It sounds like a cliché, but Thursday night’s game against the New York Islanders was again the biggest game of the year for the Montreal Canadiens. The Islanders came in as the NHL’s stingiest team, and the Canadiens offence has had major struggles recently.
Against the Philadelphia Flyers on Tuesday night, the offence was able to provide an early lead, and Carey Price shut the door from there. Price started his sixth consecutive game against the Islanders, looking to outduel Thomas Greiss.
Through the opening minutes, it was Montreal who spent most of the time in the offensive zone, but couldn’t generate actual chances. With seven minutes gone, Jeff Petry put a stick across Mathew Barzal’s back and was sent to the box for cross-checking. The ensuing Islanders power play saw Artturi Lehkonen and Nate Thompson fighting through uncalled infractions to create great short-handed chances for the Canadiens. As the puck eventually came the other way, Shea Weber was asked to take a seat next to Petry for a hooking call.
A heroic effort from Thompson and Phillip Danault killed off the five-on-three man advantage and brought the Bell Centre crowd to its feet. From there the physicality escalated, with Max Domi and Jesperi Kotkaniemi laying the body heavily on the New York puck-carriers.
With just over two minutes to play, the beleaguered Canadiens power play got a chance to break the tie with Brock Nelson sitting for interference. While the first chance yielded no results, they got another chance immediately thanks to a tripping penalty on Leo Komarov. Some slick interplay between Jonathan Drouin and Jordan Weal allowed the latter to pick up Joel Armia in the slot, and the big Finn snapped his goalless drought with a snapshot by Greiss, and sent his side into the intermission leading by one.
The Canadiens’ offence came out flying to start the second period, and less than a minute in it looked as if Lehkonen scored on a wraparound. However, the puck hit off the inside of both goal posts. That loose puck found its way to Shea Weber, and Montreal’s captain blistered his shot past Greiss for a two-goal lead.
The onslaught did not relent from there. After Carey Price denied Jordan Eberle with an incredible pad save, the Canadiens added to their lead shortly thereafter. Jonathan Drouin collected the puck and sped down the wing, then a tic-tac-toe passing play between Drouin, Armia and Kotkaniemi freed up Drouin to tuck the puck neatly into the net.
Luckily for Greiss, he didn’t have to face the barrage much longer, as a fourth Montreal goal chased him from the net. Thompson continued his strong game by being the catalyst in the play, protecting the puck behind the net and feeding it to Jordie Benn at the point. Benn let his shot go and Weal managed to get a stick on the puck, tipping it in for a commanding lead.
Price had no issues keeping the lead at four goals as Montreal coasted into the second intermission with a hefty advantage and the ice tilted very much in their favour.
Even with a big lead, Montreal didn’t sit back to start the final period. They kept their foot down to try to add to their comfortable lead. Price was sharp again as well, denying a Barzal chance even though Brett Kulak had knocked the Isles forward into him as he made the stop. Victor Mete headed the other way on a rush of his own, and his wide shot ended up as a perfect one-time setup for Brendan Gallagher who couldn’t squeak his chance by Robin Lehner.
The Isles’ best chance of the period came from Cal Clutterbuck, who fired a shot off the post, but not past Price much to the dismay of the Islanders forward. From there on out, Montreal held New York at bay, keeping them out of the dangerous areas, and neutering their offensive attacks as a whole.
Andrew Shaw blasted Scott Mayfield along the boards with a massive hit late in the game, but the officials saw it as a split-second late, giving the Islanders another power-play opportunity. The penalty-killers did their job once more, shutting down the Islanders last chance to snap Price’s shutout bid.
Things unraveled from there after Thomas Hickey hit Brendan Gallagher up high. Gallagher got right up and threw down to settle the score. Matt Martin tried to showcase how tough he is by picking on Mete and Brett Kulak in the final moments before getting talked down by Nate Thompson and sent to an early shower. The final seconds ticked away and Price collected his 44th career shutout, leaving him just two shy of Ken Dryden’s career mark.
The win was good news for Montreal’s playoff hopes. A surprising 4-1 loss by the Columbus Blue Jackets at the hands of the Edmonton Oilers capped off a good night for the Habs, and vaulted them into a wild-card slot once again.
The old saying is that there’s no rest for the wicked, and Montreal will live that adage this weekend when they face the Buffalo Sabres on Saturday, then meet the Carolina Hurricanes in a massive Sunday showdown for both teams.