The Habs continued their busy week as they hosted the Vancouver Canucks on Wednesday. These two teams could not possibly be further apart in terms of expectations and results. The Canadiens continue to surprise after a Jake Allen master performance in Tuesday’s 3-2 shootout win against the Red Wings while the Canucks were supposed to challenge for the playoffs after an excellent surge in the second half after bringing in Bruce Boudreau. Instead, they are sitting at 4-6-3 as their inability to play defence and protect leads has been a huge story early on. It was Montreal who got off to a strong start as they took a 4-0 lead, yet played with fire as they allowed the Canucks to climb back into the game, before finally icing a 5-2 final with five minutes to play.
Only small changes were made to the lineup as Juraj Slafkovsky and Josh Anderson were both sidelined with deserved suspensions. Montreal hoped for continued support scoring which made a rare appearance on Tuesday. Kirby Dach remained with Nick Suzuki and Cole Caufield, much like Brendan Gallagher remained with Christian Dvorak and Mike Hoffman. Sean Monahan was with Evgenii Dadonov and Jonathan Drouin, while Jake Evans played with Michael Pezzetta and Joel Armia.
The blue line also remained unchanged as Jordan Harris was paired with Johnathan Kovacevic, while Joel Edmundson was paired to Arber Xhekaj. David Savard and Kaiden Guhle remained the top pair. Unsurprisingly, Samuel Montembeault was between the pipes after Allen’s 40+ save performance the night prior.
The first shift of the game saw the Canucks outwork the Habs to earn a quick scoring chance. On the same play, Tanner Pearson took an offensive zone penalty for hooking Edmundson. The man advantage would strike early as Drouin found a streaking Suzuki who put one in from his favourite spot to open the scoring 55 seconds into the contest.
The Canadiens continued to control play as Vancouver clearly appeared rattled to be down so early. After strong shifts by both the Dvorak and Suzuki lines, Monahan won a faceoff and then moved to the front of the net to screen Demko. The screen worked as a point shot from Xhekaj hit Pearson and fooled Thatcher Demko to extend the lead with 11:13 to play in the first.
The second half of the period was much of the same as the Habs were continuously stopping the Canucks from going up the middle and Vancouver simply weren’t adapting. On the rare occasion the play up the middle worked, Montreal’s young defenders angled the Canucks to the outside and the attackers were not willing to pay the price to attack the dangerous areas on the ice, something I’ve spent most of the last year saying about the Canadiens. Dach would extend the lead to 3-0 before the end of the period as he picked off Miller trying to go up the middle and skated in alone, beating Demko five-hole.
The Canadiens were late returning from the intermission as Vancouver controlled the first three minutes despite their continued lack of fighting through checks to get to tough areas on the ice.
Both teams exchanged rushes up the ice before Pearson continued his terrible night as he took yet another offensive zone penalty committing a dangerous-looking check that sent Kovacevic hard into the end boards. The Habs’ second advantage didn’t go quite as smoothly as the first though they certainly had some good zone time on the sequence. Some nice moves by Evans and Dadonov created yet another power play as Tyler Myers was sent to the box for tripping. The third advantage was atrocious and ended with an angry Demko trying to get to Gallagher who had crashed the net.
Gallagher and Demko were both assessed penalties on the play, with an additional penalty to Oliver Ekman-Larsson for roughing. A fourth advantage for the Habs yielded the same results as the Habs could barely get set up in the offensive zone.
With 6:59 left in the period, Jack Rathbone had a puck skip over his stick in the offensive zone. The result was a 2-on-1 where Hoffman fired a shot over Demko’s shoulder to extend the lead to 4-0.
Montreal piled on with a few more scoring chances before Xhekaj got called for a slash with 2:51 left in the period. The Canucks were not able to get much going on their advantage as they moved the puck way too slow to confuse the defenders.
The third started with another scoring chance for Hoffman after a nice pass by Dvorak. Myers then made a nice pinch and put a shot off the post. Vancouver continued to push offensively as Ilya Mikheyev tested Montembeault in tight, but the netminder stopped the chance.
