The Habs were finally back in action on Tuesday as they returned from their mandated COVID isolation period. The NHL definitely lessened the impact by having their first game back against the Edmonton Oilers who were finishing a long road trip and playing the back end of two games in two nights.
Injuries and the mentioned coronavirus caused some changes to the bottom of the forward lineup as Jesperi Kotkaniemi centred the third line next to Paul Byron and Artturi Lehkonen while Jake Evans centred Corey Perry and Michael Frolik who was making his Habs debut. Between the pipes, Carey Price faced Mikko Koskinen with the Oilers having played the Leafs on Monday night. The newly formed third line set the tone early and the Habs skated away with a relatively easy 4-0 win with Price earning his first shutout of the season.
The Habs really buried the Oilers out of the gate as they completely owned the first period. The domination started no less than 18 seconds in as a shifty zone entry by Kotkaniemi created a give and go with Byron. The strategy left Kotkaniemi alone in the slot as he wired one by Koskinen for an early lead.
Edmonton unsuccessfully challenged the play for offside which meant the Habs got to build on the goal with a power play. The man advantage looked dangerous as both Shea Weber and Tomas Tatar hit the post on different units.
The shift that followed the advantage saw some intelligent play lead to a goal. With the Oilers attempting to place the Habs forwards under pressure, the puck was returned to the blue line and Joel Edmundson took advantage of seeing the Oilers out of position. He quickly sent the puck toward the net and was gifted with some bad Koskinen rebound control. Byron jumped on the rebound but couldn’t beat the goaltender. That led to another bad rebound by Koskinen and this time Lehkonen had an empty net to make it 2-0 just 3:23 into the game.
The next shift saw Frolik complete an excellent back check to signal his arrival with the team. A few moments later, Josh Anderson took exception to getting punched and fought William Lagesson. If Lagesson was trying to get his team going, his attempt failed miserably as the Oilers were penalized not long after for an offensive zone infraction. Once again, the power play threatened but couldn’t get on the board.
Koskinen’s best save of the period came on a lateral slide to stop Jonathan Drouin after a phenomenal Nick Suzuki pass. With four minutes to play, Phillip Danault won a faceoff which allowed Brendan Gallagher to score a very Gallagher goal. Weber fired a shot on net and Gallagher tipped it. Koskinen made the save but the tip left him scrambling as he left a rebound that Gallagher dove to get to as he slapped it home to make it 3-0. Connor McDavid’s only noteworthy play was a brutal elbow to Kotkaniemi’s head which gave the Habs a third power play that once again missed.
The second period saw the Oilers come out with some urgency as expected but Montreal did not appear to be bothered by it as they weathered the storm. The Oilers’ being over-aggressive allowed a Canadiens 2-on-1 where Perry opted for the shot that Koskinen stopped.
Price then made a few stops before Alexander Romanov was penalized for interference. The penalty kill stopped Edmonton from even getting a zone entry, but they would get a second chance a few moments later after a Gallagher trip. The second Oilers advantage got some zone time as Tyson Barrie hit the post with a point shot, but that’s as close as the Oilers would get.
The second half of the game saw the Habs get some momentum back before they really took over on a shift by the fourth line. The best chance of the sequence came when Perry and Weber worked a nifty give-and-go, but Perry missed his shot. The shift extended a little too long for the Habs though as the defence got caught on a change and the Oilers got a 3-on-1. McDavid thought he had reduced the Habs lead, but the replay showed an obvious offside that the Habs challenged successfully.
Another relentless shift by the fourth line tired the Oilers before Gallagher came in and continued to hound Edmonton’s defence. The result was a giveaway that Danault accepted and fired a pass cross-ice to Tatar who one-timed it home to extend the lead to 4-0 with two minutes to play. In the final seconds of the period, Suzuki beat Barrie with speed and drew a penalty to start the third.
The third period started with a 90-second power play for the Habs, but the offence appeared quite happy to see the clock expire with the puck deep in Edmonton’s zone. The Habs kept momentum after the advantage and kept the Oilers in their zone until the five–minute mark in the period.
With both teams going through the motions, the Habs coaching staff was wise in using the fourth line quite a bit. This is an important element considering the absolutely crazy upcoming schedule to end the season. With a few minutes left in the game, Anderson took a penalty for tripping but the team reacted appropriately and preserved Price’s first shutout of the season, one where he only needed to make 16 stops, the fewest in any of his career shutouts.
HabsWorld Habs 3 Stars
1st Star – Paul Byron
Byron played his best game of the season and it wasn’t even close. His smart play got the Habs on the board on his first shift and then he was all over the ice for the entire first period. I don’t think it’s coincidental that Byron had such an outing as the arrival of Eric Staal makes his presence in the lineup that much less likely. It’s also with noise around his movement out of Montreal that Byron has shown his best games all season long, so while I’m thinking Byron can’t wait for the trade deadline to be in the rear-view mirror, the coaching staff might not see it the same way.
Stats: 2 assists, +2, 2 shots, 4 hits, 15:45 T.O.I.
2nd Star – Artturi Lehkonen
Lehkonen rarely takes a shift off, nevermind a night off. What he lacks with consistency is the ability to finish the plays he creates. On nights like this where he is able to get on the scoreboard, most fans have to wonder why in the world trade rumours would be circulating about this player. Alas, these nights may well be too far and few between as Lehkonen, much like Byron, is likely impatient for the trade deadline to be a thing of the past. On this night, he was excellent and scored some points.
Stats: 1 goal, 1 assist, +2, 2 shots, 1 hit, 15:59 T.O.I.
3rd Star – Brendan Gallagher
After a quiet start to the season, Gallagher has been on fire of late as he returns to form and acts as the engine that runs the entire offence for the Habs. His goal was an absolute display of what that last sentence stands for as he tied up his check on the faceoff, outworked his check to the front of the net, tipped the point shot, won his physical battle against a much bigger opponent only to put his entire body on the line as he dove through the crease to reach the puck and put it home. There’s just no putting into words what this player means to this team. Oh, and for those who are wondering about a player like this ages, I say follow the progression of Tomas Holmstrom who also had too much passion to truly feel his age until the very twilight of his career.
Stats: 1 goal, 1 assist, +2, 2 shots, 14:47 T.O.I.
Honourable Mention – Shea Weber
Many players were deserving of a mention on this night. I am going with Weber because his play was noticeably better than prior to the break. The most notable quality in the captain was his quickness. Now, Weber will never be fast, so I’m not talking about his speed, but the quickness of his decision making and execution was noticeably quicker which leads me to one of two conclusions. The first possible conclusion is that Weber was carrying an injury and the break did him wonders. The second is that father time is catching up and if the team wants to see this Weber more often than pre-break Weber, it might be time to consider having him take some NBA-style maintenance nights. It’s important to note that these may become popular with the Habs depth and the crazy schedule ahead, so Weber might not be the only one who would benefit from said nights.
Stats: 1 assist, +3, 3 shots, 21:50 T.O.I.