Without a doubt, the Florida Panthers have the Habs number. They finish the season head-to-head matches with an undefeated record after a 3-2 overtime victory at the Bell Centre on this evening with, unsurprisingly, Roberto Luongo as the main star. The Habs started sluggishly, eventually waking up in the third, but in the end a precise shot from Olli Jokinen was the difference.
While the Habs had some jump to start the game, they weren’t actually doing anything with the puck, instead just dumping and chasing and playing a puck pursuit game almost exclusively. The fans had at least one thing to cheer in the early stages as they let Alexei Kovalev, recently obtained from the New York Rangers, hear their appreciation of his joining the Habs.
Unfortunately, it was less than ten minutes into the game when Jokinen scored his first of two on the night after a bad pinch by Patrice Brisebois during a four on four situation allowed the Panthers to break in two-on-one. Unfortunately, on the same play Saku Koivu was caught napping as well and Jokinen took advantage to put the visitors up on a lovely pass from Jay Bowmeester.
The Habs powerplay was something eagerly anticipated, and while it controlled the puck very well, it had a tendency to get much too fancy, perhaps in an effort to impress Kovalev. In fact, it seemed at times that the entire affair was predicated on getting the Russian the puck. As a result, the man advantage was controlling yet mostly harmless on this night – the few shots Luongo had to face he turned aside.
By the end of the first two things could have been mentioned about the game: it was deathly dull (shots were a hearty 8-4 for the Panthers at the end of one), and the Canadiens developed virtually no offence five on five.
The second was an improvement on both sides of the puck as the tempo picked up and the consistency of the play improved greatly. A nice intercept by Craig Rivet led to an incursion deep in the Cat zone as Jason Ward cut to the net only to be thwarted by a sprawling Luongo.
The Habs managed to equal the score as Koivu fought off a defender in the corner, and attempted to slide around another into the slot for a shot. While he was unsuccessful, having the puck dribble off the end of his stick, Francis Bouillon fired the loose puck at Luongo, who misplayed it, allowing it to trickle in.
Kovalev showed some of his offensive prowess when he took the puck behind the Panther net and sent out a sweet pass into the slot to a waiting (and very alone) Michael Ryder. Only a superb defensive play by Luongo, who has to be his own best defenseman with his club, prevented a glorious scoring opportunity.
Once the third rolled around, the Habs were fully awake after the long road trip; they found their legs and dominated the play for long stretches. Koivu and Yanic Perreault broke in two-on-one and only a great defensive slide by Luongo (again, his best defenseman) stopped a sure goal.
It was against the flow of play, therefore, that saw Florida take the lead. While Andrei Markov proactively took his man behind the Montreal net, Steophane Quintal was caught puck-watching and failed to pick up his, thus when the puck finally squirted out front, Josh Olson scored his first NHL goal while basically uncovered.
Once again the Habs equalized as Zednik flew around a defender and slapped a backhand shot at Luongo. While the initial save was made, the rebound squirted out to Perreault, following up on the play, and his snap shot easily tickled the twine to knot things up at two.
The rest of the period consisted of wave upon wave of Montreal attacks. At one point the line consisting of Jim Dowd, Steve Begin (who was all over the ice on this evening), and Jason Ward contained the puck in the Florida zone for over a minute. The Habs actually managed to switch on the fly while still maintaining an attacking posture, and Koivu failed just barely to put the Habs up on a couple of occasions.
While the powerplay gets no respect on this night, the penalty kill gets a hearty pat on the back, particularly the work of Begin. During a kill situation later in the third he powered down the rink to send his man thundering to the boards, then turned it back to the Montreal end and crushed his man who was just crossing the Habs blueline. Athletes everywhere should be lining up to find out what he ate.
Regulation time came to an end with the game tied and overtime provided a few chances, including a pass from Brisebois that went off the heel of his stick harmlessly to Luongo rather than to Kovalev, posted alone at the side of the net.
It was Brisebois who turned into the goat in the end as his failed pinch once again sent the Panthers in two-on-one. This time Jokinen decided to keep and fire, and the rest is history.
The Canadiens will be kicking themselves knowing they let one get away tonight since, if they’d played the entire game the way they played the third, they would probably have won handily. However, you can’t win them all, and the focus will now go to Saturday night when the Leafs, Ron Francis and all, come to town.