For nearly 20 minutes, Saturday’s game looked like another victory that would slip away from the Habs with their fragile confidence broken by the opposition, but this time they were able to batten the hatches and hold off Matt Duchene and the rest of the Nashville Predators.
Habs’ head coach, Dominique Ducharme, had bucked modern convention by dressing Chris Wideman as the seventh defenceman, with Joel Armia and Ryan Poehling as the incomplete fourth line.
The other early surprise saw Jake Evans, flanked by Artturi Lehkonen and Brendan Gallagher, take the opening faceoff. An old hat for Gallagher, surely, but it’s not often that Lehkonen and Evans see opening lineup duty.
Another First Goal
In any case, things looked bad early, with the Predators pressing and the Habs’ defencemen up to their usual miscues. Just after the two-minute mark, Ryan Johansen was left alone deep in Montreal’s zone as the bleu, blanc et rouge took off for an attack.
Except that the puck didn’t take off with them, and seconds later the puck was back on Johansen’s stick, just outside the blue ice. Fortunately for the Habs, Samuel Montembeault — back in net after two games with Cayden Primeau — was quick with his pad and avoided an early deficit.
Less than three minutes into the game, though, the third line got into serious action. Lehkonen won a board battle to the right of Montembeault and found a hard-charging Gallagher. Gallagher ended up entering the zone backwards to protect the puck but found David Savard with a pass.
Savard sent the puck to Evans for a quick shot, and Lehkonen was ready at the front of the net, fighting off the defenders to whack the puck past Juuse Saros and into the net for his first goal of the season and a 1-0 Habs lead with just 2:41 expired on the clock.
Some six minutes later, it momentarily looked like the Predators had tied the game up, but the referees thought that Duchene had batted the puck in with his glove, and a quick video review confirmed that assessment. And as the first period passed its halfway point, the Habs still held a slim lead but were being outshot 9-3.
Armia picked up an errant pass just inside the Nashville blue line but could not beat Saros with that one. Only 20 seconds later, it was Evans taking a dangerous-looking wrister, but Saros stopped that one, too.
In the final minutes of the period, Duchene sneaked into the Habs’ zone and got it to Dante Fabbro in front of Montembeault, but the young goalie got the right pad out to block it for another solid save.
An Explosive Second
This time the Habs came out flying for the second, be they Frenchmen or not. Only a minute in, Jonathan Drouin intercepted a Nashville pass and got it to Josh Anderson on an odd-man break. Anderson slowed down as he approached on the left side, allowing Drouin to park himself in front of the net.
Anderson surprised Saros, though, by instead passing to Christian Dvorak on the other side of the net, where Dvorak made no mistake with a one-timer to put the Habs ahead 2-0.
Nick Suzuki was immediately breaking into the Predators’ zone after the faceoff, with Cole Caufield in tow. Suzuki make a pretty pass backwards to Caufield, but the young sniper lost an edge before being able to take a shot. Maybe a shot might have been in order?
Another two minutes and it was the checking line creating opportunities again. Gallagher beat Mathieu Olivier in a board battle in the Habs’ zone, getting the puck to Lehkonen while Olivier was pulling him down. Lehkonen made a nice pass to Evans, banking the puck off the boards, but Evans could not get a shot on net.
It was not to matter, as Olivier was called for tripping, and Montreal’s power play worked for once. There was not much time to set up anything, as just nine seconds into the power play Gallagher converted a pass from Drouin into a goal and a 3-0 lead for the Habs.
The Canadiens were not done yet, though, and they continued to exert control in the Preds’ zone. Just before the halfway point of the period, Armia was controlling the puck behind the net and then handed it off to Lehkonen. Lehkonen spotted Chris Wideman at the point, and Wideman sent the puck to Ryan Poehling, who one-timed it past Saros.
Adding insult to injury, some 30 seconds later Wideman lobbed a pass from deep in the defensive zone to a streaking Tyler Toffoli. Toffoli lost control just inside the Nashville zone as Fabbro batted it away, but regained it, and fed it to the trailing Poehling. A quick wrist shot later, Saros was digging a fifth puck out of the net. That was enough for John Hynes, the Preds’ head coach, and Saros gave way to David Rittich.
