The Habs welcomed the Jets to the Bell Centre on Monday night as they tried to stop the bleeding from this latest five-game slide. Claude Julien’s troops saw some offensive help added for this contest with the debut of Ilya Kovalchuk. The Russian sniper got a great first look as he was paired to Tomas Tatar and Phillip Danault. This meant that Nick Cousins was returned to a better role as he played with Jesperi Kotkaniemi and Ryan Poehling on the third unit while Jordan Weal returned to the fourth line with Nate Thompson and Dale Weise. The goaltending matchup was the expected one as Carey Price faced Connor Hellebuyck. The blue line remained the same as Saturday for what was a sixth loss, this time 3-2 as Hellebuyck stood tall in the final minutes to get his team the win.
The game had an exciting opening five minutes as both teams started with some very sloppy defensive play leading to scoring chances at both ends of the ice. Kovalchuk’s first shift was marked with a small but noticeable ovation from the Bell Centre patrons that I’m sure gave the aging sniper a bit of legs to start the game. The Max Domi line was the most dangerous early on even if a Kotkaniemi deke got the young Finn the best scoring chance of the opening minutes. After the first five minutes, both teams buckled down defensively and the game was suddenly filled with whistles and a complete lack of tempo.
The start of the second half of the period started with Nick Suzuki running into Poolman while exiting the zone. Suzuki left for the rest of the period which sent the coaching into a line juggling frenzy.
With five minutes left in the period, Danault took the game’s first penalty on what was a weak hooking call. Price stood tall on an early chance for Kyle Connor, but that was all the penalty kill allowed after a strong forecheck by Poehling limited the Jets access to their offensive weapons. The period ended with the shot clock at 12-11 for the Habs which was rather representative of the even play in the period but likely not of the lack of good scoring chances overall.
Suzuki was back to start the second period, but he looked tentative and a little afraid for the rest of the night. 90 seconds into the period, Josh Morrissey’s point shot got through a four-body screen in front of Price to open the scoring.
A few moments later, Mathieu Perreault took a hooking penalty that was about as valid as Danault’s in the first. The power play looked good with Kovalchuk on it, though Weal getting the call over Poehling is absolutely inexplicable. The second unit that usually threatens a bit more was out of sorts with Suzuki not on his game. In fact, it was Suzuki who coughed up the puck to see a Winnipeg 2-on-0 that saw Blake Wheeler pass to Nikolaj Ehlers for a 2-0 lead. The Habs responded by taking ownership of the puck after that goal.
The second half of the period belonged to the Habs and started with a goal. A strong forecheck by Kovalchuk resulted in a turnover by the Jets. That puck found Tatar who sent the puck to Shea Weber on the point. Weber went cross-ice to Ben Chiarot who fired home a rocket slapshot to beat Hellebuyck low to the blocker side to cut the lead in half. Shortly after, one bad pinch by Chiarot gave Price his chance to contribute to what was otherwise complete domination by all four Montreal lines to end the period even if they couldn’t score a second goal.
The Jets pushed back to start the third period, but it was Price’s turn to stand tall as he saved Chiarot mistakes on two occasions to keep the Habs in the game and allow the team the necessary time to find their legs. Once again, it was a strong shift by Kovalchuk and Tatar that turned the tide and got the Habs to start skating. After one of his shifts, the camera caught Kovalchuk yelling “Let’s go!” at the bench. Can’t say I dislike this in his first game with the team.
At the midway point of the period, Cale Fleury fanned on a puck at the offensive blue line. The result was Andrew Copp taking off on a breakaway and putting the puck through Price. The goal was a backbreaker made even worse by the fact that it was a goal Price doesn’t want to allow after 50 minutes of solid hockey by him and that the giveaway came at the hands of the rookie who had also played a very strong game.
Nonetheless, the Habs did not give up and reduced the lead again less than two minutes later. A Kovalchuk-Tatar zone exit allowed them to find a streaking Chiarot who put home his second of the night by once again going low-blocker on Hellebuyck, this time with a strong wrist shot.
With three minutes left to play, Suzuki pulled out a flash of brilliance in the offensive zone as he was able to get around Luca Sbisa and draw a penalty on the Winnipeg defender. This second Montreal power play never really could get organized as Weal coughed up the puck after a good Kovalchuk one-timer. The same can be said about the final minute with Price on the bench as the Habs held the puck but just weren’t getting it to the front of the net to be dangerous as they dropped their sixth straight game.
HabsWorld Habs 3 Stars
1st Star – Ilya Kovalchuk
Like many others, I didn’t expect much of Kovalchuk. I figured that as long as he removed Weal from the power play and he could use his shot there, it was a win. As long as he wasn’t hurting the team too much at even-strength, it was worth it with the ridiculous current list of infirmary patients. Instead, we saw a player that was physically engaged, won puck battles, and created a long list of scoring chances for those around him. This can’t be the same players the Kings gave up on, can it? Obviously, it is a short sample size; time will tell if Kovalchuk can continue to play this way, but tonight was an excellent game by this clear addition of skill on this roster.
Stats: 1 assist, +2, 4 shots, 6 hits, 19:25 T.O.I.
2nd Star – Ben Chiarot
To me, Chiarot looks tired right now. He makes good decisions but also makes costly turnovers of late. Despite his recent defensive flaws, he’s logging monster minutes and managed to count as 100% of the Habs goal-scoring on this night. Good enough for second star.
Stats: 2 goals, +2, 2 shots, 20:13 T.O.I.
3rd Star – Tomas Tatar
Don’t look now but Tatar and Kovalchuk found instant chemistry on the team’s top unit in this game. Playing alongside the defensive-minded Danault is perfect for them too. If they can keep this up, it would allow Julien to place Gallagher somewhere else in the lineup to get other lines rolling. This is only one game of course, but it’s an interesting concept to entertain. Tatar continued to put numbers on the board on this night with two assists to extend his team lead in points.
Stats: 2 assists, +1, 1 shots, 4 hits, 17:56 T.O.I.
Honourable Mention – Jesperi Kotkaniemi
The points remain sporadic, but I really enjoy watching Kotkaniemi take on a leadership role on his line with Poehling. He looks comfortable, confident, and willing to make mistakes. The result is that he’s started winning puck battles and creating scoring chances on the ice. Replacing Weal with Cousins on the line also helped as there wasn’t an offensive black hole next to the two rookies. I like this line and I really like Kotkaniemi’s demeanour while on it and that’s what I wanted to highlight tonight.
Stats: 0 points, 0 (+/-), 1 shot, 4 hits, 12:57 T.O.I.