The Habs finally returned to action on Saturday after a lengthy All-Star break. The first of these afternoon Super Bowl weekend games was played against the New Jersey Devils. In their only contest against the Devils on November 21st, the Habs played a terrible game and lost 5-2. A well-rested team and one motivated for revenge was expected on the ice this afternoon. This is exactly what happened, though the Habs were guilty of being too cute and lacking finish (not to be confused with Finnish). The result was that the Devils were opportunistic against a struggling Antti Niemi and ran away with a completely stolen 3-2 overtime win. This lack of results for a Habs team that played much better than the Devils leaves the Canadiens in a situation where they really need to win tomorrow against the Oilers.
Due to Carey Price not attending the All-Star Game, he was not dressed to receive his January Molson Cup as Niemi was between the pipes, with Michael McNiven watching from the bench. Niemi was faced by rookie Mackenzie Blackwood. The defensive alignment remained the same with Shea Weber alongside Victor Mete, Jeff Petry playing with Mike Reilly, and Jordie Benn playing with Brett Kulak. Up front, Paul Byron was fresh off his three-game suspension which meant that Michael Chaput was left in the stands. This is relatively important news because it means that Charles Hudon took advantage of his playing time during Byron’s absence to gain some confidence from the coaching staff. The lines remained a top unit of Jonathan Drouin, Phillip Danault, and Brendan Gallagher, a speed line (Thomas Tatar, Max Domi, Paul Byron), a Finnish line (Joel Armia, Jesperi Kotkaniemi, Artturi Lehkonen), and the fourth line of Hudon, Matthew Peca, and Nicolas Deslauriers.
The first shifts were uneventful as both teams were trying to find their rhythm. The Devils sustained some pressure in the Habs’ zone, but the execution was lacking by both teams, so scoring chances were not being created. After five minutes of play, the Canadiens got their legs moving, and a shift by the Finnish line got them on the board. Armia’s usual strong puck play was evident as he intercepted a breakout attempt by the Devils. He found Kotkaniemi in the slot who opted for one pass too many as he surprised Lehkonen. Credit to Lehkonen who worked hard and kept the play alive and sent a nifty pass back with Armia luring both defenders before letting the puck go to Kotkaniemi who ripped one home with only 5:22 expired in the period.
The Devils responded with physical play, a tactic that wasn’t too effective as the Habs quickly adapted. Tatar opened the second half of the period with a strong move to the net which created havoc and ended with Reilly missing his shot on a wide-open net. Armia continued his strong forechecking as he caused many offensive zone turnovers. With approximately three minutes to play, one of these plays by Armia opened a lane for Kotkaniemi who sent his backhand just high. Jesperi continued to skate and delivered a solid body-check that Stafford responded to with a cross-check. This non-call on Stafford proved costly when Benn was called for tripping on the same shift before Weber was called for a high stick 20 seconds later. The power play was fully functional and on New Jersey’s sixth scoring chance, Butcher finally put one past Niemi to tie the game with 43 seconds left in the period and the shots tied at 9-9 heading to the intermission.
The Habs came out to play in the second period as they dominated this period from the very first faceoff. Despite this domination, the Habs struggled to create scoring chances early. Miles Wood, who was likely the best New Jersey player in the first period, took a bone-headed penalty with 15:58 to play in the period when he decided to bury Niemi in snow after the whistle. The top unit looked dangerous on their first chance, while the second unit couldn’t complete a pass.
After the advantage, Max Domi really took the period over. Tatar completed a strong forecheck which opened a lane for Domi who attempted a pass to Byron. Byron had an open net but also had two defenders covering him so he was never able to get a stick on the puck. On his next shift, Domi was responsible for two offensive zone interceptions as he was stopped by Blackwood before missing his pass to Armia on the second.
Deslauriers then lured Kurtis Gabriel into taking a bad penalty after the whistle. The power play went back to work as Kotkaniemi got four shot attempts during his shift, unfortunately missing the net with three of them. As the penalty expired, Domi was patient with the puck before finding a lane to Petry who sent a low, hard shot on net that Danault redirected to beat Blackwood. The rest of the period was no different as scoring chances were everywhere for Montreal as the period finished with a 19-4 shot advantage for the Habs.
