The Habs kicked off a busy week with a Monday night contest in Winnipeg as they tried to forget their Calgary woes. Carey Price returned to his crease riding a recent surge in play and he was facing Connor Hellebuyck as expected.
The forward lines for this contest saw Jesperi Kotkaniemi on the first line flanked by Jonathan Drouin and Josh Anderson. This meant that Tyler Toffoli and Brendan Gallagher were pivoted by Nick Suzuki on the team’s second unit. This left united the team’s most effective unit in Calgary as Phillip Danault centred Tomas Tatar and Joel Armia. With Danault’s uncertain status, Jake Evans returned to the lineup to centre Corey Perry and Paul Byron. The blue line was also mixed as Joel Edmundson found himself next to Shea Weber. Brett Kulak returned to the second pairing with Jeff Petry. The third pairing was Alexander Romanov on the left with Xavier Ouellet. This meant that Victor Mete and Artturi Lehkonen were the healthy scratches.
These lineup changes whipped the team into a much better effort. I felt the defensive pairings were especially effective in calming down specific players. Edmundson appeared to have a calming effect on Weber, Petry settled Kulak down, and the veteran presence of Ouellet allowed Romanov to have his best game in a long time. The results were conclusive as the Habs played a monster game against a team that was really on fire. The Habs bent but refused to break as they held on for a 4-2 win.
If Romanov had a good game overall, one would not have guessed it from his first shift. He coughed the puck up twice as he appeared to need a bit of time to get used to switching to the left side. This allowed the Jets to be all over Montreal as Price held the fort early on.
The Habs were far more opportunistic as Ouellet took advantage of a bad Jets line change to push the pace up the ice. Anderson dove to beat the Jets blueliner which created a 2-on-1. Drouin completed a perfect pass to Kotkaniemi who buried the game’s first goal four minutes in.
Winnipeg pushed back after the goal as they really victimized Kulak who was much better in the second period than in the first. The Jets saw the game’s first power play as Suzuki was called for holding but the Habs did a good job of keeping them at bay.
The second half of the period started with Suzuki completing a great pass to Gallagher only to see Hellebuyck make a great save. Strong forechecking by Danault and Armia opened an opportunity for Tatar who tried the between the legs deke again. This time he did with little space to manoeuvre and no other option, so it won’t be as controversial. Anderson then hit the post after a Kotkaniemi faceoff win. Kotkaniemi was easily the team’s best forward in the period.
The final minutes of the period were filled with bad defensive zone exits attempts by the Habs and Price bailing them out. Romanov delivered an Alexei Emelin-like hit on Nikolaj Ehlers and then dropped him again when Ehlers tried to get him back. Paul Stastny was called for tripping with seconds left in the period that ended with an 11-6 shot advantage for Winnipeg that didn’t really do justice to the flow of play.
The second period started with a strong power play for the Habs to create momentum. Nice hands by Perry on the second unit forced two more excellent saves by Hellebuyck. With the advantage over, Mark Scheifele attacked the net but it was Price’s turn to stand tall.
Winnipeg was creating chances far more than Montreal early but when Drouin picked off Neal Pionk, he skated in on a breakaway only to be held considerably. The ensuing Habs power play was a Petry point shot tipped by Gallagher that hit the post. Then the top unit came on the ice, Drouin forced the zone entry which resulted in Toffoli winning a puck battle, and with everyone watching Suzuki in front of the net, the puck was passed to Anderson on the weak side who made it 2-0.
Kotkaniemi took a penalty covering Scheifele in the defensive zone at the 7:30 mark. With Blake Wheeler screening Price, Kyle Connor used his quick release to get a puck through Price. Since the Romanov hit, the Jets were really looking for the physical play and this finally boiled over 30 seconds after their goal as a big playoff-style scrum got together and both teams received two penalties.
If there is one thing the Habs did well on this night, it was the forecheck which resulted in many turnovers by the Jets blue line. On one such play, Morrissey tripped Gallagher on another breakaway. This time it was called a penalty shot, but Hellebuyck stopped the shot by Gallagher.
