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The Canadiens just needed their skill to arrive

A solid game still looked like a loss ... until the big guns showed up.

NHL: Pittsburgh Penguins at Montreal Canadiens Eric Bolte-USA TODAY Sports

Through two periods, the Montreal Canadiens were playing a solid game of hockey without anything to show for it.

They were ahead of the Pittsburgh Penguins on the shot counter (24-21), in shot attempts, and even in scoring chances (22-18). They were getting stable goaltending from Samuel Montembeault, and Martin St-Louis’s new line combinations were paying off, with all four trios pulling their weight.

Heck, even Garry Galley sang their praises on live television during the intermission.

The Bell Centre scoreboard still read 0-2 for the visitors, who relied on their skill to muster that advantage. Evgeni Malkin’s first goal, for example, was a 38-foot wrister that only had a 3.7% chance of going in according to More than that, it was taken by a player drifting away from the net, with his weight on his back foot. If that shot was taken by almost anyone other than Malkin, it probably isn’t going in the net.

In the third period, down 2-7 in high-danger scoring chances according to Natural Stat Trick, the Canadiens needed their own skill to step up.

It started, naturally, with the captain. Nick Suzuki figured “anything he can do, I can do too,” and let loose a 31-foot wrister with a 3.9% chance of going in of his own. Again, a shot like that coming off the stick of most players easily ends up in Casey DeSmith’s breadbasket. This one, though, was different. It found a hole through the Penguins netminder, bounced softly off the post, and sat in the crease, waiting for Suzuki to gently tap it into the yawning cage. Suddenly, the Habs had life.

As the period ticked away, the Canadiens kept pushing, but it looked like the Penguins would hold their advantage. With the net empty and 2:26 on the clock, Jonathan Drouin and Cole Caufield joined the stage. Drouin’s pass to Caufield was something that three generations of Canadiens coaches had sought for years, bisecting Jeff Carter, blazing across the Royal Road, and landing perfectly on Caufield’s stick. The young sniper, of course, still had to adjust for a tight angle and the velocity of the pass, but by this point, we’ve all seen him accomplish more difficult things.

As regulation ended, the Canadiens’ skill had earned them a deserved point, but it was still hard to fathom that they could go toe-to-toe with Sidney Crosby, Malkin, Jake Guentzel, and Kris Letang in three-on-three. And yet that’s what they did, trading punch for counterpunch in an end-to-end affair that eventually drew a Jeff Petry penalty. The man advantage has so often been stale and unimaginative, but on that one, Sean Monahan followed in Drouin’s footsteps, patiently setting up a backdoor lane to Kirby Dach and then threading the needle through all three Penguins defenders.

Game, set, and match, to the underdogs.

The Canadiens are not as skilled as the Penguins. But make no mistake, this Habs team does have high-end talent — enough to tip the scales in a well-played hockey game. Monday night is the latest iteration of a familiar blueprint for the Canadiens: they can combine a solid effort up and down the lineup with bursts of elite skill in order to become a force to be reckoned with.