Canadiens vs. Penguins game recap: Flat-out embarrassing

Pittsburgh spoils Mattias Norlinder’s NHL debut with a thorough spanking of the Habs.

After a promising three-game stretch was spoiled by the Boston Bruins last Sunday, the Montreal Canadiens found themselves in an aimless drift once more. Against the New York Rangers on Tuesday night, Cayden Primeau played incredibly while the rest of the team around him seemed to glide without much direction as they lost another game, but impressed enough to get a second straight start..

The good news for the Habs ahead of Thursday’s contest was the return of Cole Caufield to the NHL lineup less than 24 hours after spurring the Laval Rocket to a comeback from 5-1 down against the Toronto Marlies. Also joining the lineup was Mattias Norlinder, who was making his NHL debut.

All it took was one Canadiens error to put them behind in the blink of an eye. Jeff Petry skated into no man’s land, creating a turnover that immediately went the other way, Ben Chiarot did his best to break up the rush, but a tic-tac-toe passing play led to Sidney Crosby easily putting home the game’s opening goal.

A dangerous trip that sent Chiarot careening into the boards also sent the Canadiens to the first power play of the evening. In a continuing trend, the Montreal man advantage didn’t do much to inspire confidence, and the Penguins were able to easily kill off the two-minute minor and keep their lead intact.

At least coming out of the advantage, Habs fans were treated to a bit of great play from Norlinder. The rookie defenceman charged boldly into the offensive zone, pushing the Penguins back, and once a lane opened up he fed it to Christian Dvorak. The centre had a wide-open net to look at and fired his shot over the net entirely.

That miss loomed large almost instantly as Joel Armia was sent to the box for high-sticking off a faceoff. The Habs’ penalty kill did their job gracefully, then one wonky bounce allowed the Pens to double their lead.

A hard shot off the end boards caromed well out front, and Danton Heinen was in the right place to blister the loose puck past Primeau, who wasn’t expecting such an elastic bounce off the Bell Centre boards.

Things didn’t get much better for the Habs as the period came to an end. With Petry caught up ice, it forced Jonathan Drouin into a defensive role, and as the defender tried to get back in the play, Kris Letang fed a pass to Jake Guentzel, who fired it cleanly through a screen to make it a three-goal first period for the Penguins.

After surrendering a prime chance in the slot to start the second period, the Canadiens decided it was time to actually play at the other end of the ice. Caufield in particular put in an incredible shift, weaving in and out of Penguins defenders trying to make something happen. He eventually got the puck to Norlinder, who faked out Tristan Jarry, before opting to pass to Tyler Toffoli, who missed the yawning cage.

Despite the Habs never seeming to yield the puck to the Penguins, it again took just one defensive error to make it a 4-0 game for Pittsburgh. A failed clear left Chiarot caught out in space as the Penguins turned the errant pass into a two-on-zero. Teddy Blueger finished off the Zach Aston-Reese pass for the fourth goal against Primeau.

It wasn’t long before those four goals became five as an extended shift by the Penguins saw them dragging the Habs all over the zone. With Primeau scrambling to keep up, Michael Matheson fired a shot from the top of the circle into the net, and a chorus of boos followed the Habs right into the intermission.

Samuel Montembeault started the third for the Habs, which should be noted isn’t a fair reflection on Primeau, who was left to twist in the wind for the second game in a row by the Canadiens’ lack of defence.

The period thankfully continued to zip by with very few stoppages. As the minutes ticked away, the Penguins continued to just own control of the puck despite their five-goal advantage. Montembeault had to make a few key stops, most notably denying Crosby in close to avoid making the game more of a blowout.

The game couldn’t end mercifully, sadly, as the Habs had just one more wound to self-inflict in the closing moments. An errant pass ended up on the stick of Blueger, and the Latvian broke in alone and buried a backhand shot by Montembeault to make it a 6-0 final.

Following yet another disasterpiece on ice, the Canadiens will have Friday to lick their wounds before they welcome the Nashville Predators to the Bell Centre on Saturday night. It’s a bit fitting that the last time the Canadiens played the Predators, Montreal was free falling down the standings before Covid cancelled the season. Now they meet again with the Habs already touching the bottom.

Samuel Montembeault will likely get the start in net against Juuse Saros, and it will be interesting to see if there are any further lineup changes for Montreal after a couple of dreadful performances.

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