The Canadiens hosted the Columbus Blue Jackets for a rare Saturday afternoon matinee, hoping to break an eight-game losing streak and give freshman coach Martin St. Louis his first win as a coach.
As on Thursday night, the Habs put up a good fight and this time they had the goaltending they needed from Samuel Montembeault, but, in the end, they were not good enough to score more than a goal on the Blue Jackets’ Elvis Merzlikins. And a single goal will rarely win games in the NHL.
Only One This Time
The Martin St. Louis effect wasn’t quite apparent as the game first got underway, as the Blue Jackets immediately hemmed the Habs in their own zone, after the initial line change, they maintained the pressure.
Ben Chiarot gained control of the puck behind the Habs’ net but failed to make a clearing pass, and Patrik Laine instead sent the puck to Oliver Bjorkstrand. Bjorkstrand skated in toward Montembeault, and tried a pass back to Laine, who has one of the most dangerous shots in the league.
However, a sprawling Alexander Romanov was able to block the pass — only to deflect it back onto Bjorkstrand’s stick. The Swedish winger took advantage of the element of surprise to beat Montembeault on the right side and give Columbus the lead with just 1:13 on the clock.
After the slow start and the new-normal start, the Habs started to show some signs of life, breaking up the Blue Jackets’ passing plays before they managed a controlled zone entry, giving themselves a chance for attack as well. Still, the shots were already 11-3 in favour of Columbus by the halfway point of the period.
At that halfway point, former Hab Max Domi remonstrated his dissatisfaction with Chris Wideman’s trip of Zach Werenski by tangling with him in front of the Habs’ bench. Nothing much came of that, other than a roughing call to Domi, neutralizing the potential Columbus power play. It seemed all too familiar a scenario from a few years back!
As the penalties were about to expire, the Habs were controlling play in the Columbus zone, with Mike Hoffman circling the zone, looking for a clear shooting lane. Alas, Brett Kulak gave away the puck on the boards, and Vladislav Gavrikov bolted away with Jakub Voracek. It was a two-on-one chance for the Blue Jackets, with only Romanov back, but Montembeault made a save on Voracek’s wrist shot.
With just under six minutes remaining, Brett Kulak got his stick stuck under Voracek’s arm at the Habs’ blueline, and the referee’s hand went up to indicate a delayed penalty. As Merzlikins sped off to the bench for an extra attacker the Blue Jackets took control, and Yegor Chinakhov had a dangerous opportunity on the right side of the goal, but Montembeault took it away with a pad save.
At the end of the period, the shot clock read 18-8 in the Blue Jackets’ favour, with high-danger scoring chances even at two apiece.
Keeping the Second One Out
The second period started with more tentative play than what we had seen at the end of the previous one. The first opportunity came near the two-minute mark, as Artturi Lehkonen stripped away the puck from a Columbus defender near centre ice, and sped into the offensive zone. Lehkonen couldn’t get a clear shot, though, and Werenski ended up blocking it.
Columbus went back on the power play at 2:51 when Chiarot was called for tripping. However, the Canadiens had arguably the better chances while Chiarot was sitting on the bench, with both Jake Evans and Joel Armia creating shorthanded scoring chances, while Columbus couldn’t get their power play unit to set up.
Montembeault gloved a Cole Sillinger wrist shot 5:28, with an ensuing tangle between Sillinger and Caufield — yes, Caufield! — behind the net.
The young goalie continued his starring role in the period, with a Domi-Werenski-Domi sequence about two minutes later, culminating in Montembeault making a pretty glove save on Domi.
A two-goal lead was very close just after 14 minutes, with Gustav Nyquist taking a wrist shot from the right-side boards and Sean Kuraly in a perfect position to tip it into the near-side corner of the net. Montembeault was once again ready, though, and dove across to snatch the tip into his glove.
And then it was another Columbus three-on-one with four minutes remaining, this time with Laine, Sillinger, and Andrew Peeke. Tic, tac and toe the passes went, but with Montembeault sliding across to block Peeke’s shot, the defender put it above the net.
The shots in the period were a little closer at 14-9 for Columbus, but the high-danger chances gave a rather grim 11-2 edge to the Blue Jackets.
A Third Chance to Score
Things started pretty much as they had in the second frame, with Columbus putting the pressure on the Habs early and controlling much of the play.
However, an errant Blue Jackets pass back to the blue line changed the complexion of the game. As the puck cleared all the way to the Columbus zone and behind the net, Cole Caufield gave chase to Vladimir Gavrikov. He couldn’t catch the Russian defender, but Gavrikov ended up clearing the puck right onto Ryan Poehling, who had followed Caufield into the zone.
Poehling spotted Caufield curling back toward the net, fed him the puck and the rookie sniper one-timed it over Merzlikins’ shoulder to tie the game with just 2:55 into the final period.
The Blue Jackets did not fold up their tent, though, and just 35 seconds later, Montembeault had to be alert and kick out his left pad to make another save on Bjorkstrand. A minute after that, Nyquist had a break, but Romanov manhandled him — within the rules — to prevent a scoring chance.
The Canadiens eventually got their chances, too, with a flurry of shots around the 5:30 mark. And two minutes later, Josh Anderson, driving in on the left wing, hit Merzlikins’ inside goalpost. Rem Pitlick, trailing, had an opportunity on the rebound but could not control the puck.
Sillinger was called for slashing Brendan Gallagher at 9:00, giving Montreal their only second power play opportunity of the afternoon. The recent strong performance of the power play unit continued, with good control and passing. However, the final tally was still only a single shot on goal, and three blocked shots.
It was starting to look like overtime was on the cards, but then Jeff Petry got caught out of position at the offensive blue line. Trying to catch up to the play, he ended up tripping Bjorkstrand with just 1:27 remaining in regulation time.
Columbus sent out their big guns, and a bombardment it was. Laine saved by Montembeault, Bjorkstrand blocked by Romanov, Voracek saved by Montembeault, Voracek blocked by Romanov — and then, just four seconds after Voracek’s blocked shot, Werenski passed the puck to Laine, who wired a shot past Montembeault for a 2-1 lead and the eventual winning goal.
With only eight seconds remaining, there was little the Habs could do to score, and they ended up leaving the Bell Centre ice with a losing streak now extended to nine games.
The final period finally favoured the Habs with a 13-7 edge in shots, and a 7-5 difference in high-danger chances.
HW Habs Three Stars
First Star: Samuel Montembeault (40 saves, 42 shots, 0.952 save %) kept the Habs in the game, especially through the Columbus-dominated second period. Only two goals allowed from 13 high-danger chances and a 3.75 xGA was impressive. After some weak starts in January, Montembeault looked far better today, as well as filling in for Primeau in the previous game.
Second Star: Cole Caufield (1g, 0a, 2 shots, +1, 13:39 TOI) has his mojo, and his smile, back. The young sniper is clearly feeling more relaxed and comfortable after the arrival of St. Louis, and it shows in his game.
Third Star: Tyler Toffoli (0g, 0a, 7 shots, +0, 18:55 TOI) was everywhere in the game, shooting, passing, and forechecking, with the Toffoli-Suzuki-Lehkonen line able to shut out the Laine unit at five-on-five. No goals came of the seven shots (three of them of the high-danger variety) but if he can maintain this level of play the pucks will go in as well.
Honourable Mention: Joel Armia (0g, 0a, 3 shots, +1, 10:16 TOI) was the least-used forward in the lineup but worked effectively particularly with Gallagher and Byron to create scoring opportunities. It’s been a tough season for the big Finn but he is finally showing some signs of life.