Coming into the Winter Classic with just two wins in their last thirteen games, the Montreal Canadiens needed to kick off 2016 with a good effort.
The game started off about as well as any apprehensive Habs fan could expect, with David Desharnais knocking in a mid-air rebound just 1:14 in. The goal snapped a 16-game drought for Desharnais, who also got involved physically with the arch-rival Bruins, heading off with a minor for roughing for an altercation with Torey Krug, though Krug, who had initiated the contact, was given an extra two to send Montreal to a power play.
The man advantage gave Brendan Gallagher a chance to use his talents, and his unit with Alex Galchenyuk and Max Pacioretty had lots of puck control on the power play, though little in the way of shots on net.
The Canadiens were able to keep up that level of play for the entire period. Good neutral support by the forwards, and smarter decisions by the defencemen on when to pinch at the offensive blue line and jump up into the play resulted in near-constant offensive zone time. Final shots after the first 20 minutes were 14-3, with attempted shots at the net favouring Montreal by a 27-4 margin.
The Canadiens came out of the first intermission determined to maintain their level of play from the first, and successfully reasserted their offensive zone puck control. Two minutes in, Paul Byron ensured that the effort wouldn't go to waste, taking a perfect six-foot touch from Brian Flynn and potting it behind an out-of-position Tuukka Rask.
A power play soon afterward gave the Canadiens a perfect opportunity to take a commanding 3-0 lead, but the Bruins' penalty kill came through, helping them get their legs and bringing them up to the speed the Canadiens had been playing with from the opening faceoff. With a few power plays of their own, Boston had a much better second, outshooting Montreal 14-11 in the middle frame after their poor performance in the first, though none of the shots appeared to be particularly dangerous, and Condon calmly turned them aside.
After the Bruins' best stretch from the 10-minute mark of the second, from which point they managed 11 of the 27 shot attempts they had through two periods, the Canadiens scores the all-important third goal.
Brendan Gallagher announced his return to the Canadiens lineup with a skillful backhand shot on a mid-air pass from Max Pacioretty with less than three minutes to go. Being one of the Canadiens best possession players despite a defensive deployment alongside Pacioretty and Tomas Plekanec, Gallagher showed little rust after his lengthy layoff, and was rewarded for going to the net.
After his relatively easy start to the game, Mike Condon was called upon with one second to go in the period, and made a crucial glove save to keep the Bruins off the scoreboard and send them to the dressing room with nothing to show for 40 minutes of play in the marquee game of the season.
The script wasn't to be one of a hometown boy returning to shutout his childhood team in the biggest game of the year, however. Matt Beleskey tipped a point shot right in front of Condon four minutes into the third to give the Bruins some life.
Score effects allowed the Bruins to control the third period, as Montreal shifted to a more defensive mentality to let their lead hold up, but a shift in the opposite direction by the Bruins had Zdeno Chara pinch in the offensive zone in an attempt to keep control, and Brendan Gallagher chipped the puck past him, launching a two-on-one with Pacioretty. Gallagher thwarted the aggressive attack by the Bruins' defender to attack the puck-carrier with a nice pass across the ice, and Pacioretty netted a goal to restore the lead to three.
It was Pacioretty's second consecutive game with a regulation goal, starting after his shootout game-winning goal versus the Tampa Bay Lightning last week. Now that Gallagher is back to give the lineup, and more specifically the Habs' shutdown line, some stability, the captain should see a return to more typical offensive results.
Facing defeat in front of a largely partisan crowd, the Bruins decided they'd at least win the physical battle, starting with Jimmy Hayes going after Lars Eller, and throwing some punches against an uninterested opponent, though both were sent off with double-minors for roughing with less that two minutes to go.
The Canadiens weren't satisfied with just a three-goal margin of victory, and a P.K. Subban shot off the post fell to Byron at the side of the net, and the waiver-claimed addition potted his second goal of the Winter Classic on the loose puck that resulted.
While Subban's goal-scoring drought continued, he did register his 26th assist of the season, leaving him three behind second-place John Klingberg in helpers by defencemen, despite the month-long goal-scoring drought the Habs experience in December.
Claude Julien decided to put Zac Rinaldo on the ice for the last shift of the game, and the Bruins player mixed it up with Brian Flynn before sucker punching Torrey Mitchell after the final whistle had sounded. In the post-game scrum, Max Pacioretty had some words about the antics of the losing side:
If the recent play between the two teams had taken the lustre off the Habs-Bruins rivalry, today's beatdown in Foxboro, with the skill-versus-physicality philosophy so obviously on display, may be just what was needed to breathe some life back into the rivalry.
- Most Canadiens fans were looking forward to the return of Brendan Gallagher, but I don't think many expected him to have such an immediate impact on the Habs' fortunes. Not only did he contribute a goal and an assist to a team that struggled to score in his absence, he was very effective in his shutdown role while paired against Patrice Bergeron and the Bruins' makeshift first line.
- After a difficult December, Mike Condon has bounced back in recent games, and gave up fewer than two goals in a complete-game performance for the first time since December 1st versus Columbus. Whether it was the acquisition of Ben Scrivens that helped put his season back on the rails or not, it's good to have a player playing at a high level, and creating a battle for starts based on which goalie can play the best, not on which one won't play the worst.
- Dale Weise ending up being the best possession forward on the team, largely because he suffered what seemed to be an arm injury in the second period, and wasn't around when score effects dropped the rest of the players' numbers in the third, but he and the other members of the reunited line of he, Desharnais, and Tomas Fleischmann, had a good game playing their ideal role as an offensive line away from the other team's top players
- Mark Barberio got just his third start of the season, and he and Alexei Emelin had an excellent game as a pairing, leading the defensive duos with a shot-attempts-for percentage of 70.4%, and each registering assists.
The Canadiens will have some time to enjoy their Winter Classic victory, as they won't be in action again until Tuesday night, when they'll wrap up their eight-game road swing in Philadelphia.