“Well, at least we don’t root for the New York Rangers,” I thought as the Blueshirts lost their third straight and took the swiftest of exits from the hub in Toronto to join the Alexis Lafrenière sweepstakes.
After winning the first game and losing the second, Montreal returned to home ice, which these days looks an awful lot like away ice, to host the Pittsburgh Penguins for the crucial third game of this best-of-five play-in series.
There was one change for each team compared to their previous lineup. Jake Evans replaced Jordan Weal in that hybrid center-winger-ish role on the fourth line, while Mike Sullivan replaced Jared McCann with Sam Lafferty.
Brendan Gallagher was tested pre-game and must have given Claude Julien both thumbs up since he took his usual spot to the right of Phillip Danault and Tomas Tatar to start the game. In his first shift, Gally rushed to the boards to chase down a Penguins defenceman and was seen limping off the ice. His foot is clearly still hindering him, but knowing Gallagher, he would probably rather amputate the foot than take a night like this off.
Montreal took the lead four minutes into the contest. Shea Weber got not one, not two, but three chances in a row upon joining the rush in front of Matt Murray. Third time’s a charm for the captain, as he swept the puck past the goalie from close range.
Pittsburgh’s bench decided that it would be wise to challenge the goal for goaltender interference, since there was a bit of contact between a surging Artturi Lehkonen and Murray’s left pad just as Weber’s shot went in. The challenge was unsuccessful, sending the Habs on the power play on a delay-of-game penalty.
The power play was — as so many times before — a letdown to watch. But if power-play goals are your cup of tea, you would get your fill just minutes later. Unfortunately though, both goals were scored by the frozen birds from western Pennsylvania.
The first one came after a slashing call on Ben Chiarot. The always surgically lethal Evgeni Malkin found Patric Hörnqvist out left, just as the referees were raising their arms for a delayed penalty on Weber for cross-checking. Weber gave the refs an interrogatory look and lost focus just long enough for Hörnqvist to one-time it past Carey Price.
Since an accident seldom comes alone, Jason Zucker slapped in the leading tally for the guests just a minute later, when Weber was repenting his sins in the penalty box. Game-changing goals in the playoffs were exactly what Jim Rutherford was praying for when he shipped half his house and Alex Galchenyuk to Minnesota earlier this year. Now Zucker has scored in two straight games, and Rutherford is beginning to see return on his investment.
Jesperi Kotkaniemi decided that enough was enough and tried to inject his team with fire and grit by levelling Brian Dumoulin hard enough to knock his helmet off in front of the benches. Dumoulin looked bewildered as to what had just happened. Young playmakers aren’t supposed to take down defencemen like that.
Just seconds before the break, Conor Sheary decided that it would be fair to even out the stat sheet for number of power plays. Very kindly, he took an unnecessary minor for tripping. Going to the booth, he looked so pleased with himself that he was laughing in the referee’s general direction.
Montreal’s second power play of the night ended as the previous six have ended during this series: without a goal. The man advantage continued to look stiff and uninspiring.
Five minutes into the second period, the hill would become even steeper for the Canadiens as Pittsburgh extended their lead. Brandon Tanev skated full-speed to win a battle in the offensive zone. His pass cut straight into the slot to find Zach Aston-Reese. After a rebound from Price, Latvian superstar Teddy Blueger scored his first ever post-season goal from close range, diving into the crease to win the battle against Victor Mete and Xavier Ouellet.
After yet another uneventful power play (which at least had a decent scoring chance from the second unit), Montreal creeped closer via a goal from Jonathan Drouin. Once again, the goal came after great lead-up work by the reborn Kotkaniemi. The centreman won a battle near the boards and Weber served Chiarot for a slapshot, which was deflected in by number 92. Exactly what the doctor ordered, both for Drouin and for the Canadiens.
Any injury on the ice becomes worse than normal to witness during these crowd-free times. The Scotiabank Arena went eerily quiet when Evans got slammed into the boards by Brandon Tanev. Evans went to the locker room with a bloody towel covering his face, and he was later ruled out for the night. That is not something you want a young guy to experience in his post season debut.
Malkin got sent to the box a few moments later, sending the Habs back on the power play yet again. If nothing else, it is good for this team to practise playing one man up, to see if they can overcome their woes. And what do you know, this time it nearly resulted in a goal! Montreal tied it up three seconds after the PP was over, and it was all thanks to Paul Byron. He found Nick Suzuki for a shot, which Murray stopped, but using his blazing speed, Byron was first to the rebound, circled around the net, and pushed the puck past the Pens netminder to draw the game even. It was an excellent effort and a wonderful confidence boost.
Dale Weise celebrated his birthday by shoving Aston-Reese to the ground without a call from the referees. Aston-Reese got back on his feet and, not knowing who had been the instigator, he shoved Max Domi to the ice. This was seen by the refs and the Penguins forward got penalized for roughing, all while Domi laughed like a hyena from the bench.
During the power play, Danault was as close as can be to steer in the tiebreaker off a shot from Joel Armia, but the puck danced away off the line after hitting both Murray and the crossbar. Instead, Montreal kept their habit of waiting until the opponent is back at full strength before scoring.
Jeff Petry noticed that he had zero passing lanes to work with as he positioned himself out left near the goal line. From almost no angle whatsoever, he launched a rocket which hit Murray in the mask and went in. You could say that there is no way that a top-tier goaltender should concede a goal from that angle, but it was actually a perfectly placed shot. Kudos to Petry for banking on that chance! This could be a future classic if this becomes a memorable playoff.
With a 4-3-lead against a Sidney Crosby-led Penguins, focus shifted, as it tends to do, toward Price. Laser-focused and large, he denied Pittsburgh a game-tying goal on several occasions, without seeming to break a sweat. The Penguins players looked listless and clueless on the bench. I am certain that they didn’t see this scenario unravelling when they were two goals up just a period earlier.
Byron decided to take a hooking penalty with three-and-a-half minutes left, risking the very fragile lead. With 20 seconds left of that penalty kill, Murray went to the bench, putting the Pens up by yet another attacker. The Habs fought and clawed their way through the remaining seconds, not giving Crosby, Malkin, or Kris Letang an inch to create quality scoring chances.
The Canadiens held on and can celebrate Dale Weise’s birthday in style tonight. On Friday afternoon, at 4:00 PM Eastern, they will have a chance to kick out the fifth-seeded Penguins from the post-season, before it has even begun.