The Habs kicked off an important back-to-back with a Friday night contest against the Winnipeg Jets. Considering the importance of the weekend games, it was worrisome to learn prior to the game that the Habs would do so without the services of Shea Weber who was sidelined with an upper-body injury. This meant changes that compounded the many changes up front with the absences of Tomas Tatar, Jonathan Drouin, Brendan Gallagher, and Paul Byron.
The top line featured Phillip Danault centering Jesperi Kotkaniemi and Josh Anderson. The second line was Nick Suzuki centring Tyler Toffoli and Joel Armia. Next was a kids line centred by Jake Evans and flanked by Artturi Lehkonen and Cole Caufield while the last was the veteran line of Eric Staal, Corey Perry, and Michael Frolik. The blue line saw Alexander Romanov join Ben Chiarot, while Petry-Edmundson remained intact and Jon Merrill was joined by Erik Gustafsson. The goaltending matchup featured Jake Allen and Connor Hellebuyck as expected.
What wasn’t expected considering the way both teams had played leading up to this game was the offensive explosion that happened. In the end, that explosion favoured the Habs as they really worked well on this night to overcome two two-goal deficits to earn a 5-3 win.
The summary of the first period can be relatively short and sweet. The Habs were the better of the two teams as they really got momentum early created by their blueline being much more active with Romanov leading the way in that department. His mobility on the back end made up for continued lapses in defensive coverage, but at least the Habs looked capable offensively. Anderson and Caufield had strong first periods.
Unfortunately for the Habs, this strong period was matched with a lack of execution since, of the 25 attempted shots, 12 missed the net which meant that an old chorus was heard. The Habs were the better team but never scored and they were punished for it. Chiarot took an eternity to get back in the play after a hit and Romanov missed that he was alone. This opened a passing lane to Paul Stastny who came in and beat Allen with a short-side shot as Winnipeg escaped the period with a 1-0 lead.
The Habs once again came out with some energy and created some scoring chances. 2:20 into the period, a nice passing play by Suzuki and Armia created an opening for Toffoli who once again fired wide. Play immediately went the other way for Trevor Lewis to beat Allen and extend Winnipeg’s lead.
In a rare turn of events, the goal did not completely zap the energy from the Habs. A strong defensive play by Kotkaniemi led to a decent shift from the veteran line before Armia once again worked the Jets defenders to create an opening for Suzuki who finally put one home to cut the lead to 2-1.
The same line followed up with a shift where they completely hemmed the Jets in their zone and almost tied the game in one shift. With 12 minutes to play, the momentum built by the Suzuki line was taken away when Suzuki got called for trying to lift a player’s stick. Allen made a few good stops early on the power play as the Jets did not score.
The second half of the game got underway with a little Toffoli and Caufield show. Toffoli circled the Jets zone twice and got two good shots off before Caufield was set up for three great chances that he couldn’t bury, the last one hitting the post. Staal won the next faceoff but saw Gustafsson miss the puck sending the Jets on a 2-on-1 where Merrill didn’t pressure, and Allen got caught cheating for an expected pass. Lewis buried a weak goal to regain the two-goal advantage.
The kids line would have none of it as Evans used a joining Chiarot who then found Lehkonen who used both the Jets blueliner and Hellebuyck cheating toward Caufield on the other side to bury a short-sided shot and once again get the Habs to within a goal.
Strong play by Danault then led to a penalty for the Jets. The power play saw Armia with an early chance and was finally rewarded on a strange play as Suzuki completely fanned on a shot only to see the dribbler find Armia in the slot who scored to tie the game heading to the third.
The start of the third period can only be described as Winnipeg desperately hanging on hoping to get at least a point in the game. The Habs were all over them, most notably Evans was everywhere on the ice. This created momentum as both Toffoli and Anderson came close to earning the lead for the Habs.
The Jets pushed back as the second half of the period started and then the Habs were caught with too many men on the ice on a poor line change which opened the door for Winnipeg. The Habs defended well and Blake Wheeler got frustrated, taking a high-sticking penalty to cut their advantage short.
Anderson was robbed by Hellebuyck during the 4-on-4 before Nick Suzuki buried his now patented wrist shot to put the Habs ahead for the first time in the game with 4:50 to play for Montreal’s second power play goal of the game. The Jets attacked late while completing a hard hit on Armia that ended his night, but ultimately it was Toffoli who buried an empty netter to secure the victory.
HabsWorld Habs 3 Stars
1st Star – Nick Suzuki
Suzuki hit the bottom of the barrel a few weeks ago and has been slowly regaining form since. On this night, that progression hit a high as it appeared the puck was stuck to him and even when he missed a play (a total whiffed power play shot that landed right on Armia’s stick!) it found teammates and Winnipeg paid the price. It had been a long time since seeing Suzuki this decisive on the ice, both offensively and defensively. He was rewarded for strong decision making as he was all over the score sheet.
Stats: 2 goals, 1 assist, +1, 3 shots, 17:18 T.O.I.
2nd Star – Josh Anderson
Remember when Bergevin spoke quite highly of his leadership group before the season started. Was Josh Anderson in that group? In a season where Price, Weber, Drouin, and Danault have appeared more concerned with their personal standing on the team, it is Anderson, in the absence of Gallagher, that has really stood up and been the voice of truth. The fact that he’s backed it up by being just about the most regularly good player on the team gives his words some weight. He was not rewarded with points on this night, but he had several good chances and likely should have skated away with a few more points on his season.
Stats: +1, 4 shots, 2 hits, 18:28 T.O.I.
3rd Star – Joel Armia
If Anderson is the most regular Hab, Armia must be the least regular player on this entire roster. On some nights, I’d encourage Armia being a healthy scratch, and then he pulls out a game like this where he’s willing to pay the price, all over the puck, and in the slot all night long. Every single time, he’s rewarded with multiple points and this one was no different. If he was able to be like this all the time, well I guess Winnipeg would have never allowed him to become a Hab in the first place. He’s a beast when he shows up and he was just that in this one. Here’s hoping the injury sustained in the final moments won’t have long-lasting effects on his presence or playing.
Stats: 1 goal, 5 shots, 3 hits, 16:23 T.O.I.
Honourable Mention – Cole Caufield
This was a game where many kids showed glimpses of what can become. Alexander Romanov was a breath of fresh air in the top four. He missed important defensive assignments but made the team so much more dangerous offensively through his vision and mobility. Jake Evans was all over the ice in the second and third periods creating a long list of scoring chances for his linemates. Cole Caufield showed his ability to get lost in coverage. In the second period alone, he was credited with three shots on net and another three attempts, one of them being a backhand that hit the post. Sure, the performances are likely to be much like the Senators in their inconsistency, but I personally prefer the high-end inconsistency to the mediocre regularity of being just good enough of making the playoffs. Bring me more kids on this team, even if they have a learning curve and it means missing the playoffs next year. Caufield was so fun to watch in this one.
Stats: +1, 3 shots, 10:59 T.O.I.