January has been a tumultuous month for the Montreal Canadiens. They came into the month limping, and then ended that losing streak with two emphatic wins — before floundering on Wednesday night against Chicago. They bounced back again, thumping the Philadelphia Flyers on the scoreboard and, in the case of Jesperi Kotkaniemi, with their fists.
Rolling into town last night were the Vegas Golden Knights, a team that seems to be incapable of having a boring clash with the Canadiens. Earlier in the year, Montreal stunned Vegas out west, capped by a Max Domi winner in overtime.
The Knights showed up in Montreal with a new coach in Pete DeBoer after shocking a lot of people by firing Gerard Gallant during a four-game losing streak. Carey Price looked to stay hot, while Marc-Andre Fleury was looking to turn his recent run of play around.
The game started quickly as Reilly Smith picked off a pass, breaking down the ice with Max Domi in pursuit. Domi hopped around Smith, slapping the puck off his stick before the sniper could unload a shot on Price.
Before long it was Montreal’s fourth line that made the opening move of the game, thanks to a patient Nick Cousins. Dale Weise worked down low behind the Vegas net, then threw a pass in front. Cousins worked his way uncontested around Fleury, and tucked his shot behind the Vegas goalie. Nicolas Hague swiped at the slow-moving puck but missed his first chance, only managing to clear it after it was over the goal line, giving Montreal the early lead.
A William Carrier penalty soon afterward sent Montreal to the power play, a situation seeing varying levels of success over the past month. The power play did not cash in, but Vegas nearly did once their penalty had expired as their top line had the Canadiens’ defenders scrambling. Price held the fort, and kept the lead intact.
Then it was time for Ilya Kovalchuk to take centre stage once again. Tomas Tatar flew into the Vegas zone, toe-dragging around a defender but losing the puck in the same move. Phillip Danault picked it up, firing a shot off his back foot toward the net, then Kovalchuk swooped in, cleaning up the rebound for his eighth point in eight games since joining the team.
Montreal wasn’t done, adding one more goal to put the pressure fully on Vegas as the first period ended. Max Pacioretty buried Nick Suzuki along the boards, forcing the puck to the point where Brett Kulak let a knuckling shot go. Joel Armia used his long reach to get just enough of the puck to redirect it home for his 13th of the year, sending Montreal into intermission with a three-goal lead.
The second frame started with what was looking like yet another injury for Montreal. Ryan Poehling went down to block a point shot, taking the full brunt of the slapshot off the top of his knee. Despite limping to the room with the aid of the trainers, Poehling would return not long afterward.
Vegas brought themselves off the mat with half of the second period gone. A big shot from Shea Theodore flew by the Canadiens’ net and to the end boards. Reilly Smith deftly swatted the puck back into the slot, where Jonathan Marchessault stepped into a shot, wiring it over Price’s glove to put them on the board.
The pressure from there was coming entirely from Vegas as they squeezed Montreal while looking for another goal. Their dangerous top line finally managed to break through on a scrambling defensive breakdown. The line of Paul Stastny, Max Pacioretty, and Mark Stone hemmed the Canadiens’ top pair around their net, and eventually the puck made its way to Stastny, who fired his shot by Price in the chaos to cut Montreal’s lead to just one late in the second period.
As both teams came out in the third period flying, the game’s outcome was placed in the hands of the netminders. Marc-Andre Fleury had to step up first as Joel Armia continued to be a major nusiance in his return from injury. Armia jumped on a puck, carrying it into the Vegas zone then threading a pass to Suzuki, but Fleury stood up to bat the puck away. After the play had gone the other way, a shot hit off of Armia’s stick and Price made a diving glove save to fend off a potential tying goal.
That big stop by Price gave a spark to Montreal’s offence, and it was the fourth line doing the lifting once more. Weise fended off a Vegas attacker along the boards, triggering a two-on-one rush with Cousins. Weise fed another perfect pass to his linemate, and the winger potted his seventh of the year past Fleury, putting Montreal back in control with a two-goal lead.
A rising shot from the Knights buzzed Shea Weber’s face, and in self-defence he swatted the puck out of play. Said swat put the Canadiens back on the penalty kill again, and it was Price who was the star in killing it off. He stood tall as Hague drove hard to the crease, looking to tuck his shot by Price, but all he found was a pad.
Vegas did not yield, however. With their net empty, they managed to get back within one goal. As Fleury made his way to the bench, a faceoff in Montreal’s end failed to be cleared out by Kovalchuk. That failed clear ended up on the stick of Pacioretty, who rifled his shot through traffic to make it a 4-3 game.
The Knights continued their onslaught, and with just 7.5 seconds left on the clock a shot by Stastny was tipped past Price by Smith, and the two teams headed to overtime after a thrilling 60 minutes of play.
Overtime saw Jeff Petry take a home-run swing and cause Fleury to make a rising save, and then it was Domi weaving through everyone on the ice before being stopped by a steadfast Fleury. Kovalchuk used his smarts to find a seam late to create a two-on-zero rush, but a rolling pad save from Fleury denied him as well, sending a thrilling game into the shootout after a heart-stopping overtime.
In the shootout it was Kovalchuk rifling one five hole, and then seeing the effort matched by Marchessault. In round two, Nick Cousins wasn’t able to outwait Fleury and his shot was blocked off by the Vegas goalie’s pads. Price then stepped up to stop Shea Theodore’s try. With a chance to take the lead, Armia pulled a Brad Marchand and whiffed on his shot. Price was there to bail him out on Alex Tuch,
As the event shifted to head-to-head battles, Tatar continued to haunt his former club. He went in wide, waited, waited, and waited some more before roofing his shot over Fleury. Price stoned Smith at the other end, throwing his hands up in celebration as the Canadiens secured another point, their eighth in the past five games, and cut the Leafs’ lead over them to six points heading into the bye week for both teams.
Shea Weber heads off to the All-Star Game now, and the other Habs head to a mid-season vacation, with their next game on January 27 against the Washington Capitals.