What’s left of the Habs looked to start 2022 on a winning note as they travelled to Florida for a Saturday matinee against the Panthers. They had a good first period but struggled after that, eventually falling 5-2.
The COVID protocol placements continued as before the game, Jake Evans and Alexander Romanov were ruled ineligible to play and with the club electing not to execute an emergency recall on their signed junior players (it’s not like they couldn’t have seen this coming), they were forced to play with just five defencemen and 11 forwards.
The game got off to the worst start possible for the Canadiens as on the first shift of the game, Anthony Duclair took the puck behind the net but instead of going around, he reversed course and sent the puck out front to Sam Bennett. Samuel Montembeault was starting to move the other way anticipating the wraparound and wasn’t in a good position for Bennett’s shot which beat him far-side to open the scoring just 32 seconds in. Three minutes later, a high hit from Bennett on Cedric Paquette caused him to miss the rest of the period, putting the Habs down to ten forwards.
One the next shift, Sami Niku had the puck at the faceoff dot and sent a hard pass towards Jonathan Drouin’s stick. Drouin was able to get a piece of it, sending the puck past Sergei Bobrovsky to tie it up before the game was four minutes old.
Montreal’s forward number soon dipped to nine temporarily as a hit from Michael Pezzetta on Radko Gudas drew the ire of the Florida defender who dropped the gloves, sending both off for five minutes.
While Montembeault allowed a goal on the first shot of the game, he was sharp after that early on as Florida peppered him with quality shots. Owen Tippett was stopped right in front twice at the five-minute mark and a minute and a half later, he made a big sliding stop on Anton Lundell. 30 seconds after that attempt, the Habs went in on a two-on-one with Lukas Vejdemo and Alex Belzile. Vejdemo kept it and shot with Bobrovsky making the stop.
Just past the midway point, a good rush from Nick Suzuki drew a penalty on Brandon Montour, sending the Habs to the man advantage. The first unit had a couple of good chances, one off a one-timer from Drouin and a jam play in front from Rafael Harvey-Pinard but couldn’t solve Bobrovsky and the second unit, featuring almost exclusively a unit from Laval, couldn’t muster up much. Seconds after the penalty ended, Niku turned it over in the defensive zone to Bennett but Montembeault came up with the stop once again.
With just under five minutes left, the Habs nearly had Drouin sprung for a breakaway but the pass just missed. On the next shift, Montembeault made another strong stop, this time off Carter Verhaeghe off the rush. A minute after that, a perfect one-touch pass from Cam Hillis in his NHL debut sent Pezzetta in but he was in tight and while he tried a between the legs shot, it didn’t work. The buzzer on an eventful period sounded with the teams tied at one in goals and 15 in shots.
Paquette returned for the second period (but left in the third again), one that featured a much slower start than the first. Florida got their first power play of the game a little before the six-minute mark when David Savard hooked Jonathan Huberdeau off a centring attempt from Duclair which may have saved a tap-in goal. The penalty kill overcame some bad clearing attempts to eventually kill it off.
Just after that one ended, Savard took another penalty as he was called for tripping just after a faceoff, one that saw Frank Vatrano ring one off the post. That kill was short-lived as Suzuki somehow drew an interference penalty on Aaron Ekblad, one that was more of a Suzuki hold than anything else.
In that four-on-four sequence, Suzuki sent the puck to Jesse Ylonen. His point shot was stopped but the rebound went right to Suzuki who put it past Bobrovsky to give Montreal the improbable lead.
Not long after the midway mark of the period, both teams traded breaks that amounted to nothing. First, Cole Caufield was sprung but was caught on the backcheck, preventing a shot. 30 seconds later, Mason Marchment chased the puck down and was in alone but his between the legs attempt failed and he wiped out in the corner to add to his frustration.
On the next shift, Savard turned it over in the offensive zone, sending Florida back on the counter-attack again. On the play, Corey Schueneman hooked Huberdeau and the Panthers went back to the man advantage. This time, they made the most of it as a cross-ice pass from Sam Reinhart found Aleksander Barkov who was able to slide a shot past a stretched-out Montembeault to tie it up.
They kept pressuring after the goal as well. Two and a half minutes after the equalizer, they took the lead as Reinhart’s pass this time found Vatrano who had gotten in behind Brett Kulak in coverage. Vatrano was able to tip it past Montembeault and all of a sudden, the Habs were trailing.
