What can only be described as a tedious road trip continued on Saturday night for the Habs. After losing to the last place Coyotes, the Canadiens were taking on one of the best in the league in the Vegas Golden Knights. Considering the Knights’ home record, there wasn’t much hope for the road weary Habs on this night, a thought reflected by the coaching staff who decided to spare Carey Price this contest, opting to start backup netminder Antti Niemi. With the recent signing of Charlie Lindgren, perhaps this was an opportunity for Niemi to showcase himself to potential suitors ahead of the trade deadline. Either way, the strategy backfired in a big way as the Habs played a typically erratic game on their way to their fifth straight loss, this time by the score of 6-3.
The start of the game was very much at the image of the season. After Tomas Plekanec won the opening faceoff, Joe Morrow made a soft play on the puck which resulted in Montreal spending the shift in their zone. On the next shift, Victor Mete took a hooking penalty as James Neal barrelled in on net. The Habs played Vegas hard to start the man advantage as Max Pacioretty and Paul Byron forechecked with intensity. Vegas was lucky to not even the penalty count as a few plays were believed to be interference by Montreal bench boss Claude Julien. Unfortunately for Julien, these are not the types of call that a team gets when playing the top teams in the league. On the next shift, the Knights’ power play clicked as the faceoff win resulted in a cross-ice one-timer that Reilly Smith put in the net for a quick Vegas lead.
The Habs got up and fought back after the goal. After solid shifts from Jonathan Drouin’s line, the Tomas Plekanec line followed suit before Charles Hudon would finally score the equalizer. Hudon grabbed the puck in the neutral zone and turned on the after burners to blow past the defender and make a slick move on Marc-Andre Fleury to tie the game.
Only a few minutes later, the Vegas forecheck once again created havoc for the slow Montreal blue line. The result was a shot from Brad Hunt that went through Karl Alzner and Tomas Nosek to beat a screened Niemi. This time the Habs did not immediately return the favour as Vegas continued to dictate the pace of play. A few moments later, the home side attacked with speed again and the result is that Mete and Byron covered the same player leaving Nosek all alone to tap in the third Vegas goal in 10 minutes and six shots. That would spell the end of the night for Niemi as Price came in to attempt to salvage this game.
The strategy paid early dividends as the Habs fired back immediately. Alex Galchenyuk stick-handled around three Vegas players before delivering a saucer pass to a streaking Nikita Scherbak who made a pretty deke to get around Fleury and close the scoring gap. Play would finally settle down after the Scherbak tally, as both teams used the remaining eight minutes to catch their breath and play some defence. Full credit to the Galchenyuk-Drouin-Scherbak line who buzzed all period long. Scherbak took an offensive zone penalty near the end of the period, but it was a penalty for battling hard for the puck, one I’m sure the coaching staff told Scherbak to not worry about, especially since the team succeeded in killing off the infraction.
After an action-packed opening period, the second started with a much different tone as both teams came out determined to settle their defensive coverage. This type of play didn’t last long as Vegas extended their lead only three minutes into the frame on a play that is once again representative of the Habs season. Jonathan Marchesseault attempted a pass to the centre of the zone that Colin Miller was unable to handle. The puck bounced off his skate and went through Byron to a wide-open Ryan Carpenter who shovelled a backhand five-hole on Price. The only player that could have realistically covered Carpenter on this play was Jeff Petry, but it’s even hard to blame him as he was on his way back to the front of the net after a puck battle in the corner. Good effort, overall good coverage, but lack of ability to adapt from the x’s and o’s to the fluidity of play left a man with a scoring chance in a high danger zone.
One minute later, Smith scored his second of the night to really put this game out of reach. Vegas won the faceoff and the ensuing point shot was tipped which resulted in a rebound from Price. The rebound found Smith who had a gaping cage to finish the play.
