Ahead of the final game of the year with the Winnipeg Jets, the Montreal Canadiens learned they would be without Shea Weber, ruled out with an upper-body injury. With the number of players available continuing to drop, they were forced to shuffle the blue-liners, creating a pairing of Alexander Romanov and Ben Chiarot to try to make up for the loss of their minute-eating captain.
Despite all the missing players, Montreal came out of the gate strong, with several good shifts in the offensive zone. The best of the first rotation came from the trio of Tyler Toffoli, Nick Suzuki, and Joel Armia, which set the tone for a more focused approach to get passes into the slot for dangerous chances.
Montreal’s first great looks came off the stick of Jeff Petry. He had an initial shot blocked at the right side of the net, but collected the puck to swing around the back of the net and out the left side, only to have a second shot ring off the post. Soon afterward, Josh Anderson walked down the wing with the puck, but his in-tight chance missed the mark to keep the game scoreless.
A reward for all of their hard work came when Jake Evans battled three Jets players to keep the puck in at the blue line, and drew a tripping call after playing the puck back down low. But rather than capitalize on the reduced strength of their opponent, the Canadiens failed to even get into the offensive zone let alone get any prime scoring opportunities, and the momentum was lost.
It proved a costly turn of the tide. With just over a minute left in the period, Paul Stastny caught Alexander Romanov defending him too wide, and raced into the open middle of the ice. He skated right in on Jake Allen and scored on one of the only chances his team had in the first 20 minutes.
Montreal just about tied the game early in the second, but a wide-open Tyler Toffoli missed his shot far-side and saw it rim around the boards. Once again the missed chance came back to bite the home team, as the puck eluded four Habs players. It went to Jansen Harkins in the neutral zone, and Romanov went too far out of position once again trying to defend him. He wasn’t able to slide over to cover an onrushing Trevor Lewis, nor could Joel Armia recover in time on the backcheck to impact his shot, and the fourth line had Winnipeg out to a two-goal lead.
Joel Armia kept spirits high by refusing to leave the ice without his team back in the game. A mishandled play off a Nick Suzuki dump-in bounced to Armia’s stick, and he muscled his way to the front of the net, drawing three defenders in the process. That left Suzuki uncontested to follow up the play and fire the puck in to give his team a boost.
After killing off a penalty that could have restored the Jets’ lead to two, Cole Caufield came on the ice and put together his best NHL shift to date. For the first time he was prepared to be hit hard along the wall, and aniticipated the impact to help him win some battles and distribute the puck along the wall. He earned three chances on a long shift played right around Connor Hellebuyck’s net, and it ended with him coming up just short of scoring his first goal, sending a backhand shot off the post.
A third defensive miscue created another odd-man rush for Winnipeg. Erik Gustafsson’s pass was intercepted to create a two-on-one. Expecting a cross-crease pass, Jake Allen began to move across, but the pass never came. Lewis opted to fire the puck instead to a part of the net Allen had just vacated, and it was 3-1.
Another good shift for Caufield after that goal ended with a better result than the last. Following his play that kept the Jets chasing in their own zone, the attack was quickly relaunched by a solid stick-check from Romanov. Evans collected the puck to gain the zone, dropping it back for Chiarot. The defencemen found Artturi Lehkonen streaking toward the net, and the winger unleashed an accurate shot to get the deficit to a single goal.
Phillip Danault forced Josh Morrissey to pull him down for another power play with about three minutes to go, and this time the Canadiens used the manpower advantage to pull themselves even. The Jets were under constant pressure, and Suzuki’s shot from the high slot hit a body in front but fell to the stick of Armia posted up near the crease. Armia spun and fired one of his five shots of the night through Hellebuyck’s five-hole to even the score.
The Habs nearly took the lead with the Jets coasting to the intermission. Jeff Petry was left all alone in a last-second offensive dash, but the play across to him didn’t connect.
Both teams settled into a more measured game in the final period with not only big implications for playoff positioning on the line, but also the two clubs having difficulty finding points in recent games. After five consecutive defeats, the Jets were content to simply play out the 20 minutes for a point, and Montreal, which had lost twice as many games as it had won in the past few weeks, seemed happy to oblige.
That is until Jesperi Kotkaniemi decided that was enough of that mindset. He took control of things partway through the period with two great shifts back-to-back. Once his teammates saw him drive the puck into a pocket of four defenders and make a pass to open up a chance, the club was re-energized to go for both points in regulation.
Another chapter in the story of the night, the Jets found one opening in a game they were being otherwise dominated, this time in the form of a power play. Corey Perry got an ego boost when two players felt the need to jump over the boards to replace him, but that was quickly erased when Dominique Ducharme elected him to go to the box to serve the minor.
That could have been the deciding moment in the game, but Montreal did a great job of keeping Winnipeg to the perimiter of the offensive zone, and with the puck along the wall contested by several players, Petry took a high stick in the face that ended the power play 40 seconds early.
For the second time in the game, the Canadiens used the power play to do what it was designed for. Suzuki got the puck at the top of the zone, and while he was prevented from advancing up to his typical spot around the right faceoff dot, his wristshot from the top of the circle was no less effective in getting his team the lead for the first time.
After surviving a late surge from Winnipeg, Tyler Toffoli picked up the puck just inside his blue line and softly lobbed it down the ice. Josh Anderson raced after it to negate any icing call, but the puck was right on target, so rather than add to his own goal tally, Anderson simply escorted Toffoli’s team-leading 26th into the net to secure a big 5-3 win for Montreal.
The Habs used their game in hand over the Calgary Flames to restore the gap in the standings to six points as both teams approach their final seven games of the year. To ensure they maintain that gap, Montreal needs to head home from the rink tonight with a win over an Ottawa Senators team that is beginning to find its groove.