As the first Saturday of the not yet begun season rolled around, the Montreal Canadiens took on the Ottawa Senators. Neither team holds many expectations entering the season, and both teams’ youth-laden squads for this contest showed just that as both head coaches continue to search to identify the last spots on their respective rosters.
For the Habs, Michael McCarron, Nikita Scherbak, Joel Ward, Hunter Shinkaruk, Jesperi Kotkaniemi, Jordie Benn, and Noah Juulsen were all dressed. As that long list of players continued to try to impress Claude Julien and the coaching staff, Carey Price took to the crease for his first 60 minutes of the year. If many of the listed above didn’t really succeed in impressing Julien, Kotkaniemi certainly did, and so did the entire Phillip Danault line. The latter trio would eventually score the game-winner early in the third period as the Habs used their speed to end the night as the winners of a 3-2 contest; their third win in four preseason games, a stark contrast to last year’s September efforts.
The first two minutes did not go as planned for the Habs as a rather pedestrian first shift by McCarron, Ward, and Shinkaruk quickly turned to disaster as Jeff Petry tried to play the puck instead of the man. Brady Tkachuk took advantage of the soft play to find himself alone against Price. He found the top corner for an early 1-0 Senators lead.
On a more positive note, the early goal did not discourage the Habs’ top two lines as they dominated the Senators young squad. After minutes of play in the Sens’ zone, Jonathan Drouin extended a shift and ended up tired in the offensive zone where he took a bad slashing penalty, opening the door once again to the Senators. The Canadiens were able to kill the penalty thanks to great defensive presences by Juulsen, Tomas Plekanec, and Victor Mete.
The Habs returned to the attack after the penalty and a few slick moves by Kotkaniemi were followed with him beating Craig Anderson to ring one hard off the iron. Gallagher quickly followed with a chance of his own after a nice passing play by Danault and Tomas Tatar. Play settled down for several minutes before the action spiked again in the last three minutes of the period. This started when Drouin made a fancy between his legs back pass deep in the offensive zone that found Kotkaniemi in the slot who rang a second shot off the post. This was followed by a second soft play by Petry at his own blue line which sent Chris Tierney in on Price, but this time it was the Senators hitting the post. Finally, with 25 seconds left in the period, Joel Armia was tripped to send the Habs to the power play for the first time in the game which carried over into the second.
The man advantage to start the period was not dangerous at all and at the very end of it, Armia was guilty of an offensive zone hook that sent him to the box. It was the Habs that got the best chance of that power play, however, as Danault picked off an errant pass to find himself alone in front of Anderson who stood his ground to preserve the lead. The Sens were able to get some time at the end of their man advantage and this sent the Habs on their heels for the five minutes that followed the power play.
With 11:24 to play, Ward completed a solid forecheck which lured the Sens defender to hold him sending the Habs to their second man advantage of the period. Drouin continued his strong game as he created some space for himself behind the net before finding Danault. Anderson made a good save, but a better shooter than Danault would surely have made that chance more interesting. Kotkaniemi anchored the second wave as he created a good chance for Scherbak too. After the penalty, Drouin and Mike Reilly completed an excellent give-and-go which resulted in Anderson having to make another solid save.
Finally, the goals would come in the last two minutes of the period. It started with McCarron losing a defensive zone faceoff which set up Benn and Shinkaruk to give everyone flashbacks of last year’s defensive zone coverage. Logan Brown found Ceci cross-ice (at 5-on-5?) who was patient and beat Price top-shelf.
The Habs would fire back before the end of the period as Paul Byron used his speed to keep the puck alive which eventually found Scherbak in the corner. Much like Charles Hudon a few games ago, he put it toward the net and it went through some bodies to beat Anderson and cut the lead in half.
The third saw the fortunes reversed as it was the Habs coming out strong. Only a minute into the period, a good pass out of the zone by Petry was tipped forward by Scherbak which was all that was required by Byron to streak in and beat Anderson top-shelf off the rush.
