After a hard-fought victory over the Nashville Panthers at home, the Canadiens took to the road to take on the Islanders on Long Island on Saturday night. In spite of a four-game losing streak, they nevertheless would present a stiff challenge to the Habs’ offence with Ilya Sorokin, one of the league’s top goaltenders this season, guarding the net.
And, indeed, the combination of puck control, limiting the Canadiens’ chances, and strong play by Sorokin, ensured that the bleu blanc et rouge fell short, scoring only a single goal. Only two for the Islanders as well, but that would turn out to be enough to secure the win.
First, about that game plan …
Brock Nelson took the initiative for the Islanders immediately. In spite of losing the opening faceoff, the Islanders took the puck and skated in the Montreal zone for the first scoring chance of the game. David Savard slid to block the pass, but Nelson got it anyway, forcing Samuel Montembeault to make a quick glove save.
Two minutes after that, things went off the rails for the Canadiens. Montembeault cleared a puck from behind the net, along the boards, but Cal Clutterbuck was able to block it on the right-side boards to keep it in the zone. A quick waist-high shot by Noah Dobson was deflected by Casey Cizikas in front of the goal, past Montembeault, and into the back of the net. Less than two and a half minutes into the game, the Canadiens were once again trailing early.
The Islanders maintained the pressure, though, and the Habs’ man-to-man coverage in the defensive zone turned into something more akin to headless chickens at times, as the team scrambled to try to clear the puck from the zone.
To mix some metaphors, those chickens came home to roost soon after, as Montembeault made a pad save on a hard shot by Scott Mayfield from just inside the blue line. As those chickens scrambled about, Anthony Beauvillier waltzed in and lifted the loose puck into the net over Montembeault’s pad to double the New York lead to 2-0.
Shortly after that, Kirby Dach was called for hooking Alexander Romanov — the two key players in the trade that brought Dach to Montreal — at 6:45. The Islanders peppered shots at the Montreal net, but Montembeault and the defenders were able to make saves and block shots to keep the gap at two goals.
Arber Xhekaj, too, was challenged on a two-on-one attack just past the halfway point of the period. As he prevented a pass by Clutterbuck, the New York forward could only shoot, and Montembeault snatched it up.
Things picked up in the closing minutes of the period, and the Canadiens were even able to exert some pressure. Savard had an opportunity as he toe-dragged his way to the front of the net, but Sorokin made the initial save and Jake Evans was not able to reach the loose puck.
At the last faceoff of the period, with three seconds left on the clock, Evans was aggressively leaning forward, and as the puck dropped, he fell forward, and the 210-pound Nelson then toppled onto Evans’s left leg, bending it awkwardly. He was helped off the ice by his linemates, and did not return for the remainder of the game, with a reported “lower-body injury”.
The Islanders outshot the Habs 14-9 in the period and edged them in high-danger scoring chances by 6-4.
Need more than two chances
The Canadiens looked much better at the start of the second period than they had at the start of the first, continuing on the strong showing at the end of the previous period.
Three minutes into the period, Jesse Ylonen blocked a shot by Dobson at the top of the left circle, and rather than hobbling, sped away with the puck with Jonathan Drouin in tow. Ylonen made a nice pass to his left to find Drouin’s stick, but Sorokin made a tidy glove save on Drouin’s one-timer.
Josh Anderson broke in a minute and a half later, and his high shot was oh-so-close to opening the scoring for the Habs, but instead, the puck glanced off Sorokin’s left shoulder.
Just after that, Ylonen broke into the zone with Jordan Harris on his left, waited patiently, and then got the pass to Harris. Harris couldn’t get a shot off as he was slashed by Cizikas, but the New York penalty was at least some consolation.
After an initial offside, the Canadiens’ first power play unit was able to set up quickly. The passes were clicking but clearly, the Islanders had seen the videos of the Montreal power play, and they knew better than to allow Nick Suzuki to pass to Cole Caufield. The best opportunities were by Drouin from the high slot, something that the Habs should likely be doing more often, to make the power play less predictable. Alas, those chances, too, were foiled by Sorokin.
