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The Dallas Stars streaked into Montreal on Saturday to face a Canadiens team that has, surprisingly, started the season with a winning record. The Stars, though, were unbeaten in regulation at 3-0-1. This would be a sterner test for the young Habs team, especially with the Dallas power play ticking along at 4-for-14 so far this season.

Jake Allen got the start again, but Rem Pitlick suited up for Juraj Slafkovsky, who was listed as day-to-day.

It was indeed a tough test, and tougher than the young Habs team was ready for. The power play might have been the difference, but the Stars were clearly the better team on this night.

The first power play is not the one that matters

After just 90 seconds, Luke Glendening started the parade into the penalty box for minors, as he tripped up Jake Evans. The Canadiens could not get any kind of a power play going, though, and three quarters of the way through, Brendan Gallagher failed to avoid the backwards-skating Ty Dellandrea, getting an interference penalty himself.

Unlike the Habs’ not-so-powerful play, the Stars got to work immediately. As good as the Habs’ penalty kill has been in this young season, it had now met its match, and the defenders were forced to collapse to the front of Allen.

Just past the halfway point, Jamie Benn passed the puck from the left-side boards to Joe Pavelski, who was stationed just to the left of the net, facing the boards. Pavelski stopped the puck, took a quick glance behind him, and lifted a backhander into the top right corner of the net, over a surprised Allen, as the Stars drew first blood at 4:35.

The Stars continued to pressure after the goal, and it was not until around the halfway point of the period that the Canadiens gathered their wits off the ice and started playing the way they could. Gallagher made a nice pass to Christian Dvorak on a break at the 10:30 mark, and was almost able to tap in Dvorak’s rebound to tie the game, but, alas, close doesn’t count here.

With Montreal pressuring again a few minutes later, Mike Hoffman took a shot from the left side, and Pitlick had a golden opportunity at the right post to tap in the rebound, but he could not control the puck. Kirby Dach and Josh Anderson had another chance on an offensive break a minute later but that, too, failed to materialize into a goal.

With about five minutes to go in the period, though, Arber Xhekaj picked Wyatt Johnston’s pocket in the Habs’ defensive zone and then joined Jake Evans and Mike Hoffman on the rush. Xhekaj made a pretty pass to Evans, who took a shot. Jake Oettinger made a pad save, but Hoffman was there to tap the puck in and tie the game.

The Habs outshot the Stars 14-12 in the period, but that really didn’t reflect the scoring opportunities, and the Stars had an 8-5 edge in high-danger chances.

Notably, near the end of the period, Gallagher fell into the back of the net and got up gingerly.  Unfortunately for him, his night got worse later on when he stepped on a loose stick on the ice in his first shift of the second, sliding knee-first into the end boards in the Dallas zone. He clearly favoured his knee as he skated off, and was absent for much of the second period, presumably getting treatment from the medical team but did return.

A second dose of the same?

The puck had barely dropped when Dallas got on the attack again. The Habs’ defenders got overpowered behind their own net, with David Savard losing a puck battle to Joe Pavelski, and Kaiden Guhle then being beaten by Roope Hintz. Hintz got the puck to Pavelski, who had circled back to the front of the net, and Pavelski one-timed the puck into the net above Allen, giving the lead back to the Stars.

Jani Hakanpaa was called for tripping Hoffman about a minute later, but after nearly two minutes of an ineffectual man advantage, Kirby Dach was sent off for tripping Radek Faksa for a second power play.

With the penalty killers again collapsed in front of the net, the Stars’ forwards had plenty of room to skate. Jason Robertson at the top of the right-side circle and sent it to Benn near the front of the net. Allen saw this coming and got ready for a shot, but Benn instead sent it right back to Robertson, who was skating in – and one-timed it for a 3-1 lead and a second Dallas power play goal.

Mason Marchment looked to have a full breakaway near the 12:30 mark, but it was quickly whistled down for a Dallas hand pass.

