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Canadiens vs. Penguins game recap: Habs don’t show up to their most important game of the season to date

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Presented with a great chance to gain some distance in the wild-card race, Montreal responds with a poor effort.

NHL: Pittsburgh Penguins at Montreal Canadiens Jean-Yves Ahern-USA TODAY Sports

Starting the season with few expecting them to make the playoffs, the Montreal Canadiens entered game 66 on top of the Eastern Conference wild-card race. On Saturday, they welcomed the team posing the greatest threat to that position, and should have been feeling confident after not only consecutive road wins, but claiming the first two matches of the series with the Pittsburgh Penguins.

Everything was set up for one of the season’s best games. The problem was only one team was prepared to play when the puck hit the ice.

On the first shift of the game, starting defenceman Jordie Benn had a difficult shift versus the Penguins’ top line, making a series of errors, the third of which placed the puck right on the stick of Jared McCann. A quick series of passes to Sidney Crosby, to Jake Guentzel, and back to Crosby ended with the opening goal just 21 seconds in.

Image credit: Natural Stat Trick

A power play shortly afterward — warranted or not after Jeff Petry’s attempted bodycheck was called a hold — had the Penguins up two as Evgeni Malkin put his name on the scoresheet. Four minutes later, Crosby and Guentzel teamed up again to extend the lead to three in front of a Bell Centre crowd that had expected a much more entertaining contest.

With plenty of time left on the clock, Montreal did get chances of their own to cut into the lead. Finally finding their footing, they began to get the puck in the opposite end of the rink and drew two penalties for their efforts. It allowed them to rack up shots in the final half of the period (many off the stick of Shea Weber on the power plays), but a post and several quality saves from Matt Murray prevented the Canadiens from getting anything positive before the horn sounded.

Montreal survived a penalty kill with Brendan Gallagher in the box for infererence, but the Pens found their fourth goal with Crosby’s line on the ice not long afterward.

Gallagher got redemption for his penalty with a goal of his own shortly after it seemed the game had been put out of reach, reducing the deficit back to three with his 29th.

A brief period of momentum followed the goal for Montreal, but an Andrew Shaw interference penalty brought it to an end.

Entering the third period with a substantial lead, the Penguins played a strong structure game to prevent many great chances for the home side. A blue line decimated by injuries in the past few games deserves a lot of credit for sticking with the game plan, holding their position and landing on the right side of the line separating sturdy defence from a simple survival mode. The Canadiens spent much of the final period seeking ways to break down that structure to at least make it interesting, but the defence didn’t crack. One final goal for Pittsburgh with less than two minutes remaining was a deserved reward for the way they handled themselves in the final 20 minutes, heading home with a 5-1 win.

It was a squandered opportunity for the Canadiens, who were up in the standings on their closest competitors and would have increased their margin for error down the final stretch with a win. The matchup should have brought out the killer instinct in a group of players as competitive as the ones currently donning Canadiens sweaters, but instead the game was just about out of reach mere minutes after it began.

If there’s good news, it’s that the Canadiens had claimed two wins versus the Penguins earlier in the season. The season-series tiebreaker is a wash, and the 2-1 series win allows Montreal to be in partial control of their own destiny; they merely need to match the win total of the Penguins over the final five weeks of the season to finish ahead of them. Things would have been much easier with a victory tonight, but now it’s all about how they respond.

The players will have plenty of time to reflect on their missed chance and regroup for the next batch of games on their plane ride to California. Their first chance to work out some of the frustrations from Saturday’s game comes on Tuesday night versus the Los Angeles Kings.