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The Habs kicked off the second half of the season with a return to the Bell Centre as they hosted the Anaheim Ducks. They did so with yet another roster that lacked many regulars which meant that Artturi Lehkonen played this game on the top line with Tyler Toffoli and Nick Suzuki. The second line featured Josh Anderson with Jake Evans and Rem Pitlick. The third unit was Ryan Poehling centering Laurent Dauphin and Mike Hoffman. This left Lukas Vejdemo alongside Cedric Paquette and Michael Pezzetta on the team’s last line.

The blue line remained the same as it was last week, and the team’s fourth-string netminder was back in the net as Cayden Primeau faced Anaheim’s backup in Anthony Stolarz. The Habs found a way to make this game interesting despite some shaky goaltending. They gave up their five goals on the Ducks’ first 14 shots but still managed to outshoot the Ducks 40-24 and keep it close as they fell 5-4.

The first five minutes of the game saw both teams fumble their way through trying to study each other. The Habs gave up an early slot chance to the Ducks, but then Toffoli picked off Kevin Shattenkirk for a high slot chance of his own, but that was the only excitement. Six minutes in, Suzuki got free and completely dominated a shift and the Habs missed a few good chances.

On the next shift, Sam Carrick accepted a pass in the neutral zone with Chris Wideman losing his battle on the pinch and none of the forwards identifying the pinch and hustling back to protect their defender. Carrick had snuck behind Alexander Romanov and so he skated in on a partial break where he protected the puck well and was able to beat Primeau to open the scoring. The pushback for the Habs was excellent as Hoffman and Dauphin just missed some excellent chances after some excellent forechecking created havoc.

The second half of the period started with a Ryan Getzlaf trip in the offensive zone that sent the Habs to the game’s first man advantage. The power play didn’t get much going and Dauphin took a four-minute high-stick on Getzlaf as he exited the box.

The Canadiens nearly escaped the first penalty, but with ten seconds left in the first penalty, the Ducks changed their point of attack and Jakob Silfverberg screened Cayden Primeau for Fowler’s point shot to find its way to the back of the net. Troy Terry would then make it 3-0 on the second penalty as Fowler skated the blue line to open the pass to Terry who wired home the one-timer.

Despite the time in the penalty box, the Habs outshot the Ducks 16-9 and likely deserved a better outcome, though they also played their usual horrendous coverage in the defensive zone so the outcome was what it was.

The second period saw Samuel Montembeault enter the game though the first period debacle certainly was not to be placed at the feet of young Primeau. The move appeared to wake up the Canadiens as a little over a minute into the period, Anderson and Evans won their board battles that allowed the zone entry where Pitlick found a streaking Evans who made no mistake in finally beating Stolarz.

The hope was short-lived as ten seconds later, Trevor Zegras skated behind the Habs net and pulled off the lacrosse style goal in full motion as he beat both Montembeault and David Savard to the side of the net to make it 4-1. If the Habs deserved a better outcome to the first period, they were completely lifeless after the Zegras goal as Anaheim dominated the period.

The second half of the game kicked off with a Carrick penalty for an offensive zone trip on Suzuki. Montreal’s power play made the Ducks pay as they gained the zone awkwardly but successfully. Then, Suzuki and Hoffman were able to trap Fowler on the forecheck and the Ducks were suddenly out of position. Hoffman wasted little time in finding Lehkonen in the slot who wired home a one-timer to make it 4-2.

The goal gave the Canadiens some life but the Ducks had a counter that would regularly catch the Habs cheating offensively, and they never adapted to Anaheim’s breakout which cost them time in the offensive zone. One of those exits led to Zegras once again skating circles around Savard and Ben Chiarot. In the end, Zegras found space in the high slot with Chiarot completely screening Montembeault. Zegras’ shot beat Montembeault and the three-goal lead was re-established despite the fifth goal being only the 14th shot on net for the Ducks.

The third period kicked off with the Canadiens fumbling pucks in their own zone. After a few good saves by Montembeault, Pitlick made a great forecheck to strip the puck off the defender. He quickly found Evans who crashed the net with the puck and showed some nice hands tucking home his second of the night.

