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After a hard-fought loss in Florida, the Habs looked to leave the Sunshine State on a winning note as they visited Tampa Bay on Saturday.  Once again, they kept pace for long stretches but the end result was the same 4-3 shootout defeat.

Martin St. Louis elected to make only one lineup change for this one with Cayden Primeau getting the nod in net after Samuel Montembeault faced the Panthers.  Brendan Gallagher was banged up last game but was able to suit up while Rafael Harvey-Pinard, who is skating, isn’t quite ready to return yet.  The team lined up as follows:

Caufield – Suzuki – Slafkovsky
Roy – Newhook – Armia
Gallagher – Evans – Anderson
Pearson – White – Ylonen

Matheson – Guhle
Xhekaj – Savard
Harris – Kovacevic

10 Thoughts

1) The first period followed a script I think many would have expected coming into the game.  One team looked like a savvy veteran squad and the other like a young, inconsistent one lacking in confidence.  However, who was in those roles was the surprise as the Canadiens came out poised and aggressive and the Lightning looked like a pretty fragile group.

2) The early aggression from the Habs paid dividends when they created an early two-on-one.  Joel Armia sent a cross-ice feed to Kaiden Guhle to get it started.  Victor Hedman decided to completely overplay Guhle on the sideboards but Guhle got the return feed to the middle of the ice.  Armia had all the time in the world and snapped it past Andrei Vasilevskiy.  Armia scored on a similar play early in the week when the defender opted to overplay the pass, leaving him wide-open.  I’m not saying Armia is doing well enough to have strong trade value but the idea of him moving might not be as far-fetched as it might have seemed earlier in the season.

3) The Habs got a power play soon after, one they were a bit fortunate to get.  Erik Cernak gave Arber Xhekaj a face wash to start a scrum but Xhekaj was the aggressor after that before the two eventually dropped the gloves.  Instead of two and five each, only Cernak got the extra two.  Montreal’s top unit didn’t get much at the net but managed to have some good puck control and again, looked like a group with poise.  We don’t say that much about this team.

4) There are some things that Gallagher does with consistency.  One is driving the net and the other is throwing the puck at the net when it’s on his stick.  That predictability came in handy when he won a board battle and quickly fired the puck toward the front of the net (on goal would have been too tough from the down-low angle).  Jake Evans was there for the well-placed redirect to double the lead.  Evans now has four points in as many games and while I don’t think that’s going to drastically affect his value before Friday’s deadline, it sure can’t hurt.

5) The second period went a lot more like the expected game script coming into this one.  Tampa Bay found their skating legs and the Habs struggled under pressure.  Steven Stamkos nearly got them on the board but his slot shot found the post and then Primeau’s pad; the netminder then dove back to keep it out.  Nice recovery for sure but it was only delaying the inevitable.

6) Not long after, Nikita Kucherov found Stamkos open in the slot again.  The defence expected a shot (not a bad guess most times) but instead, he elected for the pass.  With the defenders cheating toward the shot, Brayden Point was open, got the pass, and beat Primeau.  Primeau bounced back quite nicely, stopping a Brandon Hagel breakaway soon after that.  Considering how little he has played lately, Primeau didn’t look rusty in this one and that certainly helped.

7) However, the Lightning did tie it up with a few minutes left.  Hagel had the puck and drew the attention of all of Montreal’s defenders.  That left Anthony Cirelli wide open and Hagel sent a cross-crease pass onto his stick.  Cirelli held it for a split second which allowed Primeau to get across but Cirelli was able to lift it past him.  Tampa Bay nearly got another glorious chance with a late three-on-one but didn’t even get a shot off.  For as well as Montreal played in the first, Tampa was even better in the second.

8) Montreal was a lot better in the third period as they got back to playing aggressively, hemming the Lightning in for several stretches.  They were rewarded for their efforts when Josh Anderson tipped a Cole Caufield shot past Vasilevskiy, a goal that went to him, then to Caufield, then back to Anderson.  Despite the loss, the Habs have to be pleased that it was the secondary forwards that contributed, something they haven’t had a lot of lately.

9) Earlier, I praised the power play for their puck control.  The problem is getting to the point where they have control.  Once that puck is cleared, the Habs struggle mightily to get it back in and are way too predictable.  That last bit came back to bite them.  When Suzuki gained the zone, everyone knew he was going to curl and send a cross-ice feed, a play they do a lot.  However, Tyler Motte was aware of that, intercepted the puck, and was off to the races where he beat Primeau five-hole.  There have been improvements when they’re in the offensive end but getting to that point still needs a lot of work.

10) I’ll give Primeau and the penalty kill some credit for killing off a Caufield penalty in overtime.  Tampa Bay had their chances but the initial stop was made each time and the defenders were there for the rebound.  Frankly, it looked more structured than the five-on-four kills.  In the shootout, Caufield was the only one to score for the Habs although Jesse Ylonen had Vasilevskiy beat but his shot caught the top of his stick.  Meanwhile, Stamkos and Victor Hedman scored, the latter being the winner.  Two games in Florida, two hard-fought shootout losses.  That’s better than usual in that stretch.

HW Habs 3 Stars

1st Star: Josh Anderson – Getting the goal was nice, sure, but that’s not the only reason why he’s here.  This was one of Anderson’s most effective and efficient games of the season and his line was Montreal’s strongest.  I’m not sure this is a sign of things to come, but it was still good to see.

Stats: 1 goal, +2 rating, 4 shots, 15:49 TOI

2nd Star: Jordan Harris – While Harris doesn’t necessarily have the physical tools, he does have a lot of hockey sense.  We saw that on several occasions where he was in the right place to take away the angle by forcing an attacker to the outside or getting his stick in a position to take the pass away.  The stat line won’t say much but this was a quietly strong game for Harris with what he was able to prevent.

Stats: 0 points, +1 rating, 1 block, 1 takeaway, 18:03 TOI

3rd Star: Cayden Primeau – There are a few ‘usual suspects’ that could go here but I want to give Primeau the nod.  Playing time hasn’t been this sparse for him since the start of the year and getting put in a tough spot on the road was a big test for him.  He passed despite the shootout loss.  There are nights when you can tell when he doesn’t have confidence or feel quite right; it’s one of the things he needs to work on the most.  That wasn’t there and it was evident from the beginning.  More outings like this will take away some of the lingering question marks about his feasibility as a full-time backup.

Stats: 30 saves on 33 shots, 4 saves on 6 shootout shots, 2.77 GAA, .909 SV%