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After a week that saw the Habs climb back into the playoff picture with seven out of a potential eight points, they began yet another crucial week on Tuesday night against the Florida Panthers. This matchup represented the weakest opponent left on the calendar and for that reason, it was a game Montreal could not afford to lose. As expected, Carey Price was in the blue paint for the Habs, while James Reimer got the start for the Panthers. There were no changes to Claude Julien’s lineup, also an expected move after such a strong week. The Habs came out flying and chased Reimer from his net after in the first period en route to a 6-1 victory setting up Thursday’s most important game of the season against Columbus.

The start of the game saw the teams exchange some time in the opposition zones without scoring chances. A Christian Folin brain cramp allowed the Panthers the first chance of the game, but Price stood tall with three consecutive saves. MacKenzie Weegar then went after Paul Byron, looking for revenge after a suspension-worthy hit by Byron the last time these teams met. Weegar destroyed Byron who had to be helped off the ice and did not return. It was a mismatched fight, one that Byron should not have accepted.

On the very next shift, Tomas Tatar took the game’s first penalty for tripping.  Florida’s opening power play looked dangerous and forced Price to make two excellent saves. The absence of Byron meant rotating wingers on the left side, so on a shift where Tatar played with Andrew Shaw and Max Domi, Shaw won the draw before recovering a deep puck to find Tatar in the high slot for a one-timer goal.

The Panthers responded by attacking for three minutes, but this ended without consequence when Jonathan Drouin exited the zone with a nice pass to a streaking Jesperi Kotkaniemi who was stopped by Reimer.

With 7:21 left, Jordan Weal entered the offensive zone before giving the puck to Kotkaniemi who circled the net and sent the puck back to Brett Kulak who fired a quick shot that Reimer never saw for a 2-0 Habs lead. Roughly two minutes later, Phillip Danault won an offensive zone faceoff which created a Shea Weber point shot. The puck trickled behind Reimer where Tatar jumped on it for his second of the night and 25th on the season. The Panthers contested the goal, but it was judged that Brendan Gallagher was not guilty of goaltender interference, and with a 3-0 score only 14 minutes in, Reimer’s night was done as Samuel Montembeault entered the game.

His team helped him little since Weegar would return to the sin bin minutes later when he tripped Weal. The power play was of no danger whatsoever and was shortened by a Gallagher high-sticking penalty. The second Florida advantage was not as dangerous as the first, and time elapsed until a Frank Vatrano holding penalty with 35 seconds to play as the period ended with a 14-11 shot advantage for the Panthers.

The best chance of the 90 second Montreal power play to start the period went to Vincent Trocheck who got a breakaway though Price made the save look easy. Immediately after the advantage, the Panthers got a 2-on-1 from a bad Weber pinch. However, Price was able to slide across and make a spectacular save as Evgenii Dadonov was denied once again.

With the Domi line buzzing in the offensive zone a few minutes later, Shaw returned to a spot that was successful in the first period as he found Artturi Lehkonen in the high slot for a one-timer to make it 4-0.

The Habs were all over the Panthers after this goal, as the Florida team went into a shell and was content to block some shots. Troy Brouwer took exception to a Folin hit to drop the gloves and find a suitable opponent in the tall Habs defender.

With 7:30 to play, Danault won an offensive zone draw and Tatar controlled the play until he sent it to Mete who put it on net… for an assist (not his first goal) as Danault picked up the rebound to make it 5-0.

The Panthers returned to their shell after this as the Habs appeared alone on the ice but were content to expire the clock and not get hurt. The Panthers attacked with three minutes left, but Price made sure that nothing came from it. With 20 seconds to play, Gallagher took a penalty for hooking on a backcheck that carried over to the third with Florida holding the 8-7 lead in shots for the period.

The Panther power play to start the third was the lone bright spot to the night for them. This started when Weber’s clearing chance hit Lehkonen and gave Florida a chance to set up. The rebound from the initial Keith Yandle shot landed right on Mike Hoffman’s stick, but Price came across with another stellar save to keep Florida off the board. On the next shift, the Panthers managed to cause confusion and after two Price saves, Vatrano was able to take advantage of an empty net to break the shutout.

Now back to even strength, the game followed its previous course as the play was mostly in the Panthers zone with the Habs controlling the pace of play. Mostly, this period was about the two teams going through the motions as the score was settled and Julien played his entire bench to preserve energy to important players.

With 8:12 to play, Domi intercepted a clearing attempt and skated to the faceoff dot with everyone standing and watching him as he picked a corner ripped it home for a 6-1 lead.

With the Panthers having given up for the most part, the Habs focused on trying to get Tatar his hat trick whenever he was on the ice or passing to Mete every chance they had. These are bad habits to undertake, but with such an important contest on deck, it seems unlikely to carry forward. The shots in the final frame were 12-9 for the Panthers.

HabsWorld Habs 3 Stars

1st Star – Tomas Tatar

When Tatar started the season on fire, I figured that he would disappear once the teams tightened their defensive play. Instead, Tatar keeps on producing and keeps on playing excellent hockey even when he isn’t scoring. What a great acquisition he has become as he suddenly finds himself a core piece moving forward. Well on his way to beating his career best in points and goals, who would have guessed that!

Stats: 2 goals, 1 assist, +3, 3 shots, 19:17 T.O.I.

2nd Star – Andrew Shaw

What a difference a year can make. Shaw continues to make all the little plays that have, in one season, explained to all Montreal fans why Bergevin paid a significant price to acquire him from the Blackhawks. He wins draws, plays physical, wins puck battles, finds himself in the dirty areas all over the ice and plays with an edge too. Shaw has been everywhere for the Habs this season and he will be an important player if the team has any aspiration of making the playoffs or even winning a few games once there.

Stats: 2 assists, +3, 1 shot, 16:36 T.O.I.

3rd Star – Carey Price

Price is undoubtedly in the zone as he’s making difficult saves look like child’s play. Price is the most important player on this team and in the last month has shown just how much he can mean to the team as he saves their defensive errors on the regular and allows the entire team to take risks and believe that they have the backing of their netminder if ever they get caught.

Stats: 33 saves, 34 shots, .971 save percentage, 1.00 G.A.A., 60:00 T.O.I.

Honourable Mentions – Jesperi Kotkaniemi & Brett Kulak

Kotkaniemi was dangerous on every single shift he played in the first period and was rewarded for it with his nice assist on the Kulak goal. Perhaps more importantly, he made two nice defensive plays in the first and was also willing to make it to the dirty areas (corners and in front of the net) all night long. More of this type of play and fewer moves with the puck in vulnerable positions on the ice will keep the kid off the bench more than what winger he is playing with.

Kotkaniemi stats: 1 assist, +1, 2 shots, 3 hits, 15:03 T.O.I.

I choose to highlight Kulak here because I’ve been critical of his play lately. I’m a big fan of Mete who has learned when to join the offence and when to fall back. Kulak still struggles with this from time to time, but his timing was dead on in this one. The result is that he did not get caught out of position and he was rewarded with a goal too. More of this type of play from him would surely be welcomed heading into the playoffs.

Kulak stats: 1 goal, 1 assist, +4, 4 shots, 3 hits, 19:07 T.O.I.