BOSTON - Tim Thomas told his Boston teammates not to get too worked up over a visit from the archrival Canadiens. After all, it was just a regular-season game in January that wouldn't make up for being eliminated from the playoffs by Montreal last spring.
"But when the crowd gets into it like that and the teams play with that much energy, it felt like the playoffs last year," the Bruins goalie said Tuesday night after stopping 34 shots in a 3-1 victory over the Canadiens. "It was one of the funnest games I've played this year."
Zdeno Chara scored a pair of power-play goals for Boston, which is running away from the Eastern Conference one season after barely qualifying for the playoffs.
The Bruins, who haven't won a post-season series since 1999, forced the Canadiens to a seventh game in the first round last year, but have bigger plans this time.
Boston leads the East with 68 points, 11 ahead of Washington and 12 in front of Montreal and the New York Rangers. The attendance of 17,565 was Boston's 11th sellout of the season, and though there were a fair amount of Habs fans in the crowd that just added to the intensity on the ice.
"It was definitely a playoff-type atmosphere," Bruins coach Claude Julien said. "I'm glad we had our fans behind us. It was nice to be in Boston for this one."
There was a fight in the scoreless first period and a skirmish in the second when Thomas came to the defence of defenceman Aaron Ward after he was hit from behind by Andrei Kostitsyn.
Ward skated off on his own, but did not return; when Kostitsyn cut in front of the net, Thomas came out of the crease and cross-checked him to the ice. Kostitsyn, who had the Canadiens' only goal, was given a five-minute penalty for boarding and Thomas was assessed two minutes for roughing.
"I'm going to let the league look into that," Julien said. "I guess the big thing with me is it's not the first time this guy has done that. I don't like to see that happening over and over from the same guys."
The Bruins goalie said afterward that he reacted to the sound of the hit, but after seeing the replay it might not have been that bad. Montreal coach Guy Carbonneau thought the referee overreacted, too.
"I don't get the five minutes," he said. "I saw the replay and I didn't think it was a penalty."
But Julien, who has lost phenom Patrice Bergeron in each of the past two seasons to concussions, said he thought his players were tired of seeing their teammates injured by hits from behind.
"We're obviously a little sensitive to that," Julien said.
Jaroslav Halak made 26 saves for Montreal, which had won four straight games and scored five or more goals in each of them. The Canadiens lost in regulation for the second time in 12 games.
The Bruins were without four of their top forwards, losing Bergeron to a concussion, Phil Kessel to mononucleosis, Marco Sturm to a knee injury and Milan Lucic to an undisclosed injury. Chara picked up the slack, scoring on a rebound to tie it in the second period, then adding a go-ahead goal with 1:36 left in the period when his one-timer deflected off the stick of defenceman Andrei Markov and into the net.
It was Chara's eighth career two-goal game.
Thomas is 9-1 in his past 10 starts. He helped protect a one-goal lead in the third when he stopped Tom Kostopoulos with his right pad with just under five minutes left, then used the full extension of his glove to stop Kostitsyn with 2:16 to play.
Notes: Kessel, the team's leading goal-scorer, was placed on injured reserve. He is expected to miss two to four weeks. His absence snapped a streak of 167 consecutive games played. ... Julien and Carbonneau will share the bench at the Jan. 25 all-star game in Montreal. ... Montreal outshot Boston 17-9 in the first.