The Habs kicked off their week in the friendly confines of the Bell Centre on Tuesday night after a rough week on the road. Here, they faced a direct challenger for their playoff positioning in the Blue Jackets. This was the second match featuring the teams as Montreal took the first one 4-1 in a game where Joel Armia and Tomas Tatar each scored twice while Carey Price made 34 saves to lead the charge.
This game would be far different in personnel as Columbus continues to battle dressing room demons with players wanting to leave despite having a few successful seasons there. In fact, John Tortorella had to get extremely graphic is depicting why his star Artemi Panarin would miss the game. Panarin was sick and not being sat as a trade precaution.
For the Habs, it was also a weird day as Phillip Danault was not in uniform due to family reasons. This game also marked the return of Paul Byron which resulted in the Habs sending Dale Weise to Laval.
Due to these movements, the forward lines saw Jonathan Drouin reunited with Max Domi and Andrew Shaw as the top unit. The second line featured Tatar and Brendan Gallagher centred by Nate Thompson. Jesperi Kotkaniemi centred the third line with Paul Byron and Armia, while the fourth line consisted of Matthew Peca with Charles Hudon and Artturi Lehkonen. The defence pairings remained the same and the goaltending matchup featured some headliners as Carey Price faced Sergei Bobrovsky.
All these changes ended up being important as some unsung heroes really showed up for the Habs, notably Nate Thompson with a faceoff percentage over 60% in helping the Habs overcome an intense and physical Columbus team on their way to a 3-2 regulation win.
Drouin appeared rejuvenated with the line change as he and Domi looked for each other at least three times on their first shift. They also showed that they remained defensively risky as they gave up a good scoring chance, but the excellent Price save sent the two on an odd-man rush. Domi’s pass toward Drouin was blocked by Eric Robinson but Domi picked up the loose puck and chipped home his 20th goal of the season to open the scoring.
The next shift saw play go the other way as Price was forced to make a great save and the rebound sat behind him only to be saved by Jordie Benn. Things settled down after the breathtaking opening moments as both teams opted for safer plays all over the ice.
The next notable event occurred with seven minutes to play in the period as the Habs were attacking and Scott Harrington did not like Shaw’s presence in front of his net. An exchange of cross-checks ensued until the two decided to drop the mitts and accept five minutes for fighting each. As it turns out, Shaw was guilty of the initial infraction as he started the exchange with a nasty cross-check to try to gain position in front of the net. The Habs were able to kill Shaw’s penalty without giving up a scoring chance as the Jackets were not convincing in their power play puck pursuit.
The following shift saw Kotkaniemi play with Gallagher and Tatar which yielded some interesting results as Tatar ended up with a good scoring chance that Bobrovsky stopped. Kotkaniemi then double shifted and returned to his usual line and this was a good idea too. He grabbed the puck at the top of the zone and fired a shot on net. The shot missed but the rebound came out the other side directly to Byron who celebrated his return to action with his 11th goal of the season. Tatar continued his excellent first period as he missed yet another scoring chance on the very next shift. The period ended with the Habs up two while outshooting Columbus 12-9.
Sometimes, a team comes out flat for a period. Other times, a team can come out so strong that it forces the other team to fall back on their heels and play defensively. The latter was the case for Montreal as the Blue Jackets used their size and speed to close the gap on the opening shift. A good zone entry by Shaw and Drouin was completely squandered when Mike Reilly fired a huge slap shot directly into the shin pads of the defender and left himself out of position. Despite Domi’s best effort to get back, Josh Anderson used the 2-on-1 to cut to the middle as he fired a rocket to the top shelf.
The Jackets continued to attack and the Habs were completely on their heels for the entire first half of the period. If not for Carey Price, they could have easily scored three goals in that ten-minute segment of play. The Canadiens really struggled to keep up with Columbus with their imposing size advantage and comparable speed.
The Habs started to find their passing plays again as they simplified their approach and were able to control the puck in the second half of the period. With six minutes left, Reilly made another bone-headed play at the offensive blue line that allowed the Jackets to make their way up the ice once again against the Domi line. This time, they did not score, but Reilly was pushed into the boards from behind by Foligno behind his net. Foligno was penalized for the play, but Domi took exception to the hit and dropped the gloves with Foligno despite an important size difference.
The ensuing power play started off poorly as Anderson earned himself a breakaway that Price got a piece of but the puck sat in the crease untouched for seconds before Shea Weber removed it from danger. That was the most dangerous play of the sequence even though the Habs were able to gain the offensive zone and pass the puck around.
With a little over two minutes to play, the Habs were caught with six skaters on the ice, making the end of the period a dangerous one. The penalty kill was flawless and even lured Anderson to take a hooking penalty. The period came to a close with Montreal having a carryover power play and the Blue Jackets up 21-19 in shots.