The Habs continued to dominate possession, and Johansen was called for delay of game after shooting the puck over the boards with seven minutes left in the period. The Canadiens pressed throughout the power play but could not find a way to get a single shot on Rittich.
Roman Josi broke his stick as the clock was ticking down, enabling Suzuki to steal the puck, but the young centre could not find a way to the net. Toffoli managed to break away just after that, though, but Rittich was solid in making a pad save.
At the other end, Montembeault had to endure some late pressure, including saves on Mattias Ekholm and Yakov Trenin.
Oh yes, Anderson and Olivier initiated an on-ice brawl with a minute left in the period, resulting in 34 minutes of penalties, but changing little.
Bad Things Come in Threes?
The third period looked much less pretty, with the Predators intent on climbing out of their deep hole. Toffoli gently hooked Mikael Granlund six minutes in, but it was not quite gentle enough, and the winger got sent off for two minutes.
The Predators couldn’t quite match the performance of Montreal’s first power play, but it was not much longer. After the Habs initially cleared the puck and the Predators regrouped, Matt Duchene waltzed in rather unhindered across the blue line, with Jef Petry and Ben Chiarot backing up. A small kink to the right, and now the veteran sniper was able to take a shot on goal with Chiarot blocking Montembeault’s sightlines. He made no mistake to put it in the net and spoil the Bell Centre fans’ hopes of a shutout.
Lehkonen had a chance to put it away at 11:30 of the third, as he broke in with Evans, but his stick snapped as he was taking the shot, putting an end to his hopes of a two-goal game.
Worse yet, just over a minute later, Colton Sissons got his stick up on Lehkonen, normally meriting a four-minute penalty, but the referees missed this incident. But Lehkonen got back up, minus his stick, and checked Tanner Jeannot into the boards, getting called for holding instead.
And this time it only took eight seconds for Granlund to get the puck to an open Duchene, who drilled it into the net for a 5-2 game.
Chiarot got called for holding 30 seconds later in a third consecutive Montreal penalty, but this time the penalty killers were able to keep the puck out — and away from Duchene.
But by this time there was blood in the water, the Predators were hungry and the Habs looked vulnerable. The pendulum had swung and now the pressure was on and the puck staying in Montreal’s zone.
And with three and a half minutes left on the clock, Duchene struck again, for a natural hat trick. Johansen took control of the puck on the boards and made a cross-ice pass to Duchene, who was completely unbothered by any red-shirted defenders. 5-3, and at this point, things were getting tense.
Hynes pulled Rittich with about three minutes remaining but had to send him back as the linesmen sent a faceoff to the centre ice. He was quickly again out of the net, but this time Armia got control of the puck, carried it to the Predators’ zone, and passed it to Toffoli for an easy empty-net goal to make it 6-3 and give the Habs a win the team very badly needed.
HW Habs Three Stars
First Star: Artturi Lehkonen (1g, 1a, 3 shots, 16:16 TOI) not only scored his first of the season but was a presence in front of the net all night and combined with his linemates for five high-danger chances, half of Montreal’s total. The Lehkonen-Evans-Gallagher line may not be the most skilled but it was the most dangerous on the night.
Second Star: Ryan Poehling (2g, 0a, 3 shots, 12:22 TOI) merits a star for a confidence-boosting two-goal game. He and Armia worked well with a variety of linemates and gave credence to Ducharme’s experiment.
Third Star: Brendan Gallagher (1g, 0a, 3 hits, 18:00 TOI) had very different linemates from the Danault-Tatar pair last year, but there seems to be chemistry — and energy! — in the new trio, and they were finding each other with passes throughout the night, with both Gallagher and Lehkonen able to cause havoc in front of the net.
Honourable Mention: Samuel Montembeault (36 shots, 33 saves, 0.917 save percentage) played a far better game than the three-goal figure indicates, with a number of very solid saves on dangerous Predator scoring chances. Having to face a top sniper such as Duchene with no help from the defence corps is never easy, and Montembeault had to pay the price for those.