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Canadiens @ Canucks game recap: Habs right the ship thanks to special teams

Listing after a defeat to the Red Wings, the Canadiens are back on course.

NHL: Montreal Canadiens at Vancouver Canucks Anne-Marie Sorvin-USA TODAY Sports

Having several days, and a long flight, to stew over a game in which they were nearly shut out by the NHL’s worst team, the Montreal Canadiens took to the ice needing a better performance versus the Vancouver Canucks.

Claude Julien talked about the things Nick Suzuki could do better after the loss to the Detroit Red Wings, specifically mentioning his need to get more to the inside areas of the offensive zone. The forward seemed to take that criticism to heart, as he was the player to get the first chance of the game by trying to dance around Quinn Hughes, but the Canucks defender got the better of his fellow rookie.

The comments from the coach seemed to have an effect on Suzuki’s linemate, Jordan Weal, as well. The two were working very well together on their first handful of shifts, clearly the best unit for either side in the opening period.

Just after they went to the bench following another strong shift in the offensive zone, Nate Thompson came on and immediately took a penalty. The Canadiens killed it off quite handily, helped by the puck-moving skills of Carey Price, but they weren’t so lucky on a second disadvantage.

With the puck once again in Montreal’s zone, Tomas Tatar made a great play to knock the puck off Jake Virtanen’s stick and into an open patch of ice. As the Canadiens winger raced on to the puck with plenty of ice to skate into, he was shocked to hear the whistle blow, getting a two-minute sentence after Virtanen fell on the initial takeaway.

Artturi Lehkonen had a chance to open the scoring on a short-handed rush, but his miss allowed play to return to his end. Montreal’s penalty-killers all went to one side of the ice to attempt to win the puck in a board battle, but when it was lost they were in no position to defend against shots from the opposite flank. The puck made its way to Adam Gaudette, who had space to walk into from near the top of the circle, and he picked a spot right in the top corner, over Price’s shoulder despite the goaltender staying on his feet, and the Canucks had the 1-0 lead.

Normally, Julien’s tactic to kickstart his team after a rough first period is to put the top line out and let them play a hard forechecking shift in the offensive zone. The coach went with that trio to start the middle frame, but the result wasn’t nearly what he expected, as the Canucks spent the shift in the Canadiens’ end. Once again, it was Suzuki’s line that did that job, getting the puck around the Canucks’ net, with Suzuki pulling off a delayed shot as the most dangerous look.

One of Suzuki’s linemates eventually put Montreal on the board. On the ice with Joel Armia and Max Domi, Nick Cousins found the game’s tying goal, and all three forwards played a part. Armia initially won the puck in the neutral zone, Domi gained the blue line and sent a nifty saucer pass straight ahead to Cousins, and the final touch sent the puck into the net.

Cousins’ next shift didn’t end in celebration. He was called for slashing in an attempt to prevent a clear break in on Price. The Canucks scored after a rebound had popped up high in the air, with Price unable to track it and therefore unable to get in position to block it.

Julien quickly challenged for offside, and a review that took very little time at all discovered one attacker had been a couple of feet over the blue line before the puck was, negating the goal. The infraction had still been committed by Cousins, however, so he had to spend his time in the box. Unlike the second power play the Canucks had in the first period, the Habs killed this one off so they could go back on the attack.

In the offensive zone, the Canadiens found a go-ahead goal of their own, scored off the stick of Joel Armia with Jacob Markstrom occupied with Lehkonen and one of his own defenders in his crease. After looking at the replay, Canucks coach Travis Green decided to launch a challenge of his own.

Replays seemed to show quite clearly that Lehkonen had been pushed into the goalie by defenceman Oscar Fantenberg, but the review dragged on, an ill omen for the Canadiens. Sure enough, despite seeing the video of the goal from several angles, with Lehkonen using nearly every muscle in his body to avoid toppling onto the goaltender, the decision was made to overturn the referee’s original call and wave off the goal.

The Canadiens responded decently well, with a shift in the Canucks’ zone when play eventually resumed, but for much of the remainder of the second period they were trapped in their own end as the Canucks had several chances. Price held his ground under the sudden onslaught, allowing Montreal to get re-engaged. The period came to an end with a bit of sustained pressure for the visitors, though they couldn’t find a go-ahead goal that passed the officials’ scrutiny, either.

To start the third period, the Canadiens were granted a power play just 22 seconds in; their first one after dealing with three for the Canucks in the opening 40 minutes. On that advantage, the Habs drew another one that would have sent them to a five-on-three, but Phillip Danault didn’t need the two additional bodies to make a goal happen.

Just upon hitting the ice after the very infraction that resulted in a second penalty, Danault slung the puck across the slot to Tatar. Tatar made a great fake as if he were going to go across the crease to his backhand, then pulled the puck back to his forehand just as Markstrom bit on the move, leaving the goalie unable to make the save.

With the first power play negated by the goal and the new one beginning, Shea Weber had his first one-time chance stopped, but he drifted in closer to the net as the Habs recovered his rebound. An initial pass from Domi to the captain was blocked, but a second one from Armia made its way to the destination, and Weber released the puck quickly to give the Canadiens a two-goal edge very early into the period.

A Tatar tripping penalty (this one actually deserved) gave the Canucks one last chance on the power play. The Habs may have surrendered one goal to the NHL’s fourth-best man advantage early in the game, but they locked down the two minutes Tatar was in the box to end the night killing three out of the four penalties they were given.

The Canucks’ best chance to reduce the lead came as a spinning shot got behind Price, hit the crossbar, and began rolling along the ice back toward the goal line. Ben Chairot was on the scene to tuck it safely into his goalie’s pads, ending the danger.

Vancouver called Markstrom to the bench with three minutes remaining, spending the first 60 seconds in the Canadiens’ zone but relegated to the perimeter by great defensive positioning. A quick flurry of action in the dying seconds saw pucks either blocked or turned aside by Price, and the game ended with Montreal up 3-1 on the scoreboard.

Overall it was a good night for the Canadiens on special teams, and something they should be able to build some confidence from. The defence has really turned a corner as well. Struggling to keep the puck out of their net in the opening months, they’ve yet to surrender more than three goals in the month of December, and no more than two in their past five games.

Next up is a trip to Alberta to take on a Calgary Flames team that had been doing well after a coaching change until recently. Montreal will hope to keep their offence cold when they battle at the Saddledome on Thursday night.