The Philadelphia Flyers landed in Montreal for the first game this season against the Canadiens, trying to turn around their recent slump that had seen them drop well down the standings after their hot start in October.
The Habs, too, were looking for a turnaround, but this mostly just from their two latest games, 5-1 and 6-4 home losses to New Jersey and Columbus, respectively. Mike Matheson was in the lineup for his first regular-season game in the bleu, blanc, et rouge, with Jordan Harris sitting this one out after struggling against the Blue Jackets a few days earlier.
The game was not always a demonstration of hockey skills in the NHL, as the pinnacle of the sport, but it was certainly unpredictable, surprising, and often entertaining — and, at others, head-scratching.
First goals get earlier and earlier
Recent Montreal games have seen early goals to open the scoring, and apparently, head coach John Tortorella has had the Flyers studying those videos. It was the first attack of the evening, and as the dump-in reached the backboards, Scott Laughton and Matheson battled for it. Laughton came up as the winner and sent the puck to the front of the net. Travis Sanheim was there, not having attracted any attention from the Habs’ forward group, and he made no mistake in tapping the puck into the opening left by Jake Allen. 1-0 Flyers, and only 38 seconds had passed since the opening puck drop.
Less than two minutes later, the Philadelphia crew had another chance, as Allen gave up a juicy rebound on a tip shot by Lukas Sedlak, and he had to be quick to prevent Nicolas Deslauriers from putting in the rebound.
And then, at 2:55, Owen Tippett skated in with Sanheim on a harmless-looking zone entry, but Tippett’s wrist shot, through the legs of Joel Edmundson, fooled Allen, and ended up at the back of the net, giving the Flyers a two-goal lead less than three minutes into the game.
A year ago, with the team morale very low, that might have been the beginning of a blowout, but the word “quit” seems to no longer be in the vocabulary of this particular edition of the Habs. The team got on the attack, and this time it was the Flyers that were less than prepared.
As the Flyers attempted to clear the play, Arber Xhekaj stopped the puck near the blueline and lobbed a wrist shot on goal. The result was what would be hoped for, a soft rebound by Carter Hart and a loose puck in front of the goal. Brendan Gallagher battled for the loose puck next to the blue ice, but it was Christian Dvorak that spotted the puck coming loose, and snapped it into the top of the net, to bring the gap back down to one goal at 4:07.
Four minutes, seven shots total, and three goals on those shots: it certainly looked like this was going to be a scoring festival at this point.
After the early struggles, the Habs began to exert more consistent pressure as the period wore on, and just before the midway point that nearly bore fruit, as the Nick Suzuki-Cole Caufield-Kirby Dach line contained the Flyers in their zone, winning battle after battle. Suzuki found Caufield free, and the young winger got off his trademark one-timer but could not beat Hart this time.
Kieffer Bellows was sent off for high-sticking Xhekaj at 15:52, the game’s first penalty, and the Habs’ first power play unit was operating at full tilt. Less than 30 seconds in, Sean Monahan was able to whack the puck into the net at the right post, and the Habs celebrated tying the game up after the initial two-goal deficit.
The officials first used video review to confirm that the puck had entered the net, but Tortorella then challenged the goal based on goaltender interference. That second review likely took less than ten seconds as the referees could clearly see that Monahan had got the puck into the net only by forcing Hart’s skate into the net with it. So, the score was set back to 2-1 Flyers, but the power play would continue.
But, with 33 seconds left in the power play, Laughton took an entirely unnecessary cross-checking penalty for getting the stick on Suzuki. 30 seconds of five-on-three play, and the Habs’ mobile power play looked superb, lacking just the goal. That, though, finally came with just three seconds left in the original Bellows penalty, as Caufield’s shot, from a pass by Dach, found its usual home in the corner of the Philadelphia net.
The remaining 1:27 in the Laughton penalty was largely ineffectual, and finally, the Habs took a penalty of their own as Dach was sent to the box on a somewhat careless tripping call with just 43 seconds remaining in the period.
The Habs held an 11-9 edge in shots for the period, but high-danger chances were tied at five for each team.
It takes two to tango
There was still 1:17 left in the Dach penalty as the second period got underway, but the penalty kill was effective against the Flyers, keeping the passing well to the outside. The Flyers managed four shot attempts, but Edmundson blocked one and the other three missed the net.
The game tilted more in Philadelphia’s favour once the penalty expired, though, with the Flyers getting several flurries of shots, but Allen closed the door each time.
Matheson, with Josh Anderson creating havoc in front of the net, had a chance on a brief attack just after the five-minute mark, but Hart made the save and covered up to keep the score tied.
Tippett hit a post next to Allen with seven minutes gone, and then Suzuki had a chance on a rush, but Hart blocked the shot. And at the midway point, Morgan Frost had a nice chance taken away by Allen, immediately followed by a Habs’ rush that saw Jake Evans break in on Hart without any defensive coverage — but none of these end-to-end chances came to anything.
About a minute after Evans’ chance, though, the Habs began to exert pressure again, with repeated shots by David Savard, Edmundson, and Caufield. And at 11:55, Suzuki gained the puck just to the right of Hart and did what head coach Martin St. Louis preaches: looked for space. Despite facing the boards, he was able to spot Matheson coming in behind him, and backhanded a seeing-eye pass to the Pointe-Claire native, who made no mistake in lifting it into the net for his first goal in a Montreal uniform.
Evgenii Dadonov was penalized for delay of game at 12:59 after a sloppy clearing shot over the boards. Once again, the Flyers were unable to get close enough to record a shot on net on their power play.
