The low-event game the Montreal Canadiens and Calgary Flames played on Thursday night was thought to be due to the home team adjusting to a new coach and the Canadiens running out of gas in their third game in four nights. After a full day off, surely the on-ice product would be a bit more up-tempo as the Flames settled in under Darryl Sutter and Montreal had replenished its energy stores.
Calgary honoured its half of the deal, but Montreal was once again slow out of the gate. Seemingly surprised by the effort level of the opponent, the Habs took a penalty just 1:19 in as Jonathan Drouin was called for hooking.
The Habs’ answer to that early tempo was Paul Byron, who had a great chance to open the scoring while short-handed, but wasn’t able to convert. With Drouin out of the box, his line with Nick Suzuki and Joel Armia had a strong shift in the offensive zone as Montreal seemed to be getting up to speed.
Armia’s play in his own end just after the five-minute mark was notable for the wrong reasons. Getting the puck along the end boards with the Flames changing, it appeared as though he wanted to move the puck behind the net to a defenceman, but both Jeff Petry and Joel Edmundson were leaving the spot Armia had been targetting. In the time it took to realize that option was no longer viable, the Flames pressed in on the Habs winger and his ultimate decision was to carry the puck around the net and try a breakout on the other side, but the decision was made too late. He was slowed by Sean Monahan as he tried to get his feet moving, then swallowed up by Brett Ritchie as he went around behind Carey Price. Monahan turned with the puck that had been knocked loose, and shot it past Price’s glove from close range for a 1-0 lead.
Brendan Gallagher worked his physical game along the end boards later on, trying to turn the momentum. All he got for his efforts was a slashing penalty, putting the Habs under even more pressure in a period in which they were outshot 16-6. One of those shots came on the ensuing power play after Shea Weber had driven Matthew Tkachuk into Price. Artturi Lehkonen, playing his first game in nine days, was able to get his body in front of Monahan as he fought for the rebound, but lost the duel of sticks as the Flames forward connected with the puck a split-second before Lehkonen could block it. It was a 2-0 lead for Calgary, and a deserved one at that.
One of Montreal’s best chances to score came as Jesperi Kotkaniemi decided to barge through the line of defence to get in on goal. He almost made it through to Jacob Markstrom in an attempt to cut the deficit in half, but had his shoulder grabbed before he got there, an infraction that went uncalled by the referees.
The Flames put the puck in the net for a third time early in the second period. Price misplayed the puck behind his net, leaving the cage open off the turnover that resulted. Fortunately for him, Johnny Gaudreau had to kick it in with his foot to make the conversion, and it was quickly waved off by the officials.
Instead the Flames had to wait until the 7:20 mark to get out to a comfortable three-goal lead. Jeff Petry fended off Andrew Mangiapane’s initial rush and rode him into the end boards, but Mangiapane rolled out of the contact to free himself up. Mikael Backlund raced in to get on the end of his teammate’s pass to the slot, releasing the puck before Joel Edmundson could make up the ground.
All three goals the Flames scored were the result of them being just a half step ahead of the Habs and taking advantage of some indecision. It helped that all 18 skaters were in near constant motion on the ice, able to quickly react to all changes of possession versus a Habs side still unsure about where everyone was supposed to be.
Lehkonen drew an interference penalty with under seven minute to play in the middle frame, but the power play lasted a mere 18 seconds as Gallagher was called for a questionable tripping call when Derek Ryan went down while trying to carry the puck along the boards.
Montreal hasn’t responded well in situations where both teams have less than five skaters on the ice, but this time was different. Drouin and Nick Suzuki got the call from the coach to play the four-on-four shift, joined by the pairing of Petry and Edmundson. Drouin slipped the puck up into a swath of open space that the two penalties had opened up on the ice, and Petry obliged by jumping up into it. He identified his spot en route, and flung the puck right off the near-side elbow of the net to score his 11th goal of the season and give his team some hope.
The Flames played a more conservative style to begin the third as they tried to lock things down defensively. No longer under constant pressure every time they touched the puck, the Canadiens were able to build up some momentum with possession, and the Flames had some difficulty handling the speed. The Canadiens started to get their first real zone time of the game, and Markstrom was called upon more often in the opening minutes of the period.
The defensive formation bent but didn’t break as the Flames dealt with the attack, right up until the final minutes when Price was called to the bench. Montreal got the puck to go in off a play at the top of the crease, but once again the officials had an easy decision to make in disallowing the goal, as it was Josh Anderson’s foot doing the kicking this time.
The final seconds of the game had the Canadiens scrambling to block shots toward their vacated net, and they weren’t able to mount another charge up the ice, falling by the same 3-1 score the game held at the second intermission.
With the two-game series versus the Flames now complete, the Habs have seen a six-point edge over their nearest challenger for the final playoff spot in the North Division fall to just two. They got the first look at the new style of play Calgary will have under Sutter, and are now aware that there is added urgency to get their play to a consistent level to fend off the late-season charge.
Their next opportunity to get back in the win column comes on Monday night in Winnipeg, when the Habs try for a similar effort that earned a 7-1 win versus the Jets one week ago.