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The Habs returned to action Friday night on the high of a holiday breather and two consecutive victories against the Arizona Coyotes and Vegas Golden Knights. To do so, they would square off against the Florida Panthers for their first duel since the preseason when Max Domi sucker-punched Aaron Ekblad.

As is well known, Carey Price remained in Montreal, so Antti Niemi was the starting goaltender with Michael McNiven the backup since Charlie Lindgren is also injured. The forward lines remained the same as they were in Vegas meaning that Nicolas Deslauriers remained in the lineup, a rather logical decision considering the words spoken by some Panthers players after the Domi-Ekblad incident in September. Despite the recent recall of Karl Alzner, the defensive pairings also remained the same, so Alzner would have to wait a bit longer to get in the lineup.

Since the loss against the Bruins, the Habs have returned to using their speed to create chances. This led to a better effort against the Avalanche before the results arrived. Tonight was no different as they made the Panthers look slow all night long to skate away with a 5-3 win.

In what was a very strong start for the Canadiens, they skated out of the first five minutes of play with only a 2-0 lead, though it could have been much more. In the opening seconds, Brendan Gallagher fired a shot towards the net that Phillip Danault tipped forcing a strong first save for Roberto Luongo. On the ensuing faceoff, Victor Mete misplayed a pass which forced the Habs to dump the puck deep in the Florida zone. A strong forecheck by Gallagher opened the door for Tomas Tatar to intercept the zone clearing attempt and bury a backhand shot by Luongo for an early lead.

Moments later, the relentless forecheck by Jonathan Drouin and Artturi Lehkonen meant another giveaway. This time, Lehkonen found a streaking Jesperi Kotkaniemi who was patient, allowed Luongo to move first, and then rang a wrist shot off the post.

The second goal came from the fourth line as Deslauriers refused two fighting invitations during the shift, only to find himself in front of the net when a point shot from Mete hit his glove to find the back of the net. All this action and only three minutes had expired in the game!

The Habs continued to dominate for approximately three more minutes before the tables turned and the Panthers started skating and winning puck battles. With 12 minutes to play, an errant pass by Andrew Shaw hit Kotkaniemi in the hip and bounced to Mike Hoffman who quickly found Henrik Borgstrom who wasted little time in beating Niemi far side with a wrist shot.

The Borgstrom goal had a calming effect on both teams as play settled down significantly; both teams were kept on the perimeter for the better part of the next five minutes. With six minutes left in the period, a completely errant pass by Troy Brouwer got by everyone, bounced off Paul Byron’s skate and landed right on Denis Malgin’s stick. Malgin shot immediately and though Niemi got a big chunk of the puck, it still trickled through and crossed the red line to tie the score.

The tying goal whipped the Habs back into action as they looked much like they did in the opening five minutes of the period. This was marked with the only penalty of the period when Brouwer hooked Domi. The power play which looked better before the break looked dangerous once again as the first unit was able to gain the zone and create a few chances. The best chance of the sequence was Kotkaniemi’s as he got open and unleashed a wrist shot that once again rang off the far side post.

What the first period offered in terms of productivity and excitement, the second matched in terms of strong goaltending and penalty killing. This got underway in the first seconds of the period when Danault was guilty of tripping. As the Habs thwarted the league’s second-best power play, it got started when Shea Weber got physical with Jonathan Huberdeau to stop a cross-ice feed. The Habs then blocked off the blueline before the man advantage finished with two important stops by Niemi.

The teams played some neutral zone hockey for a few minutes before Domi was called for tripping as the Habs started down a dangerous path of undisciplined play. The Canadiens were once again solid in protecting their blueline as the Panthers were unable to gain the zone until there were only 45 seconds left in the advantage. Once they did, Niemi once again presented himself with an excellent save.

After the two power plays, the Habs took a few minutes to get going, but as the second half of the period got underway, the ice was tilted in Montreal’s favour as Luongo and his shot blockers had their hands full with the speedy Montreal team. The Habs were unable to score despite ten minutes of outplaying the Panthers who were still able to get a few good scoring chances that Niemi turned aside in the last three minutes of the period.

