After three days off, the Montreal Canadiens stepped onto the Bell Centre ice to play a team rising in the standings, but also one that was facing the fatigue of playing for a third time in four days while also dealing with a slew of injuries.
The lack of rest didn’t prevent the Arizona Coyotes from employing the tight-checking style that has neutralized some of the league’s top offences in recent weeks, and right front the start they were allowing little room for the Canadiens to work.
The strategy was similar for the rested Habs, however, as Carey Price only had a few pucks to deal with in the opening frame. Shots were just 8-6 for the Coyotes after a first period played largely in the neutral zone.
While the even-strength play had little offence to offer, the same was not true for the Canadiens’ power play. After a day under the tutelage of Claude Julien, the top unit came onto the ice with a purpose, as all five players looked determined to score.
Jesperi Kotkaniemi just fumbled a cross-ice pass in the opening seconds of the man advantage about nine minutes in that would have been a prime scoring chance, but the pressure from the home side never relented. Joel Armia had a chance, and Shea Weber had a slapshot blocked, but the puck found its way to Tomas Tatar near the crease, who then found Jonathan Drouin at the side of the goal. With netminder Calvin Pickard fighting to see the puck, Drouin had plenty of net to shoot at to mark the game’s opening goal. All of that action took place in just 50 seconds as the Habs showed much more urgency with the extra man.
The Coyotes had a push coming out in the second to try to get on the board, but around the four-minute mark the Canadiens displayed the same urgency as they had on the opening power play. The players were buzzing around the net with a flurry of shots, the most dangerous coming from Victor Mete at the end of the sequence, though he was robbed of a first NHL goal by the toe of Pickard.
Charles Hudon helped them carry that momentum over to the next few shifts, working hard along the boards and getting a few shots on target of his own. In his 11:24 seconds of ice time, he led the team in possession with two attempts to every one he allowed, and had five scoring chances to his name on the night.
Unfortunately, he tied up his man in one of the puck battles during that offensive stretch, and went to the box for holding the stick. But first Phillip Danault lent a hand with a short-handed zone entry to keep the play away from Price, then Joel Armia took over with an incredible bit of work to single-handedly kill off about a minute of the minor, and got a scoring chance to boot. The result was a trip back to the bench for Hudon with his team’s lead still intact.
A second power play for Montreal at the 12-minute mark wasn’t as successful as the first, with the old struggles of gaining the zone hampering the offence once again. Yet when they did get set up, both units showed quicker puck movement and actually seemed to be looking for ways to score, which couldn’t always be said in the first half of the season.
In what turned out to be a battle of special teams in the middle part of the game, the Coyotes went back on the power play as Mikey Reilly was sent off for hooking. While killing it off, Shea Weber blocked a shot, which snapped his stick, and Artturi Lehkonen offered up his. After several seconds of the Finn guarding the man at the point, the puck got along the boards near the blue line, and Lehkonen raced to the bench for a replacement. Now playing at 3-on-5, the Canadiens were unable to cope with the sudden increase in pressure, and after drawing the penalty, Conor Garland converted it into the tying goal.
Despite seeing their lead disappear in the final minutes of the second, the Canadiens came out in the third ready to take it back again. Five minutes in, Jeff Petry took the puck on a tour of the offensive zone, drawing several sets of eyes on his trip and opening up plenty of space in the zone. Having worked right around to the opposite side of the ice, he sent a pass back to Reilly, and the defenceman sent the puck off an Arizona defender and behind Pickard to turn that early momentum into a lead once again.
It’s becoming a concerning trend in recent games that after the goal the Canadiens retreated to the defensive zone in an attempt to preserve the lead, and saw shift after shift spent in their own zone. Price was calm an focused in his crease ready for anything that came his way until Armia went off for high-sticking with six minutes to go.
With plenty of pressure on another man advantage, the Coyotes kept it up even after Armia stepped back out. The puck eventually made its way to Alex Galchenyuk in the low slot, and the former Hab slung it into the net to tie up the game with just a few minutes remaining.
The celebration was short-lived, however, as Claude Julien challenged the play for an offside. After the broadcasters dissected the initial entry for any problems, the officials announced that play had been offside, but on a failed attempt to hold the puck in later in the shift rather than the original entry. The ruling wiped the goal off the board, but did rewind the clock and send Armia back to box as Arizona had at least a chance to get the goal back.
They were unable to convert on the second attempt, and Armia came out of the box ready to play. As he had earlier, he kept the puck deep in Arizona’s end, ticking nearly half of the remaining seconds off the clock.
Arizon had one more flurry of shots, but were unable to find that tying goal again, and the Canadiens left the Bell Centre with a 2-1 victory and another two points for their post-season push, leaping ahead of the Bruins to sit, at least for the time being, as one of the Atlantic Division’s top three seeds.