Hockey is back! A nine-day rest has finally come to an end and the Montreal Canadiens are back in action. After that dreadful skid of eight consecutive losses, Montreal ended up winning four of the final five games to enter the All-Star break on a high note.
The Washington Capitals visited the Bell Centre on Monday. While the Canadiens face an improbable quest to make the playoffs, the Capitals find themselves on top of not only the Metropolitan Division, but as leaders of the entire NHL, one point ahead of the Boston Bruins.
Alex Ovechkin has scored eight goals in his last three games. Luckily for Montreal, his decision to sit out the All-Star Game resulted in a one-game suspension, which his team chose to impose this very night. Richard Panik replaced him on the top line.
Ilya Kovalchuk continued on Phillip Danault’s right-hand side, while Ben Chiarot and Joel Armia were yet another week removed from their injury problems.
The American national anthem was this night accompanied by pictures of Kobe Bryant on the jumbotron. May he rest in peace.
Would Montreal be able to upset the NHL’s current leader? Well, it certainly started well. Less than two minutes in, Marco Scandella, a game-time decision, battled it out from deep in his own zone. Tomas Tatar got hold of it and surged forward. Meanwhile, Jeff Petry sneakily joined the attack. Tatar, turning around to seek protection and look for passing options, saw Petry moving into the slot and sent it to him in stride. The defenceman did the rest, backhanding it past Braden Holtby for his seventh score this season.
The first period saw three power plays. First the teams traded unsuccessful efforts after seeing Victor Mete and the newly extended Nicklas Backstrom serve time in the booth. The most lethal scoring chance related to the man advantages came when the latter left the box at the perfect time for a lone breakaway against Carey Price. Price took a flyer and threw himself onto the ice with one leg in the air and managed to keep the Caps off the board a little longer.
Later on, Price would also stop Evgeny Kuznetsov from a similar spot. This time without having to go down in an acrobatic pose. He was, however, aided by a defending Max Domi, who extended his stick and slashed the Russian just as he was about to finish. Thus followed the third power play of the period, one that would eventually be more fruitful than the former two. Jakub Vrana went in behind Price’s net and passed into the crease, where Tom Wilson waited patiently for his meal ticket. Wilson gobbled up the opportunity in front of him, scoring his 15th of the year.
The period ended with a great chance for Tatar, when Kovalchuk found him with a cross-ice pass in front of net. Braden Holtby moved quickly from left to right to steer away the shot. In the seconds that followed, Danault held his stick in an awkwardly high position, meaning that the Canadiens would have to begin the following period one man down with a high-sticking call.
Entering period two, Petry decided that one goal was not enough for him this night. Unfortunately for Montreal, this time he put it past his own goaltender to give the Capitals the lead. The puck was about to miss the net altogether after an intense stint in the crease, but after hitting Petry’s skate it instead passed the goal line in a painfully slow fashion. Travis Boyd got credited with the goal.
The Habs would immediately get a chance to correct the misfortune with a power play of their own, as Wilson decided that it was time to rough up Nick Suzuki and spend two minutes in his preferred location. However, neither this nor a sequential tripping minor on T.J. Oshie would benefit the home team. Instead, Price would have to demonstrate his value yet again with a double save on a two-on-zero breakaway seconds after the latter power play.
Montreal was its own worst enemy on the evening. Shea Weber lost possession deep in the defensive zone after heavy forechecking from Kuznetsov. The puck ended up in front of Oshie, who laid it up for a quick snipe from Vrana. His 23rd of the year meant a two-goal lead for the guests in white.
Julien must have given his team a scolding during the second break, because the Habs came out on the ice revitalized, creating significantly more pressure in front of Holtby than before.
Armia thought he had diminished the deficit with a swift tap-in from the crease, but Holtby made an improbable save. The puck brushed his pads before hitting the inside of the post and proceeded to dance in mid-air over the goal line when the Washington netminder finally caught it with his glove. It is not possible to get any closer without actually scoring. It was a heads-up play by Holtby, to have the composure to turn around and make the catch in the blink of an eye before the puck either crossed the line or hit him in the back.
As we’ve often seen from the Habs this season, it ain’t over till it’s over. With 12:30 remaining in the game, John Carlson lost track of Dale Weise when the winger moved into the slot after a battle against the boards. Rookie sensation Suzuki used his phenomenal vision to thread the pass through and Weise ended up scoring a copy of Petry’s first-period opener: moving the puck to the side to lure down Holtby before beating him with the backhand. It was Weise’s first goal since his return to Montreal. What a way to celebrate your game number 500!
The remainder of the game gave spectators value for their money if you like Class-A goaltending. As Montreal cranked up the velocity even more, Holtby turned into a brick wall. During the 10 minutes that followed after Weise’s goal, he was everywhere, stopping everything. The Canadiens ended up with 15 shots on goal during the final 20 minutes, the majority of which were high-quality scoring chances that just could not find their way into the net.
When Julien went for broke and removed Price for an extra attacker, Backstrom put the final nail in the coffin with a backhander from center ice. Even without Ovie, the Capitals managed to come away with the victory, putting yet another dent in Montreal’s chances of a late playoff surge.
With a little more than a third of the season left, the Habs will to try to salvage what they can. That starts by travelling to Buffalo and looking to best the Sabres on Thursday night.