The Habs tried to get in the win column against a team that had their number so far this season as they visited the Detroit Red Wings on Tuesday night. After an afternoon trade sent Marco Scandella to St. Louis after only a brief stint with Montreal, the lineup was significantly altered from Saturday’s loss to the Dallas Stars, the team’s fourth in a row.
In addition to the Scandella departure, both Jake Evans and Christian Folin were returned to Laval on Monday. Brendan Gallagher was a late scratch with a leg injury which meant that the top line consisted of Jordan Weal joining regulars Tomas Tatar and Phillip Danault. The second unit featured Nick Suzuki flanked by Jonathan Drouin and Joel Armia. The third line saw Artturi Lehkonen next to Max Domi and Ilya Kovalchuk. Finally, the fourth line saw a return to action for Paul Byron as he played next to Nate Thompson and Nick Cousins. On the blue line, Shea Weber was back in action next to Ben Chiarot while Brett Kulak was paired with Jeff Petry. Scandella’s move meant that Victor Mete was playing with Xavier Ouellet on the third pair. As expected, Carey Price was in his crease to face Jonathan Bernier.
All these changes didn’t make much of a difference. The Habs came out strong and built a lead before they sat on it and allowed the Red Wings to dictate too much of this game. The Wings came back in the third, tied the game and then scored on the power play to beat the Habs for a fourth time this season by a 4-3 score in regulation time. It was an absolutely inexcusable effort playing with a lead once again from the Habs.
It was all Montreal in the early going as their forecheck stifled Detroit’s young blueliners. The best chance to score came to Petry when he accepted a nice pass from Drouin but couldn’t solve Bernier.
With six minutes expired, Byron’s strong backcheck caught Athanasiou off guard in his own defensive end. The result was a quick pass to Cousins who found Thompson for a tap-in and an early Montreal lead. The goal gave the Habs even more momentum as they were all over the Wings; most notably Armia was an immovable beast on the puck in the offensive zone.
The Red Wings did push back a bit to start the second half of the period, but the league’s least potent offence simply did not attack the centre of the ice to make saves difficult for Price. With a little less than six minutes to play in the period, Suzuki’s zone exit lured two defenders to him which allowed him to find a streaking Armia. While this didn’t lead to a goal, Armia’s tenacity on the puck caused a Detroit penalty, the first of the game. The power play was completely out of sync for the opening 30 seconds. Once they got in the zone, some strong puck support allowed Suzuki to find Petry who fired a bomb home from the point to make it 2-0, a score that held up through the rest of the period.
Chiarot made a terrible read in the offensive zone in the first two minutes of the second period that allowed a 2-on-1 after a bad pinch. Robby Fabbri skated in and fired a puck by Price who had to respect the potential pass. With the score now 2-1, the Wings were completely in control of the period and were it not for some good stops by Price, the lead would have completely vanished. Just before the midway of the period, a strong shift by the fourth line finally reversed the momentum to get the Habs back in the offensive zone and it certainly set the table for the rest of the period.
The second half of the period started with two nice scoring chances created by Weal and Cousins before Mete was sent to the locker room when he blocked a shot with his foot. He did not return to the game.
A strong rush by Domi created a second power play for the Habs and they once again took advantage. After a strong opening 20 seconds for the Suzuki unit, this same group stayed on the ice and Weal delivered a fantastic behind-the-back cross-ice pass to Suzuki who made no mistake in scoring his 40th point on the season in restoring the two-goal lead. The rest of the period was rather eventless other than Thompson taking a tripping penalty with 20 seconds to play, not a bad thing for the Habs and their multi-goal lead.
The Habs started the period on the penalty kill which they killed thanks to one ridiculous save by Price on Dylan Larkin. This did little to discourage the Wings as some trash defending by Chiarot (boy, he really had a rough night) and Ouellet allowed Athanasiou to skate in and beat Price far side to make it a one-goal game again.
The Habs tried the get it back, but both Suzuki and Kovalchuk missed open nets after some strong play in the offensive zone. At the midway point of the period, with the Habs completely sitting on their lead, the Wings completed the comeback… or the Habs squandered yet another lead. This time, Kulak completely misplayed a 2-on-1 to allow Mike Green to skate in uncontested and beat Price with an off-speed shot.
To make matters worse, Danault took a totally needless penalty on a dangerous looking play against Fabbri. The Wings did not score but built even more momentum over the sequence of play. Right after the advantage, Chiarot actually played his man well but Suzuki allowed his player alone in the slot and that player was Athanasiou who got a pass and made no mistake as the Wings took a 4-3 lead.
The last five minutes saw the Habs get a power play and squander the chance before Armia took a really dumb penalty with 2:44 to play. That was all the Wings needed as the Habs once again skated away empty-handed after leading for much of the game.
HabsWorld Habs 3 Stars
1st Star – Nick Suzuki
Scoring 13 points in his last 12 games, the rookie is now the team leader in power play points and is quickly creeping up the team’s points leaderboard, now only behind Tatar. The cerebral part of his game is so far off the charts that it makes up for all the other qualities that had scouts doubting his NHL presence. So long as he continues on this season’s trajectory, there is very little doubt that Suzuki is a top-line player in the making for the Habs. The silver lining to this frustrating season.
Stats: 1 goal, 1 assist, -2, 3 shots, 16:03 T.O.I.
2nd Star – Jeff Petry
When the power play has been productive this season, Petry usually finds his name plastered all over the scoresheet and tonight was no exception. He can be frustrating to watch in his own end at times, but there’s no denying that Petry is the Habs most skilled defender and the most dangerous one when the team finds itself in the offensive zone.
Stats: 1 goal, -1, 4 shots, 1 hit, 25:49 T.O.I.
3rd Star – Jordan Weal
Regular readers of this column know that my affinity for Jordan Weal usually fits within a thimble. BUT, Weal had a good showing in this contest, specifically on the power play where he won some important battles to keep plays alive and allow Suzuki, Tatar, and Petry to go to work. No matter my personal opinion on the player overall, objectivity wins out and Weal played an important role for the Habs on this night.
Stats: 2 assists, 0 (+/-), 16:29 T.O.I.
Honourable Mention – Carey Price
The final numbers don’t look nice, but as everyone who’s watched this team could tell you, the defenders simply aren’t good enough and they leave him out to dry night after night. The Habs don’t allow many shots, but when they do, they are almost always high-quality scoring chances from complete defensive meltdowns, and Price has to be there to pick up the pieces. He made many difficult saves on this night and it still wasn’t enough to win or to have respectable numbers.
Stats: 21 saves, 25 shots, 4.03 G.A.A., .840 save %, 59:33 T.O.I.