A long summer has finally come to an end, thankfully for anxious fans and likely even more thankfully for an anxious group of Montreal Canadiens. A quiet off-season still had them in the eyes of the hockey world, and a lot of that was due to the offer sheet extended to Sebastian Aho.
In an inspired bit of scheduling, Aho’s Carolina Hurricanes were the opponent on Thursday night as both teams began their 2019-20 seasons. After the Hurricanes made it to the post-season last year just a few points clear of Montreal, last night’s matchup picked up that same playoff atmosphere right from the outset.
The Canadiens needed a quick start to take a lively crowd out of the game, and the line of Tomas Tatar, Phillip Danault, and Brendan Gallagher did just that. The trio gained the zone and a centring pass was nearly slammed home by Danault right in front of Petr Mrazek, but the forward couldn’t get enough of the puck.
To keep the momentum going, Montreal also grabbed the game’s first power play as Jordan Martinook interfered with Artturi Lehkonen on the faceoff. The Canadiens’ man advantage cycled the puck well, but a mistimed Jonathan Drouin pass turned into a short-handed rush for Aho, but he had his backhand shot denied by a sharp Carey Price.
The penalty kill swung the ice in favour of Carolina, but Montreal’s defence bent before springing back into form to start generating an attack at the other end of the ice.
Neither side really grasped hold of the game, but Carolina began to see the more dangerous chances, first with Haydn Fleury creating havoc by pinching in from his spot on the blue line, then with Ryan Dzingel getting behind the Montreal defence and breaking in alone on Price. The crossbar behind him ending up making the save as the puck caromed out of play.
The pressure finally broke through late in the period when a Brett Pesce shot was tipped on net by Lucas Wallmark who then followed it up by roofing his rebound over Price.
Jesperi Kotkaniemi had a solid chance at the opposite end, but Montreal did not find the tying goal in the first period as the two sides headed to their locker rooms with Carolina up by a goal.
The second period didn’t get off to the start Montreal wanted, having to kill a faceoff violation penalty early on. It came after the linesman threw both a Carolina and Montreal player out of the circle, then dinged Tatar on the ensuing attempt. After killing off most of the penalty, Martin Necas got a stick on a shot and tipped in a second goal.
Montreal answered the challenge, as Carolina helped them along by creating another man advantage. With the first unit stymied by the Carolina penalty-killers, Tatar and the second fivesome hopped on the ice. A superb effort from the Slovak to cut through the zone opened up a shooting lane for him to net the team’s first goal.
It would take only another minute for Montreal to find a second goal, with Jonathan Drouin making up for a lacklustre first period. He jumped into the fray to keep the play alive, and it was Lehkonen who created a big rebound for his fellow Finn, Jesperi Kotkaniemi. The sophomore waited, and waited, then waited just a little bit more before picking a corner behind Mrazek and tying the game at two goals apiece.
With the offence getting into gear, the game picked up in pace from an already fast start, and Carolina was determined to get their lead back. A set play in the Canadiens’ end saw Erik Haula take a misdirection pass behind the net, but his chance was thwarted by a diving stick save from Price.
It wasn’t the only time Price was called upon to preserve the lead. A two-on-one with Cale Fleury defending seemed all but sure to lead to a goal. Ryan Dzingel fired off the shot, but Price sealed the entire lower half of the net, and looked to get a skate blade on the shot to deny the high-danger chance.
With the minutes waning in the middle period, Montreal’s fourth line earned Montreal their first lead of the night with a great all-around effort. Nate Thompson attacked through the neutral zone with the puck, battling his way through a check along the benches before getting into the Carolina zone. He passed off to Paul Byron after he entered some open space, and Byron had a clear lane to dish to Jordan Weal, who had no issue firing it by a lunging Mrazek.
The Hurricanes came out fast to start the third period, piling on the pressure and forcing Montreal to ice the puck multiple times in a row, but Price kept the door shut and his side in the lead
Cale Fleury nearly doubled Montreal’s lead with a brilliant heads-up play. After Jordan Martinook boarded Kotkaniemi there was a delayed penalty call, and Fleury slipped behind the opposition to end up on a breakaway. He couldn’t lift his backhand shot by Mrazek, but it was a great chance with the free play to extend the lead.
Montreal negated the end of its own power play with a too many men penalty, and Carolina made them pay. With the penalty just expiring, Haula found a soft spot beside Ben Chiarot and pounced on a loose puck to tie the game back up.
From there it was all Carolina, with wave after wave of pressure and Price doing everything he could to fend off the attack.
Needing some sort of push-back, the Canadiens found it with Jordan Weal and the fourth line out for a shift with a few minutes remaining. Weal dipped and dove throughout the Carolina zone chewing up valuable time, and was a big part of forcing the game into overtime.
The extra frame mirrored regulation, with both sides trading chances, highlighted by Joel Armia battling through every Carolina player on the ice to keep an offensive-zone shift alive for Montreal. A late chance by Max Domi wouldn’t go, and the two sides headed to a shootout.
In the penalty-shot contest, Dougie Hamilton out-waited Price before sliding his shot five-hole, while Mrazek denied Paul Byron’s slow-paced attempt on net. Price turned away the next two shooters from the Hurricanes, while Mrazek also denied Jonathan Drouin, leaving the game on the stick of Suzuki. The rookie attempted to come in and work for a backhand shot, but was denied, giving Carolina the extra point in the season-opener.
The road doesn’t get any easier for Montreal as next on the schedule are the Toronto Maple Leafs on Saturday night.