The Habs were back in action on Thursday night as they hosted the Nashville Predators at the Bell Centre. The game’s start was delayed as the team honoured recent player P.K. Subban. The ceremony was in the image of the player as he recognized those around him, the children from the hospital before delivering a speech to motivate the team.
As for their opponent, Nashville remains in the thick of the Western Conference playoff race. They had their four-game winning streak snapped on Wednesday night in a 2-1 loss to the Toronto Maple Leafs. This meant that the Habs got the NHL debut of Yaroslav Askarov instead of facing Juuse Saros. The speech by Subban set the tone for the entire game as the Habs played their best and most complete game in a long time, and it was their power play that came up huge to help them earn a 4-3 victory.
With Jake Allen still out, Cayden Primeau remained on the bench while Samuel Montembeault returned to the crease. Coach St. Louis opted to dress seven blueliners, so Joel Edmundson and David Savard were the top pair to shelter the young players. Johnathan Kovacevic and Jordan Harris formed the second pair while Arber Xhekaj and Chris Wideman the third pair as Justin Barron was also dressed.
Up front, Kirby Dach remained on the top line with Nick Suzuki and Cole Caufield. The line of the hour stayed together as Evgenii Dadonov, Jake Evans, and Joel Armia comprised the third line. Christian Dvorak, Juraj Slafkovsky, and Josh Anderson also stayed together trying to build on a good game on Monday. The two spare forwards were Jonathan Drouin and recent recall Jesse Ylonen meaning that Mike Hoffman and Michael Pezzetta were the scratches.
The Subban speech appeared to have worked early as the Canadiens flew out of the gate and were all over the Predators. All four lines had excellent first shifts as all Caufield, Slafkovsky, Armia, and Ylonen got scoring chances in the sequence. Shots were 5-0 after five minutes as when the Preds started to skate, they ran into the Xhekaj wall. Xhekaj’s two big hits were followed by a defensive shift that wasn’t as good as he got caught up the ice and took a penalty as a result. Montreal was able to kill the penalty, but the momentum had clearly shifted.
The second half of the period started with Xhekaj, Barron, and Ylonen were covering a trio of Predators in front of Montembeault. As Roman Josi got around his coverage, he fired the puck toward the crowd, and it bounced off Nino Niederreiter and into the net to open the scoring.
The Habs pushed right back as Slafkovsky had a monster shift where he was stopped by Askarov, who was the first period’s best player by a mile, before delivering two big hits on forechecks, and finally forcing Ryan Johansen to take an interference call to prevent more pressure. Unfortunately, Dvorak got suckered into taking a penalty after the whistle that negated the advantage, or maybe it was a veteran move to refuse the power play.
The 4-on-4 worked out for the Habs as Evans got in on a 2-on-1 and fired one through Askarov to even the score.
Askarov then made a brilliant save on Dvorak before the Preds broke out 3-on-1. Mattias Ekholm, who was the third man on the rush, interfered with Barron who was also called for embellishment. The sequence didn’t provide scoring as the teams were able to get back to even strength.
With just under five minutes to play, Dach’s forecheck resulted in Drouin getting the puck at the top of the offensive zone. He found Ylonen who showed nice patience before he found Dach at the goalmouth for an easy tap-in and a Habs lead. The period would end at 2-1 for the Habs and a 19-8 shot advantage too.
Edmundson struggled in the first and that continued as Nashville tied the game 12 seconds into the second period. The veteran had plenty of time with the puck behind his net. He still held it too long and lost the ensuing puck battle as Matt Duchene quickly found Filip Forsberg who scored. Alexandre Carrier then fired a puck out of the defensive zone for a delay of game penalty and Montreal’s first advantage of the night.
The first wave was terrible, but the second unit was quite dangerous as Ylonen continued his good game and made the advantage interesting.
The game’s second half started with a Colton Sissons high-sticking penalty that got the Preds upset with Dach as the latter was holding onto his stick to cause the penalty. The Habs wasted no time on this advantage as Suzuki came down further than he usually does and Caufield parked himself a bit higher than usual which opened the lane for the usual Suzuki to Caufield one-timer for the goal.
Dadonov then completely undressed Ryan McDonagh to earn a breakaway where he pulled another nice move that Askarov followed and stopped.
