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Canadiens vs. Panthers game recap: A well-earned first win

Line chemistry and a handful of great individual performances made the difference on Friday night.

NHL: Preseason-Florida Panthers at Montreal Canadiens Jean-Yves Ahern-USA TODAY Sports

The Florida Panthers rolled into Montreal and iced their opening-night lineup against the Canadiens. The Panthers looked to get their big-league team into the groove while the Habs were still making decisions on their starting roster. Incidentally, Montreal was also hoping for its first win on the pre-season schedule.

The first period began without much incident, but also without many whistles. The opening 10 minutes of the game scrolled off the clock with very few stoppages and even fewer scoring chances.

After half a period of getting the feel for the game, both teams began settling in and controlling the puck more effectively. The best chance on net early belonged to Paul Byron, who took up real estate in front of Roberto Luongo and was fed a beautiful pass from linemate Andrew Shaw, only to whiff on the shot.

A particularly impressive shift by the Canadiens’ line of Alex Galchenyuk, Peter Holland and Nikita Scherbak was an encouraging showing from three players who hadn’t been able to have much of an impact in training camp to that point. The trio moved the puck effortlessly to each other and frustrated the Panthers in the offensive zone.

The Habs would strike first in the game, when Byron completed a play set up by Shaw and Phillip Danault, further demonstrating their early chemistry. Shaw broke up a Florida breakout in the neutral zone, while Danault collected the loose puck, stretched the defence and fed Shaw along the boards. Byron found his favourite spot in the slot and tipped in a hard pass for a goal.

Vincent Trocheck, who thrice scored on the Habs last season, had a great opportunity to tie things up when he was sent on a breakaway. Things looked great as Trocheck patiently skated past a sprawled Charlie Lindgren, but the prospect found a Carey-Price-like ability to extend his left leg, defying logic and physics to rob a goal from the Panthers.

A few minutes later, Florida would tie the score at one when Evgenii Dadonov slipped one under Lindgren. The play would be twice reviewed, but ultimately stood. The net had come off the moorings after Dadonov collided with Lindgren, and officials checked that the puck crossed the line prior to the net lifting. Claude Julien then challenged the goal due to interference, but the ruling was that Jeff Petry contributed to Dadonov sliding into the netminder.

The first period closed without further scoring, with Montreal holding an 8-6 advantage in shots on net. Of note in the closing minutes of the first was a hip check by Jeff Petry, who seems to be in good form.

The physical tone of the game began to pick up from the drop of the puck for the second period, though it has to be said that the first period was extremely tame. Andrew Shaw, perhaps cognizant of his own recent concussion issues, displayed restraint when he opted not to crush Vincent Trocheck who took the puck in the neutral zone with his head down. Shaw let up and skated past Trocheck, preferring to chase the forward than to take advantage of his lack of awareness.

Nearing the midway point of the second frame, with the Panthers applying pressure in the Habs’ zone, Danault was called for hooking when he got his stick on Aleksander Barkov . The play temporarily allowed Montreal some breathing room, but put them on the penalty kill. Fortunately the Canadiens managed to not only kill the penalty, but also reclaim the lead with a short-handed goal.

Byron knocked in his second goal in as many periods after receiving a beautiful pass from Andreas Martinsen. The Norwegian forward made a shifty move with his stick and backhanded a pass through the Florida defence, finding Byron who, with one deke, had a sizable five hole through which he could fire the puck, and promptly did.

With three minutes to go in the second, Ian McCoshen was called for a slashing penalty when he took a late hack at the stick of Nikita Scherbak. This was just another example of the type of play Scherbak made all night. He played like someone who wanted to remain with the NHL team and not return to Laval in the AHL. He was defensively sound, making smart decisions, doggedly chasing loose pucks, forechecking with haste, and moving the puck intelligently to his linemates.

The Panthers survived the two minutes of short-handed action, with the Habs’ best chance on the power play belonging to Charles Hudon, who was camping in the slot behind Florida’s defence and screening Roberto Luongo. Hudon tipped a shot and dug for the loose puck in front of the crease until the ensuing scramble drew a whistle.

Shaw continued his solid night when he opened the third period with a goal only 1:13 into the frame. Jordie Benn spotted the streaking Shaw and connected with a long-distance pass, sending Shaw in uncontested on the net. Shaw shook off Luongo and scored an insurance goal, putting his team up by a pair.

The next 10 minutes went by without much action. With the Habs pressing hard and nine minutes remaining in regulation, it was defence prospect Victor Mete who flew into the Panthers’ zone and got three solid chances to score. Luongo stopped two while Mete lost the puck on one rush. All in all the youngster showed he can pinch up into the offensive zone, be effective with it, and do it intelligently, not leaving an unmarked Florida forward behind him.

Scherbak outshone linemates Holland and especially Alex Galchenyuk, who had one very good shift in the first, but failed to do anything else with a net positive result.

The final half of the third got heated, with physical intensity slowly rising and eventually a few post-whistle shenanigans started a parade to the penalty box. Andreas Martinsen lay a big hit on Trocheck to begin the first real showing of animosity. The end result of it all was 16 minutes in penalties divided among five players, leaving the Habs on the power play.

Less than two minutes later, Derek MacKenzie took issue with Jakub Jerabek, knocking him to the ice and later hitting him in the back while Jerabek was getting back up. Holland, eager to defend his teammate, immediately dropped the gloves and engaged MacKenzie, sending both players to the box.

Then just seconds later, Micheal Haley aggressively hit Danault and had to be restrained by officials as he was ejected from the game. During the balance of the game, both teams continued to show some nastiness, including Karl Alzner taking a boarding call with 30 seconds on the clock.

Thoughts

It was a feel-good win for the Habs and their fans, with the home team spending the majority of the game in the lead. There was a lot to be happy with in this game, but first, the not-so-good.

  • Alex Galchenyuk is getting lost in the lineup while other players are impressing with their pre-season play. The former third-overall pick started Friday’s game in a bottom-six winger role, took a penalty, had several glaring giveaways, and failed to impress in nearly 15 minutes of ice time.
  • The line comprised of Paul Byron, Phillip Danault and Andrew Shaw was impressive from their first shift until their last. Competitive, hard on the puck, and showing great chemistry, the trio ended the match with six points, including two goals by Paul Byron, who is playing more like a first-round pick than a waiver wire pickup.
  • Nikita Scherbak certainly changed the opinion of the head coach, playing possibly his best game in a Canadiens jersey. Charles Hudon and Artturi Lehkonen continued to look comfortable and dangerous alongside Tomas Plekanec.
  • Victor Mete showed some flashes of speed and offensive smarts while rarely coming up short on his defensive responsibility. Jeff Petry also had a solid game, playing physical and smart against Florida’s more talented forwards.
  • Finally, Charlie Lindgren stayed between the pipes for the whole game, ending the night with 23 saves, looked calm and collected throughout. Even when Dadonov went bowling into him in the first period, which was the only way he could be beaten on the night.

It was a positive outing for a team very much in need of a glimmer of hope. Hopefully this sets the tone for another win on Saturday night when the Habs take on the Ottawa Senators in their final pre-season matchup.