After being outclassed by the Lightning on Wednesday, the Habs continued the usual Holiday Florida expedition with an immediate chance for redemption as they faced the Panthers on Thursday night. What was exceedingly fun before the game even began on Thursday was the idea that fans that want to see the Canadiens compete and the fans seeing more benefit in the tank had a rare occasion of being on the same page as a Montreal win on Thursday night was likely beneficial to both with the Habs owning Florida’s unprotected top pick in the upcoming draft. Alas, the Habs’ woeful sequence continued as the Panthers skated away with a win in Barkov’s return by a 7-2 score.
With an offence searching for answers, coach St. Louis once again switched things up as Kirby Dach was returned to the wing next to Nick Suzuki and Cole Caufield. Jake Evans was the pivot of the second line with Mike Hoffman and Josh Anderson. The third unit saw Christian Dvorak with Juraj Slafkovsky and Brendan Gallagher, the latter returning to the lineup. Jonathan Drouin, Evgenii Dadonov, and Joel Armia formed the fourth line which meant Anthony Richard and Michael Pezzetta were scratched.
There were no changes on the blue line as Joel Edmundson and Kaiden Guhle remained paired; Johnathan Kovacevic and Arber Xhekaj formed another pair. Jordan Harris and Justin Barron rounded out the group. Samuel Montembeault got the nod.
The Panthers controlled the pace early as Montreal’s young defenders were under pressure to start the game. 2:37 in, a faceoff loss resulted in a point shot that hit Aleksander Barkov to fool Montembeault and open the scoring.
This was followed by a half period where Florida was really all over the Canadiens. The Habs did end the sequence with strong play as Evans, Anderson, and Slafkovsky had consecutive good shifts to get the Habs going.
Radko Gudas opened the second half of the period with a big open ice hit on Anderson as the two had been arguing since Anderson’s late stick check on Sergei Bobrovsky earlier in the period. This gave the Panthers momentum as they attacked the Montreal zone until Armia was guilty of a high stick for the game’s first advantage. A minute later, after the Habs failed to win at least three 50-50 pucks, Barkov got a puck in the high slot and fired home his second of the period.
The next shift saw Gudas try to land another open-ice hit which instead resulted in a stupid hit that sent the Canadiens to the power play. The advantage was successful after a terrible first unit as Hoffman and Dadonov moved the puck quickly and Xhekaj let go a rocket from the point that beat Bobrovsky to make it 2-1 with 5:45 to play.
Slightly over a minute later, a soft shot from the blue line saw Montembeault fail in rebound control. Barkov jumped on the juicy rebound and put home his hat trick goal with 4:36 still to play in the opening period.
On the ensuing faceoff, Anderson took a high stick to the face as the Habs got a four-minute advantage. The first unit once again struggled, and the second unit was dangerous; the main difference between the two was that the second unit won puck battles. With 46 seconds left in the period and 14 left in the advantage, another Xhekaj shot sent a Panther stumbling around the zone. That would eventually open a lane for Hoffman. The shot was stopped but Anderson was all over the rebound to get Montreal back to within a goal after a period.
The second period started with teams exchanging shifts of control in the offensive zone, with no great scoring chances coming from the exchange. Just before the five-minute mark, the Habs were caught with too many men on the ice. The Panthers’ power play got Montreal running around again and with 15 seconds to go in the advantage, Matthew Tkachuk tipped home a point shot to restore the two-goal lead.
On the next shift, Barron was cross-checked at the offensive blue line sending the Habs back on their suddenly productive advantage. This iteration was unsuccessful, but the second unit was once again far more convincing than the first.
The second half of the second period started with the Canadiens on the offensive but they couldn’t muster up much. Florida got back to the offensive zone and with five minutes to play, Suzuki took a penalty for hooking. The Habs were able to kill the penalty, but the Panthers controlled the rest of the period as they finished the period with a 12-2 advantage in shots and a 4-2 advantage in goals.
