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For the second year in a row, the Habs returned from their Christmas break with a visit to Tampa Bay on December 28th. Last year, the team that made this trip was far closer to the Laval Rocket than the Montreal Canadiens. This year, the Habs continue to surprise and hoped to do so against one of the best teams in the Eastern Conference. Chris Wideman was the healthy scratch while a list of veterans remained sidelined with injuries in Sean Monahan, Mike Matheson, David Savard, and Brendan Gallagher. The Canadiens could have used their veterans as they were outclassed on this night to the tune of 4-1.

The list of injuries once again created some havoc on the deployed lines from coach St. Louis. Joel Armia was given the chance to ride shotgun on the team’s top duo of Cole Caufield and Nick Suzuki. Armia’s zero goals was sure to be a great fit on this line. The second unit featured Kirby Dach flanked by Jonathan Drouin and Mike Hoffman. The third line saw no puck carriers attributed to it as Christian Dvorak had Juraj Slafkovsky and Josh Anderson at his sides. This left Jake Evans alongside Anthony Richard and Michael Pezzetta.

The blue line featured Kaiden Guhle and Joel Edmundson while Arber Xhekaj and Johnathan Kovacevic formed the second duo. The bottom pair was Jordan Harris easing in recent recall Justin Barron who was getting his first taste of NHL action this season after a strong showing in Laval recently. Jake Allen was starting in net, but there was only so much he could do.

The game started with the Lightning all over Montreal and they opened the scoring only two minutes in. A strong neutral zone pinch by Victor Hedman sent Tampa Bay to the offensive and the Habs were scrambling. After they defended the initial chance, Dvorak got caught puck watching and not covering the slot as Hedman sent the rebound to Alex Killorn who fired it home from the slot.

The Habs pushed back and were rewarded with a powerplay when Nick Perbix committed some interference against Evans. The Habs had a good power play as the shots came fast and furious, but Andrei Vasilevskiy stood tall and kept the Habs off the board.

The pace that followed the advantage was excellent as both teams pushed to try to create offensive chances with the Canadiens holding a slight advantage in play.

The second half of the period started with a big cross-ice save by Allen against Brandon Hagel on a 2-on-1 break. If the Habs controlled the play after their power play, the Lightning quickly closed the shot gap and would eventually get an advantage of their own when Kovacevic was called for interference against Nikita Kucherov. Tampa Bay’s advantage extended the lead with 5:51 to play when Armia and Evans covered the same defender. This opened the pass from Kucherov to Brayden Point who fired off the bar and in.

With 3:14 to play, a shifty play by Dach in zone entry sent Perbix to the box for the second time in the period. The Habs took a minute to get into the offensive zone but finally did and Caufield got a good shot from the sequence. That’s all that Montreal could muster as the period ended 2-0 on the scoreboard, 14-10 for the Lightning on the shot clock. 

The start of the second period was fast with both teams creating some interesting offensive plays without executing enough to score a goal. Evans and Slafkovsky created the better of Montreal’s chances in the sequence while Guhle made some excellent defensive plays to keep the Habs within reach.

The Canadiens got their third advantage of the night when the Lightning were caught with too many players on the ice with 13:23 to play in the period. This advantage was no different than usual as the Habs weren’t very dangerous. 

The second half of the second period started with the Habs controlling play but the Lightning doing a good job of keeping them away from the middle of the ice. Dvorak made an unreal pass across to Anderson with under seven minutes to play, but Vasilevskiy made an unreal stop to keep the Habs off the board. The Habs were playing with confidence and making strong plays, and then Edmundson was guilty of two soft plays on one shift.  

The first was his breakout pass as it prevented a clean break for his team. Then, with Point coming in against FOUR defenders, the veteran Edmundson was the last man back and watched Point skate around him to find himself alone against Allen and bury for a 3-0 lead. The Canadiens once again pushed back as Caufield and Suzuki got a 2-on-1 and opted for a shot that he fired off the post. 

