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The Canadiens returned to action for the first time after the All-Star break in a rare Saturday afternoon matinee to face the visiting New York Islanders. Having lost the last four games prior to the break, the team would be looking for a win to snap the string of futility, but this game was also designated as the last one for the alternate jerseys. And the Habs were winless in the seven games this season wearing those baby-blue sweaters.

“We probably get what we deserve with the blue jerseys based on how historical this franchise is,” mused head coach Martin St-Louis. “I don’t know what next year brings but I hope it’s not those jerseys.”

Jonathan Drouin was back in the lineup after missing seven games, but that still left nine regulars on the injured reserve, and eight players with either rookie status or mostly Laval experience this year.

And yet, after all of that, the boys in bleu, blanc, et rouge pulled a rabbit out of the hat, claiming an overtime victory that seemed more than unlikely at the best of times.

Things never seem to work out in the first

Habs fans should feel happy, one expects, that the team did not give up a goal in the first few minutes of the game. Instead, the Habs came out flying, more refreshed than rusty after the long layoff, and pushed hard in the early going. They had a 6-2 edge in shots by the time the referees first pulled out the whistle to send someone to the penalty box at the halfway point in the period.

That someone was Jean-Gabriel Pageau, who got binned after hooking Alex Belzile. The Habs’ power play, though, was even less effective than usual, as the Islanders’ penalty kill capabilities more than negated any recent efforts to improve on the Canadiens’ part. The best chance was an Arber Xhekaj slap shot from the blue line, through traffic, in the dying seconds of the penalty.

The team continued to press, though, not losing momentum, and less than three minutes later it paid off. Josh Anderson fought hard on the right-side boards in the New York zone, and got the puck loose, enabling Rafael Harvey-Pinard to jump on it. Harvey-Pinard spotted a clear path to Nick Suzuki, waiting on the opposite side of the net, and sent a neat pass across. A quick one-timer by Suzuki followed, and Semyon Varlamov was too late in sliding over. It was Suzuki’s first goal in ten games – Cole Caufield’s absence certainly hurts his production – and it gave the Habs an all-too-rare early lead, 12:57 into the game.

It took only two minutes for the Islanders to respond, though. Brock Nelson won an offensive-zone faceoff from Kirby Dach, getting the puck back to Sebastian Aho, and parking himself in front of Samuel Montembeault. Only four seconds after the faceoff win, it was a quick shot by Noah Dobson, and then a deflection by Nelson near the side of the net. Dach was not quite in position to prevent the shot, and the quick tip beat Montembeault to tie the game.

Montreal controlled the shots 14-7 in the first period and the high-danger scoring chances 7-4, but Varlamov kept the game close.

It takes two to tango

After the freewheeling first period, both coaches looked to have given their teams a talking-to during the intermission, as the game was throttled down significantly, and the shots were largely kept to the outside – the total xG for the period was only about a third of that for the first.

Just after the halfway point of the period, the Habs created the first sustained pressure of the period, hemming the Islanders in their own zone for about two minutes, as the exhausted defenders struggled to keep up with the play. However, at the end of that, all they had to show for it was three shots on goal.

Once the Islanders got their top line on the ice, they countered with an attack of their own, and Mathew Barzal had a glorious opportunity from the left side, only for Xhekaj to make a block on the shot.

Finally, with 45 seconds remaining in the period, Jordan Harris was called for holding Hudson Fasching as the two battled for the puck behind the Montreal net. Fasching seemed to be as surprised about the call as Harris was, but it was the Habs’ rookie defender that ended up in the box.

Forty seconds in, and with five seconds left on the clock, Bo Horvat flipped the puck in from the left corner to the front of the net, trying to give someone a chance at a loose puck, but the puck caromed off Montembeault’s pad and into the net to give the Islanders a 2-1 lead.

“I think we played with intensity and with pace for 60 minutes,” Montembeault reflected at the end of the game. “I gave up a little bit of a bad goal at the end of the second, but it didn’t get us down.”

