The Habs had the daunting task of stopping Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl as the Oilers visited the Bell Centre on Thursday night. Failing to do would mean the team’s second eight-game losing streak in three months.
Brendan Gallagher was back in action to help the Habs as he slotted right back next to Tomas Tatar and Phillip Danault. With the Ilya Kovalchuk, Nick Suzuki, Max Domi line staying together as the second unit, Artturi Lehkonen was sent all the way down to the third line where he joined Jesperi Kotkaniemi and Nick Cousins. Ryan Poehling, therefore, joined Nate Thompson and Jordan Weal while Dale Weise found himself in the press box. On the blue line, the removal of Ben Chiarot due to a lower-body injury meant that Shea Weber was partnered with Marco Scandella while Brett Kulak played with Jeff Petry and Cale Fleury with Victor Mete. The goaltending matchup featured Mike Smith and Carey Price.
All these changes meant little as the Habs possessed the puck for most of this game but continue to try to make too many passes to open lanes to the net that don’t hurt. They fail because going to the net always hurts, the Habs aren’t willing to do it other than Gallagher, and it cost them as they lost their eighth consecutive game by a 4-2 score.
The Habs came out strong as the Domi-Kovalchuk duo looked offensively dangerous on their first shift. Only two minutes into the game, Alex Chiasson took a neutral zone penalty for holding the stick of Kulak. The power play was horrible, but the team managed to keep its legs and dominate the play after the man advantage. Just before the midway point of the period, a Mete dump-in bounced off a stanchion and almost fooled Smith who made an emergency stop on the bouncing puck. The Habs continued their domination as they were ahead 6-0 in shot totals at the ten-minute mark, mostly off sustained pressure from offensive faceoff wins.
Petry started the second half of the period by taking a holding call as Montreal’s questionable penalty kill would have to face the league’s best power play. Edmonton looked dangerous but the Habs managed to keep them off the board.
A few moments later, Kulak blew a tire in the neutral zone. The play should have meant an odd-man rush for Edmonton, but Petry was quick to recover and then sent the puck up the ice. With Edmonton forwards cheating offensively trying to capitalize on the situation, Danault held the puck into the offensive zone on a 2-on-2. With Gallagher crashing the net, Danault got a first shot off and was all alone to grab his own rebound as he fired a second shot to open the scoring.
The Habs tried to pile it on as Poehling, Domi and Gallagher were all turned away by Smith in the final minutes of the period as the Habs retreated with only a one-goal lead despite a 14-5 shot advantage.
Edmonton came out looking for redemption after the first period as they were all over the Habs for the first two minutes of play. In a reversal of what is usually seen with the Habs dominating, Price made a few saves and then Lehkonen was patient with the puck in his zone entry before finding Kotkaniemi streaking up the middle of the ice. Kotkaniemi wasted little time rocketing a shot top-shelf from the slot as he made the score 2-0 only 2:45 into the period.
A minute later, Danault was stopped by Smith on a partial break before both teams settled down and played some eventless hockey for a bit.
As the second half of the period started, the Habs decided it was time to get defensive. Makes perfect sense to start playing safe with a two-goal lead and half a game to play while facing McDavid and Draisaitl. It didn’t take long for Lehkonen to lose a defensive zone puck battle which resulted in a nice Riley Sheahan shot to the top corner to cut the lead to 2-1.
One line was still taking offensive risks, but both Domi and Suzuki were far too generous all night long trying to get Kovalchuk his first as a Hab. In the final minutes of the period, the Habs got a breakaway which is exciting… until one realizes that it was Jordan “offensive-blackhole” Weal that got the chance. They would get a second breakaway and this time Thompson would beat Smith, but he hit the post while facing an empty net.
With the Habs only leading by one heading into the third period, the result was foreseeable. With the Habs on their heels, Danault took a very questionable hooking minor in the opening minutes. 30 seconds later, Draisaitl sent a cross-ice pass to McDavid who immediately fed Nugent-Hopkins unchecked in the centre of the slot where he got his shot off untouched to tie the game. All of a sudden, the Habs couldn’t make a pass, everyone was playing individually, and they can’t get out of their zone.
At 9:40, Oscar Klefbom passed the puck to the high slot where Chiasson redirected to beat Price for an Edmonton lead. Unlike Montreal, Edmonton defended the lead in the offensive zone, not by banning three of five guys on the ice from crossing the centre red line for half the game because the team has a lead.
With two minutes left and Price on the bench, the Habs lost a minute before finally accessing the offensive zone with puck control but the play ended without celebration after Weber completely fanned on a shot that still reached Smith. After the timeout, Montreal would miss a few passes to the slot before Josh Archibald scored the empty netter to end the game and extend the losing streak.
HabsWorld Habs 3 Stars
1st Star – Brendan Gallagher
After missing some time due to injury, Gallagher came back and was still easily the Habs best player. Always on the puck and creating turnovers, he’s the only player that didn’t look like he quit on this night.
Stats: 0 points, 0 (+/-), 4 shots, 2 hits, 17:19 T.O.I.
2nd Star – Artturi Lehkonen
Lehkonen remains ultra-reliable defensively so it’s easy to slot him in when he contributes on the scoreboard too.
Stats: 1 assist, 0 (+/-), 2 shots, 1 hit, 16:32 T.O.I.
3rd Star – Jesperi Kotkaniemi
Kotkaniemi didn’t really play a great game. He was guilty of many offensive zone turnovers that were rather needless, especially on the power play However, he’s been increasing his amount of puck battles won per game and he was able to score tonight.
Stats: 1 goal, 0 (+/-), 1 shot, 1 hit, 14:39 T.O.I.
Is It Time?
I am not someone who believes that Claude Julien is to blame for what has transpired this season. Having said that, when the coach looks at reporters and says his coaching staff is out of answers, after losing two games in the fashion they just lost them, on the heels of a second eight-game losing skid, how does one not start to ask the question of whether it is time for Claude Julien to be relieved of his duties? For what it’s worth, I’d be surprised if it were to happen, but it’s absolutely an appropriate time to start asking if he should be canned.