The Habs were looking to close out the home portion of their 2022 schedule on a winning note on Saturday night against Tampa Bay. It didn’t happen. They were down early and couldn’t recover, falling 5-2.
Montreal made a pair of lineup changes for this one. Mike Matheson was cleared to return so he took the place of Chris Wideman while Michael Pezzetta was in for Evgenii Dadonov who was a healthy scratch. The team lined up as follows:
Caufield – Suzuki – Anderson
Slafkovsky – Dach – Drouin
Hoffman – Dvorak – Armia
Pezzetta – Evans – Pitlick
Matheson – Harris
Edmundson – Guhle
Xhekaj – Kovacevic
Joel Armia has been looking better as of late but it hasn’t resulted in goals. That trend continued two minutes in as he was in the slot to redirect a pass from Christian Dvorak but Andrei Vasilevskiy was there to make the save. That was costly as less than a minute later, Brandon Hagel got in behind Cole Caufield on a breakaway and slid one past Jake Allen to open the scoring. A minute later, Armia had another tip from the same place, this time off the feed from Arber Xhekaj but the result was the same.
The Habs got the first power play of the game when Cal Foote tripped Jonathan Drouin in front of the net just past the eight-minute mark. Dvorak had a couple of looks as the net-front player but that’s all they were able to muster up.
A minute and a half after the penalty ended, Allen stopped a point shot from Nick Perbix. However, he kicked out the rebound right to the slot and Jordan Harris and Johnathan Kovacevic were facing the wrong direction. The end result was Nick Paul being unchecked with a wide-open net and he made no mistake to double Tampa Bay’s lead.
Montreal had a couple more chances they couldn’t capitalize on. Drouin had a good slot shot off a broken play with five minutes left while Rem Pitlick took a Jake Evans feed from behind the net with two-and-a-half minutes to go that Vasilevskiy got a piece of.
To make matters worse, on the same shift, Pitlick caught Victor Hedman with a high stick, sending the Lightning to the power play. Montreal could have had the best chance but Nick Suzuki wasn’t able to corral the breakaway pass with 15 seconds left. The Habs held a 14-11 advantage in shots and frankly, they had a decent period albeit with nothing to show for it.
The Canadiens had to kill an early too many men penalty in the second but escaped unscathed. This time. Three minutes later, Drouin opted to keep the puck on a two-on-two and opted to drive the middle. He didn’t score but he drew a slashing call on Foote. However, Tampa Bay had the best chance early as Pierre-Edouard Bellemare had a good look in front just 19 seconds into the penalty. The Habs did nothing with the rest of the advantage.
Compounding that problem was that Matheson took an interference penalty on Anthony Cirelli just after the penalty ended. Then during the penalty kill, Evans got a double-minor for high-sticking Point. The good news? Montreal got through the two-man advantage without any issues but just after, Corey Perry sent a quick pass to the slot for Cirelli. Allen did well to get the first shot but not the second and just like that, it was 3-0.
On the back half of the Evans penalty, it was Michael Pezzetta who had the best chances. He hit the post on a shorthanded rush and then 25 seconds later, he went in with Suzuki on a two-on-one. Pezzetta got the pass but Vasilevskiy got across to make the stop.
With a little over six minutes left, Nikita Kucherov got in behind Kaiden Guhle on a partial break that Allen was able to stop. 20 seconds later, Suzuki drew an interference call on Erik Cernak, giving Montreal a chance to get back into it. Halfway through the advantage, Drouin turned it over at the point, giving Tampa Bay a three-on-two with the eventual point shot being stopped. Drouin had some good moments in this one but him at the point is an experiment that needs to stop soon. That’s not the best fit for him, especially just coming back from injury when he’s working on his timing.
Kucherov got around coverage to get himself open in the slot with three-and-a-half minutes left but once again, Allen was there to make the stop.
A minute later, Josh Anderson was called for a cross-check on Cernak. It didn’t take long for them to score. Depending on how fast you read, the advantage lasted about as long as this paragraph has so far. They won the draw and Hedman’s point shot was redirected by Hagel past Allen. Shots were 12-4 for the Lightning in the period as they basically put it out of reach.
To their credit, the Habs didn’t completely roll over. Just 16 seconds into the third, Guhle drove the middle of the ice and sent a good pass to Suzuki at the side of the goal and the captain was able to lift one short-side to get Montreal on the board. Caufield was then stopped on a breakaway 20 seconds later although the play was eventually ruled offside anyway.
Unsurprisingly, with a big lead, Tampa Bay was quite content to dump the puck in and sit back to protect their advantage. That made for a low-event period without many whistles.
Dvorak had a good chance off the rush that was stopped while Caufield had two looks in close that unfortunately didn’t get through. Pezzetta blew past Foote to get another dangerous shot off the rush but it caught the top of Vasilevskiy’s stick. That was pretty much it for the Habs for the rest of the period.
Coming back the other way from that last chance, Hagel played give-and-go with Kucherov and the veteran popped it into the top of the net with two minutes left to close off the scoring. Shots in the final frame were 5-4 for Montreal. Like I said, it was a low-event period.
HW Habs 3 Stars
1st Star: Arber Xhekaj – He was a bit more involved offensively than we’ve seen in recent games which was a plus. He was pretty good in his own end as well without a lot of running around. He also wasn’t flat-footed when Tampa attacked on the rush which is an area of concern usually for him. All in all, a steady outing plus a good performance in a fight with Pat Maroon early in the first.
Stats: 0 points, even rating, 5 PIMS, 2 shots, 15:20 TOI
2nd Star: Nick Suzuki – Not his best game but he did score the lone goal for the Habs which has to count for something, doesn’t it? He had his best night at the faceoff dot in four weeks. Finding ways to contribute when it’s not your night is a good sign from the captain.
Stats: 1 goal, -1 rating, 1 shot, 9/13 faceoffs, 21:50 TOI
3rd Star: Jonathan Drouin – The poor passing on the power play notwithstanding, this was a good game from Drouin who is looking a bit more comfortable compared to his first two contests. In particular, I liked his willingness to get to the middle of the ice and drive the net. That’s an element we don’t see from him often enough but if he can do that with some consistency, he should get rewarded with some production soon.
Stats: 0 points, 3 shots, 2 hits, 4/6 faceoffs, 16:15 TOI
Honourable Mention: Michael Pezzetta – A couple of shorthanded chances on the penalty kill really stood out to me. If he can get comfortable killing penalties with regularity, it will go a long way toward him staying in the lineup. And at the rate the Habs are taking penalties, he’s going to get a lot of chances to kill them.
Stats: 0 points, -1 rating, 3 shots, 8:57 TOI