One point! That was all the Canadiens needed to clinch a playoff spot, regardless of what Calgary or Vancouver would do during their remaining games.
With a handful of important players still missing due to injuries, it was the usual suspects who took the ice to try and cement the fourth seed in the North Division, with the added boost of Paul Byron returning to the formation. Jake Allen took the reins in net while Cole Caufield once again got paired together with senior gentlemen Corey Perry and Eric Staal.
It was a night where the Edmonton Oilers had nothing to play for. Being unable to move either up or down from their current position, they gave their revigorated goaltender Mike Smith the night off. If Mikko Koskinen would have a similarly disastrous outing as he had against Vancouver four nights prior, it would be Alex Stalock’s job to dig the Oilers out of the mess.
Jake Evans had scored two goals during this, his first season of real NHL action. Both of those goals had come in the first five games of the season. This night he finally ended his drought when he, assisted by Artturi Lehkonen, got the better of Darnell Nurse and sniped home a wrister up in the far corner.
You would imagine that a goal like that would fire up a team in the playoff hunt, but apparently not. A mere 20 seconds later, three Oilers forwards were allowed to waltz in and around the crease with zero checking from the Canadiens defenders. James Neal showed why he once upon a time was considered The Real Deal and found the small space between Allen’s pad and the post.
With the game-tying goal, Edmonton began to take over more and more of the game. Before the period had ended, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins had admirably exploited a Kailer Yamamoto rebound to give his side the lead going into the break.
Montreal was awarded with a second power play of the night when Alexander Romanov lost track of the puck behind his own net but was then tripped by Neal while he was trying to recover from that mishap. After watching the Canadiens be as sharp as a wooden butter knife during two minutes of man advantage in the first period, we got to see a slightly better effort here. Still, the dangerous shots continued to be absent from the Habs’ artillery.
Immediately following the unsuccessful power play, Dominique Ducharme sent out his most dangerous weapon this evening: his fourth line. Evans used his speed to enter the offensive zone and feed Lehkonen. Across the crease waited Byron, back from a two-week injury absence, to score his fifth goal of the year.
So far, Ducharme’s idea to put the pacy, energetic fourth line out to neutralize Connor McDavid had worked like a charm. Then again, you can’t keep a player like McDavid neutered for too long. Tomas Tatar got beat inside and the league’s only 100-point-scorer put the puck perfectly on the blade of Dominik Kahun, who would have scored even if he were blindfolded. Montreal’s soft efforts in their own zone proved to be costly yet another time.
Do you want to see something pretty? Montreal’s third goal of the night, subsequently challenged and revoked due to an offside, was just that. Once more, Evans drew up the attack and fed one of his wingers at the opportune moment. If it had stood, it would have been one goal and three points each for every member of that fourth line. Even if the goal was called back this time, one thing is for sure: Ducharme has found a good combination here, with a line consisting of Evans, Byron, and Lehkonen.
Death to the offside rule for ruining this goal pic.twitter.com/HeATdxbOQh— Scott Matla (@scottmatla) May 11, 2021
And they weren’t done there. With six-and-a-half minutes left to play, Evans once again created a chance for Lehkonen by setting him up with a quick pass out left at neutral ice. Lehky’s shot was hard, but not very precise. Still, fellow coutryman Koskinen is presently a goaltender built like a Swiss cheese. Any time you just get a shot on net, it becomes a quality scoring chance. This one went in at the near post and the Montreal Canadiens had tied it up at three.
The residual minutes wound down efficiently, with both teams seemingly satisfied taking it to overtime with one point apiece. The Habs got the point they needed and clinched a spot among the 16 best in the league for the first time since 2017.
In the end, McDavid gave Edmonton the overtime win with a breakaway goal. It’s never fun to lose, but this night the loss tasted more like relief than anything else. The Montreal Canadiens will feature in the 2021 Stanley Cup playoffs. The only question remaining now is whether they will face this Oilers team or their archrivals from Toronto in the upcoming first round.