With only one win in their last seven games, the Habs came into Saturday’s contest against the Pittsburgh Penguins desperate for a win as they were riding yet another two-game losing streak. With both teams playing on consecutive nights, the lack of execution that usually comes with such a scenario had the potential to help the Habs who already struggle to execute on the regular.
The Habs were also likely to be seeking a bit of revenge after being humiliated 6-0 by the Penguins only nine days prior. For the occasion, Jake Allen returned to the Habs crease after Samuel Montembeault got the start in Friday’s lamentable effort. The team responded as they played quite a good game and were able to get out of Pittsburgh with a rare win, a 6-3 victory that will help morale moving forward.
It was announced prior to the game that Chris Wideman was unavailable so there were some changes all over the roster. The top line consisted of Artturi Lehkonen as the latest partner to Nick Suzuki and Cole Caufield. The line of Christian Dvorak, Josh Anderson, and Tyler Toffoli remained intact. This meant that Jake Evans was being flanked by Jonathan Drouin and Brendan Gallagher. The fourth line was Michael Pezzetta with Ryan Poehlin and Joel Armia. On the blue line, Ben Chiarot remained with Jeff Petry, same with the duo of David Savard and Alexander Romanov. This meant that Sami Niku and Mattias Norlinder formed the team’s third duo.
The opening five minutes was a festival of missed passes that resulted in low-event and neutral zone hockey. This was ended with a four-minute high-sticking penalty to Dominik Simon which sent the Canadiens to an extended man advantage. The Habs generated an interesting sequence in the power play’s first minute, but then they were completely incapable of regaining offensive zone possession for the last three minutes of the advantage.
The second half of the period wasn’t much more entertaining as passes continued to miss for both teams which caused erratic and unorganized play. The final five minutes finally picked up as the Penguins got organized which sent the Habs reeling. Montreal did get one great shift as the Dvorak line got a few scoring chances, none better than Dvorak who got a puck through Casey DeSmith’s pads but hit the post. Overall, the period saw a 14-8 shot advantage for the Pens but ended scoreless.
The second period kicked off with Toffoli running into Anderson at the offensive blue line which sent the Pens the other way for a full minute of control in Montreal’s zone where Allen was forced to make a few great saves. The Habs then pushed back and earned some offensive zone time which was halted with a hooking penalty to Norlinder that would be considered soft in the preseason.
The Habs managed to kill off their penalty, but the second half of the game started with the officials making up for the Norlinder penalty in the most terrible way possible. Kris Letang was sent to the box for interference and rightfully spent the ensuing commercial break in a heated discussion with the official. Regardless, the Habs squandered yet another advantage and the officials had to be quite happy that the game remained scoreless with the quality of the penalties being called.
The final six minutes of the period saw the game finally get going. Pittsburgh got the Habs running around their zone, but the Habs were able to dive around and keep the puck out.
Then, with 4:26 to play, Drouin was able to get in behind the defence for a breakaway and complete a nifty little deke before tucking the puck five-hole on DeSmith to finally open the scoring.
Allen was beaten in the next minute as the Pens pushed back, but Norlinder was able to find the puck behind Allen to save the goal and preserve the lead. Pittsburgh continued to push for the equalizer but were unable to find it despite a shot advantage of 31-21 by the end of the second period.
The Penguins came out hungry to tie the game in the third and this resulted in a Lehkonen penalty two minutes into the period. 13 seconds into the advantage, the puck was tipped by Sidney Crosby to Evan Rodrigues who snuck in from the point. Rodrigues fired a precise shot over Chiarot’s stick and Allen’s shoulder to tie the game.
30 seconds later, Anderson completed some important bull work to get the Habs deep into the Pittsburgh zone. Niku came deep into the offensive zone to collect the loose puck and fired a beautiful pass across to Dvorak who tucked it home to quickly regain the lead.
