After a week in quarantine and minimal practice time, Monday night was the debut of Eric Staal for the Montreal Canadiens as they took on the Edmonton Oilers. Playing on a line with Jonathan Drouin and Tyler Toffoli, it was immediately clear that Dominique Ducharme had plenty of faith in the veteran centre. It also meant that Jesperi Kotkaniemi was bumped down the lineup, giving the Canadiens an incredible line of talent down the middle.
In net was Carey Price, who appeared to be no worse for wear after leaving practice that morning after taking a shot off the hand. He was looking to rebound after a disappointing team showing on Saturday against Ottawa.
To say that the Canadiens dominated the first period is underselling what actually happened. With half of the period gone, the Canadiens had allowed just a single shot against, while piling up nine of their own. Then, in an entirely freak accident, the tone of the game changed as Brendan Gallagher left the ice in tremendous pain.
An Alexander Romanov shot came up high, slamming into Gallagher’s wrist area, sending the forward right to the locker room, eventually forcing him from the contest entirely. We’ve since learned that he sustained a fractured thumb on the play, and will miss significant time.
With almost no time left to play in the opening frame, a missed assignment or lack of communication between Shea Weber and Drouin allowed the Oilers to improbably take the lead. Jujhar Khaira worked behind the net, leaving Joel Edmundson behind while Weber and Drouin manned the net-front. Neither Montreal player picked up a wide-open Devin Shore, who had no issues lifting his chance over Carey Price’s glove and putting Edmonton on top heading into the intermission.
While the first period was all Habs, the second was all Oilers as Edmonton relentlessly swarmed Montreal in its own end. As they rolled their lines, Edmonton peppered Price with a number of shots as he battled to see through Oilers in front of his net. When Montreal went back to circling the Oilers’ zone, a roughing penalty on Corey Perry put them short-handed for the first time all night.
On the man disadvantage, it was all Price as the Canadiens’ penalty-killers seemed content to allow Edmonton to repeatedly attack through the slot. Twice it was Price having to come up with massive stops, perhaps none bigger than one in tight on Alex Chiasson right on his doorstep. The Habs did manage to escape without allowing a goal, and even drew a penalty of their own to go on their first power play.
Then Staal immediately took a penalty of his own, canceling the advantage and pushing the play to four-on-four. Neither team managed much of note in that span, then because the Canadiens couldn’t help but make things hard on themselves, Joel Edmundson took a penalty late in the second period.
Price was again the star as Alex Chiasson, somewhat bewilderingly, was left wide-open at the side of Price’s net. Chiasson loaded up his shot and fired ... right into the sliding two-pad stack of Carey Price who had miraculously gotten across to steal a surefire goal from the Oilers.
Montreal couldn’t take any momentum from the big save, as Darnell Nurse was fed a perfect pass for a one-timer moments later, and he smoked it right through Price’s defence. With 11 seconds left in the period, the Oilers had doubled their lead.
After suffering a second back-breaking goal at the end of a period, the Canadiens came out of the intermission absolutely flying to try to get on the board. Corey Perry worked the puck into the Oilers’ zone, leaving it for Nick Suzuki who quickly dumped it behind the net for Perry. The veteran winger worked to the net-front area and tossed it right towards a charging Josh Anderson who tipped it over Mike Smith to get Montreal on the board.
The Oilers’ sloppy play in the defensive zone continued to pay dividends for the Canadiens as they struck again just under four minutes later. Paul Byron disrupted a clearing attempt, allowing him to feed the puck right into the slot for Tomas Tatar. The Slovak uncorked a wicked shot right by Mike Smith’s ear and tied the game at two goals a side.
Montreal was handed a late opportunity with a delay of game call in their favour, but just 20 seconds in, a dubious tripping call on a defensive play by Tyler Toffoli once again washed their advantage out. Neither side created much out of the extra ice, or with the Oilers small power-play window that followed, and as the seconds ticked off it appeared the game was destined for overtime.
And overtime it was, with Montreal still seeking their first win at three-on-three this season. Because this season for the Canadiens makes no sense, they somehow won the game in overtime while staring down Connor McDavid. After a dominant shift led by Victor Mete forced the Oilers back on their heels, and a follow-up chance by Jeff Petry, the Oilers took a timeout. After a quick shift featuring Phillip Danault and Paul Byron, Eric Staal hopped back on the ice for another shift. Tyler Toffoli fed him a perfect pass through the neutral zone, and Staal broke in on the right wing and fired off a heavy shot that Smith missed entirely. Staal’s first goal as a Hab ended a long-running overtime drought for Montreal, securing a 3-2 win.
Now, another massive test awaits as the Habs square off with the Toronto Maple Leafs on Wednesday night in Toronto.