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The Habs returned to the Bell Centre for a Saturday night contest that really felt like a must-win for their playoff hopes. The problem with this concept was that the visitors were the red-hot Chicago Blackhawks, a team who also had their playoff hopes on life support. For this highly important contest, the goaltending matchup was Carey Price versus Corey Crawford, as expected. Crawford loves to play in Montreal and this game was no different as he was clearly the difference maker, turning aside 35 shots and numerous good scoring chances to lead his team to a 2-0 victory.

Claude Julien opted for another minor shuffle to his forward lines which saw the top unit stay together while Artturi Lehkonen made a jump to join Max Domi and Andrew Shaw on the second line. Jonathan Drouin returned to Jesperi Kotkaniemi’s wing with Joel Armia on the right. The fourth line saw Paul Byron reunited with Nate Thompson and Jordan Weal after the trio had some success in the third period Thursday. The defensive units were surprisingly unchanged as Brett Kulak got a chance to redeem himself after an inconsistent effort on Thursday.

The first two minutes of the game saw the best players from both teams get their shifts in without much happening. It was cautious for both teams, understandably so considering the cross-conference matchup this late in the season and their desperation for points.

The first shift from the fourth line allowed the Habs to garner momentum and a tripping penalty by Erik Gustafsson on Brendan Gallagher on the next shift really tilted the ice in their favour. The power play was unable to score but the real surprise is that they looked dangerous but were stopped by Crawford and Drouin even hit the post.

The Habs continued to apply pressure after the advantage, but Crawford was equal to the task as Tomas Tatar were both denied on good scoring chances. The Blackhawks pushed back at the halfway point of the period after turnovers by Kulak and Armia forced Price to make his best saves of the period.

The final quarter was played with great speed, but both teams were sorely lacking in execution, so nothing came from the increase in the pace of play. The end of the period came without a goal and with the shots 13-11 in favour of the Habs.

The second started with the same speed as the end of the first, but after a rest, the execution was much better. Thompson found Byron early as he skated away and rang a shot off the post. On the very next shift, a Jeff Petry point shot was redirected wide by Domi, but the shot had once again beaten Crawford who had no idea where the puck was.

On the next shift, Jordie Benn and Drouin mismanaged their gaps on Dylan Strome who found Connor Murphy for a top-corner goal. The goal took the fans right out of the game as the stadium was suddenly much quieter and the Blackhawks had momentum as Dylan Sikura hit the post as the Habs were that close of finding themselves down two.

With 12 minutes to play, Byron was called for slashing. With 45 seconds left on a Chicago power play that was going nowhere, Armia stripped the puck from Patrick Kane and then drew a penalty from Jonathan Toews who was furious with the call. Toews was likely correct in his assessment, but the call was about as valid as the one against Byron.

As the Habs got to the advantage, Tatar controlled the play and eventually was at the end for a rebound only to be absolutely robbed by Crawford who extended his pad. Crawford continued his big night on the next shift as he took out the glove on Lehkonen who was set to score off a Victor Mete rebound.

With five minutes to play in the period, Kahun was called for hooking but the Habs power play remained the difference in their chance to make the playoffs. In the dying moments of a good looking but ineffective man advantage, Domi took a high-sticking penalty. Chicago’s power play was as dangerous as Montreal’s, but this helped little as the period ended 1-0 on the scoreboard for the visitors despite a 17-8 shot advantage for the home side.

The Habs got a PP in the first minute of the third period as Toews took a slashing call that likely had more to do with the lip service he gave the officials in the second rather than any real infraction on the ice. It mattered little as the putrid Montreal power play went to work and delivered nothing.

Three minutes later, Domi lost a defensive zone faceoff.  Weal was completely lost on who to cover while Kulak and Domi were late on their coverage and Perlini got a one-timer in the slot to make it 2-0.

The goal completely stunned the Habs who stopped skating for the next five minutes as Price once again made a few important saves to keep the team within striking distance.

Lehkonen finally got it going as he took a good shot and beat Crawford, but this is Lehkonen so he hit the post and didn’t score. This got Montreal skating again as they spent the next five minutes fanning on one-timer attempts and rebound opportunities.

One of the players fanning more than once was Weal who was now double-shifting while Kotkaniemi found himself glued to the bench in a rather inexplicable decision. When all was said and done, the important stat was that despite playing a respectable game, the Habs lost and were shut out at home making their playoff chances even dimmer in a game where Weal led the forwards in ice time for the game. The final shot count was 48-24 for Montreal.

HabsWorld Habs 3 Stars

1st Star – Carey Price

Price wasn’t overly busy but he made some good saves. There just isn’t a player that deserves this spot more than his rather average effort provides. Isn’t that a sad concept with the season on the line?

Stats: 22 saves, 24 shots, .917 save %, 2.08 G.A.A., 57:49 T.O.I.

2nd Star – Tomas Tatar

No other Hab player is currently creating offensive chances without taking himself completely out of position. Tatar continues to be the best all-around forward on the team along with Gallagher.

Stats: 0 points, 0 (+/-), 3 shots, 18:46 T.O.I.

3rd Star – Brendan Gallagher

Gallagher’s effort and nose for the net means that on most nights, he gets those chances in front of the net. However, he’s started to over-think and not simply focus on the puck of late in front of the net. This has caused him to miss a long list of scoring chances over the last little while. Terrible timing for a scoring slump, one he needs to get out of quickly.

Stats: 0 points, 0 (+/-), 3 shots, 18:13 T.O.I.

Looking forward

After praising the coaching staff on Thursday, I must question it tonight. The team is struggling to score, but which players does the coaching staff need to get going? Danault? Don’t think he’s the answer, yet he continues to get shifts next to the two best wingers on the team. Drouin? Absolutely, so demote him and get him to play next to a rookie? Kotkaniemi? He’s been a good secondary scoring option all season, better push him aside in favour of Nate Thompson, because when Thompson eventually scores, that’ll cure the team from their scoring woes. All of these key guys are struggling, better place Jordan Weal on the power play; I’m sure this will help with the confidence on the bench. How many chances will Brett Kulak get while he continues to take useless skates up the ice and force Petry (the best offensive defenceman on the team) to stay back and not support the offence?

This total lack of logic can be cured through one easy motto. The season is on the line, so it’s time for the coaching staff to take the shackles off and “Live or die through the best players on the team”. Change the lines to make it clear that these are the players that will be eating the minutes and playing under pressure. And for the love of the hockey gods, no more 18+ minutes for Thompson and Weal.