The Habs looked to wrap up 2023 on a winning note as they were in Tampa Bay to face the Lightning on Sunday. They took a two-goal lead in the second but weren’t able to hold on, falling 4-3.
Montreal made a pair of changes to its lineup. As expected, Samuel Montembeault got the start in goal while the other change was out of necessity. Christian Dvorak was scratched with an upper-body injury and with the Habs only having 12 healthy forwards on the roster, they had to go with seven defencemen; Johnathan Kovacevic drew back into the lineup in Dvorak’s place. The team lined up as follows:
Caufield – Suzuki – Slafkovsky
Anderson – Monahan – Ylonen
Evans – Gallagher
Pezzetta – Stephens – Armia
Matheson – Savard
Guhle – Barron
Struble – Harris
1) A pregame observation, this situation with not having enough forwards was entirely avoidable and very much foreseeable. Are they really that afraid that Gustav Lindstrom won’t clear waivers again? Dvorak missed multiple skates on this trip while Cole Caufield also needed a maintenance day. Clearly, the team knew not everyone staying healthy was a legitimate possibility. To deliberately go into a three-in-four stretch with travel with only 12 forwards (some of which aren’t fully healthy) was a ridiculous idea, all to keep Lindstrom mothballed in the press box. It made no sense then and it certainly makes no sense now.
2) Steven Stamkos and Caufield traded chances a little past the seven-minute mark. That alone usually isn’t worth a mention but scoring chances were few and far between; the shots were only two apiece halfway through the frame. Early on especially, this felt like a repeat of the snooze fest known as the Florida game.
3) To their credit, the Canadiens picked up their play in the second half of the period, out-shooting the Lightning 8-2 in that stretch. They also had one of their best penalty kills in recent memory, limiting the highly dangerous Tampa power play to basically nothing late in the period. It got off to a slow start but wound up being a pretty effective road period for Montreal.
4) Nick Suzuki took a holding penalty early in the second but again, the penalty kill was quite effective. Suzuki then helped make up for the call as after he got out of the box, he hustled into the Tampa Bay end, putting pressure on Steven Stamkos. Stamkos then collided with Caufield in front of their net and Caufield quickly fired a shot past Jonas Johansson to open the scoring. That was a bit of a strange goal and let’s just say it set the scene for the rest of the period.
5) Seconds after the goal, Josh Anderson got a big hit in on Erik Cernak, drawing the ire of Luke Glendening who quickly dropped the gloves. Anderson was originally assessed a major penalty for charging but after review, it was changed to a minor while Glendening was given an instigator. It’s fair to say the home fans were not impressed, also a sign of things to come.
6) With eight minutes left in the period, Kovacevic scored one of the most bizarre goals you’ll ever see. After Montembeault gloved the puck, the Lightning players thought the whistle was going to go. But Montembeault dropped it, keeping the play live. Kovacevic took the puck, took a few steps, and then shot one from inside the defensive zone faceoff circle. Believing the play was dead, Johansson had gone for a skate and the puck went into the empty net. After review, the goal stood, further enraging an already fired-up Tampa fan base. I’ve been writing about this team here for now over 20 years. I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything quite like that.
7) However, the advantage was short-lived. Two minutes later, Suzuki thought he needed to pressure the passer on an odd-man rush. That, or he thought there was a defenceman behind him. There wasn’t and Suzuki couldn’t stop the passer. That allowed Brandon Hagel to send a feed to Brayden Point, springing him for a breakaway which he made no mistake on. Mike Matheson had a questionable pinch to start that sequence and it felt like there was a breakdown in communication beyond that.
8) Then it was Tampa Bay’s turn for a bizarre goal. Skating in on the right wing, Austin Watson sent a harmless dump-in toward Montembeault. Montembeault tried to deflect it to the corner with Tanner Jeannot in pursuit but whiffed entirely. By reaching for the puck, he opened up his five-hole slightly, just enough for the puck to hit the inside of his right pad and go through the five-hole. If they tried that sequence 100 more times, I’m not sure they could duplicate it. But boy, what a momentum killer that was, spoiling what otherwise was another good period.
9) The defensive breakdowns in communication came back to bite them again in the third. First, there was a gap in transition coverage resulting in two players covering Nikita Kucherov. Caufield was supposed to be covering Calvin De Haan on the play but also went to Kucherov. Kucherov got the puck to De Haan who fired home his first of the season. Then, seven minutes later, Kucherov got lost in coverage. Anderson originally was on him but as Kucherov went behind the net, there was no communication on who was switching onto him. As a cross-ice feed came from Victor Hedman, Kucherov was wide open and buried it into a yawning cage. Growing pains of a young blueline, I suppose but the communication and coverage breakdowns were the difference-maker.
10) Full credit to Montreal as they continued to push and even made it interesting with two minutes left when Suzuki scored on a sharp-angle shot from near the goal line. They played well enough to earn a better fate in this one but ultimately came up short once more.
HW Habs 3 Stars
1st Star: Mike Matheson – Defensively, he was hit and miss at times as usual but a good chunk of Montreal’s best opportunities were ones he had a hand in setting up. At a time when the scoring is starting to dry up, generating the chances matters a bit more than usual. He extended his point streak to six straight games as well. His partner David Savard also had a solid outing.
Stats: 1 assist, even rating, 2 PIMS, 3 hits, 2 blocks, 25:27 TOI
2nd Star: Nick Suzuki – He managed to turn a negative into a positive, coming out of the box to set up Caufield’s goal with the pressure on Stamkos while he added one late. Don’t look now but he’s up to a 75-point pace over the course of the full season.
Stats: 1 goal, even rating, 2 PIMS, 2 shots, 5 hits, 12/19 faceoffs, 23:33 TOI
3rd Star: The Penalty Kill – Tampa Bay came into this game with one of the top power plays in the league, checking in with a 29.7% success rate, good for third. Meanwhile, the Habs came in with the 31st-ranked penalty kill at just 71.9%. This is normally a recipe for disaster. But Montreal was shorthanded for 5:42 in this game and didn’t allow a single shot let alone a goal. That’s worth a special mention here.
Stats: 0 GA, 0 SA in 5:42