BOSTON (AP) -Phil Kessel's first NHL playoff experience is one he'd like to forget, and he's well on his way to erasing the memories of last year's postseason benching.
The third-year forward had two goals and an assist to lead Boston to a 4-2 victory over the Montreal Canadiens on Thursday night in the opener of the best-of-seven series.
"He's improved leaps and bounds," Bruins forward Marc Savard said. "He brings a dimension not too many guys have, with his speed and skill. He's ready to take the torch."
Game 2 is Saturday night.
"We have to have the confidence we can win these road games, and we have to be more disciplined," Canadiens captain Saku Koivu said. "The winning goal was on the power play ... we have to play better."
It's the second straight year the Original Six rivals have met in the first round, though the roles have reversed from 2008, when Montreal was the top team in the East and Boston was the No. 8 seed.
And no one has seen his fortunes change more than Kessel.
The fifth overall pick out of the University of Minnesota who came to the Bruins with great potential in 2006, Kessel wasn't playing up to the expectations when coach Claude Julien scratched him following Game 1 of the Montreal series. Kessel returned after missing three games with a goal in the fifth game and two in the sixth, when Boston avoided elimination before losing in the decisive seventh game in Montreal.
He led the Bruins with a career-high 36 goals this season, including a hat trick in the regular-season finale. And he picked up where he left off on Thursday, scoring in his sixth straight game.
"It's nice," Kessel said, "but it's a long series."
Carey Price made 35 saves for the Canadiens.
Kessel and David Krejci gave Boston a 2-0 lead before Montreal tied it on goals by Chris Higgins and Alex Kovalev.
Mark Recchi almost tied it on a third-period power play with a tip-in that hit the post and bounced off Price's back toward the goal line. But Price gloved it before it crossed the line, and Chara slapped it into the net seconds later.
"He's our heart and soul. A pretty valuable player for us," Julien said. "I like the way he led our team tonight, and it's quite appropriate he scored the game-winner."
Kessel made it 4-2 with 13.4 seconds left on an empty-netter on a pass from Milan Lucic, a goal that prompted a round of fisticuffs that continued after the final whistle.
Canadiens coach Bob Gainey said he couldn't see the fighting because it was against the near boards. But he didn't have to see it to know the explanation.
"I think you could probably mix frustration in there somewhere," he said.
Montreal and Boston have met an NHL-record 32 times in the playoffs, with the Canadiens winning 24 times, including last year when they had the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference but needed seven games to get out of the first round. The Bruins left the series emboldened, and it showed with a quick start this season that propelled them to the conference's top seed.
More disappointing for Boston was the 2004 first-round series, when the best record in the East meant little and the Bruins blew a 3-1 lead in the series for another early exit. Boston has not made it out of the first round since 1999, losing to the Canadiens in three of four playoff appearances since then.
Once again, the Bruins went into the postseason with hopes for something better. They were 5-0-1 against Montreal in the regular season, giving them hope of ending their postseason slump.
Boston started things off when Price tried to cover the puck in the crease with his glove but it got poked out and right to Kessel, who knocked it in with 6:49 left in the first.
Krejci made it 2-0 just 90 seconds later, backhanding a pass from ex-Canadien Michael Ryder past Price. But Boston failed to clear the zone, diving to the ice and deflecting passes before Higgins put a rebound past Thomas with 3:51 left in the opening period.
The Canadiens tested Thomas repeatedly in the second, but he responded with a beautiful diving save with 14 minutes left in the period and then stopped Glen Metropolit on a 3-on-1 at the 12 minute mark. But he didn't have a chance at Kovalev's slap shot that tied it 2-all with 2:23 left in the second.
Notes: The Bruins honored the NCAA championship hockey team from Boston University during a break in the first period. ... Montreal D Andrei Markov, the team's second-leading scorer in the regular season, did not travel with the team because of an undisclosed injury. ... Boston D Andrew Ference also did not dress. ... Bruins F P.J. Axelsson took a shot off the kneecap with 6 minutes left and struggled to get back to the bench. He returned for the final minutes. ... Price fell to 5-7 in the playoffs.