When the Montreal Canadiens finalized their roster in October, with a group of veterans, new additions, and even a rookie whom many hadn’t heard of until a week before he was drafted, each one of them would have jumped at the chance to have one game at the end of the season that could dictate their playoff participation.
All the events of the next 77 games worked to create something very close to that on Thursday night as Montreal’s opponent also happened to be the one they need to beat to the finish line in order to make the post-season. The Columbus Blue Jackets, despite sinking all of their assets into a chance at the Stanley Cup, were two points behind when the puck was dropped, and needed to stop a string of losses versus the Canadiens.
Montreal got off to a great start in the contest, preventing the home team from getting a shot until midway through the opening period.
Things were much more eventful at the opposite end. Montreal’s first shot was taken 1:15 in, and resulted in the opening goal. After creating a turnover in the defensive zone, the Canadiens turned up ice. On the rush, Max Domi turned back against the flow of traffic headed toward the Columbus net, finding Brett Kulak alone just inside the blue line, and the defenceman’s sixth goal of the year was a massive one for the visitors.
In the rest of that 10-minute period of near constant pressure, the Canadiens were getting their chances to extend the lead beyond just one goal. Jonathan Drouin was fully engaged not only in the cycle but also played a role in stymying the Blue Jackets with quality backchecking in the neutral zone. Victor Mete came close to making it 2-0 as he flew to the net on an odd-man rush, but as has been the case in his NHL career to date, “close” was the extent of his offence.
Once Columbus found its first shot at 10:15, they began to get more opportunities as the first period progressed. With a delayed penalty coming to Shea Weber with a just a few minutes to play, the Blue Jackets regrouped in the neutral zone and nearly scored on a wraparound, but Weber was able to thwart the chance with his stick before heading to the box. Joel Armia was the star of the Columbus power play, keeping the puck closer to Sergei Bobrovsky than Carey Price and letting his team get to the intermission with their early lead intact.
A bad change by Montreal early in the second period led to a four-on-two for Columbus, and they took advantage of the difference in strength to net the tying goal, off the stick of David Savard.
On their first power play of the night, one that hadn’t quite been going the way Montreal would like as they were seeking another go-ahead goal, Andrew Shaw ran a pick on Adam McQuaid at the offensive blue line, negating the advantage. With the Habs struggling to establish possession in the offensive zone all season long, playing a bit outside the rules was an understandable decision to try to help out his team. However, leading with his elbow to the back of McQuaid’s head was a poor choice, and one that could have Montreal down another forward for their next game on Saturday.
The immediate result, however, was a positive one for Montreal. After winning the faceoff in their own defensive zone, Jeff Petry joined the rush, carrying the puck down to the top of the crease before attempting a backhand pass to Tomas Tatar on the opposite flank. The pass never made it to the forward, instead going off a defenceman’s stick and then through the pads of Bobrovsky. The third goal by a defenceman in the game put Montreal up 2-1.
Seth Jones’s bid to become the fourth blue-liner to score probably would have been rejected by Price, who was in position for the save on the shot, but along the path from the shooter to the netminder, Oliver Bjorkstrand altered the trajectory of the puck, and knotted the game up once again with about eight minutes to play in the middle frame.
As the Habs chased the puck to the left of Price a few minutes later, that second goal was quickly followed up by a third as Artemi Panarin was all alone on the right to wire a one-timer to the back of the net. The crowd that had given a Bronx cheer to their team for the first shot 20 minutes earlier was on its feet providing more of the playoff-like atmosphere the Canadiens had initially held dormant.
Columbus rode the euphoria for the remainder of the period, piling up shots and hits to the delight of the awoken crowd. Montreal was able to survive and was saved by the horn down just a single goal.
It didn’t stay at just a one-goal deficit for long in the third. A pass from Mete to Jesperi Kotkaniemi was just too far ahead of the rookie, and his attempt to play the puck only poked it to Riley Nash in the neutral zone. The forward raced in alone, and while his initial shot was stopped by the glove of Price, Shea Weber, who had been on his way to the bench for a change, was unable to get back to prevent a second chance, and Nash easily potted the rebound into an empty net.
Ninety seconds later, another giveaway with Montreal thinking offence led to counter-attack, and Bjorkstrand made it a 5-2 game.
The Canadiens responded with a good effort needing to achieve the improbable feat of a three-goal third-period comeback, but a power play quickly put an end to that brief stretch of momentum. Columbus added an empty-net goal at the tail end of the frame to secure a 6-2 victory.
Despite the Blue Jackets only tying the Canadiens in points with the win (both now have 90 on the year). Columbus still has five games to play versus Montreal’s four, and extended their lead in the first tiebreaker — regulation and overtime wins (ROW) — to three.
Just winning all four of their remaining games doesn’t guarantee a playoff spot, and running the table would be very difficult considering that three of the opponents are division leaders and the final one is a Toronto Maple Leafs team Montreal hasn’t beaten all season.
The Canadiens aren’t officially out of the race yet, but they need a good deal of help and tighter performances all-around to stay in the hunt. Next on the schedule is the Central Division-leading Winnipeg Jets on Saturday before ending the campaign versus Eastern Conference clubs.