Coming off of one of their biggest wins of the year in Boston on Monday night, the Montreal Canadiens returned home for a meeting with the Florida Panthers. After Carey Price stymied the Bruins, it was Antti Niemi’s turn in net. Niemi was looking for a third straight win after turning in two great showings against the Detroit Red Wings and Dallas Stars, and the Panthers were ripe for the picking.
Claude Julien confirmed before the game that there would be no other lineup changes from the group that won the previous night. For the Panthers, James Reimer started as a last-minute goaltender change after Roberto Luongo was scheduled to start, but instead would be backing up Reimer in Montreal.
Niemi was tested early and often, facing an odd-man rush right out of the gate, and plenty more shots after that. The Finnish netminder was up to the task against the early pressure, turning away shots through traffic without much difficulty. It took Montreal seven full minutes to put a shot at Reimer, but they still seemed to be matching the Panthers step for step, in spite of the shot difference.
Max Domi continued his run of feisty play, getting involved in a dust-up with Michael Matheson in front of Reimer. Domi was dinged with an extra two minutes for unsportsmanlike conduct.
The Florida power play wasn’t on the ice long as a short-handed rush forced Jonathan Huberdeau to hold back Paul Byron, shifting the play to 4-on-4 hockey. With each side down a skater, Victor Mete curled around the Panthers net, letting a wrist shot go, but his first NHL goal will have to keep waiting as Reimer got enough of the puck to force it out of play.
Then with the fourth line on the ice, Michael Chaput turned the puck over to Denis Malgin, who in turn fed a pass to a wide-open Mike Hoffman. Hoffman broke in on Niemi, then broke out the famous “Forsberg” move to tuck the puck neatly behind Niemi for a deserved Florida lead.
Even as the Panthers piled up chances, Montreal ended the period with a power play in their pocket thanks to a strong driving play by Domi that forced Keith Yandle to slash him.
It didn’t take long for that man advantage to find the back of the net in the second period; just 29 seconds, in fact. Joel Armia started the cycle and Jonathan Drouin played catch with Shea Weber, which led to the Panthers absent-mindedly leaving Weber open. That was a fatal mistake as Weber blistered his seventh of the year past Reimer, tying the game.
Juho Lammikko followed the goal up with a cross-check on Chaput, yet it was a short-lived power play, as Paul Byron wiped out the advantage with a charging penalty that left MacKenzie Weegar shaken up. The penalty parade continued when Jesperi Kotkaniemi gave Mark Pysyk a shove low on the back, sending the Panthers defender spiraling into the boards, and Florida to another power play.
The rookie made up in spades for his penalty, collecting a puck in his own zone before flying down the ice with Byron. Cutting toward the slot, Kotkaniemi lost his handle on the puck and couldn’t get a full shot off on Reimer, in what looked like a prime chance to grab the lead.
Montreal did find a bit of luck in the following minutes. A Weber bomb off the back glass fell right to Phillip Danault’s stick. With Reimer focused on Weber’s side of the ice, Danault had only to slap a backhand into the empty net, giving Montreal a one-goal lead.
As things do in games featuring teams that don’t like each other, proceedings got a little bit weird on a goal, then no-goal call. A shot landed on Reimer who appeared to have it covered, but Artturi Lehkonen pushed it out of his glove, where both he and Max Domi chipped it over the line. Due to Lehkonen’s gloved swipe, the goal was overturned, sending Claude Julien and Domi into a fit.
Instead of letting the frustration boil, Domi went out and scored for real this time, lifting a rebound chance created by Byron over the shoulder of Reimer, breaking his 17-game goalless drought. For good measure, after scoring Domi made sure that the officials and everyone at the Bell Centre knew it was a good goal with a fitting celebration.
Entering the third period, the Panthers were still very much alive in the game, until Niemi decided he wasn’t giving up any more goals to the team that had waived him last year. Big save after big save from the veteran netminder kept Florida from gaining any ground, and then the youngest player in the league drove the stake into their heart.
A breakout started by Jordie Benn led to Kotkaniemi having the puck with speed through the neutral zone. He curled around Matheson with a beautiful power move, then waited on a sprawling Reimer before depositing it in the back of the net for a three-goal lead.
Niemi shut down every chance from there on out, giving up no rebounds, smothering every bit of rubber thrown his way. By the time it was all said and done, he had a career-high 52 saves.
Brendan Gallagher added an empty-net goal to pile on in the blowout win, but when the final horn sounded it was all about Niemi, and deservedly so.
Montreal is off until Friday, when they head out to face a Blue Jackets side dealing with a bit or turmoil. Despite some locker room drama, they still present a heady threat on the ice, and are more than capable of stopping Montreal’s winning run at three games.