The Habs opened their final ten games of the season with Tuesday night’s contest hosting the Florida Panthers. While the Habs are now mathematically eliminated from playoff contention, the Panthers remain five points behind the New Jersey Devils for the last playoff spot with time not on their side. This meant that the Panthers were in full playoff mode, a great test for the kids vying for spots on the 2018-2019 edition of the team. There was only one roster move for Montreal as Charlie Lindgren returned to Laval and Carey Price was Antti Niemi’s backup as Niemi faced a former team for the third straight game. This change made no difference in the 2-0 losing outcome since the Habs continued to be offensively inept, a plague that has gone on for far too many seasons for all Habs fans.
The game started with both teams skating well but the effort resulted in not much action other than neutral zone rushes ending in lost pucks deep in the opposing zone. With four minutes expired, Mike Reilly had a puck bounce over his stick which resulted in a long bomb pass to Evgenii Dadonov that was left all alone, forcing Niemi to make his first big save on the night.
Six minutes into the contest, Aaron Ekblad didn’t like a hit by Charles Hudon, to the point where he elbowed him in the face. Nicolas Deslauriers took exception and went after the Panthers captain. The fight was a mismatch as Deslauriers clearly had the upper hand and Ekblad got roughed up, though he should be commended for holding his own against the Habs enforcer. The result was 17 minutes of penalties for Deslauriers (10 minutes for instigating) and seven minutes for Ekblad which meant that the action on the ice remained 5-on-5. Two minutes later, Michael McCarron ran into Roberto Luongo, an action which caused Alex Petrovic to go after him. McCarron lost little time in dropping his gloves and really tuned Petrovic.
Once the teams returned to playing hockey, some doubtful decision making with the puck from the bottom defensive pairing of Jordie Benn and Brett Lernout really turned the tide of the game in favour of the Panthers. With 11 minutes expired, Nikita Scherbak was guilty of a hooking penalty sending the Panthers to the first power play of the evening. While the Panthers man advantage got plenty of zone time, all attempts at the net were blocked by defenders as Benn blocked one and Karl Alzner courageously blocked two shots during the sequence.
However, the Panthers continued their dominance, and the Habs were incapable of completing passes with accuracy. With 1:30 to play, Mike Reilly was guilty of not winning a battle to get the puck out of the zone. The Panthers coughed up the puck, but Jeff Petry gave it right back as he attempted a pass in the centre of the zone that McCarron likely should have been ready for. Instead, Ekblad stole the puck, walked in, and buried one by a helpless Niemi.
Seconds later, Alex Galchenyuk found a streaking Artturi Lehkonen who went around the Panthers’ zone before centring to Jacob de la Rose who buried a one-timer to tie the game but the Panthers would challenge the goal for offside. The challenge was successful and the offensively-challenged Canadiens once again had a goal taken away on a garbage technicality. With 10 seconds left, the Panthers took a holding the stick penalty, meaning that the Habs started the second period on the power play.
The second period Habs power play was a complete disaster with the best chance of the sequence belonging to Aleksander Barkov. As play returned to even strength, the desperate Panthers wasted little time in returning to the Montreal zone. The Habs got a second chance with the man advantage six minutes into the period as Frank Vatrano took a completely needless tripping penalty in the neutral zone. This is the type of play that usually results in a goal, but not on this night as the Habs were not even capable of gaining puck possession in the offensive zone on this opportunity.
Montreal got a third crack at the power play when the Panthers were called for too many men on the ice but again, they got nothing going. The return to even strength meant a return to the Montreal zone where Niemi was asked to make several big stops to keep the game within reach for the Habs. Montreal caught a lucky bounce with four minutes to play as the Panthers took another penalty for too many men on the ice. They squandered yet another occasion, barely able to get into the Panthers zone. The final two minutes of the period were highlighted with yet another Dadonov breakaway as Niemi once again shut the door after an ill-advised Benn pinch. The result was a Jonathan Drouin hooking penalty that would spill into the third period. To make the point of the Panthers domination in the second period, the shot clock displayed a 19-9 advantage for the visitors despite Montreal’s extra time at 5-on-4.
With the Panthers starting the period on the power play, one would be surprised to learn that the best scoring chance in the opening sequence belonged to Brendan Gallagher who was able to get a chance on Luongo that was turned away by the veteran goaltender. A minute after the save, Jamie McGinn took a goaltender interference penalty as he crashed into Niemi. Montreal’s man advantage was as dangerous as the Panthers’ one before it, as it created absolutely nothing but negative momentum for the team.
As the penalty expired, the Habs allowed the Panthers a 3-on-1 break that wasn’t able to connect after an errant pass by Vincent Trocheck. This started a sequence of absolutely terrible defensive play by the Habs as the Panthers received far too many odd-man rushes. Finally, with 13:37 to play, Barkov sent a puck toward the slot that deflected off Mike Reilly to fool Niemi and put the game out of reach for the Canadiens.
This second goal really broke the spirit of the Habs who stopped skating for this point forth. The last ten minutes of the game started with an Alex Petrovic penalty for tripping, which Montreal could not use to close the gap. While this was the best power play of the night for the Habs, their chances remained mostly of the one-and-done variety, causing little excitement for the hometown crowd. Claude Julien attempted to pull Niemi for the last two minutes of the game, but the attempt was unsuccessful as the Habs were shut out in consecutive games, a not very exciting feat to say the least.
HabsWorld Habs 3 Stars of the Night
1st Star – Antti Niemi
Much like Lindgren on Saturday, Niemi was left to his own devices way too often on this night. Add to this the fact that the Habs can’t score and can only create a minimum of actual scoring chances in 60 minutes of action, and it’s no surprise to see yet another backup netminder in this position after yet another egg on the scoreboard.
Stats: 38 saves on 40 shots, 2.00 GAA, .950 save %, 57:42 T.O.I.
2nd Star – Artturi Lehkonen
Lehkonen was just about the only Hab that was skating hard on this night. Due to his effort, his line with Galchenyuk and de la Rose were the only one to regularly play in the offensive zone. Add to this effort the goal that was denied that was a play created by Galchenyuk and Lehkonen, and Lehkonen is only once again the second star by default on this night.
Stats: 0 points, -1 rating, 2 shots, 1 hit, 19:38 T.O.I.
3rd Star – Alex Galchenyuk
While Lehkonen was more engaged on this night, Galchenyuk remains the guy on the line that should have the puck to make plays. This duo has looked quite good since being paired together. Here’s hoping they can turn this into more scoring once they are paired with a better centre next season.
Stats: 0 points, 0 rating, 4 shots, 19:30 T.O.I.