With five minutes to go, Xhekaj dropped the mitts with Tanner Jeannot in what was an entertaining and even fight.
The final three minutes were full of action as Sissons hit a post before the Canadiens got multiple great chances as they had a dominant shift. Nashville fired right back with their own dominant shift, but Montembeault stood tall. Evans then got a breakaway in the final ten seconds who beat Askarov but hit the post before Dadonov took a tripping penalty to end the period with a 3-2 lead for the Habs with a 28-20 shot advantage too.
The third started with a successful penalty kill for the Habs, but two minutes later, Wideman was called for yet another high stick. The advantage last only a minute before the Preds were caught with too many men on the ice which evened things out. The 4-on-4 didn’t yield much, but with the Habs back on the advantage, it was Dach’s turn to complete the Suzuki special as he went cross-ice to Caufield who buried the one-timer for his second of the game. Caufield came close to completing a hat trick on his next shift and the Bell Centre was buzzing.
An absolutely brilliant play by Suzuki with four minutes to play gave Caufield another shot at the hatty, but Caufield missed the net. With three minutes to go, the Preds opted to pull Askarov. That proved to be important as with 1:29 to play, Evans lost a defensive zone face-off which resulted in a point shot with at least five bodies in front of Montembeault who saw nothing as the Preds made it 4-3. Montembeault made a few big saves in that final minute but the Habs hung on for the win.
HabsWorld 3 Stars
1st Star – Cole Caufield
How fitting was it that on Subban night, the only player to create that buzz within the Bell Centre for just touching the puck was the offensive star of the night. The Bell Centre would have absolutely erupted if Caufield had scored a hat trick. Instead, they had to settle for him hitting the 25-goal milestone on this night.
Stats: 2 goals, 4 shots, 1 hit, 17:57 T.O.I.
2nd Star – Evgenii Dadonov
If Dadonov had started the year the way he’s playing now, fans everywhere would be wondering if he’d cost a second or first-rounder to the team that swoops in and acquires him as a rental. For the last few weeks, he’s been firing on all cylinders and though he may not fetch the price mentioned above, I have a really hard time believing that a contender doesn’t notice his recent play and take a flyer on him at the eleventh hour after missing out on top targets on deadline day. This was another fantastic performance by Dadonov who even laid out a big hit in the second period.
Stats: 1 shot, 1 hit, 12:49 T.O.I.
3rd Star – Jesse Ylonen
The first game of the year was a massive success for Ylonen as he completed some excellent defensive plays and an absolute beauty of a pass on the Dach marker in the first. He was so responsible and combative that no matter who lined up on that fourth line looked quite good and Ylonen was a big part of that.
Stats: 1 assist, 1 shot, 8:21 T.O.I.
Honourable Mention – Jake Evans
I featured Evans on Monday night who has regained an offensive touch lately and this one was no different as he and Dadonov were electric all night long. We already know about Evans’ defensive prowess, but he’ll need consistent offensive showings if he wants to fend off some upcoming talent including Owen Beck if he ever wants a shot at that third centre spot on the team.
Stats: 1 goal, 3 shots, 2 hits, 19:13 T.O.I.
Honourable Mention – Kirby Dach
Getting Dach some extra shifts with the Drouin and Ylonen appeared to get him engaged in the game as he had what I would qualify as his best game in quite a while. Dach is always active in getting takeaways and delivering some solid passes, but it’s easy to notice when he’s really engaged because he starts taking the body and winning puck battles. He did that repeatedly on this night and it created scoring chances for him and his linemates. And how about that pass on the power play?
Stats: 1 goal, 1 assist, 2 shots, 2 hits, 17:47 T.O.I.
Honourable Mention – Juraj Slafkovsky
Slafkovsky kept up his momentum from Monday night as he played yet another strong game. He was physical, got some scoring chances, and even had a big shift in the second where he blocked two shots before delivering a big hit and clearing the defensive zone. His physicality recently is noteworthy not because he should spend his career as a physical player, but more so in that his being able to get those hits are a sign that the game is slowing down for him and that’s a very encouraging sign for things to come for the first overall selection.
Stats: 2 shots, 3 hits, 16:03 T.O.I.