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Canadiens vs. Avalanche game recap: Short-handed goal sparks Habs to late win

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A lack of confidence quickly turned to a flurry of goals in the third period.

NHL: Colorado Avalanche at Montreal Canadiens Jean-Yves Ahern-USA TODAY Sports

The Montreal Canadiens changed up their lines for Saturday’s game against the Colorado Avalanche, looking to drum up a bit of offence. The player who seemed to be benefiting most from the shuffle was Joel Armia, playing on a line with Artturi Lehkonen and now Max Domi. In the first period alone, the winger had four attempts on the net, one of them glancing off the post after he tipped it on goal.

A few changes were also made to the power-play alignments, and the Habs had two opportunities to test them out in the opening 20 minutes. They didn’t do much with the first one, but there was some better puck movement on the second that set up a few chances. In the end the man advantages didn’t result in any goals on the night, but there were some improvements, and making an effort to change things up is commendable for the coaching staff, even if it probably should have been done sooner.

Image credit: Natural Stat Trick

At both 5-on-5 and on the power play, the Canadiens were still too hesitant to shoot, moving the puck from decent scoring areas often to less dangerous ones. Many times it seemed the team was looking for a perfect play rather than just a potentially effective one, and a group of players lacking confidence in their offensive games regularly deferred the play to others. It made for more than a few shifts of promising possession in the attacking zone with no actual chances resulting.

The first 50 minutes were played largely the same, with just a few chances for each team between mostly perimeter play at both ends. At the start of the year, with both teams enjoying incredible scoring rates, the game would have been much different, but the second-guessing from players with the puck was obvious for two clubs that have been slumping as the season reaches it midpoint.

On their third and final power play in the third period, Shea Weber came close to scoring, but once again the post made the stop. Lehkonen managed to hit the third post of the night moments later as his line had another good look at a goal, but no more than that.

With still no goals on the board, Weber was called for a penalty nearly halfway through the third period, sending the Canadiens’ main penalty-killer, and the defender who had been tasked with containing the Avalanche’s top line, to the box, giving Colorado a chance to take a late lead. They weren’t able to get anything going while up a man either, and after the puck exited the zone to put four of their attackers offside, Mikko Rantanen decided to play the puck, stop the clock, and let the team regroup back in its own end.

It may have been a good move in a game Colorado was trailing late, but it proved costly in a goalless affair. Phillip Danault won the defensive-zone faceoff, getting the puck back to Brett Kulak at the blue line. The defencemen let a wrist shot go from the point, which went off a Colorado player and again off the post behind Semyon Varlamov. Luck finally went the Canadiens’ way on this occasion, as the puck continued on into the net for the first goal of the night.

After killing off the remainder of Weber’s penalty, the play shifted down to Colorado’s end, and the confidence gained from finally hearing the Bell Centre’s goal horn put some jump in the players’ step. They buzzed all over the zone for nearly two minutes until Jonathan Drouin collected the puck along the left-side wall, made a few fakes to earn himself some space, then threaded a perfect pass across the ice through several tired defenders right into the wheelhouse of Jesperi Kotkaniemi. Despite the rookie struggling with puck possession all night, he handled the pass superbly with a wicked one-time shot that Varlamov had no chance of stopping. In a two-minute span, the Habs had gone from having to prevent a go-ahead goal to holding a commanding 2-0 lead with just over nine minutes remaining.

They had one more challenge as Kulak went to the box a few minutes later, but they survived the kill and forced the Avalanche to pull their netminder with several minutes to go. Getting the puck behind his own goal line, Jordie Benn had the safety of a two-goal lead to launch a hopeful attempt down the ice, and his wish was granted with his fourth goal of the year, and a 3-0 victory.

Montreal leaves the Bell Centre with the win — and more importantly, a few goals — under their belt as they head to Boston to battle the Bruins on Monday evening. The game has big implications in the Atlantic Division’s playoff seeding, as Montreal sits just three point back of their rival for third spot. That gap will be anywhere from five point to just one at the end of the game to kick off the week.