The Habs hosted the Rangers for their home opener this year. A third chance against a likely non-playoff team, it would be another opportunity for the Canadiens to turn around their struggles early in the season.
If at First You Don’t Succeed
The first period saw both teams take a rather tentative approach to the game, neither one wanting to take a third consecutive loss to start the season — and to apparently doom that team to missing the playoffs for the year.
Jake Evans and Tyler Toffoli broke through early, with the young centre making a pretty pass to Toffoli, but Igor Shesterkin slid across in time and Toffoli had little open net to shoot at.
Brendan Gallagher was on the job early, repeatedly mixing it up in front of the net, but could not disrupt things quite at the right time to enable the Habs to score.
Moving Joel Armia onto the second line with Nick Suzuki and Cole Caufield looked visually better but the results didn’t necessarily reflect that. One of the ongoing challenges for this unit was with the faceoffs: Suzuki won four of 10 on the game, but also got thrown out twice — Armia lost both of those — leaving the line at a pitiful .333 in the faceoff circle.
Ryan Reaves got called for hooking early as Brett Kulak drew the penalty at the two-and-a-half-minute mark. The power play unit looked better than in the first two games, with quick passing, but the results were no better: two shots wide, and a Shesterkin save on Suzuki’s shot.
Five minutes into the game, there were still only two shots on goal, one of them Suzuki’s power play attempt. Did no one want to score this early in the game?
The Habs finally got a break three minutes later, as Jonathan Drouin and Josh Anderson broke away. Drouin made a tidy-looking pass across, but Anderson could not control it immediately, and Shesterkin had no trouble keeping his net clean on this one.
Caufield had a better breakaway going near the 14-minute mark, though. As K’Andre Miller was catching up to him, Caufield put on the brakes and Miller ended up taking Caufield down and drawing a tripping penalty.
Dvorak and Anderson had a nice passing play set up soon after the penalty, but Miller timed a sliding block beautifully to prevent a scoring opportunity on this.
Wideman was called for hooking less than three minutes into the second period, triggering a delayed penalty. The Rangers controlled the play and were getting set up for a 6-on-5 power play when Wideman finally won a battle on the boards to control the puck.
The penalty killers kept the Rangers’ power play away from the net, though, getting the Habs through the man disadvantage without incident. Just a minute after the end of the penalty, though, Dvorak got his stick up on Reaves behind the Rangers net, forcing the Habs’ penalty killers back onto the ice.
Alexis Lafreniere took another quick shot on Jake Allen, but the veteran netminder was in position again and made the save look easy. The Rangers got their power play set up after that, though, and there were only a handful of seconds remaining when the Habs finally cleared the puck.
That was apparently not enough yet, so only a minute later Mathieu Perreault hooked Jacob Trouba, giving the Habs their third minor penalty call in a row — and within a span of only about six minutes.
This time the penalty kill was not enough, as Artemi Panarin found Mika Zibanejad, who then aimed a pass to Chris Kreider at the front of the net. Kreider never got his stick on the puck, but it didn’t matter as the puck glanced off Alexander Romanov’s skate and catching Allen by surprise as it slid in just next to the left-hand goalpost. 1-0 Rangers it was, then.
After the three penalty kills, the Habs were finally finding some energy — and, dare I say it, urgency — Gallagher, Drouin and Artturi Lehkonen, in particular, finding some opportunities in the late going.
And then, yes, it was another penalty call on the Habs with two minutes left on the clock. Wideman was penalized again, this time on a rather weak cross-checking call. The bleu, blanc, et rouge survived this one, thanks to some timely shot-blocking and a flash pad save by Allen.
The Habs held a 13-9 edge in shots for the period, but it was little consolation as the unlucky deflection of Romanov’s skate had put the Rangers ahead.
The Third Wake-up Call
The third period opened with surprising energy, both teams seemingly intent on making up for the lacklustre first period. Actual dangerous scoring chances were not on offer, though, but at least both teams were working hard and not just waiting for a mistake.
But a mistake was what got the Rangers on the scoresheet in this period, too: a little after the six-minute mark, Lafreniere got his stick into David Savard’s skates as the latter was rounding behind the Habs’ net, getting sent to the box for a very unnecessary move in the Habs’ zone.
As the power play got set up — controlled zone entries were much improved tonight — the first two chances came off Jeff Petry shots from the point, as Shesterkin could not control those, and gave up some juicy rebounds.
Zibanejad stole out of the zone, though, and broke away from the Habs’ defenders. If not for an outstanding save by Allen, it would have been a two-goal lead for the Rangers.
Armia had a solid scoring chance as the last seconds of the penalty ticked away, attempting to deflect the puck past Shesterkin but the young Russian gave Armia had his pad ready and kept his net clean on the play.
The Habs kept up the pressure, though, and after just a minute it paid off. Kulak stopped a clearing attempt and controlled it well to pass it onto Christian Dvorak. As Dvorak rounded the net, he spotted Drouin breaking free between the two circles. A tidy pass got the puck to Drouin’s stick, and the winger then pulled Shesterkin to one side first and then flipped the puck to his backhand to get some open net — and to tie the game up at one.
The joy of the Bell Centre crowd was short-lived though: Adam Fox picked up the puck in the Rangers’ zone, found Zibanejad, who broke away on the left side with Lafreniere in tow, got away from Savard, and then flipped a perfect pass across to the top draft pick for an easy tap-in past Allen to restore the Rangers’ lead.
There were still ten minutes remaining, and the Habs looked very determined to come back and tie it back up for a second time. They pressured, outworked and out-chanced the Rangers every chance they got, but Shesterkin held the fort in spite of the 14 shots they took in the period.
Allen was pulled with a little less than two minutes left on the clock, and the Habs once again got set up on the man advantage. However, as on the previous power plays, they could not convert those into an actual goal.
So it was Kevin Rooney that scored the final goal, getting the puck with a clear view of the empty Canadiens net and making no mistake on it to finalize the score at 3-1.
If only Ducharme had got the team playing as hard as they did — in the final ten minutes — right out of the gate, we might have seen a different result. But, as it is, the Habs have now lost the first three games of the young season. Can they still recover, or will recent history repeat itself and they will miss the playoffs?
HabsWorld Habs Three Stars
First Star: Jonathan Drouin (1g, 0a, +0, 18:37 TOI) is back, no doubt about that. Scoring a second goal in three games, he executed a nifty stickhandling move to pull Shesterkin out of position and to score a tying goal in fine fashion.
Second Star: Christian Dvorak (0g, 1a, +0, 0.667 FO%) played another solid game, demonstrating that he is more than capable of filling in the shoes left behind by Jesperi Kotkaniemi. A dominant performance in the faceoff circle was complemented by a smart pass to Drouin, enabling the Frenchman to score on the play.
Third Star: Brendan Gallagher (0g, 0a, -1, 15:17 TOI) was a pest supreme in front of Shesterkin, harassing and distracting with the best of them. Six scoring chances was the best on the team, even if he was unable to capitalize on those.
Honourable Mention: Brett Kulak (0g, 1a, +1, 12:46 TOI) looked solid today, playing with Wideman, and set up the play on the Drouin goal. Will it be enough to get him out of the Ducharme doghouse? Stay tuned to find out as the Habs regroup to make a fourth attempt at the first win of the season.