For the first time in the last three games, Montreal maintained a full complement of six defencemen throughout the game. Injuries to Alexei Emelin and Sergei Gonchar have led to call-ups for Jarred Tinordi and Greg Pateryn. With Michel Therrien not wanting to place too much of a burden on his rookies, the load has fallen mostly on the shoulders of P.K. Subban and Andrei Markov in recent games.
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In games on Wednesday and Thursday versus Ottawa and Florida, a portion of that responsibility was handed to Nathan Beaulieu with just under 24 minutes in each game. Last night, Beaulieu once again got close to that 24-minute mark as Michel Therrien has consistently been placing his trust in the 22-year-old.
Beaulieu responded to his increased role with one of his best performances as an NHL defenceman.
A Subbanian rush up the ice in the first saw Beaulieu weaving through defenders into the offensive zone while his teammates (like they do with Subban on his open ice jaunts) watched his moves rather than getting into position to take a pass. The play ended without much offensive danger, but set the tone for what was to come.
Max Pacioretty got the scoring started with the man advantage, snapping a Markov pass to the far-side top-corner on goaltender Curtis McElhinney. Brendan Gallagher was credited with the second assist on his drawn powerplay.
About 10 minutes later, Beaulieu moved the puck down the wall, patiently waiting for a lane to open up before launching a perfect cross-ice pass, which Pacioretty converted into his second goal of the period and 29th of the season.
The Columbus Blue Jackets responded a minute later, taking advantage of a defensive zone breakdown from the over-worked duo of Subban and Markov. Artem Anisimov skated around Markov to get the puck to the net, while Nick Foligno was uncontested in his charge toward the goal, with the All-Star captain getting just enough of the puck to get the Jackets on the board.
Subban and Markov finished their third game in four nights with unspectacular shot-attempts-for percentages of 31% and 30%, respectively. While Subban's minutes were still a game-high total of over 26 minutes, Markov's ice-time was dropped to a more reasonable 22 from the previous games of over 28.
Jarred Tinordi and Greg Pateryn fared quite well in their minutes, finishing with positive shot-attempt differentials, boosted by an early second period flurry of activity in Columbus' zone. The duo looked less antsy than they had on Thursday when they had overestimated the speed of the game and were distributing the puck too quickly once they had possession. The much more calm pairing did not look out of place in limited usage against a team desperate to get back into the Eastern Conference playoff race.
Without the energy necessary to maintain the pace that had been established in the first, the game plan shifted to trying to pin the puck along the end boards of the offensive zone. The Blue Jackets were having none of that, forcefully knocking the forwards into the boards and off the puck to take it back into Montreal's end. The failed strategy resulted in just five shots for the Canadiens in the middle frame and 12 for the visiting squad.
Carey Price was able to repel all of those he faced, with a little help from Subban on one occasion:
Fewer shots were allowed in the third, although the Habs were still outshot 9-6 while trying to hold onto their one-goal lead. Some lucky bounces — one partially stopped by Price before hitting the crossbar, another going off both posts and out — helped to maintain the slim margin until Tomas Plekanec could break in short-handed on a deserted Blue Jackets net to give his team some breathing room with 50 seconds to play, securing a 3-1 victory.
Eller played the match as a player with zero confidence in his game. The aggressive centre from last year's playoff run and the beginning of this season has been replaced with a passive winger who defaults to taking the puck along to the boards rather than driving to the middle of the ice. He looks to be afraid to make mistakes and therefore doesn't attempt to take the risk required to create a quality offensive chance.
The criticism he has received about his recent lack of scoring, combined with his shift to the wing, seems to have been taken as an indictment of his entire game, and he looks completely miserable at the end of his shifts.
The Canadiens will have a rematch of last night's game on Thursday night in Columbus. They will get a much-needed two-day break to rest their weary blueliners before their next game that splits up the home-and-home series: a Tuesday night meeting in Missouri against Vladimir Tarasenko and his St. Louis Blues.