Montreal flew into Chicago with their 1-3-1 record in their previous five games against mostly inferior opponents to face a Blackhawks club that has been one of the best teams in the league over the last month of the season. Before the game, many Canadiens fans were (justifiably) expecting to see their team humiliated. The prospect of a defensive pairing of Sergei Gonchar and Alexei Emelin getting embarrassed by Patrick Kane seemed to be the topic of most concern.
The game began as the majority of games have this season, as Michal Rozsival converted on a cross-ice pass through the slot to put the Canadiens down a goal two minutes in.
Alexei Emelin showed several times in the period why the fans were worried about his play versus the fast, attacking forwards the Blackhawks have at their disposal. About two minutes after the Rozsival goal, Patrick Kane got his first look at Emelin, rushing straight by him with the puck in the offensive zone for a decent chance at the net.
Attacking Emelin's side of the ice proved effective near the end of the period as he was beat cleanly on the boards in the neutral zone by Ben Smith and failed to take any of the three players who has blown by him to take up residence in his spot near the left side fo the crease. Smith scored on an uncontested wrist shot off a rebound to put Chicago up 2-0.
Brendan Gallagher responded immediately for the Canadiens, scoring on a backhand feed from Alex Galchenyuk to reduce the lead to one just twenty-six seconds later.
Of more concern than a one-goal deficit after the first period was an injury sustained by Lars Eller just before the second 'Hawks goal that saw him miss the rest of the game. From his angry reaction, it appears to be a reaggravation of a previously-suffered ailment.
Sergei Gonchar played quite well on the right side of the pairing with Emelin, often watching as Chicago made a conscious effort to get the puck to the oppositve side of the ice when attacking the blueline. Gonchar scored his first goal as a Canadien eight minutes into the second period to tie the game at two on a slapshot from the top of the circle.
Later in the frame, Andrei Markov sent a surprisingly imperfect pass across to P.K. Subban on the powerplay, but Subban was able to extend himself to get a slapshot away, the forward release point elevating the puck by Antti Raanta and into the net just under the crossbar.
The Markov-Subban powerplay alignment proved to be the most effective of the night, with the same-handed alternatives of Gonchar-Markov and Subban setting up alongside Tom Gilbert failing to generate many opportunities before Subban's seventh goal of the season.
The second period ended with a 3-2 lead for Montreal. And also with a penalty to Alexei Emelin for tripping Marian Hossa after the winger skated around him in the offensive zone.
The third period was a well-played twenty minutes by both teams that reminded viewers that these can be two of the most entertaining teams in the entire league.
The Blackhawks benefitted the most from the increased quality of play when Marian Hossa drew his second consecutive--third of the night--powerplay on a hook by Subban. On that powerplay, Jonathan Toews out-battled Mike Weaver in the crease to get his stick on the puck and tie the game once again.
Montreal out-shot and out-attempted Chicago over the remainder of the period, putting up a total of forty-one shots against a team that averages about twenty-seven-and-a-half shots against per game; winning the puck possession battle against a team that leads the league in Corsi-for percentage.
The end result, unlike the shot statistics, would not favour the Canadiens. Dale Weise got the puck passed Raanta but not into the net in the final minute of the the third, and the Blackhawks countered. Andrei Markov flubbed a backhand clearance from the slot to Brandon Saad, who scored the game-winning goal with twenty-seven seconds remaining.
It was a great effort by Montreal with unfortunate results: the loss of two points in the standings and of their best forward this season. It was an effort that would see Montreal win the vast majority of their remaining games if they could replicate it on a nightly basis.
They will get the chance to do just that tonight as they take on a Dallas Stars team that leads the league with the most goals allowed. Montreal will have the offensive services of Sven Andrighetto available to exacerbate those defensive woes.
(gifs via @myregularface)