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The Habs were back in action on Wednesday as they hosted the New York Islanders. This game was interesting for a few reasons for Montreal fans since it was possible to follow the progression of the impressive Noah Juulsen, witness Mike Reilly’s first game in bleu-blanc-rouge, and Andrew Shaw returned to action after his latest stint on the IR. Regarding the opposition, this game allowed fans to witness Mathew Barzal, one of the two leading candidates to the Calder trophy. Also, this game had some playoff implications as the Islanders remain first of the non-playoff teams, four points behind the Columbus Blue Jackets. This is a game that the Islanders needed, yet the Habs were successful in playing spoiler, winning by a 3-1 score after another solid effort from their netminder.

The first four minutes of the game was mostly highlighted by three bad Jordie Benn turnovers that luckily did not result in goals against. On the first of these occasions, Benn’s partner Reilly made an excellent first impression as he thwarted a 2-on-1 against Jordan Eberle and Barzal. With four minutes expired in the period, Barzal reached the puck in the neutral and exploded with speed into the Montreal zone. Juulsen was caught flat-footed on the play as Barzal went around him and deked to his backhand to fool Antti Niemi for an early 1-0 score.

Approximately four minutes later, Paul Byron fired a pass towards Brendan Gallagher to leave the defensive zone. The pass lacked precision, but it resulted in a foot race between Gallagher and new Islander Brandon Davidson. Gallagher would win the race and lure Davidson into a penalty, the first of the game. The power play would be eventful as Petry misplayed the puck off the first faceoff leading to a Casey Cizikas breakaway that was stopped by Niemi. Petry then grabbed the puck and fired it up the ice to Max Pacioretty who got a good shot toward Jaroslav Halak. The shot went wide and Cizikas caught Galchenyuk unexpectedly for a second shorthanded chance that Niemi had to stop. As Petry attempted to gain access to the offensive zone, he once again coughed up the puck leading to a third break for the Islanders. This time, Niemi had to stand tall against Brock Nelson. Montreal would eventually get installed in the Islanders zone which would lead to a glorious scoring chance. Back-to-back one-timers from Alex Galchenyuk and Charles Hudon left a juicy rebound to Nikita Scherbak who missed the open net to the tune of ringing iron.

With the power play expired, the strong Montreal forecheck continued until Artturi Lehkonen made a bank pass to Byron in the slot who quickly fired a shot home to tie the game. Phillip Danault was then sent to the box for a retaliatory slash. The Islanders were not successful on their power play but the sequence would establish the Islanders in the Montreal zone for most of the remaining three minutes that followed the man advantage.

The opening five minutes of the second period was played with little action as both teams kept the opposition to the perimeter. Reilly, who had played a good first period, struggled to start the second while Lehkonen looked quite engaged offensively. With seven minutes expired, Galchenyuk absolutely undressed an Islanders defender. He was unable to get a shot off, but that’s mostly due to the defender ending up in the box for holding Galchenyuk. The Habs started the power play with the second unit, and once the first unit got on the ice, they were determined to make the Islanders pay. It started with a beautiful pass from Pacioretty to Galchenyuk who missed a wide-open net. The puck then went around the zone to Drouin who took his time and placed a shot over Halak’s shoulder for Montreal’s first lead of the night.

The goal appeared to ignite the Islanders as they attacked the Montreal zone as Karl Alzner and Juulsen appeared overwhelmed on the sequence. Lucky for the tandem that Niemi was really focused as he held the fort for the five minutes that followed the Drouin goal. Five minutes after said goal, the Habs would strike again as Jacob de la Rose and Gallagher attacked the Islander defenders aggressively which would leave all four players battling and the puck loose. Scherbak skated in off the bench unmarked creating a chance for a pass from Gallagher from behind the net. This time, Scherbak did not beat Halak cleanly, but this one still went in the net for a 3-1 lead. Lehkonen and Pacioretty would then get a 2-on-1 break that would be played perfectly by the defender, forcing Lehkonen to take a shot that Halak handled. It would be the last good chance of the period.