The third period got underway with the Habs trying to create and the Panthers content to shut things down. Three minutes in, Montreal finally got an offensive shift, but at the end of the shift, the puck skipped through Guhle’s skates. The race for the loose puck was on in the neutral zone. Guhle won the race, but with Colin White breathing down his neck, he opted for a quick clear that landed on the stick of Carter Verhaeghe who skated in on a 2-on-1 and roofed a shot over Montembeault to make it 5-2 only 4:14 into the period.
This was the goal that broke the proverbial camel’s back as Florida took the momentum and held it until Dach took a high-sticking penalty. 44 seconds into the advantage, it was Barkov again as he recognized traffic in front of Montembeault and sent a puck to the net. Tkachuk was over the goaltender and was able to tuck home a rebound.
With 10:36 to play, Harris correctly recognized two forwards in support and pinched in the offensive zone. Neither of the forwards recognized the play and didn’t cover despite being in position. The pinch failed and the Panthers were gone 2-on-1 with Gallagher trying hard to skate back into the play. A cross-ice pass opened the net for Eetu Luostarinen and the lead was extended to 7-2.
The second half of the third started to get ugly as Dach got into it with a Panther and then Gudas got in Dach’s face. Not one to let those things slide, Edmundson came in with a nasty cross-check on Gudas that initiated a scrum that was cut short when a linesman fell on a skate and was hurt. Edmundson was given a ten-minute misconduct for the cross-check, but Dach, Gudas, and Marc Staal were also assessed penalties. The outcome was a Florida advantage. In vintage Paul Maurice fashion, the top power play was out to start the sequence for the Panthers. The sequence started with Guhle falling awkwardly on his knee. He would leave the game too.
The injury to the official calmed down both teams for a short time. With three minutes to play, Armia got a scoring chance that he surprisingly didn’t finish. Gallagher also got stopped by Bobrovsky and then he hit Brandon Montour low which made the latter absolutely lose his cool and fight Gallagher, not even stopping once the two were on the ground. Gallagher ended up with the extra penalty which meant another Florida advantage. The Habs killed it off and mercifully ended the night.
HabsWorld Habs Three Stars
First Star – Arber Xhekaj
Xhekaj is not the flashiest player at 5-on-5. This explains why many fans question his presence on the power play over Guhle, Barron, or even Harris. Xhekaj does the little things right such as make quick decisions and deliver accurate shots which is part of the reason that he’s seen success on said advantage. On this night, he showed all of these qualities and then scored with a different one as he released an absolute rocket that found the back of the net as Xhekaj continues his fantastic rookie season.
Stats: 1 goal, 1 assist, +1, 3 shots, 3 hits, 19:26 TOI
Second Star – Josh Anderson
This was a strong game for Anderson who was jolted into action early when he got into it with Gudas. He continued to be physical and that’s always a good sign for Anderson. This stuff gets him engaged and winning puck battles which is exactly what he did more than once on the shift where he finally scored his power play goal.
Stats: 1 goal, 0 (+/-), 4 shots, 4 hits, 17:14 TOI
Third Star – Mike Hoffman
Hoffman handled the puck well on this night. He didn’t commit any crazy giveaways, and this is true both at even strength and on the power play. Without the crazy bone-headed plays, Hoffman is always a threat offensively, and with Anderson winning puck battles in the offensive zone on that second power play unit, it gave Hoffman, Xhekaj, and Dadonov the chance to get the puck and create scoring chances. I hope the top unit was taking notes of how Xhekaj and Hoffman handled those sequences.
Stats: 1 assist, +1, 5 shots, 13:42 T.O.I.
Honourable Mention – Evgenii Dadonov
Dadonov came off being scratched and looked like a guy who didn’t want to return to the sideline. He was engaged and making plays on pucks and winning races. This was one of his better games since the start of the season as he didn’t commit his usual soft passes to no one.
Stats: 1 assist, +1, 3 shots, 13:38 T.O.I.