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The Habs were back in action on Thursday in yet another must-win game. On this night, it was against a much tougher New York Islanders squad who also find themselves in a playoff battle for positioning. The game felt like a playoff contest, was officiated like one too, and I’m not sure the young Habs team knew how to respond to it. At the very least, it took them a good while to adapt to the style of play.

Claude Julien opted to keep Tuesday’s lineup which was a questionable call considering the ultra-physical Islander fourth line of Cal Clutterbuck, Casey Cizikas, and Matt Martin. After beating the Islanders back in November, the Habs only played 40 minutes once again, and this time they paid for it as they dropped the game 2-1 in a regulation heart-breaker. Carey Price was the man in the blue ice, as he saved the Habs chances for much of the first half of the game while Thomas Greiss also played a solid game for the Islanders.

It was an exciting start to the contest as New York’s fourth line established its dominance early with some zone time while the Habs were the ones to register the first good scoring chance. This came off the stick of Brett Kulak who was left alone in the high slot only to be denied by Greiss.

Unfortunately for the Habs, this was likely the bright post in the period other than Price. The Islanders were far too aggressive for a struggling Montreal blue line to handle. Some of the scoring chances included Valtteri Filppula grabbing a rebound and firing high with Price flailing. Price then stopped Clutterbuck despite himself as he was able to grab a puck that was behind him while returning to his crease.

The Isles’ early dominance was such that Julien was shown giving his troops a verbal whipping only four minutes into the game. Julien’s words changed little as Montreal attempts to attack the offensive zone remained one-and-done chances for the first eight minutes of the game.

Right after Matthew Barzal smacked a puck off the post, Scott Mayfield was called for interference on Phillip Danault sending the Habs to the first power play of the night. Brendan Gallagher battled hard during the sequence to keep pucks alive, but the result was more of what we’ve seen all season as it failed.

To make matters worse, Andrew Shaw took a completely stupid penalty for clotheslining a defender at the very end of the advantage. Sure, Clutterbuck had just completed the same gesture on Tatar, but a better judgement of the game situation must come into play for Shaw as this was an easy call for the official. Luckily for him, the Islanders power play struggled and didn’t generate much other than a shot that Price handled with his glove with 25 seconds remaining on it.

The last six minutes of the period saw both teams skate end to end and exchange good scoring chances, forcing both Price and Greiss to shine.  The Habs had their best segment of the period in the final minute as they buzzed around the Islanders zone; Jonathan Drouin was returned with Domi and Shaw and they skated circles around the New York fourth line. The period ended goalless although the Islanders dominated 15-9 for the shots, displaying Price’s contributions to the period.

It was another strong start to a period for the Islanders fourth line as they really made Danault and Kulak look weak for the first minute of the second. With the Habs tripping over each other, a third rebound on the sequence came out to a pinching Adam Pelech who fired a shot low to the blocker side for a one-goal lead only 90 seconds in.

This goal woke up the Habs (finally), as they start to buzz in the offensive zone with the best chance coming off Kulak’s point shot that hit Jordan Weal and forced Greiss to make a sliding stop on the redirect. Jesperi Kotkaniemi, who was quite silent in the first, then found a streaking Drouin. He one-timed the occasion but Greiss was up to the task with yet another sliding stop.

Kulak’s inconsistent night continued as he then took a high-sticking penalty. There was little doubt in the call against Kulak, but the fact that the retaliation on Kulak (as he was tackled down with the puck nowhere near the infraction) in front of the net went uncalled was indicative of the officiating on this night as calls appeared premeditated all night long (on both sides) which can’t be much fun for the players involved.

An example of my previous point could be observed on the ensuing man advantage as the Islanders set up in the offensive zone and should have been called for at least three goaltender interferences on the sequence as Price was sent spinning twice and any goals that would have been scored would have surely been disallowed via review. Despite this, the Habs managed to survive the power play.

With both teams playing cautious hockey, only New York’s fourth line stood out as dominant since the Habs simply had no answer for their physicality. With the Habs struggling to create offensive chances, the puck reached Jordie Benn at the blue line with 1:50 to play in the period. With a gauntlet of bodies in front of the net, Benn opted for a shot that fooled everyone including Greiss to tie the game heading to the intermission. The second half of the second period was much better for the Habs as they ended it with a 15-14 shot advantage in the frame.