With 15:14 left in the game, a completely broken play ended up on the stick of Luke Schenn at the blue line. His shot found its way through three bodies before beating Montembeault to make it 4-1.
Suddenly, the Canucks were attacking the centre of the ice and finding success as Montembeault had to make a series of stops to preserve the lead. Just before the midway point of the period, Drouin missed a completely open net that would have sealed the game but missed the net. As is often the case, a completely botched slot coverage by Savard allowed Nils Hoglander to reach a loose puck and beat Montembeault to make it 4-2 with eleven minutes to play.
The final ten minutes kicked off with an obvious missed call as Myers was caught off-balance by Caufield. With the officials managing the game instead of calling the penalties, the play went uncalled and then the officials compounded their mistake by calling a ridiculously soft call against Guhle. (That said, it’s worth noting that the Habs benefitted from some weak calls in their favour in the opening two periods). The second Vancouver power play of the night smashed two goal posts, but the Habs survived the sequence which was huge.
With five minutes to play, a strong forechecking sequence by Suzuki and Caufield got the Canucks to cough up the puck. Suzuki immediately fired it across the ice to Dach who waited for Demko to overplay his slide across before putting home his second of the game and ending any hopes the Canucks had of a comeback.
HabsWorld Habs 3 Stars
1st Star – Kirby Dach
Count me amongst those who believe that Dach will eventually return to centre the second line. Having said that, I’m in no hurry for it to happen as he’s fit like a glove on the top-line wing. I find that when playing up the middle and playing away from the puck, he was reacting to plays instead of making reads and positioning himself. His play with the puck has never been an issue this season. With that responsibility in the hands of Suzuki, Dach has been freed to get aggressive in the offensive zone. The results speak for themselves as the kid has been scorching hot, scoring two more on this night.
Stats: 2 goals, +2, 4 shots, 17:16 T.O.I.
2nd Star – Christian Dvorak
Someone finally got through to Dvorak that he’d be infinitely more useful if he was moving his feet continuously. Through a season and a few games to start the year, I often wondered if someone was trying to tell him this. In the last 2-3 games, he’s done just that and what a difference it has made. The biggest beneficiary is Gallagher as he suddenly finds himself with the puck on his stick and his pivot creating space for him; Hoffman the finisher starting to finish helps too. It’s been an unexpected good line to finally provide a bit of offensive support to the top unit.
Stats: 1 assist, 3 shots, 17:19 T.O.I.
3rd Star – Nick Suzuki
Starts the game by scoring in the opening minute from his favourite spot on the power play. Ends the game by making a strong play at the offensive blue line to send the Canucks back in their zone. Follows up his good play by believing in Caufield to create enough pressure on big Myers to cough up the puck. Makes a majestic pass across the ice to Dach when Caufield does, in fact, win his battle. While many questioned the letter on his sweater at his age, recent past playoff performances should have pointed us in the right direction. He’s taken the pressure of the role instilled in him and thrived as his career-best 61 pts is set to be eclipsed this season. While it might be unrealistic to expect him to keep up his 100-point pace, it is still nice to see that there is even more offence than was believed at the onset of the season. What a beauty!
Stats: 1 goal, 1 assist, +1, 2 shots, 18:58 T.O.I.
Honourable Mention – Jordan Harris
I wasn’t sure if I should feature Harris or Xhekaj here as I felt both played really great on this night. Both showed poise with the puck, didn’t panic in defensive posture plays, and they were able to recognize pressure and clear pucks when necessary. Then Harris came out and had himself a third period. At least three times, he used his body positioning to protect the puck and create space for himself or a teammate. One of those occasions created a decent scoring chance for Kovacevic too. It’s one of those plays that is instinctual, and Harris just wowed in the third by his cool and collected demeanour while protecting the puck all over the ice. This young blue line may eventually hit a wall this season as they’re all playing more than they are accustomed to. Even if that happens, this start to the season is proof that with some conditioning and experience under their belts, this blue line is well on its way to being an excellent one for years to come.
Stats: +2, 18:38 T.O.I.