It’s not often that after just two games a fanbase and team are sweating the other 80 that they still have to play in the regular season. For the Montreal Canadiens that is the spot they were in ahead of Saturday’s contest. An opening night loss to the Toronto Maple Leafs stung, but was manageable in the grand scheme of things. Following that up with a beatdown at the hands of the Buffalo Sabres on Thursday, however, set off alarm bells.
They had a chance to right the lurching ship in their return to a packed Bell Centre against their long-time rival from the Big Apple, the New York Rangers. Despite seeing struggles across the lineup, Dominique Ducharme made no changes in personnel, just in the lines combinations themselves. Joel Armia was promoted to play with Nick Suzuki and Cole Caufield, swapping places with Tyler Toffoli who dropped to the third line. On defence Alexander Romanov moved up alongside Jeff Petry, switching roles with Brett Kulak, while Jake Allen got the nod as the starter.
After struggling to establish a forecheck and offensive-zone presence for most of the first two games, the Canadiens made a strong effort to do so against the Rangers. The top line did well to hem New York in their own end, and even when the Rangers broke free a Ryan Reaves holding penalty sent the Habs to the game’s first power play.
While not an impressively high bar to clear, this advantage looked a fair bit more composed than the previous games. With the Rangers cheating to cover Caufield, the Canadiens opted to run their shots through Nick Suzuki, but some quick glovework from Igor Shesterkin denied the Canadiens the game’s opening goal as the power play expired.
Neither team really established a strong presence, with the Rangers testing Jake Allen a few times from range and Montreal not really generating much meaningful time in the Rangers’ end. When Montreal did manage to get their legs moving thanks to a strong breakout feed from Romanov to Caufield, they drew another penalty for their efforts.
The ensuing power play did little to reward said efforts, as they gained the zone and set up to feed passes into low-percentage areas. The two minutes passed quickly and the Canadiens failed to even get a shot on net as their streak went to zero for 10 while a man up on the season.
The Rangers got their best looks of the period as the final seconds ticked away, but a timely clear by David Savard and Brendan Gallagher kept it scoreless as the teams went into the first intermission.
The start to the second period was not what the Habs had in mind, as Savard vacated his space in front Allen, which led to Chris Kreider getting a wide-open net to shoot at. A quick reaction from Allen stopped the shot, but before long the Habs found themselves short-handed after Chris Wideman hooked Reaves.
While the Habs’ penalty kill did well to deny the Rangers, it wasn’t long before Montreal went right back to the box. This time the Canadiens had to hang on for dear life as Allen flung himself side to side to deny New York a goal. He also got some help from the crossbar and Cédric Paquette, who had a great clear as he was falling to the ice.
Naturally, after killing two penalties in a row, the Habs had a third one to kill off as Mathieu Perreault took a seat for two minutes. The Rangers ended the advantage early as Mika Zibanejad fired one on net, banking it off of Romanov’s skate and slowly into the Habs net for the first goal of the game.
Montreal did start its pushback thanks in part to the fourth line as Perreault turned and fired a shot on net from the half-boards. Paquette got himself in front of the shot, redirecting it high on net, but a quick glove from Shesterkin denied the pesky fourth-liner his first goal of the season. That was followed up by Savard weaving his way through the Rangers’ defence, but instead of shooting he dumped a pass in front of the net that Brendan Gallagher was a split-second off from firing into the net.
That momentum the team was building up was slowed down shortly after as Wideman took another seat in the box, this time for cross-checking Kevin Rooney in front of Allen. Montreal did well to fight off the attack, but one scramble left the net wide-open for Zibanejad. The Rangers’ star sniper was denied by a diving combo of Allen and Savard to keep the lead at just one goal after two periods.
There wasn’t much of anything happening for either side in the opening minutes of the third, and the Rangers were content with that as Montreal defended their 0-1 deficit with aplomb.
Alexis Lafrenière was whistled for a penalty, giving Montreal another power play to try to tie the game up. This time the power play looked far stronger, testing Shesterkin multiple times, but against all odds the best chance on the man advantage came to the Rangers short-handed. Zibanejad pulled away from the defenders, but Allen was quick to flash the leather and push the play back up ice for Montreal.
The Habs did finally break their goose egg as Brett Kulak fed Jonathan Drouin a pass through the neutral zone. Drouin in turn pushed it to Christian Dvorak, who circled the New York net, passing back to Drouin in front. In his first game at the Bell Centre since last April, Drouin calmly pulled the puck to his backhand and roofed his shot past Shesterkin to tie the game.
Then, as the Canadiens often do, they gave up an odd-man rush, to Zibanejad and Lafrenière, with Savard missing his read to allow the local boy to score in front of his parents at the Bell Centre.
With time winding down, Allen vacated his net to give Montreal the extra attacker, but that went for naught as Ben Chiarot ended up as the trigger man with an extra attacker, while Caufield was stapled to the Canadiens’ bench. The only goal that came from the situation was a sealing tally from Rooney with 10 seconds remaining.
Final Score: Rangers 3, Habs 1
The loss brings about even more concerns as the Canadiens have just three goals in three games, and there not being any true improvements from game to game. Up next for Montreal is a clash with the San Jose Sharks on Tuesday night at 7:00 PM.