The Montreal Canadiens have a spot secured for the upcoming post-season, and facing what the organization hopes to be a long playoff run, the process of setting up for the main event began last night as the 36-year-old Andrei Markov was given the night off.
The New Jersey Devils will not be participating in the elimination series. The team knew exactly how many more times it would have to suit up for a game (just four more times before last night's game began) and can empty what's left in the tank in the final portion of what has been another disappointing season for the franchise.
The Devils began the game playing at a high pace; an unsustainable pace that the Canadiens needed to wait out before their opponent settled into a more manageable pattern of attack.
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Montreal was able to withstand the pressure for nearly 10 minutes, but surrendered the first goal before the storm abated. Adam Larsson's point shot wasn't corralled by backup goaltender Dustin Tokarski, and, perhaps surprised to see a rebound off their goaltender, neither Nathan Beaulieu nor Tom Gilbert tied up Stefan Matteau, who potted his first goal in an NHL game this season.
The tides shifted immediately after the Devils' goal, as the majority of the action took place in New Jersey's zone for the rest of the opening frame.
Playing with a man advantage after Jon Merill was called for hitting Manny Malhotra along the boards after the rarely-used centreman had dumped the puck by the defender, Tomas Plekanec quickly leveled the score as he fired a shot from the top of the circle past the shoulder of Keith Kinkaid just seven seconds into the powerplay.
About two minutes later, Lars Eller (unofficially) tipped in Jeff Petry's shot from the high slot. Whether the goal remains credited to Petry or not, he extended his point streak to four games on the play, and he, along with main defensive partner Alexei Emelin, have looked much better recently than the pairing that couldn't get out of its own zone in games last week.
Trailing by a goal after the effort they put in to open the scoring in the first, New Jersey re-upped their tempo at the beginning of the second period. A long sequence without a whistle in Montreal's zone came to end when Tokarski deliberately — yet somehow without being seen by a referee — knocked his net off its pegs to stop the play. The illegal intervention proved to be just a temporary solution to the Devils' momentum as Reid Boucher scored his first goal of the season on the next sequence.
The attack relented once again after the goal and the Habs regained the edge in play, leading to another powerplay as Adam Larsson was forced to hold Plekanec after the Canadiens forward got beyond him on a path to the Devils' net.
The second powerplay wasn't as successful as the first, but the Canadiens still managed some good puck movement and several decent shots at the goal, with Jeff Petry looking like Raphael Diaz as he tried to wrap the puck around the net on one occasion, but didn't get the result the Flames' defenceman enjoyed in Monday's contest.
Later in the period, Emelin knocked former-Hab Scott Gomez into the end boards from several feet away, avoiding what could have been called a boarding penalty on the hit. Gomez was unhappy with the bodycheck and got his revenge with a vicious elbow to Emelin's face a few moments later. With Emelin visibly injured by the deliberate attack, Gomez was given a major penalty and ejected from the game.
With a great opportunity to regain the lead, that Canadiens looked completely uninterested in doing so while playing a man up for the five-minute period. They rarely gained the offensive blueline and were quickly forced to regroup from their own end soon after they did. The Canadiens managed just one shot on the major penalty and only three total attempts at goal.
With just under six minutes left to go in the third, Matteau was sent off for shooting the puck over the glass from his own zone, and the Canadiens had more success in getting shots on goal, and were helped by an extension of their personnel advantage when Andy Greene tripped up a backchecking P.A. Parenteau on a Devils shorthanded rush, but ultimately the game remained tied for the duration of the powerplay and into the overtime period.
In the extra frame, Montreal was given yet another glorious chance to come out with a win as Greene returned to the box ater another tripping call, but the Habs failed yet again to take advantage of the situation.
With overtime deciding nothing, the Canadiens entered their second shootout in consecutive nights, once more failing to score on any of their shots and being denied the extra point.
The Canadiens have now failed to win five of their last six games, though they have achieved at least a point from seven of their last nine.
With just three games left to go in the season, the team needs to start finishing off opponents to achieve the goal of winning the division and being in prime position for success by holding home ice advantage in the first two rounds. Getting five of the last six available points will guarantee that division crown. The antepenultimate game of the regular campaign will get underway in the early evening on Sunday as the Canadiens visit a team that is on the verge of elimination from playoff contention after hanging onto a position just outside the seedings all season long: the Florida Panthers.