With several players forced into higher roles than they’re used to, the Montreal Canadiens went into Friday night game on the latter half of a back-to-back, and a fifth game in seven days. The players were surely taxed from both of those situations, but they couldn’t afford to let another result slip away.
It was important to avoid the defensive lapses that had plagued them all through their eight-game losing streak, and that had crept into the start of the game the previous night versus Colorado. A grinding road game was the order of the day to give them a chance to win.
Montreal came out of the gate not looking like they were just going to try to survive for 60 minutes, but take the early control. The first shift for each line was a good one, spent nearly entirely in the offensive zone, before the play began to even out.
With the game settling into a lower pace, a breakout smoother than any coach would dare to draw up got the Habs up the ice quickly. All five players on the ice sent a zigzag of passes up the ice, with Shea Weber’s making a pass behind the goal line to Brett Kulak, then up to Phillip Danault to exit the zone, to Tomas Tatar to gain the offensive blue line, back to Danault on his path to the net, and finally to Brendan Gallagher who had been keeping the defence honest by presenting himself as an option on each one of those transitions. With focus on Danault in the slot, Gallagher had to be ignored on the right wing, and that’s how he easily netted the opening goal.
In a bid to protect the lead moments later, Shea Weber dropped to block a shot, only to discover that the only part of his body in the lane was his face. It proved effective at denying the chance, but it cost a tooth for the captain.
The second period found Otto Leskinen making a great defensive play in his second NHL game. He denied a New York Rangers forward from getting a shot, then wrapped him up along the wall to help start the breakout. The shift for the Finnish defender didn’t end nearly so well, unfortunately. Set up in the offensive zone, the puck was passed back to him at the blue line, but it jumped right over his stick just as it reached him. Expecting to be making an offensive play rather than a defensive one, he was in no position to chase down Brendan Smith as the play turned the other way. As it often has over the last three weeks, an error led to a goal against as Smith was able to beat Carey Price on the breakaway.
A good teammate is always there to pick up someone after a mistake. pic.twitter.com/WzBjBks6pC— Scott Matla (@scottmatla) December 7, 2019
A power play midway through the second gave Montreal a chance to go up two goals and really take command of a fairly low-event game. Max Domi was too confident that he could make an offensive play, attempting a toe drag to beat the high forward and earn himself more space, but turning the puck over instead. This time, the offensive break that ensued didn’t lead to a goal against. Rather than Montreal being down 2-1 — a big hill to climb given their recent workload — the game remained tied as Price stopped the three-on-one chance.
Both teams seemed content to just wind down the clock in the third and earn a point for their troubles, but the Habs found an extra reserve of energy in the final minutes. They began to mount persistent pressure as Claude Julien shortened his bench to just three lines, and it was a slightly adjusted trio that found the go-ahead goal with just over a minute remaining.
As the Rangers made their own last-gasp attempt to end the game in regulation, Nick Suzuki got his stick on a pass destined for one of three opposition forwards storming his blue line, and the Habs rookie quickly sent it up to a rushing Nick Cousins. Cousins charged at a recovering defensive group, trying one shot himself before sending the puck over to Nate Thompson to backhand in for a 2-1 edge.
One more shift from Julien’s top fivesome and the Habs had a critical road win in the books; a positive way to head into a much-needed three-day break.
- Who knows what would have taken place in the game if Domi’s power-play turnover had resulted in a goal? That could have been all it took to break the Habs’ spirit after such a rough stretch, and would have meant a 10th loss in 11 games for the team. The conversation would have been very different today had that been the case.
- Carey Price is a big reason why we’re not talking about such things. His stop on the three-on-one was one of 29 saves he made on the night, and it definitely helped that those odd-man rushes weren’t a theme. If not for some bad ice in the middle of the second, he could have earned the shutout, but he’ll be happy with the win.
- Would Cayden Primeau have been able to stay composed if last night’s game had been his debut? Backstopping a tired team, he may not have been able to hold the Rangers to one goal. On the flipside, if Primeau could have earned the win, it’s possible we’d be talking about a three-game winning streak if Price had had this performance versus the Colorado Avalanche. So was it the right decision? It wasn’t perfect (four points), it wasn’t disastrous (zero points), and since the Habs did gain some separation over a team battling for a wild-card spot, we’ll call it a slight win for the coach.
- Let’s just check in with the Atlantic Division standings after several teams surely passed Montreal over the past three weeks: