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Artturi Lehkonen came off the COVID-19 protocol before Thursday’s game — the first of the Habs to do so this season — but due to border crossing rules, he was unable to get to Raleigh for the game and won’t be available against Florida either. So, that still left eleven players impacted by COVID, plus six injured. No, make that seven, with Jonathan Drouin a late scratch. Putting a mostly-AHL lineup on the ice was unavoidable.

So, what were the chances that the decimated Habs would be able to take the fight to Carolina, third overall in the league?

Not good enough, evidently, as the Carolina powerhouse team took advantage of the inexperienced and disorganized Canadiens special teams to score four goals on the night. And, further, Antti Raanta played an excellent game in goal for Carolina to keep the Habs off the score sheet even when they did have opportunities to do so.

At First Things Looked Good

Jake Evans thought they should be, and he broke in on his first shift to set the tone for the game. A tidy wrist shot appeared to beat Raanta in the Carolina goal but glanced off the outside of the right-hand goalpost.

Samuel Montembeault wasn’t tested at all for the first six minutes, and even then it was only a weak wrist shot by Jaccob Slavin.

Alex Belzile was called for hooking behind the Carolina net when Ethan Bear lifted his stick up to get Belzile’s stick blade to make contact with his gloves and get a call from the referees.

The Habs’s penalty kill didn’t look as bad as one might have expected, but as the clock was winding down on Belzile’s penalty, they were overwhelmed by Carolina’s power play unit. Montembeault made a clean pad save on Slavin’s shot from near the blue line but gave up a rebound. Nino Niederreiter was right there in front of the net and got away from Brett Kulak to tap it into the open net for the early lead.

Three minutes later the Canadiens got a chance to try their own luck with a man advantage, as Brendan Gallagher provoked Brady Skjei into a holding penalty.

The power play unit could not even execute a successful offensive zone entry, though, and a minute into the penalty, Sebastian Aho and Teuvo Teravainen broke out as Rafael Harvey-Pinard was caught out of position. With only Kale Clague back on the two-on-one break, Aho made a clean pass to Teravainen, who beat a sliding Montembeault for a short-handed marker and a 2-0 lead.

With three and half minutes left on the clock, Vincent Trocheck got called for holding Kulak. This time the power play was considerably more organized. The Habs held possession and peppered Raanta with shots: Ryan Poehling, Belzile, Sami Niku, Cedric Paquette, and Paquette again. Raanta stood tall when he needed to, though.

They still maintained pressure after Trocheck was released from the box, though, and as David Savard took a pass at the point less than 20 seconds later, Trocheck tripped him to trigger another delayed penalty, and to return to the box.

The Habs continued where they left off, with Suzuki and Caufield both firing missiles at Raanta. They were battling for the puck in front of the net as the final seconds ticked down when Jordan Staal blatantly cross-checked Harvey-Pinard in the back, but the referees chose to ignore that.

With the final flurry during the penalties, the Habs tied the Hurricanes 9-9 on shots, but high-danger scoring chances were 2-0 for Carolina — and both of those resulted in goals.

A Second PP Goal Is Not What We Want

The power play had another minute remaining as the second period got underway, but this time it looked significantly less potent. Teravainen almost got another short-handed break, but this time Poehling was able to strip the puck off him to prevent another scoring chance.

Just after Trocheck jumped out of the penalty box — again — Jesse Ylonen was called for interference as he knocked the stick out of Brett Pesce’s hands. The Hurricanes’ power play was potent once again, but some solid saves by Montembeault, combined with some timely defensive stickwork in front of the net by Corey Schueneman, kept the net clean.

The Canadiens had another stretch with a flurry of shots on Raanta, with the top line of Suzuki, Gallagher, and Lukas Vejdemo in the action. Vejdemo had the best opportunity, as he got his stick on the rebound from Kulak’s slap shot, but he could not lift the puck over Raanta’s left pad with his backhand.

Aho broke out again at the nine-minute mark, and while he couldn’t get a clean shot on Montembeault, he drew a slashing penalty on Kulak. This time the Hurricanes could not record a shot on goal, though.

With six minutes remaining, Alexander Romanov drew a cross-checking penalty, sending Ian Cole to the box. The power play was a struggle, particularly for the second unit, and Teravainen had a chance for a second shorthanded goal, but Ylonen saw what was coming, and was able to break up the play before Teravainen got his shot off. And then Evans took a hooking penalty to neutralize the power play.

After a nothing four-on-four segment, Paquette had a nice shorthanded scoring chance, but Raanta was there once again to stop it.

And then the pressure was on again, with the Carolina power play going at full tilt. This time it was Martin Necas passing the puck across the front of the net to Teravainen waiting on the right side of the net, with his knee down. The Finn one-timed the puck to the inside of the right post and into the net, with Montembeault helpless to stop it: 3-0 Hurricanes.

Shots were a rude 17-9 for Carolina this time, but high-danger chances were a respectable 4-4 this time.

Three Strikes and You’re Out

The start of the third was relatively eventless, by comparison. Aho and Teravainen had another look, but so did Harvey-Pinard and Caufield, as the latter got free in front of Raanta, but could not break through Raanta’s defences.

Niku was finding some space and made a nice pass from behind the net halfway through the period, but there was not a white sweater in sight to be able to take advantage of it.

Michael Pezzetta took an unfortunate and unnecessary interference penalty with 9:25 remaining to give the Hurricanes their fifth power play of the evening. Only 17 seconds later, Pezzetta was already out of the penalty box, as Seth Jarvis one-timed an Andrei Svechnikov pass through traffic and into the top left corner of the net, over Montembeault’s right shoulder.

4-0 Carolina, then, with all four goals scored by special teams: three power-play goals plus a short-handed marker.

Poehling did break through with less than five minutes remaining and flipped the puck over to Ylonen on his left side, but the young winger could not corral the pass for a shot on Raanta.

The Habs got one more power-play opportunity with 4:15 left on the clock as Tony DeAngelo was called for holding on Suzuki, but the makeshift power play units were not able to get control of the puck in the offensive zone, let alone getting the power play clicking.

The Habs got the better chances in the final frame, in spite of a 12-8 Carolina edge in shots: high-danger chances were recorded 5-0 in Montreal’s favour but Raanta played an outstanding game and turned away all comers.

The 4-0 final score looked uglier than the team’s performance was, though. In spite of a line-up consisting mostly of AHL players — and Gallagher did not play a shift in the second half of the game after leaving with an injury of his own — they fought Carolina to a scoreless tie in five-on-five play. It was a somewhat lopsided shutout loss, then, but not an embarrassing one, at least not to this observer.

HW Habs Three Stars

First Star: Alexander Romanov (0g, 0a, 0 shots, 5 hits, 22:02 TOI) keeps building on his strengths and put in a yeoman’s performance in this game. Five high-danger chances versus only one against while he was on the ice. Two goals against, both on power play situations.

Second Star: Samuel Montembeault (38 shots, 34 saves, 0.895 save percentage) played his best game of the season, but with players like Aho, Teravainen, and Niederreiter running roughshod over an inexperienced defence, there was little he could do on most of the four Carolina goals.

Third Star: David Savard (0g, 0a, 1 shot, 4 hits, 21:56 TOI) has come a long way from his early-season struggles and played another solid game next to Romanov. 22 minutes of ice is very respectable, and well above what he would typically record in Columbus and Tampa Bay last year.

Honourable Mention: Sami Niku (0g, 0a, 1 shot, 0 hits, 15:07 TOI) showed what an offensive defenceman can do to create scoring chances, with chances a clear 5-0 in the Habs’ favour while he was on the ice. At least this time his offensive acumen clearly outshone his defensive shortcomings.