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The Habs played their last game as a team this Saturday, with some changes to the dressing room expected before Monday’s trade deadline. As they attempted to build on Thursday night’s win, the task before them was a daunting one with the Eastern Conference powerhouse Tampa Bay Lightning visiting the Bell Centre. Claude Julien was asked to make Tomas Plekanec a healthy scratch to prevent the Czech centre from injuring himself before the deadline. Jacob de la Rose replaced Plekanec on a line with Paul Byron and Brendan Gallagher. The rest of the lineup remained essentially the same (save for Daniel Carr replacing Logan Shaw), meaning that Antti Niemi remained the trusted goaltender on this night. The Habs held their own quite well as they challenged the Lightning and brought them to a shootout, where they would eventually fall to a more skilled Tampa team (4-3).

The opening period was entertaining from the start as both teams were aggressively forechecking. With a bit more than four minutes expired, Jordie Benn picked off a pass at the Montreal blueline to start an odd-man rush. Alex Galchenyuk found Charles Hudon with a cross-ice pass as Jordie Benn crashed the net, but Hudon was unable to get off a solid shot, allowing Andrei Vasilevskiy enough time to get across and make the save.

The Habs would finally score near the nine-minute mark of the frame. Byron Froese won a defensive zone faceoff leading to the puck being dumped deep in Tampa’s territory. Benn stopped the clearing attempt, shot it at the net, and Froese deflected it home for a 1-0 lead. Credit to Daniel Carr on the play for an aggressive forecheck to create the turnover.

The pace of play picked up considerably after the goal. This fast-paced style of play clearly benefitted the Lightning and they wasted little time evening the score. Brayden Point broke into the offensive zone and cut across as Mikhail Sergachev rushed the net. Both Benn and Joe Morrow covered Sergachev, allowing Point time to pick a corner on Niemi to tie the contest.

With a little over five minutes to play in the period, Karl Alzner stood up Nikita Kucherov at centre ice. Kucherov tried to get out of the way which resulted in him being clipped. Steven Stamkos took exception to the missed hit and jumped on Alzner to begin what was a lacklustre fight. Stamkos received the additional two plus ten for instigating, leading to a Habs power play. As soon as the play started up again, Gallagher ran into Victor Hedman who was out of position. Knowing Gallagher’s reputation, it’s possible that Gallagher’s bump was “accidentally on purpose”, but Gallagher clearly did not hit Hedman hard or near the head. Hedman dropped like a sack of potatoes and the officials fell for the dive, whistling the play down despite the Canadiens controlling the puck in the Lightning zone. When play resumed, the Lightning cleared the zone as the Habs never really got their power play in order after that play. The final three minutes of the period’s only highlight was a reunion of Gallagher and Hedman. Hedman crossed the zone to come give Gallagher three solid whacks with his stick. Gallagher responded in kind and words were exchanged before the second fight of the period broke out.

The second period started at 4-on-4 for a minute and the Habs controlled the play for the first five minutes of the period. Tampa Bay was successful at keeping the Canadiens to the perimeter, so the good play was not rewarded for the Habs. This streak was stopped when Hudon tripped Point who was attempting to gain the middle of the Habs defensive zone. The Lightning man advantage was effective at getting around the Montreal box, but Niemi was up to the task as he made a nice glove save to keep the game tied. With the penalty expiring, Byron took another penalty, this time a rather selfish interference call. This second power play was more effective as Kucherov got a first good shot on Niemi who made a nice glove save. Kucherov would get the same shot off a second time, this getting the puck through Niemi to give Tampa Bay a 2-1 lead.

One minute later, the Habs returned the game to square one. The equalizer actually started in the Montreal end where Max Pacioretty made a nice poke-check to Hudon to get out of the zone. Hudon skated down the ice before finding Joe Morrow as the late man joining the rush. Morrow fired the puck off the post and in, tie game.

Once again, a team’s goal would seemingly motivate the opposition. Tampa Bay took over the game for the next five minutes as the Habs really struggled to keep up with the speed of the Lightning. Fortunately for Montreal, the momentum was broken when Kucherov took a penalty for hooking Mete. On this second power play occasion, Montreal took the lead. Galchenyuk, Jeff Petry, and Jonathan Drouin did an excellent job of passing around the Lightning zone and moving the defenders around. Gallagher then retrieved a puck deep in the offensive zone which led to a Drouin one-timer. The rebound comes out directly to Pacioretty who made no mistake.

