The Canadiens managed to squeak out another one goal victory on a night where the outcome should have been decided long before the 65th minute of the game. An OT goal with just seconds remaining by Captain Saku Koivu bailed out the Canadiens after a horrid third period that saw the club blow a 3 goal lead.
Montreal burst out of the gates and took complete control of the game from the get-go. The Habs peppered All-Star goaltender Roberto Luongo with 16 shots within the first 20 minutes of play, and played what might have been their best period of the season. Koivu blew a couple of early chances, the first coming on a nice pass from linemate Richard Zednik. Zednik fed the puck cross-crease to a wide open Koivu, but Saku fanned on the one-timer attempt. Koivu’s next chance came courtesy of Michael Ryder on a 3 on 1 with Andrei Markov being the trailer. Ryder looked as if he was going to storm right in on Luongo, but at the last moment he fed the puck over to Koivu who wired it off of the post.
The Habs weren’t discouraged by early missed opportunities, however, and they managed to score on their second power play of the evening at just under 12 minutes into the 1st frame. Koivu took the puck to the left of the Panther goal and waited patiently for an opportunity to attack the Florida net. Koivu fed it down low to Tomas Plekanec who juggled with the puck for a moment before threading a backhanded pass right in front of the net to Zednik who tapped it home for his 5th goal of the season. Plekanec saw first line PP time for most of the evening, and the Canadiens power play, despite going scoring just the one time, dominated the Florida PK unit throughout the game.
The Bell Centre crowd did not have to wait long for the next goal, as just under 2 minutes after Zednik gave the Canadiens the lead, Steve Begin managed to extend the lead to 2 goals. It all started when Niklas Sundstrom and Begin broke in on a 2 on 1. Sundstrom stormed down the right wing and passed the puck cross-crease at the last possible moment. Begin pretty well fanned on his one-timer attempt, managing to just barely poke the puck on net. The ‘changeup’ did the trick, however, as the puck slowly trickled through Luongo’s legs.
Montreal didn’t let up for the rest of the period and must have felt pretty good of themselves heading into the locker room for the 1st intermission. The momentum didn’t carry over, however, and the Panthers looked like a brand new club at the start of the second. The Panthers dominated play early on in the second, and some great work by rookie goaltender Yann Danis was about the only thing that kept them from getting on the board. Montreal weathered the early storm and went up 3-0 on a goal by the hero of the night, Captain Koivu. Zednik really deserves most of the credit for this, as he was buzzing for the entire shift and dominating the Panthers d-men down low. A couple of nice moves with the puck gave him some room to attempt a quick wraparound to Luongo’s right that was stopped, but Koivu was in the right place at the right time to capitalize on the rebound, giving the Habs a rare three goal lead.
Not long after that, the game got a little chippy, first with Begin and Eric Cairns shoving each other away from the play and then with Craig Rivet taking a few shots in the direction of Panther Captain Olli Jokinen. Rivet put his team down a man with the roughing call, but a great PK by the Habs kept the lead at 3-0 after 40 minutes.
A fired-up Panther squad coupled with a rather lackluster period from the Canadiens proved that no lead is safe in the NHL this season. The Panthers erased two thirds of the Canadiens lead within the first 4 minutes of play, and it served notice to the Montreal faithful that this might just be another one of those close finishes that have become such common place this season.
The Panthers got on the board at 2:24 of the third when Cairns took a shot from the point that was deflected by Gregory Campbell for the youngsters first career goal. Just 14 seconds later Alexander Perezhogin was called for a hold, giving the Panthers a chance to tie it on the PP. The Habs PK seemed to be on it’s way to another easy kill, but then some very poor defensive coverage gave Jokinen a nice lane to the front of the net and he sniped out the top corner just above the shoulder of a stunned Yann Danis.
A point shot from Jay Boumeester and then a scramble in front of the Canadiens in the 16th minute of play knotted the game at 3s. The shot made it all the way to the front of the Habs net and Martin Gelinas took a wild stab at it before Stephen Weiss flew in and powered the puck across the line after it was initially stuck on Danis’s left pad.
The Habs were off to OT for the third straight game, and this was the second consecutive game where the Habs held a late lead, only to give up a goal within the last 5 minutes of play. The first 4 minutes and 50 seconds of the extra period were rather uneventful, and just as it looked as if the game was off to a shootout, the ‘Cardiac Canadiens’ struck again. Sheldon Souray did his best impression of NFL star Peyton Manning, firing a deep bomb for a streaking Marvin…er Saku Koivu. Koivu took the pass and broke in against Luongo with the final seconds ticking away in the OT period. Koivu took the puck deep into the zone until it was almost too late, but at the last possible instance Koivu swatted the bouncing puck into the back of the net, sending the stunned Bell Centre crowd into an absolute frenzy.
The Habs have become known for their one goal victories, but fans of the CH have to be thinking that at this point, enough is enough. The Canadiens looked dominant at times, but once again they failed to go for the jugular and make put the game out of reach, which has really been their only problem throughout the season. The late heroics make for an exciting game almost every time out, but eventually this tedious style has to come back to bite the Habs in the butt, just as it did on Saturday night against the Leafs. As previously mentioned, Koivu was the hero of the night, but it wasn’t just for his 3 point performance that he should be commended. His spectacular defensive effort kept the Canadiens up by a couple early on in the second period when it appeared as though the Panthers were about to break in 3 on 0. A terrible line change by the Canadiens was the cause of this, and only the heart and determination kept the Panthers from cutting the lead to 2-1. Just as the Panther player executed his pass to a teammate, Koivu dove from seemingly out of nowhere, saving what appeared to be an easy goal. It’s plays like this that separate Koivu the other 95% of the league.
In the end, Montreal will gladly walk away from this one with another 2 points, giving them 29 for the season. Points in 8 straight games have kept the Habs atop the Eastern Conference, trailing only the Detroit Red Wings in the overall standings. Up next are the New Jersey Devils on Friday night at the Meadowlands.