The Penguins pushed back, and Allen made a beauty of a glove save off Rodrigues to keep the lead. Then, the kids went to work. Suzuki won a faceoff which led to a point shot from Norlinder. Caufield got to the rebound and pushed it forward to Lehkonen who fired it home to extend the lead.
This would be important as Chiarot was called for cross-checking (surprise!) before the midway point of the period. The Habs were really inspired by the Lehkonen goal and defended well even after the man advantage. They continually kept the Penguins to the outside and were winning physical battles when they really pushed to get in close to Allen. With 5:35 left, Armia’s hard forecheck was directly responsible for a Pens penalty.
The Pens killed the penalty and then pulled DeSmith with a little over three minutes to play. Drouin squandered a chance to get the puck out moments later and those plays always count. The puck bounced around and landed on Jeff Carter’s stick who made no mistake and tucked a puck top corner to make it 3-2 with over two minutes to play.
About a minute later, with DeSmith still pulled, it was Anderson who once again won a puck battle against Crosby, fired the puck down the ice, and then followed his own effort to get in position and gain the rebound to score the empty-netter.
This would prove to be important since the Penguins kept the net empty and saw Crosby beat Allen short-side with just over a minute to go to make it a one-goal game again.
The scoring was NOT over! Anderson beat Letang in a puck race forcing the defender to trip Anderson. The result was that the goal was awarded to Anderson since it was a partial breakaway. Seconds later, Toffoli fired a puck down the ice and scored a third empty-net goal for the Habs to end the scoring.
HabsWorld Habs 3 Stars
1st Star – Josh Anderson
Throughout the first half of the game, Anderson appeared to be the only Hab capable of moving the needle. He was noticeable on most shifts and created positive momentum for the team on almost every presence on the ice. Not a bad performance after being the one willing to publicly call out the veterans after Friday’s loss. On Montreal’s second goal, he was such a bull that he attracted double coverage that allowed the offensive excursion by Niku that directly led to the goal, nevermind that the Habs were probably still hemmed in their zone if not for Anderson’s work to even get the puck into the offensive zone.
Stats – 2 goals, 1 assist, +4, 6 shots, 2 hits, 18:17 T.O.I.
2nd Star – Jake Allen
A win without a shutout for Allen? Hasn’t happened often. Allen was good in the first two periods, great in the third. He made important saves, made many saves, but most of all, the most tangible upgrade over Montembeault and Cayden Primeau is that Allen could control the flow of the game and allow his teammates to regain control by controlling rebounds when he felt the team around him starting to run around. No, he doesn’t do this quite as well as Price, but he’s light years ahead of the other two in this department. Nice to have Allen back between the pipes.
Stats – 47 saves, 50 shots, .940 save %, 3.03 G.A.A., 59 :29 T.O.I.
3rd Star – Artturi Lehkonen
Lehkonen has quietly been offensively effective of late and I’m a fan of playing the tireless worker next to Montreal’s two most skilled players. He was rewarded for his efforts on this night, and so he’s an easy selection for this spot as it’s always fun to highlight the success of a player who rarely takes a shift off, even in a season like this one.
Stats – 1 goal, 3 shots, 4 hits, 14:54 T.O.I.
Honourable Mention – Geoff Molson
This is the story that broke just prior to puck drop about a discussion with former Rangers GM Jeff Gorton and the resignation of Scott Mellanby. Now, since the start of the season, actually, pretty much since the P.K. Subban trade (which is ridiculous), there have been many speculating that the problem in Montreal started at the top, with Molson, and the requirement to hire a bilingual person for GM and coach positions. I’ll tip my hand before even addressing it and say I get it for the coach, but I find it stupid for the GM who should be addressing the media 4-5 times a year. Having said this, I think the notion that Molson sought permission to even speak with Gorton (one of the best hockey minds available today) points to the desire to do well on his part, and all the “he’s only in it for the money” comments can now stop. Whether this discussion leads to Gorton being hired as a president, GM, AGM, or not at all, the point is that Molson is doing his due diligence and we can all tip our cap to that!