Outshot 5-10 in the period, the Habs managed to tie the high-danger chances at 2-2 and escape with a single-goal deficit.

Need (at least) three to win

The need to score didn’t look so apparent to start the third frame, especially once the Islanders got Barzal and recent acquisition Horvat on the ice. But four minutes in, as the second units jumped on the ice, Evgenii Dadonov led an attack into the New York zone and made a tidy pass to Jordan Harris behind him – and Harris made a tidy wrist shot that beat Varlamov, high on the blocker side, to tie the game back at two.

Harvey-Pinard had a solid chance to claim a lead two minutes later, as the Habs applied pressure again, but Varlamov made a pad save to prevent Harvey-Pinard from tucking the puck in.

And so it was the Islanders that reclaimed the lead, with former Canadien defender Alexander Romanov taking a shot from the point while traffic teemed in front of Montembeault. The puck found its way past both the forwards and the defenders to Matt Martin in front of the net, and Montembeault was unable to stop the tip by Martin, giving that third goal to the Islanders.

And yet there was no conceding, as Montreal persisted, one of the defining characteristics of St-Louis’ term as head coach. It paid off less than six minutes later, as the Habs, too, took advantage of net-front traffic. This time it was Mike Matheson taking the shot, and Dach tipping it into the net, with just 3:16 remaining in regulation time. And so it remained.

The Habs edged the Islanders 9-8 in shots, with high-danger scoring chances having a bigger 4-1 difference.

Four on three

Christian Dvorak took the opening faceoff in overtime, and Harvey-Pinard recorded the first shot just 15 seconds later on a two-on-one rush. But as the Islanders gained control of the puck, the tide turned in their favour.

Six shot attempts on Montembeault followed, and then Mike Hoffman was called for slashing Aho. A four-on-three man advantage is more difficult to defend than a normal penalty kill, and the Islanders attempted seven shots on net. Two made it through, but Montembeault stopped both.

And then it was Hoffman streaking out of the penalty to the centre ice as the two minutes expired. Matheson, stripping the puck from Barzal, spotted Hoffman, giving him a clear breakaway. Varlamov made the save but gave up a solid rebound, and Matheson, trailing the play, made no mistake in putting the puck into the net, ending overtime play at 4:38.

“I wasn’t sure what he was going to do with it and it ended up popping out to me,” said Matheson. “I just tried to make contact with the puck.”

The league did a lengthy video review to determine whether Hoffman had been offside, but finally confirmed the goal, giving the Habs the win and snapping the four-game losing streak.

“We were all talking and trying to figure out what they could have been looking at,” Dach recalled. “(Hoffman) had full possession coming across the line or whatever the rule is and honestly with a play like that it could go either way.”

The shots in overtime were 5-3 for the Islanders, but the high-danger chances had the Habs at 2-0, and this time they made them count.

HW Habs Three Stars

First Star: Mike Matheson (1g, 1a, 3 shots, 25:37 TOI) played one of his best games yet in the bleu, blanc, et rouge. The highest TOI on the team and a key overtime goal merit the brightest star on this afternoon.

Second Star: Kirby Dach (1g, 0a, 1 shot, 19:28 TOI) played another strong game at centre, even if his faceoff stats (4-9) were not a bright spot. Dach continues to make the case that the Habs won the Romanov trade convincingly.

Third Star: Johnathan Kovacevic (0g, 0a, 1 shot, 17:06 TOI) played another solid defensive game, playing (with Jordan Harris) over six minutes at even strength against the Islanders’ top line and giving up but a single high-danger scoring opportunity. Kovacevic and Harris were by far the most effective weapon the Habs had against Barzal, Horvat, and Bailey.

Honourable Mention: Jonathan Drouin (0g, 0a, 1 shot, 16:13 TOI) looked effective once again, but remains snake-bitten for the season. Taking more than a single shot would surely improve his chances of scoring, though.