Stuck in a five-game losing skid, the task surely seemed insurmountable for the Canadiens as the first place Tampa Bay Lightning were visiting the Bell Centre on Thursday night. This game had many subplots before it even began as Daniel Carr, one of the most consistent forwards in December, was a healthy scratch, the Drouin-Sergachev storyline was interesting, not to mention Mikhail Sergachev’s 40th game of the season with draft implications for the Canadiens. Despite these interesting ideas, the most intriguing one for me remained how the team would bounce back after their players-only meeting held after Tuesday’s loss.
The results were phenomenal as the entire game was played at a high pace with both teams attacking and creating chances offensively. The fact that Montreal won the game 2-1 in a shootout is more of an indication that both goaltenders were as phenomenal as the play in front of them, as both multiplied the saves that aren’t made by many others in the NHL.
The game started well for the Canadiens as Phillip Danault just missed Max Pacioretty in front of the net for the game’s first good scoring opportunity. After this chance, the game settled down. For once, settling down did not mean boring. Both teams were attacking the opposition net, and defending their own net well. Each loose puck was contested vehemently; it was a very interesting and entertaining start to the game. The Habs were getting the better of these chances, but the old worry would creep in as the Lightning continued to escape this Montreal pressure unscathed.
Amidst a shift where the Canadiens were all over the Lightning, Alex Galchenyuk found himself in the penalty box for high sticking. The Habs continued skating hard and negated the man advantage without surrendering any dangerous scoring chances. After the power play, Montreal returned to the Lightning zone but continued to be unable to solve Andrei Vasilevskiy who was working on his third consecutive shutout bid. Tampa Bay did push back in the final four minutes, but they also weren’t able to solve Carey Price as the period ended scoreless.
Montreal’s Jonathan Drouin was guilty of some selfish play in the last seconds of the period as he took a tripping penalty in the offensive zone with 18 seconds left in the period. To make matters worse, the penalty was taken completely away from the play. Luckily for Drouin, Paul Byron applied enough pressure to get a Lightning tripping minor with a single second left in the period, thus negating the Drouin minor.
The second started at 4-on-4 where Brayden Point accepted a brutal giveaway by Max Pacioretty only to be stoned by Price. As is usually the case in such scenarios, the play went back the other way and Pacioretty accepted a Mikhail Sergachev giveaway before burying one (finally!). On the following shift (still at 4-on-4), Nikita Kucherov walked around the zone before using Jeff Petry as a screen to tie the game.
Once play returned to full strength, the Lightning spent the first half of the period pushing back after being dominated in the first. Price and the Habs bent but did not break. The second half was played more evenly, notably starting with the Vasilevskiy stop on a Danault one-timer that was labelled for top-shelf. As the Habs got back into the action, play remained far more even than in the first, but both teams got some great scoring chances. It was a full-throttle goaltending duel in this period as Price and Vasilevskiy went toe-to-toe. The Lightning hit the post with roughly three minutes to play, while Montreal crashed the Lightning crease on a few occasions to create havoc in the Tampa Bay zone. Suffice it to say that fans in attendance on this night got their money’s worth as both teams were playing inspired and desperate hockey.
The first few shifts of the third period were far more cautious for both teams as no one wanted to be the player committing the error that would cost their team this game. The way both teams were skating for the first 40 minutes, it seemed impossible that this tentative play would last. It did not as the Lightning defenders started pinching, creating one good scoring chance, but also opening the play for some chances in their own zone.
With the great action, and despite the Habs out-chancing the best team in the East, it was not all good news for Montreal in this period as Brendan Gallagher was hit hard by Sergachev and the team’s top scorer immediately retreated to the room. The Sergachev hit appeared to be frustration for the Lightning as many other hits followed. This gave Tampa some momentum, as evidenced by the Kucherov breakaway, a game-breaking save made by Price in this moment. Gallagher would come back, and upon his first shift, he took the puck and created a trap for Chris Kunitz who found the sin bin for tripping with 10:07 to play.
The Lightning were able to survive the man advantage as the Habs did get some good zone time, but never really threatened the net during the sequence. With roughly five minutes to play, Petry caught a Lightning player with his head down and hit him hard. The effect was for the Habs to take complete control of the shift as the chances were numerous while never finding the back of the net meaning that this spirited affair was heading to overtime.
Not wanting to be accused of playing not to lose Claude Julien decided to start the overtime with Drouin-Galchenyuk-Jerabek. Full marks for such a gutsy call by the coach. The result can only be described with one word: WOW! From scoring chances for Drouin, to gigantic second efforts by Galchenyuk, to highlight-reel stops by Price, this was an incredible five minutes that had everyone on the edge of their seat!
In the shootout, Paul Byron started by scoring with a top-shelf wrist shot. Price then made an awesome glove save on Brayden Point. Vasilevskiy then followed a Drouin deke to keep his team alive. Kucherov then missed the net. Vasilevskiy stopped Pacioretty five-hole. Price then ended the show by outwaiting Stamkos for a Habs victory.
Observation of the Night
I have no idea if this is coached or simply a judgement call by the players, but watching the Habs carry the puck in the opposition zone was a gigantic relief on this night. There is nothing more discouraging and boring than the dump-and-change (or chase). The results were noteworthy, and I hope everyone, from fans, to media, to players, and coaches took note, and this remains a regular part of their offensive arsenal moving forward. I can’t recall a game this season that was this fun to watch, for the entire 65+ minutes.
HabsWorld Habs 3 Stars of the Night
1st Star – Max Pacioretty
The captain scored his first goal since November on this night and could have scored many more. He was all over the ice, making plays, and taking shots. The way he alone responded to the last few days begs the question of why the players waited this long to hold such a meeting. What a game by the captain!
Stats: 1 goal, +1, 5 shots, 2 hits, 17:27 T.O.I.
2nd Star – Carey Price
Price is the best player on this team and the team needed him tonight. The team played great, but the Tampa Bay Lightning are a talented team that really pushes the pace of play, something the Montreal defenders at times had hardships with which resulted in a series of excellent stops by the franchise netminder.
Stats: 44 saves, 1 GA, .978 sv%, 64:58 T.O.I.
3rd Star – Alex Galchenyuk
The best player in December took his play up a notch, so the fact that he ends up with only the third star demonstrates the excellent overall effort by the team. I still gave him the nod here over a long list of others that were deserving because the puck seemed to follow him all night, allowing him to create some chances. He’s still holding on to the puck a fraction of a second too long, but the play is much improved.
Stats: 0 points, -1, 3 shots, 1 hit, 20:12 T.O.I.
Honourable Mention – Jacob de la Rose
I’m choosing to mention de la Rose because he hadn’t played for a while and he created a ton of chances for Andrew Shaw and Nicolas Deslauriers with his smart and fast forechecking. De la Rose likely bought himself another game in the lineup, and considering the way Carr has played for much of December, that’s saying something.
Stats: 0 points, -1, 2 shots, 3 hits, 2 blocks, 10:26 T.O.I.