It was finally time for August hockey and games that counted. The first game against the Pittsburgh Penguins saw Claude Julien go with the expected lineup in regards to forwards and goaltending. On the blue line, Brett Kulak got the start next to Jeff Petry on the second pair while Victor Mete and Xavier Ouellet got the first game as the third pairing.
This was a great game, one that saw many momentum swings. The Habs got some early stellar play by Carey Price. Once they took the lead, they really shut things down. Despite a great defensive effort, the Pens battled and tied the game. Price came back to the rescue until Jeff Petry found an opening in overtime to end the game and give the Habs a 1-0 series lead.
The opening five minutes was high-paced with some sloppy coverage as both teams exchanged scoring chances. This was likely not what Claude Julien wanted. The opening shift saw Tomas Tatar and Phillip Danault get some shots on Matt Murray but the play came right back up the ice as Jason Zucker and Bryan Rust got stopped by Price.
After the initial flurry, it was all Pittsburgh as they outshot the Habs 10-1. The Ouellet-Mete pairing was completely dominated on their first shift but Price bailed them out. Scoring chances diminished as the period progressed but the Habs got very physical with Max Domi leading the way as he was trying to get into Sidney Crosby’s head before crashing into Murray.
Artturi Lehkonen cycled the puck around the Penguins’ zone to start the back side of the period. As he sent the puck to the blue line, Paul Byron and Jesperi Kotkaniemi did what the Habs need to do with more regularity to find success as they attacked the centre of the zone. The result was a point shot from Kulak that was pinballed around and found Kotkaniemi who put home a grimy opening goal, a real playoff scorer’s goal in my opinion.
With five minutes to play, the Habs got the first power play of the game and Tatar threatened twice early on but that was all the man advantage could come up with. The makeup call came quickly as Danault was sent off for holding. Julien trusted Nick Suzuki with Danault in the box and was rewarded as Suzuki got the first two clears of the kill as the period ended with a 1-0 lead despite an 18-6 shot margin for Pittsburgh.
The Habs played much better in the second period, though one could not tell from looking at the scoreboard. Montreal really shut down the play and allowed the start of the period to be a rather quiet affair.
Just before the seven-minute mark, Suzuki caught Brian Dumoulin playing soft at his offensive blue line. He picked off the defender and opted for the shot on the ensuing 2-on-1 as he found Murray cheating down low. Suzuki picked the top corner with precision to extend the lead.
Two minutes later, Ouellet got caught on the ice against Crosby and the Habs paid for it. The Habs appeared to have the Pens covered as they kept them to the outside in the defensive zone. A point shot from Justin Schultz hit a couple of bodies and Ouellet decided to head for the puck instead of staying on Crosby. Sid grabbed the puck and left Ouellet out in the cold as he beat Price who was trying to get back to the play to cut the lead.
The Habs remained in control, but then Jonathan Drouin took a hooking penalty. The Penguins took advantage of this power play as the second unit got on the board. With Patric Hornqvist attracting the attention of both Price and Ben Chiarot, a Jared McCann point shot was mishandled a bit by Price who left the juicy rebound in the slot where Rust jumped on it and tucked it in five-hole to tie the game.
The second Penguins goal really stunned the Habs as the Pens spent the rest of the period peppering Price with shots to no avail. Drouin would take a second penalty before the end of the frame, but this time he was protected by his teammates as the second ended all tied at two apiece.
The opening minute of the third kicked off with a glorious chance for Kris Letang that created a power play chance for Pittsburgh as Danault slashed the shooter. A few moments later, Chiarot was guilty of a rather dumb cross-check that led to a 90-second 5-on-3 for the Penguins. A simply awesome effort by Shea Weber, Petry, Suzuki, and Price allowed Montreal to survive.
On the next shift, Jared McCann took a delay of game penalty. Kotkaniemi and Tomas Tatar got some good shots, but nothing that would fool Murray. Another penalty quickly followed the man advantage as Byron was called for holding. The Penguins were unable to get organized until the final moments of the power play as Evgeni Malkin was left alone in the slot, but he missed the net.
An absolutely stupid pass by Jordan Weal with three minutes to play allowed Conor Sheary to get a breakaway. He was hooked on the play which was rightfully called a penalty shot. Sheary missed the net on his chance, but boy this is the type of play that should provide hope for Alex Belzile (who skated on his own today as he works his way back from being injured against Toronto), Charles Hudon, Ryan Poehling, and Jake Evans in the press box. A minute later, Petry sent a floater through a crowd that was tipped by Tatar and actually hit the post. THAT CLOSE! Instead, the Habs spent the last two minutes defending and the game needed overtime.
Price continued to show up Sheary as the overtime started as Pittsburgh threatened on the opening shift. The second shift saw Joel Armia come close to ending it as the second line got a good offensive zone shift under their belt. Play then settled down some as neither team wanted to commit an error to end the game. Three minutes into the period, Danault took his third penalty of the game when he hooked an offensive player. Luckily for Danault, his teammates came up big and killed the penalty.
With 13 minutes to play, Drouin got a breakaway and he was hooked so it was Montreal’s turn with the penalty shot. However, Drouin lost the handle on the puck as he went to finish his deke and didn’t even get a shot off so the extra frame continued. While the NHL is doing its best to not call this a playoff series, it basically is. Drouin’s penalty shot marked the first time since March 29, 1923 that a playoff game had two penalty shots.
The second half of the overtime period started with the Penguins hemming the Habs into their zone on multiple shifts. It looked like the end was near for the Canadiens but they managed to survive with good defensive zone coverage. This was important as on the next shift, Gallagher tried to send the puck to the slot. It hit the defender and bounced to a trailing Petry who rifled one home for a 3-2 overtime victory!
HabsWorld 3 Stars
1st Star – Nick Suzuki
Suzuki picked up right where he left off during his rookie season. A great goal, some smart play, and he has the coaching staff’s complete confidence as he was called upon to be a replacement on the penalty kill, even getting a huge shift in as the team survived an extended 5-on-3 as the faceoff guy on that unit.
Stats: 1 goal, +1, 3 shots, 2 hits, 23:10 T.O.I. (team high among forwards)
2nd Star – Carey Price
Price wasn’t very flashy in this game, but boy was he solid when needed and he really appeared to be in full control all game long. If there was any doubt about him after the way he’s started the last two seasons, this was a terrific performance that likely calms all the defenders in the dressing room.
Stats: 39 saves, 41 shots, 1.62 G.A.A., .951 SV %, 73:57 T.O.I.
3rd Star – Brett Kulak
I mentioned before the series started that the defensive depth of the Habs had the potential to really make this a more even matchup. While I can’t say I particularly liked the night of work from Ouellet or Mete, Kulak really stepped up and was quite reliable. He made some good plays on the offensive blue line, and not just on the game’s first goal. If he plays like this all series, he will solidify that second pairing quite a bit.
Stats: 1 assist, +1, 2 shots, 1 hit, 20:21 T.O.I.
Honourable Mention – Jesperi Kotkaniemi
Skating on the team’s third line, Kotkaniemi’s got some pressure here as Domi played a really good game. Kotkaniemi answered the call though. He was responsible defensively all night long and forced some plays to the middle with his body positioning. There’s still some room to improve when he goes to the middle and when he makes the easy play, but it’s light years ahead of what was seen before he was sent to Laval so I love it. Best part? That he used his body to get his goal and continued to use it all night to be a harder one-on-one battle opponent for the puck.
Stats: 1 goal, +1, 2 shots, 3 hits, 13:49 T.O.I.