The five days off for the Montreal Canadiens seemed to have revitalizing effects. From the drop of the puck on Friday night, the players were engaged and eager for offence.
The first goal nearly came when Phillip Danault tipped a puck in for the first shot on Roberto Luongo, but the netminder made the save. With the top line still on the ice, the Habs weren’t going to be denied again. Pressure along the end boards from Brendan Gallagher created a turnover, and Tomas Tatar was right on the scene to open the scoring 35 seconds in.
The other lines wanted to find some early success as well. Paul Byron had a great chance from in close, but his backhand shot didn’t connect. Jesperi Kotkaniemi got a powerful wrist shot off, but the only damage he was able to do was add a dent to the goalpost.
The fourth line ensured that the follow-up pressure woudn’t be wasted. Nicolas Deslauriers went to the net and had Victor Mete’s point shot bounce in off of him for the Canadiens’ second goal less than three minutes after the opening draw.
With the puck in Montreal’s end, a pass from Andrew Shaw went off Kotkaniemi’s leg and right to Mike Hoffman. He set up rookie Henrik Borgstrom for a quick goal off the turnover to cut the lead in the half.
Six minutes later, the leg of Byron was involved in the tying goal. With the puck coming toward him, Byron’s reaction was to get his foot on it, and the effort kicked the puck back toward his own goal. Denis Malgin was waiting at the top of the crease, and had just to swing at the puck to knock it past Antti Niemi to knot the score at two despite the Canadiens controlling the majority of the play.
On a power play later in the third, Kotkaniemi marked up another post with a wicked shot. It was the closest the Canadiens came to restoring a lead before the period came to a close.
Not wanting to see a repeat of the first’s opening shifts, the Florida Panthers were the ones who had more jump out of the intermission break. They were aided by two tripping calls against Montreal that prevented the Habs from regaining a footing.
Fortunately, Niemi was up to this new challenge from the home side, and made a few good reactionary saves to prevent Florida from getting their first lead.
Once the hot start simmered a bit, there was very little flow to the middle frame, with passes being broken up in the neutral zone. A few nifty moves from Brett Kulak directly set up several good chances for Montreal late, but no goal resulted.
Four-and-a-half minutes into the third, Brendan Gallagher made a nice tip on a shot, but the puck hit the post yet again, keeping the score much closer than it should have been.
On a power play a few minutes later, MacKenzie Weegar sent the puck over the glass to put his team down two men. Despite not really being set up to take advantage (with Shea Weber near the boards on the blue line), the Canadiens moved the puck around the box quite well, and it was Tatar who finished the sequence off with his second goal of the game, and fourth point of his last two.
As we’ve mentioned all season, the Canadiens didn’t just sit back and try to play out the rest of the game, but instead kept pressing the attack to prevent the Panthers from setting up a shooting gallery. It paid off with the 4-2 goal, as an Andrew Shaw pass landed on Artturi Lehkonen’s stick, and a much more confident Finn sent the put to the far-side top corner where he would have simply tossed the puck toward Luongo a few short weeks ago.
With just a few minutes remaining, Phillip Danault and Aaron Ekblad stayed behind the play for an altercation, getting five each for fighting. Danault was given an extra two for roughing on the play, giving the Panthers a late man advantage.
Keith Yandle made things interesting with a power-play goal as Danault looked on from the penalty box. Florida had a few more shots with their net empty looking to tie it up, but it didn’t take long for Jonathan Drouin to head up ice and seal it with his 12th marker of the season.
A game in which Montreal was largely in control ended 5-3 for the visiting team.
The Canadiens have now won three games in a row. They did what needed to be done in a divisional matchup versus a team chasing them in the playoff hunt, and tonight will go toe-to-toe with the top team in the league, the Tampa Bay Lightning.