Montreal entered the match with a five-game winning streak, thanks in large part to some stellar play from Carey Price over that span to cover up the struggles the team had finding the scoresheet. The Canadiens had managed just one goal in each of their previous two games, relying on Carey Price to hold the fort before Max Pacioretty could score the game-winning goal in each contest.
Price was given a well-deserved afternoon off against the Arizona Coyotes, with Dustin Tokarski making the start in the second half of the Super Bowl back-to-back set. At the other end, Louis Domingue was making his first NHL start for the lottery-hopeful Coyotes after having come on in the third period in relief of Mike Smith the day before versus the Ottawa Senators to make his NHL debut. Domingue is the third goalie from Saint-Hyacinthe, Quebec to play in the NHL, joining former (briefly) Habs goaltenders Vincent Riendeau (one game played with Montreal to begin his career) and the Vezina Trophy-winning Denis DeJordy (seven games near the end of his).
Domingue's starting career got off to an inauspicious start as Alex Galchenyuk opened the scoring just over a minute into the game, taking a drop pass from Brendan Gallagher along the half-wall and walking into the middle of the ice to fire a shot over the blocker of the rookie netminder.
With Antoine Vermette rejoining the play after serving a high-sticking penalty, Galchenyuk had a David Desharnais pass from behind the goalline redirect off his foot, off the far post, and into the net for his second goal in the first five minutes.
The powerplay had looked very good before the goal, with good puck movement and forwards getting into scoring position in front of the net, but a lot of that was the result of the passivity of the Coyotes defence that has had difficulty containing the opposition in the defensive zone this season.
Early on, it looked like Montreal was ready to take it to a weaker opponent and that opponent didn't appear to be able to do anything about it. With a two-goal lead, however, the Canadiens let up and allowed the Coyotes back into the game. Despite the good start that included two minutes of powerplay time, the shots actually favoured the visiting team 6-5 at the halfway mark of the period and the teams were tied with nine shots apiece after one.
The play turned against Montreal when they changed their tactics. The concerted offensive effort that gained them a two-goal lead was replaced with the hopeful stretch passing that has been the main breakout strategy of the team all season. The result of that all-out offensive-mindedness of the forwards led to some confused play by Montreal's defence and back-up goaltender Tokarski. Several times in the first period, Tokarski was bailed out by defencemen who had collapsed to the crease when he found himself out of position with Coyotes forwards swarming around the net.
The defensive zone coverage settled down in the second period, but the attempted stretch pass remained the go-to plan and the Canadiens dealt with a large amount of defensive zone faceoffs from the icings that resulted. Montreal was able to put some good pressure on Arizona in the middle of the frame with the Desharnais and Eller line spending successive shifts in the offensive zone. On a net drive soon afterward, Lars Eller was cross-checked from behind, his left knee crashing into the post. Eller took one more shift in the game before being unable to continue.
Montreal had more good offensive pressure on the powerplay that ensued from the cross-check, once again revealing how passive the defence of Arizona has been this season, but overall the period belonged to Arizona. Shots were 14-5 for the Coyotes in the period.
Near the end of the period, Manny Malhotra was called for boarding, putting a surprisingly dangerous powerplay (given their general goal-scoring difficulties this year) to work for the first time. The Coyotes took advantage of the situation when Lauri Korpikoski's tip of a high shot from Martin Erat bounced off the ice and through the legs of Tokarski to reduce the deficit to a single goal.
The beginning of the third period afforded Tokarski an opportunity to look like the nervous rookie goaltender, failing to seal the post on an Oliver Ekman-Larsson shot from the boards that tied the game up at two just over 30 seconds in. The goal was Ekman-Larsson's 14th of the season and extended his lead for the most tallies by a defenceman.
A few minutes later, with Tom Gilbert in the box for hooking, an attempted cross-crease pass from Korpikoski deflected off the shin of a sprawled Alexei Emelin and got past Tokarski who had begun to move across to cover the play.
Finding themselves suddenly in a trailing position after starting the third period with a lead, the Canadiens didn't seem overly concerned with tying things back up. They managed just one shot during the first 10 minutes of the period. They had registered just 15 total shots with half a period remaining versus a team that has given up an average of close to 30 per game.
The home team did turn the play back up in the latter part of the period, but weren't able to solve Louis Domingue again, giving the rookie his first win in his first NHL start, and adding the insult of losing to a lottery team to the injury previously sustained by Lars Eller.
Both teams came into the game having played three games in less than four days, so fatigue can't be used as a factor in Montreal's poor performance. They simply stopped playing after amassing a two-goal lead and let a team that had no business being anywhere close to them on the scoreboard not only get back in the game, but steal it away. The Canadiens controlled the puck at will once they had gained the offensive zone, but mustering the will proved too difficult a task in this game.
Montreal's next opponent is another draft lottery hopeful: the Buffalo Sabres. The Sabres have not earned a single point in their last 14 games and sit at the bottom of the NHL standings. The Canadiens will look to put forth a more complete effort on Tuesday night and not give up two points to another club that they should be able to beat easily.
After missing the first matchup of the season in Montreal, Josh Gorges should be in the Sabres lineup on Tuesday. It will be his first game against the team he was publicly reluctant to leave in the summer.