With four minutes to go, the Canadiens were finally able to answer the two Dallas goals. With the Habs controlling the play in the Dallas zone, Sean Monahan passed the puck to Xhekaj, who took a wrist shot from the blue line, and the puck found its way through the net-front traffic and past Oettinger, giving the young defenceman his first NHL goal.

Energized by the Xhekaj effort, the Canadiens poured effort into overcoming Oettinger a third time. Dadonov made a nice pass to Dvorak, but the puck bounced off Oettinger’s equipment and dropped in front of the goal line. Johnathan Kovacevic, too, had a chance on his own rebound.

But with the seconds ticking down, things fell apart. As Xhekaj checked Benn in the corner behind Allen, Chris Wideman was there as well to fight for the puck. However, Dellandrea won that battle and found Esa Lindell, the defender skating in from the blue line.

With both the Habs’ defencemen in the corner and Jonathan Drouin headed for the bench, only Josh Anderson was there to cover Lindell and three Dallas forwards. Lindell was able to shoot unmolested, and while Allen made a pad save on the wrister, the puck came out right back to Lindell, who was able to lift it over Allen and restore a two-goal lead.

The shots favoured the Habs again, 13-11 this time, but high-danger chances did not – again – as they were 5-3 for Dallas.

Three more goals to win?

The Habs were faced with an uphill battle for the third, having a need to overcome both a potent Dallas team and a very solid Oettinger not once, but three times, in order to claim a victory.

Hakanpaa did his part to improve the Habs’ odds, heading to the penalty box for a second time for tripping Nick Suzuki. With the Suzuki line on just before, it was the second power play unit going to work this time. They actually looked better than the first unit did in their previous attempts, but a third goal was nowhere to be found.

Less than a minute after the penalty expired, the 38-year-old Pavelski was still able to put on a breakaway clinic. Jake Evans and Jordan Harris chased after him and appeared to succeed in sliding between Pavelski and the net, but the puck actually bounced from Evans’ leg back to a surprised Pavelski, who quickly beat an even more surprised Allen with it for a hat trick and a 5-3 lead.

Hakanpaa took a third penalty, this time for high-sticking, at 7:52. The power play lasted all of 36 seconds, as Monahan lost the puck, tried to recover, and ended up being called for hooking Glendening. Nils Lundkvist managed to beat Allen on the four-on-four, but the puck caromed off the left-side post, behind Allen, and out.

Gallagher, seemingly no worse for wear, skated into a breakaway with four minutes left, but well to the left side of the ice. Oettinger made the save on the shot from next to the blue ice in front of the net.

A 5-2 final it was, then, the big difference being the potent Dallas power play. Not an embarrassment, in spite of the three-goal difference.

The final period saw the shots even at seven, and Dallas again with the edge in high-danger chances, 8-4 this time.

HW Habs Three Stars

First Star: Arber Xhekaj (1 goal, 1 assist, 7 hits, 16:12 TOI) not only scored his first NHL goal, but he also enabled the first goal with the breakout pass and then the pass to Evans. He was a force everywhere on the ice and is clearly cementing his spot in the lineup.

Second Star: Mike Hoffman (1 goal, 0 assists, 5 shots, 14:00 TOI) was exactly what one hopes from a Mike Hoffman: an offensive threat. With the most shots and scoring chances on the team, he was always a threat to Oettinger.

Third Star: Brendan Gallagher (0 goals, 0 assists, 2 shots, 11:36 TOI) missed a number of shifts after his collision with the boards, but his play is clearly improved from last season. He will never be a sniper, but seeing him outskate the opposition to get a breakaway is impressive.

Honourable Mention: Johnathan Kovacevic (0 goals, 0 assists, 5 shots, 16:55 TOI) was quiet as a rock, but also as solid as that rock. Neither an offensive power nor a heavy hitter, he is proving to be an astute waivers pickup, to go with the two 2021-22 pickups still in uniform today (Pitlick and Montembeault).