The season is slipping away for the Montreal Canadiens.
Entering last night's contest, they were holding down the final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference, with several teams on their tail. The team needed the two points from their visit to St. Louis to start a difficult back-to-back set versus two of the top teams in the Central Division off on the right foot.
Thirty-four seconds into the game, that task got much more difficult, as Robby Fabbri pounced on a rebound and put it by a backward-facing Mike Condon. Michel Therrien used his challenge in an attempt to get the goal disallowed on grounds of goaltender interference, but the evidence did not support the claim, and the Habs were down 1-0 just as the game got underway.
To their credit, the Canadiens didn't just decide to give up and play out yet another loss. They pushed back and controlled the play for the remainder of the period. While that zone time led to two power plays and several shots on goal, with Montreal heading into the intermission with a 17-9 edge in that category, few of them could be qualified as dangerous scoring chances, as many were launched from the boards or the blue line at the end of a shift.
In the second period, the Canadiens came out with a more aggressive effort, drawing two penalties in the first three minutes after the shift to a more assertive style. The second of those — the fourth power play of the game — finally resulted in a goal, as P.K. Subban leaned forward to reach a pass from Andrei Markov, his off-balance shot bouncing off the stick of Vladimir Tarasenko and past Brian Elliott to tie things up.
The trio of Max Pacioretty, Tomas Plekanec, and Brendan Gallagher led the charge into the prime scoring areas, and the line put on an excellent performance all game long. Together, the line amassed 22 of the Habs' 49 shots in the contest.
One one of those shots came after an offensive zone win, when Nathan Beaulieu took the puck down the wall and threw it toward the front of the net, where it pinballed off a few stick before landing right in front of Pacioretty. The captain launched it into the near-side corner to give the Canadiens their first lead.
That lead didn't last long, as Paul Stastny tipped a Colton Parayko point shot past Condon just over a minute later to knot things up once again.
The Plekanec line stormed out on their next shift, with both Plekanec and Gallagher going right to the net, and the Blues decided it was time to break out their physical style of play. The result was 14 minutes in roughing penalties, the extra two going to St. Louis to send the Canadiens to the power play.
In fact, they received two more power plays for roughing infractions before the end of the second, as the Blues unravelled after a heavy, clean hit by Alexei Emelin on Stastny.
Unfortunately, the power play could do no more damage, and the Blues went unpunished for their lack of discipline.
The end result was a one-for-seven success rate on the night, with very little overlap time skewing the number of opportunities. Encouragingly, not once were the Habs forced to take a penalty of their own to cancel out their man advantage, and generally looked very dangerous when playing with the extra attacker.
The combined push by the Habs and over-aggressive push-back by the Blues created a 22-7 shot differential in the middle frame, with those totals more indicative of the play on the ice than was the case in the first.
The pace slowed considerably in the third, with relatively little happening for either team. That changed with about six minutes to go when Pacioretty led his line in on a rush, sending an eight-foot pass to Plekanec to change the angle and create an opening for the Czech's ninth goal of the season.
Like the first lead they had achieved, this one would not last, either, as a communication breakdown in the Habs' end had Condon leaving the puck behind his own net, with Mark Barberio expecting it to be passed around the boards. Lars Eller went after the puck behind the net in an attempt to recover, but ended up leaving the low slot open, and Ty Rattie took advantage of the open ice to score an easy goal.
Paul Byron created an excellent chance to restore the Canadiens' lead, using his speed to squeak through a Byron-sized hole in St. Louis' defence, but his initial shot and follow-up efforts by Tomas Fleischmann and Eller failed to click as well.
The game went to overtime, and Montreal's attempt to hold onto the puck while making a personnel change backfired when Andrei Markov tried a back pass to a covering Alex Galchenyuk. The puck went off the skate of Fabbri, sending him the opposite way. Fabbri pulled the puck around an aggressive attempt at a stick check by Galchenyuk to gain the zone. Markov caught him from behind with a desperation hook to prevent a goal, but Jori Lehtera beat David Desharnais to the front of the net and finished the play off to give the Blues a 4-3 overtime victory.
One of the reasons for the excellent showing in the second period was better support from the forwards on the breakouts. Failing on the majority of pass attempts in the first period, the goal was just to get the pucks at the net when they got anywhere close. With a more structured effort in the second, the puck was getting behind Blues forecheckers and allowing the Canadiens to gain the more dangerous areas of the ice.
One of the players who stood out for his composure with the puck in the defensive end and his ability to find his forwards with an up-ice pass was Alexei Emelin. He has had a good month of January playing alongside Mark Barberio, and is probably playing his best hockey since the 2012-13 season.
Andrei Markov finished with 26:05 of ice-time in the game, behind only Subban's 29:53. While at first glance that looks excessively high, 9:31 of it came during the numerous power-play chances the Canadiens had in the game. That's exactly the type of minutes you want to give Markov, who still has his offensive instincts (recording his 21st assist on Subban's power-play goal), even if his foot speed has dropped off considerably in recent years.
The fact that he led all skaters in short-handed minutes is probably the most troubling part of his ice time, as there's no need for him to be the go-to man in those situations with the defensive talent available. His approximately 14 minutes of five-on-five time was about average among the defence corps, with a range from Barberio's 12 minutes to Emelin's 18.
The power play let the Habs down once again, a 14.3% efficiency rate not helping to bring them out of this too-long-to-still-be-called-a-slump they're in. The man advantage looked good tonight, and may be on the way to recovery, so judgment will need to be held until at least their next game to evaluate any changes made.
Alex Galchenyuk also had a great performance, finishing with six shots, thanks in large part to his 7:14 of power-play time; the most of any forward. One effect his move to a line with Desharnais and Dale Weise has is to make him the designated shooter, and last night he had four individual shot attempts to those linemates' zero in five-on-five play.
Gaining a point from the contest, the Canadiens now have an even 50 through 45 games. While they cling to the second wild-card spot, their 21 regulation and overtime wins (ROW), mean they cannot be knocked out of that spot until after Tuesday's games at the earliest, even if they lose tomorrow's game. So. if you're of the impression that no significant changes can occur until they slip out of a post-season position, you can lightly circle the morning of Wednesday, January 20th on your calendar.
The New Jersey Devils are the only team that can remove them from the eighth seed with one result. The biggest threat to their playoff position, however, may well be the Philadelphia Flyers, who sit four points back with three games in hand.
With the talent available, the Montreal Canadiens shouldn't be reliant on the results of other teams to maintain a playoff spot. They will get another chance to take control of their own destiny when they take on the Chicago Blackhawks tonight, and will be motivated to break the defending champs' 10-game win streak.
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