As the Habs were trying to avenge Tuesday’s loss to the Stars, their foe on Thursday night was a formidable one in the defending Stanley Cup Champion Washington Capitals. This home game included some significant changes to the lineup as Charles Hudon was joining Max Domi and Jonathan Drouin on the team’s second line. This meant that Artturi Lehkonen was lowered to the third line with Jesperi Kotkaniemi and Joel Armia while the fourth line consisted of Andrew Shaw, Nicolas Deslauriers, and Matthew Peca due to Paul Byron’s injury. On the blue line, Noah Juulsen was making a return to the lineup as the slow-skating Karl Alzner rightfully made his return to the press box (considering the opponent). In net, there was no surprise in the duel as Carey Price was faced with Braden Holtby.
What fans witnessed was an absolutely breath-taking 60-minutes of hockey with a conclusion that was enough to give this Habs fan chills. The 6-4 Montreal win included a strong start, a let down in the second, and an inspired comeback in the third that included absolutely no passengers on this night.
Holtby would be tested on the very first shift as the top line of Brendan Gallagher, Tomas Tatar, and Phillip Danault worked a skillful zone entry to provide Tatar with a shot from the slot that was turned away. Two minutes later, Kotkaniemi made a nice defensive play to separate Chandler Stephenson from the puck and allowed Armia to exit the zone. Armia carried the puck all the way into the offensive zone before returning the pass to his open pivot who quickly roofed a rocket for Kotkaniemi’s long-awaited first NHL goal. As far as NHL firsts go, Kotkaniemi’s shot was a beauty, the type of goal one wants to score as a first. To be expected, Kotkaniemi’s smile was ear-to-ear as his name rang across the Bell Centre to a chorus of cheers.
A few moments later, a missed switch in defensive zone coverage between Danault and Tatar left Lars Eller wide open to pounce on a rebound to tie the game. The “Finish Line” quickly returned to the attack as a Kotkaniemi rebound was whiffed on by Armia who had an empty net in front of him.
Fans were then treated to some 4-on-4 action after an Evgeny Kuznetsov and Gallagher shoving match. The space on the ice favoured the Caps as they exploited the Habs and controlled play with their best chance coming on a T.J. Oshie one-timer that hit the post. As the second half of the period simmered down in terms of glorious scoring chances, the quality of play surely did not taper off. Both teams were skating hard and making excellent plays applying pressure on the opposing team defenders and forcing each goaltender to make solid saves to ensure the teams retreated to the locker room tied.
The Danault line continued their strong play to start the second. A solid zone exit by Tatar was turned into a lucky zone entry by Danault as the puck was poked high off his stick but caught by Tatar who skated into the offensive zone and found Gallagher at the goal mouth (surprise!) as the fiery winger scored his eighth goal of the season.
The Caps attacked the Habs for the minutes that followed, earning themselves a few excellent chances, none better than a shot that bounced off the post only to see Jordie Benn clear the zone. As is often the case in this scenario, the next Montreal chance found the back of the net. A strong forecheck by Danault resulted in a shot by Tatar that missed the net. The rebound came right to Gallagher who scored his second of the night for a 3-1 lead.
The Capitals kept coming though and they would soon be rewarded. Weak coverage up the middle by Danault resulted in a 2-on-1 where Kuznetsov found Alex Ovechkin for a quick strike to make it 3-2. The game would be tied within the next minute as Juulsen and Armia were both beat to a loose puck by Brett Connolly who quickly found Eller for his second of the game. The domination by the Capitals continued when Ovechkin also scored his second of the game. Habs coverage appeared adequate when a point shot by Orlov bounced off Lehkonen, off Ovechkin’s pants, and into the net.
With four minutes to play, Kuznetsov held Danault for the first power play of the night. The best chances of the sequence came on a 2-on-1 for Washington that Price importantly stopped and then an awesome pass by Kotkaniemi gave Tatar an empty net that Kempny saved with his face as he slid across. With two seconds to play, Eller was penalized for interference, giving Montreal the man advantage to start the third.
