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Canadiens @ Sharks game recap: Antti Niemi digs a hole the Habs can’t climb out of

Two early, regrettable goals were the difference on Thursday.

Montreal Canadiens v Buffalo Sabres Photo by Kevin Hoffman/Getty Images

San Jose has been a rather inhospitable place for the Montreal Canadiens over the last 20 years. Alas, the Habs rolled into the Shark Tank on Thursday night in search of a big two points toward the playoff race. Coming off an important win against the Sharks’ in-state rival Kings on Tuesday, they looked to parlay that into their first win in San Jose since 1999.

Things started off well enough. The Habs were in control of the play, had the better scoring chances, and even their fourth line had the Sharks hemmed in their own zone for an entire shift. It was a promising sign that maybe they could end their 20-year drought.

Image credit: Natural Stat Trick

That was of course until Tomas Hertl attempted a very forced and seemingly harmless wraparound. Antti Niemi did stop said attempt with his pad, only to promptly deflect the puck through his own five-hole to put his opponents on the board.

It got worse. Just a few minutes later, Marcus Sorensen took a weak shot from a terrible angle on Niemi’s blocker side. What would be a routine save for most beer-league goaltenders shockingly got through his lackadaisical positioning, giving his team a two-goal deficit.

But Artturi Lehkonen, who has been mired in an epically unfortunate slump, picked a good time to bust it. It was a bad-angle shot that looked to be intended as a pass, but when you’re in a slump like his, you take whatever comes.

Thanks to Lehkonen, the Habs entered the second period still very much in the game. But despite beginning the period in dominant fashion, Phillip Danault got his stick on a cross-slot pass to restore the deficit to two with an own goal.

The Habs kept pressing, and they’d end up being rewarded with a little luck to again make it a one-goal game. Paul Byron had a shot only partially blocked, and the ensuing floater beat Martin Jones after further deflecting off Joe Pavelski. After all that, the goal was awarded to Andrew Shaw. I’m not sure Shaw actually touched the puck, but the end result was the Habs climbing back yet again.

The Canadiens looked like they just might crawl out of the hole Niemi dug for them, but once again it was false hope. Timo Meier got left completely alone on the back door — fair play to Niemi, can’t blame him on that one — and the wind was effectively taken from the sails, 4-2 for the home side.

They added an empty-netter just to make the boxscore look even worse than it already did.

With Evander Kane and Erik Karlsson both out, this was a slightly diminished Sharks team, and two big points that they earned. To lose out on those points because your backup goaltender laid an egg in the first period is a heartbreaker.

Especially when the Habs were dominant. They put up just under 40 shots, posted an even-strength Corsi-for percentage of 58.1%, and had over 55% of both scoring chances and high-danger chances. There’s something to be said for score effects, but the Habs were the better team.

It was the right move to play Niemi — give Carey Price a night off and let him take the inarguably easier game against Anaheim — but it was a big two points that he gave his team zero chance to get. I’d start figuring out the best route to practice in Brossard if I were Michael McNiven or Charlie Lindgren at this point.

Otherwise, It’s a Catch-22 for Claude Julien at this point. You play Price every game for the rest of the season and risk burning him out, or you play Niemi and lose games that you should win.

There’s no rest for the skaters, as they’re right back at it in Anaheim tonight, but with a rested Price between the pipes.