Playing their third game in four nights, the Habs were facing the Pittsburgh Penguins on Thursday after their impressive effort against the Stars on Tuesday. The defending champions presented yet another interesting test for the young players hoping to make an impression for next season. For the occasion, Daniel Carr got back into the lineup, replacing the injured Andrew Shaw. That was the only change meaning that Antti Niemi was back in the net, facing a young Tristan Jarry who was playing his 27th career NHL game.
After a slow start, the Penguins took control of the game and never looked back, exploiting the lack of experience on the current roster. Despite this dominance, many Habs players deserve praise for their strong defensive play in this 5-3 loss to one of the best teams in the league.
The line of Artturi Lehkonen, Alex Galchenyuk, and Jacob de la Rose had a great first shift as de la Rose made a great defensive play on Sidney Crosby that led to a scoring chance for the Habs early on. Their second shift was even better as all three players got in on an excellent forecheck that forced Pittsburgh to cough up the puck. Jeff Petry was quick to pounce on the occasion and sent a puck to the front of the net where Lehkonen tipped it home for an early lead. The goal stunned the Penguins and allowed the Habs to control the pace of play early on.
Nicolas Deslauriers came in and deked Jamie Oleksiak before driving to the Pittsburgh net, a nice play from the enforcer that led to the first penalty of the game when Oleksiak held Deslauriers to cover his own mistake. As was the case on Tuesday, the Montreal power play got on the board quickly. Galchenyuk drove wide and sent the puck to the front of the net where Brendan Gallagher and Paul Byron slapped at the puck until Byron got it free and scored to make it 2-0 with just over six minutes played. The second Montreal goal, along with some yelling from coach Mike Sullivan, got Pittsburgh going.
Immediately following the goal, a misplay by Jordie Benn led to a 2-on-1 chance for the Pens. Despite Brett Lernout and Niemi’s best efforts, only the post was able to keep the puck out of the net. With 9:55 to play, Petry misplayed a zone exit which resulted in another 2-on-1 and this time the lead would be cut in half as Phil Kessel beat Niemi. The goal completely turned the tide as suddenly the Canadiens were unable to exit their zone.
Four minutes later, the Penguins evened the score when Patric Hornqvist came in attempted a pass and got lucky as the puck hit Byron’s stick and headed to the back of the net. It was a rare bad play by the duo of Petry and Mike Reilly who were really fooled in their defensive coverage on the play. The final five minutes saw the Penguins continue their dominance with the Habs hoping for the end of the period.
The second started with Pittsburgh in full control as they came and went with ease in the Montreal zone. This certainly was not helped when Brendan Gallagher took an offensive zone penalty for interference only one minute in the period. Noah Juulsen made two great plays killing the penalty as the league’s top power play was kept off the board. The successful penalty kill gave the Habs some momentum for a few shifts as the fourth line and the Jonathan Drouin line both had dangerous looking shifts in the Pittsburgh zone.
However, the Penguins settled down again and regained control by the midway point of the period. This was again helped by Petry taking a penalty for interference. 20 seconds into the man advantage, Kris Letang put a pass into Evgeni Malkin’s wheelhouse as the one-timer rang off the iron and into the net for the first Pittsburgh lead of the night.
The lead would be short-lived though as two minutes later, the Montreal fourth line was once again a thorn in the side of the Penguins. Drouin was still on the ice and completed an excellent forecheck on Letang. This allowed Daniel Carr to grab the puck out of the scrum and find a wide open Deslauriers who one-timed it home for his eighth of the season.
The last six minutes of the period were all Pittsburgh as Niemi had to make a series of saves through traffic, though the defenders also completed excellent work in clearing rebounds, sending the game to the third period with a 3-3 score.
The Habs came out stronger to start the third, a must considering the shot discrepancy after two periods (29-13). Unfortunately, the play in the Pittsburgh zone did not last, as the Penguins slowly but surely took over once again, forcing Niemi to continue his stellar play. Finally, with seven minutes to play, Hornqvist scored his second of the night when he was able to tip-in a point shot by Carl Hagelin. Karl Alzner tried to cover Hagelin on the play, while Juulsen tried to cover two players because Drouin inexplicably left Hornqvist alone and ended up in no-man’s land. This was unfortunate for a player who had really played a solid two-way game yet again to that point.
The Canadiens made a valiant push afterwards with Petry notably getting a few good shots on net in the second half of the period as they attempted to tie the game for a second time on the night. It was Pittsburgh’s turn to show that they too could play smart defensive hockey as they gave the Habs very little in terms of quality chances. Finally, with a little under two minutes to play and Niemi at the bench, a quick Penguins breakout left Reilly as the only source of defence and Bryan Rust made it 5-3 to seal the fate of this game.
HabsWorld Habs 3 Stars of the Night
1st Star – Artturi Lehkonen
On a roll after Tuesday’s effort, Lehkonen was a beast in the first period, causing havoc in the offensive zone with smart forechecking and timely pinches. He scored the team’s first but created more scoring chances that were missed by Galchenyuk and de la Rose.
Stats: 1 goal, +1 rating, 2 shots, 1 hit, 16:57 T.O.I.
2nd Star – Alex Galchenyuk
Galchenyuk has been the best forward on the team since January, but what is most surprising in his case is the sudden consistency he has found in his game. Even when he’s not creating offensively, he’s not a liability. This consistency was not present even when he scored 60 points a few seasons ago. Many fans will want to see him play this way when the games matter again in October.
Stats: 2 assists, even rating, 2 shots, 18:22 T.O.I.
3rd Star – Antti Niemi
Niemi continued his stellar play with the Habs in this one, giving the team a chance to win in a game they maybe did not deserve the chance to do so, especially given their struggles after the first period.
Stats: 34 saves on 38 shots, 4.00 GAA, .895 save %, 58:04 T.O.I.
Honourable Mention – Jonathan Drouin
As previously stated, Drouin had a solid game both defensively and offensively. His strength on the puck is the first responsible for the Deslauriers goal, and he also set up Byron and Gallagher for a few chances in the second. I gave Niemi the edge for the third star mostly because Drouin was also the guilty party on the game-winning goal. To be fair, he’s been played more than average of late, so some mental lapses can be attributed to fatigue, especially considering the three games in four nights.
Stats: 1 assist, -2 rating, 2 shots, 2 hits, 20:39 T.O.I.