The Montreal Canadiens played an excellent game on Saturday afternoon, from the goaltender to the fourth-line forwards. Their 4-0 victory over the Florida Panthers was well-earned, and put them in position to sweep their Super Bowl Weekend back-to-back.
Knowing their game against the Columbus Blue Jackets was just as important as the one against their division rival the previous afternoon, Montreal again came out with plenty of energy to start on Sunday. Shifts were being spent in the offensive zone in the opening minutes, but goaltender Elvis Merzlikins was in the elite form he’s been displaying since late December, denying the Canadiens on the nine shots they mustered in the opening half of the period.
Carey Price was also looking sharp at the other end when the Blue Jackets managed to get a look, but in the battle of red-hot goalies, he was the one to blink first.
Trying to get out of his own zone, Ryan Poehling was stripped of the puck by Pierre-Luc Dubois, who passed to Oliver Bjorkstrand and then saw Vladislav Gavrikov get possession at the opposite side of the ice. Trying to adjust to the turnover and quick movement, the Canadiens were scrambling to defend, leaving Gavrikov with an open look. Price was the only player in position to defend, but was fooled by a quick, low shot, and the visitors had the early advantage.
Price got a bit of redemption with Dale Weise in the box minutes later, pushing laterally across the crease to deny a second goal against. He’s been the top penalty-killer for the team, and that statement held true on the first chance on Sunday.
After that quick start, Montreal’s energy level had faded, perhaps feeling the effects of the back-to-back games, and they went to the intermission needing to come up with a way to get a goal and reset things.
Tomas Tatar’s plan almost worked on the first shift out of the break. His shot beat Merzlikins, and had Brendan Gallagher celebrating, but it hadn’t made it past the post, leaving the Canadiens in their 1-0 hole.
A bit too eager to find that equalizer, Montreal got too aggressive with their top fivesome on the ice on their next turn. Shea Weber pinched down to the goal line trying to win back the puck, but Tatar didn’t rotate back far enough to cover the high forward. Seeing this, Dubois got behind the Habs winger, and was all alone when the puck made it out toward him. He sped down toward Price, with Ben Chiarot taking an angle to try to cut him off. Perhaps expecting his defenceman to do that, Price stayed deeper in his crease than he has been on breakaways recently. When Dubois had skated out of Chiarot’s range, he therefore had space to move across the top of the crease, and place a backhand shot to the top corner.
An odd slashing call on Tatar for simply wanting the puck more than the two players he was forechecking against could have put the game out of reach, but the penalty kill wouldn’t prove to be an issue for Montreal on the day, with Tatar’s two minutes one of three sentences they killed off to inch closer to 80% efficiency on the season.
Often this year, since Phillip Danault is Claude Julien’s most trusted penalty-killing forward, the shift after the man disadvantage sees Max Domi centring the top-line wingers. On this occasion, it was Nick Suzuki getting the nod, and it was his read of a Blue Jackets breakout that set up Montreal’s first goal. He put his stick right in the lane as Dubois tried a pass, deflecting the puck to Brendan Gallagher. Gallagher hit Tatar with a pass, and saw his teammate score the goal he thought he’d witnessed earlier.
The marker brought some life back to the Bell Centre after the early 2-0 lead had put a damper on the Kids’ Day mood. Despite using that new energy to try for a tying goal, a misplay in Montreal’s end put the deficit at two once more.
Price spilled a short rebound from a harmless shot to his left, and as he went to smother it, either his glove or Shea Weber’s stick knocked it farther away. Dubois collected it, skated behind the net to the opposite side quicker than Price could respond, and the centreman had his third point and second goal of the afternoon.
The strong defensive play that sees the Blue Jackets allow among the fewest shots on goal per game was on display with a two-goal in the third period. After killing off the final minute of a minor penalty that straddled the second intermission, Columbus allowed little room for the Canadiens players to operate. Any chances they were getting were one-and-done before a defencemen, usually Seth Jones or Zach Werenski, swept in to clear the puck and force the Habs to start again.
With about four minutes to go, Domi was able to use that defensive posture to his advantage. With players collapsing to the crease, he sent a shot into the traffic, and Merzlikins never saw it as it found a hole to give Montreal a chance to tie.
Julien pulled Price with two minutes to go, but that Canadiens weren’t in full possession of the puck in the offensive zone. Two passes onto opponent sticks later, the Blue Jackets had an empty-netter to make it 4-2, appearing to seal the game.
The Canadiens didn’t give in, and soon had the mountain back down to just one with a Weber blast. Ilya Kovalchuk slid a quick pass across the top of the zone to the captain, and Merzlikins was still following the movement when the one-time shot went to the opposite side, just sneaking through his pads.
A final charge with one minute to go led to some looks, but the best one from Danault was blocked rather than screened by Gallagher in front. The Canadiens couldn’t get set up for another chance, and fell by a 4-3 score.
It wasn’t quite the goaltending duel predicted between Price and Merzlikins, two of the NHL’s top goaltenders since the new year began. Both allowed three on the night, but Merzlikins held out the longest to earn the win.
The regulation loss was another blow to Montreal’s playoff hopes, increasing the gap to the Blue Jackets by two points. Columbus jumped up to the third seed in the Metropolitan Division, and now the first wild-card team — the New York Islanders — has four games in hand on Montreal to go along with a nine-point edge. The gap to Carolina is one point less, but they have two more game to play the rest of the way.
Yesterday’s result makes claiming one of the two extra post-season berths less likely. Thanks to their regulation win over the Panthers, the distance to the next team in the Atlantic race is now six points. The odds of following either path to a playoff spot at the end were already low going into this important game, and now the situation is a little more dire.
It’s just about to the point where the wild-card contenders need only a .500 points percentage the rest of the way to reach the 98-point cutoff the East saw last year. It’s an easily attainable mark in a system that awards points for regulation ties; so easy that only six teams are below that percentage to this point of the year. Montreal needs a .767 mark over the final 28 games — about a 20-4-4 record — to reach that same total.
It’s probably not going to happen. Even replicating the 6-3-0 performance they’ve had since January 11 three more times won’t be enough to do it. But the players and coaches are still intent on giving it a shot, and all they can really do is look forward to the next match. For the Habs, that’s a one-game road trip on Tuesday to confront one of their demons this season, the New Jersey Devils, aiming to avoid a season sweep at the hands of the league’s 29th-place team.