The Habs were back in action on Thursday as they faced the team that pushed in all their chips at the deadline as the Panthers were visiting the Bell Centre featuring newly acquired Ben Chiarot, Claude Giroux, and Robert Hagg.
With Jonathan Drouin sidelined due to COVID concerns, the Canadiens also had a newcomer as Tyler Pitlick made his Montreal debut. He joined Michael Pezzetta and Laurent Dauphin on the team’s fourth line. The top line of Nick Suzuki, Cole Caufield, and Josh Anderson stayed intact. Rem Pitlick joined Jake Evans and Mike Hoffman on the second unit, leaving a veteran third line of Paul Byron, Christian Dvorak, and Joel Armia. The blue line pairings remained the same as the Boston game. The crease battle featured Jake Allen and Spencer Knight.
Allen did his best to keep it close, but the Panthers showed that the Habs still have a long way to competing with the top dogs in the league. Still, they managed to hand around as they lost this one by a 4-3 score despite spending much of the night in their defensive zone.
It was an eventful start to the game as Jonathan Huberdeau took exception to a hit from David Savard off the opening draw and ended up taking a roughing penalty 20 seconds into the game. The Habs made him pay immediately as Caufield recovered the puck after a faceoff loss before finding Suzuki who scored from his favourite spot at the top of the circle to open the scoring nine seconds later.
Seven seconds later, Aleksander Barkov took advantage of a sleeping Jeff Petry to grab the puck and skate in unscathed. With Allen uncharacteristically off his angle, Barkov scored easily on the far side to even the score in the opening minute.
Dauphin took a holding penalty minutes later that the Habs were able to kill. The scoring settled down, but the game’s physical pace was just getting started as both teams were really battling for every puck.
Corey Schueneman kicked off the second half of the period with a roughing call that the Habs once again managed to kill. Two minutes later, it was Suzuki who took a penalty, this time a trip in the neutral zone. The Canadiens were once again able to get the kill to stay in the game. The goaltenders also settled down as multiple breakaways and top-grade scoring chances were featured in the second half of the period, but neither Allen nor Knight flinched again in a period where Florida outshot Montreal 15-7.
Only 1:13 into the second period, Schueneman’s rough outing continued as he lost an edge going around his net. This resulted in the puck finding Mason Marchment who shot from the side of the net, then grabbed his own rebound and beat Allen with a wraparound as the Panthers took their first lead of the contest.
The following shift saw both Petry and Joel Edmundson get lost in coverage but they were bailed out by Allen making two great stops. Caufield responded with two great chances of his own, but he missed the net by a wide margin on both chances.
With 14:01 to play, an Alexander Romanov point shot was deflected home by Evans to tie up the game. However, Florida quickly regained the lead when a Chiarot point shot was similarly deflected by Anthony Duclair that was reviewed for a high stick before being allowed to stand.
The second half of the period kicked off with a Duclair minor for slashing but the advantage would be short as Anderson was called for tripping in the offensive zone thirty seconds later. The Evans and Pitlick duo got the best chances at 4-on-4 as some nifty passing by Evans and Romanov gave Pitlick what appeared to be an empty net. Knight came diving across and stole a goal from Pitlick.
Back at even strength, Brandon Montour hit the post before another rough shift for Schueneman forced Allen to make another series of stops to keep his team in the game. With two minutes left, it was time for a vintage Chiarot penalty for clearing the puck into the stands. Nothing interesting happened on the advantage to end the period.
Save for great passes by Petry and Suzuki that sent in Anderson on two different breakaways, the first five minutes of the third once again were completely controlled by the visitors. Knight stood tall against Anderson, but Allen stood tall overall and allowed his team to regroup.
After two blatant calls went uncalled in the offensive zone on the Panthers, Bennett ran a pick play that Evans sold to send the Canadiens to the man advantage. The power play got some control in the zone, but never enough to really threaten Knight. As the penalty expired, Anderson was called for an offensive zone trip. The call was a weak one, but the Panthers did not mind as a few seconds later, Huberdeau found Sam Reinhart who beat Allen on a one-timer to double the lead.
The second half of the period saw Florida use their big bodies to give the Habs the puck and simply defend their two-goal lead. Chiarot, Radko Gudas, and MacKenzie Weegar gave the Habs just about nothing as the few Canadiens that were still engaged were just incapable of creating sufficient space to get good looks on Knight.
Montreal pulled Allen with five minutes to play and finally got good looks as Suzuki and Caufield looked dangerous. With 3:40 to play, Dvorak completely missed his pass, but the puck bounced around and ended up in the slot where a streaking Byron was able to put it past Knight to make it 4-3.
Florida then took another penalty for delay of game with 2:55 to play, but the power play was atrocious other than one scoring chance for Byron created by Rem Pitlick. They killed the penalty and then trapped the Habs in their own zone until Montreal took a too many men call with eight seconds left in the game to end any hope of a comeback.
HabsWorld Habs 3 Stars
1st Star – Jake Allen
The Habs were shown what a top team in the league looks like on this night, but Allen continually shut the door and kept his team in the game. The score looks good, the team’s performance when it matters late is encouraging, but the early portions of this game really displayed how much work remains for GM Kent Hughes. Thank goodness good goaltending masks many roster shortcomings.
Stats: 38 saves, 42 shots against, .905 save %, 4.23 GAA, 56:45 T.O.I.
2nd Star – Alexander Romanov
Romanov had over two minutes on the ice more than the next blueliner on the Habs. This was no accident. Schueneman and Wideman struggled all night long and it looked like Petry (who didn’t play in the third due to a lower-body injury) and Edmundson really struggled to keep pace with the Panthers once they got them hemmed in the defensive zone. This left Savard and Romanov to cover and they needed to. Romanov remains erratic at times, but the strides taken by the young blueliner are significant in this lost season and seeing the coaching staff take advantage of these games to really get him some quality ice time against top competition is nice to see. Even better is the way the youngster has responded.
Stats: 1 assist, +1, 2 shots, 1 hit, 22:52 T.O.I.
3rd Star – Jake Evans
Evans had himself a good game all things considered. He had positive numbers in the faceoff dot, attacked the middle of the ice, and the chemistry between Evans and Pitlick seems like it’s for real and the coaching staff might want to consider not separating them again. Evans always gives an honest effort, so any time he puts up some statistics to go with it, it’s nice to be able to mention how consistent his game has become in a hurry.
Stats: 1 goal, +2, 2 shots, 1 hit, 15:02 T.O.I.
Honourable Mention – Christian Dvorak
Dvorak has looked considerably better playing under this new coach, and I wonder what a full season could deliver under such circumstances. I still believe he will eventually be traded because I’m still not sure I see a 2C here, but that’s a debate for later. Right now, he’s playing some good hockey and that’s worth highlighting.
Stats: 1 assist, 17:51 T.O.I.