The Habs had to improve upon Wednesday’s disappointing effort against their playoff rivals Calgary Flames in a rematch on Friday night. Otherwise, the playoff picture would become even more disputed down the stretch.
While early morning news saw Cole Caufield recalled, the Habs were quick to quiet the noise as Caufield was not dressed for the game. An early return for Ben Chiarot was in the cards though as he found his spot on the team’s second pairing next to Shea Weber, Brett Kulak was returned to the third pair with Alexander Romanov, and the forwards and Jake Allen remained as they were on Wednesday. Jake Allen faced Jacob Markstrom as the Flames were not about to play a backup with their playoff lives almost on the line. The Habs had to claw their way to a 2-1 regulation time victory as they really improved their playoff chances with this win.
The entirety of the first period was played with intensity from both teams as what was at stake was clear for both teams (unlike Wednesday). The opening shift saw Paul Byron make a strong play on the puck in the defensive zone that opened a Phillip Danault scoring chance. The Flames came back with a strong shift, but Montreal once again knocked on the door as Joel Armia, who was the best player on the ice for most of the game, made some moves to create some space for himself. At the ten-minute mark, the shots favoured Calgary but the quality of the scoring chances did not.
Joel Edmundson delivered a dangerous-looking check on Dillon Dube that was called, sending the Habs to the penalty kill. The second minute of the power play was excellent as Allen was forced to make several excellent saves to keep the Flames off the board. However, the required momentum was gained as Calgary really controlled the rest of the period.
The physicality ramped up as Romanov was a stand out for his checks in the period. With two minutes to play, a terribly soft clearing attempt by Weber allowed the Flames to get some zone time as the fourth line was out for almost two minutes. With 14 seconds to play, Armia was once again hard on the puck and that drew a Matthew Tkachuk penalty which meant the Habs would start the second period with a man advantage after Markstrom’s best save of the period came on Josh Anderson in the dying seconds.
For all the intensity shown by the Habs in the first period, they really needed to limit the giveaways after being guilty of 14 in the first period. The power play to start the period was not a good omen for the period as it was not dangerous. A minute later, Anderson charged the net with the puck and drew a penalty. This second advantage was just as atrocious as they appear to be as obsessed with the x’s and o’s as they were with Muller at the helm instead of being creative. The shifts that followed these penalties saw some better attack from Montreal without obtaining results before the Flames missed two empty net chances.
Just before the midway point of the game, another strong Armia shift created some space for his linemates. This allowed Nick Suzuki to find a streaking Tyler Toffoli who scored his 20th of the season and an all-important first goal of the game.
An extended shift by this same line soon after saw Suzuki take a high-sticking penalty. This second Calgary power play was a little different than the first as the Flames were dangerous early only to see Rasmus Andersson and Johnny Gaudreau both smack the post as Allen really had some good fortune in this period and the Habs survived the Flames advantage a second time. As the second neared its end, the frustration for Calgary started showing itself as they suddenly wanted to wrestle with every Montreal player after every whistle.
The third period started and promised disaster as the Habs were completely on their heels to start. Montreal played quite well defensively though so they escaped the first five minutes. The game became a neutral zone battle which was a good idea for the Habs. An intense forecheck by Anderson about seven minutes into the period sent Noah Hanifin into the boards hard as he appeared to hurt his shoulder although he remained in the game.
This appeared to spark the Flames as they returned to Montreal’s zone. They once again victimized the Chiarot-Weber pairing as Elias Lindholm fanned on the shot, but had plenty of time to grab the loose puck and backhand one off Chiarot and through Allen meaning a new game was on hand with only ten minutes to play.
Both teams approached the last segment with caution with little to no scoring chances taking places. It only really required one opportunity and it was once again Armia who forechecked hard, won a battle against a Calgary defender, and pushed the puck to the front of the net where Toffoli was able to put home his second of the game to put the Habs in front with under five minutes left to play.
The Flames were guilty of some strange personnel usage (that would have sent Montreal fans and media nuts!) as the fourth line got a shift with under two minutes to play. The result was that they were unable to pull the goaltender and get their scorers out until there were only 47 seconds left to play. The Habs were able to hang on for a very important two points.
HabsWorld Habs 3 Stars
1st Star – Joel Armia
Armia was one of the most engaged Habs in the opening period and continued this all game long. His continued strong puck play in the bottom of Calgary’s zone was directly responsible for Suzuki finding Toffoli on the game’s first goal and I think he was the leader on this line that made itself the team’s top unit on this night. He then did it again by beating a defender and setting up Toffoli for the game-winner with four minutes to play.
Stats: 1 assist, +2, 1 shot, 3 hits, 14:01 T.O.I.
2nd Star – Tyler Toffoli
He was signed to come in and score some goals. He is by far the Montreal player that requires the least chances before actually burying the chance. It’s not a fluke that he’s scored 21 already and he was once again the author of both goals in this one.
Stats: 2 goals, +2, 5 shots, 4 hits, 15:55 T.O.I.
3rd Star – Jake Allen
Allen made some strong saves early, but really stood out on Calgary’s first period power play. He then got a little lucky in the second as he was caught out of position twice and saw the Flames hit the posts three times. Then, he was calm, cool, and collected after Calgary tied it and retained momentum, doing so long enough for Toffoli to score the winner.
Stats: 28 saves, 29 shots against, .966 save %, 60:00 T.O.I.
Honourable Mention – Alexander Romanov
Romanov was a physical presence and a quick look at the TOI ticker indicates that the coaching staff appreciated his play as he had played more than Brett Kulak and barely less than Joel Edmundson as the team’s fifth defenceman after two periods. He gathered a bit less ice time in the third with the team spending most of it trying to defend a lead, but that should not last long the way Weber is currently playing. It’s hard to argue with the overall TOI for a rookie down the stretch here but if he doesn’t become the fourth most used defender next year as a minimum, then something is seriously wrong in Habsland.
Stats: +2, 2 hits, 15:51 T.O.I.