Thursday night’s contest was dubbed by many as the deciding game for the fates of two playoff hopeful teams as the Habs faced off with the Columbus Blue Jackets. There remains hockey to be played after this game but with only four games to go and only two points separating the teams, there was little doubt of the status as a must-win game. There was little surprise in goal as Sergei Bobrovsky faced Carey Price.
With Paul Byron’s concussion, Nicolas Deslauriers got to play for the first time in ages as he joined Jordan Weal and Nate Thompson on the fourth line. Deslauriers’ presence meant little though because in a game where both teams skated hard, the bigger, stronger, better team won as the Jackets took care of the Habs by a 6-2 score. The Canadiens still have some hope of making the playoffs despite the result; the only difference is that their fate now rests in their competitors losing as their own wins won’t be enough to qualify them for the Spring dance.
The Habs came out in force for this game as Phillip Danault found Brendan Gallagher in the high slot for a scoring chance in the opening minute that was stopped by a Jackets defender. Seconds later, Max Domi entered the offensive zone in control before he found Brett Kulak. Kulak chose a simple wrist shot that looked like Shaw was going to tip on net. Shaw couldn’t reach the puck and the failed tip fooled Bobrovsky as the puck sailed into the net for an early 1-0 lead.
The goal stunned the Blue Jackets as Montreal completely dominated the first ten minutes of play, winning all the races to pucks and earning a handful more scoring chances that Bobrovsky stopped to keep the game close.
Columbus picked up the pace in the second half of the period as they started to impose their physical brand of hockey on the smaller Canadiens. With three minutes to play and a delayed penalty to Shea Weber coming, Oliver Bjorkstrand tried a wraparound that skipped over his stick and bobbled over Price’s pad. With Price floundering in his attempt to keep the puck out, it was Weber who came in and swatted the puck away to preserve the lead and accept the penalty.
His teammates thanked him for the play by killing his penalty. The two halves of the period were such opposites that a 7-0 Habs shot lead at the midway point of the period evaporated into a 9-8 advantage for Montreal by the end of the period.
Both teams come out skating for the start of the second, but the entire Domi line was guilty of an atrocious line change only a minute into the second period. This left Jeff Petry and Christian Folin to defend a 4-on-2 that saw Nick Foligno pass the puck to Brandon Dubinsky who found David Savard who knuckled a puck through Price to tie the game.
The Habs got skating after the goal as a strong shift by the Jesperi Kotkaniemi line set up the next shift where both Danault and Joel Armia hit consecutive posts. With 12 minutes to play in the period, the Habs were awarded a power play, but it was short-lived as Shaw collided with Adam McQuaid trying to avoid an offside and was penalized for interference. The 4-on-4 situation worked out for the Habs though as Danault entered the offensive zone before passing off to a streaking Petry. Petry attempted to pass to Tomas Tatar in the slot only to see his pass be deflected into the net by Bobrovsky himself.
The second half of the period was all Columbus though and this started at the eight-minute mark when Shaw won a faceoff but that was followed by Kulak, Petry, and Shaw consecutively losing puck battles in the defensive zone. The result was a Seth Jones point shot that was redirected by Bjorkstrand to beat Price and tie the game.
Two minutes later, the Jackets would earn their first lead of the game when Duchene outmuscled Victor Mete and completed a cross-ice pass to Artemi Panarin who was alone since both Weber and Danault opted to cover the front of the net and the Russian quickly beat Price.
With the score now 3-2 Columbus, it was the Habs who appeared stunned and were second on every puck. Jonathan Drouin had a good shift to create scoring chances, but other than that, the Habs were quite lucky to escape the period only down by one as Price made important saves. With the shots in the period 11-8 for Columbus, it was clear that the Habs would need to be much better in the third if they wanted a chance to come back.
After a cautious start to the period, an errant pass from Mete toward Kotkaniemi was picked off by Riley Nash. With Weber applying pressure, Nash opted for the shot and followed up by grabbing his own rebound to beat Price and make it 4-2.
Foligno was given free rein on the next shift and Price was forced to make another three big stops in the sequence. A few minutes later, the Habs won an offensive zone faceoff and Petry sent what can only be qualified as a dumb pass across the top of the zone that was picked off by Dean Kukan who skated up the ice and found Bjorkstrand who scored.
With a three-goal lead, the Jackets let up a bit and the Habs got to skate as they did in the first. With 12 minutes to play, they got a power play, but as is usually the case this season, the advantage meant very little other than wasting two minutes of clock for a potential comeback. Julien opted to pull Price with 5:45 left to play, and the Habs attacked from the perimeter for some time before Dubinsky finally scored into the empty net with 3:11 to play to seal the outcome.
HabsWorld Habs 3 Stars
1st Star – Brett Kulak
The more I think about it, the more Brett Kulak reminds me of a pre-2018-2019 Jeff Petry. The skills are present and there is little doubt that between him, Benn, Folin, and Mike Reilly, Kulak is the player that should be playing on the second pair. However, his decision-making is erratic at times which can frustrate. When he makes the right decisions as he did in this one, he belongs on the ice next to Petry and becomes an important positive on the roster. He was the best on the ice
Stats: 1 goal, 1 assist, 0 (+/-), 3 shots, 3 hits, 18:27 T.O.I.
2nd Star – Carey Price
Price made some important saves but the team in front of him was simply outmatched. I’m sure he’d say he could have stopped the Nash goal, but truthfully, the game was already lost by that point as the Jackets simply weren’t letting up and the Habs were simply not capable of competing physically.
Stats: 24 saves, 29 shots, .828 save %, 5.23 G.A.A., 57:21 T.O.I. (and this is somehow the second best player on the night.)
3rd Star – Shea Weber
While Victor Mete continued to make great plays and decisions offensively, it was clear that he was physically outmatched. Weber tried to be physical for two, but he can’t cover two guys all night long.
Stats: 0 points, -3, 1 shot, 1 hit, 21:58 T.O.I.
Honourable Mention – None
This result is what happens when the Habs face a bigger, stronger, and more skilled team who shows up to play and the coaching staff refuses to play to their strengths. Seriously, as soon as the Blue Jackets committed to the physical game, Danault looked like he was afraid of his shadow. The entire Domi line was directly responsible for two goals against in the second period and never missed a shift. The two most skilled players were limited in ice time and playing like they were afraid to make a mistake, and somehow, when needing a goal, Kotkaniemi was shifted to the fourth line to start the third in favour of Nate Thompson. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think Kotkaniemi played a strong game. I’m saying neither he nor Drouin are given much chance to get into a rhythm which is mind-boggling considering the difficulties this team has had of late offensively. So long as coaching not to lose trumps coaching to win, the team will struggle. It was a strategy that didn’t exist when there were no expectations in the first half of the season.