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After an expected firing turned into a shocking hiring on Wednesday, the interest around the Habs was quite high as the team took to the ice to face the Washington Capitals on Thursday night for Martin St. Louis’ first game as an NHL head coach. While many continue to assess the hire of the new coach, it was clear that motivation would be quite high for the Canadiens to face a far more talented team in the Caps.

With no time on the ice for St. Louis, it was not surprising to see a familiar lineup hit the ice. Nick Suzuki, Tyler Toffoli, and Artturi Lehkonen formed the first line. Rem Pitlick returned to the lineup and joined Jake Evans and Josh Anderson on the second line. Paul Byron was moved to center with veteran linemates in Brendan Gallagher and Mike Hoffman, leaving Joel Armia to play with Ryan Poehling and Cole Caufield. The blue line remained unchanged as Alexander Romanov was paired with Ben Chiarot, Brett Kulak to Jeff Petry, and Kale Clague to Chris Wideman. Cayden Primeau got the start between the pipes as he faced Ilya Samsonov.

The effort from Montreal on this night was excellent, but the team was ultimately unable to shake off a subpar performance from its starter as Primeau surrendered four goals on 15 shots, paving the way for the 5-2 loss despite a 44-shot performance from the Habs. The poor 22-year-old fourth-string netminder is out of his depth, and it remains to be seen if team brass is capable of saving the psyche of the young netminder. Perhaps more noteworthy than the result, the new coach played Nick Suzuki over 24 minutes, got into Caufield’s ear until the latter scored twice (even if the second was called back), and rewarded Poehling for a good effort with some extra ice in the dying moments when the score was decided.

The Caps got the better start as they spent the first few minutes in the Habs zone, but the Canadiens were skating and keeping up. The Habs got a bit of time in the offensive zone but once play returned to their own end, some old habits crept up to bite them. The first play saw Romanov make a bad pinch in the neutral zone. Romanov’s error was compounded when Hoffman failed to follow his coverage through the neutral zone. The straw that broke the camel’s back came when the soft flip toward the net was mishandled by Primeau and a rebound was given as Joe Snively pounced on the bad rebound to score his first NHL goal.

20 seconds later, the Capitals were sloppy on their zone entry which left Connor McMichael stopped near the blue line with the puck on his stick. He sent a soft puck toward Primeau, likely hoping to create some havoc for the defenders off a rebound. Instead, the soft dump fooled Primeau and went in five-hole to extend the lead.

This sent the Canadiens reeling for a few moments as Washington got a few good chances that Primeau had to stop to get himself back on track. Chiarot was then called for interference. Chiarot argued the call, and it’s one that isn’t usually called even though it was interference. The Habs gave up very little zone time on the advantage, and this settled them down.

The second half of the first started with a Dmitry Orlov penalty for interference that was very similar to the Chiarot call. The Habs advantage looked completely lost and generated nothing. Upon his return to the ice, Orlov got away with a bear hug on Suzuki before a dangerous knee on Gallagher in the neutral zone went uncalled.

With four minutes to play, Poehling charged the net with the puck and the rebound came out to Caufield who got a good scoring chance for Montreal. The scoring chance gave them some life as they exchanged chances with the Capitals for the final moments, the best of which was a Romanov shot from the high slot that hit the post.

Despite spending the opening three minutes of the second period in the Capitals zone, the first goal of the period extended the lead for the road team. Clague played a Caps rush well as he forced Carl Hagelin to the outside. Hagelin had no other option but to send a shot toward the net with his butt against the boards. Unfortunately, that shot beat Primeau on the short side for another ugly goal 3:40 into the period.

The Habs would answer that goal quickly. A broken zone entry turned into a point shot and Anderson, who had started the breakout in his zone, was all over the rebound. With Samsonov scrambling, Anderson sent a saucer pass over the pad from behind the net to the crease where Pitlick slapped it home.

A bit over a minute later, Snively broke into the Habs zone and was allowed the centre of the ice by Petry. Petry likely figured he had the youngster at a good distance, but it was simply a bad outing for Primeau as Snively put a shot on net that handcuffed Primeau and effectively ended the young netminder’s night as Samuel Montembeault came in.