That power play was nothing short of horrendous as the Capitals outshot the Canadiens despite the disadvantage. Even when the play returned to even strength, the Habs lacked cohesion to start the period as many players were attempting individual plays to try to get their team back into the game.
As the midway point to the period was nearing, the Danault line remained dangerous as they multiplied their looks on Holtby and were successful in getting the team back on track. Hudon then chased his own dump-in and found Domi for an empty-netter that was shot into a sprawling Holtby.
With seven minutes left to play, Hudon was competing hard for the puck when his stick got caught under the skate of a Capital for the first Washington power play on the night. The Habs completed an excellent penalty kill which gave them five minutes to tie the game. Jeff Petry walked in near that five-minute mark and surprised Holtby with a shot that nailed the post and then floated across the red line but stayed out.
With three minutes to play. Victor Mete took a huge risk and joined the rush. This backfired but the odd-man rush saw the Capitals commit an errant pass which once again sent Mete off to the races. Mete was checked but continued after the puck. He was rewarded for his hard work when he recovered the puck, sent it to Lehkonen who put it in front of the net as Kotkaniemi also scored his second of the night (four two-goal games on the night!).
The Habs continued to absolutely skate circles around the Capitals over the last three minutes with the Capitals getting away with a few flagrant fouls. With under a minute left to play, the Caps got Ovechkin alone in the slot and this time, Domi got away with one. This would prove to be costly for Washington as Domi skated up the ice and shot on Holtby using John Carlson as a screen and the trickler got through him with 21 seconds left to play for a Canadiens victory.
Washington called timeout and pulled Holtby for the ensuing draw. Danault won the draw to Armia who fired it into the empty net to clinch the game. In the process, they set a new NHL record for the fastest two goals in a single game at just two seconds apart. WHAT! A! GAME!
HabsWorld Habs 3 Stars
1st Star – Jesperi Kotkaniemi
It’s hard to pass up Kotkaniemi when the game featured his first NHL goal. It’s impossible to do so when he put up his second goal to tie the game with only three minutes to play to give hope to the Montreal bench. Two plays that display in very different ways all the potential that the kid possesses for a star-hungry Montreal fan base.
Stats: 1 goal, 0 (+/-), 4 shots, 15:42 T.O.I.
2nd Star – Tomas Tatar
Tatar was all over the ice all night long as he created plays for his linemates and missed a few open nets of his own. The stats don’t necessarily suggest that he should be ranked this highly, but he was a catalyst for the Habs with important assists and strong puck play that created positive momentum for the Habs throughout this game.
Stats: 2 assists, +1, 3 shots, 3 hits, 14:59 T.O.I.
3rd Star – Brendan Gallagher
Gallagher remains the most regular player on the team in our three stars as he always finds his way to the front of the opposition net and always finds a way to get his name on the scoresheet. Gallagher did just that on this night as the entire line was applying pressure on Holtby and the Caps all night. The fact that Gallagher managed to lose himself in coverage twice shows just how important he is to this team.
Stats: 2 goals, 0 (+/-), 7 shots, 3 hits, 15:22 T.O.I.
Honourable Mention – Charles Hudon
So many players deserve this spot that it was hard to pick just one tonight. To list a few, Phillip Danault, Carey Price, Max Domi (game-winner), Joel Armia, Xavier Ouellet, and Victor Mete all played solid games and would have been acceptable choices here. I chose Hudon because he was being tested in a most difficult spot. His first game on a top line came against the Capitals who played him tough and he responded by being a threat multiple times over the course of the game. With Lehkonen and Kotkaniemi clicking immediately and Paul Byron injured, this position on the Domi line remains Hudon’s to lose. As long as he plays with the intensity shown tonight, he won’t be giving it up any time soon and that’s great news.
Stats: 0 points, +1, 4 shots, 2 hits, 17:04 T.O.I.