Once the score was 5-2, the effort level on both teams dropped considerably. Vegas mostly dominated play, but the duo of Galchenyuk and Scherbak kept trying plays for the Canadiens. Before the end of the period, Julien’s patience would run out with a few players, as Hudon was suddenly in the middle of Galchenyuk and Scherbak. The shift was a success as Morrow was tripped in the offensive zone for a Montreal power play. The man advantage was never able to get organized as Vegas handled the situation with ease on their way to ending the period with their lead intact.
The Habs came out firing to start the third period as Pacioretty and Drouin looked fired up with the idea of being reunited. The new trio with Hudon in the middle had a few good chances too, none better than Mete springing Hudon on a partial break only to be robbed by Fleury. Logan Shaw then had a golden opportunity on a one-timer that he sent way wide. It took a Carey Price stretch pass attempt to ruin the momentum. Price’s pass attempt eluded Scherbak and resulted in an icing. Vegas won the ensuing faceoff and the clear shot from Nate Schmidt somehow squeaked through Price.
The four goals needed with 13 minutes to play seemed impossible, but full marks to the players who did not quit on this game. Scherbak and Hudon kept playing a strong game which resulted in Scherbak hitting the post and Hudon drawing yet another penalty. On that man advantage, Drouin and Petry played give-and-go as Vegas had one defender shadowing the cross-ice pass to Galchenyuk. Drouin did what he needs to do more of as he shot the puck and made it count. He found the perfect seam and closed the gap to 6-3 with 11 minutes to play. Vegas apparently did not appreciate being scored on as they quickened the pace after the goal and the Habs defenders couldn’t contain them. Luckily for said defenders, Price showed a high compete level in executing a series of highlight reel stops to keep his teams’ hopes alive (although about as likely as a playoff run). Alas, Montreal would later pressure some more, but the Knights were protecting their lead and made it difficult for the Canadiens to get consecutive chances as they held on for the 6-3 win.
Observation of the Night
Claude Julien attempted something tonight that fans have been calling for over the last month. This is reuniting some young players and seeing what is available moving forward. The assembly of the Galchenyuk, Hudon, Scherbak line was interesting and all three players were easily the best Habs on the night. For once, the line change worked and allowed all three to continue playing solid games. It even resulted in the team’s third goal (indirectly through the creation of a power play). Looking at the final ice times, Julien even comprehended that these were his forwards that were feeling it and allowed them to play as much as they could handle. It is being attempted with the forwards, and even leading to interesting results, someone needs to explain to me why Victor Mete remains the least used defender on the team as Joe Morrow continues to log major minutes. The only logical argument would be a display window with the deadline looming. Here’s hoping that’s the case, though I do wonder who would offer anything to acquire a Joe Morrow? Is harming Mete’s development really worth that late round pick?
HabsWorld Habs 3 Stars of the Night
1st Star – Charles Hudon
Hudon was all over the ice all night long as he was easily the best Hab. He got the puck out of the defensive zone and created plays offensively. The only thing he continued to struggle with was the faceoffs. His game got even better once he was placed alongside Galchenyuk as the line spent the majority of their ice time in Vegas territory.
Stats: 1 goal, -1, 2 shots, 2 hits, 15:32 T.O.I.
2nd Star – Alex Galchenyuk
For all the fans complaining about Julien’s use of Galchenyuk early on this season (and I was one of them), watching him play now makes Julien’s plan clear and accurate. Over the last month, he’s been the best and most consistent forward on this team. He may never reach the levels expected when he was picked third overall, but he’s turning into a nice piece to build around.
Stats: 1 assist, +1, 1 shot, 14:44 T.O.I.
3rd Star – Nikita Scherbak
Scherbak remains a rookie and therefore his play can be erratic from shift to shift. He was likely the guiltiest party of the sixth Vegas goal, but he has a ton of skill and the effort level appears to be catching up to that skill. If this coaching staff can do to Scherbak what they did with Galchenyuk over the course of this season, he may be another very nice player moving forward. How about that move on his goal? Sick!
Stats: 1 goal, 0 (+/-), 4 shots, 16:23 T.O.I.