On the second night of their back-to-back weekend adventure, the Montreal Canadiens travelled to the glorious metropolis that is Pittsburgh to face the city’s pride and joy; the Penguins. The team with the Southern hemisphere flappy bird on their crest were sitting in the second of two wild-card spots in the Eastern Conference while the Canadiens were.... Well, not as close to a playoff berth.
With Chris Wideman out of the lineup due to an upper-body injury, head coach Dominique Ducharme went back to displaying 12 forwards and six defencemen for Saturday. This put Michael Pezzetta back into play for the first time since the Habs last played Pittburgh, nine days prior.
When Dominik Simon shoved his stick into Brendan Gallagher’s upper areas, Montreal got a terrific chance to take an early lead. With four minutes of man advantage, you should at least be able to create pressure and tire your opponents. Apart from a brief moment during the first 30 seconds, this did not happen. Instead, Pittsburgh’s league-leading penalty kill could brush the disadvantage off without so much as a scratch.
Both Jake Allen and the Penguins’ starting goaltender, Casey DeSmith, got to show off their skills during the first period, as the shots were ramping up. Thanks to them, the first period remained scoreless until the buzzer sounded.
Montreal’s problems with getting any kind of organized play going continued. The feeling as a spectator is that there is no clear structure in either the offensive or defensive zone, which begs the question of what instructions the coaching staff is actually providing the players with the training sessions.
The longer the second period progressed, the more pressured Montreal looked. There was a sequence where the puck was bouncing around the Canadiens’ net for what felt like minutes on end without leaving the zone. When Montreal players eventually got hold of the puck, they seemed willing to do whatever they could to make their own lives as hard as possible by immediately returning possession to the opposition. If not for Allen, combined with a fair share of luck, the home team would have cruised comfortably toward a win.
In fact, after two periods of play, the advanced stats showed an expected goal amount of 2.75 for the Pittsburgh Penguins. Yet at that point they were still goalless. Rookie defenceman Mattias Norlinder played a big role in that. When the Pens finally managed to squeeze one past Allen, Norlinder was well-positioned in the crease to change direction of the slow-moving puck, thus helping his goaltender regain possession.
Even if Pittsburgh were held to a zero in the scoring column, the second period would not be without goals. In the middle of the storm, the Canadiens finally caught a break when Montreal native Kris Letang mismanaged a bouncing puck at the offensive blue line. This gave Jonathan Drouin a wide-open highway toward the net. A few sweet moves later, the puck sat comfortably behind DeSmith, and Montreal had taken an unexpected lead. Perhaps Letang was feeling sorry for his hometown team? Regardless, at this point we take what goals we are given.
Two minutes into the third, Artturi Lehkonen was sent to the box on a tripping call. It was 13 seconds until Sidney Crosby – with a moustache that would make even Auston Matthews jealous – set up Evan Rodrigues for a quick snapshot, shattering Allen’s hopes of a shutout.
With almost 40 shots faced already, it sure felt like justice was served and that Montreal would have to fight with their claws and their beaks if they wanted to remain equal in this contest. It would not remain a tied game for long, but not in the way that was expected.
Josh Anderson, who had been a force with the puck throughout the night, relentlessly drove the puck into an offensive position before losing track of possession. Sami Niku tied up the loose end and found Christian Dvorak all alone in front of DeSmith. The centreman made no mistake, and the Habs were once again a goal up on their opponents.
Rodrigues is enjoying a late-bloomer breakout season, with 15 points in 21 games played. This time, he should have had his second goal to tie things up yet again. There is no question who the first star of this game was. This was Allen’s crème de la crème out of many fine moments this evening.
Pittsburgh continued to push forward, but Montreal had Lady Luck on their side this night. Two minutes after Allen’s game-defining save, a Finnish flash by the name of Lehkonen struck again for his third goal in the last four games. Norlinder released a heavy shot, which was blocked. Cole Caufield jabbed at the puck, and in the tangled situation, Lehkonen won the battle against the Pittsburgh defence to put it home.
When Jeff Carter cut the lead in half with 2.37 remaining, I imagine many Habs fans resembling Edvard Munch’s The Scream. At the very least, I know I did. This felt like just the sort of game that could bounce the Canadiens’ way for 58 minutes and then end up straight in the gutter.
That was until Josh Anderson and Tyler Toffoli, the two heralded offensive acquistions from yesteryear who have not reached the same heights during this season, decided to take matters into their own hands and score a few empty-netters.
It all looked to be sealed when Anderson scored the 4-2 goal with 1.51 to go, but Crosby struck from nothing to once again make it a one-goal-game. This effectively meant another minute of potential suffering as the Penguins went for broke with the extra attacker.
In the end, Anderson’s second goal of the minute, and Toffoli’s crescendo gave this 6-3 win a far better taste than it really should have had.
This win should be credited to Jake Allen and few others. Montreal’s defence remains a mess, but when your goaltender saves 47 out of 50 shots, you will never be without a chance.