The battle to climb out of the NHL’s basement was an afternoon affair in Arizona as the Habs got a rare game against the Coyotes on Monday. Montreal welcomed back another veteran as Josh Anderson was placed on the top line next to Nick Suzuki and Mike Hoffman. The second line remained together as Jonathan Drouin played with Rem Pitlick and Christian Dvorak. The third line featured Artturi Lehkonen, Jake Evans, and Joel Armia, which left a kids line of Ryan Poehling and Cole Caufield that was completed by Laurent Dauphin. The blue line saw a similar top-four to last week as Alexander Romanov joined Jeff Petry while David Savard and Ben Chiarot remained together. The final pair was Brett Kulak and Chris Wideman. The biggest surprise likely came in the crease as the Habs opted for young Cayden Primeau, meaning that Samuel Montembeault should be the starter on Tuesday night in Dallas.
Primeau’s opposition in the Arizona crease was none other than Karel Vejmelka, a rather new name. He’s a big body who played a great game last week against the Maple Leafs and is having quite a solid season for the Coyotes.
Generally, it was a game to forget as the Wright Bowl featured many mistakes on both sides of the puck. In the end, the Habs lacked the conviction to counter the Arizona second line who basically had their way all game long. The Coyotes won the game 5-2 and quite frankly deserved to do so as far too many Montreal players decided that this was a night off.
The first period got off to a bit of a slow start which was somewhat expected considering the two teams in action and the general awkwardness that comes with a Monday afternoon contest. The Habs were particularly sleepy early except for Anderson who did everything he could to get some momentum for his team. It was not enough as Primeau had to make a great save early before letting one by that he likely would like back.
At 5:19, Romanov got a bit lost on assignments with the Coyotes cycling down low. This resulted in a Travis Boyd shot from just inside the face-off dot that beat Primeau beneath the blocker. The Coyotes would quickly open the door for the Canadiens to get back in the game as Liam O’Brien took a penalty.
The Habs squandered the man advantage which was not surprising. They failed to even create momentum and paid dearly as Johan Larsson extended the lead at 8:18 of the period after Poehling and Caufield worked hard to get back but did not cover anyone, allowing a nice cross-ice pass by Phil Kessel to find his centreman streaking who scored on yet another shot that was nice, but that Primeau could have stopped.
Montreal was able to get on the board and played a better final few minutes. Drouin intercepted a clearing attempt by the Coyotes and found Pitlick for his first in a Canadiens uniform. Other than that, it was an ugly period that both teams would want to improve upon in the second.
The Coyotes came out strong for the second period as they took it to the Habs early on. They were quickly rewarded as Janis Moser intercepted a clearing attempt at the Habs blue line, outskated Anderson while the latter got absolutely no support from Dvorak, who was standing still, or Chiarot and Savard, who were both battling in front of the net. Moser skated all the way to the net untouched to beat Primeau with a backhand shot.
Montreal gave up a few more chances before the Coyotes took an interference penalty. The man advantage was atrocious for the first 90 seconds before Hoffman-Suzuki-Caufield made it interesting in the final moments.
The Coyotes started the second half of the game with another obvious interference call. This started another disaster of a power play as Clayton Keller got a breakaway that was stopped by Primeau before Caufield tried to play hero by attempting a one-man show. Finally, the Habs got on the board with the advantage as Petry set up Drouin for a one-timer that was tipped home by Poehling to bring the Habs back to within one goal.
With 4:14 to play in the period, Hoffman was called for slashing. The Coyotes did not score on the advantage, but they did create momentum which concluded with Antoine Roussel outbattling Romanov to create an occasion for Nick Schmaltz who scored. Ducharme challenged for goaltender interference which was quickly discredited sending the Habs back to the penalty kill to end the period although they did kill it off.
Starting the third period down by two, the Habs opted to send Montembeault out for the period. This was strange considering the Canadiens play on Tuesday night and that there was very little hope for a win considering the way this season is going.
The opening five minutes was low-event hockey and that’s being kind to the two teams on the ice. Five minutes in, Kulak cleared the puck into the stands in the defensive zone sending the Coyotes to another man advantage. Montembeault made a few stops to keep the score 4-2 and the Habs escaped the situation.
The final ten minutes of play kicked off with yet another Hoffman slashing penalty. Montreal was able to kill the advantage despite Keller hitting a post behind Montembeault. This mattered little as both teams appeared to have already accepted the outcome of this game and be looking forward to something else entirely. The Coyotes mostly controlled, but Anderson did miss a good scoring chance with three minutes to play.
With 2:30 to play, Ducharme opted to pull Montembeault only to see Anderson miss another chance as he had a wide-open net but hit the post. The rebound came out and was cleared perfectly to see Keller bury the empty netter and seal the fate of this ugly, ugly game.
HabsWorld Habs 3 Stars
1st Star – Jonathan Drouin
Easy to identify Drouin as this game’s premier playmaker, but he was mostly dangerous after an opening 15 minutes that was very quiet. So why the sudden change in performance for the enigmatic winger? To me, once he understood the sloppiness in execution on both sides, but also the fact that neither team was playing very physical, he was able to get comfortable and take his time with the puck. When he does this, his skill comes to the forefront. Too bad most NHL teams absolutely will not give him that much space and physical freedom.
Stats: 2 assists, +1, 3 shots, 1 hit, 15:28 T.O.I.
2nd Star – Artturi Lehkonen
This was another ugly game for the Canadiens so I’ll take the occasion to discuss Lehkonen who was his usual self. He forechecked hard, created scoring chances, and came up empty on the scoreboard. He’s one of the few players in the bottom six that I’d like to see the Canadiens keep through this rebuild as he’s the perfect example of the effort and discipline that you want all the new players to follow. You just hope they have the talent to finish where Lehkonen rarely does.
Stats: 3 shots, 13:31 T.O.I.
3rd Star – Jake Evans
Evans, along with Lehkonen, is a bottom-six dream as they are both incredibly responsible defensively, and never leave you wanting in terms of effort and intelligence. Being reunited with Lehkonen brought out one of the better games Armia has played all season, and I don’t think that has much to do with Armia and his undesirable season.
Stats: 1 shot, 2 hits, 14:03 T.O.I.