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Two nights after Victor Mete and Jesperi Kotkaniemi stole the show in the Habs preseason opener, the second half of the Habs were taking on a very NHL-calibre roster from the Florida Panthers on Wednesday night. Claude Julien deployed a far less NHL-ready group and gave fans their first looks at Max Domi, Joel Armia, Xavier Ouellet, Nick Suzuki, and Will Bitten. This situation was not mirrored in net as Carey Price was being seconded by veteran Antti Niemi. A quick look at the lineups would lead to the expectations of a blowout but with so many young Habs looking for jobs, the lack of talent was bridged by motivation. The Habs ultimately lost 5-2 in what was a very entertaining game; a game that even turned a little nasty in the third period after a Max Domi ejection. Despite the unfavourable result, I preferred the effort provided tonight by Montreal if compared with Monday’s game.

The Habs came out strong as they controlled the opening three minutes of play. Despite this control, the only play that looked dangerous was a pass out front by Kenny Agostino to Nick Suzuki who fired a shot into Roberto Luongo’s chest. As the five-minute mark of the first approached, Nikita Scherbak missed his lob into the Panthers’ zone and then lost an edge on his forecheck allowing an odd-man rush where Jordie Benn was slow to pick up his man on the return weak side pass. Not a good sign for the young player trying to remain in Montreal to start the season. The result was a one-timer for Evgenii Dadonov to put into a wide-open cage as Price was already committed on the first pass to get laterally through the zone.

The goal stunned the Habs as the Panthers really controlled the next few minutes, exposing some young Montreal defenders in the process. A strong shift by the line of Domi, Armia, and Jonathan Drouin finally got the Habs out of their zone, but that did not last long since Alexandre Grenier took an offensive zone penalty. With a minute expired and a delayed penalty against Brett Lernout, Dadonov was gifted his second open net of the night to make it 2-0 with a little under nine minutes to play and a fresh two-minute powerplay would ensue for the Panthers. After a few excellent defensive plays by Will Bitten, Josh Brook was tripped to negate the man-advantage. As Lernout’s penalty expired, Mike Reilly and Matthew Peca controlled the puck in the Panthers zone allowing the latter to attempt a pass to the back door. The pass hit Keith Yandle to make it into the net and reduce the lead before the end of the period.

The second period started with a penalty to Mike Hoffman as he was called for goaltender interference. Bitten really played a strong first few shifts in this period as he and Reilly really used their speed to create some interesting scoring chances. The Habs got another man advantage as Mark Pysyk was sent off for interference. This time, the power play was short-lived as Domi committed his own interference infraction seconds later. As the 4-on-4 began, Jordie Benn absolutely rocked Vincent Trocheck which allowed Jeff Petry to find Paul Byron and send him on a breakaway. Luongo made a great save and then a second on Petry.

The Habs were then caught with too many men on the ice. This provided Price one last chance to show his form as he robbed Hoffman with his glove to kill the penalty before yielding the crease to Antti Niemi. Byron and Pysyk then exchanged some cross-checks to find themselves with coincidental minors. They were quickly joined by Bogdan Kiselevich, but the Habs were once again unable to capitalize on their power play despite some solid chances for Petry and Drouin. Despite the lack of results throughout the period, one notable positive was the use of speed by the Habs that really lead to some great scoring chances for Peca, Reilly, Bitten, Byron, and Petry. Another positive was the gritty play of Armia who looked like a bigger Brendan Gallagher with his constant presence in front of Luongo. Time will tell if he’ll be as consistent as Gallagher in making his presence felt in front of the net.

Only thirty seconds into the third frame, the Habs returned to the power play as Peca was interfered with while exiting the defensive zone. This advantage would be short-lived as Domi really took out some frustrations against Aaron Ekblad. As Ekblad tried to skate away from Domi who was receiving a minor penalty, Domi repeatedly punched Ekblad with his glove, finally dropping the glove and sucker-punching Ekblad. Domi was given his initial minor, an additional major for the sucker-punch, and a match penalty (carrying an automatic suspension pending review by the league), sending the Habs to a lengthy penalty killing scenario.

The start of the extended man advantage was quiet for the Panthers, but as the defensive players from the Habs started to get tired, the chances came allowing Niemi to stand tall and provide some important saves for his team. Bitten and Reilly continued their strong play from the second as their aggressive play resulted in a great shorthanded scoring chance that Bitten ultimately fanned on in front of the net.

As play returned to even strength, Jonathan Huberdeau inexplicably tripped Byron far away from the play. The result was a fight between the two and a Montreal power play. Drouin kicked off the man advantage with a shot off the crossbar. Drouin was then caught with a weak defensive effort as Jared McCann crashed the net and stuffed a puck beneath Niemi for a rather weak shorty that gave the Panthers a 3-1 lead with only nine minutes to play.

Niemi was then guilty of an atrocious giveaway that he was unable to recover from as McCann scored his second of the night. Lernout then delivered a solid check against Mamin which led to yet another fight, this one a rather tame one as tempers had cooled by this time.

With four minutes left to play, Peca beat a Florida defender to the puck in the defensive zone. The ensuing rush saw Peca being joined by Scherbak and Ouellet. A nifty play by Peca opened the passing seam as he found Scherbak who made no mistake to cut the lead to 4-2. This was an important play for the confidence of Scherbak who had been rather invisible after his mistakes on the first goal of the night. Despite this late push, the Panthers would ultimately score in the empty net to finally set the 5-2 final score.

HabsWorld Habs 3 Stars

1st Star – Matthew Peca

If Peca was a relatively low-key move by Marc Bergevin in early July, the young centre’s name is front and centre so far during this training camp. The use of his speed and smarts has rapidly made him noticed by the fan base and it seems like the one-way deal awarded by Bergevin won’t be criticized for long.

Stats: 1 goal, 1 assist, 0 (+/-), 1 shot, 16:39 T.O.I.

2nd Star – Mike Reilly

Reilly continually used his speed to successfully pinch and help create some offence for the Habs. He didn’t get caught defensively and was successful in clearing the front of the net when he had to be a bit more physical. This is the type of play that will secure his spot on the blue line for the season opener.

Stats: 1 assist, 0 (+/-), 2 shots, 23:52 T.O.I.

3rd Star – Will Bitten

This is a young player who, like Jesperi Kotkaniemi on Monday night, played nervously in the first. After that, he used his speed to create some offence, did not get caught defensively despite playing out of position, and showed some grit in playing in the tough spots on the ice.

Stats: 0 points, -1, 2 shots, 9:48 T.O.I.

Honourable Mention – Brett Lernout

Honestly, Byron, Armia, and perhaps even Brook were more impressive than Lernout. For a player who wants to be one of the first to be called up (or crack the 23-man opening roster), Lernout did everything that was needed to find himself in the coaching staff’s good graces on this night. He repetitively hit hard, defended Reilly when it was necessary, and was invisible with the puck. It’s not sexy or flashy, but these players are important to a team, and if Lernout can show some consistency in playing this way, it’s one more step toward Bergevin having the liberty to trade David Schlemko or Jordie Benn (who was alright on this night).

Stats: 0 points, 0 (+/-), 1 shot, 5 hits, 18:01 T.O.I.