It was the best in the East visiting Montreal on Saturday, as the Canadiens continued their games against top-notch opponents, albeit at home this time. The New York Rangers had the best points percentage in the NHL, whereas the Habs were coming off a 6-1 drubbing in the hands of the Sabres earlier this week.
And yet, there was only one winner, and that team wore bleu, blanc, et rouge. There was no question of the Rangers’ talent level, but the Canadiens fought hard, got excellent goaltending, and scored when they had to. The Rangers came back from a 3-0 deficit but conceded a shootout win in the end on a Cole Caufield goal.
Caufield – Suzuki – Slafkovsky
Gallagher – Evans – Anderson
Heineman – Monahan – Ylonen
Pezzetta – Stephens – Armia
Matheson – Savard
Guhle – Barron
Struble – Harris
1) The Habs were on the attack early from the opening puck drop, with lots of energy and no fear of the best team in the league. They skated hard and broke into the New York zone, although they did not generate many solid scoring chances. And then, a Kaiden Guhle tripping penalty looked to turn the tide, with the Rangers’ league-best power play facing the second-worst penalty kill. And yet the Habs emerged unscathed, thanks largely to Samuel Montembeault making repeated saves. At the end, Joel Armia had another break as the penalty was running out, but could not get away from the Rangers’ defence to get a shot on goal.
2) Unusually, the Habs were the first to score, and it was the second line in action this time. With the Habs pressing, David Savard first kept the puck in the zone, and then Jake Evans’ pass from the left-side boards found Brendan Gallagher. Gallagher, far further away from the net than usual, let go a solid wrist shot from near the hash marks despite Blake Wheeler trying to hook him, and the Bell Centre crowd went wild as Jonathan Quick was powerless to stop it.
3) Martin St-Louis did some line shuffling for this game, given the now-announced rest-of-season loss of Christian Dvorak, and the subsequent arrival of Emil Heineman from Laval, on an emergency loan. The two youngsters were paired up with veteran centre Sean Monahan on what was listed as the third line. This paid off early in the second period as Ylonen, driving for the net and curving left in front of Quick, made a seeing-eye pass to the left and behind him to catch the arriving Monahan, who made no mistake to extend the Montreal lead to two.
4) And then, just 90 seconds later, it was Joel Armia scoring in his second consecutive game. A good pass from Michael Pezzetta enabled him to take a wrist shot from the top of the circle to the top-right corner of the net, and Rangers’ coach Peter Laviolette could only shake his head. At this point, the Canadiens had three goals from only nine shots, a nice shooting percentage if you can get it!
5) At the halfway point of the game, it started looking as if the wheels were about to fall off the bus, though. After the Habs failed to score on a power play, the Rangers once again hemmed them in, controlling play. And this time Vincent Trocheck was able to tip an Erik Gustafsson shot in, just below the crossbar to get the Rangers into the game. Four minutes on, it was Trocheck poking the puck forward on a faceoff (in the Habs’ zone) much to Mitchell Stephens’ surprise. Trocheck dashed for it and flicked it across to Artemi Panarin, who was all alone in front of Montembeault, and then it was a one-goal lead.
6) A moment of what can only be described as bad luck: Suzuki was skating into the New York zone, his stick trailing behind him, and as he pulled it towards him, it slid along and up on Chris Kreider’s stick, and hit the Rangers forward in the face. There was nothing to do on that but head to the box for two minutes or less. The potent New York power play was in action again once the door closed behind Suzuki, with Panarin and Mika Zibanejad leading the attack. However, the Habs’ sad-sack penalty kill–ranked second-last in the league–was effective as well, keeping most of the shots to the outside, clearing pucks and killing time. And Montembeault took care of the rest, calmly stopping the pucks that did get through.
6) The faceoff stats looked bad for the Canadiens early on nearing 40% in a nosedive from their season-long 54.3%, second in the league and just marginally better than the Rangers’ 54.25%. They improved significantly in the third period, though, and the teams finished with an even 50-50 split on this stat, very credible for the Habs given that they were missing Christian Dvorak and his 59.5% success rate.
7) Nearing the halfway point of the third period, Matheson made a nice stretch pass to Slafkovsky, setting the young winger on a breakaway path, but Quick loomed too large and left him nothing to shoot at. Shortly after, it was a Kreider on a breakaway, but Monahan was able to cover him well enough to prevent a scoring chance. The rushes aside, though, it was the sustained Rangers pressure that broke through, as an Adam Fox slap shot from the blue line found its way through traffic and past Montembeault to tie the game at three apiece.
8) As the clock was running out in the pressure, it was the Canadiens exerting maximum pressure to win in regulation, not the Rangers. They repeatedly forced turnovers and hemmed the Rangers’ top unit in their own zone. Shots by Monahan, Suzuki, Caufield … but it was Savard with the shot with seconds left on the clock that was their best chance, though. Quick ended up flat on his belly trying to make a save, and Gallagher had an empty net to shoot at. Alas, the pass bounced over his stick, sending the game into overtime.
9) It was a three-one-two kind of an overtime period. The Canadiens looked very good for the first three minutes but could not generate any serious scoring chances. Then, one penalty, as Slafkovsky drew K’Andre Miller into holding his stick, with 11 seconds to go: a chance to put the game away on a four-on-three power play–if only Zibanejad had not intercepted a Matheson pass to Caufield and streaked away on a breakaway. Montembeault then accounted for the final two: a solid save on the Zibanejad shot, and a spectacular one on Jacob Trouba’s follow-on slap shot to close out overtime.
10) After Suzuki and Panarin both missed in the opening round of the shootout, Caufield made no mistake with his shot to get the Habs on the board. It was then a Montembeault stretch paddle save on Zibanejad that kept them ahead, as both Ylonen–another post!–and Lafreniere failed to score in the final round.
HW Habs 3 Stars
1st Star: Samuel Montembeault (48 shots, 45 saves, .938 save percentage) did not single-handedly steal this game, but his outstanding play enabled the Habs to stay in the game. Two outstanding saves at the end of overtime and a clean sheet in the shootout capped another strong game for Montembeault, who has laid a strong claim to being the Canadiens’ starting goaltender.
2nd Star: Jayden Struble (0g, 0a, 1 shot, +1, 20:28) is showing massive amounts of maturity in his rookie season and saw over twenty minutes of ice time while ensuring that the Rangers did not get dangerous scoring chances. Struble has been a huge positive surprise–at least for the fans–and will make Kent Hughes’ future decisions on the D roster all that much more difficult.
3rd Star: Joel Armia (1g, 0a, 3 shots, -1, 12:36 TOI) did score a pretty goal, but what particularly stood out was his work on the penalty kill. Working with Mitchell Stephens, Jayden Struble, and Jordan Harris, they stood out by keeping the Rangers’ powerful power play unit away from dangerous scoring chances, with an xGA of only 0.33 for the three penalties–and no goals allowed.