After the frustration of the first power play, the referees granted the Habs another one at 9:34 as Hudson Fasching tripped Suzuki. This time they could not get the power play even set up properly, struggling with the zone entry and control in the New York zone. The second power play unit finally exerted a bit of pressure just as the penalty was winding down, and continued as Fasching returned to the ice. Joel Armia and Savard seemed to have a dangerous play going, but Savard could not get a shot off on that.
The Canadiens were on the receiving end of a penalty at 15:33, as Justin Barron was called for tripping Fasching, as the latter was about to round the Montreal net. However, the second referee overturned the call, as Barron’s stick made contact only with the puck and not with Fasching’s skates or legs. Instead, Fasching stepped on the puck, losing his footing. A rare overturned penalty, but 100% correctly, as was also confirmed by the video replay.
Montembeault made another sequence of strong saves with a little over two minutes left, as Zach Parise and Josh Bailey had room to play in the Habs’ zone, first blocking a wraparound attempt by Parise and then a wrist shot by Bailey shortly after.
The Islanders outshot the Canadiens again, 14-8, but high-danger scoring chances were even at two each.
One final time into the fray
With only twenty minutes remaining, the need for the Habs to put some real threat on Sorokin was becoming more urgent. Only 16 shots against a strong goaltender is not a recipe for scoring, let alone scoring more than the two goals that New York had already recorded.
The top unit, led by Suzuki, was at it immediately on the first shift, as Caufield sent Suzuki and Ylonen on a two-on-one break. Suzuki waited until they reached the low slot, evaded the block by Romanov, and got the puck to near Ylonen, but the Finnish rookie couldn’t reach it well enough to get a shot on Sorokin.
Beauvillier snatched the puck from Suzuki and Ylonen a few shifts later to break in, but Montembeault blocked his high shot with his arm to keep the gap at two.
Harris was called for interference at 6:53, but the Canadiens were able to kill it off to stay within striking distance.
Just before the midway point of the period, on another transition play, Suzuki passed the puck to Drouin outside the New York blue line. The winger moved in quickly on the right-side boards, evaded Romanov, and got the puck back to Suzuki. The Canadiens’ star centre then curved to the left just in front of the blue ice, beating Mayfield, and flipped the puck through Sorokin’s five-hole to finally get the Habs on the board.
With three minutes left, Beauvillier sent Fasching off on a break, but Montembeault made a solid save to keep the puck out. He repeated that feat a little over a minute later, as Nelson, too, had a chance in the low slot.
St-Louis did not have a chance to pull Montembeault for a sixth attacker until the final minute, and by then there simply wasn’t enough time remaining. On the positive side, the Canadiens didn’t give up an empty-net goal this time.
The final period saw the Islanders outshoot Montreal once again, this time 10-5, and with a 6-3 edge in high-danger scoring chances.
HW Habs Three Stars
First Star: Nick Suzuki (1g, 0a, 3 shots, 22:52 TOI) scored the lone Montreal goal and did yeoman’s work in the absence of Evans, totalling nearly 23 minutes of time on ice. The strong coverage of Caufield does make the Habs’ first line less potent, and this is something that Martin St-Louis and the team will need to work on in the future.
Second Star: Samuel Montembeault (38 shots, 36 saves, 0.947 save percentage) gave up two early goals but the first was a difficult deflection and he had little defensive help on the second. After that, he shut the doors, making a number of stonking saves (0.909 on high-danger scoring chances alone) and keeping the game within reach. It was another solid game with 1.56 goals saved above average, then.
Third Star: Jonathan Drouin (0g, 1a, 3 shots, 16:37 TOI) will never be a fan favourite, but he has significantly upped his game after the Christmas break, recording seven points in nine games in spite of only about 13 minutes of ice time per game. Against the Islanders, he was a key part of the power play and made the nice play to set up the Suzuki goal.
Honourable Mention: Jesse Ylonen (0g, 0a, 0 shots, 12:34 TOI) saw increased ice time after his strong performance against Nashville, including about five minutes playing with Suzuki and Caufield. He was passing to his linemates rather than shooting, but he very much looked as if he belonged on the team.