The Habs came into Saturday’s game with their best point streak of the season, with three points from two games, not to mention two consecutive 40-plus-save performances by Samuel Montembeault. Mind you, the Avalanche had collected 34 points from their last 19 games, well more than what the Habs have to show from their 39-game season.
Of course, given how things have been wont to go this season, Montembeault had to be scratched with what was described as a “minor injury”, giving Cayden Primeau the start and Michael McNiven the backup spot. That’s three Habs goalies currently injured, in case anyone is counting.
As it turned out, Primeau was clearly not the problem, keeping the Habs in the game as they battled one of the top teams in the league. And they were almost good enough …
You Should Take the First Chance You Get
From the opening faceoff, the Habs had some early jump in their game. While Nick Suzuki lost the faceoff to Nathan MacKinnon, they moved the play quickly to the Avalanche end of the ice. Artturi Lehkonen, playing with Suzuki and Tyler Toffoli, recovered rapidly from a Cale Makar body check to record the first shot on the game, but Darcy Kuemper had little trouble making the save.
The Canadiens got a chance to convert that energy into something more tangible as the Avalanche were called for too many men on the ice at just 1:16 into the game. The power play looked decent against the mighty Avalanche, but Mike Hoffman lost the puck twice at the blue line and the first time resulted in a two-on-one short-handed break for the Avs, forcing Primeau to make a tough save early, neutralizing a high-danger scoring chance by Erik Johnson.
Four minutes later, Ben Chiarot was called for holding MacKinnon on the boards behind Primeau, giving Colorado their own opportunity on the man advantage. As with the Avs’ penalty, there was an early shorthanded chance, this time with Suzuki and Laurent Dauphin breaking through, but there was no chance for a pass, and Kuemper made an easy save on Suzuki.
And then, just 21 seconds later, at 8:20, Colorado’s power play struck. With the Avalanche in full control in the Habs’ zone, Devon Toews passed the puck to Samuel Girard and then to Alex Newhook near the hash marks and Newhook made no mistake hitting the top of the goal above Primeau’s left shoulder. 1-0 for the Avalanche, then, making this mountain just a bit taller for the bleu, blanc et rouge to climb.
Just before the halfway mark of the period, Toffoli won a race to the puck at the Colorado end of the rink and fed the puck to Lehkonen, who was heading for the net behind him, but the latter was almost at the net already when he received it, and there was no opportunity to lift the puck over Kuemper.
After that, Jeff Petry was called for delay of game as his clearing pass from the Habs’ zone sailed over the glass.
Shots were ugly once again 23-12 for the first period, this time with Primeau holding down the fort. High-danger chances were closer at 6-5, with three of the Avs’ chances on special teams. Lehkonen and Toffoli accounted for three of the Habs’ high-danger opportunities.
A Second Chance, Albeit Late
The start of the second period was the Avs’ just as much as the early first period had been the Habs’. After four unanswered Colorado shots, though, the Habs’ top line broke through, about 3:30 into the period. Suzuki, on the left wing, passed the puck to Lehkonen, who got it to Toffoli just to the right of Kuemper. Unfortunately, Cale Makar, trailing Toffoli, was able to get his stick on the puck and prevent an outstanding scoring chance.
At 7:08, though, Dauphin’s check on Mikko Rantanen had some clear knee-on-knee action, and Dauphin was lucky to be called only for tripping. The ensuing power play did not appear dangerous, as Montreal’s penalty killers kept the puck to the outside.
However, with just seconds remaining, Girard picked up the puck and circled to behind the net, ever so slowly, looking for an open player, and he eventually found that in Valeri Nichushkin, who tucked the puck underneath Primeau’s pad to extend the Colorado lead to two goals.
As the game passed its halfway point, Primeau made his 30th save on J.T. Compher, as the Habs’ opponents shot totals climbed up again for the third consecutive game.
With three minutes remaining, Compher, breaking into the Canadiens’ zone, made a careless pass, giving the Habs a chance to break out once again, this time with the Avs on a line change. Ryan Poehling had a chance on that but was foiled by Kuemper.
