The Habs finally returned home after a disastrous road trip for this Thursday night contest. They faced the Rangers trying to snap a six-game losing streak which was no easy task as New York was on a bit of a tear lately going 7-2-1 in their last 10 games. Add to this that the Rangers have been a better road team than home team and the Habs’ recent floundering looked likely to continue.
Credit where credit is due, the Canadiens committed to a much tighter defensive game and did come away with some better results on individual shifts. However, this came at the expense of any offensive chances for the better part of the game, so the effort still wasn’t enough as they dropped their seventh consecutive game, this time by a 4-1 score.
Coach St. Louis once again moved some bodies around trying to find some chemistry between his players. Nick Suzuki, Cole Caufield, and Kirby Dach remained the top line while Juraj Slafkovsky and Josh Anderson joined Christian Dvorak on the second line. The third line consisted of Jake Evans, Evgenii Dadonov, and Joel Armia; the fourth of Michael Pezzetta, Jonathan Drouin, and Anthony Richard.
The blue line saw Joel Edmundson and David Savard form the top pair. The second was Jordan Harris and Johnathan Kovacevic, while Arber Xhekaj and Chris Wideman rounded out the group. This meant that Mike Hoffman and Justin Barron were the scratches for this game. Brendan Gallagher was not in uniform due to a lower-body injury. Jake Allen returned to the net trying to right the ship.
The start of the game was incredibly tentative by both teams as the most noteworthy part of the opening ten minutes was a big hit by Ryan Lindgren on Pezzetta. The play remained in the neutral zone with many dump-ins and safe plays as the fans weren’t treated to much of a show after a six-game absence. Montreal’s defensive posture was strong to start the game, but the one bad habit that remained was losing pucks at the two blue lines which usually left teammates in vulnerable positions. By the midway point of the period, shots were a rather sad 2-0 for New York.
Considering the start of the period, that the period ended with the shots 6-4 meant just a bit more action in the second half. The Rangers started the second half by taking advantage of an open slot in the Montreal zone to get two more shots on net. The Habs did wake up a bit to end the period as they got their first shot of the game with 3:07 to play. Evans and Armia were able to apply pressure and get a few good scoring chances. Honestly, though their six shots were more than the Habs, it really didn’t feel like Allen was tested much as the Canadiens committed to their defensive posture and really covered their slot well in the period.
As has often been the case this season, the Habs were unable to really handle the difficulties of the long change and the second period buried them. It didn’t start out that way as Armia got another chance at the opening of the period that Jaroslav Halak turned aside. Montreal actually controlled the better part of the opening five minutes, but they just never hit the net with their scoring chances.
With 14:03 to play, the Rangers were caught with too many men on the ice. Montreal’s power play not only completely failed them, but they also coughed up a goal for the first time this season. The second unit appeared more threatening than the first as Anderson just missed a good chance before Slafkovsky made a soft backhand pass that was picked off by Chris Kreider who then burned Xhekaj before beating Allen who started his lateral movement way too fast to open the short side.
The goal sent the Habs on their heels as the Rangers were suddenly all over them to start the second half of the game. The Habs survived the storm and slowly got back into the competition until Drouin rang a solid shot off the post with 8:27 to play. This would prove costly as Braden Schneider scored on the same shift. Artemi Panarin controlled the puck in the Habs’ zone and sent the puck to the blue line. A soft shot from the blue line resulted in a soft goal as the point shot came with little traffic in front as Allen got most of the shot, but not enough.
A minute later, Xhekaj won two consecutive board battles, got no support to get the puck out, and it ended up on Filip Chytil’s stick in the high slot who used Suzuki as a screen in beating Allen in another shot that the netminder likely wouldn’t mind getting another crack at saving. In all honesty though, Dach and Caufield had to be tougher on the puck on that sequence and get the puck out of the zone.
In the last five minutes of the period, the Rangers let up and the only Canadiens line that took advantage was the Evans line with the centre missing an open net. The period ended with a shot advantage for the Rangers as the third period had little promise for the Canadiens and their recent performances. How quickly they have fallen from their early season exciting play.
The start of the third period saw New York come out strong and Allen have his best moments of the game thus keeping the team within reasonable range to attempt a comeback. Montreal tried that as Dach and Caufield had a strong shift, but the Rangers were careful in not allowing chances from the slot. The Evans line continued their strong night as all three missed some shots on their next shift and Armia missed twice.
As the final ten minutes of play began, it was clear that the Canadiens weren’t going to succeed in their attempt to make this an interesting game. The officiating gave them a glimmer of hope as Panarin took a penalty. Once again, the second unit was far more dangerous, and the chances came from Xhekaj and Anderson. The advantage did not score and then the Habs shot themselves in the foot before the end of the advantage as Xhekaj took a slashing penalty to prevent another Kreider shorthanded break. The Habs killed the penalty.
Armia would finally get the Habs on the board with 5:14 to play when Jake Evans entered the zone and found the late man in Xhekaj. True to himself, Xhekaj found a way to get the puck on the net and Armia was there for the rebound as he finally got one to go in for his first on the season. The Habs then pushed, with the Evans line once again the best for the Habs in the sequence, but the Rangers would not let another goal through their defence, and they finally caught their break when Armia was called for cross-checking after hitting the post. The Habs sent Allen to the bench to make it 5-on-5, but it didn’t work, leading to an empty netter and the final score.
HabsWorld Habs 3 Stars
1st Star – Joel Armia
I’ve featured Armia here more than once recently. He was finally able to convert on a chance so it will be interesting to see if the floodgates open a bit for a player who I feel has been more involved than usual in recent games. Not sure we ever find the sporadic four-point night Armia before the end of the season, though it would certainly help him get out of town if that’s what he desires.
Stats: 1 goal, 0 (+/-), 3 shots, 2 hits, 15:30 T.O.I.
2nd Star – Jake Evans
Evans’ play away from the puck is never a problem, but I really find he’s been an offensive black hole in far too many games this season. This wasn’t the case on this night as his forecheck was effective and he was able to keep plays alive in the offensive zone with his speed. It’s too bad that he doesn’t have a bit more size because he’s willing to play the cycle game, but he oftentimes is simply too small to win 2-3 straight board battles to complement Armia on that fourth line. Still a decent effort by Evans on this night.
Stats: 1 assist, 0 (+/-), 4 hits, 15:37 T.O.I.
3rd Star – Arber Xhekaj
The turn on Xhekaj has started on social media and frankly, I’m disgusted by it. Xhekaj is playing bottom pair, makes a nice first pass, adds physicality to the team, gets pucks to the net in the offensive zone, and obviously will stick up for teammates. What more can a team want from a bottom-pairing player? Sure, he gets victimized on the Rangers’ shorty, but it’s not as though he made that garbage soft pass, he was simply beat with speed. I guess if one has aspirations of Xhekaj being a top-four defender, he could go get a ton of touches in the A. I see him as more of a bottom-pairing career dude that adds a ton with his ability to be both physical and puck capable.
Stats: 1 assist, -1, 2 shots, 2 hits, 14:23 T.O.I.
Honourable Mention – Evgenii Dadonov
The third player on the Evans line was less noticeable, but it must be said as I’ve been quite open with my displeasure with this player that he has been more engaged of late and less guilty of brutal soft passes that end up as turnovers that trap the team in the defensive zone for extended periods of time. I guess that’s how low the bar has been recently, this is enough to get a feature here.
Stats: -1, 3 shots, 14:50 T.O.I.