With Max Domi suspended, Jesperi Kotkaniemi was granted an opportunity to play between Jonathan Drouin and Joel Armia on Saturday night versus the Ottawa Senators. The trio’s formation was temporarily put on hold to start after Drouin was forced to leave warmup after taking a puck to the face, but soon returned to take up his position.
It was the player selected after Kotkaniemi in June’s NHL Draft who put the first impression on the scoresheet, however. Brady Tkachuk used his lauded top speed to blow past Jeff Petry at the blue to get an open lane to the net, and was able to lift the puck blocker side on Carey Price to make it 1-0 for the visitors.
It was the only shot the transaction-depleted Senators mustered through the first 15 minutes of the period, as the Canadiens largely controlled the play. Some aggressive work at the offensive blue line by the likes of Mikey Reilly, Noah Juulsen, and Victor Mete kept the puck down low in the zone, where the energy from the forwards was turning the cycle game into offensive opportunities.
Tomas Tatar was showing off his offensive skills, finding teammates wherever they happened to be in the offensive zone. Kotkaniemi came the closest to evening up the game for the Canadiens — twice. Both occasions left the post ringing, first blasting a wrist shot off the post after working his way right to the slot, then later just failing to sneak one past Craig Anderson on the short side from close range.
The Canadiens started the second period on the power play, but were unable to complete passes in the neutral zone to get established in the Senators end, and the chance went by the wayside. A lack of determination from the Canadiens and an assertive approach to defence from the Senators were the stories of the middle frame, with the Canadiens holding the majority of puck possession, but watching as the neutral-zone forecheck helped Ottawa reduce the shot differential.
With just a few minutes left in the third, the Senators doubled their lead off an offensive-zone faceoff win. The Canadiens were focused on defending the area around the crease, leaving no one to cover Cody Ceci, and the Senators’ highest-paid defenceman beat Price over the blocker.
The two-goal advantage didn’t last long, however. The Canadiens went directly to Ottawa’s end off the centre-ice faceoff. With the puck along the boards near the goal line, Nikita Scherbak decided to sling it toward the goal, and it wound up sneaking through the pads of Anderson with just over a minute left.
Scherbak was involved in the offence on the other side of the second intermission break as well. It was his touch pass in the neutral zone that set up Paul Byron’s half-ice rush, ending with him delaying his snapshot in stride just long enough to pull Anderson slightly out of position to give the forward the far-side top corner to wire the puck into.
The Canadiens had no desire to have the game tied. Twenty-three second later, Tatar decided to try his hand at being a net-front presence, and was in prime position to knock in the rebound from Brendan Gallagher’s shot.
It very nearly became a two-goal lead moments later, but Kotkaniemi’s aim remained just a millimetre off as he deflected the puck onto his third post of the night.
There was no let-up over the remainder of the period for the Canadiens as they extended the shot differential even further, outshooting the visitors 14-7 in the final frame. A flurry of those shots for the Senators came in the final minutes, as they also found the post behind Price after calling a timeout, but that was as close as they came to knotting the game, and left the Bell Centre without a win so far in the pre-season.
- Tomas Tatar brings a lot of skill to the team. It’s hard to imagine a player of his calibre being scratched in the post-season last year, and perhaps he held similar thoughts all through his off-season training. He was a factor in several different ways last night, setting up teammates with his vision and ability to control the pace, and eventually taking matters into his own hands (or feet, perhaps) on the game-winning goal.
- Jesperi Kotkaniemi could have easily had a hat trick last night, getting the puck behind Craig Anderson three times but hearing a loud ping on each occasion rather than the Bell Centre’s goal horn. Like Tatar, his offensive chances were coming in several different ways, from a medium-range shot to a tip at the top of the crease.
- Even Phillip Danault was changing the flow of the offensive attack, pulling up when established in the neutral zone and looking at his options rather than just trying to find the person closest to the net with a pass. The new approach was seen throughout the night, and it seemed like the Canadiens made more creative plays than we saw in the entirety of the 2017-18 season.
- If that’s the influence of new assistant coach Dominique Ducharme, he has earned this year’s salary already. There has been little about these pre-season performances to suggest that the Canadiens will repeat their offensive struggles from a year ago, so hopefully that double-digit shutout total can be forgotten in short order.
- However, questions about the team’s defence will remain. There were a few occasions when the defencemen simply failed the read the play approaching them, the most glaring being Jeff Petry’s misjudgment of Tkachuk’s speed on the opening goal. There have been encouraging showings from Mikey Reilly and the young duo of Noah Juulsen and Victor Mete, but it’s still difficult to project a team with this complement of defencemen as one in playoff contention.
Those last two points will be put to the test on Monday night, when the Habs play their first pre-season game as the visitor when they travel to the newly named Scotiabank Arena to battle the Toronto Maple Leafs.