At the start of the third, the Devils looked completely out of gas. Unfortunately, the Habs came out and looked determined to defend their lead instead of trying to extend it. With the backup in net and a complete domination of the second period, this made little sense, but it led to an early penalty for Benn. Luckily for the team, Lehkonen, Danault, and Weber were solid on the penalty kill to save the team.
After the penalty had expired, a harmless looking shot from Kulak surprised Blackwood. The initial shot almost went in, but Blackwood started to flop around looking for the puck, creating a loose puck and an empty top of the net. Domi skated in and flipped the puck over the net, missing on yet another scoring chance.
A few moments later, Coleman body slammed Domi behind the Devils net which created another Habs power play. This was their worst of the game as the second unit was terrible and Kotkaniemi was guilty of a pass that really set back a top unit that had been dangerous in the game. Blackwood did have to come up with one solid save on the sequence, when Tatar found Armia in the slot, forcing the beauty glove save.
For the second time in the game, a power play was followed by a harmless shot by the Devils that Niemi completely mishandled. This time, it was costly. Niemi’s sloppy rebound control this time found itself immediately on former first-overall selection Nico Hischier’s stick. A player of that talent took advantage of such a gift as he roofed it over Niemi to tie the game. The goal re-energized the Devils who controlled much of the last five minutes of the game, though no goals or really dangerous scoring chances were had by either team. The Devils won that period on the shot clock with a 12-11 advantage.
Domi hit the post in the opening 17 seconds of the overtime before spending the better part of the shift in the defensive zone. The shift ended with a breakout that sent Petry to the races, but Petry was tired and Butcher reached him, forcing a less than dangerous shot on net. The second shift saw Armia show off his strength and lack of finish in creating his own scoring chance. The Devils would then expose Armia’s lack of speed as Hischier found Wood in front of the net forcing Niemi to make his best stop of the night. Seconds later, Niemi quickly made everyone forget his nice stop as he allowed a weak short-side goal to Hischier to end the game.
HabsWorld Habs 3 Stars
1st Star – Jesperi Kotkaniemi
Kotkaniemi came out strong and provided a solid 60-minute effort. Too bad he’s currently the only player on his line that can bury any scoring chance. I’m a fan of Lehkonen and Armia, just maybe not on the same line? This line was excellent, and Kotkaniemi was also well over 50% in the faceoff dot too. They ended up with a goal in the game, but that total should have been more, much more if someone on the line starts to finish plays.
Stats: 1 goal, 0 (+/-), 7 shots, 1 hit, 15:38 T.O.I.
2nd Star – Tomas Tatar
One thought I often have regarding Tatar is that I have a hard time believing this is the same player that Detroit traded and was then benched in Vegas. He’s intense, smart with the puck, is skillful, and buries his fair share of chances. Today, he was even driving the net trying to create scoring chances. He’s likely been the Habs best combination of skill, effort, and consistency this season. Today was no exception.
Stats: 0 points, -1, 1 shot, 16:15 T.O.I.
3rd Star – Max Domi
As the season rolls along, one gets a sense that Domi playing his way out of Arizona was understandable. He’s intense and skillful but is guilty of being too cute with the puck which often causes scoring chances to go without goals. He’s fun to watch, so he’s likely to be popular in Montreal for a long time (I know I’m a huge fan), but he needs to simplify and shoot way more than he currently does. How many chances did he miss today? Too many to count.
Stats: 1 assist, +1, 3 shots, 1 hit, 18:14 T.O.I.
Honourable Mention – Joel Armia
Once again the creator of numerous turnovers and scoring chances, Armia is getting some praise as he should. Then again, if the numbers continue to read zeroes all the time, how long does he get praise for this good play? Like Lehkonen, he must find a way to turn these great plays into productive ones or else the Habs will be playing golf come April.
Stats: 0 points, +1, 3 shots, 2 hits, 19:13 T.O.I