The Habs looked to keep rolling on Saturday as they welcomed former fan favourite P.K. Subban and the Nashville Predators. The Predators were fresh off an overtime loss to the Red Wings on Friday night and described their effort as terrible, so it was clear that Nashville was going to come out firing on all cylinders for tonight’s match. For the occasion, Claude Julien kept his lineup together from Thursday’s excellent effort. The goaltending matchup included Carey Price, fresh off his second shutout of the season, facing Juuse Saros. The Canadiens put forth an acceptable effort but not their best and nowhere good enough to match the desire the Predators had for the win as the Habs suffered a 4-1 loss on Saturday night.
As expected, the Predators came out strong as Subban started the contest with a breakout pass that led to a quick Ryan Johansen shot from the slot that Price had to handle. Despite the Habs spending the entire first minute in their zone, the line of Max Domi, Jonathan Drouin, and Paul Byron quickly got the team going offensively as they forechecked hard and were rewarded with a good scoring chance that Domi fired off the crossbar. The back-and-forth continued as Nashville pressured the Canadiens forcing Price to make some solid saves, but it also meant being open to the fast break as Saros stopped Joel Armia on a breakaway. Notable in the first half of the period was the emergence of the Domi line as they were by far the best Montreal line early.
Holding an 8-3 shot advantage, Nashville’s pressure finally paid off. Domi lost a defensive zone faceoff cleanly and Mattias Ekholm immediately sent the puck to Subban who fired a cannon. Price made the initial save but the rebound found Craig Smith who had Mike Reilly all over him, but that was not enough to stop him as he scored in the empty net.
The goal got the Habs fired up as they started skating and returning the pressure to the Preds’ defence and Tomas Tatar fanned on a good scoring chance. On another good shift from the Domi line, Drouin found Jordie Benn as the latest offensive weapon rang a second Montreal shot off the crossbar and then proceeded to wallpaper a Nashville forward to express his frustrations.
Nashville extended their lead with 35 seconds to play as Ekholm fired an uncontested shot toward the net that got by Price. Little doubt in my mind that Price would like to see that shot again but nevertheless, it was 2-0 Nashville on the scoreboard and 15-11 on the shot clock.
The first shift of the second period established quickly that much like the first, the ice was going to be tilted in favour of Nashville. In all honesty, the Habs were lucky to make it five minutes into the period without getting scored on again, and I don’t necessarily think they were playing that terribly. Nashville wanted this game and they were simply outworking the Canadiens.
With 13:18 left to play, the first penalty of the night came against Michael Chaput who didn’t like the call but committed the deed of interfering. Some strong work by Phillip Danault, Artturi Lehkonen, and Armia kept the Predators away, but my favourite moment came when Smith bumped Price after a save and both Shea Weber and Benn manhandled some forwards to get a clear message across.
The second half of the game started with a silver lining of hope for the Montreal fans as Weber scored with 7:13 left to play. Jesperi Kotkaniemi won an offensive zone faceoff, Armia drove to the net while Kotkaniemi and Lehkonen converged on the rebound. The bouncing puck made its way to Weber and the captain simply put it on net but the puck had eyes as it beat everyone including Saros to make it 2-1.
The glimmer of hope did not last long, 18 seconds to be precise, as Kotkaniemi lost the ensuing draw, Subban dumped the puck in the Montreal zone, Brett Kulak misplayed the puck, and Smith outworked Kulak and Benn to grab the rebound and scored on a wrap-around to restore the two-goal lead. Coach Julien attempted to challenge for goaltender interference, because why not… nobody knows what this call actually means but it was to no avail as the goal stood.
The Habs pushed back a bit after the Nashville goal, but it was a play deep in the Montreal zone that resulted in the Habs first power play of the night as Nashville got caught for too many men on the ice. They gained the zone easily enough but the Habs just weren’t fast enough to compete on this night as Nashville put too much pressure for the Habs to figure out their power play woes. As the penalty expired, Weber took out his frustrations as he hammered Rocco Grimaldi at the defensive blue line, but this meant little as the Habs retreated for the intermission with a 3-1 deficit in goals and a 26-20 deficit in shots.
