The Habs opened up 2024 in Dallas on Tuesday night as they took on the Stars. Things didn’t start well or finish strong but in between, they hit the scoresheet four times, good enough to give them the 4-3 win.
Despite having an opportunity to bring a forward up from Laval, Montreal somewhat surprisingly elected not to do so. That meant that once again, they went with 11 forwards and seven blueliners while Samuel Montembeault got the start for the second straight game. The team lined up as follows:
Caufield – Suzuki – Slafkovsky
Anderson – Monahan – Ylonen
Evans – Gallagher
Pezzetta – Stephens – Armia
Matheson – Savard
Guhle – Barron
Struble – Harris
1) After blowing the lead against Tampa Bay, getting off to a nice start and not letting things snowball was important for this one. Well, that didn’t happen. Just after the opening faceoff, Montembeault played the puck to the corner for Mike Matheson who couldn’t have handled it much worse. He turned it over right in front of the net; Wyatt Johnston set up Jamie Benn and 11 seconds in, they were already trailing. That was a good example of how not to start a game.
2) One player whose start of the game I liked was Juraj Slafkovsky. He had Montreal’s first decent chance off a redirected shot right after the Benn goal while screening Scott Wedgewood and on his next shift, he set up a Nick Suzuki one-timer to tie up the game. With the extra playing time he’s getting on the top line and the fact he missed the final three months last season, I’m intrigued to see how his second half goes from an energy standpoint. If he keeps doing what he’s doing on that top line, his minutes aren’t going to be cut anytime soon.
3) Generally speaking, a D-to-D pass goes cross-ice at the blueline. This time, the Habs changed it up. After Michael Pezzetta won a battle along the boards, Johnathan Kovacevic fired a shot on Wedgewood. With Mitchell Stephens screening, Wedgewood kicked a rebound right to Kaiden Guhle at the other point, almost like Kovacevic passed it right to him. Guhle then stepped into a shot and beat Wedgewood on a goal he’d certainly love to have back. While Guhle and Kovacevic will get the credit on the goal, that was a really nice fourth line shift with some of the sparingly-used players making an impact, Pezzetta on the battle and Stephens on the screen.
4) The early going of the second period saw the Habs hanging on. Dallas is one of the deeper offensive teams in the league for a reason and they showed why. Having said that, Montreal didn’t panic and while they were on their heels, they held their own.
5) That proved to be quite important as at the end of one of these sequences, Slafkovsky prevented a dump-in, instead springing Jordan Harris on the rush. A Dallas player opting to change in transition gave the blueliner plenty of room to work with and he sneaked an outside shot underneath Wedgewood’s pads, another one that he should have had. (If you’re wondering, Jake Oettinger is injured which is why he wasn’t pulled at this point of the game.)
6) One player whose defensive zone play stood out to me in the first couple of periods was Jesse Ylonen. Unfortunately, it wasn’t in a good way. He had a failed clearing attempt that resulted in one of the segments where the Habs were hemmed in for a long stretch. At other times, he looked a half-step slow to react to the forecheck. Frankly, he looked a bit overmatched. Maybe it was an unfavourable matchup but since I’m one to often call for him to get a longer look off the fourth line, I should at least acknowledge when he gets that chance but struggles.
7) The Canadiens got a great opportunity to add to the lead with a four-minute power play early in the third but they didn’t do anything with it. I will say this though, it was nice to see they weren’t just force-feeding the go-to one-timer from Caufield. Mixing things up has its value even if they don’t get immediate success.
8) Not long after that penalty ended, Joe Pavelski took a bad tripping penalty on Harris, sending the Habs right back to the man advantage. With Montreal moving the puck around and not just spamming the same play, they were able to work the puck down low and actually freed Caufield up. Sean Monahan slid the puck over to Caufield and the birthday boy made it 4-1. There’s a quick return on the lack of predictability from the previous advantage.
9) Josh Anderson had a tough night. Not so much from a performance perspective but just a lot of bad luck. He blocked a shot that banged him up. He was the one high-sticked by Jamie Benn to draw the four-minute minor but just before the midway point of the period, he caught his skate and went down awkwardly. Back at the bench, he needed help to get back to the dressing room as he was unable to put weight on his right leg and while the play looked relatively innocent, the injury looked pretty bad.
10) I was surprised to see Dallas pull Wedgewood for the extra attacker with more than six minutes left. As it turns out, they should have done it sooner as the Habs were completely discombobulated in the six-on-five. The Stars scored twice with the extra man with goals from Wyatt Johnston and Jason Robertson and frankly, they should have tied it; they just missed in the dying seconds. Montreal continues to demonstrate that they have zero confidence with a lead and are still incapable most nights of bearing down and defending in late-game situations. By now, they should be showing some progress in that department.
HW Habs 3 Stars
1st Star: Nick Suzuki – His line was by far Montreal’s best in this one and the captain played a big role as usual. He scored the opening goal on a one-timer (not his preferred wrister) while helping set up the power play marker as well. He also had a good outing defensively. A nice complete game from him.
Stats: 1 goal, 1 assist, +1 rating, 2 shots, 9/20 faceoffs, 22:32 TOI
2nd Star: Samuel Montembeault – A really solid bounce-back effort from him after a complete clunker in Tampa Bay. He had no chance on the first goal and then shut the door until late when Montreal basically forgot any basic defensive principles. I’m sure he wanted this game just to try to get rid of the stain from Saturday’s effort but Martin St. Louis made the right call to go off the rotation and give him the second straight start.
Stats: 3 GA on 34 shots, 3.00 GAA, .912 SV%
3rd Star: Juraj Slafkovsky – The sophomore continues to show that he can be a quality contributor on the top unit. He was only credited with one assist but had a direct hand in setting up two goals and even had some variation with his shot types; he wasn’t just always looking for the pass.
Stats: 1 assist, +1 rating, 1 shot, 2 hits, 19:14 TOI