On the very next shift, a good forecheck by Tatar and Gallagher was followed by a timely pinch by Juulsen. This all resulted in a shot from the point by Gallagher that Tatar was able to tip home. Two minutes into the period and the Habs went from being down one to being ahead by one.
On the very next shift, Mete and Drouin went to work and nearly extended the lead as Armia tipped one that Andersen had to be vigilant to stop. However, Armia followed this good play with an interference call which gave the Senators the required opportunity to catch their breath and their legs. This power play would be short-lived though as Plekanec was able to get an offensive opportunity which was stopped with a flagrant slash by Christian Jaros to even the play. Neither team was able to really create any chances at 4-on-4.
Jaros wasn’t done either as he would be guilty of another hold, this time against Shinkaruk with 11 minutes to play. Luckily for him, Anderson was solid against a well-organized Montreal attack. The Habs then really shut down the play for the final the nine minutes. If the forwards deployed for this purpose were mostly veterans, it was interesting to see Julien’s willingness to continue to play Mete and Juulsen on his blue line and one must believe these two are getting an audition to start the year as an actual pair on the blue line despite their lack of experience. The Senators didn’t get a ton of chances but did hit the post with 45 seconds to play, with Price taking care of any other chance to secure another pre-season victory.
HabsWorld Habs 3 Stars
1st Star – Phillip Danault
This really could have been any player on that line as it’s been an electric trio since the start of camp. Danault and Gallagher’s work ethic appear to be rubbing off on Tatar, and if this ends with Tatar exceeding his previous career best, that trade with Vegas is going to look like one of Bergevin’s best. I picked Danault because he’s been intense and smart while also being the defensive conscience on the line and he often gets overlooked as an important player on this team.
Stats: 1 assist, +2, 3 shots, 1 hit, 17:04 T.O.I.
2nd Star – Jesperi Kotkaniemi
This game was intriguing before the puck even dropped with the opportunity being presented to Kotkaniemi and the young man did not disappoint. He hit three posts in the game and never looked out of place. If he continues to rapidly grow accustomed to Julien’s system and the small ice, he may very well be forcing management’s hand in sending both Ward and McCarron elsewhere than Montreal.
Stats: 0 points, 0 (+/-), 0 shots (3 posts), 3 hits, 16:19 T.O.I.
3rd Star – Jonathan Drouin
Drouin was flying tonight and creating scoring chances all over the ice. Furthermore, his return to the wing minimizes his at times weak defensive play. Tonight, with Kotkaniemi, the duo could have easily put three on the board. If these two click for the rest of the camp, Julien might be quite tempted to play them with Domi on the opposite wing for the first nine games of the season.
Stats: 0 points, 0 (+/-), 3 shots, 17:45 T.O.I.
Mike Reilly easily belongs in the Habs top-six since the start of this training camp. He’s been nearly-flawless defensively and this is mostly because when he gets the puck, it’s leaving the zone and he gets to use his speed to support the offence. It’s impossible to tell if this continues as the opponent’s skill level increases, but he’s most certainly earned the trial. This is bad news for a few veterans because Mete, Juulsen, and Petry aren’t being moved either. This leaves only three roster spots, with one of those being in the press box, for Alzner, David Schlemko, Xavier Ouellet, Brett Lernout, and Benn. If I’m Benn, I’m getting pretty nervous because I’ve been outplayed by every other player on that list.
Reilly’s Stats: 0 points, -1, 6 shots, 22:48 T.O.I.
I don’t want to argue that Scherbak deserves a spot on the opening night roster because, frankly, he doesn’t. However, it is worth noting that even though he looks as dopey as last year for long stretches on the ice, he also appears to be Kovalev-like in the sense that he finds a way to get his name on the scoreboard even when he appears to be completely off his game. On a team that looks like it might be desperate for goals at times over the course of the season, Scherbak’s presence may be required before April hits. I’d be completely willing to accept losing McCarron to waivers, I don’t think Scherbak is a player I’m willing to lose for nothing quite yet.
Scherbak’s Stats: 1 goal, 0 (+/-), 1 shot, 2 hits, 15:00 T.O.I.