Fresh off a tough loss against Buffalo, Montreal got off to a rough start on Saturday. However, the offence woke up as the game went along, allowing the Canadiens to earn a 5-4 victory over Vegas.
The Habs made a pair of changes for this one from their loss on Thursday night. Antti Niemi got the nod between the pipes with Carey Price struggling over his last few games. Meanwhile, David Schlemko was activated off injured reserve and was immediately inserted into the lineup, taking the place of Xavier Ouellet.
For the most part in recent weeks, the Habs have started the game off strong. This was not one of those nights. Vegas took the play to Montreal early and often, getting six shots within the first few minutes of action. The Habs’ best chance (and arguably their only one) came from the fourth line when a good forecheck from Charles Hudon eventually got the puck to Matthew Peca who slid it to Nicolas Deslauriers just outside the crease but Marc-Andre Fleury made the save.
The middle stage of the period saw few whistles and fewer Montreal opportunities with the puck as they were hemmed in their own zone for long stretches. The Golden Knights got a three-on-one off a giveaway from Jesperi Kotkaniemi but Tomas Hyka botched the set-up pass so nothing came of it.
With under four minutes left, Mike Reilly took a tripping penalty. Montreal’s penalty kill has been good as of late but they weren’t able to kill this one as Brad Hunt outwaited a sprawling Karl Alzner and Niemi before roofing one home.
Things didn’t get better from there. Less than a minute later, a pass to the slot from Reilly Smith missed its target but instead hit Jonathan Marchessault’s skate. Instead of the pass going to an open area, it completely changed direction off Marchessault’s skate and trickled into the net.
All told, the shots in the period were 15-4 and the score could have been a lot worse. Max Pacioretty himself wound up outshooting his former team in the opening frame as he picked up five shots on goal in his first game back at the Bell Centre.
The Canadiens came out better to start the second but it was Pacioretty who had the best chance. He got behind Karl Alzner on a partial breakaway but had to shoot from the side and Niemi was there for the stop.
A couple minutes after that, the Canadiens got on the board. Victor Mete intercepted a clearing attempt by Vegas and got the puck to Jesperi Kotkaniemi. He made a couple of moves before sliding the puck to Hudon on the left before cutting back across the crease to slide one past Fleury. Barely a minute later, the Habs fanned on a chance up front but Andrew Shaw stayed on the puck and backhanded it into the net to tie the game.
Montreal kept coming and was rewarded for their efforts. After failing to get much on a couple of shot attempts, Artturi Lehkonen decided he’d try passing instead. From behind the net, he fed Kotkaniemi in the slot who made no mistake to give the Habs the lead. Kenny Agostino also picked up an assist on the play, his first point as a Canadien.
However, the lead was short-lived. Max Domi tried a toe-drag move on a two-on-one that was broken up, sending Vegas the other way. Shortly after that, a poor clearing attempt from Jordie Benn was intercepted. The puck came to Alex Tuch and while his first shot didn’t get through, his second one did, getting through the defence and Niemi in the process to tie the game, a score that held up the rest of the way. Shots on goal in the period were 12-9 for the home side.
The third period started off in disastrous fashion for Montreal. An iffy Artturi Lehkonen tripping penalty sent Vegas back to the power play. The Canadiens did well in the first half but a shot from William Karlsson was a lot tougher for Niemi to handle than it should have been. The rebound bounced out as Peca was skating back to cover the crease. The puck wound up hitting Peca and squirting by Niemi who thought he had the puck corralled.
The Canadiens got a power play shortly after that as Brendan Gallagher did his best to emphasize that he had been high sticked. However, as is often the case with Montreal’s man advantages, nothing came of it.
The Habs were able to once again tie it up though. A few minutes after their power play expired, Domi was patient with the puck, allowing Shaw to get to the net (though not before getting away with an interference penalty). Domi took the shot and Shaw roofed the rebound, sending the Bell Centre into a frenzy.
Vegas nearly got the lead back right away. Mike Reilly turned over the puck to Karlsson who sent it to Nick Holden. His shot got past Niemi but hit the post to keep the game tied.
It’s rare that both teams score on their own net in the same period but it happened here. Tomas Tatar tried to send a pass across to Phillip Danault but Shea Theodore dove in front to knock down the pass. He succeeded in doing so but wound up deflecting the puck past Fleury in the process to give the Habs the lead.
With just over three minutes left, Colin Miller was called for tripping, sending Montreal to another power play. The Golden Knights nearly tied it up right at the beginning as Reilly Smith missed a wide-open net from in tight. The Canadiens actually established themselves in the Vegas end, moving the puck around well while killing valuable seconds off the clock. A pass made its way to Jonathan Drouin who had an open net to shoot at but Holden got in the way to keep it a one-goal game. While the power play was unsuccessful, they worked down the clock and were able to hold on the rest of the way.
Niemi struggled with his rebound control all night long but still made 34 saves in the win. Fleury had a rough night, turning aside just 22 of 27 Montreal shots. Vegas was quite productive with their power play going 2/3 while the Habs at least didn’t get scored on during their two opportunities.
HW Habs 3 Stars
1st Star: Andrew Shaw – Early in the season, Shaw had reverted to his version from two years ago – undisciplined and unproductive. He may still go back to that form again but for the time being, he has made a much more positive impact and even chipped in with a pair of goals which isn’t expected from him. I don’t think he’s the ideal fit alongside Drouin and Domi but it’s working for now.
Stats: 2 goals, +2 rating, 3 shots (6 attempts), 5 hits, 2 blocks, 4/7 faceoffs, 19:11 TOI
2nd Star: Jesperi Kotkaniemi – He was quiet in the first period but the puck seemed to find him a lot the rest of the way and the rookie made the right plays most of the time. His setup to Hudon on the first goal was well-timed and he was in the right spot to take the feed from Lehkonen for his tally. He had a rough night at the faceoff dot but that’s going to happen from time to time.
Stats: 1 goal, 1 assist, +2 rating, 2 shots (6 attempts), 2/10 faceoffs, 13:25 TOI
3rd Star: Victor Mete – The stats wouldn’t suggest his placement here but he had a quietly effective night defensively. He broke up a couple of plays in his own end, had the interception that led to the Niemi goal, and played with some poise in the attacking zone. That earned him a bit more playing time than he’s had in recent nights.
Stats: 1 assist, +1 rating, 1 shot (3 attempts), 16:37 TOI
Honourable Mention: Max Domi – I was tempted to give it to Tatar who got the winner against his former team but he was quiet otherwise. Domi wasn’t as noticeable as he has been in recent games but he really makes that second line go. As his confidence continues to grow, so too does the creativity. With Drouin on his wing, that could be a tough duo to contain when they’re on the same page.
Stats: 2 assists, +1 rating, 3 shots (5 attempts), 2 giveaways, 2 blocks, 18:01 TOI