On this second night of a back-to-back scenario, there was very little to be optimistic about as the Habs headed to Nashville. Montreal was in the midst of a losing streak, Shea Weber was still not in uniform, and Antti Niemi, the fourth string goaltender, was getting the start against the defending Western Conference Champions. Montreal showed some character, they didn’t quit, and they got an excellent game from Niemi. In the end, they still lost, but they earned a critical point in the standings for taking the Preds to a shootout.
The start of the game was a beacon of light for Habs fans as Montreal came out strong and hemmed the Predators into their own end. The intensity being showed by the Habs, particularly Andrew Shaw, lured the Preds to take two consecutive penalties, thus awarding Claude Julien’s men a 5-on-3 early in the contest. As has been the case for most of this season, Montreal spent most of their time on the power play in the opposition’s zone without sending the puck to the net nearly often enough. A full one-minute double advantage forced Pekka Rinne to make only one highlight-reel stop. That save happened when Jonathan Drouin found a wide-open Max Pacioretty next to the net. Pacioretty got a good tip on the puck, elevating it nearly enough to get it over Rinne’s pad but it wasn’t enough and the Predators escaped the early trouble unscathed.
An incredibly stupid offensive zone penalty by Shaw got the Preds going as they showed some fight in the second half of the period. Luckily, Montreal escaped the man advantage an with 7:13 left in the period, Charles Hudon broke into the Nashville zone and found Jordie Benn who was late joining the rush. Benn made no mistake in beating Pekka Rinne and exposing P.K. Subban who was over-aggressive on the play and was therefore not in position to cover Benn. After the penalty, the Predators showed some life, but it was Montreal feeding them. Pacioretty attempted a fancy pass at the very top of the Nashville zone which was unsuccessful and forced Drouin to take a slashing penalty. During this second man advantage, Nashville looked much more threatening, as Niemi looked excellent while not being able to keep them at bay. After a series of stops, Subban broke in and dangled both Phillip Danault and Pacioretty. This resulted in a pass to Ryan Johansen, who found a wide-open Filip Forsberg who scored a buzzer beater, 0.8 seconds left to the period to be exact.
The second started much like the first as the Habs took control of the game. After two minutes of this, Nashville took a penalty, but most of the time was spent deep in the Nashville zone, battling for loose pucks. Overall, this ended up being a very even period, with both teams playing physical, tight-checking, boring hockey. The few times either team got free for a quality scoring chance, both Niemi and Rinne stood tall and kept the period scoreless. Jakub Jerabek was playing in his first NHL game for Montreal and he looked quite capable in the first and second periods. The second period was also a good one for Nicolas Deslauriers who took advantage of the style of the game to lay some big body checks which earned him a great scoring chance that Rinne turned away.
One of the most noticeable aspects of the game over the first two periods was the Jekyll and Hyde performance of Subban. While he was the creator on the Nashville play, he was also the player caught out of position on the Montreal goal. Physically, Subban was the leader on the night, as he had five hits after two periods. But his obsession with the physical play left him out of position and vulnerable to looking really bad if Montreal could finish their scoring chances. Although the score was acceptable, some personnel decisions were still incredibly strange. Why is Joe Morrow on the power play if Jerabek has just been called-up? Why is Pacioretty STILL on the top unit instead of the team’s top scorer, Brendan Gallagher? Finally, for anyone not buying that Subban wasn’t liked in the room, one need only to look at Subban’s exchanges with veterans Gallagher and Plekanec to understand that some subplots appeared to be taking place. It worked for Montreal as Subban was mistake prone on this night.
The third looked like it was off to a slow start, but it quickly turned when Shaw was called for hooking in the neutral zone. On the PP, Smith took advantage of the soft play of Deslauriers (why was he there and Alzner in front of the net on a PK?) to find Forsberg for his second of the night. Montreal opened up the play, once again forced to play from behind. The result was a fantastic save by Niemi, followed immediately with an Alex Galchenyuk break-away that Rinne turned away. The teams exchanged more scoring chances as the goaltenders earned their pay on this night.