But just over a minute later, Toffoli made a beautiful cross-ice pass from the defensive zone to enable Suzuki to break out on the left side, and then Suzuki found Lehkonen heading for the net. The puck made it to Lehkonen’s stick, and the Finn tucked it in through Kuemper’s pads to narrow the Colorado lead to a single goal with 1:43 remaining in the period. The shot was not one for the highlight reel, but the top line’s passes found their targets once again, and this time got the puck in the net.
The shots were a much more even 11-10 in the second, though still in the Avs’ favour, and this time the high-danger chances were tied at 3-3.
The Third Period Is What Matters, Or Is It?
Hoffman opened the action in the third period with a breakaway just two minutes into the period but was not able to control the puck just as he skated into the front of the net, preventing a clean scoring chance.
Things looked grim about a minute later, as Girard passed the puck from the right side of Primeau to find Nazem Kadri on the left. Alexander Romanov couldn’t block the pass, and neither Chris Wideman nor Evans were able to take Kadri out of the play, enabling Kadri to flick the puck behind Primeau for the third time.
However, Dominique Ducharme called for a review of whether the play had been offside. The review was relatively quick, as the replays showed that Kadri had been clearly — even if only slightly — offside entering the Habs’ zone, and the referees called back the goal.
Petry and Kadri collided just at 6:18, with the Habs’ defenceman falling down on the ice, grasping his face. No penalty had been called initially, but as Petry was taken to the dressing room, the referees reviewed the play and ended up calling an interference penalty on Petry and a double minor for high-sticking on Kadri, giving the Habs only their second power play of the game.
The power play looked good initially but did not generate any dangerous scoring opportunities. However, with only 12 seconds remaining, they made it click. Kuemper made a pad save on a Hoffman shot from the point, but the rebound came out to Christian Dvorak at the left side of the net. Dvorak had already spotted Suzuki, free on the right side, and made a quick pass to him, enabling Suzuki to one-time the puck into the open net, to the right of Kuemper, for a 2-2 score.
At 9:32, Wideman was called for high-sticking on MacKinnon, giving the Avalanche their fourth power play of the game, but this time the penalty killers were up to the task, keeping the Colorado players away from Primeau and to the outside.
As the minutes ticked down, the Avalanche mounted a fierce attack to secure a regulation win. Primeau had to stand tall again, and just before the 18-minute mark, he made a spectacular pad save on MacKinnon.
The shots in the third were tied 8-8, but the high-danger chances were 5-2, clearly in the Habs’ favour.
And It’s Over When …
For the eighth time this season, the Habs headed into overtime. As has often been the case, they took control at the start, from the initial faceoff. However, as they made it into the Avalanche zone, Toffoli made a relatively weak shot attempt, enabling Makar to latch onto the puck and gain control for Colorado.
MacKinnon picked up the pass and sped past Wideman into the Habs’ zone. Primeau made a save on him, and then on Makar, but on the subsequent faceoff, the Avalanche once again gained control. Toews got the puck to Nichushkin, who found Gabriel Landeskog open at the side of the net, and Primeau had no chance to make a save.
Eight times in OT, then, with seven losses and a singular win in the shootout.
Shots were 3-0, all in the final seconds after the turnover, and the single high-danger chance was all that the Avs needed.
HW Habs Three Stars
First Star: Cayden Primeau (46 shots, 43 saves, .935 save percentage) kept the Habs in the game long enough for them to score a few goals. He had no chance on two of the goals and had little defensive support for much of the night. This game was the best NHL game he has played in recent memory — or at least this writer’s recent memory.
Second Star: Nick Suzuki (1g, 1a, 3 shots, 21:35 TOI) played a strong game, clicking well with his linemates (Lehkonen and Toffoli), looking dangerous throughout the night. He hasn’t scored many goals recently, we can only hope that this will ease the pressure and allow him to return to where he was last season.
Third Star: Artturi Lehkonen (1g, 0a, 4 shots, 15:57 TOI) had a team-high two high-danger opportunities, tied with Hoffman. While Lehkonen is rarely classified as a sniper, he works hard to create scoring chances, and is clicking very well with Suzuki and Toffoli — in some ways, he is the Gallagher to their Danault and Tatar.
Honourable Mention: Tyler Toffoli (0g, 1a, 3 shots, 12:37 TOI) made the key pass on the second goal, finding Suzuki and giving him the chance to create an odd-man break into the Colorado zone. He might have had a goal himself had Makar not got his stick in the way early in the second period.