The Canadiens visited Denver for a rendezvous with the Avalanche on Wednesday, and they met what they hope will be their future. After falling to the bottom of the league half a dozen years ago, the team management and head coach Jared Bednar have built a team that combines dazzling skill, high speed, solid goaltending, and suffocating defence, all things that the Habs are aiming for.
In spite of missing some top players, the Avalanche showed that there is still a big difference between where the Habs are right now, and where they want to be a few years from now. With the Habs additionally challenged by the thin air in Colorado, the Avalanche edged them with a 2-1 overtime victory.
“You’ve got to look at what we’re trying to build and it’s a similar style,” said Jake Allen. “Fast, up-tempo with pace: a possession game that starts with them playing on top of you and not giving them any time or space, with their defence active in all of it.”
The Canadiens had the early edge, though, with Anthony Richard, playing only his fourth NHL game at age 26, slipped through the Avalanche defence with less than two minutes gone in the game. Richard used his speed to his advantage, first beating the defenders and then sliding the puck through Alexandar Georgiev’s five-hole to give the Habs a first-period goal for the first time in a long time.
The period had its moments for both teams. The Avalanche might have scored at the 12-minute mark, as there was a logjam of players in front of Allen and an empty net to shoot at, but the Canadiens’ defence was able to clear the puck before the Colorado forwards could hit the target.
Three minutes later, Josh Anderson had his own breakaway, as star defender Cale Makar stumbled, but his wrist shot was unable to beat Georgiev. The Habs seemed energized by his effort, though, but could not find the back of the net in those final five minutes, and the score stayed at 1-0.
The shots were tied at 12 for the period, with the bleu, blanc, et rouge having a 4-3 edge in high-danger scoring chances.
The second period was a much different affair, though, and the Avalanche controlled the game throughout. Allen made 14 saves in the period alone, from a sprawling stop two minutes into the period, during a to a two-on-one with four minutes remaining, Alex Newhook fumbling on that latter one and missing a more dangerous opportunity.
And Arber Xhekaj got his stick tangled up in Evan Rodrigues’ skates with 1:44 remaining, giving the dangerous Colorado power play its first chance to go to work. A glove save on Mikko Rantanen, a goalpost for J.T. Compher, and a blocked shot by Makar, and the Habs escaped to the change room still one goal up in the game.
Indeed, Allen nearly stole the game for the Habs, making 34 saves by the end of the game, only to be robbed in overtime.
“Did we steal a point? Probably,” said Martin St Louis after the game. “It would have been robbery if we had taken two.”
The statistics for the period were grim, with a 14-4 edge for the home team, and a 5-2 edge in high-danger scoring chances as well.
The third period started with a short 16-second segment on penalty kill, which the Habs survived, but only two minutes later, at 2:09, Richard was called for hooking Logan O’Connor. The power play opening faceoff in the Habs zone was won by Compher, and followed by some rapid and accurate passing. And just seven seconds later, Rantanen got the puck to Artturi Lehkonen in front of the net, and Lehkonen beat Allen for his ninth goal of the year, to tie up the game.
Lehkonen, traded by the Canadiens for defensive prospect Justin Barron last spring, is now on pace for 27 goals and 66 points. He will surely easily beat his career high of 38 points from last year — and that’s without him having let up on his ferocious forechecking and defensive work. Barron is a high-quality prospect, but the Habs have not been able to find a replacement for Lehkonen yet, and that shows.
“Players like him are hard to find,” Martin St. Louis said. “I was happy for him that he went to a team that had a chance to win the Cup and that he won it. But they sure aren’t easy guys to replace.”
“Do you have anyone like that on your roster?” St. Louis was asked. “I’m not sure,” he answered. “I’m not sure.” And indeed, there are some players that may yet grow into that role, but at the moment it’s a clear gap compared to the last year’s edition of the Canadiens.
After Lehkonen’s power play goal, the Avalanche continued pressuring the Habs, and there were few opportunities for the bleu, blanc, et rouge, with the team recording just three shots on goal in the period, to Colorado’s 12, even if the high-danger chances were recorded even at two each.
So overtime it was, once again, and the Canadiens put out their young trio of Nick Suzuki, Cole Caufield, and Kaiden Guhle on the ice first, in spite of facing the ever-dangerous Rantanen and Makar. St. Louis was able to do this as Suzuki, Caufield and Kirby Dach had actually controlled play against Rodrigues, Makar and Devon Toews.
The Habs controlled the play for much of the overtime period, but were not able to find scoring opportunities early as the Avalanche defence kept them to the outside. Jonathan Drouin had the first real opportunity, as he leveraged his speed to beat Toews and and attempted to tuck the puck under Georgiev.
The Avalanche goalie kept the puck out, though, and as Drouin fell down on the play, the Avalanche broke out for a quick attack. Rantanen sent the puck to Toews in the centre ice, and Toews returned it to the Finn at the top of the circles as they skated in on a two-on-one, with only Guhle back. Rantanen wasted no time and snapped the puck through Allen’s five-hole to take away the veteran goalie’s shutout bid.
HW Habs Three Stars
First Star: Anthony Richard (1g, 0a, 1 shot, 9:44 TOI) may not have been the best player on the ice, but a pretty breakaway for his first NHL goal, after nearly 400 games in the AHL, surely deserves the first star of the game.
Second Star: Jake Allen (36 shots, 34 saves, 0.944 save) might have given the Habs two stolen points again, as he and Samuel Montembeault have done a number of times before this season. Excellent work from the veteran goaltender, who seems to have regained his form after some weaker games in the past month.
Third Star: Kirby Dach (0g, 0a, 3 shots, 19:58 TOI) played another strong game with Suzuki and Caufield. Will he eventually become the Habs’ second-line centre? That remains to be seen, but he is showing impressive performance on the wing. At 22 points through 33 games, the young forward looks to break his career mark of 26 points before the halfway point of the season.
Honourable Mention: Jonathan Drouin (0g, 0a, 1 shot, 14:32 TOI) is playing better than he has been in years. Motivated, working hard, he is unlikely to be a fan favourite ever again in Montreal, but his explosive skate in overtime gave the Habs a chance to win, and showed what he can still do.