The Habs returned to the ice on Thursday hoping to put together a winning streak after finally snapping the losing skid that placed them outside of the playoff picture. With the third highest scoring team in the Colorado Avalanche visiting the Bell Centre, the Habs sure made things harder than they needed to be as they opted to give Otto Leskinen his NHL debut as he paired with Cale Fleury on the team’s third pairing. If that wasn’t enough, they opted for a second debut as 20-year-old Cayden Primeau was the surprise starter in the net to face Nathan MacKinnon and the other Avalanche snippers. He also faced the Avalanche backup as Pavel Francouz was playing in his tenth game and came in with a rather excellent .924 save percentage.
Francouz saved the Avalanche in the third after a Nikita Zadorov slew foot eliminated Jesperi Kotkaniemi on the game’s second shift and really intimidated the Habs for much of the first half of the game. The result of the contest was a 3-2 loss but I think this is a game that may actually be quite positive for the psyche of the team as they never quit and really battled back against a team that tried to use its physicality to run the Habs out of the building.
It was another excellent first shift for the Phillip Danault line as they tested Francouz early. This was just about the only positive in the opening ten minutes. The second shift featured Kotkaniemi getting caught admiring a pass and Zadorov added a slew foot motion which resulted in Kotkaniemi staying on the ice for a long period of time and he would not return. He won’t accompany the team on their road trip to New York.
With 13:47 to play in the period, Cale Makar crashed the net and Primeau failed to locate the rebound as the other defender Ryan Graves put home the rebound for an early Avalanche lead.
The second half of the period continued in this same fashion as Gabriel Landeskog absolutely undressed Jeff Petry before squeezing one under Primeau’s arm for a 2-0 lead.
With 5:24 to play, MacKinnon was called for holding sending the Habs to the first power play of the evening. In what can only be described as the dumbest possible power play assembly, the first unit out included Jordan Weal, Nick Cousins, Joel Armia, Max Domi, and Shea Weber. Needless to say, the unit did not score although the man advantage did create enough momentum for Montreal to even the shot totals by the end of the period.
The opening of the second period lacked energy for both teams as play stoppages dominated the early moments of the period and really zapped the energy from both teams. With 13:41 to play in the period, a bad offensive zone penalty was taken by Pierre-Edouard Bellemare but as usual, the power play did not capitalize. In fact, with 15 seconds left in the advantage, a Petry giveaway resulted in a 2-on-1 against Nick Suzuki and the pass to Matt Calvert was precise for a one-timer that beat Primeau for a 3-0 lead.
The second half of the game started with the Avs on their first power play of the night after a Ben Chiarot tripping penalty. Primeau stood tall with at least three excellent saves on this man advantage. It was an important kill as the Habs were finally able to make it a game when Brendan Gallagher (who else?) was present in his office as he jumped on a Danault rebound to make it 3-1 with 2:18 to play in the period. Immediately after the goal, Nate Thompson took a tripping penalty in the offensive zone which caused all momentum to be lost even though the Habs did an excellent job to kill the penalty.
Only a minute into the third period, it was another offensive zone penalty as this time Andre Burakovsky tripped Tomas Tatar. This time, some excellent play by Domi gave Cousins all the time in the world in the slot as he beat Francouz to make 3-2 with still 18:37 to play in the game. With physicality escalating all over the ice, Petry took a penalty for holding as Landeskog had gained body position on the Habs defender. It was a huge kill and the Habs pulled it off.
The start of the final ten minutes saw Primeau make a brilliant save on Mikko Rantanen to cover his own mistake before Shea Weber tattooed Burakovsky on the boards. With seven minutes to play, a positively intense Domi on the forecheck created a turnover before finding a wide-open Artturi Lehkonen who one-timed it only to see Francouz make a breath-taking save across his crease. Yes, Lehkonen lacks finish, but it was all Francouz on this one. He’d make another excellent save against Chiarot with four minutes to play. With under two minutes to play and Primeau on the bench, the Habs applied a ton of pressure but were not able to solve Francouz.
HabsWorld Habs 3 Stars
1st Star – Brendan Gallagher
The Habs are playing a terrible game, Primeau is a little shell-shocked, the Bell Centre is dead, and there doesn’t appear to be much hope. Enter Brendan Gallagher as per usual to absolutely refuse to see his team play a total stinker of a game. Gallagher scores and refuses to be intimidated by a bigger Avalanche team. The Habs ultimately came up short, but it wouldn’t even have been a game without the courage of Gallagher.
Stats: 1 goal, 0 (+/-), 5 shots, 2 hits, 19:47 T.O.I.
2nd Star – Phillip Danault
Gallagher’s pivot for the last season and change, Danault’s courage and determination is likely second to Gallagher. Domi’s intensity may match these two, but Danault plays this way with far more consistency. Tonight was no exception as he went head-to-head with another of the league’s elite players in Nathan MacKinnon and came out relatively unscathed. Another excellent performance for the team’s top centre.
Stats: 1 assist, 0 (+/-), 3 shots, 2 hits, 24:38 T.O.I.
3rd Star – Max Domi
It’s been a long time since we’ve seen Max Domi display this type of energy. He was willing to make the plays that hurt to create the chances. The play where he stripped the defender and found Lehkonen is a goal 98% of the time. Domi was using his speed to create turnovers and used his intensity as a positive, something he’s had a hard time with this season more than last.
Stats: 1 assist, -1, 2 shots, 18:03 T.O.I.
Honourable Mention – Cale Fleury
After Kotkaniemi got railed, I did not like the reaction from Weber and Chiarot. I understand the reaction of keeping their energy knowing they were going to be called upon for near 30 minutes of ice time, but I still don’t like it. One of the big guns from the Avs should have been sent through the boards, ensuing two minutes or not. Instead, it was 20-year-old Cale Fleury that was looking for that hit. I love the reaction from Fleury to not be intimidated by that garbage from Zadorov, I love Julien having trust in Fleury in the dying moments of the game instead of Kulak. Fleury isn’t there yet, but for me, tonight was another testament that Fleury will be a fixture on the third pairing that will grow to be a fan favourite in Montreal for years (if he isn’t already).
Fleury’s stats: 0 points, 0 (+/-), 1 shot, 4 hits, 14:51 T.O.I.