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The Habs were back on the ice for a rare Friday night contest as they were in Columbus to take on the Blue Jackets for the first time this season. With the perception that the Habs struggle against big physical teams, this contest presented a nice challenge, not to mention the challenge of contending with the line of Pierre-Luc Dubois, Artemi Panarin, and Cam Atkinson.

Carey Price was back in the blue paint for this game, facing Joonas Korpisalo for the Jackets. With the Paul Byron suspension, Matthew Peca got into the lineup as he played next to Joel Armia and Jesperi Kotkaniemi as Artturi Lehkonen moved up to play with Max Domi and Tomas Tatar. No changes were made to the defence pairings.

The Habs played some strong team defence to prevent the bigger Blue Jackets from taking over the game, and they were also opportunistic in capitalizing on Korpisalo’s numerous rebounds to skate to a near-perfect road win at the tune of a 4-1 final score.

For one of the rare times this season for a Habs game, this one started with both teams feeling each other out and playing rather tentatively. Both teams got a few shots in before the two-minute mark, shots that Price handled with ease while Korpisalo juggled a few times. As the teams got comfortable on the ice, what was interesting was watching them try to impose their vastly different style. The Habs got a few good chances by attacking the Columbus blue line with speed, while the Jackets got to Price by being physical against the Montreal defenders.

Near the seven-minute mark, Michael Chaput stole a page from Patrice Bergeron as he stripped Panarin of the club and carried the puck to the offensive zone while his linemates got a change in. This proved to be a key play as Korpisalo once again failed to control the rebound on a rather weak Chaput shot. Chaput skated for his own rebound that he sent back to Shea Weber who slapped one on net. Korpisalo once again gave out a rebound and Tatar was wide open for the rebound to make it 1-0 for the Habs.

The second half of the period didn’t start so great for the Habs as Kotkaniemi missed a defensive assignment which allowed Panarin to get wide open for a one-timed shot. Luckily for Kotkaniemi, Panarin hit the post so no damage was done on the play. A few minutes later, Kotkaniemi made up for this mistake as he covered for an absolutely atrocious Jordie Benn giveaway in the defensive zone.

With seven minutes left, Oliver Bjorkstrand was called for slashing for the game’s first power play. The man advantage was ineffective, which really swung momentum for Columbus who controlled the rest of the period. Price was up to the task of making important and acrobatic saves as he allowed his team to skate away with their 1-0 lead at the end of the period despite being outshot 15-9. At the period’s final buzzer, Kevin Stenlund was guilty of a hook as Peca drew his second penalty of the period though Stenlund likely saved a goal by taking the penalty.

The power play to start the period was once again a complete failure as it was incapable of even generating a shot on net. The failed advantage once again handed momentum to the Blue Jackets as the next three minutes were spent in the defensive zone. The situation went from bad to worse when Kotkaniemi took a hooking penalty. In the opening seconds of it, Weber got away with one as he appeared to clear the puck in the stands but the officials ruled that the puck was deflected. Then, the Columbus power play, who is also struggling mightily (27th overall), came up with nothing dangerous in their attempt, though Price did have to stone Atkinson in tight.

Immediately after the sequence, Domi and Kenny Agostino broke in on a 2-on-1. Domi made a great pass that gave Agostino an empty net, but the grinder fanned on the chance. Just before the halfway point of the period, Tatar scored his second of the game. With Gallagher and Danault looking to change, they sent the puck to Tatar who beat the Jackets’ defender wide before pulling the breaks when facing Korpisalo for a beautiful goal.

The Tatar goal meant that Columbus slowed down to start the second half of the game. After a few minutes of Montreal domination, Josh Anderson took the second penalty of the game that likely saved a goal as he hooked Gallagher in the slot in front of Korpisalo. The power play continued to struggle as Agostino made two consecutive bad plays in the offensive zone which led to Domi taking a penalty only a minute into the advantage. Both the 4-on-4 and Columbus power play were uneventful, a good thing for the Habs.

With four minutes to play in the period, Seth Jones joined the rush and deflected a puck past Price but the post would have none of it as the Habs preserved their two-goal advantage and headed to the intermission with a 25-16 shot deficit.

The Habs came out skating to start the third as Domi, Lehkonen, and Danault were all stopped on good shots by Korpisalo. Columbus was looking to get back in the game so they quickly retaliated on the next shift but Price was up to the challenge.

As the five-minute mark passed, Oliver Bjorkstrand beat out an icing call and it was important. He rang the puck around the boards to Panarin who found a streaking Seth Jones. Price made a nice first stop, but a Riley Nash and Brett Kulak battle in front of the net made him juggle the rebound. This gave Bjorkstrand just enough time to fish out the rebound and stuff the puck in the empty cage to make it a one-goal game with over 14 minutes still to play. As was the case with the two Habs’ goals, the team getting scored on was fired up after the goal and Domi and Tatar had a great shift that looked offensively dangerous and forced Korpisalo’s best saves of the night.

As the final ten minutes got underway, Victor Mete over-covered (is that a thing?) when Mike Reilly was up the ice. This resulted in an easy breakaway pass from Brandon Dubinsky to Ryan Murray on the side that was left open by the two young defenders. Price made a nice save on the play, but with a one-goal lead, it’s the type of play that should not happen.

With eight minutes to play, Tatar picked off a pass in the offensive zone and once again made a nice move, only to be stopped with a nice glove save by Korpisalo. Josh Anderson then almost caught Tatar trying to be cute in the defensive zone before he was stopped by Price in close. The Habs then played eight minutes of inspired defensive hockey.

With Price at his best, the Habs hung on. With Armia replacing Tatar on the defensive mission, Lehkonen and Domi played an inspired defensive shift and with 2:14 left and Korpisalo having gone to the bench, Armia sealed the victory with a goal into the empty cage with Korpisalo trying to hustle back. With 1:12 left, Armia scored a second empty-netter after a solid breakout by Petry and Domi. Final shot count: 35-26 in favour of Columbus.

HabsWorld Habs 3 Stars

1st Star – Tomas Tatar

The two goals provide the perfect occasion to highlight Tatar’s continued play since arriving in Montreal. It seems surreal that this player has been given up on by two different teams over the last twelve months. Fast, always engaged, responsible defensively, willing to pay the price to make the play – this is a player I’d keep after this season if I were Marc Bergevin. He was all over the ice on this night. It seems like something happened on each of his shifts.

Stats: 2 goals, +2, 3 shots, 17:05 T.O.I.

2nd Star – Carey Price

Calm, cool, and COMBATIVE! Price has been scary good of late. Scary for other teams. It’s the type of sequence fans hope he has in April-May-June in a not too distant future.

Stats: 34 saves, 35 shots, .971 SV%, 1.00 G.A.A., 59:58 T.O.I.

3rd Star – Jeff Petry

Used more than Weber in this one, Petry was physical, joined the rush when appropriate, and was responsible with the puck. I’m not sure how many more times it can be said that Petry is having a career year, and it’s a joy to watch him on the ice right now.

Stats: 1 assist, +2, 2 hits, 23:42 T.O.I.

Honourable Mention – Artturi Lehkonen

Lehkonen continues to be snake-bitten on the offensive side of the puck, and it’s starting to look like he may never be an offensive player in the NHL. He still creates a ridiculous amount of offence through his forecheck and positioning. He also rarely hurts the team defensively. He played a huge part in Tatar’s success as he was consistently all over the Columbus defenders trying to break out. Maybe someday he’ll breathe and finish the many chances he gets on a nightly basis.

Stats: 0 points, +4, 5 shots, 1 hit, 16:33 T.O.I.