The Montreal Canadiens were handed their second regulation loss of the season on Thursday, failing to secure multiple leads versus the Buffalo Sabres. It was a game in stark contrast to the majority of those the Habs had played this season, unable or unwilling to use the tancious style that had led to their success, and they came away with zero points as a result.
The start against the Boston Bruins on Saturday night wasn’t an encouraging sign that the team had learned its lesson, as the home side spent the opening minutes largely in the Montreal end, threatening to break the game open early.
Carey Price was at the top of his game, however, and turned aside the shots on the opening shifts to allow his skaters time to get into the game.
The pressure was released not by the Canadiens turning the tide, but rather an offensive-zone penalty charged to Bruins leading scorer David Pastrnak that moved the play to the opposite end of the rink.
Jesperi Kotkaniemi got some time with the top offensive players, and while he wasn’t able to help the team open the scoring, he did show some of the skill that suggests that first NHL goal isn’t far away. It wasn’t just that he was making zone entries, but that he did so by sending a pass right across the blue line to the opposite boards. Most players would make short passes to a player attacking the middle of the ice, but the rookie’s awareness allows him to monitor the entire surface of the ice, attempting plays that other players simply can’t envision.
The power play shifted momentum in Montreal’s favour, and they carried it once the game returned to five-on-five, spending shift after shift in the Bruins’ zone. Artturi Lehkonen had the best chances to give his side the lead, but his stick wasn’t up to the task, snapping in half just as he went to shoot.
Brendan Gallagher didn’t suffer such a fate just before the midway mark of the opening period. Flying off the bench to join the attack, he quickly gained possession of the puck and turned toward the net. A quick move to make Matt Grzelcyk look silly gave him an open look at Tuukka Rask, and a precision shot beat the netminder from a sharp angle for his sixth goal of the season.
Lehkonen soon discovered that his entire batch of sticks was faulty, leaving another one in pieces as he raced to the bench for a replacement. This errand run actually proved fortuitous for the Finn, as he rejoined the play just in time for his team to win back possession, and was in great position to accept a stretch pass.
He was just about to apply a stress test to his third stick of the night when a hook took the opportunity away. With a delayed call upcoming, Lehkonen didn’t quit on the play, recovering the puck behind the goal and sending a pass to Jonathan Drouin. The winger was tied up and unable to corral the puck, but did manage to redirect it to a trailing Max Domi.
The centreman wasted no time waiting for a Bruin to thwart his chance, taking a shot toward the net right away. Unfortunately, the puck wasn’t on his stick at the time, and the unresisted force of the swing caused him to fall forward. That tumble put him right back on top of the puck, and from his knees and with Rask readjusting to a new angle, he wired home his fifth goal of the season to give his team a 2-0 lead.
The Canadiens maintained the majority of possession through the second half of the period, surviving a Bruins power play along the way to enter the intermission with their two-goal lead in hand.
In the second, the Habs seemed content with their situation and worked more to contain the Bruins’ offence than try to generate more of their own. Boston gradually regained control of the possession game, but the Habs’ defence was disciplined in protecting the middle of the ice.
A three-on-two rush eight minutes into middle frame resulted in a Ryan Donato goal, but the Canadiens risked a minor penalty with a challenge for offside. The review went in Claude Julien’s favour, and the game continued with its 2-0 score.
When the puck did make its way to the slot, a fully engaged Price was right there to shut it down. He maintained focus right to the final tenth of a second, flicking out the glove to snag a slapshot from Joakim Nordstrom. It may have been too late to count, but the netminder’s intervention made such a review unnecessary.
Montreal spent the final period committing even more to the defensive side, and while it did mean more shot attempts and zone time for Boston, much of the play was on the perimeter, with low-quality shots coming in on Price. The defencemen were giving their goalie plenty of space to operate, and the strategy worked.
With the net empty late in the game, Phillip Danault had a chance to ice it, but hit the side of the net to keep the Bruins in it. Jordie Benn upped the degree of difficulty on his attempt moments later, banking the puck off the boards and right into the centre of the net for his first point of the season.
The victory was the 290th of Price’s career, moving him into sole possession of second place on the Canadiens’ all-time list. He did it in grand fashion, stopping 33 saves for the 41st shutout of his career.
Montreal will now head home for a three-game stretch, beginning on Tuesday with a visit from Alexander Radulov and the Dallas Stars.