time in 10 games.
"It doesn't matter if you're young or old, it sucks to lose," Montreal forward Brendan Gallagher said. "I don't think anyone in here is happy with how it's been going lately. You come to the rink everyday with the expectation that you're going to win a hockey game and too many times, I think we've left disappointed. It's been tough."
The Penguins are in the midst of a sluggish stretch in which they've mixed performances where they look very much like a team capable of winning a third straight Cup with clunkers like their 4-1 loss to the fading New York Islanders on Tuesday night. Sullivan chastised his players afterward for yet another lethargic start and
Barely 24 hours later, the start was better after Malkin and Hornqvist gave the Penguins a 2-0 lead, but the play in their defensive zone was iffy at best.
Drouin scored off the rush late in the first period to give the Canadiens momentum. Scherbak tied it 8:19 into the second with a gorgeous short-handed deke by DeSmith. Montreal briefly took the lead when de la Rose followed his own shot, skating by three guys in black sweaters to tap in his own rebound.
Crosby, however, responded in a way few of his peers can.
"You're really sure what he's going to do," Guentzel said. "I think he amazes you every night."
NOTES: The game featured a rarity: two penalty shots. Price easily stopped Pittsburgh's Derick Brassard in the first. DeSmith turned aside Gallagher in the second. ... Pittsburgh is 9-6-2 in the second night of back-to-backs. ... Montreal's 24 road losses are a franchise record. ... Linesman Steve Miller left late in the second period and missed several minutes after having his right hand gashed. Miller was back on the ice for the start of the third period.
Canadiens: At Buffalo on Friday night. Montreal is 3-0 against the Sabres this season.
Penguins: Host New Jersey on Friday night. The Devils have won the first two meetings this season.
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Will Graves, The Associated Press