The third period started with the Islanders trying to get back into the game, and they got a great chance early as de la Rose was called for a slashing minor one minute into the period. The Islanders were aggressive in getting many shots on net during their power play, but Niemi was equal to the task, keeping the lead intact. After their man advantage, the Islanders continued their aggressive play, but the Habs did a great job of upping their physical play when the situation required some solid defensive efforts. Full marks to de la Rose and Reilly who really laid out some solid hits to set the tone to the team’s successful defense of their lead.

With seven minutes expired, Byron coughed up the puck at the top of the offensive zone. This placed the defenders in an impossible position, but Reilly skated hard to negate a dangerous looking opportunity for New York. While the Islanders continued to control the period, Hudon was able to get a breakaway with four minutes to play in the game but he wasn’t able to score. As the Islanders pulled Halak with 2:45 to play, Tavares would see his stick explode giving the Habs a great chance to end the game. Byron Froese did not put the puck on net, allowing the Islanders to maintain hope. However, they would get nothing going as Niemi only needed to make three saves in the two last minutes to keep the Islanders at bay. Full marks to Alzner and Juulsen who played a strong minute defensively after the New York timeout.

Observation of the Night

Tonight’s observation is directed to all fans who questioned Claude Julien’s treatment of Alex Galchenyuk in the early months of this season, myself included. Clearly, Julien is an NHL coach before any critic for a reason, and Alex Galchenyuk is a perfect exhibit of why. Galchenyuk has always shown flashed of his skill, but the consistency has often failed him, until now. I tried to observe his play to help explain this turn of events and frankly, I think it is a really simple explanation. His play away from the puck has seen a ten-fold improvement in terms of effort. Make no mistake, Galchenyuk is not going to play on the penalty kill anytime soon. However, the puck finding his wing in the defensive zone is no longer a sign that the puck is staying in the Montreal zone. Likewise, the player’s hustle in creating back pressure on the backcheck has also created fewer sequences where he has to make the proper play in the defensive zone. Good on Galchenyuk for being receptive to the message from the coaching staff and becoming a player that is much closer to what everyone was hoping for when he was drafted. The goal of the observation is to underline the good effort from one player, but it’s an interesting selling point for the coaching staff when trying to sell the right way to play to Drouin, Hudon, Scherbak, and other skillful young players who tend to take shifts off when away from the puck.

HabsWorld Habs 3 Stars of the Night

1st Star – Antti Niemi

Niemi was the key to victory and look no further than the three breakaways stopped during the first Montreal power play of the night. Want more than one solid sequence? He also made 3-5 solid stops to keep the lead in the five minutes that followed the Drouin goal. How about the penalty to start the third period?

Stats: 27 saves on 28 shots, .964 save %, 59:56 T.O.I.

2nd Star – Nikita Scherbak

Scherbak doesn’t consistently wow the audience, but much like the first seasons of Max Pacioretty, he seems to always find himself in the right place at the right time to have the puck on his stick in dangerous scoring areas. I’m sure the coaching staff would love to find a more complete player in Scherbak, but for a rookie, he’s earning himself some scoring chances quite regularly which is a good start. Scherbak wasn’t as good in a defensive role in the third, but it’s the type of experience I hope he gets a ton of in this lost season.

Stats: 1 goal, +1, 1 shot, 14:18 T.O.I.

3rd Star – Victor Mete

Lost in the noise created by the Noah Juulsen debut has been the increased role and the excellent play from Victor Mete of late. This was another such effort as Mete, playing alongside Petry, are solid with the puck which allows the Canadiens to spend so much less time in their own zone. Mete, like Juulsen, remains a player with plenty to learn, but I’m certainly more interested in watching these players and accepting their youthful mistakes over watching the likes of Schlemko, Benn, and Morrow making the same mistakes game after game because they lack the skill to make the better play.

Stats: no points, +2, 16:32 T.O.I.  

Honourable Mention – Mike Reilly

What an interesting first game for this young defender. It wasn’t all positive, but he showed some interesting signs, notably in the offensive zone. Like many before him, he’ll be far more effective if he starts to hit the net with his shot. Funny that he chose to wear #28, because his first game reminded me quite a bit of another player who recently the number (Nathan Beaulieu). Defensively, there’s no doubt that he’s a risk-taker, but those risks worked in his favour tonight, so a good first impression for him.

Stats: 0 points, 0 (+/), 1 shot, 4 hits, 22:56 T.O.I.