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Canadiens vs. Ducks game recap: Antti Niemi held the fort until the cavalry arrived

The Canadiens were handily outshot, but solid goaltending and timely scoring resulted in a victory.

NHL: Anaheim Ducks at Montreal Canadiens Jean-Yves Ahern-USA TODAY Sports

The Montreal Canadiens kicked off their annual back-to-back set on Super Bowl weekend with a game versus the hard-charging Anaheim Ducks. Both teams were entering the contest after being shut out in their previous game, giving both teams plenty of reason to come out with a good effort.

Normally used to playing at 7:00 PM Pacific Time, an afternoon game in the east posed a challenge for the Ducks. But the early start didn’t appear to be much of an issue, with the visitors determined to claim the win from the first drop of the puck.

Image credit: HockeyStats.ca

Anaheim held an 8-0 shot advantage after five-and-a-half minutes. They clogged the neutral zone and had the Habs attempting to force passes to teammates, and held the majority of possession as a result.

Fortunately for the Habs, Antti Niemi was able to repel the attack, allowing his team to find its legs.

It took just one shift from the fourth line in the offensive zone to turn the game on its head. Byron Froese drove the puck from behind the goal line to the front of the net, and Logan Shaw was there to knock it in for the first goal of his Canadiens tenure.

Just seconds after the goal, the Canadiens got another chance to get on the board when Artturi Lehkonen drew a hooking penalty. Alex Galchenyuk had the first good look, and Brendan Gallagher created one of his own that appeared to go over the goal line, but a review determined no goal had been scored.

Not about to waste the man-advantage opportunity, the second wave went to work. Nikita Scherbak picked up a puck near the Ducks’ goal line and slung it back to the point to relaunch the attack. Victor Mete accepted his pass and moved it across into Joe Morrow’s wheelhouse, and the former Bruin got all of the shot to make it a 2-0 game.

About two minutes later, it was another defenceman lighting the lamp, as David Schlemko skated up the middle of the ice and made himself a passing option. Galchenyuk halted his momentum and found Schlemko with a pass, and an accurate wrist shot put the Habs up by three. It was the final shot that Ducks starter Ryan Miller faced, giving way to third-stringer Reto Berra before the next faceoff.

Despite the lopsided score, it was the Ducks who were in control of the puck for the majority of the period. The Canadiens had just 14 shot attempts in all situations in the opening frame to the Ducks’ 32, with shots on target favouring the visitors by a 16-9 margin, and 16-3 at even strength.

Even a power play chance that carried over to the second period wasn’t enough to get Anaheim on the board. The Canadiens were able to kill off Schlemko’s minor, and then built themselves an even bigger lead with a power play of their own.

Defencemen getting involved in the attack was the story of the game for Montreal, and the 4-0 goal was the best example. Jeff Petry snuck in from the point and took a perfect cross-crease pass from Max Pacioretty. His flubbed shot wasn’t nearly so picture-perfect, but it still proved effective in giving the Habs a commanding lead.

It wasn’t all good news for the Canadiens, however. With Karl Alzner looking to become the fourth defenceman to hit the scoresheet, his shot rose high on its way to the net, and hit Jonathan Drouin in front. Drouin immediately headed for the bench, and was later taken to hospital for x-rays. Fortunately, those x-rays came back negative, and Drouin will be re-evaluated again tomorrow to see if he’s able to return to the lineup.

The Canadiens proceeded to go down by two men after the incident, and the Ducks were finally able to solve Niemi with the disparity in personnel, as Corey Perry scored for the ninth time in 2017-18.

Four minutes later, the Ducks pounced on a poor line change from Montreal. Niemi made an athletic save on the first shot to come his way, but was then in no position to stop Rickard Rakell on the rebound, as Anaheim announced to the Bell Centre crowd that a victory wouldn’t come so easily.

Seeing their path to a comeback, the Ducks put 10 shots on net in the following five minutes, but were unable to get a third past the Habs backup.

With Drouin out, Scherbak was given his place on the top power-play unit, and the rookie was able to show off the skills that have made him a standout in the AHL. He was confident with the puck, even drifting to the point as the Habs set up in a 1-3-1 formation, and came close to getting a second point of the afternoon when his shot just whistled past the post on a shot from the high slot.

Yet another power play late in the period allowed the Canadiens to seal the victory. Not wanting his fanned shot to be the source of ribbing for the rest of the day, Petry got the puck at the left-side faceoff dot, and fired a perfect shot over the shoulder of Berra.

The Ducks had no response after going down by three yet again, and the Habs left the ice with a 5-2 win.

The Canadiens will do it all again tomorrow, welcoming the Ottawa Senators to town in a pre-Super Bowl matchup.

Thoughts

  • With three goals, the Canadiens’ power play is now up to a 20.8% conversion rate, and ranks 10th in the NHL. It’s been a slow climb for the special teams, which ranked 23rd in the league at 17.1% on December 18. The Habs are finally putting their best players on the ice in the easiest situation to score goals — in proper positions — and the rewards have been obvious.
  • Niemi stopped just about everything that came his way. He played a big role in the win with 43 saves, holding the game goalless to open the first and preserving a two-goal lead to end the second. He is a bit unorthodox, but he does have surprisingly good positioning for a scrambly goaltender. There are few cases where it looks like the opposing team is going to have a simple tap in because he isn’t playing the angles correctly, and he can give the Habs players some confidence that he will make the saves — even if they need to be stationed nearby to deal with the inevitable rebound.
  • Scherbak looked very confident in his debut, doing good things with the puck in limited ice time. It will be interesting to see how he’s used versus the Senators tomorrow afternoon.
  • Petry continues to have an impressive offensive season. He is now just one goal and four points shy of his career highs (both set last season) with 30 games left to go. That he’s doing so while being thrust into the #1 defenceman role is a testament to just how good of a player he has been for the Canadiens.