A few moments later, Pitlick took an offensive zone penalty for tripping. This time, the Habs did a great job of killing the penalty and really gained momentum off of the sequence as they were all over Anaheim after the penalty.

This was the case until an innocent dump-in by the Ducks resulted in Wideman not wanting to engage physically, losing a race, and tripping the opposition. Luckily for Wideman, the Canadiens applied pressure and the best chance on the sequence belonged to Toffoli. After the penalty, Toffoli got another chance as Lehkonen beat two Ducks to the puck to create the chance.

The last ten minutes saw the Habs come close as Petry missed a good chance after another solid Evans shift. Dauphin was then sprung on a breakaway after a great pass only to be hooked which meant a penalty shot. Dauphin dangled before sneaking in a shot five-hole and with 5:54 to play, the Habs were within one.

Toffoli and Suzuki once again knocked on the door on the next shift, but this time Stolarz made his best saves of the night. With two minutes to play, Montembeault was pulled but the Habs were never able to get into the offensive zone with control to threaten as the Ducks were able to preserve the victory.

Not to beat a dead horse, but the coaching staff made some dumb decisions in the last two minutes. This coaching staff’s repeated obsession with the veterans on the team cost them a chance to make this an interesting game. Usually, I would be in favour of seeing Anderson and Hoffman on the ice during such occasions. On this night, the coaching had it easy as only five forwards were really creating offensively. One of them sat on the bench for the entire last two minutes while Hoffman bobbled the puck three times trying to gain the offensive zone. What’s worse is that two or three whistles took place, so the coaching staff had plenty of time to correct their own mistake, but Rem Pitlick remained stapled to the bench.

HabsWorld Habs 3 Stars

1st Star – Jake Evans

Evans and his new partner were dangerous all night long as they won their races and battles and were general pests to play against for the Ducks’ defenders. A team can’t expect those two to score at this pace all the time, but it’s an interesting finding in terms of chemistry moving forward as they are two players who battle hard and could easily be an interesting bottom-six option moving forward. Evans, in particular, has been this year’s Gallagher as his line is often the better line on the Habs, at least in terms of effort.

Stats: 2 goals, +1, 6 shots, 19:58 T.O.I.

2nd Star – Rem Pitlick

Don’t look now but Pitlick has five points in his seven games with the Habs and he was the little engine that could on this night as his intense pressure on the puck was directly responsible for both pucks finding Jake Evans. If Evans and Pitlick can continue this type of chemistry, I could easily see them being a future third line that is defensively responsible while chipping in offensively from time to time. They lack size, but not heart, and that heart shown gave the Habs a chance on this night. If only the coaching staff could get out of their own way.

Stats: 2 assists, +1, 16:47 T.O.I.

3rd Star – Artturi Lehkonen

Lehkonen is making the most of his opportunity of late and this game was no exception. He wins countless battles and always seems positioned properly. Given the many absentees, he saw some power play time and made it count with a goal from the middle of the zone. He is the only Montreal player I’ve seen get that shot off properly, so maybe other teams are looking and more intelligent and could get a bit more offence out of Lehkonen by getting him in that spot. Though he’s likely to miss more than score, I’d keep him in that role for the Habs, at least until the trade deadline. Long term, should the Canadiens choose to keep him, he might actually be the perfect complement to the two above in a future third line role.

Stats: 1 goal, -1, 1 shot, 1 hit, 19:24 T.O.I.

Honourable Mention – Tyler Toffoli

This could have gone to either Toffoli or Suzuki as they buzzed for most of the game but never could pull the trigger and put one home. They both have played better, but they have both played worse too. They were especially impressive on the penalty kill in this one, but really, I chose Toffoli because he got himself in the right spaces even when it wasn’t Suzuki feeding him and he barely missed on a handful of chances on this night. We all know he’s streaky so the Canadiens should be in line for a few wins when gets a streak of burying those.

Stats: 1 assist, -1, 6 shots, 18:55 T.O.I.