The last three minutes of the period were highlighted by Montreal failing to create a cushion on the scoresheet as Pacioretty missed two breakaways and Byron also missed a great chance to extend the lead.

Seven seconds into the third period, Froese was sent to the box for cross-checking. 13 seconds later, Danault was over aggressive on the forecheck and took a slashing penalty, leaving the Lightning with 1:46 of 5-on-3. The Lightning missed the net twice and Kucherov hit the post twice with Niemi completely down and out. In the end, Montreal bent but did not break. Once the first penalty was over, Kucherov simplified his play and fired a wrist shot from the high slot to end the second penalty and tie the game again.

With four minutes expired, Alex Killorn was penalized on a play that was about as aggressive as Froese’s initial cross-check. Regardless, Montreal’s power play could never really get organized, but they’d get another chance shortly, as Vladislav Namestnikov was sent to the box for hooking Nicolas Deslauriers. This latest version of the man advantage surrendered two excellent short-handed chances, but Niemi stood tall. They would eventually get organized and Vasilevskiy had to be spectacular to stop Pacioretty at the end of a great passing sequence by the Habs. The second half of the period was played at break-neck speed, but with extreme caution by both teams. With neither team wanting to give up the lead, play remained in the neutral zone with little scoring chances to speak of.

This brought both teams to overtime, where Kucherov and Pacioretty started the action by exchanging incredible chances that just couldn’t beat the goaltenders. Mete then handed the game on a silver platter to Artturi Lehkonen who was absolutely robbed by Vasilevskiy. With 2:30 to play in the overtime, Tyler Johnson held Morrow’s stick. Morrow pulled on the stick and hit Johnson in the face with it, sending Tampa to a 4-on-3 PP. Niemi made 3-5 game-saving stops over the segment, setting up the shootout to come.

In the shootout, Byron started but failed to score on a deke. Chris Kunitz then tried to go five-hole with no success. Drouin then missed the net on a shot. Point, who was likely the best Lightning player on the night, came in with speed and beat Niemi glove side. Hudon was the last shooter and he got Vasilevskiy moving, but the goaltender made a remarkable save to end the night.

Observation of the Night

Watching this team keep up with the Lightning for most of the night really brings about questions about the veterans surrounding this team. Marc Bergevin often repeated in his first years on the job that if kids deserved roster spots, space would be created for them. It appears that Charles Hudon, Nikita Scherbak, Victor Mete, and Noah Juulsen are ready. Why then did the organization wait until the season was over to truly make room for them to play? I guess we’ll have a real answer to that question next season.

As a fan of this team, but not always of the fans associated to it, I include a message here to all fans to remember the positives of each player that will be traded away over the next few days. Whether or not you were a personal fan of said player, they remain human beings that undoubtedly tried their best to help the franchise be more successful than they ultimately have been of late. Let’s remember that when sending a player off to another organization and wish them well.

HabsWorld Habs 3 Stars of the Night

1st Star – Antti Niemi

For a goaltender who was supposedly finished and earned Bergevin some jeers for acquiring, Niemi has been quite good for the Canadiens. He was again on this night as he made several saves to keep his team in the game. As of now, he’s earning his ice time. I wonder if he’s being considered as a trade option for playoff-bound teams.

Stats: 36 saves on 39 shots, .923 sv %, 64:38 T.O.I.

2nd Star – Max Pacioretty

Captain Pacioretty was involved on this night, and as per usual, he got his name on the scoreboard when he allowed his play to get grittier than the perimeter shots. If he did this consistently, he’d likely be a 50-goal scorer in the league.

Stats: 1 goal, 1 assist, +1, 3 shots, 2 hits, 22:32 T.O.I.

3rd Star – Charles Hudon

Hudon ended the night playing with Drouin and Pacioretty, as he appears to be the new spark plug that is moved to lines that need a little jolt to get going. He made the play to get the Morrow goal on the board, much like he has consistently of late.

Stats: 1 assist, +1, 1 shot, 1 hit, 17:47 T.O.I.  

Honourable Mention – Noah Juulsen

Juulsen’s name was not mentioned often in this one. Considering the opponent and the fact that this was Juulsen’s second game, I think this is a great sign. Then consider that the rookie actually played over 20 minutes. A quiet night for a defender like this means a game without mistakes in the context of playing an offensive-minded team like the Lightning is remarkable. It doesn’t look amazing statistically, but it is impressive nonetheless.

Stats: 0 points, 0 (+/), 6 shots, 21:02 T.O.I.