Ahead of their first game at home in several weeks on January 2, the Montreal Canadiens added a defenceman to try to stabilize the back end and give Claude Julien six options he could trust. Needing to get a win versus the Pittsburgh Penguins on Saturday, Marco Scandella was in the lineup for his first game.
Injuries among the regular forward corps have opened up opportunities for some Canadiens rookies, and we saw two of them making an impresssion in the opening minutes. Jesperi Kotkaniemi led a four-on-three up the ice, getting the puck to Ryan Poehling, but the 2017 first-rounder was unable to get a shot away.
On a counter-attack moments later, Lukas Vejdemo may have prevented a goal with a good defensive effort around his net. At the opposite end of the ice, he drew the game’s first penalty when he was held by compatriot Marcus Pettersson. It wasn’t a very productive power play, however.
Artturi Lehkonen didn’t need a power play to get his team on the board. All he needed was a good bit of hustle from another rookie, Nick Suzuki, to beat out an icing call, and Max Domi to spin the puck around a defender and across to him so he could net his eighth of the year. Domi extended his point streak to nine games on the play.
The lead didn’t last long. The Canadiens turned the puck over just outside their blue line seconds later, but they still had all five players in position to defend any counter-attack. Even so, Zach Aston-Reese skated uncontested through the slot, and a pass from Teddy Blueger found him all alone in front of Price to knot the game.
The referees were kept busy when Shea Weber contacted netminder Matt Murray on one of his down-low excursions. Joseph Blandisi decided to jump on top of the player who had connected with his goaltender, and the Canadiens captain was none too pleased about that development.
With the game at four-on-four, Max Domi had a great chance heading toward the net at four-on-four, but his attempt to cut across was stopped by Pettersson, Feeling the Penguins defenceman had used his knee to stop the move, Domi dropped his gloves, and the two fought in front of Pittsburgh’s net. Domi was assessed an extra minor for a cross-check before the fists started to fly.
One of the breakaways that the defence had allowed in the first period — yes, they are still a thing — forced Weber to make a diving slash at the hands of Jared McCann, giving the Penguins a fresh sheet of ice to run their power play to start the second.
As it turned out, it was Montreal that enjoyed the resurfacing the most. First Lehkonen stole the puck from the defence and set up Phillip Danault with an open look, and on the next shift Nate Thompson fought off his man to get in on Murray. Neither chance went for a goal, but they meant the Penguins weren’t threatening to get out to a lead while up a man.
Lehkonen’s thieving skills were brought back out on his next shift, and this time he was close enough to the net that he didn’t need to find anyone else with a pass. He put a shot on net after intercepting a poor pass from the corner to the slot, then jammed in the rebound for his second of the night.
With a power play and a chance to go up 3-1, Domi got the puck to Jordan Weal, and Weal spun back to find Kotkaniemi marching in with speed. The sophomore’s powerful shot just glanced off the shoulder of Murray and over the net.
At the other end, a two-on-one at the goalmouth was created late in the frame when Cale Fleury missed a big hit along the wall. It looked like it was about to result in a tying goal, but Price made a huge lateral save to keep his team ahead, doing everything in his power to compensate for the errors of his defence.
Early in the third, the new guy had a chance to make a lasting impression on the home crowd when he got a puck in his wheelhouse at the blue line. Scandella unleashed a bomb that got past Murray, but clanged off the post.
It ended up being a turning point in the game. Instead of going in for a 3-1 lead, the Penguins had still just a one-goal disadvantage to overcome, and they did just that moments later. A shot came in from Jack Johnson at the point that Evgeni Malkin tipped wide, but the puck bounced off the end boards and came out the other side, where Bryan Rust pounded it into an empty cage.
With Danault in the box midway through the period, Montreal went back to work looking for offence on the penalty kill. First Suzuki and Poehling had one chance, but the pairing couldn’t reward Julien’s trust in the two-way skill of his youngsters with a goal as Suzuki’s pass was blocked. The next wave got the puck to the neutral zone, and Thompson hit Lehkonen with a pass to send the Finn in alone. Lehkonen deked to get Murray moving and sent a shot between the netminder’s pads, but the goalie was wise to the danger and clamped his feet together to prevent the puck from getting through.
A bit too confident in their short-handed play, Montreal tried to set up at four-on-five in the attacking zone, and that made it very easy for the Penguins to break out when they regained control of the puck. The result was a four-man rush for the Pittsburgh power play, requiring a critical defensive effort from Weber to prevent a go-ahead goal.
With the game in overtime, Lehkonen got the puck at the side of the goal, initially thinking about making a pass, but recognizing the space he had and trying to end proceedings with a goal similar to the one he scored in the second. Murray didn’t oblige him this time, preventing Lehkonen from finishing the hat trick.
Instead it was another breakdown at the opposite end that brought the game to its conclusion. At the end of a shift, Suzuki tried to make a change while the Penguins had the puck in the neutral zone, and that opened up too much space in the three-on-three period. The initial two-on-one was stopped by Price, but no one was able to get to Brandon Tanev as he netted the rebound for the second point.
Montreal lost a bit more ground to an Eastern Conference opponent they may need to catch in a wild-card battle. They’ll aim to get both points on Monday night versus the Winnipeg Jets, when Ilya Kovalchuk could make his Canadiens debut.