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As the final eight days of the regular season got underway, the Canadiens were on the road to face the Pittsburgh Penguins on Saturday night, a team who could clinch their playoff ticket with a win over the Habs. The Habs chose to send Antti Niemi into the action, opting to play Carey Price on Sunday against the New Jersey Devils. Other lineup notes included David Schlemko replacing Mike Reilly and Daniel Carr replacing Byron Froese. For the Penguins, their goaltending choice for this one was Matt Murray, making him the third opposing goaltender for the three recent games played featuring these two teams. These changes did little to change the outcome of the game, as the Penguins won 5-2 and punched their ticket to the postseason. Then again, when facing a team that has one of Jordie Benn, Schlemko, or Karl Alzner on the ice for the entire 60 minutes of a game, it’s like a 60-minute PP.

The initial shift of the game ended with Brendan Gallagher bowling over Murray, which appeared to motivate Montreal who really hemmed in the Pens for the greater portion of the opening two minutes. The Penguins then took over as they forced Niemi to make multiple nice stops to keep the game scoreless; none better than a breakaway stop on Patric Hornqvist after two Alzner mistakes on the same sequence.

With 11:19 to play, a nice backhand pass from Paul Byron got the Habs a quick zone exit. As Gallagher got to the offensive zone, he shot the puck wide. Jeff Petry accepted the rebound and put it quickly on net as the puck had eyes and went directly in the net for a 1-0 Habs lead. On the next shift, Niemi allowed a strange rebound which allowed Riley Sheahan to send the puck to the front of the net where Logan Shaw slowed the puck just enough for Conor Sheary to fire it in the empty net.

In the following minute, Michael McCarron lost a defensive zone draw and reacted by taking a hooking penalty. On the ensuing man-advantage, Justin Schultz put a puck on the net from the point and Hornqvist was given a big juicy rebound to give the Penguins a 2-1 lead. A few moments later, Benn took a slashing penalty to really put the Habs in hot water. Luckily for Benn, Niemi stood tall to save him.

With 5:24 to play, Jonathan Drouin won a defensive zone faceoff but Carl Hagelin got to the puck before Schlemko and fired a puck from behind the goal line that bounced off the back of a cheating Niemi’s jersey to find the back of the net.

In the final minute of the period, Jake Guentzel was guilty of a dirty play as he cross-checked Noah Juulsen in the back only a few feet from the boards. This happened with the fourth line on the ice, yet it was Daniel Carr who went after Guentzel, not McCarron or Nicolas Deslauriers. Allow me a moment to sound off here, because if Deslauriers or McCarron don’t feel the need to protect their teammate in that scenario, they are essentially useless to this roster. For all the times where guys get pummelled for laying out clean body checks, Claude Julien ices two goons who stand and stare while a rookie teammate gets cross-checked into the boards? I don’t get it. The Habs did get a power play from the play, and they would score as Drouin completed an absolute snipe after a cross-ice pass from Alex Galchenyuk.

If the first period was played at a great speed, with fun plays and many goals, the start of the second was the absolute antithesis to the first. Play was filled with whistles, neither team was able to get any momentum, and the opening four minutes was essentially eventless. This was the case until Carr tackled Matt Hunwick on the forecheck for Montreal’s third penalty of the game. An excellent effort by Gallagher and Artturi Lehkonen really set the tone and allowed the Canadiens to kill the penalty.

With nine minutes to play, the Penguins passing dizzied the Habs defensive coverage and concluded with Sidney Crosby driving a one-timer off the post to the left of Niemi. Evgeni Malkin also hit a post before the end of the period. The second half of the frame basically consisted of the Habs clearing their zone and then getting ready to defend as the Penguins attacked again. Therefore, the period ended with the Penguins ahead on the shot clock by a 23-15 margin.

In the first thirty seconds of the third, Juulsen and Alzner got caught staring as Bryan Rust was sent in all alone on Niemi, who made two great stops to give the Habs a chance to get back in the game. The Penguins continued to dominate most of the third period, a situation that was made worse when Drouin was given a rather cheap penalty for a supposed hook against Crosby. The Habs started strong as Lehkonen was sent in on a breakaway but fanned on his shot attempt. As is often the case in hockey, missing a play like that proved costly as the Penguins went down the ice and Kessel tipped home a missed pass for a 4-2 lead.

On the next play, Galchenyuk got called for slashing, a call that neither Galchenyuk nor Julien thought was very good. Byron did his usual thing as he was able to create a breakaway for himself while killing a penalty. This time, it was a nice save by Murray that allowed the puck to head in the opposite direction. Once again, Pittsburgh scored and their third power play goal of the night for Pittsburgh iced this game. This happened when Olli Maatta shot from the blueline and scored through a crowd.

The final ten minutes of the game mostly consisted of the Penguins working on their defensive coverage, not surprising considering coach Sullivan was incredibly angry after the two Montreal shorthanded breakaways. The only good chances for Montreal over this stretch belonged to Galchenyuk as he created a mini-break that was easily stopped by Murray. The rest was the Habs cycling on the perimeter of the Penguins zone, nothing new as the game crawled to its end.

HabsWorld Habs 3 Stars of the Night

1st Star – Brendan Gallagher

Surprise, surprise. Gallagher’s still blocking shots, making plays on the power play, and getting points. This was the first period only in game 78 of a completely lost season where Gallagher still managed 30 goals. Leader indeed.

Stats: 2 assists, +1, 3 shots, 1 hit, 17:56 T.O.I.

2nd Star – Alex Galchenyuk

Does Galchenyuk need to play this way when the games count next season before the fan base truly believes that he’s turned the corner? Absolutely. Despite this, Galchenyuk absolutely buying into Julien’s way of playing must be seen as one of the few positives to come out of this season, right? Renewed hope for the 3rd overall pick in 2012 can only be a positive heading into next season. Another strong all-around game from Galchenyuk.

Stats: 1 assist, 0 rating, 1 shot, 14:35 T.O.I.

3rd Star – Jonathan Drouin

Drouin has been playing great for the last little bit and tonight was no different. In a night filled with little positives, his gorgeous shot in the final minute of the first period really stands out as one of the few good moments.

Stats: 1 goal, 0 rating, 2 shots, 17:16 T.O.I.

Honourable Mention – Paul Byron

The effort level of Byron is as constant as Gallagher, and tonight was no different. He rounds out the four players who have easily been the best and most consistent Habs since the All-Star break.

Stats: 1 assist, 0 rating, 4 shots, 4 hits, 17:52 T.O.I.