This did turn the momentum though as the Habs got some extended pressure which resulted in another post by Petry. Yet another Gallagher forecheck caused a horrific turnover. The resulting 2-on-0 saw Toffoli wait long enough that Hellebuyck cheated towards Suzuki before Toffoli buried his shot to make it 3-1 heading to the third period with the shots now 23 apiece.
The final period started well for the Habs as they continued to pressure Winnipeg’s defence and cause scoring chances in the process. Edmundson (who I thought played quite well next to Weber for the first two periods) started a rough final period with a tripping penalty that cut the Habs momentum four minutes in. Winnipeg’s power play went to work again as they executed a set play that saw Connor with an absolute rocket beat Price with a one-timer from the outside of the face-off dot which really extended Price’s lateral movement.
Suzuki continued to play his best game in a long time as he pushed back after the goal and created scoring chances for himself and Toffoli. This was followed by the last good shift for the Habs and not surprisingly, it was the top line that delivered.
The Jets basically spent the entirety of the final ten minutes in the Habs zone as they looked to Connor and Ehlers continually for the tying marker. Price came up big while Romanov played Ehlers tough and engaged every chance he could. The Jets would continue to buzz but the Habs and Price really held on to their one-goal lead. The last two minutes saw Toffoli fire a puck at the empty net from his defensive zone that missed and created an icing. Then it was Toffoli that won two consecutive puck battles that allowed for Edmundson to find him as he got out and buried the empty net on the breakaway to finish the game with a 4-2 score and extend his goal-scoring to 17 on the season, good for second in the entire league!
HabsWorld Habs 3 Stars
1st Star – Brendan Gallagher
Four goals and I’m picking a pointless player as the game’s first star for Montreal? I spent much of the last few days questioning the leadership on this team. One leader showed up in a big way on this night and it was Gallagher. He was the Gallagher of old as he was all over the ice, absolutely relentless on the forecheck, and trying to get under the Jets’ skin on every single shift. It was effective as it took them off their game for most of the second period. He was the leader and spark plug for the offence, a group that needed someone to lead them to battle.
Stats: +1, 4 shots, 1 hit, 15:05 T.O.I.
2nd Star – Tyler Toffoli
Easily the best UFA signing of the offseason, Toffoli is a pure sniper. He has huge portions of the game where he is content to be a sound player that doesn’t get his team in trouble. Then the opposition opens up an opportunity and Toffoli just buries them for the mistake. No exception in this one as the league’s second-best scorer notched another two goals including the game-winner.
Stats: 2 goals, 1 assist, +2, 6 shots, 1 hit, 16:03 T.O.I.
3rd Star – Josh Anderson
What a difference a player of his ilk has on this roster. Drouin can play a few inches taller and hold on to the puck just a bit more. Anderson is a constant force and is now helping make Kotkaniemi more complete as he follows suit. What an addition. Hard to imagine this is the player Bergevin turned Alex Galchenyuk into. We’ve missed this type of presence on the roster for years!
Stats: 1 goal, 1 assist, +1, 4 shots, 15:53 T.O.I.
Honourable Mentions – Nick Suzuki and Jesperi Kotkaniemi
After much criticism of the team’s centre position after the trip to Calgary, I think it is important to take this effort and adjust the perspective. Most people had the Habs battling for a playoff spot at the start of the season and the expectations around these two was why. Everyone knows they are good enough to be where they are on the Habs roster. Everyone also knows they severally lack experience, and with that comes a lack of consistency. They both showed up in this game and so the team was able to tackle a red hot Jets team. For most of the season, it’s been one of the two showing up. In Calgary, it was neither. That’s what you get when some of your most important players are gaining the necessary experience to turn the team into a winner. Now can we all let them get there?
Suzuki’s Stats: 1 assist, +1, 3 shots, 1 hit, 18:09 T.O.I.
Kotkaniemi’s Stats: 1 goal, +1, 2 shots, 16:41 T.O.I.