The Montreal Canadiens headed off on a Western Conference road trip last weekend sporting a four-game winning streak. The streak was broken after a poor showing versus the San Jose Sharks. A losing streak began despite a much better effort two days later against the Anaheim Ducks. And an early two-goal deficit forced the Canadiens to come from behind in Los Angeles, scoring three goals to temporarily take the lead, but ultimately surrendering the advantage and losing in a shootout.
Last night the Canadiens got a chance to finish the failed road trip on a high note against an Arizona Coyotes team that has recently shipped out the best players of what had already been a poor club.
Image credit: HockeyStats.ca
The visitors began the game looking to do just that, spending the first few minutes of the game in the offensive zone. The line of Lars Eller, Jacob de la Rose, and Devante Smith-Pelly was the most determined trio, with Eller seeing not a single attempt at his net while on the ice in the first period. After a fairly uneventful start to his Canadiens career, Smith-Pelly found success playing the role of puck carrier on that line, gaining the zone and throwing low shots toward the net in hopes of his net-charging linemates cashing in the rebound. The line was a major reason why the Habs held a 15-5 shot margin after the first period.
The offensive line of David Desharnais centring Max Pacioretty and Dale Weise was the reason the Coyotes managed as many shots as they did in the opening 20 minutes. Weise and Desharnais consistently cheated toward offence, standing high in their own zone and failing to put in the effort on the backcheck in the rare instances they had managed to get the puck into the Arizona end.
The second period proved to be even more difficult for the trio, as Desharnais and Weise had two-period shot-attempt-for percentages of 40% despite an otherwise strong possession game from the Canadiens. Max Pacioretty somehow managed to be an offensive threat all night long, getting robbed by Mike Smith in the infrequent offensive forays into the offensive zone. His five shots tied for the team-high total, even with just a 37% shot-attempts-for percentage on the night.
shoot-for-rebounds strategy tied him with Montreal's top goal-scorer for that lead in shots, but he got his first point with his new team with a play that required more skill.
With just over five minutes remaining in the second, the puck was carried in by Smith-Pelly off a neutral zone turnover and slung back to Lars Eller. Eller spun and fired a shot through the legs of Smith to open the scoring and net his first goal since marking a powerplay tally versus the New Jersey Devils exactly one month prior.
A one-goal lead was apparently viewed as enough of a cushion to escape the desert with a victory, and the Canadiens descended into safe mode in the final period, watching wave after wave of Arizona attacks into their own end. What had been a strong 40 minutes was erased by the defensive showing in the third that saw the edge in shots drop from 27-13 after two periods to 35-29 at the end of three.
It turned out that one goal was all that was needed in the game as Carey Price (and his post on one Shane Doan attempt) turned aside several Arizona scoring chances in the third and earned his seventh shutout of the season. An empty-net goal by Brendan Gallagher with just over a second left resulted in a final score of 2-0 for the Canadiens.
The defensive pairing of Jeff Petry and Tom Gilbert wasn't as effective as it had been in the previous games of the road trip, in large part because the duo had the misfortune of sharing the ice with the debacle that was the Desharnais line.
Looking at the four-game trip as a whole, even though Montreal failed to win the even-strength possession battle in a single game during the trip, Petry finished with a shot-attempts-for percentage of just over 54% (+76, -72), while his teammates managed just over 35% (+121, -165) while he watched from the bench. Gilbert had a less-impressive showing at 45% (+64, -91), but that was still better than the team fared without him (39.4%; +133, -146).
It will be interesting to see if the coaching staff experiments with placing Nathan Beaulieu with Petry on the second pair in upcoming games, Beaulieu played under 11 minutes last night, which is not nearly enough ice-time for a player of his ability.
Montreal will resume the season at home versus their second-most-likely first-round playoff opponent [SportsClubStats], the Tampa Bay Lightning, on Tuesday. Tampa Bay won last night to remain just two points behind Montreal for the Atlantic Division lead. The win, coupled with a Predators loss in Nashville, boosted their home record to a league-best 26-6-1. On the road, however, the Lightning are a mere one game above .500 (15-14-5). If the Canadiens need incentive to play a full 60-minute game and increase the chance of home ice advantage through the first two divisional rounds of the playoffs, the home-away record of their closest adversary should do the trick.