The Canadiens got a man advantage after a Nicklas Backstrom cross-check, but it was a rather inoffensive sequence, except for one one-timer by Pitlick that forced a good stop by Samsonov.

The second half of the period saw the Habs completely dominate and fan on quite a few scoring chances. That momentum was halted briefly by an Evans penalty, but even Montreal’s penalty kill was much better than Washington’s power play.

With five minutes to play in the period, it was Lars Eller’s turn to take a penalty for slashing. This time, the man advantage hit the mark. Suzuki and Caufield were able to isolate a defender on the break-in, and this allowed Suzuki to feather a pass to the young sniper who backhanded a shot to the top corner to score his second goal of the season, his first career regular season power play goal. The Habs continued to dominate, ending the period with a 28-20 shots advantage.

The third period started where the second left off as the Suzuki line came out with two great chances to start the period. They kept up the pace until the Capitals took a tripping penalty 3:40 into the period. Montreal got plenty of zone time during the advantage, with Pitlick once again missing the best chance on the sequence.

Just before the ten-minute mark, Daniel Sprong was sent in on a partial break that saw Montembeault make his best save of the night as he robbed Sprong with a nice glove save. Brett Leason was then called for tripping. The Habs did not get much going on the short advantage before Wideman got his stick up on Evgeny Kuznetsov to even things up.

The final ten minutes of the game started with an uneventful 4-on-4 sequence before an excellent kill by the Canadiens created some momentum that would carry through the end of the game. The Habs were attacking and creating chances by going to the middle of the ice.

With 5:09 to play, Toffoli intercepted a pass at the offensive blue line before he found Caufield. Caufield deked a defender before firing an absolute rocket top-shelf. Unfortunately for Caufield and the Habs, the Caps challenged quickly as Toffoli was definitely offside on the play.

The score remained 4-2. The Habs pulled Montembeault with a little less than four minutes to play, Suzuki and Caufield buzzed and created offensively until they appeared to injure Samsonov’s groin from the many lateral moves he had to make. Samsonov did stand tall until Tom Wilson was able to get a puck down the ice and score on the open net to end the night despite Montreal’s 44 shot performance.

HabsWorld Habs 3 Stars

1st Star – Josh Anderson

Every time Anderson speaks up publicly, he follows up with a monstrous effort and this was no exception. When the team was doubting itself in the first, Anderson was delivering body checks to get his team engaged. Then he made the play on the team’s first goal, continued to look dangerous all night long next to Evans and Pitlick. He was easily the best Hab on this night, and that’s saying something considering the effort put forth by the kids in this game.

Stats: 1 assist, -1, 4 shots, 6 hits, 18:22 T.O.I.

2nd Star – Cole Caufield

Caufield scoring seemed inevitable since his return from COVID protocol. In this game, he got on the board with his power play marker, and then his game found another level. He won puck races and battles, something I haven’t noticed often in his case this season. He was immediately rewarded with extra ice time from the new coach and came back with a second goal that was disallowed. He continued his stellar play as he and Suzuki buzzed throughout the third even though they ultimately came up short.

Stats: 1 goal, 2 shots, 13:01 T.O.I.

3rd Star – Nick Suzuki

Suzuki started slowly in the first period but progressively got better as the game wore on. He was a beast in the third and ended with a great night overall. Look at that stat line, and 55% in the faceoff dot! He’ll have even better nights if Caufield and Anderson can keep it up.

Stats: 1 assist, -1, 6 shots, 2 hits, 23:24 T.O.I.

Honourable Mention – Rem Pitlick

In the line-up, out of the line-up, second line, fourth line, and around, and around. Pitlick is bounced around like a yo-yo, but he keeps on trucking and being a valuable member of the team on any given night. In this one, he was dangerous next to Anderson all night long, scoring the team’s first goal, and missing on a few other excellent chances. He is quickly making a case for himself to be on this team next season and maybe beyond as he provides some interesting potential for the bottom of the roster.

Stats: 1 goal, -1, 5 shots, 2 hits, 18:07 T.O.I.