Deslauriers then attempted to get something going as he ran Rinne. After tempers calmed, Gallagher got into Rinne’s crease as play was stopped and was pushed by Rinne. Karl Alzner took exception to this, and that drew yet another crowd. To me, the retaliation is usually what is called, in this case, that would be Rinne’s push. This was not the case as Alzner was given the extra two minutes, as Nashville returned to the man advantage. It was Montreal who performed well on the power play, keeping the Preds to the outside and giving Niemi good looks the few times Nashville did opt for the shot.
With three minutes to play, Calle Jarnkrok got a breakaway, but it was stopped by Niemi. Full credit goes to the coaching staff on this night. On a second game in two nights, the season that has been, and the roster at hand, folding would have been logical. The coaching staff instead doubled-down and the offensive players started getting extra ice time regardless of their prior play on the night. Notably, Jerabek was paired with Morrow as offensive defencemen, and they were able to get the puck up the ice. This logical deployment paid off as Montreal tied the game with under a minute to play. This is incredibly ironic considering that Nashville missed the open net twice in the previous seconds. Pressure by Gallagher on Roman Josi created a turnover, and then the same Gallagher got in front of the net to screen Rinne as Morrow shot from the point and scored as the puck deflected on the Nashville defender.
The overtime period began with Drouin and Pacioretty on the ice, but it mattered little as it was Niemi who needed to get to work to keep the game going. Really, once overtime started, one had the feeling that the Habs players were happy with this result as they allowed the Predators to really hammer them in their zone for most of the overtime. Niemi would be successful and send the game to the shootout. Paul Byron hit the post, Rinne stopped Drouin and Pacioretty, while Niemi stopped Kevin Fiala and Forsberg before being beaten by Kyle Turris for Nashville to escape this game with the expected W.
HabsWorld Habs 3 Stars of the Night
1st Star – Antti Niemi
It goes without saying that 100% of people did not see this as the outcome when Niemi was announced as the starter this afternoon. Niemi, as unorthodox as ever, made the best of his opportunity as he multiplied the key stops and gave his road-weary and confidence-deprived team a fighting chance on this night. What becomes truly interesting now is who gets the start on Saturday?
Stats: 31 saves on 33 shots (27 saves on 27 shots at 5-on-5), .939 SV%
2nd Star – Jeff Petry
This is a player that has received more than his fair share of criticism since the start of the season. Then again, when a player becomes the only puck-moving defenceman on the blueline, he is certain to find the puck on his stick more often and therefore be prone to mistakes. Regardless, a second night without Weber meant a second night with over 26 minutes of ice time for Petry, who took it in stride and played an excellent game. Perhaps Julien needs to play him this much regularly, so he’s forced to make the simple plays more often and to choose the moments where he supports the attack instead of consistently trying to be the next Erik Karlsson.
Stats: 0 points, 0 (+/-), 0 shots, 0 hits, 29:03 T.O.I.
3rd Star – Brendan Gallagher
While Gallagher was quieter than he’s been recently, he was still responsible for the pile-up in the Nashville end that woke up the Habs in the third period. Gallagher was also the forechecker on Josi which created the turnover that led to the game-tying goal. Does this guy ever quit? Maybe if he wore the C instead of Pacioretty, the team would emulate the effort level of the former instead of the latter.
Stats: 0 points, +2, 3 shots, 3 hits, 16:12 T.O.I.
Honourable Mention – Jakub Jerabek
Jerabek was playing in his first NHL game, and it showed in the first as he made a few nervous mistakes. As the game wore on, Jerabek got comfortable, made smart plays and smart pinched. He was also selective in his joining the attack. In overtime, he came extremely close to ending the match with seconds to go. Overall a successful entrance for the young Czech.
Stats: 0 points, +1, 1 shot, 1 hit, 18:16 T.O.I.