Coming in having lost five of their last six games, with the one win coming against one of the worst teams in the NHL, the Canadiens were in desperate need of putting in a complete effort against a New York Islanders team that has been one of the league's best.
Montreal started out doing just that in the first period, playing fairly evenly with the home side. Montreal's task was made more difficult with two minor penalties taken by Dale Weise for being overly physical (the first being a fairly mild contact along the boards, the second being very close to warranting at least a major for a hit from behind).
Last weekend I highlighted the poor defensive play of Weise versus the Arizona Coyotes. He was playing high in the zone hoping for breakaway passes, coasting back to the defensive end, and generally failing to put in the effort required of a player when his team does not have possession of the puck.
Image Credit: HockeyStats.ca
Other than the two penalties in the first, Weise's defensive play was a complete 180 from one week earlier. He was supporting his defencemen, waiting on the half-wall to make a play out of his own end. On at least two occasions, he was the covering forward as one of his defencemen pinched up to try to hold the offensive blueline, playing a hand in thwarting two-on-two rushes in both instances. His shot attempt differential, with five attempts for and 12 against, appears to show yet another struggle on the defensive side of the game, but four of those events against were shots that he blocked thanks to good positioning much lower in his defensive zone. Looking at unblocked shot attempts, he came out of his nearly nine minutes of ice time with just a minus-one differential. Combining that type of defensive play with the determination we've seen from him once he gets inside the offensive zone will make Weise a valuable piece going forward.
On the offensive side, the winger duo of Alex Galchenyuk and P.A. Parenteau seemed to be telepathically linked all night, constantly finding each other with passes in the offensive zone and generating the best scoring chances of all forwards on the team. The two players, who haven't managed to get above 50% even-strength possession on the season, have seen 55% of shot attempts, or 11 of every 20, go their way in the 140 minutes they had played together before last night [Stats.HockeyAnalysis.com]. Those numbers will increase upon the next site update as the pair finished above 60% at five-on-five; the only two players on the team to achieve better than an even differential.
That chemistry was put on display soon after the second period began, as Galchenyuk narrowly avoided a centre ice body check to advance the puck to Parenteau. With the blueline gained, Parenteau sent the puck back to Galchenyuk, who then flipped it across to Tomas Plekanec. The centreman navigated around a completely fooled Michal Neuvirth, tapping the puck in for a 1-0 lead.
A few minutes later, with control of the puck in his own end while at a man disadvantage, Jeff Petry launched a clearance down the ice. The puck was cut off by Neuvirth but then handed over the Lars Eller behind his net. For the second straight game, Eller sent a short pass to Max Pacioretty that the Canadiens' best scorer was able to convert into a short-handed goal. Pacioretty now has 34 markers on the season and 13 remaining games to reach the 40-goal plateau that eluded him last season.
With the players in front of him putting in a much better effort than he has seen over the last several games, Carey Price was not required to put in an All-Star performance in the first two periods to give his team a chance to win.
But he decided to anyway.
Matt Martin was left along in front of the net, and his weak shot off a Price rebound threatened to trickle in. Contorting his body to reach back with the glove, Price covered the puck, sweeping it away from the goalline and freezing it in the process.
Any other Islanders player than Martin, and it would have been an easy tap in goal. But it wasn't. What is was was yet another gem for what will be a feature-length highlight reel for Price's 2014-15 campaign.
Holding a two-goal edge the Canadiens maintained the level of play through the end of the second period and well into the third, with the most impressive performance put in by P.K. Subban in a shutdown role versus John Tavares' line, most notably with his dexterity in knocking attempted Islanders' zone clearances and dump-ins out of mid-air. I counted six instances in the game of Subban doing this. Perhaps his in-season training now incorporates some time in a batting cage. His Tony Fernandez-style slash-bunts to repel offensive entries could be another effective tool in the Norris Trophy candidate's already-extensive repertoire.
After the teams traded powerplay opportunities around the middle of the third period, the game began to shift in favour of the Islanders, and more and more time was spent in the Canadiens end. What had been very good support and positioning in their own zone became panicked, individual scrambles for pucks as the Islanders became desperate to get on the board.
An elite display of goaltending wasn't necessary in the first 50 minutes of the contest, but in the final 10, it became vital. Several times in the back half of the third, those defensive scrambles gravitated toward the crease, with Price and several of his defenders sprawled in the blue paint in a frantic attempt to prevent a goal. Several sustained minutes led to an interference call against Andrei Markov as he took down Josh Bailey along the boards with just over four minutes remaining.
The one-man advantage was increased to two as Jack Capuano pulled his goaltender on the ensuing powerplay. A half-wall scrum ultimately culminated in a pass from Pacioretty, intended to go to Plekanec ending up on the stick of Bailey in the slot. The opportune change in possession was not wasted as the man responsible for gaining the powerplay fired the puck five-hole on a none-too-pleased Carey Price.
The Islanders kept the throttle open after finally getting within a goal, gaining control and replacing Neuvirth with an offensive option once again. This time, Lars Eller was able to release the pressure with the 3-1 empty net goal with less than half a minute remaining.
Any recent doubts the players had of the their ability to beat a strong team should have been eased with this mostly-successful outing against one of the top clubs in the league. The defensive support offered by the forwards was a major reason why the team was able to secure two points from this outing. Increasing the duration of that effort by the 20% necessary to play a complete 60-minute game will see this team in good position down the stretch heading into the post-season. The trip to Florida to play one of the best home teams in the NHL in the Tampa Bay Lightning on Monday, followed by a match against a Florida Panthers team clawing its way up into the top eight Eastern Conference seeds the following night, will be the perfect time to do it.