The Habs were back in action for a rare Sunday night contest against the Columbus Blue Jackets after a rather poor performance on Saturday.
Montreal welcomed back some veterans as Brendan Gallagher and Paul Byron laced up the skates after lengthy absences. This made for an interesting lineup even if the top line of Nick Suzuki, Artturi Lehkonen, and Tyler Toffoli remained together. The second line featured Jake Evans, Josh Anderson, and Byron. Gallagher lined up next to Laurent Dauphin and Mike Hoffman, while Ryan Poehling, Michael Pezzetta, and Rem Pitlick completed the forwards. The blue line was switched up a bit as Jeff Petry was placed next to Ben Chiarot on the top pairing. Brett Kulak and Kale Clague formed the second pairing while Alexander Romanov and Chris Wideman formed the third. Samuel Montembeault was the starter as he faced Joonas Korpisalo.
Montembeault would be pulled in the first period as the Habs couldn’t get a save early. Despite Montembeault’s lamentable effort, the Habs fought hard and made a game of it, but they simply could not overcome the hole dug by the netminder as they lost yet another game, this time by a 6-3 score.
Columbus came out strong as they dominated the first shift, hitting two posts in the process but ending it with an icing call. Suzuki lost the faceoff, but Lehkonen was aggressive on the forecheck and got the puck to Toffoli. Toffoli found Suzuki who was stopped, but he picked up his own rebound and banked it off Nyquist from behind the net to open the scoring 1:19 into the game.
That lead would be short-lived as Patrik Laine was allowed to skate in on a poor gap by Romanov. The sniper used the defender for a screen to beat Montembeault high and tie the game at 3:51. Four minutes later, Jack Roslovic shot from well over the circles on a shot that beat Montembeault on a second goal that wasn’t very pretty for the netminder.
The second half of the period should have started well for the Habs as Zach Werenski was sent off for interference on Lehkonen. The man advantage kicked off with Petry telegraphing a cross-ice pass that was easily intercepted by Eric Robinson. The Jacket forward skated in all alone and easily beat Montembeault for a shorty that would end the netminder’s evening.
The rest of the advantage was then cut short as Suzuki was called for a blatant hook in the offensive zone, but the Habs did well to kill their penalty. With 6:46 to play, Clague was stripped of the puck as the last man back. Young Yegor Chinakhov skated in alone and beat Cayden Primeau five-hole to extend the lead to 4-1 despite only outshooting the Habs 13-10.
Primeau was able to come out for the second period and calm things down for the Habs. This was an important facet to the period since the Jackets came out and really controlled the pace and puck for much of the opening five minutes, only to face a netminder that was suddenly making stops.
The first good chance for the Habs came past the five-minute mark and it was once again the Suzuki line as Toffoli created a partial 2-on-1 and missed a deke. The line continued to buzz around Korpisalo’s crease for their shift. Primeau then came up big again after a bad defensive zone clearing attempt by Pitlick.
Montreal took over for the final five minutes after Gallagher took a coincidental minor for being in his office. Finally, with 40 seconds to play in the period, Lehkonen won more offensive zone puck battles. This time, it allowed him to skate out and pass the puck to where Toffoli was going to be. Toffoli skated into his shot that was a laser that beat Korpisalo making the game 4-2 heading into the third period.
The third started with an interesting turn as Werenski was sent off for hooking only 30 seconds into the period. This almost backfired again as Boone Jenner took advantage of an over-aggressive Wideman but Primeau was once again there to make the save. Petry was not sent out on this power play, but this mattered little as the advantage was disastrous.
Wideman then opened the door with a dumb slash. Luckily for him, a Petry blocked shot sent Evans off on a shorthanded 2-on-1. Evans saucered a pass to Lehkonen who made no mistake and made it 4-3 with 13 minutes to play.
The Canadiens were suddenly all over the Blue Jackets with chance after chance and Korpisalo guilty of big juicy rebounds. The Evans line had a shift where they missed four, if not five, glorious chances as Clague was making excellent pinches all over the offensive zone. However, that same shift ended with Cole Sillinger skating into the Habs zone and wiring home a perfect shot for a 5-3 lead.
Romanov started the final ten minutes with a penalty that his team successfully killed off. With five minutes to play, the Jackets got a 4-on-1 but Primeau made two great saves. The Habs opted to pull Primeau with four minutes to play and Suzuki forced a big Korpisalo save before Sillinger found Laine to make it 6-3 with 2:38 to play which ultimately ended the game.
HabsWorld Habs 3 Stars
1st Star – Artturi Lehkonen
Lehkonen is the biggest beneficiary of this pathetic season for the Habs. He’s suddenly found himself into the top-six instead of the bottom-six, he’s producing, and he’s found chemistry with the team’s centreman of the future. He wins battles and creates space for Suzuki and Toffoli, two guys who aren’t the best in the corners (which is why it never really worked with Caufield in my opinion). I understand that new GM Kent Hughes may get a team to bite hard on Lehkonen and get a king’s ransom, but I wonder if the Habs don’t opt to keep him should the offers not match expectations because this is a player that might actually be worth keeping around.
Stats: 1 goal, 2 assists, +2, 4 shots, 1 hit, 19:07 T.O.I.
2nd Star – Nick Suzuki
Suzuki continues to be a wide margin better than most of this roster at creating offensively. Imagine if he’d have another line producing to take some pressure off. He seems to run out of gas at times, and so I’m sure he’ll want to look at his offseason regime, but for now, he’s still a very interesting piece to build around.
Stats: 1 goal, 1 assist, 3 shots, 2 hits, 19:32 T.O.I.
3rd Star – Tyler Toffoli
Toffoli healthy makes a world of difference for his young centreman, and this game was no exception. Suzuki can focus on creating plays with the confidence that Toffoli will put it in more often than he’ll whiff. Toffoli completes the lines’ dominance of this segment; quite frankly, they were the only line worth speaking of on this night, so their presence here should surprise absolutely no one.
Stats: 1 goal, 1 assist, +1, 4 shots, 17:37 T.O.I.
Honourable Mention – Cayden Primeau
At 22 years old, Carey Price had played seasons in the CHL, won a Calder Cup with the Hamilton Bulldogs, and still was replaced by Jaroslav Halak in a miracle run that had many Habs fans wanting to trade him. Now I’m not making the point that Primeau will be the next Price, I’m simply stating that he is still far from his prime years and that the fan base needs to be patient with the young man. Primeau does not have the pedigree, nor does he have sufficient games played in recent years to even think about being in the NHL at the moment if not for the freak injury streak that is this season. Nevertheless, he came in this game and really calmed the team down, making huge saves in the second and third periods to allow his teammates the chance to even make this a game after the horrendous start by Montembeault.
Stats: 26 saves, 28 shots, .929 save%, 2.47 G.A.A., 48:30 T.O.I.