Price had to bail out his teammates again to start the third as Kulak struggled to clear the zone, and then Drouin (who actually battled pretty hard in this one) had a soft pass through the middle of the defensive zone interrupted which hemmed the Habs in their own end.

Other than those two chances, the third was incredibly defensive as both teams appeared content to play for the point at hand. The officiating once again had a word to say in this type of play as both teams were guilty of obvious interference calls all over the ice that went ignored by the stripped men. Why hockey changes its rules come playoff time will always be a mystery to me.

After a few consecutive Islanders infractions were permitted, Andrew Ladd was called for tripping. The first unit of the power play was atrocious, though the second wave looked dangerous without scoring. Right after the advantage, Kotkaniemi (now playing next to Joel Armia and Artturi Lehkonen) returned to the attack as he toe-dragged a defender, released a shot, and found his own rebound only to be stoned for a second time by Greiss.

Finally, with both teams playing superb defensive hockey, Kulak found a way to take an ugly night for himself and make it worse. Much worse. With only three minutes to play, an errant pass from Drouin found itself in the corner of the offensive zone. Max Domi was clearly going to win the race to the puck, yet Kulak pinched, clipped Domi who subsequently lost the puck. This sequence was all the speedy Mathew Barzal needed to rip the puck away and fly out of the zone with Anders Lee on a 2-on-1 against Jeff Petry. Petry held on for as long as he could but ultimately committed to Barzal who found the lane and Lee only needed to outwait a sliding Price to find a space and bury the game-winner.

Montreal couldn’t get anything going after that, needing several occasions to get the puck deep to pull Price for the extra attacker and didn’t do anything with him on the bench as they weren’t able to pull off the comeback.

HabsWorld Habs 3 Stars

1st Star – Carey Price

The game would have been over before the first period ended without Price’s brilliance. He once again bailed out his team at the beginning of the second and the third. For the few fans still complaining about his salary, this goaltender has taken an under-skilled, under-intelligent, and under-capable blue line and made them look decent for most of the season. Seriously, Mete and Petry being the only defenders pulling their weight at this time of the season is unacceptable. Weber and Benn have had great moments this season, but their lack of foot speed has been evident of late. Perhaps they are tired from playing too many minutes to overcome the shortcomings of Kulak, Folin, and Reilly who really stick out when the Habs face playoff-calibre opponents. For the better part of the last month, the Habs can thank 31 for their presence in a playoff race, and with the difficulty of the schedule down the stretch, only Price’s efforts will get them to the dance at this point.

Stats: 36 saves, 38 shots, .947 save %, 2.03 G.A.A., 59:15 T.O.I.

2nd Star – Victor Mete

Mete may still be looking for his first NHL goal but right now he’s the only defenceman that comes close to being as consistently good as Petry. Playing next to Weber, he has the liberty to pinch a bit more than other defenders, but that’s acceptable given his defensive shortcomings (mostly due to his size). He’s being a really smart player right now to get the puck out of the zone and with the timing of his pinches, it created quite a few turnovers positively for the Habs.

Stats: 0 points, 0 (+/-), 2 shots, 1 hit, 18:10 T.O.I.

3rd Star – Paul Byron

Every time Byron falls asleep at the wheel for a few games, Julien switches his line and off he goes to score in a few consecutive games. He didn’t score here, but the Benn goal came not too long after Julien shifted Byron to a different line and Byron’s puck pursuit and smart play thereafter was the prime reason the shot happened. Oh yeah, he was also in front of the net to screen Greiss too.

Stats: 1 assist, 0 (+/-), 14:10 T.O.I.

Honourable Mention – Coaching Staff

For all the games this season where this team’s lack of experience has caused them to fall into the opposition’s style of play, it turns out the decision to leave Deslauriers and Weise in the press box likely kept the Habs from falling in this trap yet again tonight. The team simply did not have the players to play as physical as the Islanders and had to stick to their style and gut it out. It almost worked, with an enormous amount of help from Price, but still.

Also, after a horrendous first period, good on Julien and the staff to see what was working and what was not. Drouin looked far more comfortable playing with Domi while Kotkaniemi looked far more comfortable playing with Lehkonen and Armia. The line of Thompson, Weal, and Byron had some strong shifts together too.