Hope has sprung once more in Montreal, as Ilya Kovalchuk’s overtime winner against the Toronto Maple Leafs brought the Canadiens within striking distance of a playoff spot. There isn’t much time to enjoy the victories, because each game is important the rest of the way, including their matchup with the Arizona Coyotes on Monday night.
The Coyotes are also embroiled in a heated playoff chase of their own in the Western Conference. They were without their standout goalie Darcy Kuemper , who suffered an injury setback at morning skate, so he gave way to Antti Raanta, with Adin Hill serving as his backup; not an ideal situation for a team needing to make up ground.
While Montreal had the added boost of Jonathan Drouin in the lineup, they were still without their captain, as Shea Weber remained on the sidelines nursing a lower-body injury.
The Habs’ offence sleep-walked through most of Saturday’s game, but it was wide awake in the opening minutes last night. Just 52 seconds in, the fourth line went to work to open up the scoring. Nate Thompson fired a shot toward the net, and Nick Cousins poked at the rebound. The puck went in for neither man, but rookie Jake Evans was on the spot, and he lifted the puck past Raanta for his first NHL goal.
Just a minute later the offence struck again, with the Canadiens’ first line doing the damage this time. Tomas Tatar sent a seam pass up to Brendan Gallagher, who peeled away from his defender to break in all alone. Gallagher fired an initial shot, then followed up his own rebound and slid it five-hole past Raanta for a two-goal lead, in under two minutes.
The ever-pesky Coyotes kept themselves in the game. On the first Montreal error of the night they climbed back into the contest. Brett Kulak attempted to carry the puck through the neutral zone, but ended up forcing a pass into the skates of Jonathan Drouin. Phil Kessel collected the loose puck and left a pass off for Derek Stepan, who handcuffed Carey Price with a wrist shot from long range.
Taylor Hall had the best chance in the first to tie the game up as he found himself on a partial break, but some smart positioning by Victor Mete forced him into a low-percentage shot, which Price swallowed up with ease. The Coyotes didn’t capitalize on either of their power plays, and in the dying minutes handed Montreal a four minute advantage after a high-sticking infraction on Nick Suzuki. They made it a five-on-three after Joel Armia drew a trip, and to end the period Montreal ran a five-forward man advantage, but couldn’t find another goal before the intermission.
The man advantage carried into the second period. It added no goals and managed to subtract a massive part of the Habs’ lineup. Tatar let a wrist shot go, which deflected off a Coyotes player’s stick and drilled Phillip Danault in the face, dropping him to a bloody heap on the ice. He was able to skate off, but the situation was — and remains — concerning as the Canadiens’ best forward went to the room surrounded by a cavalcade of medical staff and wasn’t able to return.
Despite another penalty, this time due to Clayton Keller firing the puck out of play, the Montreal man advantage continued to sputter along and failed to find another goal. Then, to make matters more difficult, the Canadiens took back-to-back penalties. Price remained strong in net, keeping Montreal up by a goal, but that was not the case for long as a resilient Arizona side found a way to tie the game up.
The whole play kicked off with Jeff Petry’s clearing attempt being held in, then with the puck on his stick Christian Dvorak found a wide-open Taylor Hall in the slot. As Marco Scandella slowly glided into the play, Hall unleashed his one-timer that made sure the two sides headed into the intermission tied up.
After falling asleep at the wheel in the second period, the Canadiens came out buzzing in the third, and it seemed like a third goal could be coming at any moment. Then a poor call against Brett Kulak put Montreal back on the penalty kill, sans Danault. The penalty-killers were again up to the task, forcing the play back to even strength.
After missing a call for too many men against Arizona, the officials did call a penalty, this time on Armia for hooking, which had helped prevent a major scoring chance. Without Danault and with Armia in the box, the Coyotes finally made their power play count. Jakob Chychrun stepped into a feed from Keller and blew his shot past Price with just a minute remaining on the clock.
A late furious push yielded no miracles for the Habs this time as they fell by the one goal allowed late in the third period.
The Florida Panthers lost last night as well, and while that means they didn’t move farther ahead, Montreal also couldn’t gain ground on a divisional rival. Now the tough part of the week begins, as the Canadiens travel to Boston for a Wednesday night showdown with the division-leading Bruins, and they’ll do it without Weber and possibly Danault as well.