After being denied by Carter Hart and many posts in Game 3, the Habs entered Tuesday afternoon’s Game 4 in somewhat of a must-win scenario as falling 3-1 to the mighty Flyers likely meant the end for Montreal. This seemed unfair since the Habs had been the better team in the first three contests. It seems fair after this Game 4 as the Habs failed to score for two straight games and now face elimination after an effort that reminded fans that this team was nowhere near the playoffs before the pandemic. They lost this one 2-0 and never looked like they were in control of this contest.
There was no surprise in the crease as Carey Price was once again opposed by Carter Hart. With many speculation that lineup changes were incoming, interim coach Kirk Muller decided to play it safe and keep the blue line intact while playing musical chairs with the centres once again. To the dismay of many in the fanbase (including myself to be honest), Phillip Danault returned to top line while Nick Suzuki played on the second with Max Domi and Jonathan Drouin. This meant that the Habs’ top scorer this postseason, Jesperi Kotkaniemi, was relegated to the third unit with Paul Byron and Artturi Lehkonen.
The moves up front looked good early as Danault got a scoring chance in the first minute but then the game settled into yet another chess match that saw many puck battles in the corners and quick changes for both teams. One early sign that wasn’t great for the Habs were poor reads on pinches by blueliners. Specifically, Ben Chiarot and Brett Kulak were guilty of giving up scoring chances to the Flyers with bad timing on pinches in the opening half period.
A rather weak play from Danault and Brendan Gallagher 6:32 in saw the team skating toward the offensive zone before it was picked off. Shea Weber was guilty of the poorly-timed pinch which open the door for Michael Raffl to walk in and beat Price on a shot that Price likely should have stopped.
Right before the midway point in the period, Kotkaniemi was called for an offensive zone trip and the Flyers were on the power play. They got a good look as consecutive cross-ice passes got through, but Sean Couturier missed a wide-open cage.
The Habs survived the penalty kill and with six minutes to play, Kotkaniemi made up for his penalty as he won two puck battles that gave the Habs their first offensive zone shift in a while that saw Jeff Petry circle the zone a few times before creating an open net for Byron who just wasn’t quick enough to pull the trigger as the defender beat him to the loose puck. Alex Belzile got a scoring chance in the final minutes of the period but he missed the net and the score remained 1-0 while the shots were 10-7 in favour of Philadelphia.
The start of the second period saw the Canadiens spend a lot of time with the puck, but it was low event hockey as neither team really threatened much. For the first time in the bubble, I really felt like I was watching the pre-COVID Habs. They spent a ton of time with the puck but never challenged the defenders and never attacked the middle of the ice. Those are some easy defending minutes for the opposition. Give credit to the Flyers who clogged up the neutral zone and forced Montreal to dump the puck which admittedly isn’t their strongest asset. However, too many chances for the Habs to attack the centre of the ice were not taken advantage of and it was quite obvious they weren’t scoring with this strategy.
The second half of the period saw the Habs ramp up the attack a little. With nine minutes to play, Lehkonen was tripped by Scott Laughton which meant the first power play for the Habs. It was simply atrocious as the Canadiens just weren’t hustling enough to win any races to the puck.
With six minutes to play, Petry sent a rocket from the blue line that hit the post as the theme from last game showed its ugly head. The good news is that Montreal actually attacked the middle on that shift.
With five minutes remaining in the second period, Muller had seen enough and began to mix his lines. With the Habs in control of the period, Philippe Myers sent a one-hopper toward Price who was fooled on a second goal he should have stopped. He’s been amazing in the playoffs, but not on this afternoon as a second ugly goal put the Habs in a precarious position heading into the third period.
The start of the third saw Muller try some interesting combination that included Kotkaniemi playing with Suzuki and Byron while Domi centred Drouin and Gallagher. Weber was the most noticeable Hab early as he had a few bombs from the point, one of which clipped Robert Hagg behind the head. Once Philly settled in, they closed everything down and it seemed like the Habs had absolutely no answer to overcome it.
Victor Mete kicked off the last half-period with a high-sticking penalty. Price made some good saves at the start of the kill before the Canadiens buckled down and killed the second part of the penalty with little danger. As it was expiring, Muller made a savvy move as he played Kotkaniemi with Suzuki and Drouin out of the kill who applied pressure and got the Flyers to take a penalty for a second Habs man advantage. This one was dangerous, but it still wasn’t enough as Hart made some saves and kept this game out of the reach of the Habs.
With four minutes to play as Chiarot batted a puck out of the air and was rightfully called for delay of game which basically sealed Montreal’s fate. There were two minutes left after the kill; Suzuki and Kotkaniemi knocked on the door, but the Flyers would have none of it and the Habs now face elimination on Wednesday night.
HW Habs 3 Stars
1st Star – Jesperi Kotkaniemi
For the second game in a row, the Habs were shut down. Also for the second game in a row, Kotkaniemi was just about the only dangerous player in red as he created some scoring chances despite being mostly left on his own to do so. He was paired with Suzuki late in this one and it created some scoring chances. They met a defensively sound team and a ready netminder when they got through the defence, but he was definitely the brightest spot in this one.
Stats: +1, 1 shot, 4 hits, 17:28 T.O.I.
2nd Star – Shea Weber
Weber has been a beast along with Chiarot for eight games. On a night where the team needed their defencemen to jump in, Weber was often the one doing it. This might not be where Weber shines but he did an excellent job of it all afternoon and rarely left partner Chiarot out to dry in the process. Now only if he could get a few shots through.
Stats: -1, 3 shots, 3 hits, 24:54 T.O.I.
3rd Star – Paul Byron
In a game where there really wasn’t much to cheer about, let’s give Byron some props for being one of the few players that has continued to show up shift after shift. On a competitive team, I’m not sure Byron should be playing above the third line. Montreal isn’t there yet, so Byron’s never say quit attitude on the ice gets rewards when many veterans are no-shows on the ice.
Stats: 5 hits, 14:57 T.O.I.
Honourable Mention – Kirk Muller
Can’t understand for the life of me the line shuffling prior to the game, but credit to Muller who made some tough decisions with 25 minutes to play in this game that included more ice time for Kotkaniemi and Jake Evans (!!) and less for Drouin and Gallagher who both had tough games. He tried to open up some space for Kotkaniemi and Suzuki with some shifts on the wing, really throwing everything he could think of the way of the Flyers to see if it could get the offence going. Let’s see if he’ll be willing to make some even bolder choices facing elimination such as dressing Ryan Poehling, Cale Fleury and/or Noah Juulsen.
Extra note: Gallagher has been a fan favourite for his attitude on and off the ice for years. Right now, he’s either playing hurt or else he’s really been terrible in the bubble. I very much dislike his comments from after the game about ice time allotment. I hope I’ve got the wrong context here. If he wants more ice time, he’s got to earn it. This is especially true when the kids (Suzuki and Kotkaniemi) are so obviously outplaying the veterans. Don’t whine to the media before an elimination game, strap up your boots and show the coaching staff that they made a mistake.