The third period started with the last minute of the Habs man advantage where Drouin and Domi were able to create space but once again showed that their decision-making could use some improvement. As the power play expired, Tatar went end-to-end with a beautiful rush that was stopped by Bobrovsky who made a nice save to help his teammates.
Both teams provided some intensity which made the game quite interesting even if space was so scarce that potential offensive chances were quickly erased by the opposition.
At the midway point of the period, Brett Kulak joined the rush on a play that did not have much promise. Domi covered but then pinched and lost the race. This created a 2-on-1 with Anderson once again opting for the shot. This time Price stopped it, but Foligno was all over the rebound to tie the game.
As play resumed, Gallagher was tripped in the offensive zone by Savard sending the Habs back to the power play. The first unit was a disaster, but the second unit led by Domi created a great chance as Shaw was stopped by Seth Jones and not Bobrovsky. Ultimately though, the Habs did not score and it was yet another squandered opportunity.
Three minutes later, Kotkaniemi made a gutsy decision to keep the puck and attack the Columbus zone while all four other red sweaters went for a change. He took a big hit but kept the play alive before handing the puck to Benn who outwaited everyone while Tatar got open for a backdoor pass. Benn completed the pass as though he was Kotkaniemi himself and Tatar quickly tipped it home to restore a one-goal lead for the Habs.
With five minutes left, Werenski was lost in coverage and had a good chance before being stopped with a nice glove save by Price. He followed that with another solid stop on Cam Atkinson. The Habs played a near-perfect final few minutes as they kept the Jackets mostly to the perimeter. Price made a few saves and Lehkonen made a rather bone-headed pass attempt when faced with the empty net, but it would be without harm as the Habs held on for the important regulation time victory.
HabsWorld Habs 3 Stars
1st Star – Max Domi
Domi set the tone on the first shift of the game by using his speed to create an odd-man rush, following the puck after the play died to get it back and scored to set the tone for the first period while reaching the 20-goal mark in the process. With Columbus pile-driving the Habs in the second, Domi took himself out of a power play situation to send a message and fight a much larger Nick Foligno. Those who think he was sending a message to Foligno won’t like the fight. To me, Domi was sending a message to his teammates that they were going to stand and battle, and not continue to be pushed around like they had in the second period.
Stats: 1 goal, -1, 3 shots, 1 hit, 19:13 T.O.I.
2nd Star – Tomas Tatar
Tatar continued his surge of recent strong performances as he was all over the Columbus zone for most of the first and third periods. He missed a handful of chances but made it count when he needed to as he potted the game-winner on the incredible Jordie Benn pass.
Stats: 1 goal, +1, 3 shots, 16:52 T.O.I.
3rd Star – Paul Byron
Paul Byron stepped in next to Armia and Kotkaniemi and provided a huge upgrade over Lehkonen (and I’m a fan of his) while chipping in yet another important goal for this team. Has there ever been a player that bounces everywhere around this lineup yet continues to produce wherever he is placed? Best waiver pickup, EVER.
Stats: 1 goal, +1, 2 shots, 2 hits, 13:36 T.O.I.
Honourable Mentions – Jesperi Kotkaniemi, Jordie Benn, & Carey Price
Kotkaniemi was passed over for some playing time in the top-six and responded with a typical game. Responsible defensively, Kotkaniemi produced with two assists, the second coming on an absolutely brilliant and confident play that many rookies wouldn’t even attempt. Then, he replaced Domi for a shift in the last minutes as the Habs needed a bit better defensive presence in their own zone… he’s 18! Crazy!
Benn has been having a quietly solid season ever since returning to the third defensive pair. He was solid on this night while covering often for Kulak’s adventures in the offensive zone. Benn was strong without the puck and patient with the puck in exiting the zone all night long. Then, he turned it up a notch for the last ten minutes with that absolutely gorgeous pass to Tatar before being moved up to play with Petry to end the game after Reilly had a rough night and the Habs were desperate for some solid defensive play with the Blue Jackets pushing hard in the final minutes. He did just that with some good containment and an excellent in-control breakout.
For Price, it was an up and down game as he held his team in the game in the second period while leaving some sloppy rebounds at other times. When the chips were down though, Price battled and made the important saves when it mattered in the critical moments. That’s why he’s the franchise because the team can count on him in those moments.
Kotkaniemi Stats: 2 assists, +2, 2 shots, 13:32 T.O.I.
Benn Stats: 1 assist, +1, 2 shots, 20:52 T.O.I.
Price Stats: 31 saves, 33 shots, .939 save %, 2.03 G.A.A., 59:08 T.O.I.