At 15:49 Xhekaj checked Patrick Brown hard into the boards in the Montreal zone, and former Canadien Nicolas Deslauriers took exception to it, dropping his gloves. The two tangled for a bit and were sent off for five minutes each, but somehow Deslauriers avoided the additional instigator penalty.
On the ensuing faceoff, Owen Tippett outsmarted Sean Monahan, shooting directly from the faceoff, and beating Allen with a relatively easy-looking–if unexpected–shot to tie the game back up, at 3-3 this time.
Rasmus Ristolainen was then sent off at 16:32, and the Habs managed three shots on Hart but did not look particularly dangerous. But Matheson took his turn in the box just shortly after, with 1:03 remaining, as he was sent off for a four-minute double minor for a careless high stick on Joel Farabee.
The first part of the power play was foiled, as before, with Frost shooting wide on Philadelphia’s best chance. Savard got a chance on a shorthanded break with 11 seconds left in the period, and Tippett took one last shot, on an immediate counter-attack, but was blocked by Edmundson.
The Canadiens outshot the Flyers again in the second, 14-8, and the high-danger chances were tied as in the first period, 7-7 this time.
Another decisive third
As has been the case in nearly every game this season, the Habs went into the third period very much in the game. Tied, in this case, and even with an edge in shots. But there would be three more minutes of penalty to be killed first.
Kaiden Guhle set the tone as he laid a heavy check on Laughton while on the penalty kill, with Laughton down on the ice to catch his breath. The Flyers didn’t stop the play, though, even though they were effectively down to four players until the puck ended up in the netting.
In the end, the Flyers achieved a grand total of three shots on Allen through the four-minute power play.
Once again, though, as play returned to even strength, Philadelphia started to look stronger, and an iced puck at the eight-minute mark proved to be a poor decision. With the tired Montreal defenders still on the ice, the Flyers kept up the pressure, and after Evans blocked a point shot by Nick Seeler, Kevin Hayes picked up the loose puck and shot it past Evans, giving the Flyers a 4-3 edge at 11:43.
The Canadiens were once again controlling more of the play after that, but the Flyers broke in at 12 minutes, with Deslauriers in ahead of the Montreal defenders. Allen took the initiative, though, diving to poke the puck away from Deslauriers’ stick.
As the minutes ticked away on the scoreboard, the Canadiens piled up the pressure, trying to find a tying goal.
St. Louis didn’t pull Allen as early as he has often done, and indeed the Flyers broke in and had some shots with less than three minutes to go. At two minutes left, though, Allen dashed for the bench, leaving the Montreal net empty.
The five Philadelphia players were boxing out the Canadiens, though, making it difficult to get shots through the traffic, and the Flyers managed to clear the puck twice, although not hitting the empty net.
With 1:11 left, Suzuki won the faceoff in the Philadelphia zone, and now it was all or nothing. A Caufield shot, high; Monahan, wide; Suzuki, blocked; Matheson, blocked — and on this block Zack McEwen lost his stick, making the Habs’ passes just a little bit easier.
Then Gallagher, wide, and Caufield, wide, too. But Suzuki got the puck in the right faceoff circle with just five seconds left, and the Canadiens’ captain read the play rapidly and accurately. He saw the defenders and Hart all focused on him, faked a shot and instead tapped it over to Caufield, who was open on the left side, and used his trademark one-timer to put the puck in the net with three seconds on the clock and send the game to overtime.
The Flyers held the edge in shots this time, 12-6, but the high-danger chances were 7-5 for the home team.
Three-on-three overtime periods, usually marked by end-to-end offensive rushes, sometimes don’t turn out that way. And on the night, both teams were focused on not giving up an odd-man rush to their opponent.
Caufield recorded the only shot on goal of the five-minute period with just under two minutes remaining, but neither team managed to gain a high-danger scoring chance.
Caufield opened the proceedings for the shootout, but could not find Hart’s five-hole, and Tippett, too, shot the puck into Allen’s pads.
Suzuki, though, outdueled Hart, getting the Flyers goalie to commit, and then changing direction to backhand the puck in behind Hart from the edge of the blue ice.
Frost nearly tied it up, as he appeared to have Allen beat, but the puck glanced off the right-side post, onto the left-side post, and back out, onto Allen’s pads.
With Dvorak shooting over the net, it was down to Hayes. The Flyers’ assistant captain waited but Allen waited longer, not committing, and in the end, all Hayes could shoot at was Allen’s left pad, leaving Suzuki’s goal as the decisive (and only) one for the shootout.
HW Habs Three Stars
First Star: Nick Suzuki (0g, 2a, 1 shot, 25:18 TOI) may not have scored any goals — bar the shootout winner — but it was the Canadiens’ captain that was again making things happen. The first-period power play, the seeing-eye pass to Matheson, and the brilliant pass to Caufield in the dying seconds of the third. Suzuki’s hockey IQ is off the charts, and the Canadiens are reaping the benefits.
Second Star: Cole Caufield (2g, 1a, 6 shots, 22:48 TOI) is the sniper Habs fans have been pining for. His reputation has now spread to other teams, but, especially with Dach on the line, he is still finding his opportunities, and taking advantage of them.
Third Star: Mike Matheson (1g, 0a, 3 shots, 23:57 TOI) may have been a bit rusty on the first shift, losing that battle on the boards, but he made up for it with his first goal for the team and looked increasingly comfortable in clocking nearly 24 minutes on the ice.
Honourable Mention: Arber Xhekaj (0g, 1a, 1 shot, 13:52 TOI) was expected to be in Laval as Matheson returned but the rookie took advantage of the opportunity with another credible performance. He’s also avoiding the penalty box (except when being provoked) with only five minors in the last 10 games after a rash of them in the first five.