If fans tuned in to Tuesday’s contest at the Bell Centre versus the Minnesota Wild expecting the same type of action seen in most of their first six games on the season, they were in for a bit of a roller coaster of a night. Both teams were tentative in play for the first half of the game, and the crowd responded in kind. The second half of the game opened considerably as guys appeared to find their legs. While the visitors were the better team for most of the night, their early season narrative was upheld as they played with fire all night by not being opportunistic and allowing their subpar goaltending to be a factor. In the end, Marc-Andre Fleury finally showed his Hall of Fame acumen and stood tall in the third period in Montreal as the Wild skated off with a 3-1 victory.
As Michael Pezzetta and Corey Schueneman continued to patiently await their turn and Juraj Slafkovsky continued to nurse an upper-body injury, coach St. Louis opted to keep his lineup unchanged which meant Sean Monahan remained with Nick Suzuki and Cole Caufield, while Christian Dvorak was joined by Brendan Gallagher and Evgeni Dadonov. Kirby Dach was joined by Jonathan Drouin and Josh Anderson, which left Rem Pitlick with Jake Evans and Mike Hoffman. The blue line featured Kaiden Guhle with David Savard, Johnathan Kovacevic with Jordan Harris, and Chris Wideman with Arber Xhekaj. Jake Allen was the all-important starter in the blue paint.
The first period saw the young roster spend most of the first period forcing plays that weren’t there as Suzuki, Caufield, and Xhekaj all had off periods. The Wild were quick to jump on the transition opportunities as they ended the period with a 12-6 shot advantage and a 1-0 lead where it counted. The Habs did get a man advantage in the period, but it once again struggled aside from a nice Dvorak rush where he found a streaking Dach who tipped a pass off the post.
The Wild got their goal as an errant Suzuki pass in the offensive zone completely missed Xhekaj and sent the Wild in 2-on-1. The initial shot missed the net, but Joel Eriksson Ek was all over the rebound.
Later in the period, Dach got involved in a scrum which resulted in coincidental minors. Guhle was then called for a soft hooking penalty as the Wild ended the period on a 4-on-3 advantage that the Canadiens were able to kill after Dvorak made a nice play to cover his own soft attempt to clear the zone. This was a considerable kill as the Wild were largely power play-dependent so far this season.
The first half of the second period was far more exciting as the Habs got back into the game with some help from the Wild. A minute into the period, Caufield centred a pass that went off a defender and caught Fleury cheating cross-ice to even the game on Caufield’s fifth of the season.
Former Hab Jon Merrill then took a holding penalty that sent Montreal to a second power play. The Dvorak-Dach connection was once again the most interesting in the sequence that ultimately failed. Pitlick then returned the favour with a hook. Minnesota threatened on their man advantage, but Allen was equal to the task. Fleury got back into the game with two great stops on Hoffman before the midway point of the game.
A good shift by Drouin then drew a penalty to start the second half of the game. The power play was short-lived as Wideman was penalized for interference, a penalty that is becoming a bit of a habit for him.
After the 4-on-4 and a short Wild advantage, a bad play in the neutral zone by Kovacevic was bundled with a bad read of the back-check by who didn’t see that Evans didn’t have his check. He opted to slide into the puck carrier who simply saucered a pass to Brandon Duhaime who was all alone as he beat Allen to make it 2-1.
With 6:45 to play, Duhaime had a delayed penalty incoming when Ryan Hartman sold a phantom call on Xhekaj to even the calls. The Wild controlled the rest of the period as the shots were 25-15 after two.
The Canadiens came out flying for the third period as play was heavily tilted toward the Minnesota zone. The veteran Wild blue line was bending but still defending the centre of the ice which limited the quality of chances against. One felt like the youth might commit a mistake trying to force an offensive play that would end up in their own net. Instead, it was Anderson getting loose after two good passes by Kovacevic and Dach led to a nice Fleury stop.
A final push to end the half-period saw Savard deliver a beautiful pass to send Hoffman on a breakaway where he was held. This meant a penalty shot where Hoffman opted to use his shot that was once again stopped by Fleury.
After a two-minute push by the Wild to start the final ten minutes, Montreal fired back as Suzuki found Caufield cross-ice, but Fleury was once again sharp. The Habs controlled the play but as the time wound down, Minnesota was content in clogging up the middle of the ice which meant little in terms of scoring chances.
With three minutes to play, a point shot hit Guhle in the side of the head. While the status of the defender was worrisome, the rebound came out to Kirill Kaprizov which forced Allen to make yet another huge save. The final two minutes saw Hoffman make two great plays at the offensive blue line to keep it in, but finally, Eriksson Ek was able to get loose and score in the empty net to seal the victory.
HabsWorld Habs 3 Stars
1st Star – Jake Allen
With the Habs mostly asleep for the better part of the opening 40 minutes of play, it was once again the veteran netminder who found a way to make some stops that kept his young team in the game long enough for them to come out strong in the third. They ultimately couldn’t get it done for their netminder, but it wasn’t for a lack of trying all around. Another solid performance by Allen.
Stats: 28 saves, 30 shots, 2.05 G.A.A., .903 save %, 58:38 T.O.I.
2nd Star – Jordan Harris
Harris continued to impress on this night as the rookie led all defenders in time on ice. His steady play on the puck and away from the puck allows some pressure to come off Savard and Guhle in select moments of a game. Some recognition to his partner Kovacevic is also in order, but Harris is the engine that makes the partnership run and in a game that was mostly centred around what guys can do while away from the puck, Harris was once again a bright spot for the Habs.
Stats: -1, 7 blocks, 25:09 T.O.I.
3rd Star – Cole Caufield
Caufield had a rough first period, but so did his running mate Suzuki. Caufield recognized this and took over puck control for the duo. He was rewarded with a goal, albeit a lucky one. He also got a few good scoring chances. The line is more effective with Caufield as the trigger man and Suzuki controlling the pace of play, which finally was able to happen in the third as Suzuki found his game. In the meantime, it’s worth noting that Caufield had a strong final 40 minutes of this game and was once again the offensive centrepiece of the team.
Stats: 1 goal, -1, 1 shot, 18:17 T.O.I.
Honourable Mention – Mike Hoffman
The new fan-favourite whipping boy came out on his fourth line and created opportunities for himself to get open, get shots, be dangerous, and almost score. What was different on this night is that he did it without forcing non-existent plays and placing his linemates in frustrating defensive positions. If he’s going to be a whipping boy (and honestly, he’s been one of mine so far this season), then you must also recognize his good games (however rare they may be) and this was one of them.
Stats: -2, 4 shots, 10:45 T.O.I.