The third started and it was clear the Predators were going to play the road game of shutting things down. This allowed the Habs access to the offensive zone, but not much in terms of scoring chances. Weber broke up a 2-on-1 chance early, though he nearly tipped the puck in the net himself.
At 16:07, Paul Byron was called on an obvious tripping infraction. The Habs escaped the penalty without much trouble as Nashville appeared to be more interested in killing the clock than scoring and having to handle the speedy Canadiens for more time. Remember, the Predators played the night before. With play back at even strength, a rather boring third period continued as the Canadiens pushed but the Predators did solid work in boxing out and keep the chances to single occasion opportunities.
The second half of the period began with both teams mostly continuing to go through the motions. Tatar’s efforts in this third period merits a note as I thought I was looking at Gallagher on a few shifts as he simply refused to give up which was nice to see. Kotkaniemi also continued to try some nifty plays with the puck, coming close too as he was set up for a good chance with a little over four minutes to play. With the Habs pushing hard to score another goal, Price was brought to the net with three minutes left on the clock. In the end, the Habs couldn’t get one by Saros and Viktor Arvidsson sealed the outcome as he scored with Price on the bench and 45 seconds left on the clock.
HabsWorld Habs 3 Stars
1st Star – Shea Weber
Weber was the best Hab and it’s not even close. What happens when a team like Nashville plays a full speed 60-minute effort is that the Habs can keep up on their skates, but not physically. Weber is the exception to that as he scored the Montreal goal, handled business in front of Price, and even dished out some punishment along the boards. It’s not always flashy when Weber is on the ice, but it’s always effective.
Stats: 1 goal, +1, 2 shots, 4 hits, 24:52 T.O.I.
2nd Star – Max Domi
Domi played a strong first two periods even if the stat sheet will disagree with my assessment. He played with speed and intensity, made a few good defensive plays (just not on the goal), and he was creating offensive chances. Domi and Drouin looked poised to break through even though they didn’t. I’m a big fan of Paul Byron, but not really on this line. Domi and Drouin need someone to go get the puck in the corners as Shaw did. Byron plays the same style as Domi and Drouin and wants to be at the same spots on the ice. It isn’t working for me.
Stats: 0 points, -3, 1 shot, 2 hits, 16:21 T.O.I.
3rd Star – Carey Price
The second goal against was weak. There, I said it. Despite that goal, Price was the main reason Habs still held a sliver of hope heading into the third. It never materialized, but that’s certainly not on Price. The bad goal may have been enough to kick him off this list on most nights this season, but not on this one.
Stats: 28 saves, 31 shots, .903 save %, 3.00 G.A.A., 57:45 T.O.I.
DIS-Honourable Mention – Claude Julien
I hate to even bring this up because I very much doubt it had any effect on the game whatsoever. However, I will bring it up in an early January game in the hopes that I never have to say it again (but expecting that I will say it again). When the Habs are leading, or if it’s a close game late, Claude Julien often replaces Domi or Kotkaniemi in favour of Phillip Danault for defensive zone faceoffs. The strategy makes perfect sense as Danault has been a defensive warrior all season long. What Danault is not (save for a recent surge on the road trip) is a consistent offensive threat. So why doesn’t the opposite ever happen? Kotkaniemi is a rookie, and will eventually get these chances, but in a non-conference game where Danault was struggling for most of the night, isn’t this a perfect game to double-shift the kid and try to make something happen! Kotkaniemi was creating, Danault was struggling; the absolute worst that can happen is that Kotkaniemi is outmatched defensively and Nashville goes ahead 4-1 in a game (especially the third) where your team just doesn’t have “it”. At best, you’ve created a game. I have no issue with Danault staying on the second line (unlike some of the experts that want to see Kotkaniemi outmatched nightly), but certain situations may require a little judgement call from the coaching staff to spark the offensive spirit of the team. The question is if they’ll ever loosen up enough to take that chance.