Canadiens @ Penguins Game 1 recap: Everything is happening

It’s Nick Suzuki’s world and we’re just living in it.

The Montreal Canadiens were back in action earlier this week in an exhibition game against the Toronto Maple Leafs, The game on Tuesday against the Leafs didn’t go the way the Canadiens had hoped, losing 4-2, with their power play leading to a large amount of self-inflicted pain for Montreal. Fortunately that game was just what it was advertised to be: an exhibition. Saturday’s primetime affair with the Pittsburgh Penguins was the real deal, as part of the qualifying round in this NHL post-season.

With the Penguins looming, Claude Julien kept his lineup the same as it was on Tuesday, including the use of Dale Weise on the fourth line and a third defensive pairing of Xavier Ouellet and Victor Mete. Obviously in net was Carey Price, while Matt Murray’s shaky regular season wasn’t enough to make Mike Sullivan second-guess him as his starter.

Unlike the Toronto game, the Canadiens didn’t give up a goal in the opening thirty-three seconds, in fact, they controlled the opening shift that ended with Jeff Petry rifling a shot off the instep of Kris Letang’s skate. When the Penguins’ second line led by Evgeni Malkin took back the control against Nick Suzuki’s line, it was Carey Price who kept the game goalless, calmly blocking pucks out of the dangerous areas and sending his teammates down ice with pace. Even when Malkin’s line snuck a shot from below the goal line in on Price, the Habs’ netminder was quick to flop down and stop any wayward sticks from poking the loose puck home.

As the Penguins piled up the shots, it was still all Price who kept the Canadiens from surrendering the first goal. Then, unlike so many times in the regular season, the Habs got a bounce to go their way, with a big help from Jack Johnson.

Brett Kulak collected a pass that made its way to his spot at the point, and he let his shot fly toward the Penguins’ net. On the way there it was deflected, then as Johnson upturned Jesperi Kotkaniemi, the puck hit the young Finn, trickling in over the line off of his chest to give Montreal a surprising early lead.

Montreal’s “momentum” nearly hit a stumbling block shortly after as the Penguins were called for interference, Marcus Pettersson going to sit for two minutes. Somehow, improbably, the man advantage generated plenty of attack, and with a big stop by Matt Murray was unfortunate to not double their lead on the first power play of the night.

The special teams action did not stop there, as the Canadiens repaid the Penguins for their penalty with one of their own with under three minutes left in the first period. The Canadiens’ penalty-killers showed up just as strongly as the power play, limiting Pittsburgh to one decent look overall. Kris Letang fired in a shot that Jake Guentzel batted away from Price’s glove, but the Penguins forward had his chance clang off the goal post and away from the net, leaving the Habs firmly in the lead. The rest of the penalty kill passed without incident and Montreal headed into the first intermission leading by a goal, but looking for a steadier offensive presence in the second period.

Much like the first period, the Canadiens didn’t exactly embody the spirit of grace on the ice, and there were plenty of small errors. Namely Ben Chiarot turning a puck over, falling over trying to defend Jason Zucker, but getting his stick down to still block the scoring chance before it got to Price. They persevered through the early bumps, and managed to get their lead up to two before the period was half gone.

Suzuki carried the puck through the neutral zone, speeding in on Murray with a teammate flanking him to his right. The young centre opted to call his own number, wiring a wrist shot high past Murray’s waving glove and into the far corner.

The errors did finally catch up with Montreal before long, with Tomas Tatar being the one wearing the goat horns. As Brendan Gallagher collected a puck along the boards, Tatar fled the zone for a breakout pass that never came, and after a desperate backcheck Tatar had picked up a delayed penalty. That power play was never awarded as Xavier Ouellet had his pocket picked before he could even touch the puck, and Sidney Crosby banked his stolen puck in off of Carey Price to cut into the Montreal lead.

A somewhat suspect penalty call led to another Penguins power play. Even though the Canadiens created multiple odd-man looks while short-handed they could not find a third goal. As has always been the case this year, one little slip on the penalty kill led to a goal, with a bouncing puck kicking off Ben Chiarot’s skates to Bryan Rust, who put it home to tie the game up.

Another late penalty, this time to Jonathan Drouin, gave Pittsburgh a chance to take their first lead of the night. Another strong showing by the penalty-killers kept the score tied as both teams headed into the second intermission.

The penalty troubles continued as the third period kicked off, with Phillip Danault going off for a slash, then Chiarot taking a seat shortly after for cross-checking Sidney Crosby in the neck. In an intense, high-pressure three-on-five penalty kill with their top forward in the box, it was Suzuki showing his worth as the Canadiens fended off a ferocious Penguin attack.

Montreal had a chance of their own on the power play, which amounted to no goals despite some nice looks by Gallagher. Then it was back to another penalty kill as Paul Byron was called for interference. As was the story many times earlier on the night, the penalty-killers stood tall, and Pittsburgh was again denied any truly good looks with the man advantage.

Even a late penalty shot for Conor Sheary wasn’t enough to shake the stoic Price, who read the Pittsburgh forward’s shot the whole way, and Sheary shoved his shot wide, missing the net entirely. The Canadiens ran down the rest of the clock, and overtime loomed in Game 1.

To say that overtime had everything was an understatement. The Penguins got another power play, which resulted in nothing but a frustrated Malkin, Then with the chance to be a hero, Jonathan Drouin drew a penalty shot out of Jack Johnson, and the pressure might have been too much as he fanned his shot entirely.

With the first overtime nearing an end it seemed like another extra period was on the slate, until a bounce found its way to a stick of a Habs defender. As Gallagher’s shot rebounded into the slot, Jeff Petry jumped up and roofed the overtime-winner past Murray, leaving the fifth-seed Penguins in stunned disbelief.

Game 2 goes Monday night, and the Canadiens are brimming with confidence. Expect another hotly contested affair.

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