The Habs tried to get consecutive wins for the first time since November 12th and 15th when they defeated both the Columbus Blue Jackets and Washington Capitals. They visited the Pittsburgh Penguins who were coming in having won their last three games. Both teams continued to deal with a rash of important injuries but the most important absentee was usual Habs-killer Sidney Crosby. It was still a tough matchup since Evgeni Malkin had been red-hot in Crosby’s 14-game absence to keep the Penguins in the playoff picture.
Carey Price was in the crease for the Habs as he faced Tristan Jarry. Claude Julien only made one lineup change as Riley Barber played his first game with the big club after Charles Hudon was returned to Laval.
The Habs showed a strong effort and some stingy play as they succeeded in their mission to win a second in a row with a 4-1 win after a first period that did not foreshadow such a positive outcome.
The start of the game saw the Habs play in the offensive zone though it was the highlight of the period for the Habs. Only three minutes in, a pass from Tomas Tatar to Ben Chiarot bounced off the defender to give the Penguins a breakaway that Chiarot worked hard to negate. However, his hard work was not intelligent as the negation of the breakaway opened a passing lane and the play became a two-on-one. Bryan Rust took advantage of the situation and passed to Jake Guentzel who had an easy goal on his stick. The goal gave the Penguins some energy as they started to dominate the period after the goal.
The second half of the period started quite strangely as Max Domi was the victim of a blatant trip that went uncalled despite the official putting up his arm to indicate a puck played with a high stick. The confusion resulted with the Habs icing the puck. On the ensuing faceoff, Domi was warned but not ejected from the draw and then he was called for a second violation so the Habs ended up shorthanded. The Habs were able to kill the penalty and the rest of the period was a chess match as the period ended with a 10-5 shot advantage for the Penguins, not the most entertaining hockey.
The Habs came out much stronger in the second as they absolutely owned the entire period. The best chance in the first half of the period belonged to Nick Cousins after an magical saucer pass by Nick Suzuki split both defenders to send Cousins in alone but Jarry was up to the task of stopping the breakaway. Not wanting to be forgotten, Price made his presence felt with a nice glove save right before the midway point of the period. That save turned out to be a key moment in the game.
The second half saw Cousins come close again as he showed some nice patience to earn a good scoring chance that forced Jarry to make another good save. With nine minutes to play, Malkin’s forecheck got a little too aggressive as he slashed Shea Weber’s stick right out of his hand for the Habs first power play opportunity. The Habs jumped on the occasion to tie the game as some hard work by Phillip Danault resulted in a puck behind the Penguins defenders which allowed Brendan Gallagher to find a streaking Tomas Tatar who shot a change-up that fooled Jarry.
The second half of the period continued to see the Canadiens win the majority of puck battles and races as the top line as well as both Nick’s (Cousins and Suzuki) continued to have strong games. With 3:55 to play in the period, it was the Domi line that got on the board as Joel Armia completed an awesome individual effort. Armia chipped the puck out of his defensive zone and then beat Kris Letang to the loose puck. He then used his body to protect the puck and cut to the net where he showed just enough patience to open a lane as he roofed the puck over Jarry’s shoulder for Montreal’s first lead of the night.
The Habs extended the lead in the dying seconds of the period when Artturi Lehkonen got out of the defensive zone and passed the puck to Weber who joined the rush. As Weber went around the net, Lehkonen attracted the attention of both defenders and the goaltender as he headed to the front of the net. With no one covering the puck carrier, Weber completed the wraparound for a 3-1 lead with 15 seconds left in the period.
The Habs came out much slower though controlled to start the third period as they were confined to playing safe with a two-goal lead. As they closed the play and denied the Penguins entry to the centre of the ice, some frustration quickly came into the Penguins game as Malkin got away with a few borderline plays that ultimately resulted in Matthew Peca making his way to the infirmary as he did not return to the game due to what looked like a leg injury. It was a perfect road start to the period for the Habs as they put to sleep the fans in the Pittsburgh arena.
As the Pens started to up the pressure on the Habs, it is worth noting that some rookies got some important ice time and completed some strong defensive plays. Of note were Suzuki, Cale Fleury and Otto Leskinen all covering their players effectively to block the centre of the ice. With 1:39 to play, a clearing from Tatar opened the door for Gallagher to simply outwork Justin Schultz, get to the loose puck and score in the empty net to seal the fate of this game.
HabsWorld Habs 3 Stars
1st Star – Phillip Danault
Danault plays all the hardest minutes and though he ends up playing with two of the best wingers on the team, he’s also the workhorse that often guards defensively after having won the puck battles for his linemates. Tonight, he faced one of the best in the league and once again did it while winning the possession battle and frustrating Malkin all night long.
Stats: 1 assist, 0 (+/-), 1 shot, 1 hit, 17:30 T.O.I.
2nd Star – Joel Armia
Watching Armia use his body to protect the puck and create space for himself is the perfect play to highlight the argument that the Habs need a few more players that combine skill and size. Armia played another strong contest as he forechecked hard, played sound defensive hockey and scored when he got his chances.
Stats: 1 goal, 1 assist, +2, 2 shots, 2 hits, 16:39 T.O.I.
3rd Star – Nick Suzuki
It is hard to believe that number 14 for the Habs is a 20-year-old rookie. The flashes of offensive brilliance are not what makes his play so surprising. He’s responsible, intelligent, and rarely gets caught in awkward positions. He still needs time to mature and react appropriately in and after physical battles but he’s so much fun to watch play, and the coaching staff trusts him in key moments. With a game Wednesday night and a two-goal lead, it was fun to see the kids pull out huge defensive plays (Leskinen and Fleury did too), but for the centre to do it was a testament to his dedication to the 200-foot game.
Stats: 1 shot, 2 hits, 16:30 T.O.I.
Honourable Mention – Nick Cousins
I can’t wait for Suzuki to get linemates that will bury the chances he creates. But let’s not pile it on Cousins or Weal who are essentially replacements as the Habs wait for their regular top-9 forwards to get healthy. In the meantime, Cousins is taking advantage of the situation to get open and allow Suzuki to create scoring chances for him. With a bit of luck, Cousins could have easily completed a hat trick. Hard work will eventually pay off… then again, I’m pretty sure that’s what everyone says about Lehkonen too. Speaking of Lehkonen, he had another pretty good night also.
Stats: 3 shots, 4 hits, 15:31 T.O.I.