Florida got another power play with two minutes left when Kale Clague high-sticked Duclair. However, it was the Habs that had the best chance as Suzuki was sent in on a breakaway but Barkov was able to interrupt the shot just enough for it to graze the outside of the post. Montreal was able to kill off the rest of the penalty but they were still down one at the buzzer while Florida held a 21-6 shot advantage in the frame.
The hope for a comeback in the third period didn’t last long. Just 15 seconds in, Mackenzie Weegar’s point shot was tipped by Bennett past Montembeault to double Florida’s advantage. It was a bit of a high tip but clearly was clearly under the bar. Less than a minute later, Savard completed his hat trick of penalties, this time being called for slashing but the Panthers couldn’t get anything going on the power play.
The Habs then got a chance with the man advantage when Gudas was called for high sticking on Ryan Poehling on a play that looked more like an elbow than anything else. Montreal could barely get into the offensive zone in the two minutes let alone generate a scoring chance. On the shift after the penalty ended, Harvey-Pinard had a good tip off of a point shot from Schueneman that was turned aside by Bobrovsky.
Florida then got a chance to seal it when Brett Kulak’s point shot was blocked by Duclair, sending him to the races. However, his shot caught the post and stayed out. Later in the period, Lukas Vejdemo had a good rush on his off-wing but Gudas broke up the play and sent him into the boards for good measure.
The Panthers were eventually able to add to their lead. With seven and a half minutes left, Marchment went in on a two-on-one with Patric Hornqvist. This time, he chose the simple play and it was the right one as his shot drew iron and bounced in, putting this one away.
Montreal had one good chance late with a little over four minutes to go as Suzuki went in on a two-on-one with Drouin. He made a perfect pass to Drouin who whiffed on the initial shot attempt and Bobrovsky easily stopped the second one. The Habs then fell apart defensively in the final few minutes but Montembeault finished strong as the game ended 5-2.
HW Habs 3 Stars
1st Star: Nick Suzuki – He has been way too quiet over the past few weeks but was much better in this one. Offensively, he was one of the few Habs who could create some scoring chances and most of Florida’s shots and chances came when he wasn’t on the ice. Part of the learning curve – especially in this situation – is finding a way to contribute even when the situation is less than ideal. He responded well on that front today.
Stats: 1 goal, +1 rating, 5 shots, 2 hits, 11/23 faceoffs, 24:41 TOI
2nd Star: Samuel Montembeault – It’s rare for a goalie to allow five goals and be one of the stars of the game. But Montembeault absolutely was in this one. With an overmatched team in front of him, it was a shooting gallery, particularly in the final two periods. A few got by him but he did well to keep the depleted Canadiens in it for longer than almost anyone would have reasonably expected.
Stats: 43 saves on 48 shots, 5.03 GAA, .896 SV%
3rd Star: Jonathan Drouin – He made a nice play to tip Niku’s pass in for Montreal’s opening goal but I liked his all-around game. Defensive attention to detail isn’t always Drouin’s strong suit but there was a demonstrated commitment towards trying to do the little things right and he even saw some regular minutes on the penalty kill. That’s not an ideal role for him but he held his own on that front.
Stats: 1 goal, -1 rating, 3 shots, 2 takeaways, 23:10 TOI
Honourable Mention: Corey Schueneman – With only five defencemen, Dominique Ducharme was going to be hard-pressed to shelter him; Schueneman was going to have to play bigger minutes. To his credit, he was arguably Montreal’s most stable defender in the game. He moved the puck well, made some good decisions in his own end, and wasn’t burned as often as any of his more experienced teammates were. This was a performance that will earn him some points with coaches and management.
Stats: 0 points, even rating, 2 PIMS, 1 takeaway, 3 blocks, 18:25 TOI
I also feel it’s worth pointing out that Kale Clague played an absurd 27:34 in this one, the most of anyone on any team. His previous career-high in TOI in a game was 23:12 in a game in February with Los Angeles. He had a tough game defensively but being trusted to play that much in spite of it says a lot about the impression he has made on the coaches since joining the team.
With the next four games postponed, the Habs are now off for a week and a half and won’t return to the ice until January 12th. At that point, basically everyone will have cleared COVID protocol (Evans and Romanov may be iffy unless Quebec lowers the number of isolation days as many other jurisdictions have) so the lineup that plays against Boston is certain to look a whole lot different than today’s group.