The Habs were back at the Bell Centre for the New Year as they hosted the Tampa Bay Lightning, a tall task considering the Habs were trying to get out of a three-game slide. The challenge would only intensify for the Montreal squad as they saw their lines get juggled on the heels of the Brendan Gallagher concussion. The Habs most consistent forward joined Paul Byron, Jonathan Drouin, and Joel Armia on the list of important forwards out of the lineup. The result of the many absentees was a lack of offence as the Habs struggled to finish plays and fell for a fourth consecutive time, this time 2-1 as the playoffs continue to slide further away for the bleu-blanc-rouge.
To the dismay of many (including me), it was Nick Cousins who was given the task of playing with Tomas Tatar and Phillip Danault on the team’s top unit. This meant Max Domi was flanked by Artturi Lehkonen and Nick Suzuki while Jesperi Kotkaniemi was joined by Ryan Poehling and Jordan Weal. The fourth line consisted of Nate Thompson, Lukas Vejdemo and recent recall Dale Weise. The blue line remained unchanged, though that won’t last now that the Habs have acquired Marco Scandella from the Sabres. In net, Carey Price returned to action as he faced Andrei Vasilevskiy.
Cousins’ audition on the top line got off on the wrong foot as he failed to exit the zone in the opening seconds. This caused the Habs to be bottled up in their own zone and led to Danault also coughing up the puck on the zone exit. When Danault lost the puck, Erik Cernak got the puck on the blue line and fired toward the net where Anthony Cirelli tipped it over Price’s shoulder for a 1-0 Lightning lead only 42 seconds into the contest.
The momentum carried as Tampa Bay was in the Habs zone for most of the opening five minutes. Cousins did battle through his mistake though as he buckled down and got the puck out of the zone on his second shift, a play that caused Yanni Gourde to trip him sending the Habs to the first power play of the night.
The power play was completely ineffective though as the Lightning held the puck for most of it. It was once again Cousins who finally got the Habs to the offensive zone in the last 30 seconds of the advantage. He then missed his pass to Kotkaniemi who contorted and managed to send the puck skillfully to Domi. Domi sent the puck back to Cousins who found Petry. Petry sent an absolute laser beam over Vasilevskiy’s blocker before Gourde was able to get back into the play.
The tie would be short-lived as near the 12-minute mark, Price and Victor Mete miscommunicated which resulted in Price firing a pass to the stick of Brayden Point. Point accepted the gift and sent the puck across the ice to Nikita Kucherov who only had to tap it home to restore the lead.
The second half of the first period saw the Habs take over as Vejdemo was stopped in close before Domi was also stopped. On this second chance, the Habs continued forcing the play and it resulted in Hedman taking a tripping penalty on Lehkonen to end the threat. This second power play was a bit better as Suzuki beat the Lightning goaltender but was stopped by the knob of his stick.
With four minutes to play, Maroon gave Domi some stick work who retaliated which resulted in some 4-on-4 which favoured the Lightning. As the sequence ended, Weise stood up for Domi as he skated directly to Maroon and challenged him to a fight, a play that was surely appreciated by the bench but had little impact on the rest of the period.
The Habs came out much strong for the second period as Vasilevskiy was forced to make excellent stops on both Suzuki and Weal in the opening minutes. The Weal chance, in particular, highlighted what I personally dislike about the current line configurations. Kotkaniemi skated hard and took a hit to win a puck battle. Poehling skated hard to join that rush and a non-pass across by Weal, a player who lacks vision and skill, saw the play end quickly and without a goal. Suzuki was an offensive threat all period long as he multiplied the dekes and created chances every time he was on the ice.
Before the midway point of the period, Maroon ensured a response from the Lightning as he created two good scoring chances that saw Price make his best stops of the period. This set up the Lightning who were able to play some even hockey with the Habs in the second half of the period. Although the Habs still controlled the play, they just couldn’t get much going against the Lightning who had tightened up defensively.
The third period started with Tomas Tatar fanning on a wide-open net after some strong fore-checking by Danault. Suzuki then created more offence on the second shift, but the Lightning were matching Hedman to Suzuki as the memo appears to be out that Suzuki is the most dangerous of the Montreal forwards recently. Price continued to struggle with his passes (can there be a more obvious sign that something isn’t right with Price?) which created a turnover and a Cedric Paquette scoring chance, but Price was solid in puck-stopping so the score remained 2-1 heading to the final minutes of the game.
An excellent rush up the ice by an up-to-this-point quiet Shea Weber created a tripping penalty and gave the Habs a power play with eight minutes to play. The man advantage was not able to get organized though, so it was a squandered opportunity. As play winded down, one has to wonder why the team opted to keep the lines intact. The lines were clearly built with the idea of levelling the talent across the top three lines. With the need of a goal late, why not spread out Kotkaniemi and Poehling on the top two lines in favour of Cousins and Lehkonen? Even if they give up a chance and a goal, it doesn’t change much. Anyways, Price went to the bench with two minutes to play. They were able to create some scoring chances but weren’t aggressive enough to get to Vasilevskiy and the game ended 2-1.
HabsWorld Habs 3 Stars
1st Star – Nick Suzuki
Shift after shift, game after game, Suzuki is quickly becoming the best forward for the Montreal Canadiens. And I’m not talking, “Oh, he’s a rookie and he’s going to be very good” best forward here. Suzuki can take a play that looks absolutely dead, pull a deke (he did it against Hedman twice), and create a scoring chance from the play. Don’t believe me? Let’s ask the coaching staff who decided to give the rookie over 20 minutes of ice time in a game where they needed a goal to even the score.
Stats: 0 points, 0 (+/-), 2 shots, 1 hit, 20:43 T.O.I.
2nd Star – Jeff Petry
The lone goal scorer for the Habs in this game, Petry has returned to form of late after really looking horrible during a stretch of games in November and December. His goal saw his recent point production continue. Hopefully, he can keep it up while tightening up defensively as he is almost guaranteed to find a new partner in the upcoming days after the acquisition of Marco Scandella.
Stats: 1 goal, 0 (+/-), 6 shots, 20:47 T.O.I.
3rd Star – Jesperi Kotkaniemi
The points aren’t showing up on the scoreboard but seeing Kotkaniemi’s play recently is reassuring. After a start to the season that saw the recent third-overall pick play with was appeared to be a lack of conviction and confidence, he’s come back from his concussion with some jam in his game. He looks like the young player we saw in the first half of last season and if he can find this game regularly for the second half, the results will eventually come… perhaps sooner if he can shake Weal from his wing.
Stats: 0 points, 0 (+/-), 2 shots, 13:58 T.O.I.
Honourable Mention – Lukas Vejdemo
Yes, the injuries have created some opportunities and have lowered the bar of what represents acceptable efforts on the ice. Having said that, Vejdemo is quickly joining the ranks of Suzuki, Poehling, and recently Kotkaniemi as the young players are doing exactly what Bergevin has always asked of his young players, to force his hand in keeping them around. Riley Barber has been returned to Laval and if we want to be honest, a few more efforts like this from Vejdemo and Julien will have to return Weal to the fourth line and give Vejdemo a chance with Kotkaniemi and Poehling (even if I think Poehling should be playing in Cousins’ spot).
Stats: 0 points, 0 (+/-), 2 shots, 1 hit, 9:18 T.O.I.