The Habs went into Wednesday’s game against Calgary looking to hammer home that the final playoff spot is theirs. It didn’t happen. Instead, they put forth another poor effort and paid for it with the Flames walking away with a 4-1 victory.
Montreal opted to make just one lineup change from their victory over Toronto on Monday with Joel Armia replacing Jake Evans. Armia, who had missed eight straight games while recovering from COVID-19, skated alongside Tyler Toffoli and Nick Suzuki while the other lines remained the same.
The Habs had the best chance early on, just a minute in. Jonathan Drouin forced a turnover in the neutral zone, skated into Calgary’s end, and sent a pass that managed to reach Josh Anderson but Anderson rang the shot off the crossbar.
The Flames didn’t get much going early but once they were able to get into Montreal’s zone, they did some damage. Jesperi Kotkaniemi lost two clean draws that resulted in Calgary shots and Jake Allen saves, resulting in a quick line change. Unfortunately, Suzuki fared no better against Mikael Backlund and it proved costly; the draw went straight to Noah Hanifin whose point shot got through clean and beat Allen to open up the scoring just before the four-minute mark.
Neither team was able to generate much in the way of chances the rest of the way. Montreal had a power play off a Rasmus Andersson shot but beyond a Suzuki tip shortly after a won faceoff, did nothing after that. The Canadiens had some puck possession in Calgary’s end but the Flames were patient and eventually were able to get it back without much of an issue.
Both sides had an odd collision in the opening frame. Elias Lindholm bumped into Joel Edmundson and went awkwardly off the ice but stayed in the game, actually just missing the net on his first shift back. Meanwhile, Corey Perry got his legs tangled with linesman Mark Shewchyk in the final minute but both continued on. The shots on goal were 12-8 for the Flames but the scoring chances were minimal.
The second period wasn’t any better at the beginning. Less than 30 seconds in, Mark Giordano received a feed from Chris Tanev from the opposite point and his shot got through a screen and in. Montreal nearly got that back 25 seconds later when Alexander Romanov’s point shot was tipped by Tyler Toffoli but it caught the post instead of the back of the net.
Matthew Tkachuk made his presence felt three minutes later. First, he got behind Montreal’s defence for a partial break that was stopped by Allen. Seconds later, he was stopped in tight on another good look.
The Habs finally got on the board with a bit of good luck. After Milan Lucic whiffed on what would have been a good chance in close, Montreal came back with some speed in the neutral zone (a rarity in this game). Jonathan Drouin’s no-look pass went right on the tape of Brett Kulak who skated in from centre, got a half step on Calgary’s defence, and squeaked it past Jacob Markstrom for his first goal in 748 days. He was due.
With six and a half minutes left, Allen was forced to make a big stop on Lindholm after the third pairing was caught out for an extended shift. Drouin was largely at fault on that; after looking completely disinterested on the half wall where he could have engaged to try to force a turnover, he got the puck a bit later in the shift. However, instead of attempting to put it deep to allow a change, he nonchalantly put it out to centre without a care in the world, completely oblivious to the basic fundamentals. He’s not a defensive specialist, but that lack of attention is unacceptable in junior hockey let alone the NHL.
Montreal’s last good chance of the second came with five minutes to go off a Calgary turnover in the defensive zone. The puck eventually bounced to Tomas Tatar and while he got a decent shot off, Markstrom got it with the pad.
The Canadiens got their second power play of the game with a minute to go when Andersson was called for interference. Let’s just say they were fortunate to not allow a shorthanded goal; the unit was completely discombobulated and Joakim Nordstrom was stopped in close with a dozen seconds to go. The one-goal deficit remained heading into the third with Calgary holding a 13-10 shot advantage in the frame.
The carryover minute with the man advantage yielded nothing and the shots were few and far between for several minutes after that. Just past the six-minute mark, Backlund was stopped off the rush. It wasn’t much of a dangerous shot but it was the highlight of that stretch of play.
Calgary then got their turn with the power play when Paul Byron was called for cross-checking. To Montreal’s credit, they did a nice job on the penalty kill, perhaps the only two minutes of the game where they were fundamentally sound.
At the 11:30 mark, Perry had a brutal giveaway at centre ice, sending Johnny Gaudreau in on a breakaway but Allen was up to the task. Unfortunately, another bad giveaway just over a minute later as Shea Weber’s turnover right onto the stick of Josh Leivo resulted in the winger back-handing one past Allen to restore the two-goal lead and put the game out of reach.
Drouin and Eric Staal had some good pressure with five minutes to go but the Flames wound up with possibly the best scoring chance as they took advantage of Kulak breaking his stick but nothing came of it.
The Habs pulled Allen with 3:30 to go and for the next two minutes with the extra attacker, they did absolutely nothing. Sean Monahan eventually sealed the victory with an empty-netter from the defensive zone with just over a minute to go.
Give Calgary some credit in this one. They frustrated Montreal from the opening puck drop and it’s clear their style gives the Canadiens fits and the Habs responded about as poorly as they could with an effort level that should have the coaching staff equalled baffled and upset. The rematch will go on Friday.
HW Habs 3 Stars
1st Star: Brett Kulak – There were some adventures in his own end (that was the case for all of the defencemen) but he was rewarded for his offensive aggressiveness with his first goal in two years. That alone is worthy of the first star nod.
Stats: 1 goal, even rating, 3 shots, 1 hit, 1 block, 16:58 TOI
2nd Star: Jake Allen – Three goals allowed usually isn’t good enough to be on here but he had a solid game and quite frankly kept it close for a whole lot longer than it should have been. With a back-to-back coming, he may be in line for a game off either Friday against the Flames or Saturday afternoon against the Senators. Cayden Primeau was sent to Laval after the game which suggests Carey Price is ready to return.
Stats: 3 goals allowed on 33 shots, 3.12 GAA, .909 SV%
3rd Star: Eric Staal – There were no flashy plays to really get anyone’s attention but his attention to detail stood out in a game where most of his teammates had none. There were smart, subtle plays on board battles, faceoffs, and even in the neutral zone. I know he hasn’t done much offensively aside from his first game but there were some quiet positives.
Stats: 0 points, -1 rating, 2 shots, 5/11 faceoffs, 14:30 TOI
Honourable Mention: Joel Armia – For someone that missed three weeks, he looked like the normal Armia in both good and bad ways. I’m not focusing on the performance here but it’s nice to see he was able to jump back in without any visible issues after battling the virus which is great.
Stats: 0 points, -2 rating, 3 shots, 3 hits, 13:37 TOI