The third period started with some up and down play as both teams were pushing for the important two points. The first good scoring chance came from the stick of Lehkonen who completely deked out Mark Pysyk before being stopped by Luongo. Both goaltenders then made nice pad saves on rebounds they created to keep the score tied after five minutes of play.

Niemi then stopped a 2-on-1 as a rare fourth line shift almost cost the Habs. On the same shift, Chaput drew a penalty as Frank Vatrano inexplicably dumped Chaput with a slew foot while both players were changing.

After one minute of power play time that was not dangerous, MacKenzie Weegar cleared the puck into the crowd which created a 5-on-3 situation. The Habs squandered the two-man advantage, but before Vatrano could return to action, Tatar was the recipient of a nice cross-ice pass by Drouin to bury his second of the game and put the Habs ahead for good.

Despite holding the lead, the Habs continued to attack even as the second half of the period got underway. The Panthers were pushing back more and more, getting a few good scoring chances on Niemi but taking more defensive risks in the process.

The Habs were finally able to take advantage of these risks with a little over four minutes to play. A dump-in by Kotkaniemi and a strong forecheck by Shaw led to a beautiful pass in the slot that Lehkonen made no mistake as he beat Luongo to the far side for a two-goal lead. Seconds later, Chaput took advantage of another Panthers risk by beating Luongo but not the post.

Aaron Ekblad then went after Danault which ended in a lightweight fight as no punches were really thrown even if Danault won the wrestling match between the two. The wrestling match began because Danault tackled Ekblad down away from the play, so the Panthers exited the altercation with a power play. Niemi made a nice glove save on Hoffman to start the 6-on-4 sequence. However, with 1:16 to play, Keith Yandle’s point shot had eyes through heavy traffic and the last minute would be far more interesting than the Habs wanted. The excitement was short-lived though because Drouin won a race to the puck and buried the insurance marker in the empty net, but not before a second point shot from Yandle hit the post on the left of Niemi.

HabsWorld Habs 3 Stars

1st Star – Tomas Tatar

For the second game in a row, the line of Tatar-Danault-Gallagher really set the tone for the team. Also for the second game in a row, it was a recipe for success as the Habs skated away with the win and a member of the line is the selected first star. Tatar has looked like he did in October of late, so while he may never rack up Pacioretty’s 30 goals, he is also showing that his month of October was not a flash in the pan. A really fun player to watch when he plays like he has the last two games.

Stats: 2 goals, +1, 4 shots, 1 hit, 15:40 T.O.I.

2nd Star – Artturi Lehkonen

Lehkonen had a few good passes to Kotkaniemi in the first period to create some scoring chances and some very strong play on the penalty kill. He had some chemistry on shifts with Danault and Byron following the power plays as well. He does it all on most nights, but he usually has a hard time finishing. On this night, he finishes what ends up being the game-winner so he gets some recognition for that on top of what he does on a nightly basis.

Stats: 1 goal, 0 (+/-), 2 shots, 1 hit, 15:26 T.O.I.

3rd Star – Shea Weber

Many experts speak of the calming effect of a Shea Weber, and tonight was a perfect example of this. A casual fan watching the game may have not noticed Weber as much as his partner in Victor Mete on this night. Yet, a quick comparison of the numbers tells the tale. Weber plays so many minutes, quietly and intimidatingly while being effective in all zones and in all aspects of the game. He allows everyone on the Montreal blueline to play their proper role and to do it feeling a few inches taller.

Stats: 1 assist, +3, 1 shot, 4 hits, 27:16 T.O.I.

Honourable Mention – Victor Mete

If Weber is quietly excellent, his partner is taking advantage of playing with him and creating in the last week more than he did in the first two months of the season. The Mete we’ve seen since his recall has looked like the Mete of last season and it’s fun to watch the passes land on the tape and the excellent first pass he can make to exit the defensive zone.

Stats: 1 assist, +2, 1 shot, 19:29 T.O.I.