Montreal kicked off the third period by coughing up the puck in the offensive zone as the Lightning came back up the ice on a 3-on-1 that sent Allen scrambling all over his crease as he got lucky that Tampa missed a few golden chances. The next shift saw Harris be successful on a pinch and skate in to give himself a good scoring chance turned away.

Five minutes into the period, Killorn was guilty of an obvious hook on Armia in the Habs’ zone. The power play continued to be a sore spot as they did absolutely nothing on an excellent chance to get the team back into the game. 

With 11:29 left in the game, Barron was quick to leave his position to try to join a rush that never materialized. Instead, his coverage in the form of Hagel was left all alone in front of the Habs’ net where he had all day to beat Allen and extend the Tampa lead.

The next shift saw the same mistake forced Allen to make a great stop to save his scrambling team. With Tampa in full control, Corey Perry took exception to Pezzetta getting physical. Pezzetta dropped a glove to invite Perry to fight and Perry instead punched Pezzetta in the face with his glove on before dropping the gloves. Pezzetta still managed to get the better of the exchange but what a snake move by one of the best snakes in the game. 

With 2:21 to play, a faceoff win in the offensive zone by Dvorak got the puck to the blue line as a point shot by Guhle had eyes after good screening by both Slafkovsky and Dvorak. Thus ended the Vasilevskiy shutout bid.

Then, with 1:28 to play, Cole was called for hooking Anderson to prevent a good scoring chance. Twenty seconds later, Suzuki and Sergachev got penalties though I still have no idea why Suzuki went to the box. It mattered little as the advantage was disastrous to end the game. 

HabsWorld Habs Three Stars 

First Star – Kaiden Guhle 

Guhle had the unenviable task of facing the best the Lightning had to offer, and he did so quite well despite his partner having a terrible game as Edmundson appeared completely incapable of following the pace of play in this one. My favourite part of Guhle’s game is that he appears to already be over the star-struck phase of his NHL career as he challenges anyone and everyone in the league. What a gem he’s been, and he was a rare sliver of light in this contest. Oh yeah, he was also the only Hab who tickled the twine as the lone goalscorer though it came when the game was completely out of reach.

Stats: 1 goal, 0 (+/-), 3 shots, 1 hit, 19:05 TOI 

Second Star – Cole Caufield 

Prior to the break, I felt like Suzuki appeared very sluggish, but also Caufield shied away from contact which reduced the time Nick had to make plays. Tiredness from two kids learning to play this many minutes on a nightly basis and against the best the opposition has to offer is to be expected, but Caufield appeared rejuvenated from the short holiday breather as he had legs in this one and was able to create offensively when given the chance to do so. Suzuki still looked tired though. In a game where the Habs only scored late, Caufield fired one off the post and led the team in shots.

Stats: 3 shots, 20:25 TOI 

Third Star – Jake Allen 

Allen wasn’t invincible in this one, but I’d consider his performance an average Allen performance. In a game where the lack of experience all over the roster was so incredibly evident, we as fans get a better idea of why Allen was extended. In a game where the Habs were really caved in, Allen kept the loss from being completely embarrassing and demoralizing. An important aspect of not becoming the next Oilers or Sabres that takes ten-plus years to get out of the “rebuild”. 

Stats: 34 saves, 38 shots against, 4.00 GAA, .895 save %, 60:00 T.O.I. 

Honourable Mention – Justin Barron 

Talk about a baptism by fire as Barron was called up from the AHL to face the Lightning. Barron was up to the task even if it wasn’t perfect. In the second period, he made some strong plays on the puck and even went for dangle with the puck and got himself a half-decent scoring chance. Good first game for the promising young defender. There were some exceptions though as he was really lost in coverage on the Tampa fourth goal, but still a positive on the overall outlook of the game in my eyes. 

Stats: -1, 1 shot, 1 hit, 15:37 T.O.I.