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Canadiens vs Islanders recap: Montreal does just enough to defeat New York

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Two of the East's top teams entered one final contest before taking a holiday break, although the Habs looked like they started the vacation early.

Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

The New York Islanders were second in the Eastern Conference heading into the game versus Montreal.  Their great turnaround in the standings has brought fans to a building that used to be about half-full with half of those being there to cheer on the visiting Canadiens.  It's a new fanbase, perhaps not knowledgable of the traditional chants and cheers of the NHL game, borrowing the "Yes!" chant after goals from wrestling and using the basketball-style "De-fence!" on the penalty kill.

The team has apparently adopted aspects of other sports, as well, incorporating the offensive pick play one might expect to see from the Brooklyn Nets.

Several times in the first period an Islander player blocked a checker from getting to the puck carrier.  The most effectual of those picks came around the twelve minute mark of the first period, when Josh Bailey put himself between the puck and Alexei Emelin who was stepping up to play it.  Bailey let the puck go by to John Tavares, who attacked an out-manned Sergei Gonchar with the help of Kyle Okposo. Okposo opened the scoring on a cross-ice pass from the Islanders captain, giving the Canadiens yet another one-goal deficit in the first period of a game.

The Islanders played aggressively in the first, not just with the offensive picks, but with tight checking on both sides of the puck, with hard-working two-man forechecks and man-to-man defence in the neautral zone that allowed them to register the first ten shots of the game.  New York outshot Montreal fourteen to three in the first, with Montreal's three shots coming on consecutive top-line shifts around the fourteen minute mark.

For whatever reason, Montreal has had trouble getting engaged in the first twenty minutes.  They seem to be completely unprepared for how the other team is going to play to begin games and the result has been being down one-to-nothing in twenty-three of thirty-five games.  The Canadiens usually seem to turn things around in the second, once they've seen how the other team is operating.  Maybe this is the coaches making changes to the game plan, maybe it's players making those adjustments themselves, but at this point in the season, and with the regularity which the Canadiens are baffled by opponents to begin games, it seems like there is no pre-established game plan at all.

Following the usual script, Montreal came out in the second period looking like a different team, working their way out of the possession hole the Islanders had dug for them in the previous period.

The increase in offensive zone play resulted in the tying goal off the Canadiens' own aggressive forecheck by Brandon Prust and Dale Weise around the six minute mark.  Weise pressured his man into turning the puck over along the boards, which PK Subban retrieved and sent across for Andrei Markov to slap home his fifth goal of the year in his eight hundredth career game.

Montreal maintained the pressure after the goal and were rewarded with the go-ahead goal about five minutes later.  Nathan Beaulieu played the puck from behind his goalline while taking simultaneous hits from two Islanders, advancing it to Max Pacioretty who absorbed another, launching an odd-man rush from Canadiens' end by Sergei Gonchar, Alex Galchenyuk, and Brendan Gallagher.  Galchenyuk passed to an open Gonchar for a one-timer near the top of the circle on the three-on-two, and Brendan Gallagher's net drive had him in the perfect position to knock the rebound by Chad Johnson.

After a brief three-shot flurry by the top-line about a minute later, the Canadiens decided the one-goal lead would be enough and reverted back to the negative-possession style of the first period, allowing their opponent to control the game.

Fortunately, Carey Price was able to withstand the barrage, stopping thirty-seven of thirty-eight shots, until the game was put away late in the third.  David Desharnais chipped the puck by the all-out offence of the Islanders forwards to P.-A. Parenteau, who moved the puck to Lars Eller in the offensive zone.  Eller held onto the puck for about two seconds, waiting for Desharnais to get into position for a shot near the net.  The rejuvenated winger got the puck by Johnson, who somehow failed to recognize that the play would unfold that way and wasn't able to get across the crease in time.

Down by two with a minute left, Jack Capuano sent out fourth-liner Cal Clutterbuck, probably to increase his season goal-total fifty percent by scoring two goals to tie the game.  Instead, Clutterbuck decided to go after milestone-man Markov after the whistle, and put his team in a short-handed situation to end any hope of a comeback.

Manny Malhotra was sparsely used in the game, seeing only four minutes and forty-eight seconds of even strength playing time.  He has been struggling to gain possession of the puck in the defensive zone all season, and with Lars Eller being one of the top faceoff men in the NHL, it's getting harder to justify his inclusion in the lineup.  Sven Andrighetto, who has been relegated to fourth-line duty in his current call-up stint, suffered alongside his centre, with under five minutes of ice time in the game.  Both players saw zero shot attempts for while they were on the ice.

Nathan Beaulieu had yet another great game for Canadiens, not only with the sacrificial effort on the game-winning goal, but with several strong plays in his own end to retrieve pucks and distribute them forward.  He finished the game with 17:40 of ice-time—more than either Emelin or Tom Gilbert received—after being paired with Gonchar partway into the game.  On a night when the Canadiens managed just thirty-eight percent of the total shot attempts, the team had fifty-eight percent of them while Beaulieu was on the ice: the best percentage of any defenceman and second on the team to only Alex Galchenyuk.

The Canadiens will hold the Atlantic Division lead throughout the holiday break and return to action on December 29th versus the Eastern Conference cellar-dwelling Carolina Hurricanes.  In the meantime, be sure to follow along with EOTP's continuing coverage of the 2015 World Junior Championship. The round robin games are set to begin on Boxing Day.